[Update: After a reader brought this to my attention, I feel compelled to mention that there have been some reports of ibuprofen being unsafe for use while distance running. Do some research on your own before you take it.]
At mile 35, I thought very seriously about quitting. After an 1800-foot climb, followed by another one that took me 40 minutes to hike up, I’d had enough of Vermont.
The Vermont 50-miler runs up, down, and back and forth on a mountain that normal people ski on. There were a few miles of flat in the beginning of the race, but after that, the terrain could be characterized as one of the following: uphill that hurt; downhill that hurt, or switchbacks that hurt. I was unprepared for this.
Of the 10 hours and 10 minutes it took me to finish, I’d guess that half of it was spent hiking uphill. I don’t like hiking. Hiking is what you do for an hour in the morning while you’re camping, so you don’t feel so bad about drinking your face off and acting like an idiot the rest of the day.
So by mile 35, I was done. My legs hurt so badly that the only thing I could do to keep moving forward was this awful shuffle-run thing, punctuated by walk breaks. Based on my time between aid stations, I know that I logged a few 14- or 15-minute miles during this time. I really, really, really, wanted to quit.
I didn’t quit though. My wife, Erin, had decided at the last minute that she didn’t like the idea of me running a race without her there to support me. So a few minutes after I left for Vermont, she packed up the baby and drove the seven hours herself. To help me finish, not to watch me quit.
I also thought about you. If I had quit, I’m sure many of you would have told me it was okay, and that running 35 miles on a mountain was a feat in itself. But, write it or not, I’m sure some people would have thought, “See, that’s what you get for trying a vegan diet during the month of an ultra.” Or the ever-hilarious “Maybe a steak would have helped.”
So I kept going. As is the case with most trail runs, there were no mile markers, only the aid stations every four or five miles. So I kept sane by figuring out what time I’d likely arrive at the next, where a nice warm Coke awaited me.
Yes, that’s Coca-Cola. If you’ve never tried it for running, do it. It’s not something I’d ever drink on a regular basis, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it helps me run longer and faster. Maybe it’s just the concentration of sugar in high-fructose corn syrup, or the caffeine, or the fizz. Whatever the explanation, I’m not the only one who believes it: Coke, Mountain Dew, and ginger ale have been offered at the aid stations of every ultra I’ve run.
So I started drinking a lot of Coke, one to two small cups at every aid station. At mile 37 or so, I took a single ibuprofen [see update at beginning of post about the potential danger of taking ibuprofen while running], eager for anything that might temporarily make my legs feel like they weren’t being repeatedly punched every step.
And then, around mile 40, I hit a half mile of glorious flat gravel road. And all of a sudden, I realized I didn’t hurt anymore. Whether it was the Coke, the drugs, or the indomitable human spirit, I have no idea. But I felt great, as if all the pain and hatred of Vermont and mountains and hiking and even myself, for being so stupid as to do this willingly, had all been a dream.
I clocked several 10-minute miles before hitting the final aid station at mile 47, where I got to see Erin and Holden and I sucked down one more Coke before heading out to finish this thing. The thought of breaking 10 hours crossed my mind, but then I realized that would take way more than I had to give.
Two and a half more miles of winding, beautiful trail, and a half mile of painful running literally down a ski slope, and it was over. 10:10:48, and I remain clueless as to how I beat my North Face time by half an hour.I know I’m probably making most of the race sound pretty miserable, and at the time, a lot of it was. But this isn’t to say I regret it: Running an ultra is never really fun for me in the moment, only in hindsight when I can look back and see what I accomplished do I really appreciate it. There were a lot of times when the only thing that kept me going was the thought, “This will make you stronger.” I learned a lot from this race about my own limits but also what I’m capable of enduring.
As always, I’m so grateful to have had Erin’s support, and also for the knowledge that my friends Ginn and Paul were suffering on the same hills I was. They both ran great times (around 8:40 and 9:30) and made the trip a whole lot of fun. Thanks also to Christie, Paul’s wife, who crewed for us as well. And of course, thanks to the race directors for putting on the most beautiful race I’ve ever run, and to everyone who volunteered to help make it happen.
What I Wore, Ate, and Drank
These are the details you probably only care about if you’re an ultrarunner or have some little inkling of a desire to become one, so I’ll put them in their own section.
I tried lots of new stuff during this race, starting with the shoes. (Pretty smart for a 50-miler, huh? My wife thinks so too.) I guess since I didn’t train very well for this race, I felt like I had nothing to lose.
On the way up to Vermont I stopped at the Adidas outlet and picked up a pair of adiZero XT Trail Shoes on a whim, because I wasn’t happy with my Saloman trail shoes. I “broke them in” with a three-miler on Saturday, then wore them for 32 blister-free miles on Sunday. I bought them a half size larger than I normally would, because I was interested in seeing if there was anything to this idea that we all buy running shoes too small. I must say I loved the shoes and I loved the fit, only changing them after 32 miles because I figured my road shoes would feel a little softer and my feet were starting to hurt (along with everything else).
I wore CEP compression sleeves for the first 32 miles as well, taking them off because I just got sick of my legs being compressed. Again, I just sort of needed a change, because I was starting to hate everything.
I didn’t wear my Nathan hydration vest this time, choosing instead to go with a hand-held bottle that I filled up with water at every aid station. I thought I’d get sick of carrying it, but I got used to it and actually kept it for the whole race.
As for food, I stuck with my normal approach of skipping most of the sugar until the second half of the race, but this time, I tried the Paleo diet idea of taking it easy on the wheat products to avoid the gluten. I ate mostly boiled potatoes from the aid stations, along with some watered-down Vega Sport in my bottle, skipping the Heed provided at the race because it tastes terrible. I did take several Hammer Endurolytes tablets to make sure I was getting enough salt.
As the miles added up, I transitioned to sugary foods like oranges and watermelon slices, along with some peanut butter sandwiches and potato chips because they looked good at the time. And finally, at the last aid station or two, it was all Coke, all the time.
So that’s about it! What do you think, want to run an ultra yet? If you’re having those first crazy thoughts, let me know and I’ll help point you in the right direction.