Category Archives: Ultramarathons

Truth, or Trail Lore?

As a trail and ultra runner I’ve had my share of unusual experiences, and heard a bunch more, because we love to share our stories. And I suspect that we fall prey to Fisherman Syndrome – the temptation to stretch the story a little each time. The hills keep getting a little higher, the creeks deeper, and the bears bigger.

You think you’re good at discerning truth from fiction? Have a go at the questions below. Which of these things really happened to me, and which did I make up or “exaggerate” a tad? Have fun!

  1. Complete the sentence I actually overheard: “Never stand between a runner and …”
    1. His carbs
    2. The finish line
    3. Coffee
    4. An oncoming vehicle
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  2. Which of the following did I experience at the Burning Man 50K? (Hint: there may be more than one correct answer.)
    1. Sunrise over the playa
    2. Losing a toenail
    3. Being offered whiskey by spectators
    4. Running with a naked woman
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  3. I was looking for my drop bag at an aid station at the Kettle Moraine 100. What was the actual advice a volunteer gave me?
    1. “We have them sorted by bib number.”
    2. “Sorry, some of them haven’t arrived yet.”
    3. “Are you sure you’re at the right event?”
    4. “Take any one you like, they all got the same shit in ‘em.”
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  4. How many of the following happened to me at the 2014 Green Swamp 50K in Florida?
    1. Face planted four times on a pancake-flat course
    2. Stepped on a snake
    3. Was saved from getting lost by someone who did get lost
    4. Flew home that afternoon to run a 5K the next day
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  5. Which of the events related to Run Woodstock freaked me out the most?
    1. My first “natural run”
    2. Being chased by baby raccoons on a training run
    3. Headlamp failing in the woods in the middle of the night
    4. Seeing the following sign at midnight on a high chainlink fence just off the trail:

Ready? Answers below.

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Are you sure you’re ready?

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Okay, here we go.

 

Answer to #1: “Never stand between a runner and his carbs.”

It was after a race, and there were slices of cake on the food table. Someone was blocking me from the piece I wanted, and I sort of lunged around him to get it. I apologized, which triggered the remark from a spectator. Note that I think the other three choices are also sound advice.

This will do for starters.

Answer to #2: All of them.

During the first loop I felt a sharp pain in my left food. At the water stop I took off my shoe and sock. The problem was my big toe. As I peeled off the tape, the toenail came off with it. No big deal. And there was no more pain! And sunrise over the playa was absolutely amazing. Well worth getting up at 5 a.m.

I did run with a naked woman for a while (and she finished ahead of me – oh, the shame). Spectators offered many interesting things to us, including whiskey and mystery liquids. You can read all about it in this previous post.

Answer to #3: Choice (d) – “Take any one you like…”

There were lots of drop bags at this station. My mind keeps stretching the number and the area, but here’s an actual photo of some of them. Fortunately I did find my actual bag without too much trouble. I don’t remember if they were sorted by bib number. It would make sense, come to think of it.

Answer to #4: Choices (c) and (d)

Out in the middle of nowhere, I was happily running along when a woman approached from the opposite direction. “No,” she said, “wrong way. I just found out.” Sure enough, a few hundred yards back was a turn we’d missed. Good thing, or I might still be out there.

And 2014 was the year I’d set a goal to run every race put on by RF Events. Green Swamp was a Saturday in Florida, and Shamrocks & Shenanigans was the following day back in Ann Arbor. So I flew home the same day, and ran Shamrocks the next day. The staff still talks about it.

The other two answers are close. I didn’t step on a snake, but I almost did. And I actually face planted six times on a pancake-flat course. Pesky alligators.

Answer to #5: Choice (b) – yep, the baby raccoons!

I wasn’t afraid so much of them, but of Mama, who must’ve been somewhere nearby. So I booked the hell out of there.

Headlamp failing is certainly cause for concern, but I wasn’t worried. First, an aid station was just up the trail with my drop bag, in which was a spare headlamp. Second, I always carry two light sources at night, so I had a small flashlight as backup. Be smart out there!

As for the zombie warning sign? I wasn’t freaked out at all. I put it there! I set it up around midnight and removed it before sunrise. Only the 100-mile and 100K runners got to “hallucinate” that sign!

And my first “natural run”? It was somewhat uncomfortable at first, but after a few minutes it’s just people with no clothes on. And running, which is always good. You can read about it in this previous post here. And if you infer that by “my first” means I’ve done others since? You infer correctly, dear reader. Try it sometime!

Do you have any funny, strange, or freaky running experiences you’d like to share? Post away!

The Long and the Short of Running

A couple Januarys ago I had breakfast with my running coach, going over my planned race schedule. It would follow a pattern I’d established, of a target race in late May or June (100-miler or more), with shorter ultras in the spring to leapfrog up to it. So we mapped out a 50K and a couple of 50-milers. “Now we can plug in your shorter races,” he said.

And by shorter races, we were including marathons.

Even at the time we laughed about it, imagining what a standard recreational runner (or any non-runner) would be thinking if they’d overheard us. But that’s how I think of it. There are ultras and there are non-ultras; there’s a clear line. By definition, a marathon is not an ultramarathon. (Unless you get lost. I once asked a race director if I could get credit for an “ultra-half” for running 14 miles on a 13.1 course.)

This attitude has some funny characteristics. For example, every April there’s a trail marathon in my area. (Present-year disclaimer, etc.) Anyway, I work it as part of my zero waste events gig. And before I get down and dirty with that, I run the marathon.

Thing is, there’s also a 50K option, which means you run an extra five-mile loop following your 26.2. And for me, those five miles mean the difference between a fun “short race” and an “ultra” which on those trails is, well, hard. As in automatic bonk afterward, while I can finish the marathon and get right to sorting Gu wrappers out of the water bottle bins.

Me (far right) after a measly ol’ marathon.

And after those five extra miles on the trail.

Why? Who knows? It has to be mainly mental, although you’d think someone who’s run multiple 100s wouldn’t feel that little extra. Heck, I even pitch 50Ks to skeptical folks as “just a marathon with a five-mile cooldown.” But there we are.

I’m sure none of this makes any sense to runners who’ve never run this kind of distance. This morning my run group included someone training for her first marathon. Like most folks in her situation, she did a half first, and was now trying to wrap her head around getting from 13.1 miles to double that distance. It ain’t easy. I was there once.

The good news is once you’ve done it, the second is easier. The bad news is, you just might talk yourself into an ultra. Then you’re really screwed. Trust me. I’m there now.

At least I would be, but my local fall ultras were cancelled, and I still don’t trust airplanes yet. So I’ll have to content myself with shorter races until things improve. Maybe I can find a marathon around somewhere.

It’s Okay. No, Really, It’s Okay.

This running life can be funny. Two times recently I’ve had to be told, or tell myself, that something perfectly normal and reasonable is okay. As in, I was actually feeling guilty about something I had no business feeling guilty about.

The Thursday after I got back from the Grandmaster Ultra 50, I went to Body Specs for a recovery workout. I chatted with Skip, the owner and head trainer, about my experience at the race, and how I’d won by a single second. I was downplaying it a little because it was a small field and a close finish.

Skip said something to me then that I just had to turn into a meme. Here it is.

Meme: Trainer with arms folded saying IT'S OK TO WIN - WE DON'T TRAIN YOU TO LOSE

He explained that he wasn’t really a fan of the “everyone who participates is a winner” mentality. Competition is healthy, and if you win, that’s a good thing. If you lose, then learn from it, improve, and try again.

“Yes,” I said, “but there are people out there who will always finish ahead of me, even if I run the best race I can. The finish order depends a lot on who shows up and who doesn’t. My usual goal is to set a personal best, or beat a certain time, or to do better than my previous effort. That’s something I can train for.”

We agreed in the end that winning doesn’t necessarily mean finishing first, but he trains people to perform their best and hit their goals, not to do less. And I shouldn’t discount winning, even if it’s by a single second in a 50-mile race. I showed up, I put in the effort, and I finished first. It’s okay to win. I’m keeping the belt, thank you.

My second, “it’s okay to…” moment happened this weekend. For the first time in what seems like forever, we had a sunny Saturday for club run. I’d really enjoyed the sun in Arizona, but the two weeks since then had been unending cloudy gray gloom. It felt so good to run in the sunshine that I stretched my original plan of 10-12 miles to fifteen.

PR club run, Saturday, Feb. 22. I’m in the yellow jacket. (Photo courtesy of Bin Xu.)

That afternoon I lay down for a while, accompanied by some of our resident furry nap coaches. I looked out the window at the bright blue sky and thought, I’m wasting all that sunshine. I should be outside doing something. Anything other than lying here doing nothing.

As an ultrarunner I already know I’m nuts, but this was really ridiculous. Not only was there no work to do outside, I’d run for over two hours in the sun that morning. I had to tell myself that resting was okay. Essential, even. Running is the exercise, but recovery is what makes me stronger.

The cats knew better how to take advantage of the sun, stretching out on the patches of sunlight that fell on the bed and basking in its warmth. I guess they were better coaches than I gave them credit for.

These guys understand the importance of rest. And enjoying life in the moment.

50 Miles in the Desert: A Grand(master) Adventure

IT WAS A PHOTO FINISH.

If only there had been a camera at the finish line.

Chris and I descended a sandy slope onto the road and charged toward the finish straight ahead. After fifty miles on rugged, rocky desert trails, we found the strength to sprint, and over those last hundred yards we continued to accelerate. After running nearly the entire race together, the top two spots in the Grandmaster Ultra 50 were ours. We hit the line side by side.

As we caught our breath and bumped fists, a woman carrying a large velvet bag walked up to us. “Which of you finished first?” she asked.

My co-finisher and I looked at each other and shrugged. I’d been looking straight ahead and only knew it had been close. He had no idea, either.

She looked equally puzzled. “The problem is, I only have one winner’s belt.”

So which one of us would get it?

** Okay, if you really need to know right now who won, you can skip to the end of this post. But I’m a writer and I’m trying to tell a story here. I hope you’ll humor me and stick it out. **

The Grandmaster Ultras take place in the northwest corner of Arizona about 100 miles northeast of Las Vegas. As its name implies, it’s open only to people 50 and older. The race window is 8 a.m. Friday to 8 a.m. Sunday, and runners have their choice of 50K, 50 miles, 100K, 100 miles, and 48-hour total distance.

The event is a UTMB qualifier, so that was one attraction. The venue was intriguing too. The Burning Man 50K, my only other desert ultra, is pancake flat on firm clay, never far from Black Rock City. The GM Ultra is in God knows where, with cacti, hills, rocks, and tricky terrain. If you fall and twist an ankle, help might take a while, though I suppose you could hitchhike on the occasional ATV rumbling along the trails.

I began my involvement in this race by freaking out the race staff.

I picked up my race bib at the race tent behind Beaver Dam Station Friday afternoon. My race didn’t start until Saturday, so I went up the road for a five-mile “dress rehearsal” run in full gear. This included testing my new snap-on bib attachments. They don’t put holes in your clothing like safety pins, but I needed to make sure they wouldn’t fall off.

Closeup of the snaps. They worked well! I will use them again.

The practice run went smoothly, and the back muscle I’d strained the week before gave me no trouble even with a full pack, so I cruised back to the station feeling good. Someone took a few pictures of me, even. Then one of the race organizers ran out of the timing tent. “Are you running today?” he called out.

“No, just warming up.”

“Well, then, thanks for wearing your bib,” he shot back, going back into the tent.

I’d come by at a bad time; they were trying to locate a runner they’d lost track of, and just then someone had called, “Runner coming!” It was too soon to be an actual 100K or 100 mile runner, so they were really confused. I finished my run and returned to the tent to apologize. Things had been straightened out by then, and I was quickly forgiven.

Temperature at race start Saturday morning was 35 degrees but warmed up quickly, so my jacket came off in about an hour. I lagged a bit the first mile to take a few photos and retie my shoes, so at the 50K and 50-miler course split I had no idea where I stood. I’d chatted with a few runners the first two miles or so, but now I was alone, with no other runners in sight ahead. The course was marked with orange flags every few hundred yards, so I wasn’t worried about being on the wrong trail.

Chris caught up with me around the four mile mark. He’s from southern California and works at a wastewater treatment plant. I’m not sure how interesting that is to others, but as the owner of a Zero Waste services company, I wanted to hear about it.

Chris striking a pose on the trail. It’s some kind of trail hand signal.

We ran together and talked until the second aid station, where we found out we were the 50-mile front runners. I needed some extra time there, so he went on ahead. For the next few hours I would catch a glimpse of him ahead, sometimes closer, sometimes farther. I thought about trying to catch up, but it was too early to push; there was a lot of race left.

And then, just before the halfway mark, the trail became very runnable dirt, and I did catch up. We reached the Three Corners monument (Arizona, Nevada, Utah) and took an extended break.

Mandatory tourist moment. Look, Mom! I’m in three states at once!

I dropped off my pack and hiking poles, and went from two water bottles to one. A tad risky, but the reduced bulk and weight was a big relief. Chris also introduced me to Gordy Ainsleigh, founding runner of the Western States 100, who was there qualifying for his own race!

Gordy (left), and Chris. Never would have known without him!

We ran together the rest of the way. Our goal was to “beat the sundown” at 6 p.m., which meant finishing under ten hours. We were right on the edge, so we helped each other keep the pace up. I also felt safer; it was pretty desolate out there, and I was now without poles. And the miles just seem to pass faster with company.

As with all ultrarunners, we had our highs and lows along the way. I had a low stretch from miles 30 to 35. The heat, the tedium, and seemingly endless stones were taking their toll, and my gut began to hurt like it had at the 2019 Potawatomi 50. I suspected it was lack of water to aid digestion, so I stepped up my hydration and the pain gradually faded away. After mile 40 I got a second wind and had a “high” all the way to the finish.

Me at a “high” moment early in the race. (Photo courtesy of the event’s Facebook page.)

Chris had lows from miles 35 to 44, and needed to stop now and then for 30-second “walk and water” breaks. I walked with him until he was ready to resume running. In return, when I took extra time at the aid stations, he’d walk until I caught up again.

And so we covered the remaining miles, and emerged onto the ridge above Beaver Dam Station with the sun still up. We checked our watches, saw we could beat ten hours, and took off down the slope and onto the road to the finish line.

** SPOILER: Here’s the result. If you’ve skipped ahead, this is your last chance to go back and read the thrilling narrative that leads up to this part. **

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** Okay, here we go. For reals now. **

We all stood there for a moment. Then, joking that she didn’t know how we could each wear the belt half the time, she walked off, presumably to check with other witnesses to the finish. We sat down in conveniently nearby camp chairs and just enjoyed being done.

Then she was back, and she handed the bag to me. “You finished first by one second,” she said. Nine hours and fifty-six minutes of running, and I was champion by one second.

Holy crap, talk about an overpowered award. Do I need a costume and theme song now?

Chris was fine with the outcome. He accepted the second-place trophy graciously and we both posed for photos by the finish line. It was a real pleasure, my friend. Hope to see you at another race.

So there it is, my second ultramarathon win when I hadn’t expected to sniff the podium at either one. Life is funny, isn’t it.