December 1st, 2018 Ian and I completed our first 50 mile trail race, The McDowell Mountain Frenzy in the Arizona dessert. It is a type of event that certainly isn’t for everyone. Second to the question of why we would do an event like this, was how we prepared and completed an event like this. Here is some insight into the training leading up to and some thoughts from the competition day.
Check out 50 Miles: The Why here.
- Training- This certainly looks different for a lot of people. Ian and I come in with a broad base of fitness; Crossfit, triathlons, various distances trail races. After having completed a trail marathon (26.2) in Moab, UT the year before we were ready to attack our first ultra marathon distance. After my initial trepidation, we decided on a 50 miler over a 50k race. The how of training came down to these factors.
- Using a Crossfit endurance style of training. This means exchanging junk running miles, for functional workouts combining cardio, weights and body weight movements. It meant trading some base paced running with long and short running or rowing intervals. Rounds of squats, lunges and plyometrics coupled with short running intervals can simulate some the fatigue of moving uphill. We regularly gravitate to this style of training because it reduces injuries, works your function strength outside of running and it provides results within our time constraints. We loosely followed a program called Lift Heavy, Run Long.
- 1 long run per week, done together. We did whatever possible to get this done together to keep it from consuming our weekend as a family. We had my Dad or sometime a babysitter watch the kids. We ran 5 mile loops around our local park using our car as an aide station. We worked to find how much and what kind of calories we could consume while running, practiced a run 5 minutes, walk 1 minute interval schedule and figured out just how our bodies responded to the distance. We worked up to a long run of 30 miles and felt confident in our training at that point.
- Hill run intervals weekly. Finding a way to get vertical gain while living in Lansing, MI often forces us to get creative while preparing for a race in the mountains. No mountains or even large hills near us. But what we don’t lack locally are sledding hills. We would run up hill intervals to accumulate 1000ft of vertical gain, often taking 20-30 intervals to achieve this depending on the hill. This race had a specific large uphill climb at 30 miles into the race that was said to be brutal. Each hill session had that in mind.
- Race Day- Both of us went into the race feeling that we were as prepared for the day as we could be and with a solid mental mindset. It isn’t about thinking about it being 50 miles of distance, as much we were mentally preparing for an all day adventure. While we had no specific goal time in mind, we were thinking it would take us between 11 to 12 hours to complete if all went as planned. We finished in 11 hours and 30 minutes.
- Sticking together- Despite our large size difference, me being 5’2” and Ian being 6’5”, we are actually very evenly paced runners. Ian was skeptical, but finally agreed that we should try to run the race together. It helped having done all of our long runs together. Most long distance races allow a pacer to join you later in the race to motivate and guide you through the later stages. This race only allowed a pacer for the last 8 miles and since we had no one to pace us anyways, we might as well stick together. This proved to be a great experience overall (don’t ask Ian if he was allowed to be in front at any point haha). Finishing the race hand in hand together is a feeling I cannot put into words.
- Pacing- People often ask me “did you run the whole time”. Only the top finishing athletes probably ran the entire time, with the exception of the previously stated climb. Ian and I knew that pacing for a race this distance the first time we tackled it would be very important. Even the trail terrain was unknown to us and ended up being more rocky than we expected for the desert. We chose to start conservative and hike the uphills from the start and run the flats and the downhills. Many people started faster ahead of us, but our strategy paid off as past 16 miles we passed at least 25 other people and were passed by no one. We had legs to run the entire race and finished with our fastest mile to close out the race.
- Nutrition- Ian during an ultra is on self proclaimed “tour de calories”. Stefanie on the other hand, has a very hard time eating anything. Our base nutrition comes from a product called Tailwind. Mixed with water and drank as prescribed, claims to be the ONLY source you need all day. I put this to the test and it passed with flying colors as I felt good nutrition wise. I drank Tailwind all day and eat maybe 3 small boiled potatoes along with a few bites of other things that looked appealing but ending up being a no go. Ian ate a list of food too long to mention here and washed it all down with Tailwind. It was only at the end he said he didn’t have a taste for it anymore. The favorite treat of both of us at each aid station was Coke.
- Running in the dark- The race to the finish was a race against darkness for us. The race started at 7am and we finished at 6:30pm. The rocky terrain slowed some of the running we wanted to do to a power hike, because rolling an ankle would end the day without a finish and that wasn’t a risk worth taking for us. The sun started to set within the last 6 miles of the race. Ian had only become the owner of a headlamp days before the race and had never ran with it. I had used mine previously pacing my sister, but forgot how helpful a hand flashlight had been during that time. Needless to say we slowed during this time and both of our minds went to how a better light source would have been money well spent.
This will be by far one of the rewarding days of our lives. The journey taken during training and throughout the race day stretched and enriched us physically, mentally and emotionally. Until we meet again 50 miles.