Winning My First Ever Ultra Race And Breaking The Course Record
This was quite an experience! Where to start... As we all know, 2020 is a different year. My race calendar was wiped out as I'm guessing most of yours was too. Virtual races just don't appeal to me, so my solution to keep myself motivated was to find races that were on my bucket list and actually went ahead live. This is how I ended up at (and winning) the Hungarian Long-Course Triathlon National Championship and this is also how I finally got around to doing my first ultra.
Let's start with the end, because I'm really proud of how it went. I won the race with running 213.826 kms (130+ miles) in 23 hours 52 mins and change. I beat all men and women and set a new course record (which had been held by a woman by the way). This means obviously that I ran more than anyone on this course last year when it hosted the National Championship. It actually hosted the National Championship a few times, so that is why the course record is no small feat. It is not a flat course! This is the message I got from the Canadian Association of Ultramarathoners, they are still checking records to make sure all is correct: "As of right now, I’d say you’re tentatively the new Canadian Champion on Canadian soil, beating the old record of Lorna Richey (210.106 km) in May 1984!" . And if I just knew I was so close to the Canadian Soil Open Record of 214.4 km, we could have had a spotter on the course and I should have run for the last 7 minutes and I could have broken that one too. My result puts me as No1 in the selection list for Team Canada for next year's 24h World Championship.
And now let's go back to the beginning. I had never run longer than a marathon in my life. Not in training, not in racing. But I had had it in my mind that I could do well in a longer race. So road ultras were always on my bucket list and it looked like this race could actually go ahead this year.
I decided that there was not much difference between a 42km marathon and a 50k ultra, so I would have gone for at least a 50 miler for my first ultra anyway. But I like That Dam Hill race, the organizers are amazing, it is a little gem. I did a half marathon there 3 years ago (came 3rd) and they had no 50 miler option, only 6h, 12h and 24h timed ultras. And since the 12 hour race started at 8pm, meaning you have to sacrifice your night anyway, I decided to go for the full 24 hours.
I had no idea what to expect in such a long running race. There were a few things I knew. There is a damn hill... most runners in the 24 hour race walk this hill. There are also two smaller hills. And you come across them every 2.25 kms - in my case 95 times! However, I don't like walking. So my plan was just to run. Run up the damn hill every single time. And run the whole thing for the whole 24 hours. That was my main goal, regardless of distance. As far as distance goes, I knew that if I do manage to run the whole time, 200km would be an average pace of 7:12 min/km (11.35 min/mile) - very much doable! So that was sort of an A-goal for distance, but again, I had absolutely no idea if it was doable at all. But this was my plan. And this is what I ended up doing. Run up the damn hill. Every. Single. Time... and run for the whole 24 hours.
I'm not a high mileage athlete. I have three little kids (almost 6, almost 8 and 10) so I can't afford to put in 20-hour weeks if I want to spend time with them. I usually run between 30-40 miles (50-65 km) a week. For this race I had 3 weeks of race-specific training, because the Hungarian Triathlon Championship was 6 weeks prior. So I took 2 weeks to recover from that, I put in 3 higher mileage weeks (54-62 miles) and had one week of taper. It seems to have worked out pretty well! I only had one week where I was over 100km, just barely (100.4), but that was the first time in my life.
Bringing the nutrition experience from my Ironman triathlon was invaluable. And also the mindset of an Ironman athlete. I'm there to race it, not to go for a walk. When back in 1980 Dave Scott, later 6-time Ironman World Champion, first showed up at the start with the idea of actually "racing" the Ironman triathlon in Hawaii instead of just aiming to finish the distance, it was novel to the other athletes. These days all professionals and the top amateurs go in to "race" it, so the pace we are doing on the bike and run are race pace (and for those who can swim better than me swim has a race pace too!).
I knew there would be no "race pace" for my first 24h run, especially because I had never done an ultra of any distance before. I race the run of an Ironman triathlon in Zone 3 heart rate for the whole time. But that's "only" a marathon. You can't do that for 24 hours. So I figured as long as the pace feels easy, "forever pace", I'm in heart rate Zone 2, and my muscle oxygen shows green, I'm ok. I wasn't going to push the pace this time around. Maybe next time when I already know what I'm doing...
Because of the COVID situation, we had to have our own aid station, there was no race aid station. Being allowed personal nutrition was absolutely crucial to achieve this result. I prepared the same Maurten mixes the same way that helped me win the Hungarian National Championship of Long-Course Triathlon 6 weeks earlier. I had 42 bottles of 1/2 hour worth of drinks and I knew that ideally I drink half of each at once.
So I came up with a plan of placing my bottles on a table next to the course neatly, then setting up a second table a few hundred meters down the road where I would place the half-empty bottles after picking them up from the first table and taking 3 sips. Then the next lap (appr. 15-17 mins later) I would pick it up from the second table, finish it off and toss it in the recycling bin that I placed another few hundred meters down. This also gave me something to do every single lap to keep me occupied.
After a few loops I realized that I wouldn't be able to remember every lap if I had a bottle on the second table. So I placed a half bottle there and left it there in case I miss picking up a full one for any reason. I just made sure there were always half empty ones around, sometimes there were 3-4 on the table. Better than expecting one and not finding it there... (that happened too!).
I also had food options available, just in case, but the plan was to go on liquid for the whole time. I just wasn't sure if it was doable. I know that my body does best on liquid nutrition and my picky tummy likes that best too. I had a few other options for my night time caffeine in the other 6 bottles, a Red Bull split in two, a Java Monster split in two and flat Coke. Plus some caffeinated gels if that would be what I felt like.
I ended up drinking only the Monster of those options. After drinking the first one around 9pm, I realized that this was all I wanted for my caffeine, so I asked my crew to fill up another 4 bottles, giving me 6 total.
My amazing crew was my dear friend, Norma with her husband and son, plus my incredible pacers, organized by Paul who drove 6 hours just to pace me for an hour! And to bring Karen and Callie with him, who paced me at night. Guys, I couldn't have done this without you! Thank you so much, you were so amazing!!! I will be forever grateful.
Left to right: Norma, Callie, Karen and me
This is where I would like to thank anyone who gave me advice about how to run an ultra, among others, my Team Running Free team mate, Michelle. I did my research and gathered all the information I could. In one of the Facebook groups I picked up the idea of pacers. I think it was less than a week before the race. I'm so glad that I did and that my friends ended up coming. Not sure how I would have gotten home otherwise! (What the heck was I thinking?)
I did my research about the other runners too. It was a loaded field with some serious, experienced ultra runners including several National Champions and World Championship participants and a 3:11 marathoner. I just had to keep reminding myself that this race is not about speed and I'm definitely on top of the endurance part.
To be honest, the part about the race itself will probably be the shortest of this race report... We started, we ran, then I kept running, then it was over. All right, I can be a little bit more detailed, but really, there is not that much to it, I was just running.
Paul drove for 6 hours to run with me for an hour. Thank you!
The original plan was to go out at a 6 min pace (9:40 min/mile) but definitely no faster than 5:45 (9:15 min/mile) and see how long I can keep that up. Then as the time goes by let the pace slip and just try to hang on to whatever I can. Based on this plan my friends who know me were not surprised to see me go out at a 5:20-5:45 (8:35-9:15 min/mile) pace for the first 6 hours. I was just feeling good and decided that as long as I'm happy and it is all good I won't worry about being off the plan.
I settled into that 5:45-6 min pace for the next 4 hours and then it started to drop further. However, after about 7.5 hours, 50 miles (80km) into the race I took the lead from the fast girl, Amanda. So when my pacers arrived about 10 hours in and I was more around a 6:10-6:15 (10-10:05 min/mile) pace I told them that I was ok with that and let's not worry about pace at this point, let's just worry about going steadily. And that's what we did. Later on I started slipping into the 6:30s (10:30 min/mile), then the 7s (11:15 min/mile), then even the 7:30s (12 min/mile) and in the middle of the night at 4am there was an hour when my average pace was even over 8 min/km (13 min/mile) but then I came back to under 8.
There were not really any walls or bigger challenges to be honest. I knew it would be a long race and it was. I was not focused on pace just to keep going and I did. That's all there was to it.
There were smaller issues like my Vaporflys fell apart after 180km (112 miles) which was to be expected as they had already had almost 120kms (75 miles) in them and they are only rated for 100 miles so I got almost double out of them. I wasn't planning on wearing those. I arrived in my 4% but the grass was wet and by the time I realized in the morning my shoes and socks were soaked so I had to change both. That's how I ended up in my Vaporflys for the start. I changed back to the 4% at 180kms and they sort of lasted the rest of the race. Well, a panel fell off the back of the heel but my previous pair did the same so I was not surprised.
The only time I really felt like stopping but at that point it wasn't an option was in the last hour, when at 23:03 after crossing the mat I was told I could fit in 2 more laps and I would be done. When I crossed the mat again at 23:20 my friend said that I could actually fit in 2 more. I believe my answer was "but I don't want to". She told me to hang onto the pace which I did. At that point the win and the new course record were already done deals. I managed to fit in the two extra laps and finish at 23:52:51.
It is really hard to say anything after this result. It raises so many questions that have been racing in my head for the last few days. Nobody expected this, not even me. As my coach asked right after "Now What?". I love triathlon, I'm a triathlete. But then it turns out that I have a gift for ultra road running... I'm pretty sure I just made it to the Canadian National Team. What do I do with this gift? Shall I pursue it? Shall I change the whole focus from triathlon to ultra running? This result just made my life a little bit more complicated than it had already been. I'm incredibly happy obviously. And I do think I have my answers. But I will just give it a little time and think a bit more carefully without rushing any decisions. Check back before the next season if you are curious of the answers I come up with.