32.7 miles, 7,875 feet of elevation gain, at 5,000-8,000ft above sea level. Mix that up with the incredibly beautiful landscape of Montana wilderness and just a tiny bit of wildland fire smoke, and you’ve got the HURL Elkhorn race.
The original article from a few weeks back detailed why a beefcake like me would want to train for and participate in an ultra. Simply put:
I’m not a naturally good endurance athlete
I needed a gut check physical event
After many hours of hiking up some serious mountains and running the flats and downhills, I’m still not sure if I’m a good endurance athlete, but I definitely got the gut check I was looking for.
The greatest thing about foot races of any kind is the fact that you can show up with sneakers on, and be ready to go. The gear prep consisted of tightening my laces, putting some electrolyte powder in my water bottle, and kissing the wife.
The course was a combination of single track, double track, and no-track besides some beaten down meadow grass from previous runners. The group started in the expected long line cluster on single track but spread out after a few miles and the first few downhill portions.
The angle of the elevation gain forces even the most elite runners to start hiking - you just can’t run up some of that stuff. Initially, I had intended to use a 10-minute run, 2-minute walk combo, but that went right out the window when I had to extend my neck upwards to see the trail. It quickly became a hike uphill, and run flats/downhill.
The first twelve miles went by quickly. The views were amazing and I was passing folks on the uphill hikes. Keep in mind, I started at the very back of the runners group and several of the people I passed were probably eligible for Medicare.
Aid stations were located every 5-6 miles with an unlimited amount of candy, potato chips, soda, and water. I felt good at the 12-mile aid station but pounded down calories in the form of Fig Newtons and Gummy Bears anyways.
The next ascent after the 12-mile point was a hell of a climb. It was switchback after switchback for 4 miles of pure leg burn. I really wanted to step it out with a fast pace here but was concerned I might cramp out later on in the race. I passed one or two folks and didn’t get passed by anyone, so we’ll call it a win.
Miles 16 to 22 was where I hit my low point of the race. After rolling through some downhill, rocky terrain, my knees started to ache. The bitch in my heart started to sing, and I may have asked myself “what the hell are you doing out here” once or twice. I snagged a couple ibuprofen from an aid station and kept on rolling with the appropriate amount of Gummy Worms raising my spirits.
The second wind hit, and the last ten miles were a breeze. They were slow moving, as it was steep, technical downhill portions, but it was fun to dance around the rocks and obstacles.
I ran through the finish line to cowbells ringing and my beautiful lady waiting on me. My legs felt it, and I’m still a bit sore two days after.
Training for the Race
My aerobic base before starting the 50k training plan was decent. I was only running twice a week, one short interval day (400m - 800m) and a trail run between 6-8 miles.
I had only 6 weeks to train for the race. My approach was to use the race distance (33 miles) as my overall running volume in a week at a SLOW pace, running four times a week. A fast mile was in the upper 8-minute range, and a slow mile was in the 10-minute range on relatively flat terrain.
As I progressed through the training program, my long Saturday run increased in distance. I started at 8-miles and worked up to 16 miles. The other training days decreased in mileage, keeping to the 33-mile total volume.
Gym training was significantly reduced to twice a week. One strength maintenance day with a low body lift, upper body lift, and total body lift. I never went beyond 80% of my 1RM on any lift, and stuck to the 3-5 rep range for five sets.
The second gym day focused on building muscular endurance for the low body and upper body. Leg Blasters have a heavy eccentric demand, similar to the downhill, technical running experienced during the race. If you only do one thing (aside from running) to prepare for a trail run, do Leg Blasters.
Upper body muscular endurance focused on body weight movements. Pull Ups, Push Ups, Dips. Simple as that.
By no means did I crush the competition in this race. I finished exactly in the middle of all competitors. I am 100% confident that I was the largest person out there. As I come back to the gym this week. I still feel strong under the barbell. I took two days off and then got back to it. Minimal soreness at this point, 4 days after the race.
This was a bucket list achievement for me - I’m not sure if I’ll ever do another one again. However, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Long endurance work truly challenges mental toughness - I’m not sure anything compares to it in the world of sports (combat sports might be on the same level, as someone is actively trying to hurt you).
In shorter races, you always have someone ahead of you to chase, or someone chasing you. This is true of most other stick and ball sports. This external motivation didn’t exist with the ultra. I believe I only had someone in my sights for about half of the race. It’s up to you to keep pushing.
I’d like to thank the volunteers of the HURL Elkhorn Race - they were outstanding in their support. I’d also like to thank my wife for waiting patiently at the finish line with a bag of Sour Patch Kids, Gatorade, and Ice.