Revelations of Running an Ultramarathon

date March 06, 2022 location Sonoita, AZ

This past weekend I ran my first ultramarathon, completing the 50 mile Old Pueblo Trail Ultra in Sonoita, AZ. The race was a challenging one to say the least, not only is 50 miles the longest I've ever run, nearly double my previous distance record of a full marathon, but the course featured over 6,800' of elevation gain on rocky terrain. There were many memorable moments from this race, including: arriving to the very remote start of the race and witnessing some the brightest stars I have ever seen, nearly wrecking my car trying to park on the rocky backcountry roads leading to the race start, and watching a runner trip and nearly roll off of a steep cliff during the race. But rather than reflecting on the memories of this race, I thought it would be more interesting to put together a list of the top 10 revelations of running an ultramarathon that I learned during the experience.

10. Fig Newtons are the best ultramarathon food. During the race I ate cookies, candy, fruit, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and more running gels than should be legally allowed. Hands down the best food was the Fig Newtons.

9. Aid station volunteers are the real MVPs. These remarkable humans that sacrifice their day to provide food, water and comfort to suffering runners are the light of the earth. Speaking of aid stations...

8. Stumbling into the last aid stations is a feeling I will never forget. My favorite moment of the race was the final aid station at the 41 mile mark. Dehydrated, overheated, undernourished, and a shell of my normal self, I stumbled into the final aid station and was greeted by several kind volunteers. They fed me cookies, gave me ice cold coke, dumped multiple sponges of freezing water over my head and resupplied me for the final stretch of the race. I left that aid station slightly less dehydrated, overheated and undernourished than I entered.

7. Ultramarathons help fill the void of accomplishment after plateauing in speed at Road Races. "When you can't run faster, run longer" is a phrase i've often heard when describing ultramarathoners and while I don't agree with the belittling notion that ultramarathoners aren't fast so they opt for longer distances, as someone that has barely made 1 minute of progress on my marathon PR in the last couple of years, it was refreshing to feel the sense of accomplishment from running such a bold distance.

6. Whether you're in contention for first place, a podium spot, or just in the middle of the pack, passing another runner will always bring a boost of triumph, while getting passed will come with a feeling of defeat. No matter how many times we tell ourselves to "run our own race", the competitive spirit is something that exists strongly in almost anyone capable of running such a long distance and I am no different. While I told myself my goal was simply just to finish I'm not gonna lie that I was checking over my shoulder every so often during the final miles to make sure I wasn't getting passed.

5. Runners are the kindest people. Every interaction I had with a runner was positive and encouraging and I even got several words of encouragement from runners as I was passing them. One moment in particular, I had just crossed the halfway point and a runner was coming from the opposite direction headed towards the finish line for the 25 mile event. The trail was narrow at this point, and the runner kindly moved off trail to let me through and in the process she stepped into a thorn bush. She was clearly in pain and partially stuck by a thorn branch. I stopped to help her get untangled and she would not let me help her and insisted that I keep running.

4. Trail running is a different sport than road running. Obviously they have more in common than, say, football and basketball, but I was humbled during this race as I came to find that I am a novice trail runner. This became most apparent during rocky downhills as I was "applying the brakes" with caution and I got passed by many runners flying downhill with confidence. Road runners will always talk about the metaphorical duo of a runner's engine and chassis representing the endurance and physical strength as the key elements that define a runner's ability. The sport of trail running brings additional dimensions to the table, like the ability to traverse rocky terrain, the ability to power uphill and let gravity do the work on descents. Not to mention the importance of maintaining focus and mindset after hours and hours of running. Speaking of mindset...

3. Mindset is everything. Ultramarathons aren't for everyone and maybe the most critical component of running an ultramarathon is the ability to maintain a positive mindset. Near the 18 mile mark I started to experience some of the worst knee pain I have had since Patellofemeral Pain Syndrome (Runner's Knee) sidelined me for several months in 2018. I came into the race knowing that it would be difficult, and I set my sights on getting to the halfway point, then mile 30, mile 40 and finally the home stretch. About pain...

2. You only feel the pain of the ailment that is hurting you the most. At the 39 mile mark I inadvertently brushed my hand against a spiky cactus and could feel a thorn enter my hand and watched the blood trickle along my palm. The sensation didn't even register on the pain scale because of all the other afflictions I was experiencing in the moment.

1. It may get pretty painful during the final miles, but it doesn't feel much better when you stop so you might as well keep going.

Finally, some notes for myself should I ever try to run an ultramarathon again:

- Practice more trail running on difficult terrain and put more of an emphasis on the downhill sections
- Look into buying trail shoes with a bit more cushioning
- Wear gaiters or at least longer socks
- Figure out the optimal hydration carrying strategy before the race (It's probably soft flasks on the chest and hyrdration pack with more pockets)
- Just pack gels in the aid station drop bags, there's plenty of food at the aid station