Yep. That sign says “finish” and the beginning of a sunset in the background betrays that it literally took me all day, but I did it: I finished my first 50-miler.
After months of researching my options for my first 50, I finally decided on the National Whitewater Center‘s 3rd annual race, held in October. It was a fantastic race: gorgeous trail, wonderful support folks, and the 13-mile loop provided 3 nice pit stops for changing clothes, restocking snacks, etc.
And 6,400 feet of elevation change was enough to offer a serious challenge, without totally demoralizing newbies like me.
The day got off to an EARLY start.
Like most ultras, the race began at the brisk hour of 5:00, which meant that most of us were out there on 4-5 hours of sleep.
I snapped this shot while waiting for my ride in the lobby of my hotel.
That was really my only potential complaint about the race: The closest hotels to the starting line were all 5-10 miles away, with not shuttles. That meant that I either had to find a ride, or ask my wife to wake up WAY before dawn to drop me off.
Thankfully, my racing buddy was sleeping across the street and happy to give me a ride.
That’s one of my favorite things about ultra running: you meet some awesome folks and, sometimes, instant friends.
This is Chris. I met him at a 50K race that we both ran in the Spring. We traded contact info and did a couple of training runs together, and then attacked this bad boy as a team. Chris has been running for about 2 years. He went from 0 to 50 miles in a hurry!
As far as major takeaways, here are a few thoughts in retrospect:
50 miles is long enough to be kind of boring.
I almost never get bored while running, but I think I finally found the line where I start thinking “OK. I’m just ready to be done.”
I was really grateful for a well-supported race.
There was plenty of food and fluids every few miles, as well as smiling faces who always asked “Do you have everything you need?” I feel like I got a mental boost from this. “OK. I have everything I need. So just keep moving forward.” And I also wanted to keep going out of respect for all the volunteers who were there to help me accomplish this goal.
Usually, if I’m running anything less than about 25 miles, I don’t eat anything while running. Since I don’t have a large intestine, eating while running usually means that I’ll need to make a pit stop soon after. But 50 miles is more than long enough to burn through all the ready fuel in the body, plus most of the complex carbs that haven’t been queued up yet, and then lots of fat. And burning fat for long periods of time feels awful. It’s like mud in the gas tank.
So bottom line: I knew I had to eat. I decided to wait until the end of the first lap and the choose carefully. I wanted to pick up 250-400 calories per lap, and focus on things that would sit well and not upset my stomach. Towards the end of the race, when my hunger was really powerful, I ate more like 500 calories per lap.
I found that baked potatoes (and salt!) and banana mango coconut energy pouches – made by the Cliff Bar folks – made a great combination for me. The former provided dense, slow-release energy. And the latter provided natural sugar. And both provided lots of potassium, which is CRUCIAL on a long race if you don’t want to be plagued by muscle cramps.
I also ate 3 or 4 bananas on the day before the race, in hopes of building up that potassium store.
I liked running (big) laps.
A lot of folks say that they would rather not run a lap race. If the laps were anything less than about 10 miles, I think I would agree. But I really like the setup of 4 long laps. Logistically, it meant 3 solid pit stops (I changed my shirt and shoes over the course of the race and also shed my headlamp, hat, and gloves).
But I think it also helped my mental race. After 3 laps, I was really feeling the miles, but looking at “1 more lap” felt like an achievable goal. As I left the smell of the food, the noise of the cheering on-lookers, and the comfort of other people around me, and entered those lonely woods for the fourth time, I knew what to expect. I knew when I was 10 miles from being done. Then 5. And that helped me to push. If, at 40 miles, I was unsure about how far I was from the finish, and what kind of terrain was between me and rest, I might have had a harder time.
I think I can go farther.
Crossing that finish line felt great. I was really looking forward to 3 things: a cold beer, a hug from my wife, and a chair.
But I honestly didn’t feel much different at mile 50 than I did at mile 45, and I probably could have pushed for another 5 or 10. That makes a 100K feel like a reasonable, attainable next goal. I’ll be thinking about this in 2016.
The infamous 100-miler isn’t really on my radar right now. I started getting a little bored with 50 miles. The whole “run all day AND all night” thing just sounds like too much of the same thing.
Maybe one day.