They say change is the only constant in life.

Switch jobs, move your home, have a baby, get sick.

You never know what life will bring, and it’s those who are successful at adapting to the changes that are most successful in life.

The same could be said about ultrarunning.

You never know what the course, weather, or day will bring. And you never know how your stomach, mind, and legs will react.

But the better you are at adapting to the environment, the more successful you will be come race day.

My Hellbender 100 was packed full of changes.

Change: The Start

For the final days leading up to Hellbnder, all I could think about was preparing for the race. Work? Nah, let’s plan. And when the day finally arrived, I was excited to finally transition from preparing to running.

There’s something unique about the first several hours of a 100-mile race. It’s a race, after all, so you’re constantly checking in on whether you’re keeping pace and not wasting time on climbs or aid stations.

At the same time, you know you’re going to be out there for a very long time. In this case, I predicted a 30-hour finish, which meant that I knew I’d see two sunrises and still have several hours left to run. That mind-trick of focused running with no end in sight is both overwhelming and freeing.

For the first 30ish miles, it was freeing. Early morning headlamp hours changed to a beautiful sunrise along Heartbreak Ridge. One of my favorite parts of sunrise running is the headlamp dance, or deciding whether or not to turn it off. Too soon and you can’t see the trail, too late and you don’t enjoy the morning trail glow.

It was fun to experience the other 100 runners sharing that dance with me.

Not to mention that the weather for both Friday and Saturday were some of the best of the month. Two perfect bluebird days, with dry trail and low winds. It started off cool, not cold, and before I knew it, I was approaching an aid station at mile 23 with a handful of wildflowers to present to my amazing wife, daughter, and mother (mom would be crewing me for the remainder of the race… badass) who I knew would be waiting. They returned the greeting with food and smiles, and I quickly took off for an eight-mile loop back to that same aid station.

Change: The Heat

I left mile 31 feeling confident.

The Hellbender course is in my home mountains — starting just 11 miles from my house. It’s designed to be tough, weaving off the Black Mountains ridge line, home of Mount Mitchell, and repeatedly dipping between 2,000 and 6,500 feet. Every summit is followed by a long descent, and every low point another climb. The final course clocked in at a little over 100 miles with over 25,000 feet of elevation gain.

The next several miles of course are ones I’m familiar with — a roughly 3,000-foot climb from a campground in Old Fort to the top of Green Knob, and then a steep drop to Black Mountain Campground. It was 1:00 Friday afternoon when I started the climb.

That’s when the change in temperature came — and it slapped everyone smack in the face (and some in the gut as well. Yuck).

It probably wasn’t actually that hot, but in the unprotected moment, it sure as hell felt that way. Before I knew it my bottles were bone dry, and I saw several of my fellow crazies resting on the side of the trail, doing anything they could to cool off in the tiny shade of the Mountain Laurel.

By the time I rolled into Aid Station 5, around mile 38.5, more than three hours later, I was over-heated and under-hydrated. I wanted ice. And water. And to strip down to my birthday suit and soak my weary bones in the creek.

Katie and my mom rushed around for the first two, and shortly after leaving the aid station with my first pacer, Griffin, I dipped a bandana in the creek to wipe myself cool.

No nudey soak, but it did the trick.

Change: Sunset with Company

The next 14 miles led from Black Mountain Campground at the base of Mount Mitchell to the top of ridge along the Crest Trail. This would be the highest point of the course, coming in at over 6,500 feet, and would eventually lead us back down to 2,800 feet at Colberts Creek.

Some changes during a race are obviously negative, but you sort of expect them — overheating is a prime example. Other changes bring magic that catches you completely off guard.

I knew the sun would set eventually, but what I didn’t plan for was a perfectly timed golden masterpiece, on the highest portion of the course, on a perfectly clear, perfectly still night.

This ridge is typically a brutal place — often cold, and windy, and barren, with sharp rocks and wicked drops. But on this night, it didn’t feel that way. Hiking up Big Tom Gap, I could literally see the stoke radiating from Griffin in the form of smiles and laughter, and I couldn’t help up dish that stoke right back.

Magic.

The changing vegetation from dense Rhododendrons near the campground, to pines still in winter mode up top. From overheated and caked in trail dust to majestic twilight views.

These changes came as a surprise, and we soaked in every moment.

Change: The Cold, Dark Night

That blissful sunset quickly turned to darkness as we dropped back down into the cool Rhoddies. Around mile 52 I said goodbye to Griffin to go back up the Buncombe Horse Trail towards Mitchell with a new pacer, Michael.

Michael is a relatively new friend. While I’ve known and run with Griffin and Paul (whom I’ll pick up later) many times before — including when they paced me through the Thunder Rock 100 — miles with Michael were numbered.

But I knew he was the perfect person for the 20-mile stretch from Aid Station 7 to Aid Station 10 because when I told him it would be through the night, he literally jumped to the edge of his seat with excitement.

I knew that the trails we were climbing offered epic views of the rolling mountains towards the Northeast, and I knew that the constantly changing vegetation as we climbed in altitude could keep you distracted for days. But these trails were new to him, and all we could see were the five or six feet lit by our headlamps.

None of that mattered, however, as Michael filled the quiet night with stories, hoots and hollers, and an unmatched passion for the adventure. We were having fun.

Then, change.

Upon cresting back up towards the ridge, it turned cold. Very cold. Cold enough for Michael’s hands to go numb and my teeth to start chattering. Cold enough to where the thought of pausing to pull a pair of pants out of my vest and put them on seemed impossible.

And suddenly, determined to keep moving and stay warm, the adventure got a bit more serious. Though for Michael, no less exciting.

We took a moment to warm by the fire at Aid Station 9, and were fed hot coffee and sandwiches by the welcomed familiar face of a training partner, Eric. As we slowly dropped back down towards Black Mountain Campground at mile 74, the cold turned to relief and gratitude for a chance for new friends open to adventure.

Change: Unexpected Delay

There are a few times in life when others know what’s best for you better than you do.

… When you’re heartbroken, and your best friend tries to get you out of bed and out for dinner.

… When your partner tells you your favorite, old, crumbling shirt should be retired.

… When you’re 88 miles into a 100-mile race and tell your pacer you want to drop out, but they tell you no.

You know, for example…

That last one pretty much sums up the last 25 miles of my Hellbender experience.

But before we get to mile 88, let me add a little context.

During my three previous hundred-mile experiences, the sunrise on day two had been a turning point. I’d made it through the night, and the warmth and light meant the finish was near. Hallelujah.

I would experience a clear change from night to day.

This time, things were different. I picked up Paul, someone who knows me as a runner and maybe as a person better than just about anyone else, at 4:45am Saturday, and it wasn’t long before the sun climbed it’s way up the same mountain we were hiking.

But in spite of Paul’s jubilant energy, the sunrise didn’t bring the change I was expecting.

At some point through the night I fell a few hours off my 30-hour goal, and that sunrise no longer became a sign that I was nearing the finish, but a reminder that it would be another eight hours before I’d be able to stop running. Or lay down. Or drink beer. I still had another full work day left out on the trail.

The lack of change from night to nearing finish became even more overwhelming on the seemingly never-ending climb from Aid Station 11. In my heart, I knew I was getting close — just 18 miles to go. From Paul’s support, I knew I was making progress — one step in front of the other.

In my head, I wanted to quit.

“Paul, these damn switchbacks aren’t taking us anywhere! I don’t even think we’re climbing! We’ll never reach the top of this stupid mountain.” (There may have been a few more curse words than that…)

“Doug, we’re getting there. You’re doing great.”

“I don’t think I can do this. I really don’t. I think I want to drop.”

“Yes you can. And no you don’t.”

And he paused for a minute or two to allow for some space.

“Alright, let’s break it down. There’s this climb, one other climb, and the ridge line descent to the finish. That’s it. Who can we dedicate these sections to?”

Paul goes on to walk me through a dedication exercise I reluctantly followed. At first, I was too pissed he wouldn’t let me quit to think about anything else, but it was those thoughts of gratitude he forced me into thinking that ultimately brought the change I was searching for.

Finally.

By the time we left the final aid station with 10 miles to go, I had begun to break free of the despair and self-loathing, and into a place of determination. One step up the mountain. One step closer to the finish.

Paul is quiet, giving me the space I need, but offering just the right amount of company to keep me sane. We’re greeted at the top of top of Bald Knob by the familiar voice of Pete Ripmaster. We were excited to see each other for the first time since his Alaskan adventure, and we hug as he yells with excitement. I start walking down the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Paul gives the look of someone confident that I’ll finish.

I’m sure he never questioned that I’d make it, but I think we were both a little relieved we’d soon be heading down Heartbreak.

At the final water drop, just before we took off down the trail, he gave me a piece of advice I’ll always remember.

“We should talk about this ridge. It’s going to feel like we’re really close. But there are still several miles. Embrace the final leg but don’t get frustrated if it’s longer than it feels like it should be.”

Every time my mind began to slip, I went back to that advice. Embrace the final leg. Don’t get frustrated.

Change: The Finish

I could fill an entire blog with stories from the Hellbender trail — like Griffin throwing back a shot of whisky with Big Tom, Michael’s introduction to the Death March, or of the unexpected thrill of running up to my daughter 38 miles into the race. And I could fill the entire internet with words of gratitude towards the race directors and volunteers, and to my mom for following me around all night, providing everything I need and more without hesitation. And to my wife Katie, for putting up not only with the training and racing, but the moaning and groaning that followed last week.

And to Paul, for dealing with all the shit I bestowed upon him.

But for whatever reason, this race keeps bringing me back to change.

Changes were inevitable over the course of a 33-hour run, as they are with any journey you decide to take. External changes to the world around you, and internal changes to your body and mind.

But the biggest impact on my race didn’t end up being change, but how poorly I handled it when things didn’t change the way I expected them to.

It’s that realization that I’ll take away from this race, not just the stories, but those moments of weakness. And it’s those moments that will ultimately force me to make a larger, lasting change to who I am.

 

 

One never forgets their first training plan.

Mine was for a marathon, handed down to me from a friend, who I believe got it from another friend. It had every little detail accounted for — from exactly what pace you should run on every single run, to how to recover, and even what to eat.

The plan was…

Complicated.

And for a long time, I thought that was the only right way to train…

Every last mile detailed, every split exactly on point. Miss a run? Out of the question. Run by feel? Ha! That’s just for the crazies.

Here’s the problem:

A lot of runners feel like training for a race means overly robust training programs.

They think that in order to succeed, they need everything outlined, all the boxes checked, and details on when to eat, sleep, run, and poop. I know, because I’ve coached a lot of runners who feel exactly that way.

Why is that a problem?

Well, three reasons, actually:

  1. Because when you think you need an uber-detailed plan, each one of those details can become an excuse to never start training.
  2. Because when you do start, complicated plans lead to burnout, false-starts, and quitting.
  3. Because for the most part, running (even training) isn’t complicated.

Yeah, I said it. You don’t need to break down every split, or even follow a detailed plan, to hit many of your running goals. And by over-complicating the process, you may actually be keeping yourself from success.

Take me, for example. For many years, I believed success in running meant have a plan or bust. There was no going at it in a relaxed fashion. But as time went on, and I gained more experience, I began to grow comfortable with the go-with-the-flow training attitude.

Then I had a baby… and suddenly a strict plan for an upcoming 100K was out of the question. I had to take a different approach. And for the most part, it worked.

Don’t get hung up on a specific tempo pace, but instead listen to what your body tells you is a “comfortable push.” When it comes to a long run, instead of a certain distance, maybe just spend a few hours on the trails doing what feels good

I’ve been following that more relaxed model ever since, and now, a few days before the Hellbender 100, I’m feeling strong, confident, and relaxed. Even without the textbook training I thought I needed just a few years ago.

So what does un-complicated training look like? It may end up looking a lot like your strict plan, only simpler.

What Even the Loosest Plans Need to Be Successful

There are three main things I believe every distance runner needs to train successfully. Just three.

1. Consistency

Everything boils down to consistently lacing up the shoes and getting out on the road or trail. Inconsistent running means lower strength gains, less power and speed, and a higher likelihood of injury. But consistently running, even if it’s just for a short run several times per week, will keep your momentum going for when it’s time to crank it up.

2. Variety

Any good training plan will have plenty of variety in runs — easy runs, long runs, and speed work. Even if you’re not following a strict plan, adding in these components to mix up the type of running you’re doing is essential to building both speed and endurance.

Generally speaking, each week should include a long run, a recovery effort, and some sort of run that brings you into more intense, lactic-threshold running.

3. General Fitness

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past 16 post-baby months, it’s that general, full-body strength goes a long way. Strength training — even just body weight training, which has been my focus — has kept me feeling much stronger than I would have otherwise. I credit that strength to being able to get out for longer, peak days without the typical build-up, and for added power.

It’s also a key to injury prevention.

When You Should Get Specific

But of course, detailed training plans are popular for a reason, and it’s not just because coaches are trying to sell you something.

They’re popular because they work. There are times when a more thorough plan is beneficial.

1. When you have an important time goal.

If hitting a PR, qualifying for Boston, or running a specific time are important to you, a structured plan will give you the focused results you won’t find in a loose plan.

2. When you need the motivation.

Many runners need the structure of a plan to stay motivated, and the thought of going off on their own, or without a plan, feels too overwhelming. So sometimes, it’s best just to have someone on your side, looking out for you and keeping track of your progress.

Even when this is the case, an overly structured plan can still feel overwhelming. Find something that has structure but doesn’t feel too confining.

3. When you’re just starting out.

To me, this is one of the biggest. When you’re just starting out at longer distances — training for you first marathon or ultramarathon, or training up to a new distance like 100 miles — a well-crafted training plan could be the difference between you succeeding or failing.

Because otherwise, you might be lost. Or think you know the best way to train, when in reality what you’re doing is detrimental to your goal.

Runners Don’t Need Complicated Training, They Need Smart Training

There’s a time and place for detailed, structured plans, and when you get to that time (or place), embrace them 100%.

But when time is limited, or you feel burnt out on the details, let loose and allow for some flexibility.

Because it might be the difference between you running a race, or quitting before you hit the starting line.

The holidays are behind us, the darkest days of winter are now over, and if you’re like most runners, you’re likely thinking about your first race of the year.

It’s typical to take some time off after a busy fall race schedule to relax and recover, and that first race back is always full of excitement and nerves.

For me, my first race of the year fell a few weeks ago at the South Mountains Marathon, a trail marathon in the mountains of North Carolina. While early in the year, it had actually been over six months since my last big race, and gearing up for this race brought on a flood of emotions — both good, and well, some not so good.

During the first few miles, I actually found myself feeling scared.

Confidence-wise, ahead of a few big races this spring, a lot was riding on the race.

To calm my nerves, I began to think through best practices for race day. It had been long enough that I needed the reminder.

Sometimes, we can all use a good reminder.

So today I’m sharing my Dos and Don’ts of running an ultramarathon. There are 52, each important in their own way.

Let’s get to it:

  1. Do study the course ahead of time.
  2. Don’t ruin the excitement of the race experience.
  3. Do read race reports.
  4. Don’t let those race reports cloud your experience.
  5. Do rely on support and crew when you can (and thank them every chance you get).
  6. Don’t be so dependent on them that you can’t fend for yourself.
  7. Do trust your training. If you’ve put in the work, lean on that work.
  8. Don’t over stress the days leading up to the race. Stay focused, positive. You can do it!
  9. Do stay positive during the race as well — high-five other runners and smile.
  10. Don’t let negative thoughts spiral you into a terrible low spot.
  11. Do know that hard times will come, but you will get out of them.
  12. Don’t let yourself DNF without at least first going for one more aid station (unless it’s a bad injury, of course), and even then, you better have a damn good excuse.
  13. Do enjoy the plethora of food available to you at an aid station.
  14. Don’t scarf down a ton of cookies and chips, only to puke it up a few miles later.
  15. Do hike the hills. If you’re debating on whether to run or hike, hike.
  16. Don’t be afraid to push a bit towards the end of the race. If you have something left in the tank, step on the gas.
  17. Do let out an epic howl as you bomb down a hill if the desire washes over you.
  18. Don’t tense up your shoulders and upper body throughout the race. Shake out those arms!
  19. Do take the time to listen to a veteran runner, if they’re willing to share stories.
  20. Don’t think you know everything about running. Even the best blow up, over-train, go out too hard, and neglect their fueling.
  21. Do believe in yourself. You are capable of more than you think.
  22. Don’t compare yourself to other runners during the race. Just because they’re moving at a certain pace doesn’t mean you need to.
  23. Do lube up liberally.
  24. Don’t forget to lube in between your butt. (I hear most people don’t have the ‘ol inner butt problem area. I’m not one of those people. Better safe than sorry…)
  25. Do make a race plan before race day.
  26. Don’t get so caught up in the moment you throw that plan out the window as soon as the gun goes off.
  27. And don’t let yourself get upset if that race plan unravels.
  28. Do push yourself. It is a race, after all.
  29. Don’t get so caught up in the race that you forget to enjoy the trail.
  30. Do bring backup headlamp batteries.
  31. Don’t overpack and carry too much gear.
  32. Do wear earbuds (one), carry poles, or do whatever it is you need to get through the race (assume it’s allowed per race rules).
  33. Don’t let any of those things keep runners from passing you or get in the way of their experience.
  34. Do let runners know when you’re about to pass. “I’m going to squeeze by you on the right!”
  35. Don’t rush the pass on a section of trail that doesn’t allow for passing. Let them find a spot to pull off the trail.
  36. Do pack your gear ahead of time. I like to pack up gear a full day or more before the race, and then double check everything the night before.
  37. Don’t be the guy stressing out because they can’t find their bottle five minutes before the race. Stay organized and be prepared.
  38. Do be friendly and chat with other runners.
  39. Don’t feel obligated to speak with someone if you’re head-down, deep into the race.
  40. Do thank the race volunteers and aid station workers.
  41. Don’t get pissed if they’re behind on sandwiches or orange slices.
  42. And whatever you do, don’t throw your cup or trash on the ground.
  43. Do stop for a photo at an overlook if you’d like to.
  44. Don’t, for the love of all things holy, block another runner from passing because you stopped at that overlook.
  45. Do swap out shoes if you have the option and need.
  46. Don’t waste time taking off your shoes or putting your feet in plastic bags to cross a creek. Just get them wet.
  47. Do be swift through the aid stations and not waste time.
  48. Don’t rush through too quickly and forget what you need.
  49. Do take the time to get debris out of your shoe before it becomes a problem.
  50. Don’t neglect a rubbing spot to the point that it becomes a bad blister or chafing.
  51. Do soak in the experience. You’re running a freaking ultramarathon!
  52. Don’t forget to have fun.

But there are as many experiences are there are miles to run, and as I said in rule 20, none of us can assume we know everything about running an ultra.

What are your rules for a successful race day?

Want to run an ultramathon, but don’t know where to start?

In this multi-part (4-part? Maybe 5 or 6-part?) Trail Talk series, we’ll explore the ins and outs of training for your first ultramathon, including:

  • Choosing your first race.
  • Ultramarathon training: What to expect.
  • The mental side of running an ultramarathon.
  • Dialing in your nutrition for a 50K or 50M race.
  • The mindset shift from marathon to ultra.
  • Race day, broken down.

And more…

So throw on those earbuds, hit the trail, and get ready for an adventure.

Part 1: Choosing Your Race

Click here to download the file.

Part 2: Ultramarathon Training: What it Really Looks Like

Click here to download the file.

Part 3: Training the Mind: The Mental Side of Training for and Running an Ultramarathon

Click here to download the file.

Check back as the series continues, or subscribe and download on:

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Support for this Series

This series of Trail Talk was brought to you by Discover Your Ultramarathon, the eBook system with training plans, audio interviews, and a 129-page guide to get you through your first 50K or 50 mile ultra.

Pick yours up now at rockcreekrunner.com/ultramarathon.