You Got Into Your Ultra Running Race, Now What?
Getting into a popular ultra running race off the wait list is usually cause for excitement. But what if your training isn’t quite where you’d like it to be? Can you still have a good day? What are the chances you’ll actually ENJOY the race? I faced these questions a few weeks ago at Smith Rock. I was excited for the opportunity to run this scenic and well supported race. However I was also thinking about how unprepared I was for a 50 km ultra running event.
Does a Spring Race Bolster Your Winter Training?
I maintained a solid base over the winter and started to ramp up my training in spring when my partner was diagnosed with a serious health condition. We were both thrown. In the balance between giving the illness the attention it required and continuing to enjoy life, we did go to Sisters so I could run the Peterson Ridge Rumble 20 mile race. But it was 3 days before his surgery, so running was a sideshow to the main event of us both having a relaxing weekend. His surgery and recovery went smoothly and we were relieved to learn he will not need follow up treatment. Just as I resumed training, I was invited off the wait list for Smith Rock. I said yes without considering if I was actually ready for a race of that distance.
When Fitness Lacks, The Mental Game Takes Over
Since I couldn’t count on fitness to get me through, I was going to have to rely on strategy and experience. I decided to run an extremely conservative pace. At the start line, I found a place well back in the crowd. By simply choosing not to pass I could keep myself from starting too fast. It was tempting to run up the first hills, I love hills. But I channeled my thoughts toward the ends of the ultra running events I’ve run in the past. Past experience allowed me to a hike if the grade seemed like something I wouldn’t be able to run by mile 25. So many runners passed me going up the Summit Trail! It was a mental battle to curb my competitive side and focus on my strategy. After the first aid station, we saw the first notable downhill. This is a fun stretch of trail and I wanted to keep things easy while taking advantage of gravity. To achieve this I aimed for running relaxed and loose. Normally, around the middle portion of the race, my attention becomes more external and I start planning how to catch and pass other runners. Instead, to stay within my current abilities, I pulled inward and focused on my own needs; eat regularly, drink to thirst, walk the uphills, relax downhill. I did slowly pass a few people which I took as a positive sign.
Two Thirds Done, Game Time
By twenty miles into the race, I was feeling confident I would finish in reasonably good shape. My GPS told me that I was maintaining my pace. That said, the pace didn’t feel as easy as it had earlier in the day. The final long climb to Gray Butte isn’t terribly steep, but has a way of grinding away at my confidence. I ran as much of this uphill as I could, but I was deliberately unconcerned when I backed off to a hike. At the summit, my relief at finishing the climb turned to elation when I realized how much energy I had left. I was finally ready to give my competitive side free rein. I used the long views on the Gray Butte Trail to target runners and chase them down. By this point people were spread out and I only caught a few. When I turned down the steep Burma Road I quickly realized that, although I’d managed my pace well all day, my shoes were probably a little too small and my feet were badly beaten up. This took some wind out of my sails and my finish wasn’t quite as strong as I’d hoped. It still felt like a successful day.
Being Honest with Yourself is the Key
I found out that, yes, even if you’re a little underprepared you can have a good day of racing and it can even be enjoyable. Being honest about my preparation and tailoring my performance to my current preparation made that possible. I have successfully used a start slow strategy at other, longer ultra running events. At this race I realized a slow start meant that I had the option, at any time, to push and go a little faster. Because I was under trained, there was no point in this race where that would have been a good choice. At some other race, where I’m better trained, I can still start slow, but I will take the opportunity to step up.
Marta Fisher is a mountain runner and sponsored athlete at Evolution Healthcare & Fitness. You can find her on the trails in Columbia River Gorge, around the Timberline Trail on Mt Hood, or at the neighborhood pastry shop filling up on quick burning calories!