I put it on the calendar back in the dog days of summer … a simple and friendly organized race/run put on by Larry Sandhaas to benefit the park where area runners can find themselves lost in the woods on a variety of well maintained mountain-trails (as mountainous as it can get in Iowa – down in the bluffs off the Mississippi River). On one of those particularly humid and hot summer days I drove down to check out the 10km out-and-back trail that the Wildcat 50k trail run is hosted on. 12+ miles later after two out-and-back treks I was completely trashed suffering the unfamiliar steep climbs, stairs, and rolling terrain. Oh yeah, the heat index was 105F by the time I was done that day leading me to easily brush off how terrible I felt and chalk it up to the heat and humidity – “come November I’ll be flying up/down those trails no problem” I thought to myself as I dumped 4x 32oz bottles of Gatorade down my gullet still losing sweat just driving my car home.
Fast-forward 5+ months … coming off of a somewhat mediocre marathon performance I was excited to recover, keep my fitness up, and still have something to push for in my ultra marathon debut 5 weeks post Lakeside Marathon (4th place – 2:30:52). I had decent recovery keeping the miles down but also getting out and running a few quality days per week … basically a few 14-16 mile long runs, a few fartlek runs, and a 15km XC race treated as a longer tempo run. My left ankle was still tight since before the marathon but not getting worse and I believe some of that led to my left knee acting up a bit by the time I arrived in Muscatine for the 3rd running of the Wildcat 50k Trail Run.
Waking up early (5:15am-ish?), I double-checked with my very pregnant wife that no baby would be coming this morning and made out of the house with my hot water, bananas, and a bag full of running shoes / clothes / gear for the day. Early morning driving alone to a race is one of my favorite aspects of distance running and on this morning especially as I was about to tackle a new distance – the runners’ high can often be in full flight before the legs even get moving. After a quick trip to the ATM and my very own personal port-o-potty at some random nearby construction site, I arrived at the state park with dozens of runners already milling around also hoping for the rain showers to stay clear of the dense woods we’d be burying ourselves in today. After a quick stretch, 1 mile warmup, piss in the woods, and change of shoes / shirt, I was ready to roll. The race course was simple and very well marked … 5km out, 5km back – do that 5 times. The task was not simple … according to my watch I climbed 7115 ft and descended the same. The nature of the trail was not “climb 5km, descend 5km … do that 5 times”, it was more like “climb and descend the bluff a few times in the first 2 miles, get comfortable for ~10 minutes, climb and descend the bluff a few times in the last 2 miles ….. do that 5 times (see below and/or click here for full map/elevation)”.
First Two Loops
My first two loops I was feeling fine (no knee or ankle pain!!) although I changed into different shoes between loops with there being more limestone / rocky trails than the dirt / mud I anticipated wearing road flats with Goat Head Gear spikes screwed in (I changed to the always comfortable Mizuno Ronin 2). I knew with the constant up-and-down my body was flirting with and changing back and forth from my anaerobic and aerobic systems … something I’d never do in a road marathon (or half marathon even) especially this early. Being all the wiser now, it was evident I was setting myself up for failure. My legs didn’t hurt yet, so I maintained the pace but the effort / heart rate was going up-down-up-down as was the terrain.
1st & 2nd 10km splits:
41:42 (6:42 / mi)
Next two loops
Not long into my third loop (roughly the 15th time I was climbing the bluff), the legs finally did their catching up to the fatigue I put my body in. Very much less responsive on the uphills, slowing on the flats, and starting to feel depleted despite keeping to my 1/2 gel per 5km with Gatorade scheduling. Popped an S-Cap but couldn’t fend off the lactic acid burning earlier on each accent. Trying to settle into a rhythm, I still felt optimistic I could maintain 7:30’s to run ~3:3x on the brutal course … my body would have none of it though. I knew it in my head beforehand, but now the bluffs of the Mississippi River were giving me the business in my legs … you don’t pace with your watch out here, you pace with your lungs / legs. That fourth loop was the worst of it all … grabbed my iPod and a hand-bottle with extra Gatorade / gel but by the time I was thumping Jay-Z Unplugged and Maroon 5 (yes, I have a soft spot for incredibly pop-flavored rock) I was dizzy and couldn’t collect my thoughts with or without music. More salt and a full bottle of Gatorade (still nothing solid to eat yet) for this loop which came in handy as I puked up a full gel when I forced down a full S-cap (salt tablet) and nearly shot it through my nose and eyes with the immortal almighty gag reflex. Walking all uphills from this point on I knew I had been defeated in any kind of steady splits for the rest of the day. What I enjoyed the most during this time of suffering was the encouragement and comradery of all the others on the trail. Despite growing my lead to ~25 minutes, others knew I was in a world of hurt but we were all being out there doing the same thing, feeling the same, hurting the same – why else did we show up for this thing? I was embracing this low and despite not having any energy, I still had my thoughts … I knew this would stick with me to learn from, to be better … just feel what is in your body right now … don’t forget this, don’t think about anything else … this is what it means to be empty and depleted … how does it feel …. you’re not even close to being done … you suck at this … why would you not know better … why the hell would you come out here for a few hours and simply run through the woods …
3rd & 4th 10km splits:
The last loop was really tough to get started on … what can I say, it was all more of the same – lots more walking on the uphills and I just thought to myself, “just keep your legs moving”. Getting to the turnaround I started to feel a bit better and thought to bag the whole Gatorade / gel combo and take a bottle of Diet Coke (didn’t have regular soda there) … after a few shake-ups to unload some carbonation, it was going down better than anything else all day and I was feeling a bit of a rhythm to get me back home. Glad to have gotten some of my legs back I was feeling a sense that I’d overcome a really low point – maybe it was me recovering well with soda, maybe it was just knowing I was near the end, I don’t know – but I had a bit of response in the legs again (not really on the uphills though) and thought to myself “hmmm…. that’s weird”. I was able to climb a bit better knowing it would be the last and as I descended back to the road, I was certainly happy to see so many friendly faces cheering and welcoming me to the gallons of chili and soda I would be putting in my system in the next few minutes.
Last 10km – 58:35 (9:35/mi)
Total time (with all running and AS stops) – 4:08:00 (7:59/mi) for 1st … click for all splits here
Obviously not how I wanted to run but I’m still so glad to debut finishing what I started and taking away a lot of good experience. I certainly wasn’t expecting it to feel good the whole way, but by nobody’s fault except my own my first ultra felt more like a 31-mile interval session than the long slow burn the veterans have mastered.
What I could control on race day – nutrition and pacing. Back to TRAINING my body to eat … I’ve got to be better about putting in what I’m getting out of my body. Experimenting with different fluids and more solids on long runs (and shorter quick runs) will be essential in preparing my stomach to be ready to actually use what I’m giving it and not reject it. Pacing … I’ve got to get back to using and trusting sensory data over anything else especially in races and longer distances. Similar to a marathon having a good or bad mile here or there, I’ve read and heard that ultras have extended ups & downs and you really do need to prepare for a real low point which doesn’t even mean you’re having a bad day (even though it feels like it in that moment). Although I must admit and still do relent that this first experience was wildly exasperated by a road-guy throwing himself into a very non-roady trail ultra marathon with one ear still open to the wildly popular half-truth that a 50k is “JUST” 5 miles longer than a marathon.
What I could do better before race day – TRAIN for an ultra! Looking at what I’ve done, it’s apparent I was ready for a flat road marathon 5 weeks prior – no more and no less. In 2011 I was able to pull off two good road marathons 4 weeks apart (Twin Cities 2:27:20 & Marine Corps 2:29:xx). I actually think the extra week (5 vs 4) this year kind of hurt me as I still didn’t get my mileage up for any real quality training and seemed to be caught “maintaining” for a bit too long. Throw in a sinus infection and babying ankle / knee issues and you start to get the picture … not the best block of training. Even for my peak marathon, I was in shape to run 2.5 hours at 5:3x-5:4x pace … nothing nearing 3 hours in a single run much less 4 hours! With that said, the 7 weeks (2 weeks for marathon taper + 5 weeks in between) prior to Wildcat 50k my training load averaged 49 miles/week or ~60% of my normal training load. Training on the terrain I want to perform on (although maybe limited in Iowa) will also teach my body the (somewhat new) mechanics of running quickly and efficiently on the trails as opposed to the roads.
Future plans – Currently as I sit and write this, I haven’t run a step since trotting down to the finish line of the Wildcat 50k … 17 days and counting! I’m intentionally taking an extended period of time off (5-7ish weeks) to fully recover and rest along with a new addition coming to our family (baby #2) any day now. I’ve worn out my body’s welcome of Arby’s and Taco Bell already and am enjoying 8-9 hours of sleep (which won’t last long) and almost zero ankle / knee aggravation. With the new year, I’ll be starting a long build towards a Grand Canyon Rim-Rim-Rim solo run in April for charity and self discovery – no pacing / racing goals except to take it all in and have a successful 50-60 mile run through God’s creation – check out run4poverty.com for more information and ways to support! After that, we’ll see what kind of shape I’m in to possibly race a bit through the summer and fall in the 50 km – 50 mile distances.
As always, thanks for reading!