Fort Worth, Texas
By Tom A.
What’s the difference between 56 and 23? Coach T.
At the 10k mark I was 56th. At 13.1 mi. I was 53rd; 30k 46th; 23 mi. 37th; 26.2 mi. 31st; I finished 23rd. Pacing and endurance are everything!!
I finished my first ultramarathon 23rd. TWENTY-THREE!!!!!! I only started running around the block less than three years ago. I finished 18 out of 169 in gender; 5 out of 19 in M30/34. There were 326 total ultra runners. My pace targets had me finishing between 4h25 and 4h30. I realistically thought I’d do a 4h35. I finished in 4:36:39 (99 seconds after what I predicted). This after things did not start off quite as planned.
‘Twas the Morning of the Race…
“Oh shit, look at all those wasted, lost calories.” That was my first thought as I vomited up my perfectly planned and normal race-morning breakfast into the kitchen sink. “Is this normal?,” asked my surprised and worried mother with whom I was staying. My response: “No, no it’s not.” I knew that my carefully calculated nutrition plan was screwed. I’d planned out total calorie count and worked it to the hour. I already had my nutrition plan memorized and even had written it on my arm in sharpie to make sure I didn’t forget.
I’ll admit that at this point I entertained the thought of going back to bed. Things were clearly not going to go to plan. My personal mantra is “the courage to start, the strength to finish, and the wisdom to call it a day.” This was a test of the balance between the first and the last part, and an affirmation of the second.
The night before I’d had two average sized plates of pasta for dinner. Exact same store-bought pasta as always and the exact same sauce. I’d had absolutely nothing new the day before the race. When I went to bed at 8:00 p.m., however, I still felt hungry but didn’t want to overeat. I woke-up hungry at midnight and had a cliff bar.
I got up at 4:30 a.m. and was out the door by 5:40 a.m. (post-vomit). I was at the race by 6:10 a.m. and met up with a group of my wife’s friends that were running the half-marathon. The half, full, and ultra all start together and break-up at mile 10. One of my wife’s friends (Samantha) was planning on running a 9 min/mile, perfectly matching my target pace through the first 10 miles. I had a banana in the corral and half a waffle in lieu of my normal cliff bar and banana.
On Your Mark
The gun went at 7 a.m. and our corral was running by 7:11 a.m. Before we split at mile 10 Samantha and I kept pretty close to pace at 5k-8:51; 10k-8:53; and 15k-8:51. Nothing exciting to report, just a steady, enjoyable run chatting. Samantha had run a few half’s before, but said she’d been chasing an elusive sub-2 hour time having finished closest at 2:02. I kept us on pace, got us through the miserable, dreaded, no-good, very-bad hill at mile 9 without event, and said that if she kept pace, she’d finish in a 1:55. She nailed it and finished in a 1:55:57! Couldn’t have been happier for her and felt like I’d passed on a bit of good running karma.
The Ultra Begins – Nutrition Adaptation
At mile 10 the marathoners and ultra runners break from the half. This is where things got boring and real. I’d had my first liter bottle with infinit evenly over the first 10 miles and waffles at :45 (~mile 5) and 1:30 (~mile 10). My stomach was holding together, but I knew something still just wasn’t feeling right. This is where the original fuel plan went out the window and adaptation took over. At 2:00 I was supposed to have another waffle, but had brought an extra banana with me (honestly unplanned). I knew the banana was the safe bet at 2:00 and ate it slowly, bit-by-bit for the next 15 minutes. It settled well. At this point I was supposed to have a gel at 2, 2:30, 3, and 3:30 (4 total). Instead, I spaced things out to 45 minutes and only had gels at 2:45 and 3:30 (2 total). I just didn’t trust gels in my stomach. This was also when I could stop for a second or two at a water stop and wash it down completely.
Mile 14 was where things sucked a bit. It’s where I had the “I hate this” moment. It’s also the first time my parent’s showed up to cheer me on, meaning my father now has a video asking me how I’m doing and my response is, “I’m in a hole.”
I don’t know why, but I told myself that if I got to mile 22, then I knew that I could finish (even if I had to run-walk). At mile 22 I told myself that I will not stop running until I run a marathon at mile 26.2.
At the mile 26.2 timing mat I walked for about 3 seconds and had my “I just ran a marathon, but still have 5 miles to go” moment. My response to myself was “F-you, you’re not stopping and you are not walking.” (This is also about when I started talking to myself out-loud, including the swearing.)
I thought things were boring running a marathon in residential streets, by yourself, with no music and little crowd support. Once all the marathoners pealed-off and it was just the ultra runners, it got really boring. But a funny thing happened. Yes, it was boring. But there was a shared sense of pain, suffering, resilience, and hope. The additional 5 miles for the ultra were a 2.5 mile out and back. On the way out runners kept telling me ‘you got this’ and ‘almost there’. I was kind of surprised because there wasn’t this same sense of shared support just a few miles earlier. I made sure to do the same for every runner I passed after the turn-around; ‘you’re doing great’; ‘keep pushing.’
I knew the morning’s events would come back to visit me again at some point, and I held it off until mile 30. A few coughs turned into a gag-reflex and a few steps to the curb as I thought I was about to up-chuck again. I kept it together (barely), but was glad that I’d modified the nutrition plan to go easy on my stomach so this didn’t happen earlier in the race.
Final Pacing Thoughts
The goal was miles 0-10 at 9 min/mi.; 10-20 at 8:30 min/mi.; 20-26.2 at 8:15 min/mi.; and 26.2-31 at whatever was left in the tank. My final pace average was an 8:54 min/mi. Through mile 10 I was about an 8:51; through mile 20 about an 8:51; through 26.2 an 8:50. I could see my pace slowing especially in those last five miles. Fatigue set in and a 9 min/mi. felt like running a 7 min/mi. I kept my perceived exertion about the same and knew that I was sacrificing time. To end-up with an average brought down by only 3 seconds a mile due to the last five miles, however, is something I’m really proud of. That’s how I finished 23 and not 56.
Final Nutrition Thoughts
In total I consumed about 1250 calories before and during the race (2.5 waffles, 2 bananas, 2 gels, 2 litres of infinit mix). This is not counting breakfast, for obvious reasons. This is a total of about 1270 calories; 700 less than planned (or 64% of what was planned). I finished with a full liter of infinit still left on my back as I knew too much of it would set off my stomach. I probably wasn’t as fast as I could have been due to nutrition, but I never crashed or bonked. I’m calling this one an overall win.
Perspective is a funny thing. At mile 25 I had 6 miles left, but felt like 26.2 wasn’t that far. I ran the marathon on the same course two years ago as my first ever marathon. What a difference time and training can make. I remember how I felt in 2016 at mile 11 and at mile 20 and at mile 24. It sucked. It sucked a lot back then. It felt like nothing this time. A marathon wasn’t that long this time, but I still had five more miles to go.
My C goal was to beat my previous marathon time on this course from two years ago. I achieved it by a good margin. My B goal was to finish in 4:35; I missed it by just 99 seconds. My A goal was to hit my pacing and nutrition. I didn’t hit my goals exactly, but I was damn consistent finishing 50k with an overall average just 3 seconds a mile slower than the first 5k of the race. My nutrition plan went to hell, but I learned that I can adapt successfully. I have the strength to finish, no matter what the obstacles. The last few texts I sent before running 31 miles were to Coach T. Her advice was simple; “Shake it off.”
I didn’t finish 23rd because I’m the fastest or a naturally gifted at running. I finished 23rd because I shook it off. I finished 23rd because I adapted. I finished 23rd because endured.
At the starting line I realized that my next start is at Ironman Texas. By the same token, my next finish line has a red carpet and Mike Riley. I know that I can and I will get there. Now is the time to rally on! All it takes is the courage to start, the strength to finish, and the wisdom to know when not to call it a day.