Perhaps, like me, you experience the post-Ironman blues and feel you still have energy to burn along with that anxious feeling that comes with the need to continuing to train for “something”. This year I decided to solve that by signing up for an ultra marathon 2 months after Ironman Lake Placid.
There would seem to be a great deal of overlap between the two events, obviously both need experience and discipline in nutrition throughout the race, comfortable familiar race specific clothing, a carefully thought out but flexible plan of when to hydrate and eat, a great deal of endurance training and the metal aptitude to keep going.
Ironman training requires a great deal of time for the three sports covered and each is somewhat independent of the other, although the benefits of cross training are well documented. Many triathletes are not stellar swimmers, which requires many hours in the pool for incremental gains. Similarly, preparing to ride 112 miles while leaving sufficient for the marathon requires long rides and brick ride/run workouts. The key to a successful race is to blend all three together along with a nutrition plan and careful energy management.
Ultra training sounds simpler by comparison since it essentially involves running however I’d be remiss if that’s all that’s needed. Unlike road running, ultras are usually on trails requiring a great deal of focus on the path ahead for obstacles, and having enough endurance to lift your feet over such obstacles late in the race. Additionally, ultras can involve river crossings, altitude, rough terrain, changing conditions in the mountains etc., and these require experience through training. Ultimately the run training will involve long back-to-back runs and high weekly mileage.
Ironman while an individual sport, doesn’t mean you are alone on race day. In fact most begin with a mass start swim with 2,000 or more of your closest friends. This can be quite frightening if you are not used to mass starts, while wearing a constricting wet suit, in unfamiliar dark water. Unless you are a pro or elite, you will be in close proximity to many other competitors throughout race day.
Ultras are the exact opposite with few runners and often you will be running alone, or at least spaced out with no spectators except the wildlife around you. The aid stations and volunteers though are notoriously helpful, even meeting you 50 yards out taking your bottles and running ahead to fill them for you.
My Ironman training got off to a delayed start with a bike crash and shattered clavicle in April, however my race swim wasn’t so bad but I missed the crucial bike training time. The ultra training began 2 days after Ironman with a 17 mile run. Thereafter I traded bike time for additional run time while maintaining the pool schedule. A strong core is needed to maintain run form which is especially important on rock strewn trail runs. Eventually I worked up to running 25 miles trail on a Saturday followed by 30 miles road on a Sunday with another 3 mid-weeks runs of between 10 and 18 miles. I threw in some river crossings to simulate wet feet, experimented with wool socks, hydration packs and eating different foods. After Ironman training I didn’t find the transition difficult at all.
After some research I had settled on the Bear Chase (www.bearchaserace.com) 50 Miler outside of Denver, touted as a “beginner” friendly race as it involves 4 loops of non-technical trail, has many aid stations, is at mild elevation and includes 3,400 feet of climb. This race turned out to be an excellent choice as very well organized, easy to get to, just over 100 runners although they offer 10k, Half, 50k races on the same day but on different courses.
Unfortunately the training accidents continued as I tripped on a root and smashed my knee into a rock. This required some stitches, an IV and 3 dozes of antibiotics for infection. That became an enforced 2 week taper but these things happen. It only highlighted the need to stay alert on the trail.
So how do they compare in terms of effort?
My experience at Ironman has been one of trying to solve for energy management, going hard enough to reach a goal time, but saving enough for the marathon. This can be quite a tricky challenge and no doubt when the marathon comes, a fast initial cadence off the bike might seem and feel like a relief, that soon fades, pace drops, and you are battling and willing your body to keep going to the finish line. If you are lucky everything aches a bit. It is a busy day with equipment changes, stocking up at aid stations, eating on the bike, monitoring your body, form, remembering a number of items in transition so there is a fair amount of focus on logistics. You don’t have much time to zone out, in addition to watching for other bike riders, flying dropped bottles at the aid stations, cars, other traffic etc. Exhausting yes, but more of a full body massage experience.
The ultra on the other hand, since there was less race time logistics to be concerned about, seemed to focus the mind more of how the legs were feeling and the trail sure provides feedback through the feet. Unlike the bike where you probably have a computer in front of you and/or aid stations every 30 mines, on the ultra you have to figure out where and when to eat and drink. I found when powerwalking up hills the best time versus disturbing my cadence and taking my eye off the trail.
For me, there was no doubt that the ultra was much harder on the legs with the constant impact, trail surface, rapid elevation change, narrow, grooved single track that really has your ankles going in all directions, so it seemed far more physically demanding. Running 50 miles with constant wet feet from the 12 river crossing didn’t bother me at all as merino wool socks seemed to alleviate major blistering. My knee began swelling at 20M along with terrible cramps. I did think of quitting at the halfway mark but my endurance toughness kicked in, I put my iPod and game face on and kept going. There are really no spectators, few competitors on the trail with you, and limited distractions that the effort required seems heightened along with the need for a stronger desire to continue to the finish line.
While both finishes were exciting and worthy in their own way; Ironman has thousands of people and huge fanfare, the ultra finish has barely 25 people although everyone cheers you and makes a very welcome sight, there is no doubt I that I gave the ultra my all. My legs were completely trashed, limping heavily and it took weeks for them to recover. In other words, spent.
If that is the feeling you are after, and need a post-Ironman race to avoid the blues, I’d thoroughly recommend giving an ultra a shot. Go on, sign up for another epic adventure!