Five months after signing up for my first ultra, I crossed the finish line 11 hours, 51 minutes, and 23 seconds after running 50 miles. The autumn sun had started setting, everyone else had gone home, my rental car was the only one in the parking lot, and when I stopped my watch and looked around, I had a strangely similar thought as I did back when I signed up in June: Well, I guess that was it.
I’ve been reflecting on what my first ultra has meant in the grand scheme of things, and it’s given me some insight into how ultra marathons are fundamentally different from other shorter races I’ve run—even longer triathlons. Here are some things I learned.
1. Ban Your Ego
Every race I entered before the ultra—marathons to a full Ironman—has been somehow rooted in ego. I told myself I wouldn’t set a goal time, but I always ended up hoping I’d be sub-whatever. Races that exceeded those arbitrary goals felt like failures.
That said, I had no doubt I would finish—a DNF (did not finish) wasn’t an option, and finishing under the 12-hour time limit was my only goal. This helped me immensely as I fell to the back of the pack and stayed there all day. I passed no one. By the time I finished and everyone had gone home, last place held no significance. If I’d let my ego convince me that I deserved a heartier homecoming, or that it was shameful to be so slow, I’m sure the effort would have felt wasted.
For those new to the sport, make sure to frame your first ultra as a project in time management. Give yourself the chance to feel pride around sticking to your process. Success will inevitably follow.
2. Find a Running Buddy
So far, I’ve kept saying “I” ran the race and “I” finished last. I actually ran the entire race with a longtime friend. Every past race I’ve done, with the exception of one, we’ve done together. This shared suffering has been integral to feeling like an intense day is just another opportunity to hang out with my friend.
Granted, we weren’t exactly chopping it up at mile 46, as our knees lit up on the downhills. But having someone by my side—someone who I know is enduring the same pain—made a lonely experience much more enjoyable. I can’t imagine being at the back of the pack or alone in the woods on my own.
Not everyone has a friend who is also crazy enough to run a 50-mile race, let alone at the same pace. But if you have no other choice, make a conscious effort to engage people on the course, including volunteers. Don’t let a solo effort become a solo experience.
3. Learn What ‘Bad’ Pain Feels Like
When I was in high school, my chemistry teacher was the track coach. In class he’d sometimes ask his bellyaching students what he’d ask his athletes: “Are you hurting, or just hurtin’?” The idea was, hurting meant you were in legitimate pain. Something was wrong and needed treatment. Hurtin’ was different. That meant you were just uncomfortable and probably should stop complaining.
This handy rule of thumb came rushing back around two-thirds of the way into the race, and it carried me the rest of the way. I knew from reading ultramarathon forums that pain would come in waves. First it’d show up in certain places, then it’d disappear and promptly reappear somewhere else.
I was happy to find the only rehab I required in the week after the race was some foam-rolling and icing of my left knee. Thanks to my chemistry teacher all those years ago, I had known when to let the discomfort subside and when to take it seriously.
4. Food Equals Mood
Eat more than you think throughout the race. It will change your entire outlook on the experience—not to mention how your body performs for you. Sticking to my eating schedule, even when I wasn’t hungry, paid dividends later. I have much less to say on this topic than the others because it’s so cut and dry: eat a lot and feel good or neglect it and pay the price.
(Important disclaimer: The time to figure out what “a lot” means is during your long training runs, not on race day. That said, I ate much more during the 50-mile race than I had during any training run or race. However, it was only more of what I knew my body could tolerate.)
5. Write Yourself a Note
I’d heard about this idea a few months into training but didn’t consider how much it would mean in the moment. Not only did I write myself a note; I asked my wife to write me a note as well. I put both notes in a sandwich bag inside my drop bag that was placed at the aid station at mile 35.
The 70% mark is typically when my workouts and races become the hardest. It’s no longer a novel experience, and yet I’m still so far from the finish line. When I arrived at the aid station and ripped open the bag, both notes hit me like a ton of bricks. The one I wrote to myself was more inspirational, a tough-love reminder to embrace the suck. My wife’s note was loving and praising; it made me emotional next to the teenager handing out cups of Coke.
Both notes worked exactly as intended. They reminded me that I chose to do this, and that I was doing it for bigger reasons than a line on my fitness resume. The final 15 miles were a grind, but I had a mental tailwind after reading the notes.
6. Plan to Change Your Plan
Like I said in the beginning, I was dangerously close to missing the time cutoff. This obviously wasn’t the plan. The plan, as my highly-organized friend had drawn up in Excel and printed onto cheat sheets for us to carry on the course, was to take the race leg by leg. Based on the elevation gain of a given leg, we would either take it slower or faster. If we executed those smaller missions, we’d finish on time.
Except, it didn’t happen like that. Eventually, we realized we’d walked a bit too slowly for a long period of time and lost the cushion we’d gained early on. Then the volunteer at the second to last aid station told us we had an hour and 10 minutes to get to the final aid station 5.3 miles away, or else we’d miss the cutoff.
I don’t know how we did it, but we charged those 5.3 miles. By the time we got to mile 46, the volunteers had packed up the aid station and were getting in their cars to leave. One of them must have seen us in their rearview mirror, because she jumped out and flagged us down to make a note on her clipboard. If we had shown up a few seconds later, we would have missed her entirely.
Time for a Second Race?
I’d learned these lessons from past races, but running my first ultra has cast them in a different light. It also taught me something new, which is that at a certain point, hard things are really only worth doing because they’re hard. There’s only so much identity and ego you can feed by doing something so challenging. The 50-miler was my 12-hour moment of clarity: the thing driving me to sign up for my next ultra is the joy of the effort—because as someone who will never, ever reach the podium, the only glory that will keep me warm at night comes from within.
Well, that and the finisher t-shirts. Those are pretty sweet, too.