my second contribution to runner's world philippines

below is an article that you'll find on page 53 of the july-september 2012 issue of runner's world philippines, the one with triathlete arland macasieb (mah-kah-seeb) on the cover. i did not expect the magazine to be available so soon. i was just going to buy a sports drink at a 7-11 very early in the morning yesterday when i found this on the shelf. immediately bought it and found a blue page featuring my article. i'm a little surprised it still got printed considering it was extremely late! for that i am deeply sorry and i hope RWP's editors will still ask me to write for them.

it really is not my place to be dispensing advice on how to run an ultramarathon considering the circumstances surrounding my decision to run my first, and my actual performance in it. but you can choose to learn from the mistakes of others, but it would utterly stupid not to learn from one's own mistakes. since i still plan to do another trail ultra next year, i should keep my tips on how not to run a trail ultramarathon close to heart.

and this is just to share how i geared for the race. this is how i looked, and what i stuffed inside my small hydration bag. i didn't get to use many of them, so that's part of the lessons i learned. looking back, i think i should have worn smaller short pants (although i had compression shorts underneath which i didn't want to damage as i planned to sit on many rocks). and maybe just one camera would have been enough (i brought my samsung P&S and my gopro hero).

everyone who is half as crazy as me might want to consider running next year's edition of the TNF 100. anyway, enjoy the piece.

How NOT to run a trail ultramarathon

As I limped my way to the finish line of my first ultramarathon, I realized that I was not just a few minutes away from disqualification, but also a few steps from serious injury. It was a lethal mix of hubris and ignorance that brought me here, almost 18 hours after I sprang out of the starting corral, and having covered in excess of 50 kilometers of punishing trail, without the benefit of proper training. I was holding on, although barely, to the last strands of insanity that whispered into my ear that I could accomplish something so herculean, when reason and common sense dictated that I quit. I clearly was not ready for a challenge of such magnitude on so many levels that my experience was an enumeration of how not to prepare for an ultramarathon.

  1. I only knew where the starting line would be. I was ignorant, to say the least, about the scale of the challenge. I skipped the briefing, relying on the knowledge I gained reading race details posted online. I knew it would be 50 kilometers. I knew it was going to be mostly trail, some steep ascents, which on the return would transform into painful downhill crawls. But outside of these general notions about what I would be subjecting myself to, I really had no idea what was going to happen on that day I submitted myself to an 18-hour ordeal, parts of which felt like pure punishment. 
  2. I was overconfident about past glories. My background as a mountaineer was clearly a source of arrogance. Knowing that I’ve covered longer distances with a heavy backpack, I thought that running over similar terrain wouldn’t be too different. I could not have been farther from the trail, as it were. Not only are my hikes punctuated by many rest stops, I cover that distance over the course of a few days. Apparently, other runners, whose legs have earned significant kilometrage from full marathons on pure roads, had the same idea. We all were surprised that our muscles were not quite prepared for the specific kind of beating that a trail ultramarathon would do to us.
  3. I carried too many unessential items. Not knowing what I would be needing in the course of the run, or that there would actually be aid stations along the way, I filled my bike bag to bursting with things I thought I might be needing. I certainly would not have gone hungry, for sure. But I ended not having eaten most of what I stuffed my bag with. Normally, two slices of bread might not be an added burden, but even a fistful of cotton can prove to be a strain when carried that long. 
  4. I was not acquainted with my equipment. Most of my (by the way, disproportionately short) training runs took place on city roads and urban landscapes. I was often shoed in road runners, which have soft and smooth soles. Realizing that the trail would require a different set of shoes, I tried training in a pair of trail runners. The asphalt and the rigid sole did not agree, and I had stiff muscles on my legs in less than half an hour of moderate running. The importance of shoes can’t be emphasized enough -- although I didn’t suffer myself, other runners complained of hotspots and cuts. The following day, not a few toenails showed the beginnings of subungual hematomas. Even my choice of clothing was decisive: I chose my socks carefully, and I decided on a technical shirt that had been used and laundered several times so I didn’t have to worry about putting band-aids on my nipples (this part I got right).
  5. I had no substantial sleep prior to the race. Rest is essential for anyone taking on a challenge as huge as an ultramarathon. I had little sleep not because I thought I didn’t need it -- but because I could not afford it. The consequence was that I got sleepy while on the trail, that I actually caved in to the temptation to sneak in even a few minutes of sleep even on the trail even while the sun was burning over me. 
  6. I exaggerated my own thirst. While the importance of hydration for an activity as physically-demanding as an ultramarathon cannot be emphasized enough, there are actually injuries related to drinking too much water, and at wrong intervals. Every time I felt even just a tinge of thirst, I doused myself with any fluid -- preferably one with electrolytes -- to the point that I was actually bloated, and not feeling all too good.
  7. I didn’t understand the concept of carboloading. A lot of things need fuel to function: vehicles run on gas, home appliances on electricity. For runners, we need energy from carbohydrates. But then again, I didn’t fully understand what this meant, and ate too much too close to the start of the race, and was heavier than usual. At the very least, I didn’t ingest anything that might have forced me to run for the toilet. 
  8. My trail food wasn’t purposefully chosen. The lesson to be learned here is to listen to what elite and professional athletes recommend you eat while you’re running: food that’s light, easy to digest, and provide you with the proper nutrition required for the distance you plan to run. I decided on items I’m familiar with (another thing I did right), but they may not have always been the best choice since they didn’t provide me with everything I needed to survive and finish the race. 
  9. I didn’t listen to the pros. I already mentioned how I may have been too confident, believing I could accomplish what I set out to do when I signed up for the race. But it was a mistake not to even bother how other runners more attuned to this kind of punishment than I managed their pains and their ordeals. Their insight, not just their technique, would have been useful.

I committed far too many mistakes on my first trail ultra that I could very well have submitted myself to a severe form of penitence. But I did finish, in great pain but uninjured nonetheless, and within the cut-off. One thing’s for certain: I will most likely not be committing any of the mistakes I did, and do so much better when I take on the challenge of my next ultramarathon.

i should have added a 10th nugget of running non-wisdom, but it came to me a day after i had submitted the article. it would have read like this:

  1. I was a nocturnal runner. Unlike Superman, I did not draw power from the yellow sun. The heat melted me, and sunshine looked almost unfamiliar, an enemy in fact. Most of my training runs took place not only in inappropriate venues, but also at inappropriate hours of the day: nighttime. So when the sun rose on me while I was climbing the trail, I was easily exhausted. Training under the burning noon, while the sun was at its hottest, would have prepared me for the 12 hours of daylight that I suffered during the race.