Oh you don’t? OK… I thought you were going to say yes. Well, I was in your same non-running shoes about 4 months ago, recovering from COVID when my high school buddy Joe texted me to ask if I wanted to run a 50K race with him near his home in North Carolina. I knew he was a runner, and had run a couple of marathons recently. But there was definitely some anticipation in how he asked me, as if he was nervous and didn’t want to do this by himself. And he had every right to be nervous! He told me later that of all the people in the world that “run” – people that run for exercise or for competition, only about 1% will ever run a marathon. The percentage for an ultramarathon (any distance more than 26.2 miles, really) is closer to 0.1%. Joe was asking me to join that 0.1% statistical group, but I wouldn’t even have considered myself a “runner”. Many of us that get into CrossFit do so precisely because WE DON’T LIKE TO RUN. So, an ultramarathon – in this case a 50K trail run called the Southern Tour Ultra – sounded like a bit of a stretch.
But I felt myself pulled toward doing this race for a couple of reasons. Firstly, like a lot of you, I have a hard time saying no to a friend who is reaching out with something to do. This would be a really great chance to reconnect with one of my best friends from high school, after which we hadn’t stayed in great contact but whenever we would see each other it was like old times. So, hanging out with Joe for a weekend sounded like an awesome time.
As for the running part, that sounded less than awesome. OK, terrifying. To put a 50 km (31 mile) run into context, the most I had ever run consecutively before was 13 miles in the Miami Half Marathon. A couple key points here though – after I finished that race in a lot of pain I was glad it was over and mentally checked off distance running as a thing I wanted to do. A marathon seemed way out of my reach, physically and mentally. Secondly, that was 18 YEARS AGO! So a 31-miler seemed WAY out of my comfort zone… but as scary as it was, it also was intriguing. I knew that an ultramarathon was beyond my current capacity, but I didn’t like how that felt. I don’t want to ever accept that there is a physical challenge that I cannot take on. I’ve also always liked to have something to train for – I’m not someone who just loves going to the gym and working out for the sake of it. I need a goal! And Joe was very conveniently laying one out for me.
I hemmed and hawed for a day, and then got back to him, “I’m in,” along with a lengthy explanation of how far away from ready I was for this challenge. He responded with a training plan that he was going to follow, a 50K Improvement Plan, which implies that there is a previous result that you’re trying to improve on. I laughed but resolved myself to get started, just as soon as I could breathe properly again.
I started the next week by continuing to train with CrossFit workouts 4 days a week, and incorporating the weekly long run from the 50K plan on Thursdays. Within a couple of weeks, I realized that the purpose of the training plan was not just doing one increasingly long run each week, but it’s the cumulative mileage of the other 3 shorter training runs. It wasn’t going to be enough to just run 8 miles once and build from there, I needed to be running 15 miles in a week, and build that weekly mileage to toughen up my legs. I started following the 50k training plan as written, which washed away a lot of my CrossFit training. I just didn’t have the energy for both, and had to prioritize the mileage. Looking back, I probably would have benefited from some more well-scaled CrossFit workouts focused on building leg strength and stamina, but at the time I told myself that I needed to be all in and build my capacity and confidence as a distance runner, so that is what I did.
The first major milestone I hit was when my long run for the week of Halloween was a 14-miler. I started at my house and ran to the Romancoke fishing pier and back. Then I celebrated that as my longest run ever! From there, the long runs kept ramping up and then slightly down to get ready for a 26.2 mile training run… a marathon! It was supposed to be mid-December, but Robie sent me the link to a marathon that was happening in DC the week before I was supposed to run that distance, so I moved some weeks around in my plan, and signed up. On December 3rd I ran the EOD Warrior Holiday Dash along the C&O Canal. It was raining to start the race and the gravel trail was washed out with deep mud puddles that at first I tried to run around, but eventually was running right through them. Getting my feet cold and wet actually felt refreshing. I finished the marathon in 5 hours 18 minutes, not a good result for a marathon but to me it was a training run and I kept a nice comfortable pace. It wasn’t a very well-organized event, and when I crossed the finish line there was no fanfare or even a banana or bottle of water offered, so I looked around for a minute and then just walked to my truck and drove back to Kent Island. Getting out of my truck and doing absolutely anything with my legs was a super painful experience, but within a couple days I was back on my feet and getting back into training. But knowing that I could finish a marathon supercharged my mental energy for the 50K – I would only need to run 5 more miles on race day. I redoubled my efforts to stay healthy with daily mobility work and fueling my body well. Now just to stick to the last few weeks of the plan, ramping down mileage a bit so that I felt like 100% for the ultra.
The day before the race I drove down to Wilmington, NC and stayed with Joe, hung out with his awesome wife and son. We prepped all of our gear and nutrition, planning to eat enough calories to stave off serious muscle cramping. Thank you to everyone at the gym who I talked to about fueling during long runs! We would be running 3 10-mile loops in the coastal Carolina woods, so we would have a chance to adjust clothing/shoes, eat and drink some more and pack more energy gels and water for the next loop. The day of the race it was 28 degrees at our 7:30am start time, so I wore a sweatshirt and long pants over my long sleeve shirt and shorts, but within 5 miles I had taken off those extra layers and packed them in my running vest – a gift from our CFKI coaches! I ran the first 10 miles in just over 2 hours, a comfortable pace for me. Joe ran a bit faster and finished 20 minutes ahead of me. He was already gone when I found our gear stash and loaded up for the second loop. I was feeling good so ramped up my pace a bit, and finished 20 minutes faster. At this point, with 10 miles to go, Joe was now 30 minutes ahead of me. We passed each other on the trail when I was at mile 1 and he was at mile 4. Both of us were at this point starting to get very uncomfortable, but both resolved to getting it done. Only one more loop and we’re ultramarathoners! I joked afterward that every mile on that last loop it felt like I was hit was another tranquilizer dart, and was just fighting to stay upright. I tripped and fell a few times but dusted myself off and continued making forward progress, as slow as it was. The course was very well marked, and I looked forward to just seeing that next mile marker. I finished the last loop in 2 hrs 50 minutes, a full hour slower than my second loop. Yikes! But there were no more loops to run, I was done! Joe guided me over to the water table and I chugged a bottle of water as I staggered over to the beer truck – I thought I wanted a beer, but ended up just holding it in my hand, in a daze.
I wanted to write this in part as a personal debrief, to relive the experience and pull out any lessons learned – for myself and also any of you that are interested in taking on a running challenge or something similar. And so here they are, in no particular order:
- Practice fueling early on in your training plan. Any of your long runs should include getting some calories in (easily digestible carbs like Honey Stinger waffles and energy chews) about every 45-60 minutes. If you don’t, the “bonk” of suddenly feeling like you have nothing left or having your muscles start to seize up, is real. Plan to drink plenty of water with electrolytes as well.
- Practice setting micro-goals to stay positive on long runs, especially distances you haven’t covered before. Planning out those breaks to get calories in can help in chopping up your run into manageable sets, and you can look forward to that next fueling point.
- If you can, find pictures or videos of the place that you’ll be running, and use them to visualize yourself out there on the course, feeling strong and having fun. Visualize finishing the event with a smile on your face and your friends and family congratulating you. If you know already how great that will feel, you can rely on that to propel you forward when the pain sets in.
- Understand that this is hard for everyone. There is a lot out there about the “runner’s high”, and being in a flow state during running. I will admit that running in the woods and enjoying the natural beauty around you is a lot more fun than running on the road. But you’re doing this because it’s going beyond your current capacity and experience, and that means that there will be aches and pains. You will be at times very uncomfortable. Looking around at other people that appeared to be very experienced runners, they were also feeling the pain. I’m saying this to point out that it’s not just you, and if they can keep going when their body is telling them to stop, then you can too.
I could keep going for a while as this is all so fresh in my mind, but this has turned from a blog post into a not-so-short story. Come grab me and ask me about anything you’re interested in hearing more about. I’d love to help out with selecting and planning for your next big challenge! As for me, I’m looking forward to getting back into some hard training in the gym, to get ready for the Open and whatever comes next. I’ve built up some great endurance and leg stamina, now time to put it to use and also build back up my strength. Look for me under a heavy barbell.