Thoughts from a First-Time Ultra Runner

Henry_BuckeyeTrail1I had no idea what lay ahead when I recently lined up at the starting line for my first ultra race, the Buckeye Trail 50K in Brecksville, Ohio.

I had completed 13 marathons previously, including one on a trail — the North Face Endurance Challenge Series in Wisconsin last year.

I knew I had trained well and had my nutrition dialed in. We got a break from the weather — the long-range forecasts of thunderstorms had given way to a nice 60-degree day start.

There was no rain in the forecast and the temperature would be in the mid-70s around my anticipated finishing time. Not bad at all for July.

Oh, about that anticipated finishing time. That was an eye-opener!

Thoughts from a first-time ultra runner

I had estimated a 5:15-5:30 finishing time, based on how I did the previous year in the marathon trail race. About a mile or so into the 50K, I overheard another runner tell someone, “Well, for this ultra, just take your marathon time and double it.”


That would put my finishing time over the 7-hour mark. And also potentially cause issues for my family members who were planning to greet me near the finish. Would my young nephew and niece be able to be entertained for as long as Uncle Henry needed to finish the race that bills itself as the “most challenging 50K in Ohio”?

While my main goal was to finish my ultra, as someone who is competitively driven, I wanted to have a strong time as well. But honestly, as a first-time ultra runner, I literally had no idea where to seed myself at the start. I hung out at the back, figuring that if I got bottled up early that would allow me to conserve energy later for when I would really need it.

On your marks, get set, go . . . be an ultra runner

The start line was at one of the picnic areas in Brecksville State Park. The race director’s instructions included just two items:

  1. Have fun.
  2. Don’t curse at me because my kids are here.

The race offered a one-hour early start time for those runners who wanted to be sure that they made the time limit. Everyone else started at 7 a.m. and the course closed at 5 p.m.
We started out on a walking path, crossed one of the park roads and picked up the trail. It was slow going at first, including plenty of walking on flat ground on the single-track because we were so bunched up toward the back.

There would be plenty of walking later as the course offered plenty of up-and-down hills, some climbs steeper than others. Overall, there was 2,500 feet of elevation climb and loss on the out-and-back course. We crossed over at least eight streams or water crossings each way, most of which were “one-foot” hoppers. In addition to the hills and water, other obstacles included plenty of roots to navigate.

More than aid at aid stations

When the trail allowed, I moved up among the back-of-the-packers. I knew that when we approached the first of five aid stations – we hit two both out and back and another was at the halfway point — I wanted to move to the front of the line. It was time to regain some lost time.

The aid station was located in a narrow spot of the trail, around mile 5.8. The volunteers were helpful, filling my water bottle as I munched on some peanut butter and jelly squares and took a handful of M&Ms. All of the stations were appropriately stocked, also offering water, Tailwind, bananas, watermelon, pretzels and chips, and other typical fare.

I was in and out quickly, and had clear sailing ahead of me.

As this point, I began passing some of the run-walkers or walk-runners who had elected to take the early start time. I give them a lot of kudos for being out on the trails so long. The 50K course was not easy and they were really mentally strong to put in such a strong effort for such a long time.

Racing a passenger train, and losing
Just before I hit the second aid station, I came out of the woods and the path took runners past a road intersection, over railroad tracks and connected with another section of the trail. As I ventured out from the woods, I heard a train whistle before I saw the tracks about a quarter-mile from me.

The passenger train conductor was just getting ready to pull out and did not seem concerned about my sprint toward the tracks. He won. I cursed (but the race director’s kids were miles away so I didn’t break a rule).

After the train went by, I continued for another quarter-mile or so and found the second aid station at Mile 11 or so. This was my favorite of the three different aid stations because the volunteers went above and beyond.

The aid station was in a place where families and friends could easily get to by car and hang out in chairs. Had I known the course better, I would have encouraged my family to greet me there. But in any case, a friendly, bearded, probable ultra runner greeted me, asking what I needed. He gleefully fulfilled my request by refilling my water bottle with Tailwind as I grabbed some more sustenance.

I appreciate all helpful volunteers at all races. But I was really impressed by the care and helpfulness most of the volunteers demonstrated during this ultra.

A strange message from my iPod Shuffle

Soon after leaving that aid station, my iPod Shuffle started saying “battery low,” which was weird because I knew I had fully charged it before the race. I shut it off, thinking that I would need music more at the end of the race.

Later, I turned it back on at Mile 19 and it was just fine. I never again heard the “battery low” message again during the race or the couple of hours I have used it since. Weird.

In any case, after shutting off the music, I bounded up and down the beautiful scenery, focusing on getting to the halfway point. Since this was an out-and-back course, I soon saw the leaders heading the opposite way on the trail. There were plenty of exchanges of “Good job!,” “Looking strong!” and other verbalized messages of encouragement.

Soon I hit the halfway point at a fairly crowded aid station, just under the 3-hour mark. These volunteers had their heads down, seemed overmatched and did not offer any individual assistance. Perhaps I hit the aid station at a busy time, but even though they had plenty of food and hydration ready, they were not as individually accommodating as the others.

Ultras have their ups and downs

Henry Howard heading down the trail at the Buckeye Trail Ultra

Henry Howard heading down the trail at the Buckeye Trail Ultra

As I hit the next aid station on my return trip, my bearded friend took care of me once again. Refilling my water bottle — someone had turned up the heat since the last time I was at this aid station — and offering me ice. I quickly snapped up that offer, and he wedged some in between my Orange Mud backpack and my neck/back area.

That was a tremendous help. The ice cooled me off as I trekked back along the streets, across the railroad tracks and re-connected with the trail.

At this point, I was about two-thirds of the way done and had my music back on. I felt really good until I hit the next hill climb. I’m not sure how the hill I descended down on the first pass was replaced with Mount Everest on the return trip. It seemed to go on and up forever. That was the part of the course where I did the most walking.

I knew slogging up those hills that my goal of a 2:30 on the return trip was out of the question so my next goal was going to be a 3-hour return trip. That would put me about 30 minutes off my goal but well ahead of the “double your marathon time” forecast.

In the few straightaways, I was able to run at a pretty decent clip and I hit the downhills hard on the return trip. But the uphills posed the biggest challenge to my goal. That is until Mile 29.

A wrong left turn

The race director communicated effectively in the months/weeks/days leading up the race. He personally responded to emails in a timely manner. There were regular e-mail updates on race directions and the Facebook page helped answer questions. And I really appreciated the advice about black flies and mosquitoes being prominent in the area. I got some excellent bug spray beforehand and was not bothered during my adventure.

The directions emphasized two things about finding your way along the course:

  • Follow the “blue blazes,” a series of markings painted on trees along the Buckeye Trail.
  • Be sure to enter in the correct driveway at the end of the race, heading toward the finish line.

Blue blaze on the Buckeye Trail.  photo credit: Buckeye Trial 50k FB page

Blue blaze on the Buckeye Trail. photo credit: Buckeye Trial 50k FB page

Maybe I was overly thinking the driveway warning. Or maybe my brain cells had melted. Or maybe the course markings were lacking where I most needed them.

Around Mile 29, I took a left turn down a wide path, which looked like where the trail opened up. After shooting down a hill, I began scanning trees for the blue blazes and could not find any. I kept going, my head on a swivel, looking at both sides of the trail. Nothing. No markings.

I came upon a stream about four-tenths of a mile down this path, and did not recognize it at all. That’s when I finally turned around and asked a hiker who I had passed earlier if this was considered the Buckeye Trail.

“I don’t think so,” she said, motioning toward my wrong turn. “I think it’s back up there.”

I thanked her and headed back, knowing that there was no way I was going to come close to my 6-hour goal. Up until that point, the course had been expertly marked.

I was pretty ticked off, but then I came across another runner who had made the same wrong turn. He said he thought he saw a trail marker pointing the way we had come but that didn’t make sense to me. We engaged in some small talk as we trudged back up that hill. As we got close to the top, we saw several runners heading past the spot where we had turned.

As we picked up our pace, I started feeling better knowing that even if I made a mistake, at least I helped someone else. And it felt good being among a half-dozen or so runners knowing that the finish line was mere minutes away — and once again being guided by the blue blazes.

We eventually left the trail and returned to the parking lot/picnic area, returning on the same paved trail where we began our journey over six hours ago. Remember my family members? The little ones had survived the wait, thanks to nearby swing sets and a cooler of food.

As I ran down the path toward the finish line, I saw them and waved. My oldest son was the first to greet me at the finish line, a nice change since I have spent many hours watching him play middle school and varsity tennis. Officially, I crossed the finish line in 6:21:16, well off my goal but good enough for 43rd overall among 175 runners.

In addition to the medal and a cup of water, volunteers handed each finished a 50K bumper sticker, which was on my car within the hour. The post-race food spread was the typical fare — water, electrolyte drinks, pizza, bananas, watermelon, etc.

Run this face if you. . .

  • Want a challenging, hilly ultra.
  • Want to give back. The race director requires every participant to volunteer at least three hours at another race or working on a trail. That’s part of the reason I decided to select this race.
  • Don’t mind a fairly low-key, no-frills event.

Don’t run this face if you. . .

  • Want to PR, unless this is your first ultra.
  • Are prone to falling or tripping. While I stayed upright, there were a significant amount of roots and other obstacles.
  • Can’t properly navigate Mile 29.

What’s next

I had originally planned to do another ultra in September but recently learned that the date won’t work out for family and work reasons. However, since I have caught the ultra bug, I began looking for other options during that time frame.

Enter the North Face Endurance Challenge Series, once again in Wisconsin. Doing two ultras in 2016 will make good on a promise to a friend who inspired me on that quest. But that’s for another blog once I complete the mission.

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