5 Reasons to Run Beyond the Marathon

Today, I’d like to introduce you to Christine. After coaching her for over three years, this is the inspiring story of her 12-hour ultramarathon.

Christine_Ultramarathon

Someone is WAY too happy while running for 12 hours…

Christine started training with me in the summer of 2011. Her goals were simple: get a coach for the Philadelphia Marathon and if she gets into Boston the following year, continue to see how fast she can run.

Her training went really well leading into Philly and she was able to cut over two minutes from her personal best, finishing in 3:31. Success!

She also got into the 2012 Boston Marathon, but the record-breaking heat crushed any hopes of running a personal best.

Still, Christine continued with the coaching program, ultimately running her PR at the 2013 Boston Marathon in 3:29.

Next, she had an itch to test herself in an ultramarathon. She ran a successful 50k in the fall of 2013… but it wasn’t enough.

This is Christine’s story of her first “long” ultra – a 12-hour race.

Take it away, Christine.

How Christine Got the Ultra Bug

I was less than 8 miles in to what I hoped would become my first 50-miler when I started to panic:

  • How many miles were still ahead of me?
  • How much more time would I spend on my feet?
  • What on earth had I signed myself up for?

Nearly 4 months prior to that day I had willingly registered for a 12-hour race called the “Sloppy Cuckoo.”  Sloppy is an understatement for what I would feel like after 12 hours of running.

The course was a 6.55-mile loop and you had 12 hours to complete as many loops as you wanted.  My goal was 50 miles.

I had completed three 50ks in the past two years, but this was 19 miles further than I had ever run before.  The reality of that set in hard and fast on my second loop, and I had to come to terms with it quickly or else be swallowed up and spit out by the enormity of it all.

But let’s back up – I got here by choice, after all.  No one strong-armed me into anything – signing up for this race was entirely my own doing.

So, why run an ultramarathon in the first place?

If anything, my decision to run a 12-hour race went against the advice of friends and family.  They had supported me during numerous marathons.

But a 12-hour race was less defined and much rougher around the edges than anything I had ever signed up for.  Which is exactly why I wanted to do it.

Anyone who has been smitten by running knows all the life lessons it can teach you if you’re willing to learn:

  • Patience
  • Persistence
  • Fortitude
  • Mindfulness
  • Strength you never knew you had

A commitment to running also comes with a side of blistered feet, blackened toenails, all varieties of GI discomfort, a voracious appetite, and the uncanny ability to fall asleep mid-conversation.

But even though running and I have our days where we don’t quite see eye to eye, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.  And taking my first baby steps into ultra-running has further cemented that commitment.

5 Lessons About Running Beyond the Marathon

Christine Ultra Running

Christine running her first 50km Ultramarathon

You might be asking (rightfully so) why on earth should I try ultra running?

What is there to be gained from pushing beyond the marathon?

I’ve found that there is an enormous amount to be gained by training for and tackling longer distances.

Here are 5 lessons I’ve learned that have benefited all aspects of my running.

1. Change Your Perspective

Running 5ks, 10ks and even marathons can get you pretty focused on pace and mile splits and PRs.  And there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of those.

But once in a while it’s nice to make a shift – change your outlook on your running and gain a new perspective.  And who knows, those PRs may come even more readily once you stop trying so hard.

Most importantly, you have to make peace with a slower pace during ultras.  Leave your ego at the door.  Since the majority of ultras are run on trails, you’ll encounter a whole new set of obstacles if most of your previous running has been on the road.

Trying to run a pre-determined pace on trails, especially with any sort of serious elevation gain, is simply setting yourself up for failure.  It’s essential to learn to run by effort rather than time, a skill that will help you become much more in tune with your internal sense of pacing.

The beauty of slowing down is that you get to appreciate your surroundings, which will be more varied and full of natural beauty than many road races.

For your first ultra, simply finishing (hopefully with a smile on your face!) is a perfect goal.

I’ll admit, with my history of road running and racing I initially felt a little deflated by my mile splits on the trails.  But learning to let that go is a wonderful thing.  It’s enabled me to enjoy all my runs more fully now that I am focused on running by feel.

2. Improve Your Focus

With road running, it’s easy to zone out (particularly on routes I run frequently).  And sometimes that’s exactly what I want to do after a stressful day at home or work.

But learning to stay focused is equally essential, and ultra running provides ample opportunity.

Training for an ultra allows you to become a master of both single-minded focus and multi-tasking all at once.

Running on trails is often as much about the mental training as the physical training, especially when fatigue starts to set in.  That’s when the roots and rocks that looked so innocent several hours ago can suddenly become your worst nightmare if you aren’t paying attention.

But ultramarathons often require you to juggle a zillion things that you never thought about with shorter races:

It’s even more essential to stay tuned in to your body.  Be attentive and find solutions to small problems before they turn ugly.

Take a few minutes to tape a blister, deal with uncomfortable chafing, or change your wet socks. You’ll prevent even worse problems later and will make your ultramarathon much more enjoyable.

3. Food is Fuel

I’ll confess that I haven’t always had a perfect relationship with food or my body.  Who has?  We all have imperfections we’d like to improve upon.

But the longer I run and the further I push myself, the more I appreciate what my body is capable of accomplishing.

Distance running has helped me get better at seeing food as essential nutrition and fuel, rather than something to battle.

Learning what fuels you best is an incredibly individual process and there’s no one “correct” diet out there for all of us.  But the more whole-foods oriented your diet is the better you’ll feel.

Running for hours on end in an ultra can wreak havoc on your stomach if you haven’t taken the time in training to figure out what you can tolerate.

Whether you’re just eating breakfast before a short weekday run or getting ready to head out on the trails for the day, experiment with your diet and see what makes you feel best.

You’re sure to gain a better appreciation of how much you can benefit from the right types of fuel.

4. Develop Mental Tenacity

I’m a firm believer that pretty much any type of running increases your mental fortitude.

But ultra running takes this to an entirely new level.  Facing 6 or 12 or even 24+ hours of running is incredibly daunting.  Just having the guts to set out on this type of journey warrants an enormous amount of respect.

I’ve learned a few lessons on how to “get out of your comfort zone,” as Jason would say:

1. Don’t be afraid of choosing a challenging race that scares you silly!

If you put in training and time on your feet, there’s no reason you can’t accomplish just about anything you set your sights on.

Passion and excitement will get you started, persistence gets you to the finish line. Click here to tweet that line!

2. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

After countless hours on your feet, it’s easy to let the small stuff drag you down.  The longer you’re out there, the more essential it becomes to appreciate the little things.  Focus on the small wins.

3. Mental toughness carries over to life.

The mental strength you build from training and racing long distances will pay off in all that you do. Ultra running becomes a microcosm of life, in this respect.

5. Trust in the Unknown

When it comes to ultra running, trust in the unknown.  I know that may sound entirely counter-intuitive to some of the other lessons I’ve described here, but that’s not necessarily the case.

I can be a little too Girl Scout like at times – to say that I like to be well prepared is an understatement.

This is usually a very useful quality.  But when you’re tackling something as big as 50 or 100 miles, there is no way to know exactly how it’s going to play out.  Even the best plans can go to hell at a moment’s notice.

Yes – sometimes things can change for the worse, but just as often (if not more so) they change for the better.

A sudden surge of energy may come 40 miles into your 50-miler.

Or maybe you reach the summit of a challenging climb and are greeted by an inspiring view.

Ultra running helps us remember always to have a little faith when things get tough.

Hard Work Pays Off

Christine_Sarah Boston Marathon

Christine and Sarah (you might remember her from this post!)

Last September, after 11 hours and 23 minutes, I reached my 50-mile goal.

It was exhausting, fulfilling, affirming, and challenged me on so many different levels.

Discovering my strength over those 50 miles was an incredible learning experience, and I feel like my running has changed for the better ever since.

If you have been considering trying an ultra, take the plunge!

You’ll learn a tremendous amount about yourself from both training and racing, and you may be surprised to discover strengths you never knew you had.

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Comments

  1. brendan says:

    Dear god yes. My first experience with something like ultra running was “Going Goofy” for the Disneyworld Half and full marathons on back to back days many years ago. I’ve made two attempts at 100milers, but fizzled around mile 40 both times.

  2. Sam Butler says:

    I just finished my first 50k. Would like to do a 50 miler in the future, but I have questions. If you train for a 50 miler, how far is your longest run before the race? Do you go all the way out to 50 miles or is that an invitation to injury? How many times do you run that super long run before your race? I am thinking about doing medium length runs most Saturdays, somewhere between 10 to 14 miles, but then once a month doing something much longer. How much is too much, especially since I am a slow runner? I also have a bad problem with my feet blistering, any suggestions?

  3. Michael says:

    Assuming I BQ at the CIM in December, then I will do the Big Basin 50K in July 2016.

  4. Yes. Just a few years ago I was just trying to tackle my first 10k. 3 years and some change later I’ve completed several marathons and my 1st 50k, which I placed 5th in! I’m now training for my 1st 50 miler this October. Staying pain free and healthy so far despite my battles with ITBS in the past. Best feeling to be able to run far and spend the rest of the day playing with kids instead of spending the rest of the day recovering/injured.

  5. Andy Farina says:

    After 23 years of 24/7 pain and 18 years out of racing due to a severe back injury, i have competed in many obstacles races (e.g. Tough Mudders, etc), 3 Marathons, and 7 Ultramarathons. Christine did a fantastic job of capturing many of the things I love about this sport! Great job Christine!! And we would all benefit from listening, taking to heart, and applying what you expressed! And Great Job coaching Jason!! Maybe all our paths will cross one day at a great race?! I hope so. Sincerely, Andy

  6. Great article! Yes I would like to try an ultra…at some point. It definitely seems really daunting a prospect, but then so did a marathon a few years back. Even though I much prefer solo running and training, I think that maybe being part of a team or group could be beneficial for an ultramarathon, both for practical & moral support. I’d definitely worry about getting lost on the course (have a terrible track record for this 🙂 and like the idea of doing a loops or something that doesn’t go too far into the wilderness!

  7. My story was in the blog here a few weeks ago. I could only run 400m at the start of last year, and had a 100km as my goal. I managed to achieve it. I actually found it easier on both my body and mind than the marathon as it had walking breaks, I wasn’t expected to run the hills etc, and the people around were much more relaxed. The Ultras for me are much more about being involved in an event rather than a race, and usually feature fantastic scenery, and now that Jason has sorted out my knee injury I’m already back and hitting the longer trail runs and have a number of ultras already booked.

    • Awesome

    • Brian Crownover says:

      I keep telling people that the relaxed nature of it makes it easier, not harder than a marathon (provided you pick a manageable course of course). It is hard to convince road running friends of this though. The marathon is just such an insane pace and effort to do for hours.

      Also, road runners tend to get too caught up in their training and think they need even more training for an ultra. Just go out and do it. Of course the more you train the easier you can make it for yourself, but you don’t need all this additional training.

  8. ABQ Bill says:

    I think we’re seeing a new paradigm evolving that finds that “chronic cardio” is not the best for our bodies. I was just telling my running buddy the other day that everyone I know who is a long-er distance runner has or has dealt with serious injuries.

    Mark Sisson has a great article at his web site:
    http://www.marksdailyapple.com/the-evidence-continues-to-mount-against-chronic-cardio/#axzz3dosHy7SK

    We all have to find that happy medium, and certainly, cardio is not bad for us. The question becomes; how much is too much ? The debate rages on.

    Training to go beyond 26.2 miles (and I have done that distance), seems to be counter to what really may be best for our bodies, but running may be best for our minds and souls.

    BTW, have you seen what Scott Jurek is trying to do this week? Wow !!:
    http://www.runnersworld.com/elite-runners/updated-before-retirement-scott-jurek-attempting-appalachian-trail-record

    • I do agree that ultra running is likely not the best choice for “health.” At that point, you’re doing it because you love it and for the experience.

      And there’s a big difference between “optimizing health” vs. “optimizing performance.” It’s all a balancing act – and another good reason to take planned, 7-14 day recovery periods 2-3 times per year.

    • brendan says:

      Most of the long and longer distance runners I have known have dealt with serious injuries. Most of the hockey, football, baseball, basketball and soccer players I have known have dealt with serious injuries. Most of the weightlifters and yogis I have known have dealt with serious injuries. Most of the climbers, cyclists and swimmers I have known have dealt with serious injuries.
      In fact the only segment of people I have known in which most members haven’t dealt with serious injuries at some point are the sedentary. That’s assuming we don’t count diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and getting winded halfway up a flight of stairs as injuries.

  9. A friend and I ran 33.5milea from midnight to sunrise on the Island I lived on. Just coz it had never been done before?! I did it in 7:15. It was tough for sure and we broke it into 5milea run 1mile walk and on reflection should probably have broken it into time and not distance chicks as the took longer and longer to complete. As the sun crept up it get very hot very quick but atleast the darn Mosquitos backed off (I must have had 300 bites!! Funny how adrenaline hides the itch!) Bananas, Gatorade, sweet potato and Cliff shot blocks probably stopped me passing out on the side of the road – good job two as I saw two cars the whole time!!

  10. I admit the idea of running a 50k both terrifies me and tempts me. I like the idea of doing the distance on trails and with less pressure to maintain a steady pace. I also hear wonderful things about the whole ultra/trail running culture. If I ever get up the nerve, I have even picked out the race – Run the Toad in Ontario, Canada.
    First though I have to get through my third marathon attempt this fall. How that day goes will probably have a major influence on whether I ever try the 50k

  11. I only started running twenty months ago after recovering from a minor heart attack and losing a few kilos. After some months training I ran around half a dozen 10km runs over the season and could never understand why you would want to run further. Then I started doing 15ks on road and trails and then did a marathon in January followed by more trail and ‘adventure’ runs around 15k with river beds, swimming in reservoirs and lots of hills. I suppose I would still do a 10K road race, but really only as a fitness benchmark. Now I am more interested in trails and I really fancy an ultra on the Hong Kong paths so I am looking to join a team to run the 100km HK Oxfam Trailwalker in HK this November… I’m sure it will be really difficult, but this running business is addictive and that pushing to go further is a must… I’m 49 this year so forget the speed side of it – that’s for the young and the pros 🙂

  12. Great articles especially for those who wanted to challenge themselves more after running a marathon. I myself slowly pushed my limits in terms of distance by moving up to 50 k, then 65 then 50 miles and then 100 miles. The training and discipline is so different. And you can’t train for both. Marathon is really about speed for me while ultra is more endurance and patience. The best pay off for me in doing ultra is getting a great appreciation of mother earth, a new view, a discovery of oneself, your weaknesses and strength. After 3 years of doing ultra, my next goal is BQ.!!!!

  13. Darren Hartley says:

    I will be running my second ultra in just under 2 weeks. It is a 100km race in the UK known as Race to the Stones. I completed it last year too in a day and I am looking to improve my time this year.
    Ultras give the opportunity to explore the outdoors; engage with nature; go on your own personal adventure to challenge yourself and see what is possible. The training requires dedication; the event requires commitment and mental strength; the outcome is personal satisfaction and a feeling that you can overcome the daily challenges that work and life throw at you. I would encourage anyone considering taking part in an ultra to go for it!

Trackbacks

  1. […] It’s been far too long since I’ve posted anything new here, but I’m working to rectify that! In the meantime I’ve had some other projects in the works. I’m thrilled to have an article featured on the fantastic website of my former running coach, Jason Fitzgerald. It was an awesome opportunity to write about tackling the challenge of a 12-hour race, and also a wonderful chance to reflect on all the things running continues to teach me. I’d love for you to check it out here on Strength Running! […]