Note: I’m posting all my old, pre-blog race reports.  Here’s how my first ultra went.

What: Ironmasters Challenge 50K (31 miles for the metric challenged)
When: Sunday April 27, 2014  7:30am
Where: Pine Grove Furnace State Park, PA
Time: 6:23:41
Pace: 12:21 min/mile
Place: 26/123
AG Place: 9/31

Pre-Race Activities

My wife and I stayed at her friend’s place in Harrisburg so we only had a 50 minute drive to the park where the race was being held. There was about a 5 minute walk to the start line, which was a bit long considering the 40 degree temps outside. We had about an hour wait before my race started, which is the perfect amount of time. I really hate being rushed to get everything organized before the race starts. We got some pre-race instructions on course markings, a quick call to get non-runners out of the starting chute, and we were off.


This was a straight up training run for me so my only goal was to finish. I was thinking my finish time would be in the 6.5-7 hours range, but had no idea how my legs/energy levels would hold up. Especially considering this was the farthest I have ever run and I had done a long run the day before. Overall, this would be a very good test of my endurance heading into my spring goal race next month (Dirty German 50 Miler).

I’m going to approach this race report a bit differently than my prior ones. Lucky for you, you won’t get a mile-by-mile breakdown of how things progressed. Partly because I can’t remember the exact time line of what happened when; partly because you’re likely as bored of reading my boilerplate race reports as I am of writing them; but mostly because this ultra/running hobby is one huge learning experience for me. So without further ado . . .

What I learned (or relearned) about ultra marathons and trail running.

1. Trail miles are a non-standard unit of measure. Now you’d think that a mile is a mile is a mile, but that’s not the case when you’re on the trails. This race actually had mile markers out on the course, however they never matched with my Garmin. This is to be expected since satellite reception in the woods isn’t always the best. And at the pre-race meeting we were told that the mile markers were messed up somewhere around 19-25 as she was holding the 24 mile marker. This didn’t bother me too much even though I was counting down miles from 20 onwards. Mostly because I got a huge mental boost as I saw the 27 mile marker when I was expecting 26. The thought of only having 4 miles left really put a hop to my step. Well, on the downhill portions of the course at this point. The uphills were mostly being walked by then.

2. Expect to get lost. No matter how well a trail is marked, it’s easy to get lost. When running on technical trails my entire focus is on the ground and were to put my feet so I don’t trip (see point 4 below), not on looking for pieces of orange tape tied to trees head high. Parts of this course were also hard to follow as the ground was marshy and covered with leaves so everything and nothing looked like a path. I was running up this one rock filled gully behind a guy and commented how the race organizers needed to pick better trails when I noticed the trail right next to us. Sigh.

I went off course twice during the race. The first time I caught myself after a hundred feet or so. Unfortunately, the guy coming down ahead of me had a much longer detour. The second time wasn’t too much later. I was following someone who was following the same guy I saw go off course before. We came to a section of marked trail and I recognized it from about 10 minutes before. I thought it was odd that the trail would backtrack like that without any signs, but didn’t give it much more thought than that. Luckily we hit a trail crossing not too much further along and turned around when there wasn’t any markings. This probably added only half to three-quarters of a mile so no big deal. I don’t mean to sound too nonchalant about running that much extra mileage, but it didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. I may have had a different attitude if this was a goal race, but since it was just a training run I was able to just go with the flow.

3. It doesn’t always keep getting worse. This is a classic ultra saying that I was very gently introduced to during the race. I never really hit a low point as such, however there was a stretch of trail from mile 20/21 to 25 that I was definitely demotivated to run. I didn’t really feel bad. My legs were still OK and my energy levels were decent. I just didn’t feel like running. I may have even walked a couple flattish sections. A guy I was with at the time (and ended up finishing with) was walking a bit through here and his struggles may have rubbed off on me. I’m not saying he made me walk or run slower through here, but there may have been a little bit of monkey see, monkey do going on with me. This was after a conversation at the mile 19.4 aid station where I found out I was on a sub-6 hour pace (note: I was tracking my splits on a mile by mile basis, but not what my overall pace was). A guy running right ahead of me said he was looking to run 6.5 hours and seemed like he was going to shut it down since I came into the aid station a couple minutes after him and left before him. I figured I could just coast/fade in from that point on and maybe that’s what I did.

4. I’m going to fall at some point. I went down 3 different times during the race. The first time was a gentle little touch of the ground, however the last 2 times were fairly hard landings. Neither caused me any serious injuries thankfully, however the last one had me looking like Charlie Brown on the pitcher’s mound as my MP3 player and watch went flying. I didn’t trip quite as often as The Dam Full Marathon, but the rocks were cleverly hidden by all the leaves on the ground. I might need to modify my running gait going forward to lift my feet higher. Either that or start wearing more padding.

5. Nutrition needs to be a constant focus of mine early and often. There were only 3 fully stocked aid stations with the last one less than 3 miles from the finish. And only the first 2 had Gatorade. I grabbed some food (banana half, energy bar, M&Ms) at 2 of them, however should have had more calories throughout the race. I started the day with 2 bottles of water, however will switch to 1 water, 1 Gatorade going forward. I got a bottle of Gatorade at mile 19.4 (second stocked aid station) and it was the best tasting thing I’ve ever had in my entire life. I ended up downing the whole bottling in about 3 miles.

And that was probably my biggest mistake of the day. I got distracted running across a road at mile 23.3 and missed the next water station. At this point I only had about 5-10 oz of water and Gatorade left. I briefly thought about heading back to fill up, but figured I could tough it out. Well, I did tough out the next 3 miles, but I ended up going about 30 minutes without fluids because that 3 miles included the biggest, toughest, longest, soul-crushingest climb of the day. I was able to keep pace with the other runners around me over this section, but looking back I know I could have run/hiked this section better if I had kept hydrated.

6. Running through the woods is indescribably fun. About 14-15 miles in, I’m running through this gorgeous section of single track trail with pine trees all around and one other guy with me. I mentioned how awesome it is to be out running the trail and he agreed with me. He then commented how his co-workers just don’t get the whole running thing and I nod my head thinking of all you reading this. You think I’m stark raving mad for running 50k (and planning to run farther), however if you were able to share that one moment with me then you’d know that I’m the sanest person alive. And I had three or four other moments as good or better over the course of the run.

Final Thoughts

I could not have asked for a better introduction to the world of ultras. It was a well run race with beautiful trails, friendly runners, and great volunteers. I felt very good for most of the day and came out of it injury free and mostly recovered 2 days later. While I was most assuredly quite tired at the end, I wasn’t close to being done running and could have cranked out a number of more miles if needed. I also learned (and relearned) some valuable lessons. Hopefully, I don’t forget them. Overall, this race gave me a big confidence boost that I’ll be able to run an additional 19 miles in 3 weeks.