ultra marathons

As I wrap up my year, I can say that it’s been one of my absolute best.

While I was recuperating from my fourth shoulder surgery just over a year before, I got several very-long runs and races in this calendar year, including my fourth 50K ultramarathon in September that had me PR by 37 minutes from my previous fastest 50K in 2017It's me, immediately after I finished the 50K. I'm smiling. Wearing my water vest and a pair of dorky glasses

Looking back, there were some key things that helped me get such a big personal best:

  • I set a SMART goal. That’s one that is specific, meaningful, attainable, relevant and time-bound. Not only did I decide that I would sign up for — and run — Woodstock again, but I decided that this was the year when I would get a personal record.
  • I cross-trained, even when I didn’t want to. I’m not a big biking fan, but I rode our Peloton stationary bike at least once a week, often for 45 minutes or an hour. I also did yoga at home once a week, took at least one rest day every week, and got between seven and eight hours of sleep most nights.
  • I followed Dr. Awesome’s orders. I see a manipulative-medicine doc about every other month. He’s awesome. And he’s given me excellent advice through the years. He fully supports my running, but he’s pushed me to really take care of myself, including the aforementioned cross training and resting. He also only cleared me to get back on the trails if I do my run/walk intervals. Just a good mix for my piriformis/butt/knee pain. It works for me.

As for the actual race, my friends and I arrived late afternoon on Friday, set up my motorhome at the nearby state campground and went to packet pickup for Run Woodstock at Hell Creek Campground.

the Hell Creek Campground map, showing the important spots for the race

Packet pickup was super easy and, thankfully, very close to the entrance. We could have just left, but we were hoping to see friends there, including two who had started their 100K race at 4 p.m. (We can’t math, so we were too early to see them.)

We still lingered for a while, checking out the pre-race festivities, and cheering the faster runners who were already coming through from their first loop.

The evening was uneventful (unlike the buckets of rain and the storms the night before my first ultra) and we made it to the race with enough time to take care of our drop bags and make a pit stop.

Picture of most of the members of our group, in the dark, but wearing headlamps. We're all smiling.

Because we’re the Mullet Crew (we’re the party in the back!), the going was very slow for the first half hour or so. The first bit is hilly, the trail is narrow, and there are literally dozens and dozens of people in front of you, plus you’re in the dark and not quite sure where you’re going.

The person in front of me; can only see them because I'm wearing a headlamp.

I was particularly grateful for my nice headlamp, which I wore for the first hour, until we got to a section that has fewer trees, the trail widens and the sun is starting to come up.

As with previous years, we brought fuel and hydration vests, but relied on the amazing aid stations, conveniently spaced about 4 miles apart. The food — and the volunteers — were as awesome as always. I followed my running coaches’ advice and made sure to eat and drink more than in previous years — especially after last year’s blood-in-the-urine fiasco.

Because I run with amazing people, my friends fully supported my goal of beating my best previous time. A couple of us stuck together for the first loop and, later, I ended up with my friend Walisa, who was running strong and made for great company — even during some miserable hills.

A selfie with Walisa in the background, with her hands up in the air, smiling.

About a quarter of the way into our second of two loops, Walisa was slowing down and I kept getting ahead of her. I went back a few times to make sure she was feeling well and she encouraged me to keep going, knowing of my year-long goal.

After a significant internal struggle, I trusted her judgment and ran ahead, alone.

The rest of the trail was particularly challenging because there are at least a gazillion (OK, more like five) very steep and looooong hills at a time when you’re just spent.

a photo of a particularly steep hill

Because I was by myself for quite a while, I dug deep and used self talk, including my mantra of “trust the plan,” to power through. As with other trail races, I encountered dozens of 100K and 100-mile runners who took the time to encourage *me.* It’s just an amazing feeling to know how far they’ve gone and that they’re thinking of others, despite what I’m sure is a ridiculously tough time.

I did stop to check on a few 100 milers who looked pretty rough, just to make sure they had enough fuel and to share words of encouragement. One told me he planned to quit as soon as he got to the next aid station. He was leaning heavily to the side (a tell-tale sign of exhaustion), but kept shuffling because that’s just what you do. He declined any help, but I made sure I told the volunteers about him so they could send someone out.

Another time, I stopped a few men for a moment to give a 100-miler a few seconds of privacy as she finished peeing while leaning on a tree, right on the side of the trail. They were incredibly understanding and went along, taking advantage of the very short break to fuel and check their gear.

It was these experiences, coupled with a strong training season and my Hamilton soundtrack, that gave me the second wind I needed to keep up with my run/walk intervals.

In the end, I was pretty sure I had made good time, but didn’t realize just how much faster until later that evening, while I sat, eating yummy Spanish food while waiting for our friend Shannon to finish her first 100K race. Watching her run in was one of the most-satisfying memories in my seven years of running.

As always, I am forever grateful to running for bringing these — and many other — people into my life. Because runners make the best friends ever.

A bunch of our ultramarathon-running friends, sporting our medals

Have you PR’d a race before? What did you do to get that personal best? Have you run an ultra? Do you want to? What’s your favorite thing about running? (You may have to click on “Continue Reading” to leave a comment.)

We’d just started our third 6.5-mile loop during the Loopty Loop Ultra in Rochester Hills when I checked in with el husbando letting him know we were having fun and doing great. Just two more trail loops to get our goal 26.2 miles with plenty of time to spare on our eight-hour clock.

Next thing I knew, I was splayed out on the ground, the wind knocked out of me, a scraped left knee and chin, and bruised left hand. My friends Shannon and Vicki waited until I could breathe and talk. It took me a few minutes to get myself upright and moving. I was dizzy and nauseous.

And just as quickly as it happened, I felt better and we got back on the trail. We eventually reached an aid station where a volunteer got me cold water and paper towels to clean my knee, and some antibiotic ointment, just in case.

That loop was by far our slowest. I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t feeling well, so we walked and regrouped. By the time we made it back to the start, I was feeling like myself and was able to run most of the last loop with Shannon and her husband, Corey, only walking a handful of times. I am certain that it was by far our fastest loop, but my watch died and I haven’t had the energy to ask Shannon to look at her watch’s stats.

Unlike the Old Farts marathon, the signs at Loopty Loop tried to uplift us, not taunt us.

Before the fall, the morning was uneventful. My friends Michelle, Vicki, Melissa and I met at 4:30 to make the hour-and-a-half-long drive. I made the last-minute decision to join them at dinner a few nights before, after they, ahem, convinced me that we could get the marathon distance on our ultra-marathon training plan done and get a medal.

I was a little nervous about registering for the race that morning, but registration was super organized and easy. The volunteer had me fill out a form, took my check and gave me a bib, bandanna and small towel. All in under 5 minutes.

We had plenty of time to go to the bathroom (they also had portable toilets), get our gear together, take a few pictures and line up at the start line. The race organizer made a few announcements (keep the pink flags on your right) and we were off.

We all started out together at a 2-minute run, 1-minute walk pace. About halfway through the second loop, we broke up into a couple of groups, which is pretty typical for us.

At one point during that rough third loop, we heard what sounded like ice-cream-truck music. I thought I was hallucinating. Once we reached the top of a hill, we were greeted by a volunteer handing out popsicles!

Despite taking a digger face-first into the dirt, this was definitely a great race. The course was relatively non-technical with some hills and lots of tree roots, but with plenty of shade. It was well-marked and the volunteers were all helpful and friendly.

Vicki and I walked most of that third loop. I’m grateful she didn’t kill me and leave me on the side of the trail.

The aid stations were generous with chips, watermelon, cheese sandwiches, Swedish fish, quesadillas, hot dogs, gummy bears, fuel and other treats. They had both Gatorade and water, too.

The race page describes it as having 6.3-mile loops. Had we returned from our last loop before eight hours, we could have run an extra 1-mile loop to get an official marathon distance.

As it was, our watches all said each loop was 6.6 miles, and several watches showed we covered our goal of 26.2 miles. This particular race gives out medals for the 4-, 8- and 12-hour time limits.

Race shirts were attractive, but the women’s sizes ran very, very small. Because I registered at the last minute, I didn’t get a shirt, but they also took $10 off my registration. We were offered plastic sunglasses and 26.2-mile stickers with our medals.

As a bonus, we also got to eat some really good square pizza and cake, and sit for a few minutes before cleaning up and getting in the car to head home. We were all tired, but glad we had made the trip.

We all met our goals for the day.

Now, we just have a 16-mile run next weekend, and 24- and 13-mile runs the two weeks after that. Then, taper.

There was talk of not doing the Run Woodstock 50K again next year because training takes so much darn time. I have to admit that yesterday’s race made me glad that we’ve been putting in the miles. It was proof of important the summer training is — both mentally and physically.

As always, everything wasn’t all rainbows and kittens. I came home to disgusting feet covered in dirt, a big blister under my big toe, sore muscles and a knee with road rash.

But it was all worth the pain and discomfort. I got to spend quality time with good friends, enjoy a gorgeous, sunny day and I even got a medal.


Have you ever taken a bad fall during a race? What’s your favorite race medal? (You may have to click on “Continue Reading” to leave a comment.)

That loud yell you heard this afternoon? Yeah, that was me after leaving the surgeon’s office. He officially cleared me to start adding running to my repertoire.

Seven weeks post shoulder surgery, I am feeling pretty good. I’ve actually been walking on the treadmill between three and four times a week since the week after surgery, including at least one seven-miler. Late last week, my physical therapist — who happens to be a marathoner — said I could start including very brief running spurts as long as I stayed on the ‘mill. But it was great to hear the doc officially agree with her.

I started with .05 for each of five miles. I felt good, even hours afterward. So, I went up to .1 per mile the past two days. Still good.

My shoulder definitely still hurts almost all of the time. I still have limited range and physical therapy started including stretching bands just this past week. And I still wake up every night when I accidentally roll onto my right shoulder.

But. I. Am. Running.

I vaguely remember coming back from the third shoulder surgery, not long after I had picked up running. It was winter and I had to join a gym to get on a treadmill for just a tiny bit of time. At least el husbando has since gotten me a used one and I can just jump on any time. In fact, I do most evenings, a bit after dinner and my usual hour or so of work-work.

So, moving forward, the plan is to continue to increase how much I run each time as long as I’m not in a lot of pain.

I only have two races on the schedule this year: the Woodstock 50K in September and the Detroit Free Press Marathon (code 2018DETROCKS gets you 10 percent off your race entry because I’m a BibRave pro) in October.

The 50K training plan I’ve followed the past two years is for 16 weeks and it starts with a 10-mile long run. That gives me the next three weeks to get up to 10 miles. That won’t be a problem at all since I’ve kept my mileage very consistent, but I’ll be mostly walking them at this point. It’s very do-able, but I already know I’ll probably be doing this by myself and each long run will take forever.

So my plan will also include focusing on the things I can do. Since, after all, this is supposed to be fun, no?

Any tips for this recovering chica? What’s the longest distance you have ever walked? (You may have to click on “Continue Reading” to leave a comment.)

I sit here, in pain, but content. This year’s Run Woodstock 50K was dryer and speedier that last year. Three of us PR’d and we all negative split (ran the second half faster than the first).

Better headlamps meant we started out with a clear course, even at 6 a.m., moving swiftly through the first hour through a hill, then a rails-to-trails path. My three friends and I set a slow, steady pace of four minutes running and one walking.

We’re decked out to start the Run Woodstock 50K.

We moved in the steady, relatively easy rhythm of people who’ve been training together for years. We told stories. Laughed with (and at) each other. And we enjoyed the beauty of our lush green surroundings.

The rain that plagued us last year — and that caused mud so deep and wet that we felt like we were skating more than running — was replaced by sunshine and temperatures in the 40s, later reaching into the 60s.

The course was tough, but not impossible. The hills were even steeper than I remembered, sometimes leaving us breathless and wiped out.

Our friends spent HOURS waiting around to cheer us on after our first loop and celebrate with us when we were done.

Like last year, the aid stations had plenty of yummy food every four miles. We made sure to grab sandwiches, Coke, M&Ms, pretzels, chips, cookies, gummy bears and other treats. Oh, and there was Gatorade, water and Guu.

Because this was our second time on the course, we had a much-better plan, helping our head game and letting us get through each aid station more quickly and efficiently. That said, we were plum tired and I suspect Vicki thought about stabbing me and leaving me on the side of the trail more than once.

Not all of us were smiling with about 7 miles left.

We had to dig deep several times to keep moving forward. We may be smiling in these pictures, but running a 50K is really, really hard. Getting all of the runs on the training plan each week takes hours and hours, and even then, race day comes down to mental toughness and the willingness to keep going when your body is telling you to just quit, sit and rest.

Having good friends with you helps a ton. Knowing that you have a crew waiting for you at the end can make the difference between giving up and continuing to move forward. I can’t stress enough the importance of a good support network for these longer races.

Thankfully, we had all of those things, so we were able to get past the life-sucking hills and tired bones.

And because we all got done so much earlier than last year, we headed back to the my motor home at the nearby Pinckney Recreation Area where we were staying for the weekend, had pizza and drinks by the fire, and reveled in our accomplishment.

Seeing the finish line gave us the boost we needed to finish strong.

Several people have already asked if we plan to run the course again next year. I suspect that we will.

Vicki, me, Corey, Melissa and Shannon all ran the Run Woodstock 50K.

There was some talk about tackling a 50 miler at some point. Much like with childbirth, I suspect we’ll all forget just how tough the 50K really was and that we may start thinking that it’s a really good idea. We’ll see.

What this race did give me was the assurance that there isn’t anyone else I enjoy making bad decisions with as much as these wonderful humans.

It also gave me a big blister. I’ll be the one hobbling around the rest of the week, but with a smile on my face.

Running’s not just pretty medals.

Have you done an ultramarathon? What’s your best advice for someone deciding whether to increase their race distance? (You may have to click on “Continue Reading” to leave a comment.)

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 run the same 50K three times and 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 or turkey bacon) 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? (You may have to click on “Continue Reading” to leave a comment.)