Last week Paprika admitted that she’s worried about whether she can finish a 50 miler and whether she should scrap it from her goals. We may not all be born to run fifty miles, but Paprika, I am here to tell you that you most certainly can cover the distance. Actually, to be quite honest you might be amazed at how easy it could be. I know I know, shouldn’t our resident ultrarunning goddess Clove be writing this post? Well you might be surprised to learn that this supposedly hard-core road racer used to be an ultra girl. Today I’m here to reveal my dark secret ultra and trailrunning past and to give some tips to breaking into the longer distances and off-road races.
I fell in love with the trails at some point between 2005 and 2006, and in 2006, pretty much on a whim, I decided to make it the year of endurance. I decided to do the JFK 50 mile race as my first ultra in November of 2006. Going into training I had run four road marathons and planned on running a trail marathon and the Chicago marathon in the fall before the November JFK 50 as a means of preparing. Along the way I dealt with an ITB injury, very minimal training, a surprise 50k the weekend after my first trail marathon (I could not run 2 miles the day before with ITB pain), my first experience with A.R.T., and some fun weekend trail runs with many ultra friends. Not the best training on paper, but it was just enough to get me to the finish line.
I admittedly chose an easier course than Paprika, and I had done a few marathons, but not many. And I did a lot less training for that fifty mile than I do for a marathon or even a half marathon now. I was up a good 10-15 lbs from what I weigh now, and in general I was pretty clueless. But what I had going for me was the knowledge that many of my running friends had done it before. I thought to myself, if they can do it, so can I. And I was right.
The beauty of ultras is they are so different from road racing, and I think it is why I can guarantee Paprika can and will finish her 50 mile race and that pretty much any of you reading out there could finish an ultra if you want to. There is just something a little different about these trail races. They are less judgmental, no one calls you out for walking the hills, indeed it is encouraged, and the mindset is one of putting one foot in front of the other rather than watching your GPS splits. Relentless forward motion. Even those at the front of ultras seem to live by this creed.
I truly believe that anyone with a bit of running prowess who puts their mind to it can finish a 50 mile race on training very similar to that which they did for the marathon. I never put in a 50 mile week before JFK in 2006. My longest runs were a trail marathon, a trail 50K (run on a whim the weekend after my trail marathon), and the Chicago Marathon. In my case I believe it paid to be naive. No one told me I couldn’t run JFK on less than 50 mpw, and no one told me my goals were unreasonable. (And if they did I ignored them.) I just assumed this was going to be a fun and achievable adventure. And it was.
In November of 2006 I went out and ran that 50 miles and had an absolute blast. I exceeded my goal of 10 hours finishing in 9:23:34 arms raised high in celebration.
My advice to Paprika and those considering their first 50 mile race this year:
1) Keep it fun.Train with people you like, make the goal to finish, smile for race photographers. Keep it light, 50 miles is a long way, but really it is just a day in the woods. Who wouldn’t rather be doing that than spending the day at a desk?
2) Train like you would for a marathon. I think a great training program for the 50 mile is to do a marathon training block, ending in a marathon and a 50k as your long training runs and then tapering for your 50 miler. A few weekends where you cover 50 miles on 2 or 3 days are bonus if your body can handle it. The key here is to keep the miles easy and do a good job of recovery!
3) Expect the unexpected, in training, and on race day. I spent several weeks not even running leading up to the Chicago Marathon and JFK in 2006, and I still managed to exceed my 50 mile race goals. For whatever reason, at that time, I was able to keep my eye on the goal and not fret over the missed training. On race day around mile 38 I was the recipient of a snot rocket to the face. Thankfully my attitude was in the right place and I had wet wipes to clean myself off. You just never know what might happen on the trail!
4) Stay upbeat, with training, and the race. I kept telling myself on race day after mile 31, This is the furthest I have ever run. The novelty of the whole thing made it so much more enjoyable.
I often ponder my trail races and the ultras of my past and wonder if I may regret the change in focus someday, often having to remind myself that the trails aren’t going anywhere. I am very thankful that I have been on both ends of the spectrum with running, placing nearly last in my first 50k, and placing nearly first in a road marathon. It gives one a unique perspective to have run in other types of runners shoes.
Are there any other road racers with a secret trail past they’d like to share? Have any additional tips for someone looking to make the jump into the ultra scene? Think I am crazy for having run a 50 mile race having never run a 50 mile week beforehand?