In 2019 I did my two first 50 K races. The first one, Arches Ultra in Moab Utah, was at the end of January. The second, North Face Endurance Challenge California, was in the middle of November. What did I expect, what was the experience in each and what did I learn? All the usual questions for anything. At this stage in my running career it is unusual and fun to come in to a race as a first timer. I felt little pressure to perform well, “ hey this is not my thing” and so few folks I know have done an ultra so it can be nice and low key. 50 K races are not at all a marathon with 8 or so extra kilometres tacked on at the end. Nope, not all. They are more like the hardest marathon you have ever run but on trails with crazy nutty assed aspects like all slickrock or descents that are steep as hell with those drive me crazy wood steps spaced just far enough that you can’t possibly take a proper stride and are set up like a deranged steeplechase course. Then add 8 K more of the same and poof there ya go, an Ultra.
What did I expect? Well, I thought a 50 K would be hardish but not too bad at all. I was wrong, straight out wrong. Like 1 + 7 = 17 wrong.
What did I learn – The first one, Arches, seemed very hard, lots of slickrock and hard to find little blue flags that seemingly got harder to find the more tired I got. However hard Arches was, North Face was next level. Uphills which were outrageous and few opportunities for settling into a flow for more than a few hundred metres. I know this means little to anyone who doesn’t know the Marin headlands well but the hill coming back through Tennessee Valley is Alex Honnold steep. I like hills, I like running hills, I seek out hard hills ( Yosemite Falls trail, yay lets do it one more time, Angels Landing in Zion awesome) but boy I hated that Tennessee Valley hill. Each ultra is its own beast and so far in the two I have done, jeez louise, both were, though very different,beasts. I learned your mental game better be top notch and finding kindred souls along the course who can identify with your pain, thank you Derrick at North Face, is imperative. Gallows humour goes a long way when you have a long way to go. Food is kinda sorta really important. Hey I don’t even drink water in anything less than a 25 K race let alone eat food. At North Face, I drank and gelled up all through the race but still found myself at 35 K pretty much out of gas. At the 38 K aid station where I would have had to rally to die, I pigged out on a bunch of PB and J sandwiches and some oranges. I may have even eaten a plastic spoon. Within 10 minutes I could feel myself not only rise from the dead but up the last major hill I went running all the way and finished my last 10 K in 43 minutes. There are definitely more emotional/physical swings. Trying to ride out the very low points can be hard and I got through those by knowing I have been there before and knowing that I will emerge. Believing my race will continue stronger is where the mental strength is so vital. The 40 or so marathons that are behind me helped but so did other experiences like lengthy mountain bike trips through wonderful and terribly difficult places like the Middle East and Africa. Knowing that I will always continue helps when the spirit says otherwise.
What was the experience like? Further to what is written above, there is a slight feeling of survival/zombie apocalypse to an Ultra. During the buzz before the start you get the feeling looking around that some of us probably won’t make it back alive. Each race felt “far” as trail races naturally do. The kilometres go by so much slower than in a road race. North Face felt very far but that was mostly because the race was built around six monster climbs and I knew where I was in the race by how many of these I had done. There is a ton of gear and weird contraptions that abound for liquid intake and food consumption. It is definitely not a shorts and t-shirt crowd though that’s exactly what I ran in. The fine mist of the headlands directly north of the Golden Gate Bridge drenched and cloaked me during the early miles eventually giving way to a phenomenal view, on the last decent, of the bridge towers piercing through the thick fog. Whereas Arches offered the muted and pastel colours of Utah. The finish there was not as scenic and the last mile or so took the runners away from the finish before doubling back to it and that “ so close yet so far “ feeling was tough.
Ultras are definitely going to be a part of my running future. I look into the crystal ball and see multiple 50 K races and somewhere soon a 100 K. My long term goal is to run Western States. To do that means running a race of at least 100 K from a specific list of qualifying races just to get into the lottery. Getting in through the lottery could take 4 or 5 years which is fine. I will hone my Ultra skills and try to see each one as a learning experience. I have taken the first two lessons and l am ready for the next. I spend my time searching for an Ultra without some of the more extreme features but that’s like skipping the hard questions in the homework.