Karen Douglas is the only runner I know who considers marathons to be training runs. This Omaha lawyer is an ultramarathoner. She has trained for – and won – a 100-mile race, and has tucked under her belt other races at distances of 50+ miles.
When she met me in a café for our interview, she apologized for looking a little disheveled (read: Her hair was in a ponytail … so, more put together than myself). It was 4 p.m., and already she’d spent an hour on the StairMaster, did some strength training and squeezed in a 7-mile run.
And some mornings, before your alarm goes off at 6 a.m., she will have already finished her 24-mile run for the day.
Douglas doesn’t own a cape (that I know of), nor does she have a superhero costume, so I’m going to venture to say she doesn’t possess superhero powers. If you talk to the energetic 40-year-old, you hear the excitement in her voice when she talks about her races.
She just loves to run. And she’s really good at it.
The road to the ultras started with a ill-fated marathon. While in law school at Creighton University, she ran the 26.2-mile race and fainted after it. She said she never wanted to do one again. And she didn’t race for years after that.
But, minds can be changed.
In 2004, Douglas ran the Chicago Marathon with her husband Mike. She said she was unhappy with her time, so she decided to run another one the following year. Her time running Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn., qualified her for the elite granddaddy race of them all: The Boston Marathon, which she ran in 2006.
“Then it spiraled out of control,” joked Douglas, who assures me that anyone who can run a marathon can run a 50K, you just have to put the training miles in. (I’m sure it’s that easy)
She set a goal to run the mountainous Pike’s Peak Marathon, and placed third in her age group. That’s amazing when you consider the elevation difference between Colorado and Nebraska.
The intense training for that race led her to aim her sites on another race: A 50-miler. Her finish was impressive; in fact, she was the first woman to cross the finish line.
“So, I felt this was my thing,” said Douglas.
It’s August 2009.
The mid-day temperatures in South Dakota reach the 90s that time of year. Perfect weather for the Lean Horse 100 race, right?
Douglas’ first attempt at a 100-mile road race turned out to be a successful one. She did what no other first-time woman had managed to do: She won the women’s division. She finished in just over 21 hours.
Read that again. Yes, she won her first 100-mile race.
I’d love to go into detail about the race, but her husband’s account of her hard-won triumph beats anything I’d be able to piece together, so if you’re curious, read about it here. It goes into great detail about how important a quality crew team is, as well as how nutrition and mental preparedness factor into the race (clue: A LOT).
There are a lot of pictures on this site and details about what Douglas went through. She warns about the race: “Ultrarunning is not very glamorous.”
When I asked her what she was proudest of, it wasn’t winning a race or even finishing a particular one. It was the commitment she poured into her training.
“You have to want to do it and be disciplined to train.”
She trained in winter temperatures so frigid, her husband said she’d return home from a run with “frozen balaclava dangling from her face. Icicles formed from her ears, eyebrows and chin.”
She overcame an injury before the Lean Horse, too. But, she didn’t quit.
“But I had this goal, so for four weeks, I did nothing but pool jogging.”
What exactly did her training schedule look like? Not surprisingly, there aren’t a whole lot of guides out there. Douglas pieced together a training plan on her own.
Her training schedule is based off of Hal Higdon’s ultra-marathon training schedule … which only gets you set for a 54-mile race. If you’re curious, here’s what it looks like.
Training for a 100-miler almost needs to be a full-time job, but unfortunately, Douglas already had one of those. To fit all the miles in, she split her workouts. Her schedule consisted of 60 to 90 miles in a week, not including any cycling she’d get in.
Part of her training involved back-to-back long runs. On a Saturday, she may run 24 miles, followed by 12 miles on Sunday. Her longest back-to-back runs were 30 miles and then 20 miles.
“It’s all about the long run and the mid-week long run,” she said.
There’s one other thing about Douglas’ training runs: They’re mostly off-road, since she said most ultras are off-road. Nebraska doesn’t offer a lot in terms of trail runs, so she ran a lot on gravel roads.
Planning proper nutrition and hydration is key for any distance of race, but it’s paramount when you’re doing an ultramarathon with aid stations spaced out by 4 to 6 miles. As Douglas explained, you have to carry everything you need. But first, you need to figure out what exactly that is.
“You have to eat real food,” said Douglas. “You can’t sustain yourself on gel.”
Douglas experimented a lot with food. Her race eats included pretzels, chicken noodle soup and cheese sticks. She also had 24 gels in the mix.
Leading up to the race, she had to prep her stomach (50- to 100-milers are hard on your stomach, she confessed).
Three weeks before the big race, she tapered her caffeine intake. A week before, she ate only clean, bland food.
But there is one other important aspect of training besides the physical preparation and the nourishment plans. It’s getting your mind into the game.
“It really becomes more mental than physical,” said Douglas, which she said might explain why the races tend to draw an older, more experienced crowd.
She logged her training during previous ultramarathons, so she has learned from past mistakes. She does more cross-training now. And, Douglas swears by the double-workout days.
She’s up at 4 most days, fitting in the first of her double-workouts. The day after our interview, she planned on waking up early, running 6 miles to the bus stop and taking the bus to work. The double-workouts help her fit everything into her day, but they also serve another purpose.
“Breaking it up is actually better for you and helps reduce injury,” Douglas said.
You’ve got to wonder what’s next for someone who has ran 100 miles. For Douglas, her eye is on the Leadville 100.
“Leadville will be a big step up,” said Douglas. “I expect it will take 30 hours. It’s at 12,000 feet and rocky terrain.”
All she hopes for is to beat the cut-off time of 30 hours.
KAREN’S ADVICE FOR WOULD-BE ULTRAMARATHONERS:
– “If you can do a marathon, you can do a 50K,” said Douglas.
– Douglas recommended hooking up with a running group.
“If you have to do a long run, you can do part yourself and part with a group.”
– She also recommends you befriend a group of like-minded individuals, people who will keep you motivated.
– Ultimately, she wanted to let people know that training for and finishing an ultramarathon is empowering.
KAREN’S FAVORITE RACES:
– Marathons: New York City (“Every runner should do it once.”)
– Ultras: Afton, a 50K race outside of Minneapolis (“The support is amazing and it’s beautiful.”)
– Other marathons she recommended was the Estes Park Marathon in Colorado (“It’s pretty amazing” … not to mention she placed first in among women); the Des Moines Marathon in Iowa; and the Pacific Crest in Oregon.