In the past two months, I’ve run two 50K ultramarathons.

Both on trail. Both wearing the same pair of shoes, after similarly negligent training, and with finishing times just 20 minutes apart.

But the outcomes, they were remarkably different.

This is the tale of two 50Ks, the Steep Canyon 50K in September, and the Sky to Summit 50K in November. While you may already know the results of those races, it’s the journeys — in particular the differences in those journeys — that have lead me to share this tale.

We’ll begin with Steep Canyon:

Steep Canyon

I go into the Steep Canyon 50K feeling confident. Not in my training, or my ability to race, but that I can handle the distance without trouble, and have a good time running it. That confidence leads to an almost arrogant approach to the day. Arrogance which allows me to neglect my standard pre-race routine, and opt to waste time joking around with friends instead.

I have no race plan. No nutrition plan. And have done no mental preparations for what would become a 6 and a half hour day. Yet for some reason, this lack of preparation is of no concern.

Sky to Summit

The week leading up to the Sky to Summit 50K is filled with preparations. Days before I leave, I begin gathering gear for both camping the night before and running on race day. On my last few taper runs, I find myself focused on the race, and engaging my thoughts with the mountain adventure soon to follow.

It’s exciting, exhilarating, and leaves me feeling a bit nervous.

Steep Canyon

A few miles after we take off from the starting line, I focus in on the other runners. I pick out a few I believe I should beat — based solely on appearances, gear choices, and how hard they’re breathing (profiling, much?) — and lock in right behind them up the first climb. Any thoughts of pushing too hard are easily ignored by my laser focus on mile splits and place.

As one of the guys I’ve locked on to chats with another runner around mile 5, I realize he is running the relay, and will be finishing in just 5 more miles. Discouraged, I let him pull away, and my thoughts immediately drift towards … my nipples.

“Damn it!” I cry out to myself, “You forgot to Band Aid your nipples.”

Even though, there’s no way chaffing has begun this early in the race, it’s the only thing I can think about. Immediately my nipples start to burn, and I’m positive I’ll enter the next aid station with streaks of blood running down my shirt. For the next 5 miles, I kick myself with disgust for being so careless earlier that morning.

As I reach a drop bag around mile 10.5, I grab some tape and press on … head lowered. Frustrated.

Sky to Summit

Within the first 3 miles I’ve climbed more than 1,500 feet on mostly runnable, smooth terrain. I start off fairly swift, but quickly settle in to a comfortable, sustainable pace. My friend Peter is nearby, but instead of chasing him down, I decide to let him pull ahead, focusing on what would become my mantra for the day: Stay relaxed. Stay comfortable.

As we hit the first downhill, I fall in behind a woman running well but with a hint of timidness. I’m strong on downhills, and would normally blast down this mountain with delight.

“Let me know if you want to pass,” she says.

I thank her, and just as a few guys barrel past us, I respond with,

“I’m fine right here. I’ve got nothing to prove in the first 10 miles of a 50K.”

We cross through the first creek, and my focus shifts towards my feet. I realize that while I remembered to tape my big toe, I forgot to spread lubricant in between them. It is raining, and has been all morning, so my final preparations were clouded with the attempt to remain dry as long as possible.

It made for a messy morning, so forgetting lube came as no surprise.

My feet are notoriously prone to blistering, especially on such a wet day. But instead of harping on the mistake, I decide to let it go. What happens next will happen, I reassure myself. Now that I’m out on the course with no lube on hand, there’s nothing more to be done.

Stay relaxed. Stay comfortable.

Steep Canyon

With each passing mile, things continue to fall apart, and I begin to crash. The mental side of my race completely implodes, and what started as confidence has now turned into discouragement.

All I can think about is how selfish I am to be out here doing something I’m not even enjoying.

I run into my wife, Katie, around mile 23, and my eyes immediately begin to water. I don’t want to continue moving, but she encourages me to accept the challenges for what they are.

Much of the final miles are spent walking, cursing, getting passed by runner after runner, and hating myself for being so arrogant.

Sky to Summit

sky-1

Throughout the race, I’m able to break down the miles into distinct sections. Somewhat familiar with the elevation profile, I know that the later third of the race is more runnable, and if I can keep my legs fresh, I’ll be armed to move well through the finish.

The middle miles are filled with another major climb to a breathtaking view atop Rabun Bald before a gnarly descent down the other side. On the 4 mile climb from miles 15-18, I lock into a steady and focused pace. I notice other runners are starting to slow, and I slide past them on the narrow singletrack.

Nutrition has been on point all day. I stick to a regular CLIF Shot schedule, fill up on PB&J at the scarcely placed aid stations, and pop salt tablets every hour and a half. I don’t feel hungry, and my stomach remains calm. (Note: These are affiliate links, meaning I get a small slice of the pie if you purchase through them at REI. Thanks!)

By the time I reach mile 21, I know the toughest climbs are behind me, and allow my stride to open up on a stretch of silky smooth fire road. I continue listening to my legs and body, but let the confidence surface for the first time all morning. It’s time to finish strong.

Stay relaxed. Stay comfortable.

Over the final 15 miles, I’ll pass more than 15 runners, and aren’t threatened by a single pass myself. I feels good to move efficiently after so many miles, and I have fun with the terrain and surroundings.

Steep Canyon

I cross the finish line and collapse into the grass, unsure if I’ll vomit, faint, or simply squirm in pain. It takes a while for me to calm down, but eventually I wobble over the beer tent defeated and discouraged.

Sky to Summit

The final mile or so involves a steep drop down to the finish line on paved road. I bomb down the road excited to reach the finish and hear about Peter’s race. As I cross the line, I high five the race director Sean, chat about the beauty of the course, and immediately fill my finishers pint glass with a celebratory beer.

I did it. Relaxed, and comfortable.

Doing Things Differently

Going into Sky to Summit, I was determined to do things differently than Steep Canyon:

  • I’d take the distance seriously, as it deserves,
  • I’d listen to my body,
  • I’d stay focused on my race, my pace, and my nutrition.

And by doing so, I had a completely different experience.

Maybe it wasn’t even close to my fastest 50K — with a finishing time around 6:48 — and maybe it wasn’t even the fastest 50k I could have run on that day. But that wasn’t the point.

I set out to prove that I still had a smart 50k in me. I set out to run well, run strong, and have fun.

I set out for redemption.

But in order to do that, I had to do things differently. I had to:

  • Prepare mentally, physically, and emotionally
  • Pace myself
  • Take care of myself
  • Stay relaxed, and stay comfortable

As you get more confident at a distance, don’t grow arrogant. Embrace the nerves, eagerness, and drive to prepare.

Our sport is tough — A truth it isn’t afraid to remind you of the second you forget.

Photo Credit: Top photo of Holcomb Creek Falls by Adam Reed. Second photo form the top of Rabun Bald by Carrie Dawn Bryant. Thanks guys, and great running.

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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4 thoughts on “A Tale of Two 50Ks

  1. Great post – thank you!

    I love this: “As you get more confident at a distance, don’t grow arrogant. Embrace the nerves, eagerness, and drive to prepare.” Words to live by! I will be stealing your mantra for my first 50k and 50 miler in April!!

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