DNF: my first attempt at an ultramarathon

As promised, here’s the update from my first attempt at an ultramarathon (and my first race). In short, I failed. The race was 33.4 miles, and I made it 22.3 before my body shut down and gave me the finger. If you want more detail than that, read on.

I was credited with finishing the 25K...

I was credited with finishing the 25K…

…but the 12-year old who was branding the plaques wanted to make sure I remembered that I DNF (Did Not Finish) the distance I had signed up for.

…but the 12-year old who was branding the plaques wanted to make sure I remembered that I DNF (Did Not Finish) the distance I had signed up for.

First, I have a confession to make. I lied about my training plan/progress to everyone who asked. If you’re one of the many friends or family who asked how long my longest training run was, the answer I gave you was somewhere in the 19-22 mile range depending on what number popped into my head first. Don’t be offended – I had a good reason for the deception. Frankly, it was easier to say that and move on with the conversation than to explain that after working up to a single 11.61 mile jog about 3.5 months ago, my knees were in such agony that I had to drastically reduce my mileage and just hope for the best on race day. I tried the honest answer a couple times, but the raised eyebrows, verbalized doubt, and unsolicited advice were annoying.

I really didn’t know what was going to happen yesterday, and I didn’t go crazy with race prep. I ate a lot of donuts and pizza in the days before, because obviously I wasn’t going to miss out on the most enjoyable part of whole ordeal: CARB-LOADING! I drank a bottle of wine and ate fish tacos the night before, simply because I like wine and fish tacos. I might stick with just a glass of wine next time though…

Saturday morning dawned windy and wet, and we started the race in the dark. The 50K course is two 16.7 mile loops with five aid stations per loop. The first 5.5 miles and the last couple miles are hills…hills, hills, and more hills. The rain that had soaked the trails for the preceding 24 hours had turned everything into a muddy mess – people were slipping, falling, and occasionally losing shoes. I had never attempted to run terrain that challenging, and it took everything I had just to stay upright and keep moving.

My running shoes AFTER a round of cleaning and scraping. It was a muddy race.

My running shoes AFTER a round of cleaning and scraping. It was a very muddy race.

I finished the first 16.7 mile loop in just under three hours, and I was actually feeling pretty good. I started the next circuit, and my second round on those hills destroyed me. My upper legs started cramping on the downhills, and my pace slowed dramatically. I fell in with two ladies named Janet (J-Squared), and we stumbled our way up and down the rolling terrain together until we reached the aid station at 5.5 miles.

Course map with aid stations marked. Not shown: all the damn hills and mud.

Course map with aid stations marked. Not shown: all the damn hills and mud.

At this point, the course leveled out for about 8 miles, and I was feeling pretty good about my chances of completing the race in under 8 hours. I took about 10 minutes to stretch, hydrate, and eat some food, and then Janet 1, Janet 2 and I continued down the trail at a slow jog. We had only gone about 100 yards when my vision suddenly got blurry and I dropped to my knees, vomiting up everything I had in my stomach. I limped my way back to the aid station to refuel and rest for a bit, but had only been sitting down for a minute or two when my vision got blurry again and I blacked out.

When I came to, people were freaking out and covering me in coats while the aid station manager propped my feet up on a chair. Apparently, my body had had enough and decided to shut down for a bit. The race director drove me back to the start/finish line, and just like that my race was done.

I’m really not too bummed about the way things turned out. I more than doubled the distance of my furthest training run, and I did it on some crazy trails in shitty conditions. I had tons of (Type 2) fun, got a sweet new tshirt, and learned a LOT:

  • For my next 50K, I’m going to have to find a way to train harder…something that doesn’t brutalize my knees. Elliptical? Biking? Suggestions are welcome!
  • A full bottle of wine the night before is probably not a great idea, although I didn’t actually notice any obvious adverse effects.
  • I need to start slower. My first lap time was fast and I was passing more experienced runners. A slower pace might have prevented my body from flaming out and shutting down.
  • Road running shoes are fine for dry trails, but a more aggressive tread would have been awesome for the muddy conditions.
  • Having a stoked and encouraging support crew to meet me at the aid stations was incredible – thanks Nate and Kaity!

Here’s to finishing the next one!

12 thoughts on “DNF: my first attempt at an ultramarathon

  1. Pingback: 11 Questions From Sarah | My Alpine Obsession

  2. Well done, especially on the spew / blackout. I’ll toss in my vote for cycling, mainly because you can do it outdoors most of the year (unlike an elliptical or any other indoor machine). Maybe you should get into long-distance cycling races instead, or cross cycling if you can’t get enough mud; much easier on the knees, and fantastic fitness gains that also translate well to other sports. Ultrarunning is super hard on our bodies, and if you’ve already got knee problems, I would talk to a physical therapist or knee specialist to find out how best to adapt your training to your physiology. Having said all that, you definitely get some points in the toughness category – 22.3 miles in those conditions sounds awesomely brutal.

  3. I am so very impressed Jimmy. Finishing 22.3 miles in muddy conditions is much to b proud of.
    So sorry it ended the way it did for you, and glad you are okay. The body has it’s ways of protesting.
    Thank you for sharing with much detail on your race. So much respect!
    ~Carl~

  4. Biking and swimming are best for low impact training! Take care of those knees!

  5. I love that the little bastard DNFed your trophy, medal or whatever. Also, nice work not breaking or tearing anything, given the long run and minimal training. Finally, next time wear your watch so I can check it out on Garmin Connect.

  6. The fact you attempted an ultra as your first race is impressive enough! Biking/spinning can give you results when training. Just remember that every 4km on the bike is 1km running. I always incorporate cycling into my training. Glad you’re feeling better now, congrats on finishing the 25km loop!

  7. Nice job! (I’m totally stuck on the fact that the “Jimmy” I read at MAO is actually named “Jimmy Stewart,”!) 🙂 Awesomesauce.

    • Thanks! When I read your comment for the first time, I thought you said MOA (Mall of America) instead of MAO…and I was thinking “Hmm, she’s in MN and reading my blog at the mall? That’s cool I guess.”

      I must need more coffee 🙂

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