Running My First Ultra Marathon
We ran single-file over rocks and roots as we climbed the hilly dirt trail along the Potomac River at daybreak. I was running my first ultra! There were hundreds of us and we had run since five o’clock that morning. Now we were strung out along this trail that skirted the lush dew-soaked fairways of the Trump National Golf Course before careening off into the woods, taking us high above the river as the sun broke through the early morning haze.
We crossed a few creeks, rock-hopping across one, doing a balancing act on a branch across another. I was caked in mud after having fallen into a boggy quagmire in the darkness during the early miles, but I felt great.
“I can’t wait to see what 26.3 feels like,” I said to the guy in the orange singlet running just ahead of me on the trail.
“You’ve never run farther than a marathon?”
“No.” I replied.
He complimented me on taking on a 50-miler for my first ultra and asked me about my running and training. I told him how I had just qualified for Boston at the Tobacco Road Marathon, and we talked some more before I dialed back my pace as he cruised ahead.
Another thing I remember about my conversation with the guy in the orange singlet is that he said he liked running with first-time ultra runners because it allowed him to experience the race through a new set of eyes. I remember the conversation so well because that guy in the orange singlet was none other than the legendary Dean Karnazes.
Can you think of a better way to experience your first ultra than to log a few miles with the Ultramarathon Man himself? You gotta hear the rest of this story, but first let’s back up to the night before the race.
Friday Evening, April 17th, 2015
Gore Associate Cynthia Amon and I were having pre-race pasta dinner at Macaroni Grill in the Dulles Town Center. Several months back Cynthia had invited me to run the North Face ECSDC GORE-TEX® 50 Mile Race as a guest of GORE-TEX®. I would train and race in Merrell Ascend Glove GORE-TEX® Trail Running Shoes and Gore Running Wear®.
I went on to tell Cynthia how I had listened to Dean Karnazes’ book, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner, during the three-hour drive from my home outside of Philadelphia. The book was great motivation, but Dean’s description of his first 50-miler also gave me a very healthy respect for the distance. If you’ve read the book, you know what I mean. I gleaned every bit of advice that I could and told myself I would “run with my heart” when things got tough.
I had already logged a sixty-five mile week this year and was averaging over fifty miles-per-week, so I was ready to run long. Could I keep running for fifty miles?
The Race Start
At two-thirty a.m. my iPhone buzzed and the hotel phone rang. I was already awake. I got up, got dressed, drove to the shuttle bus pick-up, and I was off to the starting area at the Algonkian Regional Park. I checked my drop bag and downed a few cups of coffee. Just before the race started we heard an announcement that got the hundreds of assembled runners cheering: Dean Karnazes was running the 50-miler with us!
The North Face ECSDC GORE-TEX® 50 Mile Race
After my time running with Dean, I continued to enjoy the beautiful views while running up and down the successive three-hundred foot hills along the Potomac Heritage Trail. My pace stayed mostly in the nines for the first fifteen miles, sometimes the high nines, and I hit ten and eleven going up the steep hills. Mile ten was my fastest of the day at eight fifty-five. Little did I know I wouldn’t come close to those paces running back to the finish on this same trail many hours later.
My TomTom graphic below shows the course and the elevation profile. When we arrived at Great Falls Park, we did three seven-mile loops before returning on the Potomac Heritage Trail. You can see those three loops in the center of the elevation graph below:
The Great Falls Aid Station was at the entrance to the three loops. Our drop bags had been transported to Great Falls and we passed through that aid station a total of four times at miles 15.3, 22.2, 29.1, and 36.0. This picture shows me as I’m approaching Great Falls for the first time, still wearing my headlamp:
I was cranking out close to a nine minute mile at this point. The picture below shows me on my second pass through the Great Falls Aid Station:
Somewhere during the second loop, after I took this picture, I had run farther than I had ever run in my entire life. I didn’t hit a wall or feel drastically different, my legs just got more tired as the miles built up. I hurt, but the experience was still amazing. Here are a few views from the Great Falls loops:
There was a little rock-hopping required.
This picture is from the third loop, approaching thirty-six miles, and I smiled for the camera:
I drank Gatorade from the beginning, carrying a bottle with me. I refilled it with electrolyte replacement drink throughout the entire race. I ditched the bottle in my drop bag for two of the Great Falls loops. I also drank plenty of Coke, Mountain Dew and water. I ate four Salted Caramel GUs, a pack of Cliff Blocks, a few bananas, a few bags of potato chips, some Skittles, and part of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was harder to eat after thirty-six miles; after forty-one, I stopped eating but kept drinking.
The trek back up the Potomac Heritage Trail was hard. I focused on “turning it over.” I walked up the steep hills and drank a lot at the aid stations. Each mile took forever.
I fell hard with about two miles to go and slammed headfirst into a bank full of scrub, scraping up my knee and attaching myself to some more mud and dirt. It was time to just grind it out.
Then suddenly I was crossing the parking lot and turning into the chute, finishing with a wave of kids from the Karno Kids’ Race. How cool. The last mile went by in a speedy ten thirty-five as the old horse smelled the barn and was determined to fight off a trip to the glue factory.
When I finished I felt a combination of euphoria and exhaustion and it was a good feeling. There was also a letdown, the kind you feel after being close to a group when it’s time to say goodbye. Everyone encouraged each other out there. Former infantry officer Brandon stopped to help me out of the mud when I fell in the darkness. Veteran ultra runner Eric encouraged me during the tough miles in Great Falls, and then found me to congratulate me after the race even though he had finished well over an hour before I did. Ben got me back on course when I made a wrong turn. There were people saying, “Good work,” and “How you doin’ brother?” throughout the entire race.
Welcome to the Club!
Cynthia met me after I finished, congratulated me, and helped steer me into some shade and into a seat. I would not have been able to do that by myself at that point.
After a brief rest, we went to the awards tent and I picked up my Hoo Rag, the prize for my age-group win! My finishing time was ten hours and eleven minutes. Next I picked up the shirt that instantly became my favorite race shirt ever:
Then we met up with Dean again. I told him how much I enjoyed meeting him and running with him. He congratulated me on my first ultra and said he hoped to see me in Boston in 2016. I thought that was pretty cool that he remembered our early morning conversation, even after he ran with so many people throughout the day.
When I recovered enough to operate my iPhone later the next day, I didn’t waste any time tweeting my thanks to all involved for a GR8 first ultra. The first reply I received was from that guy in the orange singlet:
GORE-TEX® Shoes Were Made for this Race
This was the perfect race for the Merrell Ascend Glove GORE-TEX® shoes. Or maybe the shoes were perfect for this race. Or maybe both. I was ankle-deep in mud and water many times during the race, and we ran the first part of the race through grass that was saturated in dew. My feet might have been soaked for the entire fifty miles if I was not wearing shoes with GORE-TEX® in them.
At the aid stations, I saw people sitting on the ground taking their shoes and socks off, draining blisters, changing socks, changing shoes. I didn’t need to do any of that. My footwear was not an issue. My double-knotted laces stayed that way from three a.m. until I got back to my hotel room later that evening long after the race was over. The outside of the shoes looked like they had gone through a tough fifty-miles, by my feet were dry and comfortable the entire day.
A few more shots of what fifty miles of comfort looked like:
I’ve run in GORE-TEX® shoes since last fall and have run outside all winter in snow, slush, rain, wind, and many times in sub-zero conditions. In sharp contrast, last winter, when I did not have my GORE-TEX® shoes and Gore Running Wear®, I ran outside exactly once. That really says it all.
Tim Jones was a guest of GORE-TEX® Running at the 2015 North Face ECSDC GORE-TEX® 50 Mile race.