"Can’t really call it a run, more of a saunter"
That's what I said to the person giving me my medal after a 24-hour Ultra, but that was not really true either. Saunter implies leisurely and relaxed; my Ultra was definitely not relaxed. In a nutshell, it went from “okay”, to “pretty good”, to “rough”, to “pretty good” again, and finally just “bad.”
Every good race recap needs the backstory. This one is simple: All my races got canceled and I needed to do something. Ultra running is one of the few things in my region that was not destroyed by COVID-19. These ridiculous races naturally have small fields that string themselves out, thereby naturally adhering to social distancing.
So, me being the kind of guy that says, “meh, whatever” to any distance, registered for the race.
Now I do have a couple Ultras under my belt... in the strictest sense. I have completed longer than marathon runs before, though only 50k distance and in the 5-hour range. I’ve also completed several 12 and 24-hour bike races. The length of the race was not a concern.
The race started at 7:00am. Luckily, I pre-ran the course a few weeks beforehand (but backwards) and I had an idea of how I wanted to attack the terrain. I ran the first lap conservatively and finished exactly where I wanted: right on pace for my lofty goal. The second lap started much like the first, until about halfway through when I ruined one of my toes. My toe hurt but I still finished right on place.
The course was a 7 mile triangle south of Moab with about 800’ of elevation gain. The 3 sides of the triangle were roughly equal. The first side started off flat on a little bit of dirt road before breaking off onto a jeep road that climbed for the next ¾ of the side. Side 2 was rough. From the turn that started the side to the turn to start side 3 there was a little gain in elevation, but it had 3 slick rock ascents/descents and a deep sand ascent/descent. It was just a brutal couple miles. The third side began as a semi-technical loose rock descent followed by 2 miles on a flattish dirt road.
The “Pretty good”
I was lucky enough to have a great race crew. By the time I finished my second lap had a variety of tape options to fix my toes. That was great. The next lap went without issue. In fact, the lap after that went by just as well!
The very end of the third lap was when the tide began to turn. I was still moving very well, but I had gone past my IRONMAN times and way past my longest run times. I heard that tiny little sanity voice in the back of my head telling me, “this is not a sustainable pace.”
Everyone doing the race was set up in what was called the Camp Loop. The Camp Loop itself was a camping area with a ¼ mile-ish perimeter that the competitors were able to run when they got to the point they did not think they could finish a full lap. My crew was set up with a 10x20 tent, a regular sleeping tent, a few chairs, and a lantern--a great spot for a pit stop.
The core of my crew (who I cannot thank enough) consisted of my wife Heather and Jesse Nolen (a Team MPI athlete. I also had help from my friends Amy and Tyler, both of whom did the 6 hour race. Last but not least, Kent Walter, another Team MPI athlete, was not there in person but randomly called me throughout the day to make sure I was coherent and remind me how comfortable he was in bed. Thank you to everyone.
Going completely against my natural tendency to ignore the voice in the back of my head, I decided to slow the next lap and say goodby to my lofty goal. My strategy so far had been to walk only the 3 rock sections and the sand section, running the rest of the course.
On this lap I began running the flat section of the first side and walking up all the climbs. This worked perfectly, I felt great, and more importantly it felt maintainable. Then the sun set. The sun set while I was traversing side 2 of the course. I didn’t think much of it, I knew it would be dark during a 24hour race. I had my light and a pair of arm warmers.
The unique thing about side 2 is with it being the highest side, it hugged the side of one of Moab’s famous red rock mesas. This kept side 2 oddly warm, even after dark, the temperature of side 2 stayed in the 50s. I turned my light on, pulled my warmer up, and kept trucking. Then I hit the 2 miles of dirt road on side 3.
The dirt road was the lowest part of the course and, unlike side 2, was typical high desert. The temperature was in the 30s when I made it to the road. Those 2 miles were cold and I could not stop shivering when I got back to camp. One of the greatest inventions ever is the heated car seat. Sitting on that car seat warmed me right up and I was able to start another lap. I bundled up and headed on my way.
That lap was also rough. While I was nice and warm, by the time I made it to the turn for side 2 I was hot. There is nothing my body likes to do more when it is hot than cramp. I ended up having to tie my jacket around my waist, like a hardcore mall walker, for side 2. Not much more to say about that lap… just rough.
Nutrition at an Ultra is a fickle beast. Nutrition at an Ultra is a fickle beast. A 24 hour Ultra is unique compared to an IRONMAN, or even a 24-hour bike. During a Full, I typically eat bars through the bike and switch to gels for the run. On a 24-hour bike race, I can sit with bars the entire time. A 24-hour Ultra, on the other hand, is much less intense than a Full, so I don’t need quick burning gels, Still, it’s more stressful than a 24-hour bike race, so I need more calories than just bars.
The beauty of every Ultra I have done is the amount of cooking by the race promoter. The start/finish aid station had quesadillas, pizza, taco soup, pancakes, oreos, and cola. All of which I took full advantage of after 6 hours of racing. I began the race with 30 bars in my bag, and ended with 24. Hot food is great!
The “Pretty Good” (night edition)
After 2 rough laps I had a good lap. I’m not sure what it was, maybe the full container of cookies I ate before the lap... but I felt good. I was even a little embarrassed when someone passed me while I was singing a song to myself. The lap went great and I got back to camp feeling good.
Clothes are the most overlooked part of an Ultra. I brought 3 full changes of clothes, plus cold weather and hot weather extras. I went through all but one piece of clothing. Few things feel better 20 hours into a race than a new pair of shorts (this is true for 24 hour bike races as well). Taking a couple minutes to relax and change clothes during a day of exercise cannot be underestimated.
Following my “pretty good” lap, things started to go downhill (metaphorically, it was literally uphill). I tried my best to stay in the same mindset as the previous lap, but that lap felt long. My little bit of positivity came from the fact that I knew if I finished the lap with less than 3 hours to go, I would just start during camp laps. I finished the lap with 4 hours left in the race... that’s when things went bad.
My heart sank, the last thing I wanted to do was another lap. It was the only lap I walked the entire time, but I pushed through that lap and made it back with an hour to spare. (fun fact - my first couple of laps averaged 1:30 and the last was 2:40). The only time I teared up during that entire race was getting to the camp loop on that last lap. I was so happy I did not have to go back out on the long lap.
With an hour left in the race I started doing camp laps. Walking the first several, running a few, and going full on for the last 2. I didn’t think I could run anymore when I started the camp laps, but the finish always has a funny effect on me.
I finished. I would not call myself an Ultra runner, but I will probably do more.
Contact Adam: adam@teamMPI.com