Guest blog by Michael Robertson
On Saturday, April 27, I accomplished a goal that had been percolating in my brain since I read Born To Run: running an ultramarathon. When I signed up for the race on January 4, I was essentially starting my running from scratch, having come off a long injury layoff. I knew that it would be a tough goal, but with Rebecca’s encouragement, and some input from our good friend Alett, I was reasonably optimistic about pulling it off.
I picked the Trail Animal Running Club (TARC) Spring Classic 50K for my foray into the ultra world. After getting out on the trails in the Middlesex Fells a few times with soem Animals, I was getting pretty worried about a 50K trail race, but I was assured that the race trail was much easier both in that it was a lot less technical in nature and everyone considered it “flat and fast.” Now, SPOILER ALERT, after having run the race, it should be noted immediately that trail racers and road racers mean something entirely different when they say “flat and fast.” Animals seem to forget that the implicit “for a trail race” qualifier that is necessary when saying “flat and fast” is not explicit to a newbie trail racer. To me, the course could fairly be described as rolling with a couple significant, but short, inclines that popped up each loop.
We arrived at the race around 6:45 a.m., mostly because I wanted to be sure to get one of the custom t-shirts made by Animal Emily Trespas. Totally worth it. One cool aspect of the race, apparently in “fat ass” tradition, was that the aid station was stocked by the racers. Everyone was asked to bring an item, for example I had the “salty” category and contributed some pretzels and Pop Chips. Even before the race started, it was easy to see how different a smaller trail race is from a road race. Everyone seemed to know each other and I got the feeling they were all just looking forward to a fun, organized, timed run together. I was happy see my fellow Goons, Thor Kirleis and James Provenzano there, as well as Marathon Sports Run Clubbers Ryan and Bethany Couto.
Being firmly of the belief that if you look good at a race, or at least have fun with how you look, you’ll feel good as well, I broke out a new race day outfit, pictured below:
If you’d like to recreate this vision of green plaid, the shorts are theBrooks Infiniti IIIs and the top is the Race Day singlet. I went with my Zoot compression socks and Brooks Cascadia 8 for footwear. Thanks to Tom Poland of Greater Boston Running Company Andover for making sure that the singlet got in by the Friday before the race so I could rock it.
The race course is comprised of 5 10K loops, giving plenty of opportunity to get familiar with the terrain and come up with a plan for the miles ahead. The first stretch of the loop featured, in my opinion, the two most challenging hills, not so much for their length, but steepness. The second of these inclines was described by Animal Mike Saporito as “douche-grade,” which seemed very appropriate as it was tremendously steep, even if it was only 15 yards or so (or less even). I did not even attempt a single running step on this hill on any of the loops, knowing it made much more sense to power hike it during the early loops and then just try to trick gravity into letting me up the hill during the later loops. Maybe I was just really tired, but changing the laws of physics seemed easier during the 4th lap than walking. Apart from those two hills, the course featured more gradual slopes that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow during, say, a 10K road race, but added up over 50 on the trails. Thankfully the hills generally didn’t involve technical terrain on either the uphill or downhill.
Several runners described the course as “really runnable” overall, meaning you could spend a lot more time running and less time picking your way over rocks and roots, like one might in the Fells. At least, that’s what I assume it meant. I did manage to take a decent fall during the second lap when my mind started wandering, but it was on soft pine needles and there was no damage done. There were only 3 sections I can recall that really forced me to tread carefully and walk, not because I was exhausted or sore (though I was), but because my trail running technique isn’t up to snuff yet. All 3 sections involved “stream” crossings, or at least the crossing of water by virtue of rocks or logs. On my first two laps I stepped directly into the water on the first crossing, misreading what was more solid mud and what was…less solid. I did get the hang of it as the race went on, trying to find a balance between moving quickly enough over the rocks to avoid losing my balance and not going so quickly that I took a misstep and ending up in the drink. Even though the last section was the most mentally taxing for me in terms of having to concentrate on each foot plant, it was also the most rewarding to get through because it meant the end of each lap, and then the race, was close at hand.
Going into the race, I had a feeling that the fourth lap was going to be the hardest one, both mentally and physically. I was not disappointed. I had zero, literally zero, expectations for what I was going to do in terms of pace and final time. I figured I’d go out at a very comfortable pace and try to hang on for dear life. I ended up at the start standing next to Luciana and Jayme of TARC, with whom I had run in the Fells a few weeks prior to the race. I decided to start with them and see how the pace felt during the first loop. At some point, feeling decent, I picked up the pace a little and continued on my own. I hooked up with an Ed and Mike from Weymouth for a portion of the first lap and then again during the…third lap, I want to say. Ed and Mike were good guys and I hope they finished strong. I spent portions of the second and third lap with Ryan Couto, who is quite the accomplished ultra runner, along with his wife, but he passed me leaving the aid station and I never caught back up, finishing about 14 minutes behind him in the end.
It was during the fourth lap that my muscles started to rebel, first my quads, and then my calves. This development meant hiking a lot more than I had the prior 3 laps in an attempt to avoid the muscles locking up completely, which I knew would spell doom for the remainder of the race. I also knew that I had to hold back some during the 4th lap, not knowing just how much more energy I would need for the last one. After a long slog through the woods, I finally made it back to the start/finish, where Rebecca helped me out greatly (again) not just by grabbing fuel from my bag, but in gently encouraging/urging me to get going for the fifth and final lap and not to loiter any further. It also helped to see Thor finishing strong and cheering me on as I departed for my last 10K. Maybe it was because there were some cool personal moments during the last lap, maybe my brain was just fried, but somehow the last lap felt much better than the 4th. There was the moment early on in the loop where I knew for sure that I was going to finish the race and be an ultra runner. There was the moment my GPS told me I had completed a marathon distance. And there was the moment the GPS clicked over to 30 miles. All these moments added up to help get me across the line, a moment Rebecca captured:
My final official time was 6:15:02, but here’s the story my Garmin told as well as the pace breakdown from it (I inadvertently restarted the GPS after the race, so the total elevation numbers will be off as well as the last mile stats):
After finishing, I did my best to keep walking, and upright, not wanting a repeat of last year’s post-Boston experience of deciding it would be a good idea to lay down and then not being able to get back up again without feeling dreadful. I did manage to get a picture in with Cesar, a great guy and an Animal.
This was probably an aspect of the race that could have used improvement, though I’m not entirely sure what I would have done better, specifically. I used my Ultimate Direction Blaze Plus fuel belt to carry one flask of Gu Brew and another of water, which I refilled at each aid station. I made it a point to drink at least every mile and then on occasion when needed as well. I took an Accel Gel every 4 miles and a SaltStick cap every 10K (except before the last loop, when I took 2). At the aid station I would generally grab a handful of pretzels to munch on along with some liquids. I think I took one pack of Gu Chomps as well after Lap 2. Although I carried Sport Beans with me, I never ended up using them. Thankfully, I didn’t have any stomach issues during the course of the race. That said, maybe my legs wouldn’t have started cramping if I had taken in more sodium. All things considered, I was able to manage the cramping and would prefer that to stomach distress.
Doing a trail 50K race was an entirely different experience than anything I’d done on the roads, and not just because of the distance and terrain. Letting go of self-imposed expectations for pace and performance was liberating. Ironically, the distance made me less apprehensive about the miles remaining, like I might feel during a half marathon. I think I could count on one hand the number of times I looked at my Garmin in between miles (I had a beep set up to alert me at mile markers so I could be sure to manager hydration), an urge that is sometimes hard to resist during training runs. Moreover, I was able to run, and push myself, without any outside forces, at least when I wasn’t going through the aid station area where Rebecca, and our friend Courtney, was cheering me on. Sure, for some stretches I would run with others, but I never felt that I HAD to, or that I needed music (or Joy The Baker podcasts) to keep me going. Just trying to make it through the trail and across streams without falling kept my mind engaged. When I didn’t have to fully concentrate on the trail, I was mostly just blank, not getting any deep thinking done, just being out in the woods and covering miles.
Will I do another ultra? I honestly can’t say. I don’t have the same sense of unfinished business that I do with the marathon. I don’t have the compelling desire to keep lowering my PR like I do with the 5k-1/2 marathon distances. But then again, maybe those are both the perfect reasons to want to do one again.
There are many people that helped me along the way in my training, and I thank you all. I hope you know who you are, if you happen to be reading this. You pushed me during tempo runs and kept me honest during easy runs. Thanks to Brooks and my ID teammates. Thanks especially to Coach Sage for the workouts and encouragement that got me to the end in one piece. Thanks to my sister, Sarah, for the advice on injuries and just for being a great source of encouragement. And, most of all, thanks to Rebecca for supporting and encouraging me during this crazy “journey” (he said while he stared meaningfully into the distance).
To keep up with Michael’s training and racing adventures, follow along on his blog Once a Runner, Always a Runner.