One of the biggest influences in my running life has been Joe Puleo. I first met Joe when I was a medical student in Philadelphia and he was the owner of the Haddonfield Running Company, a specialty running shop in Haddonfield, NJ. I started taking the PATCO train out to Haddonfield on Wednesday nights to join their group runs and Joe and I became good friends. He was my coach through residency and for several years afterwards, guiding me to some of my best performances, including my marathon PR and my first few 50Ks. Joe is a fantastic coach, both for private clients and at the high school and collegiate levels; he is also the coach of the elite marathon team for the US Marine Corps. He is also the author of Running Anatomy, which is a must-read if you are a runner looking to build functional and core strength (and if you're not, you should be).
Joe has a long competitive history as a collegiate and post-collegiate athlete, including having been one of the top amateur triathletes in the country, and can still drop a sub-5:00 mile when he's fit, but until this year has always considered ultra running to be pretty stupid. However last week he ran his first ever 50K, and when he asked if he could commandeer the blog to share his experience, I was only too happy to say yes. I'd like to invite anyone else who has a story to share to take over the blog as well, as long as you also happen to be one of the ten most influential people in my life.
Anyway, here's Joe's race report. He sounds just like a real ultrarunner! But he probably still thinks it's stupid.
On December 19, 2014 I began to think about my New Year’s resolutions. I decided that besides losing a few pounds, doing bikram yoga, and incorporating more high fiber foods to my diet I would also run an ultra marathon. All of the previous statements are false except for the final one. The final is just plain stupid. I had averaged about 14 miles/week for 2014, and I had a long run of eleven miles in early November, yet I felt pretty good about my fitness. So, why not run an ultra! A lot of my friends do them, and two athletes I coached just finished JFK in approximately eight hours. They reported it was not miserable. Why not run an ultra?
I reviewed a list of ultras on some website devoted to the silliness of running hours and hours, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, m&m’s, and licorice, (also Oreos) until I found the perfect race: The Frosty Fifty. Four 7.75 mile loops of a mostly flat hard-packed trail. I don’t enjoying running on any hard surface, my 48 year-old body has about 45,000 miles of jogging on the odometer. Also, the temperature would be 45-50 degrees, not 75-80 degrees. After burning my hair (I think that is what I did. It smelled like it) in a race in the early 1990’s, I have an aversion to running in the heat, unless it is dry heat like in Sacramento where I ran last summer when it was 101 degrees. Then, the heat is ok. An added bonus was the race was in Winston-Salem, NC so I could visit two of my closet friends.
So I signed up, and started planning my training. I decided to run a few, easy, five mile trail runs and race a 5k (roads) as my prep. I did not do a long run because it would unduly fatigue me for my race, which was two weeks away.
That is normally the duration of a marathon taper, not the length of an ultra training program. Actually, I think Dean Karnazes claimed in Runner’s World and Vanity Fair that he ran for two weeks straight. No sleep, no solid food (just yak urine fortified with manna from the Gods), and no shoes (Christopher McDougall wrote the article), so running about ten miles a week for the two weeks leading up to the race made total sense to the contrarian side of my personality.
I re-read all of Jay Friedman’s blog posts to see if I could glean “magic” insights that could help me master the distance and enjoy the experience. The most cogent piece of information was actually from Lexi , “Then I ran around a corner and there was the finish line. Everyone was cheering for me and that felt embarrassing but good.”
I couldn’t wait for that feeling. It would be worth enduring running two weeks worth of mileage in one morning.
I packed my bags with my planned racing gear.
Nike Air Pegasus 10.5
Open Eye Café’s Defeet AirEator socks md.
Hind wind briefs xl
Puma short tights lg
Nike clima-fit running pants md
Patagonia short-sleeve base layer md
Saucony Razor jacket (water-proof) md
EMS sports liner gloves
PearlIzumi water shell gloves
Sugoi Waterproof jogging cap
(I felt a bit like Homer, in the Iliad, listing the roster of ships, but Jay Friedman describes all his clothing choices, so I figured that is what we ultra runners do).
I brought five GU’s of various flavors, a handful of saltstick caps, and a packet of Skratch to mix with water as part of my hydration plan. The rest of my hydration plan consisted of water, Mountain Dew, and Coke at the aid stations during the race, and sampling a lot of the microbrews and coffees in Asheville after the race.
I flew to Raleigh on Friday, January 2nd, arriving at 11:20 am. A driver sent from the race picked me up at the airport (actually it was my best friend, Scott Conary, owner of Carrborro Coffee Roasters, the Open Eye Café, and Caffé Driade in the Chapel Hill area of NC.). We had lunch at Mama Dip’s Kitchen. I had the chicken potpie, cornbread and greens. After gathering ourselves, we had dinner and then drove to Mocksville, NC to stay with friends, Dave Salmon, the former food service director at my alma mater Elizabethtown College, his wife Diane, and their daughter Amy, who lives next door.
Scott, Dave, and I ran together while at Elizabethtown, and our friendship has endured for thirty years. Scott was planning to bike on the trails during the race, and Dave was planning to run with me for a loop. At 72 years old, he still can muster up the energy to help me. We caught up until 12:30am and I woke at 5:15am, but felt totally rested. Diane, per usual (we ate at their home regularly after long runs or races while in college), fed us a hearty breakfast (oatmeal, eggs, toast, fruit, coffee) that I ate whole-heartedly (I was about to run 31 miles), and at 6:15 we began the: 45 drive to Salem Lake in Winston-Salem.
I get to the lake at 7:15, check-in, get dressed, and sit in the car until 7:50 am. I walk down to the start, use the port-a-john, and join the 250 or so runners (about 125 in the accompanying 25k). At 8:00 am the race director wishes us luck, starts the race, and off we go. I immediately start jogging. Unlike shorter races which I am competitive in (age-group wise) I have no interest in racing an ultra. There is only one goal: finish the race, and enjoy the emotion Lexi felt upon completing her triathlon.
I naturally settle into a 9:35-9:45/mi pace. Slower than my training pace for endurance runs (8:35-9:03), but I feel comfortable, and my stride feels natural. I spend the first five miles of the loop talking with a nice man from Winston-Salem who trains regularly on the loop we are running. He describes the whole course and tells me that he wants to break 2:30 for the 25k. I ask what pace that is. He says, “I don’t know, but I want to break 2:30. As a running coach I find that to be a strange approach to pacing. But what do I know. I still have three loops to go before I am an ultra marathoner and can make judgments on others race strategies.
The second loop starts and I find myself running with Jill Baulieu, a fifty-three year-old female 25k runner who began running approximately four years ago. When I walk up the hills she scoots ahead and I reel her back in on the flats. We are averaging 9:40-9:45 miles, and I feel fine. Not cold, not hot. No real fatigue despite passing 11 miles, my longest run in over two months. She is a genuinely nice woman and the loop disappears in conversation about our life stories.
As Jill runs up the last hill in preparation to finish her 25k, I eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and walk gradually up the same hill. I think of how proud all my ultra friends would be of me, keeping my heart rate down and eating “fat-ass” food. I am getting this ultra thing.
For the third lap, Dave, my 72 year-old friend jogs along side of me. He has just come from leading a beginning runner’s group run where he ran four miles. I forget that Dave is pretty old. I am transported back 25 years ago when we ran together pretty much daily, a time when roles were reversed and I paced him through 18 miles of the Northern Central Trail marathon. As we pass an aid station a volunteer yells congratulations to Dave for being the top 70-74 ranked age group runner in Davie County. Dave mumbles something back, Dave is good at mumbling, and then we march on through miles 19, 20, and 21.
We talk about how our lives have changed the past 25 years, but in so many ways we are doing exactly what we were doing then. Running long and talking about the circumstances of our lives. I stop at the aid station at mile 6.5 (approximately mile 24 of the race) and drink some Coke and Mountain Dew. I don’t eat any more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They are nasty. I peel off my jacket in preparation for my last lap. I am planning to run fast to get this over with! Dave and I have been running 10-minute miles, and I am hoping to drop down closer to 9:00/mi.
Dave asks if I want to have him continue with me and I say, “No, I need to do the next few miles on my own.” Big mistake! As soon as I start the last lap my natural desire to run fast takes hold. My best event is the mile. I have fast twitch fibers that love to be used. I had fought the desire to listen to my “natural” instinct to run fast by relying on my “wise” instinct to be patient (sort of like not succumbing to the siren sound, Homer again, of the fourth microbrew when three works perfectly well). Why the hell at mile 24 would I change my mindset? I admit it I am weak, a man of sin, I can’t control my impulses, but by mile 28 I find myself no longer able to lift my knees. And as any runner knows if you can’t lift your knees, you can’t lift your feet off the ground. If you can’t lift your feet, you invariably trip over pebbles and twigs on the course. Anything higher than an inch becomes a steeplechase barrier. I do not hurdle well, so I shuffle, walk, amble, meander, and sidle my way to the final hill, which I charge up like a champion! Actually, I do nothing of the sort. I whine like a sissy as my psoas muscles totally give out and I am reduced to a stiff-legged walk up the hill as my glutes join my psoas in picketing the endeavor of the final climb.
Finally, with the finish line in sight I switch gears and remember the joy that Lexi described upon finishing her triathlon. I can’t wait for the adulation of the adoring crowd. I turn to Scott and Dave, and say I will see them at the finish, take pictures. I throw them my running pants and t-shirt so I can triumphantly straddle jog down the hill, wearing a singlet and short tights, which I hope, make me look good in the post-race pictures. They don’t. I look tired and old which is exactly how I felt. I forget to look at the clock, it is not relevant to my performance, but later learn that I ran 5:22:00, and finished 40th.
My takeaway from the race is that 50k’s are not difficult if you run slow enough. I would not have changed from my 10:00 pace on the last lap if I had a do-over. Also, I would have run a few runs of two plus hours in preparation. Not in the two weeks leading up to the race, but probably in the two months before the race. My psoas and glute muscles gave out because they were not trained enough (read, at all).
The rest of my body felt pretty good, and after soaking in a 40 degree creek in Black Mountain, NC the next day I went mountain biking in the mountains around Asheville the following morning. I had some lingering glute pain on Wednesday when I went for a jog, but I don’t think it is an injury, just a welcome soreness. It means that I ran well, and that my muscles are firing correctly.
Unfortunately, unlike Lexi’s experience at the kid’s triathlon nobody was cheering for me when I finished, but it didn’t matter. I got handed a handmade pottery Christmas ornament that says I finished an ultra marathon, and that is pretty cool.
Will I do another one? Not that the universe or anyone reading this cares, but the answer is a definite, “we’ll see.” I have a desire to run JFK and Comrades for the experiences, so I need to qualify, but I also have many other challenges I want to take on, so I am not sure of how much a priority revisiting ultra running will be. For now, I am proud to have completed one, and to have joined the great bunch of people who have earned the moniker ultra marathoner.