Well, here we are. The reason to which I’ve devoted the past six months of training – the 2014 Niagara Ultra 50k. It feels like I’ve been in training mode forever and it feels incredible to have my first ultra marathon under my belt. I didn’t want to worry too much about pace or splits on my first ultra, but it’s really hard when you’re so accustomed to it. My goal for this run was to complete the 50k and feel good at the end. That’s all. Not everything went exactly as planned, but I was prepared to expect the unexpected and just go with the flow. Ready? Here’s my race report for the 2014 Niagara Ultra 50k.
This race required a little more “stuff” than usual, not to mention I was staying overnight. This was also the first race where I had the option to leave a drop bag at the half way point. Here’s what I packed for the race:
In my drop bag:
Change of running clothes
Injinji toe socks
2 coconut cream Larabars
Handful of dried figs
20oz handheld with coconut water
2 hardboiled eggs
1/2 avocado w/EVOO
In order to avoid driving up to Niagara on the Lake really early in the morning, I opted to stay at a hotel the night before. It was a little tough to figure out the logistics with the family (ie. baby, dog) but we figured this was the best solution and they would come up on their own and greet me at the finish line. After checking into my hotel I ran into a friend and his wife and we all sat down to a nice pre-race seafood dinner. At 9:30pm we called it a night and it walked back to my hotel.
I woke at 4am to eat breakfast. I wasn’t even really hungry but I opened up my cooler bag and powered down the hardboiled eggs and avocados. This has been my pre-race meal all year and hasn’t let me down, plus I hardly feel the need to fuel up on the run. Of course getting some extra sleep at this point was impossible so I decided to read for a it. It’s a great story but the Long Walk by Stephen King was probably the worst thing to read before an ultra marathon. It looked like conditions were going to be cool and overcast for the whole morning with no rain. In other words, perfect. As I began getting ready I started to question the necessity of the drop bag. If it was going to rain I may want the change of clothes and towel, but its not supposed to and I am already carrying enough fuel. Back into the car it went along with my other bags. By 6:00am I checked out of my hotel and started walking over to the start line.
I’ve never been a part of a race this small before and I’ve also never talked to so many other runners, most of who were also running their first ultra. It was a big, friendly, community vibe that I’ve never encountered on a big city race. We all gathered to watch and cheer on the 100k runners and shared stories about other races. Just before 7:00am the 50k runners got called to the start line and we casually made our way over. It was strange. There was nobody standing at the front of the line waiting to get going. After a brief talk by one of the race organizers it was time to go. No start gun. No horn. Just run. Now!
The 2014 Niagara Ultra 50k
Start – 10km
The run starts off through the grass and gradually makes its way onto the Niagara Parkway Trail. My left achilles was a little sore for the first few km but seemed fine after that. I was running with the same pack of runners for a while but decided to back off a bit as I thought the pace was a little too quick. There was a long way to go. At the 5km aid station I made sure to walk though and take some coconut water. My plan was to walk through every aid station to hydrate – coconut water for the first half and maybe switch over to Heed after the turn around. I felt great in this first part of the run with my pace right where I wanted it (5:35-5:40min/km). At the 10km aid station I walked through and took some more coconut water.
10km – 25km (turn around)
I could now see the first big hill coming up and by the 12km mark we began our ascent up the escarpment. Almost everyone around me continued to run up the hill except for the group of four running side by side. They immediately started to walk and I quickly followed suit as it looked like they had done this before. It was pretty steep and I didn’t want to expend too much energy this early in the run. I resumed running at the top only to go around a corner and head up an even bigger hill. I didn’t walk this one but slowed my pace down by about a minute per km. I did get passed by a few people on the hill huffing and puffing, but once I made it to the top I was able to resume my pace and passed them again. I walked through the 15km aid station and was still feeling good.
We continued on the path for a little while but it wasn’t long before we were running along the river towards the falls. I started running and chatting with someone from St. Catharine’s who was also doing her first ultra when all of a sudden we got passed by a couple of marathoners. We had a 30 minute head start on them so these guys must have been booting it. I stopped at the 20km aid station for a bathroom break and to take some more fluid. Almost 2 hours in and I still wasn’t hungry at all. A few minutes later I passed the marathon turn around and made my way into Niagara Falls. This was the section of the course that we were all warned about at the start because someone made a wrong turn last year and ran an extra 10km. I knew I was headed for the falls so I just followed the water. There were no stop lights in this portion but lots of tourists to weave in and out of and there were a lot of runners coming back already. I made it to the 25km turn around in about 2hr 23min. I stopped to take a picture of the falls and have my first cup of Heed before running back to the start.
25km – 40km
Getting out of Niagara Falls was tougher than coming in. I don’t think I noticed the hills on the way in but I definitely noticed them on the way out. My pace had slowed down a little bit and I walked up the steep portion but I still felt good. I passed the marathon turnaround again and began to close in on the 30km aid station. This is where things kinda fell apart for me. Almost immediately after 30km I got a really bad pain in my hip flexor. I walked for a few minutes to see if it would go away but it did not. I’ve run into it before on really long training runs but it’s never bothered me like this. I seriously considered walking back to the 30km aid station and dropping out. I didn’t think I could run for another 20km. I quickly got that idea out of my head and pushed on at a slower pace. After a few minutes of slower running the pain was still there but not as bad. My plan now was to just focus on the aid stations and getting to the next one. Just take it 5km at a time. At 35km I walked some more and started to feel a little weird. Not dizzy, but something was not right with my stomach (more on that later.) Even though I still wasn’t hungry, I thought it may be a good idea to eat something. I ate half of one of my Larabars and thankfully the feeling went away after a few minutes.
40km – Finish
I made it to the 40km aid station but I’m not sure how long it took as I had stopped looking at my Garmin long ago. I thought again about quitting but there was only 10km left to the finish. I didn’t care how long it was going to take, there was no way I was going to quit now. It was starting to warm up a bit but I had been hydrating through the whole race, drinking Heed at the stops (for sodium) and sips of coconut water as needed in between. For the final 10km I decided that I was going to do 10 and 1’s. Breaking it down into smaller chunks like this really helped me get through it. The 45km aid station really lifted my spirits. That was it. The next aid station was the finish line. I could feel the end was near but it also reminded me that this was the furthest I’ve ever run and that made me really happy. I still did the 10 and 1’s for the final 5km but I think my pace definitely increased and once there was only 2km left I didn’t stop. I could now hear people cheering through the trees and saw the pylons to enter the grass portion. There was a volunteer there pointing the way to the finish and as soon as I stepped on that sweet grass all of the pain and discomfort went away. Seriously, it was like flipping a switch. It was gone. I was all smiles and on the look out for my wife and son. I saw them cheering for me as I ran across the field and made my way across the finish line. I got my finishers medal, hugged my wife and broke into tears. I just ran a freaking ultra marathon!
I accomplished exactly what I had set out to do when I started training back in January and I couldn’t be happier. The weird stomach ache that I experienced mid race was actually a bug that I had caught from my son (and it hit my wife and I full force later that afternoon.) Other than the half a Larabar (which I probably didn’t even really need) I was able to sustain a 50km run on only liquid (and a high fat dinner and breakfast). All of the food that I packed came back home with me. I’m looking forward to not be in training mode for a while and give myself (and my family) a bit of a rest. The long hours of training really take a toll on family life and I’m looking forward to spending more time with them this summer. I’m still going to be running, but I won’t be training for any races for the rest of the year.
Despite finishing about 20 minutes later than I had anticipated and the hip pain, this was a terrific running experience. Everything that I had read about ultra marathons was true. It’s a very different vibe than I’m used to but it’s a refreshing change. Everyone was so welcoming and friendly and the event was very professional and super organized. If you are seriously considering running your first 50k, I can’t recommend the Niagara Ultra enough. I’d love to do it again.