This April I ran the The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler in Sterling, Virginia, just northwest of DC along the Potomac River. It was my first 50, so I went into it with optimism, but also not knowing exactly what to expect. I had a great experience and a decent race, but fell short of my goal. So what could I have done differently to perform better? What went well?
Train more on trails!
By the time I hit the last 12 miles of trail, they were trashed by other runners and the rain, sleet, and snow that fell for the first few hours of the day. Hills were slick with mud and even the flat portions had long stretches of wet mud that was unavoidable. Every footfall was unstable and my shoes got little traction. My relative lack of trail experience bit me in the ass. Maintaining footing and balance recruits all the tiny supporting muscles in your hips and ankles and by mile 38, mine were shot. Miles 38-48 were an interminable muddy slog and I didn’t have the mental reserves to talk myself into just charging through.
If I had better trail running chops I could’ve tackled this better. In training I hit my mileage targets, but too few miles were on trails, so all those small supporting muscles were under-trained. A pacer may have also helped at this point. I needed a cheerleader and simply couldn’t cheerlead myself. My buddy Brett paced me in the final stretch and was amazing, but I really needed him much earlier.
Eat, eat, and eat more.
My nutrition plan totally blew up at the end of the race. Having had success getting calories from gels and liquid at the 50k distance, I deployed the same strategy here. I easily stuck to my plan through mile 38, adding in some hot veggie broth, my new favorite aid station food. But over the miles of muddy trail I got super pissed and frustrated, lost focus, and totally lost track of my food schedule. I simply didn’t eat enough. This started a death spiral of slow running, frustration, not thinking about my food schedule, more slow running, and so forth. Thankfully I had no stomach pain and only very minor pain in my gut.
The weather was perfect for racing: temps in the 40’s and low 50’s with high humidity. Based on my sweat tests, I knew that hydration would be less of a concern. I didn’t drink as much as planned yet I think I was actually over hydrated. I stopped to pee 2 or 3 times and at the end felt hydrated enough to have a few post-race beers without fear of my typical instantaneous post-race hangover.
Enjoy the trail camaraderie.
I’ve heard it said that the ultra community is incredibly supportive and I definitely found this to be true. The support I got, and gave, on the trail was a highlight of my race. The course had multiple out-and-back sections, so runners headed the opposite direction gave me tons high fives and cheered me on. I was also running with the same 3 or 4 runners for hours at a time, so we got to know one another, talked about running, and commiserated about the mud. My pit crew was also fantastic, cheering me on and feeding me along the way. I couldn’t have done it without them.
Gear was a non-issue.
My gear choices were generally solid. I didn’t use anything I hadn’t used previously: Altra Lone Peak 2.5 shoes, hydration pack, calf compression sleeves, Garmin, and my typical running clothes and cold weather gear. My hydration pack proved why I love it: it’s super easy to refill, didn’t chafe at all, and moved with me, even when it was full.
I am typically not a fan of stopping to change shoes and socks mid-run, but with the mud and wetness it may have been a good idea. I had a pinky toe blister that I know changed my gait and I could’ve possibly avoided it with a shoe change. In the future I’ll also experiment with shoes with more aggressive lugs that provide better traction in the mud – that may have helped.
Get comfortable with fatigue.
Lately I’ve been reading new research on the athlete’s perception of muscle fatigue. Originally thought to be a the result of signals sent from muscles, perceptions of fatigue have recently been shown to originate in the brain, at least in endurance athletes. (For a great summary, check out this Science of Ultra podcast.) So improving performance is partially a matter of training yourself to accept and overcome these sensations. I understand this concept, but until the end of my race I never fully grasped it. At about mile 49 my legs were toast and I was walking off and on, but for the last few miles I mustered a steady run and sprinted for the last 100m. I even passed two people. Somehow I was able to override my brain’s signals telling me my muscles were tired. After I crossed the line I thought: “Wow. Okay, I guess I need to get more comfortable with fatigue.” In my future training runs, I’ll push myself with this in mind.
You’ll have good days and bad days.
I realize now that in my first trail 50k a few weeks prior, everything just fell into place. My legs were fresh, I felt strong for the entire race, the weather was cool and dry, and the trails were almost completely runnable. It was a small race, I had a really relaxed attitude, and I finished in just over 5 hours. This 50 miler was the opposite: I was nervous about how I would do, having trained for months just to get to the start line. Rain fell as the race started and it gradually changed to sleet and snow, which fell for the first few hours of the race. At the time the rain and nerves didn’t mean much and I just pushed through, but in hindsight I realize that they took their toll mentally. I didn’t have a full mental reservoir for the muddy slog at the end of the race.
My mind also went to some dark places at one point. I had been running in a group and chatting for the majority of the race, but on one stretch I found myself alone. The day was cloudy and dense tree cover made for a surprisingly dark scene. It felt like 6:00pm and it seemed like I had been running forever. I found myself saying, “You’re not that good a runner. Why did you waste so much time training for this? You’ll never finish this. This *$&#% sucks.” From other ultra runners I knew to expect some bad thoughts, but I don’t think I truly appreciated how difficult some stretches can be. But now that I know what to expect, I’ll be much more prepared next time, both mentally and physically.