A little over six months ago, my wife, our two kids, and our brand new puppy, loaded up a 25 foot motorhome and trekked 7 hours northwest of us to the Palo Duro Canyon. Just looking back at this sentence makes me think we were a bit crazy. Not only was it the first time to Palo Duro…it was the first time renting a motorhome…and it was the first week with our new puppy. The reason for our travel was that I was running my first 50 mile trail run…the Palo Duro Trail Run. I was already feeling overwhelmed leading up to the race, and then adding camping and a new dog was a bit crazy. But I wouldn’t change any of it. Those three days were one of the most amazing experiences that I have ever had. I know lots of runners share pretty detailed analysis of their events, but I prefer just to give you an overview in this post of my experience. And in doing so I hope to not only inspire and encourage you, but to let you know that you are capable of completing a 50 mile trail run or any other big goal that you have in your life.
Let Me Set the Context For You
I have always loved to run. From as way back as I can remember, I know that I have found tons of joy in running. Whether I was running on the soccer field, paying tag with friends, or running sprints on field day, running is what I have loved doing. I was pretty fast as a kid, earning the name “Rhett the Jet” on the soccer field and later earning a varsity letter in track all four years of high school. Though I think that is probably a misleading. I was really one of 2 people who chose to run the 110 meter high hurdles and 300 intermediate hurdles on our team, which makes the competition pretty sparse. Sometime I will have to tell you the story of my first ever varsity track meet which involved me, and two other runners…both of which were state champions. So though I earned a 3rd place point that night, let’s just say that the other two competitors were at the finish line when I was turning the corner into the last 100 meters.
But after high school running still existed, but it was primarily an activity that I saw as an opportunity to stay fit and keep my weight consistent than as the joyous experience that I see it as today. So between 18 and 30 I was the person who ran about 10 miles a week (2-3 runs a week at like 2-3 miles a run) just to stay in shape. And that’s just the way it was.
But in the spring of 2006 my brother Wyatt asked me if I wanted to run the Chicago Marathon with him. He was living in Washington D.C. and I was in Los Angeles, but we would meet up in Chicago for the race. For some reason I automatically said yes, knowing that I had never run more than about 3 miles before. I think early on though there was this belief in myself that I could do whatever I put my mind to. Even though I had experienced many failures and rejections in life, I think I just always believed that failure was just part of the journey. So I think that was important in deciding to run the Chicago Marathon…there was the possibility of failure, but life is lived in fear if one doesn’t recognize that and live in the face of it. So I set out in the summer of 2006 to run the Chicago Marathon. I finished that first marathon in 4:13:07. I missed my goal of breaking 4 hours, but I was hooked on races and long distances the moment I crossed the finish line. I immediately signed up for the Los Angeles Marathon, finishing that in a disappointing 4:06:15. I so wanted to break 4 hours that signed up for more races in 2007, but never made it to the starting line as the birth of my first daughter made me realized I had limits. I think I signed up in defiance, telling myself I could still train and run, even with a newborn, but the lack of sleep and new adjustments were just too much.
So for the next 7 years I kept running about 15-20 miles a week, ran a few 5k’s, a half marathon, and then decided I would try another marathon at the end of 2013, which was ultimately cancelled the day of because of ice.
Over the course of those 7 years though, something began to change in me. I began to go out and run more for a mental break, as a way to decompress, rather than as an activity to lose weight and stay fit. I began enjoying going out not to train on a schedule, but for running’s sake. I began to enjoy less speed, and more slow runs. I began to despise repetitive running around a track, and down the same streets, and enjoyed the experience of running on trails, and getting lost. And as these things began to happen I decided to sign up for my first ultra, a 50k run in February 2014, and which I completed on February 23.
Even though I signed up for a marathon and 50k around the same time, I could feel the shift taking place inside of me. This desire to go longer and farther, and test my limits was inspired by a lot of things…some of it was probably because I was inching closer to 40 and wanted to test myself. But a lot of it was inspired by Rich Roll’s book Finding Ultra, which was a huge catalyst for shaping my running, my eating, how I viewed self-care and more. Years before I had been inspired by another ultra athlete, Dean Karnazes and his book Ultramathon Man.
The 50 Miler
I don’t know when the idea of a 50 miler came into my conscious, but I can tell you what began to happen. I started running more and more on trails around 2014, and I started reading more about trail running and following trail runners on Instagram. And I soon realized (though I was aware of it to some degree) that a 50k was just the beginning of ultra running, and that there were runners out there racing 50, 100, 150+ miles on the trails. And that blew my mind. Running for me became more about the journey and the experience…especially navigating the ups and downs, the trials…the constant experimenting, rather than trying to run a marathon faster, or keep my weight at a certain place. Running began to emulate more of the cycle and seasons of my life than anything else. And again, the biggest influence was probably listening to Rich Roll’s podcast, as he had one guest after another, especially in endurance sports, who were pushing their limits. So I began to think more about my limits and how I wanted to push them. Less out of a desire to set some speed or distance record (which I never could), but more out of a desire to test myself and see what I was made of. How do I deal with having discipline to achieve a goal? How do I deal with struggle during the training? How do I deal with failure, injury and setback? I knew that a lot of the important lessons I was learning in life were being taught to me through running, and through the solitude I experienced on my runs alone, and in the camaraderie of running with others.
So sometime around February of 2015 I decided that I wanted to set a goal that would put me up against the possibility of failure. I wanted to try something that I have never done before, and something that I knew would take everything I had. So I went online and registered for the Palo Duro Trail Run 50 miler, which was scheduled for October 17, 2015. The race was eight months away, giving me plenty of time to train.
50 Mile Training
Needless to say it was pretty daunting to think about running a 50 miler race. Adding another 19 miles from my last race didn’t seem like a huge deal, but I was pretty cashed out after 31 miles and couldn’t imagine running any further than that at that moment. But one thing I had going for me like all of you was the issue of constraints. And constraints help provide structure and discipline to any goal you are training for. Without constraints I find that my efforts are sometimes not as focused, and I can tend to get lazy thinking I will just do it another day. Constraints let you know that this is the only window of time in your schedule, so make it worthwhile.
Some of my constraints were that I’m a husband and father. Those are great constraints. And if I want to be a great husband and father that means that I can’t just take all the time in the world away from my family…I have to find specific times to train. And I have to decided how much time I have for the training. Another constraint is that I run my own therapy private practice which means not only do I see clients during the week, but I run all aspects of the practice as well. I also speak, write, podcast, etc. But the constraints also help me set some realistic expectations.
For example, I knew that I could probably only run 3 days a week, maybe a maximum of 4. I knew that most of my runs had to come early morning before everyone was up so that I could get back home, eat, get dressed, and take the kids to school. There was just no time for runs once the work day kicked in to gear. And I knew that my long runs would need to take place on Friday mornings since I don’t see clients and would have more time to do them. So when you think about 3 days a week training, that constraint, then adds another constraint in terms of how many miles can I train each week. I knew that I would have to train at a lower mileage than a lot of people in an ultra distance event. So constraints shape the training.
With constraints in place I also had to learn to be flexible. Any runner knows that there is going to be ups and downs and you have to learn to roll with it. Over the course of my training I had to change a lot of things. I went from running 4 days a week and 2 days in the gym, down to 3 days a week running and no days in the gym. Most of this was due to exhaustion and some injuries. So I had to adjust. I also moved some of my longer runs to Saturday or Sunday mornings, rather than Friday mornings…so my family also adjusted along with me and supported that. Being flexible with your training is an important element.
I recorded a podcast about the huge importance of this issue. So please take a listen as I believe this to be an essential ingredient to anyone’s success in an ultra running event. I could not have done this race without the support of my wife and kids. Now, maybe I could have finished the race, but at what cost without their support. I work with too many clients who venture off to pursue their goals without the support of their family, and usually end up leaving a wake of destruction behind them. One only need to watch a sports documentary or read magazines to see how true this is. So to train and finish successfully, one needs a great support team behind them. This support team is with you during training and encourages you all those long weeks, and they are there alongside of you at the aid stations encouraging you at each step. I have found that when you have a support team invested in you, you are more likely to push beyond your comfort zone to achieve your goal…because you know others have sacrificed for you along the way. I will say more about my support team below.
So let me be up front with you. I am a newbie running coach, literally receiving my certification in this week through the RRCA program. So what I’m going to tell you has a lot to do with my own running experience and research. But I know there are other runners out there, just like me, who can train and complete a 50 mile trail race in the same way that I did. So let suggest a few things based on my experience.
One, I am not a high mileage runner. From the very beginning, I have completed all my marathons and 50k’s on a 3-day a week training program. I pulled most of my programs from what Runner’s World would put on their Smart Coach app.
Two, I am not the fastest runner out there. So I shifted my mindset from speed workouts and trying to increase my times, to increasing my distances.
Three, I learned to experiment with my training program. I would start with a program outline in in mind (i.e. how many days a week I wanted to run, how much mileage per week, etc.), and then experiment with the variables, and constantly change them as I went based on the feedback I was getting from my body. One example of this, is that I started off doing back to back long runs on the weekends, and eventually went back to no back to back runs as I felt my body wasn’t responding as well with no rest. I know at my age, recovery time is as important a factor as many other things. So go in with a plan, but listen to your body in the process.
Finishing the Race
Running and completing the Palo Duro 50 miler was one of the highlights of my life. The day was full of so many ups and downs. I literally ran most of the race alone, and near the end of the race, I didn’t see another runner for almost the last 12 miles. One of the best parts of the race was having my wife and two kids waiting for me at one position on the course which allowed me to see them two times each lap. Their unconditional support was what kept me going.
I finished my 3rd lap in about 8:45, which was just 15 minutes under the 9 hour cutoff time to head out onto the last lap. The rattlesnake I came across on lap 3 probably put a bit of speed in my step. As I came to the aid station at the finish line the race director Karen Roberts asked me if I was doing okay and good to go for the last lap…I basically told her that I didn’t come this far to stop now. So I headed out onto my last lap knowing that I could finish the race under the 12 hour cutoff. That last lap was really tough, and I often had to walk for large portions of the course. When I approached the last 3 miles I came across my family running up to me on the trail making sure I was okay, and letting me know I only had about 45 minutes or less to finish the race…which seems like a lot of time…but not when you have already been out there for over 11 hours. They ran me into the last aid station about 3 miles out and with that last burst of support and inspiration I probably ran my last 3 miles of the day in the fastest mile times that I had recorded that day. And as I mentioned above, nothing compared to running the last quarter mile with them and across the finish line in 11 hours and 45 minutes.
After that, almost everything was a blur. I remember taking lots of photos with my good friends Eric Fortner and Clay Shapiro, and then I remember just needing to sit down, and then now wanting to get up. Luckily, the amazing race director Karen came over to me again and convinced me to eat a banana, some Ritz crackers, and eventually coaxed me onto my feet. I remember thinking to myself I never want to run again…like literally…I thought to myself I don’t ever care if I put running shoes on again. I was miserable for about the next 2 hours as I sat slumped over in our RV, trying to get some hot tea and food down. And then it was about that time that I asked my wife, “How soon can I come back and do this race again?” And the very next day I felt great and was out hiking with my family. I’m not going to get into this now (it will be for another post), but my nutrition mainly consisted of some homemade, plant based items, mixed with some VFuel and Hammer gels…and I think it was those items that I trained with, and my overall healthy, plant based diet that fueled my running and recovery.
My 2015 and 2016 Training Program
You need to keep in mind the constraints I mentioned above. I only want to run 3 times a week, 4 times tops. I don’t want to exceed much more than 40+ miles a week near the end of the training cycle. Which means that often my long run of the week is going to break training rules and exceed the 25%-33% recommended total volume of my weekly mileage. But certain things have to give, and my main goal is to enjoy my running, challenge myself, and finish the race. But I have to be able to do that while keeping in balance (as much as I can) the other goals I have in my life in terms of work, family, writing, speaking, etc.
I say all this to you because my training program may not be best suited for you, but I want to give you an idea of what I do, and encourage you. You will see that I was able to achieve my goals on pretty minimal training…and that may be something you are looking to do as well. But a word of caution again…plan wisely…listen to your body…and do other things besides running, like strength/core training to help keep you strong and injury free in the process.This is a simple breakdown of my 2015 training. I started my training by looking at Hal Koerner’s 50 mile training workouts, but then modifying my own….quite a bit. I didn’t do any tempo runs, or set any times for my training. I literally ran every training run at a conversational pace. And an injury (which I think was due to too many back to back long runs — it occurred a few days after my back to back 26 and 13 mile runs) I incurred, and many other days I decided to take off, eventually put me close to 250 miles off my original training schedule. And this is my plan I am following for 2016. I took off about 2 months from running after Palo Duro just to give my body a rest, and the last 4 months have been a mixture of 1 to maybe 2 days a week of running, typically averaging 4-5 mile runs. But I feel good and I have created a new 25 week training program that I will follow and edit as needed. Again, I am sticking to my principles of low mileage weeks (for an ultrarun), while shooting to run 4 days a week instead of 3. I feel the extra day will help strengthen my legs. I also have added two weight training/core workouts each week as I think that will greatly aid my form in the later miles. And like above, I violated some principles with having my long run make up a larger percentage of weekly volume than is recommended. But that happens to be one of the things I have to trade off with if I want to only run 3-4 days a week. So check it out and see what you think. And I welcome any feedback.
I am looking forward to Palo Duro in October, and it should be really fun this year with lots of McKinney Running Club members making the trip. I am very thankful for this community of runners who continuously inspire me in so many ways.
And stay tuned as I am working on incorporating my running coach certification into a running therapy group and program in my private practice in Plano, TX. This is just now in the works, but I am excited to see what happens as running has a way of transforming our lives in amazing ways.