What to Expect When You’re Expecting… An Ultra Finish

So, you’ve signed up for your first ultra. It’s good to be a little crazy and daft and I hope you indulge in that nature from time to time in other aspects of your life. But for now, let’s focus on the ridiculous decision to decide to run 30+ miles for fun.

If you’re about to toe the start line of an ultra, I’m going to dispense with the basic nature of running advice and trust that you haven’t just picked up an old pair of sneakers and randomly signed up for something that would destroy your knees without the proper time and effort put in. So, screw all the shop talk, and let’s dive into the emotional aspects that will primarily dominate your day.

First up, Adrenaline:

A mixture of fear, excitement, and unbridled energy, adrenaline will be ever-present in your veins the morning of the race from when you wake up and stay with you through the first couple of miles. The anticipation to run this race has been building since the first moment you happened to come across it in your feed or scrolling through a registration site, and now it’s finally here. All the miles you put in to train, all the miles you forgot to put in to make sure you were fully trained, and all the doubt and desires about crossing the finish line that has had no place to go except for that tiny corner in your mind, are now pouring out all at once. It is truly exhilarating, and you should enjoy it as much as possible.

Life doesn’t always offer you moments like this in the repetitive nature of our daily goings-on. The mundane aspect of routine limits your emotional output as a byproduct of maintaining a peaceful state, with limited exertion of bodily resources. But an ultra isn’t routine, and your mind will quickly start firing off the warning shots to your whole system about the chaotic decision you just made when pick up your bib, pin it on, and stand behind the arch. 

Enjoy the rush, but do not let it take control! If you do not have a plan to tame the rush, it will overtake whatever plan you have written down for your race and will chuck it out and laugh as all the runners behind you stomp on it while it begs for mercy. Adrenaline doesn’t care about mile 15, or 22, or 31. It cares about right now, and only now, and doing everything now. If you go out hot, above the pace that you set, and start looking at your watch thinking you’re going to do great because you’re shattering your goals within the first few miles, remember that nonsense when you’re dragging your legs behind you a few hours later.

Adrenaline wears away and will not carry you through a race. A solid plan with a determined mindset to grit and grin will. Enjoy the unease, the nervous excitement, and the jittery nature that it brings on race day morning. But, do not let it control your race.

Second in line, The Mid-Run High:

There’s a beautiful moment you’ll reach within a long run where your stride becomes natural, your body responds to every rut and groove with ease, letting you focus on the joy of the moment instead of focusing solely on not dying by stepping on an unseen rock. Your energy levels have eased as the adrenaline is fully out of your system and you can maintain the pace that you felt so comfortable with, in your training.

It’s hard to say how long this moment will last for you as it can depend entirely on the training you were able to put in before the race, and the mental preparations you’ve taken to withstand what’s coming next… but we’ll get to that in a moment.

The key thing to remember at this point is that you are not out of the clear but have just landed your stride and this is where the work of finishing your ultra will begin. Don’t take your mind off of the need to hydrate and replenish your energy. Whatever gels/snacks you’ve packed and have mapped out to keep you going, stick to it. If you think you’re doing great, you are. But you still have several miles to go and any lack of preparation for the miles to come in this moment of ease will come back to haunt you. A dip in hydration could leave your stomach reeling as your body begins to wonder where all the water it needs is, and if you don’t fuel properly and hope you can make it up later, your stomach might give you the finger and start rejecting anything you put in it.

This isn’t meant to scare you. You’ve trained for this and you’ve planned for this. Stick to your training, and stick to your plan. Even when things feel light and easy, you’re running farther than your body understands and it will get cranky in a heartbeat if not taken care of properly.

Three is not the charm, The Pitfall:

You are going to hate yourself. At some point, after several miles, the aches and pains will start to creep up your body and slither their way into your thoughts. It’s ok. It’s going to happen and you’re going to have to deal with it. But deal with it, you can.

Running this far is not normal for your body at this point. That doesn’t mean it’s dangerous with the proper training, but your mind is going to respond to the abnormal feel of constant movement and try to get you to stop. In so doing, you may feel the ever-present thought, “What the hell are you even doing this for, anyway?!” as it blares through the boundaries of your consciousness for a few miles.

When this happens, don’t be afraid of it, and don’t pretend that it’s not there. If you’ve been digging around the ultra and long-distance community, then you’ve probably heard of the terms ‘pain cave’ and ‘struggle bus’. This is that moment, and you are about to understand why these names are so accurate. Your body has felt the pressure of the run before you and is realizing you aren’t done, and may even have another 10+ miles to go. It’s going to rebel and you are going to have to tame the fire of doubt that it ignites on the fly or it will send you spiraling toward a DNF. Subtle aches in your knees or a slight tinge in the ankle will seem like horrific injuries that you’ll never recover from. A stumble over a rock or root will make you want to rip off your hydration pack and throw it at the squirrel you’re convinced has been following you just to laugh at your misfortune. But remember, you’re in the woods, and all the squirrels look the same. Leave it alone. They hunt in packs and will follow you…

I’m not going to lie and tell you this part goes away with the more ultras you run. It doesn’t. Once you conquer the 50k, you’ll start eyeing the next distance up, and up, and up. But, you do learn to understand the signs of it as it comes on, and you can find ways to lessen its control over your thoughts. For me, I knock my pace back and enjoy a very indulgent snack at an aid station, or one I’ve packed for myself. At this moment, you need to remember the joy of the challenge and the peace you can find within yourself. Most likely, you signed up to run this race to have fun and enjoy the memories of conquering the struggle. Here’s your moment. This is the section that your race will hinge upon as you have to decide how to deal with the doubts and disruptions your mind volleys at you until you break through the struggle and see the other side. Which, if you keep going, you will.

Four for the win, Walk it In:

Whether this is your first, tenth, or twentieth finish, it’s still one hell of an accomplishment and you should enjoy crossing under that arch as much as you can. If your body tells you to sprint and burn off the last remnants of fuel, then go for it and let the flames fly behind you. However, if you see that finish line and a Jimmy Buffet song starts playing in your head and you just want to sit down for a minute before crossing to relish and savor the memory, go for it! This is your race and this is your memory. Unless you are in the combat zone of vying for a podium spot, whether you finish in the mid-twenties or mid-thirties isn’t going to affect anything but your time. And, if I can be honest, I stopped caring about what the time clock said when I crossed a long time ago.

It is great to set goals and to strive to topple them, but they also have the unwanted ability to cast a shadow over your accomplishments if they happen to not meet every piece of said goal. And, let’s be honest, you’ve probably got three to four goals set for the day, culminating in the “oh, please gods of the wood, just let me cross the finish line so I can die in peace”.

The problem with these goals is that they can, at times, force you to be short-sighted. This race didn’t begin with the start clock. It began when you first saw it and a tiny daydream popped into your thoughts, a distant image of yourself crossing the finish line with a smile, content, and feeling accomplished. From that moment up until you cross the finish line is the extent of time that a race covers. Do not, under any circumstances, discount all of that time and effort you put in (or meant to) by feeling defeated by a finish if it did not meet a goal. No ultra is easy, no long-distance run is easy, and no time spent daring to accomplish something most people consider madness should be seen as wasted.

So, if the pressure of the race and the distant memories of goals lost to time start to weigh on you as you near the finish line, never be afraid to just say ‘fuck it, I earned this,’ and walk it in.

In Conclusion:

You rock. Now go be a badass and toe the line.

Leisurely yours,

Vagabond Endurance – Daniel McCaslin