If you don’t know already, I ran my first ultra in June. Many of you probably think I’m crazy, some of you think it’s completely sane, and others might be suppressing the tiny feeling in the back of your head that you might want to run an ultra one day. This post is for all of you. My hope is to explain why I/people run ultras, and if you’re thinking about running one, even if it’s just an inkling, how to decide if it’s for you.
Before I got into ultras, I had run a dozen or so marathons. I was (and am) clearly addicted to the long distance and had been using it as a way to explore different places, with the ultimate goal of running 50 marathons in 50 states. I have never done a great job of training for races and I’m built like a sprinter, so I definitely have to put the mileage in and earn it. I’ve never finished a marathon and thought “wow, I could go at least 6 more miles!”. More like “wow, I’m really glad I finished and only cried once,” which is apparently the impetus to go ultra for others. I have run many of the big ones – Disney, Marine Corps, Chicago, Nike Women’s – but started running some smaller marathons and loved them! Some of these smaller races are combined with an ultra, so the marathoners and ultrarunners will run most or all of the first 26 miles together, then the ultra-runners will go back out for another loop or a different loop. I started to love the attitude and community of the small race, and more specifically, the ultrarunners. When I would normally be bonking, the ultra-runners would be chatting and laughing and pull me along.
Land Between the Lakes sealed it for me – the race was supposed to be a trail run, but due to a huge snowstorm the prior week, the trails were too soggy and it turned into a road race instead. It was raining, I was in the middle of nowhere Kentucky having a weekend to myself, and there were zero spectators. But I found a few great groups of ultrarunners and we had a great time. After finishing, I went back to my condo and showered, napped, etc., and then grabbed a few six packs and some girl scout cookies and headed back to the finish line. There, I cheered in all of the people I had run with and fed them cookies and beer afterwards. It was such a unique camaraderie and I knew I wanted to experience the full impact of it. I let the idea of running an ultra sit for awhile – I had a six week leave of absence to France planned in the fall and didn’t want to put anything on my race calendar. The next Spring, I was still thinking about it, and I knew it was time to get serious!
I signed up for a 40-mile race (The Grand Traverse in Crested Butte) and set off to start training. It also happened to be the summer we were getting married and Layla was only ~6 months old, so while I got in my fair share of 15+ milers, I don’t think I was fully prepared for the race. I ended up getting a cold the week prior while traveling for work and was feeling pretty congested the morning of the race, but you can’t finish what you don’t start. I had a terrible experience and that race is on my list of things to go back and conquer. I couldn’t keep any food down, but pushed past the first aid station at mile 9 because I was still feeling okay. It started to downpour and I felt even worse, and knew around mile 14 that I was going to have to drop – you can’t run 40 miles on an empty stomach. I pushed until the next aid station at mile 17, assuming I’d be able to catch a ride out with the volunteers. The aid station was in the middle of the mountain, though, and we had to hike 5 miles out to get to their car. They dropped me off in Crested Butte on their way home, but Andrew was in Aspen (a 2 hour drive) where the race finished with our carsick dog. All I had was my running pack and the stuff I was carrying in it – an extra pair of pants, my cell phone, and my ID. After that, I had to try again – trying to finish isn’t always the best decision, and DNF’ing shouldn’t be the reason you don’t try it again.
I thought it would be a good opportunity to start with a 50K (~31 miles) and quickly decided on the Golden Gate Dirty 30. It’s close to home, I’ve run in the park before and loved it, and the start and finish are in the same spot. I picked a training plan, adjusted it to fit my needs, and got focused. The best thing about training for an ultra is you get to explore so many different trails and you can experience some pretty remote places. The worst thing about training for an ultra is you are running significantly slower than on the roads, and from my house you add about 2 hours (total) of driving time. If you aren’t willing to commit your entire Saturday to running, then an ultra isn’t for you. Andrew was so great and supportive through the whole process, not saying a thing when I peaced out for 6-8 hours on a Saturday (leaving him to take care of the dog), and even doing a quick overnight camping trip for a training race. My training plan had back-to-back long runs, so maybe 20 miles on Saturday followed by 10 on Sunday. Since Layla was old enough to run this year, I was able to take her on the Sunday runs which was really helpful and made it so much more fun! I get visions of that waggy tail/butt jaunting down the trail in front of me when I’m really struggling through a run.
These long runs are so slow (for me at least), that you can find yourself going to a dark place. I remember one particular run where the first 8 miles were a gradual uphill and I kept having to walk. I spent the whole time convincing myself that I should just call it a day and skip this long run, and then figuring out how I could cut off a portion of my lollipop loop to make it significantly shorter. When I got to the decision point, I made the turn towards my initially intended long loop and managed to pull myself out of the funk while again climbing. I was so proud of myself for finishing that run and I was the only one there to celebrate it. If you think ultrarunning is “impressive”, then it’s not for you. There is no one to impress when you are in the middle of a mountain climbing thousands of feet and just not feeling it. There is nothing but you and the trails when you are training, and you better be okay with it. You are the only one that can get yourself back to your car. Let’s just take the word “impressive” out of our outdoorswomen/men vocabulary. If you are doing something because it will be “impressive” to other people, maybe you should stop doing it. If you are doing something because you are proud of yourself for doing it, then do more of it!
The actual ultra was so hard and so long; there were over 7000 feet of climbing and it took me forever! But as I was descending the last climb with another runner, she disclosed to me that she cried twice during the race. As a person for whom crying is the extreme of all of my emotions, I was ecstatic to exclaim that I hadn’t cried at all! And then I started crying. When I saw the finish line, and I saw that it was only downhill left, and I saw my poor husband who thought I was going to finish 2 hours earlier because I told him so and he was waiting patiently, there were tears. I weirdly have never felt so good after a race – I was barely sore the next day and immediately started to seriously considering signing up for the Leadville 50, one month later. I didn’t, but I am hooked and will be back next year, likely for another (easier?) 50K and a 50 miler.
If you love running and are pretty comfortable with long distances, you want to spend more time exploring trails and can give up at least one day a week to do it, you have good support system and enjoy spending time with yourself, and you want to experience the camaraderie that can only be found in the deep wilderness, then I encourage you to think about trying an ultra! If you are questionable on even one of those things, you should spend some time thinking about whether or not ultrarunning is for you. It is a HUGE commitment physically, mentally, emotionally, and from a time perspective and you have to respect that. But if you can, then it can also be extremely rewarding and unlike anything you’ve ever experienced!
If you still have questions about ultrarunning, email us: firstname.lastname@example.org