Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ultramarathons and Me

After my first 50-miler...with my greatest cheering section -- MOM!

My cousin decided to do her final high school research paper on ultramarathons which I just think is so cool and asked me for an interview. Since quite a few people ask me about ultras and my experience, I thought I would share the whole thing with you. It is a bit wordy but hopefully can answer some questions and get more people out in the trails! Enjoy...

Why did you ultramarathon? What was the draw for you.

I was 20 when I decided to run my first ultra. For me, I really wanted to change my life. I wanted to do something that was going to challenge me to become a better person. I wanted to work towards a goal I thought was impossible to achieve. I was attempting to find adventure and an escape from the world I created around myself (wasn’t enjoying life at that moment). It was the challenge and the journey. I loved that I had no clue what would be in store for me when I started down the road towards training and racing for this 50-mile run. My entire mindset changed about life once I signed up. I guess, in a sense, I was literally running away from my old life then I completely fell in love with the sport.

How did you get into it. How do others get into it? Is there a common draw?

I didn’t know much about ultrarunning or running in general at the time. The most I ever did was a 5k here and there. I was actually putting most of my athletic energy towards fitness competitions but that sport sucked the life out of me…it was so vain and artificial. I had heard rumors of these ultra runs but the one that stuck in my mind the most was this girl I had met in my trapeze class (yes, I was learning how to swing from a trapeze). I remember all of us stretching in a circle and talking about our weekend plans and she casually mentions she is going to run a 50-mile race, no biggee. Well, people start asking questions mostly – you are going to run 50 miles at one time?! The seed was planted in my brain. So when I decided it was time to do something different with my life that was what I remembered, a 50-mile race. So, I researched and signed up for the first race I could drive to.
From the people I have met at these races, I can say the majority start running these distances as an escape but what changes is that these runners eventually fall in love with the sport. Not only is the sport so simple yet fantastic, it really is an amazing group of crazy people out there running.
How did you train? Is it a small group who does it, or a large group who trains together? Is it a tight knit group? Does someone manage your training or do you do it yourself?

Before I signed up for my first race, I hadn’t run further then 6 miles. The day after I registered for the race, I decided it was time to lace up the running shoes and get some miles in my legs. I ran 12 miles the next day and by the weekend, I was determined to run this 27-mile loop I created. Mind over matter! That first long training run hurt…I mean really hurt but it was amazing. I can still recall the butterflies I felt in my stomach because I knew I was finally doing something I loved and I was doing something that I decided to do without influence from anyone. It tasted like freedom!

I would say that most ultrarunners train most of their miles solo. Occasionally, you will find someone to run a few miles with you or you will have a weekend where you meet up with fellow long distance runners but most runs are solo. Most ultra runners do not mind the solo runs. For me, I loved being out there alone. Maybe once a week I would meet up with a friend for a run.

Training: the key for ultras is to get your legs used to long miles. My mileage every week averaged between 80-120 miles but my long runs were long. My weeks would typically include 3x15 mile runs. 1x20-25mile run. 1x25-35mile run. In addition to the runs, I would lift weights in the gym to keep my legs strong (and arms) plus I would run stairs and hill repeats galore to prepare me for the climbing and descending of the trails. I never raced anything flat so in order to prepare for mountainous terrain when living in relatively flat areas, I needed to climb lots of stairs and repeat hills until I was dizzy. Also, I would stack my runs meaning I would take a 3-day block and run 15 miles on Thursday, 23 on Friday, and then head into Saturday with sore, tired legs making sure to run between 30-35 miles. Sunday would be a rest day after that training block. To make the long runs easier to handle, I would attempt to make them point-to-points usually running to meet my mom or sisters at a restaurant or have Mike pick me up at some place in the distance (then no turning back!!!). Of course, once you start the race season, racing becomes training which is much more fun.

How long did you train before competing in your first race?

I registered for me first race on January 1st and literally had less then 4 months to get ready (end of April). I didn’t let it scare me and never listened to what people would deem the ‘right way’. I knew I could be ready if I just focused on what needed to be done. The first 2 months of training where quite painful. I had sore knees, sore back, aching toes, muscles were screaming but I loved it and never backed down…eventually my body caught up and starting getting used to the miles and pounding the road.
What did the training consist of?

Long runs. Weight training. Hill repeats. Stair Climbing and then eventually, I had the benefit of being able to run in trails 1-2 times a week which really helped with my descending and climbing skills **some descents in races are a few miles long, on single track and if you don’t train in trails then you will lose a ton of time because you start to fight gravity and tiptoe around every little obstacle**
Did you practice every day? How many hours a day/week did you train?

I never really took days off. I may have taken 2-3 days off a month from running but would still go to the gym or jump in the pool to loosen up the body. I probably trained between 13-16 hours a week. I think another thing that really helped was waitressing during that first year of racing…I would wake up crazy early in the morning (2:30am) head out the door and run my 15-mile loop then drive over to work to open the restaurant and have to be on my feet walking around for another 8 hours. Anytime on your feet adds to training – especially for 100milers.

Did you do many races before being an ultramarathoner or just jump right in with training? Did you ease your way up to ultramarthoning from smaller races? Or one day were you just kinda like “hey lets be an ultramarathoner!”

I would say that my first 50-miler was my first race. It was perfect! I was ready. I ran a lot in those four months leading up to the race. My longest training run was 35 miles and that’s when I knew I was ready because I was able to run the whole thing without my body feeling like it was going to fall apart.

How many did you run a year? How long of a break did you need between each to recover? Did you tend to stick to the same type of race? Meaning the same distance or terrain??

Well, at my first race I ended up meeting Mike (my husband) – talk about changing my life! Once I met Mike, I knew nothing in my life would ever be the same. All his friends were crazy ultra runners or racing Ironman triathlons (as was he). They all quickly became my closest friends and of course, convinced me I could race more often and even would be ready to run a 100-miler by July! A lot of our friends were race directors or knew of races that I didn’t even know existed so quickly I saw my calendar filling up that summer. Every time I went out to visit Mike (lived in NYC), we would head up to Vermont or New Hampshire and race. I think I raced about six 50 milers, one 100 miler, and one 50k that first year. I couldn’t get enough!

Recovery: After each 50 mile race, I needed about 3 weeks to feel 100% myself again. I would always attempt to start running as soon as I could (without limping) but swimming always increased those first 2 weeks after a race. Now, let me say – a 100 miler is COMPLETELY different than a 50-mile race. The pain doesn’t just double it quadruples. Recovery after that race took 6 weeks and I absolutely could not run for 10 days…I was broken haha.

The terrain for most ultras is typically trails but there are all different types of trails: fire roads, single track, rocky-roots, mountains (climbing), flat. I typically raced up and down meaning the more climbing and descending the better. It is what I loved. I did do a 50k in Central Park – we pretty much did 9 x 4 mile loop and that was relatively flat and fast.
Did you get a lot of injuries? Stress related or anything like that? How about during races? Any dehydration or injuries common?

Knock on wood but I’ve never had an injury. I have had lingering pains and aches but nothing that ever stopped me from training. One time, I was dealing with some major back/glute issues in the very beginning of my ultra training but I was so absolutely determined to train, I decided to manage the pain by duct taping a golf ball against my back/glute muscle. I then would proceed onto my run with a protruding ball and a slight hobble to my run but about one week later the pain subsided and I was able to shelf the duct tape. I never said I was smart or sane!

You would think that people attempting to run 50-miles or 100-mile races would definitely come out severely dehydrated or injured but truthfully it doesn’t happen all that much. Well, severe dyhrydration doesn’t happen that much or we just ignore it because well, we are kind of all a bit stupid. We unquestionably have severe muscle pain but nothing to major. I think the reason for this is that anyone wanting to run an ultra actually TRAINS. A lot of people nowadays will just jump into a marathon but never put in enough time or miles and come out dehydrated, injured or worse. Most ultrarunners are training their bodies and truly understand their bodies. The more common thing you see is people dropping out from races. 100-milers have a very high percentage of people who do not finish and that isn’t such a horrible thing…sometimes the body has had enough and shuts you down before worse things happen.

Did being an ultramarthoner change how you live other aspects of your life? (dieting, work, etc.) Do you have to eat certain foods for this?

Honestly, my entire life changed once I decide to sign up for that first race. My entire thinking on what was possible and impossible in life (not just racing) changed. I started to see the world differently. I became happier, calmer (well, calmer in the sense of more at peace with myself but still slightly hyperactive). Of course, I met my husband and well, that created an entirely new journey. As for diet, we slowly transformed into the vegan gluten-free lifestyle (no animal products, limited grains) which simply felt right for us. I eat a lot of fruit and vegetables and always take in liquid before long workouts – being hydrated is so so important. Either some fresh squeezed orange juice or coconut water are my top choices before training.

What’s the difference between ultramarathoning and normal marathoners and being an iron woman?

Ultramarathoning is all about simplicity. The races aren’t over done or over sponsored. People show up in cotton shirts, ripped shorts. It isn’t about looking the best. It is truly a race against yourself. They are tough and most are tucked away into some backwoods without anyone knowing they are even going on. Marathons are a media frenzy these days even ironman triathlons have so much hype and press. People want to out do each other, look the best, talk about how much they trained…it is very different at an ultra start line. Don’t get me wrong – I love ironmans (never have done a true marathon but I’m sure I would love that to) but I love it for a different reason. Ironman and marathons bring the best possible athlete out of you. It is competitive forcing you to become the best you can possibly be but my true love is the simplicity of ultras. Marathons and ironmans aren’t simple maybe even a bit over exaggerated but for me, as a professional triathlete, the media, sponsors, and hype are what makes for a paycheck at the end of the race so I really shouldn’t complain.

How long do people continue this sport usually? Does it get too wearing on the body after a while?

Funny thing about ultras is that you would think it has a short life for people but it is completely opposite. It seems people just stick with it. Maybe it’s because they are doing something they really have to love. Maybe it is because a lot of the training miles are long and slow. I’m not sure but surprisingly, people seem to stay in this sport forever. The best, fastest, strongest ultrarunners are in their 40s!!!
What are some of the ultramarathons you participated in?

Vermont 50, Vermont 100, McNaughton 50, Pittsfield Peaks races, NYC Knicker Bocker, Ice Age (Wisconsin), North Face 50 miler, JFK, All the trail races in Santa Monica or Malibu California---so great to be able to race out your back door. Hmm there’s quite a few more but can’t really think of them off the top of my head.