My friend AH, lives in Israel, attempted a 50K ultra on March 27. He did not complete the race but was able to turn the race into a positive experience. He is allowing me to share his experience and lessons learned on this blog.
A Failed Attempt at a 50km Trail Ultra Marathon
This Friday, March 27, I ran in the Pro-Sport Ultramarathon near Megido, Israel. There were some hard-core runners who began the 80 km course at 5 AM. I decided to set my sights low and run “only 50 km.” The course was set up in a way that the starting point was also the finish line. The folks who ran the 80 km first ran a loop of 30 km, with all of the necessary food and water (and flashlights, because they started in the dark,) then returned to the starting point and ran an additional 20 km, then another 2 loops of 15 km each. Those of us who set out to do 50 km, started at 8 AM with the same loop of 20 km that those who set out to do 80 km would run after their first loop of 30.
I had ran one ultramarathon before, in March 2008, in roughly the same terrain, which was a 60 km distance. I didn’t finish anywhere near first, but I set out to had a good time, and I accomplished that goal, and felt very accomplished. Since then I had not ran any marathon-distance races. Over the course of the winter I was focused on training for my first triathlon, a half-ironman distance triathlon in Eilat, known as Israman. I had finished the triathlon at the end of February well within my expectations, in 7:15, which I was happy with. The course was difficult because of the difficult climbs into the mountains of Eilat and the winds that we had encountered there.
Back to the 2009 ultra: As soon as we started the 50 km, the fastest runner of the 80 km loop had just finished his first loop and I started the next loop exactly at the same time as him. Since I know him, I decided to join him for the first part of the run. After a few kilometers of trail running through forests, on single-file trails and up dirt paths, I realized that my heart rate was near maximum (around 170) and realized that I had to slow down. I was wondering why my HR was so high, as I felt great, and was able to keep up conversation with the first place 80 km runner. I slowed a bit, and was gradually passed by a few runners, but still kept up a pace which seemed to be acceptable to me. I was eating gels and dates, drinking water regularly and taking salt capsules. At the steep hills, I made sure to take walking breaks. We ran through wheat fields, through fields of wild flowers, and through forests of tall pine. We passed cows that were grazing in the open and we carefully traversed the metal bridges that were meant to keep the most agile cow from crossing out of the pastures. The hills seemed much steeper this year than they did last year. I finished the first 20 km in about 2:02, and still felt good, but tired. After that, I stopped in to the refueling tent, and filled up my water carrying pack, and grabbed a few more gels, and downed some banana. I was set to go out for another loop of 15 km. As soon as I set out, I realized that something wasn’t right. Although I was eating properly, I felt that my HR was high, even when running slowly. Perhaps I was nervous?
At about kilometer 25 I felt serious cramping in my calves and quadriceps. I was forced to stop and I took a salt capsule and walked a bit. “OK, that should help,” I thought to myself. After a minute, the pain miraculously went away, only to return a minute later. “Wait, isn’t salt supposed to help cramping?” I thought to myself, realizing that it wasn’t just regular cramping. It seems that I had lactic acid buildup in my muscles, and that was what was preventing me from moving. I tried to run, but every few minutes was forced to walking again. I was passed by many people, some asked me if I was OK, and others called out words of encouragement, but to no avail; I couldn’t get myself going again. I brought myself to the refueling tent at kilometer 35, and handed in my race number and chip. Even as I handed it in, I considered putting it back on, and going out for the last 15.
I learned a few lessons from this attempted race, and the reason for writing this post is to share them with others- perhaps I can learn from my mistakes and maybe someone else will too.
1. Listen to your body, very closely: Heart monitors are pretty standard gear for runners today. I had one, but wasn’t really using it. I should have started slowly, but I wasted too much energy in the beginning. This prevented me from finishing.
2. Be prepared: I knew going into the race that I didn’t really have enough kilometers in my legs for this ultra. Although 50km is only a bit over the familiar marathon distance, the terrain made this 50 km a lot harder than a regular marathon on paved asphalt. I hadn’t ran a marathon in a while and I wasn’t really trained for the distance.
3. Take time between races: Deep inside my body, something was telling me that I did not take enough time off after the half ironman. After the long distance tri, I went right into running and preparing for the ultra without seriously thinking about the effects.
4. Know when enough is enough: When I called my wife after I had dropped out and before she was expecting my call, the first thing that she thought was, “I wonder what ambulance he is calling me from.” She calls me crazy, others call me sick, but unless you’re bit by the bug, you don’t understand what it is all about. She was surprised (and proud of me) that I had the ability to call it a day, to end a race before finishing, something that I had never done before. I don’t view myself as a quitter- I just wanted to make sure I got home in one piece that day.
5. Know that you are not superman: I plan on making more realistic goals for myself, and taking into account that I have a full time job and a full time family- exercise and racing are a nice thing to do on the side.