Category Archives: Ultramarathons

Thinking on Our Feet

One recent Wednesday morning I wrapped up a hot, long early run feeling like indulging myself. I walked to the nearby coffee shop and gazed with longing upon the chocolate pistachio croissant on display there.

But there was a problem. “Sorry,” the manager said. “Our system is down.”

She spent the next few minutes trying to wake it up while I waited and other customers came in. She gave up and looked at us in despair. “I can’t even take your orders. I’m calling the main office now.”

Part of me wanted to point out the prices were posted, the espresso machine was working, and she could take cash. The rest of me, in shameless sang-froid, wanted to see if she could figure this out herself. She did not. So I left, sans coffee and croissant, as did the customers behind me.

If you’re expecting a rant on how we’ve becomes slaves to technology, you’re only partly right. We have, of course. But the root cause here wasn’t a tech fail, it was a process fail. Is the purpose of the coffee shop to keep its ordering system up? No, it’s to sell coffee and food. The manager should have been trained in how to keep selling despite a failure. Something like this:

“Okay, Jane, the computer system has failed. We still need $300 per hour in revenue to stay in business. And customers are waiting. What do you do?” Very similar to what my father experienced in private pilot training, when his instructor shut off the engine mid-flight and said, “Now what?”

Technology is great. It saves time, reduces errors, and lets us do so much more than we could without it. At the cost of some of our independence. I don’t think that the growing interest in “off-the-grid” living, foraging skills, and the like is any coincidence. All of us ought to try at least one activity that requires us to think on our feet, and figure out how to survive when conditions aren’t easy. That’s what we’ve always been best at.

For me, that activity is ultrarunning. In a road race, there’s usually a crowd to follow, the running surface is smooth, and help is plentiful. In a trail ultra the footing is almost never certain, course markings can be missed, and I’m running by myself for most of the race. And the weather can vary a lot during one. So while I can get into a flow, and enjoy the scenery around me, I need to stay attentive to many things, and adjust “on the fly” at times. (*)

Okay, now what?

And yet, even with this awareness, I’m not immune to feeling stressed when I experience a process failure.

At the next Wednesday morning run, we’d just set off when I realized I’d forgotten to put on my Garmin watch. Yikes! No way to track my pace and distance. What to do? Fortunately, it is actually possible to run without a GPS watch, so I got through it, though I kept wanting to tap my wrist at stoplights. Backup plan? Ask someone with a watch how far we’d run.

Afterward, I returned to the coffee shop. Their system was back up, and I got my pastry. The manager even admitted she’d forgotten about their backup system. I tossed out the word, “cash” and she laughed. I wonder if she knows what it is.

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(*) The recent tragedy during an ultra in China has made the need for good preparation and attentiveness to conditions even more visible and important. I’ll express my thoughts on this in a future post.

Maniac on Singletrack

I HAVE THREE TAKEAWAYS from last weekend’s Singletrack Maniac 50K:

  1. Never assume a water jug is full
  2. You never really know what you’re capable of until you do it
  3. Ultrarunners are the best f**king people on the planet. (I knew that already, so this race was just another confirmation.)

There’s the TL;DR version. For those of you inclined to read on after lists like these, here’s the rest of the story.

Singletrack Maniac takes place in Williamsburg, Virginia, on the trails of beautiful Freedom Park, with start and finish at a nearby middle school. It was a pretty standard atmosphere – well-stocked aid stations, enthusiastic volunteers cheering us on, and runners and families hanging out on the lawn afterward. Which made it all the more remarkable, given we’re still in pandemic mode. (From my perspective, people were protecting themselves appropriately.)

The wisest advice you can give an ultrarunner!

I started out fast to establish a place on the singletrack where I could run at my chosen pace. This meant I was somewhere in the front 20 or so. I decided to push myself a little and ran harder than my standard 50K pace. This meant I was uncomfortable much of the time, but sustainably so. During my time out there I passed a few people and a few passed me, so overall I felt I was in the right place.

The course is a little unusual in that it’s two different trail loops, each run twice. My strategy was to learn from the first time through each loop, and adjust for the second loop accordingly. The first part, held on the A trail system, went well, and I felt strong as I entered the second half of the race on the D&E trails. And as I’d heard from others, this is where things got interesting.

The back loop does not have short, steep climbs and descents like the Potawatomi Trail back home, but it makes up for it with  long, gradual climbs and a lot of gentle rolling terrain with sharp turns, all of which sap your energy without you really feeling it for awhile. It became evident the second time through, when areas I’d run through the first time became walk/run or power hike.

And then came my kick-my-rear-end moment. On this part there’s a creek crossing, and just over the bridge were two tables with water jugs. I was low on water and looking forward to it. I opened my bottle and dumped the remaining contents over my head, as I was warm from the effort and rising temps, even as a little voice in my head warned me not to trust a water jug. Sure enough, it was empty. I had a bad moment or two before I tried the other jug, which fortunately had a little left in it.

Following that episode, I got a second wind and was able to resume fulltime running pace again. Funny how quickly a race “low” can switch to a “high” (and vice versa) but that’s ultrarunning for you. I was a little bummed when two guys I’d seen off and on throughout the race passed me for what I assumed was the last time. They looked way too comfortable.

And yet, as I emerged from the trail at the mile 30 aid station, there they were. I’d caught up somehow! Just one mile to go. But the path back to the road was a long uphill. Staring ahead, I realized how gassed I was.

“See you guys after the finish,” I told them.

They were having none of it. “Come on, man!” they said. “Match pace to the finish!” And we took off together. I kept up with them until one final checkpoint exiting the park. We stopped to show our bibs, and I didn’t have the heart to start running again, so I began walking. They waved at me from ahead. “Come on, man!” they said again. Where else but trail ultras does this happen?

Well, that did it. Turn down a second challenge? Might as well turn in my card. So I dug deep and took off after them. It was godawful hard, but as we reached the top of the hill, I caught up. Still, I figured it wouldn’t be long before they took off Roadrunner style and left me in the dust with my tongue hanging out.

So I redlined it, going all out. Man, did it hurt, but I was not going to jog it in, dammit. I’ll go this hard until I can’t, I told myself. The approach to the finish is a U-shape – run on the road, turn into the school driveway, and run back through the parking lot. This prolonged the agony, but somehow I held it together. Across the line I sprinted, well ahead of the two guys who’d given me the motivation to finish strong.

I went to the refreshment tent and lay down gratefully in the shade. The race director approached. “You won second Masters,” she said, placing my prize down next to me. Second in the 40-and-over age division. How about that? And I’d finished in the top 20 overall. I made sure to thank my colleagues for pushing me.

Me with some fellow top finishers, with our award growlers. Me second from left, my motivators the rightmost two.

Was it worth the ten-hour drive there? Absolutely. And I recommend it for anyone who would like to try out a trail ultra. Gorgeous park, not too many rocks and roots, and great support. And who knows, you just might discover you’re capable of more than you thought, even if you’re an experienced trail runner. Happened to me!

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
      .
  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.”
      .
  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
      .
  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.