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El Cruce 100k: am I ready for ultras?

From Sub-Ultra to Ultra: My El Cruce 100k Journey

Last week, I embarked on an incredible adventure – the El Cruce 100k, 3-day stage race. It was an incredible experience from start to finish with epic views, people, and nights spent freezing in a tent to boot.

The Challenge of El Cruce 100k

El Cruce 100k, a name that resonates within the ultrarunning community as one of South America's most reknowned stage races. The race name translates to the crossing and previous historical editions saw racers cross the border of Chile to Argentina, covering 100 kilometers of distance over 3 days. While this is technically an ultra-marathon distance, it broken up into 3 days as a stage race making each individual day technically a sub-ultra distance. So, I am not sure if this totally counts as "running an ultra", but for the purposes of this blog I think it gave me a good amount of insight into what a one day ultra might be like.

As someone who thrives in the classic mountain running discipline and sub-ultra distances, I was a bit skeptical when Saucony asked me to attend and race the El Cruce 100k. But alas, the allure of Patagonia's challenging terrain, breathtaking scenery, and the chance to step outside of my comfort zone and try a new race format drew me in. The 2023 edition of El Cruce was also taking place just miles from where I won my first World Championship title, so having the chance to revisit that magical place (and see Argentina again, one of my favorite countries) was convincing enough for me to make the trip.

Goals: Friends, Food, and Fun

The moment I laced up my shoes for the first stage, I knew this was a different ball game. I was lucky that two of the winners from Saucony's Project Peak challenge were good friends from home; Leah Lange and Keelah Barger. Having these two by my side, and my twin sister along on the trip as our crew chief, meant that the nerves for the race were low. This was a positive, where usually at the sub-ultra distances I don't have friends that I plan to run the whole race with and the vibes are not all that chill. Some other main differences that I noticed, compared to mountain races, were that in this race I had to carry ungodly amounts of fuel with me. In mountain races, I generally do not need to eat all during races. During El Cruce, I planned to carry and consume 1000+ calories each day. We estimated that each day, which consisted of about 21 miles and 5-6k feet of vert, would take 3-4 hours so you can work out carbs/hour on your own if you want. Because I am still coming back from some major health issues and an autoimmune disease diagnosis that sidelined me all of this fall, I didn't plan to race with much intensity. My goal for this race was just to have a good time running with my friends, enjoy the views, and complete the 3 days of racing without having a disease flare up. Secretly, I also wanted to see what this whole ultra-running thing was about and if it was something I would be interested in.

Reimagining what a "race" can look like

In sub-ultra distances, it's often a sprint of focused intensity. Vertical kilometers are like running an 800m race for 50 minutes (read more about the excruciating pain of VKs here!). In mountain races, I would say the feeling of intensity is more similar to an all out 10k or half marathon. It was strange to go into In El Cruce, where the distance, terrain, and fueling were the biggest challenges and time and intensity was less of a factor. I also think that probably mental fortitude plays a different role in both disciplines. With sub-ultra racing the mental fortitude required is more like "how long can you tolerate holding your hand on a hot stove?". With ultras, I have gathered that the hot stove metaphor isn't as applicable. With ultras it seems that your mental energy is mostly directed towards moving forward at a steady pace, not getting overwhelmed by the sheer distance of the event, all while making sure you are checking in with your body and fueling frequently to avoid bonking.

More new things: not warming up before a race! With sub-ultras you have to be ready to run fast right from the get go. With El Cruce we had time to work into our steady pace and lots of time to chat and eat. Over the course of almost 11 hours, I developed amazing friendships running with Keelah Barger and Michelle Reddy and had the privilege of learning a lot about them. We also shared snacks, advil, airplane arm photo ops, and pee breaks together. This is a memory I will treasure forever and definitely not something that I have experienced in a sub-ultra race!

In races in the past, especially mountain and sub-ultra races, my mindset has alwasy been "let's see how fast and how hard I can run this". Not surprisingly, I can be quite a competitive person, so letting people pass me on the trail and focusing on snacks and fun instead of competition took almost constant reminding. But by the 3rd day out on course in Patagonia, I realized I needed less and less reminding and the natural gratitude and enjoyment had really started to take over. This is something I am proud of. Instead of an on/off switch, I now think that maybe my competitive nature is trainable and is more akin to a dimmer switch. In all areas of life, I think this is advantageous. Yet another nugget of wisdom that 100k has given me!

Some other race firsts, that are more unique to the stage racing format, came in the form of camping in tents in between stages. I am a HUGE camping fan. It is literally one of my top hobbies, if not #1. But I would be lying if I said I had ever camped in a tent the night before a race. Typically, I strive to make the nights before big races a comfortable experience with lots of good food, a nice comfy and warm bed, and maybe a fun movie. Unfortunately, we hit a cold snap during our nights in the tent and with temperatures dipping down into the 20s (fahrenheit) and probably not enough layers on, the nights were VERY cold to say the least. After shivering for a few hours pre-dawn, and huddle up next to my twin sister, Maddy in our 2-person tent, the last thing I wanted to do was go run 20+ miles for nearly 4 hours. But you gotta do what you gotta do! This was an important lesson on being flexible and reminding myself that I can still do hard things in less than ideal circumstances. A profound lesson that I think ultras probably teach many people!

This camaraderie among fellow runners, the beauty of the untamed landscapes, and the raw, unfiltered moments of pushing through boundaries, on top of all of the laughs and snacks of course – all of it begged the question: Have I caught the "ultra" bug?

The Ultra Bug: Have I Caught It?

The answer isn't as straightforward as the trails we ran (which were actually not straightforward at all becausee the exact routes were never released so we just followed flags the whole 100k). El Cruce 100k was a profound experience that left an indelible mark on my running journey and I will always have a special place in my heart for Argentina and all of their kindness & carne. In fact, there was so much carne (Spanish for meat) that by the end of the trip our mantra was "No mas carne" (but it was delicious nevertheless).

While I may not be ready to declare full allegiance to the ultra community, the seed of curiosity has been planted. The allure of ultrarunning, with its unique blend of physical and mental challenges, has left me contemplating future endeavors. Right now, I feel like I have a ton of unfinished business left in the sub-ultra and road scene, but I think that ultras are definitely going to be a part of my running journey in the (far off) future!

To all the runners out there, embrace the challenges, relish the moments of triumph, and keep pushing your boundaries to try things outside of your comfort zone. The journey is as important as the destination, and sometimes, it takes a 100k to truly understand just how endless the possibilities can be.

xoxo Grayson

P.S. If you have done both sub-ultra and ultra races before I'd love to hear your take on both in the comments!

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