How not to to an Ultra Marathon

I did my first ultra (ultramarathon) in January; any distance over 26.2 miles is considered an ultra. I did a 50k (31 miles), the shortest distance ultra distance one typically finds, but it taught me more about endurance sports than any IRONMAN, 6-day, 12 hour, or stage race that I have ever done. 

When I signed up for the Ultra Arches 50k race in Moab, Utah, I thought “this is no big deal, I’ve done a few full IRONMANs and a 50k is nowhere near as long.”  HAHAHA, what a ridiculous thought. 

I coached an athlete through full preparation for this race and I could not stress enough how important it was to be prepared for a 50k. Unfortunately, I did not take my own advice, which I sum up following this race recap.

There is definitely a different “atmosphere” to an ultra. I first noticed the difference at registration. The person that gave my race number asked me if I have ever done an IRONMAN (I was wearing my IRONMAN shirt). I said yes, and she went on to show me her M-Dot ankle tattoo. She told me that she stopped doing IRONMANs because they are too serious and ultras are more laid back. I figured that was a good sign since I was not taking the race very seriously.

With that, my wife and I went and found our hotel, got settled in, then went to get some food.

Good ‘ole nutrition, that’s a “Don’t” I did. To appreciate how “Don’t” I did, we need to go back about three weeks. My wife works out at a powerlifting gym, where three weeks prior to the ultra they had started a nutrition challenge. The challenge was a well-researched plan that is perfectly designed for a powerlifter. Unfortunately, it is not a good plan for an endurance athlete. I was invited to participate. The coach part of my brain told me that the challenge was a bad idea. The part of my brain that once told me to sign up for my first full IM ten days out said, “Definitely do the challenge, you can win a gift card.”  Anywho, I ate like a powerlifter for three weeks and just about could not finish a workout over an hour without bonking. It was not a good idea and not something I would ever recommend to my athletes.

Let’s go back to race day and my observations. I felt a little out of place because I might have been the only male without a beard. Before the race, everyone appeared to do the same warm-up, which was standing around a fire to stay warm. If that was not an example of the laid-back atmosphere, hearing a guy say, “Oh man these aren’t my running shoes,” a minute before the start definitely was.

The race got underway, and the first two miles were on the paved Moab bike path.  Everyone made the same comment about how they thought this was an offroad race, and again it was some nice laid back conversation.

 

(photo credit: John Von Flue)

 

Then we got on the dirt, which was great. It was the typical high desert dirt that I run in a few times a week. Then at mile five, the slickrock began. For those who have never experienced slickrock, it is basically a lumpy concrete parking lot.  All the soil gets blown away over time and only exposed rock remains.  We were on this for about six miles. 

The slickrock section included a couple “Don’ts” that I did. First, I went hard on this section, which was a bad idea since running in a lumpy parking lot really beats up the legs. Second, since I was feeling so good, I skipped the aid station. I felt great enough to catch the leaders around mile nine and I stayed with them for about ten miles.

Running with the leaders was a big eye opener to the world of ultras. They chatted about all the different micro-brews that are available in Moab, their plans for after the race, and their upcoming races. They were super friendly and laid-back guys. They even made me stop at the next aid station telling me that a quesadilla tastes best after fifteen miles of running. I ate with them and we walked a good mile before we started running again. Everything went well until right around mile eighteen when I took a drink from my hydration pack and just got a mouthful of air. Unlike my new running buddies, I did not top off my bladder at the last aid station and was now in a pretty bad situation about seven miles from the next aid station.

Mile nineteen was where everything started to fall apart for me.  It began with the only snow-covered section on the course, which was an icy three-quarter mile climb.  I got dropped nearly immediately and the next five miles were a bit of a blur.  I was cold, cramping, and tearing up. I bonked harder than I had ever bonked before. I do not know how, but I made it to the next, and final, aid station at mile twenty-five.

When I got to the aid station, I sat down and told the race official I was done.  But, as another example of the friendly laid-back atmosphere of the race, he did not let me drop out. I was told I had to sit there for a half an hour before he would pull me from the race. I was given what seemed like gallons of broth and several quesadillas. After twenty minutes he asked me how I felt, and much to my surprise I said I can make it the last six miles. I thanked him and all the other volunteers at the aid station and was on my way.

My second 25k was more than double my first 25k. But I did finish!

 

Coach Adam is an ultramarathoner (photo credit: Heather Sczech)

 

I learned a tremendous amount about ultras and in retrospect had a good time. 

Kent Walter, an athlete who I coach, also did the race and beat me soundly. He actually listened to his coach, which allowed him to have a good race!

 

Kent Walter and Coach Adam, pre-race (photo credit: Heather Sczech)

 

In summary, here are some of the ultra Do’s and Don’ts:

DO

  • Take a race with the word “ultra” in the name seriously
  • Stop and make sure you take in enough nutrition at every aid station
  • Fuel properly the day (and weeks) before the race
  • Do some recon on the terrain
  • LISTEN TO YOUR COACH

DON’T

  • Think that just because you have done other long races an ultra is “no big deal”
  • Assume you have enough hydration in you bladder/bottle to make it to the next aid station
  • Try to save time by skipping an aid station
Adam Sczech