What It’s Like to Run Your First Ultra


I guess my theory about ultramarathons is that everyone who’s ever heard of them has two immediate questions: 1) Why the hell would you do something like that? and 2) I wonder if I could run that far?

How you answer those two questions, in your head, or out loud, dictates whether or not you actually end up finding yourself in an actual ultramarathon.

As for Question 1, I know why people do really painful things like ultramarathons, mountaineering, and waiting in line for hours to see concerts: In some trick of psychology, you convince yourself the pain will be worth it. And afterward, most of the time, you believe it was worth it.

I signed myself up for the Ice Age Trail 50 last December, wondering if I could run 50 miles of rolling hills on trails through the Kettle Moraine State Forest in Wisconsin in a single day. Then I showed up to the starting line last Saturday under grey skies and 40-degree temps, no less sure I could do it than the day I signed up for the race.

Not content to only put myself through this much pain, I signed my friend Jayson up for the race as well, and we decided that we had two goals: Finish in time to get an Ice Age Trail 50 belt buckle, and be smiling at the end of it.

It was cold at the start line, at 6 a.m., and the 370 other 50-mile runners gathered in a loose mass around the start/finish line, most of us quite ordinary people with a variety of reasons to spend 9 or 10-plus straight hours on the move over a rough trail. Or trying until we broke ourselves, I guess. Then there were a handful of people I would call “real runners,” the badasses who would maintain 8- or 9-minute miles throughout the entire race and finish in six or seven hours.

By Mile 2, the outside of my left foot started hurting, and I figured it would go away sometime, and the pain would move elsewhere, like it usually did during our training runs. Your body parts just take turns hurting, in my experience, and hopefully none of the pains you feel are actual injuries-although after running 20 miles or so, you have enough endorphins pumping through your body that you sometimes won’t know if something actually broke until the next day or the day after that.

At the second aid station-Mile 9-we ditched our light jackets, refilled our water bottles, and kept running, spirits high. We still felt good at the aid station at Mile 17.3 where our friends and family members met us with food and electrolyte drinks. At Mile 20, I began to feel fatigue in my legs, sort of like that feeling you get if you stand on your feet all day waiting tables or bartending, but in this case you keep running and walking, relentlessly, and you know the pain is not going to go away unless you stop moving. At Mile 26.2, I sat down for a couple minutes while filling water bottles and eating potato chips. We were over halfway through the 50 miles, but I felt not even the slightest inkling that we had it in the bag.


We leapfrogged a few of the same people throughout the race-they were good at moving through the aid stations quickly and we were not. I got distracted by Chips Ahoy and Oreos at every aid station, giving myself permission to eat as much crap as I wanted to, whether I needed it for calories or just emotional reasons.

We hoped to finish anytime before 6 p.m., just under the 12-hour cutoff. As the first “fast guy” passed us going the other direction, way ahead of our pace, I remembered something I’d read on the race website:

“The awards ceremony is at 3 p.m.,” I said to Jayson, and we both laughed, knowing we’d still have 10 miles left to run at that point.

Around Mile 30, Jayson and I basically stopped talking to each other, the only sounds escaping our mouths involuntary grunts and sighs and the occasional “good job” as we passed a runner heading the other direction. At Mile 31.5, I was officially setting a personal record for The Longest Distance I’ve Ever Run in One Day.

Friends who had run ultras had told me before the race, “Everything changes after 30 miles.” I kept thinking of that as the miles rolled by and I kept moving one foot in front of the other, occasionally kicking a rock or root and sending a shot of pain up my toes through my foot. And I kept thinking, “Nothing changes. It’s just the same pain, gradually growing the more I keep moving.”

I heard a volunteer yell, “Does anyone else need a ride?” Temptation comes in many forms.

I’m sure the scenery was wonderful. I commented on it at least twice to Jayson, and at one point he said, “I’m about to do a Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz-‘I’m feeling tired. I think I might just lay down here for a nap.’” But most of it was just a blur of green, a moving meditation: focus on moving, ignore the aches and constant pain, ignore your watch, if it hurts to walk, you might as well run.

At 41.3 miles, we stopped at aid station #10 to see our family and friends, split a cinnamon roll with frosting, changed socks for nothing more than a morale boost, and ran back into the woods to finish the remaining miles. At the aid station at 43.5 miles, I heard a volunteer yell, “Does anyone else need a ride?” as a Subaru station wagon pulled up to take an injured runner to the finish. Temptation comes in many forms. I ate another Oreo and shuffled off down the trail behind Jayson.

Around mile 44.5, we passed a handmade sign that said, “If you feel good during an ultra, don’t worry, it will pass.”

Fifty miles. Could I run that far? I’m not sure where this idea came from. A few years ago, I interviewed alpinist Kelly Cordes about the concept of being “hardcore,” and he had said that he thought ultrarunners were the real hardcore people, that when you’re out there, there’s nothing stopping you from sitting down at an aid station and quitting. In mountaineering, you often have to get up to the top and back down if you want to survive, so that pushes you. But in ultrarunning, most of the time, you’re not going to die-you can pretty much quit anytime you see that table full of cookies and ask someone to call you a ride.

I’m not saying either one is more hardcore, but having done some extremely long days in the mountains, I know how much those can hurt. While I kept shuffling through those last miles in the Ice Age Trail 50, I thought back to the time my friend Chris and I climbed the Grand Teton in a day a few years ago, and how tired I was on the descent that I almost fell asleep with my legs sticking across the trail in Garnet Canyon. This ultramarathon was for sure the most pain I’d ever been in for this long-a new frontier of fatigue. But there were cookies every few miles.

At mile 48.5, we passed the final aid station. As we jogged onto the gentle Nordic ski trail, I looked at my watch. Almost an hour to cover 1.5 miles. Plenty of time. I said to Jayson, “We’d have to massively fuck this up to not get belt buckles at this point.”

“I would throw you over my shoulder and carry you,” he said.

“I would actually be up for that right now, to be honest with you.”

With 200 yards to go, we could hear the cheers of people at the finish line. At 50 yards, we saw our friends and family yelling just in front of the finish. Jayson started yelling and whooping in joy, and I felt more relief than joy, and just tried to keep my back straight and arms up so it didn’t look like I was going to die before I crossed the finish.

As we crossed under the arch at the finish line, I had the answer to my question, that I could run 50 miles in one day. We were near the back of the pack, and as people crossed the finish line behind us, the cheers from the crowd got louder. The race, at least the dramatic competitive part we mythologize in most of the things we call “sports,” is long over at that point. But I think what we’re cheering for is something else: normal people who aren’t there to necessarily race anyone besides the lesser person they might be if they didn’t try to run a really long ways for no good reason.

We gathered our stuff and hobbled across the parking lot to leave, and as the crowd around the finish line went from cheering loudly to going bananas, I realized we were missing a moment: a runner was crossing the finish line at 11:59:13, the final person to finish before the 12-hour cutoff.

Maybe in a couple weeks, I’ll start wondering if I can run 100 miles. After my foot stops hurting. If they have Oreos at the aid stations.



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