The Quest for Distance


If a 50k were just a 50k (31.5 miles), every marathoner would be beckoned by its call. Instead, the Ultra Race Directors have conspired and designed their race courses on trails – trails full of tree roots, mud, quick turns, and a million, gazillion ups and downs. Ultimately, these extra 5.3 miles beyond the marathon distance will require several more hours of agony for even the most resilient runner.

Distance must begin somewhere, and I now understand it is not only measured in miles, but also in time.

Some would say a 50k is not really an ultra – even though an ultra marathon is officially defined as anything greater than the distance of 26.2 miles. There are a few lucky runners (lucky being relative in this case) who seem to catapult directly from beginner runner to 100-mile races. I am not one of those lucky few.

I ran off-and-on for years before reaching the 5-mile mark, and racing had never even crossed my mind. The 2007 Chicago Wrigley Start Early 10k was my first race. I asked my husband, “How far is a 10k?” He wasn’t sure, but he knew I could run that far – however far that was. He signed me up.

The starting line may as well have been on the moon. It was the most foreign place my feet had ever stood. Runners were laughing and talking while the butterflies in my stomach threatened to choke me. Without warning the gun fired, and the decibel level rose momentarily as runners excitedly took off running. Within a few minutes, the course settled into a quiet hum as the space between me and everyone else slowly broadened.

By mile 6, my legs were like jelly and my lungs were on fire. My husband’s research had finally revealed this race to be 6 miles, except the 6-mile marker arrived well before the finish line to my great surprise, and my sprint-to-the-finish was not-so-carefully-timed several miles too early (10k = 6.2137 miles). I thought surely my entire body would explode as the finish line finally came into view.

A 3rd place medal arrived in the mail a few days after that race, and within six months I had run a 5k, a half marathon, and the Chicago Marathon. That first race had changed everything.

It would take 7 more years before my husband and I would come to an agreement on tackling the ultra distance. Naively, I had argued a 50k was only 5 more miles. . .

Research began in earnest about 3 months ago. It was frightening what I learned. Courses were described as technical, single track trails, with stream crossings requiring the navigation of rocks, roots and mud.

Warnings were plentiful – about the weather, which could be pleasant to running in a foot of snow, or the terrain, which could be so remote that medical assistance was at least 8 hours away.

imageInjuries were considered likely. . . ranging from abrasions, contusions, or sprains. . . to hypothermia or animal encounters. This was, afterall, the natural habitat of the wildcat or the black bear. “Be prepared,” they wrote, “to cope with whatever Mother Nature may see fit to send your way.”

Altitude seems a common attraction, such as runners climbing 6,684 feet to summit Mount Mitchell, eastern America’s highest point, or the Quest for the Crest Vertical, which boasts 11,200 ft of climbing and 11,700 ft of loss – substantiating its claim as the hardest 50k in the World.

Surely the most important task a runner can complete prior to undertaking an ultra distance is to understand the ultra course. This took me to a local trail to experience the hype first-hand. After an hour of painful, intense, what we will call running, I had finished just 3 miles.

Research took on a different goal: to find a 50k race that was not a trail race. There is no such thing in my part of the World.

However, there is a 50k touted as 100% dirt and flat. The New River 50k course is entirely along the New River and Chestnut Creek in the New River Trail State Park, and with the right amount of training and good fortune, this will become my inaugural Ultra. We’ll be hoping for clear weather (no mud).