On Sunday 6 December 2020 I did something arbitrary, idiotic, and epic. I ran 50km through the North Georgia wilderness as a part of Sean “Run Bum” Blanton’s Cloudland Canyon 50km. If you are still scratching your head over whether that is worthwhile, let me walk you through it. The maths isn’t too hard. Think 5km (OK, three point one miles) multiplied by 10 (pull the calculator out): 31 miles. Voilà. Now that you know how long 50km is, all you need to do is check out a copy of Born to Run by Christopher McDougall at your local library and watch The Barkley Marathons: the race that eats its young on Netflix. Just three simple steps to becoming an ultra marathoner.
Still interested or intrigued by the gruelling task of loafing 31 miles through the woods? If that is the case, I scratched down a few things that I have known for a very long time but didn’t apply to my first race. As 6 December 2020 was an unforgettable day for me, I hope today I can encourage you to embark on a challenge you will never forget.
One: Never put a Reese’s in an Easter Egg
After the initial celebration of finishing the race with my stellar crew (huge thanks to Tim and Logan), I heard one of them say: “Dude, is that peanut butter in your hair?” Yes, that in fact was peanut butter in my hair. But why stop there? It was dug deep under my fingernails, nestled within the creases of my palms, and jammed in every crack and crevice of my cheap headlamp.
There are few things as important as nutrition out on the trail. I took my nourishment seriously. I had experimented and found success with many different foods, but had this genius idea to try to make peanut butter protein balls for race day without testing them out on a training run. After moulding those delectable chia seed, honey, and peanut butter-packed balls with the precision of a potter the previous day, I stuck them in the freezer. Overnight they solidified and looked utterly glorious. Of course I taste-tested one: delicious. As we saw during Covid-19 vaccine distribution, the problem wasn’t the product at this point, but the supply chain. I failed to consider the fact that these rock-solid protein balls would be sitting with me in the car for an hour before the race, then hugging my sweaty back for miles on end once I started. About four miles in, I was already starting to crave those decadent, bite-sized goodies. I opened my grey-and-orange running pack and dove right for the protein balls. Much to my surprise, I had not fastened my reusable Ziploc bag well enough and those spheres of salvation were an amorphous being, dripping into every nook and cranny of my few possessions. The peanut butter amoeba took no prisoners, infiltrating the gates of my phone case, sending volleys upon volleys at my neck gaiter, and taking its remaining food friends hostage. After me and the rest of the edible gang ran a mutiny on the protein balls, I looked down. Peanut butter in my hands, all over my gear, and the largest smile was sitting on my face. Do not store up your treasures in things that will melt on you.
Two: Life is a marathon, not a sprint
On the day of the race I was 23 years old, so I did what any 23-year-old man would do in my situation. Start really fast. The cool thing about starting out fast is that you are able to run with the lead pack for a few miles. The not so cool thing about starting out fast is a lot of people that you laughed at during the beginning of the race will pass you. To put this into context, I passed the half-marathon mark running my half-marathon pace. That is all fine and good, besides the fact that I would traditionally be stopping at that point if I was running my half-marathon for speed. There were still 18 gruelling miles through flora and fauna to go. It was a long and slow death. Every hare needs a tortoise.
I had an idea of how long 50km would take me. Leading up to the race I started crunching the numbers. OK, so the longest run I completed in training was 27-and-a-half miles. That took me just about four hours. To account for the additional four miles I would need to complete on race day, I factored in an additional hour. When I say that I had a clue about how long it would take, I wasn’t lying in the slightest. I was just hilariously wrong. Once I limped under the finish line, it had been a total of 6h33m22s – 23,602 seconds of putting one foot in front of the other. Another lesson learned. I should have been more worried about working on my hill training instead of chasing Strava clout with my Silver Comet Trail Runs – the flattest run in all of Atlanta. I swear that path is downhill both ways. Yes, I had finished the good race, but it would have been incredibly more enjoyable at a measured pace.
Three: This is a really nice thing, now treat it that way
My whole life, I have been notorious for losing things. House keys, watches, sunglasses… if I have owned it, I have lost it. Around mile six of the race, I found my stride. In that moment, I could have run forever. This was until I peeked down into the abyss of Cloudland Canyon. Thankfully, after a millennium of erosion, this perfect metal staircase tapered down the canyon walls to the bottom. Taking each step two at a time, I was gaining ground on the runner in front of me. As a veteran of the trail, he seemed to be taking a much more controlled approach to the stair section than my reckless course. Not 10 steps after he pulled over to let me pass him, I took a quick pivot step with three stairs to go. My pivot step turned into a travel when my feet completely came out from under me. The fall was gnarly. It’s still a blur. Foot slips. Knee to the stair corner. Ear striking platform. Back, matted on solid ground. Too embarrassed to ask for help (or cry), I jumped right up and brushed myself off. Thankfully it was cold enough for my bloody knee to clot nice and quickly. It throbbed. My heart may as well have been in my knee the rest of the race because it would not stop pounding, but I could not stop moving forward. I wouldn’t. I didn’t train for four months to let a little dust-up get in the way. Writing this story five months after the race, I could finally say my dutiful knee was fully healed. It took four months and three weeks of rest, an X-ray, and an MRI. It will be worth it every single time.
After taking a couple of trial steps with my newly minted knee, I noticed my left headphone wasn’t working. Great, I had broken it during the fall. Reaching for my ear bud to try the good ole “turn off and turn on” technique, I was surprised when my finger hit frozen earwax instead of hard plastic. Looking around, my left earbud was nowhere to be seen and I was too prideful to get on my hands and knees and seek it out. This section was the stem of a “lollipop” so I would pass it again in a few miles; I decided to look for it then. Approaching the scene of the fall for the second time I looked under the staircase and there it was. After inspecting my precious Jaybird bud to make sure it wasn’t a snail in disguise, I popped it right back in. Bon Iver, as audible as ever. My luck was hard to believe.
Once the race was over, I did exactly what you would expect. I opened my pack and fished around for my phone so I could call my mother and let her know I completed the race in one piece. Of course, the only thing I caught in that pack was more peanut butter. I was beside myself, totally flustered. Where in the world had my phone gone? Was this whole thing just a dream and I was about to wake up? Was I hallucinating? Was the simulation glitching? The phone could be anywhere on the 31-mile course, so I had to start looking the best way this millennial knew how to. I grabbed my friend’s phone and logged into “Find my iPhone”. After a few minutes of no signal, I realised I had swapped out my iPhone for the human hand warmer that is also marketed under the “Google Pixel 4” trade name. I was impressed when it only took me five tries to guess my Google password. And there it was. Right where the trail crossed a road at an aid station. Again, my luck was hard to believe. After racking my brain on why my phone was at mile 22 and not in my pack, I remembered that at that point in the race I had paused my music, set my phone on the ground and put my headphones in my backpack for good. Maggie Rogers, it’s not you, it’s me. For some reason the headphones had felt suffocating at that point in the race. I ditched the music and got lost in my thoughts. This is why I can’t have nice things. It’s better to be lucky than responsible.
Four: Don’t let research get in the way of common sense
Well, this one may be a stretch. I likely did not learn it before the fifth grade but, hey, I’m not a professional writer. Why let the truth get in the way of a good story?
Leading up to the race, I became moderately obsessed with race-day nutrition. From carb powder to whole fruits – and, of course, everyone’s favourite, energy gels – I had tried them all. After consulting with some trusted friends, I decided to take on research of my own. Where better to start training your stomach for a 50km than the all-knowing internet? After a few minutes’ surfing, I came across an article: Nutritional Implications for Ultra-Endurance Walking and Running Events. This paper became my Bible (with the exception of a few superfluous paragraphs). The verses went something like this: 70 percent of my diet should be strictly carbohydrates, 20 percent fat, and 10 percent protein. Approach 1,000g carbs each day on race week. Drink to thirst. You literally cannot eat enough carbs; carbs are your energy, your lifeline. Here is a snippet of my shopping list during race week: rice, bread, pretzels, quinoa, granola, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, peanuts, peanut butter, honey, apples, banana chips, more rice, more peanut butter. Nothing could stop me from being at peak performance, especially the fuel I was putting into the tank.
There was a minor detail I neglected to take into consideration: one of the paragraphs I deemed unnecessary was entitled: “Gastrointestinal Intolerances.” Apparently this wasn’t a throw-in point to shield the author from liability if something were to happen. This was serious. My stomach completely rejected the cups of rice, loaves of bread, and quarts of carb powder I had been feeding it. When I should have been enjoying the sweeping views of Cloudland Canyon State Park, I was focused on the burning sensation within my stomach. My intestines were torn in ribbons. While my other racers were slurping down pickle juice at the halfway mark, I was bee-lining it to the Porta-potty. I had never felt more beaten. The fusion of disinfectant and human faeces saturated the air, my head was nestled on my peanut-butter crusted hands, and I was wondering if I was in need of a carbohydrate-induced stomach pump. After a few minutes wallowing in my feelings, I couldn’t stand the smell any longer. I had to move on. My pit-stop feigned off my torn stomach for a few miles, but it would continue to plague me throughout the race. Ultra marathons are part athletic competition and part eating contest. Much respect to the GOAT Joey Chestnut. He is the most dominant athlete ever to live. Please prove me wrong.
Five: The buddy system
One aspect of the race I know I missed out on was running with a friend. There were two main reasons I can think of that caused me to run solo. The whole point of this run was to prove something to myself. Call it pride, ambition, vain conceit… likely all of the above. There was something romantic about completing this on my own. Second, the harvest of people in their early twenties that desire and follow through with a journey like this are few and far between. It takes a certain type of person to want to do something like this and I guess my friends have a lot more sanity than me. Regardless, we are much stronger together than alone. A cord of three strands is not easily broken…
My pride only took me so far on the run. About 24 miles in I hit the infamous “wall”. There was just no way I could leg out the rest of this race. If need be, I was willing to crawl to the finish line. After a mile of contemplating all of my life choices up to this fateful stage of self-inflicted pain, I could run no longer. Totally defeated, I started to saunter the racecourse. At one point, a literal horse passed me, or I passed it. It is all a blur, anyway. I was about ready to throw in the towel at mile 27 when I heard a whisper come through the bushes. Four legs quickly catching up to me that I could see under the tree line. Great, two more people that will find me in this less-than-desirable state, ask me if I was OK, then, without remorse, leave me in the dust. I saw everyone out there as a competitor.
To my surprise, it was two cheerful chaps jogging and talking along. As soon as they passed me, I summoned the energy to catch their draft and see how long they could drag me along. Not long after I started bump-drafting my two road warriors, one of them dropped off into a power walk and I caught up to our leader. Wherever he goes, I would go. I would follow him off a cliff, into the dark. Mark from Nashville, I will forever be in debt to you. I latched my gait to his and we were off. It could not have been faster than pulling 12-minute miles, but we were zooming through those trees. For the final 5km we joked about the insanity of the whole bit and how we had gotten there. I was grateful to have a buddy, even if it was just for a few miles tacked on at the end. I heard it best from the late Chris McCandless: “Happiness is only real when shared.” I will go on to add that pain is just a little bit more tolerable, together. Maybe you have considered signing up for a race like this, or you are looking for motivation to work out a little more each week. Regardless of where you stand, set a goal and be deliberate about it. Go on a trip, write a letter to a friend, meditate. You might just surprise yourself along the way.
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