How to win an ultramarathon

Posted by Patrick Henry College and Mark Epstein on 11/8/23 11:00 AM

Mark Epstein Wins Ultramarathon (1)Seven PHC students recently ran "The Big Schloss" 50K in West Virginia, and PHC Running Club Captain Mark Epstein took first place! He shares his experience running and winning the race below:

"Going into the race, my goal was to finish in under 6 hours. I started off with two runners, the winner of the race from the prior year, Brian, and Will Kolezar, a recent graduate from Liberty University who signed up for the race with our group from PHC. All three of us had similar time goals. Will and I ran the first stretch (~8 miles) together with Brian close on our heels. We stopped for about 60 seconds at the first aid station before starting off on the second stretch. Brian arrived at the aid station as we headed out. 

After the first aid station, the course began a slow ascent. After getting a little bit of food at the first aid station, I felt really strong. The rain which had been misting for the first stretch started to come down hard. Will dropped back at this point and was soon out of sight. I physically felt great the next  ~11 miles to the next aid station, but as the trails became increasingly technical, I didn't feel like I could let up on the pace. I was worried that any slowdown might allow Brian and Will to close the gap, and I wanted to maintain the mental advantage of being ahead and out of sight.

Mark Epstein Wins UltraAt the second aid station, I wanted to get in and out ASAP. I grabbed some small Snickers bars, refilled my water bottles, scarfed down a handful of potato chips, and was on my way. The climb after this aid station proved to be much more difficult than following the first aid station. I could feel my legs were sapped for energy and my heart rate was racing. I slowed to a hike for a large portion of this ascent, frequently checking over my shoulder for signs of Brian or Will and forcing myself to run whenever possible. I developed severe cramps in my quads at this point but forced myself to keep moving. Near the end of this climb, the course took a ~0.5 mile out and back to an overlook. On my way down I crossed paths with Brian, about 0.3 miles behind, and Will, about 0.5 miles behind.

As I returned to the main section of the course the quad cramps continued intermittently, but I pressed on, knowing I wasn't far from the next descent where I could allow gravity to [do] most of the work and could hopefully get my heart rate down. As I approached the final aid station, I felt exhausted but was optimistic about the rest of the race. When I reached the final aid station, I again spent minimal time before returning to the course. I turned down the pulled pork, refilled my water, grabbed some potato chips, scarfed down a banana, and began running.

Each of the aid stations was situated at a low elevation in a valley between mountains and thus each one was followed with a climb out of that valley. The climb after the third station was substantially steeper than the two climbs prior. The further up the mountain, the steeper and more technical the trail became until I was forced to climb and scramble up rocks on all fours. The muscle cramps which were initially isolated to my quads spread to my calf and hamstring muscles. All my focus was consumed with putting one foot in front of the other and keeping my balance as I navigated the slick and rocky trail.

Mark, Brian, and Will

A short descent after this climb eventually brought the course to a gravel forest service road. The road wound upwards at a slight incline. Wary of missing the turn-off from the gravel road after hearing stories about prior years where the front runner had missed the turn-off in this section, I was constantly scanning for trail markers. The slight incline wore down my endurance but was not intense enough for me to justify to myself slowing my pace to a hike. In a particularly straight stretch, I looked over my shoulder and saw Brian a mere 0.1 to 0.2 miles behind. This reinvigorated my fatigued legs and I pressed on.

After what felt like an eternity, I spotted the flags that marked the turn-off for the trail and the descent to the finish. I raced down the mountain, at the quickest pace I felt I could maintain without completely burning out. I knew at this point I had only 3-4 miles left, and I didn't want to leave any opportunity for Brian or Will to make a final surge and catch me in the final stretch of the course.

 At this point, I pulled off the brakes, and, fueled by the knowledge it would soon all be over, I gritted my teeth and ignored the pain in my legs. As I came through the final half mile, I was nearing what felt like a sprint. Even in these last few minutes, I ran with a sense of urgency, motivated by the image of Will or Brian or another runner flying past me in the last stretch. Crossing the finish line came with an incredible sense of relief. Brian came in less than two minutes later. After running for nearly six hours, two minutes felt like a mere moment.

After finishing the race, my main concern was getting warm. While the storm didn't affect me too much during the race, once I stopped moving, I struggled to stay warm. I found a blanket and several cups of hot soup and tried to recover. 

The atmosphere at the finish line was incredible. One of the race volunteers grilled burgers, and as people gradually came in, we all exchanged stories of our experiences throughout the day over food." 

PHC Running Club CTA


  Patrick Henry College exists to glorify God by challenging the status quo in higher education, lifting high both faith and reason within a rigorous academic environment; thereby preserving for posterity the ideals behind the "noble experiment in ordered liberty" that is the foundation of America.

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