Last weekend, I completed my first ultra marathon: the OPSF 50/50 race in Spencer, Indiana, a brutal all-day affair that sent runners out on 1, 2, or 3 14.1 mile loops depending upon the length you were running (plus a 5-mile Power Line loop for the 50K runners, and 2 5-mile Power Line loops for the 50 milers).
On this particular day, time wasn’t a factor. I was determined to finish this race no matter what since I’d bonked out of last year’s event.
The day started off promising. It hadn’t rained in several weeks, and we were told the trails were in the best condition they’d ever been in for this race.
Then at 6:45 am, 15 minutes before the race started, the rain began. The hills turned into mud soup, which eventually forced 13 of the 56 entrants to abandon the race, and another 19 people to drop to lesser distances.
We were told the trails were in the worst condition the race officials had ever seen. Add to that the hail, lightening, grey skies, and near freezing weather and you can imagine how much fun we had traversing the hills of Owen Putnam park. (Looking back it was fun; it was not always fun while we ran.)
I did a little statistical measuring to compare this year’s race with 2010’s event, one with much better weather. This isn’t a scientific analysis, but it’s a rough snapshot to help you understand what the conditions did.
- 29 people started the race (6 dropped down from the 50 mile)
- Mean Finishing Time: 7 hours, 19 minutes
- Median Time: 7 hours, 24 minutes (This is the time that divides the field. Half finished faster than this, half finished slower).
- 22 people finished the race (7 dropped out, 7 dropped down from the 50 mile)
- Mean Finishing Time: 8 hours, 4 minutes
- Median Time: 7 hours, 57 minutes
There’s lots of ways to parse this data, but I can assure you that the mean finishing time for the race wasn’t due to slow runners. The course was running approximately an hour slower than normal (and I’d venture to say the constant slipping, sliding, and falling wore people out more than the running did).
The one part of the race you can’t measure: the awesomeness and kindness of the course volunteers. There are only two aid stations along the route plus the start/finish line check in point; however, everyone was happy, upbeat, and filled with support when we’d arrive.
Unlike marathons where thousands of volunteers and fans line the way, ultras have none of that. The only people you see are the other runners (we had 56 at the start) and the volunteers at the aid stations. Other than those folks, you are hauling yourself around the course without support.
I tell you that so you’ll understand why the happy, supportive faces at the aid stations are so important. They can make or break your day if you are struggling.
Throughout the day, I swore this was my first – and last – ultra marathon. My knees ached from traversing down muddy hills. My back ached from hauling around my water and food. My legs aches from going up and down more than 10,000 feet of terrain. I was sick of the rain, the cold, and the pain.
Then I finished.
I can’t imagine ever going back to street marathons, although I suspect I’ll run one at some point for fun. I do know my next big event is less than a month away: The Tecumseh Trail Marathon, which has 7,300 feet of ascent and descent packed into a 26.2 mile run.
That raced kicked my butt in 2010 so I’m hoping this year I can exact a little revenge on the course. (Actually, I’m hoping just to finish without feeling like I’ve been in a 15 round prize fight).
After that, I have a few thoughts, but I’ll save those for later.