I recently read a blog by Max King claiming that, “Ultra running is HARD.” He is right.
In the running club I belong to, we often tell prospective ultra-freaks (as we call ourselves), “Anyone who has done a marathon can do an ultra. You run slower. You train differently. Trails don’t hurt. It’s beautiful. Yada, yada, yada.”
While all of this is true, we usually neglect to say, “But ultras aren’t easy. They require strength, stamina, and discipline. You spend hours, upon hours, upon hours, of your weekend training. When you race, it’s an all day or even an all-weekend affair. Your family must support and encourage you or it will never work. Trails can hurt. Rocks, clay, roots, single track, hills up and hills down… they can all hurt. It can be hot, or wet, or muddy, or all three,… for 6, 10, 20 hours. Oh, and you might get lost. Yada, yada, yada.”
I have run seven ultras in the past 10 months. That’s a lot of 31-50 mile runs. In a way, you start to get used to it, and perhaps take it for granted.
For example, yesterday, I ran the San Lorenzo River 50K in Santa Cruz, CA. I didn’t even pack in advance. I got up 20 minutes before I left, tossed in some GU, filled my water, grabbed my map, and was out of the house. In fact, just the night before I had returned from a 9-day vacation.
But then I got to the event, and I was quickly zapped out of vacation-brain and reminded that all ultras are hard. Six+ hours of running isn’t a picnic, no matter what.
Wendell, the locally well-known race director who has recently departed Pacific Coast Trail Runs to focus on Coastal Trail Runs, stood next to a pole with blue tape up to his waist and said, “This is how high the river is today. The 50K runners have to cross four times.”
And then my friend Kim said, “I did this last year. It’s not a creek like Way Too Cool, it’s a real river. A river river.”
I then looked at the course profile, which Wendell and team always post at the start. While I had looked at it on vacation, I only really paid attention to the elevation gain. There was nothing over 800′, piece of cake. It didn’t quite register that there were 9 of these “piece of cake” climbs. They added up, I’ll tell you that.
Along the trail, which wasn’t terribly technical but did have it’s share of rocks and very packed ground, there was actually a multi-mile section of sand! Like a beach! I kid you not. This was totally unexpected, seeing that we were in the mountains and all.
At this point, I was running all alone and had nobody with whom to empathise. However, when heading back on my first out/back, I passed another 50K-er coming the other way. We looked at each other and simultaneously said, “What the hell was up with the sand?!!” Ahhh, the camaraderie of ultrarunners.
While San Lorenzo was far from the hardest ultra I have done — in fact I would describe it as moderately relentless — it did make me think, ultrarunning in general is hard. It’s fun, gorgeous, peaceful, and I love it, but it’s hard too. Let us not forget that. It took me 6 hours and 41 minutes. No female broke 6 hours. That’s a long tough day for everyone.
I spent some time at the finish line talking to the other runners. The second place female winner was talking about river crossing #4, at mile 28. ”Everything hurt at that point. The river didn’t matter any more.” Well put.
A few very cool things about this run.
I loved the river crossings. They added something new, the water felt great, and to be honest, they were just fun. Having said that, I do have a few little blisters on my feet today and I am sure that is why. They also added quite a bit of time, but hey, it was an even playing field so that shouldn’t really matter.
This run was super small. There were fewer than 25 ultramarathoners and a couple (literally) marathoners. This made the out and back course really nice. We all passed each other at least four times. I felt like we were in a cozy club. It was easy to track how every single runner was fairing, and we all encouraged each other along the way.
However, because the run was so small, I ran 24 miles of it on my own. I saw no other runner during those hours, except in passing. I happen to like running on my own and didn’t mind one bit, but not everyone would feel the same.
Within 24 hours, runners received links to a ton of photos, all of which we could download for free. I was stunned. I am so used to seeing a charge of $40-$60 for a finish line digital photo. We also received a link to take a quick survey that will help Coastal Trail Runs improve. I very much appreciated the ability to leave my feedback.
One piece of constructive feedback. We need potatoes at the aid stations and more PB&J. Oh, and I prefer the finishers coasters to finishers medals, but that might just be me.
All and all, another fine day to run a 50K, even if it was moderately relentless.
Funny side note. My brain was so done after the race, that I thought my car had been stolen. I even called my husband and said, “Honey, I have really bad news.” Turns out, I was just on the wrong street. Good Lord. What will happen to me when I do my first 100!