You know you're an ultrarunner when...it takes more than 2 hours into the race before you feel "warmed-up". I'm never going to win marathons, am I.? :-) First Place Female 50K Champion:-)
Chip time, 4:59:48. Clock time, 4:59:59 (whew!)
The prospect of signing up for this race had been on the back of our minds for months, but the final commitment didn't come until the Saturday night one week ago. After an amazing day's 27 mile run on the JFK course, a few shots of tequila, and a mini blow to my bank account later I was officially registered. I mean, so many world-class elite ultrarunners all in the same location at once AND on the east coast is unheard of. We just couldn't pass up this opportunity. The race is centered around the 100K with the big prize $, the race in which all the elites would be entered. Matt, Mike and I had signed up for the 50K, which would work out perfectly. We would get to see the elites off at the start, then wait around for them to finish, so we might as well kill some time and run a 50K while we were at it :-) I was ecstatic about meeting the people I read about doing crazy stuff all the time, and I absolutely could not wait until race day Saturday.
I had been feeling pretty good about my training the past couple of weeks, with my strong run finish in the DDT Halfironman to win my age group, beating my last year time by twenty minutes, and my run of the JFK course with Mike, Matt and Kara the week before, finishing things up strong in the last couple of miles on the C&O with 7:10mmis. Additionally, the times of my tempo runs had been dropping in the past few weeks, hopefully indicating that I was doing something right. Even though I had decided to train through this race (not taper beforehand) so I wouldn't be completely fresh, I was feeling pretty good about my fitness.
Race day morning was overcast with lots and lots of fog that would only get worse as the day went on. On the drive to the starting line and packet pickup that morning, we had driven through a lot of hilly roads, but none would match the final 3 mile climb up the final mountain to get to the resort. The road seemed to go on forever and as the grade continued to increase my car kept revving up gears until it was practically maxed out. Then I literally watched the lit up bars of my gas tank level drop as we burned up the ascent. But I think the most scary thing about this drive was the fact that there were neon orange flags with arrows and signs that said "Caution Runners" to mark the course along the entire ascent. Are you serious??? But we thought that this must surely be marking the course of the 100K only, not the 50K. We'd be in for a pleasant surprise at mile 28 :-)
Things were bustling at the start, but not as busy as I expected. We picked up our packets and stood around giddily waiting. Soon enough the elites started rolling in, with Ian Sharman walking just feet in front of us to the starting line! Inside the resort building, we saw Devon Crosby-Helms and Geoff Roes stretching and getting ready for their race that would be starting in less than 10 minutes. We exchanged a few words with all of them and I just kept thinking how awesome it was to see these magnificent physical specimens in person. We saw the elites off at their start. After I got over the thrill of finally meeting Devon Crosby Helms, I remembered that I had to start running that 50K I signed up for in less than an hour. Better check out the course and get ready!
And probably before I was really ready, I was in the corral of the starting line ready to face the mountains. I started out feeling decent, but I wouldn't say much more than that. I had essentially completely trained through this race, logging 40 miles last weekend at home in Maryland and with already 45 miles in for this week to add on to that. I was not really burnt out, but I didn't have that nice fresh-leg feel of any other race morning. I was ok with it though, because this day was all about meeting the elites and reaping in some of the training benefit for the JFK 50mile while at it.
Little stretch before the little ultra.
Out of the starting corral, we headed across the small parking lot out of the start and took a turn onto some rocky trail and must have immediately started descending the three mile mountain that we must have just driven up to get to the start. Even though downhill single track is usually my favorite, this trail was a bit more steep and technical for my liking with lots of loose rocks and tree roots for some hard footing that were wet from the previous day's rain storm. As usual, several guys went out hard right off the mat, but Mike and Matt must've stayed pretty tame initially because they hung with me for the first 25-30minutes. It was hard to gauge the competition in this race because the half marathon and the 50K had the same start. No 50Ker wants to make the fatal mistake of going out hard to chase someone, only to find them turning around 6 miles out at the half marathon and leaving you completely gassed and with 25 miles to go. I saw one or two girls go ahead of me in the first couple miles of the race, but really had no idea who they were and how many more of them there could be. I just kind of put it in the back of my mind and tried to settle in to something sustainable.
Less than two miles into the race when we started hearing people in the distance screaming. Did someone fall? The screams kept getting closer. Soon the guys in front of us were screaming and swatting at themselves and then just as Mike and Matt let out a scream, I felt an intense sharp sting directly on the lower part of my right butt cheek and I let out a nice screech myself. Someone must have stirred up and angered a bee hive and now swarms of yellow jackets were attacking everyone that ran through. I thought the sting would let up after the first, but a few seconds later I was stung again around the same place. Arrgghhhhhh!! I ran faster, furiously swatting around in the air at nothing. The stinging only seemed to get worse and more intense for the next couple of minutes, and then finally, I reached under the elastic inseam of the undergarments of my shorts and pulled out the yellow jacket stuck inside. Ekkkkkk!!! Ok. Gone. Now I'm done. Ready to get my mind back in this race. The stinging finally subsided over the next few miles, although it did take a while and it never really went away for the remainder of the race. So that part kind of sucked, but the day was only going to get better from there.
We got on the road after the first few miles and a couple of small muddy creek crossings. I probably would have been more glad to see some road after my recent rather unpleasant encounters with mother nature had it not been that this road section involved a good harsh pounding down a 15% grade on pavements on treacherous windy road. I am definitely not used to going down stuff this steep and my legs were taking a good hammering. I felt lost with no good form or technique, just anxiously trying to get through this part. The hammering was so rough that it was almost painful. Actually, it was kind of painful. I was practically cringing the entire way down as the pounding relentlessly jarred every segment of my body, even causing me to develop a side stitch. Just over an hour in and I was sure that this mountain must be shredding my quads from the inside out with all this high demand eccentric contraction. Ohhhh god this could be a long race.
Finally we merged onto some more trail, still descending, but at least now I had some soft dirt under me that I could work with. The single track was still a bit steep for my liking however. It wasn't long before we were ascending back up a steep mountain on the road again. This must have been just as steep as the previous one, except this time we were going up. After a few minutes I was succumbed to a power hike. I tried to run as much of the mountain that I could while safely conserving some energy that I knew I'd be needing in the subsequent hours. And as pathetic as I felt less than 2 hours into a race and having to get up this thing in hike/run intervals, I knew I was racing smart because I could feel my heart rate through the roof even in my power hike. I mean I knew this race had some elevation, but holy crap! I remember there being repetitive moments during this race where I just thought this is ridiculous! And I knew I wasn't exactly running on fresh legs so this could get interesting. Mike and Matt had pulled ahead a bit after the bee incident but I could see their yellow Navy marathon jerseys in the distance up ahead chugging away. They are both strong climbers, as I found out in our training last weekend and I knew they'd do well. I found myself around a few half marathoners at this time, and chatted with them for a bit (well, as much as the mountain would allow). For once in my life, I was being called only "half crazy," as the "full crazies" were the ones out there running the 100K. Just goes to show craziness is all relative! I wondered how the elites were doing and who was winning at this point. Obviously, someone who knew how to climb. This must be the ultimate fantasy course of Kilian Jornet.
After finally reaching the top of that RB we finally came to an aid station where the half marathoners were told to turn around and continue back down the way we had just come. I had been thrilled to find that Cliff was the official nutrition sponsor for this event. It was now a little less than 2 hours into the race and I had eaten less than a pack of Cliff energy block shots. I knew I needed more calories, and probably some caffeine, so I filled my handheld with Cliff electrolyte drink, downed a cup of Mountain Dew and took a pack of block shots with caffeine to go.
I immediately started feeling better after finally peaking over the summit of that mountain. Don't know if it was a sense of accomplishment, relief, or maybe just the Mountain Dew. After leaving the aid station at the top, we immediately began a road descent on the other side of the mountain. Only descent was gradual, and it felt pretty nice. Within minutes, I started feeling good and I settled into a nice rhythm. It was like I finally felt "warmed-up." I began to pick up a pretty good pace going down this part, but didn't push past comfort level and didn't try any chasing. The pace just felt automatic and so I went with it. To my own shock and amazement, my legs still felt pretty fresh considering.
I realized that we were now passing people in the 100K race, so unless I spun around to look at the color of their bib number, I couldn't know for sure what race they were in. I was passing a good number of people, even some women, but really had no idea of my current placement in the race. I didn't really care too much at this point.
Then came my favorite part of the race. After a few miles more miles of road, we took a turn off into an aid station where I grabbed a gel, chugged another Mountain Dew (this 4:30am wake up thing is killing me!) and hopped back onto single track trail. Well, it definitely wasn't flat, but it wasn't as technical as the first part of the race and I was actually enjoying the undulating hills throughout. I started passing a good number of people here, so the only downside was things could get a little congested at parts, not to mention there was a pretty steep cliff off the edge on one side. This part was an out and back part of the course, so I was seeing some of the 100Kers coming back towards me, which was interesting to watch...Ooooo that guy looks good..Ekkkk that guy's lookin a little rough...annnnd holy crap that guy is...DAVID GOGGINS??!!!! I saw the chiseled physique of rippling muscle mass coming at me from a hundred meters away. There was no mistaking this guy, from the videos and quotes that have helped inspire me through some of my toughest training moments. I almost toppled over falling down the other side of the cliff trying to get out of his way. What a beast.
And on with the race...I was feeling pretty good on the road leading up, but I started feeling really good after hopping onto this trail. I was having a great time. After emerging from the trail we headed down a wooden staircase to get to the point of the course where we would do a one mile loop around a lake along some more trail. I met Mike and Matt coming back up the stairs. They looked good and strong, and I thought that they must be two of the leaders in this race because I had not recalled seeing more than even one guy with a 50K number on coming towards me and even he was not that far from them. We cheered each other on, and recalling the fond memories of our three man wolf pack from the weekend before training on the JFK trail, I was lifted further :-)
I quickly filled my handheld with the Cliff electrolyte mixture they had at the aid station before heading out to the loop around the lake (grape was definitely the best flavor, but remind me never to buy that stuff.) I was feeling good, but I felt like my stomach might be a little queasy and I hadn't had much of an appetite so I forced myself to drink some and take gels for calories. The lap around the lake was fun, especially since I was starting to chick some guys in the 50K at this point. Still no women in sight, but I knew that if there were women ahead of me, then they had to be less than a mile ahead of me since I was pretty sure I had not seen any coming back my way before I entered the trail.
Taking the same single track back in felt good, and I was actually very much looking forward to getting back on it. By this time we were 3 plus hours in and I could tell people were starting to get tired. I was now flying by guys, all looking a bit surprised but usually calling out words of encouragement to me. I passed one particular group of two guys and a girl who were walking up a small roller in the middle of the trail. They all had on 50K bibs. One of the guys actually picked his pace back up as I passed and followed me closely for a couple of miles until we emerged from the trail. He was actually following me really closely, almost too much for comfort, and at one point I asked if he wanted to pass, but apparently he was just using me as a pacer. Well, I was using him as an informer. "Sooooo how many women have you seen up in the front other than your friend?" He informed me that I had just passed the second place woman who had been with him and there was only one more ahead, not too far.
I flew through the next aid station, back on the road and staring a gradual slope down, still feeling immaculate. The guy who had been running with me dropped off, and I had a feeling I would be running the rest of this race alone. That was ok. I had one chick to chase down. And I knew I could start kicking up the pace with a little more than 10 miles to go and still feeling as good as I did.
And so the pace quickened. When I emerged from the trail and got back onto the road, a thick fog had settled in, which made it difficult to see more than a couple hundred feet in front. I began running kind of blindly through the fog, just staying alongside the road, hoping I wouldn't miss any flags if they told me to turn and praying that I wouldn't get run over by a car or truck who wouldn't have a chance of seeing me in this stuff. I squinted starring ahead at nothing for a while, until I started to see silhouettes in the distance. Runners or road signs? Nope, they were runners slowly plodding along. As I grew closer I realized they were 2 guys in the 50K I had caught up with. They cheered me on as I passed and then disappeared again into the fog. I passed one or two more guys soon after, with each pass trying to tell if it was the girl I was trying to catch. Nope. Nope. But still, I was clipping away at a pretty good pace and I started to get the feeling that I must be close. If she was slowing down, I'd have her. Then I saw another silhouette in the distance and as I grew nearer I could barely make out the hazy movements of knee genu valgus that usually accompanies female gait. Got her:-) I passed by her pretty quickly, so I realized that her pace must have dropped considerably. She commented how good I looked as I passed by. I sure felt it.
Now I was fairly sure that I was the first female, but couldn't be positive. Also, it was about that time in the race for me to see how many guys I could pick off before the finish, so I tried to keep up the pace. But when the gradual downhill road leveled out at some points though, I realized I did not have as much gas left in the tank as I had thought. I contributed this to going into a race like this without frest legs, but who knows. Aerobically, I felt good..smooth calm breath, good rhythm. But I could tell that my legs were brinking the border of shot, undoubtedly from the unhealthy amount of mountains I had encountered a couple hours prior. Still, I didn't want to slow down, and knew there was less than 10 miles to get through, so I pushed through a bit.
Soon I came to the aid station on the road at the top of the mountain I had climbed earlier. Oh noooooo. My worst fears had come true. We were going to have to go back down that thing and then back up the mountain on the other side to get back to the finish line. Welp, good news is it's only 4.2 more miles! Bad news..I had over 3,000 more feet of elevation to get through.
The descent was painful, I am not going to lie. Whatever part of my quads was intact before this part was certainly being ripped to shreds now. But I got through it, only to find myself following those orange flags and caution runner signs right back up the original 3 mile mountain ascent we had driven up this morning. Once again, I was humbled to the power hike. I passed by road signs that informed me I was running up a 15% grade. Awesome. At this point I was getting pretty gassed, but I knew the end was near. I wanted to get to the finish line. I looked at my watch and began doing run to hike intervals, pushing the run for as long as possible, and then just getting my body up that damn mountain any way that I could. Before reaching this mountain I had looked at my watch and hoped for a finishing time under the 5 hour mark. However, faced with this RB, I let go of this hope of the seemingly impossible.
A foggy finish
A foggy finish
I had absolutely no idea where the top of this thing could be. The fog was still thick and getting thicker. Soon, I could barely see twenty feet in front of me. Then, after a good bit of hard work, the orange flags marking the road turned to arrows that were popping up beside me from somewhere within the fog, pointing me upwards still. I knew the end must be near. I pushed harder. A minute later I heard music. I glanced at my watch. 4:57. Oh my gosh I just might make it! I took off. Except now the fog was so bad I could barely see five feet in front of my face. I had no idea where I was going, just trying to follow the road the best I could. If the edge of a cliff appeared in front of me right now I would have run right off it because I could not see a thing! Then the road split. A random group of bystanders were standing near it and started cheering for me when they saw me and pointed me towards the right direction when I started to stray from the now invisible orange flag. I glanced at my watch. 4:59!!! I only had seconds to get to the finish line, but I knew where I was--I could make it! I pushed hard and blindly towards what looked like the gated runway that I knew was the finish line. I ran alongside the gate towards the finish mat I could now see, except---CRAP!!! IT'S ON THE OTHER SIDE!!! I had just run in on the wrong side of the runway and now the finishing mat was beside me but I was gated in from it on the other side. I didn't even want to look at my watch. I did what felt like one of those suicide line toe-touch turn around things I'd done throughout so many years of basketball practices and booked it back to the entrance of the gate and then back through to the real finishing mat. Push, Sprint, Boom. Chip time, 4:59:48. Clock time, 4:59:59. Whew :-)
At the finish line, Mike was there to greet me and confirm that I was the first place female. He had won the entire race overall!! Matt was right behind him with a close second. The wolf pack dominated that 50K.
MEETING THE ELITES:
We waited around for a couple of hours after the race for the elites to come in. It was a really close race with a lot of strong guys. Geof Roes, course record holder of the Western States 100 mile, came in first after the leader Mike Wardian took a wrong turn to go off course for 10K! He still finished second though, passing four more guys on his way back in. Third place was taken away by Matt Flaherty, a younger guy who I hadn't known, as he battled his way up the mountain just minutes infront of Ian Sharman, who took in fourth. For the women, Devon Crosby-Helms took in second place, but still seemed very happy and accomplished with her finish.
With Devon Crosby-Helms.