I kept it together mentally and physically, I ran the entire 50 mile course, and I won my first ever ultra marathon at the 2013 Land Between the Lakes 50 miler in southern Kentucky yesterday.
My background as a runner started on the track, eventually moved to the roads and marathons, and in the past few years, has been moving more and more toward trails and ultra distances. While I feel good about largely reaching my potential on the track, I have yet to do so on the trails. I DNFed my first 100 at Rocky Raccoon in 2011 and have struggled with knee problems and lots of walking in my other ultra attempts since. But this year has been different and yesterday’s race puts the exclamation on that statement.
The overall experience was positive from the beginning. We met with the race director on Friday afternoon and quickly set up Julie’s books. She was well received by the runners and sold quite a few books. We also had the benefit of this race being a family event, as along with Julie and me running, my brother Jeff, friend Eric Schneider, and my parents all were making the trip.
My only doubts heading into the race were focused around my lack of speed training over the past few weeks. I had a couple good weeks of training back in January heading into my three week racing block with the Planet Adventure trail marathon, the Groundhog Day snow marathon, and the Holiday Lake 50k in Virginia. But since those races, I have run with Julie at an easy pace ever since, even taking 3 of the first 8 days off at the start of March due mainly to low motivation. So I wasn’t sure how my body would respond to running closer to a 7 minute pace for an extended time period.
Despite my doubts, my plan was to go out hard and then settle into a rhythm once I got to the trails around two miles into the race. The 50 miler started with the 23k racers, the marathoners, and the 60kers so I didn’t want to get too caught up in the racing too early without knowing who was in which race. I went through the first road mile in 6:28 and was comfortable. There were some guys ahead that went out a bit harder but everyone was in sight. I tucked in behind some and as I made my way through the first lap, I found out from someone on the course that I was leading the 50 miler. After the first lap, I had a couple guys in the 60k ahead of me and one marathoner as we made our way through the 11.3 mile loop course.
So I settled into my rhythm, which had slowed to a little slower than 7 minute pace and powered through the second loop, beginning to lap other racers part way through the lap.
The weather for the race was ideal. It was overcast and not hot or cold, maybe in the 50’s. There were occasionally a few drops of rain and at a few spots it got windy, but overall, I couldn’t have asked for a better day for an ultra.
I got worried early in the race as the first two aid stations I looked for gels at did not have any despite the director emailing that they’d be on the course. I was resigned to eating bananas and drinking Heed sports drink since I wasn’t carrying anything; I made a conscious effort to stay calm and positive at this point with things not going exactly as planned. Thankfully, on the second loop, gels came out and they were available at every aid station except for the last one. I then got into my routine of downing one or two quick glasses of sports drink, grabbing two new gels, and getting back out there. I generally was eating two gels every three miles. I did this until the middle of the third lap when my stomach got a little queasy. I backed down my consumption and tried to settle down a bit.
The third lap was also the lap where I had my first real trouble in the race. I think it was the IT band on my left leg that first got me worried and then the inside became a little unsure as well. I slowed my pace and found it increasingly difficult to bend my left knee. The doubts started creeping in but a new mantra, which would carry me through the remainder of the race did as well, “Keep running”. I decided that I could accept being caught but I did not want the death march in and the best way to avoid that was to simply keep running. Even if I had to get to a slow shuffle, I would keep running, and I would get the race done respectably.
I think this mindset helped keep me calm and focused and as a result, I also thought to get Ibuprofen at the last aid station of the third lap. I took two of them and kept running. The knee kept hurting for the next few minutes but then the pills really kicked in. The pain largely went away and I was back to running at a steady pace again. I took two more to be safe at the middle aid station heading into the steeper hill section and then powered through the rest of the fourth lap.
I popped out onto the road for the 0.8 mile out-and-back road portion and the aid station worker told me I was being chased and that someone was only two minutes behind me. I kept it steady and kept pushing. This section seemed to go on far too long but once I turned around the wind was at my back and I was cruising. I kept waiting to see my pursuer and after the 5 minutes it took me to get back to the aid station, I still hadn’t seen anyone. I had at least a 10 minute lead and then shifted my focus to my time and the finish.
I passed the “1 mile to go” sign at 6:19 and knew that sub-6:30 was very likely. I ended with a 7:25 last mile for my first ever ultra win and a 6:26 50 mile finishing time.
Thankfully, our car was parked right by the finish so I quickly changed clothes, got warm, got some food, and then laid blankets down on the grass to cheer everyone else in. It was great having my parents there to cheer me in and help me with these logistics as I’m often on my own in these situations. My mom got me ice for my knees and kept bringing more blankets and food to make me comfortable. Along with my win, all runners in our group finished their races with Jeff, Julie, and Eric finishing the 50 mile race and my dad getting his first ever trail race finish in the 23k race.
It was a good experience, and for the first time ever, I kept it together and ran to my potential in an ultra. I attribute much of my success to two things. First, I ate nearly every 10 to 15 minutes. I noticed the difference in my body when I put calories in and it kept me not only physically moving, but also mentally sharper. I didn’t wait until I was hungry, but as soon as I noticed myself feeling at all tired or losing focus, I made an effort to eat, and nearly every time, felt myself perk up immediately. Second, I kept my mental game together. Rather than get caught up in splits and place, I focused on what had hurt me most in my ultras in the past, stopping and walking. By continuing on with non-stop running, I was able to work through my rough patch in the race, maintain my lead, and still run a time that I’m happy with. But I feel like my time and place were much more a byproduct of my mental focus on continuing to run rather than any thought about the pace or place on their own.
And while I feel like I’ve finally found some of the success I’ve been aiming for in the ultra world, I know there is so much more I can do. We have another 50 in Wisconsin in May and I hope to get in some good speed and some good long runs in order to have my knees and muscles more ready next time around. I simply need to keep running.