This past Saturday I ran the Stone Cat 50 mile trail race. This was my first 50 mile race and, by four miles, the longest distance I’ve ever run. To be brief, this was one hell of an experience. But I’m not good at brevity so here’s my report:
The flight to Boston was the first first of the weekend: my first time traveling solo on an airplane. Anyone who knows me knows how much irrationally afraid of air travel I am, so fortunately the plan ride was uneventful (and because you’re reading this, obviously the flight home was too) and quick. My awesome friend and the one responsible for me getting into this mess in the first place, Ashley, picked me up from Logan International and we headed to her apartment in Cambridge. An easy shakeout along the Charles River and some catching up and that was it for the night. We got plenty of sleep and took our time getting up and out the door. There wasn’t much on the agenda for the day before the race. We had to pick up our numbers from the New England Running Company in Beverly. Then we drove over to the Doyon School where the race would start/finish the next day and ran the first ~2 miles of the course out and back. I’m glad we did that as I knew to expect some wet conditions. After that it was a short drive to Gloucester to meet up with Katie. While Ashley drove back to Logan to pick up Tyler who was flying in from Buffalo, Katie and I stocked up on some supplies and took a tour of the cute little fishing town. We went out to eat at Maria’s Pizza which was a delightful find with delicious food that on almost any other night I would have seriously overindulged in. My brother Scott arrived; making it just in time for food after having fought through traffic driving up from Long Island, and our little crew, which we named Team Awesome, was finally complete. Back at Katie’s I was making last minute preparations and getting everything ready for race day which would arrive extra early. I was in bed by about 10:30 and despite a somewhat racing head and heart, managed to sleep reasonably well.
I woke up before my alarm went off, right around 4:30 am. I was the first one up, with Katie not far behind. Despite how early it was, I was feeling awake and alert and ready to go. The rest of the group began stirring shortly after. I was dressed and eating breakfast in minutes and began packing my bag. We got on the road right around 5am and were at the school by 5:30. It was amusing driving there not seeing a single car on the road and then all of a sudden we were met with this hub of activity. Ashley and I walked into the school’s gym to check in. The volunteer there gave me a little crap about my Yankees sweatpants (as well she should have — I was in Red Sox country after all). There were runners everywhere, all over the gym stretching, dressing, applying Body Glide, and doing all the sorts of things you typically see runners do in the minutes before a race. The line for the bathroom seemed too long so I opted for the woods. By the time I was done with all that we walked over to the basketball courts where the race would finish. As I walked from the woods over to where the rest of the group was standing, my first moments alone in a while, I looked up at the crystal clear sky and just spent a second or two admiring it, lost and detached from what was about to happen. It was almost 6am but nothing really seemed set up and most people were still inside. I figured, correctly, that they decided to push the start back a bit to allow slightly sooner running in daylight on the first loop. I waited until I saw everyone coming out of the school and walking toward the start and then I took off my jacket and sweatpants, put on my gloves, get my headlamp ready and grab my water bottle. Ashley and I walked over to the start and gave each other a “good luck, kick ass” as I left her to get towards the front. We lined up on the edge of the field and the race director said some stuff that I don’t remember. Then he yelled,” 3, 2, 1 GO!” and like that, the race I have been training for since July had finally started.
The Stone Cat course is set up to be a good race for first-timers but I can see how experienced ultrarunners could still be challenged. The course is a 12.5 mile loopthat starts at the school, runs across the field, turns onto some trails, winds through Willowdale State Forest before coming back out to the field. Repeat four times and that’s it. From a logistical standpoint, it makes life easy because I only needed to bring with you enough stuff for 12.5 miles and could leave everything else at the start/finish where the crew would have everything prepped and ready to go when I got in. At any point I was only about 5 miles from an aid station. The course itself is relatively easy, inasmuch as there are no serious, steep hills that force you to walk. Every inch of it can be run, and therein lies the difficulty. While there are SOME hills there’s no obvious spot to take it easy and running the whole thing can (and likely will) catch up with you later. As for how the actual race went…
It was a surreal experience to actually be doing the race I had spent so long thinking about and training with my focus specifically on. And for the first few steps, I wasn’t really. There’s a marathon that is run simultaneously with the 50 miler. They run an extra bit at the start around the school fields before doing two laps and calling it a day. Apparently the 50 milers were supposed to line up on the left side of the field because we were not going to do the extra field bit. Fortunately I realized this minor foible early and was able to cut across the field before we made the turn onto the actual trail.
As we hit the trail, three guys had very clearly moved well in front of everyone else already. Then there was a fourth guy a bit behind them and I fell in next to someone else in 5th/6th position. Thanks to our brief bit of course recon, I knew to expect some decent puddles early on here and to stay on the left side to avoid most of them. It was strange running through the woods with it being so dark, illuminated by all the lights ahead and behind me. As the trail turned I moved up past the guy I had been with briefly and another guy, just cruising along at a very relaxed effort and was all alone in 4th. The trio ahead of me probably already had about 100m and I quickly put out of my head any thoughts on trying to bridge the gap so early. I kept reminding myself that the first lap was like a long warm-up. I couldn’t do much good here but I could do a whole lot of awful if I ran stupidly.
I was not a fan of this first part in the dark. The course had a number of twists and turns and in the dark, even with my headlamp, there were sections where I got off-trail a few steps. Because of the winding nature of the trail, I would see the three lights ahead of me and get a bit confused when I ran in a different direction than it seemed they were moving. Worse than the navigation though, my hands were FREEZING. I knew to expect this beforehand but didn’t know what to do about it. My strategy was to run with one hand balled up in my glove while the other held the handheld bottle and then switch off when I needed. The problem was that even with the gloves on, the bottle chilled my hands so quickly it became a real issue. At times I had to run with it tucked under my arm like a football, which was not exactly comfortable. I definitely got a little whiny about the cold and the dark in my head here. At some point early in this loop I was running down a short hill, managed to get off trail and as I was attempting to correct myself, punched a tree with my right hand. OUCH! It jolted me for a second but I shook it off and kept going. I tried being cautious on the particularly winding sections, tried to stretch my legs a bit on the flatter stretches. About 3.5 miles in, the sun was finally starting to make its appearance and I was actually able to see more than just what was right in front of my face. And what I came to pretty soon was the “small creek crossing” mentioned on the race website. Thanks to the rains the previous weekend, the “small creek crossing” was decidedly not that small. It stretched on for probably a few hundred feet. Initially I thought maybe I could avoid getting my feet completely soaked by running along the edge. Nope. Not a chance. I quickly realized the folly of my attempt and plowed right through, the water occasionally reaching up to my shins. It was FREEZING cold, obviously, and my feet went instantly numb. This would be the best test yet for both my Brooks Pure Grit trail shoes and my Drymax socks. I hoped they were up to the task.
Shortly after that, right before I came to the first aid station, I wiped out on a little root. Nothing major, just scraped up my hands. Everyone here was extremely encouraging and helpful. Every aid station I came to throughout the day, someone immediately volunteered to take my bottle and refill it, but I had to continue to politely decline their offer. I decided to go with just water at the aid stations and sip from my coconut water bottle throughout the loops. I also ate three Clif shot blocks here (which had hardened up much like the Gu chomps did at the 40 miler and made it tougher to chew). I was in and out pretty quickly and back on the trail. The section between the first and second aid stations is only about 3.5 miles but it felt longer. At some point in this stretch, I turned off my headlamp. I also got caught and passed by Dave Herr (though I had no idea who it was at the time), who looked very strong. In and out of the second aid station, I ate a Gu Roctane (blueberry pomegranate) and was feeling very good, though my hands were still frozen. The volunteer who had given me crap about my Yankees sweats before the race was there and told me it’s a two minute penalty which made me chuckle. My feet, I was happy to note, seemed dry and had no hot spots forming. At some point about 1:15 in, I stopped to pee. I had no qualms about stopping to pee throughout the entire race because I took it as a good sign that my stomach was cooperating and I was drinking enough. The last ~mile of the loop is the same as the first part of the loop so I’d have a chance to see where the leaders were. I was probably about two minutes from finishing my loop when I saw the three guys ahead of me coming back out, so I figured they already had a 5 or so minute advantage. Crazy. As I turned back onto the field I saw Dave running out so he was up by about a minute or two as well.
As I crossed the line and rounded past the aid station, Katie, Scott, and Tyler greeted me. Tyler took my bottle and re-filled it. I complained about my hands, and went to take off my gloves because they felt wet and cold. It was here that I first noticed that my right hand was covered in blood from when I hit the tree. Cool. Scott got my orange gloves, as I figured they’d be a bit warmer. I also took off my long sleeve Brooks shirt, now wearing just a neon green Brooks t-shirt on top of my Brooks ID singlet. I also took off the headlamp but opted to keep the ear warmers at least for another lap. They said I was looking good and that the leaders came through in about 1:25. Tyler said to just run my race and don’t worry about them, I was thinking the same thing. I was happy with where I was at and the effort I had expended so far and I set off. First loop – 1:35:36
I saw some guys coming in as I was going out. I actually don’t remember much of the second loop except that it felt much better than the first. The sun was out now and it was almost like starting a completely different race. My hands were still cold which was annoying but aside from that everything felt strong. I went through the first section quicker than the first lap which didn’t surprise me considering I could SEE where I was going now. I stopped to pee before crossing the water this time and I got to the aid station a minute or two early. Another nice bit of running to the second aid station and as I got through there a guy named Chad caught up with me, as did the two marathon leaders. The guy who would win the marathon went on ahead and out of sight quickly while Chad, the second place guy, and I pretty much stayed together for the rest of the loop. Toward the end of the loop I was feeling good and pulled a little bit ahead of the other two. We had been passing people on their first loop for some time now but it was never an issue. This time the leaders were a bit more strung out instead of the pack that looked so strong when I passed them at the end of my first loop. I got through the s/f and once again, Katie and Tyler sprang expertly to action. I lingered maybe a little bit longer here this time and also took an espresso hammer gel because I realized I was down a gel on this loop. (My strategy was one Gu Roctane and either a regular Gu or a package of Clif shots each loop plus some aid station grazing and water). I switched to my hat and once again was off, now running in 6th place. Second loop – 1:36:39 (3:12:15 cumulative)
As I started the third loop I was beginning to feel the collective fatigue from running so much begin to catch up with me. It never felt daunting that I was only halfway done and still had some 25 miles to run but I was definitely approaching a mental low. As I began the first hilly part of the loop I powerwalked instead of running this time. About now I also noticed my eyes were starting to do the same thing they had done at the 40 mile race – fog up. It was a slow process but now that it was light out, I definitely noticed my vision was getting cloudier, not exactly ideal for running on a trail. At some point before the first aid station I tripped over a root and fell again, my right knee going straight onto a rock. It was split open and bleeding immediately but I was more concerned with any potential damage that had done. After a few exploratory steps I decided it was going to bruise and I was fine. Onward. First aid station and I munched down some pringles and more shot blocks and more waters and continued on. It was here in between the first and second aid stations on the third loop that I hit the lowest point of my race. All of a sudden I was starting to feel sluggish. I remember wondering to myself where the hills I was encountering had been on the previous two loops. I was starting to feel some discomfort in my right ankle from all the times I had landed awkwardly or kicked a rock or root, and the two falls. I still had about twenty miles to go and I was not feeling so great.
And then I came up on a tall, skinny guy in jeans carrying what looked like my jacket in a bundle in his arms. Scott? Yes, my brother was walking along the trail 5 miles in. He looked back and I just kinda waved at him and said go. He became a pseudo-pacer for a mile or two. I was feeling like shit and he was trying to encourage me but it only helped internally, not physically. I took off my hat and gave it to him, hoping the cool air on my head would help too. He had only seen me running at the beginning of races and at the end of Finger Lakes where I won and was feeling pretty good. This was entirely different. Eventually I began to feel a bit better and was running again and I left Scott, thanking him for being where he was. Right before the aid station I took off my t-shirt and handed it to the Yankee-hating volunteer asking her to give it to a tall guy wearing jeans who would likely be coming through in a bit. I asked someone what mile we were at, because at that point I couldn’t do the simple math of 25+7.5, nor did I have the intelligence to look at the sign that SAID what mile we were at. Someone woman said about mile 20 and being so tired I got kinda grumpy with her and said that I was on my third loop. I felt kinda like an ass but we all have our moments. A cup of M&Ms, water, some more Pringles, a pineapple roctane and I was off. It was a bit lonely on the final stretch of this loop. I was realizing that not only was I now not ahead of 6:40 pace but I was falling behind it and a 7 hour finish would be difficult if not impossible. No 50 milers passed me and I didn’t encounter any ahead of me, just people on their previous loop. Those last 5 miles of the third loop felt like they just dragged on and on. It seemed like I was encountering parts of the course that had just been added for this loop. But I was definitely running the same course, just much slower. I didn’t allow myself to think about the fact that I needed to run an additional loop after.
Finally I got back to the part of the trail that I recognized as only being about a mile from the end. I was angry with myself that I basically had to walk up not-terribly-significant uphill near the end. I just kept telling myself to hike with a purpose, not to dawdle. I saw a few of the guys ahead of me, though the ones at the very front had already come through and exchanged some encouragements. I came out to the field and realized just how cloudy my vision had gotten, especially my left eye. I came through the start/finish again and went straight to the aid station. Tyler and Katie were standing there waiting, Tyler now all ready to run as we was going to be pacing me for my last loop. He grabbed my bottle to fill it, Katie handed me the last GUs and I just shoveled some more potato chips and pretzels down my gullet. I was still standing at the table, a bit out of it when I saw a big container of Morton’s salt. Not really thinking I just picked it up, opened the spout, and poured quite a bit into my mouth. Katie and Tyler just kinda looked at me like I was insane. At that point I’d probably have agreed with them. Water bottle back in hand, hands feeling a little better with it warming up slightly, Tyler and I set off on the last loop with me commenting that I don’t know why I did that with the salt but I feel like it was a good decision. Third loop – 1:56:11 (5:08:26 cumulative)
We headed back onto the trail and I was feeling pretty eh. My ankle had really started hurting; each step was a noticeable lightning bolt of pain and the ones where I had a misstep would also result in an audible expletive. The beginning of this loop was probably the slowest I was moving all day. Tyler was doing a good job of being encouraging without accepting. What I mean is he would tell me we were moving well or going strong but he never said it was ok to just walk it in. After only falling once on the first loop and once on the third loop, this loop I was a mess. I was tiring, I could barely see where I was going, and I kept kicking rocks or roots and a few times I went down. The times I didn’t, I stumbled and ran off trail. There was an embarrassing amount of walking here. I also stopped to pee again (still hydrated at least) and then we came to the water crossing for the last time. I barreled right through this time, and it actually felt great because it numbed up my ankle for a few minutes. We reached the first aid station, I downed my last roctane and some more water, some more M&Ms and Pringles. The first woman, who turned out to be the incredible Aliza Lapierre, came in right behind me and kept going but she went to her car off the trail a bit as I continued onward. I knew she’d pass me again as she looked incredibly strong and I felt like crap but I wanted to see how far I could get before it happened.
This new development reinvigorated me a bit and I was actually doing something that probably resembled running. I was feeling better here than I did on the previous loop, and I was moving quicker, or so it felt. I had lost a lot of time in the first few miles from all the walking and falling and I doubted I’d be able to make it up but I wanted to at least not lose MORE. Despite feeling better I was still running off trail in spots, I had to step a bit gingerly when heading downhill because of the ankle, and I kept kicking rocks, 90% of the time with my right foot. Aliza went by me in between aid stations and I don’t remember much else before getting to that last aid station. I DO remember saying out loud that I wanted to run all the way to the aid station, no more walking. Tyler kept reminding me of this and we did it. It wasn’t fast but I didn’t stop to walk. I got in and don’t remember what I did there but I tried to get out quickly. Five more miles, that was all that was left but it seemed so far away still. I started out of the aid station running, trying to get myself to just get through it as fast as I could, the faster I ran, the sooner I’d be done. After what felt like at least a mile later I mentioned that I was now a Fullsteam loop away, that was nothing. I had also run further, distance-wise, than ever before. I was running now, it felt like we were moving at a decent clip but keep in mind that I was also semi-delirious and semi-blind so my perception was certainly skewed (although Tyler mentioned after that the parts where we were actually running felt close to 8:00 pace). About 2ish miles from the end we came across Aliza’s pacer who was walking by herself, apparently the victim of a twisted ankle. Mentally I empathized, but didn’t have the energy to say anything out loud. Fortunately, the entire loop Tyler had been saying things like “good job” and “looking strong” to anyone we passed and I just kept telling myself it was me he was telling that too.
We got to the last noticeable hill on the course and I had no choice but to powerhike up it, moving as fast as I could. Once it leveled out, it was back to a run and now we were on the part of the trail that doubled as the start part, less than one mile to go! I took off my gloves and handed them to Tyler and also cast aside my hand held. I started running hard, I think. At least it felt like the effort increased. 6:40 had come and gone (sometime around the last aid station). Seven hours had come and gone somewhere about two miles ago. But dammit I was going to finish strong. I didn’t bother avoiding the one big puddle right before the end of the trail this time, tromping right through it.
As I turned off the trail to run out to the field, the second best moment of the entire weekend occurred – Ashley was running right toward me, looking very strong, about to head out on the trail for her fourth loop. She screamed and had the biggest smile on her face. I was beaming and so happy, happy to be just about done but also THRILLED to see my best friend running so well. We high-fived and I tried to say kick ass but I don’t think I got the words out intelligibly. And then I was on the field, just a few hundred meters between me and the end of my 50 mile journey. Tyler peeled off to let me run it in by myself and then yelled at me that if I was going to finish on my own, I better sprint it in. So I dug in. With every ounce of energy left in my legs I ran. I could see just enough to avoid running through the girls soccer game going on. I could see the clock behind the basketball courts. I could hear Katie and Scott cheering for me. I pushed and pushed and crossed the line 7 hours, 13 minutes, 10 seconds after I started (final loop — 2:04:44). That was good for 7th overall (6th male) out of 107 finishers. I took another step or two to slow down and then my hands dropped to my knees. I had run 50 miles. The barn had definitely been burnt to the ground. I was done.
The race I had thought about for months was over. The RD handed me a really awesome finisher’s jacket and later a voucher for a free pair of trail shoes – turns out I won the early number pick-up raffle from the day before. The rest of the moments immediately following the race are foggy. (edited to add: Katie reminded me that most of the guys who had finished ahead of me were standing around the finish talking and were nice enough to congratulate me. That felt good. Chad and I briefly talked about the race and the course and I congratulated him on working his way up to 3rd place.) I think I staggered over to the aid station again. The Team Awesome crew met me and there were hugs and congratulations and there was food stuffed in my face and I was drinking (I remember wanting Coca Cola, and pineapple juice, in that order) and then I remember I just had to walk over to the playground and lie down in the mulch. And that’s what I did. I just collapsed on the ground in a heap. It’s all I had energy for. What always amazes me about races (and some hard long runs and workouts) is how your body seems to know exactly how long it needs to hold on for before giving up and usually it is just long enough to be done and not a step further. Standing up to walk to the bathroom a few minutes later felt nearly impossible. The actual walking to the bathroom part felt more difficult than any loop. My ankle felt AWFUL. A few days later, it is definitely sprained but improving considerably each day. Surprisingly I wasn’t OMGSOHUNGRY but I did eat, and drink.
Probably the BEST part of my day, and the entire weekend, occurred a few hours after I finished. My vision was mostly returned. We were all just hanging out waiting for Ashley. We had literally JUST taken bets on when she would come in. It was about 9:50 into the race. The bets ranged from 10:20 (me) to 10:45ish. About half a minute later, we saw a tiny female runner in pink come out onto the field. WHAT?! I moved as quickly as I could toward the finish and seeing her come in at 9:53, a HUGE PR, made me ridiculously happy and proud. I hugged her so hard. Team Awesome had had a remarkable day.
This is long enough as it is. I have a lot of thoughts about the race in general, about what went well and what didn’t go well, about what I learned going forward, about what I want to do going forward, about my Pure Grits (spoiler alert — they’re AWESOME), and, most importantly, about myself. I also have a lot of pictures from the race. All of this I’ll share in a separate post. This one will serve as just the account of what I did, how I did it, and who I did it with. Considering this took longer to write than it took me to run the actual race, I think that’s enough for now.
Saturday I ran the 40 mile race in the Triple Lakes Trail Races event out in Greensboro, NC. As I mentioned previously, this was my first ultramarathon race since the Potomac Heritage 50k in November of 2009. Going into the race I was feeling pretty good, I hadn’t put a lot of pressure on myself because this was primarily to serve as my last hard long run before the 50 miler next month. The reduced volume in the days leading up to the race helped my legs feel fresher than they have in a while. I didn’t know what to expect except for lots of roots, some beautiful views, and a long day out in the woods.
The night before I managed to sleep alright, about 6 or so hours which is very good for a pre-race night. I woke up at 4:30 am not feeling particularly tired, got myself dressed and packed and out the door by 5. I got to Bur-Mil Park just north of Greensboro, where the race would start and finish, at 6:30am. It was a short walk from the parking lot to the picnic tables for packet pick-up, I was one of the first people there it seemed, and I was enjoying the early morning calm and chill. I wasn’t freezing but I would have been uncomfortable without my jacket. The weather, which had been pretty bad all week, reversed course for race day. The high was scheduled to be about 70 and it was probably about twenty degrees cooler right then. I had an hour and a half before the start so I walked back to my car and then drove about a mile back down the road to Harris Teeter where I used the warm bathroom instead of dealing with the port-a-potties. I got back to the park with about a half hour to go and set about getting ready — getting my Brooks Launches on (I didn’t get my Pure Grits yet, and debated between the Launch and the Green Silence, ultimately going with the somewhat more substantial Launch for cushioning with the roots, I didn’t want my feet to get too beat up), vaseline-ing appropriate areas, filling my handheld with Cytomax (this was a last minute decision but one I was pretty confident would be good), and filling my shorts’ pockets with gels. I headed over to the start area wearing a sweatshirt. As I got to the start, they made an announcement that they were starting the half marathon first (there are three races — a half, a full, and the 40) and then the full/40 five minutes later. I milled around waiting, not feeling it would do me any good to warm-up in the way I normally do for races, so I peed in the woods and did some dynamic stretching and eventually ambled my way to the start line.
The course runs along most of Greensboro’s watershed trails around some really pretty lakes, with about about two miles at the start on the paved park road and a greenway and a few road crossings along the way. The marathon and 40 mile races share the same course for the first 11+ miles along the north side of the lakes before it splits, 40 milers doing an out and back while marathoners skip that and head right back to the finish on trails south of the lakes. Going into the race, all I knew about were the roots, I wasn’t sure how hilly things would be but being a trail race I was ready for whatever.
There was a pretty good crowd of people there. I made my way to the front where there were mostly marathoners. I asked a few what their goal time was, hoping someone would say around 3:30 as that was the pace I was looking to run. We were told that the 40 milers would be crossing a bridge on the out and back section that was flooded. Sounded like fun to me. I drained a 5 hour energy and got my mind ready to go, my legs were already there. The RD got in the gator, sounded the airhorn, and we were off.
Right away a few guys moved out in front as the first few hundred meters were climbing up the hill on the park road. I fell in right with a group of four marathoners, feeling very relaxed. That was my goal early on, to run relaxed and steady, not exerting myself too much. By the time we were out of the park, the group had pretty much separated itself from everyone else. There was me, a college guy running his first marathon ever who told me to call him Scotty Mac, a shirtless guy in red shorts, a guy in a blue sleeveless shirt, and a guy in a red Carolina Godiva shirt. Around 2 miles in, Scotty Mac began to fall back a bit, I wish him well and pushed on with the other three. The cool thing about this race is that even though it’s mostly on trails, they actually have almost all of the miles marked (not sure how accurate they are but they were fairly consistent it seemed). We hit the 2 mile sign and I saw we were just over 14 minutes. Hm. I had a choice here — I was feeling GREAT but still had 38 miles to go and was running with the guys leading the much shorter race. Do I pull up and run slower on my own or do I just go with it. Well, considering my plan going in was basically to go out hard and see how long I could hold on and how it felt late in the race, I stuck with the group. I figured if I started feeling fatigued I’d back off some.
We got off the greenway onto some trails finally, a little loop that went around Bur-Mil park, then back onto the greenway and then a bigger loop around the park on trails. We passed mile 3 right at 21 minutes. I was talking with the other guys, not out of breath, not pressing, just cruising. Being out on the trail on a crisp fall morning seemed like the only place I could possibly want to be, I was pretty happy. Around mile 5 we came off the trail and the ran over a bridge which afforded some more gorgeous views of the lake. This was where the first aid station was. The pack was still together and I briefly slowed to down a cup of gatorade. To this point, I was sipping my Cytomax every so often, and figured I’d take a gel around mile 8 where another aid station would be. Back onto some trails we went, I was running second behind the shirtless guy, the other two right behind us.
This is how things went for most of the first 11 miles. I took a blueberry pomegranate GU Roctane as planned right before the next aid station, a little less than an hour in. I still had plenty of Cytomax so I just had a water or two, crossed the road and carried on. The next three miles were also uneventful. There WERE plenty of roots but that was it; no significant ups or downs, just rolling trail with intermittent views of the water. Around mile 11 we briefly came out of the woods to another road, I had a cup of gatorade and we continued on a trail for another little bit. Coming back out of the woods, we finally reached the split-off point. I wished the three marathoners well as they headed along the route that I would be running a little bit later. At this point I was done with my Cytomax and filled my handheld up with mostly Gatorade and some water at the aid station before crossing the street and beginning the next part of the race all alone. I glanced up the road as I entered the trail and didn’t see a soul.
A short ways into this section I passed the mile 12 sign. I was at 1:26:30. 28 miles left, I’ve run 28 miles quite a few times already this summer, I’m feeling good, this is gonna be a great day. This trail seemed a bit more rugged, there were a few larger hills but my legs were still feeling fantastic, I was backing off slightly on the really steep sections but by and large I was running, and quickly. I dunno how off the next two mile signs were but apparently I covered the next two miles in 13:50. I passed the “flooded” bridge and don’t remember getting my feet wet at all on the way out, there was only a few boards that were submerged. Around mile 15 there was another aid station where I downed another cup of Gatorade. Around this point I noticed something concerning going on — as I passed close to the water in a sunnier section, I noted that my vision seemed to be a little foggy. This has happened before, most notably at Pikes Peek and Broad Street in the spring. I hoped it wouldn’t get much worse as I still had a long ways to go but I also knew there was nothing I could do about it now. I remember hitting mile 16 in 1:55ish and it was there that I began thinking about HOW good a day I could possibly have. I knew there were still 24 miles to go and I’d probably slow some but I knew my legs could handle the distance and I’ve run quick long runs before, plus the weather was perfect so I was gaining confidence by the minute.
Then I made my first mistake. Shortly after the mile 16 sign I apparently missed a pretty sharp left. It was entirely my fault, because there were multiple arrows telling you where to go. I didn’t turn. And eventually I ended up at a road. Which I proceeded to run up a bit to see if the trail came back, despite not seeing anyone (all the other roads I crossed had at least a few people) or any pink arrows. Eventually I realized I was off course, cursed loudly and retraced my steps. I was pissed. I ran back until I saw arrows marking an intersection, but I didn’t know which direction I had come from so I guessed. I guessed wrong. Eventually I came BACK to the mile 16 sign, almost 9 minutes after the first time I’d seen it. I basically had just ran an extra mile. I saw a few guys in the distance and cursed again, my stupidity and carelessness had all but erased my lead. I immediately reversed course and began booking it the right way this time. I tried to let the whole incident melt away but I was pretty angry with myself. I was now no longer way out in front and I had wasted a considerable amount of energy and got nowhere for it.
Three rolling miles later I came out of the woods to another aid station. I had been eating a Gu Chomp every few minutes throughout this 40 mile only section and was about halfway through the package of eight. I re-filled my bottle with more gatorade, took a few cups of water, doused myself with one and then asked where to go. They said, back, as this was the turnaround point already. Awesome. I bounded back into the woods, eager to see where exactly the rest of the field was. About 2 minutes later I came across the first person, but I’m pretty sure he was a relay runner. Another minute and I saw a guy with long dreadlocks and a dude in a red shirt. I was pretty sure this was 2nd and 3rd, so I figured I had 5-6 minutes on them still. I gave them a nod and continued on. I was still feeling pretty good and moving pretty quick. I came up to the mile 20 sign in about 2:31. Halfway done with a bonus mile and I was right near the pace needed for a course record which was ~5:03. Not knowing anything about the second half of the course I allowed myself to think maybe it would be possible. If nothing else, the 5:20-5:30 goal was definitely doable it seemed.
And that’s basically when I started a completely different race. The first half of this race went so differently than the second half for me it’s like I ran two different races. Almost immediately after the halfway point, my stomach began to send me warning signals. I was still moving at this point but I could feel the gatorade I was putting in begin to just sit there, sloshing around. I knew I still needed to consume some calories but the chomps stopped appealing to me immediately and I didn’t want to take another gel yet. The Gatorade also became instantly unappealing. And it seemed my energy levels dropped precipitously. It was like a light switch had just been flicked off. I was running still, but I had slowed. I was now powerhiking any signifcant uphill section. I took my first fall around this section, tripping up a hill as some people ran by the other way. I managed to scrape up my knee but nothing worse. I also at some point literally ran into a tree. It wasn’t hidden or anything, it was off the trail, I didn’t trip, I just ran right into it with my right shoulder, bouncing off it like a pinball and continuing on. I was getting my money’s worth.
I came back on the 15/23 mile aid station and forced myself to down another cup of liquid, and also poured a few waters over my head. My stomach was feeling worse and worse. I had hit my first significant low point in the race, and I was not happy. My legs felt fine, they weren’t tired or stressed, but I just didn’t feel very good overall. I needed calories and I needed liquid but it felt like my body wasn’t absorbing what I put in. It was a rough stretch to the point where we had split from the marathoners. I managed to get back to that split about an hour after leaving the turnaround. Still, on the way out I had run in a few minutes faster despite adding an extra mile that way. I was nearly 26 miles in and I had been running for 3:25. The fact that I still had 14 miles to go weighed heavily on me at this point. I took a bit extra time at this aid station, impulse downing a Hammer espresso gel from the table, refilling my handheld again and pouring more water over my head. Back onto the trail I went, for the first time more worried about being caught than about any time I could potentially run.
The stretch to the next aid station was only about 4.5 miles but it felt exceptionally long and arduous. It was in the section that I stopped to walk for the first time, meaning not powerwalking up a hill, just walking, on the trail, in a stretch that was definitely runnable. I was angry again. I was really struggling with my stomach and considerably worried about my ability to run and hold anything down. Every time I started moving I got nauseous. When I stopped I could feel the energy draining. I fell again at some point. I stood with my hands on my knees hunched over, wondering how the hell I was going to even FINISH the race. In my head I kept repeating the mantra “relentless forward progress” and I forced myself to do just that. I figured walking (more like stumbling) was better and more productive than hunching over. I would hit good stretches and I would force myself to run some but for the most part this must have looked pretty ugly to an outside observer. I figured it was just a matter of when, not if I would be caught and passed.
Finally I came to the marina and the next aid station, where I tried a handful of pretzels as that was the only thing appealing to me. I forced down some water and gatorade, knowing I needed something to keep me moving. People there were really encouraging and said I looked good (LIARS!) and that there was about ten miles left. Someone offered me a bandaid. “For what?” Then I looked at myself quickly and noticed I was bleeding from my shoulder where I ran into the tree and it looked pretty grisly, and also from my knee. I declined and ambled through the marina and back onto the trail. 30 mile sign, and I was at a little over 4 hours. It HAD been a rough 10 miles. At this point, I adjusted my goal to “don’t die” and thought it was about 50/50 on that. I trudged along, trying to break the race down into training runs. 10 miles left, that’s what I did on Monday, no problem. The mile signs were coming slower and seemed to be further apart. My energy levers were really nosedived at this point and it felt like everything I had drank the past two hours was just sitting in my stomach. I forced myself to take another Gu Roctane which didn’t help at all. I was beginning to come up on some of the back of the pack marathoners. I tried to use them as motivation to keep plugging on, encouraging them as I passed and reminding myself that I wasn’t the only one suffering. It made me think of my friends from the beginning of the race and how I was kind of jealous that they were surely done already.
The trails in this stage of the race were more difficult than the early ones. They were all up or down, the hills were a bit bigger, the roots were still bad, it was not pretty. I was actually surprised that I was still leading. There was a lot more powerwalking, or just regular walking, or slow walking. There was also another fall when I was attempting to run, this time I was on flat ground and rolled onto my back so I wouldn’t break anything or twist an ankle and managed to get up pretty quickly and keep going. Both knees were now scraped up, my hands were stinging with dirt in scrapes, my left hip flexor felt strained from the combination of the fall, the downhills, maybe the thigh wrap I had on for my hamstring. It was just another thing to pile on. I found myself questioning what the hell I was doing and why exactly was I subjecting myself to this. And each time I did that, I reminded myself I LIKED this, I WANTED this feeling, I WANTED to scrape the bottom of the barrel, to test myself and my limits. I reminded myself that it’s easy to be tough when things feel good and you’re cruising along. But NOW is the time where actual toughness is proven. I made up my mind to be tough.
FINALLY, I came to the last aid station. Right before mile 35 I came out of the woods again and to a table. There was a woman working there who seemed pretty disinterested and also didn’t attempt to hide how disgusted she was by me. I’m sure it didn’t look pretty, I was bleeding from a few different spots, I was staggering, I could feel gel dried up and probably mixed with snot in my beard, I was a mess. There were cups of Coke and water and Gatorade. At this point I could barely stand the sight of gatorade, let alone the taste. I though maybe some flat Coke would help settle my stomach like when I was a kid. Problem was, this was not flat Coke, not even close. So it made me hiccup and it made my stomach WORSE. I dumped a couple waters over my head. It wasn’t that it ever got particularly hot, and even when it warmed up some, the breeze off the water kept things pretty cool, it was just that the water on my head helped sort of keep me from spacing out too much, and kind of woke me up each time. I had lingered long enough so I set out again, decided that I would walk to the bridge a few meters away and then begin “running” again when I got to the trail on the other side. I left two women at the aid station who were wearing bright pink shirts that said something like ‘Christian Runners’. As soon as I got on the trail, I felt an overwhelming urge to pee. Up to that point I hadn’t even thought about it, and definitely didn’t need to, but it just hit me so I looked up the trail to make sure no one was coming, looked back to see if the women were behind me (they weren’t), pulled to the side and peed for a good minute. I was not in the least surprised to note it was dark dark yellow. Obviously I had been correct in assuming that my body was not absorbing any of the liquids I had been drinking for some time. I was severely dehydrated and didn’t seem to know how to fix the problem. I had a full bottle of Gatorade, the same gatorade that hadn’t been working at all. How the hell was I going to get through another five miles?
I took a few big swigs from my handheld, forcing down the Gatorade. I started running again, slowly. Almost immediately I knew I had finally passed the edge of the cliff. The combination of the carbonation from the Coke and the gatorade and the running was too much. I stopped and hunched over, again. I thought maybe it was another false alarm. It wasn’t. For the next two or three minutes I was bent over on the side of the trail and bright orange Gatorade was being vomited back up. It was awful, it felt awful, it looked like something out of an exorcist movie, it was the lowest point in the race for me. To make matters worse, I basically couldn’t see out of my left eye and my right one was pretty cloudy too. But then something strange happened. As soon as I was sure I was done and there was nothing left in my stomach to throw up, I stood and… felt better. MUCH better. Somehow I felt MORE energetic than I had a minute ago. My stomach felt great. I started moving, much faster than I had the previous 15 miles. I was by no means cruising like I had been early but I was definitely running again. At this point, the fatigue had set in though and my legs were beginning to feel the effort and undernutrition and I was trying to squeeze as much running out of the before allowing myself to walk. I ended up only powerwalking up the steepest hills, as I was now on a pretty up and down mountain bike trail. I also impulse downed my last remaining gel, a pineapple GU roctane, which actually tasted delicious. I had hit the lowest point and I had recovered and now I was less than 5 miles from being done with it all.
I was still running scared of being caught, but with my new found energy, I though maybe I’d be able to hold on long enough to get to the end before someone caught up. Each mile sign I passed I converted into a regular running route back home, which helped make it seem shorter. I counted steps. I had “Edge of Glory” playing on repeat in my head, but mostly just the chorus. I came down another hill and out onto this greenway and there were people there pointing ahead and saying it was just around the pond now. I didn’t know what they meant until I came to the grassy field on the other side of the greenway. I looked left and could see the Finish arch. All I had to do was run (uphill) around this small pond and I would be done. Maybe 1/2 mile left. It was here that I finally felt comfortable that I was going to win, but even still I pushed with whatever energy I had left in my legs. I passed one more marathoner and gave her some encouragement. Around the pond and now just a straight line to the end. I guess some people noticed I was the first 40 mile runner and began clapping and cheering. It was cool but I was kind of out of it and it all sounded like it was going on underwater. Finally I crossed the line and came teetering to a stop long enough to get handed a finisher’s medal. The clock said 5:37:43.
Post-race thoughts and musings
I drank a few cups of water right after, as that was the only thing I could stomach. Then I pounded a can of Coca-Cola and this time it was delicious. I had a banana and just kind of walked around. Eight minutes later the dreadlocks guy, Andy, ran in for 2nd place. A few minutes after him, the guy in the red shirt, Darian, finished third. I congratulated both of them and headed over to wear I saw a massage table. Unfortunately the massage therapist had left shortly before I finished. Damn. I walked the quarter mile or so to my car to get some clothes and my Boost shake to start the recovery process. Walking back up the hill we started on, I was amazed and kind of questioning how the hell I managed to do what I just did, especially considering how impossible running one more step seemed to me at this point. I hung around the finish area for a few hours, cheering people in, talking to other runners, trying to get calories in in the form of chocolate chip cookies, pretzels, and bananas. It’s strange that I had no lingering stomach issues after I finished running, and while I was tired from running, I wasn’t feeling nearly as bad as I did during the bad stretch, nor did I feel much worse than after a long run or hard workout. I foam rolled before getting back in the car for the drive home and rewarded myself with a big dessert and beer from Bella Mia near my apartment.
Some things I learned and took away from the race —
-Ultras are TOUGH! Running a 5k or 10k all out hurts in a special way, a very quick intense sort of way. Running 40 miles on rolling, rooty trails as fast as you can drains in you a completely different, but no less painful way. During this race I felt as good as I ever have, physically and mentally, during any race in my life and I also felt the worst I ever have EVER, also both physically and mentally. The fact that I can experience such high highs and low lows during the same race is part of the allure. Of course, during that bad 15 mile stretch, I was having trouble agreeing with myself that I LIKE this, but looking back now I definitely do. Maybe I’d feel differently if I hadn’t held on and won but I doubt it.
-I’m glad I did this before Stone Cat, so now I know some things I need to work on or at least be aware of and I have a better understanding of what my body will be going through over the course of the race. I think my stomach issues stem from too much sugar in the gatorade primarily. The Cytomax was working really well and in a perfect world I would have had someone at the 11 mile mark and then maybe the turnaround to give me another bottle of it. What I probably should have done was drink primarily water at the aid stations and re-fill my bottle with very dilute gatorade, relying on my gels which have always worked well for me before this. At Stone Cat, it’s going to be 12.5 mile loops so this shouldn’t be as much of an issue, at least logistically.
-I don’t think it was a huge mistake starting off as fast as I did. I don’t think it was a big contributor in my stomach issues. I was feeling very good and even when I was struggling later, my legs weren’t shot, I just didn’t have any energy and I felt nauseous. I ran the race I wanted to run from the onset, and it gave me a slim chance early on to run a very good time. Ultimately I got a chance to practice being tough and the fact that I WAS able to get through the worst of it and finish and win is a huge confidence booster, for next month and just for my running in general.
-The atmosphere at trail races and at ultras is awesome. Everyone was so friendly and laid back. I love it and I’m glad I’m going to be more a part of it going forward. For winning, I got a fleece blanket with the cool skull and crossbones race logo on it. That was more than enough to make me happy.
-It looks like I might be doing an extended taper for next month. My legs aren’t too bad, my quads are pretty beat up and that left hip flexor is definitely strained a bit but other than that, I’m recovering very well. Hard work and dedication DO pay off, usually.
If you actually got through this whole thing, thanks for reading! If you have any comments, input, advice, criticisms, etc I would really appreciate it. I’m still pretty new to this ultrarunning thing and I know there are A LOT of people out there with significantly more talent and experience whom I could learn so much from.