This past weekend I had the honor of running with a good friend of mine when he attempted his first ultra-distance — a 60km run (36 miles). My buddy had run several marathons in the past but since we met around a year ago, I’ve been planting the seed for ultramarathons with him. A little less than two months ago, after he finished a marathon, I challenged him to do this run with me. I encouraged him and said that he would definitely succeed and would enjoy the experience. He said let’s do it!
Fast forward to last Friday. After work, I prepared my house as our aid station to pass by every 20km. I had plenty of Hüma Chia Gels, Hammer Gels, Justin’s Nut Butters, Tailwind, Succeed Amino, Succeed S! Caps, hummus, and other snacks as well as a ton of water. I had a blister kit, Trail Toes cream, and other aid station staples. I mapped out three 20km loops around the city of Merida, Mexico. I told him to bring extra shoes, socks, shirts, and anything else he might want to change during the run.
Around 6pm he showed up and by 6:30pm we were off and running. My goal for the first 20km was to slow him down and keep us at a reasonable pace. I use a heart rate monitor so I used that to judge our effort. Luckily for us the weather cooled a bit–but don’t misunderstand me–it was still around 86-88°F/30-31°C with substantial humidity. It was just cooler for us because of how hot Merida normally is. Things were pretty easy going and as we passed by a little village, we actually found a dog that had run with us for around 5-6km a week earlier. The dog recognized us and even paused to consider running again but thought better of it. I think we wore him out the last time. At around the 40 minute mark, I got my friend started on his eating regiment. It was one of my goals to show him how important calorie intake will be during this adventure. He had experienced problems around the 35-38km mark in past runs where he completely ran out of energy. We made it back to the house a little over 2 hours later and started our refueling.
When we set out for lap 2, it was dark. I knew this is where things will start to get a little rougher. We plowed through the first 10km without problems but I noticed that oddly enough the temperature in the city was rising and the air was getting more stagnant. This added to the challenge. I was trying to keep tabs on my friend’s rhythm, pace, and breathing to notice any changes or struggling. Right around the time we passed the halfway mark, I could tell things were getting tougher for the both of us. At 35km, I had gone through my water bottle and my other bottle that had tailwind mixed with water. I was sweating profusely and my legs had definitely lost their spring. When I had to jump up and down on curbs and sidewalks, it was definitely more of a challenge. Shortly thereafter, my friend let me know his knees were starting to really bother him so I suggested us do some intervals of 5 minutes running and 1 minute walking. We used this change of pace to stop by a store and get some more water. Funny enough, when we walked out of the store, we encountered another runner I had met a few weeks earlier who was also out for a long run that night. It is a very cool bond runners have.
After chatting with the runners for a couple minutes, we headed off for our remaining 5km to the house. This was definitely the challenging moment of the night for my buddy. He was experiencing that low feeling that one encounters multiple times during an ultra. I decided my goal was to try to motivate him, cheer him up, and see him through the woods so to speak. I assumed the role of the pacer to the racer in an ultramarathon. We continued our 5/1 intervals and about 1.5km from the house we gutted it out to finish loop 2.
Upon reaching our aid station aka my house, my buddy dropped to the floor. He was definitely suffering but was also trying to recuperate. I found a Hüma Chia gel with double caffeine to boost him out of his hole. I made him drink more water and take an S!Cap to help with electrolyte loss. While he was laying on the ground, he asked if we could alter our final 20km and do two 10km loops. Great idea, I thought. This way it was mentally more paletable and he could pass by our aid station once more. I could definitely see where going out for a 10km run is a lot easier to think about than going out for a 20km. He eats 10km for breakfast. After 40km and nearly 5 hours on his feet, another 10km shouldn’t be too bad. After about 15 minutes or so, we headed out for our next loop.
Something amazing happened during our run between the 40-50km mark, my friend started to rebound. He no longer needed intervals and was running with a rejuvenated spirit. It was exactly what I was hoping would happen. This is quite customary during ultra distances. If you can just get past the dark moments, you will experience comebacks that you thought were impossible. We ended up running about 8km and then walked for about a half of a km and then ran the remainder. That loop was much easier than the last one. We refueled, stretched a bit, and headed out for the last loop.
The last loop is where I started to feel some of the fatigue setting in but I wanted to stay strong for my friend. As we wound our way though a nearby neighborhood our conversation picked up quite a bit more and I shared some of my experiences of similar runs. We did one more walk break of about 5 minutes at the 55km mark and then pushed the effort to get home. I started experiencing some gastrointestinal issues, I guess because of some of the experimenting with different food combinations. Like the experts say, training runs are the time to experiment and not the race. It was nip and tuck to see if I could make it home with out having to find an “emergency” bathroom but around 7 hours after setting out on our adventure, we made it!
The aftermath of the run was a moment of joy I had not experienced before and the reason I’m writing this post. To hear the sense of accomplishment in my friend’s voice brought a huge smile to my face. He kept repeating over and over, “60 kilometers, 60 kilometers”. My best guess is that he was happy, amazed, proud, and exhausted all at the same time. This moment was the reason why I challenged him to this run–I knew he would love it and knew he could do it. I wanted to provide for him what I didn’t have when I first got into ultrarunning: a person to share it with and a person to learn from. Don’t get me wrong, I love the path I have followed to arrive to this point but it would have been a lot easier to do some of my first ultra-distance runs with an experienced person to help push me through. That night adds to the many reasons why I love to run.