Since last November, I have raced 3 ultramarathons (and have not really reported back about any of them – except for this recent interview with Level Renner):
- JFK 50 mile
- Caumsett 50k (USATF 50k Road Championship)
- Lake Sonoma 50 mile
I didn’t really plan these out ahead of time like many of the more experienced ultrarunners do (for good reason). I didn’t think of the big picture, I just signed up based on my feelings/whims of the moment. Generally speaking, this approach worked out fine, but I can see that it may be (is) unsustainable.
It’s useful to have a race calendar, with some behind-the-scenes contingency plans. This helps to see a big picture of training and recovery which will hopefully help in avoiding injury, burnout, and general disappointment in one’s performance. A thoughtful race calendar optimizes the chances of a runner’s success.
Success = a happy runner = more success. (note that success here is purposely not defined and is certainly not limited to winning!)
One thing that I’ve appreciated from my unplanned race calendar from November 2014 – April 2015 is that it certainly allowed me a range of racing experience. Since I never really did a recap of any of these races, here I will provide a brief comparison of my experiences and ‘what I’ve learned about ultras’ from racing a trail/canal/road 50 mile, a 50k road race, and a very hilly trail 50 mile.
JFK 50 mile – Something for everyone! Point-to-point with long road hills, rocky leaf-covered trail with some switchbacks which required walking (at least for me :)), flat packed-dirt trail along the canal, rolling road hills. Basically a little bit of everything. I thought the AT portion of this race would be the biggest challenge for me (it was – I stopped to let people pass me A LOT) and I thought the road would be the easiest (it wasn’t). But I loved the canal portion and lucky for me – that was the longest section of the race! I can imagine that everyone can find a portion of this course that will suit their strengths (and expose their weaknesses).
Caumsett 50k – Monotonous road with a little bit of the gym class shuttle run mixed in. After a winter of mostly training in a <1 mile loop parking lot, I felt right at home in this race. It is a fair, mostly flat course with some small rolling hills conducive to a steady paced run. Ten loops means easy, predictable fueling and opportunities to adjust clothing if necessary. The dog-leg portion of this course means you can’t completely zone out, as you have to be ready to navigate a narrow dirt road with two way traffic, PLUS a 180 degree turn around.
Lake Sonoma 50 mile – Out and back (w/some variation on the return) on a trail of “up-downs”. 10k ft of elevation gain + 10k ft of elevation loss over 50 miles means none of this is particularly fast running (unless you’re Stephanie Howe). This was the course where I learned about walking uphill in ultras – maybe a bit more than I should have.
Volunteers and Aid Stations:
Note: ALL VOLUNTEERS AND PEOPLE INVOLVED WITH RACE MANAGEMENT ARE AMAZING, WONDERFUL, GENEROUS, AND HUGE-HEARTED PEOPLE. Even though I may seem wacky and harried at races when we interact, please know that I have a deep appreciation for you and your assistance! Thanks for all your help!!
JFK 50 mile – Basically all aid stations are maintained by a group of people who will treat you as if you are their child, with love and support, kindness, and the attitude that they will do anything to make you more comfortable and ready for your next leg of the trip. I went to JFK alone, but I felt so supported by these complete strangers all the way along the course. I wanted to go back after the race and hug them all.
Caumsett 50k – Since this is a loop course, there was less need for multiple aid stations (also it was really cold for people to be sitting outside for hours!). I had the fortune of having John there to support me and he provided basically all of my aid from start to finish. We had two bottles that we traded out each lap and I took a gel every other lap.
Lake Sonoma 50 mile– This was my first non-east coast ultra. I respect the attitude of Lake Sonoma, which is to treat you like an adult who has chosen to run 50 miles over hilly terrain. We chose to run this race, so we also chose to accept the responsibilities of what can happen over the course of 50 miles. All the volunteers here were very supportive and provided excellent aid, but they were the tough-love parents. They’ll take care of you and try to make it easier through water, fuel, and encouragement, but they let you know you also need to learn to take care of yourself. When I came limping into mile 45 aid station, someone told me to, ‘put on some lipstick’ (i think that’s what they said?)…then they gave me a massage to try to loosen things up so I could continue on…, as I was hobbling out to continue the final 5 miles, they yelled to me again to, ‘put some lipstick on’. Tough love (and a confusing statement to mull over for the next 5 miles) – we all need it sometimes!*
*It makes us stronger, smarter, and better prepared for the next time 🙂
JFK 50 mile – I anticipated needing to eat more on this run than say…I would in a marathon. I usually carry gels in my sports bra (usually taking around 2-3 throughout the course of a marathon). So for JFK, I wore a comfortable/fitted vest and put some gels in my sports bra and then some additionals in my vest pockets. I tried to eat a pretzel at one of the aid stations along the canal and chewed it for about 5 minutes before having to spit it out. I was out of gel by probably…mile 32…from there I grabbed a gu at almost every aid station until the end. I also consumed soda for the first time in years. I was terrified that at any moment my body would just stop. I carried a small (8oz) handheld and refilled it with half gatorade/half water at most aid stations.
Caumsett 50k – Being a 5k loop course, this made fueling pretty easy and predictable. I brought two 8oz bottles and traded out each loop as necessary (mostly they were half tailwind/half water) . I took a gel every other lap. Easy peasy.
Lake Sonoma 50 mile – HAHAHA. Here’s a learning experience! So, for this race, I thought I would need more water between aid stations than my typical 8oz handhelds – mostly because in some cases there were 8-10 miles between aid stations and I was going from New England where it was ~30-40 degrees to California where it was 65-80 degrees. I wear a backpack/vest on nearly every run (except on the weekends), as I commute to work, so I thought it would be reasonable to wear a small backpack for this race (with two 8oz bottles in the front pockets). I remember listening to the URP podcast with Kaci Lickteig before the race and her saying that she was going to race with a handheld, because a vest felt like she had an animal crawling on her back. I thought, ‘I wont feel that way’ … but I did. By mile 18, I had traded out my backpack for a handheld brought by my college friend and teammate, Juliette (who was crewing with my husband). It was larger than my usual handhelds, but I loved it. I ate mostly gels on this run and probably not enough. My mind said, “you need to eat something more substantial” at the mile 38 aid station, but my stomach said, “no thanks”. Basically, I learned a lot about my eating/drinking needs at this race. Smarter for next time 🙂
JFK 50 mile – I think I’ve mentioned, but I signed up for JFK on a whim less than a month before the race date, after a summer of running very little (and haphazardly). It turned out that this was mostly ok for the actual race, but the minute I stopped after the finish line, my body basically threw up its hands and said, “NO MORE”. My recovery from JFK was slow (and could not be rushed)! I remember trying to run ONE mile about four days post-race and I literally could not do it. After 20 seconds, my legs seized and I was forced to walk. I actually kept trying, but never made it more than 30 seconds at a time running on that commute. It was a couple weeks before I was running steadily again.
Caumsett 50k – My training cycle for Caumsett was still abbreviated, but much more thoughtful and deliberate (and adequate) than pre-JFK. Caumsett, being only 5 miles longer than a marathon, was also a bit more in my wheelhouse as far as my body was concerned. I felt totally fine after this race. (Relatively, that is) It was certainly an effort!, but I wasn’t sore the next day. I took a standard recovery, just to be careful – but was back to normal soon after.
Lake Sonoma 50 mile – Well…as I mentioned, I injured a muscle/tendon/something? behind my knee around mile 43 of this race. I made it through the next 7 miles carefully trying to minimize any additional damage, but was pretty beat up after this race. I was really sore (like, legit hobble) for about 2-3 days and then, save the injury, felt pretty normal walking around. We spent a few days in vacationing in San Francisco after the race, so I took advantage of the vacation and focused on my ice cream consumption. When I got home, I bike commuted for about a week or two until I felt like I could run again without doing damage. I still have a bit of soreness behind my knee, but it seems to be gradually getting better (not worse).
*Overall, I think I really prefer the 50 mile ultra-distance to the 50k ultra-distance, despite the fact that the recovery from the two that I have done has been pretty drastic compared to my recovery from marathons and the 50k. However, I remember when I first started running marathons, I would be fairly sore/have a longer recovery than I do now. Now post-marathon, I feel generally fine- certainly a bit tired, but very similar to how I feel after a long run in training. I suspect as I continue to train for and do longer races that the recovery from 50 miles will be less dramatic.
As I mentioned, this cycle of racing was not really pre-planned and perhaps if I were to go back I might be (should have been) a bit more thoughtful in building my race plans in a more hollistic way. However, I had a great time and learned a lot (especially at Lake Sonoma). I do think that these three races provided me with a good taste of longer distances, variety of terrain and competition that is out there, and a better understanding of my strengths and weaknesses.
Ultras are challenging in a unique way and I really appreciate the community of runners, volunteers, and race directors who have helped me along the way. Some days I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing and it’s been so valuable to have people provide advice, offer assistance, encouragement, support, and general guidance.*
For more about the 50k Championships at Caumsett in March, please head on over to Level Renner!
*Special thanks to the runners who passed me as I was hobbling through the last 7 miles of Lake Sonoma. Literally every person who ran by me stopped to ask if I was ok, if I needed anything, and offered a word or two of encouragement.