My First Ultra Marathon - Race Summary

Me (Morgan), running along the Chicago waterfront.
Me (Morgan), running along the Chicago waterfront.

I was 3 miles from the finish line. Tears were forming in the corners of my eyes. Intense emotions started bubbling up. The end was so close. My first 50-mile race was almost over.

Moments earlier I began listening to my favorite playlist, a compilation of my kids’ most requested music. It mixes Disney classics, iconic family favorites, and woke-women power ballads. Accompanying the songs were memories of my family dancing carefree around our living room. One after the other, thoughts flooded my mind. These memories gave way to countless other priceless moments from recent years and even the last decade.

The trip down memory lane felt as real as the ground beneath my feet.

So near to the finish, a famous Marvel quote came to mind. It was one of the thousands of random thoughts that fill the mind during hours of running. Marking the end of his epic quest, Thanos (a powerful villain) utters, “I am inevitable” before snapping his fingers, fulfilling his work. I felt a similar sense of release. The end was so close. I did it! Stay moving and even if I slowed to a crawl, I would finish. “I am inevitable!”

Earlier in the day, things felt less certain. We left our hotel at 6:15am that morning after I nervously checked and double-checked my supplies and my schedule. It’s customary during ultra-marathons (any distance over the 26-mile marathon) to have a support crew. My wife and dad traveled with me from Atlanta to crew the race. A first for all of us, no one knew what we had gotten ourselves into. I tried my best to prepare them, but even I was nervous.

At the start line, racers got their packets, unloaded their gear, and tried to warm up. In the darkness, it was hard to tell how many runners showed up for the race. Based on the online registration, it would be around 44 runners. 44 runners in a city of almost 10,000,000 people!

I held back a smirk while trying to calculate how rare the feat I was about to undertake. The 50-mile course consisted of 4, out-and-back laps of 12 miles. Run 6.5 miles toward Downtown Chicago, turnaround, and run 6.5 miles back. Again, again, and again.

Lap 1: Settling in.

The horn goes off and runners scamper off.

I was excited and eager. Within the first mile, I settled in with a few guys. The course switched between dirt paths, sidewalks, and bike paths. We got lost almost immediately. Without knowing it, we pulled 8–10 other people off course too. Oops.

We’re running 50 miles… what’s another 1/4 mile, right? The line of runners did an about-face, placing us at the rear, and retraced our steps. Once we got back on course, we struck up a playful banter as we passed the runners we led astray. With so far left to go, no one seemed particularly worried about the extra distance or lost time.

Recovered from an early detour, our small cluster settled into a groove. Other than a desperate sprint toward a bathroom, the first 6 miles passed without a hitch. The sun was up and despite a subtle chill, the weather was trending toward a beautiful day.

The waves along the shore were massive. Every few swells, water would slam against the retaining wall that lined the water, splashing the path. All signs pointed toward strong winds, but I wasn’t giving it much thought. Chicago is the “Windy City” after all.

At the turnaround (Mile 6), Chicago's nickname became startlingly clear. An intense headwind hit me square in the chest. Now facing northbound, I realized why the outbound wind was uneventful. For the first leg of the race, the wind was propelling me forward. Now, that assistance evaporated and became an immediate drag on forwarding movement. It was the strongest wind I’ve ever felt, anywhere.

My energy was immediately zapped. Heart rate increased. Pace decreased. It felt like running on a treadmill. Next, the cold combined with the wind and poured through every seam of my clothing. My windbreaker puffed up like the Michelin Man. Miles seemed to slow to a crawl.

I remember cyclists gliding by on their electric bikes. Each time they passed I imagined the creative ways by which I might commandeer a ride.

By the end of Lap 1, I had consumed my entire hydration bladder and eaten everything I prepared. Apparently, I was guzzling water at twice the expected rate. Months earlier, the same pouch lastest me 20+ miles. Today, it was gone in the first 10–12. I was instantly grateful for my support crew, ready with refills and encouragement.

Lap 2: Forgettable.

I remember feeling calm and peaceful. I spent most of the time alongside a few other guys my age, Alex and Rob. We chatted about our lives back home and what brought us all here.

From books on ultra running, I read many accounts claiming our minds fail to remember most of the details from a run. Instead, we preserve the overall memory through a collection of moments; snapshots, not an end-to-end narrative. Based on my weak recollection from part of the race, I assume Lap 2 was largely a non-event.

The primary thought I remember from Lap 2 was of the dreadful headwind. It began to make frequent laps through my mind leading into the turnaround. It returned sooner than I hoped, pounded my head, chest, and legs.

By the end of Lap 2, I was within a mile of the marathon distance. Months earlier I ran my first marathon, in Alaska. Back then, the completion felt like an incredible victory. There were announcers, spectators, awards, and all manners of celebration. Today, the distance was marked with nothing more than a sinking realization that I was only halfway done.

Anticipating a mid-race funk, I began repeating the mantra “this is where the race really begins” to stay positive and focused on the road ahead. In the distance, I caught a glimpse of my brother-in-law and his girlfriend who had recently arrived. They were cheering but I privately wondered how strange of a sight I must have been.

Approaching the aid station, I remember making eye contact with my dad. Summoning a newly found determination, I remember shouting, “go into the “Joy Bag” and get a Snickers.”

Before the race, I neatly organized the nutrition of each lap into individually labeled ziplocks. In an additional bag, I stuffed a collection of extras specifically chosen to lift my spirits. Physical performance aside, these were items I knew I would look forward to eating. Managing emotions is an important part of running long distances and cravings are an easy shortcut. The label on that particular bag? Joy.

Lap 3: Encouragement.

I felt optimistic. With a pacer joining in Lap 4, I gathered my headphones for Lap 3. I kicked off the lap with an audio file my team at New Story recorded. Team members recorded a mix of encouragement, humor, and inspiration. More than the words they shared, I was overcome with gratitude by the time and thoughtfulness they put into the recording.

Meghan repeated the phrase, “do hard things” and the accompanying conviction that it’s what strengthens us. Her tone and matter-of-factness with which she said it was comforting. It was reminiscent of the famous Nike slogan, “just do it”. Hardly a mile passed where Meghan’s words weren’t recalled.

I smiles as I heard Katie, sharing one of my favorite quotes. Despite having heard it countless times, it took on new meaning. “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

“There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.” As I continued to listen, that excerpt bounced around in my head. I began laughing, remembering a more recent quote from a celebrity. After being criticized for seeming “unrelatable”, she went on a tirade during which she exclaimed, “Relateable! What about me makes you think I want to be relatable! I live the way I do in order to attain things most people will never experience. Relatable?! No thanks.”

Then there was Matthew, a long-time friend, and colleague, sharing Roosevelt’s quote of the man in the arena. “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I also resonated with the words of Tucker as he shared “this is not the end. It’s the beginning.” While I couldn’t begin to explain what was beginning, I found the comment comforting. While anything beyond the day was unclear, I knew he was right.

The recordings continued, one team member after another. As they concluded, I remembered a line from a famous ultra-runner Dean Karnazes’, most recent book. When asked how long it takes an average person to run a marathon he replied, “Average people don’t do this.” Another smile stretched across my face.

From the recordings, I switched to an audiobook. “Out and back” by Hillary Allen. An ultra-marathoner who tells her inspiring story of recovering from a traumatic injury. Throughout my training, I drew inspiration from runners who not only attempted such massive distances but actually competed. Beyond merely finishing, they ran to win. The likes of Scott Jurek, Dean Karnazes, Rich Roll, Hillary Allen, Sally McRae, Killian Jornet, and so many more.

After the book ended, I chose to run in silence. I could feel myself sliding into what runners call ‘the pain cave’. Fatigue had officially arrived in full force. The turnaround felt even more brutal. Compounding the issue, I was 5 miles from my support crew and I was out of food, out of water, and had passed the course’s only other aid station. A quick pitstop revealed my pee was starting to darken. Running for hours in my windbreaker helped with the wind, but left me sweating more than expected. Still more concerning than the impending miles was the sinking realization that my final lap would likely be accompanied by serious calorie depletion.

I could feel myself digging a hole of exhaustion without enough nourishment to climb out.

Nearing the end of Lap 3, I was running on fumes. The physical breakdown was leading to emotional fatigue as well. Around the time I considered running off-course in search of a convenience store or restaurant, a group of guys with a cooler were crossing the trail near the park. In the hiking world, it’s called ‘trail magic’.

“Hey guys, you got any drinks in there?” I asked, pointing to their massive cooler.

”Yeah bro! Beers…and the Rockies are blue!” they replied opening a cooler filled with Coors Light. We exchanged cheers as they tossed me a beer and I shuffled off. Gulping down the liquid calories, I felt my spirits lift as I clenched a can of my dad’s favorite beer.

I rolled into the aid station later than expected and was eager to consume every remaining calorie in my resupply bag.

It was time for the final lap.

Lap 4: Last Lap

Entering Lap 4, I picked up my pacer at the aid station. It was my dad. A school teacher in his late-50s, running was a shared interest. Having also run together in Alaska, this race was the second such milestone event we shared within the last few months.

While stuffing my mouth with chocolate-dipped marshmallows and bananas, I filled him in on adjustments to the plan. To recover from my Lap 3 deficit, we alternated walking and running while I caught up on calories. He manned the watch, I focused on chewing and staying upright.

As we rolled out from the station, I caught a glimpse of my wife gagging. She had just sampled one of the “marshmallows”. Like much of my body, it was a fair bet my tastebuds weren’t firing on all cylinders. Undeterred, I kept scarfing.

I was ravenous. Exercise is typically an appetite suppressant but my body didn’t get the message. Within 30 minutes, I consumed almost 1,000 calories.

While my digestion worked overtime, the next few miles were slow going. I was in pain. My feet ached. My thighs burned. Obsessing about the dreadful headwind at the approaching turnaround, my mind was only slightly better off than my body.

In the days leading up to the race, my dad asked “What words motivate you? What hypes you up? When you’re feeling worn out, what do you want to hear?” Anticipating my lowest moment, he was searching for ways to encourage me in the deepest parts of the race. At the time, I hadn’t given him much to work with. During the race, however, I realized how motivated I was by the “uncommonness” of it all. I loved knowing that “average people don’t do this”. With my dad beside me, the experience felt even more unique.

Eventually, we settled into a steady rhythm. As we reached the turnaround, I inched closer to him, allowing his body to cut through the wind. We clipped away, mile after mile. It amounted to an amazing moment. I felt myself storing dozens of snapshots I knew I’d remember for years to come. It was the weirdest cocktail of pain, effort, and inspiration I had ever experienced. The cherry on top? My dad was right beside me.

Each step carried me beyond any known limits. After hours of running, my body was wrecked. Swollen feet ached under the pressure of tightening shoelaces. My shoulders were tense from the strain of endless pumping and carrying pounds of supplies. My legs, bricks.

Despite the hurt, I could feel myself looping around a single emotion: joy.

Looking to my running partner, the feelings intensified. Silently checking in and keeping pace, he led me past the 47-mile mark. My spirits continued lifting and I felt us picking up pace. My legs discovered fresh energy.

I was about to finish my first ultra-marathon. I’d spent all day running along the frigid, windy Chicago waterfront. The time was coming to an end. There were now more hours than miles left on the finishing clock.

My pace quickened. Taking the final turn leading to the last 2 miles, my dad signaled for me to go ahead. I was speeding up and he was no longer able to keep up. For a split second, I considered slowing to match his pace. I began thinking to myself, “he came all this way. He helped you so much. You were a wreck and he patiently guided you along… and you’re gonna leave him?!”

When faced with the choice to push harder or hold back, I knew which option my dad would celebrate. He has always been hard on himself. While holding back and crossing the finish line together would have been special, I could already hear him saying “I feel like I held you back at the end”.

He wouldn’t have credited himself for the previous hour when he slowed to a crawl to help me or how he coached me through the urge to walk. The race for him would have come down to how we finished the final stretch.

Was I right? We’ll never know. He told me to go, so off I went.

My legs began to take on a life of their own. Faster and faster they pushed, wanting to leave everything on the course. With my heart hammering against my chest and my kids’ playlist jamming in my ears, I let loose.

With a mile left, another runner came into view. My speed continued climbing as the urge to catch him washed over me. With each twist in the trail, he was closer in view. The gap continued to shorten. We were hundreds of feet apart. Then, we were dozens.

There are 264,000 feet in a 50 miler and somehow I ended in a dead sprint, finishing a mere 50 feet in front of a fellow runner. What are the odds?

I crossed the finish line having run my previous mile near a 7:30 pace. Greeted by my wife, brother-in-law, his girlfriend, and my dad the race was officially over. My dad?! Determined to see me finish, he picked up the pace and cut the final segment of the course to see the end.

I collapsed into their arms.

I faintly remember a race official handing me a belt bucket (the customary finisher metal for an ultramarathon) and an engraved pint glass for placing 2nd in my age group.

50 miles. 8 hours. The longest run of my life. Done.

Conclusion

In preparation for the 50-miler, I read many firsthand accounts of people’s first ultra races. Everyone spoke of it as a life-changing experience, but no one managed to share how or why. They seemingly uncovered one of life’s mysteries only to conclude the story before sharing the secret. After sharing that observation with a friend, he said, “Well that sucks. You better be ready to tell me when you’re done.”

Having now felt a similar experience, here is my attempt at an explanation.

  1. Pure physical exertion. My heart pumped at 140–150 beats/minute for eight straight hours with my legs carrying me over 50 miles. I vastly exceeded anything I’d ever attempted, yet somehow felt like I was only scratching the surface of my potential. It’s unnerving to confront the contrast between how we live and what is actually possible. How many other areas of life would benefit from the same awakening?
  2. Human Connection. People run ultras alone and unsupported. It’s incredible but that wasn’t my path. I’m better for it. Friends, family, and love ones were engaged, caring, and supportive on race day as well as during my training. Friends gifted me massages. People gifted extra supplies. Fellow runners shared their experiences and expertise. I received many videos of love and support. My achievement was “victory by a thousand wins” and most of which I attribute to others’ contributions.
  3. Discontent. Imagine visiting an all-you-can-eat buffet, polishing off every ounce of food, and still leaving hungry. That sums up my first ultramarathon. I am grateful for my experience. It was awesome. On all accounts, the race was excellent but I left wanting more. It was clearly “the beginning, not the end.”

I’d be remiss if I didn’t close with a special thank you to my wife (Megan) and dad (Jeff). They contributed significantly to my training, both in the form of encouragement as well as allowing for time away logging the miles. Raceday would have been a mess without their help and attentiveness. Long after these race memories fade, the time we spent together will remain.

(Checkout some highlights on my Instagram stories)

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CTO at Fast Company’s World Most Innovative Company (x4). Author of “Code School”, a book to help more people transition into tech.

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Morgan J. Lopes

Morgan J. Lopes

CTO at Fast Company’s World Most Innovative Company (x4). Author of “Code School”, a book to help more people transition into tech.

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