I was recently asked "omg how on earth (not to mention WHY) do you run 50k????" by Amy. My answer of "Why/How a 50k? Not enough room to answer that in full. But it's a great experience, regardless of the pain" just didn't carry enough weight behind it to make others understand why I would attempt something so insane.
Let's define a few things first, namely what a "50k" is and what an "ultra" is.
A "50k" is 50 kilometers or 31.0685596 miles. Or just 31.1 miles. It is ten times longer than the standard 5k (3.1 miles) race that many communities have. So imagine doing a simple 5k race ten times and that should give you a bit of insight as to how long it is. Or, if you prefer, it is 4.9 miles longer than a marathon. The marathon is 26.2 miles, so run another 5 miles beyond that and you have a 50k.
An "ultra" is short-hand for an ultra marathon or an ultra distance race. It is commonly defined as being any race longer than a marathon. And while I guess a 27 mile race would technically fall into that category, most races go from the 26.2 distance to the 50k distance. Ultras come in many shapes and sizes, but most are run on trails. Ultras are usually broken up into distance races and timed races. The most common distances are 50k (31.1 miles), 50M (50 miles), 100k (62.1), and 100M (100 miles). Common timed events will run 12 hours, 24 hours, and even 36 or 48 hours. These timed events are just to see how far you can run in the allotted time.
So, now you know what a 50k is and what an ultra is. But those are just basic definitions. Each of these has a life of its own and will suck you deep into a dark place if you're not careful. Yes, it's a dark place that these races take you to, but only because you suffer through the event and have such a blast you want to do it again, thus sacrificing hours of your life training for another one. And it's all worth it.
Now let's get into the how and why behind my running ultras. My first 50k (and only ultra so far) went horribly wonderful. That's right, it was both horrible and wonderful. As for this particular 50k, I went into it way under-trained. I had been running low mileage for the weeks and months leading up to the race and I had recently taken a week off from running. Not a good combination. Add to this the fact that I had the wrong shoes and the wrong socks and it was a disaster for my time and my feet. I had huge blisters, sore legs, and I limped for many days after it.
That was the horrible part. The wonderful part was finishing. I may have been last, I may have limped to the end, I may have gone over the unenforced time limit, but I finished. I was in tears at the end because I was so happy. Sure, my feet hurt, but at the moment I crossed the line, I didn't feel the pain, I only felt the glory of finishing.
And as many people that have run before will tell you, they either love it or hate it. Those that love it, continue to run and continue to strive for something new, something challenging. As we all have different limits, your challenge may be running for 3 miles in under an hour while somebody else may find the challenge in running a 5k in under 15 minutes. Just like we all have different fingerprints and DNA, we all have different skill levels when we run. The big difference though is that our skill levels can change over time. Which means with enough training, you may be able to run that 5k or 50k in the time you want.
Aside from all of this is the primal feeling you get when you run an ultra. I'm not sure if it's there in a marathon (haven't done one yet), but I know I felt it in my 50k race. And it's hard to describe. It's you, your body, and your mind out there on the trail and each one is battling it out over who is in control. There were times that I nearly had a mental break down and stopped running just to cry on the side of the trail. There were other times where I felt so happy that I wanted to jump for joy. There were times where I wanted to give up and scurry away like a weakling. So many thoughts, so many actions, so much STUFF goes through your head it gets a little scary. And that's where the primal feeling comes in. You want to leave those demons behind you and just run free. You want to connect with that paleolithic Neanderthal and just run.
So where foes all of this leave you? Probably confused with a side of "this guy is CRAZY." And I don't blame you. An ultra race is not something you can just sign up for at the last minute. You need to plan for it physically and mentally. It's not a joke race and needs to be taken seriously. But with enough training and planning, you CAN finish one. And if you're even thinking about running one, I strongly suggest you pick a race that's far enough out to train for. Then sign up and start training. And while you train, study the sport, follow the athletes that run ultras, and learn everything you can about them. Then you'll understand what I mean when I tell you to "pack some TP in your drop bag in case that walkie-talkie turns into a full blown GI incident."
And while you ponder that one, here are a few links to check out that may help you learn more about the sport and maybe inspire you to run an ultra.
- Anton (Tony) Krupicka - I have a man-crush on Tony despite the beard.
- Dakota Jones - A great ultra runner that is young enough to have quite a future ahead of him.
- Thomas Kennedy - A novice ultra runner that is miles ahead of me in physical and mental strength.
- Davy Crockett - I'm inspired by every race report he gives. Such an amazing athlete.
- Brittany Zale - Yes, even though many are faster than me, women still inspire me to run.
- Ultra Signup - THE place to go to find an ultra race.
- Ultra Running Magazine - A great magazine that's hard to find by gives you a taste of just how popular ultras can be.
- iRunFar, Real Endurance, Run 100s, and UltRunR - A mix of sites that have a bit more info on training, races, etc.
- DailyMile - THE place to go for anything related to running and socializing (think Facebook + Twitter + Running = DailyMile).