Couch To 50K: My First Ultra In One Month’s Training

One month to train for 31 miles of running across steep alpine talus and 10,500 ft. of elevation gain? Cue insanity now.

Couch to 50K Ultramarathon training in one month the rut
The start of a long day after a quick month of training

Are you kidding me? The lunacy of the race’s organizers struck me at mile 24, when a near-vertical double black diamond mountain bike trail stopped me dead in my tracks. I was supposed to run up this. How do people even bike down this?!

The Rut, a 50K (31 mile) race, wound itself around Montana’s Big Sky resort with more than 10,500 ft. of elevation gain. I had run the bulk of the course’s elevation, including the Lone Peak high point, and at this point didn’t feel like running up steep stuff anymore.

My dirty little secret was that I’d never run an ultra before. I’d never even tackled a marathon! I could not have imagined, just 30 days prior, that I would embark on the longest run of my life—and one of the most infamous ultra-endurance events in America.

For context, before ultramarathon training, I probably ran between 10 to 15 miles a week and was in good shape. I wasn’t a stranger to running the occasional 10-mile or half-marathon without a problem, although I had never run in a race or marathon. I’m 23 years old.

The Rut In One Month Training

One month ago, I spent my days happily climbing, swimming, and enjoying brews with friends after work. It was bliss. Summer in Minneapolis is a magical place.

That all changed when I got an email from The North Face.

Couch to 50K Ultramarathon training in one month the rutOn August 1st, The North Face reached out with details about a race. As the Rut’s title sponsor, the brand asked if I wanted to participate, listing potential distances: 11K, 28K, and 50K.

My mind scrambled into overdrive: would such a feat be possible, 50K, with only a month of training?

My ego hard at work, I disregarded the shorter distances. Estimating training runs, I thought how my next month would radically change, and what kind of sacrifices I would need to make to maximize my ability to finish.

With a strong “maybe” in my head, I signed up for the 50K.

September 3rd, 2017, was judgment day.

Nothing Else is Like a Mountain

Minneapolis is flat. Chicago is flat. Everything is flat.

Throughout all of my training, the Rut’s elevation statistic burned a nervous impression in my brain. As someone who doesn’t live in the mountains, I knew I had to find hills, and relentlessly tackle them.

I split my options between 200-foot hill repeats in the Twin Cities, and trail running along the St. Croix River in Afton State Park. I tracked my progress on Strava and studied topographical maps to find the biggest ascents and descents.

Despite tirelessly running up and down hills, at the end of my runs the final elevation gain stat was dismal compared to what I would face during the Rut.

The Rut Elevation Profile
The Rut elevation profile; my motivational poster for the month

With the bulk of my training in the Twin Cities and one week in Chicago, I searched runners forums for people in similar situations as me.

In The Windy City, people suggested running up and down parking garages. Other options were to run across large highway overpasses or wait for a windy day and run head-first into the bluster. Yes, really.

These suggestions were pathetic.

But I still took the advice. I was desperate. On the Concordia University campus in Chicago, I ran the same stretch of parking garage 30 times in a row with the scent of burgers wafting into the air. Evidently, it was welcome week at school. And it was torture.

Regimen: One Month Training

I developed a training rhythm and quickly upped my distances. There isn’t exactly a known “plan” or training regimen for getting 50K ready in one month. Instead, I listened to my body and tried to push the distance as far as I could without injuring myself.

the rut ultramarathon course
The Rut course map

My plan involved two long distance runs each week, with a mid-distance run between, and shorter distances to round out my weekly mileage. Then I rested a day.

I prioritized sleep, canceled late night meet-ups with friends, and gave up alcohol. I tried to eat as healthy as possible, with loads of healthy fats, carbs, greens, and nothing greasy.

The training was brutal, to say the least. I did nearly all of my workouts alone, and my social life suffered because of it. My muscles were sore during every run I went on.

Things were going great.

Training ‘Plan’: Run As Much As Possible

I started with an eight-mile run as my long day, then 13, then 16, without missing a beat. Eventually, my main training segment became a 25K route in Afton State Park with nearly 2,300 ft. of elevation gain.

My peak distance day, two weeks before race day, was 32 miles in Chicago. I had done two 16-mile days back to back before that, and I attempted to push my limits on distance. If I couldn’t train for the elevation, I could prepare myself for the mental game of running for a really, really long time.

At the end of that run, I was utterly defeated. Until the Rut, that was the single hardest day of exercise I had ever had.

I did one more 25K loop in Afton a week out of the race and finally tapered for six days before the start. I had finished training without injury or illness.

The pieces were set. Now all I had to do was run up two mountains, across 31 miles of loose talus, singletrack, and alpine conditions. I was afraid, to say the least.

Race Day: Big Sky, Montana

6:00AM. Wildfires blazed across large swaths of Montana. The smell of bonfire tinged my nostrils. Headlamps provided the only source of light. Pines lined either side of the race course. Metallica blasted at the starting line and an anxious energy hummed around the pack of runners.

Couch to 50K Ultramarathon training in one month the rut
Nervous energy bubbles at the start of The Rut

Then, a loud and sharp elk bugle cut through the air. The Rut started and the first wave of runners ascended into the dark unknown.

My mind was blank. I felt calm and ready. Over the last month, I did all I could, and now I finally got to see if it was possible, if my training was enough. I was excited.

The first climb took roughly two hours and covered the same height as my hilly 25K training run in Afton. So much for trying to gage the mountains from the Midwest.

Couch to 50K Ultramarathon training in one month the rut
Lone Peak: Don’t stare at it for too long or your legs will turn to stone

Chugging on, I patiently waited to summit the high point: Lone Peak. If I could do that, I figured I could finish the race.

At 11,166 ft. high, it towers ominously over Big Sky. I saw it the whole weekend, and throughout the entire race knew I would eventually be on top.

It was a long day, but I focused on the task at hand. A few times my mind wandered and I would trip on rocks or roots. Falling could end my race, so I couldn’t afford to do anything but stay present on the five feet of trail in front of me.

Couch to 50K Ultramarathon training in one month the rut
The entrance to Lone Peak’s climb. Dark despair lay ahead

I gradually wound my way through the course and eventually up Lone Peak. It was challenging, I stopped at times, but I definitely had energy left in the tank once on top. The training worked!

After a few more hours of continuous descent and one full body cramp later, I heard the finish line and crossed, my mind still blank. I was happy, don’t get me wrong, but mostly felt a grand sense of peace and contentment. My time was 9 hours and 20 minutes.

Couch to 50K Ultramarathon training in one month the rut
Can you tell which is before and after? Picture on the left taken by Rebecca G. Warren; Selfie on the right taken from the safe confines of the finish-line porta potty

Rut Reflections

The race was largely mindless, one foot in front of the other for hours on end. The steep climbs were robotic, my interactions with people superficial. But it was also extremely mindful.

For more than nine hours, I did nothing but think of what was immediately in front of me and how my body was feeling. After the finish, I knew my body was done. I could feel that, but my mind reacted the same, too.

Couch to 50K Ultramarathon training in one month the rut

At the recovery tent, my perception of time sped rapidly as I de-focused. In a weird state of dehydration, exhaustion, and relief, time passed faster than ever before. I glanced at the race clock and, before I knew it, 20 minutes had passed, then 40, then an hour and a half.

I was sitting, but time was flying. What was happening to me?

I eventually came to my senses and enjoyed some pizza, one of the best recovery foods.

Experience The Rut: 11K, 28K, 50K

The Rut will happen again next year. If this sounds like your cup of tea (or pitcher of insanity), I recommend NOT taking only a month to train. It was masochism. But a good limit-pushing soothes the soul and leads to personal insights otherwise unknown.

For more about The Rut, peruse the website and sign up for a journey, no matter how you choose to train.

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Midwest born, Nate Mitka started with Gearjunkie after a short stint as “intern”. An advocate of all outdoor activities he’s developed some habits, like running without headphones, eating raw vegetables, and fixing the chain on his ratty old bike.

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