I’m writing this a few days past my first ultra-marathon. Running, which started as a way to clear my head and lose some weight along the way, has become a much more important part of my life. My relationship to, and the journey of, running is comparable to a relationship between two people. Some things begin to attract you toward them, but after a few rendezvouses, you learn that there’s more to them than meets the eye. While the early fascinations are all real and useful, you realize that they pale compared to the newfound meaning. Not all interactions with people take that course, of course, but when that happens is when you begin to feel the potential of its transformation from scribbles on a blank canvas to a rich, colorful painting. I’ve come to love not merely the looks of running, but the nature of it, the depth of it, the power and the nuances of it. My younger self who started to run a few years ago didn’t have the slightest clue about where it would lead him! Looking back, he looks naive, in a good way, because that naivete and uncertainty are what have made this journey full of pleasant surprises. Setting incremental goals has caused big positive changes over time and in unexpected ways. The thought of running an ultra-marathon was no different; it took shape only a few months ago.
The Big Bike Ride
Earlier this year I had signed up for a long bike ride that was in July. It was an annual race in Colorado, the land of the fourteeners, as they call them, the mountain peaks that stand above 14000 ft from sea level. Much like everybody else who was at the starting line, the competitive nature of the race was one, but not the only, reason that brought me there. People had different motivations, diverse stories, and distinct goals, and expectations from it. I had no intention of trying to be the fastest. Neither had I trained for it nor was I capable of it. It was the longest ride I had ever done in one day and the route wasn’t flat. My goal was to be able to finish it in the allowed time and have fun while doing it. It took us over three mountain passes and the event was aptly called the “Triple Bypass”.
It has been a few years since I became an outdoorsman. Having come from a collectivistic society, I’m new to the notion of pursuing one’s interests. Although I’ve embraced it for a while now, it still seems foreign. There’s a part of me that still thinks about whether people will approve of my decisions and how they might affect others. The constant tug-of-war, hitherto undisputed, has now come to a point where my individualistic needs have learned how not to lose every time.
The joy of being in Nature, and of doing things that push your perceived limits is what draws me to seek outdoor challenges. It also brings about a few, seemingly contrasting, virtues — it humbles you and at the same time instills confidence and courage in you. Humility comes from knowing the struggle of pursuing hard things. Confidence and courage come from the knowledge that you can endure it and emerge a little bit better.
After I came back home from the race, I got busy with the mundanity of each day. A feeling of emptiness started to creep up a few days later. It was a feeling that seemed vaguely familiar. It was the hole left behind every time I lost something of value. I had felt it before when I lost people who were close. But this time it wasn’t a person that I had lost but a feeling, a sense of progress and growth. In the past few months, the training I did for the race had provided me with the nourishment that I needed, both physical and mental. Now, I was riding the wave of past accomplishment. I hadn’t realized that it had carried me to the beach and left me stranded. Anything that’s worth having in life requires long-term commitment and effort, not merely to gain it but to keep it as well – trust, loyalty, meaning, joy, health. They are the lanes we choose to ride in, not the destinations we choose to get to. I had to get back to the journey, rather than relishing at the stop I had made.
I didn’t know until recently that there’s a word that nicely describes what I was feeling – ennui – the kind of boredom that results from the jadedness of living a life of too much ease. From talking to my friends about it, I’ve come to believe that it’s more common than I had realized. The prevalence of it speaks to the comforts and luxuries in life that we have come to afford as a society. Unlike previous generations, there’s not much in our existence that requires the activation of the wonderful powers that evolution has built into us. We can get through life not having to get off the couch, not feeling warm or cold, not feeling hungry, not feeling bored, not having to interact with another person. I had read somewhere somebody describing it as being in a state of “perpetual homeostasis”. I can’t think of a way to capture it better. Although we think of ourselves as an evolutionary success story, our evolution itself hasn’t caught up to the advances we have made. Our bodies ache to be moved, our brains ache to be stimulated. I sometimes think of us as Hulk whose only workout is carrying a briefcase to the office. Seems like we are all craving for more than that. Whether or not we are aware of that craving is a different matter.
A few more weeks passed by as I pushed these thoughts into the background and went about my life. The thought brewed in the subconscious and floated back to the surface a few weeks later, in September. I was turning 30 in October, so running at least 30 miles seemed like an ambitious and fun challenge, something worth working towards. The shortest official distance that matches the criterion is 50k, which is about 32 miles. It also happens to be an ultra-marathon distance. And so the training began.
It was past the Labor Day weekend, so I had already lost the first week of September and since I wanted to do the race in the same month as my birthday, I had about 6-7 weeks to train. It seemed like a short time to go from 0 miles of running the whole year to 50k in a matter of a couple of weeks, but I had built the strength and endurance from the training on the bike. I had to start training for the run as soon as possible. I started the week after.
Below is what the training looked like in numbers, thanks to Strava.
If you’re into long-distance running, you can tell that they look like casual, weekday runs, nothing like training for an ultra at all, something somebody would do to shake their legs. It’s true. Having made plans for the weekends ahead with my family and friends, weekdays were all I could get. I tried to squeeze at least two runs per week during lunch time, with each run somewhere between 5-8 miles. The longest run was about 10.5 mi and that was three weeks before the race. Sometimes due to lack of time, and other times because of my laziness, I didn’t go longer than that. The runs were on flat roads too, so I wasn’t getting any elevation training either. I had to first build up to the distance, before I could climb up. The race had about 5k ft of elevaton gain and loss. The thought of that, in addition to the pounding of legs for that long, scared me. The last two weeks I ventured out to the hilly streets of San Francisco near my office and did some circuit runs to get my body used to climbs.
Training Calendar - September
Training Calendar - October
Training Runs(in Distance)
Training Runs(in Time)
Training Runs(in Elevation Gain)
Race Week(in Distance)
Race Week(in Time)
Race Week(in Elevation Gain)
Notes and Reflections
The race had a no-cup policy, so I carried a Nathan water bottle with me in hand. I think that works better for me than carrying a hydration pack, which rubs my back and gets the shirt all wet.
Chafing is the worst. Even now, days after the race, my nipples hurt just thinking about it. I think right around mile 13, I took off my shirt and carried it pretty much from there up to a few yards before the finish line. I should take better care of it next time! Vaseline helps but I should look into some strap that hugs it tight and doesn’t cause friction.
Next time I sign up for something like this, I should do longer runs and on trails. That takes care of the boredom of long runs and also makes for better training
You don’t get bored in trail runs. I had prepared a playlist of workout music and motivating podcasts to keep me going, especially in the end. But one, I didn’t need it and two, it ruins the fun of the race. When I slowed down in the last third of the race, I enjoyed the company of runners who were with me. Chatting with them, running with them helped me even speed up a little.
GU is delicious and works well for my body. It’s really easy to eat on the go.
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