I’ve come to realize that my best pre-race disposition is one of doom and gloom. I go to a dark place, assume that what is coming will to be terrible and painful, and I sulk. I am for sure the person you most want to spend time with before a race. I don’t chat, I don’t make small talk, I just think about how terrible this thing is that I’m about to do. But the second that gun goes off I shift into the very best version of myself. I smile. I’m so happy to be there! I still don’t want to make small talk (I don’t even listen to music during races anymore because I find it too distracting), but I am very happy to be there.
This was the case for Merrill’s Mile, a race that consists of a one-mile loop that you run as many times as possible until your 6, 12, 24, or 48-hour race time expires. I chose to run the 6-hour race, with a goal to PR (original PR was ~30 miles), get in some good training miles, and, depending on who showed up, perhaps add a podium place to my running resume.
Driving up to the race with the crew I was in rare form, and even joked about how I wouldn’t have to race if we got lost. I didn’t actually mean it (I don’t think), but I knew exactly what this race was going to take from me, and wasn’t sure I had it. It had been another mentally and emotionally trying week, plus I’d had food poisoning the weekend before and my stomach still wasn’t recovered.
And, um, it’s real hot in the Deep South, nowadays.
We arrived at the start about 25 minutes early, more than enough time to get my bib and do the usual pre-race activities, like taking 90+ photos and sussing out the competition. Knowing who my competition wasn’t exactly possible however, given that the six-hour race competition for a place could start at 9 AM Day 1, 9 PM that night, 9 AM Day 2, or 9 PM that night. Since I might not even be running alongside the others running my race, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to truly compete with the others runners, I was going to have to focus on executing my race plan instead. Following the plan was the only way to measure success (and perhaps should always be).
My plan was to run the first three hours at a sustainable pace and try to bank 20 miles before the temperature rose above 90°. The goal for hours four and five would be simply to maintain forward progress, whatever that meant—with no shade on the course and a 90°+ day forecasted, I just wanted to keep moving. Hour six would be to take the course by storm and run as fast as I could until the time expired. My A-goal was 36 miles, B-goal was a PR, and my C-goal was a finish.
The first mile felt slow and my legs felt heavy. I didn’t panic because I knew that a week with stomach problems meant my legs might not have the kick they usually did. It was still cool though and one half of the course was shaded, so I stayed within my easy-steady pace (9-9:24) for the first hour and hydrated and fueled according to the plan (half a Picky Bar every 3 miles, drink every mile). I’ve found that I don’t need salt or other electrolytes, and they cause stomach problems for me anyway, so I hydrated with good old-fashioned H2O.
It started to get hot around hour two, but with half of the course still shaded I picked up the pace a little bit and stayed cool. I knew that after the heat index rose over 90 I would need to change out of my shirt and add a hat, and I planned to do that after I’d hit the 20-mile mark. From past experience I knew that was going to be the hardest part of the day and I figured the mental boost from cooling down would be needed. Through the first three hours I maintained a consistent pace, but as the heat started to rise I found myself dreaming of how nice it’d be to cool down. Finally it was just too hot to bear, so a little before mile 20 I took off the tech shirt, put on the cap, and sprayed sunscreen all over (which was also a delightful cooling sensation). That next mile was perhaps the best mile of the day—it felt amazing!
Right on plan, around mile 20 the heat hit me like a brick wall and I slowed my pace and focused on hydration. This continued for the next four miles when some cloud cover started to move in and the course became a little shaded. I picked my pace back up, and reveled in the light sprinkle of rain that was making the course a delightful place to be.
A few miles later I started hearing thunder in the distance. “Will they close the course?!?” I worried, in race mode. It seemed that safety was not a concern. I hoped not and continued on. As the sky darkened I was grateful for the cooler weather.
And then it felt like buckets of water were being dumped on me. In just seconds the rain went from a pleasant mist to a deluge and everyone around me started to take cover. Having nowhere to hide, and dubious about the prospects of taking cover under a tent anchored by metal stakes and poles I handed my phone to another runner who was waiting out the storm and just kept on running, albeit much slower than before. My hat kept the worst of the rain from my face and allowed me to see.
At first it was all a pleasant relief from the heat, but then it started to get cold. Having removed my final layer an hour ago I was feeling the chill, but what else could I do but keep on running? At this point I was moving just as much for warmth as I was for distance and the sky got darker and darker. In retrospect, like a nice, cold river crossing, this cooling down was exactly what my legs needed, but in the moment my only thought was to keep moving forward.
Eventually, as it became clear that the rain wasn’t going to stop, runners rejoined the race. The deluge probably lasted an hour but it didn’t feel long at all. It was sort of an adventure to run through the storm! It never did stop raining, but finally the sky cleared a bit, right at the point where I had planned to increase my pace. Just one hour left.
It is always crazy to me when I find my body suddenly doing what felt impossible minutes before (or when, say, the sight of a snake propels me to a nice sprint). Right on cue, knowing that there was only a hour left, I picked up the pace. Helping this along was some friendly competition.
Up until this point I had been fairly sure I was in first place overall, but since I didn’t know who was running the rest of the six hour iterations, it wasn’t much of a motivation. Suddenly, however, after a particular woman lapped me again, I started wondering if she could be in contention for first place. Combined with the imminent end of the race, this thought spurred me on, and I started pushing myself. I didn’t want to give everything, since I still had an hour, but I went as quickly as my now waterlogged—and therefore cushion-less—shoes would allow me to go.
These were my fastest splits of the race, all less than 8:30. That’s a fine pace any day, but especially after running 30-odd miles. I pushed, and when it got hard I told myself that I could do this for an hour. And I reminded myself that I might be losing my hard-fought overall first place finish, and thought of my goal for a nice shiny PR. I ran harder than I thought I could, reaching the finish at 5:51 with 33 laps.
This is an aside, but some context here is important. The last time I ran a six hour race I reached the finish at about the same time, 5:50, and decided not to try for another lap because it would be hard. That decision has haunted me ever since. So this time, when I reached that line with ten minutes left, I knew I had another lap in me before the time elapsed. I ran as hard as I had run during the entire race, and finished another lap before the time elapsed. Smiling big, I stepped across the finish line and quickly became unable to walk. I’d given it everything I had, pushed through when I wouldn’t have before, and won, at least for that day, the six hour race.
Now, I’m writing this before I know the outcome of the next three days, and it’s possible that many women will run amazing races and I won’t even place. And I’ll be sad about that, if that happens, but it’s okay. The confidence that I built from this race is helping me feel better about my Collegiate Trail Loop FKT attempt and is proof that I’m developing as a runner. And that’s the best prize I could ask for. Seriously.
Update: Results posted, and I did win. First woman, fourth overall. Cherry on the top!