What I Learned Running my First UltraRace

So this past weekend, I started on what is going to be my first ultra race of the year.  My goal is to do one a month for the entire year.  Additionally, my goal is to run these races while using fat as my primary fuel source.  Ultra running while utilizing fat as a fuel source has been done before, but this has been done by people who were already runners...I am not a runner and I'm still on my journey to lose weight.  All rational thought processes say that this is a horrible idea, but the same rational thought processes have told us that a low fat diet is best for our health. 

I felt very confident leading up to the race.  I knew that it there was a chance that the temperatures could be in the single digits, so I planned and trained accordingly.  I worked through how I was going to layer my clothes and I created a hydration and nutrition plan that would sustain me throughout the race.  I was comfortable with the distance and I had planned on it taking me between 6-8 hours.  I knew I wasn't going to set any speed records and I didn't plan on doing that.  

On the Monday before the race, my son got sick.  He was projectile vomiting and had a tummy ache.  I thought it was because he drank too much punch at his brother's birthday party that day.  (He kept sneaking back to the punch bowl having different relatives fill up his cup which I estimate to have been at least 7 times)  At around 2 am that night, my stomach didn't feel right so I went to the bathroom...it was at that point that I began to my own display of gastro-intestinal pyrotechnics that would continue for the next two days.  By Thursday, I was able to finally eat a meal and hold down water.  This was at the same time as the "Bomb Cyclone" was hitting.  Temperatures were dipping down into the negatives.  I was able to get out for a warm-up run and I felt pretty good, all things considered.  

The plan was to go out on Friday night and stay the night and wake up early for the race Saturday.  I normally pack light, but for whatever reason, I was just throwing clothes in my bag.  I had packed more for that night, than I had for an entire week of vacation last summer.  It was going to be, at most, in the single digits and I couldn't find my running tights that I had trained in, so I had to stop and find some.  It was more chaotic than I wanted it to be.  We left later than we wanted to, but made it to the race sight to register that night.  I got my number and packet and we went back to the hotel to eat and then sleep.  As I was laying out my clothes and equipment at the hotel, I realized that I couldn't find my top two layers.  I had planned to wear three layers.  My long sleeve merino base layer (which I've mentioned before), a quarter zip merino mid-weight top and a Nike running hooded quarter zip jacket that was meant for cutting wind in the cold weather.  This was how I trained and I knew that it was going to keep my warm even in the single digit temperatures.  Now I couldn't find those top two layers.  I didn't freak out, I had packed enough to know that there was something else that I could wear, so I tried to relax before I went to sleep.  After everything was laid out and I got to bed, it was around 1 am.  

I woke up around 530 and started to get ready.  I had my trusty merino base layer and I ended up wearing a GoLite wind shirt with a heavy cotton sweatshirt.  It was not ideal nor what I wanted to wear, but it was my best option.  So I packed up all of my gear and my drop bag, drank a liter of water and were off to the race.  We got there about 20 minutes before race time.  The temperature was -1 out.  I was a little nervous because it had been quite a week leading up to the race and I didn't have a high degree of confidence in my layers, but I knew I had enough water, fat, and pickles/pickle juice to get me through the race.  

The starting line

The starting line

So the race starts and I kept to the back because I wasn't in any particular hurry and I wasn't planning on setting any speed records.  After a couple of miles, I was really just blown away with the being out in the woods and how it almost looked otherworldly.  

I'm at the very back on the right at the starting line.  

I'm at the very back on the right at the starting line.  

This is what it looked like on one of the more flat portions of the course.  

This is what it looked like on one of the more flat portions of the course.  

After a while, the only thing I could hear was my feet hitting the snow.  It was so peaceful and serene.  I realized that I hadn't been alone in nature like that in over a decade.  Than I realized that I really was alone.  I couldn't see or hear anyone.  I knew that the first aid station was supposed to be four miles or so in.  All of my water had frozen, so I was carrying 4.5 liters of ice.  Fortunately, my pickle juice was not frozen all of the way, so I was able to make it to the first aid station where I could attempt to thaw out my water bottles.  Even though the temperature was in the low single digits, I was actually kind of warm and I was sweating, which made the heavy cotton sweatshirt freeze, so that was also a new and interesting experience.  Throughout the run, particularly the back half of the course, I just felt like I was sinking.  This is to be understood because even though I have lost around 130 lbs to date, I still weigh right around 260, which makes me over 100 lbs heavier than the typical ultra runner.  This doesn't bother me, but it was just interesting to see how the effect that had, particularly on the back half of the course which was lots of hills and powdery snow which at times went up to my calves.  I felt like I was running on a beach for a better part of it the last half.  

Also, during the back half of the run, I the distances between aid stations did not feel right.  I chalked it up to a lot of twists in the terrain and all of the hills, but it turns out that I had made a wrong turn and followed the wrong path.  It's easier than you might think in the winter time, not that it is a point of pride for me.  When I got in, I checked my Garmin GPS and I added an extra 10 miles to the loop.  That might seem hard to do, but I really was just enjoying myself out in the woods.  It's not often that I get that kind of solitude in nature.  Normally when I run, its in the city or from city to city.  Some of the routes I take put me through parts of Detroit and Dearborn that is abandon and run down, so the solitude isn't that foreign, but there are always sounds in the city.  Being in the woods like that, it was just a surreal experience...even though I was running in single degree temperatures.  

By the time I finished that loop, I talked with race officials and they weren't sure if I would be able to do the second loop by the cut off time.  I also didn't have a headlamp and the back half of that course was pretty gnarly in the day, so I can't imagine what it would have been like in the dark without a headlamp.  I decided that it was best that I end when I did.  I hate to DNF or drop from the race.  I know I could've finished, but I would've probably crawled across the finish line at 10 at night.  I felt that the risk didn't justify the reward because, if I'm honest with myself and everyone, one year ago, I would get out of breath walking up stairs or tying my shoes, now I'm running ultramarathons.  I know that I have another race coming up.  One that hopefully I won't have a gastro bug before and one that I will have all of the right gear and maybe the weather will not freeze my water.  

The reality of this is that in real life, sometimes we DNF or drop.  Sometimes that happens with our diet or exercise, sometimes it's in our personal or professional lives.  These things happen, but these things do not have to define us or be the cause of our demise.  We don't live in a binary world of ones and zeros and we don't need to live our lives accordingly.  It is what we do next that will help shape our outcomes.  I have another race in a few weeks.  I am two days removed and I'm back at the gym training to prepare for the next one.  I am a little wiser now and I have learned from my mistakes.  I am continuing to better myself, in spite of what some would perceive as a failure.  I will keep putting my right foot in front of my left and I will be ready for the next race.  

 

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