My last post stated my entry into a 50k trail run near Chattanooga, and now I report that I did in fact finish that run. Following is an account of how the training and the race itself went down.
I signed up to run this race for two main reasons. One, I have always been intrigued by the concept of ultra-marathons and ultra-endurance events in general. The intrigue is in understanding how my body reacts under the conditions and just how much i would be willing to push myself. The other reason I signed up was simply to motivate myself to get back into shape.
Immediately after signing up for the race, I started a (less than vigorous) training regimen. I started running every other day. I started by running around 35-40 minutes per day on that schedule. Over the course of a few weeks, I worked up to running about an hour per day and would occasionally run two days in a row. Getting started running again took some time and discomfort, but eventually I got to a point where running was comfortable again. The training was good and mostly consistent for a couple months, and I tested myself in late September by running a 9-mile race here in Nashville at Percy Warner Park. The course was hilly, which was good for the test, but it was also mostly on the street, which was bad for my joints. Considering how much my joints hurt after that, I started to fear the 50k some. After recovering from that race, I had 3-4 weeks of training remaining before the big race, and really only 1-2 weeks where it was worthwhile to do anything. I had lofty goals to work in some long runs and such, but all I mustered were a bunch of hour-long runs and even managed to take 4-5 days off from running a couple of different times. And then it was time to taper. From what, you ask, well... I didn't taper so much as just feel justified in not getting out there and running more.
In a nutshell, I didn't train so much as just make sure that I could run a moderate distance without it hurting too badly. The longest run I had done prior to the race, ever, was about 1 hour, 40 minutes. Though I had dreamed of doing well in the 50k and running strong, my approach had switched to the time-honored approach I have had with most athletic endeavors in the last few years, I went in just hoping to survive but not worrying too much about how it would end up. I didn't feel like i had anything to prove. So my preparations on the last night also mimicked most of my other endurance event-eves, I was at the Terminal Brewhouse in Chattanooga enjoying some pre-event libations. (And boy, their libations are pretty phenomenal).
Race morning wasn't too early for me. I got up and ate my chorizo and egg burrito and downed some more gatorade to combat the beer from the previous night. Then we were off to the race. I didn't even pretend to warmup; with 50k to run, there was plenty of time to get the body warmed up for the long haul. I waited with almost 850 other runners (500 50k runners, 350 11 mile runners) in the morning coolness for them to start the race. They made some announcements, which I couldn't hear, and then the people in front of me started moving forward. So I followed.
The first half mile was on the road. Everyone around me (and I think all but the front elite) were very chilled and just moseying along in a huge group. When we hit the trail there was a bit of a bottleneck as people fell into line on a trail almost wide enough for two people. The first couple of miles was a slow jog in a line without much placement movement and with a lot of chatter. One thing I noticed and was surprised about, though, was that many people were walking all of the hills.. already. I was figuring out pretty early that an ultra-marathon is a different type of race than any I had run before.
After 2-3 miles, things started spreading out pretty well and I found myself running mostly alone at my own pace. At about mile 4, we started down a narrow singletrack trail and things started to get more interesting. The first stretch of trail was wide, well traveled, and had supplemental gravel on it. The next 23 miles or so would be singletrack, rarely level, and rocky. It was beautiful trail and terrain, and early on in the race, I appreciated it.
The next 7-8 miles were fun. I ran with a few different people, and I ran alone for a lot of it. There were a couple rest stops, and some interesting terrain. Then the pain started. Somewhere around the 11 or 12 mile point, I started to feel pain in my knees and my feet. It was pain from the impact of running beyond what my joints and connective tissues were used to. Soon after the pain started, I took a couple of advil and put my headphones on. Within 20 minutes, I was feeling pretty good again and kept running. (I should note that after a few miles, I had adopted the strategy that so many others used and had started walking up many of the hills. Essentially, I would run until I started to feel like i was having to expend additional energy to keep going, and then I would walk, usually briskly, up the hill until it was comfortable to run again. I also would walk whenever I would eat or drink along the trail.) The good feelings lasted another 4-5 miles, after which I started to hurt again, but not as badly as before.
Somewhere around mile 18 or so, I came to the rock garden. This is a stretch of "trail" that is maybe a half mile and consists of almost entirely jumping from rock to rock. There was no running, there was only trying to stay on the path and not hurt myself while trying to negotiate the different rock surfaces in my tired state. It was fun, but would have been more fun had I not just run 18 miles. It was around this point, and a little before the rock garden, actually, that I started to consider bailing on the race at the 19 mile point. Melanie would be there and it was the logical point where most people who quit ended up calling it a day. My rationale was that I was tired of hurting, I didn't have anything to prove and at the pace I was going, I was on about an 8 hour pace to finish, which was longer than I cared to be out there. But then I got to the mile 19 rest stop, sat down, refilled my food stores, and decided that I felt great! So I kept going.
It was maybe a half mile later that the real pain started. Somewhere close to mile 20, I started getting a shooting pain in my right foot that went from my heel up into my ankle. This made it really painful to walk, much less try to run on that foot. I had thoughts of turning around since it was less than a mile back to the last stop and it was about 5 miles to the next stop... but I just kept moving forward. I tried to run when I could, but I ended up shuffling and walking almost all the way to the next stop. Again I considered stopping, and if Melanie had been there, I probably would have quit then, but she wasn't, so I didn't. I took more advil, fueled up again, and continued on what they said was 10k to the finish.
I continued to shuffle and walk over a couple big hills to come to the last stop, which would also be where we got back on the smoother doubletrack trail, and had only 3-4 miles left. With that little distance left and the shooting pains dulling a little, I managed to do a little running on the remaining trail segments. Then a half mile on the road and I shuffled into the finish. 8 hours and 44 minutes is a long time to be out there running/walking and eating energy foods. It messed up my digestive system and my feet and legs were sore for days. But I got through it and now have the experience and know-how behind me. I never hit the "wall" that others talk about for marathon runners. My eating and hydration and fitness were fine, but my legs suffered.
One of the big motivators for me to keep going through the pain and such was that if I finished, I wouldn't ever have to feel like I needed to come back to do it again. But already only 4 days out, I can't say I feel the same about it. If I ever run something like that again, it will certainly only be if I am better prepared, but it is certainly an experience I appreciate and will possibly choose to do again. But not for a good long while.