Deciding on a whim to run a 50K (31 miles) instead of his previously scheduled marathon, Aaron completed his first-ever ultra race!
Race Background and Training
On our last family trip to Maine to run the Mount Desert Island Marathon, Christie and I discussed traveling down to Florida the week after Christmas. I would be off work that whole week and my daughters would be out of school so we would have a free week with no activities or work assignments. Knowing that I would need some incentive to go on another long road trip, Christie discovered a racing series held from December 26 through January 1 known as the Savage Seven Racing Series.
From the official website:
For the sixth year in a row, Savage Racing will be hosting the 9th Savage Seven Challenge in Ocala, Florida! It is the perfect way to finish off the year with 7 Marathons, Half Marathons or 50K race. Run around a beautiful 5 mile loop at the Greenway Park Trails during the week between Christmas and New Years! While the weather has proven to be unpredictable, it does average between 50 to 80 degrees. There will be two aid stations set up, one at the start/finish line and one halfway through the park at the turnaround.
This racing series sounded great to me as there are not a lot of marathon options the week after Christmas due to the holiday breaks. It would also be attended by a small group of marathon and running veterans…many whom are part of Marathon Maniacs like myself. Based on past years, it looked like approximately 20-30 people would attend each day to either run the half-marathon, full marathon, or 50K ultra.
I made the decision to register for the marathon held on the third day, December 28, 2018. My training would not differ much from the normal marathon training (peak mileage weeks around 55-60 miles with easy, recovery, tempo, speed work, and long runs scheduled appropriately). I loosely set a goal to try and break my previous marathon time of 3:57:11.
As mentioned above the course would be the Greenway Park Trail loop in Ocala, FL. The course is USATF-Certified with 5 laps around this loop being a marathon distance, and 6 laps being the 50K (approximately 31 miles) distance. For the first time in a LONG time I would be running a race on a very flat course. My last two marathons (West Virginia and Maine) had very significant elevation gain, so this would be quite a change.
Also, I would be looking at weather on the warmer end (upper 60s-lower 70s) for the race…which would also be interesting as this time of year in December I am used to running in the 20º cold and windy weather of the Winchester, VA mountains.
The Trip and a Major Decision
We hit the road for Florida on December 26, planning a two-day drive down to arrive in Ocala, FL the evening of December 27. With all of our fun activities (swimming with the manatees, visiting family, and a one-day all-out trip to Disney World) coming after the race, the trip down was uneventful. Traffic down to Florida from Virginia was quite bad on December 26, but much better on December 27. We stopped halfway in Florence, SC for the night, and arrived in Ocala, FL the next day around 4 p.m. or so.
As we made our way back from a fantastic pre-race dinner at a local diner, I checked the weather for race day morning. The whole week I was worried about potential thunderstorms canceling the race, and when I saw that the threat of storms had moved to the afternoon, an idea entered my head. What if I ran the 50K (31 mile) race instead as my first-ever ultra race?
On December 15, 2018 an ultra 50K was held in the Virginia Beach area known as the Seashore Nature Trail 50K. I had learned about this race and was super excited about running it as my first ever ultra marathon, but soon realized it had filled up. However now seeing the Savage Seven Racing Series offered a 50K option, I had my opportunity staring me right in the face. I sent a note to the race director JC Santa Teresa asking if possible to switch over and he immediately responded no problem at all…I would just have to pay the monetary difference. Right then I made the call to attempt my first ultra race.
Race Day Morning
Race day morning consisted of the usual pre-race tradition…waking up 3 hours before the race (so 3 a.m. since it was a 6 a.m. start time) for a super-early breakfast of a whole wheat bagel with almond butter, a banana, and a cup of coffee. After dressing and stocking my hydration pack full of Clif hydration drink and plenty of GU energy gels, I headed out the door to drive over to the race location only 15 minutes away.
It was still quite dark at 5:30 a.m. when I arrived at the park where the trail was located, so I was glad I had brought my headlight (which I almost debated on leaving at home). A small gathering of runners was already present by the picnic area we were to meet at. As I walked up to get my racing bib I was immediately greeted by race director JC. He was super friendly and got me transitioned over to the 50K race. I was informed I would be one of three people running the 50K race that day. Another runner (Billy) was running ALL 50Ks THAT WEEK…which is just incredible.
A few minutes before 6 a.m. we were given course instructions by Chuck Savage (the race founder) and JC. The course would be open to the public (as it is a public park trail), so there would be other individuals out there walking or running on the trail. However us participating in the race series would be the ones wearing racing bibs! There were roughly 20 or so of us who would be racing that morning, and we gathered together for a quick group photograph. After a quick countdown, Chuck gave the “GO” and the third day of the racing series began.
As we started out the marathon runners had a bit of a different course to begin with. They would run a quick out and back to account for the “.2 miles” of 26.2 before doing 5 loops around the course for the other 26. As I was doing the 50K, I would do 6 loops with no out and back to start. So that meant as we made our way onto the course I found myself in the front of the group in the dark and on a trail I was quite unfamiliar with. I was thankful for two things at this point…the fact that I brought my headlamp and that the course was well marked with arrows pointing the right direction to go (the paved trail winds and connects with others throughout the 5 mile loop).
5 miles or so later as I completed my first loop I was on target for my strategy. My goal was just to finish the 50K and I wanted to run a pace in the 10 minute / mile realm to make sure I had enough energy to last the full 31 miles. Around this time the marathon runner who was in first place came up from behind me and began talking with me. His name was Ed Ganley and he is a true marathon maniac! I can’t remember how many races he has run, but they are a lot (including a marathon in all 50 states and many more). He had run the marathon on Day 1 of this series, took Day 2 off, and was back again on Day 3 for another marathon. We spent the next 20 miles running together talking about running, family, running, Florida, running, marathons, ultras, and more running. He knew practically everyone running that day along with their running accomplishments as well.
Ed and I made the point of stopping to walk at each aid station (one halfway around 2.5 miles and one at the start / end of the loop). Both aid areas were manned by awesome volunteers. At the halfway station, the gentlemen labeled our plastic cups with our bib number so we could keep reusing it if we wanted to help out the environment (awesome). The aid area at the start / finish seemed to have new food options each time we passed…bananas, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, hot egg breakfast biscuits, just to name a few.
The weather was also playing nice for us. Overcast skies were saving us from the harsh Florida sun. I mentioned to Ed that I had forgotten to put on sunscreen, but wound up not needing it. Occasionally a breeze would blow giving us some temporary relief from the humidity.
Before I knew it we were nearing the marathon distance. The conversation with Ed had made the miles fly by and we had averaged a pace around 10 to 11 miles per minute (mostly due to the walking at the stations). As we neared the end of loop 5, Ed ran ahead to finish his marathon strong. I had one more 5 mile loop to go and would be finishing on my own. As I started off on my last loop I remember a young boy on his toy bike (park visitor) riding along side me saying he could go faster than me. He was dead on because at this point my pace was a pretty slow shuffle.
My body felt pretty good those last 5 miles aside from the expected aches and pains. I did not want to risk injury as now my body had run further than it ever had before in a race or training, so I alternated between a slow run and fast walk. Many of the marathon runners passing me on the other side of the loop began to congratulate me as they knew I was running the 50K and was ahead of them on my last loop. To me their accomplishment was greater as they were on their third marathon in three days!
As I neared the last 1/4 mile I saw Corinne and Caitlin there waiting to run with me (and Christie ready to take a video)! My daughters both joined in and jogged with me to the finish line as I completed my first ultra marathon…a 50K with a time of 5:43:46. I felt a huge sense of accomplishment and was immediately congratulated by JC who gave me a medal and said “this medal is for bad a**es”. He also took a photo of me with the medal and one with my family. To top it off, he also gave me a helping of a type of chicken soup from his family’s own recipe (so good!).
Post Race Reflections and Lessons Learned
While I felt sore and tired after this race, surprisingly I did not feel in as much pain as after the Mount Desert Island Marathon where I set a PR on a hilly course. I’m assuming it is from my body being used to running a good amount of miles in a week, so it was ready for a 31 mile challenge.
My pace was not the fastest (around 11 minutes / mile), however to me that is okay as I learned that you need a different strategy when running an ultra marathon. You really need to have a plan to conserve your energy and even plan walk breaks to make sure your body doesn’t break down. I’m really glad that Ed encouraged me to take some of those walk breaks as I feel it helped me finish in good condition with no major aches or pains.
The post-race celebration consisted of lunch at a local restaurant where I indulged in fish tacos, seasoned waffle fries, and a big frosty root beer! I cannot say enough about how nice the organizers and runners of this race were. Everyone was so encouraging, friendly, and committed to seeing everyone finish no matter what their distance or goal that day. I’m really glad that this was my first-ever ultra race experience…and cannot wait to do another ultra marathon in the near future!
Official Race Results
Overall (out of the 50K runners): 1 of 3