I ran the Javelina Jangover (25K) out at McDowell Mountain Park this year, and I enjoyed it. It’s one of Aravaipa Running’s series of Insomniac summer night races. It was hot, as you’d expect, but there were rainstorms moving around us to the north and east, and that helped bring the temperature down a bit so it wasn’t so bad.
The race itself isn’t really the story here.
I also saw the biggest bunch of desert critters of any race or training run I’ve ever done: a big scorpion, three tarantulas (tarantulae?), and a king snake. It was awesome!
That’s not the story here, either.
The story here is that this is the race where I learned how to run ultramarathons, and I learned it by making mistakes.
It starts with food
The pre-race routine for a night run is something that I feel like I still haven’t got a handle on, even though I’ve done more of them than I can easily count. Timing to balance what and when to eat before the race always feels like a problem that I don’t get right. How long before the race is the best time for lunch? What’s the best thing to eat? Should I have a mid-afternoon snack? Mid-morning? Both? How do I make up for not eating dinner without eating too much and giving myself cramps?
I love night runs, but this one aspect of them is something that makes me crazy.
I got it wrong again for the Jangover. This time it was due to getting lost in the shuffle of getting myself out to the race and the excitement of seeing people that I knew out there. Between those things and the distraction of watching the brewing storms I mentioned earlier, as well as doing a pre-race check-in call with Kris to let her know all was well, I missed my ideal window (about 45 minutes ahead of start time) for the Clif bar. I didn’t realize it until somewhere around 15 minutes before start time.
I knew that wasn’t going to give me enough time to have it settle the way I’d want it to, but I also knew that I would be in trouble a couple of hours in if I didn’t eat the food. I opted for the lesser of the two evils and ran to my car, ate, and ran back, without a lot of time to spare before the race began.
The trouble begins
I placed myself around mid-pack in the starting chute, where I usually do for races. We got the countdown and started, and the race was on. After a quarter mile or so, I looked at my watch to check my pace and realized I was going too fast. I knew I was going to start paying soon for eating late, and I knew the harder I ran up front the sooner that payment was going to come due. I slowed down.
Or so I thought, anyway. I checked again a few minutes later and discovered I’d barely backed it off at all, even though I thought I had. I slowed again. People passed me, and a few minutes later I did another check. Still too fast.
I hadn’t heard it then, but since then I’ve read an observation from the running coach, Jack Daniels, who famously said that “most mistakes in a race are made in the first two minutes, perhaps in the very first minute,” and it’s rolled through my head at the beginning of every race I’ve done since then. I’ve been guilty of starting too fast many times, but it’s been less consequential for most of them. This time, payment came due early.
Side stitches for seven miles
Pemberton isn’t a steep trail, but it does start a gradual climb a little after two miles in, and it keeps climbing for about the next five miles (with a couple of short declines mixed in toward the top). The added exertion of climbing was what made the pain kick in: side stitches, my old warm-weather nemesis.
The difference between being here and dealing with it, compared to a training run (which is usually where it happens to me), was that I didn’t want to be out there all night, and I wasn’t going to call it off. When I’m training, I either just walk for a while or head home, depending on where I am and how far I am from home or my car. If I opt to walk it, it can take quite a while before I can run again for any length of time without the stitch popping right back up again.
I had to grunt through it this time, and that was where I learned my rhythm for running distance.
It wasn’t what I was doing that night, of course. What I was doing that night was running until the stitch set in and then walking just long enough for it to subside. Then I’d speed up again until the stitch returned and repeat the process. Sometimes the running stretches were short, sometimes they were longer. It all depended on what my exertion level was at the time.
Running to conserve your energy over very long distances isn’t exactly the same process, but it’s real similar. You want to avoid overexerting yourself so you can save as much of your energy as possible, so you pick a threshold you don’t want to go beyond. When you’re out there running, you’re going to hit that threshold, and when you do you need to back off until you drop back down below it. Maybe that means you slow your pace, maybe that means you walk.
The more you dance around that threshold, the more you get a feel for where it is, and the more you can even your exertion level out. Instead of switching back and forth between hard and easy, you figure out where medium is and cruise along there for a much longer period of time.
That was what I learned that night.
At the beginning of the stitch-fest, I was swinging widely back and forth between hard and easy. As the miles went by, however, I started smoothing things out. I went longer between stitch-walking stretches and got a better feel for when I was about to get one again so I could ease off before it hit.
And eventually I got through it.
By the time I got to the aid station a little beyond mile 9, things were back to normal. I ran into Lisa Pozzoni, a friend of my wife’s who’s ended up becoming a friend of mine as well (I have written a lot more about her and why this meeting was significant in my McDowell Mountain Frenzy post). I refilled and headed out to finish the last six miles.
I ended up with an overall time of about 3:15, which gave me an average pace of just under 13 minutes per mile. All things considered, I was pretty happy with that.
It took me a while to realize that I’d learned something significant that night. All I thought about for a while was how much I’d messed up the beginning of that race. It was about a month later, when I was starting to get into the longer training runs leading into Ragnar and McDowell Mountain Frenzy, when it clicked in my head that what had happened during the Jangover was applicable to conserving my energy for longer and longer distances.
I tell people that bad runs can be good teachers, and this one was one of the best. I took three big lessons away from this race.
- I eat earlier now. Always.
- I don’t start mid-pack anymore. I start at the back. It is so much easier to regulate your pace in the back than it is in the middle (or front). If someone in front of me is moving so slowly that I need to pass them, I can do it, but sometimes it’s not so bad to have someone slower in front of you to keep you from going out too hard right away.
- Don’t push too hard at the beginning. Don’t run until you’re tired and only then start walking. Learn your limits so you can know when you’re getting too close to them and back off before you tap out your reserves. It took me a lot more races than it should have to learn this one.
I know a lot of people who feel like they’re failing if they walk. It’s tough to wrap your head around walking being an important strategic tool rather than a shortcoming if you’re not used to it. I guarantee you, though, that the loss of pride you might feel at shifting to a walk will be outweighed a thousand times by the pride you will feel at finishing your first 15 mile trail run. 20 mile run. Marathon.