Noel and I ran our first (and likely last) ultra marathon this last Saturday. It was kind of a big deal for us and I’ve also gotten a few questions about it, so I’m going to give the race it’s own post and address a few things.
What is the Dirty 30?
The Dirty 30 is a trail race that takes place in Golden Gate Canyon State Park here in Colorado. It’s categorized as an ultra marathon because it’s longer than 26.2 miles. The Dirty 30 is a 50K race. 50 Kilometers equals 31 miles, but apparently distances get a little fluid when you get past a marathon. Up until two months ago, I was telling everyone I was running a 31 mile race, then one day I was looking at the course map and realized it had mile markers up to 32 miles so I readjusted how long the race was in my mind. While running the race there was a sign that said, “Why 32.6? Because 32.7 would be crazy.” I remember thinking, “Are you freaking kidding me? How long is this race actually going to be?” My Garmin GPS watch clocked the race at 32.33 miles. See what I mean about the distance being a fluid concept? This race is considered to be a difficult ultra marathon because it starts at high altitude (~7750 feet above sea level) and has a lot of vertical climbing and descent (~7250 feet).
Why Run an Ultra Marathon?
That is a great question and one I asked myself several times while actually running the race. Noel and I were trying to figure out exactly how we got ourselves into this and realized it wasn’t any one big thing, but a lot of little things. We had run the Dirty 30 12 mile race twice, once in 2014 the spring after Noel turned 30 and then again in 2016 the spring after I turned 30. Both times, we lamented how cool it would be if we’d ran the 30 mile race to usher us into our 30s, but we just didn’t have the time or resources to train for something like that with our little kids. Plus, the 12 mile kicked our butts sufficiently. Still, there was always that little thought swirling in the back of our mind, wouldn’t that be cool . . . This year was the first year the kids would both be in school full day which opened up the possibility of longer runs while they were in school.
The race also has a special club for people that choose the race as their first ultra. It’s called the Sisu club. Sisu is a word I was familiar with because it’s a Finnish word and my grandmother was Finnish. It’s a hard word to translate into English, but I remember my dad telling me when I was a teenager that it’s kind of like “guts” or similar to the feeling behind Nike’s “Just do it.” There was some part of me that felt pulled to want to achieve that status, as if it ran in my blood. (Which is actually kind of funny to think about because my grandma, while amazing in many ways, was not one for much physical activity and never would have done anything like this.)
Another thing that played into our decision was Noel having crazy co-workers that do things like this. He has two co-workers that regularly do ultras and not measly 50Ks, but 50 milers, 100milers, and sometimes beyond. They were really encouraging of us to
join their cult try it. Noel has a third co-worker, Jon, who is dipping his toes into the ultra running world and he also encouraged us to to try it with him.
Take all of those things, add a little bit of mid winter stir craziness, and we found ourselves registering for the race back in December.
How did you do this physically?
A lot of people assume because Noel and I like running that this was easy, but it wasn’t. When we started to seriously throw around the idea of running the race last fall I was only running 1 or 2 days a week. Noel was running more than that (and doing a lot of it with his co-worker, Jon), but we knew it still wasn’t a good enough base for what the race would require. We decided to use the fall and early winter months as a test of whether we could increase our base mileage to a level that would make it remotely possible for us to ramp up safely to a 50K.
Creating a base was a harder task for me than Noel. I knew to complete training for a 50K I would need to be able to run a minimum of 3 days a week. I was (and still am) teaching classes four days a week. I also always take a rest day on Sundays. If you do the math, that means one of my running days would have to be the same day as one of my teaching days. I started to do short runs before or after teaching one of my classes and at first my body was so tired, but after awhile my body adjusted and if I paced myself, two workouts in a day wasn’t as daunting.
By the time December rolled around, Noel and I felt pretty good about the base we’d built up with our long runs being about 8-10 miles. It was enough for us to bite the bullet and register for the race.
Once we’d committed, I created a training plan for us. We stuck with running three times a week (dedicated ultra runners do more, but that was as much as our schedules allowed, more on that later) and alternated weeks with shorter long runs and longer runs that increased our furthest distance. For example:
Week one long run – 15 miles
Week two long run – 12 miles
Week three long run – 17 miles
Week four long run – 12 miles
Week five long run – 19 miles
Week six long run – 12 miles
Week seven long run – 20 miles
When we first started ramping up the mileage, my knees began to plague me. I had to take a lot of the modifications I offered in my classes because of the pain. I threw every rehab idea I had at my knees- icing, exercises to strengthen the muscles that support the knee, foam rollering, knee support braces, avoiding running on roads, any small amounts of rest I could squeeze in while still doing my job, and even swimming. Gradually, the pain faded. I should say that while the acute pain went away, I still suffered from tired knees that felt every step of a downhill. Noel was also feeling this, but it seems to just be “part of the game” when you’re doing insane things like this where you’re constantly pounding your knees.
One of the things that has struck me through all of this, is how amazing our bodies truly are. Whether you run ultras, swim, hike, bike, or do yoga, I hope you take the time now and again to acknowledge how amazing your body is at healing, growing, and persevering through the things you love as well as the things you don’t.
Our final mile count from the day we signed up for the run through race day was 601 miles. Even though there were a lot of physical challenges (injury, mud, snow, more mud) and more dread than usual about running, there were enjoyable runs in there and I impressed myself with with my dedication. Noel and I spent a lot of quality time together and I also spent a lot of time thinking about the tough people I come from: My Finnish grandma who lived through bombings during World War II, my great grandmother who was a widow for almost 50 years, my grandfather who used to run in old boots when he was young before various illnesses weakened his body, my four times great grandmother that crossed the plains as a single woman, and my Boston qualifying mother. On tough runs, I’d sometimes summon strength from these people.
How did you do this logistically
In many ways, the logistics side of training was the bigger nightmare. I mentioned I had to fit runs into the mix of classes I was teaching. I got really good at finding tricky ways to make my classes easier for me if I had a long run that day or the next day. I’d use lighter weights or take the modifications after demonstrating once or twice the higher intensity exercise. I also had my classes do workouts where I could be more of a coach – circuits with stations, drills across the room, or AMRAP workouts (As Many Rounds As Possible).
Then there were the logistics of what to do with the kids. We began doing shorter runs where we’d leave them at home with a Relay (like a walkie talkie that works over cell network). They embraced the independence and ate lots of cold cereal for breakfast. The longer runs, the ones that took 2-6 hours were harder to fit in. We tried to plan some of our longer runs for school days when we’d have free daycare from the state of Colorado. When we did that though, Noel had to work 9 hour days to get all of his work hours in which wasn’t a small feat. When we got to some of our longer runs, we would drop the kids off at school and immediately head out to our run sometimes only having enough time afterwards to pick up a hamburger on the way to pick them up from school.
Some weeks running on a school day wasn’t possible due to work obligations or crazy things with the kids’ school schedule. It seemed like they had a day off school every week from January on for holidays, teacher prep days, snow days, crazy-shooter-on-the-loose days, etc. Weeks where we couldn’t make that work, we’d hire a babysitter which was easier said than done. Teenagers have a lot of things going on Saturday mornings, so sometimes I would ask up to five people before finding someone that could. Luckily, I used to be a youth Sunday School teacher so I know a good pool of outstanding teenage girls and boys.
Finally, there was the weather. The weather was really great for the snow pack, but not so great for running outdoors. We moved runs around when we could, but sometimes just had to bite the bullet and run in crappy weather or worse, on the treadmill. We have a treadmill at home I would run on and Noel would run on a treadmill at work.
Running and figuring out when or how to run became pretty consuming. One of the things we are looking forward to the most with the race being over is having time and energy to do other things.
How did you manage your nutrition?
I’ve mentioned a few times that one of the hardest things for me was learning to eat and drink while running. For endurance events that take less than two hours eating isn’t crucial, but once they get longer it’s important that you’re fueling your body. I’ve done two marathons (almost a decade ago) that took me a little less than four hours each and somehow got away without eating, but I knew I wasn’t going to get away with that here. Noel and I played around with what worked for us. We tried gels, blocks, chews, and lots of other snacks. Overall, we liked eating oatmeal beforehand and during we’d eat stinger chews and waffles, oatmeal whole wheat chocolate chip cookies, pretzels, dried fruit, and nuun. On race day, we also brought salt tablets with us. Nutrition for endurance sports is almost the complete opposite of normal nutrition advice. You want lots of carbs and sugars so your body has quick fuel and electrolytes to replace everything you’re losing.
Outside of running our diet was crazy and will definitely need to be reeled in now that the race is over.
How was the race?
The race was a roller coaster of emotions and feelings. It was honestly one of the most humbling experiences of my life. I truly felt like I tested what my body was capable of and bumped up against my physical limits.
The morning of the race, we met up with Jon at 4:45am to carpool to the race. They allow the first 75 cars that have 3+ runners in their car to park near the starting line. Everyone else has to park at the fairgrounds and take a 20 minute bus ride. We honestly didn’t think we’d get a parking spot at the starting line, but it turns out most people are really bad at reading and didn’t realize they needed a minimum of three runners. We were issued a special parking pass and a carnation thanking us for carpooling and were waved through to the parking lot. We hung out in the car for an hour and a half to stay warm and eat some breakfast.
They have three starts for the race based on the time you expect to finish – one at 6am, 7am, and 8am. We were in the middle start and expected to finish in around 8 hours based on our training times. We ended up finishing the race in 8 hours, 51 minutes, and 42 seconds. It was slower than we anticipated, but the terrain was more difficult than most of our training runs and we’d also always paused our watches when we stopped for drinks/bathroom/babbka on our training runs which you can’t do in a race. We knew the race had a lot of vertical gain and had tried our best to train for that, but neither of us was expecting some of the terrain to be so technical. There were parts that I don’t think were physically possible to run unless you’re part mountain goat. We were climbing up and down boulders and sometimes you had to slow down just so you wouldn’t catch a toe on the multitude of rocks or tree roots. I’m not over here beating myself up about it, I’m honestly thrilled I crossed the finish line.
The first three miles of the race was the weirdest race experience I’ve ever had. The race starts on a road that quickly narrows into a single track trail. It stays single track for about ~1/4 mile and then opens up again wide enough that you can pass people. We literally had to stop for about a minute and wait in line to start heading up that first single track then we all shuffled single file until it opened up. We expected that part from doing the 12 mile race before, but it seemed more exaggerated. We passed a few people during the next 1/2 mile until the trail narrowed again to single track. When we did the 12 mile race people had really spread out by this point, but with the 50K we were still in a huge chunk of people. Once again, we were stuck behind a long line of people with no control over how fast or slow we were going. Gradually over the next couple of miles we’d find opportunities to pass people one or two at a time when it occasionally opened up. It was weird to not control our speed, but also not that big of a deal since the race was so long.
The weather ended up being almost perfect. The state park had rain and snow earlier in the week which worried us, but even though we did see a few patches of snow and encounter some mud it wasn’t bad. It rained for a bit around noon and began to thunder. They had one year where they cut out one of the peaks in the run due to lightning and we were a little concerned that might happen. I couldn’t decide whether that would have been a disappointment or a relief. By the time we got to that final climb, the skies had calmed. We were grateful the weather wasn’t too warm as we just aren’t trained for the heat after such a chilly spring.
We had two goals with the race: 1. Finish 2. Don’t throw up. I have a long history of getting nervous about races that started sometime when I was a Varsity cross-country runner in high school. It carried with me into adulthood even when there wasn’t as much of a competitive edge to what I was doing. I would get so anxious and jittery that I would throw up before races. Noel on the other hand didn’t get nervous, but would often find himself barfing in bushes after races from over exertion. I can proudly say that we did not lose our cookies on this race although we both kept coming up to the edge of what our tummies could handle. There were a lot of queasy moments during the race where we had to pull back on our exertion to keep our cool.
We also found that we had very little tolerance for sweets on race day. The race had five aid stations with the best volunteers you could ask for. When you’d cruise or straggle in people were there to refill your bottles/camelbaks/etc (the race is cup-less so you have to carry your own hydration system). At the second to last aid station (~mile 25) this guy even opened my camelbak for me, filled it, and resealed it because my fine motor skills apparently become impaired when I’m exhausted. They had this buffet of the craziest food at the aid stations. I gravitated towards pretzels, potato chips, PB&J bites, and boiled potatoes of all things. Eating real food helped settle my stomach a bit as all the electrolyte beverages, chews, etc seemed to be agitating it.
One of the things they do at this race is color code the race bibs. First time ultra runners had green bibs, people from low altitude had purple, 12 milers had yellow, and veteran ultra runners had pink. People would see our green bibs and give us extra cheers. As we’d pass people we’d note the color of their bibs. If they were veterans we’d ask if they’d done this race before or if they’d done others. For those that had only done other ultras I’d ask how this race compared and time and time again they’d say this race was a beast compared to other ultras they’d done.
Overall, the other runners provided a great community. When the elite runners caught up with us we’d step to the side and cheer them on, they’d thank us and wish us luck. We commiserated with several people over our poor life choices and encouraged each other to keep going. There was one poor girl that was openly sobbing. People would talk with her and urge her to stick with them. When someone came up from behind the person who was with her would take off and the person who had just arrived would urge her on for awhile. I was happy to see her later on and learn that she had indeed finished.
Noel and I stuck together the whole time. He and I both tend to bonk out or hit walls at different points. I tend to hit mine earlier around mile 13-15. He usually hits his around 18-21. At the two marathons we’ve done together I left him around mile 18-23 and I was determined to not be a jerk like that again. We kept each other going and made it across the finish line one second apart. Our friend, Jon, finished the race an hour before us which was not a surprise to any of us.
The race has a big post-race BBQ with burgers, but we were both not ready to stomach that. We stuck to ginger ale, fruit, and rice chips. We were also very stinky, tired, and salt crusted. I was very pleased to be able to buy myself a Sisu hat. (Although maybe a little annoyed that I had to buy it since they used to give them to the Sisus.)
We gave Jon and his wife a ride back to their car which she’d parked at the fairground, then went and picked up our kids. Taking a shower and sleeping for 9 1/2 hours that night was pure bliss.
Where were our kids?
I have an amazing friend that watched our kids. Her name is Allison and she’s the one I paired up with to crusade for recess. Back in the fall I mentioned Noel and I were thinking about doing this race. She’s a vibrant lady that lives life to the fullest and at the time she was especially passionate about it because her mom was about to have surgery to remove a brain tumor. (Her mom is doing really great by the way.) When I told Allison about this crazy idea she said, “You have to do it! I’ll watch your kids.” When I called her out on the offer later, she enthusiastically agreed and didn’t complain when we dropped our kids off at 4:30am and didn’t pick them up until 5:30pm. She’s truly a great friend.
Would we do it again?
Runners are crazy and you can never say never, but I would like to tell myself right now that this is a crazy idea that I should never do again. 9 hours is a LONG time to be running. It does crazy things to your mind and your body. I’ve told people over and over again, training for an ultra is not a plan for optimal health. My toes are wrecked right now from miles of pounding. They’re bruised, blistered, and a few even have blisters under the toenail. I’m pretty sure I’m going to lose at least four toenails because of all this. Our knees are worn out and need a break and there’s a certain level of exhaustion that loomed over us for months. I’m also pretty sure I have a mild bladder infection from the race, yep apparently that’s possible. Right now we’re looking to rest up a bit and maybe run some shorter, more enjoyable things. In spite of all of that, I really am just so proud we did this at all.