You may be considering running a 50K because your friends have promised you that you’ll get to eat M&Ms at each aid station with abandon. Or because you like the idea of an ultra marathoner sticker or magnet on your car. You may have even run a bunch of half and full marathons, and think it can’t possibly be much more difficult.

It is. Really. But so, so worth it.

I’ve only one 50K but I am in the middle of training for my second this September. I can tell you it’s incredibly difficult, but also more rewarding than any other type of running I’ve ever done.

Whatever your reason, here’s the skinny on what it really takes to train for an ultra marathon:

  1. An indomitable spirit with a sprinkle of insanity. In a word: grit. There is no way you’re going to get through five runs each week plus cross training plus making sure you get enough sleep if you’re not dead-set on reaching your goal. Our Saturday morning long runs start as early as 5:30 a.m. Who wants to get up at 4:30 on a Saturday? Crazy people, that’s who. And only those of us who are not-quite-normal will get to the start line.

    An especially crazy 18-mile run, made better by great company.

  2. A lot of time. The training plan my friends and I are using calls for four time-based runs, from an hour to an-hour-and-a-half each, plus a long run on Saturday mornings. When you’re slow like us, a long run can take from three to five hours at a time. And — get this — you have to run for at least an hour the day after your longest run of the week. It helps to have a familia who is OK with all of this, or at least one that likes to sleep in a lot.
  3. Patience (a.k.a., a sense of humor). Tell someone you’re running a 50K (or longer) ultra marathon and be prepared for lots of questions about your sanity. Even non-runners understand that some people sign up for — and run — marathons. “Run a bunch of miles to prove to yourself that you can? Got it.” But an ultra pushes you right into freak (or unbalanced) category. “What, a marathon wasn’t long enough for you?” I actually had a 15-minute conversation with a nice man at work. A former runner, he wanted to chat about why I run longer distances instead of concentrating on shorter races, but trying to get faster. Bless his heart. (See #1 above).
  4. Friends who are just as crazy as you are. Bonus points if they’re experienced and can share awesome tips like what to pack for your ultra, including the need for a drop bag. Most importantly, friends who may think you’re crazy, but who nonetheless support your insanity by meeting you for runs at 5:15 a.m. a couple of weekdays before going to work.

    Some of my crazy runner friends.

  5. Gear. Sure, you can train for a half or full marathon wearing a tech shirt and shorts, plus nice running shoes. An ultra requires an extensive list of must-have items, ranging from a water/hydration vest so you don’t die from dehydration during your long runs, fuel (like Gu or SportBeans or, in my case, even cheese sticks) so you don’t die from hunger, and salt/electrolyte tablets so you don’t die from dehydration. I’m not exaggerating about that whole dehydration thing; training for a fall race means long runs in July and August when it’s just plain hot. Another must-have: A nice running watch that not only tracks your mileage and pace, but one that can last whatever time you think it’ll take you to run 31-plus miles.
  6. Access to trails. A lot of ultras are run on trails. To run 31 miles on trails, you need to train on trails. There’s just no way around that. Trail shoes are optional, but well worth the investment. (See #5 above).
  7. Accepting that you will be hungry. All. The. Time. There’s a reason why people training for 26.2 gain the “marathon many.” I tend to eat every two or three hours anyway, but the extra running has be starving an hour after my last meal. It’s easy to put on a few pounds during training.

I may weigh 600 lbs. by the goal 50K, Run Woodstock in September.

Bonus: I am very fortunate to be surrounded by a tribe of experienced runners, so I asked them to share their best tips on what it really takes to run your first ultra. Here’s what they had to say:

Vicki: “It takes friends to run with and motivate you.”

Melissa: “Don’t skip mid-week runs. That will come back to haunt you mile 28…”

Emily: “Loss of sanity. Other insane friends cheering you on and assuring you you can do it.”

There you have it. If after all that, you still decide to take on your first ultra, I hope you succeed. It’s a fun, crazy, insane, exhausting, time-consuming, expensive endeavor. But I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

What’s on your race schedule this year? Have you ever done an ultra? What are some of your favorite tips?

The day began at o’dark-30 on Saturday morning with a 45-minute drive from our campground in the great metropolis of Beulah to Traverse City Central High School to meet up with the other runner chicas.

Tip: Look at a map before you book your hotel/campground so you are not surprised on race morning that you have to drive FORTY-FIVE minutes at 5 a.m.

My friend Vicki was her usual wonderful self and picked up my packet on Friday night so I could just board a school bus to take us to the finish line, about 20 minutes away.

Tip: Arrive early because the parking lot gets super busy and you don’t want to miss the bus to the starting line.

We arrived with plenty of time to freeze use the port-a-potties twice, take lots of selfies and catch up with friends.

Tip: Be prepared to wait to use the aforementioned toilets. The lines were super long.

While there are no pace groups for the half marathon, Bayshore does provide markers so you can line up by estimated pace. The crowd is huge, but we didn’t have any trouble finding a good spot to start and quickly got into our 2:1 interval rhythm.

Tip: Be sure to line up with your proper pace group because you don’t want people to shove you out of the way like a certain president.

I should note that the race begins with a significant incline and continues with many smaller hills. Train appropriately.

Tip: There are also 10k and full-marathon options.

Lots of runners walked the first, big hill.

Vicki, plus our friends Jen and Lindsey, and I easily got into a great rhythm, mostly following the pre-programmed timer that told us when to walk and when to run. While I prefer to just run, I followed Dr. Awesome’s advice to try the intervals as a condition of being able to actually run this half.

Tip: Try the intervals if you’re building up your mileage. It’s a great way to run further distances without dying.

Vicki, Jen and I trained many a Saturday for this race.

We had already decided that we would enjoy this race, no matter what, so we did stop a few times to take photos.

An amazing view early on during the Bayshore Half Marathon.

The vineyard and lake views are really why many of us signed up for this particular race, so we made a point of enjoying them.

We also enjoyed the amazing course support, from the organized water and Gatorade stations to the random set ups from people who live on the course. There were a few particularly fun ones, including the stop where everyone was wearing red, blue and white onesies, the one with the ladies holding signs that read “If Trump can run, so can you!” and the group that was blowing bubbles across the road.

Another fun feature were the chalk messages on the asphalt, including the usual “good job” and “keep going,” plus our names in front of the Team Playmakers tent around mile eight.

Tip: Make sure you’re paying attention when grabbing a cup because some tables held beer in addition to water and lime Gatorade.

It was heartwarming to see just how many families set up in front of their homes along the course, blaring music, yelling encouraging words or just making a racket with cowbells.

Despite some whining, Vicki, Jen, Lindsey and I finished strong. We were tired, yes, but there was Moomers ice cream to be had, so we perked up right away.

The Moomers ice cream was worth the 13.1 mile run.

Tip: Spend a little bit of time at the tents. In addition to soda, chocolate milk, the ice cream and cold water, there was a ginormous tent full of homemade cookies — the chocolate-cherry oatmeal cookies were to die for.

In the end, the race was fun, well-organized and definitely worth the trip. I plan to repeat it and hope to see y’all there!

With Vicki, Jen, Lindsey and her kids.

Have you run Bayshore? What did you think? Would you do it again?

If you’ve been running 5Ks in the Lansing, Mich., area for a while, you’ve probably seen the moon and stars logo for the Max’s Race 5K on the Michigan State University campus every summer.

Our familia has a connection to Max’s family. He and our oldest son were classmates in preschool and us parents traded stories about the boys’ progress while waiting for after-school pickups or at school functions. He was as cute and sweet as he looks in photos.

Max

Max’s mom, Natalie, and I have kept in touch through the years, running into each other here or there and connecting on Facebook. When I saw her reminder about the upcoming race, I just knew you’d all want to hear their story.

Please consider signing up for the June 24 race.

By Natalie Hool

My name is Natalie and I lost my 6-year-old son in 2005 to a night-time seizure.

Max Matthews contracted bacterial meningitis in 1998 that left him with a few struggles at the age of 7 months, including hearing loss. He was the youngest recipient of a cochlear implant in Michigan when he had the procedure three days before his first birthday. 

This year, his birthday and Mother’s Day fall on the same date. In 2006 it did, too, but I couldn’t even get out of bed. This year, I am completely ready for the flood of emotions coming my way all because back in 2005 a decision was made to create a foundation in Max’s honor, the Maxwell C. Matthews Foundation.

Our main event is called Max’s Race. It is a 5K run/walk with a kids fun run.

Sparty joins the Max’s Race fun.

Sparty, the MSU cheer team and face-painting clowns all join in for the festivities. Our 12th annual race takes place on June 24, 2017. Our route on the Michigan State University campus begins at the “big rock” east of Farm Lane.

Credit: ©TimeFramePhoto.com

The foundation’s motto is to “Create hope for kids and their families.” To that end, we have made donations to Sparrow Hospital‘s pediatric programs and the Davies Project. It is important that the money we raise is for kids like Max and their families.

This race really means the world to me. It is like a piece of Max is right there, touching me. The feeling that comes from all of the participants and volunteers coming together and thinking about him is indescribable. 

I am also a runner and there are so many race options in the summer. Please consider attending Max’s Race! Watching adults and kids come together for a great experience with Max on their mind is heartwarming and has been integral to my healing. 

Max’s Mom

Some runs mean just getting through the miles on the training plan. Others, well, let’s just say that they are more than just putting one foot in front of the other.

I’ve known for a while now that there’s something about the Marl Lake trail near South Higgins Lake State Park in central Michigan that can feel magical or whimsical. There’s just something special about a trail that can assault your senses with both the sounds of your trail shoes crunching on dry leaves and the smell of pines that smell like Christmas.

Marl Lake

Today’s experience assaulted something I didn’t even know I had: fear. Fear that a recent diagnosis of runner’s knee would finally bench me.

Sure, I’ve come back from hurt shoulders and my dumb butt. And I’ve been trying to remind myself that if I take a step back, invest in my recovery and do what I’m supposed to do, that I’ll get better.

But there was always that voice in the back of my head that wondered if that was really true.

Just a quarter of a mile into my run, I felt loose and relaxed. And then the runner’s high snuck up on me, like I did on the poor couple taking each other’s pictures and who jumped when I got closer (sorry!).

Runner’s high is strong with this one.

The trail was relatively smooth, with little to trip me. I was in the zone.

Until a couple of dogs darted toward me, barking but with tails wagging, their owners close behind. They warned me about upcoming flooding, but encouraged me to go forward, even offering up a long branch one of them was using as a walking stick.

Declining with a smile, I set off again, grateful that others were also enjoying the beautiful scenery.

Soon, I saw the water-covered trail the women warmed me about.

There’s always a way.

I easily walked over the logs someone had gathered over the big puddle and kept on going. Hmmm. Someone else had seen this obstruction and done something about it.

Things got wetter and wetter on the trail today.

And then, well, I just couldn’t get around. There just was no way to avoid the lake-like puddle on the trail.

No way around this one.

Sure, I could have run through (I see you, Corey Baker) and gotten my feet soaked, but I instead backtracked and re-read the trail sign, which showed another way.

Trail maps, love ’em.

Thankfully, the new route was flat and soft, covered with either dead leaves or pine needles.

Like with our running journey, sometimes the trail is smooth.

And then it hit me: the day’s trail run was an allegory for my running journey.

Sometimes, it’s perfect (runner’s high), but it’s often full of surprises (sorry again, surprised couple!) and detours (did I mention I’m injury prone?), but I always manage to get to the other side.

And then, wham, a fallen tree (or an injury) tries to stop you again.

A giant tree blocked my path during today’s trail run.

I could see that there was already a narrow area of trampled grass where others had obviously been running or walking. They’d created a new path around the fallen tree.

Just like I’m not the first person to ever get a runner’s knee diagnosis. Others have been there before and found a way to get back on track. There’s always a way, even if it means taking a step back or making your way around.

I’m not alone. I just have to follow the trail set by others to get to the other side.

With that comforting realization, I picked up my pace, running faster than I ever have on the trails before. My heart lighter than it’s been since the diagnosis. A smile on my lips.

Have you ever been injured and worried you’d never get better? What helped? Also, do you run through or around a big lake-size puddle on a trail?

The neighbors may not have thought so, but the portable karaoke machine was brilliant.

The dancing? Spectacular.

Brandess showcasing her dance moves.

And that’s what set the tone for today’s volunteering at the Gazelle Girl Half Marathon in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Boy, we were exhausted. This gig sure tired us out.

Despite the hard work, we were all smiles today.

This chica, hard at work.

Both Brandess and I were waylaid by injuries and couldn’t pace the race as we’d planned. So we signed up as course marshals and were blessed with a blue, cloudless sky and relatively warm temperatures when we set up at 7:30 a.m. after dropping our other friends, Mira and Shannon, near the starting line. Our friend Janet spent the night in Grand Rapids, but we caught up with her later.

While I had volunteered at one previous race where I smeared Vaseline on a random guy’s nipple, this was my first as a marshal. Thankfully, I was with a pro, so we were all ready for the day.

Our well-appointed spot at near miles 3 and 10

Here are some tips, should you find yourself being volunteered volunteering at a race:

  • Check the forecast. We knew we’d have cold temperatures, so we dressed in layers (guess which one of us looked like the Michelin Man) and stripped as the morning got warmer. Remember a poncho, sunscreen and bug spray, if the day calls for any of it.
  • Get there early. We had all been to Grand Rapids many times before, but a couple of wrong turns had us arriving just in time to our location. Had we cut it too close, we would have had trouble even getting to the spot because so many streets are closed off for the race.
  • Park as close as you can. We were just a few feet from my car, so we could have easy access to the aforementioned gear, plus we didn’t have to walk through half of Grand Rapids with a bunch of stuff.
  • Bring stuff. As in camp chairs, blankets, snacks and drinks. I even brought a small, collapsible camp table. This was especially convenient because we got to park so close.
  • Have clarity. Even if you have a map or have done the race in previous years, talk to the race organizers about your role, including where runners will come from and about what time, and where you should direct them.
  • Be loud. While we did help many runners stay on the course, we also got to cheer them on. Plain old poster board signs wouldn’t do. Instead, Brandess lugged a cowbell and karaoke system, which was conveniently paired with her cell phone’s Bluetooth connection.
  • Bring a camera. Your friends and their friends will love seeing the photos you shot in between the dancing, yelling and high-fiving.
  • Remember why you’re really there. Most runners were all smiles when we saw them on their way out, a little bit after mile three. On the way back at mile 10? A few were struggling, shuffling or just plain done. We saved a lot of our energy (who are we kidding — we’re both Energizer bunnies!) for those runners. We got a few to smile, a handful to pretend we were the Soul Train Line, and even got some fluids into the race’s last runner.

That’s Janet, giving a thumbs up while pacing the Gazelle Girl Half Marathon.

Some of our awesome runner friends!

 

While I thought I would be bummed to miss racing Gazelle Girl, spending time with my friends and being surrounded by so many awesome runners made the day special. I still want to run the race again next year, but this volunteering thing? Yeah, I’ve got it down now.

What about you: Did you race this weekend? Have any tips to share for a race volunteer?