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: http://tidewaterstriders.com/seashore50K/), 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!

1 comment :

  1. What an ordeal! I'm glad you were able to get into the race - if I were in your shoes, that would make me feel like I was destined to run it, which sometimes helps assuage my fears that something (like an injury) is going to get in the way of me running the race. I can't believe the race sold out in a week! I wonder if they'll continue having open registration, or if they'll move to a lottery system in the future. I guess I know absolutely nothing about the ultra running scene in Virginia (or the ultra running scene, period), but I certainly never would've assumed an ultra ever ran the risk of selling out, especially within a week!

    I totally get the number thing, too. That was, truly, the entire reason why I ran two marathons in 2016: because I had already signed up for one (Chicago), and couldn't fathom passing up the opportunity to do 26.2 on my 26th birthday. I worried that if I did, my next chance was going to be 31 miles on my 31st birthday (which will fall on a Saturday, I believe, so it's certainly possible that there will be a 50K somewhere that day), but that really did NOT appeal to me at all, so 26.2 on my 26th it was, haha.

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