I’m finally on the other side of running 50 miles. Last week, I woke up on Monday and Tuesday morning with the jarring reality that I was running 50 damn miles straight. Realizing that made my heart beat a little faster and made me a little queasy. It’s a long way. I had never run that far, and I wasn’t sure I could finish it. But as the week wore on, I became more and more zen about the experience. That 6 a.m. Saturday morning start was barreling toward me whether I liked it or not. I love running, and I love being outside. This is just doing that for a long time with lots of fun people every five or six miles. Going in, I was mostly worried about my stomach and fueling and then about keeping my head right for many hours. I just needed to drag myself to the start line and not screw up any of my taper runs. Perhaps I should approach big goal marathons this way, too. Worrying about it won’t change a thing. I just needed to step up to the start line, push myself over the threshold and get on with it.
The logistics involved with running 50 miles are more intense than running a marathon. I can throw some GUs, a watch and a pair of shoes in a suitcase and be pretty set for 26.2 miles. Fifty requires more planning and longer checklists. Some people use backpacks, but I felt more comfortable with the handheld bottle I trained with over the last six months. I never ran out of liquid because the stations were pretty close together. And the handheld bottle ended up breaking my fall once, so win-win!
Stone Mill allowed two drop bags for miles 28 and 40. And with a 6 a.m. start, it required a head lamp for the first 45 minutes or so. I decided to over-pack my bags with treats so I could choose what sounded good at the aid stations.
At the 10-mile/40-mile aid station, there were two bins for headlamps — to be taken back to the start line or to stay at the aid station for slower runners to pick up if they needed lamps for the run back. I decided to be pessimistic and put my light in the “I’ll need this for the run back” bin.
The 28-mile gear bag seemed like the better bag to overpack. In that one I packed a second pair of shoes, a clean pair of socks, a Larabar, a Clif bar, a packet of peanut butter, a Stinger caramel waffle, four GUs, four salt tabs, moist towelettes to wipe my face, lip balm, Tums. Of all those items, I took all the GUs, all the salt tabs, one towelette, lip balm, peanut butter, the Stinger waffle and a Larabar.
When I got back to the 10-mile/40-mile point, I grabbed my headlamp. At that point, I didn’t think I’d need it, but I didn’t want to be stuck in the woods at dusk. It was a security blanket. In my 40-mile gear bag, I packed a second watch in case my first watch’s battery stopped working after 10 hours (it didn’t), more Clif bars and Larabars, Tums, a few GUs, salt tabs and an extra shirt. There, I took one GU, the spare watch and half a Larabar. I knew at mile 40 I could make it home on what I had in my handheld, even if that meant walking.
Some race stats:
- Distance run: 50.4 miles
- Elevation: 2,895 feet
- Time elapsed: 10:22:57 (moving time 9:47:20)
- Scrapes and bruises: both knees scraped and bruised (right knee now black and blue and yellow), road burn on both quads, elbow gash, black toenail, windburn, minor shorts chafing, but the hamstring is fine!
- Times I fell down: five
- Blisters: zero
- Food and beverages consumed: nine S-Caps, caramel Stinger waffle, miso soup, chicken soup, banana, Goldfish crackers, Cheez-Its, Tailwind, Gatorade, GU chomps, Clif shot blocks, two Larabars, Nathan’s maple peanut butter, half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, one donut hole, potato chips, half a piece of bacon
- Hallucinations: none!
First of all, without a doubt, the best part and an unexpected surprise, of this race was our friends Jen and Tom coming out to crew Michael and me. They were at four aid stations and the finish. I didn’t ask them to be there, but they showed up at 7:30 in the morning at the first station and drove all over the course to meet us. They brought potato chips and bacon for me because I know I love salty, crunchy things in the middle of races. At times, especially as I neared the 40-mile aid station, one of the only reasons I decided to run a section and not walk it was because Jen and Tom were on the other side. If I ever run another trail ultra, I will nearly insist on knowing people at aid stations. Plus I saw other friends (Jamey and Ellie, Robin, Leah, Betsy, Sara) scattered throughout the course. I’ll certainly be volunteering to crew other races. The volunteers are just the best.
Michael, Matt and I arrived at the elementary school at 5:35. The volunteers were letting cars with three runners or more in to the lot, so we got a close spot and stayed warm until a few minutes before the start. The school wasn’t open at that point, so runners had to go to the woods to use the bathroom. I did my duty in the woods at around 5:55 and then headed to the start. We were all a little nervous, but the low-key, meandering start and slow first mile both helped set the tone for the day.
This brings me to the trail and to mile 2. At mile 2, I was just starting to wake up and move my legs. I was with a group that was keeping a 10:30 pace, which felt unbelievably slow. I noticed myself watching everyone’s feet and listening to all kinds of conversations. People were wired and ready for the miles ahead. Then I ate it. I wiped out. I don’t know if it was a root or a rock or what. Ugh. It was bad enough that for the rest of the day people asked me if I was the woman who ate it at mile 2. So my right knee had a gash on it, and as the next few miles wore on I could feel it bruising and swelling. Not good. But I still felt decent — maybe it was just endorphins — and picked up the pace on the road until an aid station at mile 14.
After a quick stop, I was back on the trail and kept a pretty steady pace until mile 24. I was running with a guy named Chris who was also running steady and hoping to break 9. I thought we’d do it together, but he went ahead when I started to fade.
The towpath portion was a nice break from the mental strain of the hills. My cadence clicked back in to place, and as I crossed the 25-mile point, I started to think maybe I could finish the race.
Then around mile 32 the downhills started giving me trouble. My swollen knee would lock up a bit as I tried to charge down hills. Charge might be a strong word. I mean, I was pushing the pace to around 10 minutes for a group of at least five people until that point, but then my knee started talking to me. I pulled the pace back and decided to pick my way down the rootiest downhills, walk the steep uphills and jog the flats. It was going to be a long day. Even with this strategy, I tripped again and again.
The next two aid stations are a little blurry. I remember peeing behind a bush and trying to scoot a little out of the way mid-stream so a little girl wouldn’t see me. I remember soup and crackers. I remember many stream crossings and one where I had to balance on a log much narrower than any logs I’ve ever been on. And I crossed it like I knew what I was doing.
I remember looking around through the trees at about 3 p.m. and realizing it was the afternoon and thinking I’d been running a long time. The sun was getting lower in the sky, and the trail was just glowing. The leaves stopped blowing, and I was alone and at peace. I wish I could run more in the afternoon.
The final run through Riffle Ford at mile 40 is pretty vivid. This is when I knew I was going to make it. My head was fine, and my fueling was decent. I put the 10 miles ahead of me in perspective. I run 10 miles every Tuesday, and I’ve been doing at least 10 on trails lately. I knew I had it.
I apologized to Tom and Jen for taking what felt like forever to get from mile 28 to 40. They were awesome and said it wasn’t a problem. I picked up my headlamp in case I ended up slowing more and couldn’t beat the sunset. I would be fine, though. Tom ran with me on the road to get to the trail entrance.
The last 10 miles were slow and lonely. But they were familiar. Michael and I had run about 7 miles of the course in training the week before, and this portion was and out and back, so I knew the big obstacles like the slanted rocks under the bridge and the big ups and downs.
When I finally got to the road section, I was relieved to be able to run without worrying about my knee locking on the downhills. I felt like I was charging up and down the final few hills. I wasn’t really going that fast, but at that point, this felt like the final quarter-mile stretch of a marathon. My final mile was at 8:35 pace. With the grade, it felt like a 7:25. I had plenty left in the tank.
The only thing that didn’t go well, aside from my dumb knee not cooperating, was a little stomach swelling. I probably took in too much liquid or didn’t pee enough. Something wasn’t right about my liquid situation. When I finally stopped running and went to the bathroom, my bloated belly went down. At the finish line, I was feeling a little waterlogged.
This run gives me all kinds of confidence that I can complete the Comrades ultramarathon in May. I can probably go sub-9 if I’m smart about it. Stone Mill was probably harder for a cautious, non-trail runner like me, and I came in to it with general marathon training and a recovering hamstring and without the long runs I will put in for Comrades. I don’t know if I’ll ever do another 50-mile trail run again. Getting back to that point mentally will take me a good year. But I think I can do well at the 50K distance on trails as part of Comrades training.
Now, here’s a list of things I thought of on a 50-mile run:
- All the words to Bohemian Rhapsody
- Were there dinosaurs in Maryland? Why are these rocks slanted?
- Don’t fall don’t fall don’t fall Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango
- Yelling at anyone who has a dog off leash. (This might have been in gibbberish.)
- Here come guys on bikes. Guys on bikes. Big tires.
- Bright Eyes songs and then I tried to stop thinking about that.
- How many miles until the next aid station? (Over and over again.)
- Do I have to pee or do I not have to pee at all?
- I should probably try to clench my butt more or at least pretend to use my glutes.
- What time is it and do I need more salt pills yet?