by Jeffrey Stern
Mar 05 18

Ultrarunning: When Conditions Get Tough, You Get Tougher

Running an ultramarathon is no walk in the park - a marathon is hard enough, but there's a reason why the word 'ultra' gets slammed on the front of it. Plain and simple, they are really hard. Add in rain, hail, dozen of waist high frigid river crossings and near freezing temperatures and you start to get a brief glimpse into the difficulty of an ultra, especially this past weekend's Way Too Cool 50k in Northern California.

Living in Southern California, I train in the heat. Correction, I don't just train in the heat, I thrive in it; my body is completely adapted to the ridiculous amount of hot days we've had over the past few years. At this point, it doesn't phase me one bit.

That being said, after pinning a number on nearly 200 times in past seven years, there is not much that does phase me these days. From stage racing, to endurance mountain bike races, like the Leadville 100, UCI cyclocross races, a handful of cross-country running races, the infamous Dipsea trail race and now three ultramarathons, I've experienced just about all kinds of conditions. When I saw the forecast for last Saturday's Way Too Cool (low of 32 and snow was predicted last Monday, although it didn't get that bad), I got excited. "A new challenge!" I thought. 

Even when the snow prediction faded to rain, and eventually gave way to some sunshine, rain all week long left raging water crossings and mud-ridden, rocky trails for nearly 30-miles of running in the Sierra Foothills.

As physically and mentally prepared for the challenges of the race that I was, my body had no experience in the wet, sloppy conditions and completely rebelled against my will to push as hard as I knew I could. 

Heeding all advice from friends and experienced ultra pros like Alex Varner and my coach David Roche, I took the first 8-mile loop chill, coming in right at 52 minutes and under my goal pace to run a time of 3 hours 30 minutes for the entire race. My feet were wet, my legs were muddy, but I was happy and felt strong. I was sitting just outside the top ten and exactly where I wanted to be.

I took a bottle hand-up from my friend Mario Fraioli and charged into the big downhill section of the course that brought us down to the Hwy 49 crossing, and onto part of the Western States 100 course. I didn't crush the down hill, but just let it flow and kept smiling. I was feeling really good with plenty left in the tank.

Photo by Scott Fischbein

Miles 11-15 I kept it rolling, clicking off 6:30-ish miles, hydrating, fueling and preparing for our big climb of the day back up to the ridge. Two more runners joined me along the away and we chatted, shared food and talked tactics, "Let's take the climb steady and save some energy to push it in the last third of the race," we all said to each other.

However, when it came time to kick it into gear at the top of the climb, around mile 20, with another 10 or so to go, my two compatriots dropped me. They had that extra gear, the top end and I felt stuck in third, grinding away. Just as they disappeared around the bend on some flowy, fast singletrack, it started to hail and for the first time all race I felt horrible. I was cold, wondering if this is what hypothermia felt like, and a little bit disheartened. 

Where was all that speed I had trained so vigorously for the past two months gone? I couldn't shift out of third gear. Even worse, third gear had become a struggle. I took a brief glance at my watch after realizing I was back to running by myself and my pace was struggling to stay under 8 minutes per mile. I needed to be running those 6:30s, but they weren't coming no matter how hard I tried.

Instantly, I knew the remaining 90+ minutes of the race would be a grind. A true test of my grit and determination. I pushed on, getting passed by a few runners and then around mile 26 finding a bit of motivation from a aid station and passing a runner myself, settling into 15th place with 5 miles to go and just hanging on; dreaming of the finish, a warm beverage, all kinds of food and friendly faces. Suffering at it's finest is when you lean on every thread of positivity you know exists just to keep you moving forward to the finish line and that's what I had to do.

I knew I could definitely run faster on this course, but I also know I learned so much from running in completely foreign conditions. I already want to go back in 2019 and get some redemption, but at the same time I'm motivated to train for my next race and that much better prepared if the conditions are similar to what I experienced on Saturday.

Way Too Cool was for me, definitely more like Way Too Cold: the wettest, sloppiest and most challenging race I've ever completed in my life. Even if I had a few warmer pieces of gear on, it wouldn't have mattered. My body knows the heat, not the cold. It's a function of my training environment. Triple-digit temperatures and I'm fine, but near freezing conditions and my body doesn't know how to function at it's peak. However, it's experiences in races like these that add rich texture to life and the next time I'm faced with these conditions I'll be all the more prepared.

Even though my body didn't cooperate and I didn't execute the race I was looking for, I still achieved a 25-minute 50k PR

Training is the test and racing is just the celebration of your fitness, but you always learn new things when you celebrate that you can take back into the next block of training in hopes of celebrating even harder at your next race. Which for me, will be the Lake Sonoma 50 in just under six weeks - after a few days of rest & recovery, it'll be time to get back to work for the next challenge!