Running Warehouse banner

Trail Running Course

Old School: Respect the Distance

I remember very well standing at the starting line of my first 100 mile race. It was Umstead 100 in North Carolina. Four months earlier I was accepted into Western States 100 (WS) based on running a qualifying time of 8:46 during my first 50 miler. (Back in the day, the qualifying time for WS was sub-9 hours.) I couldn’t comprehend beginning a 100 mile race in the mountains (I lived in the New York suburbs at the time) as a first attempt at the distance so I chose to try my legs at an “easier” 100. Thus Umstead, NC.

It was way before dawn and the course consisted of 10 loops of 10 miles with each loop starting at the lake before going sharply uphill for just a bit, maybe 100 yards or so, but so steep I couldn’t see the top. Imagining doing it 10 times frightened me beyond belief. I was breathing frantically and with eyes wide open turned to my family, “Will you still love me if I don’t go right now?”

I did just fine that day. I practiced patience, walked every hill from the first mile, fueled and hydrated on the clock, stayed consistent and had a “perfectly recommended” 10% positive split for the second half of the race. I also managed to achieve all my goals–finish, run sub-24 hours, and get the bonus of a win. But that’s not why I am telling this story.

Just as well I remember standing at the starting line of my first 50 miler in Upstate New York, at Lake Canandaigua. And some eight months prior,  a freezing morning in February at a 50km race around Central Park in New York City.

What is the common trend?

An absolutely healthy respect for the distance. It’s not quite fear, not an unknown factor even. It’s a simple respect you pay to someone or something bigger than you.

Photo: Courtesy Olga King

That was over 10 years ago and after many races and finishes, I still have it. It’s not as frightening me anymore and never do I ask anyone (that is if I have anyone with me for crew or support, as I actually prefer not to anymore) if I could bail out. But just a few short moments before the “go” is yelled out by a race director, my heart skips a beat and I think, “What’s out there? Pay respect to the distance.”

In the past several years, many things happened – Dean Karnazes wrote a book, or few, and people discovered ultramarathons in masses. More ultramarathons started being offered. And then the revolution – Born to Run by Christopher McDougall came out and the gates appeared to open wide. People are born to run! It’s easy! Just put your shoes on – or, better yet, don’t – and get out the door! On the trails, in the mountains, wherever the heart desires! Who needs to be prepared? It’s as natural as putting one foot in front of another. As primal as eating corn and drinking water!

Then masses set out after a new age goal – everyone deserves an ultramarathon finish. Just as with Dean’s book, it got hundreds if not thousands of people off their couches, armed them with a goal, and set them free. Wonderful, wonderful indeed.

Photo: Courtesy Olga King

Don’t take me wrong. I’ll be the first to tell anyone and their mother that ANYBODY – and I mean it literally – who is in good health (a.k.a. not life threatening condition) and is at least somewhat fit (read: can walk a few miles without losing breath) can finish an ultramarathon. If you combine some good solid ability to move with some brain power (see Joe Prusaitis’ article about the importance of the mind in a long endurance event), you can finish it!

But will it be worth it? Will the body not feel mistreated? Will you hate it after that, or stick to the sport or its variations for years and decades to come? Is it just a check box for you or is it a real passion that you treat seriously even if there is lots of fun along the way?

As a former race director for years and a volunteer in countless races, I had seen dozens and dozens of folks who come with a “gung-ho” attitude and a bulls-eye that they NEED to finish “one of those” so they can feel their life is meaningful, a milestone achieved, a sense of personal pride. Whether telling about it on every corner or quietly pumping their chest, the finale is grand. Then what?

It has been just a tad over a decade since I started my journey in this wacky sport and people usually didn’t dare jump over one distance to get to another. There was a general progression however quick it might have been: run a 5km or 10km, participate in a half-marathon, train for a marathon, find out about farther, get a 50km done, a 50 miler, and maybe if you could find it (wasn’t the most popular distance at first), a 100km. Then as a pinnacle, you get your head wrapped around a 100 mile race.

Photo: Courtesy Olga King

And if you choose not to pay for an official race entry for “shorter distances”, you run them seriously as you prepare with all the knowledge you learned while asking and reading and talking about it. Bottom line is – enjoy your journey! There is no hurry to get somewhere and no bonus points for making it sooner and more reckless. Take your time, please. Find everything there is you can about yourself and all the steps from one distance to another. Like a baby you were (or one you have or had at one time), crawl comes before walk, walk before run, and babbling before speaking words and later sentences. You don’t expect a six month old to read War and Peace while juggling fireballs do you?

Why is it suddenly in this day and age people hear about 100 miles on foot, put it on their calendar and jump straight into it after a couple of months shuffling on trails? I don’t mean to talk about any kind of speed, I mean it in a way of “not pushing and not learning about one’s own body”. Not only does it endanger that very runner from simple severe DOMS (delayed muscle onset soreness) and dehydration, but falling and seriously getting injured to getting lost and potentially all kinds of trouble not to be described here. It puts a Race Director in a tenuous situation of being liable (no matter what the little form you signed said). It puts volunteers in the position of making an extra effort (and many of them are simply not qualified to either help or diagnose a problem). Then search and rescue may get involved along with medical personnel and the local hospital. And my oh my, have those runners thought about their loved ones?

How did your first race at a particular distance go? Did you treat it with respect? Did you train properly – Move through progressive steps – Read about it – Acquire all the information from those who have done it (more than once). Did you have that healthy fear, a small dose which does not stop you from beginning to embark on a journey yet allowed you to approach it mindfully? Then things just fell into place where your mind, body, and muscles moved in unison (flow). Hydration and fueling perfectly orchestrated.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if each one of those new found runners stayed with it for the remainder of their life, having great memories not of pain and misery but of that very flow? Of course there will always be moments in every race where things slip away but overall, if you treat the distance of the race with respect there is just so much more to enjoy and live through!

Photo: Courtesy Olga King

I remember that first 100 at Umstead. I also remember my last one to date. It was to be my 18th finish at the distance. As I stood at the starting line quietly imagining the hours ahead, looking back and making sure I had done a proper job to prepare, reminding myself to take all the experiences in and to have the best day out there, a little healthy fear rose up in my heart and it whispered, “Respect the distance. Go within. Don’t be cocky. It’s not you against something. It’s you AND the strip of the trail ahead. Live every moment.” Because this is what makes ultrarunning real. Because this is what allows the longevity to continue. And maybe then, you will be able to graduate with honors. 🙂

Photo: Courtesy Olga King

– Olga King

[Talk some Respect]

  • If you are one that progressed through the distances, what value did you find in this approach?
  • What would you think if there were safety precautions on general 50 mile and 100 mile race that require for example, a 50km finish to sign up for a 50 mile, or 50 mile / 100 km finish to sign up for a 100 mile?
  • Is a progression through the distances old school or a timeless approach?

About the author

Olga King Olga King (Varlamova) has picked up a second wind of running at the beginning of her fourth decade. With the success of being a self-proclaimed “freight train that never stops”, she has finished over 100 races at distances from the marathon and beyond. For more information on Olga, check out the About page where you can see some of her health and coaching related projects.

7 Responses to “Old School: Respect the Distance”

  1. on 30 May 2012 at 3:41 pm Tim Smith

    Thanks for this Olga. I can only wish to have your kind of ultra experience some day.

    I do believe that I am taking it all in stride and making the appropriate efforts to prepare for each distance, with the help and advice of people like yourself, Liza and my local group who have been such a strong pillar of support and knowledge.

  2. on 30 May 2012 at 4:21 pm Jonathan

    Great job Olga. I too have to remind myself to respect the distance. When I jump into something I go all out so I had to pull back on the reins as I started doing research on races from California to Washington to New Mexico. But I did progress in the distances. Running my frist marathon was a mental struggle even when I had done all the training and mental preperation. When I ran my second marathon the wall never came and I even PR’d. Without knowing what it would be like to run a marathon I do not think I would have enjoyed my recent 50K’s. I would have dropped at Jemez without knowing what I was getting myself into and doing all the research on it, including studying the course profile. It wasn’t so much reading what Nick Clark had to say but those who finished at the back of pack and from those who DNF’d. Those are more enlightening than a report from an elite runner, which is why I respect runners like Karl Meltzer and Scott Jurek who have made comments on the guts it takes for a back of the pack runner to finish and ultra.

    Would I love to run Western or Cascade Crest or even Rocky Raccoon near my house? Yes! Would I enjoy it? Probably not the second loop. Would I finish? Doubt it. Progression is key which allows one to know how their body reacts in certain situations (ie. heat, cold, altutude, etc.), which then aids in stepping up the distance. Ran a 30K last summer and didn’t respect the distance/climate and Olga had to take care of me at the start/finish till I could pee again. Without saying it she helped me understand what it meant to respect the distance. I now not only respect the distance but I respect the way the lesson was taught. Olga, you are a gem!!

  3. on 31 May 2012 at 10:58 am olga

    Thanks, guys. I think a lot what’s going on is a generational thing, not for age, but for the time we live in. Everything has to happen now, this minute, without steps in-between. Flip-phone is not enough anymore, we need i-Phone, and not G3, but G4 (or whatever is that). Same here, whoa, did you hear people run a lot? I am going to as well! And, in a frenzy, more people do it, and more get hurt, or hate it, or keep doing yet with same mistakes because they don’t have time to think about those already made.
    But then again, like David asked a question, may be it’s an old approach…life at a fast pace is a thing, and some of us stuck in dinosaur era:)

  4. on 31 May 2012 at 1:53 pm Danni

    Great post. I will say though I am rarely fully prepared or trained. For me it’s almost more fun to truly face the unknown question of whether I’m adequately trained to finish. I do respect the distance but given my typical mediocre conditioning, that respect does bleed into fear territory.

  5. on 31 May 2012 at 7:16 pm Laron Thomas

    Great post, Olga! I really enjoyed the connection you made with a baby’s progress, especially in terms of speaking.

    For me, it’s definitely been a slow road, but in that one that I thoroughly enjoy. I had run an 8.4 mile uphill race before running my first marathon, which I logged a long run of a mere 12 miles. It still was my fastest marathon till this last year, over 7 years later! Over those years, I did lots of hiking, raced lots of distances up to 100k, and enjoyed running through Alaska’s mountains unaided. I upped my mileage little by little, listened to those around me, etc.

    I also really likes the fact that running that far is something to be respected, not feared. When I start on a long, hard course, I have a HUGE dose of respect for the path in front in front of me. If I haven’t put in the mileage, I’m either woefully ignorant or fearful. Nervousness sets in whether ready or not: Is my body able to put in the distance? How will it respond to the course, weather, altitude, etc.? Will I be able to follow the course? Will I be able to pull off the technical sections? (esp. important when ridge running/hiking/climbing on rocky, technical terrain) Will I run into any animals? How do we do it? I don’t know, but it’s an extremely amazing thing.

    Thanks for writing!


  6. on 01 Jun 2012 at 5:19 am olga

    Laron, the Alaska wilderness adventure sounds awesome! And certainly scary and well respected:) Way to go!
    Danni, I understand so many are not trained enough, but knowing you, I also know that first of, you still progressed nicely before embarking onto a 100 (so, you knew you’d hurt and how much and treated it with respect), and secondly, having a healthy fear and fearing to the point of not trying are different:)

  7. on 02 Jun 2012 at 9:48 am Dat

    Thanks for the article, my first and only Ultra 50K was just this April at Hells Hills, and I’m already mulling signing up for Rocky Raccoon 100M next year! I worry about biting off more than I can chew, pushing my body too hard and getting injured, and even taking away a spot from a more deserving person that has been more dedicated at training and preparing than me.

    Parts of me want to take it conservatively, get in a few more 50K and 50M races under my belt and wait for 2014 Rocky Raccoon to go for the 100M. Then there’s the other part in me that sees a difficult goal and just want to go for it, the time in my life for training for a 100M is ideal; who knows if you’ll have the time to train for one next year (life may get in the way)? I’m going to mull over the decision a few more months, start training for a 50 miler in November, and then make a decision on how I feel from there. Rocky Raccoon 100M looks like it’s going to fill up in record time though, so I can’t mull on the decision too long.