After scaling two mountains and pushing through thirty-one point two five miles in the cold and mud, I picked my legs up in a fast shuffle and crossed the finish line of my first ultramarathon. Please note that my heaviest participation in running to date was with a “drinking club with a running problem” and that my average running pace on a good day is eleven minutes and thirty seconds. Finishing this physical and mental feat was a turning point in my relationship with running and fitness, as well as a great humble brag at parties.
So how did I get from binge-watching television on the couch to finishing the Peak Ultra 50K in March 2017? Trick question, I was able to train AND continue my Criminal Minds addiction. See some pointers below that were unique to my experience.
Get Your Friends Involved
Do you have that one incredibly charismatic friend who makes crazy ideas seem normal? If not, then make it you! It’s a lot more fun to train, complain, and carbo-load with your friends. The social pressure is motivating, and it’ll help you to get out of bed for your long run days if you promised to meet Christina at Starbucks at 7am. Here are some arguments to persuade your closest friends:
The Budget-Conscious: an ultra marathon is one of the cheapest races you can sign up for, and you get the most mileage out of it!
Your Bestie on Insta: they’ll have months worth of running in the wilderness to post up and grab followers with
The Adventurous Friend: show them the mountains that you’ll be running through and let the call of the wild grab them
The Not-So-Active Friend: ask them to be support crew! Everyone knows you run better when your friends are there cheering you on. They also get to wake up later on the day of the race, eat real snacks while you run, and can join you on training runs without the pressure of training for an event.
Zero Interest Friend: Leave them alone but send them pics of you reaching your mileage every week.
Set Goals and Speak Up
I used the Hal Higdon Ultramarathon 50k Program as a goal-setter for my training runs each week. Training for a race takes an incredible amount of time out of your life and it was emotionally healthier for me to look at training for a race as a goal and not something that had to be achieved at all costs. Using the information from the Hal Higdon program, I converted it into an excel calendar that lined up with my race date, and marked off the actual amount of mileage achieved next to the goal of that day. It helped provide a structure and gave me a way to monitor my progress as I ramped up to the big day.
I also let others know that I was training for a race, and saying it out loud brought the idea from an abstract concept into a reality. Those who knew about my goals motivated me along the way by checking in on how training was going and ooh-ing at the miles my poor legs put in each week. Speaking my truth also helped me prioritize running while motivating me to get outside or on a treadmill.
That being said, there was only so much time available after deducting a millennial’s full-time job (my job at the time could get up to eighty-six hours per week), sleep, and social obligations. If I hit my mileage that week, that was absolutely freaking incredible, but if I didn’t I wasn’t too hard on myself as long as I had tried my best with the time that I had had. This balance is important to keep in mind with your own training, as it can be become difficult and stressful to juggle training with real-life responsibilities.
It’s a Mental Game
While training your body is a given for any type of race, for an ultramarathon you also need to have the perseverance to push through hours of trekking. That’s also why it’s so important to follow a training plan – you’re increasing your body’s strength while developing a strong head game.
On my training runs, I got to know my body and levels of exhaustion incredibly well. The first two miles were always frustrating since my body didn’t understand why it wasn’t on a couch; mile three through five felt great; then grinding through the mileage after that was always a question of willpower. The most important thing was to keep going and finish the mileage even if it was at a walk and push through the desire to quit.
I’d like to emphasize that ultra-running doesn’t require you to run for all of the miles. Think of running an ultramarathon more like a combination of jogging and a fast day hike. Not only does pushing your body to extremes during training make you a better endurance runner, but the effects bleed through to your personal life and mental obstacles become easier to tackle.
It’s OK to Quit
Running a race is a culmination of a lot of things going correctly. I went into the Peak Ultra 50K with one sprained ankle that was on the mend, and at the end of the race I had badly sprained my other ankle. I made the choice during the race that I was going to take it steadily and safely and finish it at my turtle’s pace. I knew I would spend most of the run alone due to my slow speed, and I was prepared to be by myself for eight to ten hours.
During the race, I met another runner coming from a separate direction. He had run eight miles off-course! The course was marked with pink ribbons hanging from trees, and he had forgotten to check for them. He was frustrated, and had blisters forming on his feet from the puddles of mud that were impossible to avoid. After we had kept each other company for a bit, I asked him if he had considered quitting the race. He looked at me, utterly shocked. It hadn’t even crossed his mind. I pressed him further – was there any reason why he had to finish the race? If his foot hurt that badly, and he was wrecked by the additional mileage, no one was going to say one way or another if he decided to drop out. He took some time to think about it, and then made the decision to finish the race.
Having the option to quit reminds runners why they are trekking up a muddy mountain in the first place. It’s because we thought it’d be fun; it’d be an adventure; it’s a challenge we were eager to accomplish. But if you decide to drop out, guess what? The mountains will still be there next year. Counter-intuitively, the option to quit always motivates me to keep going.
Crossing the finish line was hands-down one of the proudest moments of my life. Not only was I excited to have finished within the qualifying time, but I had done something that seemed impossible to a younger me. It gave me an euphoric feeling that made me run right by the lady who was holding the medals! I grabbed one of my own and then went immediately to the medic on site due to my aforementioned sprained ankle.
At that moment, I knew my running debt had been paid. I no longer feel obligated to run unless it’s health related. My body had done a miraculous feat, and I draw on that pride when I feel low about not achieving in other aspects of my life. Because if you can get yourself over the finish line of an ultramarathon, almost everything in life seems easy by comparison.
Hopefully what I’ve learned has inspired you to sign up for your very own ultra-marathon, or at the very least, be support crew for one of your friends! Some points about ultra-running that I’d like to gloss over quickly:
- Ultra-running is a wonderful way to experience the beauty of our natural world, and through ultra-running you can run on land that is blocked off to the public.
- Fueling (eating food) while running is a learned skill, and you absolutely should practice your food regime before doing the ultra-marathon. You don’t want to have to poop on trail because your stomach responds badly to a new caffeinated food, although it’s not uncommon.
- Ultra-marathon distances are not exact. You could be running a 50K but you clock in at thirty-five miles. It’s hard to measure exact distances across mountains.
- The ultra-running community is the kindest you’ll come across. They’ll share water, food, and support with no questions asked. Also, I bet they’d be great in a zombie apocalypse scenario.
Alexandra Hsie is a freelance video producer with a love for rock climbing, motorcycles, and video games. You can find her on Instagram @luvnidleness.