Confessions from the Trail
As a normal, truly sane human being, I recognize that for most people, finishing a 5k can be a major accomplishment. Many people in their life will complete a half marathon. Some people will go so far as finishing a marathon.
But only the truly insane seek to complete an ultramarathon.
After all, the first guy to run a marathon died, right? Who really wants to run until their organs shut down? Their muscles eat themselves? Their toenails fall off? Or *shudder* they have to poop on a piece of terrain suitable only for mountain goats?
Who are these crazy people and WTF is an ultramarathon?
The second question is far easier to answer than the first. An ultramarathon is any race that goes longer than the 26.1 miles prescribed by a marathon. If you go 26.1 miles and 1″, congratulations, technically you’ve finished an ultramarathon. But for most ultra runners, the ultramarathon starts at 50k and goes up to 200 miles or several days.
Yes, there is no “standard” distance. Heck, they don’t even specify that it has to be done by distance. It can also go by time. For example the Leadville 100 is 100 miles, but if you can complete it in 24 hours or less, you earn a belt buckle. Some races are measured by distance like the Mississippi 50 (20k, 50k, and 50 miles) or the Badwater Ultra. And some are done by time like The Mass Extinction Event (read about it here, it’s bonkers). Some are done on a single mile loop until you drop or go insane. Some are done on loops and pride themselves on the fact that only 5 or 6 competitors a year finish.
And ultras are different from your highly commercialized road races. There are no running tutus/costumes, cutesy shirts, medals you could use as a dinner plate, or hordes of fellow runners. You will probably get a medal. Maybe a mug. Probably a t-shirt. Maybe just the pure joy of surviving.
Ultras are the stripped down, anti-social, redneck cousin of prissy road races. You will get dirty. You will get wet. You will probably poop in the woods. You may run for hours without seeing another human. Pacers have been known to tell their runner “The lead is a half hour ahead of you and third place is an hour behind. If you don’t stop to sleep, you’ve got this in the bag!”
Ultramarathon runners are crazy.
And I want to be one of them.
To fair, I’ve been chasing this goal since 2015 when I learned what an ultramarathon was from a crazy runner friend. I almost immediately signed up for the Mississippi 50. I mean, I was already training for Ironman Augusta, how hard could it be to chuck in a few more miles on my feet each week?
Impossible, it turns out. On mile 22 of a training run a few weeks from race day, I broke down into tears, called my coach and told him I was backing out of Mississippi 50. Or, rather, I was dropping down to *only* the 20k (12.4 miles on trail) so I’d still be able to finish the 70.1 miles of Ironman Augusta.
The next year I signed up for the BUTS Barely Ultra as a “Heavy” half (13.4 miles on trail) and Mississippi 50 again but only completed the 20k. In my defense, I was sick. Don’t run sick, friends!
This spring of 2020, I was smart and signed up for only the 20k of Mississippi 50. I completed in my fasted time yet, a spanking pace of just over 2 hours and 30 minutes. I was 16th — not in my age group, not by gender, I was 16th overall. And 3rd for my age group and gender. That should tell you how slow and small the races are.
“Start at an easy pace, then slow down.” — Ultramarathoner’s pacing creed
Who are these crazy people?
Ultramarathoners are a rare breed. Not everyone is willing to run more than a marathon. Hell, few people are willing to run unless chased these days. But they seem to craw a diverse crowd. Nature lovers, yuppies abandoning the norm, former military chasing old glories, vegans with something to prove, carnivores with something to prove, stay at home moms who run for their sanity and waistline, PTSD survivors who runs for their sanity. But they are all people who simply love to run and enjoy chasing a goal that few people accomplish.
So, this year, I was asked by a coworker if I would like to complete the Bataan Memorial Death March. Bataan is a glorious 26.1 miles across sandy desert in late March to honor those who survived and perished on the Bataan Death March. Not one to avoid a challenge, I quickly agreed. I intended to complete it through a combination of running and walking — which got me thinking. If I can do that, how slowly could I finish MS50, only a few weeks prior, with a combination of walking and running? The answer is, I am allotted 12 hours to complete 50k. That’s only a 20-minute mile and I can hold 15 with relative comfort. So, I made the plan to be competing in not only the Bataan, but chasing down the Mississippi 50 again. And, since it aligned so nicely with my training schedule for December, why not throw in the BUTS Heavy Half again too?
After all, ultramarathoners are crazy. Why not live up to the reputation?
As it turns out, it was a crazy ride. But guess what? I finished! It was a hell of a road to get there, including a trip to the ER, being stuck on quarantine for what should have been my last two weeks of heavy training, and a tattoo inspired by almost dying. You can read all about it here or you can read about the calamity that was my post-race here.
I gave eight months of my life training for and finishing the ultramarathon. It inspired me to create the “Confessions from the Trail” blog series. Each week I will post on an aspect of ultramarathon running as I hope to inspire and inform fellow runners or those seeking a new challenge.