Facts about Ultra Running – from a very NON-Ultra Runner

I have never run anything longer than 26.2 miles.  But over the last 3 years I have gotten to know quite a few elite athletes that you’ve probably never heard of.

Fly Guy is an ultra runner.  He loves to run ultramarathons – that’s any race over a typical marathon distance.  In fact, he will be running the Hardrock 100 ultramarathon in just about 6 days.

And here we find ourselves in Silverton, CO.  It’s a lovely little mountain town just north of Durango that hosts this 100 mile race through the San Juan mountains.  Runners try to get here early to get acclimated to this elevation of over 10,000 feet.  And acclimate you must – at 10,000 ft. there’s roughly only 2/3 the amount of oxygen in the air due to the lack of air pressure.  At 14,000 ft (many mountains are climbed on this race)- there’s less than 60% of the oxygen.  This affects runners not only physically but mentally as well.

Here’s how this race is described on their website:

The Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run is an ultramarathon of 100.5 miles in length, plus 33,992 feet of climb and 33,992 feet of descent for a total elevation change of 67,984 feet, at an average elevation of over 11,000 feet.

This course offers a graduate level challenge for endurance runs. The course is designed to provide extreme challenges in altitude, steepness, and remoteness. Mountaineering, wilderness survival and wilderness navigation skills are as important in this event as your endurance.

Sound fun?  If you’re interested, you can check them out at: www.hardrock100.com

So, why am I telling you about this race?  Because somehow, I got mixed up in all of this madness and found myself on a “training hike” yesterday with my husband and other Hardrock runners.  As I spent the day suffering due to my lack of physical fitness and trying to keep up with a small group of runners, I came up with several handy facts to know if you ever find yourself in this situation.

  • When invited to a “training” exercise with people who are extremely fit, be aware that you will be in some pain.
  • When you are invited to said training exercise with people who push their endurance beyond normal limits, be aware that this pain will probably last for some time.
  • There are no roads . . . in some spots, there are hardly trails.
  • Make sure that you enjoy hiking uphill for many hours.
  • Know that you will probably never meet a group of people who are so friendly, so supportive, so welcoming, so encouraging or so amazingly humble in spite of their huge accomplishments.
  • You will learn a lot about yourself.  I learned that I am weaker in body, mind and spirit than I thought.
  • If not in proper shape, you can develop an intensely painful back spasm from hiking up a mountain.
  • Another important fact – your arms and legs are directly connected to the aforementioned spasming back muscles and you will begin to hike like a zombie.
  • These awesome athletes won’t ever make you feel bad about your speed (really, lack thereof) or lurching stride.
  • You need to eat constantly.  You burn so many calories on this little jaunt that you will reach a devastating blood sugar crash if you are not eating regularly.  Don’t ask me how I know this fact.
  • If you figure out how to simultaneously eat, hike, and gasp for air – please let me know.  My priority was on breathing.
  • The San Juan mountains are jaw-droppingly beautiful in early July.  I’ve never seen so many wildflowers in one spot than in these alpine meadows.  And of course, there’s usually a burbling brook nearby . . . possibly a waterfall.  Anybody else love the book, Heidi?

  • These insane people will comment that “this view is worth the pain”.  While yes, I do love the wildflowers and mountain streams, I have to contend about the worthwhile-ness of the scenery vs. pain.  Maybe if I was in better shape . . .
  • Walking on a level path without incline or decline is a luxury.
  • Once you get to the top of the pass, try not to cry from relief.   You’ll be the only one.

    Fly Guy and our dog, Heidi, welcoming me to the top.  Note - I'm still contending that back spasm at this point.
    Fly Guy and our dog, Heidi, welcoming me to the top. Note – I’m still contending the back pain at this point but very VERY happy to finally get there.
  • If offered food – ACCEPT IT.  A very kind soul even passed me some dark chocolate at the top.  This leads to the next fact that . . .
  • FOOD TASTES AMAZING AT 13,000 ft!  I probably would have even relished pickled beets at that point.
  • The view from the top is awesome and majestic.  Maybe this view was worth all the pain.  The panorama of the whole mountain range is spread before you and you will be elated to have gotten there on your own two feet.

    Pictures can’t convey the majesty of this scene. You can also see the thunderstorm coming in.
  • Before you can wallow too long in pride at your accomplishment, a thunderstorm will have rolled in, forcing you off the top with gusts of icy rain and ominous thunder.
  • Enjoy the novelty of going a new direction, down has its own little surprises.
  • The trail down will be “paved” with small, loose rocks that are just waiting to head downhill at any provocation.
  • You will develop a technique that I call the “rock-slide shimmy” to keep you on your feet during your own personal mini rock-slide.  You are maintaining a controlled and extended fall.
  • Once you get confident with the above maneuver, you’ll note that there are superhuman people passing you with great speed and somehow walking normally.  Try not to feel too foolish.
  • Scrapes and bruises are not badges of honor – they’re just inevitable.
  • Enjoy the camaraderie and stories you’ll hear.
  • Make friends with an ultra runner.  They’re just really great people to be around.
  • When you reach the bottom (and the end of your “training hike”), again, try not to cry with relief because at this point you’ll realize that this incredible group of people will be doing the same part along with another 12 mountain climbs and about 92 miles of distance.  Did I mention that this is done in under 48 hours?  And they continue throughout the night?
  • Be humbled.  Then go home, take some ibuprofen and go to bed early.
  • Above all, when you are invited to go on a hike that (here I quote Fly Guy) “I think you’ll have a lot of fun doing” by an ultra runner – ALWAYS, check a map to see exactly how far and how high you will be going!

All photos were taken by Andrew Barney 2013

  1. Great job, Em! Both with the hike and the fantastic post! I felt like you were sitting in my living room telling me your story rather than reading it! 🙂 Good luck to Fly Guy, and nice beard!

  2. This was so funny! You did such a great job of describing your experience. I could totally feel your pain while reading it. I have been in some similar situations as my husband is much more of an athlete than I am and always thinks I can do more than I am capable of. Congratulations on hanging in there and making it through without them having to carry you out!

    1. Thank you Shari! Thinking of how I was going to word some of those “facts” helped get me through some of the worst of it. 🙂 It was an amazing experience and I’m sure I’ll be going for another hike again soon. I’m realizing how addicting those mountain highs are!

  3. Sounds like an amazing experience and I know I couldn’t have kept up, well done! I’ve never run further than 8 miles and have signed up for a half marathon… I’m much better at walking than running but the high altitude (and scary heights) would have had me in tears well before the top! I love they way they call it a “graduate level challenge” – good luck to Fly Guy!

    1. Thank you for the encouragement! I’ll pass on the good luck to Fly Guy – he’s getting really excited for the race.
      I also wanted to tell you that I’m going to have to stop looking at your blog for a week or so until we’re done with this move. Everything looks so delicious and I want to go bake it all except the camper oven is ridiculously tiny! I’ve got a whole list built up of all the things I’m going to bake when we get settled again 🙂

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