There are as many reasons to run ultras as there are ultra runners. But I doubt anyone does it just for the buckles. Yeah, they’re pretty cool. Some people may even display them. Many marathon runners display their metals. All of my buckles are in a wooden box and my metals are in a sturdy plastic container. Both are on the top shelf of my closet.
For me, the metal or the buckle is just a bonus. I run ultradistance for the challenge, the community, the chance to be in my mountains, the freedom, to breath and to live. I love ultrarunning for the experiences, thoughts, insight, ideas, soul searching, and the understanding. I love the questioning, self doubt, fear, disappointment and failures.
I love it all in the end, but I may hate it in the moment. Ultrarunning takes a deep love and some serious determination. It is not for every runner. It is for the growing few.
I have found myself deep in the pain cave staring at my feet as I drag them along the trail only to glance up and meet the eyes of a serene doe watching from back in the trees, ears forward facing, just watching and that is enough for me. That one momentary connection with another soul, another heart that loves the mountains, the crisp pine and sage scented morning air, and the strange blue yellow light of the early clean dawn.
There are a few milestones during a 100 mile event. I would say every 25 or “marathon” is a significant point in the race. Personally, I like to take a picture of myself at each 25 mile mark in the race and often my watch so I know what time it was when I arrived. These milestones can be very challenging and they can be very motivating. It’s all about your mindset and your fueling. Let’s talk about fueling first. It’s technically the easier one.
Every endurance runner has hit the wall. For anyone who hasn’t, let me explain. The wall is when you get to a point in the race where your body just slows down and you feel like you can’t go no matter how hard you try. Usually, your mind also begins to tell you “this is too hard,” and “you’ve gone far enough,” and “I can’t go anymore.” We want you to run up the wall rather than into it.
What’s going on is that your glycogen stores are depleted. In other words, you need fuel and fast. What makes fueling at these points (yes you can hit the blasted wall more than once in a race) difficult, is your stomach may not want to accept any fuel, especially if you haven’t watched your water and electrolyte intake and you’ve got a weird balance going on.
Typically the first time you hit the wall is about 2- 2.5 hours into an event. That’s about how long it takes to run out of glycogen. For a Marathon, this is usually about 16-20 miles for most people. Depending on your pace, it may not be that far in or it may be farther. It may take longer because of your pace as well. Your body weight also will contribute to how long this takes. Regardless, if you don’t watch your fuel intake you will hit the wall.
The best way to avoid the wall, is to practice hitting it. Yep, run straight into a wall, over and over again. No it’s not very fun, but it will teach you at what point your body hits the wall and when to fuel to avoid it. You can hit the wall at any point in a race and you can hit it repeatedly. If you find yourself sinking into a mental or energy low, the first thing you should try, and fast, is to put some quick acting fuel into your body, along with some water. Easy to digest and heavy on the sugar.
Now we are diving into the mindset portion.
Usually the first 25 mile point is very exciting. You’re a quarter of the way through. You frequently train to this distance making your mind and body prepared and confident in reaching this point. If you get here and this is not you, see below on fueling. For the rest, let’s just blow past 25 miles.
Fifty miles in, this is a big one, especially for runners new to the distance. Again it can be very exciting to reach this point. You probably don’t train to this distance, although, we all hope you have done a fifty mile event and know a little bit about getting to this point. There is not always an aid station right at 50 miles but there is one close to it. This point can be difficult because you are staring down the same amount of distance to go. If you’ve had a challenging time getting to 50, your mind begins to spiral with “I’m only half way,” and “It will take even longer to finish this next half” and “My body already feels terrible,” and “My stomach is just not in this race.”
Well my friends, this can be a do or die moment. Your crew is vital at this point. Any RD should put a strong aid station at this point with volunteers (preferably other ultrarunners) with loads of experience at this aid station. You need to prepare your crew for this one. Make sure they know, there are no excuses and to get you in and out as quickly as possible. You’re best strategy is don’t linger, move. Don’t give yourself time to think about it. As you’re running into this check point start making a list in your head about what you need (No a nap or a break does not go on the list). Anticipate what your needs will be in your pre race planning and give the list to your crew. Have one of your crew members prepared to deal with your negative thoughts. You should know them pretty well through your training.
If you are on your own, and thinking about stopping. First, don’t just get to the next aid station and think about it again (unless you have a severe injury). Ask if anyone there is an ultrarunner and see what they think about you stopping. In your prerace planning, make sure you have a quick ziplock bag you can just grab and go. Prepare your drop bag at the aid station before this one to take care of other needs you may have by 50 miles such as a headlamp, warm cloths, new socks or shoes. If you can anticipate and address these slower needs at the aid station before, you will get out of the one closest to 50 miles faster. Put a little note for yourself in your drop bag with your mantra or other motivating saying on it. Perhaps it specifically addresses your negative thinking. You can also have a family member write you a short letter to read.
Bottom line, get your A$$ out of the aid station.
Mile 75 usually is not as bad as mile 50. Why? because you can see the finish line. You know how far you have to go. You know what it feels like and how long it will likely take. If you feel like you want to quit at this point, see above all the strategies for dealing with mile 50 (you can use these at any aid station where you think you may struggle). The big difference between mile 50 and mile 75, is it is dark by 75. You have been going for a long time. You are tired. Night time lows are worse than day time lows because it’s easier to come up with excuses to stop. “I’m tired,” and “I can’t see very well,” and “it’s cold,” and “I’m tired,” (yes I know that one is on there twice).
Here is the thing to remember when working through any low moment in the race. It does not last. Things come back up. It’s the way this distance works. It is the wonderful thing about this race distance. It is the big life metaphor of this race distance. You go up, you come down, you go up, you come down, just like the mountains you are likely climbing over.
Something amazing happens between 5 and 7 am (depending on where you are on the planet and the time of year). The sun rises. Yep, it happens every day. It will happen on the day of your event. I can promise you that it will happen. I can’t guarantee anything else during a race, besides this one thing. Everything changes when the sun comes up. If you are struggling through the night as a middle of the pack runner or a back of the pack runner, remember this… The sun always rises and with the sun, hope, belief, and renewed determination.