First 50 Mile Ultramarathon Race
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
So, wow. That happened!
I went to (really beautiful) Manistee, MI this weekend to run my very first 50 mile ultra race. I went into it even more nervous than you'd expect! I was supposed to fly to Chicago to meet up with my buddy and then we were going to drive together to MI. We were staying with a large group of folks from her old stomping grounds in Ohio. Well, my buddy wasn't able to come(!) due to an unavoidable work confliction. Aaron just got a new job and we didn't think he could swing it, either. This is how I ended up flying ot Chicago (already had tickets bought), renting a car and then driving myself to MI. To stay with strangers and run a race without anyone I knew there to support me. Hence, nervous. ;)
The car trip was very odd. It took me way longer to drive there than it should of. I still don't know what the heck happened! I made it to the Manistee National Forest in time to get my packet and shirt and then drove the 25 minutes to our hotel. Didn't get in until 8 pm (and I landed at Midway at 10 am? What the heck happened?) My roommates for the weekend weren't around, so I was able to pack my drop bag and fuel vest, pin on my number and lace my chip while talking to myself to keep from freaking out.
I was going to have one of the gals from the group pace me from mile 32 on to the finish, so she swung by the room to meet me. She was really awesome and friendly! I was looking forward to running with her. :)
We all chatted a bit and then turned in for as much rest as possible. For the first time ever, I actually got a solid night's sleep before a big race. Turns out, I needed it.
Race morning we all get dressed, Bodyglide it up and grab our various bags. The course was well supported but I made sure to bring Nuun tablets (it was going to be hot/humid and I knew I'd need electrolytes), Gus and some bars for solid food in addition to what the aid stations would provide. Some I had on me right away in my hydration vest (Nathan Intensity, soooo goood) the others got tossed in my drop bag along with clean socks, bra, sweatband and shirt, my flashlight for when it started getting dusky in the woods and various other goodies I thought I might need. We had access to our bags at miles 14 and 38.
We grab some bagels and such at the hotel and then head to the woods. Turns out a tree is down by aid stations 6 and 7, so our start is delayed while they saw it down. Good times.
We start without fanfare at 8 am-ish. Trail races are funny in that there really isn't the big hullabaloo like you get with road racing. No bands, no megaphones, no music. No guns going off or airhorns. Just... oh, we're going? We're running now? Ok. Oh shoot! It's on now!
We do a 1.2 mile loop on pavement before heading into the woods on single track dirt. The trail is lovely but very sandy, very rooty and (as we find out in only a small amount of time) peppered with lots of rolling hills. And some not so rolling! The pack is mostly thinned out by about mile 3. Folks who were super speedy have zipped on ahead and the rest of the folks around me are falling into a steady pace.
I follow the lead of the folks in front of me, keeping pace with them and walking when they walk. That's the other thing about trail racing and especially ultras on trail "F it! I'm hiking!!" are not shameful words. It's not a failure to walk a hill, it's just racing smart. In road running, it seems like "real" runners run all the hills and there is this sense of walking being lesser. None of that exists on trails. Saving your legs is a valuable skill! In some ways, ultras and trail runs are about letting go of the ego. It's not about your pace or how you look - just relentless forward motion and giving it everything you have.
It takes me to about mile 8 to have my first real fall. Hit a root mostly buried in sand and BAM! Down I go. Ooof. Minor knee scrape, stinging palms, wounded pride. Nice gent behind me makes sure I'm okay. It wouldn't be a trail race if I didn't fall at least once!
Feeling quite good from miles 3-11ish (those first 3 always suck for me now... it used to be the first mile was the worst... now it takes me 3+ to hit my stride. This is why I hate 5Ks). At around 11 or 12 I start feeling sharp pain on the outside of my right knee. It continues getting worse and worse until I start feeling it in my hip, too. Oh sh*t, IT band stuff? I have NEVER had IT issues. Ever. The super sandy course is causing my knee to twist and is causing stress. I'm super frustrated, upset and really thinking I might have to DNF if it gets much worse. I ask for pain killers at an aid station and pop two. The roar becomes a low dull thud. Downhills are agony. I'm in tears of pain and frustration. How can I even do a marathon distance with this hurting like this? How can I do 50?
I soldier on through the final 13 miles of the loop, moving slower and gingerly trotting the downhills. As I approach the halfway point I leave the course for the portas (none on the course!!! Painful, man!). Mission accomplished I hobble back to the race.
My pacer finds me right as I go past the statt/finish area and lets me know she's gotten cramps from heat issues and had to walk the last 6 of her marathon. D: She's hurting and can't come out again to pace me now. She says she'll try to find me a body to help me out. I'm worried. The whole first loop I've been focused on getting to her at 38. Knowing I just had to do 38 alone and then I'd have company to run with was what was keeping me strong and less wigged. My stomach sinks thinking about the possibility of running in the dark woods alone come 8-9 pm. I mention my IT band and she, being an angel, has an IT band knee brace thingie! I put it on and it's instantly 99% less painful. I feel like I can go on, now.
I start the second loop in much better spirits. Still worried about my pacer issues and still a little afraid of the dark hitting before I'm out. I think that maybe I can make up some time, though, now that my pain if relieved. I'm still hoping for a sub 12 hour race at this point. First loop took me 5:45 running time (plus stops at aid stations to nom fruit, fill water and chat with the awesome volunteers.) I think I can beat that, since I had to slow down so much with the knee stuff.
Miles 25-35 are sort of a blur. I remember feeling quite good for them. Knee starting twinging again at about 5:30 PM, so I took some more pain pills to head it off at the pass. I make the error of eating a bar I hadn't tried out in training and feel sick for a few miles due to it. It's been quite hot/humid and I'm starting to feel that. I've been on my feet for about 9+ hours now. Legs feel good, feet a bit swollen feeling but not bad. Knee cries out on occasion but nothing race killing. I know that I've slowed down just due to fatigue and heat. I wish I'd filled my hydration pack with Nuun at mile 14. I'm looking forward to 38 where I can add my Nuun and change my bra, shirt, socks and headband.
38 comes and I am so beyond caring who sees me changing. Dignity is not really a thing anymore. I pay modesty lip service and stand behind a van while I strip down and reglide, redress. A fresh bra = best thing ever! I forget to change my socks. My shoes are full of sand, even with gaiters on. I head out of the aid station. About a quarter mile away I remember my flashlight! It's definitely going to get a least dusky and probably straight up dark before I finish. I'm SO GLAD I remembered so close to the station. I go back for my light and add it to my stash of stuff in my vest. 12 miles to go. I hope I have a pacer waiting at 42.
No pacer at 42. It's starting to get dark and I realize that my worst fear for this race, running alone in the dark dark woods, is going to likely happen. I am moving at a really nice (fear induced) clip. Surprised to see I still have some 10:30s in my legs. I make it to 42 in 11 hours. More than an hour of that is stopped time at all the aid station plus my clothing change. Worth it. I realize I won't hit my 12 hour goal. I have to let it go and focus on finishing the race.
I catch up to another gal and ask her to run with me since I'm scared to do the dark woods alone. She's got a turned ankle but is keeping a good pace. We fall in together and chat a bit. Around mile 43 my Garmin dies due to battery failure. I take my eyes off the trail and WHOOOOPS, second fall. This one is pretty bad. Instant goose egg on my elbow, scraped my knee again and pulled/bruised my ribs when I fell and rolled. Wind knocked out of me so I lie on the trail for a minute or so before getting up.
I'm babying my injuries as the gal I was running with pulls further and further ahead. I lose her over a ridge. It's getting dusky. I begin to cry realizing I won't catch her. Every time I trip I start crying a bit again. At some point I start to have all out panic attacks where I'm crying and hyperventilating, unable to catch my breath. The falling night has me completely demoralized. The fall shook me. I'm scared of falling again, I'm scared of running in the woods alone. I didn't realize how fragile my confidence was at that point, I am so tired that even tripping feels like failure, like defeat. I have waves of panic attacks from 43-46. At 46, night falls. Real proper night.
The woods are silent and pitch black. I keep the light trained on my feet, watching for roots in the sandy ground. I can't tell I'm going up or down a hill until I feel the incline or the pull of gravity. On occasion I see a fellow runner's light in the woods to my side, as we zig and zag. I feel very alone and very small and very scared. I start to completely fall apart. Where is the last aid station? Surely I've run 2 miles by now? In the dark, the time feels endless and each mile feels so long. I find myself crying off and on as I run, moving as fast as I can without falling.
Finally, aid station. I sob that I'm happy to see them. They tell me I have a mile and a half left. Brief moment of "oh god, I'm going to finish!" pride, quickly replaced by teary desire to just be out of the darn dark woods already, FFS! I run for what seems like forever until I hear the roar and good cheer of the after party. Round the dark corner and into the lights. The folks from Ohio are all cheering my name, I'm teary eyed as I run through the field towards the finish. Over the line, finally done, breaking down sobbing. Hands fisted in my eyes, exhausted little girl crying. Physically, I feel fine. My training was great, my body is strong. Emotionally I am spent. Too long alone, too long afraid. The dark and the fall devoured my confidence and I was running broken for those last 7 miles.
My buddy, the would be pacer, finds me at the finish and takes exceedingly wonderful care of me. How am I? How is the knee? She's so proud, she cried too at her first 50, it's okay! I'm staggering, dazed. She gets me quinoa soup, defizzed soda, water, a chair. Aid station volunteers call my name and congratulate me. I stumble and breathe and try to slow my heart and stop crying. As it sinks in that I DID it, I'm done and safe and with friendly people, I calm down. I statt to feel happy. Tired. But happy. We chat, I eat my soup. I admire my GIANT 16 oz metal the size of my head. Nothing hurts too much though I know tomorrow my shoulders and arms will ache from the falls.
I'm a freaking 50 mile ultra runner. Gun time 13:20. At least an hour of that time is aid station chattering. At a certain point I just started running station to station, wanting to see familiar faces. The other ultra runners all seem to meet up at the stations, too. We say hi, eat food, move on again. The stations are little beacons, leading the way. I took advantage of the food and company. No regrets.
The next day I feel good. The horrible black spiral in the woods mostly fades. I'm tired but not horribly so. I feel a bit muzzy headed but not horribly so.
I'm thinking about doing the race again next year. Another lady I met at the race says she'll pace me the whole run. Tempting. We'll see what I do.
(SPOILERS: I'm going to sign up as soon as I get paid. Maybe sooner.)