Ultra Marathoning – Trials and Tribulations

I wake up and roll over. I momentarily wonder why my left achilles is throbbing on every movement, and why my legs want to tell me a story of pain and non-paid overtime. My mouth is dry and my head is taking longer to process anything and everything. Then I remember I ran my most mentally and physically demanding trail race for over a year the day before, where once again I was shouting at myself that I would never enter another ultra marathon again.

Roll back three weeks and my legs are telling me how much they enjoy being part of my life. Barry and I are tootling along South down the I5 heading towards Olympia in Washington to compete at the Capitol Peak 55km / 50mile trail race. I was feeling some what relaxed and in good spirits, which considering I had crashed out and ‘bonked’ at the 32km mark in my last Ultra Marathon on Orcas Island, was somewhat surprising but welcome. I had done the right race-prep, I had had a good solid run 4 days earlier where everything seemed to be in working order, but most importantly I was ‘in the right place’ mentally.

With the ghost of Orcas Island sitting squarely on my shoulder, I wanted to run the Capitol Peak 55km with the aim of ‘just finishing’. I had no goal, no timeframe, no body else I knew running to pull my competitive brain along to uncomfortable zones (Barry was undertaking the 50mile option), and was actually looking forward to just getting out there, taking my time and enjoying the race as much as I could. I had also learnt a lot about fuelling and food / body management since Orcas, and was going to be strict with myself to stop at every aid station to relax and refuel.

People have called ultra marathons an ‘eating and drinking competition with running thrown in’ and this was a mantra that I’ve slowly had to comprehend and learn. Your body burns up around 400-600 calories per hour while ultra running, and unlike shorter races you just can’t run for 5+ hours without taking food on board during the run – your body just can’t sustain that calorie deficit and keep on moving. And thus one of my goals at Capitol Peak was to learn to eat and drink properly during a race, and not feel rushed past the aid stations.

The race started well, I was running at a comfortable 5-6min per km pace depending on terrain and elevation, and was happy tootling along listening to the conversation of 2 other runners who had camped up behind me. The first aid station came up at only 8km in, but I was strict with myself and against everyone else’s race schedule, stopped, drank some water and ate a few carbs before carrying on. This was a schedule I kept to for the rest of the race.

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Being a very symmetric kids-drawing-of-a-mountain elevation profile race, the first half of the run was all uphill, but against all long distance races I’d competed at before, I reached the top of the climbs at 31km and was feeling good. Not just, ‘good for 30km, but actually pretty crap’, but just ‘good’. I had enjoyed the infamous ‘grunt’ that we had been warned about at the pre-race talk, I had even ran up some of it and passed a few runners in the process, posed for the photo at the top, before whistling down the other side chatting to a Belorussian runner from Minsk (post race analysis would show I was actually 2nd fastest up that section from the 20 or so runners who had uploaded their run onto Strava).

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With the rest of the race net downhill, by the time I got to 35km I knew I was going to finish. I felt confident in myself, my running, and my body that we were going to drag ourselves through the next 20km unharmed and over the line to the awaiting beer and warm chowder that awaited all finishers. But like all good stories and all bad races, theres one small epilogue to the otherwise ‘I felt good, it was really tough but I finished’ race blog post – I took a wrong turn and went the wrong way.

At 38km I was jogging down a fire road and somehow completely missed the turn off into the woods. I carried on, and after 400m, knowing that I should recognise the route from earlier, thought to myself:

‘This isn’t quite right, I can’t remember running up this 3 hours ago.’

But when you’re running at a nice pace, 38km and around 4 hours in, down a hill, turning back to run back up the hill when you’re not ‘quite sure’ is a mental challenge of massive proportions, and so it was another 400m later, still all downhill when I met a junction with no race markings and knew I had missed the turning. 800m back up, just over an extra 1.5km of running I hadn’t needed to do, and 3 spots in the race leaderboard, and I was frustrated and annoyed with myself for not noticing the turn off.

And so the rest of the race went by pretty uneventfully as I came over the finish line in 10th position (although winning the 56.5km race), feeling really happy at the way the race had progressed, but still in the usual amount of pain and agony. Sure, the last 18km may have been ‘uneventful’, but that is not to say that they weren’t challenging – its still 18km I had to work my legs and body through, 18,000m over a small mountain, through forests  over roads and past streams, to grit on through to the finish. If you looked for me 20mins after finishing. you would find me lying in the car screaming at my legs which were protesting beyond belief.

But I had done it, I had exorcised the ghost of Orcas, ran the furthest I’d ever ran in my life, and felt good about how the race went, even holding off the running pain till around 40-45km. Barry came in at a quite astounding 7hr 44mins, managing to keep under 6min k’s for 50 miles! We both celebrated, were both really happy, and headed home in good and jovial moods looking forward to the welcoming pizza and beer our friend Amber was putting on with friends.

The next ultra was going to be a different kettle of fish completely however ……

I recovered, trained and tapered in the 3 weeks that interspersed my 2 ultras as I prepared for the Sun Mountain 50k down and across in Washington. The Saturday morning found Marty, Han and I whittling along the scenic Route 20 heading West through Washington State on our way to Winthrop, where camping, eating and long distance endurance were on the cards. The scenery was dramatic and impressive and the 5 hour journey went by in a pleasurable visual blur.

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Suddenly, as we turned the final corner into Winthrop itself we were presented with a set from Hollywood where filming had just finished on the next John Wayne cowboy epic. Every store and saloon came straight from the late 19th century Texan teepee touting territory. Faded paintwork, cowboy boots, hitching posts and over zealous carved shop front rims were all present and accounted for, along with shops such as  The Dance Saloon and The General Stores posing onto wooden walkways along with rusting metal 19th century machines. If the street hadn’t been tarmaced I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a salsola dust ball whistling slowly along a quiet street as two bar brawlers were facing off, hands twitching near their 6-shooters.

As it was we rumbled up the hill to our campsite and set up the tents in preparation for tomorrow. I would like to say we set out our sleeping bags and roll mats, but it turns out I had left them on the floor at home. Momentarily wondering what sleeping in the car would be like the night before a race, or maybe even snuggling in with Marty, we were luckily saved by the campsite owner who graciously lent us 2 of hers.

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Unlike a lot of other ultra’s I’d competed at the 50km option didn’t kick off till the relatively late 10am, meaning we could almost wake up at a respectable hour and take our time sorting ourselves out ready for the race. The morning was relaxed and in good spirits. Race time arrived, the kids 1km race was just finishing, the 50milers had been out on the course for 3 hours already and we were in jovial moods listening to the pre race brief ready to go.

And then we were off.

The first 8km were down single track rolling open and enclosed terrain, before the route opened up and allowed you to start to relax into a suitable and sustainable race pace. 10km approached and things just didn’t feel quite as comfortable as they should have done – I was not ‘in the zone’ but was feeling slightly lagged and it wasn’t the effortless start that I had experienced 3 weeks prior. It was an ominous sign so early on, but ultra’s are a long race and I hoped that maybe I would warm up or ease into the race as time went on.

I had left Marty and Hannah early on, partly because I was more courageous in overtaking people down the single track more than any race plan or fitness level indication, and hadn’t seen them since. The first aid station popped up at 13km when during my departure and turning up the U-bend fire-road I saw them both coming into the aid station. I definitely wasn’t approaching this ultra as a race, but was still surprised a little as I had opened up quite a bit during the uphill just a km before. Some shouts of encouragement and I carried on.

We had another km of uphill before an gnarly and funky downhill technical section. I love downhill technical, it makes me feel like a crazy jungle wizard carrying out some form of ultra forest parkour. After overtaking a couple of more sensible runners, a young lad infront of me thought he was the king of the downhill as he leapt over a log, grinning to himself like he had just performed the best log jumping man had ever seen. Little did he know Wizardy Nick was the best log jumper there was, and I was not one to let him carry such thoughts with him. I pushed harder than I should have done and in one majestic leap passed him as dirt and dust flew from my flying magical boats into his smirking face.

Or more accurately, I went too hard down a technical section and passed a nice chap who was purely enjoying the downhill too.

But boy, was it fun.

I knew that with that stupidity I probably wouldn’t see Han or Marty for some time to come, and so the next 20km, around 2hours, passed pretty uneventfully as I slowly traversed the terrain, fell over, got up, opened gates, closed gates, did silly jumps for the camera man, and looked out to wonderful vistas and mountainous visuals. My body was feeling too weary for the distance and deep down I was worried, but the aesthetic nature was helping to pass the time. We approached the next mountain and just as I was nearing the top I turned around to see the troublesome duo running side by side up the hill behind me. By the time we reached the top I stopped at the water station to wait for them and the three of us set off together, running the next 5km back down the mountain in a little threesome troupe around the edge to the next valley.

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And then Han carried on running, and Marty and I slowly but perceptibly slowed down a little. By the 37km aid station Han was looking juxtaposedly fresh and out of sight, and Marty and I were struggling. I wasn’t sure what internal battle Marty was fighting, but I was struggling just to keep on moving at a pace that would allow me to look at my watch every 10mins and see the distance moving up. Whenever you’re hurting everyone else seems to be at peace with themselves and their body, enjoying the run and thinking how pretty the flowers and butterflies are, and although I found out later that he was also hurting and pushing hard, at the time I felt like it was time to let him go. I stayed at the aid station for an extra minute as I let him move out of sight, enjoyed another swig of coke, before figuring out you don’t finish a race by sitting down.

The next and final 10km of the race were up a final mountain, before heading back down, along a small road section and through a track to the finish. Half way up and I had caught Marty up and we both nodded in approval as Han came leaping deer like down the path. She passed, wondered at my mental state, before jogging off admiring the petals and the local fauna.

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The path got steeper, the kms were taking 12-13mins to complete. and then finally there it was, the summit.

No wait. Soul crushingly, a false summit. Onwards.

The kms were taking 15mins to complete, and there it was – the real summit. We reached the top, along with a runner friend, Geoff, who had been with us on and off for the past 25km and who I had also finished with at Capitol Peak 3 weeks prior, and we all had a swig of water, Marty and I took some paracetamol, before we made the final mental and physical push onwards and downwards. I was in a bad shape, but then I guess we were all feeling this slog by now, and we all went into our own little worlds where you search for the energy to just finish.

A few mixed and worrying reports of distances remaining by well meaning onlookers, and slowly but perceptively I could hear the cheers of the finish line. This was not going to be a sprint finish for the crowds, however I did manage to high five the kids who had lined the finish line area, as I stepped my way over the infamous line in the dirt that I had seen 5hours and 12mins earlier.

Marty had come in just over a minute before me, and Han had whisked in at just over 5 hours and it was great to see their faces in a situation that allowed us all to sit down and enjoy some food, beer and chat. I was absolutely broken, I had found it harder than anything since my first unprepared ultra I attempted a year earlier in Chukanut, but in hindsight, finishing 24th (Han 18th, Marty 22nd) was actually a great success and achievement, and I was really happy at the result, if not a little disappointed at the struggle.

For the previous 2 hours I had repeatedly told myself that I would never ever enter a race longer than 30km ever again.

“Remember this pain. Remember how much you hate it. Its really important Nick you don’t fool yourself into thinking you enjoy these. You’ve proved enough. No more, You’re done ……”

3 days later:
I load up my race calendar and wonder; ‘whens the next’!

A race video was produced which can be seen here:

Sun Mountain Race from CuziFilms on Vimeo

Race photos credit to Glenn Tachiyama