What it feels like to run long distances

Toeing the line of long race is one of those unique experiences that not many people ever get to enjoy.  The event may have started the day prior with a pre-race dinner and a race brief.  This is usually the first time you get to check out the competition.  People lounging around with impressive belt buckles and shirts sporting the name of their craziest race like “Badwater” or “Leadville”.  In another sport this might be an attempt to intimidate the competition, but often I find myself doing this just to feel like I belong.  As if to say, “Yes, I’m one of you.”  The morning of, I chat it up with people I met the night before and we spend some time sharing brief war stories from other races.  Before the start of a long race, there’s always a bit of nerves.  Countless pee breaks between conversation with the inevitable race looming ahead.  The uncertainty of whether you’ll get injured or start throwing up, or end up dropping out for any number of reasons.  For me, I try to shut it out and focus on the things I can immediately control.  Getting coffee, relieving the bladder.  If I think too much about the shear enormity of it, I’ll be overwhelmed.  This is a feeling which pervades most of the race.

Finally, after a bit a waiting, the race will begin.  Usually, the front of the pack shoots out and I’m tempted to keep pace with them.  This lead pack is usually a mix of very experienced, fast runners, and people that get caught up in the excitement.  I must admit it is very tempting to burst out of the gates and run with abandon during the first quarter of the race, but I’ve done that, and ended up barely able to walk by mile 40.  To avoid the over-zealousness of the start, I pick someone that will run a conservative pace the first leg and try to stay with them.

So what am I thinking about?  I’m thinking about anything but what I’m trying to do.  I talk to people, look at the scenery, watch my feet, pray.  Anything to not focus on how many miles I have left to run.  I used to have this annoying habit of calculating my pace and predicted finish time at every aide station.  It still pops into my head as I pass certain mile markers in a race.  I discovered pretty early on this can lead to disaster.  Everything seems encouraging until mile ~60 when you try to figure out the math and your fatigued/sleep deprived mind come up with an absurd figure, “Oh, I need to average a 6 minute pace for the next 40 miles to finish.”  The math never works out the second half of the race.  So instead I try to distract myself.  Distract myself from the soreness, chaffing, the mad calculations, the fact that I still have over a marathon to run and I’m exhausted.

The entire adventure seems impossible until about the 75 mile mark.  That’s the first point that I actually feel like I might be able to finish the race.  At this point the mind is swimming between optimistic, “That beer is going to be delicious at the finish.” and despair “I can barely even walk this stretch.  I’m never going to finish.  I’m a terrible husband and father for being out here.”  I try to keep moving forward.

Eventually I get to within 10 miles of the finish.  At this point I am either an emotional basket case with tears and despair, or I am furious.  I prefer the rage.  I begin thinking of all the things that piss me off from the absurdly rocky section 20 miles ago, to the dish soap flavored hammer products at the aide stations.  The madder I get, the better, because that anger overrides the pain and I can sometimes even run the last 10 miles.

It’s difficult to really put into words just how you feel at the finish line.  Relief from not having to run anymore, exhausted, ecstatic.  I think every emotion I’ve experienced in life comes in waves, and they pass over and around me until I drift to sleep.  It won’t really set in for a few days just what I managed to accomplish, but for now, it’s enough to be done.

100 miles: Psychological skills

If you have read my previous posts, you may have noticed that I talk about the differences between things which will help you finish a race at a faster pace vs things which will halt your race.  While there is likely some overlap in these variables, my reading of the research leads me to conclude that nutrition, psychology and injury play a larger role in whether you can finish a 100 mile race, while fitness largely determines how fast you finish.

When I was in my undergrad, I had the privilege of competing in collegiate fencing.  I was terrible at it, but the experience exposed me to psychological techniques that people use to improve their performance.  I have found that these techniques are important tools to finish a 100 mile race.  The techniques I mainly use are imagery, and positive self talk.  I will briefly explain how to use these to avoid dropping from a race early.

Imagery lets us establish a belief in our minds by using our imaginations.  One of the most difficult things for a novice in ultrarunning to do is getting to the point that you believe you can actually do this.  If you lack this belief, you will most likely drop from a race when you start feeling pain or tiredness because finishing will seem impossible.  In the weeks prior to the race, spend some time imagining yourself in several situations.  First, maybe watch some videos of people running and finishing 100 mile races and imagine yourself as that person crossing the finish line.  Second, imagine yourself  at the height of fatigue ~60-70 miles into the race and imagine yourself continuing to race through this feeling.  You want to train yourself mentally to push through the worst periods of a race.  I say mile 60-70 because that seems to be the point where you are exhausted and you still have a significant distance to run.  It’s usually the make or break point for me in a 100 miler.

The second technique I often use is positive self talk.  Throughout a 100 mile race you will be tempted to have despairing or negative thoughts. “I feel terrible, I am tired, I don’t want to even do this”  We’ve all had these thoughts.  The problem is, as the race progresses, if you allow these thoughts to progress they will turn from “I am tired” to “I can’t do this” and you will quit.  How I use positive self talk is to replace the negative thoughts with a positive thought.  When I feel tired, instead of allowing myself to think about and dwell on the fatigue, I say out loud “I feel great” or “I feel amazing”.  Replace the negative with a positive phrase.  Keep this up throughout the race and you can stave off the decline in psychological state.

The last thing you might want to do is incorporate music.  Download some positive music.  Research shows that you get the most effect from music you enjoy and that is not overly familiar.  Break down and buy a couple new albums for your mp3 device the weeks before the race.  I also find that I get a stronger effect if I spend a couple weeks before the race not listening to any music.

If this post interests you, consider some of the following books to add to your collection.

Why would someone want to run 100 miles

Just about every time I tell someone that I run 100 mile races I get reactions that starts with shock and surprise, followed by the universal question “why would someone want to do that?”  It’s a question we all struggle to answer in words because the it’s so glaring obvious to us.  I find myself stammering out a few incoherent sentences about enjoyment or some other aspect, but to me, I find it more incomprehensible as why you wouldn’t want to run 100 miles.  The idea of not wanting to do this is as foreign to me as the thought of wanting to spend a Saturday in bed or enjoying a lifetime docudrama on a dad’s misadventures at the grocery store.  To me, what I do is the natural expression of who I am.  I want to spend all day in nature, hanging out with these incredible people, drinking good beer, and yes running.  So in some sense running a 100 mile race is no different than any other activity that people enjoy.  However, I feel there are some things we can pull out that attract us to this idea.

First and foremost, there is something about the distance which captivates my imagination.  100 miles!  It sounds impossible.  The distance is extreme enough that the first time we hear about it, we cannot fathom it.  It’s the unknown.  It’s like someone 300 years ago hearing about this exotic land across the sea and wanting to experience it firsthand.  With so few real frontiers available, the modern explorer may turn inward and desire to explore their own limits.  How will I feel at 60 or 70 miles?  What about the finish line?  What is it like to have this experience?

Second, I think most people running these races are in search of something unique.  I suspect a lot of my ultrarunning friends may be like me in that we search out the strange and unique things.  I cannot be interested in “normal” things.  My wife says that I have to find the strangest thing to be obsessed with.  Due to the strenuous nature of running 100 miles, it is still fortunately considered strange.  I hope we never lose that.

Third, the ultrarunning community provides us with a tribe.  We all have similar experiences that most people cannot relate to.  Through this shared experience we have a group to identify with.  I think it may be a reaction against modern culture which tends to promote sameness.  We watch the same tv programs, go to the same schools with the same curriculum, so that we can all be part of one giant group called “americans.”  But, it’s all cold and impersonal.  We may not really feel that we fit into the national culture, so we retreat to our mountain trails to be with people we share a deeper connection to.  People we have bled with or shed tears with, of joy and pain.

Lastly, I think running 100 miles allows us to have an emotional journey.  We get to experience the full spectrum of human emotions in one day.  It is a spiritual and emotional quest of personal understanding.  One I hope you as my reader get to one day experience for yourself.

Comparison of hydration options

If you are new to the sport of ultrarunning, you will at some point be assaulted by the variety of hydration options out there.  Regardless of the plethora of choices, there are some basic categories, and these categories tend to encompass a common set of positive and negative features.  First, we could break things down by bottles vs bladders.  Bottles have the advantage of being easily trackable throughout a race because you can visually see how much you’re drinking.  They are also cheap and easy to clean.  Many companies have tried to develop their own “ideal” bottle, but I find my favorite bottle is the Gatorade Sports bottle with the twist top.  It’s large enough that I usually need only one, and I can wrap my headlamp around it.  Also, due to the disposable nature I can just recycle it after the race instead of finding it months later stashed in a bag of gear covered in mildew.

The obvious advantage of a bladder is the convenience of being able to sip through a straw.  This is also a disadvantage though since you may tend to over or under consume fluids this way.  I like to be anal about tracking my fluid consumption and matching sodium intake.  You can buy an inline meter for a bladder to tell you how much fluid you have consumed, like the one below.

However, there are numerous other reasons I personally dislike bladders.  First would be the price.  These are just some samples of replacement bladders, which generally cost ~20 dollars.  

For that same price I could get 10 bottles and have my imaginary crew keep a stock of filled bottles.  Another major disadvantage is the durability.  When I used bladders, I generally had to buy a new bladder every month due to either mold or tears that would develop around the closure, or on the bladder itself.  If you are a poor PhD student like me, this becomes unsustainable. I would say though that certain races may provide few opportunities to refill your fluid and a bladder does allow you to carry more fluid usually.

The other way we could break things down by is belts, packs/vests or handhelds.  A lot of people love handhelds, but personally, I really don’t want to have anything heavy in my hand because it would fatigue my shoulder muscles.  This is especially important for my as I have shoulder problems.  That said, some people swear by them and love the shock absorption from falling on the bottle instead of their hands.  I personally use belts, but they also have a drawback in that they either flop around or you cinch them so tight they press on your GI tract which can be uncomfortable.  I own several running belts and I can tell you the double bottle belts are terrible unless you just need a lot of fluid.  The double bottle belts become uneven after a couple sips and flop badly.  Not to mention the extra weight is uncomfortable on the GI tract.  I should also say, if you’re running 50 or 100 miles, you probably need some storage space on whichever option you choose.  For this reason I use nathan single bottle belt with storage shown below.

Despite all the drawbacks of belts, I still prefer them for two reasons: they are cheap, and they absorb less heat than the vests.  I’ve used vests, and they are convenient, but since I prefer hot races, I don’t want something sitting against my back holding in heat.  Also, nearly all the options have a bladder.  Despite this, if I were to run a long race without support I would prefer a vest since they usually have the most storage space.  Although I might ditch the bladder or use it to refill bottles.  And if I had the money this is the vest I would buy.

I hope this helps you in your endeavor to find the right hydration system for you.