Twelve Lessons from the UltraMay 48 Hour Challenge

800 800 Patrick McCrann

UltraMay Complete

With the 2020 season disappearing before our eyes, the Endurance Nation community had a unique challenge. Our athletes trained for races, yet a year without races meant that training had no context.

The interim solutions provided by Brands, Event Directors and Companies in the endurance space have not helped. The “solutions” compete with one another for the attention of the same small pool of athletes.

We created the UltraMay 48-Hour Challenge as an athlete-focused solution.  Simple rules, simple guidance, and open to all who wanted to play along. Equal bouts of work and rest ensuring that athletes could participate safely. Long enough that it was challenging without being too overwhelming.

The Rules

The premise of the UltraMay 48-Hour Challenge is simple. Complete one hour of activity for every four hour block of time. Ideally athletes alternate cycling and running to allow for active recovery. But simple doesn’t mean easy.

Athletes can complete their work at any time inside each four-hour block, leading to some creative scheduling options. Participants are free to balance UMC requirements with their schedule. Some athletes chose to run the entire time. At least one athlete decided to swim the entire time!

In all, over 40 athletes completed the challenge incredible display of dedication and endurance.

The Plan

As the creator of the challenge, I was not exempt from what was about to happen. In the interest of my personal health, I sat down to  craft a plan that would challenged me, not overwhelm me.

Looking at both the options for the bike and the run I decided to focus on the run. I targeted the goal of running more than 50 miles in six hours. This meant running an average of 7 minute and 12 seconds per mile to acheive my goal. 

In light of that focus, the bike became a recovery tool as opposed to a specific challenge.  Run workouts at the end of the early block connected to easy bike workouts for recovery at the start of the next block.

My plan was to do six two-hour sessions as quality run followed by recovery bike. I ran outside because the weather is nice. I cycled indoors on Zwift with the other UMC athletes according to our shared schedule.

My hope was that these bike workouts would help my body recover from each run, allowing me to sustain my effort across the entire 48-hour challenge.

Spoiler alert, I was able to hit my target of 50 miles.

I was actually able to run just over 51 miles for the six hours. I  averaged approximately seven minute and eight seconds per mile for all six of the runs. I was also able to complete approximately 120 miles on Zwift. Sure they are “virtual” miles, but still it added up to create one of my biggest weeks of the year.

training log

Challenge as Race Replacement

Mission accomplished. This was by far the closest thing to a race I’ve had all year.

I had to plan for it. Preparation meant a plan for execution. Organizing gear. Creating a schedule and sticking to it. I had butterflies before the start and cramps at the end.

What more could you ask for?

[Strava Group Image] I had an incredible community along the way. We traded status updates in our Facebook Group and connected via Discord for many of the rides. The group banter brought more than a few laughs; I’d do it all over again for the camaraderie alone!

The Top Ten

Here are my top twelve lessons learned from creating, organizing, executing and recovering from the UltraMay 48-Hour Challenge.

#1 Plan All Your Blocks

When you’re doing a broader challenge like a 48 hour event, it’s important to lay out a detailed plan for the entire event.

In this case, I divided each of the four hour blocks and then did the math. I had a printed table with hours on the left mapped to activities to the right so my brain couldn’t get in the way. This also allowed me to see the early deficiencies and plan for future adjustments as well.

For example, that first run at 11 PM proved to be quite challenging. Having a clear schedule allowed me to manipulate running on the second day.  I avoided that timeslot and continued my progress.

Bonus – The schedule made it possible for me to connect with others who wanted to join in or replicate my program.

#2 Running at Night isn’t that Amazing

The title says it all, but it’s true. Of course it’s worth noting that I was running with a specific time goal in mind. That sense of urgency took away from the adventurous elements of running outside in the dark.

A surprise fog bank and several wild creatures combined to make the run into more of a haunted house experience. It became super challenging at times to balance what I was and wasn’t able to see. Not to mention the changing terrain of the roads that I was running upon. In retrospect, I could adjust my pace accordingly and perhaps invest in either more lights or a different route to make that experience more successful. Or at least get someone else to go along with me to keep me safe!

#3 Alarms are Mandatory

The biggest challenge of the UMC was making sure that I didn’t miss my specific time block for training. Especially because I placed runs just before the bike workouts, and I was intent on meeting teammates for each ride.

If I was late for my run, or late getting back from my run, I would be late for the bike. Being late for the bike meant I got off the bike later. Getting off the bike later meant I was eating into my next window of recovery — which I did not want to do.

Having a series of alarms on my phone allowed me to keep myself focused and on task. Especially because I could label each one as I needed to so that I knew whatever the next specific task was. This proved particularly relevant for the evening sessions, when fatigue was high and my mental strength was low.

#4 Time Block Your Recovery

Recall I stacked my workouts back to back at the end of one session and the beginning of the next. This meant I had six hours of recovery between workouts.

Unfortunately on the first day I did not maximize my six hours of recovery time. Instead I filled it with chores and housework that needed to be done.

Early in the rest block it seemed that six hours would last forever. But the time quickly disappeared as I was distracted by work around the house and fun activities with the kids.

A key lesson learned for me here is to make sure that I block out time immediately after my session for recovery.

I would also give myself about an hour of time before my next shift to complete the essentials. This would include pre-fueling, getting dressed, and doing any important warm-ups.

#5 Minimal Evening Sugars

This might make sense for some of you, particularly those who are caffeine sensitive. But it caught me by surprise.

That run at 11 PM and my ride at midnight, I fueled with gels, blocks and sugary endurance drinks. The net result was that I had a lot of trouble going to sleep immediately afterwards.

Originally I thought it was the exercise, but in retrospect it’s clear that I took in a great deal of sugar which only kept me awake. I fixed this on the second night by changing my sports drink and calories. This meant drinking more electrolyte drinks, for example, instead of sports drinks. It also allowed me to jumpstart the recovery process.


#6 Stay Light, Stay Loose

The lowest point of the entire event for me was brutal. I had completed my midday workout and proceeded to sit down and relax.

I immediately tightened up, and had some serious doubts about my bed ability to continue with the challenge. In retrospect, I needed to follow my recovery protocol and then either elevate my legs or stay active by moving. 

This ties into that earlier pre-session warm-up, when athletes can shake out their stiff legs before continuing. In this respect the additional hours of cycling to complement each hour run was very helpful. Some athletes might enjoy it light activity while others would perhaps benefit from yoga or some form of dynamic stretching.

#7 Whiteboards Make Stuff Better

Yes, I’m an organizational dork! I won’t deny it, but it definitely one of my superpowers. Indoor cycling and running out of your home as a base allows you to consistently check back into the same space. This makes using a white board for notes and reminders very easy.

For example, after my third run it was clear that I was going to experience some uncomfortable friction in my nether regions. I realized this halfway through my run and finished on time but uncomfortably so.

Before heading to the bike, I quickly made a note on my whiteboard for later.  That note came in handy in approximately six hours when I had to run again.

I almost walked out the door when I saw the whiteboard note reminding me to get some body glide, effectively saving my weekend.

#8 Activity Choice Matters 

The schedule I chose allowed me to balance bikes and runs.

Some athletes prefer to cycle first as a warm-up before their run.

Others decided to make it into a mini triathlon – starting with a swim, doing the bulk as cycling workouts, then finishing with several runs.

How you structure the activities to fit your strengths and weaknesses is really important. The broader goal of this challenge is to keep you active and consistent across a 48 hours.

The last thing we want to do is undermine that program with a set of poor rules that prevent you from completing the challenge!

#9 Monitor Thyself

Athletes who listen to their bodies are often the most successful. But you don’t have to have some special skills to be that athlete.

Since you’re based out of home you can use your scale as a tool to make sure you’re staying on top of hydration. Every pound you in a workout requires 16 ounces of fluid to recover from. This is a simple and effective tool to make sure you stay hydrated and on top of nutrition.

Similarly, you can look at the color of your urine as an indicator as to whether or not you are hydrated.

Outside of the nutrition space, you can look at the quality of sleep or the total amount of sleep you getting in a day. This will let you know how far into sleep deprivation you are, and how much you might need to nap to recover.

Finally, don’t forget to check your mood. If you’re getting grumpy or frustrated or just not nice to be around is likely some kind of a problem. It could be nutritional. It could be like the rest, we don’t know. But either way mood is a very simple indicator as to your overall status of health this challenge.

#10 Have Salt at the Ready

If the UltraMay 48-Hour Challenge was done consecutively, it would be 12 hours of exercise. Split apart it seems a little easier to complete. It’s just one hour every four hours across two days. Has to be easy right?

Technically, yes. It should be easier than your average iron distance race. But this is also likely your first big event of the year. And the weather has transitioned, putting you in a position where you are training and increased heat.

Salt is a critical tool in maintaining a successful hydration plan. It also helps to keep your stomach settled. This will allow you to process the diverse types of food on the menu of your challenge.

We recommend using salt pills or similar external salt sources to keep your body on track. You can always take your things to see if there swelling at all around your wedding band or similar area. If you place your fingers together there should be tiny gaps between the knuckles close to the top of the palm of your hand. If those gaps are to disappear, it’s possible your are retaining too much water (puffy fingers) and you’ll need to reduce your salt intake.

#11 New Shoes Matter

Planning ahead for this challenge one of my biggest concerns is the fact that I already had a pair of old shoes.

I love my Hoke One One Clifton shoes, but I had already put well over 500 miles on them. As someone who is 81 kg/180 pounds, running in worn shoes like that for a sustained period of time can really be detrimental.

I made an online purchase earlier in the week, but it looked as though the shoes weren’t going to arrive until Sunday. Until they arrived on Saturday midday!

This meant I could switch the shoes from my first three runs two new pair in my last three. Even if you don’t have a new pair of shoes, having a second pair shoes to run in can make a big difference.

Your feet will  appreciate the effort you put into creating something more comfortable and your legs will feel better with less of a beating in the next run session.

#12 Start with the End (Pace) in Mind

A lot of athletes participating in the first annual UltraMay 48-Hour Challenge wanted to know how best to proceed given the event itself.

Since only one of them had completed a similar 48 hour challenge, most of us were in the dark as to how to handle the work related to the challenge.

My guidance was simple. Just run at a pace that you know you can sustain for the whole event. 

This meant starting off pretty conservatively on the run. But it paid off as a few participants were able to negative split the run, putting up some of their fastest runs on the second day.

This is a great example of how proper execution can lead you to create habits that will benefit you long down the road beyond this individual challenge. Determining relevant race or event pacing is perhaps one of the most important decision you make as an endurance athlete.

You need to leave your ego home and allow the event to unfold as you adapt to the effects of the training sessions and make your adjustments accordingly. Challenges like UMC are not limited to a specific caliber of athletes, rather they are open to anyone who is interested in pushing their limits and are willing to do the logistics required to be successful.

Are you doing an epic challenge this year? If so, good luck and please share the comments below or in our official Endurance Nation Facebook page.

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