Thursday, October 8, 2015

Becoming an Ultra Runner

I set 3 goals for myself in 2015 at the New Year: 1) To BQ (Boston qualify), 2) to run my first 50k and become an ultra runner, and 3) to run 2015 miles in 2015 (only 300 left to go!). I have posted before about The Colorado Marathon and achieving my BQ time in the next step was zeroing 0n my first ultra. Even though it is only 5 more miles than a marathon-training is quite different as you are focused more on time on your feet rather than specific mileage. With trail ultras you are running much slower than you are on a road. So in June training began, and I entered into a world unknown to me. I received help and advice from many friends but a lot of it comes down to experimenting-what shoes feel the best, what to expect of yourself on a trail for hours, what nutrition works for you. Long training runs for a marathon are replaced with "sandwich" long runs, which are back to back long runs to get yourself acclimated to running on tired legs. Peak training week brought me to 74 miles (a record for me!) with my back to back long runs being 24 and 18 miles. The weeks and days went by and I found myself toeing the line on September 26 at The Bear Chase Trail Race in Lakewood, CO.

I have been blessed to get to know the race directors of this particular race, Ben Reeves and David Manthey, as they are regulars at my weekly run club. Ben has been a constant voice of encouragement throughout the months of training. There was added joy going to a race where I had many friends participating in different distances. Familiar faces are always nice! The Bear Chase has 3 ultra distances (50K, 50 miles, and 100K), a half marathon, and a 10K-something for everyone! It is a loop course run through the beautiful Bear Creek Lake Park with views of Denver and the mountains.

Photo credit @melissa.raguet on Instagram

Race Day Sunrise
Photo credit The Bear Chase Trail Race on Facebook

The 100k and 50 miler started first at 6:30am. I got to chill with my sweet friend Malia over the next hour after we cheered her husband and other good friends on at the start.

Then Malia and I set off at 7:30am.

 I knew it was going to be a hot day and was unsure how my body was going to respond, so my strategy was just to go at the pace I knew I could sustain for as long as I could and hope for the best! I did have an A, B, and C time goal but ultimately it was just about finishing. My first 16 miles went great! I felt great, was right at a sweet spot with my pace looking at a 5:00-5:15 finish, and I was having fun chatting with other runners and enjoying the views.

I slowly became aware of something shifting though...I was getting hot, very hot, and it became hard around mile 18. But it's an ultra, right?! It supposed to be hard! Or that's what I told myself. I came through the checkpoint (mile 18.5) to my husband and kids ringing cowbells and cheering.  This is where I have to take a break in my story and post some adorable kid pictures. As usual my husband corals the children. Bear Creek Lake Park was a great place for them to explore and fish and get dirty without the worries of driving to different locations, or dealing with cars or crowds.

But coming across them at this point, all I could think about was how hot it was. My sweet Anna grabbed a bandana and dunked it in ice water for me to wrap around my head, and onward I went on my last loop still hoping for a 5:15-5:30 finish. I had a fall around mile 20. Parts of the trail were very sandy and a hidden rock tripped me. No broken skin thankfully! Just some bumps and bruises, and dirt covering me from head to toe.

The 7 (YES 7!) waster crossing felt amazing in that heat. I was trying to look all tough for the photographer but I think I just look like a big dork.

Mile 24 was my breaking point. The bottom of my feet were hurting unbelievably bad (wrong choice of shoes?), and I was so hot. There were aid stations about every 3 miles and each time wonderful volunteers filled my bandana with ice that I kept wrapped around my head. I knew I was dehydrated but could not figure out what exactly my body needed. I had been drinking and taking calories so much that everything just seems to be sloshing around my stomach. My stomach was cramping and I had more than my share of bathroom stops over the last 12 miles. At the mile 24 aid station all the volunteers were asking "what can we give you?" and I just started crying because I didn't know! I could feel the sobs swelling in my chest and then Malia's husband Steve (doing the 100K) taps me on the shoulder "I caught you!". I quickly wiped the tears away because I didn't want him to see my crying, and then we shared some miserable miles together. We tried to chat about life in general but kept coming back to the misery of "sucking it up" and pressing forward even when things aren't going the way you planned.

Steve and I...misery loves company!

Steve is a seasoned ultra runner and I learned a lot from him over the miles (and he kept me going). The lsat 3 miles I joined up with runner who I had been leap frogging the whole time...well joined up is the wrong word. I clung to her. I fell in right behind and her and stared at her feet the entire 3 miles. She says I kept her going too, and we crossed the finish line nearly together.

5:50.41-I was an ultrarunner! The joy I felt on the inside is written all over Asher's face as he ran across the finish line with me. It was not A, B, or C goal but I did it...8th in my age group, 16th female overall, 42nd to cross finish line.

It was amazing to have so many at the finish line to share in my accomplishment. My amazing saint of husband (who dealt with the kids catching dead fish in their water bottles), my kids, Joel's Aunt and Uncle who took time out of their vacation to be at the finish, and many running friends including the race directors who were the first to surround me the second I crossed. Joel even said "I couldn't' get to you because there were so many people!". I felt like a rock star. After I shared a little bit of my disappointment in performance with Ben, he said "#1 A goal should always be to finish Mary". Those words have stuck with me. Every race is different. Every race teaches you more about yourself-physcially and emotionally. Not every race goes your way. and Not every race is finished. But thankfully this one was and I can honestly say that I have more ultras in my future.

Malia came in 1st in her age group and 5th woman overall!
She is my rabbit.

I had always had respect for ultra runners, but my admiration for them has truly deepened. It isn't about who is the fastest, who trained the hardest, and who is the best prepared. It comes down to sheer will and perseverance. I watched 2 friends finish their 50 miles in that heat...both utterly beat down and destroyed, not reaching their time goals, but still giving it everything they had. And Steve completed that 100K in 14 hours and 38 minutes...22 minutes under the cut off, being the last one to cross. He was hurting. It wasn't his best day. But by golly he was smiling when he finished. It is seeing those examples that make me realize that we all have that inside of us...and can find it if we are willing to go to that icky miserable place and be at peace with it.

As far as ultras go, I HIGHLY recommend The Bear Chase Trail Race. The loop course makes it wonderful for families and spectators to see you and also hang in a care free environment. Plus you don't have to carry so much because of access to your drop area. The volunteers were nothing short of amazing, hurrying to meet every runners needs in any way they could. It was well organized and went off without a hitch. The course is beautiful (and I am told relatively flat and fast as far as ultras go...but I am not so sure about that). However I am sure I will be back again. But dear Lord, can you please provide cooler weather?!


  1. Congratulations on your first ultra! It was SO HOT last year too (it sounds like that happens often - I kind of wish they would move it into October - of course if they actually did that, it would probably end up snowing, haha!). And what an amazing year for you - congrats on completing 2 of your 3 goals already - that last won't be an issue at all if you've only got 300 to go!

  2. Great recap, Mary! When I saw you on the course I didn't even realize it was your first ultra! Thanks for helping me through the low point of my day. As much as going long requires individual effort and dedication, it's the shared moments like this in training and racing that I truly cherish and that make it all worthwhile.

  3. congratulations!!! That's so cool that you completed it, even though it was really hard. And great job on working on and reaching 2015 goals!!! I set up a 101 Things in 1001 Days list, which isn't really yearly goals but it's the closest I get :)