There is a lot of information out there on how to successfully train for and complete your first ultra or 50k. But what about actually enjoying it? You can read all about training plans and gear, and hear everyone’s two cents on what to do and what not to do. In thinking about my race at Chuckanut 50k and my experience leading up to it, I came up with these alternative takeaways I hope can help you too. Since a large, intangible percentage of ultrarunning is mental, I thought it made sense to share the five lessons and mindsets that helped me in my first 50k. Not only did I complete it, but I actually enjoyed it!
Pick a Race You’re Excited to Run
When you’re setting a big goal, it helps if it’s equally as exciting as it is daunting. I knew that I wasn’t going to be as motivated in training if I was just going to be doing 30+ miles on my home trails. While I love having the Marin Headlands just a bridge away, my thirst for exploring new trails is stronger. I love any opportunity to run in forest trails, and prefer loops to out-and-back courses. I knew about Chuckanut already, and the combination of PNW trails, potential for mud, community feel, and a competitive starting lineup to witness made it a race I could get excited about.
Under-trained > Overworked
After deciding to race Chuckanut, I mapped out an outline of my training for the 14 weeks I had until race day. Every few weeks, I would add more detail into the upcoming weeks based on how I was feeling and how my training was going so far. My training was going well, I wasn’t missing any major workouts, and I was staying dynamic and adjusting my schedule when I needed to.
Then during one of my shorter long run weekends, a week after racing a 30k followed by November Project SF Hell Week, I tweaked a tendon. It was a sure sign that my body was tired and that I wasn’t giving it enough time to recover. I had been caught up in the flow of training, and in saying yes to everything. I am trying to say yes more often than not, but balance dictates that if you only say yes, you’ll eventually have to say no too.
If there is one thing you should do in your training, it is listen to your body. I seriously can’t emphasize this enough. I know that at this stage in my fitness my body needs 1-2 days without running per week, but I wasn’t consistently respecting that. After years of trial and error, I learned my lesson: to listen to my body and catch injuries before they get too bad or become chronic.
At this point, I had 8 weeks until race day. I felt confident that the sooner I rested and focused even harder on PT’ing myself, the sooner I could get over this road bump. All in all, there were 3 weeks in which I went for only one run each week. I foam rolled, strengthened, ate my feelings, and went through a rollercoaster of optimism and self-doubt. I questioned whether I could and should still race, having missed my three longest runs. With only 5 weeks remaining, I had to change my outlook on training, rebuilding gradually while at the same time ensuring quality workouts that would at least get me back to the fitness I had before.
With running as with life, “the best laid plans…often go awry.” I knew that with such a long build of my base and then a long training block, there was a lot of opportunity for something to change or go wrong. The benefit of this long build up is that I also had time to course-correct when something did go wrong. I may have been a bit under-trained going into the race, but I learned a valuable lesson. In this case, focusing all of my effort into quality workouts was more valuable than filling the days in between with boring, flat “junk miles” just to maintain a certain weekly mileage.
Embrace the Support of Your Community
I don’t often vocalize it if I am training for something. I usually have an idea in my head of what race or goal I want to accomplish next, but don’t often commit by signing up for something until the month of. When I do know what I’m working towards, I will tell people when asked, but otherwise don’t go out of my way to announce it.
Since I had to sign up for Chuckanut the day registration opened, I knew months in advance that I’d be doing it. I posted about it on social media and was more open to discussing it. For better or worse, most of my running friends knew. Yet I still had this mental block, questioning whether I really could get to the start line healthy and prepared. I had no reason to think otherwise, except an old pesky DNS for Mountains 2 Beach, which was supposed to be my first marathon the year I broke my ankle. I think I had only let one person know about that registration, so the failure was only personal and internal. Even so, it must’ve weighed on my subconscious.
So as I rode the rollercoaster of confidence & self-doubt leading up to the race, I never told my family about it. Shit, guys, I am sorry. As I told my mom, it’s not you, it’s me. I am working on unpacking why I didn’t tell the people who would’ve supported me the most. (Although it’s definitely in part because any time my mom and I talk running, her thoughts of concern overshadow the conversation.)
While I didn’t let myself be embraced by the full arm span of my community, I am very lucky for those who I did bounce ideas off of. When I was looking at a potential injury and unsure if I would still be able to race, I received unwavering support from the people I spoke with. You all know who you are. You assured me I was approaching training the right way, and gave me the confidence I needed to put my head down until race day. I could have easily allowed a bump in the road to become a roadblock, but you helped push me over.
I guess what I’m saying is that it’s not only okay to have big and even audacious goals, it’s also okay to let people in on those goals. If you share the journey with people, they will take part in it with you. You can take advantage of their energy and let it fuel you. Take a leap of faith in yourself and in those around you, and trust that your community will be there to both uplift you and catch you if you do fall.
Fuel Early, Fuel Often
This was one of my main mottos going into the race. I decided ahead of time I would eat a Gu or pack of Shot Bloks every 45 minutes. Usually on a long run I would do so every hour, but have intuited this allows my body to get a little farther behind on energy than it needs to be. I had also planned for one bottle of water and one bottle of electrolytes (alternating Skratch or Roctane, whatever I would feel like) for every two hours. I hit the target on fueling with the desired frequency, and even had a pack and a half of extra Bloks from aid stations. Due to the perfectly chilly weather and resulting lack of heavy sweating, I missed the mark a little on fluids, using less electrolytes than I hoped.
In the end, I never bonked. Despite fueling more than usual though, I did feel pretty low on energy for the second half of the race. It didn’t help that the ridge loop really did feel like it took forever in getting to Chinscraper (the final steep ascent). For some reason, I kept telling myself I wasn’t going to dedicate any energy to anything other than running, such as thinking, determining if I had to pee or not, etc. This made for some interesting internal conversation.
I clearly could have taken in more calories per hour and maybe I would have felt more alert. With this being my first ultra, I’m just glad being a little sleepy was the worst of my fueling problems. Now I have some more experimentation to do to keep moving things in a positive direction.
Savor Every Moment
I think this probably applies more to the mid-pack or back-of-the-pack runner, but you don’t have to have an impossible time goal every race. Especially for your first ultra. With imperfect training, I decided on a time range that I would be happy with. If I could also come out of the race injury-free and not hating the distance, I’d be ecstatic.
Choosing a race I was excited about meant that I was seeing and experiencing every part of it for the first time. The newness, beauty, and sense of exploration was ever-present in my mind and made for the best kind of mental distraction. As in most races, I didn’t allow myself to completely stop and take in the sights or take photos. This is more due to the desire to keep moving though, and not because I wasn’t enjoying each moment.
It was also helpful for me to have a new and old friends running the race. I spent part of my race thinking about them and hoping their races were going well. They cheered me on, and I cheered them on. Plus, we were all able to hang out and enjoy the great weather and race community afterwards and share in each others’ success. I think we all ended the day satisfied and grateful.
Bonus Advice: Be Patient and Kind with Yourself
I am yet another runner who ran a little bit here and there, but didn’t really get inspired to commit myself to running until I read Born to Run. At the time, I was living in Costa Rica and had already been building up my barefoot running for a couple months. The following year I committed myself to training for my first half marathon, but I think that a seed had been planted, albeit very deep, that there was this mysterious thing out there called ultrarunning.
It wasn’t until I started trail running a few years (and injuries) later, that the idea I could one day run an ultra distance started to sprout. I wanted to believe one day I could be an ultrarunner. At the same time, I never felt like I was close to beginning that journey due to the ups and downs of running.
2017 was my first healthy year in which I was injury-free and getting stronger. I knew that a 50k would be my next step forward and it finally felt almost within reach. So I let myself believe it would happen, and determined the building blocks I needed to get there.
Now here we are. I may not call myself an ultrarunner yet, I mean I’ve only just gotten comfortable calling myself a trail runner, but the fact is I have run an ultra. Not only did I run my first 50k, but I’m ready for one or two more this year! And who knows, maybe a 50M too if all goes well. Ah it’s a slippery slope…