I was just over the midpoint of my Saturday long run - a workout sandwiched between to other moderate runs, all squished in a 36hr window. Around the 3-hour mark, with another 2 hours or so to go, I pulled out a PB&J sandwich no bigger than a stack of playing cards. It was a bright little joy among the hours of aching and frustration I was experiencing. I unwrapped it from its plastic bag and went to take a bite. But I was clumsy and the plastic was slippery and my sandwich tumbled out of my hands and into a puddle.
To say I lost my will to live at that moment might be a little strong. But the run is long past and I'm still working my way through the five stages of grief. I left the sandwich and grudgingly continued my run. And long after the sun went down and the sandwich sucked up all the water in that little puddle, I finished.
It's been a long (read: challenging) stretch of training the past couple of weeks. I'm now over the halfway point to race day, having just wrapped week 13 on the schedule. My start in August seems eons away. It was a time when the temps touched 90 degrees and the sun stayed out an extra few hours. These days, the air flirts with 70 and the sun's gotten very lazy, clocking out around 5:00pm in SoCal. I'm logged an average of 46-56 miles/week right now, with last weekend's workouts tallying as high as 59. This past weekend dropped me back to 47, though the fatigue of training is hard to shake.
Each weekend for the past two months or so, I've been doing 22-30 mile runs on one day, and an additional 6-16 miles on the day or days around it. No medal, no bagel (except at the Marine Corp Marathon!), just a lot of time on my feet and in my head. What I'm finding out about this whole experiment is that it is very different from Ironman training, and from training with a team. The physicality and single-focus-ness of only running combined with the growing number of hours you have to keep yourself motivated is exhaustion. Interesting? Yes. Challenging? You betcha. Worthwhile? Well, I hope so.
I've also learned that not everyone ... in fact, very few people ... can relate to my interest in training for something like this. Someone at work asked me what I was doing, and after I explained (and they stopped laughing) they gave me a once over that said "You've lost a few bolts, huh?" I liken it to watching someone eat ice cream. If they declare they want to take down a hot fudge sundae alone, we cheer their ambition and gluttony. If they declare they want to go for the entire gallon, we pause, maybe back away from them, start whispering about diabetes. As if there is a limit to how high we can set our goals without becoming "that" person. Even my endurance friends look at me a little odd. But no matter. If you want to try and do something impossible, not everyone will understand. No surprise. Plenty of things I would react to the same way. For instance skydiving ... thank you but no thank you have a good day.
So anyway, what exactly does ultra training look like? Everyone has their own method based on minimum needs and what their body can take. Since I've never gone this far, it's all a closely-watched experiment. I'm working with a coach and we go back and forth to develop a schedule that can best prep me for the task of running 100 miles (or 25-30 hours) at a time. My midweek mileage is fairly minimal. I run x2 a week (between 30-90 minutes each day) and cross train once a week. Generally those runs fall on Tuesdays (tempo work or recovery runs) and Thursdays (track workout). Every other Thursday, instead of track, I rest and instead run on Friday.
Friday/Saturday/Sun runs (or Saturday/Sunday runs) are the meat of the schedule. We try to compress my mileage within a 24-to-36-hr window in order create fatiguing conditions. So for instance, this past weekend I ran at 7pm on Friday night, 2pm-7pm on Saturday, and 5:45am-7:30am Sunday morning. Within a a 36.5-hour window, I got in 40 miles. Those distances and windows of time vary, but the trend through January will be to compress the window and up the mileage so I am prepared to handle the race day load.
Why two runs and not one? We're hoping that the slight rest in between offsets injury without giving me too much of a break before I have to start again. And frankly, sometimes starting again is worse than running all at once. The Suck It Up Buttercup factor is high. Will it work? I don't know. But if I am preparing myself to endurance discomfort and suffering, I'm getting a fair amount of that right now.
My body is adapting to the work load okay, aside from a nagging Achilles ache caused by my tight left calf muscle. My mind has been struggling lately. With the exception of some company from my coach Jason and two friends Amy and Dave, I primarily run alone. It's great race simulation since I can't have a pacer until mile 60. And my body awareness is very heightened and attuned when I'm not distracted by conversation.(I am lucky, however, that this particular races has aid stations every 3-6 miles, and my crew can be at 3 of the 5 stations along the loop).
But the hours add up. And maintaining self-propulsion gets hard. And to watch others go off and workout together with a team or with friends is not easy. But I keep reminding myself I didn't sign up for easy. I signed up for struggle-and-survive-and-earn-it. And I will be prepared for moments during the race when I have to deal without any help. Perfect practices makes perfect, and I think I'm getting that.
The approach I'm taking about my race nutrition is inspired by the Feed Zone Cookbook and Osmo Nutrition. I've limited my liquid calories to all but nothing, save for some electrolyte mix that has a few calories. The remainder of my nutritional is solid foods or "real food" ... with an occasional Dr. Pepper thrown in for a quick sugar hit.
The reason I'm tackling my fueling this way is because I don't think my stomach would cooperate if I fuel it with a sports drink and carb supplement for such a long race. Especially one that is only running. In Ironman races, I could rely on liquids to get me through the bike. But that's because there's a lot less jostling going on in the gut. Here, it's all movement all the time. My main go-to's are salted potatoes, peanut butter pretzels, PBJ or turkey sandwiches, squeeze-pack baby food (for quick sugar), string cheese, rice balls and chicken broth. The more I can incorporate slow-burn foods (high fat, high protein) the less likely I will sugar-crash. And that my pacing is a zone 1 HR clip, my body is more attuned to burning fat over carbs anyway.
Quite a number of things cross my mind out there. I've certainly shocked myself at some of the funny and stupid things I've used to keep myself entertained.
For example, two weekends ago I was in the Santa Monica mountains for 7 hours. I ran 4 loops of the La Jolla Valley trail, 7+ mile course that requires a fair amount of climbing and descending at its bookends. I did the first two loops alone, the third with Amy, and the forth alone. During the second loop, I started naming parts of the trails. The first part was 'Soul Crusher', the second was 'Matchsticks", then onto "the Hidden Valley Ranch Commercial" and over to the "Nature Valley Granola Bar Commercial". After that you run past "The Eye of Mordor" and up to "King of the Mountain". You descend along the "Mountain Goat Ridge Run" and back to the car. In other words, I became a crazy tour guide rambling on about made up landmarks. So when I ran with Amy that third loop, it was more of a tour of my habitat rather than just another loop.
This Saturday's sandwich-less run had my brain going into 'survival mode'. Now, the way I train is by doing loops on paths that SAG back at my car. And in this case, I was never more than a few miles away, and always right in civilization. Yet, tired and traumatized by losing my snack, I decided when I returned to the car that I would always carry an 'emergency potato' with me. I packed up a tiny fingerling potato which become my source of light and happiness for the rest of the run. And the phrase, 'emergency potato' delighted me inexplicably. If I wanted to quit (which, boy did I have my moments), I remembered I was carrying my emergency potato and everything would be okay.
Sounds crazy ... because it is. Running alone and running in the dark can do that to you. The folks who will pace at the race are probably in for some comedy. So long as I don't drop my food on the ground. Then they are in for tears. Curse words and tears.
Though this past week was a struggle, I'm deepening my resiliency. This training is a masters class in 'embrace the suck'. I even woke up this morning a little bummed it's a rest day. With proper rest, focus and a fair amount of ice and icy hot, I'll be ready for the build next weekend - 2 runs. 24 hours. 42 miles total. And without a doubt I will be packing at least two sandwiches for that one. An appeasement for the gods of trails and puddles, and a little bit of joy (and peanut butter) for me.