What I Learned From My First Ultramarathon

What I Learned From My First Ultramarathon

Last weekend, I ran 50 kilometers.

It was both my first marathon and my first ultra. I remember looking down at my GPS watch about five hours into the event and seeing the distance click over from 26.1 to 26.2 miles, and thinking, “Ok, well that was that.” With the marathon complete I had just five more miles to go.

In the week since the event, the soreness in the legs has gone and I’ve had some time to reflect on what I did.

These things are supposed to be transformative experiences, so what exactly did I learn?

In order to fully appreciate my perspective on the experience, I feel that I need to go over my backstory.

Running is stupid

There are different levels of distaste. For example I do not enjoy the music of Kenny Chesney, but it’s okay as background music for a barbeque. But I hated…absolutely hated…running for nearly all my life. I saw it as a vile activity that caused me nothing but pain and misery.

I thought runners were quacks…masochists that had nothing better to do than destroy their joints and accelerate the aging process.

But like so many who take up a strong position against something, there was a kind of fascination beneath all that of that hate. Subconsciously, I think I’ve always wanted to be a runner. But I was just so afraid of it that my distain was really just a defence mechanism to protect my ego.

I just didn’t understand how someone could come to enjoy a movement that caused me so much agony…I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. In addition, I had a cranky ankle that flared up whenever I did attempt a short jog around the block. So I comfortably took the position that running just wasn’t for me.

No love lost…it’s stupid anyway.

And then a triathlon

But about two years ago, some friends of mine announced they were doing a sprint triathlon, and asked if I’d like to do it too. My first reaction was, “Can I just bike and swim?” The idea of doing the run didn’t even enter my mind as a possibility.

But, as it tends to go when we age, perspectives change. And I started asking myself questions.

What if I could enjoy running? What would that process look like? How long would it take? How does one go from 20 years of zero running, to possibly getting to the point of actually enjoying and competing in it?

I didn’t know, but I thought I owed it to myself to try.

So I started.

I began slowly. Very, very, slowly. After ten years getting pretty strong in the gym, I was more fit than the average guy, however the smaller muscles in my feet and cardiovascular system had been so neglected that it forced me to “run” at a pace that was literally slower than what I could walk. Anything faster sent my heart rate through the roof and caused searing pain in my lower legs. I’d never felt so in shape and out of shape at the same time.

But after a few months, I started to feel some improvement. I was actually able to sustain a light jog for about an hour. And when it finally came to compete in the triathlon, I suffered every step of the 7km run, but ran the whole thing in 47:06–back of the pack, but mission accomplished, and spark of curiosity was ignited.

Just run

Despite a successful day at that little triathlon, I still didn’t really feel like a runner. Again, I wanted that ability to throw on the shoes and go for an hour-long rip through the countryside…and feel good doing it. I wanted to pump my arms and bounce from stride to stride and experience the high that so many runners speak of.

But that feeling eluded me. Up to that point, running was still very much an agonizing experience for me.

Now this may sound strange, but as much as I struggled with running, I was drawn to it in a way that I wasn’t with swimming or cycling. Staring at a black line in a silent, plastic, chemical-filled swimming pool felt like prison. Cycling felt like being stuck–forced into that awkward, hunched position, my body unable to move freely as I contented with traffic, wind, and potholes. It just irritated me more than anything.

But running, as much as it hurt, was beautifully simple. No fancy equipment or facilities, just a pair of shoes and the will to move. I appreciated that about running. It challenged me. Not my schedule. Not my wallet. Me.

It was about this time where I started learning more about the sport of ultrarunning–races that ranged from 50 kilometers to multi-day events that are typically held on a trail, rather than on pavement. And again, I began to wonder.

The emphasis on distance rather than speed appealed to me. And the chance to do something more connected to nature offered to fill a void that had been sorely lacking in my life. But still, I just couldn’t wrap my head around running for 50 or 100 miles. I just had no concept of the distance or what it took, which increased the allure even more.

I’m a bit embarrassed to say, but I take one of my life credos from the 1997 Anthony Hopkins movie The Edge, where he and his counterpart, played by Alec Baldwin, find themselves stranded in the Alaskan backcountry and being stalked by blood-thirsty grizzly bear. At a certain point in the movie, Baldwin’s character breaks down. He loses his will and becomes overwhelmed by the task of making it out alive. Hopkins, in the most pragmatic, stoic-like pump-up speech ever, tells Baldwin, “What one man can do, another can do.”

This line literally reshaped how I see the world.

What he’s saying is no one is special, it’s all been done before. We’re all human, we all started from nothing and knowing nothing. But in all of us is the potential to achieve great, seemingly impossible things, so long as we have faith in our ability to move forward.

20 Months

That was August 2016. Over the next 20 months, with the task of doing an ultramarathon seared in my mind, I moved forward. I began to run…a lot. 

Did everything go perfectly? No. There were injuries, periods of burnout, and many days where I felt that no progress was being made. There were workouts where I was close to tears because I had put so much effort into this endeavour, and I felt betrayed by my body, as if I deserved better than the performances I was putting up.

And I still hated being so damn slow. I would hear other runners talk of doing 7:30 minute miles in their workouts, and I would just shake my head in awe.

But I was dead-set on staying consistent, on showing up each day and chipping away at the task. Each mile was a mini victory, one little step closer to realizing my vision. Just keep going.

And eventually, I improved. My long runs got longer. My feet hurt less. My calves got more muscular. I lost weight. I got faster. And I even started to enjoy the monotony of training. I relied less on music and podcasts for distraction, and started doing more of my training in silence, getting lost in my own thoughts with nothing but my breath and footsteps to listen to.

I noticed other things in my life starting to change. In demanding so much of my body each day, I became more mindful of when I went to bed. I began to see alcohol and junk food as real obstacles to my training as opposed to fun indulgences.

I was becoming an athlete again.

50 Kilometers

And finally, after all of that training, it was time to compete.

The race was held at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, Maine, about 20 minutes from where I grew up. I chose this race for three reasons.

First, the ability to shack up at my parents’ house for the weekend offered a real financial incentive. It would also be really special having them attend the event. They had always been my biggest supporters during my hockey days, and this was a great opportunity to rekindle some of those childhood memories and share another athletic moment with them.

Second, it took place over Memorial Day–an early-season race which meant I had a good chance of favorable weather. Plus it allowed me to just get something in the books. Suffice to say, I was pretty tired of training all the time, and I wanted to get out there and compete.

And third, the terrain was perfect. Rather than a technical, challenging mountain trail race, this took place in farm country with smooth trails and gentle, rolling hills. The distance alone was going to be challenging enough. My abilities were still quite limited and I didn’t need (nor did I train for) excessive elevation.

So at 8:00am on May 27th, 2018, the cowbell rang and I, along with 300 other runners, was off. And at 2:12pm later that day, I crossed the finish line and my day was done.

You always hear about these moments, when a major goal accomplished, and you kind of expect something special to happen. Some moment of clarity or enlightenment. Some rush of emotion or gaining of profound wisdom.

That was my hope. Many times, I envisioned myself crossing the finish line, overwhelmed by emotion and pride, and emerging from that experience a transformed person.

But that didn’t happen to me.

Crossing the finish line, six hours and twelve minutes after I began, felt good. I was proud of myself not just for finishing, but running well and truly pushing myself as hard as I could for each and every step.

But, mostly, I was just tired and wanted to sit down. I was content, but not elated. I even gave away my free beer vouchers, totally disinterested in the traditional post-race celebratory brew.

In the days that followed, I spent a lot of time reflecting on my race and why it had such an underwhelming conclusion.

Here’s what I learned

First, and this may sound obvious, but I learned what running 50 kilometers felt like.

There’s a real difference between knowing a thing, and actually experiencing it. It’s like that famous scene from Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams calls Matt Damon on his shit by saying that while he possessed great intellectual powers, he’s still just a punk kid that doesn’t know a thing about love, life, or loss.

It doesn’t matter how well something gets described to you, there’s no substitute for living it. I got to experience moving my body for 50 kilometers. And I learned that it was hard.

I also learned that at least in this instance, the process of training was more fulfilling than the event I was actually training for. 

The race was hard, but wasn’t the test. I knew I would finish it.

The real test was all of the days that I didn’t feel like training, but trained anyway. It was waking up early on the weekends, before my girlfriend and our dog got up, and getting in my three or four-hour training runs so that we could still have a decent day together. It was the nutritional preparation and getting to bed at a decent time so my body could recover.

The ultimate challenge for me wasn’t any particular section of the race. For me, it was learning to be patient during the weeks where I wasn’t getting faster. It was having faith in the process and in myself, showing up, and moving forward, day by day.

It was putting the work in when it didn’t matter. When there were no spectators or competitors. When nothing was on the line. Immersing myself in the process of training, of getting better, bit by bit, brought more joy and fulfillment than I ever could have hoped to receive on race day. And I think it’s why I didn’t have my Chariots of Fire moment when I finally finished.

I felt like it validated my work. Box checked. Great. Good for you. Now what’s next?

And this brings me to the final thing that I learned: I’m not done.

Part of me was afraid that after I had done the race, it would have turned me off from ever doing it again. But I was relieved to discover that I didn’t feel this way.

I’m not going to lie, hours five and six were brutal. I was hurting and desperately wanted to be done. But within hours of finishing, I had already started going over my performance and thinking of how I could improve my training for the time around. I knew I could do better and I couldn’t wait to dive back into running.

I think a big reason for this was that although I definitely made some mistakes in my training, I was prepared for the distance. For me, 50 kilometers was in that sweet spot of hard enough to be a little afraid and to really challenge my ability, but not too hard that it felt impossible. If I had chosen to run a 50-mile event, it would have been too much. I surely would have been burned out, both physically and mentally, and it very well could have been the end of my ultra running career.

So aside from some training and nutrition things that I learned, I really walk away from this experience having learned two things: I can run 50 kilometers, and I would like to run 50 kilometers again.

I’ll take that.

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