What I wish I knew before my first ultramarathon
I L-O-V-E racing.
There are the obvious reasons: the *HUGE* prize purses, the finish line groupies, and the boost to your Ultra Signup ranking. And the real reasons: opportunities to rehearse pre-race rituals, improve my already-perfect warm-up playlist, and gain racing experience — handling the unexpected surprises (missing the start, getting lost, etc.), dialing in your fuel/hydration, and gritting out those final miles.
I was fortunate enough to have three solid races in the month of March, but they were not without their teachable moments. Before I share my Secret Sauce to Success™, I’d like to clarify that the intent of this piece (as is the case with much of what us runners do) is purely selfish: to document takeaways for my most important audience — myself (and, of course, the cute women who accidentally stumble upon this blog)— so that I may learn from my follies and mishaps in time for my HUGE races (Western States, UTMB, Paul Balmer Beer Mile) later this year.
“I love eating and I don’t like feeling emotions.” — Jim Gaffigan
#1 EAT SMART.
There’s carb-loading and then there’s CARB-loading — I should be aiming for the former. Even when I’m racing for 6+ hours there’s only so many calories my body can absorb, and the rest must be expelled. Mid-race. On the trail. Full squat (you’re welcome, trail-side vegetation). Most race aid stations these days are stocked with an overabundance of energy gels, Oreos, and salted potatoes — finding calories when I need them mid-race has never been an issue, so why the need to triple-down on pasta the night before? Maybe it’s a comfort thing. Perhaps stress. Or perhaps I just love pasta too damn much.
What worked: Pasta with olive oil, bread, and rotisserie chicken leftovers.
What didn’t work: An everything-AND-the-kitchen-sink salad of spinach, sauerkraut, dijon mustard, multi-grain chips, bacon bits, Sriracha, and cheese, undercooked quinoa pasta served with ketchup (obviously), two handfuls of adult beverages, and a generous helping of pre-bedtime Stroopwafels (why, oh why, did you make a chocolate-flavored Stroop, GU?).
For the sake of my fellow runners (and my favorite half tights), let’s not over-pasta again, Chris.
#2 DON’T RUSH.
I’m going to face enough unexpected surprises (is there such a thing as an *expected* surprise?) during the race itself, so avoiding unnecessary stress beforehand is generally a smart idea. Back in my road racing days I stuck to an extremely regimented pre-race routine — 20-min shakeout, bathroom, stretch, drills, singlet, bathroom, strides, bathroom, gun — which distracted from pre-race jitters. I may not require quite as much of a warm-up before a 50-miler, but knowing exactly what I should be doing each minute of that final hour will go a long way in getting focused and ensuring I don’t forget any key pre-race rituals (e.g., tying my shoes).
What worked: All three races were not without drama (see next section).
What didn’t work: Race #1 = left my house 15 minutes late, flirted with the upper bounds of an acceptable speed limit on I-80, and pit-stopped on the side of the road (no time for official potty breaks). Race #2 = faced traffic delays due to a tunnel closure, rushed through an unsuccessful bathroom stop (never try to rush that coffee flow!), and pieced together a pitiful warm-up in the remaining minutes. Race #3 = casually putting on my singlet, heard the race director announce “30 seconds to go!”, hastily “tied” my shoes, threw my pack on my shoulder (NOT properly fastened), stuffed my headlamp in my mouth, and stumbled to the start line to chase down the lead pack (skipping my pre-race pee!). The added stress resulted in miles of elevated heart rate that took more than an hour to get under control.
For the future —let’s give myself an extra 20 minutes on that morning alarm, target an arrival 75+ minutes before race start, and begin rehearsing a warm-up routine that’ll work for ultradistances.
#3 AVOID THE NEW.
I’ve preached this in the past, but I clearly haven’t learned my lesson yet. A wise friend once told me, “What you do in practice, you do in the race.” If you practice with a handheld, 1.5" inseam shorts, and GU Grape Roctane Electrolyte mix, then don’t race with a hydration vest, half tights, and Gatorade (does any trail race even offer OG Gatorade?). Save the experimenting with your super cool new gear for your next easy day.
What worked: Despite not always needing fluids on shorter runs, I’ve been clocking more hours with handhelds to get used to bottles and strengthen my arms and back (20-oz bottles get surprisingly heavy by mile 47!).
What didn’t work: For my last jaunt, I made the race-morning decision to replace my handheld bottles with a spiffy new Salomon hydration vest. I’m actually excited to try this vest as it frees my hands to help maneuver on more technical courses, but I had not gotten comfortable with this vest prior to the race. The result — some not-so-fun armpit chafing, bottles popping out of my vest (the bad type of “poppin’ bottles”), and lots of cursing to myself — “Why, oh why, would you try something new today? Badddd, Mocko!”
#4 IT’S YOU AGAINST YOU.
Creed: The boy’s fast.
Rocky: Hey, hey, hey. It’s you against you.
Creed: Me against me?
Rocky: That’s right. He’s just in your way. Get ’em outta your way! Let’s go!
Unfortunately, I haven’t revealed any shockingly new secrets to ultrarunning, but the BIG takeaway from all of this racing (and I’m afraid to say yet more cliché advice) — run your own race, or as Stallone puts it in the latest Rocky flick, “It’s you against you.” I’ve experimented with a variety of race strategies in the past — the go-for-broke-and-hammer-from-the-gun, the hang-with-the-pack-for-as-long-as-possible, the wait-until-a-key-point-and-go, and the start-slow-finish-strong approaches. Regardless of the strategy I choose on a particular day, executing my plan (and NOT another runner’s plan) is the surest approach to a successful day.
What worked: The Way Too Cool 50k was my first race of 2017 (and first hard effort in nearly 6 months!). My strategy: run smart and avoid going out hard. On race day: I went out hard (shocker!), opening with a 5-minute mile. Fortunately I snapped out of the adrenaline rush long enough to ease off the gas and let the early pacesetters take off. I ran alone for the next 20 miles in 5th, but after cresting the first major climb of the day found renewed life in my legs and pressed hard for the final 10 miles. My conservative start put the race victory out of reach, but it set me up for a strong finish (with a smile!) and built-up my confidence for future races.
What didn’t work: It only took a week to forget the lessons learned from Way Too Cool. My strategy for the Marin Ultra Challenge 50 mile: run comfortably throughout and never enter the “Dark Place”. On race day: I got caught up with the leaders and began racing hard from mile 1. As I arrived at mile 15 to begin the first major climb of the day, I was feeling spent and got dropped by the lead runner — NOT what I was intending for on the day! I took a deep breath, chilled on the 3-mile climb, relaxed into a comfortable pace, and remained in a happy place for the rest of the day. The race leader eventually fell off his fast early pace — if I had ignored his race strategy and just executed my plan, those first 15 miles could’ve gone a lot more smoothly (and I would’ve had a bit more left in the tank for the final 10 miles!).
Author’s Note: This content has taken me a LONG time to publish. Partly because I’m the worst procrastinator north of the Golden Gate Bridge, but also because I just don’t believe this content is particularly compelling or insightful (and you’re probably confirming this fact with a head nod at this very moment). I’m realizing that not every blog post will be a slam dunk (and maybe none will be — I’ve never actually dunked a basketball after all), but unfortunately for you, the Reader, I am going to stick with this writing thing until a) I find my voice, b) I find something interesting to say, or c) I come to terms with the fact that a) and b) are never going to happen. In the interim, be like the Cal mascot and *bear* with me. And for my fans — Mom and Dad, thank you for reading!