Give Me The Fish (GMTF): If you’ve followed a competent 50-mile Ultra Marathon training plan, you’ll be able to finish the race. But, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. You’re going to have to embrace some pain, and it’s important you keep your sense of humor. As long as you that, you’ll have no problem running 50 miles. And, at the end of the day, run it for yourself, because as the “wise and experienced” runners said, you’ll still be weak, slow, and dainty. #WeakSlowDainty
Good Planning Is The Key To A Good Race
“Dude! You’re messing up our timeline!”, the text said. I preceded to politely responded back with some slightly less polite words. I had just gotten off the plane at the Sacramento Airport and sent a text saying I had got in 30 minutes ahead of the timeline.
They were on their way back to the airport after picking up a car through turo.com (not recommended for short trips like this).
Their flight had gotten in earlier and they had spent the last 5 hours Ubering to pick up the rental car, checking into the Airbnb, and picking up needed items from the store.
All of which, were conveniently on opposite sides of town.
After chilling at the airport and sitting next to a guy smoking a black and mild while awkwardly watching me stretch. I get honked at.
Not unusual, I still pride myself on being occasionally cat called (I love my wife, but there is no better self-esteem booster).
But, to my dismay, I look around and see Brian and Andrew rolling up in a brand-new Mercedes, loaded with all the perks.
Before jumping in the car, I decide it’s the perfect vehicle for driving into the middle of nowhere to go running 50 miles (this is sarcasm).
But, it does fit our normal M.O.
Ultra Marathons Are Pretty Low Key
The address from the race email is for a running store in the downtown of this small town called Auburn. We don’t really know what to expect. But eventually, after driving up and down the street.
We find storefront and park our pristine white car next to a series of dirty pickups and jeeps, then head into the shop.
Check-in is at a small table with two dudes writing down the names of everyone who comes up and says they’re part of the race.
No ID checks, no fanfare, nothing.
Turns out, Ultramarathons tend to be locally setup events between friends and running club members.
No massive corporations, no DJs pounding out music, and little organization.
They hand us some cool t-shirts and then make us sit through a safety lecture. During which they explain that they highly recommend paying for search and rescue insurance. Apparently, it’s $55,000 if you get lost and they have to find you.
After which, we turn to each other and immediately agree that if we get lost, we’ll just kill each other. On principle, we’re not paying $55,000 for an embarrassing search and rescue.
That night, we stay up way later then we should, stretching, talking, and preparing for the next day’s race.
“Crap!” Andrew looks at his watch, “it’s only 5 hours before our race”. We immediately start wrapping up and get to bed.
Running 50 Miles Is Apparently Not Funny, But It Is Hilarious
We get 3 hours of sleep that night and then drive up into the mountains in our Mercedes. The directions are to the finish area of the race. There is a bus there waiting to drive the racers to the start.
We park our car next to all the 4-wheel drive vehicles and join the small group of 20 or so people boarding the bus.
We immediately start cracking jokes about getting on the wrong bus into town while looking for the 5-mile race. And of course, innocently asking the race officials why there is a bus for such a short race.
Except for us, who are laughing hysterically (mostly due to the lack of sleep), and the occasional chuckle from the dude next to us, no one thinks we’re funny.
In fact, a few took us seriously and politely expressed some concern over us running 50 miles.
Soon the bus takes off, and we start slowly dozing off during the 45-minute drive.
It’s Important To Head Into The Race With A Good Start
We are startled awake when out of nowhere a guy starts yelling where to put our drop bags (certain areas on the race let you pre-stage gear) as the bus pulls into the starting area.
We are told to throw our drop bags into a random pickup truck.
Groggily, we do so, throwing our cheap crumpled plastic bags with our names crudely written in permanent marker, into the back of the truck. Just adding to the growing pile of all the other grocery store plastic bags.
There are two drop bags allowed. One that can be left at the start that will be transported to the end, and another that can be accessed at the midway point.
At the end of running the 50 miles, a pickup truck drops all the bags off at the end.
Our bags are full of Vaseline, extra socks, sunscreen, salt tabs, Tylenol, Ibuprofen, skittles and granola bars for me, beef jerky and gels for Brian, and gels and energy waffles for Andrew.
We then get in the 20-person line (everyone in the race) for the porta john for one final stop before we take off.
10 minutes later its 6 AM and the race director yells “Ready… Set… Go” and the race starts.
We Should Have Catered Our Training For The Terrain
“Jesus”, I hear Brian yell for the ninth time. We are 5 minutes in to running 50 miles, running full steam down a mountain, it’s pitch black, and we didn’t bring any lights.
We are trying to use the runner in front of us to watch and subsequently dodge the seemingly endless supply of boulders on the trail.
Finally, Brian says “stop, I’m pulling out my phone”. He had enough. We pull it out and use his phone to guide us the rest of the way down. Though, it’s a little late. Our toes and ankles are already a bloody pulp and we are only 15 minutes into the race.
A couple of minutes later and Brian is already limping, “What’s up dude?” I ask.
He replies, “the ankle I hurt during the 40-mile run, It’s hurting like a 9 on a scale of 10”.
“Good thing we are only running 50 miles… You able to keep going?”, I ask. Though, I already know the answer. Brian shoots back, “What kind of question is that?”
Andrew and I laugh, and on we go.
I’m sure we’re annoying all the runners around us.
Here we are running peacefully through the woods and we’re talking smack to each other and cracking jokes as we continue on the course.
Oh well, we’re not going to be stopped from enjoying ourselves.
Thankfully the sun soon comes over the mountain ridgeline.
We quickly realize that while we are in shape for the distance, we had not prepared for this kind of terrain. These mountains are 3-4 times bigger than anything we trained on, and we only had well-maintained trails to run on.
The uphill’s are easy, it’s the downhills that are beating up our quads, ankles, hips, and feet. It doesn’t help that we bomb down the downhills, hitting 6-minute mile paces.
We are 18 miles in, 4 hours down and we are already feeling the burn. Good thing we are only running 50 miles.
Expect The Unexpected
We round the next corner and see a random tent set up with a table. It looks like an aide station.
This would be our third one, but we are a little confused as the next one shouldn’t be for another mile.
As we get closer, we realize three girls are standing there with water and what looks like a bottle of whiskey.
Brian yells out jokingly, “Is that whiskey part of the aid station?”
The girls respond, “if you want it to be”.
Brian, always the ladies man, skids to a stop. After some bantering, the girls start chanting.
“Shot, shot, shot”.
Next thing I know, the three of us are downing a shot of whiskey, slamming the glasses down, and heading back down the trail.
While heading out, Brian is swearing that this was exactly what he needed.
A Bunch Of Dainty Men
As we keep running, we soon hear water rushing as we near the American Middle Fork River. Getting closer to shore, we see a rope strung across the river and an arrow pointing to the opposite bank.
We look at each “well, I guess we’re getting wet”.
We start taking our shoes off and hear a bystander yell out, “You are the first to take your shoes off, what are you guys dainty or something?”
We can’t help it, we start laughing uncontrollably as we head across the water, barefoot.
Here we are running 50 miles and getting called dainty, by an out of shape bystander.
But, we have way too many years in the Marine Corps to be dumb about getting our feet wet. So, dainty it is.
Today We learned That We’re Weak
The middle miles all start blending together.
After series after of uphill’s and downhills, we eventually reach an aid station around mile 30. There is a scrawny and gangly old man there (obviously a long-time runner) talking to the volunteers.
We show up and start refilling our camelbacks. After a couple of seconds, he turns to us and goes “you guys doing the 50?” We stare at him with a weird look.
We think it looks pretty obvious. But, he continues with a serious tone of voice, “you guys should be well ahead of me, I’m just an old man, you guys are young, and apparently pretty weak”. We are a little taken aback.
While the three of us are strong in varying capacities, we are pretty used to being the most in-shape guys around.
Brian (a statewide Bodybuilding Champion a few years back), first to snap out of it, chuckles and says “yeah, yeah we are”.
The old man doesn’t stop. “This your guy’s first ultra?”.
“Yeah”, I say.
“Ah, well, at least there are no major climbs on your first one,” he says back.
This course covers 10,000 feet of elevation change (almost two miles of vertical distance covered). I’m not quite sure, I would say this course has NO elevation change.
But I guess in this community, it is.
Apparently, Muscle Mass Is A Bad Thing
The guy keeps talking.
He is surprised to find out that we flew up to run this race.
It turns out, like most Ultras, this race is just set up by the local running club. So, this old man lives out here and runs these same trails every day. It all makes a little sense.
The guy keeps talking and eventually he asks, “You guys Crossfitters?, You look like Crossfitters”. He had a little disgust in his voice.
Andrew bursts out laughing.
“No”, we tell him, “but we sometimes do similar things (we also did do that for a couple of years, almost a decade prior), but we do lift and do circuits and stay in pretty good shape”.
We continue “We kind of came out here on a whim. We figured it would be cool to complete a 50-mile run”.
His face turned into a look of frustration. He obviously didn’t like finding out that we were competing in the same sport as him without the years of dedicated training he put in.
Probably to prove a point, he takes off running. We don’t see him again until the end of the race.
Is It Even Worth Doing If There Is No Pain Or Agony?
As we are running, out of nowhere, my right Tibia starts throbbing in pain. I don’t want the other guys to know, so, I tell them I need to do my own pace for a bit, and that I’ll catch up.
Years of doing hard stuff has taught the three of us, that talking about how hard things are and complaining, makes everything worse. It’s best to let everyone suffer in their own world.
I start alternating walking and sprinting trying to see what the problem is. Quietly, I’m hoping it’s just a tight muscle, but the sharp pain slamming up my bone is pointing to something I had feared during our last 40-mile run.
Three weeks prior I had started feeling a slight bone pain at the end of our last long training run. But, because it was at the end of the run, I didn’t worry about it.
Now, I’m realizing that wasn’t standard pain. This has to be a stress fracture. It’s bone-jarring and my leg is starting to swell a little.
It’s All Mental
I start thinking about the consequences of not finishing the race and what it would mean to quit. I quickly shut that thought down. There isn’t time for any negativity when doing anything hard in life, let alone part way through running 50 miles.
Of course, right when I’m mentally struggling, it starts pouring.
The rain starts flooding over my face. I start laughing, I probably looked like a crazy person.
Thankfully there was no one around.
I start running through all of the awful things I’ve been through in the past and decide this is probably not even in the top 5. I make a cheesy mental note, “Embrace the uncomfortable”.
The cheesy line we have been saying during all of our training, typically right before we did something physically stupid.
That line soon became a mantra, focusing on those words to help drown out the pain in my right leg.
After a couple of minutes, it starts to help, right up until I jam my foot on another rock mid-trail.
The pain shoots up and down my body.
It’s like I got this electrode stuck in my leg. I start focusing on the pain. It’s something I picked up from mediating a few years earlier. You just focus on the exact spot of pain and will it to spread throughout your body.
I have no idea why this works, but it does.
I alternate between walking, focusing on the pain, and sprinting. I’m mentally trying to make the pain get worse. Then when it gets unbearable, I slow down and focus on the pain again. This alternating lets me focus on the pain and nothing else. Soon, it becomes white noise.
That’s what I was looking for.
It now feels like a dull throbbing, and, just in time for the rain to subside.
Too Slow For Kidney Failure
I take off sprinting to catch up to Andrew and Brian. I’m feeling pretty strong again. I catch up, right as we are entering the next aid station.
Brian is looking pretty beat up. I can tell his ankle is still bothering him from the first mile. We ask if they have any Tylenol.
The woman there responds “We are not allowed to hand that out, it can cause kidney failure.” Fair enough, I’m thinking. I didn’t know that, but kidney failures does not sound like a good thing to add to our problems.
She then continued, “not that you guys are going fast enough for that to really happen”.
Andrew without a word turns to head away from the aid station.
As we get some distance between us and the aid station he says, “These people are savages”.
“Yeah”, Brian responded back a little bitterly, “she is fat, overweight, and no way in hell she could run a 50 miler”. He wasn’t wrong.
“Dude, we have been called weak, slow and dainty today. I don’t think I have been called any of those things since High School. And now it’s said while running 50 miles”.
Brian with a smirk on his face “Man, I love this place”.
If You Start Something, You Better Finish
As we keep moving down the trail, Brian’s ankle is starting to really bother him. He can’t run downhills anymore and even walking is causing agony to spark across his face.
We start trying to find solutions to ease it. First, we have him lean on our shoulders as we go down hills (doesn’t work). He tried side-stepping, that didn’t work either. Finally, we find the best solution. We grab a walking stick. I carry it on the flats and uphill and he uses it for the downhills.
It’s slow going, but at least he can keep going.
As the miles are creeping into the low 40’s, Andrew is starting to have major muscle issues. We start talking it over.
We think he took too many electrolyte tabs. We know from our training runs that there is no way he is going to recover from this.
This “running 50 Miles” thing is slowly turning into a grind.
The rest of the race is going to be a death march.
People start passing us by as we slowly make our way down the hills. Due to Brian’s ankle, we have to alternate our plan.
We run on the uphill’s and the flats and now walk the downhills. Physically it’s a lot harder, but it’s helping Brian’s ankle. Unfortunately, we are losing time rapidly.
Of Course It Has To Come Down To The Wire
Up until the last 10 miles, we were on track for an easy 12-hour finish. We are now worried about finishing in the mandatory 14.
It’s starting to get dark out. We pull our phones out, trying to make out which path is ours.
There are numerous trails splitting off. The one we need is only marked by these tiny strips of purple vinyl. Not exactly the best color or size in the dark.
We really don’t have time for this game of treasure hunt as the time ticks down.
I look at the watch and tell Brian and Andrew that we have to run hard the rest of the way if we are going to finish in time.
Looking at Andrew, he looks like he got shot. You can tell his muscles are failing rapidly. Brian is not much better and is running like he has a club leg. But they look at me and respond “got it”.
We take off running hard, we have 3 miles left, all uphill. The race finishes on the peak of a mountain. We have a little over 30 minutes to make it. And, we are in no shape to run.
I start running ahead, trying to find the correct path before Andrew and Brian show up.
The adrenaline of knowing how close we are to the end has shoved all thoughts of the pain in my leg out of my head.
I get to each turnoff, find the correct route and wait for Brain and Andrew to catch up. This continues until I realize we’re not going to make it.
The next time I take off, I make a decision.
Sometimes You Have To Take Care Of Yourself
For me running these 50 miles and finishing in the alloted time is not an option. I need this race to be able to enter a 100-mile ultra-marathon. I can’t afford to not make it.
The other guys came in with the mindset of this being their last race, but for me, that’s not the case.
Without looking back, I take off.
Running hard, I’m hitting a 7-minute mile pace uphill. The adrenalin in my body is making me feel like I’m floating up the mountain. Back and forth on the switchbacks, I climb. As I near the peak I can finally hear the sounds of people partying above.
I pick up the pace.
I have no idea where all this energy is coming from. But, I feel like a god as I pound up the mountain.
Finally, the lights of the finish line come into view and I stop. I look at my watch. I had made up some serious time and still have 10 minutes until the time is up.
I stand there and wait. If there is any chance of us finishing together, I want to take it.
It’s Better To Finish As A Team
I’m straining my eyes as hard as I can, looking into the black woods below. Silently hoping Brian and Andrew clear the woods.
The time is ticking down. I look at my watch. Two minutes until we are disqualified. Torn between needing to take care of myself and feeling like I’m ditching my tribe.
Right when I am about to head in without them, I see a white light clear the trees.
I yell as loud as I can “LESS THEN TWO MINUTES, F^%$ING KICK IT”.
The whole world stops as I see the realization hit their faces. They immediately start sprinting the rest of the way up the mountain.
Elation fills my body as we meet up and clear the last 400 meters as a team.
I turn to Brian to congratulate him and see him collapsing into one of the volunteer’s arms.
He is delirious, shaking, and not talking in coherent sentences, but he manages to string some words together as we lead him over to a space heater.
“Did we make it?” He asks.
“Yes Brian, yes we did”
Running 50 Miles Sucks But It’s Totally Worth It
At the end of the day, we may be Weak, Slow, and Dainty, but we just finished running 50 miles by the skin of our teeth, with broken bones, failing muscles, and an ankle that is probably severely damaged. We are damned proud of the work we put in, and happy with our accomplishment.
Overall, the race was awesome. We were able to see remote parts of the Sierra Mountains, have experiences we couldn’t have anywhere else, and managed to accomplish a goal we spent the last four months training for.
Of course, it doesn’t end there. The ultimate goal is running 100 miles, but this does mean one more milestone down.
Our take away, running 50 miles isn’t insurmountable and is well within the grasp of anyone willing to put the time and effort in. We made a lot of dumb mistakes, like not bringing a headlamp, not training on similar terrain, and trying to do a 40-mile run only 3 weeks before our race, but we still made it.
As long as you follow a progressive ultra-marathon training plan, willing to put up with some pain, and able to keep your sense of humor. With a basic level of fitness, the race is well within your grasp.
I hope you decide to take the plunge, and maybe we will see you on the trails.