Running an ultra was not part of my plan for the year. But then having a baby wasn't part of last year's plan and we've seen how that went. Besides, you know what they say about the best-laid plans.
So an ultra wasn't on my race calendar when the year began but rather a slew of shorter races. However, after only a few training runs with a local group of runners training for Holiday Lake 50k and I caught what I called ultra fever. I envied those registered for Holiday Lake but I knew that I wasn't ready. Terrapin fell on the same day as a race that was part of another trail series to which I was already committed. It wasn't until April that a local ultra race fell on an open weekend, Promise Land 50k. Described on the race's home page as 'the toughest 50k you'll ever love' and awarding finishers with a pair of Patagonia shorts I was intrigued. I wanted a pair of those shorts. I also wanted a chance to test out my theory that perhaps longer distances are where my strengths truly are as a runner.. I had only run one ultra (Holiday Lake) when I found out I was pregnant last year and I've been itching to run another ever since.
Off I sent my registration and check and then set about to change my mind, realizing that perhaps the best way to cure ultra fever is to register for one. My training was lacking in sufficient long runs and the thought of going the distance, which was rumored to be 34 miles, unnerved me. I changed nothing in my training regimen after submitting my application but I did begin to study the ultra. I read other's stories from past years, I quizzed all the ultra runner's I knew for advice and pointers, all the while taking mental notes on what may work for me.
Two training runs on the two weekend's preceding the race introduced me to the course. We ran the "Dark" side which included the hike up Apple Orchard Falls in sunny, warm weather where I wore poorly fitted shoes and ended up with nasty blisters. The following weekend we ran the "Light" side in chilly, rainy weather for which I was under-dressed and ill prepared. Though both runs ended with me achy and miserable they were invaluable experiences to better prepare me for the actual event. They were also my two longest training runs to date at about 15 and 18 miles.
The week leading up to Promise Land I spent approximately four hours studying the elevation profile that comes in the Runner Packet, I had nightmares, ran very little, and slept even less. Those who cared for me told me not to stress the race. Those who knew me well knew I wouldn't be me if I didn't. I also had many phantom aches and pains, especially in my left knee. Having suffered from bouts of ITBS in that knee in the past and having it flare up at the only ultra I've ever run made it a constant nagging fear.
Friday night my amazing mother-in-law came to sleep over so that we could head out to the race headquarters and camp. We made it out to the camp Friday night just as the race director, Dr. David Horton, was beginning the race briefing. We had made up the back of the van into a makeshift bed and retreated there after a brief time at the bonfire. Surprisingly I got a little sleep, broken as it might have been, before finally giving up at 4 a.m.
Having a small baby at home whom I was nursing required that I express extra milk during the week preceding the race for the baby to have while I was away as well as pumping right before the race commenced. This was a serious concern for me, I wasn't quite sure how my body would react to going eight or nine hours without expressing the milk, of which blocked ducts and damage to supply were my biggest fears. It was a rough morning getting started to say the least. I didn't eat as much as I normally would before a race and I didn't have coffee. I did however take two salt pills, a few Pepto Bismol, and a dose of preventative Ibuprofen.
By the time we officially began I was beyond ready to just get moving. I decided with moments to go to change the position of my race number, change my top and lose my gloves. Getting out of the camp from my position mid-pack was slow moving, I dropped my head, turned on the iPod and just started moving. I had planned to run from the start to the end road maintenance sign about two miles in and then walk to AS1. At this point I am not a good climber, I've short legs and feel that running inclines will always be to my advantage but I'm not quite able to tackle just any climb. I ran as planned to the sign and then walked to AS1 (37 minutes) where I didn't stop but returned to a jog. Shortly after entering single track I heard a voice from behind, "Lady, your flashlight is on." I had forgotten to drop it at the AS and had stowed it in my fuel belt but had apparently turned it on in the process, I shifted to turn the light off when I realized the voice was that of my husband, Todd, whom I had passed on the way up the first climb without even noticing. He got ahead of me and I just followed.
I decided that I would stay with him if possible to Sunset Fields (AS3) where I would then probably lose him on the downhill to Cornelius Creek as he is fearless on rocky descents. When I shared this plan aloud he warned bitterly, "run your own race". Somewhat crestfallen I allowed myself to fall behind several paces but vowed silently yet even more fervently not to let him out of my sight. And through the rolling single track we ran, several people between us, but I caught him occasionally stealing glances backwards in my direction. Once he even told me to fuel, I ate three chomps, Watermelon, and swore them off after my brain nearly refused to swallow the third one. Before long the single track opened up to a horse trail, this was my favorite section of the entire day. Sometimes I was ahead of Todd, sometimes he got ahead of me, but by the time we came upon the AS at the gate we were running side by side. I grabbed two peanut butter and jelly quarters, some Pringles and a handful of M&M's and refilled my bottle. I was carrying only a 10 oz. handheld Nathan and a fuel belt with two 10 oz. bottles that I was saving for the hike up the falls later in the day.
Together we began the climb up White Oak Ridge but quickly Todd pulled away. I went back to my music and ran my own pace. Running and walking at intervals. Sometimes counting, sometimes replaying a song, doing whatever to get me further upwards. This section I know I could improve upon in the future, I did a lot of walking on what seems very runnable sections of trail. We were mostly alone on this section, we didn't see another person until the photographer at the access road. We ran the downhill side by side and I knew that I was making better time getting to Sunset Fields than I had originally planned. Just before the AS a man waiting on another runner told me he thought I was 6th female. This helped me pick up my pace and my spirits. We came into Sunset Fields the first time in 2:32.
At this point I stopped to refill my small bottle, grab more PB&J and a potato section and Todd ran on to face the descent alone. I was stoked, I had kept him to Sunset Fields as hoped for and I had made better time getting there than I thought I would. I thought that was the last time I would see Todd until the finish. I began the run down Apple Orchard Falls trail and tried to eat the food I had grabbed. My stomach saying please my mind saying not a chance. After only a few bites I threw the rest of the food out. I did well on this section, I ran it hard, focusing on my feet. On the training run this section was painful due to blisters and bad shoes, in my new Montrail Bajadas and two pairs of socks my feet (also covered in a thick coating of Bag Balm) were happy. I was happy.
When I came into AS4 I was shocked to see Todd's jersey through the trees still at the aid station. I was filling my water bottle quickly as I saw him disappearing down the road when Horton confirmed I was 6th female and that top 10 females would get a special award. I grabbed two more PB&J quarters and two crackers and took off. I'd made it in 3:12, I had read you can double your time at this AS to give yourself an idea of a finishing time. I ate the crackers but the head really wasn't accepting the PB&J quarters any longer. I held on to them for over a mile before I tossed the second one.
I was slowly gaining on Todd when Dr. Horton passed by in a truck whispering, or perhaps shouting, I'm not really sure, "Top 10 females". I hadn't seen another female in front of me or behind me all day but I knew that I didn't want to slip from 6th after holding that position for almost 20 miles. I caught back up with Todd but instead of passing him I engaged him in conversation, he told me to go on but I knew we were headed into single track again and thought it would be nice to have the company. He confided he was having a rough patch. I was beginning to feel tired.
We did a lot of hiking but still ran between AS4 and AS5 at Colon Hollow. I grabbed more PB&J but they tasted like poison and I threw them out. This would prove to be the worst move I made all day, not eating enough real food at the aid stations in general but especially after my body had already shown warning signs.
This next section was the hardest mentally all day. I grew more and more tired over the next several miles. My stomach started to revolt the lack of actual food it had received. I'd been doing well (at least for me) on hydrating, emptying my bottle between each AS, but my caloric intake was not satisfactory. I walked a lot. This section had seemed so rolling during the training run, now it all seemed uphill. I berated myself. Todd and I pushed and pulled each other through this section, sometimes he was ahead setting the pace and pulling me and other times I was ahead looking back for him. The weather was nice, I told him I was glad I had ditched the long sleeve shirt at the start. We dunked our hats in the creek when it was deep enough and rolling. Todd thought the next AS was closer, I feared it was not, that we'd finally stumbled upon some of those extra Horton miles you hear about so often. At about 24 miles in Todd asked if I wanted to stick it out the rest of the way together, maybe cross the finish line together. I readily accepted the proposal knowing he would be an asset climbing the falls. Finally I started to comeback, I was feeling better and we once again were going downhill which helped pull us along.
We came into the AS at Cornelius Creek for the second time at 4:52 and I made a point to grab food that I thought my body would accept, especially with the hike up the falls approaching. The volunteers told me I was the 6th girl they'd seen through at that point. I was starting to feel some pressure. I grabbed a handful of trail mix, some Oreo's and a large handful of Ritz crackers and headed off with my bottles full and the climb to come steep. I called back for Todd to hurry up and started off up the flat section that would ultimately lead to the falls and the hardest terrain to cover for the entire day.
The first section of the trail was relatively flat and I felt like we should be running but instead we recovered from being exhausted and ate the food we'd acquired. Those Ritz crackers were amazing. We chatted and hiked and our moods were quite merry. The trick here is that it isn't actually getting up to the falls that is so trying but rather the section just past the falls up to Sunset Fields. Especially the long string of man-placed stairs set apart at such an awkward distance that you can't even set a pace as you climb that really tires you out. We were just past the falls when Todd commented that we are about to receive a storm. We decided to pick up the pace and try for Sunset Fields before the storm arrived. Unfortunately, even with the improved pace we didn't outrun the storm. And what a storm. The temperature dropped, it rained, it hailed. My arms burned from the cold and being pelted by hail. It was hard. I was so thankful when I approached a sign that said .3 to Sunset Fields. I thought about all of the people behind us and how the weather was going to effect them. We were about to reach the home stretch and the rain was discouraging, I could only fathom what runners further out who may not have even reached the falls were experiencing.
We made it to Sunset Fields in 5:49. We had climbed the falls in much worse weather than hoped for in just under an hour. Again, this is definitely a time that could be improved upon but I was happy with on race day. I didn't even fill my bottle because it was so cold and wet I just wanted to keep moving. We took off and headed towards the final section. We walked the final uphill though I felt like we should be running it and Todd told me to start out ahead when we turned off to start the final descent. It was wet and the trail was starting to fill with little streams, but we took it on as fast as we might have if it had been dry. It was cold but thrilling. During a particularly rocky section Todd got ahead and shouted that I would catch him on the downhill road section. Before long we were at the last AS and we ran past. This section is so steep going that it's best to just open up and let gravity do its will. By the time it starts to level out just slightly you are already going at break neck speed and we just continued on. I knew Todd wanted to finish in 6:30 and that we were going to be close but just miss it but I tried to keep the pace up. Todd said his quads were cramping up. I wouldn't back down the pace for either of our sake. I stole a glance backwards up the hill there was no one in sight but still I pushed on, wanting us to be as close to 6:30 as we could get.
When the road flattened out Todd got on the shoulder of the road and apologized that we couldn't go any faster. I knew he was hurting but I also knew we were so close to the finish. I was feeling good at this point and pumped to the max with adrenaline. We rounded the turn into the camp and there at the far right was the pavilion and the finishing line, we clasped hands and covered the last hundred yards holding hands. We had covered the 34 miles (according to my Garmin, 34.04) in 6:33. Almost a half hour faster than I had hoped for and feeling pretty good. No injuries which is almost as exciting as the faster-than-anticipated finishing time. I got my pair of the coveted finisher's short and a very nice finisher's shirt for being the 6th female to finish.
Then the cold started to sink in and my teeth started to chatter. I made my way to the car where I slowly warmed up, changed clothes and ate far too many doughnuts and cookies. Once warmed up a little we went back out to watch more finishes and eat some post-race food. As the day wore on the soreness settled in but it was better than I'd expected. Mostly I was tired. We had a lazy evening with the kids but by Sunday we were up to our usual antics with the help of a few ibuprofen and rolling the most painful muscles out with a golf ball. Today (Tuesday) I feel great.
All in all, it was a great day. I finished ahead of my goals and I got to run off and on with my wonderful training and life partner. There were several places that I can already identify as needing improvement which I think is a positive thing because it suggests I could finish even stronger. I need to further focus on hill running, long runs, and proper fueling. Also I'm only averaging about 40 miles a week and I've been told if I can increase my mileage more improvement can be made. But Saturday did confirm one thing for me, I love this distance. I was so fearful of the mileage before the race began but once I was out there running I never once thought I wasn't going to finish which gave me a much needed confidence boost in tackling further ultra distances.