“Is this your first time racing Promise Land?” asked a friendly stranger.
“Yes, and, actually, it is my first ultramarathon,” I replied.
“What? Are you crazy? What are you thinking? This is no ordinary 50K,” he retorted.
Well, I knew it was supposed to be hard, but to hear this from a veteran ultramarathoner was, let’s just say, discouraging.. The course was reported to be extremely hilly (with 8000 feet of ascent and 8000 feet of descent) and longer than an actual 50K (which is supposed to be 31 miles). Holly and I got our race T-shirts the night before the race. I began to panic. They showed nothing but hills, or shall I say, mountains, for 34.5 mile! Everyone around us looked so fit. I had this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
The race director announced “everyone who is here can finish this race. You just gotta keep going.” The race included one hard cutoff, he explained. You had to get to the 26 mile aid station in 8 hours. If you did, you should finish in the course limit of 10 hours, though you would be recorded as having finished no matter how long it took you to do the last 8 miles, as long as you got to the eight hour cut off on time. Someone asked about the weather, and the race director reported that the forecast was for perfect weather. It would be cold to start, but the high was predicted in the lower 70s. Thank goodness, no rain! I’d had enough of mud runs.
When the alarm went off at 3:45 am the next morning, I knew there was nothing to be done but go run. Or, put more precisely, “to keep moving.” Holly and I started near the back of the pack. We wore headlamps because it was just 5:30 am and pitch dark. After about a quarter of a mile of running, we began the day’s first ascent. For five miles, we climbed up a steep mountain. He could hear a rushing creek beside us--it would be gorgeous at the end of the day to come back down this hill and admire the waterfall that we could hear on the way up. There was no way we could run up this hill; it was a hike. And that is not because we were less fit than others: everyone was walking. Well, we figured at the front of this train there were probably a handful of folks--freaks of nature--running. How they did it was a mystery. About halfway up was our first aid station, where a friendly volunteer offered to take our headlamps, as it was starting to dawn. We ditched them, and Holly ditched her gloves, but I kept mine because my hands get cold when I run even if it is in the 60s.
At the top of the mountain, the trees parted and we glimpsed the mountains across from us. Gorgeous. I said a prayer for Olene, the mother of a friend who just learned that her breast cancer has come back, two years after her first diagnosis. A reminder of why I do these crazy events. Holly said, “do you think we have to climb that mountain over there?” “Surely not!” I replied.
And then we began the descent. If you are not a runner, you might think running down a really steep mountain would be easy. This, alas, is not so. Running down a steep slope is very hard on your quad muscles. I called this part of the race “The Quad Thrasher Descent.” It was hard, and I worried about how it would affect us later in the day.
But the scenery was amazing. I remember saying "well, we couldn't have asked for better weather! At least the trails aren't muddy like they were at Seneca Creek." About 15 minutes later Holly said, "what was that noise?" I said, "thunder!" And suddenly it poured and poured, rained sideways, pelted hail on us. Holly said, "well at least if it's lightening, we're near all these big trees." I don't know if she was kidding.
The rained slacked off after an hour or so. We had about 8 miles to make the only hard cutoff of the race--we had to be at mile 26 in eight hours. We thought we could make it if we pushed. I remarked, "well, at least the trails aren't very technical. I mean, they are steep, but there aren't a lot of rocks and roots." We turned the corner and began a very technical descent, full not only of rocks and roots, but loose rocks about four to seven inches in diameter. It was a rock slide! Holly said, "well, you cannot run down these. You have to walk." And a man, flew past us, doing some five minute per mile pace. Why he was there we weren't sure. We finally concluded he must be a volunteer running from aid station to aid station. I said "follow his lead Holly!" And she said, "I ain't breaking my nose out here. I'm not busting out my two front teeth. NOPE."
Eventually we got to the end of the rock slide, and began climbing up a muddy mountain. Slip, sliding away. We caught up with a woman who was wearing red arm warmers with the word "bacon" on them. She was having trouble with cramping legs. Bacon Lady remarked, "well, at least it's not raining super hard like before. This light rain is not so horrible, I guess." She stopped to take an S cap, and we got ahead of her. The thunder started again, and it was raining hard. NO, it was SLEETING. And Holly had no gloves. At some point, we came to raging creek and she thought we'd have to cross through the water. That's when she started sobbing. Thankfully there was a bridge, but it was too late. The water kept rushing. Down her face.
We were approaching an aid station, though, and she consoled herself that they would have paper towels there and she could rub her fingers on the paper towels. Perhaps she would not get frostbite. I said, “you already declared that you didn’t want to break your nose or lose some teeth. I take it you want to keep all your fingers, too?” I kept cracking jokes, but she was not laughing. We finally arrived at the aid station. and they had no paper towels. She announced, "I am not having fun!" Her fingers were so cold that she could not eat, so I had to get food out for her and feed her, like she was a baby bird. She wasn't getting warmer. I asked if they had anything at all for her hands. They realized they had styrofoam cups (but nothing warm to drink out of them). They took two stacks of the cups out of the plastic bags that hold them and gave the thin plastic bags to Holly. She wore plastic baggies over her hands after that.
We made the 8 hour cut off with 45 minutes to spare. A volunteer explained that we had only to climb a steep 3.2 miles and then run downhill five miles to the finish. We had 2 hours and 45 minutes to do it in order to finish in 10 hours. The race director had said, however, that even if we didn't finish in 10 hours, he'd still record our time. We just wouldn't get the shorts. Well, I like skirts anyway, and had already decided give any shorts I got to my Coach, Kyle. But I mean, really, surely we could hike up 3.2 miles in an hour or so, and then run 5 miles downhill in an hour or so. We might get the shorts!
Hard to believe, but it took us two hours to climb those 3.2 miles. How is that even possible? It was nearly straight up half the time, and very technical. I used my hands quite a bit. And this stretch of the race presented my turn to cry. My quads were totally trashed from running down hills, and the climbs up the hills had done a number on my calves. Holly kept getting ahead of me and waiting for me at turns. I tried to tell her to go ahead because she was still so cold, but she wouldn't leave me. I had to keep reminding myself that this would pass, that it was not as bad as the cancer treatments some must endure.
Eventually a very fit man flitted up behind us. "How are you doing, 196?" he asked me, calling me not by my name, but by my race number. "Never better," I replied, "I am just putting one foot in front of the other." He was the sweeper, and he told me that I was the last runner on the course. “I think the word ‘scraper’ might be more apt,” I suggested. He laughed, pointed to the summit and said, "Look, it's not very far. You've got this! And after this it's just five miles downhill."
At the top of the hill, Holly arrived at the aid station ahead of me, exhausted. The volunteers offered to drive her the five miles to the finish. "You want to do that?" they said. "YES!" she said, "but I can guarantee you she will not let me,” pointing down the hill. "Well, let's see what she says when she gets here. She will probably want a ride too. You only have 45 minutes till the 10 hour time cutoff, and it's five miles, so you will not make it. You cannot win the shorts."
As soon as I got to the summit, I felt so much better. I felt a smile coming back to my face, having done that horrible climb. The volunteers said, "what would you like to do?" I said, "top off my water bottle and have whatever food you have to offer before we do this last stretch!" "But we are offering to drive you the rest of the way. You are not going to make it in time for the shorts."
"DRIVE US WHEN THERE ARE ONLY FIVE MILES LEFT? YOU MUST BE OUT OF YOUR MIND! I DON'T EVEN LIKE SHORTS!"
Holly, said, “well, guys, I told you so!”
We began the five mile downhill journey to the finish. The first few miles were muddy and slippery. After all, it had thunder stormed for hours, and over 300 people had run through the mud before us. The final 2.4 miles were on a gravel road, but it was SO STEEP. At this point, my quads were screaming, and my knee began to scream as my IT band inflamed. I actually had to walk a little down the gravel road because of the sharp pain in my knee. Every muscle in my body was aching. You'd think we could go fast down these hills, but it hurt so much! Every step was horrible. I don't think we did much better than 15 minute miles these last couple miles.
I was so glad when we finally saw the sign "PROMISE LAND." We were finished. My finish time was 10:48:32. We were the last two runners. We did it! The race director encouraged us to come back next year. "But when you come back, finish in under 10 hours! I know you can do it!"
Later, the race director emailed the results to runners and said:
“Are you warm yet? I felt sorry for many of you who finished in the middle to the back of the pack on Saturday. It was an epic event. We had one other year that it rained a lot, but with getting sleet and hail, we have never had anything like that before at Promise Land. I am impressed with how some of you were bordering on hypothermia but still made it to the finish line.”
It was the hardest race I’ve ever done. Yes, it was harder than the Ironman, I do believe, even though it took less time. I had quite a blood blister to show for all the hard work, too. OWWWW.
What’s next? Well, Holly and I have a little trail marathon this week. Just a long supported run, we figure. Shouldn’t bee too mountainous. It is in Charlottesville. It’s hilly up there, isn’t it? Can't be too bad, though. Our next "main" race is our 50 mile trail race on June 2nd. I’m a little nervous about that one!