I’ve mulled a 50k for nearly two years and made my first attempt last year, only to end up side-lined a week before the race, due to my own stupidity. After four months struggling to rehabilitate my injury, the 50k sirens called my name once more. I began my search for the “perfect” 50k, what I considered my initiation into the ultra world. That’s when I came across the Yeti Snake Bite 50/50, organized by a buddy of mine, Jason Green. It takes place at one of my favorite stomping grounds, so I’m familiar with the terrain…and critters like this one, Eeks!
Since it’s hosted by the Yeti Trail Runners, I know there are good times to be had! All Yetis know how to have a blast, and there’s usually beer not too far away. …and pizza…lots of pizza…mmmmmm….OZ… These guys are about the nicest bunch of people you’ll ever meet, always willing to go out of their way to help a fellow trail runner, and always enjoying “the run.” Run Happy = Yeti.
With generous cut-off times, the Yeti Snakebite 50/50 is being hailed as the perfect 50k for first-time ultrarunners and an awesome 50 miler for those looking for a “tune-up” before their 50 or 100 mile races. I still can’t wrap my head around 50 miles right now, much less 100, but my story could change in a few years.
Coming back from injury, I had to ramp up my mileage slowly. My training also hit a pothole after going on vacation for three weeks in June, which involved relatively little running, due to my lack of heat acclimation. You can’t rush things like heat acclimation. It takes time. I’m still on track for being able to “finish” my first 50k, and I am quite comfortable with 20 milers, although it does take me the first six to eight miles to “warm-up.”
Along the way, I’ve learned a few lessons.
1. Gels can only take you so far. This is by far the BIGGEST lesson I’ve learned. Training for shorter distances, I was able to get away with using 3-4 gels on a run with some electrolyte mix, and that’s it. Not so with 50ks or longer. You.have.to.learn.to.eat, or you will crash and burn. It’s taken months of people telling me this, and then, experiencing the crash n’ burn myself on two long runs to finally get it through my thick skull. Not only is this the hardest lesson to learn, but it’s also the hardest to do in practice.
In theory, eating while running doesn’t sound that hard. In practice, it’s one of the hardest things to do. Texture becomes an issue. Desire becomes an issue. Pick out a variety of foods to try on long runs ahead of time. Then, try one or two on each run to see how you like it and how your body handles it. M&ms settle nicely with me, as do bananas, watermelon, peanut-butter sandwiches, and boiled potatoes. Gummi bears, which are usually my fav, become my arch-nemesis on long runs. They are too chewy and require too much energy for me to chomp through.
I still take gels with me for a quick energy boost, but now I understand the importance of eating “real” food every 6-7 miles, a little bit at a time.
2. Going the distance. Can you complete a 50k without a long run? There are several individuals out there that say “yes,” but they’ve been miserable after the race, unable to recover. There are several schools of thoughts in regards to “How long is long enough?” Some plans call for runs up to 24-26 miles. Others swear by not going higher than 20 miles and following it with a short 10 miler the next day. Others swear by 20 milers and lots of cross-training.
If you’re training on your own, then you need to find out what works for you. It’s trial and error. …or you can find a coach, or follow an online coaching plan. If you’re like me, with a full-time job, family, kids, and other commitments, you may need to start with a training plan and tailor it to suit you.
There are times when I miss runs during the week, due to one reason or another, which is partly why the goal for my first 50k is simply to finish and to not get injured in the process. There is one run that I do not allow myself to miss, the long run. I agree with others that the long run is the cornerstone of any good training program. So far, my long runs have included the following: 20, 24.6, and 21. I have another long run scheduled in two weeks, as I like to cut-back a week in between long runs. I have not included many b2b (back-to-back) runs, as it doesn’t fit well with my family commitments; however, I have included cross-training. I usually take the day after a long run off and go out the day after for a 12 miler.
Realize that it may take a few 50ks before you find out what works best for you.
3. It’s like a game of chess. Ultrarunning is more mental than anything else. Yes, your body must have a strong foundation, but your brain can be a powerful ally or a foe. It’s amazing how negative thoughts can derail a run and cause many to DNF. Take for instance, my long run yesterday. I was going off of 11 hours of sleep over 72 hours, due to our sick son. My nutrition was off, and I knew it. The first 8 miles were mental torture for me, which in turn, affected my body. My running bud, Phil, worked to pull me out of my funk, reminding me that what I was probably experiencing was more mental than anything else. He was right. Mile after mile, I just wanted to stop and go home. My mind was not on the run and neither was my heart. At the same time, I knew how important this long run was, so I trudged along, forcing my body to move. By mile 8, elation replaced “the funk.” 8 miles doesn’t seem like much, but it can feel like an eternity.
Do you know what you will do when “the funk” takes hold because it’s inevitable? The key is how you react to it. It could hit early in a run, after twenty miles, or perhaps the last couple of miles in a race. On my 24.6 mile run, it hit right around miles 12-18. “The funk” will come. Just remember that it does not last for long, and you’ll feel much stronger afterwards.
4. It’s O.K. to walk…really. Unlike 5ks and 10k, which are more about speed and fast-twitch muscles, ultras are largely about strategy and mental will. Whereas, walking is more taboo for shorter distances, ultrarunners use walking to their advantage. Walking up steep hills expend less energy than attempting to “run” up the hill.
Rule of thumb #1: If you see everyone in front of you walking, you should probably do the same.
Rule of thumb #2: If you’re “running” up a hill, and the person next to you is walking at the same exact pace, you should walk.
Rule of thumb #3: Short walk breaks every 5k-5 miles, can mean the difference between a strong finish and a DNF because you crashed and burned.
5. The emotional roller-coaster. The emotions felt during an ultra is similar to the roller-coaster of emotions a pregnant woman experiences throughout pregnancy. You can be on top of the world one minute only to start crying about absolutely nothing the next minute and then start blaming and cursing at the rocks for being in your way. Don’t they know that your legs are too tired to pick them up any higher?! During my attempt at an ultra last year, I even sat down in the middle of the trail once and refused to move. I decided that I wasn’t going to run one more step and was going to wait for someone to come get me. With arms crossed and after a minute or two of pouting and mumbling to myself, I finally dusted myself off and kept on running like nothing happened. The longer the distance, the more emotions you will experience and the greater the frequency. It’s O.K. to P.M.S. as a runner, but be considerate, and apologize to others afterwards. Saying that the first round of beer is on you is a great way to start.
This list isn’t, by any means, complete. It’s just the five that came to mind, as I reflect on my training thus far. So I have to ask my fellow ultrarunners, what lessons have you learned from ultra training so far?