Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Prairie Spirit 50 Mile: The Race

How can I possibly sum up what it’s like to run 50 miles in a race report?  I’ve stared at the blank computer screen puzzling over this and how to even start.  So many things happened that day.  Was it really only one day?  It felt like many days, quite possibly weeks.  Seriously, how could it take so long to get from 8 am to 9 pm?   How can I even begin to explain what it was like?  This is going to be long, folks, so settle in for the evening and we’ll see if you can get through it all in one sitting.  Good luck on that.


The pre-race dinner on Friday featured the legendary ultrarunner David Horton.  He delivered a talk that was perfect for this newbie 50-mile runner:  a hearty dose of inspiration and encouragement with just enough of a reality check that we knew not to expect a shiny day full of rainbows.  Some key points that I took away from his presentation were “this too shall pass”, “it never always gets worse”, “don’t wear stupid socks”, and “tomorrow you’ll be making memories” no matter what happens.   He said a lot more that was important but I admit, I think a couple neurons might have been sacrificed the next day in the course of the run. 


I got a fair night’s sleep Friday.  I did my usual wake up every hour to be sure I’d not overslept, but otherwise I guess that it was a good sleep.  The alarm went off for real at 5:45 and I instantly was wide-awake.  I got up, dressed, and went to see how the hotel breakfast looked.  I knew I needed to eat, but my stomach was already doing flips.  A quarter cup of coffee, part of a banana, and a smallish portion of eggs was all that I could get down.  Not unusual for me on race morning for me to have a nervous stomach on race day.  Preparing to run 50 miles?  Not usual.


We drove over to Celebration Hall, which was the staging area and start/finish line.  I deposited my two drop-bags in the appropriate areas, then grabbed a seat to wait for the rest of the BARA crew.  I was nervous, anxious, excited, apprehensive, and desperately wanted to get the race underway.  Thank goodness Aaron was there, he was a calming presence before and during the race and I drew on that.  He had already mapped out how to get to each of the crew-accessible aid stations and had instructions on what I might need, what my mental state might be, and what I hoped my pace could be.  All of those instructions were, of course, up for rewriting as the day progressed.


Erin, Chris, and Ben arrived.  The usual pre-race chatter.  Finding satellite signals on our Garmins.  Bathroom visits.  Checking out my fellow runners and marveling at how such outwardly unremarkable people are capable of amazing activities.  I learned long ago not to judge ultrarunners on their physical appearance: they (we??) are a whole different stock.  Thin, stocky, tall, petite, young, old…none of that really seems to have any relevance on the outcome.   The magic is all on the inside and physical features aren’t the predictors you’d expect.


The morning was chilly, so I was starting out with arm sleeves and gloves that I could easily pack away once I was warmed up.  I would be running the bulk of the miles in shorts, short-sleeves, calf sleeves, and cap.  The day held the promise of sunshine, a gentle breeze, and temperatures topping at around 60 degrees.  My kind of day, in other words.


Eric called us out to the starting line and gave a few last minute instructions, then we were sent on our way.  The race started with 2 miles to the caboose marking the northern terminus of the trail, at which point we’d turn around and run south for 25 miles.  The nice thing about this was that we’d be 27 miles into the race before turning around to head north for the finish: over halfway.  Of course, that was still many hours away. 


I hadn’t even made it the first 2 miles when the back my right ankle started fussing.   I had decided to wear ultralight Injinji socks under a pair of ultralight Balegas.  I’d bought a brand spanking new pair of Injinjis for the race, the same style I’d been using in training.  This pair though, had a seam that was literally rubbing me the wrong way.  I tried adjusting the sock several times, but it wasn’t working.  I stopped for a minute after the 2-mile turnaround to reapply Body Glide to my heel and Achilles and hoped that would do the trick.  It didn’t.


As we approached the fairgrounds where the race had started, I started doing the math to see how many miles to the first manned aid station.  I’d written the aid station mileage on the inside of my forearm because I knew this would be a constant question for me.  I decided 7 more miles was going to be longer than I wanted to run before visiting the next real bathroom, so we made a quick detour into Celebration Hall for a pitstop.  A quick hello to Aaron back at the trail, I tossed him my gloves, and we tucked in for the long haul south.


As we left Ottawa, the trail changed from asphalt to finely crushed limestone.  The trail was tree-lined but otherwise we were deep in Kansas farm country.  Beyond the tree line, we’d see farm fields, the occasional grain silo, and every so often we’d pass by a pen full of curious cows who would watch our slow progress.  The trail crossed gravel county roads approximately every mile, but we only saw 2 or 3 vehicles on those roads all day.  Other than the 3 small towns we passed through, that describes every mile of the path.  While it was physically an easy trail to run, it was monotonous mentally. 


We planned to break the day into small pieces.  The pieces were divided by food breaks every 6 miles and the aid stations.  We kept count and ticked each one off, counting down as soon as we had the first pack of gel and as we’d pass the aid stations.  The first aid station was at 7.5 miles and it was just water jugs on a table, an unmanned station with no food or facilities.  We just breezed by, we both were still well-stocked with our hydration packs.  The first manned station was in Princeton at 11.8 miles so that was something we were looking forward to:  Aaron would be there and we’d get to check out the provisions at the aid stations.  Although we were excited to finally get to it, we barely stopped at the Princeton aid station.  I took a quick “nature break”, grabbed a bite of a salted potato, and that was it.  I had plenty of G2 in my pack, so I gave Aaron a quick status report and we were back on our way.


Erin and I didn’t chat much in those early miles.  We were together, but each in our own heads.  Erin’s heart rate monitor was giving her fits, so she took it off pretty early and we ran off of my heart rate.  I was worried that I was holding her back but she was content to take walk breaks when my heart rate crept up even though I told her she could go on ahead.  It was 7 miles from Princeton to the next aid station and our drop bags at Richmond.  It turned out Erin emptied her hydration pack early in that segment, but that’s her story to tell.  She sipped from my G2 now and then and I tried not to annoy her by asking her how she was doing.  I was a bit worried that she might get into trouble without water, but also reasoned that if she’d guzzled 2 liters of water in 13 miles, she was probably well-hydrated by then.


It seemed to take forever to get to Richmond.  We were looking for our friend Ben since we knew he should be on his way back from the turnaround.  It was maddening that there was a runner wearing green just at the edge of our visual range.  Ben was also wearing green.  We must have asked each other a dozen times, “Is that Ben?”  We finally got to Richmond and got a quick update from Aaron and Chris that Ben was due anytime and at last report he had a 40 minute lead on second.  Erin and I both refilled our hydration packs, I put moleskin on the hot spot on my ankle, and reapplied my sunscreen (Neutrogena Sport SPF 70 for the win!) and we were off. 



We hadn’t gone a mile when we spotted a lime green BARA singlet coming our way!  What a mood lifter!  Ben looked loose and fresh, he even asked if we wanted to get a group photo.  Of course we did!!  I tried to get a selfie of the three of us, but kept cutting Erin out of the frame.  We begged another runner to backtrack and get a photo of the three of us (thank you, mystery runner girl!) and then sent Ben back on his way.  I swear, we were practically skipping after that encounter. 


Five miles to the next unmanned aid station and then we still had another four miles to our turnaround at Garnett.  Around mile 25, the work started.  The walk breaks were lasting longer and coming more frequently.   We were seeing the mid-pack and back of the pack runners as they headed back north towards Ottawa.  It was both encouraging and tough to see them: they’d already hit that turnaround that we were working towards.  Almost everyone passed us with a cheery smile and good wish, we offered up our own encouragements to each runner, too.   It actually was a nice distraction to have those brief little interactions with our fellow runners.  Anything to break up the monotony was a good thing at that point.


We finally pulled into Garnett and runners were telling us there were soft tacos at the aid station.  Honestly, that just turned my stomach but we laughed each time they told us about them.  Maybe the tacos WOULD be appealing once we got there, but I had my doubts.  When we got to the old train depot that marked our turnaround, we both had restocking to do.  I completely changed out both pair of socks (finally got rid of that darned seam that wanted to chew through my ankle!), tossed trash that had accumulated in my pack, and replenished my fuels.  And the tacos did NOT smell good.  I ate a couple of Pringles, but that was it.  I was really just feeding off of my own foods: dates, Ignite gels, and baby food.  Aaron reported to us that Ben had finished about 17 minutes before we got to the aid station and he’d won!  That was great news and again, another boost.  Erin and I had already discussed and agreed that we both wanted to access our audio devices at the turnaround.  We needed the distraction of music and audiobooks since we were moving into the mental stage of the race.  Freshened up, plugged in, and with full packs, we charged back out of the depot to head for home.  I’m not sure where it came from but the first 2 miles heading north were 2 of the fastest of the day. 


Somewhere between Garnett and the unmanned aid station, things started to go downhill for me.  Erin kept chugging on ahead.  I was still run/walking, but she was mostly running.  I never let her get out of my sight, but I was struggling to hold onto her.  At the unmanned aid station at mile 31, I had to stop again to repair the bandage on my right ankle.  Erin waited for me while I worked on it, then she was powering on again.  She was relentless!  By the time we got to Richmond at mile 36, she was about a hundred yards ahead of me.  Aaron was concerned about where I was but she reassured him that I was right on her heels and walking fast.  I was struggling physically but knew that I could and would finish, no matter how long it took.  I was already starting the battle with nausea, but still able to take in gels and G2.  Ben was there and he was Facetiming Steph into the party.  I think I was barely coherent, but I so appreciated her support!    


From Richmond to Princeton, I still attempted a few brief running segments.  I was getting so nauseous though, that they were short-lived.  It turned out that I could walk almost as fast as I could run.  It was a dilemma.  I wanted to get it over as fast as possible, but running was so much effort and so nauseating that I could barely manage it.  Walking actually was physically more painful than running, but I lacked the energy (or the mental stamina?) to maintain a run.   It was also starting to get cool and I was chilled.  I got my arm warmers out of my pack and put them on but was still cold. 


Erin was way ahead of me by the time we got to Princeton.  I told Aaron that I was in rough shape but wasn’t stopping.  I asked him to get my gloves and jacket out of the car.  I got some ramen broth from the aid station but it didn’t even taste good.  I’d always heard soup was a wonder food in a race, I was disappointed that it didn’t set well.  Aaron very quickly topped off my hydration pack with G2, Ben told me I needed more electrolytes so I popped a couple in my mouth, and then choked down a quick pouch of baby food fruit puree as I shuffled on out of the aid station.  Erin was still sitting on the bench but I knew she’d catch me and pass me quickly, so I wanted to keep moving if I could. 


Erin and I stayed closer from there on.  I think it was in this segment that we heard a cyclist coming up behind us, then saw that it was David Horton.  He gave us a super-quick pep-talk with “this too shall pass” as he went on around us and he wished us well.  I wish that he could have stayed longer but I imagine that he was hustling to get back to Ottawa before dark. 

Sunset was fast approaching.  My nausea was getting worse.  I could barely even stomach my G2 and couldn’t eat anything after that last fruit pouch at Princeton.  I tried to eat a Gin Gin candy, but it was making me gag, too, so I spat it out.  There was no more running, I was just repeating the mantra “relentless forward motion”.  First I tried to keep my pace under a 15 minute mile, 4 miles an hour was a tolerable albeit slow pace.  Then I struggled to keep it below 18 minutes, then 20.  Erin and I were side by side for the last 6 or so miles.  Or maybe more?  I honestly don’t know. 

It’s all an exhausting, painful, miserable blur at that point.  The last 15 miles were awful.  It wasn’t fun.  It wasn’t some kind of magical day.  It sucked and I wanted to stop moving.  I was 
physically, emotionally, and mentally depleted and just needed to be done.  We kept calculating how long it’d take us to reach the finish but it seemed like we were stuck.  Each time we’d calculate it, our pace had slipped so much that we didn’t seem to be any closer to the finish.  At the same time that it was so awful, Erin and had the best conversations and possibly the most laughter.  What an odd contradiction that sounds like, I know.  In some weird, twisted way though, it was enjoyable in that we were in it together and we each understood exactly what the other was enduring.


As the sun set and we relied on our headlamps, it seemed that we almost stopped moving.  Our feet were moving, our legs were working, but the miles just seemed to stall.   The two circular beams of light from our headlamps lighting the trail seemed to be our entire world.   I was so happy for her company, the dark was more unsettling than I had expected.  We both marveled at how the 100-mile racers would be dealing with this all night, we were in the dark for less than 2 hours.  And how did Ben handle this at WS100?  This 50-mile event was quite the eye-opener.  I simply cannot wrap my mind around what a hundred miles must feel like and what kind of mental constitution it requires.  While I don’t discredit the physical conditioning that must go into a 100-mile race prep, now I think I understand that the mental side is what makes or breaks you.


I’d like to say that as we approached the finish, we had a burst of euphoric energy and charged over the finish line in triumphant jubilee.  What actually happened was we could see the finish area for what felt like hours.  It was less than a mile, but so far away.  We were maybe a hundred yards from where we’d take a left turn for the finish line when we heard FAST feet behind us.  It was the winner of the 100-mile race!  Absolutely amazing.  He crossed the finish line just a couple of minutes ahead of us, yet had run twice as far.  Incredible.


Aaron was at the corner waiting for us and as we passed, he started to walk with us into the fairgrounds.  I scolded him and said “don’t you dare pace us to the finish!”  I was terrified that someone would see his walk back to the finish as pacing and I’d be DQ’ed.  I hadn’t fought my way through those last miles to lose my finish at the end.  I realize now that was probably ridiculous, but that’s where my head was.   Poor guy, he’d been so supportive all day and now I was running him off in the final stretch.


We crossed the finish line at 13 hours and 11 minutes.  Exhausted.  Happy.  Relieved.  Tired beyond words.  In pain.  Eric came tearing around the finish chute to give us hugs and our buckles, then posed with us for pictures.  To me, this was what I was there for.  That moment is precious to me.  I’m deeply grateful to Eric for putting on this event and for his enthusiasm and encouragement. 


Quite possibly the best part of the whole day was the stopping.  Is that why we do this?  So that just the act of standing still is a relief?  I don’t think so, but you’ve never felt the pure joy of standing still until you’ve experienced it at the end of an ultra.  David Horton came up to our group while we were rehashing things in Celebration Hall.  I don’t know if it was Erin, myself, or maybe it was both of us, but someone released a deep, exhausted, blissful sigh and he ecstatically wheeled on us and said, “That’s it!  The sigh!”  We laughed and joked about how much meaning is in that sigh and nothing else sums it up so eloquently.   I think I must have sighed like that a thousand times that night.


So how do I feel about the race now that it’s over?  It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, both mentally and physically.  I still don’t think I’ve fully processed it all.  Am I glad that I did it?  Yes. Absolutely.  Was the race what I expected?  No.  It was better and it was worse.  Did I do as well as I expected?  Not at all.  It was brutal, it was ugly and it stripped me bare.  The experience ripped away the façade of confidence and forced me to come face to face with my weaknesses.   I feel like I was underprepared in every way possible.  I don’t know how I could have changed the physical preparation given the ITB issues that flared up in November, but I did what I could.  Do I want to sign up for another 50 to improve on the first one?  No.  I do have a couple of fixed time races on the schedule, we’ll see how they go.  I may never do another 50.  Time will tell.  It was both awful but good for me.  I learned a lot about myself, pushed my limits back another notch, and I guess that was the point.




Ben said...

Yay, you did it! Races like that are the ones you'll always remember - the struggle & elation. Proud of you!

Lori (ltdermdvm) said...

Congratulations Christy! So proud of you!!!!

Erin Hazler said...

YAY! You're amazing!!!

Carol Buelterman said...

Christy, I don't know why, but I have tears in my eyes. I have never been a runner so I can't imagine the struggle. It must have been in the way you expressed yourself. What a triumph. You are amazing and a bit crazy :)

Anonymous said...

We don't know what we can do until we try the impossible. Sometimes we make it, sometimes we don't. 99.9999% of the people never really tested themselves. Been really, really alone with themselves and their thoughts. You've been there. You will never be the same. Way to go! Love ya! Dad

Kristen said...

Congratulations! Great writing on getting through the race mentally not just physically.

Angie Wise said...

Great job!

Jeff Duncan said...

Awesome report! It's a love/hate wonderful/miserable time isn't it? Hope to see you and Erin again at another ultra!!

Jeff Duncan said...

Awesome report! It's a love/hate wonderful/miserable time isn't it? Hope to see you and Erin again at another ultra!!

Anonymous said...

Congrats to two very tough ladies and accomplished runners! Great writeup... and you have my deep respect. A 50 miler is a long, long run....


jlongan247 said...

Love your fathers words. Well done ladies. 50 ain't no joke!