Two days ago I finished my first ultra marathon. The total distance was exactly 60km. It was the final leg of a bigger race, a duathlon between Bucharest and Sofia (cycling from Bucharest to Sofia and running back).
The average pace was 6:45, 7 minutes / km, which is a normal (albeit a bit slow) pace for an ultra marathon. But taking into account that the entire running distance was around 500 km, and I was entering only the final leg, when people who did the entire duathlon were already tired and injured, this average speed is a very good one.
48 hours after the race I feel great. There was a significant part of pain involved, both physical and mental (more on that just a little bit later). But the satisfaction is enormous. This is by far the most important race I ever ran. I slowly start to realize both the dimension of the race and its implications. One of these implications is that I can safely call myself an ultra-marathoner now. I still have to turn my head around this for a while, to truly incorporate it, but, I’m telling you, it already feels damn great.
In this article I will share a few bits about training, nutrition and some of the most important parts of the race, along with some unexpected consequences.
Ultra Marathon Training
I started to train specifically for this race after the last marathon, which was in October 5th. I wrote about it extensively here, but in case you didn’t read the article I will summarize it in one sentence: I screwed up that race.
So, because during that marathon I did (almost) everything wrong, I was very keen to make this ultra – the first one – something to be proud of it.
Because I had only one month – but I was coming after a good build up – I split the training in 3 parts: force, speed and endurance. I trained 3 times a week, in the morning. Usually, at 9 AM, my running is done, no matter how long is the run.
So, for the force training I chose a park situated at around 3 kilometers from home. I started to ran from home, on the streets, and on the park I did one lap around the park lake, interweaved with short splits up and down the stairs and hills. The level difference was roughly 10-15 meters, and the total number of splits was 8-10. On average, I managed to get a decent 6, 6:20/km during this training. And then, after one lap, I ran another 3 km back home. It is important to note that I had a sparing partner, a friend who, coming from Ethiopia, has a lot of things to say when it comes to running. Although he is not a professional athlete, he has a very strong constitution and he was very important in the whole equation.
For the speed training I did negative splits. But not more than 2 trainings, for the entire month. The best time I got for a 500m lap was 4:07/km and I managed to run two 1km laps at an average 4:30/km. I still have a lot to improve in this area, but, given the nature of the race I was preparing for, I didn’t push too much on the speed. For this type of training I had the chance to work with one of the best amateur endurance athletes in the world, Andrei Rosu, who recently finished a quintuple Iron Man in 126 hours. I’m very grateful for that.
For the endurance runs, I chose a park situated at 4.5 km from home. I usually started at 6AM, and ran between 24 and 26 km. The average pace was between 5:20 and 5:45 / km. I find important to note that during this type of training too, I ran the entire distance, including the way back home. So, just to get in the park and back I had to run 9km. I did 4 long runs during this period.
So, that was about training.
Ultra Marathon Nutrition
There were two levels of nutrition for this race. In fact, three: one before the race, one during the race, and one after the race (or the recovery phase). I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t give too much thought to the recovery stage. But for the first two, I prepared.
During the first stage, I paid attention to fats and proteins. I ate a lot of nuts (cashew, almonds) and lentil or beans soups. With 2-3 days before the race I did a carbo loading with pasta and, for the first time since I started to run, with tapioca. Tapioca, being some sort of a starch, has a lot of carbohydrates but zero proteins. I was very responsive to this food, not to mention that I do like it a lot. I also ate a lot of fruits (apples and bananas).
During the race I had the following “menu” with me:
- isotonic hydration pills
- energy bars (energy bars and rich protein bars)
- biscuits (sweet)
- energizing gels
- chocolate soya milk (for recovery)
The organizers put together a very dedicated support crew made of volunteers and they followed us with cars (in which I stuffed my food bag too) for the entire race.
I also had a very strict drinking and eating plan. I decided to hydrate even before the race, and to refuel every 5km, if not often. I also decided to eat early, and to keep the solid food for the first part of the race and the liquid “food” (many gels) for the second part. This was my eating schedule:
- km 5, a banana
- km 10 a banana and an energy bar
- km 15 a protein bar
- km 20 sweet biscuits
- km 25 the first gel
- km 30 another protein bar
- km 35 a gel
- km 40 soup and a bit of pasta with vegetables (courtesy of organizers)
- km 45 the third gel
- km 50 salted biscuits (again, from the organizers)
From km 50 to km 60 I didn’t eat or drink anything, mainly because I didn’t feel the need.
I’m very happy that I managed to stick to the plan this time. For the entire race I had a very good energy level and didn’t have even the slightest numbing sensation. To put things in perspective, at the last marathon I got face numbness from km 30 and finished with my tongue numbed too.
As I said, we (a group of 5 runners) joined the big team of the duathlon just before the last leg. Weather was cloudy and a bit cold (8 degrees Celsius) but that was actually great for running.
It was around 7:45 AM when we started to run. Just a very short technical meeting (the rest of the runners were really tired) and then we just started to run on the side of the road. That was it.
The first 10-20km don’t have any history at all in my mind. It was just easy. Running along, watching the fields, keeping the pace. Flow. Pure flow.
We did have short (1-2 minutes) breaks every 5km, just enough to take a sip of energy drink, to suck in a gel or to chew a banana or an energy bar.
At km 25 I started to have the first problems. It was about breathing. Somehow, I started to feel the pace was faster (although it wasn’t) and couldn’t find my rhythm. So, I started to ‘meditate’. I put my eyes on the first two-three runners (we were running in a compact platoon, and I was the 4th or the 5th) and tried to stop everything except that image. I still remember the image of the bodies going up and down as the steps were slowly lifting them up and the gentle noise of the steps, interrupted every once in a while by a car or a big truck. That image and nothing more.
By using this “technique” I solved this problem in less than 1 km.
But then a more important problem emerged around km 30. It was about pain. Muscle pain, to be more precise. I knew it has to come, it didn’t take me by surprise. So, I applied exactly the same antidote as I did for breathing: kept my focus on only one thing (again, the image of the runners).
This time I wasn’t able to eliminate the pain. But I took it “out of the system”. I ran along with it. I made it part of my activity. You know they say: “pain is your friend”. Well it’s not a metaphor. It’s something very true. If you want to go over your limits, you really have to make friends with pain. But not in the way you may think.
Let me explain.
There is something very interesting that happens once you hit a certain plateau, being it running or something else in your life. But let’s stick to running for now. Suppose you’re good at running 5k. And you run 5k races for a few weeks or months. The moment you try to go over this, to run 10k or 15k, something happens inside your mind. You start to feel insecure and you don’t know what to do. The pain then becomes your escape route. “I have to stop because it hurts”. Pain is your excuse.
Believe it or not, this pain is not a good enough reason to stop. At least not at this level. You can stand incredibly deep pain (if you don’t believe me just ask a woman who gave birth naturally, for instance).
What really makes you stop is your attachment to the pain. Because you’re insecure. You don’t know what lies after your comfort zone, after your first 5k. So you cling to the pain which becomes your reason to stay in the comfort zone. You’re actually using pain as an escape goat.
I felt this so intensely during this race, that I actually visualized it like a structure inside my head. It’s not something real, I said, it’s just made up. I just cling on this pain to find a reason to stop.
Let’s be clear here: pain is real. And, the way our bodies are built, pain is also necessary. It’s a survival tool. It helps us protect our tissues, by sending very strong signals of distress every time we put ourselves in toxic contexts. But the attachment to pain, that’s something that can be managed. The less you’re attached to pain, the better you can perform. Again, it doesn’t make pain less real. But it makes your life more manageable, once you understand that you can function acceptably even when you’re in pain.
So, the muscle pain ran along with me from km 30 until the end of the race. As we continued to make the 5km intermezzos, I found it more and more difficult to re-start and find a normal pace. The pain increased – again, normally, since the stress on the muscles was still present.
Around km 50 we made a longer stop at a school where we planted trees (the setup was already made, we just dug one little hole) because the event also had a charitable facet. But, instead of releasing the pain, this stop – 10-15 minutes, top – made it even deeper.
The last 10 km were actually hard. We ran on the streets (or sidewalks) of Bucharest, it was crowded, it was cold and every step felt really difficult, because of the pain. An overall sensation of fatigue was also more and more present, and it felt that every move was requiring more and more energy.
An interesting thing happened after we crossed the finish line. One of the runners, Andrei Rosu (yes, the same guy that helped me with the speed trainings) saw on his GPS watch that we ran only 59 km. So, he started to do a few laps around the building, to reach the 60 km target. I joined him and, boy, those last 4 laps felt incredibly good and painful at the same time.
Post Ultra Marathon Depression
After my first marathon, ran in 2012, I felt high – psychologically speaking – for weeks, if not months. Same thing about the second and the third. But, after my first ultra, something unexpected happened. It was a series of relatively small, apparently unrelated events that led me to the conclusion that, this time, something was very, very different.
First of all, the night after the ultra I couldn’t sleep. I was obviously very tired and, apparently, when I’m that tired, I can’t sleep. I’m sure you know how it feels. I got out of bed a few times to hit the bathroom or to drink or chew something, and, all in all, I didn’t get any rest. In the morning, although there were parts of my body that were still hurting big time, I decided I’m able to cope with the outside world, so I went to the hub and worked a few hours. In the evening there was a big event so I moderated it for about 2 hours.
Once back home, I wasn’t sleepy, on the contrary, I felt quite alert. With a twist: I had some itchy moods (which I don’t usually have). Nothing serious, more like a lack of patience and a tendency to mumble at everything. While explaining those feelings to my girlfriend, she said “oh, so now you know how it is to have a PMS! That’s how we feel, on the edge of yelling or bursting.”. Trying to make a joke, I translated PMS as “post marathon syndrome” and we both laughed, considering it a very good joke.
But the following night, although I (kinda) slept, wasn’t good at all. I went to bed at 23 and woke up around 4:30. Normally, I feel very relaxed waking up like this, because that’s my regular routine. Ups, not this time. The itchiness was higher and I felt really nervous. Since I perceived myself as a toxic presence, I got out from the bedroom (leaving my girlfriend to sleep alone) and lied down on the couch in the living. I stared at the ceiling and had a few small but very unresting sleeping episodes interweaved with (rather nightmarish) dreams.
At 7 AM I surrendered: ok, I am depressed. Once I accepted that, I started to search for reasons. There was some trouble at the work, but after digging it for a bit, I realized it’s not that. So, the next thing I’m doing is to search the internet for “post ultra depression”.
Surprise, surprise! Turned out there was a lot of literature on this topic. And yes, everything clicked. My itchiness, my mumbling tendency, my dark sleeping episodes, everything converged to the conclusions that I did have a “post ultra depression”. The moment I realized that, I felt (somehow counterintuitively) better. At least I knew what was happening to me. So I started to adjust to the situation.
I did what I did with the pain during the race: instead of engaging in it, I observed it. I accepted it and started to perceive it as something that was there, but not real.
I know this may sound a bit confusing, but bear with me, I will explain it in a second: you know when you watch a sad movie and feel sad? That sadness is not generated by something happened to you, it’s because some imaginary situation in the movie. But it’s still sadness. That’s what I understand by “being there, but not being real”.
So, I tried to see my depression like something created by my mind, but not real. Like the sadness you experience seeing a sad movie – something existing outside your real you. When you see it like this, when you realize it’s just a byproduct of your mind, it suddenly becomes smaller.
And, within the next hour or two, the depression became manageable. I was able to moderate the usual, weekly Open Connect (which is a quite tedious and consuming task) without any problems whatsoever.
Post Race Routine
So, once I realized I have to deal with this depression too, on top of the physical recovery (read: muscle pain at every step), I made a small plan to overcome this unexpected consequence.
First of all, I gave myself a metaphorical pat on the back and decided to get some rest. I still worked, moderated the event, but not the usual 10 hours. I just decreased the number a bit, until 6 hours.
Second, I indulged in good food. Not unhealthy, but good. Raw sweets, fruits, nuts. And chocolate. No alcohol, though, although, a few times, a cold beer looked appealing.
Third, I kept myself moving. Short walks, 3-4 km, to and from the hub. The first two were difficult (I remember I was talking on the phone with a client while walking to the hub and he asked me: “Are you running now?”, “No, I just walk”, I answered, but now you understand that even walking was a painful experience.).
And I wouldn’t be completely honest if I wouldn’t mention something here. For the last 5-6 years, I strengthened my ability to not believe everything I think. During the last year I was also exposed (intermittently, but increasingly) to Buddhism. While I don’t consider myself a Buddhist, the exposure to this spiritual discipline, widened my understanding about why we shouldn’t believe our mind all the time.
I won’t go into details about that, because it’s not the main topic of the article (if you’re interested, just leave a comment and I’ll write another article about this) but it’s worth mentioning it because, without this habit, of not believing everything that the mind is producing, things would have been worse. I know, because that’s what happened in the past. This time, although the depression was harder and quite unexpected, I was able to recognize it faster and to cope with it in a non toxic way, both for me and for the people around me.
My first ultra-marathon was a fantastic experience. Even this small psychological incident was, to a certain extent, fun to deal with it.
The pain and the depression are already in the past.
But the joy of crossing my own limits will stay forever. Along with this new power that I discovered within me.