My First Ultra: If I Quit, I Would Regret It Forever
"During the first half of the race, nearly 50 percent of the field dropped out due to the horrendous conditions."
On the day after the 2016 New York City Marathon—my 33rd marathon—I began to think about what was next. Would I run another marathon? Would I wait until next November for the next NYC Marathon? I decided I needed a new challenge and next frontier. After completing 33 marathons and 3 IRONMAN competitions, I felt that the next logical physical challenge would be an ultramarathon.
Though I have never been a trail runner before, I felt I was up for it. So I began researching ultras in the U.S. and found a local one: The North Face 50 Mile, on the second weekend of May at Bear Mountain.
I had been thinking and talking about doing an ultra for years. Often procrastinating, I said I didn’t have time to train properly or maybe I would wait until my kids were older. But, given that Bear Mountain is only about 25 miles from my house and I was coming off a strong marathon, I figured now was good a time as any to attempt this kind of feat.
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Once I signed up, I began committing myself to my training and race preparation. I logged an average about 50 miles per week for five months. I trained whenever I could find the time. I began to enjoy doing 5:30 a.m. runs several times a week—there is no better way to start my day and this always led to a very productive day at the office, filled with energy.
During most of my training, I had to sport a headlamp and reflective vest, as I often ran before sunup and after sundown when I got home from work. The weekends were the times I had the chance to run long, logging up to 25 miles at a time. Most of training was done on my own. When I’d have an urge, I just went, preferring not to be held up by anyone’s schedule.
Saturday, May 12, always seemed so far away, until it was finally here. At 5 a.m., the gun went off and I was on my way, wearing my headlamp, slogging through the woods in the dark pouring rain. I was confident that I could do it but knew it was going to be a long, hard day, especially since the heavy rain had started at 4 a.m. and was not forecasted to end until the evening.
I completed the first 12 miles at a 10-minute pace. As the miles wore on, the rain was relentless and temperatures were in the high 40s. I couldn’t have chosen a worse day to attempt my first ultra. During the first half of the race, nearly 50 percent of the field dropped out due to the horrendous conditions. At mile 25, I called my wife and told her I was hurting and not sure I could go on; she told me to continue to push, one foot in front of the other, and continue on—and if I quit, I would regret it forever.
It was the boost that I needed (and the change of clothes I was awarded at mile 29 helped). I felt strong the next 15 miles and passed the time thinking about my wife, kids and my colleagues at The Washington Post. I looked forward to the aid stations where my body was replenished with Coke and chicken broth. The footing was treacherous and terrain was very difficult as I navigated all of the elevation changes and river passes on the rocky trails.
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At mile 48, the support crew informed us that we had 3 miles to go—the race was actually 51 miles (not 50)! At this point, I was running 15-minute miles, so the extra effort was both physically and mentally taxing. At 5:35 p.m., 12 hours and 35 minutes after I started my race, I crossed the finish line in 162 place in the field of 400 who had started.
The race was the most difficult thing I have ever done. It took all of my mental and physical stamina to finish. With my finish comes many victories, a great sense of satisfaction, achievement and confidence. It also has refined how I look at a “difficult” or a challenging task. To quote Sun Tzu: “Every battle is won before it is ever fought.”
I had prepared for this battle for months, physically logging miles and mentally preparing myself for what it would take to run more than 12 hours continuously over uneven terrain in the woods. I have learned that you should never wait for greatness. Do not wait to do things that are daunting as they are often the most rewarding. There is no time like the present to attempt a new feat and always finish what you started. May the wind always be at your back.