My first ultra run
On the 28th of November I completed the final running challenge of this year, the 55 kilometer ultra trail run in Lommel on the border of The Netherlands and Belgium. In fact it totalled up to 57 kilometer but who is counting (of course I am counting, I am very proud of each kilometer).
Since it was my first ultra trail I was unsure of what to expect. I just completed my first marathon 6 weeks before this trailrun and although I recovered from that effort quite quickly, having to go another 13 kilometers beyond that distance and on a trail course seemed at least challenging if not daunting for me.
So there I was at 9:15 in the starting area with just about 80 other runners, among them my girlfriend Astrid, two of our friends and a bunch of experienced and respected trailrunners.
“I don’t belong here” was the though that mostly occupied my mind in that starting area. “I just picked up running 1,5 year ago after not having run for years, who am I to stand here among these people”.
No time to think any more, it is 9:30 and we are off. After about 2 km of asphalt we hit the trail, the pace settles and I end up in a small group of experienced runners. Making sure I don’t blow all my energy at the start I am settling in at the back of that group, onwards to the first aid station at 12 km.
Arriving at the first aid station I still have a full supply of water in my hydration backpack and my handheld bottle is still filled for half of it, so I just grab a few pieces of food that I down while walking onwards and continue running.
At that first aid station I passed the group I was running with and from that point on until the end of the trail, besides some brief moments, I mostly ran alone, enjoying nature and enjoying the physical and mental challenge.
5 hours and 38 minutes after the start I covered a total of 57 kilometers (according to my Polar V800) and crossed the finish line. Tom Maessen (the organizer of the trail) greeted me at the finish just as he did with each and every finisher of the trail.
For me this running experience was completely new to me. Sure, I have run trails before and on terrain that was more challenging than the course of the Lommel trail. And sure, I have run long distances before such as a marathon and several 40+ km training runs.
However running the Lommel trail brought a lot of new things to the sport for me. Suddenly pacing myself, and looking after my nutrition during a race became essential. But most of all, my previous challenges were purely pysical and although I had read a lot about the mental challenges of running longer distances I had never really encountered it until during the Lommel trail. Having to push yourself through the low points requires some mental thoughness bringing a new dimension to running. Loving it!
Of course experiencing something new also allows you to reflect on what you learned from it, so what did I learn from running my first ultra race?
1. The trailrunners community is awesome.
Trailrunning is not all about competition, in fact it is just a small aspect of the sport and for most of the people that are running trails it is completely insignificant on which position you finish.
Starting trailrunning quite recently I was pleasently surprised by the openness and friendlyness of the people in this sport and I am looking forward to meeting more people with the same passion in the upcoming years.
2. I am stronger than I thought.
I have the tendency to downplay what I am capable of. The Lommel trail started at 9:30 in the morning and since it would be dark at around 17:00 in the afternoon I thought it would be wise to put my headlamp in my race vest. To me my thought was very logical since I expected I could be running until after dark. I finished just after 15:00.
I am not one of the top runners, and will probably never be. But I am able to push myself quite hard and can keep doing that throughout the lows encountered in long distance running. I guess this makes me quite suitable for the longer distances.
3. Train your core.
Running over 55 km does have an impact on my body, however funny as it might seem, my legs were not the parts of my body that were hurting. All those advertisements of sites like Runnersworld about getting faster by training your core actually seem to have some truth in it.
If there is one thing in my training that should get more attention it is my abs and lower back muscles, the legs can go the distance but my running gait gets sloppy when the muscles around my core get tired. I got work to do there.
4. Don’t forget the music!
During the Lommel trail I spent most of the time running alone from aid station 1 to the finish (roughly 44 km). Although I normally prefer to run without music I actually prepared a nice playlist and had my phone with the playlist and a headset with me.
In the last 12 km of the course I hit a wall multiple times and even though I got myself through it every time, in hindsight I think putting on some music would definitely helped me there.
5. Knowing the course helps.
A few weeks prior to the trail race I tried out the smaller 37 km course to get an impression of the type of terain. Since the 55 km has almost 37 km in common with that 37 km course I recognised a large part of it while running the actual race.
Knowing where I was and what was still to come certainly helped me pace myself and therefore helped me to ensure I would be able to go the distance.
6. Knowing the course can also work against you.
Although knowing part of the course helped me get through a low, it also caused one at the very end. At aproximately 49.5 kilometers we were directed to the Lommel tower on which we had to climb stairs with a total of 140 steps and then of course run down again and finish the last stretch to the finish.
I was aiming for a sub 5:30 finish and was right on schedule when I reached the top of the Lommel tower. A few kilometers later running on familiar ground from my try out run two weeks before I knew the distance would be longer by 1.5 to 2 kilometers. Realizing that a sub 5:30 finish would no longer be possible I hit the wall. And I hit it pretty hard, struggling for a few kilometers and losing a lot of time.
7. I belong here.
I am not a top runner going for the podium or even the top clasifications in an event, but in general I am doing quite well in this field of experienced runners. Approaching the starting area I felt out of place, thinking I do not belong amongst these runners.
I still have a lot to learn and to improve, but one thing I now dare to say; I belong here!