I never thought that I would complete an ultra race. I have always been content with the marathon distance or below. Running any longer than 26.2 miles seemed crazy to me. Why? What is the point? I have been running for 22 years so it may have been inevitable that I would change my mind. I always like a challenge and I seem to have a lot of slow twitch muscle fibers. Plus, the trails offer an escape from reality that I can't quite get from running on the roads.
I had other motivations as well. As a sports dietitian, I have a good understanding of exercise physiology and biochemistry. I have a deep understanding of the fueling needs of athletes for various sports. I also have experience as an athlete, which is not required to be a sports dietitian, but it might as well be. Many athletes will not take you seriously without some background in sports and athletics. Even though I have ran several marathons and competed at the elite level, it seemed that it was not enough for many ultra athletes. I had a friend point out that many ultra athletes may not choose to work with me because I had never done anything past 26.2 miles. So my initial motivation was more about gaining the experience than anything else.
I decided that if I was going to sign up for an ultra I was not going to do it just to do it and get it over with, I was going to train for it and be competitive. I wanted to not only complete the race, but be able to be proud of the accomplishment and maybe even be one of the top competitors. I wanted to start with a distance that was not too overwhelming. I am sure there are runners that jump right from the marathon to the 100 mile race, but I am not one of them. I decided on 50 miles and the Run Rabbit Run ultra in Steamboat Springs seemed to be a good fit. It was challenging with 8,000-9,000 feet of elevation gain and most of the race is at about 10,000 feet above sea level. So lots of climbing and not as much oxygen. Perfect! I love to climb and I do well at higher elevations.
I will likely decide to write a separate post specifically about my training for ultra races. In a nut shell I have come away from doing lots of mileage and doing what I refer to as "junk" mileage. Instead I had very focused training runs with strategic long runs, shorter trail runs, and races to help prepare me for the race. My mileage varied, but it was about 50 miles per week on average (ranging between 30 and 80 miles). I also cross train with strength work, crossfit, swimming and some biking. The goal was to make it to the race in tip top shape and not be ravaged by injuries.
I had a very specific nutrition plan going into the race. I made myself sweet potato pouches consisting of pureed sweet potato, apple sauce, MCT oil, maple syrup, sea salt, and protein powder. I also planned to have energy chews, sports waffles, fruit and nut bars, and caffeinated bars during the run. I also know that I might decide that the food at the aide station would be more appealing so I wanted to be flexible.
So on September 9th the race started at 6 am in the dark. We wore headlamps for the first 3-4 miles. The race starts at the bottom of the Steamboat ski mountain and the first 6.4 miles are all uphill to the top of mount Werner. This was probably one of my favorite parts of the race. I like going uphill and once the sun started to come up the views were stunning. The air was still crisp and cool and everyone was still in good spirits and talkative.
My nutrition was on track and I was able to get a waffle and half a sweet potato pouch down in the first hour and half of the race. Once we got to the top of mount werner we took the mountain view trail, which weaves in and out of evergreen forests. I felt really good, but held myself back. I kept reminding myself that I still had 40 miles to run. There was a gradual downhill and the forest opened up to a breathtaking view of Long take. At the Long lake aid station I had a few bites of bacon and watermelon and worked on eating the remainder of my first sweet potato pouch.
The next part of the race was through forests and meadows with small ponds and creeks. I was running with another women and at some point we passed the women who had been in first place. At that point we realized that were the top two females and it was only mile 18. She was also new to ultra running so we joked a little that maybe we were going out too fast.
We did not spend much time at the base camp aid station. I grabbed a few cups of ginger ale, salted watermelon, and a few chips and was off. I continued to eat energy chews and small amounts of the sweet potato during the run to Dumont Lake. Dumont lake is the aid station right before heading up Rabbit Ears and where my family and husband/crew was going to be meeting me. Their cheering and encouragement provided me with the motivation I needed to get up rabbit ears.
I felt great coming into Dumont and grabbed some fuel at the aid station, dropped my running vest, and grabbed a water bottle and energy chews and went on my way to conquer the climb. It mostly running and some power hiking until the last several hundred feet in which the incline is 28% at 10,500 feet elevation. It was starting to get much warmer, probably closer to 75-80 degrees so I was sweating quite a bit at that point. After getting to the top and managing not to fall on the decent, I made it back to Dumont about 4 minutes ahead of the second place women. I quickly put my running vest back on and, thanks to my crew, it was fully stocked. I grabbed more ginger ale and water melon, took a quick bathroom break, and quickly started running again. This was about 27-28 miles into the race.
I felt a little off between Dumont and base camp. I swallowed a few salt tablets and several bites of a waffle. I kept trying to drink water. As soon as I hit 30 miles I felt nauseated. I grabbed more ginger ale, salted watermelon and a tums at base camp. I just tried my best over the next 5-6 miles back to Long lake to just keep going. One foot in front of the other. I had to force myself to drink water, take another salt tablet, and eat the chews. I did my best to keep up with the guy in front of me and just kept telling myself that I would feel better soon.
Finally we reached the Long lake aid station at 37 miles. I started feeling better after another tums, ginger ale, coke, fritos, and salted watermelon. I started to gain speed again and was able to pass a few runners on my way to mount Werner. I started eating my sweet potato stuff again and a few bites of the caffeinated energy bar. Things were looking much better as I ran/power hiked through the next 6-7 miles to the mount Werner aid station. I kept telling myself that once I was there it would be all downhill (ha ha).
I felt a huge amount of relief once I was at the top of mount Werner and I will still the first female. I filled up my water, took some more ginger ale and coke, and headed down the mountain slowly. As much as I had looked forward to the downhill it was actually the most painful part of the race. I started slowly at first averaging about a 9 minute mile the first 1-2 miles. Then a gentleman passed me running quite quickly so I picked up speed. At this point I was running a 7:30 minute mile and another guy passed me. I asked him if he had seen the second place female and he made it sound like she was not too far behind us. My competitiveness kicked in and I was determined not to let her pass me the last 2 miles of the race so I started running like hell.
I gained speed quickly and was soon running a 6:30 mile for the past 1-2 miles down to the bottom of the ski mountain. My family was waiting for me at the bottom and my little sister even sprinted the last 100 meters with me in her sandals. I don't think I had ever been so happy to be done with a race and be first place female! All the hard work and training had paid off.
After getting back to the house I unloaded my running vest and realized I had only consumed 2 of the 4 sweet potato pouches, had not touched the dried fruit bars, only took two bites from a caffeinated bar, and had a half eaten waffle. I had relied more on the fuel at the aid station than I anticipated and I had to change my nutrition strategy mid-way through the race when I felt nauseated. I had over-planned my nutrition, but I guess it is always better to be safe than sorry.
I did learn many things about competing in an ultra race, but here are some related to nutrition. The first is that it is always good to have a plan in regards to nutrition and running strategy. The second is that many things can happen during a race of that distance so be flexible and willing to make changes to your plan. The third is that even when you feel crappy, keep going, keep fueling and drinking, get salt/electrolytes, and have a tums. I also learned that ginger ale really works well during long duration races as a fluid, tummy aid, and rapid energy source.