Dear neophyte ultra runner: You have two choices:
1. Do NOT read this post. In fact, block this blog from your device.
2. Read this post, but do the exact OPPOSITE of any suggestion contain within.
There, hopefully I won't be responsible for any more runners meeting an untimely end.
What this post is actually about, are a few anecdotal incidents and observations, which might provide some insight into the twisted reasoning of an ultra runner. Almost perfectly parallel to my training, this post is completely erratic and is in possession of limited logic and order. This is a little weird as in my professional life (I have been retired for 5 years now) I had to maintain more than a modicum of order, planning and logic.
What is it Like, to be an Ultra Runner?
It sucks. Think of a perfect hobby, then tick off which of the following list are represented:
- I have been thirsty since 1975.
- I am never adequately trained for any ultra I run.
- One of the best lines in Joseph Heller's (author of Catch 22) book entitled Good as Gold:
Before I started running, I was sore every morning. Now I'm sore all the time.
- If I sign up for a race that is not an ultra, I feel like a failure before the race even starts.
- There are no conspiracies except my doctors, who must talk behind my back about new and different reasons why I should stop running.
- The speed at which I run an ultra is inversely proportional to the hours of training I log in the 6 weeks leading up to a race. If this rule is applied to its logical conclusion, I perform best at ultras in which I have not run at all during the previous 6 weeks.
- Regardless of the rule above, I spend an inordinate amount of time training for a race in which I will perform miserably.
- Unlike shorter races, you do not "learn" from an ultra, aside from the fact that more things can go wrong in an ultra than can reasonably be expected.
- You need nutrition during an ultra. The best foods are those that are the worst for you. High on the list are pretzels, boiled potatoes dipped in salt, sugar and candy. Canada boasts a company that sells a gel (small package of sugar) made almost entirely of maple syrup. Go figure!
One of the most difficult aspects to grasp of ultra running, is that nutrition plays such an important role. I allude to this in the above paragraph, as nutrition heavily impacts the energy gauge. It is difficult to ingest more than 200 - 300 calories per hour while running. Shovelling in 1,000 calories in 38.2 minute is easy while sitting in a restaurant, but quite tricky while running over a mountain. Running (for someone my weight - no, please don't ask) expends between 500 and 1,000 calories per hour. Do you see the problem? You are at a net loss of 300 to 800 calories an hour during a race. These are supplied from the body's reserves. Please see the latest technical papers on how stored fat is converted to glycol by the liver, blah blah blah. This holds no interest to a runner who suddenly goes glycol deficient. The symptoms are usually revealed as charming items such as a death march or if you are lucky, hallucinations. Gels can help to alleviate the worst, so carrying a few extra is worth it. But the best approach is to fully understand your body and how much you can push it, before meltdown begins. This is quite easy to figure out, but takes time - usually 3 or 4 decades.
Run your own race. I often notice the 25K podium runners going at it all in a pack. That means that one person is setting the pace and the others (in the very small pack) are tagging along. The same happens in a marathon, with the elite. This is not such a great idea in an ultra, because if you attempt to run at someone else's pace, you are setting yourself up for considerable misery. During the ebb and flow of an ultra, your body hits good spots and low spots. These are typically influenced by your fuel, hydration and drug schedules, which will differ from someone else's timing. I rarely run a race with another person. Don't get me wrong, I run with other people - this can help to pass the time, especially when running with people I know. But I rarely plan to run the entire race with another person, because you must then travel at the slowest pace of the highs and lows of two people. Or suffer a lot more.
Embrace the experience. This is a shoddy way of saying "deal with it", but has some merit. The only constant in an ultra is that you will have low spots. These bad times are part of the experience and are instrumental in helping you to devise or alter your ultra training and race plans. As another runner once put it, if ultras were easy, everyone would do it. You run ultras to explore your limits. It is never comfortable near a limit!