Sunday, February 8, 2015

Skydive Ultra: New Experiences Everywhere

January 31st, 2015, I took on my biggest fitness challenge to date: The Skydive Ultra. The Skydive Ultra is an ultramarathon, with a huge twist: prior to starting your run, you have the option and are encouraged to jump out of an airplane at 13,500 feet! I had never been skydiving before, and I had never run an ultramarathon before. This was going to be a day of firsts.

Skydive Ultra offers a variety of distances to run, from the more conventional -- 10K, half marathon and marathon -- to ultra distances -- 50K, 50 miles and 100 miles. I had signed up for the 50 mile distances. This was the first athletic endeavor where I thought there was a real chance I might not be able to finish. Even the half iron distance triathlon last year, I knew if I got through the swim, finishing the race wasn't going to be an issue. Slow perhaps, but not an issue. A 50 mile run, that was an entirely different beast. I hadn't trained enough having only started in mid-November after completing the MiamiMan Half Iron Triathlon. My training in January had been upended a bit by work travel and a cold that sidelined me a few days. And worst, I had gone for a too long training run of 36 miles that turned into a real disaster in early January. I didn't know how this day would go.

The Ultra Community - Something Special

I drove to the skydive and race location the morning of the race. That meant walking out the door of my apartment no later than 515AM to hit the road. Sure, I could have gone the night before and stayed in a hotel, but this is the Cheaply Seeking Fitness blog. I try to do things on the cheap in all my fitness pursuits. This was already a sort of expensive race since entry fee included the skydive. I had to save some money somewhere.

Sunrise at arrival
I arrived at the race location around 7AM and headed to check in. At check-in, it was clear this was different than the few other running and triathlon races I had completed in the past. Eric Friedman, the race director, checked me in and then grabbed a course map and walked me through the race. Then he introduced me to another 50 mile runner, who's name I unfortunately do not recall. However, this other runner was parked a couple cars away from me.

The runner and his wife asked me a few questions about my running experience. They were surprised to learn I was running my first ultra, had never run a marathon and was alone without crew at this event. The wife basically offered to adopt me for the day, and asked me to let her know if I needed anything at any point. And throughout the day and night, she checked in on me practically every time I ran through the start/finish area. It was a wonderful gesture and, as I learned throughout the day, really how the entire ultra community behaved. Help was offered to all runners by everyone. Spectators and runner's crews were always ready to lend any runner a helping hand, a bottle of water, a place to sit for a few minutes. This was like no other race or competition I had ever participated in. A competition, sure; but a competition where everyone wanted to see everyone else succeed.

And it wasn't just the spectators and crew members. Out on the course, runners were just as willing to help a struggling runner out. And everyone (save for those runners in a deep, dark pit of despair) was ready to strike up a conversation for a mile or two and make sure every runner got closer to whatever their personal goal was.

The ultra community is something special. I had a sense of this from participating in the FUR - Florida Ultra Runners Facebook group, but to experience it in person was remarkable.

Skydiving - A New Hobby?

I had elected to skydive before I began my 50 mile run. It was not a requirement of race participation, But if you're going to participate in the Skydive Ultra, I figured I better do the skydive as well as the ultra.

I had never skydived before, and really only had what I'd seen on television or movies to form any expectations from. Well, those expectations were entirely wrong. I met my tandem instructor, Patrick, and went through the instructions for jumping. This took all of about two minutes. Ten minutes later, we were boarding an old propeller powered plane, and heading into the sky on a beautiful sunny morning.

Another ten minutes to reach jumping altitude, a quick refresher on jump instructions from Patrick and a huge roller door was opened in the airplane. Just like that, the people in front of us started tumbling out of the airplane. No preamble, no waiting at the door thinking about it. Just out and gone. And then we were at the door and just as quickly falling through the sky. Yes, falling. No sensation of floating or flying. But incredible falling at awesome, thundering speed. It was exhilarating. Patrick got us leveled out, then put is into a couple spinning dives.

A few second later, the canopy opened. And now we were floating through the sky. It was magnificently quiet. No electrical hum. No sound of cars. Not even animal noises. Just silence. The free fall had been exhilarating, and this flying was supremely relaxing.

After a couple minutes we landed softly, and that was the end of the skydive. A new hobby may have been born. I can't wait to jump again, and have already made plans to get my wife out for her first jump. Who knows, maybe we'll even want to go through training to be able to jump alone.

Edit: No skydive photos or videos for me. Again, the Cheaply Seeking Fitness blog here. Those videos were darn expensive!

The Race

With the skydive done, it was time to change into running gear and get ready to run 50 miles. This race was a bit unusual since all racers didn't start at the same time. As skydivers landed, they simply got ready and could start whenever they they felt ready. Your time started when you crossed the starting mat.

I was ready and crossed the mat at 9:14AM. My heart rate was still high from the skydive, a theme throughout the day. I really never got the heart rate down to where I would have expected it to be for the pace I was running. From this point, my race experience can be broken up into three distinct phases: miles 1-24 "Comfort", miles 24-34 "Deep, Dark, Despair", miles 34-50 "The Other Side".

Miles 1-24 went very well. The first 18 miles, I felt great. Two weeks of hard tapering left my legs feeling super fresh and ready to go. I was running perfectly according to game plan: 25 minutes running at approximately 9 minutes per mile, then 5 minutes of walking to average 11 minutes per miles. This is the plan I used to train and what I hoped to carry me through the entire 50 miles. And for 18 miles it felt like that would be no problem. I was able to breeze around the the double loop 8 mile course, stopping only briefly to refill a bottle with Tailwind or add water to my Salomon pack bladder. Around mile 18, I felt the first twinges of fatigue. Nothing significant and nothing that slowed me down much, but more of an annoyance at the consistent, moderate wind out of a north northeasterly direction. But basically until mile 24, all felt great and the wind was helpful for half of each lap.

After completing my third lap and 24 miles, I headed back out on the first loop. The first turn out of the start/finish area was a right turn directly into the wind. That turn into the wind was the beginning of a dark 10 miles of running. I maintained a run for a few minutes, but eventually found myself walking into the wind despite being in a 25 minute run period. I was convinced that with only a few minutes of walking, and I'd be ready to run. And after a few minutes, I did try running again only to find myself falling into deeper despair at the grinding wind. And I was walking again. This became a common theme over these next ten miles. Walking into the wind feeling defeated and deflated, and running as much as possible with the wind.

If I were running the 50K, I'd be done.
During this ten mile period, my greatest concern struck: sore feet. During my 36 mile training run, among many other problems, I had experienced feet that became so exceptionally sore that I had created fear that I wouldn't be able to run farther than 36 miles. And around 24 miles into the race, the soreness was building. I began the race running in Merrell Bare Access Ultra shoes, my primary training shoes, which I find tremendously comfortable and had mostly held up well in training. However, they skew on the minimalist side with little cushioning. At around 195 pounds, I'm no running lightweight so the lack of cushioning begins to add up over the miles. By mile 28, my feet were killing me. I decided that at my next run through the start/finish area I would switch to a pair of highly cushioned Altra Olympus shoes I had bought a few weeks prior to the race and only spent a little time in. So at mile 32 the change was made along with a fresh pair of socks, switching to Injiinji's. This was the start of a turn around in my mood.

Also around mile 32, I was encouraged in an aid station to have some Coca Cola. I had a cup of it, and started eating Sour Patch kids (I read that it can be helpful to bring a favorite candy as an easy sugar treat during dark periods.) And this brought me out to the other side. I was comfortable having given up on my 11 minute per mile goal pace and decided that I would walk into the wind and be comfortable with it. The coke and candy definitely provided an energy boost, and the race seemed infinitely more finishable.

Sunset on the course
Miles 34-50 definitely weren't easy, but I never had any doubt I would finish. I experiences some of the most excruciating discomfort, and even pain, I can recall ever feeling. But it was simply the pain of sore feet and sore joints, not something indicative of an injury or muscle fatigue or even a dangerous blister. As the sun set and darkness arrived, the race shifted once again, now into a somber and quiet endeavor. I only got to spend about an hour in total darkness, but the solitude and quiet of it have led me to want to run a 100 mile race through the night.

I finished my final lap and had a simple 2 mile out and back to finish the race. Along the way, I spent a few minutes with another 50 mile runner. We talked about the race a bit and I found out that he was still 13 miles from the finish, which shocked me. I figured I was near the back of the pack, having not seen any 50 milers for hours. He and I walked to my turnaround together, then he headed on into his next loop while I turned back. I dug deep and ran the final mile into the finish line.

Finishing time: 10:43:07.2. As I crossed the line and turned in my timing chip, I was told I was currently in third place! But with a lot of runners on the course, some who started after me, it wasn't certain I would remain there.

I walked over to the aid station where Eric Friedman offered me bacon, wonderful bacon. I could think of no better food after 50 miles of running than bacon. Then I headed over to order a finisher shirt and got to have a quote screen printed on it. The quote: damn that sucked.

And the race did suck. It hurt terribly. Miles 24-34 were downright miserable and for most of that period I told myself that I would never do this again. But the other side felt so much better, and finishing was awesome. The race was awesome. It sucked, but it was awesome. I can't wait for it to suck again.

I spent a couple hours relaxing and resting, then started the drive home. And that was my first 50 mile ultramarathon experience.

*Man, this is long. And yet it still feels too short. So many incredible experiences on this day and so much I've left out, like the beaver who watched me and a runner early in the race. I promise to try to be more concise in the future.*

Gear List

  • Shoes: Merrell Bare Access Ultra, Altra Olympus
  • Socks: Icebreaker Hike+ Lite mini, Injinji (not sure which styles)
  • Shorts: Pearl Izumi Infinity Shorts
  • Shirt: MiamiMan finisher tee
  • Arm warmers: Pearl Izumi Select Thermal Lite arm warmer
  • Hydration: Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab 5, Ultimate Direction Fastdraw Plus bottle
  • Nutrition: Tailwind, Trader Joe's Fig Bars, Sour Patch Kids, Endurolyte Extreme
  • Headwear: Buff - UV, Boca Tri headsweats visor
  • Technology: Garmin 910XT with HRM and cadence sensor, MEElectronics Sport M6 Headphones, Nexus 5, cheap Chinese-manufactured CREE LED headlamp
  • Miscellaneous: Body Glide, BandID


  1. Great summary. Loved the sunrise/sunset pics. Getting ready for my first Ultras (Slow Play 33.3 in March; Croom 50 in April). Just completed my first run in a pair of Olympus this past weekend and loved the cushion. I had been running in Torents. Great feel but not a lot of cushion past 3 hours. Would you do the Injinji's again and would you recommend the S-Lab over handhelds?

    1. I would absolutely recommend the S-Lab, Dixie. They're expensive, but I found a previous year model on Amazon for less than half retail cost. I've used it for all my long runs for the past several months and only once experienced a chaffing issue, and that was because I had my heart rate monitor strap positioned poorly. Other than that, it's been perfect. However, whether to use a pack over handhelds is really a personal decision, I think. I got the pack initially so that I could carry hours of hydration on training runs, but found that I prefer it over handhelds even when water is readily available. If I did it again, I'd probably buy the larger pack, the Advanced Skin 12.

      As for the Injinji's, I like them quite a bit. I'm not an Injinji evangelist, and find I can run in almost any socks, however. And my only pair is pretty thin. I prefer thin socks, but am thinking some extra thickness might be good for this long running. I think if I had a slightly heavier pair, I would really love them.

      Good luck on your first experiences, Dixie! I hope they're as awesome as mine was. I suspect they will be.