"I feel so extraordinary /
Something's got a hold on me /
I get this feeling I'm in motion /
A sudden sense of liberty."
- New Order, "True Faith"
Something's got a hold on me /
I get this feeling I'm in motion /
A sudden sense of liberty."
- New Order, "True Faith"
As I sit here typing this, I'm sore. Legs, back, arms. They're all sore. And, wow, I ran an ultramarathon yesterday. Me. It was hard. Very hard. I had a lot of support, and even when I was running alone, I wasn't alone. It was an amazing day. Hopefully, I can put it into words.
I left my house after lunch on Saturday for the drive to Chesterfield, NH. Until I looked into this race, I had no idea Chesterfield existed. After a stop to pick up a pizza for dinner, I set up my tent at the end of Horseshoe Road in Pisgah State Park. This "unofficial" campsite was actually right on the course, about 1.5 miles, so there were a few other runners there with me, including Kate and Julie from Maine and 75 year-old Gene from Illinois, who was hoping to convince the race director to let him start early. "I'm pretty slow," he said. The conversation flowed freely until the moon fully rose and it was time to get some rest.
Race day morning arrived cool and foggy. Perfect running weather. But, I wished I had been able to sleep in. I was too nervous to be up at 6:15am for an 8:45 race start. I took my time packing up my tent hoping to keep my mind off the day' activities, but I eventually headed down the road to the race start at about 7:00. On way down the road, I saw figure shuffling up the hill through the mist. It was Gene. He and his huge smile were on their way. I wished him well, and told him I would see him later. At registration, I joked with the volunteers that it was decision time. I slid to the right and picked my number from the pile labeled "50k." Yup, this was real.
This was not my first 50k. My first was at Pineland Farms in 2009. It was a disaster. From that disaster, I can say that I learned a lot, and it served me well on Sunday. Still, though, I was nervous, but I wasn't alone. I chatted with Jim Johnson a bit at the start, and it's good to see that even top guys get just as nervous. (They just beat me by 90 minutes.) I made one final call to D, or as Jim said, "Put the emergency contact on standby," and headed over to the start line.
It was still cool as the race started, and I was glad I had my brand spanking new Nathan running sleeves. I placed myself well back in the pack, since my plan was to go out slowly, very slowly. Luckily, the course lends itself to that plan because after a short downhill, the course climbs up and up and up the road to the actual park entrance. In fact, once the road turns from pavement to gravel one hill is so steep that most of the field, myself included, was walking. A mile into the race, and I'm already walking. Well, I wanted to go out slowly. At about this time, I started chatting with three guys, Jay, Nick and Chris, and a few minutes later Jay and I were swapping new parent horror stories. Diapers are a good way to not think about running 31 miles.
I had two major concerns going into the race: the downhills and my fueling. Well, just after we left the road, I was confronted with the first: a long, fairly steep downhill. I really focused on slowing myself down in order to save my quads for later. I was definitely afraid of the "too much, too fast, too soon" that can lead to disasters in ultras. I'd learned that the hard way last year. Easy, easy, easy. At the bottom of the hill was the last major of decision of the day: straight for 23k, left for 50k. I felt very comfortable turning left and had a sense that I would have a good day.
My time goal for the day was set off of my performance at Pineland last year. Knowing that I was in better shape and better prepared, I was confident that I could PR for the distance: sub 5:17. So, my goal pace was 10:00 per mile with hopes I could remain steady the entire way. After a mix of tricky singletrack and very mellow woods road running, Jay, Nick, Chris and I rolled through the aid station at 4.8 miles in 46:30ish. I was right on pace (OK, slightly ahead) and feeling very comfortable. A quick right, a quick left, and then, Oh my...this is Pisgah.
Turning onto the Dogwood Swamp Trail the real test began. I did not expect this. The trail went up. Steeply. I walked a lot. So much for right on pace. Even when the trail was runnable it was tricky. It became clear that anything that wasn't a woods road in the park received very little traffic. The treadway was uneven, leaf-covered (Is it fall already?), rocky and rooty. Don't get me wrong, it was good, clean, old-fashioned trail running goodness, but it was more than I was expecting. Somehow the difficulty of the course had eluded me in my pre-race research. That being said, all day I kept thinking, "Man, this course is hard," but I never got down about it. It was always more of an observation.
The Dogwood Swamp Trail led us to the aid station at 8.4 miles. I took a little extra time here to refill one of my bottles with HEED. I opted to wear my Nathan Elite 2V Plus (which is awesomely tremendous in every way) since the aid stations were frequent. Plus, the pockets on the front are like lunchboxes—plenty of room for my gels, blocks and bars. As I mentioned, I was very focused on my nutrition for this race. And, in many ways, I felt this race was going to come down to my nutrition. I worked on it a lot this summer and got some great advice from D: eat every 30 minutes. This is exactly what I did, and this plan worked flawlessly. My energy was great all day, and my stomach felt fine. I left the aid station at 1:27ish with 2 fig bars in hand, executing my plan a few minutes early. As it turned out, the timing was perfect because the next half mile or so is nothing but up—a steep, twisty, paved (must have made sense at the time) up. Since I can walk and chew at the same time, I downed the two fig bars and half of a Berries GoMega Odwalla Bar—not a super, hardcore energy bar, but it's all about taste and texture. These puppies are super tasty and easy to chew.
Snack gone, hill finished, it was time to run again, and I soon caught up to Nick and Chris (Jay was far ahead) who were now running (walking, really) with two women on a very rough singletrack section. One of the women (unfortunately, I never got her name) mentioned that she had helped clear this trail and was running the race for the eighth time. That's awesome! It was great to have her course insight for a little bit: "It gets really rugged through here," she yelled from behind. She wasn't lying. It was in this section that Chris pulled off with intestinal issues: "My stomach is doing loop-da-loops around my ass." Easily the quote of the day. I wished him well and set my sights on catching the other woman, Christine. We were moving downhill, and she was making it look easy. I hate people like that. A few moments later I saw a tall figure shuffling along. It was Gene! We greeted each other cordially, but it was the last time I would see Gene all day. Based on spirit alone I know he finished, but I had to hit the road before he crossed the line. At this point, it had taken him 3:45 to cover about 10 miles.
At 2:00, I downed a gel, as was the rule. I put the empty packet in my shorts. Two seconds later on a nondescript, fairly flat piece of trail I rolled my left ankle. Hard. I'd been feeling the urge to pee for a little while, so I took this as a sign to pull over. But, when I started running again, it wasn't pretty. My run was more of a limp, and I stumbled into the 12-mile aid station. I was very worried that my race might be over. All I could think of was my buddy Jamie's heartbreak at Western States in 2009 when one injury lead to another. I asked the aid station volunteers if they had any spare ankles. They did not. Instead, I went with a cup of Gatorade and headed up the trail, leaving the aid station at 2:04:00.
Luckily for me, the next section of trail, the Old Chesterfield Road, was the smoothest running of the whole race. Perfect to get the blood flowing to the ankle and the stride back to normal. Perhaps it would be OK. Nick had passed me while I was peeing, and he and Christine were running together. I soon caught them, and it was great to have some company to keep my mind off my ankle. It worked as I checked it each time the trail got rocky, but it felt fine. It wasn't issue for the rest of the race.
At 13.5 miles, the course takes a sharp left, and I got a bit ahead of Nick and Christine. I was feeling very good and had a notion to just run a bit faster. I was enjoying their company, but I had to run my race. Something inside just told me to get moving. I was alone on Reservoir Trail and enjoying running up the very runnable hills. The trail was still rugged, but I barely noticed. When the trail topped out, there was a terrific view of Mt. Monadnock off to the left. All I could think of was how lucky I was to be out there. It was a total runner's high moment. I was really enjoying this race, and that song was in my head: "I feel so extraordinary..." (It may have been out loud for a little bit, too. Good thing I was alone.)
My 2:30 snack break came, and I broke out some Clif Shot Bloks, Black Cherry. (YUM!) Normally, I'd eat half the package, but for some reason, I decided to down all 6 pieces. My stomach felt great, so I figured the extra calories wouldn't hurt. The trail was as rugged as ever, and I was alternating running and walking as the terrain dictated. I thought it was strange that I hadn't caught anyone and no one had caught me. It was in this stretch that I understood why people run with music of sort. Granted, I had New Order pounding in my head, which is completely awesome, but I could have gone with the real thing. With that in mind, I was pleased to have some human contact when I rolled into the aid station at 17 miles. "Where is everyone," I asked. It was also at this point that I realized that time goals were out the window. I arrived at the aid station in 3:00-flat when I had hoped to have already covered 20 miles in that time. But, with the terrain I'd been through, I still knew I was running well. No need to start sprinting with 14 miles to go. So, I lingered here enjoying the conversation, the Gatorade and the generic brand Cheez-its. I filled one bottle with Gatorade for variety, and obviously lingered quite a while as Christine and two other runners rolled in. Chomping on an Odwalla bar, I headed out alone only to be passed by one of those runners, Frank, a few moments later. He was moving very well, and I doubted I would see him again. I did not, but he was also the last runner to pass me all day.
The section of trail from mile 17 to mile 20 is the hardest of the entire course. The Pisgah Mountain Trail is serious. Seriously, PUD-filled. A PUD, or pointless up and down, is both physically and mentally demoralizing. "Oh good, I'm at the top of the ridge. Oh, I'm going down. Now, I'm going back up, and now down, and now up, and now down, and OHHHHH COME ON!!!!!" This was the Pisgah Mountain Trail. I did get another great view of Mt. Monadnock, and I laughed at how less grateful I was at this point. This put me in a better place, and I kept pushing. This was the hardest section of trail, and I was anxious to put it behind me. At the time, I didn't know it was the hardest section of trail, but I just knew that it couldn't get any worse. I kept waiting to see the Kilburn Loop enter from the left meaning that I would only have about a .5 mile to the aid station. Finally, that point came, and soon after I caught another runner.
"Dude, what was up with that section?"
"Don't worry, that's the hardest of the entire course."
That was all I needed to hear. My plan/hope going into the race was to feel good when I got to the 20-mile aid station, run the 5.5 mile Kilburn Pond Loop hard, then push as hard as possible/hang on the last 6 miles. When I asked, one of the aid station workers said I could skip the Kilburn Loop for $10, and I was wishing I had some cash. Instead, I headed off on the loop with 3:37 on the watch determined to stick with the plan. And I did. I felt great. The first part of the loop was mostly downhill, and I took full advantage. I passed one runner, and was extraordinary once again. At the bottom of the loop, the trail turns sharply left and begins the climb back out. This part was less fun. I downed a gel at 4:00 (of course), but I was feeling it. I was in a "bad patch." Another runner appeared in front of me, and I focused on trying to catch him. I'd get close, but then as if he could smell me (totally possible), he'd pull away. I did eventually pass him, and he said "I could play a tune on my IT-band right now." Bummer. I wished him well, and I thought, "My body feels great, why should I be down?" A couple minutes later I caught another runner. "Man, I'm looking forward to finishing," he said dourly. I was in a much better place than him. Keep pushing.
I arrived back at the aid station at 4:28. Fifty-one minutes for the Kilbrun Loop. Only 6 miles to go. Just one thing: that had hurt. I figured that water would be enough to get me to the finish, so I dumped the couple ounces of HEED I had remaining, grabbed a couple pretzels and headed out at exactly 4:30. One hour to break 5:30. This is really going to hurt.
My Lemon Lime Shot Bloks, another full package, as I ran out of the aid station were delicious. My stomach was still right there with me, but what was that twinge in my right hamstring? Hmmm... Just after the sharp right turn before Rt. 63, a turn that everyone said was easy to miss...it wasn't due to terrific marking, I passed another runner who was hurting. "It's just not my day," he said. I encouraged him to keep moving, hoping I could do the same myself. A couple moments later, they started. My left quad. My right hamstring. My groin. I was cramping. Badly. Cramps hurt. I wanted to punch a tree kind of hurt. I'd cramped before, but only at the end of runs. I wasn't entirely certain what to do, but in my exhaustion all I could think of was "electrolytes." I had another serving of HEED with me, and I dumped it in my bottle with the water. Somehow, I managed to do this without stopping, so it was a small victory. The cramps would come and go for the rest of the race, and each time I was afraid I'd end up dropping to the trail and waiting for the helicopter (or coroner). I'd like to avoid this in the future, so any advice would be greatly appreciated.
I was now on the Davis Hill Trail, if you could call it that. It was a trail in the sense that the large trees were removed, but the treadway was a mess. Nothing was even. I was no longer thankful to be out there. I was done. I felt far from extraordinary. Amazingly, however, I was still passing people. I caught one runner who was walking (on a flat section), and it encouraged me to know that I was still running. In fact, the cramps subsided when I was running. They'd crop back up when I was walking up the hills. So, 29 miles into the race, I was running up the hills. That hurt less. Ultramarathons are hard.
I spotted another runner up ahead, and it was clear he was really struggling on the downhills. It turned out to be Jay. I hadn't seen him since mile 8. More than 20 miles later, we were back together again. No talk of diapers this time as I moved past him just before the gate that dumped us out onto Winchester Road, aka the most painful downhill ever. I'd left the park and was on the homestretch, but the gravel road was absolutely quad crumbling. I just wanted it to level out. I knew the finish was close, but I really just wanted the road to be flat. I would have gone an extra mile on a flat road. I kept thinking about 5:30, too. If I kept pushing I could make it. I knew that if I walked, I may never start running again. That road was awful.
Then it got worse. Shortly after it turned to pavement, it also went uphill. That was cruel. Then it leveled, but then it went up again. That was twice as cruel. However, I could see the Stop sign. I knew that the race was basically over at the Stop sign. I was about to finish an ultramarathon. My main goal coming into the race was to finish strong, unlike Pineland in 2009. I was doing that. It was ugly, but I was running pretty well. I wasn't stumbling and shuffling. I was running. Then, I was done.
I crossed the line and lost it. I was a blubbering idiot. I was a little girl. The moment I hit the chute, I didn't have to focus, and all the emotions came pouring out. A volunteer took the tag from my number and asked 3 or 4 times if I was all right.
"I'm fine. I'm great. That was really hard. Really, though, I'm great." Then I cried some more. It took me about a minute to pull it together. Then I laughed. It was over.
I congratulated Jay as he crossed the line a couple minutes later. I chatted with other finishers. I called D and barely kept it together. I'm pretty sure all I said was "I'm alive. It was hard." over and over.
My time was 5:25:13. I finished in 27th place.
(Official results aren't posted yet.)
I changed. I ate soup and hamburgers and hot dogs. I watched other runners finish. Christine came in. The guys I'd passed in the final miles came in. Nick and Chris came in together. Kate finished. Julie finished. A lot of other people finished. As I looked around, I saw a lot of regular people. I was in the company of a lot of regular people who had done something extraordinary. These people would pass you on the street, and you wouldn't give them a second look. But, they all completed an ultramarathon. That's amazing. I was very proud to be among them.