Vermont 50k: 6 Things I Learned From Running My First Ultramarathon (Part 2)
I wanted to use this post to talk about some of the things I have learned from running my first ultramarathon. These will be an amorphous collection of thoughts and impressions, and while it might be a bit lengthy I ask the reader to bear with me as I try to articulate the ramblings that have materialized in my head. But why “6” things, you ask? Because 5 is clique and I didn’t learn 10. Ok, here we go:
(1) I can run a 50k…
Yes, this is obvious. (Please don’t leave now; keeping reading.) But I think that there is something deeper and more meaningful tucked away in this truism. Leading up to the race I did not train nearly as much as I wanted to. I was also injured and could not run for the month prior. For all intents and purposes I should not have felt optimistic about this race…and yet I was. Why? It was something I really wanted to do. And therein lies a nugget of significance: if you want to run a _________, and it is something you set yourself towards, then you can do it. In that sentence insert whatever you want: are you thinking of running your first 5k? Your first half or full marathon? Thinking about giving trail running a try? You won’t do something if you don’t really want to; and once you make a decision to pursue your goal you need to push yourself forward and do it! Motivate yourself; tell yourself “I can do this”; visualize finishing; make it happen.
I still remember the very first 5k race that Katie and I ran in 2009. I remember the anxiety and nervous energy that ran through me the weeks leading up to the race, wondering if I could run that far. At the starting line I was so fidgety, but when I finished I realized that my goal had been totally doable—I wanted it and I made it happen. Crossing the finish line at the 50k simply crystallized this fact even more. You don’t have to want to run an ultramarathon to think of it as a metaphor: what do you think is impossible for you? What is stopping you from pursuing it? And what can you do to make it a reality?
(2) …and I could walk the next day.
I have to say, I was surprised at this. I was fully expecting to be sidelined the next day. Sure, the night of the race I was spent, sore, and extremely tired. But the next morning I felt really good. The test? I walked the dog up the hill outside our apartment. I can chalk some of this up to being in great shape, but I firmly believe that the primary reason for my quick recovery is my diet. Eating a plant-based diet has been essential to how good I feel. My recovery was worlds away from how miserable and crippled I felt after running my first half-marathon—I couldn’t walk at all the rest of the day, and I had to hobble around for the next week.
Now I have more energy prior to and after runs; and my recovery is incredible quick. Being more connected and in tune with what I put in my body has allowed me to be more connected and in tune while running—I know when to go faster, when to hold back, when to walk and hike, when to stop and rest.
(3) Not all pain is significant…but some is.
The first part of this comes from Scott Jurek; the second part comes from my wife. All runners deal with pain and discomfort. Since moving towards more minimal footwear (as well as a plant-based diet) I have learned more about what it means to listen and respond to one’s body. Doing this, however, means that you are constantly asking yourself, Is that pain significant? “The outside of my knee is twinging, should I stop?” “Did I break a toe on that rock?” “Is this cramp because of my breakfast or because I am dehydrated?” Learning how your body responds in various situations is the path towards better self-understanding, both in life and in running.
But don’t forget that there are times when the pain is not significant. You can run through it; or at least move forward. You aren’t going to die nor are you going to cause serious injury. During the last half of the 50k I was really uncomfortable: my ankles, knees, and hip flexors were on fire. The mud and uneven terrain made me want to stop; but at the same time I wanted to keep going because I knew that the pain was temporary. It wouldn’t last beyond the finish line, and the faster I ran the quicker the pain would be over.
Sometimes, though, you need to stop. You know that you can’t (and shouldn’t) keep running or else you will create a long term problem. My calf strain was like this: it stopped me dead. Even if I wanted to try and keep going I couldn’t. In those cases it is hard to tell yourself, “Stop. Don’t run.” It’s even harder to then take a break and relax and recover; but once you learn to read your body you will be able recognize the difference between the significant pains and the insignificant pains, and that will help you know when to stop, relax, and recover; and when to push through the pain and will yourself to keep moving.
(4) The ultra community is amazing.
Granted, this was just one race, but I can say without a doubt that ultras have some of the most amazing and supportive people.
First, the runners: trail runners are different breed of runner. Katie and I have talked about this before; just go to any trail race and you will see what we mean. But ultra-runners, as my Katie puts it, are a whole different beasty group. The vibe and feel of the trail community is laid back and competitive at the same time, but being alongside a group of ultra-runners you feel a heightened sense of dedication, passion, and friendliness. From chatting with runners on the course, to then finding and congratulating those same runners afterwards, the people I ran with made my first ultra truly memorable.
The volunteers: all I can say is thank you. All volunteers, at any race no matter the distance, should be thanked for their willingness to give up their time for us. Standing at an aid station for 12 hours? That is truly the definition of altruism and giving back. Struggling into an aid station and seeing a happy smiling face, hearing them cheer, and then being asked, “What can I get you? Do you need your pack filled up?” It’s a small gesture that makes your day. The race couldn’t have happened without the volunteers, so they have all my gratitude. Please thank your volunteers as much as you can.
Of course, don’t forget those personal volunteers: your family and friends. If you are lucky enough to have loved-ones come to your race then you are truly a blessed runner. You get to have a crew, a personal cheering section, and a ride to-and-from the race! The love and support my family gave me helped me finish—I hope all runners get to experience the same thing I did.
(5) The people who run ultras might not be those you would expect.
I will admit it: seeing some of the people lining up at the starting line I thought, Really? You’re running this? It is terrible to say, but it is also the sort of thing that we all do all the time. Snap judgments based on nothing more than appearances. There was a girl in front of me at the start who (I thought) was running in jeans. What’s wrong with her?, I thought, Does she really think she can run 31 miles? Turns out she finished ahead of me! Of course, thanks to ultra runner Vanessa’s review I now know that this girl was wearing the INKnBURN denim line of clothing…often worn by trail and…(thats right) ultra runners. Doh!
I had an stereotype image of “the ultra runner” as well as “the trail runner,” and while stereotypes are based in reality they also fail as generalizations. As runners we are all in the same boat. We may love trails and loathe running on roads, but everyone who goes out for a race is connected by the fact that we are there. We signed up, we showed up, and we are running. Those facts connect us, no matter how you dress or how fast you run.
Apropos the uniqueness of the ultrarunner, we can all agree that Anton (Tony) Krupicka looks like the definition of an ultrarunner. When I first saw a picture of Scott Jurek, however, I said, “Wow, he runs ultras?”…but you cannot dispute the results; even Kilian Jornet is appears rather unassuming…until you see him descending a mountain (!!!). And why do I think women ultrarunners always seem to look unassuming? Jenn Shelton, Aliza Lapierre (vegan!), and Anna Frost are awesome examples of women who excell at the highest levels of endurance running; then there is the kick-ass tattooed runner Catra Corbett (also vegan [a trend here?], and she’s run over 200 ultras!). This should give hope to anyone whom ever thought of running (especially running a new distance): there is no one way to look; no mold of who or what a runner should be. All of us re-mold and re-shape the image of what a runner is. You can be that different person who makes others re-think their preconceptions.
(6) Flat is not for me.
I love running trails. I love running rocky, rooting, gnarly, technical trails…and I love running hills; I love running mountains. (Of course, my “mountains” are nothing over 4,000′.) The 50k was not as hilly as Jay Peak, but there was still 5600′ of total vertical. Getting my legs use to the ups-and-downs is painful and not an easy task. Yet, while I love trails—and trail races—I have really grown to enjoy (?!) running trails with lots of ascents and descents. I can thank having Hard’ack and the Long Trail for this. I am learning to be a better and more efficient climber (through power-hiking and Kilian’s technique of hands-on-legs); and I am learning to descent with more fluidity and without taxing my legs as much (as Scott Jurek says, “It’s free speed!). I am still a student, but I am a student who really loves to learn.