Last weekend I joined the ultra club!
Ever since reading the all too cited Born to Run, I have been interested in the limits of the human body. I was training for my first marathon at the time and struggled through that exhaustingly hot marathon day with less training than I should have (the start of a stress fracture forced me to take time off.) If I was getting injured training for a marathon, how were people training for ultra marathons?
I didn’t latch onto the barefoot running craze, (I quickly realized that building foot strength is important and minimal shoes have their place, but just run in whatever you find comfortable!) But I did latch onto the ultra marathon aspect of the book. I kept wondering what is the human body capable of? What is my body capable of? Are there limits or can you train it for almost anything? What does running long distances do to the body physiologically and emotionally? Well now I have some answers to those questions.
On Sunday I ran my first ultra marathon, a 50K on the Mountains to Sea trail at Falls Lake outside of Raleigh, NC. While only 5 miles longer than a marathon, this 31 mile distance was still intimidating and a mental as well as a physical challenge. I decided on this race for a few reasons: 1) after finishing the Uwharrie 20 miler I felt like I could have gone farther (which is ridiculous to say because that is a freaking hard race.) 2) It has been over a year since my last marathon and the Tobacco Road marathon was around the same time, but $50 more expensive than this race…3) It was a trail race, and trail running has been my sport of choice this winter and kept me injury free while running almost every single day.
I’ve had a few days to reflect and learned quite a few things which I’ll write about later, but first up I’ll give my basic (read lengthy) race recap.
Mountains to Sea 50k Race Recap:
I guess to start out I have to explain that I have been running consistently on trails (5+ days a week) for the past 3 months with the exception of a couple weekends where the trails were too icy and I had to run on roads, and then when I was in Dallas for a few days visiting family. While in Dallas, running on the roads near my parent’s house, which has minimal sidewalks and lots of cars, I started to get some pain in my foot. Not fun. When I got back to NC and out onto the trails for my last long back-to-back runs of 3 hours followed the next day by 2 hours, my foot felt fine while running. Afterwards I felt a spot on my foot but it wasn’t pain, just a noticeable pressure from top to bottom of my mid-foot. Those back-to-back runs were the start of my taper and because of the weird feeling in my foot I decided to do a pretty severe taper. This meant that the week leading up to the race, I did one two-hour run and then just a couple days of short half hour runs. This felt really bizarre to me after running almost daily for the past 3 months. It also meant not going to CrossFit, something else I’ve been doing 3+ days a week for the past 8 months. In other words, it was a really hard taper mentally.
The day before the race I ate lots of sweet potato, and prepared my food and gear for the race. We had a cold front come in so race morning was going to be 30 degrees (Fahrenheit) or so and closer to 50 degrees later in the day. I decided to go with ¾ tights, a short sleeved shirt with a lightweight longer shirt over it to start, plus my windproof vest with a giant back pocket for fuel. That big back pocket meant that I could take my handheld water bottle and would have no need to run with my small hydration backpack (eliminating weight and possible chafing.) My friend Janna offered to drive me and support me during the race, because as she and her mom decided, I couldn’t go to my first 50K by myself!
Sunday morning I woke up super early and took out and fed my friend’s dog who I was dog-sitting and made some toast with almond butter and apple slices. Janna picked me up around 5:45am and we headed to Falls Lake outside of Raleigh, about a 45 minute drive. When we arrived I used the real toilet at the park, dropped off my drop bag, and sat in the car until about 10 minutes before the start since it was about 26 degrees F out. The morning had been quiet, usually I’m pretty quiet when I’m nervous/excited.
At the starting line, a line in the playing field we had to run across to get to the trail head, we whooped and hollered and were off on our way. The sky had lightened enough by 7am that there was no need for a head lamp or anything, but the sun had not risen yet. When the sun started to rise, it was an incredible sight. The trail kept pretty close to Falls Lake the whole time, and when the sun rose, it was directly over the water. I really wish I’d gotten a picture. Our first aid station wasn’t until about 6.5 miles in, but about 3.5 miles in we crossed the road where the 12 mile runners were going to start at 8am. Our 50km turnaround, at about 15.5 miles, is the 12 miler finish. I tried to estimate in my head how far into the course I would start to get passed by fast 12 mile racers if they had a 3.5 mile head start but started an hour later than the 50kers. This occupied a lot of my head space for a little while. So did my running buddies for the first 6.5 miles, Cliff and Patty, veteran ultra runners. We shared stories about Uwharrie and other races we’d done, and enjoyed the gorgeous sunrise while following each other through some technical single track.
The terrain was not as brutal as Uwharrie, with mostly gently rolling hills and very few logs to step over, but there was rarely a flat part of the course and lots roots and rocks throughout. I would say it was more consistently technical than Umstead or Carolina North, my usual training grounds.
At the first aid station I changed from my beanie to my Tufts Marathon Team cap, made sure my water bottle was topped off, and ate a piece of Larabar that I had cut up and put into a Ziploc bag in my back pocket. I was keeping up a good pace, looking to hit the 15.5 mile turnaround at about 3 hours. I kind of fell a little behind a group but kept them in my sight for the 3 miles to the next aid station. There I decided I didn’t like the larabar that much that I brought with me, so I tried a Fig Newton. Cookies usually work for me, although I usually like some heartier oat-filled cookies, but these worked great! I ended up having a Fig Newton at almost every aid station or at least picked one up to take with me. Around this 9.5 mile mark, the 12 mile racers started passing me. The faster runners it wasn’t a big deal, they were on their own and it only took me a second to step to the right to let them pass then go right back to my pace. Then the groups of runners started coming by. My options then were to stop and let the whole entire group pass, or to speed up a little and keep pace with them for a bit while letting them pass a few at a time when the trail was wide enough or I could step off the track. Occasionally I let the whole group pass, but the starting and stopping was not fun for my body so it was actually easier to speed up a little bit when this happened, even though I knew that it would slow me down for the second half.
An interesting part of this race is that we actually ran through the 12 mile race finish line to get our drop bags, so we got cheered on quite a bit. A nice volunteer asked me what I wanted from the aid/finisher’s station and I had some potato with salt, stuffed away my beanie and long sleeved shirt, which I had removed at mile 12, into the drop bag, and looked for Janna who was going to meet me there. After a few minutes she finally found me, she had gotten a little lost getting there. I gave her a quick update, told her I felt great but probably wouldn’t be doing the second half as fast as the first, asked a volunteer where I was supposed to put my drop bag and started on the trail that would loop me back to the Mountains to Sea trail.
On the loop I met up with another runner who had stopped and was asking me about the trail blazes. These were blue blazes and we’d been told to follow white blazes the whole time. There had been a sign earlier pointing us this way and I hadn’t seen any trails that branched off, so I continued steadily but kind of slowly on this blue-blazed trail since I didn’t want to expend too much energy going the wrong way. I found two hikers and asked them if they’d seen a sign for runners and they said, yes, there was a road crossing just up the trail that had signs and colorful flags. After that confusion I picked up my pace and soon happily got to the white-blazed trail.
About two miles later I twisted my right ankle on a root, it was a pretty deep twist, but my ankles are really strong from all the trails I’ve been on lately so after a few minutes of running gingerly on it and not noticing any swelling, I was back to my previous pace. Unfortunately not long after that I had a fall. I tripped over something, probably a root, and landed on my right knee and wrist. Luckily I still had gloves on so there were no hand abrasions, and my tights protected my knee. My wrist on the other hand (pun intended) hurt like hell. That is my dominant hand for holding my water bottle so I switched hands for a bit and shook it out. Between being cautious on the blue blazed path, twisting my ankle, and falling, I was way off of my earlier pace. I wasn’t worried about my time per-se, I was more worried about Janna waiting for me at the finish line and getting worried about me.
I have a confession to make, I didn’t exactly tell my parents I was running an ultra marathon because I didn’t want them to worry. I told my dad I was running a trail race, but he had just crashed skiing and was going in for an MRI of his knee the following Monday so I didn’t want to burden him with my more extreme athletic feats. But I asked Janna to text him when I was at the turnaround to let him know that I was half way through my race- he had no idea how long the race actually was, so if he didn’t hear from her for over 3 hours, I knew he would start freaking out. (To be fair when I told him later that I ran more than a marathon, he was glad that I didn’t tell him beforehand!)
Feeling a little beat up at the 18 mile aid station, I grabbed an extra Fig Newton for the trail. All the aid station volunteers were awesome and very efficient at filling up my water bottle! The next miles were uneventful other than struggling to find a section of trees thick enough to pee in the woods (lots of skinny trees.) It kind of became a task of just getting to the next aid station. There was a point, after running for 5 and a half hours, that my cognitive state started to decline a little. At one section I got to a fork in the path where one way went to this staircase that I know I didn’t have to run down at any point (this was an out and back) yet I still stopped for a second and checked to see if it had white blazes on it. At another place I crossed a creek and had to take an immediate right on the other side of it but I was slow on the turn and my cap went into the branch of a tree that was right there. I knew that between aid stations at mile 25 and mile 28, I would pass the marathon mark and officially become an ultra marathoner but there was no actual place where this was marked (no mile markers at trail races) so I held onto my emotions until I knew for sure at that mile 28 aid station. I wanted to hug the aid station volunteers! Then I wanted to hug them again when they said just about a 5k to go!
I passed one guy a few miles back who came up on me during this last stretch and we kind of ran together. With probably 1.5 to 2 miles to go, we both un-spokenly picked up the pace. This section was also really switch-backy and had lots of casual hikers (so many beautiful dogs!) I knew we were so close, and I would start to hear people cheering and then the trail would switch the other way. A couple actually told me that we were about a half mile from the finish and I almost started crying because I thought we were closer and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could run this pace! Less than a half a mile later though I knew we were actually nearing the finish. I gave it one last push to the finish! Janna was right there waiting for me!
The guy finished not far behind me, I turned to shake his hand and thank him for pushing me the last couple of miles. Then I kind of walked around in a daze while the finish line person gave me my finisher’s prize, a wine glass, and Janna asked me some questions I think. I found a spot in the shade to sit down and Janna got me food. Shade was the wrong idea though and my body started cooling down really quickly so she grabbed my clothes bag from her car while I scarfed down some delicious vegetable stew and salty chips! My body was spent, utterly spent, but I’d run for over 6 hours in the woods! Not many people can say that! I called my dad and told him what I’d done, he was kind of speechless, which is a rarity for him. I could also not have been more thankful to have Janna to drive me home!
I now know a little bit more of what my body is capable of. I’ve run an ultra marathon, over 31 miles of fairly demanding trails. My body will take a little while to recover, but it is the knowledge of what the human will power and spirit can do that kind of amazes me and I hope that feeling never goes away.