In 2012, my buddy John joined the Blue Ridge Relay GO FAR team. I’d later learn that he was using the relay as a training run for an upcoming ultramarathon. I thought, what an idiot. Then I thought, wait, what’s an ultramarathon?
In short, an ultramarathon is defined as any running event longer than the traditional marathon length of 26.2 miles (42 km). Good gravy, that sounds awful. Yeah, John is definitely an idiot.
After the BRR, John talked me into running the Pilot Mountain Payback Marathon. As we trained for the Payback and as we ran the race, John kept talking about running ultras. Eventually I fell victim to his persuasive tactics and signed on for the Triple Lakes Ultra 40 miler. Then I thought, I’m an idiot.
If you’ve run a marathon, then you’re pretty familiar with how to train for an ultra. You just have to run more. Between May and October I logged 600 miles. Most of my runs were on the road, about 100 miles were on trails, and my longest run was 29 miles. Beyond that, I didn’t do much more to prepare myself. I just ran, a lot.
Race day started at 5:15 AM. As most of my pre-sunrise runs go, I navigated my way around the house in the dark so as not to awaken the Kraken. Thirty minutes, a cup of coffee, and a few bathroom breaks later I was out the door and on my way to the grocery store for pre-race Gatorade and Imodium. Yeah, poop prevention is high on my list of priorities, especially for the longer runs.
I arrived at the park around 6:45 AM, grabbed my race packet, and gave John’s sister, Beth, my “special needs bag” of bananas, PB sandwiches, and a change of clothes (she took our bags to aid stations 18.5 and 28.5). John and I yucked it up with a couple other mo-runs (our unofficial ultra group name) and eventually the lot of us made our way to the start line.
With an unceremonious “Go!” from the race director we took off down the roadway to another roadway which led to a greenway which eventually took us to Little Loop, our first trail. John kept making comments like “too fast” and “slow down” and I just went on telling bad jokes. Chad and Jake shook their heads as they brought up the rear.
Not long after hitting Little Loop I heard Chad say, “Walking!” Now, you might be asking yourself, “What’s up with walking? Aren’t you racing?”
To answer your first question, the concept of walking in the middle of a race makes ZERO sense to someone who races shorter distances on paved surfaces. As I trained for this ultra I had to ditch the road racer mentality in favor of a finisher’s mentality which clearly states that in order to survive you must walk the hills.
As for your second question, in an ultra only about 10% of the participants are actually racing. The other 90% are just trying to hang on. Where do I fall? 10% ≤ ME ≤ 100%
A quick whoopdeedoo through the woods and we were back out on the greenway on our way to Big Loop. A few steps in, John took his first of six falls for the day. He was lucky, the gal we were about to come across was not.
We made our way down a root-covered decline when we approached a group of runners surrounding a woman on the ground who was holding her leg with both hands. As I got closer I could see why she was holding her leg with two hands. There was an 8″ gash from her knee to her ankle with fat and “stuff” hanging out. We offered assistance, but 9-1-1 was on the line with one of the runners on the scene. So, on we went.
Out of Big Loop we returned to the greenway for a short trot to Piedmont and the first aid station. I looked back to check for mo-runs and I couldn’t see Jake. He had been having IT band issues the two weeks leading up to the race and it was clear he was having issues today. No one ever said the ultrarunner’s motto was “Leave no runner behind” besides it’s not like we’re in the back woods of West Virginia. Good luck Jake!
With our group down to three we started in on Piedmont, a flatter section of the trail race that lured us in to running faster than we wanted to run. Up until this point we were right on target for 11 minute miles. However, Piedmont tricked us into a much quicker 9:45 pace for a mile or two.
Then Karma got me for laughing at John, and pushed me to the ground where I folded up like the QWOP runner. I hate you Karma.
A couple of miles later John fell and slowed his pace for a bit which left Chad and I chatting it up like two old ladies until aid station 8.2. We slugged back some water as we waited for John to catch up, grabbed a group shot when he did, and took off down Reedy Fork.
Seven days prior to race day the weather forecast called for upper 70s. By midweek, that forecast had changed to lower 80s. On race day, the forecast called for temps nearing 90F. To getter a better sense of my day take a look at this little graphy poo and follow the red line from 8AM to 5PM. Now think back to what Ralphie says in A Christmas Story when he spills the lug nuts. With me now?
By the time we popped out on to Church Street on our way to the next aid station the temperature was 80F. AT TEN O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING IN OCTOBER!
Besides being an oasis in the desert, aid station 11 was also the point in the race where the marathon separates from the ultra, or where ultramarathoners can say “F*** THIS!” and switch to the marathon. I know of a couple of runners who took the marathon option, and I can’t say I blame ’em.
Anywho, Chad stopped at the aid station to hydrate for one minute and left. I stopped to hydrate and eat for 2 minutes and left. If you’re any good at math you will have concluded that Chad left before me. And if you’re good at drawing conclusions you’ve figured out that there’s a strong possibility that it was just me, myself, and I for the remaining 29 miles.
For a time I tried to catch up with Chad, coming as close as 100 yards of him as we ran on Peninsula. But then I remembered a discussion we had back on Big Loop about the possibility of contracting Hepatitis from eating M&Ms that had been handled by people who didn’t/couldn’t wash their hands after pooping in the woods. The moral of that story was, “Some people need to make their own mistakes.” Well, I wasn’t about to make my own mistake so I slowed my pace instead of trying to catch up with Chad because I figured I needed my gas tank half full and not half empty. You follow? Great. Let’s move on.
I finished Peninsula where I caught another glimpse of Chad on Church St. before he jumped onto Osprey. A minute later I hit the trail, but Chad was nowhere to be seen (seriously, that guy is a horse). Two miles later I snapped a selfie for the folks back home. “Hi MOM!”
That’s when it occurred to me, “Where is everyone?” Seriously, there was no one else on the trail. No day hikers. No dog walkers. No sasquatch. No one. And what about the other ultra runners? Where the heck did they go? Well, my questions were answered around 11AM when I was passed by the lead runner. Then another and another. I started counting runners. Then I got bored of counting runners, or perhaps I was just depressed that I was so far back, so I stopped counting.
Whatever, I crossed over from Osprey to Townsend. Ran up and down hills. Over roots. Under trees. Down a steep cliff with stairs. Through an open field where the sun pierced through to my soul. Waved to Chad as he was going the other way. And finally climbed a generous incline to the turnaround. On arrival, I heard my name and saw Beth and OMD. Hurray! People!
I changed shirt, socks, and calf sleeves. Drank water, and ate a banana and a PB sandwich (while Beth filled my bottles <– thanks!). And then I broke the cardinal rule of in-race pain relief. I took two ibuprofen to help manage the foot pain brought on by my three-week old buddy, plantar fasciitis. Yes, I know. You’re not supposed to take NSAIDs when running, but the alternative with 20+ miles to go was less attractive than possible kidney failure. Don’t judge me!
Fully fueled I turned over the key and headed back down Townsend. As I did, I passed Texas, a dude that John and I ran into at the knob during Pilot Mountain Payback. Not long after I was colored surprised when Jake rolled up on me. He said he was hurting, and didn’t think he was going to make it much further (he ended up bailing at 23). Half mile later I saw John who looked worse than Jake and I combined. I made fun of him. He made fun of me. I made fun of him more. And then we went in opposite directions.
I continued on through Townsend and Osprey and eventually over to Peninsula where I began to feel a wee woosy. Not tired-from-running woosy, but I’m-pretty-sure-my-organs-will-be-shutting-down-soon woosy. Dehydration was a concern as was heat exhaustion. I asked my brain to dig deep into the archives of survivalist tactics I may or may not have seen on the Discovery Channel and boy did my brain deliver.
“OK Chris, I was talking it over with some of the other voices and we kind of remember seeing Bear Grylls or Les Stroud pee in a goat bladder or an ox skull to test pee toxicity so that’s what we think you should do.” Given my brain’s natural ability to come up with great ideas like run an ultra, I obliged and peed on the ground. Sure enough, everything that came out was dark #ffff00. Thankfully, I was only a mile from the aid station.
HELLO AID STATION 25! On arrival I proceeded to alternate dumping bottles of water and Gatorade on my head and pouring them down my throat. Once cooled down and filled with fluids I jumped back in the race and headed down Laurel Bluff.
Holy Foxtrot did Laurel Bluff suck arse. The 88 degree heat was getting to me, and I was having a pretty rough time. On the upside, aid station 28.5 was up next and with it my other PB sandwich and banana! That bit of knowledge kept my legs moving. More running. More hills. More delusions. Fast forward to the aid station.
As I began drinking and snacking I overheard a dude in old sneakers and big headphones talking to a volunteer about the ultra. His bib said “40 Miler” but I hadn’t seen him during the race. Perhaps he turned at 11 and opted for the marathon, but why was he only at 28.5? His story to the young female volunteer came out like a pickup line, “My longest run before this was an 8-mile race.” This story smelled like Rosie Ruiz.
Well as the dude finished jib-jabbing, a plump German woman showed up. This lady was wearing the stereotypical old person pair of shorts, old person shirt, and old person fanny pack. She talked a bit to the volunteer, then to the dude, then she took off down the trail…running behind the dude.
What the heck is going on with this aid station? Before Bizzaro World sucked me into its vortex of absurdity I took off down Nat Greene where I passed Dude Ruiz and Frau Runner.
SIDEBAR: I saw Dude Ruiz at the finish line wearing a finisher medal. Even though I passed him on Nat Greene, he managed to arrive before me and was bragging about how difficult the 40 was to anyone within an earshot. ಠ_ಠ
Anywho back on the trails I felt my legs come to life and my pace drop back down to lower elevens. Eventually I hit mile 30 and snapped a proof of life shot for my wife.
I crossed the greenway, was cheered on by a passerby, and rolled up to the aid station where my sister and her family were cheering me on. What a great and welcome surprise!
I talked with my sister, niece, and broham-in-law. They dialed my wife and put her on speaker.
With 8 miles to go I called up a little Eminem to get me going. Though, in my head the song sounded nothing like the original.
Two miles later my foot misstepped on Palmetto and I tumbled to the ground for the second time of the day. I was getting tired and a little frustrated. Palmetto was taking way longer than I anticipated. And of the two remaining trails, Palmetto was the easier one.
I popped out of the trail to the greenway and up to the final aid station where I refilled my bottle and drank some Gatorade. Just one more trail to go, Owl’s Roost.
At this point in the race I began having several two-way conversations with my legs. Before long, things just started to break up like a rocket on re-entry.
3 miles to go…Keep it together foot!
2.5 miles to go…Release the pressure under right toenails middle, ring, and big!
2 miles to go…Loosen the hammy! LOOSEN THE HAMMY!
1 mile to go…Dear God! There’s a fire in the left shoulder!
Then I came around the corner and saw the greenway. Holy expletive I was happier than a puppy with two peters. All that was left between me and the finish line was a single half-mile lap around a pond.
I moved my feet with my eyes focused on the finish. With less than a hundred yards to go I saw the clock: 08:59:34. There was no way I was going over 9 hours. I dug deep and found some sprint in my legs.
The moment I crossed the finish line I realized the ultra runners started four minutes after the clock started. Whatever. The point is I finished my first ultramarathon. And it only took me 8 hours 56 minutes and 46 seconds.
The Triple Lakes Ultra was a great race to run. The trails were tough, but not over the top for a first time ultramarathoner. I could’ve done without the heat, but the race organizers can’t do it all. Speaking of, huge props to the event staff and volunteers. Everyone involved was helpful, and all the trails were very well marked.
I’m glad I ditched the Garmin for a no frills Timex. Wearing a non-GPS watch allowed me to listen to my legs instead of being a slave to my pace. I probably could’ve run the race in Vibram Bikilas, but I’m glad I stuck with my Pure Drifts though I most definitely should not have run with plantar fasciitis. Oh, and I really should’ve run more trails closer to race day.
A big thanks to my wife for letting me train for months, to my sister and her family for coming out to support me, to those who trained with me, to Beth and OMD for their race day support, Chad and Jake for being a couple of mo-runs, and to John for talking me into this nonsense.
Now, where should I run my next ultra?
Got thoughts on my first ultra? Would you like to join me for the next one? Share your thoughts below or send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.