Category Archives: Ultramarathons

Only a Thousand

THE FIRST TIME I RAN a thousand miles in a year was in 2011, also the year of my first marathon. I’d had to step up my game that December to get the final miles in, and broke the tape, as it were, on the 29th. On New Year’s Eve I had one more run to get a total of 1,010.10 miles for the year.

My coach was proud of me. My wife was proud. And above all, I was proud. After all, it was nearly double the 567 miles I’d run the year before. I was a four-figure runner; I’d arrived!

From 2011: 1,000 miles! Woohoo!

The first Saturday in January 2012, I went out for the regular weekend club run. I really wanted to share my accomplishment with someone, but wasn’t sure how. Then I caught up with a couple of guys chatting.

“How’d your running go last year, Sam?” one of them asked the other.

“It sucked,” Sam replied. “I only ran a thousand miles.”

That didn’t really deflate me much, just bring me back to earth. And I’ve run at least a thousand miles just about every year since, including this year, where I also hit the mark on December 29. Yay me!

2019 – 1,000 miles! Woohoo!

To be fair, a thousand miles a year is not that exceptional for regular runners. Many of them run 2,000 or more. And at least one runner I know has reached the 100,000 mile lifetime mark. Does this diminish anyone who runs fewer miles? Not at all. If you run, you’re a runner in my book, and in the books of all the other runners I know. Mega-marathon runner? Good work. Only run a couple of miles at a time? Good work.

Now it’s true that my mileage total is unusually low for an ultrarunner. People are surprised to find out that I run 100-mile races averaging only 20-30 miles per week. But I also strength train at the gym, and supplement running with long bike rides. Meanwhile, a couple of people I know whose exercise is mostly distance running get injured or struggle to finish ultras.

What do I take away from all this? That everyone’s body is different, and there is no single “magic formula” for accomplishing your goals. And I like mixing up my training. Running 50 miles per week is not something I enjoy, so I find other ways to build the base I need. This allows me to enjoy the training as much as the events I train for.

All that said. . .it may be time to step up my running, enjoyable or not. I’ve decided to try for one of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) races. More about this later, but the nickel summary is: it requires at least two tough qualifying races, plus a lottery. This makes it at least a two-year process, running the qualifiers in 2020 in order to apply for the UTMB race in 2021. And, of course, there are other ultras I want to try out, possibly including a 200-miler, or even the ten-day, 314-mile Last Annual Vol State Race.

To get through all that I’ll need to be in really good shape. Additional strength training will be part of that, but there’s no getting round more running too. So I’ll have to decide if the extra effort is worth it. For now, at least, I’m assuming yes. So you all can look forward to some (hopefully) interesting stories in 2020 as I share my adventures in getting to UTMB, and beyond.

Happy New Year, everyone!

A Smaller Bigfoot, and Call for BHAG Ideas

I WUZ THIS CLOSE.

All this year I’ve had it in my mind that 2020 was going to feature my first 200-mile race. And I had it picked out: the Bigfoot 200 in August, in Washington State.

I’d already started the process; I told my wife and coach, and lined up a tentative crew with our friends on the West Coast. And as the race requires eight hours of trail work beforehand, I signed up to volunteer with the Friends of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail here in Michigan.

All set! I just needed to wait until registration opened and push the button. Then would begin a year’s worth of training to get ready.

Well, it didn’t happen quite that way.

Registration for the 2020 Bigfoot 200 opened late last month. There was even a substantial “early bird” discount. I went to the website and dutifully went through the course map, runner instructions, disclaimers, and other stuff they want you to read before registering.

This is good advice. Bigfoot is far different from any other ultra I’ve been involved with. For example, the Veterans Memorial 150, while no walk in the park, passes through several towns and has easy crew access most of the way.

Lest you think civilization makes 150 miles easy…

Bigfoot is 200 miles in the middle of nowhere with little or no cell phone service, aid stations averaging over ten miles apart, and only a few locations with crew access. A GPS tracking chip and survival equipment is mandatory for runners, with good reason.

None of that phased me, though. From previous tough ultras I figured I had the physical and mental stamina to get it done. No worries! And yet, as I reached the final signup page, my fingers hesitated. Something wasn’t right. I took a break to ponder what.

Cost was certainly a factor: a $900 entry fee and travel, lodging, and meal costs on top of that. Not a showstopper – Burning Man last year cost a similar amount – but still substantial. Plus my crew would be making a multi-day commitment and traveling to locations difficult to access. It’s a lot to ask.

But it came down to basic questions I finally figured out to ask myself. Was I really looking forward to this experience? With all the effort I’d be putting into training, preparation, logistics, and actually running the silly thing, would I enjoy it?

After I finish this race I’ll tell you I enjoyed it.

The answer, to my surprise, was No. I just didn’t feel ready for it. And so I won’t be doing it next year. However, I do plan on being there.

While perusing the website I found out there are some shorter races – the “Littlefoot” series – of various distances up to 100K. The 40-miler, a loop around Mt. St. Helens, particularly appealed to me. I’ve been there and hiked some of the trail. And I can do it in a single day, leaving more time to spend with our friends. Registration doesn’t open for that one until January, but I fully intend to push the button then.

So now I need to choose another BHAG(*) race for next year. I’d like it to be a 100-miler or more, although more then one fellow runner has recommended Comrades Marathon, the infamous 12-hour, 56 miler in South Africa. I welcome reader suggestions!

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(*) BHAG = Big Hairy-A$$ Goal

Cardiac Kid

Last month’s North Country Trail 50K was a reversal in my usual race routine: I ran an ultra as a fun break in my regular training.

This year I’m working on getting faster, and frankly it’s been a struggle after three years of training to “go long” so I looked forward to this 50K as a diverting return to familiar territory. No pressure to put the hammer down; quite the opposite, in fact.

Rarin’ to go at 6:30 a.m.

For this was the first race I ran entirely by heart rate instead of pace.

Why? To see how I would perform by staying “aerobic” which means maintaining a pace where the body is receiving enough oxygen to keep the muscles fueled. At a certain level of effort you go “anaerobic” where the body is using up oxygen faster than it comes in. This condition is standard for sprinters, but bad for distance runners if it happens too soon.

The key number to know is your Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate (MAHR). Go above that, and you’re running on borrowed time. It can be precisely determined in a medical lab, but there are ways to estimate it based on general assumptions on age and fitness level.

Physical age, that is, not emotional maturity. (Well, THE SIGN SAYS “Howling”!

Using the popular “Maffetone method” I estimated my MAHR to be around 130 beats per minute (BPM). I decided I could go slightly over that for a 50K and set my target average heart rate for 135 BPM, slowing down if it hit 140 or more. After twenty miles I felt strong enough to step it up, so I ran the final 11 miles at a target BPM of 145.

The result was one of the smoothest 50K I have ever run. I felt good throughout, and by focusing on BPM I could ignore my competitive instincts when other runners passed me or I saw one up ahead. I’d hoped for a finish under six hours and somewhere in the top half of the field, but got a surprise: a time of 5:36 (near my best) and a top 10 finish, too!

And a finisher’s medal that would send a horse to the chiropractor!

One more smart move was staying hydrated, learning from my digestive issues at the Potawatomi Trail 50. As it was a cool day I drank “ahead of my thirst” to make sure I was getting enough, and had no problems.

Now in the spirit of balance, here’s something I screwed up.

The race was on a Sunday, and Monday is a Body Specs gym day. Naturally I gave myself the day off, right? Umm….not quite.

Okay, I’ll admit I was partly motivated by wanting to show off the humungous finisher’s medal. But I was also feeling good enough to go. A nice, light recovery workout would be great, right? And so it seemed to go, until my legs tightened up later, and for the next two days I had to press on my quads just to sit down. (At least it was good power hike training.)

So I suppose you could say my heart was in the right place, but the effort was in vein.

Yes, I’m Aware that I’m Not Aware

Years ago, I was out on a Saturday morning club run. Among the runners that day was my instructor from the Running 101 class I’d taken the previous year. That class got me into running regularly, and resulted in my first half marathon. She looked at me as I passed.

“You’re doing great!” she said. “Drop those shoulders.”

Sure enough, they were riding up. I knew I was prone to this under stress, such as while running or in a tough Aikido class, but it’s not something I readily recognize. Since then I’ve worked on being more self-aware during long runs, and to consciously remind myself to relax.

Learning and applying self-awareness has several benefits. For one, it forces me into the moment – “how am I really feeling right now” – and takes my mind away from how much time or distance I have remaining. And once in the moment, it’s easier to remain there, to appreciate that I’m doing something I love, and how beautiful a day it is, or how beautiful the trail is. For me, at least, an ultra is a great thing to have finished, but the memories are more important. I have distinct memories from every one of my 22 (so far) ultras, and replaying them, good or bad, is very much like being there all over again.

Feeling good at the 2014 Dances with Dirt – Hell 50K.

It’s also good to be honest with yourself when others are not. Race staff, volunteers, and spectators don’t want to discourage runners. So what comes out of their mouths are things like, “You’re looking strong!” whether I’m bounding along or shuffling like a zombie and they’re texting the county coroner to stand by. So the times when they’ve been honest with me really stand out, like the guy who told me my nose was bleeding halfway through a 50K, or the aid station captain who gently hinted that maybe I should turn in my chip because I looked pale and wasn’t sweating. All this means I have to be conscious enough of my condition to make good decisions – or to specifically ask for an honest assessment from someone else..

Here are a few things I do at times during a long run or race:

  • Check my breathing. If I’ve picked up the pace, or run hard for a while, my breaths can get shallow and less productive. No matter how fast I’m going, I switch to several deliberate deep breaths. Not so much to get extra oxygen into my lungs, but to get the excess carbon dioxide out. So breathe out to empty the lungs, then breathe in normally.

Relax! Breathe deep!

  • Check posture. Am I upright, back straight, leaning from the ankles, or starting to hunch over?
  • General body check. How is everything feeling? Is there pain anywhere I’m not paying attention to? Am I favoring one side over the other? Do I need water or salt? You may wonder that I have to consciously do this, but when you’re focused on a particular goal or milestone, such as getting over this last ridge to the aid station, you can lose touch with how your body is doing.

Then, of course, there are times it’s obvious how my body is doing.

Having run ultras for years now, it’s mostly second nature. Or so I’d like to think. And yet, this very morning I was out on a club run, cruising through Nichols Arboretum, and we passed a couple of people on the trail. I was the last one in the pack, and shortly after I passed them I heard the older man’s voice behind me: “Relax the shoulders!”

One of these days, I’ll learn. Maybe.