Cooling Effect: Lessons Learned On The Trail

A good pair of shoes, a handheld water bottle and a strong mind are some of the most essential pieces of equipment for ultrarunning. Photo: Myles Smythe | Michigan Bluff Photography

Senior editor Mario Fraioli reflects on his first ultrarunning experience. 

Flat soda never tasted so good as it did at the 26-mile aid station atop Goat Hill this past Saturday at the Way Too Cool 50K.

After power-hiking my way up the merciless quarter mile, 20-percent grade “where marathoners become ultramarathoners,” I stopped—not to savor this monumental moment in my running career—but to ingest as many cups of decarbonated, sugar-filled, caffeine-laced goodness that my stomach would allow me to before trudging five more muddy miles to the finish line. At that point I had just split the hardest 11:10 mile of my life and found myself fending off a relentless troop of negative mind monkeys that were trying to convince me this was a good place to call it a day. If it weren’t for a few swigs of the magical elixir I found in the middle of the well-stocked table at that very moment, I’m not sure what I would have done. Crawled, maybe.

RACE PHOTOS: Way Too Cool 50K

Fortunately, I didn’t have to get down on all fours, although I did almost take a headfirst slide into second base about a dozen times over the final 4-5 miles of the race. My legs were in a world of fatigue they hadn’t yet experienced in my 17 years as a runner, and just lifting my feet off the ground enough to successfully negotiate the rocky terrain and muddy downhills was no small task. I told myself if I stayed upright, I was doing OK.

MORE COOLING EFFECT: Way Too Cool Race Week

When all was said and done, it took me 3 hours, 45 minutes and 21 seconds after I set off from the starting line outside the Cool Fire Station with about 1,000 of my newest friends to reach the finish line in a semi-delirious state. It was the longest run of my life by exactly an hour, and a lot of lessons were learned during those 30 some-odd miles—including, but not limited to:

— Running well on the trails requires an expanded skill set. As I mentioned in the last installment of this series, a long run on the trails is way different than a long run on the roads. Quite simply, there are a lot more things to worry about when you’re running off-road—being really fit isn’t enough to get by on. This applies to races as well as long training runs, regardless of how fast you’re going. There were multiple points of the race this past weekend where I hesitated and slowed my stride down considerably because I wasn’t confident in my footwork. My advice for aspiring (or even experienced) trail and ultrarunners: Work on becoming a better athlete. Strengthen your ankles and feet. Work on your agility. If you’re going for speed, practice running fast on trails. I definitely didn’t do enough of any of these things in my own training. Brett Rivers, owner of the San Francisco Running Company and a veteran ultrarunner, had a great race in fourth place, finishing in 3:36:37—a 7-minute PR for the course. He blew by me on a rocky descent about 10-1/2 miles into the race, tap dancing his way down the trail while I tip-toed to the bottom, and then put me away for good in similar fashion just after mile 18. Brett spends a lot of time on the trails working on his skills and it showed!

— It’s important to laugh at yourself. Somewhere between the 7 and 8 mile markers I approached one of the many creek crossings on the course. Unsure of where to step down, I guessed wrong and ended up taking a tumble, submerging everything south of my head under the water’s surface. What does one do in such a situation so early in the race? Get up, keep running and have a good chuckle at one of your many rights of passage as an ultrarunner. I encountered various other moments of rookie-related ridiculousness throughout the race—such as relieving myself on the run and trying to figure out the best way to power-hike up an unrunnable incline—which left me laughing at my own expense.

—Bring a handheld bottle. The biggest rookie mistake I made throughout the process of preparing for my first ultra was waiting until two days before the race to buy a handheld water bottle. Looking back, it ended up being my most essential piece of equipment aside from my running shoes. I am thankful that my wife laid into me the Wednesday of race week and forced me to go buy a bottle. I filled that 10-ounce sucker at each of the last four aid stations and drained it dry every time. Even though the aid stations themselves are really well stocked with just about every food and beverage option you can imagine, having your own supply of fluid to quench your thirst on the miles in between is of the utmost importance.

—You’ve always got a little bit more in you. Ultrarunning is all about rationing your reserves. This applies not only to fueling, but also to summoning your mental strength throughout the race. How deep can you drain the tank? What do you do in the middle of a low moment? It’s easy to doubt yourself when you’re heading into the unknown, or find yourself deeply entrenched in it. There were times during the race when my legs were screaming at me to give them a break, others where my mind became foggy and I could tell I wasn’t thinking straight. I came to a complete stop at a few of the aid stations. I walked some sections of the trail. Whenever I wasn’t sure I could go another step, I’d remind myself of one of my favorite quotes by the great Kenyan marathoner Paul Tergat: “Ask yourself: Can I give more? The answer is usually yes.”  Those words got me through the rough patches. In most cases, you’re not really defeated when you think you’ve been hit with the knockout blow. Fight back against the negative mind monkeys who are telling you to quit. Remember: As long as you’re moving forward, no matter how slowly, you’re making progress.

Looking back at my first ultrarunning experience on Saturday, I can’t help but smile. And cringe. And laugh. And wince. And smile again. It was, as the name of the race suggests, way too cool! I clicked off some solid splits and shuffled through my share of not-so-good ones. I shared a few miles with friends and spent long stretches of singletrack trapped alone inside my own head. I experienced some high highs and a few pretty low lows. I suppose when you’re running through the woods for a few hours, you open yourself up to any number of interesting, challenging situations. You also learn a lot about yourself along the way.

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