Am I an Ultra-Runner Now? Running my First 12-Hour Ultra Event

Wandering down the rabbit-hole of ultra-running research is a fascinating process. Opinions abound on nutrition, preparation, and pacing. Take the following questions, for instance:

  • Nutrition: How many calories is optimal to keep the body fueled without overfueling? Is Keto the best diet for ultra-runners? Does intermittent fasting help the body manage fuel deficits?
  • Preparation: Should ultra-runners focus on quality of mileage or quantity of mileage? Are interval training, hill repeats, and tempo runs important for 50 mile+ runs? What’s the optimal weekly mileage count for training – 70 miles? 80 miles? 130 miles? 140? Should ultra-runners be concerned about VO2 max and Critical Power?
  • Pacing: What kind of pacing is optimal for an ultra? Should runners go out one minute per mile slower than their marathon pace? Start slow so they can end with consistent mile splits? Start fast and then grind out the end? Do some sort of run/walk combo throughout? Are trails better for ultras than road running because the diverse muscles used slows fatigue?

All of these questions and more came up as I learned about what it means to be an ultra runner.

Sucking down some nutrition.

My research going into the event was as far reaching as the platforms for research are in the modern age. It included

  • Numerous google searches centered on nutrition and training
  • Watching inspirational ultra-documentaries such as
    • The Barkley Marathons,
    • Unbreakable: The Western States 100,
    • Wonderland: Gary Robbins’ FKT around Mt. Rainier,
    • and many others
  • Podcasts from Science of Ultra, Trail Runner Nation, and Ginger Runner
  • Perhaps, best of all, advice from other athletes.

An Abbreviated Training Plan

Training for this event was similar to how I’ve trained for marathon events in the past, following this weekly formula (mileage was shorter for the first 4 weeks):

  • Monday: 10-12 mile run
  • Tuesday: 10-12 mile hill repeats/interval work (alternate weekly)
  • Wednesday: 10-12 mile hilly run
  • Thursday: 10-12 mile hill repeats/interval work (alternate weekly)
  • Friday: 3-5 mile active recovery day (usually a slow run with the dog)
  • Saturday: Long run day (peak week hit 31.5 miles)
  • Sunday: Funday – either a 6-12 mile trail run or a bike ride with friends

*I also did a 30 minute weight lifting routine at the start of each day, 5 days a week.*

What made this training different from other training circuits was the length of the race (12 hours, go as far as you can) and the amount of time I had to train. My training circuit for this event was short – about 9 weeks total.

So let me rephrase that. It was VERY short.

To put it in perspective: my sister let me borrow her ultra-running training book and most of the training plans were 4 months long or longer. I had half that.

So I did what any amateur athlete on a time crunch would do: I turned the pages of the book until I was right in the middle of one of the training plans and started there.

Let me briefly defend myself:

Up until April I had been planning and training for a 2,700 mile bike race called the Tour Divide.

When it was clear that the Tour Divide wasn’t happening due to the COVID19 outbreak, I decided to switch gears and do something totally different; and a virtual 12-hour race was the perfect solution.

That being said, my mileage was focused more on quality than quantity, pushing the limits of my VO2 max during interval training and trying to max out on the toughest hill repeats I could find in Salem.

In the last three weeks of my training, including peak week, I was in the high 70s and low 80s for a weekly mileage count, which I was proud of based on the brevity of my training plan.

Training: What I would Change

While I think the quality vs. quantity model worked well for me in the time frame that I had, in the future I would use this strategy at the start of my training (first 8 weeks) and then transition to a focus on mileage, or quantity.

In the last 4-6 weeks I would drop interval and hill repeat work and focus on daily doubles, getting up into the 100s+ for a weekly mileage count. I also think that doing a long run Saturday AND Sunday (when the legs are already fatigued) would be a great way to better prepare for the 12-hour slog of an ultra.

Next time.

Race Recap

The morning of the race began at 3am when I got up to drink some coffee and begin my race day routine. My friend Seth had come over the night before to be a support during the race, as well as to document the event itself – the good, the bad, and the ugly – with film and photos, so he was up shortly after me.

All of the pictures and video (to come) are thanks to Seth – you’re the man Seth!

The man behind the lens.

4:45am snuck up on all of us pretty quickly, and last minute preparations like my ‘aid station’ in the garage, change of clothes options, tech prep, and gear shakedown, all were checked and finalized. Trish gave me a countdown from the doorway as I stood in the dark at 4:59am, and when 5am struck, Seth and I were off.

The weather forecast when I woke up for the day predicted 3/4 inch of rain starting at 5am, but the morning started without any sign of rain at all. It was overcast and 55 degrees – pretty much perfect conditions for running.

The First 20 miles

After looking at other’s goal paces and thinking about what speed feels easy to me, I foolishly settled on a 7:40 pace mile, thinking I could hold that slow pace pretty much indefinitely. My marathon pace is about a 6:15, so 7:40 would be easy, right?

So foolish.

I set out to run 5 mile laps that averaged out to roughly a 7:40 mile, and I pretty much succeeded:

  • Lap 1 Average (5 miles): 7:38 minute mile
  • Lap 2 Average (5 miles): 7:36 minute mile
  • Lap 3 Average (5 miles): 7:43 minute mile
  • Lap 4 Average (5 miles): 7:27 minute mile

Things were feeling pretty good after these first 20 miles, or 4 laps, except for just a bit more quad tightness than I had expected to feel after 20 miles. No big deal though. And the weather had behaved perfectly, with the one exception being a 5 minute downpour and some pretty exciting lightning right around mile 18.

Throughout these 20 miles, my friend Seth was in his element, taking pictures and video of the run, racing ahead of me on his bike to catch a cool angle in the grass. It was a really fun distraction to see the artist at work. Seth spent about 9 of the 11 hours (foreshadowing) of the race with me. That’s one pretty solid friend.

Nutrition for Miles 1-20

I took a relatively quick 10 minute break back at the house to change my shirt and shoes, apply a bit more anti-chafe cream, and ate the following:

  • Overnight Oats for Breakfast (~600 calories)
  • 1/2 banana (~60 calories)
  • 1/2 Oatmeal/peanutbutter cup thingy Trish made me (~125 calories)
  • A few big swigs of lemonade (~250 calories)
  • 1 Hammer Anti-Fatigue Cap

Then it was time for round 2. It was a little after 7:30am.

It’s also important to note that once every hour or so, I took 1 packet of Hammer Gel to keep the calories and carbs in the system. In total on these first 4 legs, I took 3 gels, which equals out to about 300 calories, bringing my grand total of calories up to 1,335 calories consumed.

Miles 21-35

I had decided beforehand that I was going to run 15 miles out in the Salem parks as the second ‘leg’ of my mileage. Right before I left for this segment of running, Trish told me that my sister – an experienced marathoner and ultra-runner – said she thought I had gone out too fast for my first 20 miles and that I should think about slowing down a bit to see how it feels for the next bit of running.

Since I was a little more sore in the quads then I had expected, I thought this was probably good advice, so I decided to roll it back into the 8s for this round. My 5 mile splits were as follows:

  • Lap 5: 7:54 minute mile (oops)
  • Lap 6: 8:06 minute mile
  • Lap 7: 8:31 minute mile

This final 5 mile lap officially surpassed the most mileage I have ever done in a day, at 35 miles. I rolled in to find a number of friends cheering at our doorstep, which was a wonderful surprise, not to mention Seth, who once again spent all 15 miles finding new angles to shoot film and video of the experience.

I was actually feeling pretty gassed at 35 miles, which was concerning for me. After slowing down into the 8s for my final 10 miles I figured things would start to correct themselves, but slow miles or not, I was tired.

Nutrition for Miles 21-35

Again, I switched shirts, changed my shoes, and ate the following:

  • 1/2 banana (~60 calories)
  • 1/2 Oatmeal/peanutbutter cup thingy Trish made me (~125 calories)
  • 1 Beech Nut Veggie Blend Packet (~75 calories)
  • A few big swigs of lemonade (~250 calories)
  • 1 Hammer Anti-Fatigue Cap

One of the friends waiting at the house for me was a fellow runner – Abdul – and he planned to run the next leg of miles with me. I didn’t have a plan after 35 miles – reading my body and making a judgment call was the best I could do in such uncharted territory, but I knew that 10 miles was definitely in the cards for me, if not more, so once again we set off for the next leg.

It was just before 10am.

I had eaten two packets of Hammer Gel during the run which equals out to about 200 calories, meaning that for this 15 mile segment, I consumed a total of 710 calories.

Miles 36-50 (52, technically)

It was clear as soon as I started running that things were going to be different from here on out. My legs were incredibly stiff, and once we got to the Salem parks (about 1.5 miles from my house), I felt like my leg muscles were clenching and constricting my movement. The result was a running gate whose length progressively shortened until I felt like I was doing more of a trot than a gallop.

I couldn’t help but feel concerned for both Seth and Abdul. Here they were supporting me and pacing along with me on this run – Seth on his bike taking photos and video, and Abdul hoping for at least a bit of a workout – and I was suddenly running 9+ minute miles.

I found myself telling them throughout the remainder of the day that they did not have to continue running/biking with me and they continually reassured me that they wanted to.

In other words, it was at mile 36 that the race really began.

Sore quads, hamstrings, and shoulders made for slower and slower miles. I felt powerless to stop it. Every once in a while I would try to stretch out the legs and run my normal pace, but it was like I wasn’t in control of my legs anymore. Short bouts of walking were now necessary. My 5 mile splits were as follows:

  • Lap 8: 9:23 minute mile
  • Lap 9: 11:07 minute mile
  • Lap 10: 10:45 minute mile

As mile 45 approached, I could tell that it was important for me to stay in the parks for the final 5 miles so that I could reach mile 50 before taking a break.

I told both Abdul and Seth that I was completely ok with them both heading back home to get cleaned up while I trudged away in the parks. Seth, who had been riding with me for close to 7 hours now, agreed to go home for a bit, but Abdul stuck with it and we ran on together.

For a fun little distraction, Abdul pulled up the launch of SpaceX at 12:20pm for both of us to watch as we trotted along, and the achy feeling permeating my body temporarily eased as I was mesmerized by the power and mystery of spaceflight.

But it was short-lived.

We hit mile 50 just before 1pm, meaning I had completed 50 miles in just under 8 hours. with about 25 total minutes of rest factored into that time. I also miscalculated how long it would take me to hit 50 miles, so Abdul and I still had 2 miles to go before we reached the house around 1:20pm.

The Aftermath

I reached the house feeling pretty exhausted but pretty happy. I had 3.5 hours of racing left, and I was 52 miles in. If I could average 6 miles per hour, or a 10 minute mile pace, I could JUST BARELY get to 70 miles, with 30 minutes factored in for breaks and slightly slower splits.

I got home and Trish told me that my sister recommended I not sit down at this point.

I immediately sat down.

And then things got weird.

I was sitting. I was eating some things. I was tired and a little bit… giddy? I was thinking about the next 18 miles. There was movement inside my head. I was eating some more things. My head was spinning. My ears started to ring.

Uh-Oh.

Hearing people close by, I spoke out: ‘Hey, I think I’m gonna pass out.’ Immediately my friend Abdul and partner Trish helped me out of the seat and into the house.

Ears ringing, a tunnel narrowing my vision, they kindly aimed me for the couch but I recklessly careened towards a closer target – the rug. I laid down and settled into a spinning world of ear-ringing and semi-consciousness.

I’m not new to passing out and recognize the warning signs pretty quickly, so I never fully lost consciousness, but my body was in a weird state of indecision; a purgatory between the decision to either throw up or pass out. JUST MAKE UP YOUR MIND BODY!

I’d sit up, feel like throwing up, feel like passing out, and then lay back down. This process lasted for about 5 minutes until finally, I was able to be coaxed up onto the couch where Trish made me some very salty broth and I popped a Hammer Electrolyte tablet and another Anti-Fatigue cap. Most of the constituency of supporters agreed that I was likely salt deficient.

And the minutes ticked by.

I really wanted to get outside and keep going. I saw my reach goal of 70 miles slipping through my fingers. But every time I stood for more than a couple minutes, the spins would return and I would be forced to sit back down.

Various parts of my body were also doing a weird involuntary tremble, or maybe a better word would be pulse, throughout this time. I wasn’t cramping up, but I could see my muscles pulsing and it was a little disconcerting.

In the end, I lost more than an hour as my willpower to get outside and compete was trumped by my body’s weakness, forcing me to sit down, drink broth, and re-evaluate goals.

Nutrition for Miles 36-50

Throughout this period of time, I ate the following:

  • 1 Beech Nut Veggie Blend Packet (~75 calories)
  • A few Big Swigs of Lemonade (~220 calories)
  • 1 Spinach Veggie Shake – homemade (~170 calories)
  • 1 Cup of Veggie Broth
  • 1 Hammer Anti-Fatigue Cap
  • 1 Hammer Electrolyte Cap

Additionally, I had two Hammer gels during the run, coming out to about 200 calories. In total, I ate 665 calories for this portion of the race.

Miles 50-60

Seth and I set out for lap 11 around 2:15pm, and since I had technically already done 2 miles, I only had three to go to get to 55. Things really slogged by at this point and I wasn’t sure what my goal was anymore. Clearly I was going to get to 55 miles, but anything after that was completely unknown.

The journey to mile 55 was the longest of all, and the constant downpour made the slow miles seem somehow – impossibly – even slower.

I hit mile 55 around 3:15pm and now it was time to do a bit of math. I was basically doing 5 miles every hour at this point, which meant my next 5 miles would finish around 4:15pm. Even if I were able to drop 5 minutes from the next two 5 mile laps – a very unlikely proposition – I would be finishing right around 5pm, a very close call. I decided I would complete a final lap – 5 more miles – and then throw in the towel.

The downpour continued throughout the final 5 miles, but Seth kept me company and we began breaking down the race: the strategy, the ways to improve next time, and the list goes on.

We discussed the current state of affairs in the U.S. We discussed Seth’s own aspirations to complete an ultra. The time really flew by.

4:15pm rolled around and the 5 mile lap was over. We came home to the comforting applause of friends, and I even made it up two stairs without the aid of anyone around me. The race was run and it had been exhausting. Exhilerating.

For this final portion of the race, I brought along Hammer Heed drink mix, which contained around 100 calories.

Lessons Learned

It’s hard not to look back at a race and think about what you could improve on. For me, the biggest improvement would be what I already mentioned: 4-6 weeks of additional training at the end to focus on quantity rather than quality.

The other space for improvement would be pacing. Clearly I went out WAY too fast. I think I would aim for running closer to an 8:30-9 minute mile from the very start of the race. I think this would make the miles after 40 much more tolerable and consistent.

Then there’s nutrition. Could some of my later mileage lethargy have come from not eating enough? I’m not exactly sure. I knew I didn’t want to overeat in this race. GI tract issues abound in ultra-races, and often for me in endurance races, less is more in the food category, especially a race that is less than 24 hours (I’m totally basing that on biking, but I think it applies).

Counting Calories

However, in total, I only ate about 2,810 calories, and according to my Garmin, I burned about 6,593 calories, meaning I had about a 3,800 calorie deficit. While I think the body can run on a pretty big deficit without being too affected, this seems like a lot. Still, I’d like to look into this a bit more for future ultras.

Final Thoughts

While there are always places to improve, this was my first ultra and it’s clear to me now that no matter how much you research and read about them, you have to experience it YOURSELF to see how YOUR body will be affected by that kind of mileage. Other’s experiences are only a starting point for figuring out what will work for you.

And although I didn’t hit my 70 mile goal, I feel accomplished and satisfied (mostly) with a 60 mile finish.

Is this where my ultra journey ends? DEFINITELY NOT. I’m officially back on the bike now and will be for the foreseeable future, but it won’t be long before the longing to test the limits of my running endurance returns.

Hopefully the next time I test these limits I get to do it with my competitors standing by my side instead of in the virtual ether of the interwebs.

Categories: Races

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4 replies »

  1. Dude! Epic. When I first read those calorie totals for the 50 fifty miles, I was blown away. I eat way more than that on long bike rides. I may need to rethink how much I’m letting myself dip into my reserves. I’d also be super curious to know your morning strength routine; I’ve been struggling to find one that’s simple and effective enough to do regularly without blasting my muscles such that it’s difficult to do workouts later.

    • Lewis! Good to hear from you buddy! I feel like you probably know what you’re doing calories you ripper. 🙂 I think the general rule is that your body can’t process more than 200-250 calories per hour, so anything extra is just gonna slosh around in your gut and cause issues, especially with running. If you really want to go crazy looking into how your body can sustain itself on reserves, google endurance athletes and the Keto diet. I’m not saying I’m going Keto, but there’s some pretty interesting research out there.

      As for weights, before quarantine I was doing a class at my gym before work called group power that is a high reps low weight hour long class that works all of the major muscle groups in a burnout style training. Since they closed, however, I started paying for a fitness program called ‘Mossa.’ Here’s a link: https://www.mossa.net/

      My gym bases their workouts on this program. You need a step and some weights, but if you have those things, Mossa is the best $7 per month you’ll pay. Their ‘Mossa Power’ class is only 30 minutes long, but it’s basically a condensed version of what I used to do at the gym, and I can do it every day as a pre-fatigue to my workouts whereas the hour long class would gas me a little more for my afternoon workout. Definitely worth looking into if you’re interested in making weights part of your cross-training.

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