I went in to this race with no small amount of anxiety. My only goal was to finish upright. I came off a strong training 50K two weeks ago that helped me build some confidence that I could at least complete 31.1 miles. But racing a trail 50K is different from running a training run on mostly roads on a home course that I know like the back of my hand. I’ve been training through heat and humidity for a few months, so I was confident my body could handle the temperature. But as I laid out my clothes on Friday afternoon, I understood that this would take more than the normal marathon race prep that has become almost second nature. I also didn’t end up wearing my headphones. I haven’t worn them much lately, and this didn’t seem like the kind of race where I’d want to zone out. Good call.
Of course, preparing for this race started before Friday afternoon. My mileage has slowly crept up since Big Sur. I worked in a few marathon-distance training runs and a 50K in the past few months. In the past week, I got between seven and eight hours of sleep every night, and I monitored everything I ate and drank. I tried to taper even though my legs were begging to run more on Thursday night. And Friday morning. And Friday afternoon. But mostly, I convinced myself I could finish this distance.
We chose this particular race for several reasons — and we signed up about three months ago when 90-degree temperatures seemed unthinkable. Late July was a time of year we didn’t have any other marathons. My goal marathon is in October, so if I injured myself training for a long race, I would have enough time to recover. Plus it made sense to begin to build up toward Comrades with a longer race. This one was on a wide trail with rolling hills. It was written up as not technical, though it has “some lose sand at points.” I’m mostly a road racer, so anything that isn’t paved scares me a little.
The race started in the most anti-climactic way you can imagine. A guy — I believe a war vet — said, “Two minutes ’til race start.” Then, “One minute.” Then, “Y’all gah on now.” Michael and I exchanged a look of, “Hmm. OK?” and we were off. The first 11 miles are not too hilly, and with temperatures in the mid-60s, I was moving right along. At the first turnaround, I could tell I was about four minutes ahead of the second woman. I wasn’t too far behind the leading male group, either, but I knew I had a long way to go.
Sometime around Thursday morning, I started to worry about horseflies because someone mentioned them on the group’s Facebook page. It was all I could think about. Or maybe they were deer flies. Whatever the big, stupid, biting bugs are that follow me for miles at a time when I run in the boonies. I asked around about remedies and heard eucalyptus might work, so I went in to the race doused in eucalyptus essence and eucalyptus lotion. I also layered a bug spray/sunscreen combo on top of that. Still, around the ninth mile, a giant fly started circling my head and then moved to my legs. About a mile and a half of circling and swatting later, I’d had enough. I stopped to try to catch the bug. From behind me I heard, “Was it a spiderweb or what?” from one guy and then saw Michael next to him. Oh good, more people for the bug to attack. The bug moved on to swarm the three of us, and I got to run with Michael for the next eight or so miles. Win-win.
Michael and I stopped at the second aid station, around mile 11, briefly, to refill our handheld bottles and grab some fruit. Then we were off to the hills of the rest of the course. Around mile 15, where knew there was supposed to be some kind of course change because a portion of the course was closed, we started to see the three leading men come in to view. We were happy we were on track — that we hadn’t missed a turn. We followed them for a while. They came to a road that I was pretty sure wasn’t on the course map. I sped up to catch them to ask what was going on. We’d taken a wrong turn, somehow. We were running parallel-ish with the course. A guy in a truck drove alongside us to let us know someone had marked off a section that should not have been closed. We would be adding about two miles to the course.
Sometime around the 19th mile, I followed the group down a hill to the aid station. The three guys ahead of me took about two minutes each to grab supplies, and they filed out. I stayed a little longer and ate fruit, a Bearded Brothers bar, drank a bottle of water, put ice in my bra, asked for more bug spray … This part is a little blurry. But by the end of it, I felt like a new person. The volunteers were amazingly helpful. They refilled my water bottle, handed me cups of ice for my bra, lied and told me I looked great. I walked for about 100 yards, stopped to pee beside the trail where I was out of view and then kept running.
Here, I got the giggles because I started running through this underbrush area that was unlike anything else on the course. I kept thinking, “It is A SHRUBBERY” and then laughing and laughing and then hating my life because I had no idea when this slow stretch of overgrowth would be over. I couldn’t see my feet, and I there was sand under the shrubs. After about a half mile, Michael caught up with me, and we made our way out of the shrubs to giant hills that were straight-up sand. My legs were kind of shot, and running on sand wasn’t going great. But I kept it up. My mile splits aren’t terrible through here, but I definitely wasn’t putting down the 7s and 8s like I could in the first half.
We ran together for a while to the 24-mile aid station. The world’s nicest woman insisted on refilling my bottle for me twice. She was amazing. I ate the best Nutella sandwich I’ve ever had. Again I put more ice in my bra. And we were off. The three leaders passed us on the way to the aid station, which was the farthest point on the course.
Around the 27th mile, a guy shuffled past us the other direction and said, “Watch out. Slippery back there.” This launched me in to singing all kinds of Talking Heads. “Slippery People” seemed doubly appropriate.
Stop acting crazy
They’re gonna leave
And we’ll be on our own
I might have been damn loopy by the time we got back to the shrubbery (!) and back to the heavenly aid station. Ah well. The volunteers cheered and whooped as I came down the stretch. I think I dropped several curse words in front of children while I was there. I was glad to be upright and happy to know I only had around five miles left. I left the aid station happier and much cooler than I’d entered. But because we came to the aid station from a different direction (read: we were lost the first time), I was confused about how to get home. Here’s my being confused.
Michael and I were together for a few more miles. I think he saw some kinds of animals at one point — guessing coyotes or wolves, maybe. And at some point I started chanting, “Same as it ever was. Same as it EVER WAS.” I crested one final hill and saw a flag in the distance. The final stretch of trail was probably half a mile, and I could hear the volunteers yelling for me the entire way. Running it felt kind of surreal. I’d never been that far before, and I certainly didn’t expect to feel so good. My finishing time for 33.2 miles was 5:09:28, which was better than last year’s woman’s winning time by about 30 minutes. And that includes two extra miles. I won a pair of Altras and a knife I’m not sure what to do with. Aside from the trail being poorly marked and the bugs swarming me off and on, I don’t think I could have hoped for a better first ultramarathon experience. Veronica, the woman who headed up the race, was so warm and gracious. Each of the volunteers made me feel like I was the most important person out there. They were phenomenal.
The best news about the race is that I didn’t get hurt training for it or running it. None of the stomach or lethargy issues I had on my training run reappeared, probably because I kept my nutrition top of mind the entire race. I ate when I didn’t much feel like it, and I had two bottles for fluids for two-thirds of the race. And today I met up with Laura, one of my Strava buddies, and somehow managed to put down four miles at 7:21 pace. Maybe the endorphins are still going, and maybe the muscle soreness won’t set in until tomorrow. But right now, I’m cautiously optimistic I can do more of these crazy events.
So what’s next? Other than continuing to build toward running Comrades in 2016, I’m taking on a big, scary goal to run a 50-miler in November. Everyone needs big, fun, scary goals to keep going, right?