22 October 2009

My First Ultra

This report is an effort to share the experience of my first attempt at Ultra running, the Wild Duluth 50K. I'll probably say it more than once anyway, but I had more fun during my first Ultras than I could have ever anticipated. Yes I had personal goals for 2009 ("1-2 short course ultras.Stretch goal:50 mile Ultra"). I had to have something to train for, but it wasn't all about the running. I was equally interested in the people and becoming part of what I saw but didn't fully experience as I ran trail 25Ks in 2008.

I was more of a quiet observer then, keeping a safe distance and dipping my toe in the water, if you will. I wanted to find out more about the Ultra scene and 25Ks were the closest my skill/fitness level allowed at the time. Last year I showed up, introduced myself to a couple people at each race (Trail Mix, Afton and Surf the Murph 25Ks) and then left promptly. But each time I left a race it always sounded and appeared the way it did when I arrived: Cheers, laughter, hugs, high fives and people reminiscing with the spartan-like attitude of reunited tribesman. Everyone seemed to be having so much damned fun and I really respected the racers attitudes towards each other. Despite the varied personalities and skill levels there was a singular spirit that was real obvious to me. That impression stuck with me throughout the summer as I toyed with ideas about running farther. The 2008 Surf the Murph was my last 25K for 2008 and it was my tipping point. After that race I made up my mind that I would step up to the line and attempt to double the distance in 2009.

Wild Duluth (WD) 50K

Originally I had planned on running my first Ultra 50K at Murphy. However at some point during my training this year my ambitions began to exceed my original goal. I decided to run the WD as a means of accomplishing my first 50K and also to use it as preparation for my first 50 miler at Murphy. Yes, 2 weeks apart, I know. And I was told by others, "thats not much/enough time between 2 races", "better take it easy in Duluth", or "you are never going to heal in time". In all honesty I knew it was a tall order from the beginning, but I was pretty much commited in my own mind.

Race day at WD was as nice as one could hope. Sunny and crisp. Before the race I introduced myself to Helen Lavin, Julie Berg and Lisa Messerer, three people I had spoken with via email leading up to this race. It was nice to finally meet people.

Of course I was nervous, but I was also confident that I had done as good a job as I could in training. Having maxed out at 80 miles for weekly mileage, right or wrong, my training had basically centered around volume and time.We took the bus ride from Bayfront to Chambers Grove and had a good 20 minutes to stretch and make other introductions. I met Joel Johansen and two of his buddies from North Dakota. Joel and I shared eating/drinking strategies for the race. Mine was to "eat at every aid station whether I want to or not" and I was carrying my two 20 ounce bottles for the duration of the run.

Andy Holak made his introduction and we were quickly under way. I love the anticipation part of the start, when people seem to bunch close together with anxiety. The deer trail going out of the park basically immediately starts on the incline and there really isn't much room for passing. There was an abundance of chatter and exuberance going out at this point. Julie Berg was about 20-30 feet ahead of me. I made the smart-ass comment that I would have to pass her for just a second to be able to say I passed Julie Berg in a race. That was my last recollection of seeing Julie that day!

I could not believe the terrain within the first mile. I mean....WOW. I certainly had not trained on anything like this before but was greatful for the runs at Murphy and Hyland. I was running this section and now can look back and ask, "why the hell were you running"? This was my first mistake(besides thinking I could even once pass Julie). Even Julie in her report of this race chastised herself for running with the pack up the first hill to the ridge.

The scenery was storybook with bright yellow leaves or pine needles blanketing so much of the forest, and streams throughout. The first AS came quickly. To be honest I'm not sure this AS even had food or gels or water. I'm sure it did. I didn't even look (second mistake). Like a lemming I stayed in the flow of traffic with everyone else and just ran through like everyone else. With people starting to spread out and settle into their pace, I began to chat with others. Most of the conversation centered around the trail. It just never seemed to stop going up! My heart was pounding like a fist on my chest and I did not care.

At the second AS (a.k.a. "Helen's Aid Station") I refilled a bottle with the Heed I was carrying and someone grabbed my other bottle and said they would fill it with Ultima. I just shrugged it off and let them fill it. I also took 3 Hammer salt tablets. After filling my bottles, I grabbed a 2"x2" piece of PBJ and that was it. Basically I didn't eat at the first two stations. And I soon learned that Ultima, in my opinion, is actually poison. I hated it but forced it down. If I did one thing right, I drank all day.

It was around this time leading up to Ely's Peak that I ran into The Gang. Karen G., Rick and Wayne. If they didn't have race numbers I would have thought they were just out for a leisurely hike. They were snapping pictures, laughing and really enjoying themselves. We made introductions and it felt like from that point on I had been adopted. To be perfectly honest, meeting these three was the best part of the race. THIS was what I sensed when I was running 25Ks last year. And now I wasn't just watching, I was fully engaged. Being with them made me feel like a kid. Rick was buzzing around taking pictures of everyone and everything. It seemed like there was 10 of him everywhere. I was very grateful because I didn't bring my camera to document my first Ultra. Me and Wayne chatted it up from behind for a good portion of our time together and Karen just continued on like the Energizer bunny, just consistently moving forward with steady confidence. She has a gait and rhythm on the trail that I noticed to be fairly consistent of everyone who has done this for awhile.
We continued on to AS 3 and I met Zac Pierce, who was also snapping pictures of runners on their way in. I finally ate at this AS as it was starting to get through my thick head that the initial lack of food was going to catch up to me. I have heard others say that it might take awhile but mistakes and remedies alike take awhile to catch up to you on the trail. We took off and continued on towards the ski hill (I think), with Wayne and I falling a little further behind Karen and Rick. As we approached this section Wayne said something about "138 steps". So I thought I would count. Somewhere after step 40, muscles I never knew I had on the left inside of my thigh decided to cramp. I stopped, rubbed and tryed again. Nope. I told Wayne I woud see him later and started chugging my Heed while I stretched as best I could. I took off again and that seemed to be it for cramps. I still have no idea if there were exactly 138 steps, but it sure the hell felt like it. I realized that this was payment for running like a child and not sticking to my nutrition plan. For abandoning everything I read about and trained to do correctly. At AS 4 at the zoo I saw The Gang on their way out. This time I stood at the table, drank, ate and relaxed while the children at that AS made me laugh, pushed fluids towards me and informed me of the remaining distance. They were trained very well! Another water/Heed refill and away I went.

For the rest of the race I started having considerable pain in my left knee on the downhills. Whether I was going straight down or leading on my left side, the result was the same. This basically forced me to only be able to lead with my right side, sort of hop-skipping, on all of the remaining downhills. I've never experienced this type of pain before and it was on the outside pretty much at the hinge. Needless to say it is very difficult to ask one leg to do all the work on downhills and it was really beating me up. At the next AS I again ate a good amount and especially appreciated the potatoes and salt. I think it was hear that I saw a first timer, a younger guy who came in after me, take off his shoe to reveal some pretty sore toes. They looked like cherry tomatoes and I was happy my newer Salomons and Smart Wool socks were doing so well together.
Not much longer after I left this AS and the young guy and some other gentlemen slowly pushed past me. The hills. Relentless and painful every step of the way. Coming into the last AS after running through the Enger Park (I did not ring the bell), I found a childs toy. It was a little ray gun that made funny noise when you pulled the trigger. I picked it up and decided to carry it the rest of the way for the hell of it.

More food at the last AS and I was only feeling better because I was so close to being done. Besides the knee I really think I had just went out too fast for too long, with too little to eat and it seemed like I could only tolerate short little bursts before having to walk again. My chest felt extremely tight. Although the cool weather probably did a number on my wind bags I also think I had just done too much and there was little chance of recovering for a big finish. Every once in awhile I would start each run with a burst from the ray gun to lighthen the mood. The first place 100K runner from Virginia, Sean Andrish, came zipping by me. The same steady gallop as Karen G., only much faster. It was a sight to see someone so fast and nimble. He was kind enough to shout "good job!" as he ran by and then quickly disappeared. On to finish a 62 mile race less than two hours longer than it took me to run half the distance. 'Impressive' isn't a generous enough word.

Without much choice I just took it easy the rest of the way into Bayfront Park. It was mostly downhill at this point. Under most circumstances that might be a good thing but it only slowed me down that much more as I gimped on every drop. My right leg (the "good" one) felt as though it would snap from doing all the work on the downhills for about 3 hours. By the time I hit the tar trail coming in to Bayfront the flat ground was pure heaven on my legs but my lungs had long ago retired. I walk/jogged the little leg up to the building until I turned the corner to see the Finish line. Ray gun in hand, I gave all I could muster and "ran" to the finish. 8:58:19. Yikes. I think Rome was built faster!

Seriously, this was the hardest thing I had ever done, hands down. I rarely talk about it, but I was once in the Marines. Even during my service I never had a single physical test equal this event. I know it wasn't one for the records, but it was MY record. Frankly, I thought I had come in last but I just didn't give a damn. I had just ran an Ultra and it was the best I could do. Until I run this course again, it's my personal best. And I had done something I wasn't even sure I was capable of or willing to try one year earlier.

So I ended the day with a change of clothes and a warm bowl of chili. And I was able to sit with the other Ultra runners and share a story. About the mistakes, the challenges and the FUN. A couple old timers (that finished before me) gave me advice and everyone was just very, very cool. I felt like I belonged to something new. Something the average person doesn't do every day, if ever in a lifetime. I said my goodbyes and thank-yous and headed to my car, smiling. Behind me everyone was doing what trail runners do: Cheering, laughing, hugging, high- fiving and reminiscing with the spartan-like attitude of reunited tribesman.

Thank you Andy and Kim Holak and all the oustanding volunteers for a great first race.


  1. Congrats and great report!

    No one like Ultima; it actually makes the race harder, IMHO. The muscle cramps you had may have been due to an electolyte imbalance - Ultima has almost nothing in it but flavoring (and nasty flavoring at that).

    I can just see you going up that first hill, thinking "what have I gotten myself into?"

  2. Thank you, Steve. I actually only had the one bottle of Ultima. The rest of the way I drank the Heed I had carried. Plus I took at least 12-15 Hammer Endurolytes. I think I never recovered well from going out fast and not eating soon enough. And yes, there was the moment when I realized just how hard this was actually going to be.

  3. Great write up! It may sound strange but I am glad you struggled, like we all did in our first ultra. If it was easy, you wouldn't be writing about it. WD was a tough course, especially for a 1st Ultra. You did it...31 miles...on a really tough course. To top it off, you laughed through it. It was a blast out there! I'm glad you joined our gang.

    Rick B