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The Ugly Side of Ultra Running

This was not the best week for me and ultra training. I missed a couple of workouts, one key, one not so key, and still haven’t stopped beating myself up for it. I know that nearly every time I talk about running on the blog, in real life, at work, to friends, on the phone, over facebook, twitter, to complete strangers on the street, really, everywhere, I come across as very OMG RUNNING IS THE BEST THING EVER. Which, for me, it really is… most of the time.

However, there are also some very dark moments in training, when the sport really takes it out of me, and I turn into a not-so-bubbly-not-so-running-obsessed person. And this week was not short on those moments. Instead of counting down to every run, I dreaded a good number of them. I resented the 9 mile run that kept me from going over to a friend’s house until almost 9pm. Which, on a weekday, is well past my bedtime. I had to force myself out the door on Wednesday morning, and then cut my mileage because the run was so miserable. I longed for the days when one pilates class in a 24 hour period was sufficient exercise and enabled me to grab spontaneous drinks with friends without feeling guilty about missed mileage. I was tired. This week brought me right back to when I hit rock bottom during the most intense part of Ironman training. I missed a swimming workout during peak week because I was just too damn tired to get to the pool at 9 o’clock at night after I’d already spent a long day in the office and worked out two times earlier in the day. I remember I just collapsed on my apartment floor, curled into the fetal position, and cried about drowning in Mirror Lake while desperately clutching my cap and goggles, as if I could gain some kind of swim strength from my equipment through osmosis.

While I avoided any total ball-on-floor-style-breakdowns this week, I did manage to completely and totally stress myself out about this race. So please forgive me, while I take up some space on the internet to just rant. I promise, I’ll be back to my bubbly I LOVE RUNNING ALL CAPS self in no time. Really, I will.

One of the most common things I hear about ultra training is: “how do you have time for it?” The truth is, my running schedule usually doesn’t feel like a huge time burden. After surviving an ironman cycle, where two of the three sports were total time sucks with excessive equipment to get ready and pools to travel to, just lacing up and running out the door seems so easy in comparison. But since hitting peak training, I’ve realized that making time for running 100 miles, means I don’t have time for a lot of other things. Remember how I moved a few months ago? Well, I may have moved my belongings from one apartment to another, but my new space still does not feel very homey because I choose to spend my weekends running for 8 hours, and tiger tailing the shit out of my calves, and submerging my sore quads into ice baths, instead of hanging things on my very bare walls or buying the bar stools that have remained on my (still-very-long) “apartment needs” list for the last three months. But the lack of a well decorated and fully furnished apartment has not really bothered me since my “home” is really only used for a bed to collapse in and a place to do laundry (made up entirely of workout clothes) approximately every two days.

Another thing I am not carving out enough time for? Fun. Friends. Fun with friends. While I’ve always considered myself Team Captain for the Work Hard Play Hard athletes across the globe, peak ultra training, again, much like peak ironman training, really challenges my ability to rock this position. By the time Friday rolls around, the only thing I want to do after work is go home, eat a bowl of carbs, and go to bed at an embarrassingly early hour so I can have a good long run on Saturday. And after running for 4-5 hours on Saturday, I want to guzzle a protein shake, crack open an IPA in an ice bath, and then nap the afternoon away before carbing up for Sunday’s long run. And happy hours, my favorite way to socialize during the week because it allows me to go to bed at my beloved embarrassingly-early o’clock, are rarer these days. And when I do go (like last night, instead of sweating it out with hill repeats), I feel guilty for skipping a workout. I plan every social engagement around my training needs. I skip eating a home-cooked dinner at a friend’s house because it’s too light on carbs and I’ve got double digits to tackle the next morning. I’m not saying I never have fun. I do. I really, really do. It’s just that my version of fun these days involves cutting myself off from untapping by 8pm and beelining it for my bed.

Speaking of bed, I miss having the option to sleep in. I may be Queen Morning Person 6 out of 7 days of the week, but sometimes a girl just wants to fall asleep without any alarms set and lounge in bed with some trashy TV until the crazy late hour of 8am. I am tired of waking up at 4-something every single day of the mother effing week. On Labor Day, with two hard workouts behind me, I got to indulge in the much-coveted 8 am wakeup, and oh my god, it was divine. But knowing that I won’t be able to do this again for another month. Ugh. Just ugh.

And let’s talk about the next month. This is my last full weekend in DC until after my race. I am about to travel extensively for the next 30 days and I’m a little overwhelmed by the thought of it. Training will be harder to map out, life will be exhausting, and it’s tough to spend so many weeks and weekends away from your own bed and normal routine. I’m excited about all of the trips, REALLY, I am. With tickets booked to Wisconsin, Oregon, Connecticut, Vermont and New York it would be hard not to be excited, but I’m also a little worried about how to maintain a high volume of training and stay relatively healthy and rested during all of this travel. One of the main reasons I signed up for the North Face Madison race is because running an organized 31 mile race seemed a hell of a lot easier than mapping out a 30+ mile long run in a city I don’t know.

Lastly, (promise, rant ending soon) the guidelines available for 50 miler training are SO different from marathon training. Sure, there are a zillion plans for 26.2s, and everyone is different for what works for them, but the basic structure of a marathon training cycle is the same. Run a few times during the week and then long run it on the weekend. Do speed if you want to get faster. Bam. But there is no Hal Higdon of ultra training plans and everyone approaches this distance with a different strategy. I have one friend who never runs back to backs and just logs consistently high mileage (100+) each week. Aron, whose blog I stalk on a daily basis, killed her first 50 by using double workouts, a midweek mid-distance run, and lots of weekend back to backs. Other people keep their mileage slower and rely on speed. Every time I hang out with someone who has done, or is training for this distance, I obsessively quiz them about their training. I read ultra running forums like it’s my job and I stalk blogs and training recaps for every pro ultra runner that I can find on the internet. The result of this obsession? Second guessing my training on a daily basis. One day I’m convinced I’m undertrained, the next I think I’m overtraining. When I skipped a second run on Tuesday of this week, I went home and read all about how great and critical doubles are for 50 miler training. Clearly, a super healthy way to comfort myself after a missed workout that really shouldn’t have been a big deal.

Okay, I’m done. Rant over. Let’s all just acknowledge that ugly, dark days happen in every training cycle and get over it. I’m truthfully over-the-top excited to run this 50 miler, I just had a rough week of running and life. I am officially moving on and gearing up for what WILL be a killer weekend of long running.

The end.

56 Responses to The Ugly Side of Ultra Running

  1. While I may not be training for an ultra (just your standard 26.2), I can still relate. Training is literally killing my spirit right now. I hate it. I’m running a half this weekend. The weather is supposed to be amaze (lower 70s, no rain, no humidity), so I am hoping my faith and motivation will be restored post race?!?! Otherwise, I have zero idea how I am going to get my fat ass through this last month of training before the big race. Womp Womp.

    • Thank you – both Emily and Liz H. I’m at week 11 of 18 training for my first marathon and this week has sucked all over the place. Dead legs, dead mind, awful eating habits – I’ve been all over the map. To quote Saved by the Bell – “I’m so excited, I’m so excited, I’m so scared”. Some days rock, some days suck. I’m just trying to keep my spirits up and remember that I can do this.

    • keep your eye on the prize, friend. I can say from my experience in the last week, that taking a day or two off actually does help a lot. Or, at least skip a workout or two, avoid feeling guilty about it, and then hit the road running again. how did the half turn out? hopefully it was at least a good time! i also bribe myself a lot. like, do i really want to run 10 miles tonight after work? not so much. but i do want to get dinner from wherever i want. put the two together and everyone wins!

  2. I’ve been following your blog for a while, but this is the first time I’ve commented… I really feel like this post deserved that I come out of lurk-dome. I can completely, one hundred percent relate to exactly what you’re dealing with here. I’m a student getting my doctorate of PT, I have a serious long distance boyfriend, I like having a social life with my friends… and, oh yeah, I’m an OCD high mileage marathon runner who logs over 100 miles per week. Let me tell you, it is NOT easy and it will never, ever be easy. No one else will really understand how you’re feeling… except other runners like us.

    Take this past weekend, for example. My boyfriend and I went out of town to the lake to visit friends. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night we all stayed up until almost 2am drinking, talking, and hanging out. I was the one who got up less than 4hrs later to knock out long runs in the mountains. In the dark. Slightly hungover, dehydrated, and sleep deprived. It wasn’t pretty, but I got it done.

    I’m the one in my class who gets up at 4am every morning to fit in my run before spending 8-6pm in class (in addition to coming home and studying for 2-4 hours). I’m the one who grimaces every time I get in/out of my desk during the day because my legs are usually incredibly stiff and sore. I’m the one who absolutely needs excessive amounts of caffeine just to make it through the day.

    So, yeah. I get where you’re coming from. Completely. Running the way we do isn’t easy and it sure as h*ell isn’t fun all the time. But it’s what we do. I just wanted to comment and let you know… you’re not alone. It was SO REFRESHING to read a post like this from you. Seriously. Best post I’ve read on your blog. Ever. It makes you seem human and now I know that other runners feel the way that I do sometimes.

    I’ll end with my very favorite running quote ever… “Me and running don’t always see eye to eye. Some days it hurts more than others. But that doesn’t mean I don’t do it. I deal with it and I keep running because not everything that is good for you always feels good for you. Every day is the day.”

  3. You’re doing just fine. Remember that even in the most intense training plans, you deserve to find a little balance in every week for yourself/friends/beer/etc now and then. Run strong!

  4. “I am tired of waking up at 4-something every single day of the mother effing week.” DUDE!! Yes!

    At a much smaller, 26.2 scale, I feel the same way. Training can take a toll on you sometimes. Sometimes you just need to have diarrhea of the mouth and that’s all it takes to feel better. I hope you have a killer run weekend and start to feel a bit better. You WILL rock this ultra. Confidence is key, have faith in your training and keep at it…you will be awesome!

  5. I can’t even begin to imagine what it is like to run so much. I would bet that it’s even harder than Ironman training, because if you have a bad run during Ironman training, you can at least look at the next two days and say “whatever, I’ll just bike and swim” and you’ll be over it by your next run. But you don’t have that kind of margin in 50-miler training.

    It will be worth it in a month. Hang in there.

  6. 1. Run with friends when you can.
    2. Make out-of-town friends plan your out-of-town routes. Preferably in scenic locations with water stops and indoor plumbing.
    3. Are you eating enough? Protein? Carbs? I get burned out and things seem overwhelming when I don’t eat enough.
    4. Sleep diligently. And give yourself a day to sleep in when you need that more than you need another run. Those days exist. They really do.
    5. Pretty sure you’re going to rock this race, with your current level of fitness and the training you’ve put in. Even if you miss a few hill repeats. Really.

    • I love all of these tips. Running with friends definitely helps. And I should start making my out of town friends do some leg work for my legs! Trust me, I eat all of the time. I’m never sure if I eat the right things, but I do eat. I’ve been trying to incorporate more protein in my diet since I tend to gravitate to the carbs. Thanks again for these, I love the support!

  7. Poor Emily, I`m sorry your week was not stellar but I`m sure missing those two workouts will be okay in the long run.
    Sometimes workout weeks are rough but when you run the race you will be the happiest ultra-runner on earth. I`m sure that with your experience you are doing the right things! Good luck for the rest of your training!

  8. I’m a long time reader, but also a first time commenter. I did my first 50-miler last November – JFK 50-Miler. I’ve also done an Ironman and in training for both races I had the same feelings as you – am I doing enough? Doing too much? Trust in your plan – there is no “right way” for everyone. I HATE working out in the evening and did not do a single “double” run workout ever, and I finished the race in 7:45. So certainly missing one double is not going to break you :) For me, I kept speed work in my schedule twice a week. Wednesday’s were my mid week long runs (13-15 miles), and I did back to back long runs on the weekends – those to me were the key.

    A 50-miler is much like an Ironman – these are times when you will really have to DIG DEEP but it’s so worth it. Best of luck.

  9. I don’t know if I’ve ever commented before, though I’ve been lurking for a while now — just wanted to say that I love this post, for its honesty and realism. Weird that one would actually welcome negativity on a running blog, but it’s nice to see that other people (even crazily fast people) have training meltdowns and insecurities too.

    And in general: you are amazing.

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment to say all of this. Trust me, I have plenty of training meltdowns and insecurities. I’ll try and reveal them a little more often so you can all see that. You know I love running more than most things in life, but I have moments where it gets plenty of hate from me!

  10. Again, only up to half ironman level so nowhere near your volume, but I FEEL YOU LADY because I am definitely stretching MY comfort zone this summer. I don’t have a coach so I am constantly guinea pigging what sort of training works for me.

    Last month after my highest volume week I crashed and burned hard. I was a zombie, I had no desire to do any swim/bike/run, I felt like I was coming down with something, and my attitude was shit. It took two full days off, and taking another 2-3 easy cutting my mileage way down to recover. I was all flipped out about it until I finally got my mojo back.

    Carving out occasional sleep in days instead of training = worth their weight in gold, in my experience.

    The long and short of it is … you are going to rock this ultra!

    • Well thank you for all of that. A half iron definitely also requires a lot of figuring out what works for you, but it sounds like you’re getting there. And I think you’re right about the sleeping in. I’m totally doing it ASAP.

  11. I really, really appreciate and dig your honesty here. Frankly, it makes me respect you more for admitting that this sport can be taxing as opposed to so many ultra runners that are all sunshine and high miles all day every day. You are, in so many ways, a far superior runner in terms of the training you take on and the miles you’re logging, but I really like how you speak to the fact that no matter what stage of the running game you’re in, it can get rough.

    I have had an almost exact parallel week as you in terms of peak mileage draining all of my energy. Although it’s just for a marathon—I’ve put in more miles than I ever have before, just like you, and it’s great to read something I can nod my head at the entire time.

    Maybe this is why taper is “a good thing”? I have yet to discover that, but maybe the burnout is a sign that you’ve done the best possible training you could—and now it’s time to restore that run love in time for your ultra.

    Great post!

    • never use the phrase “JUST a marathon.” a marathon is always a BFD. I hope you also got past your peak funk and are ready to rock the final stretch!

  12. Thanks for being so open and honest, Emily. Hang in there–you’ve worked so hard, and you’ll continue to log the miles. You can–and will–do this! :)

  13. You’re a champ. I can’t imagine being a die hard runner but hope to get there some day. Training seems to be rough this week for many of us. What’s up with that? :)

  14. I agree with all the other commenters…that it’s quite comforting that even as strong a runner as you sometimes gets fed up with the whole thing. This is a particularly heavy commitment, you’ve taken on – you’re in the middle of it, it feels like it’ll be going on for ever and ever…but it won’t, it’s not that far away and then you never need to race again if you don’t want to. At least for a month anyway ;)

    Well done on the rant – hope it made you feel better. It’ll be fine. And you’re going to LOVE the ultra!!

    (And I love Aron’s blog as well)

  15. I know I don’t comment much but I’ve been following your Ultra training and can I just say that it’s refreshing to know that you are normal and like the rest of us! (Sorry, I don’t mean for that to come out in a wrong way.) Ever since reading about your triple digit week I honestly didn’t know how you were still functioning. You somehow took on superhuman qualities that separated you from other lowly runners like the rest of us. Anyway, hang in there. It’s ok to have rant sessions like this whenever you want. If anyone deserves it you do. I’m sure it will ALL be worth it when you cross that finish line with 50 miles behind you!

  16. My friend alerted me of your blog and told me you were running the can lake 50. I’m also doing it (my first ultra)…I lived in Geneva (the next town over) for 4 years but had to move to NJ last August. Anyway, lol..I totally had an off week save yesterday in my training too. I was in a major funk for a few days but i think its natural to go through periods like this. I’m not hitting the mileage you are either..72 last week and 77 the week prior. The next 2 weekends are my peaks as far as back to backs then it’s enjoying to taper (although I always freak out w that too, haha). Anyway, allow yourself to wallow like I did but if I can bounce back…you definitely can. Best of luck with the rest of your training and hopefully I’ll at least see you at the start, lol. You’re incredibly fast! :)

    • Good luck to you too! I’m glad you bounced out of your setback, I feel like I’m successfully climbing out of mine too. Definitely say hi at the race!! I can’t wait.

  17. Good rant Emily and just so you know you are truly an inspiration for other runners! Just remember that! You definitely inspire me, I have only run a half marathon distance but at some point I hope to run further but I am afraid I won’t have the time for the longer runs because I am not super fast 10-11 min miles. Some days I wish I didn’t work 8-5 Mon-Fri so I would have more time for blogging and running lol A parttime job with benefits would be golden!
    Good luck with training and keep up the good work!

  18. I totally agree about the waking up part – and the guilt of missing a work out -I missed last nights 9 mile tempo in order to go out with my husband and our two best friends after working an 11 1/2 hour day! When I was training for my last marathon PR (also at Eugene in April!!) I was so determined – getting on the road by 4:15 to get in 10 miles before work.. not going to happy hours… not drinking… life goes on I guess!

    • It’s important to have a running/life balance during training! I think you should miss some tempo runs to go out with your husband and best friends! Don’t stress and go crazy like I did. What are you training for now? SO much <3 for Eugene.

  19. Another lurker here…agreeing with everyone else that this level of honesty is really refreshing. Not that it’s a good thing that you’re feeling this way, but it helps to know other people (especially other strong runners) struggle with motivation and balance too. I’ve dealt with major burnout over the past few years, and the only thing that cured me was having a kid (enforced 12ish month break, since I didn’t run while pregnant.) I’m back training hard and riding a wave of run love right now and I’m terrified it’s going to end.

    Anyway, I give you major props for all the time you put in, and I’m sure you are going to rock your 50. A couple shortened or missed workouts won’t derail you, and if the little mental break gives you the juice to get through the rest of training then it’s all worth it, IMO.

    • Thanks for ending your lurk streak to leave this comment. As much as it was refreshing for you guys to hear me say all of that, it’s really helpful for me to hear about everyone else’s struggles (and successes with overcoming those struggles!) I’m glad that your pregnancy snapped you back into run love. And you’re right, a few missed workouts can be super productive in fueling me through the next hard ones.

  20. I think the travelling will do you good – it’ll be a nice change and perspective to your current “routine. Don’t worry, am sure you’ll figure out the run training with the travel – you always do. Just hang in there Em, think of the awesome-sauce finish line.

  21. Oh I so so identify with this… I have had a disaster of a training week myself. This year have been training for speed but short distances and this week of my HM training has been sucktastic.. Either I missed the workouts due to late hours at work or had such disaster of work outs …. But we will get over it for sure :)

  22. Laura @ Backstage Balance

    Hang in there girl – you’re peaking your training and I’m sure that after your big race, you’ll allow yourself some time off to give your body a rest, but to socialize and do other thing to make you feel normal again

    Also. I will drop you an email but YOU’RE COMING TO WISCONSIN NEXT WEEKEND?!? I am doing the marathon on Saturday at TNF Endurance Challenge!!! I will email you, I’d love to meet up with you if possible.

  23. Emily!! Have been following your blog for the last year. You are an inspiration! You blasted past me at mile 10 of the Parks Half this morning and I couldn’t keep up. You are such a strong runner! I finished in 1:43, 5 minutes faster than last year, so I’m calling it a victory!! Thanks for the motivation!!!

    • Congrats on the race! That’s an AWESOME time and an awesome improvement from last year. Next time we’re at the same race, say hi!

  24. i love your honesty. you handled it all so well at HTC (multiple runs, work, car rentals,etc) and it all seemed to be so easy to you. i was really impressed! it’s okay to be tired. just reading your post made me tired :) i kid, i kid. do you plan on stepping back a bit once it’s over, maybe just marathons for a bit? just curious. and i love how marathons is stepping back. ha! you really are a rockstar. love the dedication while on your trips too. i know you are going to kill it!

    • I plan on taking a break for sure. But no idea whether I’ll want to go right back to ultras or start marathoning again after the race. Thanks!

  25. [...] and inspiring when people want to do an ultra marathon and run 50 miles but this blog post about ultra running makes me never want to do it (not quite sure why I’m considering that a Sunday [...]

  26. I’m not training for any super intense right now, and I’m definitely not logging a million miles, but I still have those “ugh I just cannot do it anymore” days. Peak of training can just suck, there’s just no way around it. But you rock and I’m sure you’ll be back to your Running Rocks! self in no time.

  27. Dude, you’re awesome. You obviously have a TON on your plate, and I think it’s super important that you are acknowledging the shitty aspects to training, too. There will be an upswing!

    and probably even just as if not more important… when are you coming to new york and how many beers are we drinking?

  28. Hi from another lurker,

    I’ve never commented here but wanted to say I share your pain. I am doing the VT50 in 3 weeks….so I’m on a similiar training cycle as you. I think part of where you’re coming from is the “peak training” effect. In these peak weeks you’re not thinking too straight, it’s exhausting and you can’t help but think about all the work you’re putting into this and the sacrifices you make every day for: running. All this really takes a toll and training for 50 miles is more draining than for a marathon. I know. I’ve run 23 marathons and a few ultras. This will be my second VT50. Like you, I train to place or win. This means lots of milage and intensity…but it’s a choice, right? Once you come down from the peak weeks and start to taper: you’re going to feel better and the dark thoughts will fade…it’s a mind/body thing. I have to remind myself of this every time.
    Just know, you are not alone in these dark thoughts/moments. It’ll pass.
    M

    • Thank you for coming out of lurkdom to share all of that. I would agree that a “peak training effect” is a very real thing, complete with the not thinking straight. Any advice for a first timer? I’ll be at Vermont doing the relay in a few weeks, good luck with your final stretch of training!

      • Hey,

        Thanks for your comments and VERY exciting that you’re going to do the relay! The course is beautiful but very hilly and, I think, tough. This may not really apply to you because you’re doing the relay and therefore a shorter distance at VT50…fast, but for those doing the 50 miles, everyone walks up all the hills! It looks and feel weird, especially at the beginning when you’re full of energy….but it’s almost a rule of the trail ultra to do this. I remember last time I did VT50 the relay people would literally shoot past me….*sigh*. You’ll be on a fast pace! Enjoy and best of luck in your first 50 miler.

  29. Emily, you are doing awesome!

  30. I admire your determination to get in those miles training for a 50. I didn’t train nearly enough as you are doing for my first 50 at Northface San Francisco, but I did ok and finished. I worked harder the next year and cut my times down, but don’t beat yourself up for not getting in the miles. It’s just not worth it in the end. I was in the same boat early this year training for my first 100 mile run in Zion trying to fit in 80-90 miles a week and beating myself up if I didn’t quite make it there. My body was a wreck from the mileage and after DNFing the race, I gave up on running for the summer because running was more like a chore than something I really enjoyed. Every athlete has good and bad weeks, running should be something enjoyable and if you aren’t having fun, then you might want to take a break for a little bit, focus on something else, and get back into it.

    • You have such a healthy perspective on all of this. I can’t imagine training for double the distance I’m training for now. That’s crazy. But you’re right, when it starts to feel like a chore, you need to step back and reevaluate if you want to keep doing what you’re doing. I hope the summer off was exactly what you needed to fall back in love with running!

  31. Sorry you had a mind-suck of a week. Not fun. However, it happens to everyone. Although I have never trained for anything near as big as an ultra I can relate to the time crunch issue. You are awesome regardless of a few dropped days. Don’t sweat it too much. A few days off for you is sometimes all it takes to rededicate and rejazz.

  32. I can’t imagine what you’re going through trying to log that kind of mileage consistently and traveling. That’s a tough balance to strike.

  33. [...] thank you for the supportive comments, tweets, texts and emails in my response to a downer of a post on Friday. Clearly, this training shit is draining, and everyone goes through a few low and ugly [...]

  34. Thanks for a great post. I know it came from a dark place on your part but to be honest, I didn’t find it to be a downer, it was more uplifting to know other people struggle and have the ridiculous early bedtimes and wake up times and work just as hard at life and training as I do (well, to be fair, you are working harder!).

  35. I’m late commenting, but I did want to say thanks for writing this and being honest. What you are doing is practically superhuman, and of course there are going to be highs and lows. Good luck with the next few weeks!

  36. I so remember my obsession with ultra training and blogs. Apparently I still have some running obsession issues (lol). To this day I consider Dean Karnazes, Scott Jurek and Pam Reed to be bigger than movie stars. Training for ultras was both hard and fun. The time it consumed was huge but the feelng after completing an event was worth every training mile/hour. I haven’t done an ultra in almost 2 years. But I may consider training again in 2013. Keep up the training. What’s a hard or disappointing training day here and there…

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