The McDowell Mountain Frenzy: My first 50-Mile Ultramarathon

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If I'm being honest with you, it still feels a little funny to talk about. On December 2, Liselle (my girlfriend) and I ran our first ultramarathon: a 50-mile foot race through the McDowell Mountain region of the Sonoran Desert, just outside of Scottsdale, Arizona. It was the first time either of us had competed in a trail race; it was the first time either of us had run farther than 26.2 miles in a day; and it was the first time we'd run a race together.

In the weeks leading up to the race, and in the weeks since, we've both been asked a ton of questions about the experience - so I thought I'd share my answers to some of those, here:

What was it like?

It was beautiful and humbling and incredible. Just before 7:00am, we toed the starting line of the race with 100 other runners competing in the 50-mile distance. Last year, about 20% of the 50-milers didn't finish. The first place finisher took over 8 hours to finish the race. We were just hoping to finish before the cut-off time (14 hours).

As we looked around at the starting area, we couldn't tell who was "good." We didn't know if we would make the cut-off. Frankly, I was just hoping that neither of us would come away with any major injuries. A few years before, I'd broken my foot 22 miles into a marathon. Earlier this year, when I finished my second marathon, I could barely walk for a week afterwards. I'd never run longer than 26.2 miles before. I'd never run a trail race (of any length) before. I had no clue how my body would handle 50 miles. I was afraid. But, I was stoked, too.

At 7:00am, the 100 of us took off, just as the sun was beginning to rise. Recognizing that we probably weren't going to finish the race and say, Damn, I wish I would have run harder!, we decided to err on the side of starting slow. To make sure we didn't burn out too quickly, we decided to cover the first 30 miles with 5:1 intervals - meaning we'd run five miles, then walk one mile - to make sure we kept our heart rate down, stayed well hydrated, and gave our stomachs an easier time with digesting nutrition (we'd both read plenty of horror stories about people throwing up during ultramarathons and suffering through the day with upset stomachs).

We got lucky, really: the weather forecast was calling for uncharacteristically warm temperatures that day (even for Arizona) - we were expecting afternoon temperatures to break into the mid-80s. So, I say we got lucky, because for the first four hours of the race, we were running under a mostly overcast sky. The temperature stayed in the 50s and 60s during that time, which gave us a few hours to work our way into a rhythm. Granted, it was still 20-30 degrees warmer than anything we'd trained in - but things could have been a lot worse. With the cool, morning air, and good visability, Liselle and I cruised through the first four hours of the race using our 5:1 strategy.

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Then, the sun came out. Then, it got real hot, real fast. Then, Liselle ran out of water. Then, I ran out of water. And then, 26 miles into our first ultra marathon, in the middle of the desert, neither of us had any water. We were three miles from the next aid station, where we'd be able to refill our hydration packs.

Recognizing that we were pretty isolated in the desert, under intense sun, with no hydration, we decided to bail on our 5:1 strategy and try to conserve energy. So, for the next three miles, to protect ourselves from potentially throwing our entire day away, we walked - doing anything we could to distract each other from the very real dehydration we were both experiencing.

In retrospect, the first 26 miles of the race were pretty easy. The real sufferfest began at mile 27, as we climbed our way up, through the rocky desert terrain, roasting under the mid-day sun without water, desperate to find the next aid station. 

I knew it at the time, but I was super lucky to have had Liselle there with me. In the course of a 50-mile race, everyone is inevitably going to go through highs and lows. You're going to have things go wrong. You're going to have to make adjustments on the fly. And, you never know how your body is going to respond to what you're putting it through. Liselle is my best friend, and she's easily one of the most badass people I know. So, to be able to have her there with me, especially through the low points of a day like, made a huge difference.

We cracked jokes with each other. We planned our post-race dinner together. We threw on a Spotify playlist and danced down the trail. And we talked about all the things we were grateful for - the least of which, was simply being healthy enough to physically compete in a race like the one we were running. But, that doesn't mean we were both in perfect shape that day: Liselle had been dealing with knee bursitis coming into the race, and a couple miles in, she started feeling hip flexor irritation and an upset stomach. The fact that she even showed up on race day was impressive to me; even more impressive to me was watching her crush the race and maintain an intoxicating, upbeat energy throughout the day.

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I came into the race feeling relatively healthy, but by mile 26, my left foot was killing me. My feet had swollen to the point to where my toes were bumping up against the toebox in my shoes, and every time my toes bumped into a rock on the trail, it was excruciating. Fortunately, it wasn't just water that we'd have waiting for us at mile 30 - it was dropbags.

A dropbag is essentially a care package that you can put together before the beginning of the race to have waiting for you at an aid station. They're like Christmas presents. For our 50-miler, Liselle and I both used dropbags throughout the course to replenish our nutrition supplies, give ourselves an opportunity to throw on some fresh clothes, and provide ourselves with any extra gear we might need. Anticipating that feet and footwear might be an issue, we both packed an extra pair of shoes and had them set to be delivered to us at mile 30. So, when we finally did make it to the aid station, we were able to re-fill our hydration packs, change socks and shoes, grab our hiking poles, and head off to climb one of the most brutal 5-mile out-and-backs I've ever seen.

It didn't help that we were already severely dehydrated at that point. It also didn't help that the temperature had risen into the mid-80s, and that all of our training had been in the damp, gray 40s and 50s of the Pacific Northwest. But, 30 miles into the race, immediately after leaving the aid station, the course takes runners up to the summit of Thompson Peak, on a direct route, relentlessly climbing nearly 2,000 feet in about 2.5 miles. Then, immediately after summiting, runners return back down the same way they came. It's as if the course was saying: If I haven't broken you yet, I'll break you now.

As we hiked up the mountain, I can't tell you how jealous I was of every person who was ahead of us, already making their way down. But, perhaps the more disheartening part of the climb was seeing how much pain the people coming down the mountain looked to be in. It was as if they'd used the last of their energy summiting, and were now just getting wrecked trying to control their bodies on the descent. Fortunately, we brought hiking poles. We might have been the only people at the race who did, but they saved us. Having never appreciated hiking poles until that moment, I used them religiously for the last 20 miles of the race. 

It's funny to think about, but we started the race before the sun had risen for the day. We got in four hours of running before the sun came out. We summited Thompson Peak in the height of the afternoon sun. And then, an hour or two after leaving Thompson Peak, after watching the sun set on the desert all around us, we turned on our headlamps and we kept running.

The final stretch of the race was an 8-mile loop of rolling hills, that we completed largely by ourselves: just our headlamps, a sky full of stars, and the moonlight to illuminate the trail. During that final 8 miles, I could feel the finish line pulling us in. Just think about how far you've come, I thought. And then, with a quarter mile left to go, we looked at each other and started smiling. At that point, we knew we were going to finish the race ahead of the cutoff time. Smiling and holding hands, we crossed the finish line together - stoked to have completed the most absurd day of physical activity either one of us has ever had.

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How long did it take?

It took us something like 13 hours and 40 minutes - so, we finished less than 30 minutes before the official cutoff time.

How did you feel when you finished?

Proud: of Liselle and myself and the way that we kept each other going all day.

Relieved: that we finished under the 14-hour cutoff and that there were seemingly no major injuries to report.

Humbled: because there were plenty of people that were 20+ years older than us who kicked our ass.

Why did you want to run 50-miles in the first place?

To me, an ultramarathon is about pushing your mind and your body beyond where most people think either one of them should be able to go. To be successful at the ultra distance, you have to be good with strategy; you have to understand when to push your body and when to take care of it; you have to be mentally and emotionally strong enough to manage the highs and lows of the day; you have to be agile enough to deal with the unexpected things that come up. To me, running an ultra marathon is kind of the ultimate physical test; it's about seeing how far you can go. And, I've always wanted to know that.

To that end, one of my bucket-list sort of goals is to run Ultra-Trail Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix: a race more commonly referred to as "CCC." CCC is a 101km (~60mile) trail race around Mount Mont Blanc. It features over 6,100 meters (20,000 feet) of elevation gain, and it takes runners through Italy, Switzerland, and France.

In order to gain entry to CCC, runners must first successfully complete a number of races deemed hard enough to prove that runner worthy of competing in CCC. The McDowell Mountain Frenzy was considered a qualifying race for 2017, so that put it on our radar. And with Liselle and I having both run a marathon earlier this summer, and feeling like we had established a pretty solid baseline level of fitness, we figured now was as good a time as any to try to tackle our first 50-miler.

How did you prepare for the race?

It's surprisingly easy to find training plans to run a half marathon, a full marathon, or even a 50-mile foot race with a simple Google search. Having said that, neither one of us would claim that we trained as well as we could have for this one. We were both coming off of a long, brutal Hanson's training plan for the marathon we ran earlier this summer. It was a training plan that we felt robbed us of having any sort of social life for a few months, and it had us feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted.

Having both done plenty of research, and having both known what we did and didn't like about training plans we'd used in the past, we opted to build our own training schedule. Here's what we prioritized:

  1. We wanted to make sure our training plan didn't rob us of all of our weekends, and that it allowed us to utilize hiking and backpacking to strengthen our legs (and refresh our brains).
  2. We wanted to make sure that strength training and weight lifting were heavily emphasized in our plan.
  3. We wanted to make sure that we weren't running more than 4 days a week (train smarter, not harder).

In practice, Monday and Friday were our recovery days (yoga, stretching, light calisthetics - no running or lifting). Tuesdays and Thursdays were for 9-mile runs with weight lifting afterwards. Wednesdays were for lifting and spinning. And we stacked back-to-back long runs on Saturdays and Sundays, which we occasionally swapped out on weekends for backpacking trips and longer day hikes. The aim was to gradually increase the length of our weekend runs over the course of the 16-week training plan, with a recovery week thrown in every few weeks.

Admittedly, we didn't do a good enough job of actually completing the assigned runs we threw together in our training plan. But, in our defense, during the course of our training plan, we travelled to two destination weddings, spent two weeks in Europe, and travelled almost every weekend to go backpacking and hiking. With the goal for this race just being to finish ahead of the cutoff time, we prioritized balance over performance - and I'm glad we did.

Having said that, we're both fairly convinced that the time and energy we spent on strength training was essential to our success out there. Ironically, it seems like most of the training plans we've seen downplay the importance of lifting for runners - but that's another topic.

What did you guys carry with you?

I ran the entire race with a hydration pack by a company called Ultimate Direction. They make awesome stuff, and the pack I run with fits super well, so it doesn't feel like I've got anything on when I'm running. I'm able to carry chapstick, sunglasses, sanitary wipes, a minimalist first aid kit, my phone, 70oz of water, a light jacket, and more food than I can eat in there.

What did you eat?

Nutrition is easily the trickiest thing about an ultramarathon. For me, I've found that I burn about 125-135 calories for every mile I run, and I've found that for any run over 90 minutes, I need to actively take in 300-400 calories an hour in order to avoid crashing. So, for a 50-mile race, that means I'd be burning well over 6,000 calories and that I'd need to take in over 4,000 just to avoid crashing.

For me, I generally prefer less-processed, whole foods. At aid stations, this meant grabbing things like tortillas with pinto beans, boiled potatoes with salt, and dates. For nutrition on the go, my go-to brands are Muir Energy and RXBar. Both brands put together a very simple, super tasty, clean energy source that sits well with my stomach and doesn't lead to any sort of crashing afterwards.

What did you wear for the race?

Almost all of the clothing I wore was from RoadRunner Sports. I've found that they make solid apparel - from shirts and hoodies to shorts and socks - at a fraction of the price of most bigger-named running companies.

My actual outfit was pretty simple: just a quick-drying v-neck t-shirt, a pair of compression shorts, tall drymax socks, and a snapback. I swapped out my shirt, my hat, and my shoes at the 30-mile mark.

For shoes, I started the race in a pair of Hoka Speed Goat 2s; and 30 miles in, I swapped out of those and into a pair of Hoka Clifton 4s. Hoka makes incredibly comfortable trail and road shoes; and I love every pair of runners I've ever had from them (I'm on my fourth, now). If my Speed Goats were a half-size bigger, I probably would have just stuck with them for the entire race; but, I actually bought my Cliftons a little bigger than I normally would have, in anticipation of swelling being a potential problem.

Will you be running another one anytime soon?

To qualify for CCC, we'll need to run another 50-miler next year. Otherwise, the points we earned at the McDowell Mountain Frenzy will expire. So, as long as I can stay healthy, I'm planning to run another 50-miler in 2018 so I can submit a bid to CCC.

What would you tell your friends who want to run an ultra?

You can go farther than you think you can; you're stronger than you think you are; and you're more capable than you realize. Are you going to be uncomfortable at times? Absolutely. Is it hard? No doubt about it. But the high that you'll feel from pushing your body like that is incredible, and I promise it's worth it.

And, if you have any questions about getting into trail running - whether you want to run your first 5k, your first 50k, or your first 50-miler - I'd be more than happy to help you figure it out.

 

Happy trails,

Matt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matt Patterson

Seattle, Washington