ultramarathon #1: 50 miles of wisconsin hills and prairie. lessons learned, highlights, pictures, notes, and observations

this is an account of one of the best days of my life.  do you have kids?  if you have kids, picture the first time you held your son or daughter in your arms.  if you don't have kids, imagine one of the best days or moments of your life (and keep it in mind and tell me about sometime).  or maybe just imagine being a kid again.  that's the level of experience we're talking about here... very deep, positive, emotional, even spiritual.

i'm writing this up for a few reasons.  the first is that this was such a beautiful and special day that i want to remember all of the details that i can forever.  the second is so that i have some notes to refer to for future runs.  the third is to share some info and howto and tips and tricks, to cover the kinds of things that people commonly ask about, and to cover the things i forget to talk about.  and finally, it's to encourage other people to get out on the trails or the sidewalks and to start putting one foot in front of the other, because you'll be surprised to see how far you can go and how much you can accomplish.

there will hopefully be many more ultras in my future, and it seems like the first one will always be special to me.  relentlessly progressing along the course, realizing that i can do this thing, and realizing that i just did it, greatly expanded my sense of appreciation for life. 

even though completing your first ultra takes a lot of learning, planning, time, and mileage up front, along with a strong spirit of endurance while in progress, and as much of an accomplishment as it feels like, i think in a strage way that it is easier than it seems.  it's not like a crowded road race, you have nature around you, the people are wonderful, it's expected that you'll walk a lot, you get to stop and have snacks along the way, your fellow runners are smiling and saying encouraging things to you (and you to them), you can have a chat at any time with people pacing near you, you can ask for help, you can offer help, and you run at a reasonable pace that is much slower than road race pace and therefore much easier on your body.

this was a great first-timer course and event: very well organized, clearly marked, well-positioned and well-stocked aid stations, helpful and encouraging volunteers, the kids race and ease of access for the family, and the celebrity factor of having dean karnazes (check out his books, i've read them all and they're good) there added a bit of zip too.

at least one of you will do this one with me next year.  who will it be?!

Lessons learned

  • friends and family
    • despite loving you and having your best interest in mind, you can't expect that everyone will advise you of the right moves to make at the right time, or have the right thigns to say, or will even be able to relate to you in a meaningful way.  understand and be strengthened by their caring, and do your planning on your own or with other experienced runners / ultra runners.  
  • trail runners are wonderful people!
      • i've read many books about utlra running and they all talk about a spirit of comraderie.  i found this to be 100% true.  through the middle of this race, which comprises a cross country ski trail that goes /\__/\/\_/\_/\ (making it very time consuming to accumulate mileage) as well as some nice open prairie, there were some out and back stretches where we all passed each other coming and going.  almost every person i passed was all smiles and encouraging words.  during a previous road race, i once saw a group of runners kick a passed out guy out of the way to make sure they could PR.  on the trail, everyone stops, checks in, sees if you need help, gets you back on your feet, and makes you feel good about it.  (even though that thing about the guy didn't really happen, the scenes are very different).
    • respect the hills
      • do not dance down hills prior to sufficient tech trail training
        • i haven't done a lot of hills/techy trails so for the first 20 miles i was feeling great and just jumping from rock to rock or side to side on the more techy parts, or just letting gravity take me as fast as it could on the more straighforward downhills.   i stretched or pulled or strained some ligamints or tendons, which i became aware of around mile 20, and had to work around the pain for the rest of the race.  conservatively jogging down the hills seems like a good approach until more techy training happens 
      • walk up the hills
        • i've read this and expected it so it was more of a confirmation.  it works.  i'm sure the front of the pack run the whole time, and for everyone else, it's fun to run along with a small group, we all hit the base of the hill at the same time, and it's just an unspoken thing that now we all walk.  later on, it was funny when we'd get to the top and then everyone would just be waiting for one person to get movin again, and one time we all kinda stalled and finally one of us got going.  we were all thinking the same thing (someone better get us movin!)
    • not THAT much salt
      • Doesn't seem to hurt anything, or maybe it's why i felt like I wasn't drinking enough, but you could tell from my clothes and hat after that i was sweating out way too much salt.  next time, 1x saltstick per hour.
    • have some mantras queued up 
      • one foot in front of the other
      • whatever works for you, just have something ready because there will be times when you just need to or when you want to zone out and just let the time pass into nothingness (except mileage accumulation).  
    • plan out every detail
        • i got a text from ann that i saw at 2:30 that the car gps said she had 47 miles til she would arrive.  txts are slow and unreliable in the woods.  the kids race starts at 3:00.  they might miss it.  they might miss me finishing.  i am dripping sweat on my phone and have to put it away.  i can't think about it.  i have to know if they are going to get here.  etc.  even though they arrived on time, and everything worked out, it is best to reserve all mental energy for mantra repetition and positive interactions
      • there is no half way point
        • mile 25?  nah.  mile 30?  nah?  the course varies to much.  the only time i felt like some significant milestone was reached was like 49.5  i was tracking each 20% (10,20,30,40) as somethign, but it was just kind of like a fact and not something i could really play with for positive energy.
      • no sleep didn't matter
        • went to sleep at midnight and woke up at 2:30am.  as long as you sleep in the days before, everything will be fine

        highlights: (this is a lot of unique and happy memories for one compressed time period!)

        • i got bib #50!  this just seemed like a good omen.  you just can't DNF when you are bib #50 in your first 50 miler.  (it helps to line up all the psychological tricks you can for when the other side of you starts to negotiate with you)  
        • my parents were at the start.  i was gonna get a ride to a hotel or take a train to a bus and hitch or who knows what.  they offerred to drive me up (after talking me down after some travel related complications (and me being a temporarily crazed asshole)), and the plan was that they'd just be dropping me off.  once we got there they decided to stick around even though it was going to make a really tiring day for them (we left their house at 2:45am).  i was really glad we were together at the start and it was more positive energy to have stored up for when i'd need it
        • the head lamps and flaslights in the line of the 200 of us in the otherwise pitch black morning woods were so neat.  you could look up and down the trail and see it zigzagging through the woods and it just really made me feel like i was a part of something special
        • on the drive up there, i was talking to my parents about how i didn't understand why people used handheld water bottles.  some time after the second aid station, mile 11 or so, i reached back to find i had dropped one of my water bottles without knowing it.  with no idea how far back i'd have to go (up to 2 or 3 miles (the volunteers had filled it for me and handed it to me at the last station and i had it when i left)) i decided i'd drink much more at the subsequent aid stations and survive on 10.5 oz between stops.  
          • shortly after that, 3 or 4 of us were all pacing each other, so i commented to the guy just in front of me on the now obvious advantage of his handheld water bottles: "if you drop one, you know right away."  we joked a bit, he had seen the water bottle and wasn't sure that it would even be helpful to pick up, and of course right away he offerred me his water.  
          • then #51 caught up, and she joined in the convo.  she had seen my water bottle too, again just not sure "do i pick this up in case i see the person somehow, or am i then stuck carrying some thing for 38 more miles?"
        • the three of us ran together and talked for quite some time.  life stories, interests, books, hobies, etc.
          • alex is in the resreves and is an f-16 mechanic.  he's done some cool endurancy / adventure type races.  he said not long ago he a lot more than he does now, and just ran his first half last year.  he's working on a degree to become a programmer.  he usually has some burping issues around mile 25, and did on this day.  
          • #51 is a kindergarten teacher of special needs kids, and seems to waver between staying up til 2am playing darts and waking up at 3am to run 30+ miles.  she was sponsored by nike to run the hood to coast relay a few years back.  she offerred some yummy sounding treat that we were gonna share at mile 28 but when i got there i  was a bit behind them and wasn't really processing.
          • alex and i were takling about longer races like 100M and #51 says "what are you crazy? why would you ever run 100 miles?"  me: "you realize you are out here running 50 miles right?"
          • it was nice to be able to talk through some concerns.  i was worried about my calf because a week prior it tightened up and got pulled at mile 5 of a 10 mile run.  it hurt for several days and that was the last time i'd run before this started.  
          • it was also nice to know that other people find it hard too.  we talked briefly about what was ailing us, or what issues we'd been having while training.  this seemed like a risky topic because it could be too easy to begin giving undue focus to something that is not a serious issue, so i didn't want to talk about it too much.  #51 mentioned that year in and year out, something comes up and there will usually be some minor pains that come along with training.  it felt good to hear this from an experienced athlete.
          • as the sun was coming up and we were running along some beatiful praire and rolling hills, just chatting and feeling great, the three of us all doing our first 50-milers, i did my best to paraphrase kurt vonnegut's saying "if this isn't nice, i don't know what is" and the group agreed. 
          • i feel like this really set the stage and was more good vibes to store up for later.  maybe i'd still be with them later?  maybe i'd find another group?  maybe i'd zone to music.
        • at the next aid station (mile 16), #51 joked to the volunteers that she had intentionally left my water bottle behind so that i'd get dehydrated at the end and she could win.  somehow some volunteers had found my water bottle and had it ready for me.  "holy shit, that is awesome! thanks for saving the day!"  
        • at mile 21, i had some mountain dew.  it was delicious!  also at mile 21 the air temp was just right such that an unusual amount of steam was visibly eminating from me, and some of the volunteers had a laugh about it.
        • at mile 28, in the bathroom, i got to know thomas who runs thegiveshirt.com charity. first i pushed his stall door open, and quickly apologized.  "no worries" he said, "how's the run going?"  i chose the open stall next to his and we spent a few minutes getting to know each other. he's a psychologist, runs a charity, and this 50 miler was a warm up for his 65 mile run the following day. he hosts a 24 hour run in the milwaukee area. again, instant best friends, even after busting into his stall. awesome peeps.
          • later i would meet thomas again.  and guess how this time?  i was blowing snot to my left and behind me when he was just about to run by and give me a thumbs up.  sorry again!  i caught up with him after the race, and of course...  "no worries"
        • while i was sitting down at the mile 35 aid station changing my socks and eating cookies, the volunteers were remarking: "do they even know what is going on?" (meaning are the runnners still cognitively functioning).  i thought that was funny.  i tried to tell them a story about one time when it was really hot and i was really in zombie mode, and the story just didn't quite come out right, probably confirming their suspicions that we didn't know what was going on.
        • after i got up from sitting down (avoid sitting down, it feels a little too good) at the bag area and headed to the food table, a guy came up and said "i guess i will take you up on that salt offer."  the funny thing was, i had never offerred him any salt, or at least i don't remember doing so (it's entirely possible that i did).  i had a bunch of extra salt so i shared 3 with him and then 3 with another guy (salt tabs to runners = crack rock to hookers).  
        • right after that, as i was ready to get moving again, another guy came in and claimed that his bag was missing from the drop.  he was stressing bigdtime.  the volunteers calmly asked what he needed and what they could get for him, and he when he asked if they had salt tabs and they said no he exclaimed "WELL THEN I'M FUCKED."  at the time i was not in a place where i could absorb any negative energy, so i put on my headphones and got moving.  in retrospect, it should have been easy enough to let him know that i had just given a bunch of salt away, and that surely one of the other runners who would be coming through soon would have excess salt.  next time i'll be able to help out in that situation.  
        • I was all alone for a couple of miles after leaving 35, and i started to worry that i was going the wrong way.   there were spots where i saw orange, and i couldn't tell if this was a repeat section.  do i wait to see someone else?  try to catch up to someone else?  turn around and confirm?  i was pretty sure i hadn't missed anythign so i just kept going.  finally saw some peeps catching up that i recognized; phew!
        • ran into a guy named brian from indiana.  his girlfried is from mt proz.  we were at mile 37 and he was doing his second 50 miler, the first one he was in got called due to weather when he was at mile 36 or so, so he had just gone farther than he ever had before, so it was another neat and positive moment
        • The volunteers were so great.  They would take your bottles from you, ask what you need, fill em up, and bring em back. "let me do that for you, you just go get some food." it seems like a small detail and it was so helpful physically and emotionally (these people care about me and are here to help me and that is nice)
        • Around mile 42, the ligament thing was getting the best of me.  a couple people came up on my left, and the convo went like this (brandi=b, cory=me):
          • b: HI!  GUESS WHAT?
            me: what?
            b:i'm going to finish my first 50 miler today!!!
            me: me too, CONGRATS!
            b: doesn't it feel great?
            me: well it would if my foot wasn't broken, and even with that, yes
            b: like medically broken?
            me: no no. just hurts! 
            b: want some aleve?
            me: yes, that would really help!
            b: here, take this aleve. it is going to make you feel great and you are going to finish strong!

            can not even describe how helpful that was!  posted a thing on the event's page and she responded...
        • at the mile 45 aid station, i was getting a bit loopy.  
          • first of all, my earbud cover thing got stuck too far in my ear.  a marine who was volunteering as part of the medical staff pulled it out with a pair of pliers.  
          • i was mumbling about how the mountain dew was the best mountain dew i'd ever had, the orange was the best orange ever, and of course when they explained that i was at mile 45 and had only 5 miles left to go, i told them that was the best news i had ever heard in my life.  
        • rolling out of that aid station and crossing a main road, a traffic volunteer guy said: "you can do it, one foot in front of the other."  i don't know why it works, but that stuff works.  it's a common mantra and is one i use a lot, and hearing him say it was another positive feeling to use to keep it together.  it's something about the connectedness and understanding and being aware of the common goal.  maybe he's a runner, maybe someone he loves is in the race.  it's good.
        • there was a guy puking at mile 40+.  yikes.  glad my digestion went well.
        • 43-47 or so was pine forest with sand (i don't know if naturally or as some sort of erosion prevention kinda thing).  it is not fun to run in sand when you have been running for 10 hours.  
        • around 47 some lady runs past while i'm walking and yells "it sure is nice to be past all of that sand back there!"  even something like that feels good at a time like that.   to know there are other people out there thinking what you're thinking and going through what you're going through.
        • i had trouble with one of the turns near mile 48.5.  i was freaking out because i was alone again it was a repeat section of the track and i couldn't tell if that was why i saw orange to the left.  it is at times like this that you realize that it must be devastating to head in the wrong direction.  when you're at mile 48, you want to be done in 2 miles, not in 4 or 5 or 6 miles if you get lost and have to turn around.  i could only see purple to the right, so i just said fuck it.  
        • finishing was beautiful.  unlike a crowded road race in chicago, where as a spectator you can barely crowd in to get a view, and the runners are separate from the crowd, it's a lot more open and relaxed.  that means that julian, jordan, and ann got to stand in the finish chute.  i could see them up there wearing their finisher medals on my final approach and i got to high five the kids just after crossing the line, a moment i had been looking forward to since i signed up for this thing.
        • a lot of friends and family sent txts or emails or posted on facebook or called during the run (glover: "how was it?" me: "dude i have 5 miles left!").  with every message i felt a wave of positivity wash over me and this did more to help me keep it together than i can describe.


        • on DNF (did not finish)
          • my impromptu trail buddies and i chatted about this around mile or 20 or so.  it seemed to me kinda like bad luck to talk about, and we did it anyway.  i felt like at that point we were 20 miles in and considering how good we were feeling there was no way it would be a possibility for the 3 of us to not make it.  we acknowledged our fear together and moved on to other topics.  i didn't think about it too much after that, and never let it become part of the negotiation (for example, if i don't feel better by mile 40, maybe it would be ok to not finish).  we saw a guy who had turned around and you really feel for the person. also heard some volunteers talking about a girl whose knee was hurting really badly and on top of that she had gone a few miles in the wrong direction.  i hope she made it!
        • gear/equipment
          • icebreaker 5" merino wool (200 wgt) shorts
          • smartwool merino wool (150 wgt) long sleeve shirt
          • vibram five fingers kso trek shoes
          • 2 x injiji mini crew socks (changed at mile 35)
          • layer of aquaphor (generic) to coat the feet before putting on socks 
          • rei wicking hat thing
          • ptzel e+lite head lamp.  easy small light that was fine for only an hour of morning run.  need real light for 100 miler
          • amphipod 2 x 10.5oz clip in water bottles.  pouch used for gels and supps 
          • amphipod strectchy belt.  pouch used for iphone, ipod, and backup cheapy mp3 player
          • body glide on inner thighs etc
          • band aids on nips.  the merino was fine on previous long runs, used bandaids just to be sure
          • safety pin, bandaids  (just in case for blisters)
          • drop bag (delivered to 21/35)
            • newton shoes, dry socks, backup shorts, backup shirt, special cookies, moleskin, aquaphor (generic), bug spray, second skin spray, backup headphones
            • only used the dry socks and cookies
          • base camp bag
            • warm clothes for after just in case, random stuff
        • music:
          • dj yroc (aka me) made a 3 hour 180bpm (tempo synched to match my running cadence) continuous mix that i listened to about 2.5 times.  it tempo shifts (speeds up or slows down without changing pitch) and (mostly) nicely blends a lot of music that i find encouraging, ridiculous, fun, happy, or just plain badass.  some of the 120 sped up to 180bpm songs sound a bit weird, and when you're in the zone it tends to just work out and you don't notice.  there's some really good transitions, yroc refixes, edits, etc.  have a listen if you want to add some stimulation to your next run.  dj mix download link + link to track listing.
          • m83's new album saved the day in the 40+ mile zone.  raconte moi une histoire is one of my favs, and i think i listed to that 20 times or so on repeat over the last miles 

        • nutrition
          • 1x g.t. dave's grape chia kombucha and 1x ginger kombucha before
          • 1x grape chia kombucha mixed into water bottles at the beginning
          • saltstick every hour
          • skipped the first aid station altogether, filled up at mile 11.
          • 2 x extreme dark chocolate squares 60-90 minutes in to get the digestive juices started
          • 6-12oz of water at each station, refilled 2x 10.5 oz water bottles.  this was not enough to have on me (good thing they found my bottle)
          • glutamine/carnatine a couple of times
          • 1 naproxen from mile 28 aid station, one from a runner at mile 42 or so
          • 4 x pbj sandiwches total, by way of 1/4s or halves
          • lots of potato chips
          • skittles
          • an orange slice or two at every stop
          • mountain dew and pepsi a couple of times (21/28/35/40)
          • 3x gu roctanes.  6x gu roctanes?  who knows?
          • some other gus, berry and vanilla
          • hilary's vegan nut chip cookies (special treat in my drop bag waiting at mile 35)
          • 10 chips ahoy
          • lots of potatoes, some with salt lick. boiled potatoes and plates of salt=yum
        • digestion
          • had to shit early in, couldn't stop on the trail to pee off to the side without having to shit every time (ugh!) and there wasn't a good bathroom setup at 11, and at 16 + 21 (?) i wanted to stick with my new buddies.  finally at mile 28 there was a good bathroom setup and my body was timed right.  i'd fallen a bit behind the friends and was taking my time.  that's the only time i peed the whole time so i think water intake was good to a bit low
        • pain and recovery
          • on a 1 to 10, i'd give the general pain level around a 5.  my left ankle, from 20-30 miles was a 5, got up to an 8, and was around 7 on average for 30-50.  it took some management and psychological discipline to not focus on it, to focus on form, and to not overcompensate
          • no blisters
          • typical muscle soreness followed on day 2, as expected.  nothing crazy though
          • had to ice the ankle issue a lot, was getting better by day 5
          • my pects were sore (presumably from holding up my arms for 11 hours)?!


          did i leave anything out?


          if you've ever thought "maybe i could do that some day" you should start now because you can.  people can do some crazy shit!   the runners in that race ranged in age from 20 to 60. 

          so take the dog for an extra walk around the block or do a 5k or a half or marathon or ultra, hop on a bike, do anything.  take the first step, get moving!  


          next, pictures

          arriving / base camp / 4:40 in the morning.


          the early morning scene

          the starting line and finish line feels much different in this kind of event than the ones at the handful of halfs or other races i've done.  unlike a half or marathon where i'm trying to PR, on this run my goals were to enjoy every minute of time on the trails and to finish.  the special moments happen out on the trail, in talking with people, in putting together and following the plan, in convincing yourself to stick with it.  so the finish line is sort of bittersweet, as it is in many ways sad to have everything come to an end


          head lamps looked neat, wish these would have turned out

          (event staff photo)


          getting lighter...


          stoppin for a pic

          a nice view

          my new buddies:

          aid station at mile 28

          the scene at mile 28

          this is (i think) brian.  his girlfriend grew up in mt proz

          thanks for the notice!

          aid station fare at mile 35 (was also mile 21)

          mile 40 aid station (event staff photo)


          things got harder after leaving the mile 35 aid station and i was OK up to the mile 40 aid station.  overall i felt surprisingly well, just some general fatigue and muscle soreness, and the problem i was having was with the left ankle ligaments that i had strained early on.  i had to really focus on my form and take every step carefully so as to not make it any worse.  i knew that if i did that, even though every step hurt, everything would work out.


          it was time for M83 to the rescue!  i don't know what the words are other than the parts where they say "carry on," and i was thinking of how julian and jordan said in the car a few days earlier that this new one is remix of the song from the skate video (lower your eyelids to die with the sun).


          couldn't deal with pictures anymore, though we ran through some lovely open fields and some soft and quiet pine forests.  

          remembered to follow the orange


          The scene back at the camp while i was around mile 45 (event staff photo).  see that ridge in the background? from way farther to the left to farther to the right, we covered on foot.


          the kids ran a 1k while i was out there, racing buzz lightyear, spongebob, elmo, and others.  they did great!  i had wanted to finish in time to see this, and even though i did not it still felt good to know that they were running while i was

          around the time they finished, and for the rest of the run, i was listening to this other M83 song on repeat, crying (happy crying, even though i was in pain) my way through the final miles

          almost there...

          10 hours and 57 minutes later

          high-fivin the kids at the finish.  hard to describe how good that felt!

          trying to hug the boys.  jordy said i was too stinky and kept running away!


          dean signing my bib!

          dean!  dean said he is working on making his legs look mine

          link to garmin data, elevation, and a google earth overview of the course

          and next up... umstead 100 in the spring

          and then hopefully western states 100 in june

          and then off to cali for angeles crest 100 in july

          and then off to the mountains again... for leadville 100 in august

          4 responses
          wow, congratulations - and thanks for sharing your experience - i really, really enjoyed reading this - might have to borrow that mantra for the marathon next week!
          congrats man. i stumbled upon your write-up via google+. i've been up to the north face a few years ago when i first started running and did the 10k one year and the half the next. beautiful up there. i've ran several ultras last year and this but i have my first 50 miler this weekend. it was fun and encouraging to read your account of your day up in wisconsin. i've been meaning to get back up there for the 50k/50m but timing hasn't worked out the last couple years. next year, i'm going to try to make a point of getting the 50 on the schedule. loved an older album of m83 so i'm happy to be jamming to the songs you linked! also appreciate the garmin data, i'm big into numbers so finding those for courses posted online is always appreciated. again, congratulations man and hopefully we'll run into each other at some other midwest ultras!
          oh and also, love the plans for umstead. that's in serious consideration for my first 100 perhaps in 2013. just an fyi though, that usually fills up almost immediately and the 2012 is already full. the burning river in ohio in july would be another great option and one a friend and i are considering for our 1st next summer.
          hey joshua, thanks for the comments. i got lucky and happened to be reading ultrarunning magazine and saw an ad the night before umstead reg opened, so i'm in. will check out the ohio one also.
          signed up for angeles crest 100 too, which is going to be insane!
          i plan to do most of the midwest ones for the foreseeable future, so see you around!