I decided to run my first ultra back in 2014 and figured why start with a measly 50K when there are plenty of 50 Milers that seemed to be calling my name. At the time, I had been doing triathlons for a few years and knew that I could really better my overall triathlon times if I got better on the run (I was pretty good on the bike and my swim wasn’t going to get any faster). I just seemed to always peter out on the runs and figured if I spent a little time training for and running an ultra I’d be in much better shape for the run portion of my next triathlon. Little did I know that this crazy ultrarunning thing would fuel my addiction for suffering more than triathlon ever could…I was hooked!
The first race was the Farmdale Trail 50 Miler held in western Illinois. The website had some great pictures of wooded trails and some open fields that we’d run through and it looked flat as a pancake. The website didn’t have an elevation map and even mentioned that there were only a few “rolling” hills. I thought this would be perfect since it is completely flat where I live and train (I think you can see where this is going to end up). The other big bonus was that it was a 10 mile loop that is run 5 times so I didn’t really have to worry about my wife trying to navigate a bunch of back roads to meet me at the next aid station. I signed up and we were off on our first ultra adventure.
My training for this race was very similar to the run training that I did for all of my triathlons. Not much speed work, just logging a bunch of miles at a pace that was a bit faster than I planned on running the race. My mentality for training was that if I could get to a point where running 10 miles was so easy that it was no different than running 1 mile I would be in good enough shape for the 50. That helped me to mentally prepare for 50 miles (twice the distance of my furthest previous run). I figured that if running 10 miles felt like 1, then 50 miles is just 5 groups of 1 mile runs…piece of cake. Interestingly, this is still a mental strategy that I use today). I had nutrition and hydration down from my triathlon racing, so it really was just a test to see how my legs would hold up after running for ~12 hours.
My wife (who is a Licensed Massage Therapist) came along for this race to by my “crew”. I figured that was the thing to do since everyone always talked about having a crew to help out on race day. She brought her massage chair and the plan was to give me a quick 5-10 minute massage between laps. I’d also refill my water bottle and grab some more nutrition. We arrived at the race start on race day and got our little spot set up where she was going to be manning all day. I told her that I’d be shooting for about 9 min/mi pace which meant a lap every 90 minutes. She knew from my triathlons that I was usually right on target with my splits. We lined up for the race start with about 50 runners (way more my style than 5000 triathletes starting at the same time) and off we went.
The first part of the trail was nice and flat and not technical at all. I was staying toward the back of the pack since I figured everyone else knew what the hell they were doing better than I did. We started snaking our way through the woods on some single track when the line crawled to walk up a tiny hill. I overheard one of the women in front of me saying that she learned this lesson last year…walk up even the small hills or else it’ll come back to bite you later in the race. That little tidbit probably saved that race for me and has stuck with me ever since (thank you nice rainbow clad, pig-tailed, ultra lady oracle). The first couple of miles were pretty easy and then we found the “rolling” hills that were mentioned on the website. This was certainly nothing like what I was training for! There were 3-4 hills in the middle of the loop that were insane (for a flatlander). They all had funny names (none of which I can remember right now…probably subconsciously blocking it from memory). One of the hills seriously went up at a 45 degree angle. You literally had to grab tree roots to pull yourself up this thing for a 1/4 mile. I made it around the first loop and my wife’s eyes said a mouthful. She was worried sick because I said it would take 90 minutes and it was 2 hours later. I told her that we needed to slightly amend our timetables for this race. I was feeling good but decided to get a quick massage anyways. Once that was finished, I was out for loop 2.
Loop 2 was obviously much the same as loop 1…with the exception of the rock challenge. What is the rock challenge you ask? Well my friends, it goes a little something like this; remember that crazy 45 degree angle hill in the middle of the loop? Yeah, well you have to find the biggest rock that you think you can carry up that hill from a creek at the bottom of the hill. The person who carries up the heaviest rock wins a prize. Since I’m never the one to back down from a challenge, I figured “I got this”! I searched through that damn creek for 10 minutes looking for the biggest rock that I could carry up that hill (keeping in mind that I needed a hand free to grab tree roots to get up). I found a rock that was about the size of a bowling ball and thought, oh yeah…this should do quite nicely. I started up that hill and immediately thought somebody should be shot for suggesting that people carry large rocks up this thing. I specifically remember looking at my HR monitor and laughing that I had almost hit 200 bpm during an ultra! After that, I only remember hearing my heart trying to pound my brain out of my eye sockets. I finally made it to the top of the hill and there was an aid station that had a bathroom scale to weigh the rocks. My rock weighed in at 18 pounds! I thought that had to be one of the biggest…not even close. Some gigantopithecus dressed as an ultrarunner carried a 95 pound boulder up that damn cliff! I heard afterwords that he ended up dropping out of the race (but still won the award). I was so flabbergasted (and deflated) when I heard about the mountain that guy carried up another mountain, I didn’t think of anything else for the entire loop. Loop 2 was done and I was back in camp getting my massage. Carrying my puny 18 pound pebble did a number on my legs so it felt fantastic to get them beat on a bit.
The next 3 loops were kind of a blur but I do remember going over the loops in my head during the last few miles. The first loop was pretty easy. Loop 2 was a bit more painful from the rock carrying. Loop 3 I caught my second wind and felt pretty good, although my quads were starting to hurt a bit. Loop 4 was a suffer-fest that I had to just power through. Legs were really hurting and the massage was only effective for the first mile or so. The last lap was amazing! I was just floating on down the trail on pure adrenaline. The last mile had a pile of emotions that were exploding out of me. I think I was laughing, smiling, crying, cursing, punching the air, and otherwise acting like a jackass.
Lessons learned from this race: 1) Never, ever believe a race website when looking for info on terrain. My training was definitely not what it should have been. 2) Trying to predict race times in trail ultras is not one of my strong suits. Every race after this one I give a really wide window of when I think I’ll finish. It’s usually something like “it could be anywhere from 6 hours to 6 weeks”. 3) Apparently I’m not a very happy person when I’m suffering in a race. This is why my wife only lasted one more race as my “crew”. 4) Completing something that is very hard and causes suffering is an amazing experience. I highly recommend to everyone!
Driving home from this race I was listening to the Ironman World Championships which was streaming on Ironman.com. I think this was pretty fitting as my triathlon racing had somehow transitioned into my newfound ultramarathon adventure. One 50 miler down and I was hooked! Hmmmmmm, what sounds like a good next race? I know, how about a 100 miler!?