Monday, January 26, 2009

My thoughts on ultra-running

Imagine approaching the 18 mile mark in a race with the dreaded “wall” not too far ahead and you still have a half mary to go. Ouch! That’s exactly what happens in 50 K (31 mile race). It seems that distances longer than marathon are growing in popularity. I know someone who is active in the Birmingham track club who runs several marathons per year, usually just over 4 hours. When I heard that he ran the Oak Mountain 50K, which as the name implies, has massive hills, I asked him if he would recommend it just to hear what he would say. His reply without hesitation was an immediate and enthusiastic “yes!” He claimed that it was actually easier than a marathon because “you don’t race it” and you stop several times for food and drink. The whole thing would take me at least 5 hours to run. Man, it’s hard enough for me to be out there running on Saturdays for even half that amount of time in an 18-20 mile training run. Surveys show that the vast majority of ultra-marathon participants say that the event is worth doing. One thing that I have resolved is that I will never attempt a race at a distance longer than a marathon and especially not one on an extremely hilly course. Also, I will limit my marathon races to 1-2 per year. In my view, the actual race is not even the most difficult part of the ordeal. I do long runs of 16-23 miles almost every weekend during the training cycle and cannot imagine doing that type of mileage all year round. Not only does the training beat your body up, it consumes your entire Saturday morning. In terms of recovery from races, even after an all out effort at 5K or 10K, I feel well enough to run several easy miles the next day. With my current fitness level, I could probably do the same after a half marathon. The marathon is an entirely different beast. After you’re done, you want to take a taxi cab from your bed to the bathroom and your quad muscles feel like they’ve been ground into raw hamburger meat. It hurts to walk but going down the stairs is sheer agony. Still, after limping around for a couple of days, I feel well enough to do a gentle run after 2-3 days of rest. Why do I do this? First, the sense of accomplishment cannot be beaten. Second, I have tremendous potential to improve as most endurance athletes do not peak until they are in their 30s. Qualifying for one of the most prestigious road races, the Boston marathon looks like it just might be possible after all. Third, the high mileage, even during the first third of the year will help me in shorter distances from 10K to the half marathon. Fourth, I have a cause to my running. Sure, there will always be skeptics out there but the faster I get, the more likely people will listen to what I have to say about alternative medicine.
Ultra-running is not limited to 50K. I know of several 50 mile and even 100 mile foot races. I mean no offense to anyone reading this that has done one of these but in my view, that’s just plain stupid. How about some of the triathlon distances? I did a workout back in undergrad in which I swam a quarter mile in a pool, rode my bike for 6 miles then proceeded to run a 5K. It was pretty tough and the dorm room was spinning for a few hours. Just imagine an Ironman distance. It’s a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride followed by a 26.2 mile run. If I punished my body even anywhere close to that amount, it is a recipe for disaster and almost surely a relapse into adrenal fatigue. I was essentially recovered from my marathon within 10 days to 2 weeks and turned in a near PR for 8K just 3 weeks later on a tough course. Those who have completed an Ironman report that it takes 2 weeks to be able to run again and upwards of 2 months for a full recovery to take place. Only a few Runner’s World forum members report that they know much about adrenal fatigue but some have expressed amazement about my comeback. However, if you go to Triathlon forums, the members know all about it and discuss what must be done to prevent and treat it. Maybe I will do one very slow 30 miler on my 30th birthday weekend but will I ever race an ultra? No. What about an Ironman with my medical history? I may be crazy but I’m not stupid.

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