Race morning dawned cool and overcast. I took a hot shower to loosen up and put on my race clothes, which were set in an orderly pile the night before. I filled my camelbak water bladder with Nuun (tri-berry flavor), and double checked the other stuff I had in my pack “just in case”: a band-aid, eight gu gels (in a variety of non-fruit flavors), a map, my ID, $10, an extra pair of contacts, toilet paper, an extra layer in case it started raining (the sky looked questionable). I got a cup of coffee and oatmeal, my go-to race morning fare, and headed out to the course.
As I drove in I reviewed my goals…
A-Goal: Sub – 5 hours. This seemed like a stretch given the elevation profile and my unfamiliarity with the distance. My longest training run was 24 miles and took 4.5 hours. It was a pretty chill (read: extremely casual) run, but still, it seemed like sub-5 would be quite a challenge.
B-Goal: Sub-6 hours. I was pretty confident that unless something terrible happened, I could hit this goal. If I didn’t hit this goal I would be very disappointed.
C-Goal: Finish. No matter what. Seriously. Crawl if you have to.
The race started straight up Wild Cherry Trail (see elevation profile). In order to minimize the bottle neck, the race director had everyone run from the start up or down the road and around one of two cones before coming back and heading up the trail. I was skeptical of this arrangement, but it actually worked great. I started out VERY conservatively, jogged around the cone and started up Wild Cherry.
I had run this part of the course before, and though I knew I would be walking some of the hills later, I had decided to jog this hill. As the start line and the spectators bunched near it faded out of view many of the people in front of me started walking, and though I felt a bit of trepidation, I passed them and continued on to the top.
I felt good so far, and as we started down Wildwood Trail (only about 1 mile into the race at this point) I passed my friend Lynde (who was out for a training run going the opposite direction). She gave me a smiled and said, “first female!”
This is not what I had expected First female was not where I should be. I must be pacing wrong. She must be joking. Was she joking? Only time would tell. The downhill on Wildwood felt great and then the trail climbs up. I had pre-determined to walk the steep part of Holman. It felt really weird walking in a race, but most of the people who passed me while I was walking totally crashed by the end. I started running again when it leveled off and when I came around the corner there were people cheering (which was quite heartening), “first female!” they yelled. Lynde had not been joking. I was leading for women three miles into my first 50k. This could NOT be good.
Was I supposed to still be feeling fresh at this point? I did not feel fresh. I felt kind of tired. There were a lot of hills. Did I feel too tired? Should I have just walked all of the hills? It didn’t feel like I was running very fast. It was a good pace. Right? There were a lot of questions.
Soon I came up some of my friends were cheering WITH SIGNS. So fun. And a few miles later I hit the first aid station where my mom was cheering. She walked 4.5 miles up the trail to see me!
After the first third of the race I decided to stop worrying and just run, and if I was first female then great and if not, then fine, but I was GOING TO FINISH no matter what.
As the race progressed, I tried to eat a gel every 45 minutes, but it was really difficult to get them down (so sweet and icky). And so then I was just holding open gels in my hands, which inevitably led to very very sticky fingers (I found dried Gu ALL OVER my skin and clothes after I finished). .
As the miles went on and I started getting more tired, I walked more of the hills. I worried more about my IT bands (not comfortable at this point). But mostly, I just enjoyed running in the woods. There were few spectators after mile 8 or 9, so it was a pretty independent venture, and that was kind of nice. I didn’t need people watching in order to make the race worthwhile.
The race continued. At mile 26, as I was walking up a hill I probably should have been running, my friend Julie appeared with encouragement and thumbs-ups. THANK YOU JULIE. At this point I was not feeling awesome. In fact, I was feeling decidedly not-awesome. My IT bands were starting to lock up a bit, my hamstrings and calves were cramping (not enough electrolytes, I will address this next time), and I was about to run out of water unexpectedly. But I knew I was close and seeing a friend was very motivational. I grabbed an electrolyte pill at the last aid station and bid Julie goodbye.
At this point, there was definitely no one in front or behind me that I could see. And there was no one cheering. It was just a push to the finish: pretty flat until the last climb and then a long steep descent. I knew I could make it. And, although I didn’t know if the next woman was right behind me or 15 minutes back, I decided to fight for it. Practically, all this meant was less walking on the uphills. As I descended the last hill (running around a surprising number of oblivious hikers with dogs) I realized that I was going to finish. And not only finish, but finish in under 5 hours (my A goal), as the first female. But mostly, I was going to finish the longest run I had ever done, and I was going to finish strong.
As I rounded the last corner I could hear a roar of people cheering for me and when I staggered down through the finish seeing my friends and coworkers and my mom all smiling and congratulating me, I almost started crying (an entirely new post-race experience).
I finished in 4:44:15, first female (by a safe margin of 15 minutes) and 17th overall. I had an amazing experience and can’t wait to do my next 50k. I love trail running. I love the community. And, at least at that particular race, I loved the longer distance. I know that not all races are going to be sunshine and rainbows, but now I know that I can do it, and I want to do it again.
That being said, I still can’t run at this point (my IT bands are angry) which is REALLY frustrating as I am feeling quite motivated. Once I get them sorted out I think I’m going to start doing weight training and other prehabby-type things to try to eliminate this problem in the future.
I was afraid, going into this race, that I wouldn’t be mentally or physically strong enough for ultra-running. I’m not afraid anymore. I still have a lot to learn, but I’m excited to go about learning it!
Any and all advice is welcome! : )