Training for My First Ultramarathon: McDowell Mountain Frenzy 50K

8 Months in the Making

I don’t think it was a formal goal when 2015 officially began, but somewhere real close to it, the idea of running a 50K started rolling around in my head. I had already signed up for the Phoenix Marathon, and over the course of 2014 had done a 15K, started trail running, done several trail races (including my first Ragnar), a half marathon, and a long 15-mile training run. I was wondering how I would feel about doing a race that would add an “ultra” on top of the marathon distance I was planning.

What I mainly remember thinking was that I’d like to try it.

Because I am by nature conservative in building my castles in the sky (the world according to me: setting realistic, achievable goals is awesome; setting unrealistic, daydream-wish goals is detrimental), I decided to wait until after I had finished the marathon before I made the 50K a formal goal. I wanted to know how the marathon would affect me and how I’d feel afterward before I started planning my next step.

Once the marathon was under my belt, along with a significant amount of recuperation time, I made the goal official in my mind and went back out to the trails to start getting ready for it. This was April. I had two goals at this point: 1) an Ultra team for Ragnar Trail AZ, something I had decided that I wanted to do within days of completing my first one in 2014, and 2) a standalone 50K.

Ragnar was a fixed point that I could lock onto, something with a target date that I would need to be ready for, and with that established, I started looking for 50Ks that would time well to work with that. Something close would be good, but with enough time between to allow for enough recuperation time to do both well. As I thought about it, Ragnar with its breaks in between running legs seemed like it would probably be the easier of the two, so the plan shaping up in my head was to use Ragnar as a long training run and find a 50K that would follow after. With those criteria in my head, I knew that I had a while before I needed to make any decisions on which race it would be and started training in earnest with that in mind.

I think it was late in the summer, at least three months later (probably more), when I finally put my sights tentatively on the McDowell Mountain Frenzy 50K, and as the year progressed, it became clear that was the right choice and should have been a no-brainer. I have a lot of history with the park, going back just about two decades to when I started mountain biking out there, and I run out there a lot. I run more out at San Tan, but McDowell is easily in second place, and first by far for races (four this year: Adrenaline, Javelina Jangover, Ragnar Trail, and Frenzy).

With all of that in mind, I ran. Even before I knew what the race and date would be, nearly every run I did from April on was done with my eyes on being ready for this 50K.

The Plan

A big part of the months of running was to come up with a strategy for the race. I think the biggest lesson I took away from my marathon was that I hadn’t done enough runs that simulated race day in order to be ready for it, and with the additional complications that trail running has over road running (fewer aid stations, carrying more weight and gear, longer run time, higher exertion level), I meant to make sure I didn’t repeat that mistake on a long, long trail run.

I experimented with food and nutrition options for months. I tried gels, other gels, higher-end gels, organic squeeze food packs, the works. Every time I put one in my mouth, I visualized doing the same thing over and over again six, seven, eight times or more.

I turned my car into a mobile aid station and focused on running shorter loops that would return me back around to it repeatedly so I could practice refilling my pack and experiment with food I would be eating at aid stations. I wanted to know what that process was going to feel like and know how much and what I should eat each time I passed through.

I went through several different pairs of shoes. I tried lots of different kinds of socks. I ran in a lot of heat, and when the mornings got cold as race day got close, I had some pre-sunrise, freezing-temperature (literally 32º) starts in just the thin, light runwear I’d want to have on during the warmer afternoon. I survived that, but it made me real, real glad that my start time would be 8 AM, after sunrise.

And so my plan gradually coalesced from a series of experiments into a firm race strategy:

  1. Keep the intensity low. Run it slow. Walk the hills. Sometimes walk it even off the hills. That would keep my heart rate low, keep me working in the aerobic zone, so my body would be burning as much fat as possible (yes, even I have body fat to burn) for fuel to keep me going longer instead of going anaerobic (faster/harder) and draining the energy stored in my muscles too fast, making me bonk or crash. I’m a skinny, small-ish guy without a whole lot of muscle mass to tap, so I have to be conservative about it. The longer I can stretch that by utilizing other fuel like fat and food, the better it works for me. Additionally, keeping the intensity low would help me to be better able to keep eating throughout the day at the aid stations. When I go anaerobic, it gets a lot harder for me to eat at all, much less as much as I need to. I spent months and months doing aerobic-only runs to help condition myself for this.
  2. Tailwind in my pack as my primary nutrition source. Bring different flavors to change up the taste with each refill to avoid the potential nausea-bait of tasting the same thing for hours and hours on end (I learned that lesson at Ragnar). Mix one flavored pack with one naked (non-flavored) pack to dilute the flavor and keep it from being too strong.
  3. Aid station food, Honey Stinger Waffles, and Bonk Breaker bars as secondary nutrition to help make up any calorie deficits I might get into if I wasn’t getting enough from Tailwind by itself.
  4. Dress solely for the warmer afternoon temperatures. It would mean a cold start, but since the course was a single long loop, there wasn’t any good way to drop any warmer clothes I might want to start in, other than just throwing them away, and I wouldn’t want to be hauling anything non-essential by the time the afternoon rolled around.
  5. Go into it healthy. I had a couple of minor chronic leg pain spots that I took a good deal of care to not exacerbate, which at times meant diverging from my training plan to take things easy. The downside to this was that I didn’t get in as many training miles as I’d have liked, but the upside was that I didn’t have any of those issues to deal with during the race.

Part 2: Race Day >