2020 has been a mess of a year and with nearly every race being cancelled, I turned to creating my own events to stay focused. The first half of the year was 70.3 training and when that ended in June, I narrowed my focus to the marathon I had planned in October. This was my first marathon and I wanted to avoid injury, so I decided to slowly build up speed and endurance by alternating larger workouts on the weekends where one set was focused on Z3 and the other closer to Z1.
Through a combination of excitement and nearing burnout, I tackled my first marathon in September and finished in 3 hours and 50 minutes, 20 minutes off my primary goal. I ran into a few physical issues during the run, but mentally, I never hit the wall that most people speak about. My training program of normalizing longer runs paid off!
Despite reaching my goal, I wasn’t as pleased with the outcome. Missing the goal wasn’t the core issue as much as I had just lost sight of the journey. In retrospect, I didn’t put in enough recovery over the summer, didn’t taper and as a result, didn’t enjoy the training and rushed to be done. Knowing I had at least one more larger event in me, I opted to go after an ultramarathon.
Much of my training and the marathon itself was done on paved segments of the Gerry Connolly Cross County Trail here in Northern Virginia. Originally, I wanted to tackle the GCCCT in 3–4 segments, but with my newfound understanding of my body, I opted to use this as my ultra course. The trail is 42 miles and is a nice combination of single-track dirt and paved segments. Having been on numerous parts of the trail through biking or running, I knew that it was well-maintained and had plenty of opportunities to see others and get any support if needed.
Post-marathon, I took 2 weeks recovery still doing about 4–6 hours of training, but far less intensity. I wanted to avoid full-on winter conditions, but also give myself enough time to get acclimated to trail running and build a good base of weekly miles. 45 days put my target date around November 14th and I built a training plan from there.
Unlike the marathon training, I spent far less time doing cross workouts and slowed my pace down to Z1 runs. Having not really spent anytime on trails, I began running exclusively on softer gravel paths and single-track dirt paths through the woods to prepare. Being on a softer surface means you don’t get the same spring you do on asphalt and as a result, you work different muscles and aren’t able to maintain the same speeds. What I lost in speed, I gained in comfort though––being out in the middle of the woods is such a different vibe than racing on the road. You’re forced to slow down, pay attention to your footing and just focus on running.
During peak training, I ended up at 72 miles over a 7-day period and was feeling great. A few weeks before the race, I did a 20/16 long run weekend to assess how my legs would feel and there were no issues at all. I put a 2 week taper in place and moved the event up a week to November 7th given the weather was great and I was worried about the coronavirus around our area.
Gear and Nutrition
Knowing my ultra would be at least 7 hours, I used the 45 days to try out new foods and supplements in order to see which ones worked best for my body. In the end, I really found myself enjoying a liquid combination of endurance Gatorade and Perpetuem from Hammer Nutrition. For the hourly fueling, I had mini Clif and Kind bars, peanut butter packets, Hammer gels and Clif shot blocks––I tried to give myself a lot of options knowing I don’t enjoy eating much during any of my runs.
As a final component of my training, I introduced gear to be as self-sufficient as I could. My wife was going to provide support along the run, but I wanted to ensure I could easily hold most of what I needed. For that, I used the Nathan VaporKrar vest with a Camelbak 1.5L bladder for water and 4 hydroflasks (2 for carry, 2 for replace) for my liquids. I made sure to train with all my gear on every run in order to get used to the vest.
The night before the race, I packaged up all my gear into crates and created 4 baggies with a combination of fueling options, so I could just grab and go when seeing my wife.
I am never a fan of the “finish the race” style goal, but considering this was my first ultra, I truly just wanted to avoid blowing up. During training, I had locked into a pace between 10:30 and 12 that felt good. Knowing that range was sustainable, I put a rough goal in place to try and run 11–11:30s or just get under 8 hours for the entire distance.
I woke at 4:50AM and immediately mixed my drinks for the day and made some oatmeal. I prefer to give myself a good hour to really wake up, digest food and handle any business prior to getting out the door. At 6AM, we made the drive over to the start location (25 mins) which is about a mile off a parking lot. My wife dropped me off and I trekked to the starting position, getting there at about 6:45AM.
No real issues apart from an elevated heart rate to start which mentally through me off and caused some concern. I suspect this was from a combination of being up early, it being cold outside and just excitement for the event. To keep warm, I used windproof jacket, pants and gloves.
Recognizing nutrition was the most important element of the day, I kept a regiment of trying to take in food and electrolytes every half hour even though I wasn’t hungry. This worked out to about 100 food calories per hour with another 50–75 via liquid.
The first 10–12 miles were trail segments I did not get a chance to train on and as a result, got turned around twice, adding in some extra distance. This wasn’t a big deal and once I got to areas I recognized, I fell into a flow. At mile 18, I met my wife where I swapped my hydroflasks, took off my windproof items and swapped to a fresh pair of shoes as mine were pretty muddy.
Again, no major issues. At mile 28, I accidentally ended the workout on my watch, then immediately had to start a new one. This was annoying as I had programmed specific pace and alerting into the actual workout and lost it when I started a new run file. I pushed on and just tried to run on feeling, but would check against the averages as often as possible to ensure I could keep close to my under 8 hour goal. At mile 31, I met up with my buddy Dan and grabbed nutrition from my wife.
The last bits of this course had a whole bunch of hills and harder efforts. Heat had kicked in by this point (70s), but it didn’t impact me too much. My right knee was getting annoyed earlier on, but it wasn’t so bad that I needed to stop. This continued until the end and was eased by slowing the pace down a bit as we had crept up to running 11s. Around 38–39, I had my first feeling of a wall due to nausea. I had a tough time getting any food to stay, but ultimately had success with peanut butter packets mixed with water. I was able to blast through the mental barrier quickly and rally around the idea of finishing.
The trail ultimately ends in a park by the water. As we made our way into the park along the long entrance, we continued to see trail signs. I had hoped to see a final “end” post or mile marker, but none ever showed up. The paved section of road we were on just merged with a 5K trail which looped at the bottom of the park. I wanted to be sure I didn’t miss any signs, so we ran to the bottom of the park and looped back up to the final parking lot, making it a full 42 miles.
According to my Stryd footpod, I was just a few seconds under the 8 hours moving time for the event. The last 2 miles were mixed with a lot of stop and go due to a lack of course markers or details, but ultimately, I hit my goal. Moving pace was right around 11:20s for the day and despite all that distance, I felt very good. Upon getting home, I took a 20 minute ice bath and spent the rest of the day relaxing.
The next day, I was sore, but not to a point where I couldn’t get around the house. Within 24 hours, my resting heart rate went back to normal and a few days after that, I was back to doing basic workouts. I made sure to give my body a rest and took 2 weeks to properly recover, but I was amazed how well I was able to adapt to the event and it immediately had me seeking out my next race.
Reflections on the Event
I am so glad I decided to commit the time and energy in running this ultramarathon––10 months of heavy training, wrapped up into a single day. It makes you appreciate the effort and of course, those in your life that make these sorts of things possible. It was a great way to end the year and has given me a new outlook on running, specifically on the trail. What I love about endurance events/races is that it forces you to confront your limits both mentally and physically. Completing your goals and pushing yourself not only gives you a feeling of success, but extends deep into your life from family to your career. With enough practice, anything is possible!
Pending I am in good health next year, my intention is to take on a 60 miler on the C&O Canal trail into Washington DC. I’ve worked out my plan, setup my training and now it’s just time to execute. But first, a little winter break. :)