Running (Freakishly) Long Distances

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Hi, my name is Emily, and I like to run long distances.

Not super long distances. I’m not one of the hardy individuals who straps on their sneakers to run fifty, sixty, even one hundred or more miles at a time. Not yet, anyway. But I do run a good number of marathons and 50K (31 mile) races, which are what I’m here to talk to you about.

I ran my first marathon (the Twin Cities Marathon) in the fall of 2008 (fun fact: I did my last pre-race 20-miler the day I had my first date with the guy I later married; he said he wondered during our date why I was limping). I did another the following year (this time, the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC). The year after that, I trained for a race I had to DNS following a freak foot injury; I took two months off, then came back and ran my first 50K the following spring (at the MadCity 100K), with my second 50K (and first trail race) following just about six weeks later (Ice Age 50; this isn’t my recommended strategy for getting into trail racing, by the way). Fast forward to today; as I write this, in the spring of 2015, I have run six marathons and five 50Ks, and I’m in the process of training for my sixth 50K (slated for early June).

My plan, in the next few columns, is to cover various aspects of training for shorter ultras, at least insofar as I have experience—this includes topics like choosing a race, different training plans, and food and gear choices, all informed by the myriad mistakes I have made over the years. Sound like fun?

Antelope Island 50K by Lori Burlison2

Photo by Lori Burlison

(I hope you just nodded.)

So to begin, I want to tackle a question that I get asked a lot: Why run an ultra?

To be honest, I don’t really have a good answer for you. There are, in my mind, a lot of good reasons not to run an ultra. If you’re interested in running for weight maintenance, for example, that’s a lot easier when you’re running twenty-five miles per week than when you’re running fifty or more. Additionally, there are periodic studies that suggest that each step past about fifteen miles you take is a step closer to your grave (not to be overly dramatic or anything; one recent example is O’Keefe et al., 2012). These are typically dismissed by the running community because this type of longitudinal study is quite difficult to conduct (or because of wishful thinking, perhaps), but they do make one wonder. That’s to say nothing of the wear and tear that running fifty plus miles per week puts on your body–running may not cause osteoarthritis, but you will eventually get injured. And, well, if you’ve ever hit the wall during a marathon or had a bad fall and had to limp in the last few miles (I’ve done both, though luckily not in the same race), you may think that doing an extra 10K or more on top of 26.2 miles is asking for trouble. If you want a band playing as you cross the finish line and receive a big medal, ultrarunning is also probably not the sport for you—go do a half marathon instead. You also will not qualify for Boston by running a 50K, even if you’re super fast. In fact, in my experience running longer distances has made me a bit slower overall. If you are going to do an ultra, you are going to have to be driven by some force almost beyond common sense, and certainly beyond common beginning-runner goals.

Choosing what distance of race to run (or even choosing to race at all) is a very personal topic. To add to that, the reasons behind such a choice can change from race to race, or even during the course of training for a single race. Beyond that, running a marathon or ultra can legitimately suck; I’m sure we’ve all heard stories about someone’s cousin’s girlfriend who ran a marathon and got dehydrated/had seizures/had kidney failure/her kneecaps fell off. Ultras are often just a chance to crawl through another ten kilometers (or more) of misery. After six hours on foot, the George Leigh Mallory line about “because it’s there” seems a little pale.

Antelope Island 50k by Lori Burlison

Running the Antelope Island 50k in Utah. Photo by Lori Burlison.

On the other hand, there is something to be said for pushing one’s individual limits—even if there’s some suffering along the way, there’s still a tremendous sense of accomplishment in crossing the finish line and saying, “I did it”; I sometimes wish, as Peter Hillary put it, to “leave the familiar places and to challenge the very essence of [my]self.” (Okay, he’s talking about climbing Mt. Everest. Maybe that’s a bit too much.)

There’s also a certain pleasure in running a good race, whatever the length. I remember finishing the Lakefront marathon in Milwaukee a few years ago and realizing that I had gone the whole race feeling great—none of the stomach cramps that occasionally plague me, no random tendon aches or muscle cramps, no wall. At mile 22, when everyone else was slowing down, I sped up, crossing the finish line in 3:59:59, a dramatic way to reach my goal of sub-4 hours. A different time, despite a long and difficult race with many ups and downs (emotionally, as well as lots of hills), I received a third place trophy in the mail a few weeks later. Instantly, I was touched by the race director’s kindness in mailing it to me and excited to run the race again the following year. And sometimes my friends are impressed (or they were the first time I did it, anyway). I also really like ultrarunners as a group–they’re friendly and talkative, terms that don’t seem to apply to the extremely focused road runners I’ve met in marathons, most of whom seem to be too intent on running a perfect BQ to chat with me about their training plans, favorite hydration packs, or even their lives outside of running and how goofy their dogs are, all subjects that routinely come up when I meet ultrarunners on the trails. The feeling of community, and the lack of hurry when you know you’re going to be trekking around in the woods all day can make running thirty-one miles a pleasurable pursuit.

If any of the things I’ve said here sound interesting to you, I hope you’ll join me over the next few weeks as I try to justify my addiction, my shoe budget, and how much bread I ate this week.