The plan was to head up to the mountains for a restorative weekend. What actually happened was not any less restorative, but perhaps less restful – an 8 hour race in North Georgia.
Around 3 p.m. on Friday, Kris texted me to let me know he’d be taking photos at the 8-hr Lady of the Lake race at Vogel State Park the next day. And so, after thinking about it for a few hours, I texted back and, despite really wanting to sleep in, asked if he thought I could get an entry.
He said yes, and so, about 12 hours later, my alarm went off.
I hadn’t slept well, and my stomach was super upset. I’d been taking oral iron that week and it had been wreaking havoc on my stomach. That morning, it felt like the worst of the iron ramifications were hitting. Taking oral iron, I’ve decided, is like swallowing actual nails. Due to the stomach discomfort and pain, I couldn’t complete my normal pre-race routine, so my stomach didn’t feel solid as we headed to the race start. Nevertheless, I finished my Perfect Bar on the drive in, and I readied myself for the start. Similar to arriving at the airport pre-flight, I like to spend as little time as possible at the race prior to the start so we arrived with 20 minutes to spare, and I hurried to get registered and dressed.
When I decided to do the race (after an hour of careful consideration), I went into it knowing that I wasn’t at my best. After the Collegiate Loop FKT, I found myself with an epic trifecta: bronchitis, sinus infections, and ear infections just when I was ready to start trying again. A month later, I was finally finding my speed, but my longest run had only been two hours. Yet an opportunity to run just thirty minutes from where I was staying? I couldn’t turn that down. So I told myself I’d take it easy and get some good hours on my legs, while I played the race by ear. Maybe I’d get in all 8 hours, maybe not. I mean, I hoped I’d find myself miraculously recovered from the plague and iron torture, but I didn’t know what I was capable of. I told myself I’d be okay with whatever happened, either way.
Since I’d packed up to head up to North Georgia for a relaxing weekend that morning (i.e., 8 hours before I decided to do the race), I didn’t have my race kit. I’d planned to do some trail running, so I’d packed my Hoka Cliftons that I usually reserved for recovery runs and a pair of new Altras I wanted to test. Since it was an unequivocally bad idea to run in new shoes on race day (plus, if the Altras didn’t work, I needed to be able to send them back, and I was pretty sure I couldn’t do that after racing in them for 8 hours), I chose the Hokas. Since I was going into the race with really low expectations, I figured that I would do my best with what I had on me. I also didn’t have any fuel, so I was just going to have to make do with whatever the race was providing at the aid station. I can confidently say that I have never gone into a race without the comfort of bringing my own food; this is in part because I have dietary restrictions but also because I like to race with the same food I’ve been training with. On the CTL FKT, I discovered (really, Kris introduced me to) Honey Stinger GF waffles, and they were a game changer. But with nothing longer than a 90 minute run on the weekend docket, there hadn’t been any reason to pack fuel. I was literally racing with what I’d packed for a 90-minute run.
In summary, I was unprepared, under trained, and did I mention it’s still summer out here? This was going to be fun.
While I wasn’t feeling amazing, I had been at a race before, so I lined up at the start as prepared as I could be without a ton of anxiety. The countdown began, and I took off with the front group (but not the front of the pack). It takes me a good 40 minutes to warm up and hit my stride in any run, even a race (hence my 40 minute warm-up for a 5k), and it wasn’t any different today. Around 40 minutes, my pace started to drop. I still wasn’t feeling good, but at least I was moving well. The heat wasn’t bad, around 70, but the humidity was intense. I made it through the first two hours, the same way: never feeling good but moving well. At almost two hours exactly, the wheels fell off.
I’d felt it coming. Over the last two hours, my stomach had felt progressively worse, and now I felt like I was being stabbed right below my diaphragm. Dramatic descriptions perhaps, but I wasn’t feeling good. In an 8-hour race, the course runs in loops and the winner is the racer who runs the most loops in the allotted amount of time. This loop was a little over a mile in a trail around the lake, so I got to run 13 or so miles feeling my body descend every loop. At mile 13, I walked through the start and explained that I was feeling terrible and didn’t think I could finish. I wasn’t ready to stop just yet though, so I said I’d walk a lap.
As I explained to the race organizers and Kris, my stomach was a mess and I’d just recovered from pneumonia. I had no business being out there, right? Right. Everyone there agreed. But I wasn’t ready to stop just yet, so I kept moving. The next three laps were rough. I’m not sure exactly why I kept moving, except that I knew I never wanted to take ending a race early lightly. Logically, it made the most sense to quit. But, I appreciated the race directors letting me run last minute, and I didn’t want to let anyone down, including myself, so I kept going.
And, since I was still going but not running, I decided the next best thing to do was to be the most encouraging runner on the course. So as I walked (and later ran), I made it a point to talk to every runner I passed. The race was so well-organized, and everyone I met was so friendly and fun, that after three laps, I started to feel good again. Not great, and my stomach turned every time I tried to pick up the pace, but I was having fun. Finally, my stomach felt good enough to eat, and I tested some pickles. They stayed down and the salt helped me to feel thirsty again, so on the next loop I tried a orange wedge. That stayed down, and so I tried a banana on the next loop. This was all feeling good, and my stomach was starting to feel strong again. I was feeling positive and on a mental high that lasted the rest of the race.
For the rest of the race, I alternated eating pickles, orange slices and bananas. I couldn’t eat anything more substantial, but this was fueling me and keeping me moving and happy. I still wasn’t set on finishing, however, so I told Kris that I’d see how I was feeling at the four hour mark and make a decision about moving forward for another hour. At noon, I came to the start point and asked, out of curiosity, what place I was in.
The race director said I was in third. And then I said a word I can’t repeat here. Because now I couldn’t quit. So I kept moving, not feeling amazing, but not feeling bad. I figured, now, that I’d just keep moving, re-evaluating at every hour. At the back of my mind, I knew that I was going to finish, but to keep myself from obsessing over how hard the next four hours would be, I told myself if I dropped out of the top three, I could quit. But I didn’t want to lose that place, obviously, so now I started pushing. I learned quickly that orange slices and bananas can only fuel so much, so while my legs were feeling strong and mentally I was in a great place, if I pushed too hard, my stomach started to rise. Resigned, I kept my pattern of eating pickles and oranges one lap, bananas the next, drinking as I could. It was reaching the peak heat of the day, and the sun was out, but unlike previous races, the sun wasn’t affecting me like it usually would. I just kept moving.
I did still want to know where I was in the race, of course, so at hour seven, I learned that the second place woman was just ahead of me. I tried to push to catch her, but she was also feeling strong, and I couldn’t catch her. Instead, I kept moving to keep the fourth place woman from catching me. The last hour was hard again, and while I never sank back to the place I’d been that morning, I was definitely hurting. Ever since the rough miles in the morning, I’d balanced my running with some walking, especially over more technical parts of the trails, because I was more likely to trip the more fatigued my legs were. For the last hour, I tried to run most of the loop, but without more fuel, I couldn’t drop the hammer and catch the second place woman like I wanted. I maintained, instead, and found a burst of energy on the very last loop that let me sprint to the finish.
It felt great to finish, but it felt even better to have pushed through a period that I really thought was the end, troubleshoot, and finish strong. It was also a good reminder of why I don’t take oral iron (and won’t any more). And, it was a very good test for Hokas – I’d been tentative about running in them leading up the race on the trails, but they performed well above expectations. I’m excited to see how they will perform in Costa Rica. Finally, it was also a experience to go into a race without any prep. I just showed up and did it. That felt good and, overall, the entire day was a confidence boost.