I ran the Kal-Haven trail run this weekend, my first “official” ultra in almost exactly 10 years. The run is a point-to-point from Kalamazoo to South Haven Michigan on the Kal-Haven trail, a converted railroad bed. There are conflicting reports on the exact length, but my Garmin said it was 34 miles. The easy grades and crushed limestone made for a kind reentry into the world of ultrarunning. I never entirely stopped running over those years, but when I started structured training in December, I’d only run more than five miles once in the previous several years.
For the three months prior to the race, my wife Allison and I did our long runs together. We’d go somewhat slower than I usually ran during the week, and we almost always did point-to-point runs which ended up at a brewery. We call these our “beer runs” and they were often the highlight of both of our weeks. So when we did our longest long together without problem, we decided to run the race together as well.
The day before the race we packed up our VW Vanagon camper, and headed over to Kalamazoo. We boondocked in a nearby Walmart parking lot and were at the trailhead the next morning cooking breakfast when people started to roll in. We learned something: when the van is your pre-race accommodation, you need to get all your stuff ready the night before. In our tender days of youth, we’d usually get a hotel when doing an ultra out-of-town and then grab breakfast on the way to the race. Cooking and getting everything together when living the van life takes more time.
We got underway at 7am, not long after dawn. The morning was crisp in that way that lets you know it’s going to warm up quickly. It retrospect, we started much faster than we normally did our long runs. Allison really likes to start slow and pick up, so it was tough on her. She began having GI problems after five miles or so. We were still keeping pace, but she started to encourage me to go on by myself. I was being obstinate, so she had to resort to clever means to get me to leave: she slyly provoked an argument. I am sure our fellow runners got a kick out of our whispered drama at a whopping 13 miles into the race. Anyway, it worked. I went on and assumed she was going to drop at the next aid station.
The rest of my race was relatively uneventful. I, predictably, ran too fast for the first 10 mi after I left her, then paid for it for the last 10. I didn’t have headphones because of our plan to run it together. This gave me lots of time to contemplate how doing ultras is different 10 years later. I came up with a few insights.
First, and maybe most importantly, age has changed my mental game. The 10 years since my last race have included challenges that have made me a different person. I deal with pain differently, and I’d say more effectively. Late-run pain has a tendency (for me anyway) to creep into your resolve, making you breathe faster, messing up your rhythm, and generally slowing you down. I think I can see that process more clearly now and that lets me head it off much better than I remember being able to before. So this weekend when I’d get that “oh crap I cannot run anymore” feeling, I’d focus instead on breathing. I found that if I got my breathing under control, I’d find the means to keep running. I feel like maybe, just maybe, I might have unlocked one of the secrets of the wiley old ultrarunners.
Second, I am not sure how I never noticed this before, but when you’re worn out, it hurts just as much to run more quickly than it does more slowly. There is a range of slow, from crawl to shuffle, that all uses about the same amount of cardiovascular energy. Might as well run slightly less slowly. I probably didn’t notice this when I was younger because I was faster then, of course.
Third, all things nutrition work differently than they did 10 years ago. It’s true that I am 25 pounds heavier than I ran most of my ultras, so maybe it’s some sort of camel effect. I am also no longer a vegetarian, so could be that as well. But the fact is, I don’t need nearly the sheer number of calories I did in the old days. I used to really believe in the pasta dinner the night before, complete with massive overeating. These days, that just sounds like a recipe for feeling heavy and bloated on run day. At the Kal-Haven, I survived just fine on a Kind bar an hour or so. Afterward, I was hungry but not ravenous. A burger at Paw Paw brewing was plenty enough.
Fourth, ultrarunning gets a ton of help from general time spent on your feet. While we are just getting back into ultras, Allison and I never stopped doing 10+ mile hikes frequently. I’ve been clocking a 15k step average for a long time. I think this is responsible for my complete lack of foot problems during training and the race. I can’t remember another ultra I’ve done where I had not even a little blister, sore toe etc.
Fifth, cell phones sure do make ultras a different beast! To put things in perspective, the last time I did an ultra, I had a Moto Q and would never have dreamed of brining it to a race. Now it seems that tapping away on your phone while running is the norm, which I guess shouldn’t surprise me given that it’s the norm everywhere else too. Having access to my entire music library will undoubtedly be awesome (when I actually bring headphones!). On the other hand, I found myself in a late-run leapfrog session with a woman who was listening to music on her phone’s speakers. This mild annoyance turned major when she was joined by another person who was also blaring music from his phone. They happily strolled along together with warring phone tunes (she was listening to countryish stuff while his sounded like death metal). On the up side, this led me to check the tank for the extra gas needed to leave them (and their music) behind. Is this now socially acceptable? It shouldn’t be.
In the end, my finish time was far from anything to brag about: 7:18. I beat my first ultra time (7:31) by a little, but that was the Mountain Mist so that isn’t really saying much. On the other hand, I went from two miles a few times a week to a 50k in four months without an injury. I am happy with that. In a sense, this race was the final training run to get back into ultra shape.
I crossed the finish line and checked my phone to see where Allison was (again, phones make this different!). I had no word from her, so I assumed she was still on the trail. I had barely changed clothes and grabbed a snack when she finished. She’d shaken her GI problems and come back from a pretty big time deficit to finish!
Many thanks to the Kal-Haven race organizers. Everything was very well run, and the overall vibe was super friendly. We’ll definitely be back next year.