My First Ultra Marathon: One Mother Runner Tells It Like It Is

Last October, Mother Runner Heather wrote about running her first marathon, and this year, she's hit a new milestone: her first ultra. (Talk about #goals.) Here, her race report on the 50k she just tackled (!).

Heather last year after her first marathon

If you’d told me a year ago that I’d ever deem a 31-mile race “unremarkable,” I’d have laughed you right off the road.

The “piano keys,” 88 steps of strong on the blue-blazed, Buckeye Trail

After last year’s marathon and two training seasons spent hard at work on speed, I found myself craving a distance goal. Plus—let’s be honest—I wanted a new car magnet. So this summer found me logging a lot of quiet miles on the Buckeye trail, a technical gem that runs through Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I was working toward my first ultra marathon, the Moebius Green Monster 50k on August 27.

Moebius is a very laid-back race, even by trail standards. It was started several years ago by a local veteran trail runner and consists of 5 laps of a mostly-wooded 10k loop at a city park. Two aid stations, one at the starting line and one halfway through, mean you’re never more than three miles away from fuel. And a playground situated next to the park pavilion at the starting line means it’s an ideal race for mother runners.

A no-filter-needed race day sunrise

Only 75 people were signed up for this year’s race, and I don’t know a single one of them. I arrive at dawn, get myself registered, and kill a half hour people-watching. As with many local trail races, much of the group seems to know one another, milling around making wisecracks about race prep—or lack thereof—and the weather, which is expected to be hot and humid. Soon enough it’s time for us to line up at the start and I choose a spot in the back half.

The race begins with little fanfare, and I fall into an easy stride, occasionally chatting with the strangers around me. At this point in the morning it is still cool and I’m able to appreciate both the scenic (the blanket of mist covering the lake) and the practical (the surprising lack of bugs.)

In addition to my candied ginger, Tailwind, Nuun, and goldfish from my cooler, I ate my fair share of the aid stations’ Pringles and watermelon!

After two quiet laps, my first pacer joins me. Maggie is a young but experienced trail runner with several 50-milers under her belt. We haven’t seen each other in a while and our chatter makes the loop fly by. Before I know it, I’m over halfway through the race and when I reach the pavilion, I’m cheered in by a big group of my MRTT girls, my husband, and BRF Abbie, who will pace me through my final two loops. The group bustles around me, refilling my bottle, wetting my bandana, feeding me watermelon. I could get used to this! After a couple minutes, Abbie and I head back out.

Probably the most remarkable thing about the entire race is how unremarkable it is. If my marathon was a traditional epic odyssey, in which I conquered an imposing obstacle and came home changed, my first ultra is more of a poem: sweet, lingering, and introspective. Lacking a time goal, I rarely look down at my GPS. My progress is marked by landmarks—the field of goldenrod, the bridge with the missing plank, the pine forest—rather than mileposts.

Moebius finish

By 11:00 a.m., the day is heating up and my 16-ounce handheld isn’t quite getting me through the three miles between aid stations. Around mile 22, my reflexes aren’t as sharp as usual and a small root takes me down hard. After mile 28, my tummy gets a little queasy, something I remedy with a bit of walking and some ginger chews. These are my biggest problems, a far cry from the colossal wall that I hit in the road marathon. In this race, The Wall never appears. Whether it’s the soft surface, the change in fueling strategy, the slower pace, or - more likely - a combination of all three, I never once want to quit. Before I started trail running, I thought wanting to quit was just part of running any distance over, say, 17 miles.

With about 200 yards to go, Abbie and I round the final bend and I hear a shriek of “MOMMY!” and a brightly colored blur comes hurtling toward me. Four-year-old Henry barrels into me and hugs my weary legs. We run toward the finish line where the rest of my family waits. I’m tired and very, very happy.

Juniper’s first carousel ride, one of the many moments I’m drinking in

A lot has changed since last year’s marathon. My husband became an entrepreneur, taking the leap to start his own law practice. I started a new-new job, one that has me feeling happier and more fulfilled in just six short weeks than I ever thought possible. And our family is settling into a groove—our littles are almost-five and two-and-a-half, and most days it feels manageable.

While still busy, life somehow also feels a little slower, a little sweeter, just like those long trail runs. Last year, I was always plugged in, using music to distract and push myself farther and faster. These days, whether it’s 31 miles on a technical trail or a mile walk through the zoo, I’m happy to stay in the moment.

Any Mother Runners out there thinking about an ultra? What's your biggest concern?

13 responses to “My First Ultra Marathon: One Mother Runner Tells It Like It Is

  1. Love reading this! I am thinking about doing my first ultra but wondering if it’s doable. I work full-time and have a 2.5 year old and wondering if I can get all the training runs in as I am Googling plans. Any tips? I feel like if I don’t do it now, I won’t as we want to expand our family soon. I have run several half marathons and shorter races, and ran one full marathon about the time I became pregnant with my son. I definitely enjoy it, but there are days that don’t go as planned now with my little guy! Or I can’t run as far because he is done with the stroller (I don’t always get to run alone as my husband works opposite schedule and makes that tricky).

    Thanks for your article!

  2. You just *almost* made me want to run a 50K trail run. That’s how good your writing is!
    Seriously, the image of your babies running at you and then with you as you crossed the finish line was nothing short of perfection. And your final graph made me so, so happy for you and your whole family. Well-deserved, my awesome, hard-working friend!

  3. Isn’t trail and ultrarunning wonderful? I never want to go back to road racing again! I swear 50K are easier than road marathons! And the community is like nothing I experienced before! I did my first 100 Mile race in August and even though everything hurt I didn’t want it to end. Such an incredible experience! Painfully wonderful! 🙂

  4. Great to get this recap! I am hoping to do a 50k in 2017 and see how the longer distance works for me. Looking forward to it. Really enjoyed reading about this and appreciate you sharing your experience. Sounds like it was the perfect start to building your ultrarunning resume and sounds like your stomach and body held up well. Excited to hopefully keep following your and other BAMRs journeys as they up the distance. I still have marathon goals but enjoying looking at other goals too that are more about the journey (for me) than the destination. Thank you to AMR for asking you to do this post and thank-you for writing it!

  5. Very cool, congrats on your race Heather! I did one 50K, and it was my first trail race. Stupidly I hadn’t run on any of the trails before (or any trails ever) and ended up a sobbing mess after I face planted 4 times. But I made it through, and actually had fun because I ran with my husband. I was shocked at how much longer it took than I anticipated!!

  6. Way to go Heather! I am so impressed with your dedication to this goal and to figuring out how to fit mothering, wifing (should be a word), working and running into your life.
    I loved running the last 12 miles of this race with you, although I think we need a better word for “pacer” for someone you run with during an ultra, especially if there isn’t a time goal. When Maggie handed Heather off to me, she gave me strict instructions- “Make her eat and drink! She’s not taking in enough calories or liquid.” The pressure!!! As we left the aid station, I let Heather set the pace and I tailed along behind her making her sip every few minutes and eat those calories at the aid stations. I was also very good at coming up with random sh*t to talk about, which was probably my most important job. 🙂
    I’m looking forward to your next running adventure, so I can tag along as your BRF!!

  7. I found trail running and won’t go back to road racing. I LOVE in an ultra that you ask the person you’re passing, “how are you doing? do you need anything?” and mean it! I’ve paced twice on 100 milers (over night), held a local ultra trail race, and have finished 8 ultras and DNF’ed 2.
    I’ve been cold, soaked for hours, muddy, and bloody but enjoyed the challenge each race brings. Yes, the training takes time management ‘skilz’. I highly recommend cross training to make your entire body strong!!!
    You learn so much about yourself in the ultra distance journey.

  8. CONGRATS!! Although the caption says you ran a 50 MILER, the 50k distance is just as incredible! Ultras are infectious and I love dirt trail running, preferably point to point but I can see the advantages of loop running. The dirt trail running community are unique and very supportive. Easy to make friends along the way, very encouraging no matter the distance. Again, WAY TO GO!!

  9. Thinking about ding a 50 miler in Nov. Running a 26.2 in Oct and then 4 wks later doing 50. I’m not sure,definitely on my list to do but, wonder if I can do it. Congrats to you.

  10. Not so much thinking about, per se. I just ran my third ultra on Saturday. There’s a lot I find freeing about the experience (mostly, that everyone walks sometime), and I love the trail aspect of it. My first one was a true 50k, and my second and third ones were 50k-ish, both longer. The one I ran Saturday was more accurately a 55k, not that I realized the course had been lengthened from the previous year until my Garmin beeped “34 miles” and I still wasn’t at the finish line. (I was, however, still up on a hillside and could see where the finish line was, so it was literally in sight.)

    What’s hard is the training, and I mean that about trying to fit in the runs, not actually doing the runs themselves. (That can also be hard, but really not much more than a miserable 3-mile slog can be.) And sleep. My training was going along well this summer, and I was managing some wonderful long trail runs most weekends. And then we hit the week before school started and everything went crazy. I went from sleeping 7 hours a night (which I’d been working on; I usually sleep much less) down to 5. Runs got cut short because I was unusually sore and tired and because all the back-to-school stuff also takes up time.

    Even during the summer when it seems like there will be enough time, there isn’t. My longest run ended up being a 22-miler done in 3 parts. The plan had been to drop the kids off at VBS and immediately hit the trail that’s about 10 minutes south. But then my older child’s friend wanted to have a get-together because he’s going to a different school this year (our school is a K-6 but he’s leaving for a 6-8 middle school). So I dropped the kids off at VBS, ran about 6-1/2 miles and then went back to pick up the older kid (who was volunteering) and drop her off at the get-together. Then I drove to a different trail about 5 minutes away and ran another 12ish, putting me at 19-something. Then it was time to pick up the oldest and drive back to VBS for the youngest and head home. After dinner I knocked out the 2+ remaining miles. And these were all urban trails, not mountain ones, so there wasn’t much elevation gain. A number of long runs during the week (8, 10 miles) also got chopped into two parts because it’s easier to fit in some in the morning and some again in the evening–both for heat and schedule purposes.

    It led to a less-than-ideal race in some ways, but on the other hand, the more relaxed nature of a 50K also meant that it’s just not a big deal if you walk. Even if you walk a lot. In the end, I finished anyhow and I wasn’t the last person. (And even if I was, so what? I just ran 34+ miles, three of them in a massive thunderstorm no less.) If you can work on the training piece and manage to align that with your family’s busy schedule, it’s worth it.

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