This is Merideth's story about her first ultra - the Pikes Peak Ultra 50k. PPU is one of the harder 50ks in the state, with over 7k of climbing, including summiting Mount Rosa at over 11,500 feet before dropping back into the city. I have it split into four parts for easier reading.
Some friends that were also running the race posted about being nervous and regretful about signing up in the days before the race. Honestly, I didn’t feel that way at all. Once my gear was all ready to go, I was ready. I had made the decision to be strong and determined. I could do it. I am a red-head, after all. I just needed to focus on putting one foot in front of the other. My training was strong enough that I knew I didn’t have to worry about three time cutoffs on the course. I was going to do it and I was going to enjoy myself. I had finally made that choice and there was no going back.
Last year, I found a love for trail running. It started with the peer pressure of friends to sign up for the Pike’s Peak Ascent, but was solidified through the running of other local trail races and adventures on the back country trails of Pike National Forest. My confidence in myself as a runner really started to establish roots in trail running. I didn’t feel like I had to be fast. I just had to be strong and determined. Check. I could run a half marathon up the side of one of the tallest mountain peaks in Colorado and complete 5-6 hour long runs in the middle of the wilderness. What else could I do?
A few weeks after I completed the Ascent, I was continually researching trail running so I could learn more about trails, equipment, and training, and one word in my research kept popping up: ultra. For those of you who are unfamiliar with an ultra in the running world, it is any race longer than a 26.2 mile marathon. When completing my long 5-6 hour runs for the Ascent, I was always frustrated that I couldn’t stay out longer. I felt like I was physically and mentally ready to tackle an ultra, where I would be on my feet for much longer. I also had my supportive coach, Tracy Thelen of Thelen Coaching to help me realize that a 50k is only about 5 miles longer than a marathon. I decided to support a local trail running family that directs races as Mad Moose Events. They have a fantastic reputation for putting on stellar races with amazing support. Another bonus was that the Pikes Peak 50k that I decided to run included some of my favorite local trails, so I was able to actually train on the trails that I would be running on race day. This made the daunting task of running my first 31 mile race a lot less intimidating.
I was so excited about the training. Hour after hour on the trails near where I live sounded like the perfect way to spend my summer, so in November last year, I bit the bullet and signed up for my first 50k.
The past few years with my running, I have completed many training runs and races socially with a friend or groups of friends. Once I hired Tracy to coach me, I chose to become more of a lone wolf. My workouts became a lot more focused and intentional. I was doing hill repeats, intervals, and ladders for the first time in my life. With my customized workouts, I was able to focus more on my form, pace, and effort during each run. My self-acceptance as a runner was becoming stronger and stronger.
Once the New Year rolled around, I chose to focus solely on trail running in order to prepare for PPU. I only signed up for three trail races between January and July, and I ran as many of my training runs as possible on trails. While I still desperately enjoyed being on the trails, my mental demons started impacting my training. I think that most people I know who run would agree that the gross majority of running is mental ability – not physical ability. When you spend 15-25+ hours a week on your own on dirt trails, you spend a lot of time in your own head. I tried to combat this by listening to audio books on most of my long runs. However most of the time, this wasn’t enough of a distraction to keep the demons away.
Overall, my training wasn’t what I had pictured. My legs did exactly what they were supposed to, but the mental frustrations I was encountering were exhausting. I trained on the trails that made up the 50k, but a lot of the time when I was supposed to go back to these trails for more training, I just couldn’t. I thought that exploring some new dirt would help, and sometimes it did. A little. But most of the time I just kept becoming less and less confident in my ability to mentally push through this race. I knew I had the legs to do it, but I didn’t want to remember my first 50k for the mental pain.
Two weeks before the race, I texted Tracy and told her that I thought it would be a good idea for me to drop down to the 30k, the shortest distance that was being run that day. She asked if we could meet to go through her plans for me for the 50k – broken down aide station by aide station – before we decided. Logistically, the plans that she had carefully laid out for me were all very doable. I knew physically I could do it. We even talked about “distraction techniques” for what I could do if I started mentally crashing. Ultimately, I decided to stick with the 50k because I knew I would always regret not trying. I think it would have been easier to swallow a DNF (did not finish) compared to a DNS (did not start).
The week before the race, I worked to make sure I had all the gear I would need. I had all of my gear packed up and ready to go a few days early just to be sure I hadn’t forgotten to buy or wash something. I wore clothes I had trained in frequently and food I had always had on me during training. I also worked with Tracy to make a game plan of what food, fluids, and gear I would need to think about at each aide station stop. Last year during the Ascent, my fluids and nutrition were a huge problem in the last 3 miles of the race, so I knew this had to be very carefully planned with some backup options in case I started noticing issues during the race.