My First Ultramarathon: The Virginia 24 Hour Run for Cancer

Last weekend I raced in the Virginia 24 Hour Run for Cancer, my first ultramarathon. I managed to cover 90 miles, earning an award for the best mileage for a first time ultra attempt. I had a great support crew who helped make that possible, and learned a ton about ultra-endurance training from my preparation. Here’s a not-so-quick recap of the race and the training that went into it.

Worked hard for this thing!

It’s funny, a lot of people keep asking if (or assuming that) last weekend’s 24 hour race was the hardest endurance challenge I’ve ever done. But honestly, I don’t think that it was. It was just different. It was tough for sure, but a different type of tough. Compared to a marathon, the intensity of the pain/discomfort was a bit less, but it was just stretched over a much longer time. There’s more emphasis on strategy, pacing, nutrition, and logistics. The performance balance is shifted a bit from pure physical ability to mental toughness and experience. Proof of this: the number of people in their 40s, 50s, and up who are in the top 20 runners – there’s a 60 year old lady ranked right in front of me with 93.5 miles!

Quick Training Recap

With much more focus on strategy and experience, and me being totally new to the ultra game, there was a ton for me to try to learn in the couple months leading up to the race. See my last blog post for some more details on how I was planning out my training. As I mentioned there, I was pressed for time, with only 8 weeks between a Spring marathon I had trained for and the 24 hour race, minus a few weeks for recovery/tapering and lots of traveling mixed in too. My primary goals in that short amount of time we’re to find my strategies for nutrition/hydration and pacing, and to put in a lot of time on my feet.

Nutrition/Hydration Strategy

While you can sometimes get away with being loose about fueling for a marathon, I knew the 24 hour race would be a lot less forgiving. I needed a plan, I needed to test/tweak the plan in training, and I needed to do my best to execute that plan for the race. The plan would be primarily based on consuming proper amounts of 1) calories (mostly carbs), 2) fluids, and 3) sodium.

From doing a good amount of research, I learned that the body can only absorb between 150-300 calories per hour. I would shoot for the upper end of that, testing it out beforehand to make sure my stomach agreed. As opposed to fueling for a higher intensity race like a half/full marathon, solid options for food were on the table for this race. I would split my calories primarily between gatorade, energy gels, gummies, and PBJs.

For sodium, a rough rule of thumb is to consume between 200-300mg per hour during exercise. More for when it’s hot/humid, and/or if you’re a salty sweater, like me. Again, I’d shoot for the upper end of that range with a combination of gatorade and an electrolyte supplement in pill form.

Hydration is a little bit trickier to plan out, it’s very dependent on weather/individual. For this, I would bring a scale to the race and monitor my weight periodically. If I noticed a significant drop in weight, I’d make it a point to increase my fluid intake. (Note: at the race I lost 2.5 pounds in the first 6 hours, and was able to climb back close to my starting weight by putting more emphasis on hydration.)

I made an excel spreadsheet to map out and calculate how I could take in the target amounts of calories/sodium per hour that I had planned πŸ€“, here’s an example:

Pacing Strategy

My pacing strategy would be based on splitting up each hour into equal parts walking/jogging (30:00 walk->30:00 jog or 20:00->20:00 then 10:00->10:00, etc.), where the jogging portion would be done according to heart rate.

After testing this breakdown out in some training runs, I found my target walking pace to be about 15:00min/mi and my target jogging pace to be about 10:00min/mi. This averaged out to a 12:00min/mi pace overall, or 5 miles per hour. My goal for the race would be to hold this pace for the first 12 hours to try to rattle off 60 miles by evening, before taking a more substantial break to eat dinner, rest, massage, stretch, and regroup.

My pacing and nutrition strategy went hand-in-hand. If I wanted to regularly eat something solid and more substantial (like a PBJ), I knew I’d have to take some time to walk and let it digest before jogging again. So I landed on the following eat/walk/jog pattern:

  • Eat PBJ
    • Walk 30 minutes -> Jog 30 minutes
  • Eat energy gummies
    • Walk 20 minutes -> Jog 20 minutes
  • Eat energy gel
    • Walk 10 minutes -> Jog 10 minutes

This represented two hours of race time and about 600 calories of fuel. My goal was to repeat this pattern (or something similar) through the first half of the 24 hour race.

Long Training Runs

The longest workouts for any endurance event should be treated as dress rehearsals for the actual race. As far as I was concerned, the long training runs I put in for the 24 hour race we’re just as much (or more) about figuring out the mental/logistics battle of nutrition/pacing than getting in better shape physically.

Marathon work day!

With just two free weekends available for the type of long training walk/run I needed to prepare for the race, I needed to be creative about getting some longer efforts in and putting in more time on my feet. I managed to squeeze in a third long workout by logging three runs over the course of a workday, with a total mileage of 26.2 (marathon!), see right.

The peak of my training was three weeks out from the race when I was able to put in an 8 hour walk/run, covering 40 miles. This was my true dress rehearsal for the race, practicing my nutrition/hydration/pacing plan mentioned above. I set out to do three 2-3 hour loops around the neighborhood, returning to my apartment between each one to pick up supplies for the next round. Check out my crazy route and stats below:

Overall, the 40 miler went pretty well. I stayed relatively on target with my nutrition, hydration, and pacing (see the 12:06 min/mi above) and my stomach faired pretty well. I did tweak the arch of my left foot, however, probably because I went a little bit too far too soon, and because a majority of this walk/run was done on sidewalks and asphalt (two things I generally try to avoid). The soreness went away after a few days but I worried that the pain might return on race day (spoiler alert: it did πŸ˜…) .

Race Day!

I decided in the weeks leading up to the race that I wouldn’t attempt to sleep/nap throughout the day/night and would opt to power through the entire 24 hours instead. So, I made it a point to save up on sleep in the few days prior, clearing my schedule so I could get 8-9 hours of sleep. With the exception of nerves keeping me up for a little while the night before, this worked out pretty well and I entered the race well rested.

I lucked out with weather also – it was a windy day, but with highs only in the 70s and no rain. It had stormed the day before so parts of the course were muddy making it more challenging, but the trail conditions were much better than I expected.

I received some insider tips before the race about logistics and saw a video of last year’s race showing elaborate camps set up with tarps, canopies, hammocks, cooler, grills, and more. So when I rolled into my first 24 hour race that morning to set up, I at least looked like I knew what I was doing 😎, setting up shop near the turnaround of the 3.75mi course loop:

Setting up home base for the race!

I learned in the weeks leading up to the race that a majority of the runners had entered the race as part of a team. On race day, it became more and more clear just how important having a team was for this type of challenge, given the logistics involved and the mental struggle of such a long race. Thankfully, I had an amazing support crew there to cheer me on and help out, despite the fact that I had signed up as a solo competitor. My girlfriend, Katie, was there for the entire 24+ hours to help me out, my Moms drove down from New Jersey to cheer me on, and about a dozen other friends showed up periodically throughout the day to say hi and give me encouragement. I can’t thank them enough. Check out some members of my awesome pit crew below:

For the most part, the first half of the race went smoothly. I was happy with how I executed the nutrition/pacing strategy I had created/practiced during training. Just as I had planned, I covered 60 miles in just over 12 hours before taking 30 minute break to recover and eat before the night shift. I broke that stretch into 3 hour chunks, taking 5-10 minute breaks between each one to stretch/regroup/change socks quick.

As I approached the evening and got into the night hours, things got a lot tougher. The race director had said several times in emails leading up the race that it’s usually a runner’s stomach or feet that is their downfall on race day. My stomach was fine, but my feet did prove to be my limiting factor..

I had purchased a pair of shoes that was 1/2 size bigger than my usual running shoes specifically for the race to account for swelling in my feet that would come with such a long race. Problem was, I waited just a little too long to switch to them. Around 8 hours in, my regular shoes started to feel tight and I told myself I’d do one more lap and then put on the bigger pair. During that lap, I could feel my toes jamming against the tops of my shoes. When I made it back, I took off my shoes and saw that the damage was already done. The nails on my two big toes and one other smaller toe we’re black and swollen, with blood blisters forming under the nails (I decided to spare you guys the photos πŸ˜‡, but they were gnarly). Still, the pain wasn’t enough to stop me from being able to continue jogging, and my bigger shoes gave my toes a little bit of initial relief.

Around 11 hours in though, right before taking my 30 minute dinner break, I encountered pain that would be much harder (and eventually impossible) to jog through. The arch on my left foot that I had tweaked on a training run three weeks prior had finally had enough impact. I had felt a dull pain growing in the few hours leading up to this point, but on this lap in particular the pain suddenly got sharp. I experimented with different ways to tweak my form (flexing my toes, pronating my feet, tiny/light strides) to lessen the pain, each one providing only temporary relief. I iced my foot between each lap. Tried KT taping the arch. Put bandaids on my toenails to prevent them from falling off. Took Ibuprofen. Anything to keep my feet functioning.

When I hit 50 miles just a lap or two earlier before the foot pain, I had started to gain confidence. I set my sights on a goal of 100 miles. I tried to keep my expectations loose heading into the race since it was my first attempt, saying that at least 75mi would be nice, but had started to feel like 100 was attainable. Once my feet gave out though, and it became clear that I’d be limited to walking for the remainder of the race, I told myself I’d just do my best to keep it moving through the pain, and make it as far as I could given the circumstances.

So I kept on trucking! I managed to tack on 30 more miles throughout the night by walking and continuing to do damage control on my feet between laps. Running in the dark with a headlamp, something I had never done before, ended up going relatively smoothly (and was actually pretty cool). The sleep deprivation factor really wasn’t so bad either, I only started to feel super tired around 2 or 3am. Eventually, I tossed my nutrition strategy out the window when none of my original go-to food was appetizing, and opted instead for a steady diet of iced coffee, candy, and chips. Friends and family alternated keeping me company on the last few laps when I was a complete zombie and could barely move my legs.

I finished my 24th lap of the 3.75mi course at around 6:10am for an even 90 miles, throwing in the towel at that point and collapsing into a chair, exhausted. I earned a plaque for reaching the 75mi point, and later on learned that I had gone farther than any other first-timer by about 15 miles, earning an award for best first attempt that they give out each year. In fact, the race director told me that 90 miles was the farthest he remembers anyone doing for their first ultramarathon, which made me feel both super pumped/proud but also nervous about how sore that meant I’d be the next day πŸ˜…. I mentioned at the beginning that I don’t think the 24 hour race was the hardest endurance event I’ve ever done per se, but I may have set a personal record for soreness on the following day!

The 24 hour race was a totally unique and new challenge for me. There’s so much more emphasis on nutrition, pacing, mental toughness, and overall racing strategy as compared to half/full marathons. But I really enjoyed that aspect of training, and I learned a ton through my preparation. I also learned the value of having a great support crew at this type of race.

Next time (if there’s a next time… 100mi does have a nice ring to it…), I’d set aside more time for training to properly ramp up my duration/mileage and prepare my feet for the beating of 150,000+ steps. I’d take some more precautions on race day to keep my feet in good shape as well (switching to bigger shoes earlier!). But overall, I thought the pacing/nutrition strategy I laid out for myself worked out pretty damn well, never truly feeling a crash from lack of energy, dehydration, or low sodium.

Proud of the preparation and effort I put into my first ultramarathon to make it 90 miles, and really thankful for all the people who supported me for it. On to the next challenge!

Published by

Jim Warner Fitness & Endurance Training

*USA Triathlon Certified Coach *ACE Certified Personal Trainer *NPTI Kettlebell Certification *NPTI TRX Suspension Training Certification *Conditioning Coach at Jungle Gym Strength & Conditioning, Newport News, VA *Amateur Endurance Athlete -Boston Marathon Qualifier -Ironman Triathlete -Cross-country Cyclist

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