Running an Ultra Marathon: 0-40 in 6 Weeks (Part 1)


via Asheville Citizen-Times

Yesterday I ran the Mt Mitchell Challenge, a fantastic trail run that covers 40 miles from Black Mountain, NC to the top of Mt Mitchell, elevation 6,684 feet. I’m writing a short story about the race and submitting it to Outside, Trail Runner, and Blue Ridge Outdoors. But first, you, constant reader, are able to see the work in progress over the next few days. Enjoy!

We were sitting in the restaurant, waiting on our Thai food, when Dan spoke up. “I’m going to have to drop out of the Challenge this year, my hamstring just won’t hold up for the big runs. Kills me.” My ears immediately perked up. The Challenge. A 40 mile eastern epic that climbs from Black Mountain, NC to Mt Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Rockies. Last year I ran the accompanying marathon, which in comparison is treated like a 1 mile fun run. For 2012, I hadn’t gotten in to the race in time. When registration opened on October 2, I was 3 miles deep in to the StumpJump 50k. That probably didn’t even matter, because both races filled up in less than 15 minutes. Besides, at the end of the race I was so fed up with running ultras that I didn’t care. However, that feeling did not last. Between the end of StumpJump and the current scene, I had run less than 40 miles total. But when Dan said he was out, I immediately wanted in. I asked him to check with the race director and see if I could fill the space. The problem was, the Challenge was in 6 weeks.

I knew it would be an interesting training program. While I had run long distances before, I had not kept up my training during the past 3 months. I simply wanted to see if I could do it. What was the intrinsic desire that compelled me to even attempt this run? The course is notoriously treacherous, with sub-freezing temps, snow, and hurricane force winds. I knew I couldn’t possibly as prepared as I wanted to be, but I still wanted to try. Perhaps some of the desire was male machismo, but I also wanted to believe there was an ability and mental toughness inside me that could keep going. I stumbled upon a training regimen that intrigued me. On Timothy Ferris’ blog, he had interviewed an ex-special ops soldier who had taken up ultra distance trail running (read the post here). Pavel (not his real name), had been training for years by using a model of consistency of heart rates (60-70% of MHR), moderation of distance/intensity, and nose breathing. By not pushing the body to extreme fatigue, he was able to recover faster and be more consistent. Pavel rarely takes days off, and by having a moderate, but consistent, 30 minute workout each day, does not particularly need to. The nose breathing piece was also intriguing, because it is a way to keep the intensity down. The first few times I tried to run while nose breathing felt like 30 minutes of hyperventilating. My breathing became smoother, and it helped keep my heart rate down. I decided to stick with this approach for the remainder of the training.

I had no grand notions of doing well, simply to finish. In fact, I initially thought I would go out and run the marathon again, and spent the first 4 weeks training for that. I didn’t start thinking seriously about the Challenge until 2 weeks before race day, when training culminates with a big run. Mine was 22 miles, run in snow and freezing temps. When I finished, I thought “Hell, I just ran 22 miles, so I know I can run the marathon, and I already did that last year. Maybe I could finish the Challenge.” Being able to pull off a 22 mile run after 4 weeks of serious training had me thinking grand thoughts of long distance using the Pavel Method.

In Joseph Campbell’s masterwork, The Hero with a Thousand Faceshe states that the adventure of the hero begins with a “Call to Adventure”then follows 3 main phases:

  • Departure
  • Training/Initiation
  • Culmination/Return

In my work, we have studied the hero’s journey, rites of passage, and community contribution, so I was able to apply these tenets while making sense of the desire to run. My call was undoubtably when Dan said he was having to drop out of the race. But why keep running? The marathon was achievable, within my grasp. The challenge was a risk, I could endanger myself and others. I believe that we all aspire to challenge ourselves in ways we know will require all of our abilities. Running 40 miles up and down a mountain would require all I had physically and mentally. Could I accomplish that task in such a short amount of time? I didn’t know, but I felt that I wanted to try. I trained diligently during those 6 weeks, consistently running, sticking to the training, and eating properly (a entirely separate post). The run itself was initiation.

I’ll be posting Part 2 of the story by Wednesday, February 29. I appreciate everyone that continues to read my essays and stories, it means a lot! Until then, here is a video made by 3rd place finisher Tim Weed, who does a great job of running fast and showing what kind of course the race is. Thanks Tim!

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2 thoughts on “Running an Ultra Marathon: 0-40 in 6 Weeks (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Running an Ultra Marathon: 0-40 in 6 Weeks (Part 2) | Matt Ragland

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