More and more I am finding that road running is hurting my aging body. The repetitive pounding on pavement is tough on my muscles and, despite some fabulous new runners, my hips and knees are often crying by the end of a 10km run. So I’ve been turning to trail running lately and I have really been enjoying it. Why am I surprised? I think it has something to do with my dislike of running up steep hills. A couple of weeks ago a friend and I ran a 20km trail run with about 1200 ft of elevation gain. It felt great and I patted myself on the back many times. Could I run that again? Could I run that five times over? Not likely. My friend Lisa can and does. She runs ultra marathons.
An ultra marathon race is defined as anything longer than a 26.2 mile marathon. The most common distance are 50km and 100km but people do 50 and 100 mile races as well. The races that Lisa participates in are trail ultra marathons. Run on paths and trails in the mountains. Factors to consider are elevation, inclement weather and, I would imagine, wildlife. You may even start or finish in the dark (or both) depending on the time of year and your speed. Trail running is a different beast altogether from road running. Your pace is way slower (and you just need to accept that) and with roots, rock and creeks to get over you need to pay attention to where you are putting your feet. And it’s dirty. Muddy dirt usually. Or hot and dusty. Sounds like fun. Right?
I would think it takes a certain type of person to run an ultra race. In general, ultra runners are a well-educated group of people. Focused, organized and definitely type A. And yes, in my eyes, just a little bit crazy. So much of this type of running is mental. Lisa was having a particularly hard time on a recent race and was almost ready to drop out. Her running partner asked her if she was okay. She said yes. “Then get your head out of your ass”. She did just that and finished the race. The community that supports these runners is also incredibly genuine and inclusive. One of the men that Lisa often competes with finished this particular race two hours ahead of her. Yet, there he was as she crossed the finish line cheering her on and congratulating her on a great race.
So when she runs a 100km Lisa is out on the trail for approximately 15-16 hours. I was curious to find out how she fueled for one of these adventures. She said that the races typically provide aid stations that supply, among other things, electrolyte drinks, cola and potato chips. What? These are elite athletes and they are scarfing down junk food every 15km. Yup. Think about it. What are you losing when you sweat that much? Salt and lots of it. And the cola? Well a little sugar and caffeine never hurts, but it can also provide a welcome change from water and electrolyte drinks. Lisa carries Vega gels, stinger waffles and Cliff packs but readily admits to not always eating enough during a race. Sometimes she doesn’t feel she needs it, sometimes her stomach is upset and sometimes she just forgets. I was tempted to ask the inevitable question of how do you relieve yourself, but really, does anybody need to now that?
But really what I did need to know from Lisa was this. You have a full-time job, a husband and young daughter and you spend roughly twelve hours a week running plus cross training sessions. Where do you find the time? I feel that perhaps this is the downside of what she does. She admits that the lifestyle is not always conducive to a balanced relationship with her husband and daughter. They support her and are incredibly proud of her accomplishments, but something has to give when you are spending that amount of time dedicated to a hobby. If you are going to do this you need to do it 100% or it just isn’t worth doing. Also, her social life revolves around running. “If you’re not into running and craft beer there’s a pretty good chance that we won’t be friends.” She does have a dog. Spencer. But apparently he is the worst trail dog ever. Why? “He’s so slow”.
Lisa has run twenty three 50km races. Last Spring she ran the Miwok 100 and next month she will run the Zion 100. She tries to pick races that are held in places that would be cool to visit and that have activities for the whole family. For her, trail running is about adventure and exploration by foot. While I am super proud of my 20km trail running achievement, The Best Thing in Life is having something to work toward. Oh who am I kidding. Never. Going. To. Happen.