9 Lessons from my first Ultramarathon

(Disclaimer: I received an entry to run the North Face Endurance Challenge Series 50K – Wisconsin to review as a BibRave Pro. Check out Bibrave.com to learn more about becoming a BibRave Pro (ambassador) and also to find and write race reviews! As always, I only discuss races that I would recommend. You can check out my BibRave review and other reviews of the North Face Endurance Challenge Series here)


I used to hate reading posts on the internet about ultramarathons. Yes, I realize the irony in this as I write a post on the internet about an ultramarathon, but here we are.

I don’t know exactly why I didn’t like reading those posts, but I think it was because I felt that the people who wrote them and ran them were not relatable and were somehow superhuman (or straight-up insane). If you don’t know me, I’d like to take this moment to point out that I am definitely not superhuman and I am sort of clumsy and moderately awkward (there is no definitive verdict on my sanity, though). In other words, I am not what comes to mind when I think of the word “ultramarathoner” – but guess what? As of last weekend, I am one.

I crossed the finish line of the North Face Endurance Challenge Series 50K with a feeling of relief, pride and the kind of emptiness you feel deep in your gut when you give something all you have. It was one of the hardest, most sensational things I have ever done. I don’t know if I will ever do it again, but I did learn a lot in those six wonderful/miserable hours – and most of it has nothing to do with ultramarathons or running at all.

1. Take it in stride

It’s a very weird feeling to approach a start line knowing you will be running for 31 miles. It’s an absurd thing to internalize, so you sort of just don’t. When a big goal is overwhelming, you just have to mentally break it up into smaller parts and take each part one at a time.

There were five aid stations on the course, about 5-6 miles away from each other. Those 31 miles becomes a lot less overwhelming if you only concentrate on tackling five.

At the beginning of the race, I kept repeating the mantra “just pick up miles and put them down” – and that’s how the first two aid stations flew by. As the race went on (and my legs started to feel the side effects of those “picked up and put down” miles because – I repeat – I am not superhuman) I had to take it in smaller pieces. So instead of five miles, I would focus on handling just one mile at a time, or one hill at a time, or even one song at a time. “I can handle anything for one more song,” I’d argue with myself, “just keep moving forward for this last chorus.”

2. Be kind to yourself

I’ve been doing road races for some time, and trail running is a totally different animal. With road racing, you are always chasing your best; pushing yourself like that can get just as exhausting mentally as it does physically.

The first few miles were a mental battle, but not in the way they normally are. I was trying to focus my mindset away from being critical (run faster, don’t you dare walk up that hill) to one of acceptance and enjoyment (look at you, you’re running a 50K! You go, Glen Coco! You should probably walk up that hill to conserve energy for the rest of the race).

Whenever I found myself getting critical of my speed or performance, I took a deep breath and made myself look around and take the moment in for what it was. I reminded myself to have fun and enjoy the challenge (related: ok, maybe I am a little insane).

3. There is beauty and pain (and sometimes beauty in the pain)

Trail running is a beautiful sport. Sure, there are hills, but with hills come great views. The race went through a beautiful state park forest preserve in Wisconsin. The course was mainly through the woods and open fields with tall grasses. Nature can be pretty neat sometimes (and a wonderful source of distraction from pain).

Yes, it was painful. Somewhere around 23 miles, the heaviness in my legs set in and I slowed my pace down. My feet are covered in blisters (RIP two toenails – TMI?) and my legs, back and abs were sore for days after I crossed that finish line. But at some point, you have to convince yourself that the pain is worth it; the joy of finishing is far greater than the pain of enduring, and that’s why we do this.

4. Don’t neglect your playlist

As a music lover, this is just a general life rule – but it’s extra important on a big race day. However, somewhere within the chaos of preparation before the ultramarathon, I totally forgot to work on a playlist – and threw a quick one together the morning of during the drive up to the start. It was basically comprised all new pop songs that I wasn’t (too) sick of yet, but after listening to each around four or five times, I was a little delusional. I changed Justin Bieber’s “cold, cold water” to “cold, cold beer” to get me through mile 24 – shout out to J. Biebs, feel free to use that idea in a remix.

I’d also like to go on the record to suggest that Free Willy’s theme song should make it on your next workout or running playlist because not many things in life are as inspiring as a choir chorus singing “I will be there” when you need some support.

5. It takes a village

The ultrarunning community and trail running community is very different from the road racing community. Not to knock road racing too hard, because runners are usually pretty nice people (must be all the endorphins), but trail running brings that up a few notches more (must be all the nature). You will be hard-pressed to find a more accepting, inspiring and supportive group of people to run alongside.

Race day aside, I wouldn’t have made it through training without my friends who woke up early, pushed themselves further than they needed to, and celebrated the little victories with me throughout my training. It was a tough summer of training, and it was lonely at times, but I always knew I had a great support system of people who were (literally) willing to go the extra mile for me when I needed them to. You are the real MVPs; I would not have made it across the finish line without a ton of help over the months it took to get me there.

6. Our bodies are pretty amazing

When I was a senior in high school, I impulsively quit the volleyball team and joined cross country. On my first day of cross country practice, I was supposed to run a lap around the school for a warm-up. It was probably less than a mile total, and it wasn’t even timed, but I didn’t feel like I could do it so I cut through the school and walked. I’m sure I was still sore and tired after practice that day.

That same body that couldn’t run a lap around a school ran 31 miles on trails this past weekend. I’ll admit that sometimes I still find it difficult to run a mile or two, while other days it comes a lot easier and I feel like I can run forever. With time (and a lot of patience), your body will adapt. I’m consistently in awe of how many miles our resilient bodies can handle.

7. You’ll never be 100 percent ready

I don’t think I’ve ever gone into a race feeling completely prepared. But in a race, you show up to the start line and when the air horn goes off, you cross it and begin. You don’t have time to second guess – you barely have enough time to get your headphones and gear in place.

I know plenty of people who tell me that they want to run a 5K or [insert goal here] sometime “next year, when I’m more prepared.” Here’s your air horn. Time continues to pass no matter what, so just start. You might fumble and look foolish for a bit, but it sure beats the alternative of wishing you did it.

8. Keep moving forward

Even if it’s in the smallest steps you can ever imagine taking, even if you are slow, even when you feel like you have nothing left to give – you have to keep moving forward. It’s why we do that extra burpee or add that little bit of resistance on at the end of a spin class. It’s the story of human progress. And if you think you can’t, you aren’t giving yourself enough damn credit.

9. It takes a special kind of crazy

People often ask me why and I will never fully understand how to respond. My why is more of a feeling than anything; it’s hard to put my “why” into words, and I think that’s part of the wonder of it.

Undoubtedly, my “why” is comprised of several reasons, some more obvious than others. It’s not just to stay in shape or for the bragging rights – it’s something much more personal. It’s a little bit of “because I can” and a little bit of the runner’s high. There is something addicting about crossing a finish line – accomplishing a definitive goal by crossing over a physical line in the ground.

During the race, you are hyper-aware of your surroundings, your thoughts, your pain – everything at once. There are few things I’ve experienced that make me so aware of my fragility and strength at the same time. It’s a humbling way to feel so very alive, and if it takes a little bit of crazy to get me there, I guess I’m okay with that.

Endurance Move

About Cass Gunderson

Cass hails from the southwest suburbs as a proud White Sox fan and a graduate of University of Illinois. By day, Cass is a full-time student at the University of Chicago's Booth Graduate Business School. Before deciding to throw away all her money to go back to school, Cass worked for a private equity firm that buys technology companies. Raised as the youngest in a family of older brothers, Cass grew up a tomboy and remains active in sports. To her mother’s satisfaction, Cass learned how to embrace her feminine side in college and has developed an interest for fitness activities that require spandex as opposed to knee-length basketball shorts. In her spare time, she runs a lot because it is cheaper than paying for real therapy. Cass has completed four marathons and one ultramarathon (she claims she'll never do this to herself again, but that's TBD). She can still be found on the basketball courts in Lincoln Park wearing knee-length basketball shorts.

3 thoughts on “9 Lessons from my first Ultramarathon

  1. This is an amazing post and so needed! I literally just registered for my first 5K in November after saying “I wish and I want” for a year! This encouraging post could not have come at a better time. Thank you for sharing your experiences and I will be thinking of all the benefits in my getting ready! -ST

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