28 Miles Is A Really Long Way (TNF 50K Training Run)

I’m running The North Face Ultra 50K this weekend – Oct. 5.  (!!!!!) So let’s take a post to talk about long ultra-specific training runs.   I integrated two of them around my Perth Marathon training: one before and one after.  I planned to write about the first one (a 27-miler in early August), but we left for vacation in London, and I got distracted.  So instead, I’ll tell you about the more recent 28-miler (from Sept. 19), and I’ll work in a few nuggets of wisdom/reflections from August’s run.  See how this new schedule is already helping me stay on track?  After all, Tuesday is Race/Run Recap Day!

Until my 27-miler, I had never done a training run longer than 22 miles, and never run further than ~26.4 miles (what I estimate a marathon actually works out to be for most of us), period.  For that first run, I planned for about 25 miles on trails, and I was feeling anxious about the endeavor – so I simply decided not to think about it (except for appropriate fueling and packing) until it was done.  And while the run was sweaty, tiring, and mentally taxing (and ended up being 27 miles) – I completed it.

Afterward, I took those 27 miles and kind of held them in my hand, staring at them with amazement and a little bit of confusion, “Am I crazy?  Did I just run 27 miles through McRitchie Reservoir?  On a regular old Friday morning?  Did I seriously just do that?!?!”  

Of course, the answer was YES – Yes, I ran 27 miles.  Yes, I did it by myself.  Yes, I ran a marathon distance between my first and second breakfasts.  Yes, I still got dressed, did my work, and even went out for dinner and a show with my family that evening.  Yes, I hope my face didn’t have a smug “I ran 27 miles this morning, what did you do?” kind of look on it the whole time.

But fast forward to September, when I set out for my second super-long training run (aiming for 26-28 miles).  This time, I was less anxious: I’d done this before.  I knew it would take awhile, and be really sweaty and not always easy, but I could do it.  My legs felt recovered from the marathon, I had done a 22-mile run the previous week, and I was feeling strong.  During my August run, I had also made the subtle but important decision to change how I viewed long, ultra-training trail runs.  They actually weren’t “runs” at all – rather, they were “adventures”.  My goals for these long trail adventures:

1. Don’t fall.
2. Don’t worry about pace.
3. Walk the hills.
4. Practice good hydration and fueling.
5. Stay out for 4-6 hours.

It was that last point, the 4-6 hours, that was prompting such long training runs.  Yes, 26-28 miles is probably a bit long for a training run for a 50K (31 miles).  Slightly shorter back-to-back runs would accomplish similar levels of fatigue, and would likely be easier on my legs.  I’m not suggesting that anyone else follow my approach.  But for me, personally, I wanted the confidence of having practiced hydrating and salting for a 5+ hour adventure.  The heat out here is no joke, and on race day, I need to be confident that I can plan, manage, and adjust my fluid and electrolyte intake, depending on the conditions and how I feel – not just for the first 2-3 hours, but for the entire 5+ hours of the race.  And since my legs seemed to recover quite quickly from these efforts, they made sense for me.

So I stepped outside waaaay early on Sept. 19.  KMN was with me, headed out for his own tempo workout.  We kicked off our anniversary by running in opposite directions.  [Thankfully, our marriage is stronger than the symbolism here.]  I wasn’t in the mood to do 4 loops of McRitchie (which is what I did in August), so instead I planned to incorporate part of a route I ran back in February with the Trail Running Singapore group.

[Note: There are trails in Singapore, but most are within a few kilometers of a major road that is serviced by a bus route.  Thus, I can go out for a long run, make up the route as I go, and hop a bus home when I hit my target distance.  The most important thing to plan are water stops (fountains, kopis, or convenience stores).  The logistics of long-run planning are actually super easy out here.  Also, I get cell service just about everywhere, even out on most of the trails.]

Although I didn’t want to run four loops of McRitchie, I still kicked off the morning with one.  There is one main loop, but including my run to the park and a few side detours, I extended up to about 9 miles.

I also blaze a trail around downed trees, and take out every cobweb industrious spiders built across the trail overnight.

I also blazed a trail around downed trees, and took out every cobweb industrious spiders built across the trail overnight.

Then, I turned around a re-ran half the loop again – with a quick stop at this lovely thing:

Right hand fountain at the Ranger Station: My favorite water fountain in Singapore.  It's refrigerated!!!  I always stop to refill here...

The right hand side water fountain at the Ranger Station is my favorite water fountain in Singapore. It’s refrigerated!!!!! I always stop to top up my water here, whether I need to or not!

I decided to add some distance with a quick spin through the Treetop Walk (a 250 meter long suspension bridge, rising 20-25 meters above the forest floor) and its associated trails.  But I had forgotten how many stairs there were on the way out, and ended up doing more walking than running.  The breeze up on the walk was fabulous, though (and probably the real reason I wanted to go!).

Treetop Walk with McRitchie Reservoir in the background.

Treetop Walk with McRitchie Reservoir in the background.

It’s too boring to note every bit of food and beverage that passes my lips during this kind of run, but on average I take 1 electrolyte-only source (usually a salt tab, occasionally Nuun) and one sugar+electrolyte source (Sports Beans or Sports drink) every hour.  I also drink my pack dry (1.5 liters) every 90 minutes, and I chug water at any fountains I pass.  In addition to my hydration pack, I carry a small 8 oz bottle (stolen from my no-longer-used Fuel Belt).  I use this little bottle to mix up concentrated Nuun and to help refill my pack at poorly configured water fountains.

After my high-flying foray to the Treetop Walk, Garmie reported I was just under 14 miles. At that point, another trail branched off the main loop.  I was 4 miles from home, so decided to run 4-5 miles OUT on the “branch off” trail, then run back, then run home – which would put me in the ~26-28 mile range.  So I veered off onto the Rifle Range Link, then to Rifle Range Road.  I’ll admit – a mile of road was a nice break from the trail!

I turned back onto the trails and retraced the route we ran much earlier this year out to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.  Bukit, pronounced like “book-it”, is the Malay word for “hill” – so anywhere there’s a hill in Singapore, the neighborhood/area is called “Bukit _____”: Bukit Brown, Bukit Batok, Bukit Timah, etc.

Bukit Timah is actually the highest point in Singapore (163 meters, don’t laugh), and there is a wide, paved path to the top, along with some short hiking trails.  The spot is quite busy on the weekends, but this was mid-morning on a weekday, so things were pretty quiet.  Standing at the Visitor’s Center at the bottom, with 17+ miles on my Garmin, I made a slightly crazy decision: I was going to hike/run to the top.  I had never made the summit, and although I didn’t think the Ultra would be crazy enough to send us up Bukit Timah, I wanted to check out the terrain, just in case.  Plus, I’d never done it before, and this was an adventure, after all.  The longest trail to the top is just over 1 mile long, hiking from ~80-100 meters above sea level up to 160 meters (the long trail had some extra ups and downs in it, though, just for fun!).

So, I set off.  The footing was a no-brainer (paved), but the first part was quite steep.  I took a photo, but it looks flat, so I’m not showing you.  🙂  I fast-hiked the steep parts, then slow-ran the less steep parts.  The trail I chose turned off-road briefly, to descend, then ascend, about 40-50 meters of trail stairs.  I actually appreciated the variety, and in about 20 minutes, I was at the top.  There’s actually not much of a view, but there is a rock!

Yeah, yeah - the active lifestyle blogosphere is full of folks who summit 14ers like its their job.  But in Singapore, we've got to make do with what we have!  163.3 meters will have to do!

Yeah, yeah – the active lifestyle blogosphere is full of folks who summit 14ers like it’s their job. But in Singapore, we’ve got to make do with what we have. 163.6 meters it is!

I also spotted a monitor lizard hiding in some leaves.  Sometimes, these buggers pop out on the trails. They’re harmless, and run away quickly, but are pretty sizable and can give you quite a surprise.  Just ask my friend Deb, who encountered one on a solo run when she was visiting a few weeks ago. 😉

Look closely, he (or she) is there.  Hint: Look for the tail.

Look closely, he (or she) is there. Hint: Look for the tail.

Having “conquered” Bukit Timah (OK, I’ll admit, even I’m laughing at the measley elevation Singapore offers), I headed back down to the Visitors Center, refilled my pack, and set off for home…but home was still a good 8 miles away.  Usually, once I make the turn to “head home”, I start to feel like the end is in sight.  But on this day, the end still felt really far away, even as my watch clicked to 20 miles, 21 miles…

How I was feeling at this point.

How I was feeling with about 6 miles left.

Physically, I was doing OK – legs were tired, but the varied terrain of Bukit Timah seemed to perk them up a bit.  My nutrition and hydration status was good, and although I was feeling tired, I had no specific complaints.  But my brain was pretty much fried.  I just wanted to be DONE.

I tried out some favorite mental tricks: Bribery?  Not buying it.  Envision the finish?  Depressingly far away.  Why am I doing this?  This is RIDICULOUS!  I broke out my iPod, with a brand new audiobook loaded on, just for this very circumstance.  But somehow, I’d accidentally loaded a book that I’d already listened to, and suddenly, the narrator’s voice grated on every nerve I could muster.  Finally, I hit on it: the tried and true method of chunking.  I chunked my way back out to Rifle Range Road, and back onto the trail in McRitchie.

At this point, my chunks turned to miles: Run 1 mile, walk 0.1 miles, repeat.  These were slow, sloggy, hot, somewhat sad miles.  When a gentleman running in the other direction passed me (I was at about mile 25) and said, “Geez, it’s hot out today!” as he zipped by, I sort of wanted to punch him.  Dude, you have NO idea.  Or maybe he did.  What do I know?

Three run/walk repeats later, and I was back to the road, just one mile from home. Normally just want to run to be done, but still…the urge to walk was very strong.  As I fought it with each step, I tried to channel the experience: “I’m going to feel this way during the Ultra.  I’m going to want to walk.  I’m going to want to stop.  I might want to cry.  But I will keep moving forward.”  As I am often telling my clients: “Your training is for your body, AND for your head!”  Well, this run certainly worked out my head muscles…

Finally…5 hours, 20-something minutes later…I was home.  My husband (already at work) had programmed the air conditioner in the study to turn on a bit before my anticipated arrival.  He chilled some water for me, and left me a note reminding me to hydrate (watermelon & Aquarius sports drink in the fridge!).  After a few minutes in the air con, some cold beverages, and a little stretching…I felt surprisingly GOOD.

The greatest casualty of the run was a callous on my right big toe, which got a blister underneath and ultimately had to be cut off (the callous, not the toe).  This is normal for me, so no biggie.  [Also, we’ll be talking about feet and blisters a lot in some upcoming Coach’s Corner posts, so stay tuned.]  There wasn’t even too much chafe-induced post-run squealing in the shower.  And I was awake enough to bang out some work, write a blog post that some people actually found funny, and enjoy anniversary dinner with my husband (don’t hate on the recycled photo):

Hey, you two clean up pretty good!  ;-)

Hey, you two clean up pretty good! 😉

Overall, I’d call the run a major success.  I accomplished all my goals.  I pushed through some tough spots.  Part of me wishes I hadn’t experienced such mental disintegration at the end of the run (motivation wise – all my faculties were still perfectly intact), but part of me is glad for it.  Brains need training too, and there’s no way that this run made me less prepared for the North Face race.  So…come on, Saturday – bring it on!!!

[Even though a race preview doesn’t fit into the New Blogging Schedule, I’ll be posting one, so keep your eye out for one in the next day or two.]

I know a few of you have favorite Port-o-Potties – but does anyone else have a favorite water fountain?

As a runner, what limits YOU more: Your brain, or your body?

17 thoughts on “28 Miles Is A Really Long Way (TNF 50K Training Run)

  1. Jean

    Here are my thoughts as I read this post, in order:

    But Hooooolly, the smug “I just ran a billion miles, what did you do” face is WHY I run!

    I can’t get over the fact that Singapore has trails (and beaches!). Of course, I don’t know ANYTHING about Singapore, but that just can’t be so. Ignorant American, reporting for duty.

    I totally laughed at Bukit Timah’s 163 meters, but that’s some pretty serious gain over such a short distance! And, you know, in the middle of a freaking 28-miler. I always get annoyed by how flat really steep places appear in pictures.

    “I chunked my way…” I need to incorporate that phrase into casual conversation somehow.

    You’re a rockstar! GOOD LUCK ON SATURDAY!

    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      Nah, you know more about Singapore than when you started reading! And this is just one of many reasons I blog. Singapore is a teeny tiny island that most westerners probably don’t really know about, unless they’re heavily involved in international business and/or finance. People who live here sigh in exasperation about the most common questions westerners ask: “Isn’t that part of China?” and “But how do you get around? Do you know any of the language?” And while I sometimes roll my eyes, I certainly wouldn’t have known the answers to these questions without KMN. So, consider me Coach Holly: Bringing Singapore to your doorstep!!

      Please, please write about the time you use “I chunked my way….” in casual convo. Especially if it has to do with economics. Please.

  2. Amy

    I would love to run up to 168 meters. That sounds amazing compared to what I’ve got here. Way to go ahead and make an adventure out of it. And I SO WISH I had a favorite water fountain, but the hard truth is that Colorado lacks water fountains. It is a bit depressing. When I was in Utah in August, I discovered how awesome it is to have water fountains in parks alongside a running route. But here it is just me + my Camelback.

    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      Hahaha! Maybe we could average out our elevation…I could use a little extra climbing around these parts. 🙂

      And although the water situation out here is better than what you describe, it’s not great. But, there’s usually a gas station or kopi nearby, where I can buy a bit ‘ole bottle to refill. 🙂

  3. misszippy

    Way to go! That’s a killer run. I can totally appreciate wanting to do the whole thing in one chunk for the mental boost–I’d do the same. And now you have it and can go into NF feeling confident!

    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      Super glad to get your reply, Miss Z! Somehow, I generally have a good eye for how much/how far to push my clients, but always wonder if I’m pushing myself too much/not enough. [Why is that, by the way?] I know you don’t know all the details of my training schedule, but glad to hear some reassurance from someone whose opinion I respect and trust!

  4. Hilary

    Really enjoyed reading this – and all your other posts; your and Grace’s blogs are the only ones I’ve ever read.
    I’m a big “chunking” fan, just didn’t have a name for it before.
    I know Bukit Timah isn’t very high but be grateful that Singapore does have hills to train on. Houston has slight gradients at best!
    Good luck for the race – will look forward to that post a lot.

    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      You’re totally right, Hilary – as much as I joke about the flat, I can travel about 20-30 minutes to at least 4 different places where I could do some semblance of hill training. [Maybe only repeats of the same hill, but whatever….] Guess you’re going to have to look extra hard to find a spot to train for the long climb in Vancouver! =)

  5. Kristen L

    So excited for you that your 50k is this weekend! I can’t wait to hear about it. Chunking helps SO much — I’m glad that it still ended up working out for you. I agree that training is not just about getting your body ready for an event, but also your mind. It’s amazing how much difference a strong mind can make during a hard effort.

  6. Logan @ Mountains and Miles

    If it makes you feel better, you can drive up to at least two of the 14ers.

    You come do the Colorado ultra with me and Amy and I’ll take you up one =) (not the drivable ones)

    For me, 90% of the time it’s mental. Which is so frustrating, but that also means that I am also fully capable of turning my attitude/perceptions around and knocking it out.

    Glad you made it through your run and you are right about the nutrition/hydration stuff, it’s tricky in those long runs/races! I still think it’s crazy you don’t know your route until just before the race. I am way to OCD for that.

    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      Well, the good part is that I could kind of guess – there’s only so much trail in Singapore, and a 50K has to cover a lot of it. Plus, the routes are usually similar from year to year, and friends have shared last year’s route with me. I know it now, and have run about 60-70% of it during training at various times, so – all’s well. 🙂

      I’d love to join you guys out in CO. Although, have I told you that I’m paranoid about getting altitude sickness….?

  7. Meagan

    I used the same strategy for this weekend’s 18 miler that you did for your 27 mile training run. I just didn’t think about it 🙂 It’s an excellent strategy. I thought of you at the end of my 18 milers yesterday…. I tried to imagine 10 more miles tacked on to that. Nope!

    After running 27 miles and then going about your day as normal, you should totally walk around with a smug “I ran 27 miles this morning, what did you do?” look on your face. You should just try your best not to actually tell those around you what that smug look on your face is about (at least don’t tell the strangers…. by all means tell your family, friends, acquaintances, etc.).

    Don’t you love being the first one on the trail in the morning, so that you can clear all of the spider webs out for everyone else? My running buddy always gets a laugh when I run through one (she’s taller than me, so I’m not sure how I always end up clearing them out) and then make a ridiculous spluttering noise while I flail my arms and try to get it off of my body.

    I love how anything in Singapore with a hill is named “Bukit ____.” At least you know what you’re getting yourself into. Thank goodness for chunking and awesome job on your long long run!! KMN is so sweet to have everything ready for you when you got home. Such a thoughtful guy.

    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      I swear, I couldn’t figure out how I could be the first person out on ALL THE TRAILS, for like THREE HOURS. And I was so glad for the towel that I now carry (gorgeously shoved under the strap of my hydration pack, as you’ll see in the photos) – great for wiping those webs from arms and face.

  8. Santhi

    I take it that you’re v familiar with the Rifle Range road link between Bt Timah and MacRitchie… That’s one route I can’t wait to explore!

    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      We live pretty close to McRitchie, and learned that one pretty quickly! Also connect BT to Green Corridor, Dairy Farm, etc. It’s amazing how far you can go when you know the way (and where the water stops are)!


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