Ultramarathoner in training

An ultramarathon is anything longer than the 26.2 mile distance of a marathon, but the shortest common distance that qualifies is 50K, which is about 31 miles.

Before this last Saturday, I had done a trail marathon with over 7000′ of climbing in April, and had covered 30.3 miles in a flat fixed-time (6 hours) event in May. But I hadn’t technically completed a real ultramarathon, especially under the hilly trail conditions that are common to such events.

Saturday I did, in the hills above Pacifica, California. The event was put on by Pacific Coast Trail Runs, and offered distances of 9K, 21K, 30K, and 50K (my distance). This was the sixth of their events I have participated in (one per calendar month, as it turns out). It was an unusually hot day, eventually reaching a high of 87°F in Pacifica, where the average for that date is 70°F. Since I intended to take it as easy as possible, I was in the back of the group at the start, so I didn’t hear all of the instructions. After five previous events I thought I knew everything they were likely to say.

The route was five segments, all starting and finishing at the one aid station:

  • North Peak: 7.2 miles with about 1700′ of climbing in a mostly out-and-back route
  • Hazelnut Loop: 5.8 miles with about 1230′ of climbing in a clockwise loop
  • Hazelnut Loop (counterclockwise)
  • North Peak
  • Hazelnut Loop (clockwise again)

At the 8:30am start everyone doing the 21K, 30K, and 50K distances were together on a quickly narrowing path heading to North Peak, so all but the few ambitious enough to think they were possible leaders were walking. That was fine with me since it kept my heart rate mostly in the range I intended even though we were headed up some pretty good hills. After a bit over two miles we came out onto a wider fire road, and of course now that it was easy to pass people I pushed a little too hard, getting my heart rate slightly above 160bpm on a couple of occasions, even though I was still walking and my plan had been to keep below 150bpm. The heat had something to do with that, and even on the way back down I found the level of effort higher for a descent than it would have been under cooler conditions. I was still feeling okay, but not as good as I had hoped I might. This segment had taken about 1:53, meaning it was now almost 10:30 am.

The next section was the Hazelnut Loop, which has a short-to-medium climb and a longer climb. I was still well under halfway done for the day and already getting slow enough to wonder about making the 9-hour time limit. This loop took about 1:38, which comes out to just under 17 minutes/mile, which is about as fast as I needed to average for the whole 50K. And it was still getting hotter (it was about noon when I finished this loop), so getting slower was far more likely than getting faster.

The printed directions said that the third section would be the Hazelnut Loop again but in the opposite direction, which meant that on the first loop (the one I had just finished) I should have seen a bunch of faster racers passing me in the opposite direction. But the people who had been passing were going around the loop in the same direction I was. It turns out that the directions at the start of the race, which I couldn’t hear, indicated that due to the trails being unusually narrow the Hazelnut Loop would only be used in the clockwise direction this time. So much for knowing what they were saying at the start.

So it was back out to do the third segment, which was the same Hazelnut Loop I had just done. Near the start of the loop I noticed a drinking fountain just off the course, so I took an extra minute to soak my hat in water, which was great for a little while. But even with the coolness from the hat, this loop was probably the hardest part of my day, since it was hot, the 21K and most of the 30K racers were already done, and I knew that even when I was done with this loop I still had to go up North Peak again and do Hazelnut a third time. I started wondering what the people officiating the race would do if it was clear I would finish over the time limit, since that was seeming increasingly likely. I decided, after some moments of serious doubt, that I would keep going unless they told me I had to stop, even if that meant not officially finishing. This time the loop took about 1:41 (compared with 1:38 the first time), though it felt even slower.

At the aid station I did ask Sarah (the female side of the Pacific Coast Trail Runs organization) what would happen if I was over the time limit. She said I still looked like I would be okay, but didn’t make any promises. I discovered there was one person just behind me, which was a surprise since I had figured that I must be in last place by now. One of the volunteers told me to catch some of those ahead of me, to which I responded with something like, “right, like that’s going to happen.”

The singletrack trail up North Peak went on forever. I kept thinking I was about to break out onto the fire road, and it kept not happening. But of course eventually I did reach the fire road, and I saw that there were some people coming back down who weren’t all that far ahead of me, which felt good. I was able to appreciate the view a little more this time, and things didn’t seem so bad, especially after I reached the top and headed back down. At least I was done with that climb for the day.

And then something great happened. A cool breeze started making itself felt every so often. We were probably seven hours into the race (meaning it was around 3:30 pm), but it still helped a lot. On the way back down the singletrack I still didn’t run the whole time, but eventually I did catch and pass one other runner. Even so, at about 2:10 for this segment, I was 17 minutes slower than I had been the first time I went up North Peak. My pace for this segment was also just over 18 minutes/mile, which wasn’t fast enough.

The runner I passed turned out to also be named Mike, and we spent the first climb and descent of the final Hazelnut Loop talking. After that descent (for which he set a great steady pace, by the way) there is a slightly climbing gravel road. I started feeling just a little bit energetic, so I left him behind there—I was still walking, but with more intent. The final climb felt much better than the previous one, though I suspect I was only a little faster. It’s amazing what a cool breeze, even an intermittent one, can do for your spirits.

As it became clear that I would make 31 miles in under nine hours, a weight started to lift. Then it took a little longer for a milestone to appear that I knew was about a mile from the finish. Still, I was on track to finish in time. And I did. I was the 36th of 37 finishers, and at 8:53:06, just barely beat the 9-hour time limit (the other Mike was three minutes behind me, so he made it too—the person who had been behind me after three segments dropped out after North Peak and before starting the final loop). Considering that it was less than a year ago that I first ran 10 miles, and this ended up registering 31.8 miles on my GPS, I’m fine with that result.

That final Hazelnut Loop ended up taking about 1:31. At the time I thought it was probably faster than my second time around the loop, but I was surprised after looking at the GPS data to see that it was actually seven minutes faster than even the first time.

It was a hard day. I talked to a couple people with twisted ankles and one with a tweaked knee. Maybe that was their body’s way of getting them to stop. I drank well over two gallons of liquids and never needed a bathroom. But somehow I ended the 50K feeling better than I did much earlier in the event. And feeling stronger at 31 miles than at 15 miles was very cool.

I recently heard a quote from the Bible on the Endurance Planet podcast that seems appropriate: “We rejoice in our sufferings because suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”


4 Responses to “Ultramarathoner in training”

  1. Connie Kleinjans Says:

    Mike, I’m proud of you. xxxooo your wife

  2. Why ultramarathons? « Random Musings About Movies and More Says:

    […] Random Musings About Movies and More Watch this space… « Ultramarathoner in training […]

  3. Sarah (PCTR) Says:

    Congrats on your first trail ultra finish, Mike! Way to go on your last Hazelnut Loop – that is really something of which to be proud!

    Glad that you’ve qualified for the 50-miler in August – I look forward to seeing you out there.


  4. One Down, Two to Go « Random Musings About Movies, Running, and More Says:

    […] at my first 50K in June, I had a 140bpm average heart rate and felt like I was going to die, so I’ve run 50Ks […]

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