Having never run more than 13 miles in my life, I decided a year ago I would try a 50K race. It was brutal, but I finished, and I was hooked. Last weekend, I toed the line again for the ultra distance — 31.06 miles in full — at the Hawkeye 50K, a hilly race in Iowa with gravel roads, muddy singletrack, and icy, snowy trails.
It was not without some pain, but I finished in the middle of the pack with a time of 6 hours and 7 minutes. For runners interested in the ultra distance I offer these tips from my (admittedly still-newbie) perspective on the 50K trail. — Amy Oberbroeckling
Plot Hydration Stops — You can carry water on an ultra or rely on water stops at aid stations along the course. Since the Hawkeye 50 has stations every few miles I decided to leave my CamelBak in the car.
Except When That’s A Bad Idea… The above strategy worked last year. However, it was hotter this time around and I was cutting it too close on the hydration. I was never dehydrated but started to cramp as the course was a slog.
Eat! — I tried to take in 100 calories per hour on the course. This was the low end of what many ultra athletes intake. Unlike a marathon, on a trail ultra you need to focus on eating as well as drinking to make it with energy to the end.
Energy Foodstuffs — Don’t try and down a PB&J at mile 20. That calorie bomb will sit in your stomach like a brick. Even a traditional energy bar can be too heavy. Instead I eat small amounts (100 cal. or so) throughout a race, banking on energy gels and quick chewables like Clif Bloks.
Dress To Run (for hours) — Temps were in the 40s on the Hawkeye, and I wore a long-sleeve synthetic top with lightweight knickers and tall wool compression socks. I ended up holding my thin wool gloves in my hands for most of the race, only putting them on when temps dropped in the shade. The getup was about perfect for the temp and the output required at an ultra pace.
Extra Shoes! — The first 22 miles were perfect for my North Face Ultra Trail shoes. They worked great on the crushed gravel and hard-pack trails. The last 9 miles were on muddy singletrack, so I switched into Icebug Acceleritas. They have bigger lugs and dug in on the muddy trail.
Save Your Legs For Hills — The first 22 miles of the race were mostly flat and easy. I was able to run fast and comfortably, but ultimately pushed it too hard. The last 9 miles were the hardest for me because the singletrack trails were muddy. I was beat up from exerting too much early on. I had to walk up steep hills toward the end to stretch my legs and undo cramps creeping in.
Know The Course — Going into the race, I was expecting the same course as last year, which was two loops of 15.5 miles each. Nope. This year, the race director sent out an e-mail just one day before the start saying “because of flooding the course will be different this year.” I had to rethink my nutritional plan and prepare for a whole different race with a day to go.
HTFU — You gotta look up that acronym if you don’t know what it means… But for me I applied it on this course because just two weeks before the race start I found out I was selected from a wait list. Aside from one 15-mile run the week before the race, and a handful of 5-milers, I didn’t train specifically for the 50K. I’m fit, but let’s just say mental fortitude is a big component in any ultra, and especially the Hawkeye for me this year.
—Amy Oberbroeckling is an Assistant Editor at GearJunkie.com.