Next Saturday morning at 10am sharp, I’ll head over to Black Mountain, NC, about half hour east of me, and run a 5K loop. It’ll be slow — probably an 11-minute mile pace.
And then I’ll do it again.
And again and again, for 12 straight hours, until the gun sounds at 10pm. If all goes well, I hope to cover 100K, or 62 miles, during the time. Twenty 5K laps.
The funny thing is, even though this format of racing is new to me, I’ve never felt more relaxed about an ultra. Partly, it’s because this isn’t my “A” race — although it’s technically a race, the real purpose is to serve as my longest training run for the Burning River 100-miler in eight weeks.
But it’s not just that it’s a training run — I mean, it’s still an ultra, and 12 hours is almost two hours longer than I’ve ever run before. There are a bunch of reasons why this time, I’m not at all worried about running all day.
(By the way, this post is just sort of a recap of my training and the issues I’m thinking about with this run. I’m certainly not breaking any new ground in the sport of ultrarunning with my training and nutrition strategies, but still I imagine that a few people, especially those who want to run an ultra someday, might find it interesting.)
1. There is no finish line.
I chose a 12-hour race instead of a 50-miler or 100K for one main reason: there’s no physical end to reach. No binary measure of success/failure, and as a result, very little mental stress. I hope.
My memories of previous ultras involve their share of physical discomfort (read: pain), but the mental battle is always just as taxing as the physical one. Regardless of distance, it seems, when you’re in that dark zone between 60 and 80 percent of the way through an ultra, there’s a huge temptation to quit.
You’re well into the race, so you’re tired and things hurt. But if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, you can’t see it yet, and it feels as if you never will. And so the quit / this is hopeless / I’m never running or blogging or even talking to anyone ever again alarm starts sounding.
Without a finish line or a real distance goal, there should be none of that poppycock on Saturday. The loops will be monotonous, no doubt. But if I can get past the mind-numbingness — and I think I can, with the help of a few podcasts on my iPod — then the day might be, dare I say it, a relaxing one. The way I see it, if I get tired, I’ll chill out and walk for a while, knowing that clock is ticking just as fast then as it is when I run. It’s not like a normal ultra, where slowing down or walking only prolongs the agony.
It’s not that I don’t like challenges — to the contrary, I think a craving for that mental battle underlies my and other ultrarunners’ desire to push ourselves to the breaking point. But because I know how draining it can be — and because I know how tough a test the 100 will be — I’ll enjoy the change of pace.
2. I’m prepared.
The last time I ran a 50-miler, my training felt thrown together, at best.
A month before that race, I decided I was not going to run it — it had been a ridiculously hot summer and I just never put the miles in. But after I hung up the phone when I called my buddy to tell him I wasn’t going to be running in Vermont, I felt like I had chickened out. So I ran a 20-miler and a 30-miler in a two-week stretch, rested for two weeks, and then went and did the 50.
This time, I’ve been much more dedicated. With the new baby, there have been some hitches in my training in the past month, but I’ve built a pretty solid base of hill training with several 20+ mile runs, including a 24-miler, a few back-to-back long runs, and more 7-milers than I care to think about.
Why not even more miles than that? Well, my 100-miler training program from Relentless Forward Progress actually calls for a 50-miler just five weeks before the 100. My 12-hour race (which I’m doing instead of a 50) happens to fall eight weeks before the 100, but I decided to make it work, since it’s so geographically convenient for me. By scheduling the big run early, I didn’t have time for the 50K training run that should have preceded it. Instead, I’ll do that 50K run after this race with my extra weeks before the 100.
So while it would be nice to have a 30+ mile run under my belt going into this one, I feel pretty good about my fitness level. Most of my training has been on much hillier terrain than this 12-hour race will be, and my somewhat spotty training during the past month coincided well with tapering. I’m excited to see what I can do.
3. It’s just a big old experiment!
When runners ask me about fueling for their marathon, I tell them to use their long runs as precious opportunities to experiment. You don’t want to show up on race day trying something new for the first time — and you especially don’t want to show up with no plan at all.
While I have in my head the goal of running 100K in 12 hours, it really doesn’t make much difference to my training whether I run 55 or 65 miles. My real goal is to learn as much as I can about running for this amount of time, and how I handle food and other elements of such a long race.
Here’s what I’ll be paying special attention to during the 12-hour, in preparation for the 100:
- Food. My plan is to eat only fresh, whole dates, along with water and sports drink. I know that after a few hours I’ll be tempted to eat starchy, salty foods, but Byron Powell has me convinced they’re only for mental comfort, that sugar is what you need. If I cave, so be it, but I want to stick with the dates as long as possible to see if that’s a viable strategy for the 100, or at least the first half of the 100 before all bets are off. It certainly would simplify the food situation.
- Electrolytes. It’s supposed to be a high of 80 degrees F on Saturday, and running in the heat will be good practice for the big race in July. I’ve been reading a lot about ultra training and still don’t have a solid plan for electrolyte replacement; this weekend will be a good opportunity to try out a precise, electrolytes-per-hour approach.
- Pace. I’d really like to run the 100 in 24 hours, which takes a 14:24 mile pace. But I’ve heard that because there’s so much inevitable slowing in the second half of a 100, you need to run your first half relatively fast, rather than trying to run negative splits like you do with a marathon. Essentially, my pace for a 12-hour 100K (11:36 per mile) is only slightly faster than what I’m told I should run for the first half of my 100 if I want to break 24 hours. At the end of my first 50 when I asked, exhausted, an experienced ultrarunner friend how anyone possibly runs a 100 miles, he said, “It’s a mindset thing.” Well, I’m going to try as hard as I can to rehearse that mindset on Saturday.
So that’s about all there is to it! I’ve got a nice easy taper week ahead of me — just five miles and three miles, with a rest day in between, before the big boy on Saturday.
1. What’s your go-to podcast that I must absolutely listen to?
2. If you’ve run a race like this before and have any advice to share, I can definitely use it!
And one more thing: If my babbling on about ultras piques your curiosity, check out the podcast episode that we did with Bryon Powell, author of the training plan I’m using, about running your first ultra.
The Kickstart Plan includes:
- A 7-day meal plan, built around the foods worth eating every single day
- 14 of our favorite recipes that pack in the nutrition, taste great, and are easy to make
- Focused on simplicity and speed, to minimize stress and time commitment