Seven Thoughts on Running an Ultramarathon
Sep 17, 2021
Written By, Coach Giordan Moloian
Roughly three years ago, I unearthed a pair of road shoes from my closet and went for a four mile run out at Whiting Ranch. It had been quite some time since I had plodded along hot pavement with my high school cross country team. It was in the low nineties; the cotton clothing I had on quickly became soaked and heavy. My left calf started going numb halfway in, and my right hip stopped doing its job the last quarter-mile. A few days later, I was back with a new pair of (heavy) trail shoes.
Trail running has done a lot for me. It’s taken me up and down just about every trail in Orange County, as well as several mountains. It’s built an awesome friendship with an extremely talented Spartan Racer. It’s brought me to Fitness on Fire and this amazing community. It’s provided me space and silence for important reflection. It’s also beaten me into the ground on several occasions, reminding me to stay humble.
A few months ago, someone asked me, “Why don’t you just sign up and do an ultra already?” At that time, Spartan races kept getting pushed back, but there were plenty of trail events being hosted. I contemplated how I had been gradually running longer and longer distances lately as well. She was right; I didn’t have much of an excuse. A few clicks later, I had signed up to run thirty three miles in Holcomb Valley, just north of Big Bear Lake. I had an incredible experience and learned a lot throughout the race. If you have ever contemplated attempting an ultradistance event, here are a few things I think may be worth sharing.
- Don’t listen to yourself, talk to yourself. Two hours before the start of the run, I was doubled over in some bushes on the side of the road with serious gut trouble. Race Day nerves maybe? I’ll let you imagine the rest. I recovered but started to worry it might become a problem again later. Around seven miles in, my stomach still felt shaky. “This could be a disaster,” I thought, “what if I need to pull the plug?” At nineteen miles, I began to wonder if I was cut out for ultras. Part of me said, “What are you even doing out here? You should just stick to shorter stuff.”
Oftentimes what we say to ourselves (our “self-talk”) can make or break us. A lot of what we spontaneously hear in our head isn’t helpful. The good news is that you can choose to replace or counter those debilitating thoughts. At both mile seven and nineteen, I intentionally told myself, “No, forget that. You’ve trained hard for this. Put one foot in front of the other and move.”
- Slow down. Prior to this event, I had mainly run a few Spartan Races and a Ragnar. Coach Noah and I also like to speed up on our training runs (we still haven’t figured out who is to blame for that). I had become accustomed to pushing hard for up to two hours. In the first half of the race, I found my body wanting to default to a speed I was used to running at. I paid for this a bit and hit a minor wall halfway through. While being fast definitely helps, ultras require more restraint and steady endurance.
Team up with other runners. There’s a proverb, “If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together.” Throughout the race, I found myself among packs of runners who were moving at similar speeds. During a very long downhill segment, we took turns leading at the front. Some chatted, while others silently pushed together on uphills. Three of us kicked and ran the last mile of the race harder than we probably ever could have by ourselves.
One thing I particularly love about the trail and ultrarunning community is the natural camaraderie you experience with others. Even when/if there is an absence of small conversation, you still feel a special connection to working alongside you. If you ever find yourself next to someone during these events, take the time to run with them for a bit. You'll help them, and they'll help you.
- Solid food can quickly become disgusting. In long events like these, immediate calories take precedence over high quality nutrition. Thus, aid stations at ultras are often packed with all kinds of different snacks. Sandwiches, quesadillas, miniature hotdogs, pretzels, almonds, and so on. If you can down this stuff throughout a race with no complaint, that’s awesome. At a certain point though, your stomach may resign. For me, mostly everything I mentioned above started to lose its appeal as the hours went by. I made the mistake of throwing a few peanut butter filled pretzels in my mouth and almost gagged trying to rough them down. I ended up getting by on energy gels, fruit slices, Gatorade, and an additional “miracle” drink…
- Have a soda (yes, I’m serious). Coca-Cola was that miracle drink I mentioned. A much more experienced runner told me to have a cup at mile twenty one, and it instantly revived me. It made sense though. Soda contains sugar (glucose), sodium, and caffeine. Due to being liquid, it was easier on my gut and kicked in immediately. When performing in these events, you’re burning through thousands of calories and bodily reserves. As I said, fueling takes priority over nutrition. If there is any place you’ll ever want to drink soda, it’s probably deep into an ultra.
- Be grateful you get to do this. Several times throughout the race, I would take a moment and gaze around. While it was quite hot that day, Holcomb Valley was serene and beautiful. At certain sections of the race, you had amazing views of Big Bear Lake and the surrounding mountains. Both strangers and good friends were smiling and laughing together. As I drew closer to the finish line, I began to appreciate how fortunate I was to have the time, resources, and ability to be a part of something this cool.
- Allow yourself to question your limits. Shortly after finishing the race, I stood submerged up to my waist in Big Bear Lake with another Fitness on Fire member. I had just run thirty three consecutive miles in the mountains. While it was hard, I felt like my legs still had a lot in them. Quite a contrast compared to a few hours earlier when I was doubting whether I was even cut out for something like this. As I stood there, the thought of eventually running fifty miles seemed very doable. Someone I know often tells me they’ve yet to find their limit with ultras. I suppose that’s what can make the practice so captivating; you begin to wonder just how far your body can go. I encourage you to indulge yourself and seek answers to those questions.
If you’ve read this far, thank you. If you’re ever at the gym or warrior trainings and are thinking of tackling one of these events, feel free to talk with me. If that seems like it’s too much at first, start by just consistently going a little further than you normally do and build up over time. If you’ve run up to a mile, push for a mile and a half. If you’ve hiked up to Mt. Baldy Notch, go up to the ski hut and then the summit. Sign up for a Spartan Sprint, then a Super, and then a Beast. Regardless of wherever you’re at, I sincerely hope that what I’ve shared helps and or inspires you. Again, get out there and explore what you're capable of!