How to Recover from a Hilly, Technical Ultra

The Bel Monte Endurance Races present a challenging, beautiful course for runners. Here are some ways to heal from endurance events with hilly courses.

By Henry Howard

The Bel Monte Endurance Races offer a 25K, 50K and 50-miler for those wanting to explore beautiful mountains in northern Virginia.

But check the fine print — the 50K is a 17-mile out-and-back course, meaning runners will do closer to a 55K by the time they cross the finish line. (The turnaround point for the 50-miler was at 26.2 miles.)

Regardless of the actual length — my watch counted 34.8 miles for the 50K — it’s an epic run with nearly 5,000 feet of elevation change. Such a race means recovery is key, especially when it’s a training run for my first 50-miler three weeks later.

Race review: Bel Monte 50K

The Bel Monte race is produced by Bad to the Bone, which organizes various races, including the Ultra Race of Champions. The staff and volunteers are great, the course is well-marked and there is helpful communication on the website, Facebook page and via emails.

The race began at the Royal Oaks Resort in Lyndhurst, Va., about a two-hour drive from Richmond. Thankfully, the storms that hit the northeast United States that week stayed far enough north so there was no rain or snow to deal with. However, race morning was cold — 14 degree real-feel temperature at the 6 a.m. start.

Needless to say, I was among those who huddled around a campfire as the race director went over the course markings, aid stations and other pre-race information.

While the Bel Monte race is well-organized, it can also be somewhat relaxed. There was no real start line. After the race instructions, we walked up the gravel driveway toward the road until someone yelled, “Go!”

From there it was an up-and-down two-mile run along a road, leading to the trail.

Yes, it’s a technical race

Among the runners I had chatted with before the race was a woman who had previously run the 25K race. “There are technical spots,” she told me when I asked about the trail sections.

That’s kind of like saying there are wet spots in an ocean.

Immediately after hitting the trail, we were greeted by a series of roots, large rocks and other obstacles that wanted to wreak havoc with our feet. Around 3.5 miles into the race, I caught my foot and went down, landing thigh first on an unforgiving rock.

“Oh, good,” I thought to myself, “only 30 more miles to go with a bruised thigh.”

That section of trail quickly led to a climb just steep enough for a power hike. There were intermittent flat sections where we could return to a run but we walked for about a mile until we reached the first aid station, which only offered water.

The next aid station, at mile 7, was fully stocked with water, colas, electrolytes, various types of fruit, salty items, candy and friendly volunteers. “The next section is completely runnable until you get to the next aid station in seven miles,” one of them advised.

Immediately after leaving the aid station, runners headed downhill via a series of switchbacks for the next two miles. It was challenging terrain to run on, given the small, loose rocks that were on the downhill — and also the 25K leaders who were walking up the switchbacks as I descended.

Once I was clear of the switchbacks — and the 25Kers, whose turnaround point was shortly after the downhill — the course flattened out and was indeed very runnable.

At the Mile 14 aid station, I wolfed down a couple of peanut butter and jelly tortillas — I really appreciated the gluten-free tortilla options — and headed to the turnaround point. The three miles to the halfway point were on a minimally traveled paved road that included a series of hills.

Where are the leaders?

At Mile 15, it dawned on me that I had not seen something that I had been expecting: the 50K leaders. Since this was an out-an-back course, they would be coming back toward me on my way to the 17-mile halfway point. How close to the front am I?

I knew that there were four or five other runners ahead of me on the road but I could not tell whether they were doing the 50K or 50-miler. Soon enough, I saw the leaders coming back. By the time I hit the halfway point aid station, I figured that I was in 13th place.

And thus began my goal of finishing in the top 10.

Back to the switchbacks

I didn’t spend much time at the 17-mile aid station, knowing that more PB&J tortillas were waiting for me three miles ahead. I was able to pass another runner about a mile into the return trip and caught up to another one at the Mile 20 aid station.

We stopped to chat and eat, and decided to run together. For the next five miles or so, we took turns leading each other through the runnable section. As we approached the switchbacks, he had gotten out in front of me.

Then we hit a slow climb up the switchbacks, from roughly mile 25 to 27. It was brutal. But powering through on tired legs is what I wanted most out of this race, given that it was a training run for my upcoming 50-mile race at the American River 50.

We had caught up to a group of other runners, er walkers, going up the hill. My previous running partner was in front and I was walking behind two other racers. At this point, I decided that I was going to get out of the aid station at the top of the mountain as fast as possible. So I decided to take in some nutrition as we were power-hiking. I made quick work of some peanut M&Ms and downed them with some Tailwind Nutrition that I was carrying.

As we finally made it to the top, I grabbed some more bites at the aid station — a small salted potato and an Oreo or two, don’t judge. I accomplished my goal of refueling quickly and getting out of the aid station as quickly as possible. My previous running partner was out first by a minute of two, but I was next, meaning that I had passed two racers and was in 10th place.

Two more climbs to go

As I left, an aid station volunteer called out, “Only two climbs to go — one trail, one road.” During the next seven miles, I alternated running when I could and walking the uphill sections. (OK, there was some walking on flat ground, too.) I kept looking back every so often but never did see any other runners.

When I came out of the woods, I knew that 10th place was in the bag. Just two miles — and one climb — to go.

At the finish line, there were plenty of volunteers, other runners and supporters who cheered me and all the other finishers. The finish line area was small but well-supported — the bonfire was still going strong, and there was lasagna, pretzels, candy, fruit and various drinks available.

My finishing time was exactly 7:03, coming in 10th place out of 89 runners.

How to recover from a hilly 50K

So now comes the important part — the recovery. My legs had been trashed by the uphills and downhills. To say that I had never run a race like this before is an understatement. It was my third ultra but the elevation gain in the Bel Monte race was almost exactly the same as the other two ultras combined.

My legs were sore, of course. Here are five things that helped my recovery in the hours and days after this challenging race:

  1. Wear Oofos recovery sandals. I have a pair of the Sports Slide Sandals and use them regulary to help my feet recover from races and long runs. The Oofos foam helps absorb the pounding in the feet, providing cushioned support when your feet need it most. I wore these for most of the day after the Bel Monte 50K and my feet felt great the next day.

  2. Use Swiftwick compression socks. I’ve written about compression gear previously and how it helps the body heal. It’s not scientifically proven but the anecdotal evidence does point out to the benefits of wearing compression gear to speed recovery. In hindsight, I wish that I had worn my compression tights to help my quads recover as quickly as my lower legs did from wearing Swiftwick knee-high recovery socks.

  3. Soak in the hot tub. The afternoon after my race, I went to the hotel pool looking for a hot tub. The only thing I found was a luke-warm pool. Thankfully, a few days later, a business trip took me to another hotel, which had a hot tub which I used to help my leg muscles recover.

  4. Eat wisely. I’ll admit it: If it wasn’t so cold (30something by race’s end), I would have looked for a way to indulge with a milkshake or ice cream. Instead, I focused my recovery foods on Hammer Nutrition recovery bars, bananas, PlantFusion protein mix and water. Lots of water. For dinner that night, I did celebrate with chicken and ribs — good sources of protein.
Elevate legs. Admittedly, I didn’t do this as soon as I should have. But coach Angie Spencer wisely advised me to lay on the floor with my legs elevated along the wall for 5-10 minutes. Basically, lactic acid accumulates during high levels of exercise when the body’s demand for oxygen outweighs the production of the muscle fibers. The body responds by creating lactic acid, which you need to flush out during recovery periods. That’s where elevating the legs is helpful.

In conclusion

I loved this race and was glad that I picked it out after getting experience at two other 50K events last year. I would definitely consider doing this race or others put on by Bad to the Bone in the future.

You should run this race if you:

• Are seeking a challenging ultra with decent climbs.
• Want a fairly low-key but very well organized race.
• Desire to see beautiful views.
• Are preparing for longer distance ultras or races with significant elevation gains.

You should not run this race if you:

• Have never run an ultra before.
• Don’t like running in the cold.
• Require a lot of swag and big medals.

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