Ultramarathons: Lessons Learned from the NYRR NYC 60k

I ran the NYRR NYC 60k, my first ultramarathon, last weekend. At 37.2 miles, the 60k is a shorter ultra (many ultras total 50-100 miles). Regardless, as most people define “ultramarathon” as any distance longer than a marathon, I can now call myself an “ultramarathoner.”

60k Buckle Photo

The 60k belt buckle bling (repost from nyrr.org)

While I was happy with my preparation and how I ran, I learned a lot about how to survive an ultra. Below are my ultramarathon “lessons learned:”

1) Respect the distance. The most important lesson. After the NYC Marathon, I thought that running a race only 11 miles longer would be simple. I ran strong throughout the 60k, but slowed toward the end and got passed by two runners I had outrun for 34 miles. If I reran this race, I would reduce my early race pace by about 5-10 seconds/mile, and run hard the last two loops.

2) Fuel early and often. Many ultrarunners eat about 240-340 calories/hour. I followed this plan, eating two GU gels (100 calories each) and either a banana (~100 calories) or a bag of pretzels (~120 calories) every hour. Further, I began my GU gel intake after the fifth mile, about 2-3 miles earlier than I had my first gel during the NYC Marathon. This likely helped me maintain an early steady state. I did not hit the wall.

3) Muscle endurance. I felt very confident about my aerobic fitness before the NYC Marathon and the 60k. I have consistently espoused my love of the Maffetone Method and its emphasis on developing the aerobic system. That said, prior to the 60k my long runs included a 20-miler, 22-miler, and the marathon. These runs provided a solid, but not ideal, base for running an ultra. To see how experienced ultrarunners recommend a rookie ultrarunner to train, check out the Ultra Ladies 50k (31 miles) training plan. The main differences between 50k/60k and marathon training are the long runs followed by a second long-ish run. This training allows the body to develop the muscle endurance necessary to run harder, longer. Without that type of training, aerobic fitness only takes you so far.

4) Pain is inevitable. I felt physical pain during every race this fall (the Bronx 10-Mile, the Staten Island Half, and the NYC Marathon), but nothing compared to the pain I felt during the 60k. During both the Bronx 10-Mile and Staten Island Half, I was able to tolerate the pain and negative-split. The pain during the NYC Marathon, while more intense, slowed me down, but not significantly. The 60k pain, mostly after mile 30, forced me to bear down harder than ever before, and slowed my pace.

5) Mental toughness trumps pain. I almost despaired around miles 34-35. After cruising along for 30+ miles, two runners passed me, and I thought I would never return to Engineer’s Gate. I had to dig really deep to put one foot in front of the other, telling myself that I was stronger than I felt, that the pain would be over soon, and that I could trust myself. I talked out loud. I screamed a lot of “woos!” I told myself that each step felt good. I told every spectator I recognized how close I was to the finish because saying it out loud made it feel more real. I envisioned myself sprinting down the straightaway near Engineer’s Gate, and anticipated the cheers at the finish line. These positive thoughts propelled me forward.

6) On-course support is awesome. Seeing friends on the course kept my spirits high. Seeing the same volunteers at different points helped me “shorten the horizon” of the race. I thought, “In one more mile you’ll see Alison, and you can say hi get a high five.” It helped break the race into more digestible chunks. I can’t run 37.2 miles, or 50 miles, or even 10 miles, but I can run a mile and reassess. Mile by mile. Step by step. You can’t run 37.2 miles all at once. You have to do it a step at a time.

7) Camaraderie with fellow runners. Talking to other runners helped tremendously. With around 400 runners attempting the 60k, it was easy to say encouraging things to people as we ran around Central Park nine times. It’s nice to know that we’re all attempting something difficult together, and not at each other’s throats in competition.

8) Stopping for fuel/food breaks might not be necessary. If I had a “crew” helping me out during the race, I might have been able to run continuously the whole time. This might have cut 2-3 minutes off my time, enough to move up about two finishing places. That said, I appreciated the mini breaks from the running, but felt like I could have run straight had I easier access to my in-race nutrition.

9) Hard work pays off. I’ve written about this before, but I worked really hard at my running this past year, asking for help, taking advice, and staying consistent with my training. The 60k further demonstrates that commitment to improvement.

10) You must have fun. Despite the physical and mental pain, you need to enjoy the run. Multiple friends told me I looked like the happiest runner on the course. I don’t doubt it. I always try to smile at friends and spectators because I genuinely appreciate their willingness to cheers us on. On a deeper level, though, I feel so much gratitude even to be able to participate in these events. I have family and friends who support me in my efforts, and allow me to push hard every day. When I think about that, it puts my running in context and makes every step special. Plus, endorphins.

Anyone else run the 60k and have some lessons learned? Lessons from other ultramarathons?

Happy running, everyone!

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