Lesson 1: I Need To Run More
Going into the race, I knew I was undertrained, at least from a pure running perspective. I hadn't been able to run at all for a three week period after an odd knee issue in February and March caused by an ill-executed switch to new shoes. I had kept up aerobic fitness with plenty of swimming and biking, but the running training was lacking. Since Skydive Ultra at the end of January, I only got three long runs in prior to this race: two 14 milers and one 18 miler. And I had only one 30 mile week of training over that period. I was undertrained.
It showed up on race day. The race felt great for about 14 miles, and ok for another 4 miles. Then the wheels felt like they fell off. Lots of walking. So much discomfort. Generally, a very poor run after mile 18.
The most glaring symptom of my lack of training was having to battle a calf cramp the final six miles of the race. At Skydive, a race nearly twice as long, I only had one short moment where even the idea of a cramp entered my mind. At DTR, it was a long fight to fend off the cramp. Eventually, I switched my running form to heel strike which took pressure off the calves and allowed me to run a bit better.
But the lesson was learned... I need to run more. Biking and swimming are great; aerobic fitness wasn't an issue. And I need to do those things as I prepare for the Great Floridian Triathlon. But running long requires running long...often.
Lesson 2: Distance Is Only One Factor In Race Difficulty
So I went into this race thinking it would be hard because I was undertrained, but also thinking that the experience would be roughly 60% as difficult as my 50 mile race. I could not have been more wrong.
This race was brutal. We were treated to a record high temperature of 93 degrees during the day. Fortunately, there was occasional light cloud cover to offer at least some reprieve from the sun, but then the Florida humidity simply took its toll. The race began at 6:45 am, which meant we got about 30 minutes of running before the sun got on us. After that, it was nothing but increasing heat and sun exposure throughout the day.
The course itself held so many surprises. I knew there was some sand on the course. I had spent time beach running to prepare. I was not ready for nearly 12 miles of sand, made worse by the heat which evaporated every bit of moisture out of it leaving nothing but loose sand. The course was an out and back, and the sand wasn't too bad on the way out. On the way back, once every participant had been over it at least once, the sand became a grip-less mess. It was exhausting.
I had heard legend of the "Dunes of Heaven", a one mile stretch of rolling sand dunes beginning around mile 9. None were more than 50 feet high according to my Garmin, but they were relentless. Get to the bottom of one, and right back up the next you went. But the real surprise was that after the Dunes of Heaven, the rolling hills continued for another 5 miles to the turn around point. These hills were milder than the dunes and the trail was slightly less sandy, but the constant elevation change took me completely by surprise. I hadn't prepared. (Hey, it's Florida. Everything is flat.)
This course on this day was tough, really tough. The top finishers were a half hour off the finishing times the previous year. Sure, distance is one piece of the equation, but so are many other factors.
Lesson 3: Shut Up, Mind
Despite all the above issues, I actually didn't do too poorly in the race. While I was a full hour off the first finisher, I was less than eleven minutes behind the first place runner in my age group. Without much more effort, I could have made up eleven minutes. But much of the day, I let my mind and negative self-talk slow me down.
It's too hot. I'm just not fit enough. My stomach/foot/shoulder hurts. It's just a training run. I don't want to be here. And on and on and on it went.
However, I only had two bona fide time losses during the race. First, my calf cramp was a real fitness issue. Had the cramp truly set in, my race would have been over. So I had to manage that. But had I thought to switch running form earlier, I would have saved tons of time.
Second, I lost several minutes on a few occasions dealing with a leak in my hydration pack. This was a safety issue. I was able to slow down the leak by playing with the valve on the pack, and did take the time to make sure to do that so I wouldn't run out of water between aid stations. This cost me maybe 5 minutes total.
But mostly, those lost eleven minutes were the result of my mind slowing down what my body was capable of.
Lesson 4: I Really Love Ultra Trail Running
I tripped on roots on four separate occasions, feeling like I could have broken a toe each time. Twice I outright fell and once tweaked my right shoulder while catching myself. For the first time ever in racing or training, I had stomach issues. Nothing severe. I was still able to eat and drink as needed. But it was uncomfortable for miles and miles.
My feet hurt, especially my left foot. I think I bruised the sole of my foot early in the race. By the end, it was nearly unbearable. In the final mile of the race, I felt what could only be a terrible blister on my large left toe. I blame the hours of water leaking from my hydration pack for that.
I was a mess, and I absolutely loved it!
Being out in nature, seeing a lightening storm off over the ocean, watching the sunrise as we ran, discovering deer moss, overcoming all the above issues to finish the race, eating whatever looked good at aid stations, the volunteers being so kind and helpful along the way; it's all such a great experience.
Frankly, I think ultra running is where I'll end up long-term. I enjoy triathlons and look forward to my first iron distance race in October, and love many parts of CrossFit. But there's something so simple and pure ultra running. Ultimately, it's just you, a pair of good shoes and clothes and nature fighting to reach the destination. It's so simple.
And it's by far the least expensive sport of those that interest me. Can't wait to run another ultramarathon soon...maybe 100K next?