The Astonishing Power of Determination, Ibuprofen, and/or Coca-Cola

[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.

Told you it was at a ski resort

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.

More Photos

Holden, cheering for Daddy at Mile 47

As if he actually did something…:)

Me and my crew

Me, Paul, and Ginn



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  1. wow! congratulations. i love your recap of how you felt, what motivated you … everything. really inspiring. i’m hoping to remember this when i’m doing the northface endurance 10k in december. well done!

  2. Congratulations! I can only imagine how tough that course must have been but you made it!

  3. Wow. I’m storing this away in my memory for when I’m running my marathon and feeling like quitting. Thanks for the inspiration and congratulations for finishing and beating your previous time!

  4. Wow. Congratulations! And good for you for not giving up. If I were in your shoes I’d hope that I wouldn’t bail either….although it would be quite tempting.

  5. Congratulations! You’re amazing for sticking through with it. Maybe I’ll run an ultra one day… (but I think I’d burn off all the fat in my body, which I actually don’t want to do!)

  6. Wow! Congratulations on finishing that one! Sounds like it was really, really hard. It must’ve felt so good to see Erin (and Holden) during the race- the extra shot of motivation that I’m sure helped so much!

  7. Congrats!

  8. Amazing. Way to go, dude. That really sums it up!!!

  9. Wow – you are incredible!! It makes my 18miler seem like a walk in the park!

  10. I love potato chips and Coke and Mt. Dew and not having run more than 6 miles at one time ever, I love the juxtoposition in my head of ultra athletes consuming this crap food during a race that they eschew during training. A great post. What’s next? 100 miler?

  11. Congrats on finishing the race!

    On the note of quitting the race – personally I would have attributed it to doing too much too soon, as opposed to a vegan diet. Racing is great; however, the rest needed for your body to heal itself after long runs should never be underestimated.

  12. I am so impressed… congrats to you!!! I am still working on marathons (ready for 2nd one in Chicago) but feel that someday I would like to run some ultras. You are an inspiration… thanks for keeping us up-to-date. Like others have said, I will use your story when I am at my breaking point during my Chicago marathon.


  13. Wow. Just wow. Congratulations for an amazing journey. Thank you for sharing it in such a honest and thorough way. And thank you for being so true to yourself that you can find the strength to keep going with coke and mental fortitude.

    Truly awesome.

    (I’ll be thinking of that the next time I’m whining at mile 4 in my much-shorter training program) Thank you!

  14. Congratulations! That’s a huge accomplishment and you should be so proud. I’m so glad you did the whole 50, mostly because I can use that for inspiration down the line. 😉

  15. Wow! Congrats on finishing! You still deserve to be basking in your accomplishment wherever you are!

    It’s so wonderful that your wife and baby were there to support you. Holden is absolutely adorable by the way!

    And, yeah, it makes total sense that coke would fuel an ultra. The corn syrup will give your body glucose and there are studies linking caffeine and improved athletic performance. I myself love coke 3 to 4 hours after a serious work out. All the sugar makes my after-burning system go like Yayyy! Lol.

  16. okay. you’re awesome. that is the most amazing story ever. obviously, it’s not something you want to repeat, but the fact that you didn’t train as much as you’d planned on made the story and the outcome all the more interesting! i think you’re incredibly brave, and i’m so proud of you!

    • Amanda, I believe you were the one that called my run-20-miles-and-30 miles-4-weeks-before-the-race the “worst idea ever” or something like that! Right?? 🙂 Actually that was a dumb idea. I think I got lucky that it worked out. I certainly would have run faster if I’d trained more, and earlier.

  17. YAY! I’m so glad it worked out, as awful as our hills are! I wound up sleeping most of Sunday wrestling with that swollen throat, and I am truly bummed that I wasn’t able to join you after all for those last eight miles. (By now, I’m feeling better (yay, echinacea!)

  18. great job dude. I picked up the adiZero’s to run in as well a few months back and they’ve been great shoes on the trail but stay away from the road with them. Ouch!! I get to find out tomorrow if I have a stress fracture in my right foot as a result of them. Not happy.
    Can we get a pic of the race shirt??
    keep the miles rollin’

    • Steven, that’s an interesting point. Thanks for the heads up. The reason these shoes appealed to me is that they have a relatively thin sole and they’re light, which is what I was looking for in a trail shoe. I didn’t want some big heavy cushioned thing that would cause me to roll my ankle. So that makes perfect sense that when you wear it on the road, it doesn’t offer the protection of a more cushioned shoe. Hope you got good news about the potential stress fracture.

      The race shirt is kind of funky looking. I’ll try to work a picture of it into a post soon so you can see it.

  19. This is such an inspirational post. Hearing that you were tempted to bail but didn’t and actually ended feeling better is such a good lesson. I will think about that when I run Chicago next week. I do have the dream of doing an ultra next year and would welcome advice as to an “easy” one to start with (are they all on ski mountains!). As a commenter above said, it is ironic that you write a ton on this blog about food and fuel and then it comes down to chips and soda. And finally, what is the theory about avoiding sugar in the first 1/2 of a race?

    • Lauren, no they’re no all on mountains. But many are on trails, so they’re pretty hilly. JFK in DC is one 50-miler that’s an exception. The first 15 or so miles are hilly, most of them on trail, but after that it’s like totally flat on a towpath. Some people say that actually makes it harder than gradual hills would, just because of the lack of variety. But I’d like to run it next year and see what kind of time I can get.

      The sugar thing is just because I (and others) think that lots of sugar activates your anaerobic system, when during a race of this length you want to be working primarily aerobically, where you are burning a higher percentage of fat for fuel. Not so that you lose fat, but because you have so much of it that there’s no danger of depletion like there is with glycogen (which causes a bonk when it’s depleted). So I try to save the sugar until I need the kick for the second half or last third of the race.

  20. Great run, Matt! Holden is getting so big!!

  21. Wowzers! Congrats to you on finishing a race that I cannot even imagine running. You are amazing!

  22. You rock! Congrats on your race.

  23. Congratulations Matt, as I said before you are a great inspiration to all future ultra runners, me included. Thanks for the What I Wore, Ate and Drank section, some great info.

  24. Good going sticking with it to finish the 50! I had the same experience – felt like heck from about 28 to. 35 miles. I sucked down 400 mg of ibuprofen and it seemed like a miracle drug! Not long after I was really able to pick up my pace and finish the last 15 miles like I wanted to.

  25. The switchbacks!!! Ohhhhhh, the switchbacks. My friend and I couldn’t stop talking about how torturous they were! And I remember that long stretch of road too about 10 till the finish, and it revitalized me as well. Well done, Matt!!! A beautiful day and a beautiful course, in hindsight, of course. 🙂

  26. and that horrid last half mile. running on an angle???!!!? just mean!!

    • Betsy, yeah they sucked didn’t they? It was like even when they spared us by making the downhill not too steep, we had to go back and forth so that it hurt anyway! But wow, some of those trails were beautiful. I read that they didn’t give you a time—did you ever get that straightened out?

  27. Congratulations! Any 50 mile run is a huge accomplishment, but it’s even more rewarding when it’s a tough, gut-it-out race. I’ve had those races when I’ve been so, so tempted to quit, and I’m always glad I toughed it out. Great job!

  28. I’ve never run anywhere close to the distance that you did, nor have I done any other equivalent distance in any other endurance sport, but I have experienced nausea after some (much) shorter races and I can vouch or the miraculous power of Coca-cola. I don’t touch the stuff normally, but after reaching for it in a moment of desperation once time when I felt an exercise-enduced migraine coming on and feeling better nearly instantly, it has been my drug of choice for just such events. In fact, it is precisely the fact that it does seem to be so potent that I DON’T drink it more often!

    Great job, by the way!

  29. Congratulations on finishing!
    As a new vegetarian and aspiring long distance runner(My longest distance is 5 miles at the moment but I’m about to start training for a half marathon) I find this blog such a source of inspiration.
    Thanks Matt and congratulations once again.

  30. You’re awesome Matt!! So happy to hear that you completed it and beat your previous time by so much! You rock!

  31. P.S. It’s obviously time for me to stop whining about being nervous to do my first marathon in 2011. Clearly. Thanks for the inspiration.

  32. Inspiring! I love your tenacity and humor! 🙂

    I wondered if you were still doing the vegan thing this month and how you are feeling. Hope you update us on that soon!


  33. WOW- Congrats Matt. Truly an accomplishment. Way to push through all of the mental and physical challenges. And big props to Erin and the baby for making the drive. That is love right there 🙂 Such cute pictures at the end.

  34. Congrats!! What an accomplishment 🙂 I need to get up to Vermont again, it’s been too long… holden is quite adorable!

  35. Great job Matt! I’d like to get into ultras in the near future. The only unfortunate thing that I find is that I’m in South Florida where the landscape is flat as a pancake and lacking in trails. I don’t know how I could ever prepare for one of these ultras that take place upon actual trails with any elevation changes (where most of them seem to).

    • Mike, yeah that might be a problem. I don’t know of any way to simulate hill training. Obviously you could lift weights a lot to build strength, but of course it won’t be exactly the same muscles in the same combination. But I believe there are some flatter ultras, especially anything that’s put on near you. You could try progressively hillier ones and see where your limit is.

  36. Congrats!

  37. Congrats! Ultramarathons are an amazing feat of strength! And I agree, it’s amazing the power of coke! I had never tried it until a few weeks ago on the run of my Ironman…and it was amazing. Granted, I would have preferred de-fizzed coke; but burps and all, the fizzed coke was still perfect.

  38. Absolutely amazing, as always. Congratulations! It takes a lot of guts to keep doing something when it sucks so much!

  39. Nice work, Vermont’s a tough course.

    Also, look back on the advice I gave you before your first 50 miler…

    You’ll be in a very dark spot somewhere in the low/mid 30s until you hit 40 miles, when you’ll realize, Hey, only 10 miles to go and will feel much better.

    Seems like it still holds true!

    • Blaine, I actually thought of that while I was running. I guess I always figured it’d be an emotional dark spot more than a physical one, because it seemed strange that you could recover from a physical one. But I guess the two are so linked that I shouldn’t be surprised. Great advice.

  40. Impressive man! Serious elevation gain is a beating no matter how far you are running. The coke thing shocked me. I doubt I will ever get to try it sense I won’t be running distances that long. I could see how it would help though. I hear CoCo leaves do amazing things for weary hikers. I bet it would work the same for runners too.

    • Caleb, I think there were 8900 feet of total elevation gain in this race! As for Coke, I wonder what it would do for a half marathon distance? Must not be as effective, because you never see it at marathons or halfs.

  41. Thanks for not quitting before the race. I have my second marathon in 2.5 weeks. Training started strong, but has been seriously lacking in the past couple weeks due to little more than lack of motivation. You’ve reminded me to stop stressing and just f***ing enjoy it.

  42. Aw so nice that the little one came out to cheer you on!

    Interesting about the Coca-Cola. I expect the sugary carbs would provide a considerable burst of energy.

  43. Congrats!! This was really inspiring 🙂

  44. Your son is cute! Amazing effort and story. Couldn’t imagine yanking off those CEPs in the midst of a race, but maybe my calves are just huge.

  45. You’re a fanatic ambassador for all things determined and tenacious. Congratulations on finishing, not giving up and living to write the post.

    Way to go Matt, I was pulling for ya!

  46. Congrats!! I stumbled upon your blog a earlier this year when I first went vegetarian. I started my veggie lifestyle in January and started my running lifestyle last October in preparation for a marathon. Now I’ve got a 50km race this weekend and a 50 miler next month and all my training has been sans meat!! Your comments “See, that’s what you get for trying a vegan diet during the month of an ultra.” and “Maybe a steak would have helped.” made me literally laugh out loud. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the ultra runner Scott Jurek, but he’s an amazing athlete as well as a vegan. Check out his blog if you get a minute and keep on keeping on!!


    Scott’s Blog:

    • Jon, you’re really progressing quickly through the miles if you just started in October! But great for you. I do know some about Scott Jurek. I believe he’s writing a book right now.

  47. Thank you for telling it like it is! I needed this today.
    And super double thank you for the photos of the adorable baby NMA!!

  48. Congrats, Matt!!! I could not think of a better place than Vermont to run a 50 miler…although hills makes me want to cry. What a great example you are to all the “you can’t run unless you eat chicken” people.

  49. All I can say is…damn, dude.

    ::Silent bow of respect::

  50. awesome job Matt! Erin & Holden, too! 🙂

  51. Steve Collins says:

    Congratulations. I read your post with interest because although I’ve complete four ultras (three of 50 miles or longer), I’ve yet to run one since going vegetarian. It’s nice to know your diet didn’t hold you back.

    It sounds as though the temperature may have been cooler than your for your first race, which may explain how you managed go go faster despite less training.

    When you have time to reflect, I wonder if you’ll agree with something I came to learn only after my second or third ultra: You really have to respect the distance. You can cut corners in training and still finish, but chances are it’s going to hurt. A lot.

    I’ll be interested to hear how your recovery goes and what your diet is like. I always feel like I’ve been run over by a truck and manage to eat everything in sight. Best wishes.

    • Steve, so far I’ve just been craving carbohydrates. I need to actually make it a point to get some protein. So far it’s been lots of cheeseless pizza, fruits, Grape Nuts with almond milk, pasta, and a little bit of beer.

      • Steve Collins says:

        Seems like you could throw some of that fruit and almond milk into a blender with some ice and protein powder and be good to go!

  52. Congrats on finishing it! I can’t imagine what an Ultra must feel like while running it but the feeling of accomplishment at the end must be awesome.

  53. I am so proud of you! Sounds horrible, but awesome that you pushed through. See you in a few weeks for MCM!

  54. Whoa! That is seriously incredible! Way to go. I’m so glad you made it even if it hurt:)

    I love the pictures of your baby and family. I’ve been dying to see everyone together since your son has gotten bigger.

  55. Great job, Matt! I’m a transplanted-Vermonter and those photos made me homesick!

  56. Hey congrats! My first ultra, a 50k, is Friday the 8th, I am doing the first leg only of the 3 day WV Trilogy (50k, 50mi, 13.1mi). I have been a vegan for 3 weeks and a few days now, vegetarian (well pescatarian) for 6 months. I have never felt better in my running, have lost a good bit of weight and am in better shape now at 40 than I was in my early thirties… good race post and good luck at the MCM!

  57. Congratulations Matt!! This post is so inspirational. 🙂 You’re right, 35 miles would have been extremely impressive, but the fact that you pushed through and didn’t quit is amazing! Reading your posts make me want to try for an Ultra (even though I’ll admit it does sound a little awful!). But it’s such a test of endurance and determination — just being able to finish something like this would be amazing.

    I’ve actually had coke during relays to settle my stomach a bit between my runs and it’s definitely helped. But I’ve never tried it on a long race. I wonder if it would help during a marathon…?

    Congrats on a great finish and a new PR! And BTW, Holden is so adorable!! 🙂

    • Congratulations Matt, that is two 50 milers this year right? It is hard enough to do one marathon a year.

      @Lauren, I’ve tried defizzed coke on 3 of my marathons, and it worked. I usually will start drinking them after mile 18 when I started to need the sugar and caffeine. I haven’t done it for the last twelve years though… I’ve just use GU and the sports drink they usually serve on the marathons.

  58. That’s awesome!

    I just found your blog through Tyler’s Advanced Riskology. And its awesome. I’ve done one marathon in the past, a few halfs, and maybe an ultra is in my future, it would definitely be a feat! I think your site is awesome and wish you all kinds of success! I have about 12 tabs open on my browser right now, about 6 of which are open to different articles of yours that I’m about to read. I’m looking forward to it.

    All the best,

  59. carrie says:

    thanks for this post! i am running my first 50 (happens to be the VT 50) this year and have no clue how to get myself trained to eat more than gels while running… any suggestions?

    • Carrie, one thing you could try is taking longer breaks from running to refuel. For example, when I was training for my 50’s, I plotted a 10-mile loop course from my house. I would do one loop, then take a 7-10 minute break to go in and eat something substantial (boiled potatoes are a pretty easy thing to get down, as are soft fruits like bananas). Then I would do this again after the next 10 mile loop, and finish up the 25- or 30-mile training run. Since you stop more and longer during ultras than marathons, this also simulates the race a little bit.

  60. Sarajane says:

    I always wondered what’s the big deal with Heed. Everyone seems to go for it, in a big way. I think it tastes terrible too. I wonder if it’s because people believe that bad taste qualifies foods that are good for you? Being a true vegetarian, I’m sure you also know this is not true.

  61. Matt, I stumbled across your website the other day while searching for information on chia seeds for a friend and it wasn’t long before I became hooked. THIS post if my favorite. The Vermont 50 (coming up in two weeks) will be my first ultra. I’m rather nervous about the whole eating and drinking contest that I’ve put myself up to, but with the help of your website and this race report, I’m sure I’ll do just fine. Thank you! And best wishes always in your running endeavors.

  62. thanks for the recap – about to tackle VT50 in 13 days! my first 50! sounds like I picked the hardest one 🙂

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