[I posted a form of this a couple of years ago but updated it with some more thoughts and lessons.]
Lessons Learned – 2017 marks my 31st year in the sport of trail running and ultarunning. Here are 18 lessons that I have learned from my journey (and I fully understand opinions may vary on these):
1. Running a distance longer than a marathon is easier than people think. It’s the dirty secret of the ultrarunning community- these things are very doable. You just have to slow down a bit, walk some the steeper hills, eat and drink along the way, and they are more manageable to get through than you could ever imagine. Running a casual trail 50k is much easier than running a paved marathon, in my opinion.
2. Running a 100-miler is exponentially more difficult than most people think. I am not sure what happens between the miles of 50 miles and 100 miles, but there seems to be some esoteric barrier that must be broken that is challenging beyond belief. Respect the Distance is one of the truest running mantras out there. Be humble.
3. Move slowly up the distance scale from 50ks through 100s and beyond. The 100-miler may be the new marathon, but it should be treated with the utmost of respect. Otherwise, you could really do damage to your body. Your muscles, your joints, your endocrine system – they all need to be stepped up through the distances slowly so that they can adapt to the unbelievable stresses being placed on them. The conventional wisdom is to run three 50Ks before you try your first 50, and three 50s before you try your first 100. I agree with this rule. I understand lots of people don’t follow this – I just think it’s wise. You can usually bull your way through a 50K and even a 50. You need to be totally dialed in to have your best shot at finishing a 100, and stepping up slowing will allow you to dial in correctly your gear, your hydration, your energy, your shoes, etc.
4. Don’t limit your involvement in the sport and community to just running. Experience the sport from a different perspective – from that as a crew member, volunteer, race director, group run leader. Get a feel for all facets of trail and ultrarunning. And I am not necessarily talking about “giving back” per se. I am talking about garnering a full understanding of the sport from every angle possible. It will help you gather a much greater appreciation for the sport.
5. Don’t get caught up in technology or the newest shiny energy gel or toy. There is nothing wrong with keeping the sport pure. There is nothing wrong with eating fig newtons over gels, drinking sweet tea over Tailwind, using Vaseline over some new-fangled pricey product. I get asked if you need trail shoes to run a trail race. People started running trail ultras in Chuck Taylors, wearing flannel shirts and cotton shorts. If you have a basic pair of shorts, a pair of old ratty shoes, and a shirt – you have a trail party.
6. Don’t get in a race rut. While it’s comfortable and fun to run the same string of races year after year, cast your race line a bit longer once in a while and reach for new experiences. There are so many trails to explore, runners to meet, mountain towns to overnight in.
7. Think of longer ultras (like 100s and multi-days) as really just a series of problem-solving events. You can sometimes get through a 50K, and maybe even a 50, without addressing immediate needs like blisters or rubbing packs or dehydration – just bulling your way through them. Not in longer ultras. Each little niggle in a longer race could blossom into a race-ending issue. Identify all potential problems early and address them immediately and continue with the practice.
8. For your first ultra race, do whatever it takes to make it an enjoyable experience for you. Finishing time is not the important parameter here; having fun is. Craft the experience so it is one that you will want to repeat again and again. Move at a manageable pace, walk the hills, make new friends, stop to take a picture of that blue heron, take full advantage of the aid stations, keep your pulse at a level so that you can chat with others. If you are running your first ultra correctly, you will already be planning your second ultra before you even finish.
9. A friend told me he had signed up for his first 100. He told me about his training and he was very well-prepared for the task. He had an amazing trail spirit and I knew he would thrive on pushing through the tough trail miles and spending long hours in the woods. He was a smart guy who knew how to pace and how to nourish and hydrate. He had young legs with little wear-and-tear. I was sure he would finish. And then, at the end of our conversation, before departing, he added one last tidbit: “Oh, and I would love to get under 24 hours.” In my opinion, he just undermined a year’s worth of training and experience by setting this goal. In the race, he want out too fast, and dropped after mile 70. For your first 100, just finish. No needless setting of time goals. There will be lots of subsequent 100s for trying to hit benchmarks.
10. This may be the most important bit of advice of all: you do you, and don’t worry about anyone else, or let anyone else pressure you. Run YOUR pace. Walk as much as YOU prefer. If you want to stay on roads while your friends are pushing for you to try trails…stay on asphalt. The sport of running has always been about finding your own comfort zone and being your own person. If you want to complete your first 50 miler or 100 miler by walking it….outstanding. Do not let anyone diminish your effort by minimalizing or trivializing what you are doing. Google Yolanda Holder (and better yet, facebook friend her). She walks 100s and she walks the toughest multi-day courses and she beats many of the runners. She catches criticism from other competitors for not running, but outright dismisses it, as she should. She found her joy, she found her pace, and she found her happiness. Find yours, regardless of pace, terrain, or distance.
11. Support small companies that cater to the runner and have great one-on-one customer service. Trail running is a nice cottage industry and there are more and more runners moving into the business side of things. Not runners looking to maximize profits, but to offer products to benefit runners. Running is one of the least expensive activities to be involved in (think sailing, biking, backpacking, etc.) and these places are worth supporting. Runners helping runners.
12. Don’t run to impress others. The only person you should be trying to impress is yourself. I took an 8-year hiatus from running to raise kids, and got to view the sport from the outside looking in. People on the outside of the sport are not as nearly impressed at your accomplishments as you think they may be. From my experience on the outside, most just think it’s a rather odd endeavor. Run for yourself.
13. Put the GPS away once in a while. Run for nothing more than joy with no regard to distance or time or pace or heart rate. Be a 12-year-old.
14. Don’t dismiss timed races. As boring and unpopular as they MAY seem, they are actually the most social of ultras. Timed races are about sharing trail with runners slower than you, faster than you – runners you would never meet in a traditional trail race. You can cheer for the leaders throughout the event and encourage the back-of-the-packers. You will make more running friends than you could ever imagine. After each timed race, my facebook friend list grows by a handful of new runners.
15. Treat trail running as a form of meditation. It’s about immersing yourself in the natural world and forming a relationship with the rocks and trees and sky. It’s not about “conquering” a course or kicking a race’s ass. You are not a warrior; you are a student of zen. It’s about having the honor and privilege of spending time in beautiful places and understanding your place in the outdoors and appreciating and respecting the experience.
16. Try adventure runs. Sometimes a solo run or personal challenge is prefect salve for the frustration of vying with hundreds of other runners for trail space. And the sense of accomplishment you will get can be unique and special. (Could get some good street cred as well.)
17. Find your own Barkley. I know many people watch the new Barkley documentary and think, “I may go and try that thing next year.” The reality is that the race is not only a near-impossibility to finish, it’s also a near-impossibility to get into. That does not mean you cannot find another race that will challenge you to an extensive degree, push you to your outer limit, require in you new levels of training. Find that race, sign up a year in advance, and cater your training to that race. There is only one Barkley, but there are scores of more-accessible races out there that will push you to a degree almost unfathomable. Find your own Barkley experience.
18. It’s all about the human connection. One day, the running will be gone. Your back may give out, or you will be spending your days prune juicing at Shady Acres Senior Home. The miles may be over, but the friends you made sharing those thousands of miles over your lifetime will still be by your side. And in the end, your running memories will reflect the smiles and hugs of friends as much as the rocks and mud. Cherish the connections you are making on the trails and roads.
////// by Michael Strzelecki