This is very long… feel absolutely no obligation to read. But if you do, this is the tale of my very first ultra marathon. Thanks in advance for allowing me to share. It was a lot of fun. And a bit eye-opening for a variety of reason, all highlighted in the story that follows.
Fat Ass 50K
North Adams, Massachusetts
Saturday, December 29, 2007
50K (31 miles)
1 x 3.5 mile out-and-back
5 x 5.5 mile loop
Pace: 8:00 min/mile
2nd Place Overall of 38
NOTE* Running clock time includes bathroom breaks and fluid/nutrition refills of which there were many. Actual time was probably closer to 3:55, good for 7:35 mile pace.
I had my eye on the Fat Ass 50K for a few months. Having just completed Baystate Marathon in October as my 14th marathon in 14 months and knowing I would do the Mill Cities Relay in early December, which was only two days away from a November date that would have officially given me my 15th marathon in 15 months, it was about time to up the challenge to an Ultra. After all, I had cross the finish line at Baystate, a race I purposely did not race and instead paced a friend through 18 miles, in a time of 3:04 with a serious negative split. That day I knew I could have run more miles if I had to. Then came Mill Cities Relay in which I ran the first of five legs of the 28 mile relay race for my Tri team but instead of stopping I continued on the rest of the way and still finished very strong, feeling very good. So when December grew long and the calendar moved toward Saturday, December 29th, the lure of my first attempt at an Ultra was too great. It was a challenge I could not ignore for many reasons: I wanted to experience an ultra, almost as a way to see if I could play in the kiddie pool of Ultra waters; but also because, well, I like streaks, and before me was the opportunity to run marathon distance or longer to complete my 16th marathon distance run (or longer) in 16 months. So what if I missed November by two days. I didn’t care. But I needed December. And who could resist a Fat Ass – or at least a race bold enough to call itself that? Not I.
North Adams, Massachusetts, site of the Fat Ass 50K, was a winding 3 hour drive from Boston. With a 10 am start, I figured I’d leave my house at 6 am. 3 hours later, just as expected, I arrived in North Adams. With plenty of time before race start, I stopped for a leisurely squat at a McDonald’s rest room and, as I was leaving, went back for another go just in case there would be no bathrooms at the start. By 9:30 I was parked at race site, signed in, and back at my car setting out Gatorade, Gu’s, banana’s and fresh water for my own makeshift aid station. This was necessary because the event, being lowkey with few numbers, was to be mainly self supported except for water at the beginning and half way point of the looped course. Before long I was in front of a furniture store being prepped on how to self time with each lap completed. Not long after that, the race director gave final instructions and, without much a National Anthem or even fly over – not even the Pledge of Allegiance – we were ready to go.
The Fat Ass of the 50K (31 miles) was a 3.5 mile out-and-back followed by five laps on a 5.5 mile loop that circumnavigated the south and west sides of North Adams, an older town squashed between a few mountains. Even though you could see the ranges in the background, thankfully the course was flat and all on roads.
Ultras seem to be a different breed, both the courses and the people who run them. The folks tend to be more down to earth in a way to be more one with nature, and they are certainly much more relaxed when it comes to pre-event jitters. I honestly don’t think there was a single stomach aflutter, including mine. In spite the steep challenge, I slept very well the night before, and in spite my first attempt at an ultra, I was treating this as just another long run. Although I knew the event was much more than that, it wasn’t like this was a marathon where I would go out at a brisk on-the-edge pace through mile 5, when the pain would settle in for a ride on the merry-go-‘round of Crash and Burn threatening to fling me off as I would have to hold on for another 20 miles. The ultra was about finding a relaxing pace. I was so relaxed that even the self coach in me, who would have told me “Easy, boy, you can do this,” sat back with a cup of coffee.
On the sidewalk beside the furniture store, in front of which sat the Check-In Table for recording laps, the race director called attention. “Everyone clear your watches,” Bob Dion, the race organizer called. In the 38 degree morning, I checked and re-checked my watch along with 38 other runners. Just as the sun peaked behind a cloud, sending a chill down my back, the call was made: “Go!”
Out-And-Back (3.5 miles)
The 38 of us took off on a trot. One young early-twenty something took off as if a 5K. Without much a hydration belt, I figured the young stallion either didn’t know what he was doing or was only in the race for a few laps – not the entire duration. Behind him was a guy who ran brisk enough but with purposeful grace. He had headphones on and seemed to slip into a zone. I wasn’t at all surprised to see him up front because, while waiting for the race to start, I noticed him wearing team issued USA Skate Ski Team apparel. I assumed he was a very strong runner, as most of those skate skiers are. In fact, I wondered if he did any sort of riding, because I know he’d be a very strong rider for his work with skate skiing. Behind Team USA guy were two guys running together. I hung with them for most of the out portion of the out and back before letting them pull away. I wanted to take my own pace, and if I were to hook up with someone to talk to, a key race tactic I was looking to do, I didn’t want it to be someone too much faster than I.
Down to the out of the 3.5 mile out-and-back, around a cone, and back, I was growing very warm and already sweating greatly. I knew then that I would stop at the car once I completed this section – but before beginning the first of 5 of the 5.5 mile loops. To the Check-In table I ran, recorded my time, and, before stripping down, I headed inside the furniture store where the owners kindly offered up their clean bathroom’s for our use. Finally done, I shot out the store and headed to my car to strip down with the jacket, off with the gloves, and on with a base layer and my old Disney Marathon tech shirt. By then I had lost my 5th place standing and was squarely in the back of the pack. I was okay with that because, well, it was an ultra… it wasn’t a marathon.
Loop 1 (5.5 mile loop, 9 miles upon completion)
With my hydration belt bottles topped off and my body more appropriately dressed, I was now wear I wanted to be. I purposely did not want to get caught up in going out too fast or wondering where the leaders were. Knowing that, I knew, would probably spell a very long day for me, as I would’ve been sucked too early into a race I did not want to be in. Instead, I wanted to be in control of pace and how I felt. To do that I knew I had to find someone to talk to. Only probably was that everybody around me was running much too slowly. It’s okay, I coached myself. Just settle in, if even for one lap. Like an obedient athlete, I listened to my inner coach and settled in behind two guys with a collection of 5 others just off our shoulders.
A mile into the first loop, I hooked up with Bob Dion, the race director, and one other guy. Bob likes to tell stories, even more than me. This was obvious right away when he was just running at the mouth with me saying very little. The beautiful thing was he had some good stories to tell. Bob was a very accomplished ultra runner. Having won countless ultra races from 50K, to 50 milers, and all the way up to 100 milers, he has his collection of hardware in his stories. Before long, it was just Bob and I, running together, having no idea that we had pulled away from the other guy and the pack behind us. It was only toward the end of this loop when he informed me that he was only doing three laps – he wasn’t going the entire distance – and that he would bow out for several minutes after we finished the loop. I grew a bit nervous because, with still four 5.5 mile laps to go, I still had the majority of the distance ahead of me. The pace to then was very comfortable, if not a touch fast. But it was sustainable, or so I thought, with his company.
The remainder of the lap was filled with some more stories of Bob’s many wins. He told the story of his clever race tactic, where before each race he’d try to find out who among those who could win the race would toe the line. He’d then assess them for their 5K speed, this for a 50 mile race. He knew that if he had better 5K speed than his competitor, if he found himself neck and neck with this competitor for whom he had better leg speed, and they were still together around mile 40, he’d lay down a single 6 minute mile as a way to make a move with a jab to the ribs. Psychologically, he said, it never failed to devastate his opponent. And that way his opponent would slow drastically not long afterwards, so it was his plan to toss in a quick mile followed by a rather easy recovery mile. The other guy would lose so much that he would even be able to walk the last two miles if he had to and still win. Race tactics. Bob split away for the bathroom and some race organizing before I could throw in my 6 minute mile.
Loop 2 (14.5 miles)
After a stop at the car to top off my water bottles with Gatorade and to gobble a Gu, I was now well into my second loop. It was right about here when I started getting very comfortable with the beginning section of the loop for the familiarity it brought. I knew that the wind would be at the back to the intersection by Walmart, after which the road would tip down gradually. It was a very fast two miles, which I liked, because it also meant I was nearly half way into the loop.
After passing Walmart, now running solo, I started falling very quickly into a zone. Every now and then I’d pop out and force myself to slow down. I’d joke with myself by saying, “Thor, this is an ultra… it’s not a marathon.” At this point there was still a runner in sight in front of me and probably a handful behind me. But the other guys, including the young kid who went out at 5K pace and the Team USA Skate Ski guy were not to be found. I assumed they were a mile or more ahead by then.
That’s when I noticed an older guy dressed in red in front of me. I had seen him at the start, and now seeing him run, he was flawless in his efficiency and seemed to scoot on his feet with minimal head bob. I imagined he felt very comfortable, for his form looked impeccable. As Red and I approached the left turn, with Red still ahead, I noticed he ran right by the left turn of the course. Which was okay, it just meant he would go to the next light and make a left, netting maybe an extra 100 yards. “Hey!” I called to Red. Red, stuck under his head phones, kept going. “Yo. Dude!” Finally Red turned. I waved him my way as I made the proper left and the waited for him.
In a loud voice, Red thanked me and then mumbled a few other things, this time even louder, none of which I could make out. I assumed he was still listening to whatever it was blaring from the speakers attached to his ears. Without missing a stride or looking Red’s way, I put my theory into practice with a test. In a rather low voice I asked, “What are you listening to?” There was no answer. I assumed he wanted his peace, and as we now ran stride for stride, I let him be.
Until he asked if I was going all the way. That was the ice breaker. He fumbled with his Ipod for the conversation that lay ahead. We chatted the rest of the lap away. Before finishing the loop, I offered, “If you’re looking for company for the next lap, I just going to hit my car to refuel and top of my bottles. I can look for you.” He, sadly, told me to go ahead. He said he had to go to the bathroom. I was bummed. I wanted company. Three more loops, each solo, still seemed a long way to go, especially because on the back side of the course the wind was really picking up to the point it was not only difficult to run into, taking something out of you as you fight into the wind with head down, but the wind chill made it cold.
Loop 3 (20 miles)
Starting loop 3, I knew, was when the real work would begin. Somehow I knew I would have to go the rest of the way on my own. So with that, I was sure to take extra time at my car. I grabbed my gloves for the back part of the loop, where I knew it would be cold, and topped my bottles off. As I was doing so, I saw two runners, a couple, get in their car as if their day was done. My suspicions were confirmed when the wife jumped out of the driver’s side while mumbling a kind greetings. “Are you going the whole way?” she asked. I said yes as I leisurely watched her popped the trunk and dig for something. She emerged with a handful of bananas and something in a Ziplock baggy. “My husband broke his ankle,” she said as she walked my way. “We’re done… going home.” Then she held up the items in her hands and offered, “Do you want these? There’s a few bananas and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” She must’ve seen the excitement in my eyes, because before I got a chance to reply, she came over and put the bananas and Ziplock goodness atop my car next to my collection of Gu’s. I thanked her. She wished me luck. And off I went, already plotting the beginning of my mind games, this one being that I would reward myself with the sandwich up completion of the 4th lap. Unfortunately I still had two to go.
Down past Walmart and onto the left turn, the beginning stretch of the 3rd loop went very quickly. Before long I was on the back stretch, now running completely solo, lapping a runner every fifteen minutes, and fighting into a stiff and growing noticeably stiffer chilly wind. It was my first time on this back stretch by myself, without a friend to talk with to take my thoughts away from the growing fatigue. My back was getting sore and my Sciatic was staring to pull. And here I was fighting into the wind. The meltdown began.
On the backside I knew was a narrow bridge to run under – so tight was it and on a dangerous that I had to wave my hand out as for to my right as possible in hopes that any car entering the tunnel would see someone was coming. The bridge seemed to never come. I could have sworn it was sooner. How long have I been on this backside? Maybe the miles are building up, maybe I can’t do this. Why did I forget, of all things, my salt tabs. Fighting into the wind, now along an open section that navigated a string of flowing cemetery after another, I came to the realization that I was starting to focus on the wrong things. Instead of counting how many laps I have remaining, I instead put it completely out of my mind and tried to stay in the moment, for it was getting very difficult – the wind strong and cold and my body ready to be done. I fell back on the fact that I was only 18 miles in, that just because I want to stop, if I stayed in control of my emotions I would be able to punch through. It was just a down cycle, right?
Finally the bridge, and the tunnel I need to run under, came. Much to my surprise, the bridge was nearer to town than I thought, which meant it was nearer to the end of the lap. That perked me up. Perking me up even more was when completing the lap I saw the young stallion 5K’er who lead the race early on and two of his buddies, all by the Check-In Table, each obviously done for the day. As I checked in I couldn’t help wonder in what place I was in. At this point, there was USA Ski dude ahead of me, unless he dropped out, and the guy in red somewhere behind me. Maybe I could win this thing, I thought.
Loop 4 (mile 25.5)
With renewed energy from the thought that I might be in the lead, or definitely in the top 3, I purposefully got about my business at my car in refilling water bottles with Gatorade, gobbling a Gu, chasing with water and a banana chunk and I was back on the course, back into my zone, now running with yet more purpose than any three previous laps. I knew a good thing when I saw it, and in front of me, I knew, was the single best motivator to keep me on pace and even get me to increase. I erased from my mind the fact that US Dude was ahead of me and instead slipped into my own world of pretend – pretend that I was leading the race. I wanted to run scared, scared of the runners behind me catching up. I pretended Red, who I had no idea where he was, was right on my tail. And I ran. In first place. With purpose. Down past Walmart, to the left, and on, I was now running faster than before and in more control. The quicker pace seemed to be exactly what the body needed. As I hit the backside of the course, instead of obsessing the course and when that damn bridge would come, I instead put my head down, stared only at the ground to which my feet would fall, and on the periphery at the cemeteries gone by.
Now nearing the bridge, still with my head down, something in the middle of the road caught my eye. I have no idea why I looked up this time, but as a pickup truck was coming up a long gradual hill, and now on the flat where I was, I saw something move, something unnatural, in the bed of the truck. Before I could think further, instinct took over. I envisioned the dresser furniture piece in the bed of the truck tipping and falling off, then hitting the ground, bouncing before sliding on the ground, directly at me. Before I knew, I was way off the side of the road, now witnessing the truck coming at me with the dresser falling crash to the ground and sliding straight to the side of the road, exactly where I had just been, as if it would have bowled me over. It was a close call, and by that time, I was so fatigued that the sheer noise startled me even though I knew it was coming.
Thankfully the rest of the lap was uneventful.
Loop 5 (mile 31)
I couldn’t believe it. After using a host of mind games, but not nearly as many as I had imagined I’d need, I was refueling at my car with only one lap to go. I was still playing the game of “running scared,” but I was also steadily increasing pace to where, as a guess, I was running a sliver over 7 minute miles. At this point, I knew, there was no way I could not finish another 5.5 miles at this pace. Or better.
But before leaving for the last lap, I had a reward of a half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I gobbled it down as if a last supper and was on my way. I was rather pleased because where I thought it would give me a healthy boost, it did not. The pleasing part was that it told me that to that point I was well hydrated and very on top of my nutrition. It was a good moral boost. Especially when you’re running scared.
Just after cruising by Walmart on the front, or beginning, part of Lap 5 was when I came upon several runners just setting out on their 4th lap. I was excited to see more runners than one per 30 minutes. This collection I was even more excited to see since they looked to be running strong enough to be on their 4th lap and as a result would remember if someone had passed them just recently – like someone with a USA Skate Ski Team uniform.
Before the left hand turn leading to the backside of the course, I caught up to three runners, all of whom were running together. “Hey guys,” I started saying, “do any of you by chance remember seeing someone come by you?” The all shook their heads no. One offer, “No, you must be the leader.” Before my fatigued brain could process elation, the guy nearest the road chimed in: “I think the guy in blue is still out there… We didn’t see him, but I don’t think he dropped out.” The guy in blue was speedy USA Dude. I thanked them and headed on, now picking up pace even more.
By the back stretch of the course, now fighting into the wind, I picked up pace a touch more, now with obvious increased effort. I figured I could hold the pace to the end. I wanted to go faster, and when I searched up the road for motivation, all I saw was a cemetery and another and another, dotted along the landscape. USA Dude, nor anyone else, was in sight. At one point, well before the bridge marking the beginning of town and, really, near the end of the loop, I found an open stretch where I could see behind me at least a solid mile. To my pleasure, Red was not to be found. Nor anyone else. To be sure, I checked again, and again, just in case the truth was that my little pretend game of me leading the race wasn’t so pretend. Either way, I knew, it got me to run faster, to push harder, and to be the best I could be. Just to be sure, I checked again for Red.
Under the bridge, through the tunnel and back into town, now cutting tangents, and down by the Holiday Inn and now up a long overpass bridge, my first ultra was coming to an end. I waved to the throngs of people in my mind and held my fist high as I ran down the backside of the bridge toward the sturdy table in front of the furniture store otherwise known as the finish line. I clicked my watch at 4:08:01 and pumped my fist in the air for celebration of the completion of my very first ultra, something that was much easier than I imagined yet no walk in the park.
As I made my way to the Check-In Table, I laughed to myself as I and one other guy were the only ones around. He was about to start his 4th lap, bless him, as I was about to record my time, scan the splits of all other runners to see where I placed, and go across the street to the neighborhood pub for a celebratory pint of ale and bite of real food to eat.
Scanning the “score sheet” with everyone’s splits, I had a hard time processing the numbers as I looked to add my final entry for my last lap and finish time. I was fatigued and very thankful the day was done. I grab a pen. At 36 degrees, the pen wouldn’t work. So I grabbed another. And another. Finally I grabbed a pencil, a sturdy old number 2, and marked forever my name in the journals of Ultra. Although I have come to realized that the 50K distance is more a mismarked marathon as opposed to a full-out ultra marathon, the truth is that forever more I can add Ultra to my resume. It was a challenge I had eye for a very long time, but always one as something I would probably never do. Now I have.
I stood by the table to cheer on a few soldiers just making their way out of the furniture store and back onto the course. After several minutes to clear my head, I went back to the Check-In Table to make sense of the numbers. Scanning up and down the rows, it seemed most runners were now only a few minutes into their fourth lap with one other on his fifth. I imagined that was my buddy Red. Much to my disappointment, I also saw that there were two people who were logged with an official time. Me and USA Skate Ski Team Dude. He finish in 3:38, well ahead of my 4:08, good for an unofficial second place overall.