Mindset for an Ultra

This blog could also be called “Why We Do the Things We Do.”  Say for example, running 50 miles on a track.  I’m writing in response to an article about an event that Rich Benyo wrote about running 50-miles on a track.  Both of us participated, but he apparently remembers a lot more details than did I.  The year was 1978.  My husband Tom was the race director.  The event was the AAU National 50-mile Championship.  Yes, I said on-the-track.  As in 200 laps.  We ran 200 laps on the dirt track at Santa Monica City College.  Rich wrote his highly detailed and highly entertaining account of the night, his “50 Miles By Track” article.  At least I think it’s entertaining, even hysterical at times.  But it’s one of those stories that maybe “you had to be there” to appreciate it.

My vantage point was slightly different from others.  For Tom and I, this was an annual event.  It began one year when he attended a meeting at the local AAU offices for all track & field clubs in our region.  At the meeting, duties for staging the various regional championship races were divided amongst the local running clubs.  As the representative for his club, and arriving late to the meeting, he was “volunteered” for whatever events were not claimed by the others and thus awarded the 50-mile championship.  On the track.  After a couple of years hosting the event, he became sort of intrigued, or maybe the word is compulsive, with staging the event.  Guilty by association I was part of the race committee.  I guess you could say we two were the race committee.  This went on for a few years, and the hours were tough.  Being the first to arrive and the last to leave, it’s a loooooooong day.  It begins in the afternoon and goes past midnight.

One year it dawned on me that if I was a participant, I’d have shorter hours.  I could actually leave when finished.  What a concept.  Seriously, though, I suppose the real reason was that I became intrigued by watching others running 50-miles in the same way I was intrigued watching my first marathon.  That turned out well.  So why not?

The obvious comes to mind:  Fifty miles is as different from a marathon as the marathon is from the 10K. That’s why not.  But as my coach always said, “you’re the most stubborn runner I’ve ever met.”  And “there are some things you have to find out for yourself.”  That’s what he told me when I asked to run my first marathon.  So here we go again.  However, I decided to run my first marathon on short notice without proper preparation, but this time, I planned way ahead and was well prepared — well, up to a point.   As Rich put it, I was a two-time world record holder in the marathon, so even though it was my first ultra-marathon, I was far from inexperienced.

My strategy in training was similar to the marathon multiplied by two.  Instead of my longest runs being 20-milers, I built up to 40-milers.  Rich wrote that he had seen me run through the San Francisco Marathon, as a mid-section to one of my 32+ mile runs.  It’s true, I did use more than one marathon for a workout.  It provided me a lot of company on my long run of the week.

My secondary goal in going up to 40-miles in training also had to do with something I’d observed over the years with the ultra runners.  It seemed that the “wall” that comes at about 20 miles in the marathon was actually more like 35 miles in the 50.  Also, it was worse than just “hitting the wall.”  The wall in the 50-mi. seemed more profound.  It seemed like a total personality change, a meltdown.  It seemed that it was both physical and psychological.  Never having studied kinesiology or exercise physiology or any science that could define it, it simply made sense when I was told that the body used up all the glycogen it could store by 35 miles and was converting to burning fat; and during this transition, one would naturally just slow down.  As an example, it was pointed out to me that the women, who inherently carry more body fat than men (in general anyway) tend not to slow down as much.  In fact one runner, Eileen Waters, year after year seemed to prove this theory correct, as she sped up at this transition point, averaging faster minutes-per-mile than most of the men on the track in the latter stages of the race.  So it seemed important to me to train my body to work through that 35-mile point in training.

One of my adages is that the marathon is the one event where you can do all your homework and still not pass the test, due to things beyond your control.  The take-away message is to only go into the marathon as close to 100 percent as possible.  This too holds for the ultra . . . times two.

1978 50-mile US National Championship, Santa Monica College

If you haven’t read Rich Benyo’s account of the race yet, let me just say that I was doing just fine at the start.  I liked what he said about my running as if hooked to some fantastic clock.  I did feel comfortable with the 7-minute mile pace as I clicked off the laps.  Judges and timers were stopping watches and signing off on officially recognized distances as I broke a string of records (eleven in all).  What Rich may not have known, was that the first thing to go wrong was my lap counters missed my time passing by – – two times.  So all those records were a half-mile too long.  This was discovered  about the time I realized I was falling into that wall, that abyss of the unknown, and I checked with my lap counter to find out what pace I was sinking to.

For me to ask meant something was seriously wrong.  It was going so badly, my counter asked my husband if she should even tell me.  He said that if I had the mind to ask, then give me the time.  She told me the lap split and I uncharacteristically snapped, telling her that I could not do that math and just give it to me in minutes per mile.  She did, it was 9-minutes per mile, and suddenly I could do the math just fine because I realized how much longer I was going to be out there, stopped dead in my tracks and almost wept.  The officials and Tom had poured over my splits, found  two laps missing, and informed me that I could either take an average time to make up for the missing laps, but they wouldn’t be official, or I could take the times  that they officially recorded, because they were certified world records.  No question, I took the records.  However, I would not be allowed to keep the records unless I finished the race.  Therein lay the problem.  Rich was right about how dead my legs felt at that moment.  It took a herculean effort to lift my knee to take a stride.  What I needed was a cheerleader, not the sympathy my counters were offering.  My mood was so low, that I took every suggestion as a command.  Want to lie down?  OK.  Want to drink something?  OK.  Heck, if they asked “want to commit hari-kiri?”  I might have complied.  Fortunately, my coach and doctor both arrived together and screamed at me to “get up and move, your legs are going to cramp lying in that wet grass.”  I said OK.  And I finished at that same monotonous slow pace, but a half-an-hour had slipped by that was lost forever.  Rich was right about that too.  I would’ve continued breaking records had I just walked.  I still won the overall championship title, but I did not get the 50-mile WR.

What Rich could not know was that a knee injury was not the problem.  The problem began two weeks before the race.  The problem was that I did something stupid and it caused me not to be able to run for days up to the race start.  The problem was that I lost my mental confidence in that lost time without running.  No amount of additional miles could have prepared me any better for the race, but the uncertainty of being physically capable of starting the race wiped out any race strategy and mental toughness with it.  I was devastated.  What happened?  I kept a doctor appointment two weeks out.  One simple routine doctor appointment.  One simple injection.  One perhaps inexperienced nurse, jabbing my hamstring and I was crippled for days on end.  I have to take responsibility.  I broke one of my own rules I preach as a coach.  In the days before a big race, take no risks, do nothing different, do nothing new.  What a mistake.  I limped around with a big knot that did not dissipate until after some physical therapy and just a day or two prior to the race.  The consequences were that I went into the race mentally drained, uncertain, and when the going got tough, I couldn’t get going.

I have always been fascinated by sports medicine, and I’m very curious about sport psychology.  That term was not even on my radar screen in my running days.  Yet I instinctively prepared myself mentally to endure my running events, be it the mile or the marathon.  Whenever I kept company with a full track team, surrounded by athletes in all events, I preferred to separate from the rowdy sprinters and throwers who wanted to get “pumped up,” and instead spent time alone calming my nerves, focusing on my breathing, listening to my heart beat, perhaps in an effort to instinctively save energy for the long run ahead of me.  Next, I’m going to tell a story with a happier ending, where I got it right.


6 Replies to “Mindset for an Ultra”

  1. great story! It really is disheartening to have your lap recorders lose count after you have really been putting out!!
    I usually would think of what I wanted to hit on next lap in a simplified manner like just add 10sec.to 2 min.more so it kept my mind occupied and focused.
    The first time I did carbo depleting I overdid it and a calf cramp came back on me during the marathon race. I think your analysis of the repercussions of the cortisone shot were good and accurate in the many ways it affected you. You are very good at describing in an interesting way!

  2. Would love to hear how Eileen Waters is doing. Ultra marathoner and very dear person.

  3. I ran that race and finished around 8 hours time.
    Maybe I can find the final results page one of these days.
    Still have my official T-shirt
    John sporleder

    1. Thanks for your comments John. I’ve searched the Nor Cal Running Review magazine digital copies (located in the LA84.org digital library) for results for you, and found them in the Dec. 1978 issue, but they weren’t comprehensive. Somewhere I must have complete results, which I’ll send you when I find them. Jacqueline

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