Finding My Ultra
I have had no affinity to run a marathon. However there is a unique allure to ultra distance running. It's somewhat counter intuitive to be attracted to a longer distance when the preceding distance is repulsive.
One of several off season goals of mine was to run 20 miles. I wanted to test my limits and become acquainted with "longer" running distances. For a majority of my endurance and multisport friends 20 miles is routine. I have never ran more than 13.5 so my 20 miler was going to be an adventure, I was going to be taking the first step in finding my ultra.
I certainly had concerns going into this run;
1. How would my body react after 14 miles?
2. How to effectively pace myself?
3. How to hydrate and fuel during the run
4. How would I mentally coupe with running for 2+ hours
5. What type of clothing should be worn to avoid chafing?
6. How would this impact my triathlon training specifically the bike?
I had mapped out several different routes with varying challenges and decided on running on the Massapequa bike path. This was a relatively flat course with a few rolling sections to keep you honest but nothing terribly difficult. I wanted to ensure that I would have an enjoyable, memorable and safe experience and I felt this route would do just that.
In prepping for the run I wanted to recruit someone to pace me or provide SAG. I was able to recruit my Dad. The plan was for him to ride his bike along side of me and carry my hydration/nutrition as well as provide some motivation and distraction.
The morning of the run it was 32 degrees with 15 mph winds. This meant that it really felt like the low 20s. I had originally planned to wear shorts since the day before it was in the mid 40s. The change in weather promoted a change in clothing. Now my shorts had changed to 3/4 length tights and my long sleeve shirt transformed into two under armour tops and a vest. I also opted to wear compression socks to keep my lower legs warm and to reduce the muscle vibration and therefor reduce the onset of fatigue.
I was not very confident in what exactly to eat before such a long run. I know what my body agrees with for 13 miles and even for 70.3 miles but running 20 miles was uncharted territory. I opted to treat my pre run meal like a 70.3 distance event. I had a pint glass of Tri Berry NUUN, an acqai bowl with a half cup of granola and two bananas and one serving of GenerationUCAN Super Starch. This equated to roughly 400 calories. The major mystery and concern was Generation UCAN's Super Starch. I had experimented with it a few times before with no undesirable consequences however this run was certainly going to be its litmus test.
My Dad and I made it down to the 0.0 mile marker on the bike trail and began to get dressed and discuss my game plan. I first handed him my water bottle that was mixed with 300 calories of CarboPro. I then began to divulge my strategy. I wanted to take the first half easy and run a 7:45 pace and then drop the pace to 7:30 for the remaining 10 miles. I felt that this pace would reward me physically, mentally,emotionally and spiritually. This run was meant to push through and redefine my limits without burying myself and requiring an abnormal recovery.
Right off the bat I was on pace however my Garmin was screwy. The screen on my watch has three fields; elapsed time, current pace and average pace. As I crossed the first mile marker I had some immediate concerns. First, the bike path's mile marker and my Dad's bike computer were in sync. My current pace was correct as I referenced it with my Dad however my average pace was drastically off. Finally around the 1.75 mark my watched sounded, first mile? 9:58? Of all days that my watch acts up. For the few miles my pace felt steady however according to my watch I was slowing drastically, (9:58, 7:33, 13:42)
Two actions marked the first 5k. First, my body started to feel lose and was warming up. Secondly, my Dad decided to test his Paris Roubaix skills which delivered him gently down to the pavement. I stopped to help him up, he was fine. It was the slowest fall I had ever witnessed. The minute rest was just what my body needed to flush out that initial pump. I now felt extremely relaxed and my Dad and I now had conversation fodder.
I stopped to use the bathroom at the 47 minute mark and then roughly 8 minutes later started to take in my nutrition.
The start of the power lines on the bike path was a significant milestone for me. The first tower cued my normal turnaround as it is roughly 6.75 miles out from the 0.0 marker. Tower One was my gateway into the unknown. Every successive stride would be an exploration in finding my ultra. Miles 4, 5 and 6 (7:26, 7:29, 7:33)
An exciting part about running into the unknown was the new visual stimulation. The next handful of miles would provide a new landscape to enjoy. Miles 7-10 were somewhat of a blur sprinkled with light conversation as I honed my focus on the present moment. I practically stopped thinking. I was present.
During these miles I had mentioned to my Dad that I have three trains of thought while training/racing. One train of thought I can characterize as aggressive. In this state of mind I'm pushing the pace and raising the effort. If there is another runner in the distance my mindset is to hunt them down, quickly. Although a beneficial mindset to have at the end of races it can and will get me in trouble early on and during the race.
My second train of thought is not much of a thought at all, it's about not thinking . . . about anything. I call it turning off my brain. I like to do this periodically during longer training sessions or longer races. I find by shutting off my brain I'm able to maintain a very consistent pace and not over analyze what is going on around me. Its almost a way to relax while during periods of high energy expenditure.
The third train of thought involves being in the present moment, being in the now. This is where I like to spend most of my time. I'm not concerned with what happened or what will happen rather focused on the present moment, what is happening now. This breath, this foot placement, this stride, this hand/arm/body position. There are no other thoughts in my mind, it is quiet, still, no distractions, no confusion. It is the utilization of this train of thought where I am at my best.
The turn around at mile 10 was welcoming after dealing with a strong headwind since the start. As I turned around I started to shout and shake my body out. It was time to revitalize my body and prepare for the second half of the run. My confidence in my Garmin was lacking and I voiced my concerns and goals to my Dad. I wanted him to make sure I didn't dip below 8 mph and I didn't want to spend extended periods of time above 9 mph. By this time I wanted to start to take in my nutrition more frequently as I was starting to think I was falling behind. ( I had roughly taken in 8oz of water and 50 calories). Ten miles in and everything felt easy. I was both physically and mentally relaxed and was enjoying myself. 3.5 more miles and I would begin to find my ultra. Miles 7, 8, 9, 10 (7:25, 7:31, 7:36, 7:29)
I was very eager and motivated to reach the fourteenth mile. From mile 10-14 I was going to take in nutrition every 10 minutes and remain as smooth as possible. After an early decline I felt my stomach empty which was an immediate yellow flag. I spoke to my Dad, more to calm myself and talk through this issue than to strike up a conversation. I talked my way through explaining it must be related to my pre run nutrition. This "conversation" lasted only a couple minutes and I was once again focused on reaching mile 14. Shortly after I heard a sloshing in my stomach. Seriously? My stomach wasn't absorbing the hydration quick enough. This could be a direct result of trying to play catch up . . . Don't fall behind with your nutrition plan and expect great things. Lesson learned. This sensation prompted another one sided conversation with my Dad to put things in perspective. Stay present. My Dad had started to provide me with tips and reminders during this time to keep my focus. He had also started to relay more data in terms of speed and distance. At the 13 mile market I was still feeling strong and smooth and my confidence was quickly building.
"Mile 14 Nathan"
Cue Rocky shadow boxing sequence.
Cue 30 seconds of full body chills.
Cue shouts of excitement.
Cue fist bump with Dad.
"Time to buckle up, let's do this"
Miles 10-14 (7:29, 7:20, 7:21, 7:25, 7:15)
If I can keep this pace up I'm going to crush this run and my expectations.
Stop thinking about the finish. Focus on being present.
Now was not the time to falter mentally. I still had a long way to go, 10k. From the waste up I was feeling strong and relaxed. There was a couple of moments my shoulders tensed up and was quickly reminded to relax. My knees were starting to feel the previous miles and had a slight swollen feeling. I also felt that I wasn't getting the same forward propulsion from legs I was accustom to. Both of these new sensations didn't trigger any alarms but were certainly signs of needing to improve my muscular endurance. The last 10k was going to require an increasing degree of mental fortitude.
Mile 15 ticked over with ease (7:17) and it sky rocketed my confidence. Am I about to crush this 20 miler? I got this.
Miles 16-18 (7:42, 7:47, 7:45) I felt my pace slow just a hair. I also noticed the front edge of my sneaker started to catch the ground prior to my normal foot strike, a clear sign of muscle fatigue. I had less than two miles left and the wheels were coming loose. If I keep this pace I'll cruise into the finish, a graceful crash landing.
Miles 19-20 were a blur. I was definitely being verbally demanding of myself. Dad was counting down the tenths of miles.
2 hours and 32 minutes. I had just completed my first step in finding my ultra.
After some recovery and more training I look forward to taking my second step toward finding my ultra.
A huge THANK YOU to my Dad for supporting me on this very cold day.
Thank you to Matt for putting up with my off season bucket list.