It turns out, 50 miles is a long run! Running fifty miles is fabulously fun, I learned, for about thirty-five miles. And then, it gets ugly. Really, really ugly.
But let’s start at the beginning, or, more precisely, the day before the race. As we drove from our hotel in Northern Virginia to the packet pickup site, the North Face store in Georgetown, Holly remarked “I cannot see a thing!” Neither could I: it was pouring so hard that her windshield wipers could not keep up.
“I’m glad we trained in mud!” I noted. This downpour, expected to last till 2 am, would saturate the ground, yet again. Some people dance and cause rain. I just think about doing a trail race, and the skies open up in anger.
We got to the North Face store and picked up our packets, and I asked some sales assistants where I could find their gaiters. Gaiters are a great thing to wear in trail runs: they are pieces of fabric that fit over the top of your shoes and the bottom of your socks, preventing rocks and other debris from getting inside your shoes. I wanted to see if North Face had some cute gaiters. I was shocked to learn that they carried NO gaiters!
Holly had brought her gluten free dinner with her from home, but I of course can eat anything, so we stopped at Chipotle and I got a dinner of chicken, rice and black beans. Yummy.
The next morning, we awoke at 3 am to eat and get ready for the day. Two eggs, two wasa crackers, jelly: my usual breakfast. Plus, my race day bowl of oatmeal. Once we arrived at the race site, I ate a banana and a Greek yogurt. Those of you who think that’s a lot of breakfast, recall that I proposed to expend 5000 calories exercising on this day, so I needed a head start.
We gathered with the other runners planning to run this fifty mile race. Later I looked at the statistics. Holly and I were among the 320 people (including 72 women) who started the 50 miler that day. About three out of four of these ultra runners were men. There were relatively few runners under 30, and there were plenty people older than I. I noticed a few Ironman tattoos. But the atmosphere was casual and laid-back, unlike the atmosphere you find before a triathlon.
The race began at 5:00 am, in the pitch dark. A man shouted “Only 49.9 miles to go!” and we all replied “WOO HOO!” We wore headlamps to guide our way forward. I wore a new headlamp for the first time. It shone much more brightly than my old headlamp. And it squished my brains in, I realized, as we took off. Yowww. I would look forward to handing this off to Denise and Emma, our crew, at mile 21.7.
I was grateful that this race did NOT start with a climb up a giant mountain. Instead, it started flat, through muddy trails. From time to time, we’d hear the crowd ahead of us roar as someone slipped and fell into a bed of mud. It was then that I heard a man say something strange.
“This mud is awful! It really messes up your gait!” Gait is not something trail runners contemplate, unless, I suppose, you are Mr. Gaiter. Gait is something you focus on when you run on a steady surface, such as asphalt. On trails, you run side to side to avoid slamming into rocks and sticks and doing a face-plant. And you either hop around mud puddles, or you plow right on through them.
In response to the gait comment, another runner said, “Dude, have you done a lot of trail races?”
“Actually,” said the man who liked to monitor his gait, “this is my first trail run ever. I’ve been meaning to get out on the trails. I trained for hills, not mud! I wish we could trade this for hills.”
The total elevation gain and loss for this race was supposed to be 4656 (combined), NOTHING in comparison to the 8000 up, plus 8000 down we had encountered at Promise Land. However, I really did not want to encounter hills just yet.
“Mr. Gaiter,” I said, “Be careful what you ask for. Muddy hills are NOT fun.”
And, wouldn’t you know it, we came to a climb, where we had to turn our feet sideways and scramble up. At some point I had to grab onto a tree, bringing back memories of grabbing hold of “devil’s club” in Alaska. And Mr. Gaiter was sad. Oh, the race was going to be long for Mr. Gaiter (who had no gaiters). We, on the other hand, were ideally suited for this challenge! “Holly!” I shouted, “we’re expert mud runners! We got this!”
She agreed heartily. It was about a mile later--less than five miles into our fifty mile race, that Holly encountered a gigantic mud puddle and seemingly could not decide whether to plow right through it or tiptoe around it. Indecision will get you every time. I saw her slip-sliding away, attempting to right herself. But it was no good. PLOP, down she went, on her backside in the wet, sloppy mud. She got up and looked at herself. I knew what she was thinking. “For 45 miles, people will see me and think I could not make it to a porto-potty.”
The First Cut-off
The course consisted of a 14 mile section from the start to an area called Great Falls. This section is thought to be the easiest. And on a dry day, it would not have been difficult at all: relatively few climbs and few roots and rocks to trip you up. Of course, today it was muddy, which slowed progress. We were so glad to see Denise, Holly’s mom, and Emma, Holly’s daughter, at mile 14. We refueled and said hello. I shoved food into my face and Emma asked me a question. I tried to answer and sprayed food all around. “Do not emulate me! This is not lady-like!” I told her, and she laughed. Every time I saw Emma and Denise, and at each aid station (generally about an hour apart), I ate like a fiend. I refilled my water bottle with sports drink and engulfed whatever food was there--peanut butter sandwiches, boiled and salted potatoes, Lance crackers with peanut butter on them, Fritos, cookies, whatever they had. I shoved it in my face and chewed as quickly as possible. It was hard to eat enough to keep up with the calorie deficit we created with our long run. I was still shoving food in my face when Holly said we had to go: we could not dilly-dally because a cut-off was looming. It was about half a mile before we realized that we'd forgotten to drop off our headlamps. We both had headaches from wearing them.
After the fourteen mile section, we were to take three loops of the Great Falls Park. This loop contained hills, roots and rocks to keep your run interesting, rocks that actually required you to “scramble” over them, and some absolutely gorgeous views.
From the days of early planning, we had been most worried about the very first cut-off, at about mile 21.7, at the completion of the first Great Falls loop. To finish in time, we would have to keep up a pace that was faster than our training runs generally had been, faster than we had run any of our trail races. That was daunting, but we took comfort in the weeks leading up to the race that the first fourteen miles were neither hilly nor technical. We could “bank” some time, and then it would be okay if the technical loop was slower. Of course, we didn’t account for the mud. So on race day, I worried that our 50 mile race might be less than a marathon!
The loop was beautiful, and difficult. I kept an eye on my garmin for time, and I worried. We got to the end of the loop, where you had to scramble on rocks. I got mixed in with runners who were completing their second loop.
“This is so gorgeous; I didn’t take time to look at this last time! I won’t win anyway, so I’m going to take it easy through here.”
I got very concerned that I was going to be stuck behind tourists with race numbers on their shirts, but fortunately their chatter was nothing but chatter. They scrambled quickly through the rocks, and I followed close behind. When we got to the cut-off at mile 21.7, we had been running for 5 hours and 36 minutes. We made the cut-off with six minutes to spare!
I celebrated by asking Emma to roll my legs using a special “stick” designed for that purpose. At this point, my hip, which had been giving me trouble, seemed to be doing fine. Before too long, Holly said, “Amy, we need to go to make sure we make the next cut-off.”
Our First Scraper
Off we went for our second loop. Before long, we were greeted by a young man, wearing sandals. He announced that he was a volunteer named Matt and that he was going to join us for this second loop.
“What, are we last?” I asked.
“Oh, no, you are pretty far up the field,” he replied. “You are doing great!”
“But you are a sweeper, right?”
“Yes. There are a lot of us, though. I’m just going to stick with you.”
“I like to call you ‘scrapers,’ by the way, because by the time you usually roll around I need to be scraped off the ground. But Holly and I are doing great!”
During this loop I learned that Matt had just finished his freshman year at college and worked at Passages, an adventure camp in Richmond. He is more of a kayaker, which explained his sandals. Apparently, though they weren’t Jesus sandals, because at some point, he kicked a rock and barely recovered from taking a header. (I am sure that Bedrock Sandals, which I have dubbed Jesus sandals--see my prior post--would not cause you to trip on a trail run.)
“Don’t fall, Matt, it looks bad when the caboose runner has to scrape up the scraper. It just ain’t right.”
A little later he told me they had marked the course on their mountain bikes at 2 am that same day. “It’s hard, actually, to run in bike shorts It’s starting to hurt.”
“What? Are you complaining about chafing? I will not hear one word about chafing! I am running 50 miles and so far, no chafing. No more of this talk! You’ve nearly taken a header and now your speak of chafing. You are going in the race report, young man! What else would you like to say for posterity?”
Matt was pretty quiet then, till he wished us well at the end of the second loop. We made it to 28.6 miles in 7 hours and 27 minutes, four minutes before the theoretical “last runner” was supposed to come through.
The Third Loop: Calm Before the Storm.
The third loop was tough. This was the loop on which Tyler was supposed to have joined us, as our official pacer, to get our mind off whatever ailed us. He’d ended up with strep throat, holed up in bed in Connecticut. I’d made a last ditch effort to pour him onto a train so he could be at the crew stops as additional moral support, but he was too sick. He had instructed us, though, to cuss him out whenever the going got tough. “Make a game out of cursing me. It will help.”
And it was on this third loop that we began cussing him out. “Damn that Tyler! If he were here he’d get our mind off this hell!”
Truth be told, though, we were doing pretty well at this point. My legs were starting to get sore. If you have run a marathon, you will know what I mean--my calves were tight, my hamstrings were sore, and I felt a twinge in my knee. Strangely, it was my left knee that was talking to me, even though it had been my left hip and knee that had given me trouble leading up to the race.
Holly said she thought she was getting blisters and that her toenails were probably going to fall off. Her feet started hurting too, and she resolved that if we made the cut-off after the third loop, she was going to change her shoes and socks. She began to talk brightly of new shoes, in the way my sister used to speak growing up when we went shoe shopping just before the school year started. “New shoes! new shoes! If I run fast enough I can put on new shoes!”
Eventually we got to the rock scramble, which had been infiltrated with tourists. This time, they really were tourists--families enjoying the view. Holly scrambled ahead, in search of shoes. A family of tiny people began their way toward me and threatened to make me wait.
“STOP THERE!” I commanded in an authoritarian voice, pointing at a four-year old girl.
She looked at me in fear. “I am passing!” I announced. “you stay right there.”
Her mother said, “Are you in a race?” and when I said yes, she asked, “what is this race?
“I am running fifty miles!”
“Oh, my Lord in heaven! Please pass on by! Goodness. Fifty miles in one day?”
Finally, I got to the last “hard” cut-off, the last official time that they could make us stop running. It was mile 35.5, and we had taken 9 hours and 30 minutes to get there. The cut-off was 9:59. Miraculously, we were now 29 minutes ahead of the fictional “last runner.”
By now, we had heard on the scrapers’ walkie talkies that many runners had missed cut-offs, and others had dropped out of the race. I was so happy to have made it!
Now, we had only 14.5 miles to go, and Holly had on new shoes.
The Pit of Despair.
Almost as soon as we began the 14 mile trek back to the start, bad things started to happen. My left knee began to stab me with a sharp pain, particularly going down hill. I reminded myself that I had resolved to finish this race “unless going on would result in long-lasting or permanent damage.” Holly’s feet were hurting. She was developing signs of arthritis in her feet, according to a recent diagnosis. Running 50 miles is not ideal for a person with arthritis, and her feet were reminding her of that. We were in despair. We cursed Tyler. He would have been pacing us at that point, had he not been lying in bed. The big baby! And then we cried. Both of us. Big babies.
Holly said, “I think I’m going to have to stop when we get to Fraser,” the stop at mile 42.2. “I don’t think I can go on.”
“I feel terrible too. At this point, we are not going to make it to the finish in 13 hours. We will be officially DNF. Let’s see how we feel at Fraser.”
Finally, we got to Fraser. The volunteers asked what we planned to do.
“She won’t let me quit,” said Holly.
“What? I didn’t say that,” I replied.
“We’re going on,” she explained to the volunteers.
So, on we went, to run (more like walk) the last 8 miles of the race, even though we knew we could not get an official finishing time. By this point, the scrapers (a/k/a sweepers) were following us on mountain bikes, removing trash and directional flags from the route behind us. They listed to a message on the walkie talkies and gave us some bad news.
“Um, they want you to be off the course by 7pm, one hour after the cut-off, for insurance purposes. Um, when you get to Sugarland, they may just drive you to the end, or they may say you can finish but not do the two mile Sugarland loop.”
“What? We won’t be able to do the whole 50?”
“Well, let’s talk again at Sugarland.”
I felt awful. I really wanted to finish the 50 miles. I picked up my pace a bit. The pain in my knee pierced me like a knife.
And then I realized I could not breathe well at all. I was getting asthma, which sometimes happens when I run. I took out my albuterol rescue inhaler and took a puff. A couple minutes later my breathing was worse, so I took another squirt. I repeated this a couple more times, taking four doses of albuterol. My heart was racing because the medicine has the side effect of increasing your blood pressure.
At this point, the terrain changed. We had to climb up hills that I did not remember descending on the way out early that morning. My heart rate soared as I climbed, and I found that not only did I need to walk slowly, but I had to stop from time to time to catch my breath and let my heart rate fall. And then I would descend a hill, and the invisible devil would get his knife out and stab my knee. Oh, oh, oh! I prayed for flat land.
Holly was just ahead of me, her feet hurting. I tried to remember what I had said about when I would quit this race. “Not unless I am facing long-lasting or permanent damage.” The knee would be fine, but what about this inability to breathe and this heart racing like a greyhound? Could that actually kill me? I began to wonder.
When you are really exhausted, physically, your mind works very hard to get you to stop working. It is a defense mechanism: your brain will convince you that you must stop long, long before you actually could do damage to yourself. Part of the key to endurance sports is to train your brain to stop acting like a big baby. Well, try that after you’ve run 43 miles. Imagine my brain as a giant infant, crying so loudly that he gasps for air and his face gets red as a beat. That was my brain. The truth is, I did have asthma, but it was not a full-blown attack. My body was just exhausted.
Holly was exhausted too, and as we came down a hill together we saw a road. “Look! There’s a road. Maybe we should ask them to get someone to come get us.” At this point, we didn’t think they’d let us finish anyway, so why not get a ride now? The kids on the mountain bikes used their walkie talkies. One said “these two runners want to throw in the towel.” As soon as he said that, I knew I had to go on. I could not “throw in the towel.” And, as it turns out, I was given no choice but to pick up the towel and keep going. This road was a private country club road--nobody could drive it.
“You will need to keep going to Sugarland,” they told us.
Sugarland. That was our goal. By this point, Holly and I were walking like a couple of Grandmas. I came to a steep hill and paused at the bottom. I was not sure I could climb it. Tears rolled down my face. Four kids on mountain bikers waited patiently behind me. One of them said, “you can do it!” I took a deep breath and started the climb. It felt like Mount Everest.
The descents were killing my knee, and Holly went on ahead of me, no doubt looking forward to sitting down at Sugarland. “Perhaps they will let her sit in the front seat of the car that will drive us to the finish while she waits for me,” I contemplated. I imagined the plush leather seats, the breeze from the air conditioning. And then I looked up to see Holly, not sitting, but standing, at Sugarland. There was a truck parked there, but she was not sitting in it. I was dazed.
“Are we getting in the truck?”
“No room. You have only 1.7 miles to go. Nothing in comparison to what you’ve done already.”
I looked at him to see if he was wearing a red devil costume. No, he was disguised as a fit-looking runner type. I looked at my Garmin, which reflected that I had travelled just shy of 47 miles.
“What? There are three miles to go to finish the 50 miler.”
“They won’t let us do the Sugarland loop,” Holly explained.
“We can’t do the Sugarland loop, nor can we get in the truck?”
When this was confirmed, I began to cry. “I don’t think I can do it. I am sick. I have asthma; my heart rate is through the roof.”
“We’ll be right here with you.” I looked again, and I think he was wearing a red devil costume, for just an instant, and then he changed back into his disguise.
I spied a porto-potty and said, “Well, I’m going in there first.”
After I got inside, the truck drove up beside the porto-potty and the porto-potty began to shake. I began to fear that they were lifting the porto-potty up with me inside it to transport it. I banged on the door, “I’m in here!” Then I began to pray that they would take the porto-potty to the finish line. Then I wouldn’t have to go any farther on my legs! But the truck was lifting up a trash can next to the porto-potty, so I emerged and Holly and I began the long, long journey to the finish line.
Along the way, I chatted with Kevin Tobin, the owner of Passages (and the boss of all the volunteer scrapers I’d met along the way), who regaled me with stories of running ultras all over the place. I walked with him for over a mile, and it wasn’t till we got near the finish that I realized he was wearing a cast on his leg. Apparently he hurt himself not on some crazy adventure, but doing something like flag football at the company picnic.
Holly went on ahead, so she could sit down, no doubt. When I finally caught up to her, she was sitting on a fence, crying. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“The finish line is there,” she said, pointing 100 yards to the left, “and the car is there,” pointing 100 yards to the right. “They want me to go to the finish line, but I just want to go to my car.”
“Y’all need to finish!” Tobin said. “You are going to get a medal!”
I gathered Holly up, put my arm around her shoulder, and said, “LET’S GO!”
We hobbled the 100 yards to the finish, even managing a little jog at the end. The volunteers cheered loudly, and created a bridge with their arms on the other side of the finish line.
After crossing the finish line (48.5 miles and more than 14 hours from the start) and getting my medal, I proceeded to the medical tent. They tested my oxygen, listened to my breathing and my heart, and took my blood pressure. By this time, my breathing was fine, but my blood pressure was quite elevated. I decided, though, that I did not need further medical attention. I just needed to stop moving. And I needed to eat!
The volunteers had saved a plate of food for Holly and me. I ate it, voraciously. It was barbecue, cous cous, salad, and I don’t know what else. It was great, and I worried that Holly would decide it was enough of a dinner and would want to cancel our steak dinner reservations. Fortunately, she did not, and after a shower, she, Denise, Emma and I set off to dinner. I called ahead to find out where to park.
“No, no, that’s too far. I cannot walk very well, Sonny.”
“Do you have a handicap sticker?”
“Uh, no.” (By the way, for future reference, does anyone know if you can get a temporary handicap sticker before you run an ultra?”
The dinner of steak, french fries, red wine and dessert was great! Who cares if it was the second dinner of the evening--I had run far! And at 3 am, I awoke, starving. I had two bowls of oatmeal. At 7:00 am, I had three eggs and toast. At 9am, we had Hobbit’s “second breakfast” in the hotel lobby. And by noon, I was ready for lunch. Not only had I expended 5000 calories on the run, but after a long endurance race like that, your metabolism is pumped up for several days.
I felt sad knowing that we did not finish the race in the allotted 13 hours, and that we were only permitted to run 48.5.
Very few people ever think about running 50 miles. On our race day:
320 people (including 72 women) started the 50 miler, but only
277 people (including 54 women) finished before the final time cutoff.
This means 43 people (more than 13% of the field), including 72 women (25% of the women) failed to finish in 13 hours. We had a lot of company. Some of them might have gotten a ride when they gave up, too. : )
The race ranked everyone, including those who didn't finish in 13 hours (based on the interim cutoff times).
Holly and I ranked 57/58 out of 72 women. In other words, 14 out of 72 women (19% of the women) did worse (quit or ran slower up till the last interim cutoff) than Holly and me.
We ranked 290/291 out of the entire field of 320. There were 29 people (about 9% of the entire field of men and women) who did worse than we did. Some dropped out; others just ran slower to the interim cutoffs.
Holly ranked 19 out of 24 in her age group. (She did better than 20% of her age group).
I ranked 6 out of 8 in my age group. (I did better than 25% of my age group).
Not too shabby!
The 50 mile run was the fourth of five events of this season for me. The last is the Philly Triathlon, this coming weekend. In it, I will swim 1500 meters, cycle 24 miles, and run 6.2 miles. I am not too worried about the 6.2 mile run, but the swim and bike ride will be tough--I have been doing very little swimming and cycling of late. I finished my fastest triathlon of this distance in 3:18:58. I will be happy if I finish this one in 3:45.
The main thing is that I will be doing it in honor of my Dad: the race is on his 75th birthday. Happy Birthday, DAD!
I have raised over $10,000 to fight cancer this year. Amazing! I thank everyone for their support and encouragement all along the way!
I have raised over $10,000 to fight cancer this year. Amazing! I thank everyone for their support and encouragement all along the way!