To Race Well, You Need to Get Real: My Stanky Creek 25k Race Report

imageThe story behind my Stanky Creek 25k race is much longer and, frankly, more important than the actual race itself. For the most part, the hardest part of a race isn’t the actual race: it’s the months or years of training that lead up to it. But since I started running, and possibly with the exception of my very first marathon and 50 miler, I have struggled with meeting my race expectations after excellent training cycles.

In the year since I (barely) finished my first 100, Burning River, I had a lot of time to think and reflect on why this was. Part of it was, of course, that I simply wasn’t training hard enough or specifically enough; it is really easy to settle into a routine of slow, long runs when training for ultras. But the other thing is that I was sabotaging my goal race efforts with impatience and not training mentally to race at my peak. Stanky Creek was my first, but hopefully not my last time where I trained well, ran hard, and raced smart.

As I mentioned in the intro, one of the things that I have struggled with in the past is racing too much or too soon into my training cycle. Once I ran a marathon and, then again after running the 50 miler, for some reason I decided that I could run well with minimal training. As a result, I wasn’t strategic about when and where I signed up for the races I wanted to do. Even worse, when I had a goal race I’d get impatient training so many weeks out that I often would add a race into my schedule and say it was part of my training, but in reality I thought of it as a race too. This meant I performed poorly in both races, the last minute “training” race and my actual goal race, and then felt double the disappointment.

Added to this, I have invested a certain amount of political capital into my identity as an ultra runner, and, consequently, I’ve felt like, if I was going to race, I better race long. The reality is that I can complete a marathon and a 50 miler with minimal training. I had to make a decision earlier this year if I wanted to continue to be a finisher or actually try to compete. I thought maybe I could be competitive, but stating a goal like that is a big investment of time and, more importantly, ego. And, frankly, it’s hard.

Even with this knowledge about myself, I registered for the Stanky Creek 50k. Yes, you read that correctly. Despite having only one 20 mile run in the training cycle so far, I once again thought I’d go race an ultra. “Fifty K is simple,” I told myself, “and you can always walk.”

Sigh. Old habits die hard.

Smartly, I kept my Stanky Creek plans under wrap because I’d already had to step out of two races this year, because of an exceptionally busy work schedule where training had to take the backseat to life. As I’ve mentioned before, I put a lot of pressure on myself as it is and publicly talking about my race goals puts even more pressure on me. Disappointing myself is bad enough but feeling like I’m disappointing everyone else (whether this is true or not) is almost too much for me. So, I didn’t really tell anyone – no family, no friends, not even the Saltines – about my plans to race until the day before the race, when I reached out to Barley for some advice.

Welcome to Memphis!
Welcome to Memphis!

I realized that while I could finish the 50k, it wouldn’t be pretty and I wouldn’t be competitive. Even worse, it could compromise the rest of my training cycle to slog through it when I wasn’t properly prepared. I thought maybe I would be better off transferring to the 25k, but wanted to make sure that I wasn’t letting pre-race nerves get to me or otherwise being a wuss. So, I asked Barley if switching to the shorter race was a good idea and she helped me realize that it was my ego that was holding me back and, while I was not ready to race a 50k, I was ready to race the 25k.

Decision made, I left for Memphis Saturday morning after a shake-out run and some bouldering (there was no good reason for adding climbing to my morning, I just wanted to do it). The five and a half hour drive turned into almost eight hours, because two freak accidents on the freeway put traffic into a standstill twice. At more than a few points on the drive I thought, I should turn around, this is already a disaster, cursing retrograde Mercury. However, I kept driving and made it to packet pick-up just in time. The trail was beautiful, albeit covered in exposed roots (cue eery foreshadowing). But the people I met were so nice I thought that even if I raced terribly the next morning, meeting these people and seeing this park was worth the long drive. Happy and ready to run, I checked into the hotel and settled in for the night.

If you've been around Salty Running long enough, you'll know the pre-race bathroom selfie is my thing.
If you’ve been around Salty Running long enough, you’ll know the pre-race bathroom selfie is my thing.

Early race morning, I woke up to do my usual coffee+soy milk, poop, and eat pre-race routine. My stomach was strangely upset, but I chalked it up for pre-race jitters and headed to the race. I arrived to the course 30 minutes early so I could get in a 15 minute warm up, then headed to the start, feeling good and uncharacteristically confident.

As I listened to the pre-race briefing, I thought about where I should stand at the start. Should I start at the line, or was that beyond ridiculous given that I’d never won a race before? However, as the countdown began, I found myself on the line and once the gun sounded, I set off on a quick pace with the other leaders. The feeling of running fast with these fast male runners is one I’ll never forget, and I found myself thinking, is this going to be the story of how I started too fast and totally completely bombed? But I was feeling good and had decided that regardless, I was going to give this race everything I had. Everything.

Within the first mile and a half, I let my thoughts wander and – remember those roots? – found myself sprawled on the ground. Not hurt, I jumped back up and resumed my rhythm. After the first couple of miles, I was behind the lead men and hadn’t been passed by a woman, although there was one on my heels, so I settled into a pace that felt manageable. I would start to think about what it might feel like to actually win a race, but then would tell myself that I was being ridiculous and to focus. “Focus, Cilantro, focus” became my mantra for the race, especially because I realized that every time I let my thoughts wander from the trail, I ended up dazed and on the ground, having tripped over (another) invisible root. Before the mile four aid station, the closest woman in the race passed me, which I was okay with because I wanted to stay within myself and run my own race, but then she stopped to drink. This was my moment; I passed her and didn’t see her again until the finish.

The course was two loops, and I was having a wonderful time, dancing over the trails and running up the hills. It wasn’t until I got about a mile into the second loop that I started to have terrible cramps. I was pretty sure that my entire uterus was being torn out the pain was so excruciating. My legs were tired, but not any more than I expected, but the pain from the cramps was so bad that it was all I could focus on and I could feel myself slow down. And that’s a problem, because I’m not a strong enough trail runner to let my focus go anywhere but the trail.

Around mile 10, I had my worst fall yet, and face planted with my chin breaking my fall. I jumped up, completely covered in dirt and mud. Somehow, I managed to also fall directly on my stomach, adding to the pain from the cramps. The fall was also mentally jarring, and luckily I had built enough of a lead in front of all of the other women in loop one, because I slowed down considerably.

Between cramps, the fall, and tired legs, I was really hurting. And it’s here that CrossFit training came into play. One of the reasons that I chose CrossFit was because I realized that I wasn’t good at hurting. The second running gets too hard, I back way off. Until this year, I hadn’t trained specifically to hurt and keep going. CrossFit has epic workouts that suck so bad, but because they are often short (max is 20-25 minutes), you know you can push it for that amount of time.

From CrossFit, I learned how to hurt and as I hurt now, I told myself that if I wasn’t hurting, I wasn’t doing it right. Picking myself back up, I invested back in the race. Sometimes, as crazy as this sounds, I embrace the pain as a part of the process: this hurts because I’m getting strong or this hurts because I’m winning. And I was, surprisingly, still winning, for the first time in my life. Fear of where the women behind me were brought me out of my pain cave and I re-invested in the pain of this race. I could finish, it would hurt, and the faster I got there, the sooner it would all stop. And I did. Running more carefully around the giant roots and power hiking up to two giant climbs, I pushed myself to the finish.

Done with a race well run!
Done with a race well run!

With the finish line in sight, I emerged from the woods and sprinted. Despite being covered in dirt, with bloody knees and a gash on my stomach from my big fall, I finished first. I won!

The second place woman finished 30 seconds behind me, having almost caught up in my slower paces in the second loop.

I don’t know if this was just a good day on everyone else’s bad day, but placement aside, I accomplished a few things that are huge in my development as a runner:

  1. When it got hard, I didn’t step back to an easier pace.
  2. I didn’t race longer than I should because of my ego.
  3. I gave it everything I had.

Have you ever made a big breakthrough in your outlook about racing? 

Ultrarunner, adventurer, academic, and feminist. Running Across the USA in 2021 to raise money for Girls on the Run. Next challenge: Collegiate Trail Loop FKT. I write about ultrarunning, adventuring, and the intersection of endurance athletics and life.

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  1. “I thought maybe I could be competitive, but stating a goal like that is a big investment of time and, more importantly, ego.” TRUTH. Totally agree that you have to accept that to race well, it will hurt. But it’s a pain that comes with pride when it’s over.

    1. Thank you! It’s crazy how much I can tap into those feelings of pure suckiness for similar but completely different moments during a race. It definitely helps me to realize how much I can do.