I ran my first 50k in Charlotte, NC in October. The WC-50 consisted of either a 50k or 50 mile run through the woods. Having never ran any distance over a marathon, I chose to participate in the 50k which required that the racers run three laps around an 11 mile single track mountain bike course.
I signed up for the race months previous and had been training really hard. My goal was simple: finish the race. Little did I realize all of the wisdom I would gain during those 6 and a half hours. If you have never ran a race before, I don’t care if it’s an ultra, a half marathon, a 5k, an obstacle race, or a fun run, my advice to you is to sign up. Get outside and get running. The world always looks a little brighter afterwards and you always learn some valuable lessons.
1. You will finish You know when you are on a rollercoaster that scares you to death and your sweaty hands are gripping the safety bar for dear life? You are thinking “why in the world am I doing this?” when, all of a sudden, you see a ten-year-old put his hands in the air and you are like “what the hell…if that kid can do it…” Now your hands are in the air right before the first plummet. That’s what your first ultra is like. You are surrounded by people who are going to finish. Leading up to the race you might think “31 miles is impossible”, but once you have begun, there is no questioning whether or not this is possible. It is possible because Joe Schmo (by that I mean a super in shape Joe Schmo) in front of you will be crossing the finish line. Sure it will take you a few hours, but keep at it and you will get there! Going into the race, I was afraid that “you’re tired…just quit” thought would be pounding through my head. It never appeared, because I was constantly inspired by the other runners and used that inspiration to get across the finish line!
2. Find your “Spirit Food” Aid stations at Ultras are like an oasis of deliciousness. They are loaded with every type of food imaginable: Trail mix, M & Ms, banana bread, PB & J, a variety of fruit, boiled potatoes dipped in salt, water, Gatorade, Mountain Dew, Sprite, Ramen noodles, basically anything your mind can dream up. A good aid station is what I imagine having a butler would be like. “Do you need something sweet and carb-loaded sir?” “Why yes, Alfred, I would!” Then I go back out to fight crime…. In my imagination I’m always Batman. Randomness aside, the aid stations rocked! Running became easier because I knew in the back of my mind that I could get a delicious snack in 4 to 5 miles. Part of this amazingness was discovering which food my body craved- my Spirit Food. Weirdly enough, I needed boiled potatoes rolled in salt. In regular life, boiled potatoes would probably not be on the top of my “must eat now” list, but in trail running life those little bites were the greatest things in the world! The aching pain in my legs would retreat with each potato and it would give me a few miles of respite until I could have another one. So thank you sweet honorable spirit food, I will honor you until the end of times. (This where you can imagine me worshiping boiled potatoes in a candlelit room)
3. Smile and enjoy The more you smile, the easier the race will be. Simple formula. Joke with the aid station volunteers, smile at the silliness of running a crap-ton of miles, and just generally carry yourself with lightness as you run. Just like any experience in life, your mood determines whether it will be easy or hard. It reminds me of a quote I heard in a yoga class once “If you fall down, smile. It’s yoga, it’s not that serious.” At the end of the day you are running, not saving the world. Going into the race with that attitude makes it a heck of a lot easier.
4. Meet new people People who run ultras are generally some of the coolest people you can meet. They are lighthearted, laid-back while also being extremely driven, and all-around nice. Get to know them. The beautiful part of running over 26 miles is that you literally have hours of time to kill. I spent the whole second lap swapping stories with numerous other runners. I got tips from experienced ultra-runners, learned about coaching cross-country, heard about races from around the world, and had some genuine conversations about life. When was the last time you sat down and had a distraction free (electronic free) conversation with someone? Ultras give you this opportunity. (Of course if another runner obviously does not want to talk and chooses to instead focus on running, then read their social cues, shut your mouth, and don’t annoy them.)
5. Dedicate a mile to someone I chose to dedicate mile 22 to someone very close to me who passed away a few years ago. Going into the mile, my legs were cramping, head mildly spinning, and stomach churning. I was beginning to feel like a bag of crap. Then I realized “Hey, I think I’m at mile 22.” I focused all my attention on the memory of this special lady and all of a sudden I felt better. All of my previous pain faded away. The world became clearer and I felt this amazing energy. I felt fast and agile. I was having a great time again! That mile was incredible and the energy I gained carried me the rest of the way.