Surviving Your First Ultramarathon Race

Mosi Smith

Ultramarathon runner and triathlete Mosi Smith recalls how he was afraid of the dark as a kid: “I had to have a night-light on and always, always had to leave the door wide open and the hallway light on or I couldn’t sleep.”

As a 100-mile ultramarathon runner, you have to love the night; you have to embrace the night. And that is exactly what this 28-year-old from Atlanta, Georgia has done. In a 100-mile race like the Javelina Jundred, Rocky Raccoon 100-Miler, Grindstone 100-Mile Trail Run, Keys 100-Miler and countless other races, no one finishes without running through the night.

Mosi’s first 100-miler was the Javelina Jundred, 100 miles of trail racing out of Fountain Hills, Arizona and along the Pemberton Trail. Mosi honestly confessed, “I didn’t know how long I would hold up for such a distance, or if I would hold up at all.”

The race information states: “Be aware that the entire course is exposed, meaning there is no shade. Be prepared for hot, sunny weather during the day and cold nights as you dip in and out of desert washes and canyons.”

The race information packet describes the course as a “gently rolling single-track and jeep trail through the desert surrounded by beautiful mountain views. The trail combines many aspects of desert running, including sandy washes, rocky trails, and thorny vegetation.” But no mention of the javelina could be found, and Mosi’s race preparations included a note to self: “What is a javelina?”

After a little research, Mosi found that a javelina is a peccary from the same family as the swine. It eats both plants and animals and has a short, straight tusk. Did someone say “tusk”? The jaws and tusks of peccaries are adapted for crushing hard seeds and slicing into plant roots, and the animals also use their tusks to defend against predators. Did someone say “slicing, crushing, and defending”? By rubbing their tusks together, peccaries can make a chattering noise that warns potential predators not to get too close. Peccaries are aggressive enough in character that, unlike pigs, they cannot be domesticated as they are likely to injure humans. Great.

Now Mosi knew what would go bump in the night while he was racing in the Javelina Jundred, and he would have to control his thoughts and steer clear of images of jaws and tusks.

In a race like this, which continues throughout the night, runners use lights that strap around their heads and give about five feet of visibility in front of them. When runners race at night along a rocky trail, as in the Javelina Jundred, they have to watch the trail closely. According to Mosi, “You are constantly scanning the ground; you have to stay focused on the trail and the rocks while staying aware of the environment around you. The trick is that you can’t go to tunnel vision, but at the same time, you can’t take your eyes off of the trail.”

Mosi continues, “After 40 miles, the runners stretch out and you end up running alone. And that’s when you start hearing strange sounds. And if your light goes out, you are either doing the ‘blind man’s walk,’ stumbling along in the night the best you can without falling into a cactus or wrenching your foot on a rock, or you are pushing yourself harder than your body can stand, to catch up to a runner ahead of you to run off of his light.”

After 70 miles, runners continue hearing strange sounds and additionally, they start seeing things.

“At one point in the race, I was running alongside another runner when in the distance I thought I saw an old girlfriend with her long wavy hair, turning her head around to see me coming down the trail. I asked the runner next to me if he saw what I was seeing. He said ‘No, Mosi, there’s nothing out there but cactus and shrubs. Keep running; we’re almost at the finish line.’ Sure enough, a tall cactus was the object of my hallucination.”

Mosi has an extensive military background. He is a captain in the United States Marine Corps and has served several deployments in Iraq. When asked if his military experience helped him through the difficult part of the race, Mosi said, “In my previous units, we applied Rule 76 (taken from the movie Wedding Crashers): ‘No excuses. Play like a champion.’ So you have to keep telling yourself—remember Rule 76 and remember that there are hundreds of other runners out here in the dark, hearing the same sounds, experiencing the same fears, and feeling the same pain.”

About another point in the race, Mosi says’ “I went what I call ‘internal’—into a sort of twilight zone wherein I felt detached from myself. Everything went quiet except for the sound of my own breathing and heartbeat. I felt little to no pain, but my peripheral vision was cloudy, my surroundings were a bit of a blur, and the environment was a kind of milky, hazy dream state. This zone was more comfortable than the pain of being fully connected to myself, but it didn’t make for safe running, so I had to choose between more pain and more awareness of my surroundings, and this murky, hazy danger zone of impaired visual perception in which I could easily forget to stay fueled, forget to eat and drink.”

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Asked if the race gets any easier once all walls are broken through, or if the walls just keep stacking up, Mosi winced, “The race really didn’t get any easier until mile 99, when I hit this landmark—a paved road crossing—then I knew I had made it. With a mile to go, there was no way, in my mind, that I would not finish.”

In a reflective mood, Mosi says racing 100 miles puts things in perspective. “During such a race you reach what you think are your limits, the boundaries of your endurance, and yet you keep going. To know that you can push yourself this far both physically and mentally is a huge accomplishment. You learn you haven’t even begun to reach your limits, and it actually makes everything else in life seem much easier.”

To help with recovery so he can race another day, Mosi uses Natural Vitality’s Natural Calm Plus Calcium. Mosi says, “Before using this product, it would take me a week or two to recover from a hard event. Now, since I have been using Natural Calm Plus Calcium, I am able to train harder and get back to training sooner after a tough race. I don’t feel the stiffness in the legs that I used to feel, and I am able to do back-to-back endurance workouts and recover faster.

“I also use Organic Life Vitamins (OLV) to keep my energy levels up throughout the day. I used to have a dip in energy in the afternoon and also in the early evening. With OLV, I don’t feel the dip or wane in energy and can keep working and training at an optimum level all day and throughout the evening.”

We asked Mosi for any tips he could give a first-time 100-miler, and here are his top five:

  1. Eat and drink early, and eat often—eat before you are hungry; once you are hungry, it’s too late. To stay fueled, eat at least once per hour.
  2. Settle into your forever pace and go slower—ideally within the first five miles of the race. Chances are you will start out way too hard. It’s easy to feed off the energy of the spectators, the other runners, and your own adrenaline, and that will hurt you. If you don’t find the pace that is right for you soon, you will not make it to the finish line.
  3. Don’t stand still for too long, and never sit down. Methodically walk through your feed station and refuel, thank the volunteers who are supporting you and all of the runners, and talk to people, including fellow runners; this inspires them and tends to boost your own morale.
  4. Run your own race; do not try to pace yourself with another runner for very long. Unless it is with someone that you train with day in and day out, and you are in sync and are employing the same race strategy, you will only burn yourself out. You never know what a runner’s strategy is—e.g., he or she may plan to push harder on uphill runs and go slower on downhill runs, or vice versa. Some runners will even walk downhill or walk up hills, and this will throw you off if you try to keep pace with them.
  5. Have fun—that’s what it is all about. There will be pain and suffering, but in the end, it is a shared experience with people from all walks of life, challenging themselves and overcoming something that few even attempt to achieve. Be grateful that you can be a part of this.

And if during your first 100-miler, you see a runner smiling, having the same kind of fun he had when he was a kid running through the woods, playing with friends, chances are it’s Mosi, having a blast and taking names.

Important Note: Mosi is running for the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund. He is a part of a year-long campaign to raise money for the IMSFF to help wounded warriors (Marines, Sailors, Soldiers, and Airmen) with life threatening injuries and the after-care they receive. Here is the link: http://www.active.com/donate/SemperFiFund10/Marines1in10

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