“There’ll be two buses leaving the hotel for the park tomorrow. The two o’clock bus will be for those of you who need a little extra work. The empty bus will leave at five o’clock.” David Bristol, Milwaukee Brewers baseball manager
So, how's everybody's bracket doing? After Thursday's first round of games, I thought I just might quit my Physical Therapy gig and become a full time handicapper in Vegas. I was flying. Now, my bracket looks like some hillbilly took a shotgun to it and blasted it full of holes. Holy cow! It's like God said "What's March Madness? Let me pick one of those bracket things!". For all you Tar Heel fans (North Carolina), I may as apologize up front because I picked UNC to win the whole thing!
Around these Alabama parts, we are two weeks from the annual Oak Mountain 50k Trail Run and I know there are several of my running buddies attempting the ultra distance for the first time. After a 4 year hiatus, I was hoping to take part in the race this year, but after a trial run a couple of weeks ago, I think my days of ultras with technical trails are history. My trail trial (that's a typographical tongue twister) was a mechanically physical implosion. It is something that I WANT to do and not what I HAVE to do or what someone is telling me to do. I WANT to go out and run very far. I WANT to be challenged mentally and physically for no other reason than to put myself on the edge. But, life is not always a bowl of cherries, and I've certainly had many, many memories running ultras up to 111 miles. No need to mope about it. I'll keep running the trails that I can, and I am currently training for a tamer trail 50K in May. We'll see soon how that plan evoles. But, over the years, trail ultras have taught me that the mindset has to be quite diverse when comparing it to it's more sedate, older sister, the road marathon.
Road marathons have the pre-race hub-bub and excitement, the fireworks at the start, and the always-too-fast-first-mile. Ultras have a low key, casual, relaxed atmosphere. Ultras usually start in the forest somewhere or at least run through some heavily wooded section for all or most of the race. These days, very rarely is an ultramarathon a road race. Back in the 80's and early 90's, The Birmingham Track Club had a very successful 50 miler on the roads at Oak Mountain...4 laps of 12.5 miles! How in the world I did that race, I have no idea, but I managed to complete all 14 of them! Now, for 99% of the gang who run these events, it’s a run, not a race. There’s a very social atmosphere before the start, during the race, and afterward. In marathons, you usually have to go a little deeper towards the back of the pack to get that "social run" atmosphere. Ultras rarely hold awards ceremonies because the nature of the run makes it tough to do that – the finish times can be stretched out across as much as a 6 hour period, no wait, make that 9 hours. No, can be 12...oh heck, it can just be a real long time. Finishing is the goal, but you finish and drink beer and eat! You put down your burger and brew to clap when some other runner ambles across the finish line and then he/she joins in the post-race hoopla.
In ultras, training is about endurance above all else. To run fifty miles, you have to be able to run fifty miles. I know that sounds, well, almost stupid, but it’s true. You absolutely have to be able to last for a long time on your feet. And, you have to juggle a lot of other things while continuing to put one foot in front of the other. You have to learn how to carry a bunch of crap with you (how many marathoners carry toilet paper with them?), how to drink a LOT while running (when there aren't aid stations every mile), how to eat normal food while running (can't live on Gu from dawn to dusk you know), and how to be very flexible in how you do all these things (because Plan A never works). And while you do all these things, you better stay alert and not start thinking about what kind of Sam Adams you'll have at the finish. Lose your focus, and you'll hit what my buddy, Moha, and I call banana peels. These banana peels can be in the form of roots, rocks, ruts, kudzu, and many types of Whatevers, just existing to cause some unexpecting trail runner a glorious face-plant. Several times, I've hit those ever present invisible banana peels. As I dusted the dirt off, I looked around and there is absolutely NOTHING that could have caused me to do a half-gainer into the bushes.
One of the smartest snippets of advice I’ve ever recieved about ultras is to keep moving forward. Dwayne Satterfield, one of the Southeast's top trail ultrarunners told me to keep repeating...Baby steps, baby steps, especially when going uphill. It sounds so simple, but when you get tired and can’t think clearly and you have all these things to do to take care of yourself, it’s easy to stop dead in your tracks and start rambling on to someone about what you need to do, how you feel so bad, etc., etc., on and on. Walking along while you get your stuff together not only prevents a lot of lost time from standing there like an idiot, but it minimizes the impact of said lost time. Think of it this way: in a 50 miler, if you stop and whine for, oh, say seven and a half minutes and then get started again, you’ll have the next mile go by in 7:30 PLUS however long it takes you to go through that mile (let’s say 12 minutes because you’re tired or you wouldn’t have stopped to whine); so, that mile took 19:30; if you had grabbed your stuff and walked along getting organized, you couldn’t have wasted the time whining and you would have covered over a half mile in the same 7:30, so then you would start back running and get through the rest of the mile in less than 6 minutes (let’s say 5:30); so, now, your organized self is six and a half minutes ahead of your whiny self. If that happens several times in the last part of the race, you could easily be talking about over an hour eaten up by not simply moving forward. Learning to keep moving forward comes from running a long way in practice … when you’re tired … when you’re hungry … when you’ve given out mentally. You can apply this "moving forward math" to any race of a marathon distance or longer. It's just that...and I know this from many-time experience...the Space/Time Continuum gets severly distorted in an ultra race. You can set a goal in a road marathon and miss it by 15 minutes and you sulk around about what a crappy runner you are. But, transpose that to even a trail 50K, which is only 5+ miles longer, you can set a goal of 7 hours, cross the finish line at 9 hours and say "That was close enough"! Being "out there" changes your outlook on a lot of things!
Mark Twain once said "A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn no other way". I wish to all my buddies about to enter the new ultra world all the luck, but hopefully they won't have to resort to luck. If you've done the prep work, both physically and mentally, ride with the wave. You can buck against a marathon and sometimes let it know who's boss. Don't try that technique with an ultra, especially on the trail. Most of the time, somewhere along the course, you will enter a dark place that you are sure you will never get out of. One of the good things is you have a lot of time to get out of it, and you will...remember, it doesn't always get worse.
Have a grand experience and when you cross the finish line, we'll share a burger and a brew. I'll see you on the roads - AL
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