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!

Race Preview: The NYRR NYC 60k, November 14, 2015

I ran the NYC Marathon just under two weeks ago. I took six days off from running to allow a sore ankle to heal. I took it easy for the past six days, running about 16 miles since Sunday. I stretched, worked my core, and nailed my nutrition plan by eating all the leftover Halloween candy and pie of which a boy could ever dream. Essentially, I followed the runner’s plan in some ways, and completely disregarded it in others.

Despite all that, I will run the NYRR NYC 60k, my first ultra marathon, tomorrow! I first found the 60k around the time I was accepted in the lottery for the NYC Marathon. At that time I was reading Born to Run and all amped up about ultra marathons. I kept it in the back of my head throughout the year, and decided to add it to my schedule over the summer.

While I was injured and on crutches in April, May, and part of June, I doubted whether I could train for this race on only four months of training (July-October), with July being a slow return to running. After reading numerous recaps of the race, however, and realizing that many people ran and finished it after the NYC Marathon on marathon training only, and reading further that people training for a 50k often train based on a marathon training plan, I realized that I could enter the race on my limited training and treat it as an opportunity to learn about ultra running.

And here we are.

The race follows a very straightforward course in Central Park:

  • Beginning at Engineer’s Gate (90th Street and Fifth Avenue), run a 5.2-mile lower loop of the Park (no Harlem Hill)
  • Upon returning to Engineer’s Gate, run eight inner loops (four miles each)
  • Collapse, arise victorious, eat all the food known to man, collapse from insulin shock, arise beaten but not broken

The race also carries limited fanfare: no professional photographers, no live tracking (the race is manually scored by an NYRR worker checking off how many loops you’ve run whenever you cross the starting line), and a much more lax participation policy: anyone can hop in and run a loop or four with you. Friends, who wants to keep me company/sane?

Further, NYRR allows us runners to bring a clear plastic bag filled with liquids and foods of our choice, to be placed on a “nutrition table” at the starting line and filled with whatever food we want.

Sounds easy, right? You get your own food and all the friends you could ever want supporting you. Here’s what’s going to make this run a beast (besides the 37.2 mile aspect of it):

  • Nine cat hills. Yes, we get to run Cat Hill (3.3% gradient, .25 miles) nine times. As my friend Sam joked, “By the end, it’ll feel like Cat Mountain.” For real.
  • While Cat Hill complicates the east side of the Park, the cluster of three rolling hills that I call the lesser Harlem hills dominates the northwestern corner of the loops. None of these hills are particularly long or steep. However, the constant up and down could affect pacing. Because I’ve trained in Central Park on these hills many times, and in training I tend to run the hills slowly so as to keep my heart rate down, I think I have an advantage here, and will run as if training.
  • Nutrition nutrition nutrition. Having never run an ultra before, I have limited knowledge about how to fuel properly for the race. A friend told me to employ my marathon fueling strategy over the 37.2 miles, make sure to drink a lot of water, and to recognize that most people experience some kind of wall around miles 29-30. He recommended bringing a decarbonated Coke to slam back at this point in the race.
  • So, based on my marathon nutrition and my friend’s advice, here’s what I’m going to bring to the race:
    1. 10 GU gels with sodium and caffeine
    2. Smaller bags of pretzels for extra sodium and carbs (I’ve eaten them in training run before, and they don’t hurt my stomach)
    3. Extra water bottles
    4. Bananas
    5. One 20-ounce decarbonated Coke
    6. Faith, hope, and love

Even though I’m going into this race at less-than-top shape (you know, having run a marathon less than two weeks ago), I have two basic goals: 1) to finish; and 2) if possible, to break five hours (an 8:00/Mile pace gets you 4:57ish). I will try to settle into a rhythm and see how I feel around the marathon point. If I’m dying, I’m happy to adjust and focus on finishing. If I’m still going strong, giddyup.

Ultimately, though, the goal is to finish so that I can earn the right to wear this year’s race bling:

NYRR 60k

Awww yeahhh

And seriously, who wouldn’t want such a handsome belt buckle?

I might not sound like it, but I am PUMPED about this race. I’m currently trying to figure out if I want to run a 50-miler next year, so this race will help me sort out 2016’s running goals. It also seems like it’ll be fun to run with friends as I attempt to go farther than I’ve ever gone before. And also, why not? If 300 other folks (about how many who finished last year) are attempting something awesome less than a mile from my apartment, why would I stay in bed?

Happy running, everyone!

Maffetone at Work! Also 9/22/15: Morning Run, 5:30 a.m., 6.2 Miles, Central Park Loop

I’ve written a lot of training run recaps. This morning’s will be short: I ran this morning, and it was lovely. Check out my Training Plan for updates on what I’m up to on a daily basis. I’ll be expanding that page to include the exercises I do at the gym, and welcome any and all feedback on my plan.

Now, for something far more interesting!

I have posted relentlessly about Dr. Phil Maffetone’s 180 Formula for heart rate training, and written about my experience training almost exclusively using this method for almost five months. I have discussed how I PR’d at the Percy Sutton 5k—running a 5:56 per mile pace and besting my previous 5k PR by over a minute—by performing training runs at my maximum aerobic heart rate, and doing (at most) three anaerobic workouts prior to the race. In short, Dr. Maffetone’s method has worked for me. But what about for other people?

Larisa Dannis

Larisa Dannis (reposted from Runner’s World)

Here is a great example from Runner’s World of the Maffetone Method at work. Larisa Dannis, a former recreational runner, ran the USA 50-Mile Road Championship in 5:59:11 in October of 2014, becoming only the third American woman to run 50 miles in under six hours. She will represent the United States in the IAU World 100K Championships in Doha, Qatar in November. She also came in second in the women’s race at the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, and was the first female finisher from the mass start at the 2014 Boston Marathon with a time of 2:44:14, only 74 seconds shy of qualifying for the Olympic trials.

How does she train? You can probably guess! From the Runner’s World article: “Dannis trains via the Maffetone Method, doing all of her training runs and races in very specific heart rate zones. It’s an unconventional approach, but one that’s helped her transform herself from a relatively average runner to one of the best American ultrarunners in just a few years.”

The article also discusses her specific heart rate training: “Dannis wears a heart rate monitor to make sure that she’s doing all of her training runs and races in the proper heart rate zone. Over time, she’s learned what heart rate she can sustain for various distances, and uses those numbers to guide her in all of her training and racing. For example, she averaged 134 beats per minute during the Western States this year, and she knows that she needs to be in the 163-165 range during a marathon.”

Finally, “Dannis spent nearly two years building her aerobic base, aiming to not exceed a set heart rate in training. She estimates that she still does more than 90 percent of her training at an easy, aerobic pace.” She has incorporated more speedwork into her routines over time, she says, which also contributed to her excellent finishing time at the 2014 Boston Marathon.

Dannis also employs the piece of the Maffetone puzzle that I am just starting to put together: the nutrition plan. From Runner’s World: “Dannis credits the transformation in her running to three things: training via the Maffetone Method, focusing on whole-body strength (she particularly likes kettlebells), and eating a whole-foods diet high in healthy fats and high-quality protein” (emphasis added).

Such a diet contradicts the common wisdom that runners need to consume a diet high in carbohydrates before, during, and after a race. Anyone who runs road races knows what I’m talking about: carbo-loading for two-three days before a race, sucking down multiple sugar-happy gels during the race, and pounding all sorts of pancakes and other starchy treats after the race as a reward for a job well done. The idea behind the carb-heavy diet is that the body burns lots of sugars while running, so the runner needs to consume lots of sugars to stay properly fueled.

A diet high in healthy fats and protein, however, combined with the maximum aerobic heart rate training advocated by Dr. Maffetone and others, leads the body to burn more fat for fuel. Fat is a more efficient energy source than sugar, and the body creates fewer harmful byproducts at a cellular level when training aerobically and burning fat. This allows faster recovery times, more efficient training, and overall improved health.

At least, that’s the theory. As I do more research, I will expand on this topic. For now, because Dr. Maffetone’s heart rate method has worked for me, I’m willing to explore his guidance on the dietary component of endurance sports. As one running buddy once said after declaring his love for tuna melts, “I sometimes wonder just how good I could be at this sport if I nailed the nutrition component.” Some “food” for thought. Get it?! I’m such a dork.

Finally, I like Dannis’ attitude about racing. She says, “‘Running has always been a very personal endeavor for me. I find satisfaction and excitement through challenging myself rather than competing with others.”

Love it. Focus on improving and running each race better than the last. Results come in many forms.

Happy running, everyone!