Monday, January 8, 2018

My first ultra? Almost... a fat ass!

It was January 1, last Monday, and I ran... my first ultra, whoopee!

Hmm, those who have been following my blog for the past 10 years are going to wonder: "did Jean start smoking some weed, leveraging the brand new California law...?" Nope, not at all, no chance! Ok, that was only my first ultra run of... the year (how timely!). Not even the first ultra since I switched to the OFM (Optimized Fat Metabolism) diet at the end of last November, but my third. And certainly not my first ultra overall in my log but 370th!

Why this title then? First because I was thinking of all the super brave souls which took the resolution of running an ultra this year, and even those aiming at running a marathon since it is so close (just one more step makes it an ultra, technically)! But, second, because I experienced this week some of the feelings I remember from my first ultra. The thing is, I ventured in the ultra running world in 2016, one year before starting this blog. What I've discovered since is that, after 3,700 lines in my log, I don't have such a strong and vivid memory of all these runs and it helps to have write them down as posts or looking back at pictures to activate the corresponding neurons and synapses... And, no, I don't attribute that to age yet, but to living an ultra life, overflowing with experiences and memories.

What was my first ultra? I thought I had run a Fat Ass, one of these informal, low key, 50K runs we do at the beginning of the year among friends to kick start the season and get back in shape after indulging more food than needed over the Holidays! But, not quite, my first ultra was an ultra race indeed, the famous Way Too Cool 50K in March. And, as there is no better source of learning than trial and error, let me share a few things I got wrong the first time. So you get them right if you are just starting.

1. Respect the distance and the challenge. I was way, not to cool but, over-confident. I remember my main thought being "I ran sub-3 marathons, how can 5 more mile be, I can easily do this!" I event remember thinking that the times for previous years looked slow and thinking of making the podium in my first ultra. To show off, I even wore my Boston marathon outfit. Oh my, read on...

2. Take what ultra veterans tell you, with a grain of salt: everything is relative in ultra running. To make the over-confidence matter worse, my Stevens Creek Striders club mate, Charles Stevens, whom I learned to much about ultra running from, had told me that the course wasn't challenging, a fast and almost flat one! Oh, my, I remember how hilly the course appeared to me as it was my fist time running on the Western Sates trail and around Cool and Auburn! Of course, if you've run Western States, or Hard Rock, or UTMB, then, yes, Way Too Cool is an easy course. Comparatively. As the elites show by getting closer to the 3-hour mark, every year. Yet, 3,000 feet of cumulative elevation counts when you come from years of road racing.

3. Pace yourself. I started too fast, then bonked. Ultra 101. As Western States 100-mile founder frequently joke about, "Start slow, then slow down" is a very safe and conservative strategy. Unless you are sponsored by a major brand and run for the money (if there is any to win in that ultra race), better not trying setting your PR in your first ultra. Run your first ones conservatively, enjoy the experience of not bonking, then the experience of even improving over the years. If it's any encouragement, I set my half-marathon PR at 49, finally breaking 1:15 after trying hard for 15 years, and 50K at 52, breaking a 30-year standing age-group American record along the way (which has been improved again last year, but that's life).

4. Beware of the time spent in aid stations: every second may not count, but minutes add up! I spent a lot of time in aid stations. It took me a few years to get that, more advice from Charles Stevens who excelled at it, and also switching to Vespa Power to skip the food buffet during races, it's amazing the time you can lose at aid stations. Of course, there is great things to say about the social aspect of connecting with the volunteers and other runners while you stop to refill and refuel, taking pictures, asking for news about people you may know, change socks or shoes, enjoy the restrooms, wait for a super hot soup or coffee or tea to cool down but, as you can see, the list is long and, if there are 6 aid stations (at a minimum) and you spend 10 minutes at each, 1 hour just got added to your finish time. I learn to save time by running with 2 Ultimate Direction bottles (1 fill one with Gu2O, Gu Energy Brew, and the other with water), that typically covers 15 to 18 miles. And carrying Gu gels and S!Caps with me saves time too, in addition to having them right when I need it.

As an illustration of all the points so far, here I am, getting in the first aid station of WTC 2006, just before Mark Ritchman, who I didn't know at the time.
And Mark now with a good lead after my stop to refill my bottle and enjoy some food, after only 6 miles! I won't see him again from there, finishing 35 minutes behind in my first 50K.
Mark had just turned 50 and was going to finish in 8th overall, second Master to Roy Rivers, in 3:55! Despite being 7 years younger, it was going to take me almost 10 years to learn enough to beat him at races although I must say that he is in his own league, having made Team USA for the 100K in his prime time and, a few decades later, still a beast who is now killing the M60-64 age group!

5. Believe in yourself, remain positive! This one is interesting because, as I just mentioned, I was over confident so, of course, things didn't turn out as good as I expected, this is the basic law of ultra running. Yet, additionally, I didn't believe in myself enough and my doubts just amplified the fatigue I experienced after starting too fast, into a bad downward spiral. I learned over the years that when it's getting hard, you just have to keep going and push harder or at least, until things improve, eventually. This is the incredible power of mental will, which gets your body to do things you never though it could do. I'm not a client but, reading his publications and hearing him speak at the Tussey Mountains 50-mile Road Nationals, this is clearly the essence of David Roche's coaching philosophy.

6. Be very thankful to the race directing team and the volunteers. I have to confess, I initially didn't appreciate all the work which Race Directors, their team and the volunteers put into setting up and running a successful event, not to mention the work after the race. Certainly, not a value we are taught when running road races. As a matter of fact, when I thank volunteers for being there at road races, now, they typically look at me like I've lost my mind, yikes! And I'd say, be grateful even if the race director does that for a living; given the length of an ultra, the special permit it requires for instance and risks involved, it's a very tough and demanding job and responsibility, worth to be very thankful for when you are a runner.

7. Don't be afraid of running an ultra outside a race. First, I thought that ultras were only for races. Coming from 8 years of marathon training and running, I had never heard about running a marathon when training for a marathon. The longest I had seen in training plans was 20 miles, just to experience what the wall could look like or, more positively, to train how to fuel correctly to avoid that wall. My best doctor, on of my sisters in France, had also told me not to run more than a marathon, or two, a year. That's what the Fat Ass events are meant for, no race or time pressure and great time to be more social.

8. Make and enjoy friends! Last but not least, ultra running is much more about friendship than other types of running are, and friends are great running partners when you have to log many miles. Looks at the peeps from 12 years ago, they haven't changed and are still great friends despite the distance: Penny now back in Australia, Robin in England and, still around, Peggy, Christina, Dennis, and many many more!

After 370 ultras, I could go on with more lessons I learned these past 10 years to make ultra running more sustainable like how to remain injury free, keep the fire on, plan a season, or the fact that speed work at the track still matters even if you focus on longer distances, but... gotta run as we say here. Literally.

But, before, three more things, coming back to the title.

First, I mentioned that it wasn't even my first ultra on my new diet. I did two short ones in December (I use the word short because, according to Andy Jones Wilkins, 50K are barely ultras, too short), but on flat courses. The one I ran on Monday was only 27.3 miles but with 4,000 feet of elevation. It was my first test at running hills on fat calories and it worked really well, I climbed to the top of Black Mountain twice and even PRed in the final 3-mile long descent (Strava activity).
And, speaking of friends (#8), I even met another long-time one last Monday, out in the woods, Chuck Wilson!

Second, I use the shocking ass term in the title because it is Fat Ass time, although I'm going to be missing our first one in the Bay Area, racing a 12-hour in Auburn next week. If you are in the Bay Area next week, check the Steatopygous Quinquamillia one, or look on FaceBook for the "Second Saratoga Fat Ass" which may occur in February (these events can't be official, they don't have permit so the more spread by word of mouth, the better). If you are not in the Bay Area, and don't have a Fat Ass organized in your area, then set one up. That's what I did one year in France when I was away and missed our Saratoga Gap one (see the original version of Les Balcons de Rouen and a snowy version of it 3 years later). Although this run was an ultra, technically, it was not quite eligible for a fat ass as it felt short of 31 miles and wasn't a group run. Almost...

Third, still relating to the title, I ran these hilly 27 miles one 1 Gu gel, 2 pouches of Vespa and 2 bottles of Gu2O, getting the rest of the calories from fat since I switched to the Optimized Fat Metabolism approach a month and a half ago. Looking forward to seeing the benefits in my next race in a week (12-hour at One Day in Auburn).

With all these thoughts, wishing you the best for your first or next ultra, remembering that, no matter how many runs you've done, there are new things you can experience, see, hear, smell or learn, like on your very first jog! Run Happy and all the best for 2018!


MJ said...

Good luck at the race Jean! Please write in more detail about OFM.

Jean Pommier said...

Thanks for stopping by, MJ. Indeed, I'm now on day 46, I need to share more about my OFM experience with a second post (see that first one in the meantime).