Three years ago on a dare from my wife, I set out to run my first half marathon. From there, things naturally progressed to another, and along the way I discovered trail running and ultramarathons. You could say that I was hooked before I even started.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve become much more comfortable–if not a full-fledged expert–at the idea of “sink or swim.” It happened with my marriage, it happened with my schooling, and certainly it happened with my running. I was never the athlete in my family–that was my brother who took on both track and cross-country. While I went to a few meets, I mostly remember being bored because it wasn’t video games.
Funny how things change though. A few years, wrong turns, right turns, and I found myself on a whole new path. There I was, running as hard as I can around a track with next to no one waiting for me as the sun was beginning to set in Custer, South Dakota on August 22.
Laying the Scene for the Year:
I started my graduate program last fall for an MA in Teaching English as a Second Language, and needless to say, it’s a boatload of work. That was also the year (May of ’14, actually) I decided to run my first full marathon, near my home in Fargo, ND.
Fortunately for me, once again my wife had the hook up. Her boss is a marathoner who trains with a group in town specifically for this marathon as well as a general core and leg strength emphasis. So I dove in. We did core work Mondays and Wednesdays. On Fridays, we run our version of hills, a four story parking structure in downtown.
As the marathon group kicked in, I had school and work obligations that prevented me from fully engaging in their training program. No worries, I picked up Hal Koerner’s book and using the information in it along with a calendar, I made up a vague plan to prepare for my first marathon as well as my first ultramarathon. Nothing ever goes wrong with a vague idea of a plan when you really don’t have a clue, right?
Executing the “Plan”
This moronic plan kept with the 10% rule, but the majority of those miles are dumped into 2 weekly back-to-back long runs. However, with my work schedule, they broke down as a long run, then “hills”, and then a long run with the group. In other words, easy pickins for a dumb injury, which, needless to say, happened soon enough.
Things had been going great, until the long runs got into the middle teens. I don’t recall quite what happened, but the IT band in my right leg got really crabby, to the extent that I couldn’t really run.
At this point, I discovered “active recovery” and KT tape. I gave up the double long runs, sticking to what I could and eventually finished my first marathon this year in 3:54:48. I knew it was nowhere where I should’ve been, but it was what I ended up with and I was ecstatic, primarily because now I could focus on the task at hand: Completing an ultramarathon.
I signed up for the Lean Horse 50 miler, the day after Christmas, 2014. I had to travel a bit by train and had listened to five URP episodes, but the one that sticks with me the most was the interview Eric had with Billy Yang, about Billy’s first 100-miler.
We had sat around my wife’s grandmother’s house, discussing running. The idea of ultras had come up, and for the first time, no one had said, “no.” That was all I needed to (not) hear, so I signed on the electronic dotted line via ultrasignup.com.
After the marathon, I recovered quite quickly. Four days after the event, I was running again– nothing fast or hilly, but moving forward, and I slowly increased the distance. Then very early in my training, I stumbled upon a fortuitous event.
Through Twitter, I discovered #ultrachat on Sundays and quickly found another ultrarunner in Fargo named Rachel Utecht. She finished third female at Arrowhead 135 this year, and invited me along to a group run out at a state park in Minnesota. During that run, I met Maggie, a couple Heathers, David, and a couple others whose names I can’t recall (sorry!). But I had found a group of ultrarunners. Maggie, Rachel, and David have all run Lean Horse, and as such were a collective front of information.
Slowly my mileage increased. I did back-to-backs every other week, with a long run in between. Unfortunately, these were frequently on pavement. It was all really, normal. There was a patch of heat stroke I think, but overall, it was really no different than when I trained for the marathon. Except I did most of it on my own, which I wholeheartedly feel is absolutely necessary.
Getting stuck in one’s own head I feel is about the most important skill a person can learn when they get into ultrarunning.
Anyone (and I do feel anyone) can put one foot in front of the other for an indeterminate amount of time and distance but being able to handle the silence and noise going on in your head that determines a lot.
When July hit, my schedule hit the fan. Because of my chosen program and time restrictions, I would save my long runs for Saturday simply because that was the pattern I’d fallen into. This meant that I’d wake up between 4 and 5am on Saturday, driving up to an hour to get to a running destination, and then getting my run in. After which, I would have to scramble back to town so I could clean up and then bike to work, where I would stand on my feet for eight hours. My last long run, a 28 miler, was a bit of a challenge.
My Last Long Run and First Time Past 26.2
In prep for my last long run, I had been tipped off about some really great country roads about 45 minutes outside of town. There was a church I could park at, as the pastor is apparently also an ultrarunner. The only downside, no water or bathroom spots except for some trees. Not a big deal, I figured. So Saturday morning at around 4:15, I packed up a bag full of every traveling container I had with water, grabbed my peanut butter and jelly burritos (PB&J just wrapped in a tortilla), and headed out. I was really looking forward to this run, my first ultra distance. The drive was fine, stopped at a convenience store to take care of bathroom necessities, and then finally found the church.
After parking I walked around the vehicle to grab my handheld and Simple Hydration bottle. I noticed a bit of moisture in the bag the bottles were in. Reaching in, I found that one of my handhelds had not been closed properly and had leaked out completely. “Well that’s not going to come back and haunt me or anything,” was roughly what I thought. But I didn’t worry about it too much, wrote down the turns I needed to take on my arm in sharpie, and took off.
The route I was running consisted of a 7mile out and back and then a roughly 24-mile loop. The one thing I learned here is that running on country roads, you almost never need to check your watch for distance, as each new cross road is most likely a mile. I took off in the dawn, trying to maintain a reasonably slow pace, somewhere in the 10-10:30 min/mi pace. The roads were all beautiful rollers, and a few that were decent enough hills that I hiked them. I chose to do the out and back first as I didn’t want to do the loop and then feel like that was “enough”. For whatever reason, I just couldn’t find a groove on the out portion, and it really was unpleasant. But I rationalized that I was getting the crappy parts of the run out of the way.
When I hit the turn around, I checked my watch, realizing I had told my wife I would text her every hour and a half or so to let her know I hadn’t been run down by some drunken hillbilly on a rampage. And I didn’t have my phone with me. And I was just crossing the hour mark. Suffice to say, that put a bit of pep in my step, as they say. The back portion of that route went phenomenally! Not sure if it was the fear that I’d run into a sheriff at my car because my wife had already called the police, or just because I had finally warmed up, but I fell into a solid grove.
I got back to the car about 20 minutes after I was supposed to text, grabbed my phone, wiped the sweat off my hands and checked to make sure there wasn’t a string of texts. And…nothing. So I sent her a quick “I’m still alive”, grabbed a PB&J burrito, filled up my water, and headed north for the 24-mile loop. I had realized during one of my longer runs in town, maybe 25 miles or so that gels were just not cutting it. I don’t know how, or why, but I settled on peanut butter and jelly burritos.
Again, I hit a good pace early on, hiking the larger hills and running everything I could. But good things can’t last forever. And eventually, the combination of no wind and lots of sun started to get to me. The pace began to suffer, as it got hotter and hotter. As I turned onto the last (what I thought was) 8 miles, I hit my lowest point and really started hating everything. There are no specific images or ideas that come to mind as to why it happened then, but that’s when I hit the low. Fortunately, there were a lot of puddles with frogs hopping around, so the low didn’t last too terribly long. But now my legs were hitting the end point of what they could do.
So I just kept moving forward. And the road seemed to never end. I was looking at my watch as it crept past the 20-mi mark, and then the 28-mile. I finished off the last of the water I had, thinking that I should be hitting the turn soon. I don’t know if it’s my innate, horrible sense of direction and distance, or what but the road never seemed to get any closer. “There’s only one F—ing road, so it’s not like you missed the turn,” was the refrain I kept telling myself.
When I finally hit the turn, I was done. Physically and mentally, I was shot. I didn’t think I could go any further. When I got back to my car, I reassessed the situation. I checked the time. I had to be back in time for my wife to take the car to go to work and time to eat and get myself ready for work. I looked at my watch, 25 miles. I had about 45 minutes.
Immediately I decided 30 miles was out. There was no way I was going to run 5 more miles that quickly at noon. So I figured I would get whatever I could, as long as it was at least 2 more miles. I drank what was left in my handheld and went to refill it. There was enough water for about half the bottle, about 9 ounces. So I ate a burrito, and headed out for a few more miles. Very quickly, it became a death march. I had nothing left mentally and probably not much physically. The time I spent worrying over missing a turn that didn’t exist had really done me in. but I kept moving forward. For about another mile and a half, and then turned around and hoofed it back to the car. It took five and a half hours, but I had gone 28 miles. I could consider myself an ultrarunner, technically.
T Minus 30 Days
The last month of my training, I felt invincible. I was hitting the time goals I had for my runs, 4.5, 5.5 hrs. Had a great run with Rachel, Maggie, and crew out at the park, managing about 25 miles in five and a half hours in massive heat and humidity. But it was during this I noticed holes in my plan. I didn’t know how to fuel. Gels had seemed to not be as enjoyable on the 4th or 5th one. The burritos worked out well, but I ran out of time to buy a pack, so I had a Nathan handheld with limited storage space, and a Simple Hydration bottle. Liquids were fine; I was carrying just over 30 ounces, which was just fine. But food was an issue. So I did some thinking.
Then came the end of the training, summer school, and beginning of the taper. And along with it, a cold from hell, which caused me to miss my last back-to-back, along with a few days of work. Taper was hell, as it usually is for me. I already have a hard time sitting still anymore, so taking out the exercise was just brutal this time. And suddenly, race week was upon me.
The drive down to Custer was uneventful in every sense of the word. Checked into our hotel, found some food, and went to sleep. Friday, day before, we went out and did some sightseeing. I had been, but was too young to recall Mt. Rushmore. With a dog in the car, we were there for all of twelve minutes. Still, pretty spectacular. Then we went over to the Crazy Horse Memorial. At least here we could let the dog out of the car, it being an 85-degree day. Really magnificent stuff, and an audacious amount of work, which I hope to see finished someday.
And then it was time for the pre-race meeting. I went by myself as my wife was feeling the effects of the elevation and heat. It lasted all of fifteen minutes, which I appreciated. The excitement in the air was palpable. For some reason, a lady asked a question about whether bicycles were going to be allowed on the trail during the race. Royce, the race director answered in the affirmative, saying that they couldn’t close down the whole trail, maybe someday, but not yet. I found the question to be irritating, honestly. No real reason to, but I suppose that may have been my nerves. Then I went back to the hotel. We ordered some pizza, watched The Simpsons, and I took a melatonin with chamomile tea. Sleep came easily for me.
I woke up race morning disconcertingly unconcerned. I have no idea if it was because I knew it was going to be a long day, or maybe the melatonin hadn’t worn off, or what. My lack of worry almost made me worry. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my admittedly super short race career. (This was my seventh race, ever.) But I made my oatmeal, a cup of bad coffee, and played a game on my phone for a bit. Getting dressed I knew what I was in for, I thought.
The weather was something else. Coming from a supremely flat state, I’m used to wind. I am NOT used to wind like this. It was averaging twenty-five miles an hour, with gusts up to SEVENTY in Custer. Quite an introduction to ultras…
We arrived at the track later than I wanted to, but still early enough. I went to the bathroom and then in search of registration. After finding it, I checked my watch and noticed I had maybe four minutes before the race started. I snagged the car keys and went to get my water bottles and drop off my pullover. And then we were off.
I started out a bit quickly, around 9 min/mi. I had hoped (incredibly foolishly) to get in under nine hours. If I remember correctly, this would have been about a ten minute/mile pace the entire race, with all of twelve minutes to split up between the ten aid stations. Yeah, aiming a bit high.
With the headwind, I was managing about an 11 min/mi pace, which was easily sustainable. I stuck next to a couple people running the hundred and listened to them chat. It made for an enjoyable first couple miles. We cruised through the first aid station, I found my wife, and she handed me my bottle of Nuun and bottle of water, and a PB&J burrito, of which I ate half while waiting for the bathroom. I tucked the other half into my Nathan bottle for the road. I shoveled it in a few miles later on an uphill. I was still feeling really good at this point, not totally warmed up but moving forward well. I passed a handful of people, exchanging the usual pleasantries, “good job”, “nice work!”
Next aid station, no issues. Swapped out my bottles, got another burrito. I manage the same. I’m doing great, at this point. I chatted with a guy running the hundred; he applauded my slightly audacious goal, saying that sometimes those are the best. We wished each other well as I hit the head again and he took off. This was the Oreville aid station, 10.1 miles in. I take off, going a bit slower. The wind has really been beating me down.
Fortunately, we finally hit some hills, and the wind goes away. I notice at this point that I don’t think I’m drinking enough. It’s still quite chilly out, but it’s taking me roughly an hour to get to each aid station. I had planned on having both bottles empty or close to by the time I hit the aid stations. At this point, there’s still probably a quarter or more left in each bottle.
Without the wind, I’m able to make up a bit of time as we get into the Hill City aid station. Another bottle swap, and it’s at this point that my wife unveils one of her surprises, a couple pieces of poster board with motivational words from my marathon-training group. I thought my emotions were going to get the best of me here, but I held it in, knowing there was a whole lot of race left. Another burrito shoveled in.
Right after Hill City, my stomach rebelled against the burrito. Normally, we are very pro-burrito. But in this case I think it was too much too soon. Walking ensued. It felt like a massive gas bubble hanging out and taking over my whole stomach. It did NOT want to give up space. Took some pepto, and that didn’t help. I shoved in a gel and water. At the next aid station, High Country, I took some cola, hoping it would help.
Well, it didn’t. More walking, a bit of running. Eventually though, it sorted itself out, as gas does. More gels, more Nuun and more water. Finally, we hit the halfway. Hours ago, the eventual winner and course record setter had flown past, moving like a gazelle. All along the way, people were passing me. The usual “good jobs” were exchanged. It was nice. I was sure I was dead last.
Horse Creek aid station comes up. In my head, I had hoped my wife would bring my other shoes and socks so I could change, as the Salomon’s I was wearing were beginning to be unpleasant. I get to the aid station, no shoes. Socks, but no shoes. That’s all right though, I figure. If you don’t ask for something, there’s no expectation it’ll be waiting, right? So I grab some pretzels, make sure the shoes will be at the next AS, and head to the turn around. Good naturedly, a 100-miler tries to get me to switch bibs with her, but as I don’t resemble a tiny, lithe, Asian-American woman, I decline. Well wishes are passed. Everybody’s happy.
I head back towards High Country AS. Absolutely sure, I’m dead last. I’m moving at maybe a 12 minute/mile pace. I move quicker when I can. Then I check my watch; I’ve hit 28.1, and the furthest I’ve ever run. I give myself a brief “woo”, before resuming the thought that I’m in my first ultra, DFL. And come to grips with it. “Everyone starts at the bottom,” I tell myself. And suddenly, I’m coming up on people. I start checking the color of their bibs. Yellow, 100 miler. Damn! Yellow again. And again. And again. But then, an orange! I’m not last!
At this point, I’m still moving all right. Averaging between ten and twelve minutes a mile; I stomp back into High Country AS. New shoes! And socks! And I catch up to someone! All sorts of good things! I sit down to change my socks. Shockingly, I had no blisters (thanks Injinji!). But the toenail on my right big toe is starting to give me issues. I look at it, still normal looking, still attached. Better to not mess with it I figured. I put on my Brooks Launch 2s, which I wore for my first marathon. Pretty sure in hindsight, this was a bad choice. However, they had more cushion than my Salomon’s and were fresh. I eat a bit, have some cola, and hit the road.
Pretty quickly, I catch up to the runner in front of me. I had grabbed my iPod at the last aid station, but I pulled out an ear bud so we could maybe chat. At the time, it sounded incredulous. But in hindsight, I feel like he was egging me on, but we exchanged the “good job!” of necessity. However, his sounded genuinely surprised. I passed by but eventually my feet began their rebellion and I was reduced to walking.
Thus began the long slog from aid station to aid station. I hit a low point here. There were brief moments of debating about dropping, but they were quickly forgotten. Then the inevitable, I had walked too much. I couldn’t get running. So I forced myself, repeating something Billy Yang had told me, “don’t be a wimp, don’t be a wimp, don’t be a wimp.” And I realized, it hurt way less to run than to walk.
Hitting Hill City, I hit my lowest point.
I felt like crap, and ended up snapping briefly at my wife. Not a great moment. But I really needed to pee, and watching the dog wasn’t really high on my list of priorities during the race. But I peed, and had some cola and watermelon. They also had ham sandwiches and I split one with the dog. Things were looking up, at least mentally. Physically, I was shot. Only 16.2 miles to go!
Ted, the guy I had been trading the lead with off and on (although lead is EXTREMELY relative, a new course record was set this day), rolled in and we all stood around chatting for a bit. It boosted everyone’s spirits a bit. The more I think about it, I’m pretty sure Ted gave up his run to make sure I finished, although that could be and hopefully is overly egotistical and wrong.
The two of us left the aid station and walked the pavement back to the trail. Shuffling, we both took off. Eventually I moved ahead and stayed that way the rest of the race. A lot of this portion is a blur. Lots of run walking, music was playing. The songs I had picked out worked for the most part, although none of them at the time sparked my soul enough to get me running well.
Making it back to Oreville, and it was COLD. Like maybe 50 degrees cold, and the wind still. Stopping there, I chatted with my wife and the aid station workers. Ted rolled in a few minutes after me. Shortly after him, a female flew in, all business. She filled up her water, grabbed some gels, and was off. In the back of my mind, if I had taken initiative, I could’ve caught her I think. But I didn’t have much of that left and was interested in enjoying myself.
I took off while Ted was asking about his drop bags. This was the last time I saw him before the finish. It was during this that I realized how off my watch was from the course. I walked almost the entire distance between aid stations, about 5.7 miles. Or 7.5 according to my watch. Fortunately, this was the part of the course that passed Crazy Horse, which I stopped and looked at for a moment.
The race had turned into a death march nature hike. Deer, snakes, rabbits, and mice, along with various birds of prey were things I spotted as I hobbled along.
Eventually, I made it to the last aid station, Mountain. More watermelon. Some cola, and corn nuts. I kissed my wife again, “4.4 miles left babe!” With the aid station staff cheering me on, I walked out of there, hoping to hit my stride.
It Doesn’t Always Get Worse
“Don’t be a wimp.” God, how I tried to live up to that simple mantra. I kept moving as fast as I could. At this point, I was hoping that maybe I could break twelve hours. My feet were beyond shot though. I felt like a drunken college kid trying to catch a balloon full of nacho cheese. Shuffleshuffleshufflewalk.
But the miles were clicking off. Not that fast, but slowly and surely. I passed a marker on the side of the trail, 45. That meant I had roughly a mile left! I said F it, cranked the MC Lars and hoofed it. I ran as well as I could. The next song was and still is one of my favorites, “Neon Pegasus” by Parry Gripp. And I’m running. I see a sign coming up, Custer Track ß———. I figure, no way it’s through that tiny space, I don’t remember that at all. So I kept on.
And came to the street a block away from the track. “Shit!” I turn around and haul it back to the sign. And I’m running through some cones that designate the course. Then the track, and I’m trying to sprint. In my head I hope for cheers from people hanging out. As I look up, there’s no one. No one, like I don’t think my wife is even there.
As I came around the stretch, I saw my wife and dog, and more importantly, the finish line. I crossed the line at 12:19:18. I paused to catch my breath, the RD’s daughter congratulated me, and handed me my medal. I thanked her as I hugged my wife and walked off the track to sit down. I took off my shoes, worried about my right big toe, which had been giving me problems. It’s in the process of falling off.
I sat there, reflecting, or trying to. All I could think was that I didn’t really want to run anymore that day. I tried to make myself feel something more. It didn’t work. Then the race director, Royce, came around the corner, full of congratulations. I told him it’s my first ultra and he’s even happier. We chat for a while about races and toes and how much fun this race was along with how much harder it was than I thought possible. Ted finished at this point. I was really happy to see him finish. Royce seemed happy too. Ted, not so much. Oh well.
I grabbed some food, a copy of Trail Runner Magazine, and hobbled off to the car. I forget that we’re in Mountain Time and the car clock hasn’t changed. We get delicious greasy cheeseburgers and fries. Instead of walking around like I should, I eat ¾ of a burger and fall asleep by 9pm. The next morning we got up to watch the golden hour and I am totally humbled and in awe of what the human body is capable of. I felt like I did nothing.
Reflections on the Race
I still feel less than adequate. I went 50 miles, but not how I wanted to, not in speed or quality. I did it, which I’m proud of. But I feel I have a lot more to prove to myself. I’ve been running for roughly three years. I have every intention of running ultras until I cannot run anymore. I will go back to Lean Horse and get the result I want, someday. I want to try my hand at something more technical first.
In hindsight, a pack would have been massively helpful. But I waffled so much on which one to get and the price was a bit of a put off at the time. Between that and really trying to dial in nutrition, maybe to the point of eating enough on a run that I puke just to see what that takes. And training on similar surfaces would have been better. The trail was really packed down, but still significantly softer than pavement. More time spent on country roads I think would’ve been huge. But the biggest thing I learned from running my first ultra is I didn’t run enough. I really should have put in five-seven more 25 milers before hand. The majority of my long runs ended up being in the 18-20 ranges, which helped, obviously, but the extra time would’ve been better. I’ll use these things I’ve learned next year, when I try to give Voyageur 50 a try.
I will never be able to thank my wife enough. Not just for being the most amazing crew on this most amazing day of my life, but she was the seminal spark, the initiator of the entire enterprise. Obviously, she didn’t have a clue that ultras were something that were going to be happening, but she was a sport and went with it, which is the best a guy can hope for.
Written by John Lesteberg, a 31 year old graduate student working toward a degree in English as a Second Language He’s married and has no kids, but lives with three cats and a dog in Fargo, North Dakota. John recently lost his first toenail, which I fully expect him to send me for the Black Toenail Hall of Fame.
What do you think of John’s prep, training, and execution? Have you had a similar experience?