Running an Ultra on Minimal Training

The first weekend of January, I ran the Frosty Bottom 50 (full disclosure: it’s actually more like 44 miles, but I guess the Frosty Bottom 44 doesn’t have quite the same ring to it). For a number of reasons, let’s just say that I did not go into this race with the ideal amount of training. To my surprise, it didn’t go as horrible as I had expected. In fact, my time was almost exactly the same as last year. Maybe it is possible to run an ultra on minimal training!

Let me go back and explain what happened:

Back at the end of November, the weekend after Thanksgiving, I hurt my back. I pulled a muscle during the most dangerous of activities – having a snowball fight with my kids. This was the type of back pain I hadn’t experienced in years, when I used to weigh nearly 300 pounds. For the first 2 days, I was laid up in bed and it took everything I had just to stand up. Every day the pain got a little better, but my back was still very tight and sore. I was in no condition to be running. I had one appointment with a physical therapist, who showed me some stretches and strengthening exercises.

After about 10 days, I was feeling mostly back to normal – just in time to take a 10 day vacation to Hawaii! Before I hurt my back, I had already decided that this was going to be 100% a family vacation – I was completely unplugged from work, and I wasn’t going to sneak away for a run while my family played on the beach. Needless to say, we all had an amazing time, and I don’t regret one bit that I didn’t run a single step in Hawaii. My kids keep asking when we’re moving 🙂

We got back home in the wee hours of December 21, and I went for a run that afternoon – my first in exactly 3 weeks. I was only 2 weeks out from Frosty Bottom, and I was getting nervous. That first run was rough, and I didn’t have much time for things to turn around. During those 2 weeks, the quality of my runs gradually improved, but I still had my doubts. My last run that was over 2 hours had been the New York City Marathon back at the start of November.

Race day came and I was cautiously optimistic. My plan was to take it easy in the beginning and see how I felt. I figured worst case scenario, the course comes within about a mile of my house around mile 30, and I could just bail out at that point if things got really bad. Luckily, I started running with someone I knew fairly well from a running group I go out with sometimes on Monday nights. Chatting with him as we ran really helped pass the time, and kept my mind off of how tired my legs were already feeling.

We got to the halfway turnaround point in just under 4 hours, which I was pretty pleased with. This is where the race’s only aid station is located, which was pretty much limited to water, Gatorade, and a few cookies. I refilled the bladder in my hydration pack, mixed in some Tailwind, and we were back on the trail. As we started making our way back towards where we started that morning, the calf cramps started, and would continue to plague me the rest of the race. I had been drinking plenty, so I mostly chalked this up to my lack of recent training. My legs were feeling pretty dead as we reached 30 miles, and I was teased by the possibility of an easy out. I’ll be honest – I briefly considered this option pretty seriously. I wasn’t feeling great, but I decided that it wasn’t bad enough that I would feel good later about DNFing, so on I ran.

My friend was still running with me, if not slightly ahead, pulling me along. I had to take semi-regular walking breaks to stretch out my calves, but while I was running, I felt like I was able to keep up a pretty decent pace. I have no doubt my friend could have taken off and finished well ahead of me, but we ran together the whole race. As it was starting to get dark, we saw a beautiful combination sunset/moonrise over downtown Anchorage. It was a clear night with a nearly full moon, so we didn’t end up needing our headlamps until we were nearly at the finish.

Finally, we reached the final climb up the big hill at Kincaid Park, and then we were done. In true ultra fashion, there were just 2 people at the finish line to greet us and record our time. Granted, this is primarily a bike race, all of whom had finished hours earlier.

I ended up finishing in 8:30:51 – a whopping 20 seconds faster than last year’s time, on a slightly altered course that was about a mile longer. While it may not have been a particularly pretty finish, I discovered it’s definitely possible to run an ultra on minimal training.

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