Digging Deep. The North Face 50K, California 2016, Part 3: Lessons Learned from My First Ultra.

When it comes to long-distance mountain and trail running, I have a lot of room for improvement and time for lessons learned. I am happy with finishing my first 50K in 5:19:32 at the North Face Endurance Challenge (NFECS) California, but I’m in place to reflect on what I’ve learned so far and (hopefully) make improvements over the coming year. My other objective is to share what I learn in the hope that the lessons I’ve learned can help assist readers like you, especially if you have trail running goals that you’re excited about.

Here’s what stood out as lessons learned from my 50K race (almost a month ago now):

Training Volume. I was in 18th place at the second to last aid station (Tennessee Valley) at 26.1 miles, and then dropped another 18 places to 36th place over the next five miles. The last 20 km were really hard!

Although I’ve been running with some consistency since high school, my wheel house is mid-distance (i.e. half marathon or less), and I have never been a high volume runner. In this training cycle, my peak volume was 50 miles about two weeks prior, and this is the most mileage I’ve ever achieved in one week, but it is far less than many other runners I know.

I have always been weary of higher volume training because I suspect that it increases my risk for injury and it’s also time consuming, especially if that high volume of miles is slow. I also really like intense training. Nevertheless, I do think I could have performed better if I achieved at least of month of volume with each week above 50 miles/week.

The whole race was a long distance for me, and I suspect that not being optimally trained for such a long distance was part of the reason I suffered through the last 20 km. I think future training needs to be geared to achieving some higher volume and being able to run hard when tired.

At the end, I’m still unsure if tremendously higher volume is the silver bullet to being more successful in marathons and ultras, but I think when training for a race this long, building volume and consistency will certainly have value. My goal for future races is to feel like I can compete in the final 10km of any distance and then actually achieve my best performance to the finish line.

Specificity. My training could have been much more specific with hills. Where we live now, I have easy access to trails that are extremely rocky, steep, and slow-going. Because I like to incorporate intense speed and tempo sessions into my training program, I do about half of my training on roads and half on trails, including speed work on flat surfaces and occasionally the track.

It wasn’t until my final long run that I ran loops on the buffed out Trestle trail nearby Cloudcroft, and this was a near perfect simulation of what I ran at North Face. If you race the 50km or the 50 miler, or any event in the Marin Headlands, I recommend training on trail that climbs 800-1200’ within 2-4 miles, and then run up and down those climbs frequently. The North Face course was seldom flat and was continually up and down. By the time I reached the second to last climb out of Muir Beach I was power hiking, and my feet were so sore I really struggled with downhill running. A sacred training concept that applies to trail and ultra running is specificity.

Specificity is essentially about making training as specific as possible for the race conditions you’re trying to prepare for. But, this can be challenging when you’re unable to access the kind of conditions you want to train in. This is when you might need to be a little creative. For example, I live in an arid desert and I was slightly dreading San Francisco’s weather, especially since the NFEC course has historically been a wild festival of muddy fun. Thus I took advantage of one of our rare storms and gleefully got muddy on one of my training runs. Perhaps this was cautious preparation since the course was beautifully dry on race day, but I’m fairly certain the weather gods were just merciful as conditions were very muddy before and after our race weekend.

Logistics/Gear.

Who says running is a simple sport? Maybe if you’re running down a beach barefoot in a speedo, there isn’t much to it. But, for a 50K trail race, I have to make gear choices:

  • Should I use a hydration vest or handheld water bottle?
  • Do I start with a light jacket or just use arm warmers?
  • Where am I going to meet my crew to swap out the gear and replenish my nutrition?

I have tried to train and run practice races testing out options for gear and nutrition, and that made these questions a little easier to answer.

I chose to wear the hydration vest so I could stash my arm warmers, gels, trash, and other items on quick notice (plus my hands actually get to be free).

I decided Salomon Sense Pro 2 running shoes because that’s what i had used for my training on trails. I swapped the Salmon hydration vest for a Nathan 30 oz hand held in the last 10 km, and that was about it. Oh, I did wear plain black shorts and a plain mizuno shirt.

Aid Stations and Chronotrack Fail. The only aid station where I could meet my brother was Tennessee Valley, so we decided he would meet me there on my second trip through – which was 26.1 miles into the race.

I was slightly concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find him during the race, so the day prior we scoped out the site and agreed on a spot where he would wait for me. Fortunately, this worked great.

I was perturbed after the race to find out that the North Face tracking system went down making it impossible for my wife (who was in New Mexico) and my brother to actually track my progress. They made do using the “Find my Friends” app and my pace guide to guesstimate my arrival. But it was still frustrating, especially because the social media coverage was almost entirely focused on the 50 mile race.

Slightly more gear than shoes & a hydration vest.

Nutrition. My plan was to drink at least 15 oz (water) and one gel an hour (hammer espresso), which worked pretty well. I also drank about 20 oz of Hammer Perpetuem (a high calorie sports drink) during the race, and past mile 20 I gave into aid station cravings…Cliff shot blocks, boiled potatoes, pretzels, and Coke (honestly, I don’t know if the Coke gave me what I needed). Overall, my stomach actually felt good through the entirety of the race.

I do think I got dehydrated and got low on electrolyte intake which may be linked to my quads cramping so brutally. I do think my salt intake was good, so I’m more partial to the theory that I was undertrained and a little dehydrated.

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Recovery. After the race, it was a complete bear to walk. And I got cold, and really hungry. So I had to deliberately prioritize the next actions…drink water, drink 25 oz of Recoverite (also by Hammer), throw on warm clothing, promptly got a massage, then soaked my swollen feet in an ice bath which was excruciating, ingest lunch, grab a beer, and hydrate more. The next two days I hung out with my brother and nieces in Vacaville and my approach was to consistently keep hydrating and do tons of walking to work out my legs which all helped.

After I flew back to New Mexico, I was considering a possible road half marathon in Alamogordo called Lady of the Mountain (the weekend after North Face) which covers a lot of the same road that I do my own training on, and actually did register and picked up a bib.

However, I went on a four mile shakeout run the day prior which convinced me that racing would be a really bad idea. So I decided to go and spectate which I felt good about.

North Face 50K Dwight Rabe Lessons Learned

Digging Deep. In a track race with more than one lap, like the 1500m or 5000m, when the bell sounds competitors are cued to dig deep and push the final 400m with everything they have.

The Alta aid station, at mile 29, was like the beginning of my bell lap.

Surprisingly, I felt better once I started to believe more in myself, to stop thinking about the negatives of how I felt, and just channeled all of my focus into finishing. I was running sub-8 min/mile pace in the last couple miles, and I think my positive thinking contributed to that second wind.

There are many great books out there on sports psychology which often focus on the mentality of pushing past physical boundaries to win, but I think the knowledge of finishing can inspire a newfound store of energy and this became very clear to me in those final miles.

In long distance ultra races, you’re supposed to hurt.

Although true, the cue to dig deep and to excel through pain remains invariably profound.

Digging deep stands out as the single most important lesson from my first ultramarathon.

Dwight Rabe is an American-Kiwi, married to an Aussie expat, currently living in New Mexico, from all over. Interested in running, adventure gear, coffee, international relations, and adventuring. A proud member of Team Rabe. You can connect with him on Twitter, instagram, and facebook.

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