Granted, there’s a reason it’s not called the North Face Endurance Fun Run.
Ninety-degree heat, extreme humidity, and three mile-long passes along a cliff so rocky it required more tiptoeing than running helped to ensure that my first 50-miler, part of the North Face Endurance Challenge, lived up to the name.
Let me tell you: This race, which ran through the woods and along the cliffs of the Potomac river, was really hard.
But—believe it or not—it wasn’t that hard.
Why It Wasn’t So Bad
Maybe it was that I ran a smart race and paced myself well, staying with a more experienced ultrarunner (thanks Seth!) for the first 20 miles or so. Perhaps it was seeing a familiar face, either my family or someone I’d met online, at 11 of the 13 aid stops. Maybe it was good hydration, salt intake, and a solid eating plan. It could have even been the Coke and Mountain Dew, which I had never tried in training but that I finally came to understand why ultrarunners love so much.
More than any of these, though, I think it was having a good friend pace me for the last 15 miles of the race.
Everyone told me that miles 30-40 would be the part where I’d want to quit. But after 30 miles, about as far as I’d ever run in training, the anticipation of meeting my friend and moving onto the final section of the course kept me going. And once we met up at mile 35, the adrenaline rush made the next five a breeze, probably my fastest miles of the race.
Only after 40 miles did things start to hurt, and by that point, knowing I was 10 miles from such a huge accomplishment made it bearable.
Don’t get me wrong—it hurt. Running for ten and a half hours in the brutal heat will do that to you.
But it was doable. That’s what I hope you take from this recap, if you’ve never considered running an ultra because it seems almost superhuman.
It’s not superhuman. Normal people like me—and like you—can do this.
Miles 1-15: Soaking Wet from the Start
When I stepped out of my hotel at 3:30 in the morning, it was already humid. By 5:30, having been running for only half an hour in the dark, I was drenched in sweat.
My biggest fear going into this race was that I’d start out too fast and realize I was in big trouble with 20 or 30 miles still to go. Thankfully, I was there with a far more experienced ultrarunner. This guy has run not just several 50-milers, but a 100-miler. (Yes, you read that right: 100 miles, over the course of 26 hours.)
Knowing he’d run a smart pace (11-12 minutes per mile), I stayed with Seth for the entire first leg of the race. These miles were uneventful, with the exception of a blister that I felt developing on my right foot. As we ran some quiet trails in the early morning along the river, I counted down the miles until 15, when I knew I’d see my wife and my dad and be able to change out of my trail shoes into my more-comfortable road shoes.
Miles 16-35: The Loop (and Some Scary Cliffs)
The signature section of the race was a seven-mile loop that took us right along the Potomac river, where we literally had to jump from rock to rock, about five feet from the edge of a hundred-foot cliff that dropped straight down to the Potomac river.
It was beautiful, challenging, and fun—the first time.
The second two times, this “marquee section” became “those f’ing rocks in the blazing heat where a single false step could quite literally kill me.” Seriously, I had to step close enough to the edge that when I saw Erin again, I didn’t tell her just how close it was, because I knew she’d worry about me losing my mental faculties and ending up in the river going over the Great Falls the third time around.
After the first pass through the rocks, I felt my legs tiring for the first time. With 28 miles still to go, this scared me a little. But I bounced back, running the second loop in an hour and 22 minutes, four minutes faster than I had done it the first time around. And the third loop was on par with the first, the fatigue starting to set in as I realized I had been running for seven straight hours—a full hour and change more than I had ever run in my life.
Still, I felt great, considering the circumstances. I had expected that at this point, with 15 miles to go, I would hate running and be cursing myself for being so idiotic as to do this, voluntarily no less.
And yet I didn’t hate running. Somehow, I was still having fun.
Miles 36-50: The Hard Part
At the mile 35 aid station, I picked up my friend and pacer, Pat. Pat was my roommate in college, and one of three guys in the ill-fated crack-squad who back in 2002 decided we’d pick up and run our first marathon. That race wasn’t pretty for any of us, but Pat keeps in shape and is the type of guy you can count for this kind of stuff, as well as for world-class entertainment along the way.
So when all the sudden I had someone to run with—Seth and I had separated when I took my sweet time at an aid station—I got a major boost. Pat and I flew through about five miles of trail with the idea that we might be able to make it back in under 10 hours.
Right around the 40-mile mark, though, I started to feel as if—well, as if I had been running for 40 miles. Mostly it was my legs that wanted to quit; everything else, including my mind, felt pretty good. But as we hit the hills that I had barely noticed on the way out (even the downhills sucked, by this point), I started to realize that 10 hours wasn’t in the cards on this hot day.
This was solidified when, during a seven mile stretch before the aid station at mile 42, we came upon a guy who was staggering back and forth, ready to fall into the head-high grass on the side of the trail. It was obvious he was in trouble; the heat and distance between aid stations had gotten to him. While someone else ran ahead to the next aid station to send help, we and some other runners waited with him and gave him water, salt, and food. Help came in time, and we were surprised to see the guy eventually cross the finish line.
10 hours was officially out the window. But it probably would have been anyway.
At least seeing someone in such rough shape taught me a lesson: Be prepared for the worst. When we got to the aid station, even though I was sure I could make it to the next without filling up my hydration pack, I refilled anyway. As this guy had shown, you never know how quickly things might go south.
With eight miles to go and only a flat section of the course remaining, I did everything I could to soak in the moment and enjoy the certainty that I was going to finish this thing. My legs did their best to temper my enthusiasm, but we ran almost the entire remaining distance, stopping only three or four times to walk, when I absolutely needed to.
Finally, we hit the aid station that marked 1.7 miles to go. I had run 48.3 miles, and that felt pretty damn good (no matter what my legs were saying). The moments just before you achieve something pretty spectacular that you’ve been working at for a long time, when it’s a near certainty, are surreal and indescribable. The closest thing I’ve felt to this was the final .2 miles of the Wineglass Marathon, when knew I had qualified for Boston.
As we turned the final corner and could hear the music and the crowd cheering, I told Pat that he had better not try to drop back at the last minute to let me cross the finish line alone. And even though I didn’t mention it at the time, for fear of having my man-card revoked, I got a little choked up as I told him that he had better stay with me as I crossed the finish line.
And then I heard Erin yelling, even before I could see her. I crossed the line, where my mom and dad were standing taking pictures and cheering, and it was over. Fifty freaking miles, in just under ten and a half hours.
What I Ate
I did my best to keep track of what I ate during the race, in hopes of being more scientific than in the past about what works and what doesn’t.
My strategy was to eat slower-digesting starchy carbs and fats early on when my stomach was in good shape, and to shift toward simple sugars for a kick as I neared the end of the race. I must say it worked pretty well; the only hitch was that the heat made almost everything but water unappetizing, so I ate less solid food than I had planned to.
Here’s what I ate before and during the race:
- Half a bagel with peanut butter
- Two pinole-chia waffles with maple syrup
- A few tablespoons of chia seeds in water
- One orange
- Handful of almonds
- Three small boiled potatoes with salt
- Water with lime juice
- Electrolye Brew (the sports drink at the aid stations)
- Salt tablets
- Half a pita with hummus and lettuce
- One orange
- Half a bag of M&M’s
- Mountain Dew
- Ginger ale
- Electrolyte Brew
- Nuun Electrolyte Drink
- Salt tablets
- Peter Rabbit Organics fruit puree (I found this at Starbucks)
- One small potato with salt
- One orange
- Water with lime juice
- Electrolyte Brew
(Told you the soda was good.)
It seems that the longer the race is, the longer the thank-you list gets.
First, my personal support crew: Pat, Erin (who carried our seven-week son around all day), my dad, and my mom, all of whom drove a long way and put in an even longer day to make mine easier. Counting down the miles until I’d get to take a five-minute break with them got me through this thing.
Next, the volunteers who worked the aid stations for all four races that happened on Saturday. In particular, Andy Campbell, who wore his No Meat Athlete shirt to support me, Heather, who I saw three times since she was working an aid station on the loop, and Andy Gingrich, who was nice enough to shake what must have been a disgustingly sweaty hand of mine at mile 46, and to help me realize just how close I was to being finished.
Some fellow runners I ran into along the course who said hi and made it just a little bit easier, Thomas and Delip.
Surprisingly, I didn’t feel the need to collapse and take a nap in my own filth immediately after finishing the race. I’d say I was more tired immediately after qualifying for Boston than after the 50 miles.
What I did feel was feverish, with sporadic bouts of chills, for about six hours after I finished. I suspect this had to do with my body temperature being elevated for such an extended period of time.
After that, I started to feel like I’d been hit by a train, and all I really wanted to do was lie down under blankets. I wasn’t very hungry, but I did what I could to eat some solid food.
On Sunday I felt surprisingly good. I was sore, but no more so than after a marathon or 50K. By the end of the day, I caught myself running up and down the steps like I always do, simply out of childish impatience.
So what’s next?
The Vermont 50-miler in September, for sure. As I was running miles 40 to 50, another 50-miler seemed like a pretty crappy idea. But now that I’m done and in a better mood, I’m glad I registered for this one before I had even finished my first. Should be a lot of fun, and 50 degrees cooler would be nice.
And the Boston Marathon in April 2011.
Other than that, it’s wide open.
The natural next step after another 50 or two, I suppose, is a 100-miler (if there’s anything natural about that at all). When I finished this race I briefly thought, “If I had to do that entire distance again right now, I’d die.” But I thought the same thing the first time I finished a marathon, too, and a 50 is pretty damn close to two of those.
So I don’t know about that yet. Let’s just say the seed has been planted, and leave it at this:
Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions. -Oliver Wendell Holmes
That’s what proving to myself that I’m able to run 50 miles has done for me. I encourage you to find something that will do it for you.