A few weeks ago I ran my second ultramarathon – the “PCT50”, which runs along the Pacific Crest Trail about an hour east of San Diego. In many ways, an ultramarathon may seem contradictory to CrossFit – rather than “constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement”, an ultra-marathon is a repetitive motion carried out at low intensity for a very long time. I PR’ed the PCT50 by 1 hour and 43 minutes, and that still involved running more than 10 hours! But, for me, completing an ultra is my version of the CrossFit Games – the challenge and reward for all the work that I put in at Invictus and on the track Wednesday nights with Coach Nuno. Here are some of the lessons that I learned at Invictus that were critical in accomplishing my ultramarathon goal.
1. “Create a Plan.” During the CrossFit Open, it was really helpful to have a plan laid out before the workout, such as “break these down into sets of 10” or “try to get 8 reps every minute”. At the track, we will have a target pace and an objective to hold it it through every rep, or to ‘negative split’ and go faster on the second half. For the ultra, I wanted a finish time that began with 10 (last year it took me 12 hours and 5 minutes). A 12 minute pace for the whole run would be a 10 hour finish, so I broke the race into 7 mini-runs between each aid station, and figured out how much time I had to complete each section at that pace. This allowed me to use the time at the aid stations to easily gauge my progress and gather my thoughts for the next ‘mini-run’ while I refueled, rather than contemplating that I still had ‘X’ miles left. Hitting each check point at the time I wanted grew my confidence, fending off the mind games and self-doubt that plagued me last year.
2. “Grab the bar.” Crossfit has taught me that pain and stress during the workouts isn’t bad, it means you’re working hard and becoming stronger. Just about every CrossFit workout reaches that point where you are ready to stop, but you learn to step up and grab the bar, earn one more rep and keep going. The mental challenge in an ultra is at least as important as the physical challenge, and visualizing myself “grabbing the bar” for one more clean, pull-up, etc. helped me keep putting one foot in front of the other, while pushing back the temptation to stop and walk, hide in the shade and question my choices in life. When my feet started to get sore and my quads started to burn, it was not a sign of weakness or not being fit to accomplish my goal, but a measure of my accomplishment.
3. “Efficiency.” At the track and the gym, we spend a lot of time focusing on our form and how to run and exercise properly. Often this is for safety, but it is also about conservation of energy, which is critical in endurance sports. We also learn to train by running hard for shorter distances, not by slogging out miles and miles of runs for several hours at a slow pace. Training like that is boring and of questionable health benefit. In training for the ultra, I never ran more than 10 miles at once, but would typically target a 6-7 minute pace which made a 10-12 minute target during the race feel very comfortable, and maintaining the “figure 4” stance allowed me to save energy and still feel strong in the critical miles around 30-40 where the finish can seem impossibly far away.
I know a lot of you hate running, which is probably part of what attracts you to CrossFit as a better alternative to fitness. When I used to run and train the ‘old’ way, I started to hate it too, and it showed in gradually slower times, waning interest, and injury. Invictus has taught me not just to be a better runner and athlete, it has allowed me to accomplish higher goals while having more time for friends and family. I encourage you to join us on Wednesday nights at the track, and see if maybe running your best 5k/10k/marathon/ultra isn’t your reward for CrossFit as well.