50 Miles of “Fun”: Running My First Ultramarathon
We are ultramarathoners!
On April first, side by side with the world’s best running buddy, I accomplished a pants-shitting big goal—running my first ultramarathon.
We successfully completed our first 50-mile race, longer than we’ve ever run before, and, spoiler alert, lived to tell about it. This was a huge physical goal, set more than a year ago, and it felt so f*cking good to finish.
…But not as good as I thought it would.
Today we are talking ultramarathons and big goals, how it felt to run 50 consecutive miles, and how it felt at the end. We are talking about aid stations and what ultramarathoners eat. We are talking about the Umstead 100 and the wild (culty?) world of ultramarathon runners. We are talking the highs and lows felt over the 12 hours and 50 miles, and what, if anything, is next for me and my running buddy.
Here we go!
What is an Ultramarathon
(and Why Did you Do This?)
An ultramarathon is any distance longer than a marathon. In our case, we ran a 50-miles at the Umstead 100 Endurance Run. This race is primarily a 100-miler, hence the name, but lots of people also sign up for the 50-mile race.
For those of you who haven’t been following along, I volunteered at the Umstead 100 in 2022, along with my bestie. Her husband and her in-laws have deep roots in this race, and they help to run the volunteer stations. You can read all about my day volunteering at the Umstead 100 here, but the long and short of it is I had so much FUN and was so impressed by the community around this race that I knew I wanted to come back to run it.
I texted my running buddy the day I got home and told her we should run the Umstead 100. And how was she supposed to say no? We’re buddies.
How could anyone say no to this?
Before the Race
Our goals going into the race were as follows:
- Don’t suffer any serious injuries
- Have a good time
I can happily report that we met each one of our goals.
Because we didn’t put any pressure on ourselves about time, or pace, or being quick, there was little room for us to fail. We set the expectation low deliberately, and it worked wonders; I woke up on race day not the least bit nervous, only excited to take on this challenge.
Meagaan came up with the idea to make our race feel more fun by dressing the part. We stopped at Party City the day before the race and stocked up on bows and bright hair extensions, sticky rhinestones for our faces, and glowsticks. This is a trick I will definitely use in future races. Dressing up, making it a bit silly, put us at ease. It’s kind of how smiling can trick your brain into feeling happier, even when you’re doing something hard. We had a great time on race day, and got lots of compliments on our looks. If I’m being honest, I think our silly attire brought as many smiles and good vibes to others as it did for us.
If you want to read about training for an ultramarathon or about what gear we used, check out these posts:
A Pants-Shitting Big Goal: Training for an Ultramarathon
Gearing Up for An Ultramarathon
Glitter, glow sticks, and ready to GO!
The Umstead 100 consists of a 12.5-mile loop with two robust aid stations and one small water station. Meagaan and I ran this loop four times, while the 100-milers did eight laps. Yowza! The course winds through William B. Umstead State Park, which is just beautiful, and definitely worth a visit if you find yourself in Raleigh. Tall trees line the wide trail, which consists of large pieces of gravel and packed dirt and stone. I’m not going to lie, the terrain was pretty rough on the joints. By the second half of the third loop, somewhere around mile 35, my left knee started to hurt, and by the time we got to mile 45, both Meagaan and I were feeling it in our knees and hips. The ground was hard, and it was made worse by the numerous steep hills.
Our strategy was to walk up the hills and run the downhills and flat sections. Up until mile 45, this worked out really well. During a normal race, I would dread hills. But because we had already decided to walk them, the hills were a nice little break from running. We welcomed the hills, looked forward to them, even! This was a good way to trick our brains into not hating any section of the race (except the last five miles). We liked the uphills because we got to walk. We liked the downhills and flats because we weren’t going uphill. Win-win-win. Again, except for the last five miles, when our bodies ached and each step downhill felt like it would shatter my knees and hips into oblivion.
But seriously, suffering for 5 out of 50 miles? Not so bad.
The Aid Stations
Though the scenery was peaceful and pretty, and though the terrain was something to take on, the aid stations were the real stars of the show.
The aid stations at the Umstead 100 are so, SO good.
Before the pain of mile 45 kicked in, somewhere in our second lap, Meagaan and I joked that ultra running is the best sport. “You get to be outside all day and eat all the junk food you want!”
And boy, oh boy, did we eat.
We ate bagels and fruit, cookies and trail mix, boiled potatoes with salt sprinkled on top (to help with hydration), jolly ranchers, popsicles, potato chips, and more Gatorade than I even care to think about.
Ultramarathons are different than other races. You’re running for 12 or 24 or 30 hours at a time. Cliff bars and bananas just are not going to cut it for that kind of physical exertion. The aid stations are stocked with good, solid food—and all the junk food you could ever ask for.
Burgers and hot dogs, quesadillas, and soup were all on the menu. There were cold sandwiches—meats and cheeses, peanut butter and jelly, and there were snacks—chips and candy, cookies and pretzels. There was water, of course, and Gatorade, but also SODA and PICKLE JUICE to drink. (Ultra runners are seriously a different breed.)
Meagaan and I kept it pretty basic, not wanting to vomit on the side of the trail. During our training runs we ate protein bars, and gu packets, and energy chews. We felt comfortable eating bland carbs like bagels and potatoes, and small snacks like chips or fruit, but worried about how more flavorful and heavy hot foods would feel. The promise of a veggie burger at Aid Station 1, which doubled as the finish line, kept us chugging along in the tougher moments.
There were medical supplies available at each aid station, and places for runners to sit and chill if needed. There were ice packs and ibuprofen and sunscreen in different SPFs. The aid stations were well-stocked, and even better staffed.
sampling many of the aid station's delights.
What other sport involves snacking all day long?
Cream of the Crop Volunteers
By far the best feature of each aid station was the volunteers working at them. I have now volunteered at this race once and run it once and I still can not get over how great these volunteers are. They show up before sunrise and work through the night. They are enthusiastic and encouraging. Running up to an aid station, you’re greeted by one or more of them. “What do you need?” People are just standing by, waiting to serve you. They’ll pour your drink, they’ll scoop your fruit. “Do you need some ibuprofen? Do you need anything else?” “Do you want some ice?” “You’re looking great.” And on and on and on. It’s like they genuinely care about you and your big goal.
Many of them have run the race before, and they know what it’s like. Many of them just volunteer every year. All of them are truly invested.
Meagaan and I were #blessed enough to have fans at each aid station. My bestie Rachel is married to The Aid Station 2 Captain, JT. They held signs for us and cheered us on each time we approached the halfway point. They got us potatoes and water and made sure we were doing alright. Rachel served as our social media liaison, posting photos and videos of us so the world could see our progress (and that we were still alive).
Meagaan’s family was hanging out by Aid Station 1, so we had them to cheer us on as we finished each lap and started the next. They took our photos and cheered loudly and told us we still looked good. Our people were impressed by our fortitude and high spirits, and that felt really good to hear. It is easy to feel insignificant when so many people around you are doing literally double what you’re doing; putting your little 50-miler to shame with their 100-mile feat.
We spent 10-15 minutes at each aid station, snacking and chatting. Part of me—the part that is never satisfied—thinks this would be an easy place to shave off some time if we ever did the race again. We could finish a full hour sooner if we just reduced our time at each aid station. And after stopping for those sweet, blissful, social 10-15 minutes, it was tough to get “up and running” (see what I did there?) again. Our muscles stiffened quickly, and we had to start off with a hobble, then transition into a jog after each visit. Perhaps shorter stops would interfere less with inertia and make our transitions back to running go more smoothly.
Another part of me thinks those little breaks were exactly what we needed—for our mental stamina, if not our physical well-being. Knowing that we would get to see our people at the next aid station helped us to push through the really difficult moments. It gave us something to look forward to each half lap. Some people hate running loop-courses because it gets boring. But for this reason, getting to see our people twice every lap, I loved that it was a loop. It was just the carrot we needed to keep our feet moving when our ankles were sore and our bellies felt woozy. Stopping to hug a friend or high-five a family member, getting to stand and chat with them for a few minutes, is something I’ve never experienced during a race before. Normally we run shorter distances, so the pressure to run fast and without stopping is higher. Ultras are hard, endurance-wise, but this little treat of getting to hang with your people while enjoying a salty potato or a PB&J is like…so freaking good. The warmest, most supported feeling.
We were so grateful to our people who were there to cheer us on through 12 hours and every single lap. And we are so grateful to all the volunteers who didn’t know us and still helped and cheered us on anyway.
Personalized signs from our favorite cheerleader <3
Beyond the amazing volunteers, and our amazing personal squad, we were so impressed by the community of runners who run the Umstead 100.
Ultras skew older than other races, so there were lots of people in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. It is so inspiring to see people double our age out running 100 miles, and it definitely gives #goals. I think because of the nature of ultramarathons—how long they take, how much fuel you need, how vital injury prevention is, there is less competitive pressure than in shorter races. The top 10 people might be there to try and win the whole thing, but most of the runners are only competing with themselves. They are trying to PR, to make this run just a bit faster than last year’s, or they are just trying to finish. (Like us!) The goals run the gamut, and it’s a wonderful thing to see and experience.
Because of this emphasis on personal triumph & perseverance over competition, runners go out of their way to interact with one another. They will tell you “You guys are looking great.” They will ask you if you need anything. They will talk with you about running shoes, while running. Or, they’ll laugh at you for wearing a black plastic rain poncho—but the good kind of laughing, like you brightened their moment. One runner yelled to me, in my rain-repellent getup: “Garbage CAN, not garbage CAN’T!” And that made my whole lap.
The community of ultramarathon runners is something special. A little culty, for sure, not completely right (who spends their time running 100 miles for fun?), but still good, solid community. One that pushes you, not with force, but just by way of setting an example, to be better, to do things you once thought impossible. It is a group of people who take on big challenges, who succumbed to the gateway drug of a 50-mile and then jumped to 100 “just to see”. People who are constantly pushing the boundaries of what the human body is meant to do and showing you that you might be capable of wild, big things, too. Ultra runners will inspire you to want to be better, but will support you just as you are.
I’m so honored and proud and ecstatic to be able to count myself among them. (Even if I do feel like I’m just a little baby-ultramarathoner)
Trash CAN, not trash CAN'T!
Trials and Tribulations
I’ve talked, so far, about this race in glowing, happy terms. And with the passage of time that’s easy. One of the best features carved by human evolution is our ability to forget pain. It allows us to bear children and allows ultramarathoners to sign up for a second and third and twentieth race, even after the devastation their bodies may have suffered.
We had moments of pain on the ultramarathon course. The first two laps went off largely without a hitch, but by the second half of lap 3, my knee had me nervous. I’m older now than I once was. It doesn’t stop me from doing the things I want to do; if anything, I’ve become stronger and fitter and taken on bigger physical challenges than I’d ever consider in my youth. But what age has done is to highlight the importance of caring for my body. It’s the only one I have, and it may not bounce back as quickly as it did when I was 17 or 27. Age has brought a new respect for stretching, for little pains or discomforts that I once would have ignored. Age has forced me to listen to my body and what it needs—including slowing down and resting once in a while when it’s becoming strained.
The feeling in my knee worried me because I still had so far to go. I still had so many hills to run down. So many hard-packed stone landings left, my full body weight slamming down on my hips and knees with each and every step. It happened somewhere between mile 32 and mile 37.5. This is further than Meagaan or I have ever run before—by quite a bit. I worried that maybe my knee couldn’t handle the distance. That maybe I’d hyper-extended it. That if I wasn’t careful I would make it worse, cause serious damage.
When you’re 37 and running is your main form of exercise (not to mention the mental health benefits) it is truly scary to think of injuring yourself.
I pushed through and made it to lap 4. And lap 4 was bad for both of us. Not terrible in the first half, but not the joyful experience that laps 1 and 2 had been. I guess I expected endorphins or adrenaline to kick in, the happiness of knowing it was just ONE more lap to take hold and power us through. But it didn’t feel like that.
We were fatigued. Meagaan felt a bit of nausea in lap 4 and I was trying to be very delicate with my knee. In the second half, where the majority of the hills were, I found every step going downhill to be painful.
Meagaan had a different kind of adversity hit—a general fatigue that made her body long to walk and took a toll on her mood. We did walk, a lot, on that last lap. Meagaan, no longer enamored by the snacks, said “Toni, this is NOT my sport.” She told me in no uncertain terms to never ask her to run an ultra again. I agreed (what could I do, we’re buddies) and tried to think up things to say to distract her. She had told me a long story in lap 3, and listening helped me to push through my knee pain. So I tried to do the same. I babbled on about who-even-knows-what, talking and talking, trying to get my buddy’s mind off of running. When we got closer to the end I told her it was time to run again. And though it hurt like hell, and she probably felt like slapping me when I suggested it, we did. Or, we kind of did.
Our “run” to the finish, caught on video by the best cheerleader, Rachel, looks more like a mild hobble. But we are moving, we are together, and, against all odds, we are both smiling.
Still smiling, against all odds.
We made it to the finish, past the line of cheering spectators, tired from sitting for more than 12 hours, past our full crew of cheering loved ones, and up to the line, where our time would be recorded: 12 hours and 28 minutes.
We did it. After all the months of training, the long winter runs, the ones squeezed in on layovers and snuck in on vacations. After the highs of lap 1 and the lows of lap 4 and everything in between, after the pain, and even through it—we finished.
I don’t know why, or where it came from, but as we were ascending the final steps (Yes, there were STAIRS UP TO THE FINISH LINE!) I felt my eyes becoming wet and my jaw tremble. “No,” I thought. “No, no, no.” But there they came. I put on my sunglasses and ran directly to the bathroom, lest I be seen weeping in public. It didn’t last long, and I still don’t know exactly where it came from. Whether it was built up emotions I hadn’t realized were lurking under the surface, or whether it was simply a physical release after such a long, hard day. But the tears dried. We hugged our friends and family, took our sneakers off, and went in for the promised-land veggie burgers.
Under the aid station tent, we requested two burgers, and the kind volunteers handed them over and asked how many laps we had left. When some people are running 100 and some people are running 50, there’s no real way to know who’s finished and who is just passing through.
We ate our burgers, and hitched a ride back to the hotel, where we iced our legs and took much-needed ibuprofen and hot showers. The following morning brought sore, creaky joints and comical walks down the hall and through the airport. On Monday, just two days after the race, I went to work on the airplane. And just like that, I was good.
The bounce-back was swift and impressive. (Bodies, man.) We did feel tired for the entire week. A feeling of not quite being able to catch up on sleep, even when I was fully caught up.
And that was that. Back to real life—work and home and normal things. No more running 20 miles before a flight, no more planning our lives based on run schedules. No more discussing strategy or wondering how it will feel to run an ultramarathon.
Today, with the passage of time, the healing of my body, and the re-calibration of my emotions, I feel extremely proud of Meagaan’s and my accomplishment. But I went through a rollercoaster to get here.
For some reason, completing 50 miles didn’t make me happy like I thought it would. It didn’t feel as good as I expected it to. Far from the thrill of completing my first marathon in 2019—the biggest goal I’d ever achieved up until that point—completing my first ultramarathon felt weirdly hollow.
Perhaps it was the nearly 200 other runners who were finishing double the distance that dwarfed my feeling of accomplishment. Maybe it was the lackluster finish—the bystanders around the finish line had no way of knowing who was a 50-mile runner and who was running the full 100. There was cheering for the completion of a lap, but not for the end of a big run. We didn’t even get a medal for finishing 50. (Seriously, street cred only.)
Do I need the external validation of a medal? For the crowd to cheer me on and say “Great race”? To know that no one on-site is achieving more than me, in order to believe my accomplishment matters?
Maybe I do. And boy, was that uncomfortable to unpack.
Then there’s what’s missing.
My best friend was there volunteering, and because of her cheerleading and Meagaan’s running by my side, I am the luckiest person alive. But they’re not family. And while Meagaan’s life partner was there to cheer on her big accomplishment, I achieved mine, per usual, without a designated person, the last one lost back in Mexico. I borrow my person, my best friend, from her person, for the day. For every accomplishment.
My life is adventurous and wild and exciting. But exciting can feel lonely. It’s hard sometimes to do life by yourself. I love what singlehood gives me, and I also want someone to beam with pride for me when I accomplish something big. I want someone to stand in the shit with me when my world falls apart. If no one’s there to witness the glory and the black holes, the tragedies and celebrations, are they even occurring? Do I even fully exist?
Maybe it was the shift in my romantic life, or the move out of my house, both so recent and amidst so much chaos that I hardly had time to begin processing them.
Or maybe it was the finishing of a goal that left me feeling lost. Who and what am I, if not trudging towards something? A big, cavernous “What now?” sat on my chest and made everything look gray.
My therapist had her work cut out for her post-race weekend.
Whatever the real reason, finishing the 50-miler didn’t feel how I thought it would, and put me in a bit of a weird place for days after, trying to figure it out.
Who am I without a big goal to work toward?
It’s been almost two weeks since the race, and I’m happy to say that I’ve eased out of my funk. I’m feeling good in my normal life and so proud of our big 50-mile accomplishment. We are ultramarathoners. No matter who saw it, no matter the prize at the end, and no matter what anyone else ran.
We did it. And despite what she said in lap 4, Meagaan has changed her tune and rescinded her demand that I never ask her to do this again. We’re not making any ultra plans today, but we’re not ruling it out for the future.
In the meantime, we are enjoying the relaxation we’ve allowed ourselves post-race, and I continue to be awed, inspired, and completely floored by what the human body can do.
Thanks for stopping by, and sorry this post turned into its own ultramarathon.
You covered it all! I seriously couldn’t ask for a better running buddy, the miles melted away and I can’t even imagine trying to accomplish such a goal without you. Looking forward to our next adventures and achievements 😀
Awwww <3 Thanks Meags. Yes, always looking forward to the next achievments haha. I am glad these next races are bite-sized though 😉
You can order your own race “medal” an acrylic triangle with Umstead 50 Mile with your name and time on it! Come back and complete the first 100 miles in under 30 hours and the Umstead Race will give you either a belt buckle or a necklace (only for your first completion) Run it under 24 hours and the buckle will be solid silver!
Hey Tom, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read and comment. This sounds like a challenge!! We might just have to take you up on it and do a 100. We’ll see how we’re feeling in September when registration rolls around 🙂