My First Ultra Marathon – 24 Hour Run For Cancer 2009


I’ll be running my 6th Virginia 24-Hour Ultra Run for Cancer, how did it go during my first time out?  Here is a look back…

Virginia 24-Hour Run for Cancer April, 18/19, 2009.
16.5 hours, 14 laps, 8 pounds, 1 fall, 1 snake and 1……ah  A GHOST!

24runlogo

My first ultra-marathon experience is in the books.  First impression of this experience is that this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done (running wise).  I completely underestimated just how hard running for 24, well 16.5 hours would be.  I also misjudged how much motivation I would lose when I realized I could not make my primary goal nor my secondary goal of 75 miles.  At the end of the day 52.5 miles would be it for me.  Over the course of that first ultra-marathon day, I lost 8 pounds, I fell on the trail, and I had an encounter with a not so friendly snake.

Frankly Scarlet, I had…had enough.

Going into this race I really had no idea what an ultra-marathon was all about.  I was once asked  by an ultra-running friend to give the races longer than 26.2 miles a try.  I flatly told him “no way, a marathon is enough for me.”  Never did I believed I would be up for the extreme distances of an ultra-marathon.  Then the Earth shifted off it’s axial tilt and something in my brain went a bit off center.

I started running long distances in 2000, and by 2009 I had a few marathons under my belt. I figured I was in pretty good shape, was a veteran to this running thing and was looking for a new challenge.  Somehow I stumbled across and decided I wanted to find out what running for 24 hours would be like.  I reasoned I would run a bit slower, and take a few breaks, but I also felt like I was up for the task.  The weeks leading up to the race I devised an awesome running and resting plan.  Laying it all out on an Excel spreadsheet I was pretty proud of myself when I hatched a plan to run for ONE HUNDRED MILES…heck that was only a little over 4.1 miles an hour, a snail like 14:24 pace.  I convinced myself surly my 4 hour marathons and 1200 miles a year had me in shape for this century challenge.  Staring at my planning masterpiece I figured this was going to be easy. (Insert evil laugh here….)

The Virginia 24 Hour Run For Cancer was run over a 3.75 mile lollipop looped course at Sandy Bottom Nature Trail in Hampton, Va.  The trails were flat and for the most part easy to run on.  One section of the trail covered an unimproved foot path with exposed roots.  This proved to be a challenge as the hours/miles wore on and as darkness set in.  Funny how the roots grew in height or was it I could no longer lift my feet?  I’m sure it was the roots.  This is a very nice course and a very well organized and supported race.

sandybottommap(24 Hour course in red)

Not only was this my first exposure to ultra distance but also to the ultra-crowd, I found this collection of running brotherhood a really nice bunch of people.

24runbb(Race Director George N. giving the brief,
I’m standing to the far left)

After getting the morning safety brief from George, our Race Director and founder of the race, he offered some advice to all first time ultra runners. “The Tortoise normally beats the Hare” and with those sage words the race began and the crowd of over 100 was off.  The excitement in the air did little to help me heed his advice and slow down the pace.  I turned the first lap in little over 40 minutes.  My car was parked just a few feet off the trail, as my make shift race HQ I taped a copy of my running plan on the window so I could monitor my progress thou out the day.  Although it was early I could not resist checking my running plan.  By my calculations I already had 10 minutes in the Ultra Bank, 100 miles…ha ha maybe 110?

Heading out on the second lap, I felt great…it was a wonderful day and the course was pretty easy.  As I made my way around for lap two, three and on to four I wondered why people where already walking?  This is a race right, making the turn to go back out on the trail I asked how my lap times/miles where holding up, one of the volunteers informed me I was up near the top of the leader-board.  My mind went into over drive, maybe I could win this thing?

Back out for another lap I was ahead of my 100 mile plan, I had a solid 30 minutes banked, and my legs were loving life.  Laps seven and eight went by just like the first 20 plus miles except I was a bit more tired during this cycle. Then there was the encounter with the snake.  I’ll only say that I did cry like a little girl when I nearly stepped on this thing in the middle of the trail.  I’ll also comment that my lap times thou this section of the trail were greatly improved.  I do not like snakes.  It was time to take a longer break get some food/fuel and change my shoes.  Feeling a bit overheated I decide I would take advantage of the down time and have a solid sit-down for my lunch/dinner.  From here my race fell apart.

myfeet

The extend time off my feet, the pace that I had been running at and the marathon limit to the distances I had run all came together in one rapid descending tidal wave of fatigue.  The miles after 30 were tough.  The extended break was tough, after the extended time off my feet my run was reduced to a 75% run to 25% walk ratio.  Slowly that decayed into a 60/40 mix with the approach of  night fall and the dark hours on the trail.

As night time set in I was not prepared for the dark.  Some how in my great 24 hour running plan I did not have any lightening equipment.  With night time setting in navigating the easy trails became increasingly hard.  Without my own lights I was forced to try and stay in contact with other runners just to find my way around the trails.  Seeing what was right in front of me was left up to my own senses, moon light and sheer luck.  The compounding effects of fatigue and the dark trails reduced my run to a fast shuffle this unfortunately brought on additional problems…namely a tree root and blisters.  My body, feet, legs, and back had never gone that far before.  The accumulation of fatigue was beginning to add up exponentially.  One lap felt like three and four miles felt like 12.

As I made my way over a relatively easy part of the trail my toe caught of something sharp.  My momentum continued forward as my foot was stuck in pace, the next thing I knew I was landing on the trail in a flying heap.  After a flash of anger passed I quickly inventoried my body parts to make sure nothing was missing.  At this point in the day my body was battered and now bruised and not so pleased with my choice of running an ultra-marathon.  Making things worse it was beginning to get cold and very very dark.

On my second to last lap, the 13th of the day, as I made my way thou the trail portion, around 10 pm I was maintaining a 10 minute run, 5 minute walk pace and moving pretty gingerly thou the darkest portion of the course.  The pack that started out the morning as one group of runners was now spread out in thin groupings.  At this point I had not seen another runner in over an hour and the darkness of this section was messing with my mind and spirit.  I was simply sore and tired.  During one of my strides as my left hand made its way back behind my back I felt the sensation of someone reaching out to me. I felt the sensation of skin touching my hand.  I felt someone holding my hand.

No kidding it felt like someone reached out and held my hand.  I instantly jumped out of my skin, spun around, directing my flashlight all around me and into the darkness of the empty trail.  No one was there…..just me and the emptiness of the nighttime.  Needless to say my pace was a bit quicker…the rest of that lap and my final time (lap 14) covering that portion of the course.  I’m not one to believe in the supernatural…..but something weird happened there….and it felt pretty real.

2011-12-29_14-57-17_909(52.5 miles)

All in all I came out of this experience…with no real injuries, a little leaner, very tired and a lot smarter on ultra distance running.


  • Jess at Flying Feet

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post! Your writing is entertaining. An ultra marathon is on my bucket list. I’ll keep starting off much slower is mind!

    • Brian Burk

      Thank you so much, and thank you for reading!

      Never thought I would run one, now I run more Ultras than anything else…

      Brian