My First Ultra: A Registration Story

I always said I'd never run an ultra.

I would happily run up to 26.2 miles, but a step beyond that was a step too far. I was elated to add, "marathoner" to my running resume in 2014 but never had any desire, at all, whatsoever, to add the "ultra-" prefix.

Except...I'm nothing if not steadfast in my appreciation for numerical symbolism, so I have always had the caveat that maybe, maybe, IF, I ever ran an ultra (and it would only be a 50k because, again, NOT that interested in running much farther than 26.2, if any at all), I might consider running a 50k (31.1 miles) for my 31st birthday. 

I was born on October 2, 1987 and turned 31 earlier this month.

So here we are.

Truthfully, aside from the (arguably unncessary) extra distance - the ultra in ultramarathon - the biggest reason I've never had a desire to run an one is because I truly don't enjoy trail running, and that's where 99% of ultramarathons take place. A large majority of them are on difficult, technical trails, and that's neither my running forte nor my happy place. The only trails I've ever really run on are in First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach - a magical place that's in the woods but still only about a half mile in either direction from either the ocean or an inlet, which is my kind of trail. There's one main trail about 5 miles long that's nice and wide and open, with some narrower side trails. There are some gentle undulations, especially on the side trails, but extremely mild as far as trail running is concerned (from what I understand, anyway, considering I've never done it).

Earlier this year I was really struggling with where I wanted to go next in my running, and I tossed around everything from gunning for a half marathon PR to doing a few half Ironmans to maybe running my first ultramarathon. Every December the local run club in Virginia Beach hosts a 50k on the trails in First Landing, so I've known about it for several years now but have never considered it a legitimate possibility. But this past January, as I was really wrestling over whether or not to move back to Virginia Beach from DC - I loved my job but it made more sense for Ben's job for us to be in VB, and I missed the beach with every fiber of my being - I told myself that if if we ended up back in VB sometime this year that would be a sign, and I'd run the 50k. Even though of all the races I was considering the ultra was the one the most out of left field, I kind of loved the idea of doing something totally different and - even though I'd checked off basically everything on my running to-do and wish lists - of still having something new and exciting to work toward. Ultimately Ben and I decided it made the most sense - for his job, for us, for our family - to move, and so we moved back in April. 

Although I had a million other things to focus on with moving and starting a new job, the thought of that 50k, the promise I'd made to myself, and the idea that that Universe had put these plans in motion for me never left my mind. I even recruited my friend Robert to sign up with me! Somehow this big, crazy thing I said I'd never do became more and more of a reality, and the more I thought about it, the more I loved the idea of it. I think it was around May that we agreed we both wanted to run it, but registration didn't open until June. I checked the race website every week or even every few days, and even more frequently the closer we got to June. Finally, a few days into June, there it was! Registration was open...but I wasn't quite yet ready to register. My head was still spinning from my second Mountains of Misery the week before, I was still trying to decide if I wanted to do a half Ironman in September, a road marathon in November, or an ultra in December (actually I was trying to convince my coach how I could do all 3...), and I just didn't have my head on straight enough to make a decision about the 50k. Plus, it's not like it was going to sell out!

But that's exactly what happened. Even though I had no intention of signing up right away, I still checked the website daily. It has looked like this since the beginning of June (and still does as of this screenshot on October 14):

So imagine my shock and horror when on June 14, less than a week after registration opened, I had the following text exchange with my dad:

I deleted Twitter a while ago and am rarely on Facebook, so I missed all updates that the run club put out in the first (and only) week that registration was open. That whole week when I had been going straight to the race website (which is hosted on the run club's website but is a separate page:, the run club website showed a feed of their Twitter page clearly showing that there were 200 spots left...then 100...then 50...then none...

I was truly in disbelief, mainly because this sellout happened within one week of registration being open. I knew this was a somewhat popular race, and I was pretty sure it wasn't very big, and I had never run it or followed its participation closely so I couldn't immediately quantify either of those things, but I never thought it would sell out that quickly. It turns out my gut instinct was right: after going back in time via Twitter, I discovered that last year the race sold out in September and that the year before it had sold out in October. So, yes, somewhat of a trend in an earlier sell-out date, BUT it was previously capped at 200 participants and this year the cap increased to 300. So, to recap, that's 100 more people than usual who signed up 3 months sooner than usual? I still can't get the math to make sense. 

At any rate, it filled ip within a week, and I didn't realize how invested I was in this race until it was swept out from under me. I was gutted. Gutted! The only 50k I've ever wanted to do, and the only year I've ever wanted to do it, and it was gone before it even started. There was an option to be added to a waitlist, which I did, but considering that I was #48 on the list, my hopes for ever getting in were pretty low.

I wasn't willing to let it go that easily though, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized there was no reason my friend and I couldn’t go out and run our own, unsupported 50k the day after the official race. There would be nothing stopping me - I could go out to that trail and run 50k tomorrow if I wanted to. As for the missed benefits of doing an actual race, there are actually only two aid stations provided on the course (which you hit multiple times because of the multiple loops, but only two physical locations), and they’re both permanent fixtures at trailheads, with water fountains and bathrooms, not anything specifically set up by or for the race. Sure, the race would provide extra water and food at each one, but I could just as easily stash my own food (which is what I’d likely eat anyway rather than on-course food since that’s what I’m used to). Of course, the biggest thing I’d miss out on would be the full race experience and the camaraderie of running with a few hundred other people, which would be a huge downside, but I was really only interested in doing this 50k this one, so that was a sacrifice I was willing to make. Everyone I told thought it was crazy, but luckily my friend is even crazier than I am (like, just-ran-a-trail-marathon-on-a-whim-2-weeks-after-an-Ironman kind of crazy) and he was all in. So that was new the plan! We were doing it no matter what!

My Richmond training and Robert’s IM Maryland/OBX Marathon training feed right into the 50k, which is 5 weeks after our marathons, so even though we continued to build our distance, the 50k was more of an afterthought. I still checked the waiting list periodically just in case, but after a couple months I had only moved up a few spots. It wasn’t looking good.

Then one day in August, the tide unexpectedly turned. Robert texted me to tell me that he had just met with potential renter at one of his properties and the race came up in conversation when the guy saw his IM license plate frame. It turns out that the renter is a well-known and well-connected local runner and knows the director of the 50k really well. Robert ended up renting the house out to this guy, and (unrelated to their property deal, ha) told me that his renter said he’d have no problem getting us both into the race.

Say what! 

It was such a weird, small-world turn of events. 

And that’s where I thought the story would end, but it’s actually not. I’m not sure of the details, but to make a long story short (too late!) (name that movie reference), nothing really ended up coming out of that connection as far as I can tell. Every week or so we would hear that we were definitely in and would receive confirmation soon, but by mid-September hadn’t received anything. I wasn’t too worried about it, as the race isn’t until December, and I assumed we would get confirmation eventually. Given that I have the Richmond Marathon 5 weeks before the 50k, and that I’ve been dealing with injuries that have made me wonder if I can even make it through these races (for the record, I’m fairly confident at this point that I’m good to go), the fact that I wasn’t officially signed up for the ultra just wasn’t something I was focused on. It definitely wasn’t something I was thinking about the morning the Hokie Half Marathon - my 31st half marathon and a week before my 31st birthday. 

A quick aside: the Hokie Half is one of my favorite races and always ends up being a magical experience for me. My first time running it in 2014 was my first sub-2, in 2015 it was a training run just before my first half Ironman, and in 2016 it was my last long run before what was supposed to be my first full Ironman. Blacksburg is such a special place to me and the times I’ve Hokie Half have all been different but pure gold all the same. I’ve never had anything short of an amazing race there.

This year was no exception: I ran pain-free for the first time in weeks (months?) and I improved my time from a half two weeks prior by 6 minutes (on a hilly course), but that wasn't all. As I was running the race, just before mile 1, my watch alerted me that I had a notification on my phone. I saw that it was an email and would usually just give a quick glance, but I saw the name of the 50k somewhere in the short blurb (all my watch can handle displaying), so I pulled my phone out of my Flip Belt to read it. It was a notification that I was off the waiting list, with an invitation to register good for the next 3 days. I couldn't believe it! Even though I had spent the last month or so being fairly confident I was going to get into the race, I never expected to actually get off the waitlist and for it to happen like that. At that point I didn't care how I got in, it was just a relief to know that I was definitely, 100%, officially in the race. I signed up later that day on the drive home - what a great early 31st birthday present and boost to my 31st half marathon! 

So that’s the long version of how didn’t sign up in time, was going to run my own 50k, then thought I might have someone to pull some strings to get me in, but ultimately just ended up just signing up like a normal person. I don’t think Robert’s connection ended up making a difference, but I guess it doesn’t matter in the end. I don’t think I’ll ever take the chance on an important race selling out before I register ever again!

Richmond Marathon Training: Getting My Feet Under Me

Hello, training blogging, my old friend.

I don't even know where to start with this one, primarily because I don't think I want to share my Richmond training the way I have historically shared my training: with daily workout recaps, weekly stats, etc. While the data nerd in me really wants to scratch that itch, it can rest assured knowing that I have all of that information stored in Garmin, Smashrun, my training spreadsheet, etc. There is truly no need to rehash it here, as I'm not sure how interesting it would be, and I'm not sure it's good for me anyway. I've gone through a lot of growth in my training this year - a lot of progress, some setbacks, some mental clarity, sometimes of more confusion than ever - and as much as I want to try to write it all down, to qualify it and to quantify it, I'm not sure that I can. And even if I could, I'm not sure that I should. 

But because I haven't really recorded or documented anything beyond the basics, I have arrived here, at week 14 of marathon training - nearly to the end of yet another training cycle - wondering where the weeks have gone. Isn't that the way it always goes though? That's a real question, not a rhetorical one, because I really don't remember the answer. I have some form of training amnesia where every training cycle I forget everything about the last one, which is part of the reason I have kept detailed training logs for so long. It helps me to be able to look back and remember the high points and the low points, to remind myself what feelings are normal and happen every single time. I just didn’t feel like doing that this time, and I have no regrets about that choice, but it does make it more difficult to look back and form a nice narrative of exactly how things have gone.

So let’s start from the beginning, or at least what I can remember of it.

I stopped working with my coach on literally the first day of this training cycle, which wasn't altogether unexpected but was still an...interesting way to start a new training cycle. It was a mutual decision and, honestly, a bit of a relief, as it gave me the freedom and the flexibility to map out a training plan that I could truly care and be excited about (not that I wasn't excited about my coach's training plan, but there's something about having a personal stake in my training that really motivates me). 

The first six weeks of training went just fine - not great, not bad, just fine. I focused on running more intuitively, running how I wanted when I wanted, rather than 100% according to plan. As a former strict canned plan follower this was a departure from my past marathon training, but I liked it. I felt like I had lots of freedom to enjoy life without the marathon taking over (maybe even too much freedom) and my runs, while not spectacular, we’re decent enough to keep me going day after day. There was truly nothing noteworthy to report. 

Things changed somewhere around week 7. That was the week Mollie Tibbetts’s body was found. Mollie was a complete stranger, years and states apart from me, but her disappearance while on a run in rural Iowa in mid-July shook me. I followed her case for a month, and I knew it wasn’t a question of how it would end, it was a question of when. I thought I’d feel some type of strange morbid relief when her body was finally found, hoping to confirm my wishful thinking that it had been an accident, a hit-and-run - tragic, absolutely, but not sinister. When her body was found the news quickly emerged that a suspect was in custody, a suspect who had followed, harassed, and attacked her. The fact that Mollie spent her last moments on this earth living out my biggest fear and worst nightmare was devastating. 

I have never grieved for a complete stranger like I grieved for Mollie. I sobbed at random intervals, I was nauseous, I was on edge. Paranoid is my default state when I run, but not enough to make me do 100% of the things I can do to stay safe 100% of the time. I run alone, I run in the dark, I run with headphones, I let my mind wander and stop paying attention to my surroundings. After Mollie died my paranoia hit an all time high, and my running suffered. Around that same time the morning light during my before-work running window had all but vanished, so I stopped running in the morning. I stopped caring about tempo paces or intervals. I had a run they day after her body was found that I couldn’t even bring myself to finish. 

I wish I could say that I was at least in a good physical place despite not being in a good mental place, but that’s not true either. Around that same time I started feeling some pain in my right thigh. Note that I have had nearly every injury you can think of on my left side, but until now, my right side had stayed perfectly intact. I cautiously hobbled through runs at an easy pace, but a week later the pain had returned bad enough that I took one searing step of a planned 5-miler before calling it off. I had a half marathon scheduled 3 days later and although I drove to packet pickup the day before with almost no intention of being able to run 13 miles the next day, I made it though with copious massage, ibuprofen, and KT tape (and my slowest half marathon time in 4.5 years). 

And that’s more or less how the last 8 weeks have gone. I’ve thrown out any semblance of speedwork, approach every run cautiously, and have been solidly in rehab mode since late August. My pain has been slowly decreasing overall, but it ebbs and flows and moves all around, from my hamstring to my knee to my piriformis to my hip flexors back and forth a bunch of times. At times it’s made running an impossibility, but mostly it’s just irritating. I’ve skipped my two longest long runs (an 18-miler and a 20-miler) and missed an entire week of running (although that was for a random foot thing on my left side that luckily went away with rest). I’ve missed over 65 miles of training, pretty important miles when training should have been really ramping up. 

On the bright side, since this crap started I have made it through two half marathons (the second one much hillier than the first flat one, yet 6 minutes faster!) and a few 16-17 milers. I know that all is not lost, but my training certainly hasn’t been ideal and has been far less than I’ve ever trained for a marathon before. I never had a clear picture of how I wanted this training cycle to go or what I wanted from Richmond, but if I had, this would not be it.

Now, a more reasonable person might have seen the writing on the wall, but not me. Maybe it would make more sense to drop to the half or not do this race at all - and believe me, I have shuffled through both options several times - but as long as I think I can get through the race without significant pain or damage, I’m going to do it. I’ve been seeing a sports massage therapist I really like and trust, I’m seeing a PT I also really like and trust next week, and I feel like I’m in good hands. The pain is like a 2 on a scale from 1 to 10, so I don’t feel like I’m doing further damage, it’s just annoying that it’s there at all. 

But I feel like I can manage it, and that’s all I’m really interested in doing at this point. I ran a big PR last year that I’m still happy with, and don’t think I was in any position to even come close to that this year (injury or not), so nothing lost there. I plan on taking some time off from marathoning after IM Lake Placid next year, so if I scrapped Richmond I don’t even know what my next opportunity would be. At this point I’m just looking forward to getting through another 26.2 miles, running through a pretty city and enjoying some hopefully nice weather (something I think will be easy to appreciate considering it has been summer for what has felt like 14 years straight). I know those sound like things injured people say to make themselves feel better, but they’re true! And I don’t totally consider myself injured as much as just not capable of running to my full potential right now. But that was true well before this injury started, so no big change in the grand scheme of things. 

Plus! I do have one original intention for this race that still holds: I’m using it as a training run for my first ultra! I guess that gives me another thing to post about...