Think of somewhere that takes you an hour to get to by car. For me, that’s about 50 miles, and it’s too far to drive to get dinner or to commute to work.
But ten days from now, I’m going to run that far.
I’m past the phase of waking up in the middle of the night thinking, “What did I do?” in regards to signing up for something so outlandish.
Now it kind of feels like a big, nasty dentist appointment that you know you have to go to but you try not to think about.
You know you’ll get through it. You know that when you’re done, you’ll feel a huge sense of relief. But you also know it’s really going to hurt, and you just have to deal with that.
I count the period since qualifying for Boston as my training for a 50-miler. That’s when I set the goal, and the ultras I’ve done in the meantime have just been part of the process. And I can tell you, without a doubt, that I’m a much different runner than I was before.
So here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned during this training for a new, previously unthinkable distance. Most apply to running; perhaps a few apply to life if you make a stretch. But that’s not the point, so don’t go crazy with that.
You can run a lot farther if you slow down.
Obvious, right? I don’t think so.
You say you can’t run farther than a marathon, or maybe a half. But it’s very likely you ran that race as fast as you were able to run it.
What if you slowed down? You’d run farther.
What if you slowed down a lot? (And even walked sometimes?) You’d run much farther. It’d be scary, because you’ve never done it. But once you had, it wouldn’t be scary anymore. And you could run farther still.
Comfort is everything. So be comfortable.
Unless you’re trying to win the race, running 30 or more miles isn’t really about how well you can run 30 or more miles. It’s about staying comfortable while you run that circus distance. The more miserable the experience, the less likely you are to come back the next week and do it again.
Wear shorts that don’t chafe you. Get a hydration vest or some other way to carry stuff that you like. Use blister powder and wear good socks. Try compression socks. Apply Vaseline or other lubricant liberally and bring some for the road, just in case. Run slowly enough, especially on hills, that you’re not breathing hard or raising your heart rate too much. Find (or make) a sports drink you really like. Figure out what food your stomach can handle and what it can’t. Pee when you have to pee. Bring toilet paper.
Trail running is more fun than road running.
It just is. And running long on trails doesn’t hurt my feet or joints the way running, say, a 20-miler on the roads does.
Most of the ultras you’ll find are trail races, so learning how to run trails always seemed like an annoyance I had to put up with in order to become an ultrarunner. Now it’s the best thing I’ve ever done (except get married).
It’s a mind game.
I’ve gotten lots of advice from friends, and none of it is about running. Running a few miles, five or six minutes slower than you’re capable of, is the easy part. It’s about getting your head in the right place so you can run 50 (or 100) of them.
Blaine told me how awful miles 30-40 will be, but that it will get better after that. My friend Shawn told me that it’s about getting your legs to be your mind’s bitch. My friend Dave told me that going out too fast and hitting a wall early in a 50-miler feels roughly 100 times worse than it does in a marathon.
A lot of this is scary, but I’m glad I learned it from them first. Respect the distance.
I will finish.
I can say this now because I’ve been tested. The two 50K’s I did, especially the first, taught me that I will keep running even when it hurts and I hate it and I never, ever want to run again.
No marathon ever tested me like that, even the Boston qualifier. Ultras brought a new level of suck, and I learned that I will keep going even when it is terrible.
50K isn’t 50 miles. But if someone held a gun to your head and made you run, you could run a lot farther than you think (though that would be a rather weird thing for a gunman to demand). So if you make quitting seem like getting shot in the head, you’ll keep going. If it comes to that, I think I will.
Unless I get hurt. Then I’ll stop.