UltraSelf, Ch. I: From Zero To Marathon in Four Months

At long last, I’m back with another blog series, so this is technically a continuation of In The Desert, FasterSelf, and The Carnivore Challenge (meaning you should probably read those). I love doing these because they’re way easier to write and I can make them significantly funnier than abstract philosophy stuff, though not for lack of trying. On this episode of “Garrett does things sane people don’t do,” I have decided to become an ultrarunner- here’s how I went from not running at all to running a marathon in just about four months.

What is an ultrarunner, you might ask? Ultrarunning is the sport of running ultramarathons, which are theoretically any races longer than 26.2 miles (a marathon). Technically, one could run 26.3 miles, but that definitely doesn’t count in my book. Traditionally, the shortest ultra distance is the 50k, which if you’re good at math, you’ll have realized is like a 5k but times 10- a total of 31 miles, or just under 5 more than a marathon.

This will be my first target.

Let’s get some background on the history of my relationship with running first.

When I was a kid, I was never good at any kind of team sport. I’m not a big fan of people and the idea of coordinating with what they’re doing was far beyond my grasp- even now, I’m still pretty solo in most stuff, despite running my Aion Media team. I did get into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which isn’t a team sport by any means. I was pretty good at that, though, so I figured it’d be useful to go try out for the wrestling team. My dad suggested doing Cross Country to get in shape for wrestling season, so I did.

I had never run any sort of distance beforehand, and the first day of practice they made us do five miles- I was so slow that I got lost multiple times and only got back on track when people lapped me. From the start of the season, I was the slowest dude on the team, and there were a handful of the girls that were faster than I was. Despite the abysmal odds, I was undeterred.

Everything changed with a bet- before one of the early races in the season, my buddy bet me $20 I wouldn’t be able to beat him by the end of the season.

I beat him that day.

My mom tried to stop me from going to collect, but I marched my happy ass over to his house and got my prize. From then on, I was picking off another person every week or two. By the end of the season, I was tied for third on the team.

It was around this point I really got into running. (So much so that I never ended up doing wrestling.) I read Christopher McDougall’s famous book Born to Run and got a pair (and eventually, several pairs) of Vibram Five Fingers, I started doing barefoot runs, the whole shabang. I would even run the six miles home from school some days.

Then, I got a copy of Dean Karnazes’ magnificent book Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner. This totally changed my approach to running. I started doing long runs on the weekends, way longer than anyone else on the team was doing. I think my longest was 22 miles, when our normal long runs for practice were 5 or 6 miles.

At some point, I was fast enough to beat my dad, who had always been a pretty quick runner, in what I believe was a 5 or 6 mile race. Whether or not he’ll admit it, this seemed to be the motivation behind him getting into ultrarunning, and now he’s a well-accomplished endurance athlete. He finished the first ever Tar Heel Ultra in 2013, a 367 mile race over 8 days (which only took him 7) from the VA/NC border, down the Outer Banks, to the NC/SC border.

I did Cross Country for two years (sophmore and junior), and was basically tied for #1 on the team my junior year, but my only competition the second year was a senior, and he graduated. At that point in my life, I only really liked running for the competitive aspect against my teammates (since they’re a constant reminder of where you’re at), so after he graduated I didn’t really see the fun in doing it again. I did some other races outside of school and placed first in my age group in a half-marathon, but I eventually got sick of running.

Sometime after I stopped training regularly, my dad and I went to go run a marathon. If you reread the first part of that sentence you can guess what comes next- it sucked horribly, I was not adequately prepared, and it was one of the worst experiences of my life. After that, I was done running- this was probably 2011.

I tried to get back into running several times over the years, but I never really had the motivation to do so- until January of 2019 (this year, if you’re paying attention). I got my own apartment in downtown Reno in the fall of last year, and there was a gym a block away that I told myself I was going to start going to. Eventually, I did, and while I initially planned on just lifting, it wasn’t long before I found myself on the treadmill.

I started with a mile, then two the next day, then three the day after that. It took a good month or so, but eventually I managed seven miles on the treadmill, which is quite a feat because treadmills are implements of torture designed in hell and manufactured in China. That being said, it’s like 10 degrees outside in Reno in the winter, and I wasn’t yet that motivated to run. Many days I had to walk through the snow to get to the gym.

Eventually, it began to clear up outside, and after a few months of treadmilling it, I really remembered what I liked about running. It’s such a different experience going down the street, or weaving through city blocks and neighborhoods, as opposed to staring out a window of the third floor gym in downtown.

This time, it was different. I wasn’t running to beat anyone, there was no racing, no teammates to measure myself against. Way more my speed- literally, because I’m slow as shit now. That’s fine, however, because I had been playing with the idea of getting back into distance running, and in longer races, speed is mostly not a factor (unless you’re a crazy person at the top of the sport). Me, however, I hate running fast- I’m whatever the opposite of a natural sprinter is.

At some point at work I started listening to podcasts instead of music all day, and I ended up hearing the JRE episodes with David Goggins (ultrarunner, among many other things [whose book is phenomenally motivational, highly recommended]) and Zach Bitter (current US 100 mile champ), and I got that same kind of feeling I got almost a decade ago from Ultramarathon Man.

I decided I was going to run a 50k.

Now, let’s go through the last few weeks. I’ve been managing at least a few 10 mile runs a week on average, and I had a 54 mile total week recently. During that week, I did a 21 mile run specifically because I saw that my dad did a 20 mile run- what can I say? It’s good motivation.

The orange line on the far left is the route.

This was a pretty normal run, save for two parts.

First, at around the 10 mile mark, I was somewhere into farm country south of Reno. As I’m working my way towards the turnaround point, there appeared a giant swarm of the largest bees in the world- huge, brownish-black sons of bitches, all the size of the distal phalange of a big-handed man’s thumb.

Naturally, my response was to both jump and flail my arms around spastically in something like the involuntary defensive curl assumed by a person being tazed in midair. Of course, this happened as a truck of workers was headed my way, so they swerved out of the way right as I started sprinting in the opposite direction, and I managed to glimpse only the look of disapproval that comes when a grown man ceases to act like one completely.

My shame was magnified as a 60+ year old woman on a bike rode through the storm of bees casually and said to me “oh, don’t you worry about them, they won’t get you when they’re swarming, they’re all full of honey.” This seemed contrary to everything I know about bees (which, admittedly, is not a lot), but I had to save face, so I turned back around and, very uncomfortably, ran past the bees.

After that, the run was uneventful for the next several miles, until the relatively hot day became gray with clouds. As I was sweating profusely, I figured some casual rain would be nice, and a soft drizzle over the next four or five miles actually proved to be pretty great.

Until the last mile.

Due to the location of my apartment, the last mile of all the runs I do is invariably uphill. On this particular day, however, as soon as I was reaching the baseball field that’s a mile from where I live, it began pissing down rain ferociously. I figured this was some sort of karmic retribution from earlier, when I was thinking to myself, “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if it started raining?”

Little did I know that it wasn’t just cool, it was freezing. The temperature dropped immediately from the 85+ of the past 20 miles to probably 50 or something, I don’t know. Being soaked and exhausted tends to throw off some of the brain’s finer abilities for discernment. As it was, I was slogging my way up a hill, drenched and shivering, in only short shorts and a tank top.

I survived, and it was pretty cool after the fact, because that makes a good story, which along with easy blog content, is the only reason anyone should ever do anything in my book.

Yesterday, however, I decided to up the ante and run a full blown marathon.

I planned much better for this one than for the 21 mile run, so it went pretty well overall, despite taking 5 hours and 25 minutes. If I remember correctly, a good marathon is something like 4 hours, and if you really want to question your life, the Men’s world record is somewhere under 2 hours and 3 minutes- do the math on the mile splits and prepare to catch your jaw when it drops.

To reiterate, I have no concern for running fast, although I am going to try and get my marathon sub 4 hours at some point. The big victory yesterday was that I managed to run almost the entire first half without walking, where I probably walked around mile 6 or 7 in the 21 last week.

Now, however, I am certain I can finish the 50k.

My challenge for next week is to run 10 miles a day, every single day of the week, which would be a 70 mile week. My record in HS was 80, and that was with me running two-a-days, which I don’t really have much interest in doing at present. I want to try and do a few things with this.

First, I’d like to train my brain to treat a 10 mile run like the bare minimum. One of the reasons the marathon went better than the 21 (subjectively) was that I went the same route (plus a few miles tacked on the end), which makes it easier because I was familiar with the route.

Second, and this may require more complex training strategies, I want to try and increase the distance I can run without stopping. I can run at least 10 miles nonstop, and did 15 with only a short bit of walking due to a very steep hill. I figure this is going to be the area I can most easily reduce time, since even a slow jog is significantly faster than walking.

Fun stats- a good time for a 100 mile run seems to be 24 hours, which is almost a 14:30 pace per mile. For my marathon, I averaged 12:24/mile, and while I know these aren’t comparable races at all, I like those numbers. My real goal is to maintain a 10 minute pace constantly, which is about where I can run at- I lose most of my time from walking.

Now, unlike FasterSelf and The Carnivore Challenge, I’m probably not going to do these weekly, because running is pretty damn boring. Instead, the next chapter will be whenever I finish that 50k, and I’ll let you know what all went into it after the fact.

Until next time, I’ll be running. Probably another marathon for fun.

Bought myself some new shoes as a prize for the marathon.

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