How I Ran My First 50-Mile Ultra [Part 1]

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” - Nelson Mandela

Choosing what’s possible...

In 2015, on May 22, I did what I thought I couldn’t do.

I ran a 50-mile ultramarathon.

Now, I’m not the first to run a race like this – hundreds of thousands of other tougher, stronger runners have done it. I’m not the fastest, nor the slowest. I’m just a guy who used to think that running 2 miles - 3.2 km - is a lot. I remember that, back in January 2013, I strived to do my very first 2 miles. What a day.

Below are a few notes about my race strategy, race strategy and actual race.

For those who do not know, an ultramarathon is anything longer than the standard 26.2-mile marathon (42.195 km).

A couple of months ago, I flew to Cyprus to go for a run. I’m pretty much into challenges, so I try to choose my own new “impossible” each year. Two months and a half before the race a good friend of mine and I talked each other into signing up for the Crusader Castles Mountain Ultra in Cyprus – the 50-mile foot race. We really had no idea what was involved. In addition to the race difficulty, I was gonna run my first (!) EVER trail race. The course is a rugged climb over the mountains in North Cyprus, with a total elevation change of nearly 12,000 feet (3.5 km). 

Race Training For My First 50-Mile Ultramarathon

My ultra specific training lasted only two months, but that’s because I run 3 to 5 times a week and I do a halfmarathon almost every week. I had a good base to start from. For the record, 2015 found me running on January 2nd. As far as you can see, I had very limited time to train but put a lot of thought into the preparation.

So I trained off and on for two months. I increased my distances, did a 17-mile run in the first two weeks and focused on speed intervals, too. I wanted all my muscles ready for what it was gonna come. Moreover, I went for super long walks – I averaged 12km of walking per day in those two months. I’m a med student so I walked to the hospital.

I did plenty of 1-hour stair workouts when the sun was highest in the sky. I wanted to simulate the exact race conditions – and Cyprus is a very, very hot country.

I used to swim 1 mile three times a week for cross-training. Swimming helps me avoid classic overcompensation injuries because it strengthens muscle groups that have been neglected and introduces new ranges of motion.

Practice Race

1 month prior to the event, I ran my longest training run, 32 mile / 2500 feet elevation total (51 km / 800 m elevation), pretending it was my Northern Cyprus 50-mile foot race. I wanted to see if I can maintain the race pace for 5 hours and only eat gels and drink water. This long run really felt great and gave me the confidence I needed. 

Mindset

After my 32-mile training run, I felt like I was in perfect shape, however I still had to mentally prepare for the unknown, the last 10 miles of the race. On top of that, I read on their website that there’s a super-challenging 7-km part of the race (between the km 60-67 checkpoints).

I had prepared two questions for my mind before the race and I tried to answer them by reaching out to more experienced ultra runners. I will share them with you.

What will you do when things get tough in a race with several hours to go? How do you push through pain, mental fatigue and discomfort?

  • There will certainly be tough spots where you will feel in pain and really uncomfortable. Accept this in advance. When times are worst remember it will only get better, work through it.
  • When going through a steep climb, divert your mind. Drink water, admire the nature, or just go for small goals.
  • Run from “aid station to aid station”. Dividing the race into small chunks at a time is probably the best advice for an ultramarathon. You don’t have to let yourself get overwhelmed by the enormous distance still left to cover.
  • Focus on taking small steps and running technique. Breath out hard and make sure your chest is wide open.

What do you do differently now for a 50-miler, vs your first ultra?

  • Focus on having the right mindset. Do the best with what you have on race day in you. Since no day is perfect, you have to not let yourself get obsessed with the goal, but rather with a good attitude.
  • Run your own race. You’ll feel great at the beginning, but ask yourself constantly if that’s the right pace for you. It’s better to go slower, than regret it on the last miles.
  • Focus on nutrition. Eat something every 60 minutes, a mix o carbs and protein.
  • Don’t try anything new on the race day.

Nutrition

Many ultra runners lack a consistent nutrition, and that’s one of the biggest mistake you can do in a 50-mile race. I’d burn about 700 calories per hour during the race, and that’s about 8000 calories. Since the human body can only handle a limited calorie intake, the body fat stores will need to compensate.

I read on some websites that about 250 calories per hours is enough for the average-sized endurance runner. Eating more calories can generate intestinal issues and become counter productive. My body works mainly on glycogen, so I prefer taking some 400 calories per hour, along with 1 salt pilt. During long runs, I eat a protein bar every two hours. 

Race Day – Saturday May 22, 2015

My iPhone alarm went off at 2:30 am.

 

To be continued

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