FYI: This is long (word count over 3,000). I tried my best to keep it as succinct as possible, but I wanted to do the day justice. You have been warned. Grab a fresh cup of coffee, tea, or a snack and settle in.
An ultramarathon is a big undertaking, especially when it’s your first. On April 9, I ran The North Face DC Endurance Challenge Series 50K. The day was made more difficult due to extremely muddy trail conditions and unfavorable weather. In all, we ran through 20+ miles of slick, shoe-sucking mud. Throughout the race we faced temperatures in the 30’s, rain, snow, sleet, and high winds. The trail conditions definitely slowed my pace, but overall none of it mattered. It was my ultra, my race, and my day and it didn’t matter what the conditions were. But it’s also really good that I had no idea what was in store for me.
The night before the race I slept really light, but when my alarm went off at 3:45 AM I was up and ready to go. I had plenty of time to get out the door by 5 AM, as planned. But for whatever reason, I was just being really laid back and did not hit the road until nearly 5:30 for the 30 minute drive to the shuttle area. I was cutting it a bit close for the race shuttles, which stopped at 6:15!
Luckily, I made it in time. The shuttle dropped me off at the race start/finish area in the pouring rain. I hit the porta potty, and then met up with Susan. We had communicated through social media prior to the race, but had never met in person. Since our paces were fairly close, we planned to start the race together. I checked my bag at bag drop, hung out talking to Susan and her husband, and before I knew it, it was time to line up!!
Start to Fraser Aid Station (mile 0 – 5.6)
At 7:03 AM we were off! We began by running through the squishy, sodden grass for about three-quarters of a mile.
Susan and I were running along together, chatting and trying to keep the excitement from affecting our pace. The first couple of miles were on grass, pavement, and then gravel. I was just ready to hit some trails, and finally after two miles I got my wish! Now things got interesting, as I found myself running on narrow, muddy singletrack through the dense riverside forest.
After we got on the trail, there were several creek crossings. Some had bridges, but the smaller ones did not. A lot of people slowed down to pick their way through on the rocks, but Susan and I just went straight through the water. Neither of us saw the point, since our feet were already wet and muddy. I thought going through the water felt pretty good, despite the cold weather!
We also got to run with Dean Karnazes for a hot minute during this section. It was all exciting, until we realized we had dropped to a 9 minute pace. Woah! We knew we needed to back the heck off and we slowed back down to a more reasonable pace.
Around mile 4.5, we encountered our first couple of hills of the day. They weren’t too long, but they were very steep! Add in the mud and it was slow going both on the way up and on the way down. There was definitely no making up time on the downhills during this race!
Before I knew it, we came into the first aid station. Susan and I said our goodbyes here. She had plans to run through the aid stations and my plan was to stop and eat at them. It was fun running with her and I would have liked to stay together longer. Ironically, we finished the race within 8 minutes of each other.
It was at this aid station that I discovered the magic of boiled potatoes with salt. Perfection! Then it was time to get back to work. As I left the aid station, I did feel a bit lonely hitting the trail solo. But I soon found myself surrounded by others and that feeling went away.
Fraser to Carwood Aid Station (mile 5.6 to 8.3)
I don’t remember much about this next section. We continued running along the trail, I think it was fairly flat, and there were a few more creek crossings. Some had steep banks, and it was slick from the mud, so you kind of had to pick your way down to the water carefully to avoid falling.
When I hit the Carwood AS I really needed a restroom break. I realize I was running in nature’s bathroom, but I wanted a real one. The volunteers told me it was nearly a quarter mile up a side trail and I decided it was worth it. What’s another half mile, right?
On my way back to the aid station, I freaked out about missing Barry, who was running towards me from mile 13.1 so we could run together. I suddenly realized it was possible he could have run through the AS while I was up the side trail. I sent a few quick text messages to him and my dad (so much time wasted at this AS). They had driven separately from me and had parked at the Great Falls AS. When I got back down to the AS I asked if anyone had run by in the other direction and they told me no. Phew! I grabbed some more boiled potatoes with salt and was on my way.
I headed back out on the trail still snacking on my potato, and I nearly ate a toothpick! I didn’t notice it was in there and I bit right into it.
Carwood to Great Falls Aid Station (mile 8.3 to 13.1)
I was still carrying a small piece of my potato about a half mile later, when I rounded a corner and saw Barry standing at the top of a small hill waiting for me. Yay! I’m so glad we didn’t miss each other. We started running together and that gave me a mental boost.
From mile 10 to 12.5 we encountered some big climbs. Again, they were super slick and the poor little trees on the side of the trail were really taking a beating from everyone hanging on to them. Sorry nature.
As Barry and I turned onto a trail called Bootlegger, we saw a sign warning of rabid animals in the area. Sweet. We also started seeing the lead 50K and then 50M runners headed back. We cheered them on and they cheered us on in return, which was cool. With the lolli pop style course (an out and back with a loop at the top – my favorite) the trails stayed pretty busy from there on. They never felt crowded to me, though.
We ran through some gorgeous sections of bluebells. I was still feeling good, but I was ready to get into the next aid station.
Great Falls to Old Dominion AS (mile 13.1 to 17.2)
Coming into Great Falls was so exciting. It’s a big aid station and the only one where you’re allowed crew access. The 50K runs through GF twice and the 50M runs through the aid station a total of four times, so it’s a big party. Here I got to see my dad and my childhood friend L and her fiance. She had taken off work just to come out and cheer me on! My dad and Barry helped me put more fuel in my pack while I babbled about the magic of boiled potatoes and recounted my close call with a toothpick. I also decided it was time to take off my rain jacket. Barry helped with that and then bungeed it to my pack.
There were hugs and kisses and then I was off on my way for the Great Falls loop. I was excited knowing I would get to see my crew again in only 6 miles.
The GF loop was busier with more runners, and it was fun to see them all. I got to cheer on my friend Trigg, who was running the 50M, and I also saw Susan. We shouted encouragement to each other as we passed.
I then had a really confusing (for him) conversation with this guy while running the loop. We had talked a bit but had lapsed into silence and were just running together. All of a sudden I blurted out “Oh no, I’ve lost my motivation!” What I meant to say was I didn’t know where my little paper with my motivational phrases went. It had been in my jacket pocket, but I thought I had taken it out when I took the jacket off. Now I couldn’t figure out where it went! The guy asked me what I was talking about. I replied “My motivation! I lost it. It was in my jacket, but I took that off.” After a beat, he said he hoped I would find it again, and then slowly distanced himself from me. It wasn’t until nearly the end of the GF loop that I realized how confusing that conversation must have been for anyone who wasn’t inside my head. When I completed the loop I got Barry to check the jacket and sure enough it was in there – just like I thought. Ha!
Old Dominion to Great Falls Aid Station (mile 17.2 to 19)
We had to run this little out and back before coming into Old Dominion. It was cruel – we went all the way down this big hill, only to have a volunteer mark our bibs and turn around to climb back up. The brave souls doing the 50M had to do that three times. After that, it wasn’t long before I found myself at the next aid station. I needed another restroom break, so I took care of that at the porta john (blessedly located right at the AS!). Then I grabbed some Saltines and had my bib marked again on my way back out. I made the guy mark my turnaround box darker, too, because I felt like you couldn’t see it that well. He assured me you could see it just fine, but obliged me anyway. I joked with him that I didn’t want to finish the loop and have them send me back out!
The GF loop absolutely flew by for me, despite taking about 90 minutes to complete. We had some amazing views of the Potomac River and Mathers Gorge towards the end of the loop.
Before I knew it I was done with the loop and back at the aid station. This time I decided to change into dry socks. Dad and Barry had a chair waiting for me and when I sat down I had some cramping in my upper legs. Barry ended up tending to my nasty feet and getting my dry socks and muddy shoes back on. The things you do for love. My dad simultaneously refilled my hydration pack and I grabbed a dry pair of gloves, a fresh buff, some more fuel, and my iPod.
Debbie showed up right as I was ready to head out of the aid station – perfect timing!! She had parked in nearby Riverbend Park (where the rabid animals supposedly live) and had run towards Great Falls to meet up.
Great Falls to Carwood Aid Station (Mile 19 to 23.8)
Deb and I ran through more gorgeous bluebells during this stretch. There were several sections just thick with bluebells throughout the race and it was breathtakingly gorgeous. The whole course was gorgeous, but these sections were my absolute favorite. Deb captured this awesome picture as we ran through one section.
We ran past where Debbie had parked, and she continued on with me for awhile. It wasn’t long before we hit the hills again. I started having cramping in my adductors. Debbie told me the actual name of the muscle, but (as she predicted) it did not stick in my foggy six-hours-of-running brain. Despite the cramping, I power hiked through and it usually stopped during the next flat/downhill section.
We started seeing marathoners on the course and I was excited to interact with more runners. Unfortunately, I found that most of them completely ignored me when I said good job or something similar. Not trying to hate on y’all, but that’s not very good etiquette!
Carwood to Fraser Aid Station (mile 23.8 to 26.5)
The Carwood AS still had potatoes but no salt! So I had a plain potato and a few orange slices. With about 8 miles left in the race, Debbie and I said goodbye. It was so awesome running with her and running with Barry earlier in the day. They both definitely helped keep my spirits up and I loved having company! Thanks guys!
During the final miles, my brain got really foggy. I kept thinking of things and then promptly forgetting them. For example, I would think about needing to eat, forget, and then some amount of time later I would remember again. But then I couldn’t figure out how long it had been since I last ate. I also kept thinking I had rocks in my shoes, but kept forgetting to check. At the finish when I took off my shoes I found the discomfort on the balls of my feet was from clumps of mud that were stuck inside my shoes.
I know I said some things to Debbie before we split about only having single digits left. But as soon as she headed back, I completely stopped paying attention to mileage. Since it was an out and back course, I had a general idea of where I was.
Fraser to Sugarland Aid Station (mile 26.5 to 30)
Just before I hit Sugarland, I turned on my iPod. I figured after 7+ hours of running I had earned it. It was a sweet reward (I seldom run with music, so it’s a special treat) and I was practically having a solo party on the trail.
I hit the Sugarland aid station and just cruised right through. I knew I was getting close! This was the only part of the race where I got a bit emotional. I got a hitch in my breath as I realized this was it, I was doing this.
Sugarland to Finish (mile 30 to 31.7)
I definitely got tired as the race went on, but in 8+ hours I never hit a low point. I also never needed my motivation that I had written down. I literally spent the entire race just marveling at the experience and loving it all. Seriously, I think I’ve found my niche.
I ran the entire final mile and a lot of it was on pavement which did not feel good. I knew I was getting close, then I looked up to see Barry in the distance cheering me on! This was it!! I followed the directions of the volunteers and turned left off of the path as the finish line loomed ahead of me. I saw my dad and then saw other people cheering me on and telling me to smile. I thought I was, but I guess not! And then… I crossed the finish line.
I finished the race in 8:11:54. Immediately after crossing the finish line I was handed my medal and a finisher’s water bottle. I stumbled through a food tent and took two orange slices (which I held on to for nearly 30 minutes before eating). The first person I met up with was Susan. We hugged, congratulated each other, and swapped a few brief stories. Then I saw Barry and my dad. There were hugs and congratulations and then the toughest part of my day: sitting down to take off my socks and shoes. There was a lot of cramping and I required help. I developed a good technique for putting dry socks on, though.
I was freezing so I put on more layers and then Barry’s coat. Eventually I got some postrace food (a hot dog with baked beans and slaw – the also had BBQ, salad, and I don’t know what else). I met back up with Susan and also got to meet Tai Fung from Twitter. Then I made my way into the beer tent with my crew for a well deserved refreshment. Here, I ran into Trigg and got to congratulate him as well. I partook in my beer, ate my hot dog, and froze for a bit before we decided it was time to go stand in line for the shuttle. While waiting for the shuttle, I ran into my high school friend (who I have not seen for probably 8-10 years)! Her husband was running the 50M and she was there crewing him. She said she had seen me in GF and cheered for me but I didn’t hear her. Oops! It was definitely a day of meeting new people and running into old friends.
You are a rockstar if you have made it this far. If you have, I hope you have enjoyed the recap. Here are my closing thoughts:
I still can’t quite wrap my head around covering just under 32 miles on foot. But I guess that’s mainly because you really don’t think about these things as a whole. You just take it bit by bit. A lot of people talk about simply running from aid station to aid station. I did that, but I had a slightly different take on it. I looked at each aid station as a reset. A time to wipe the slate clean and focus on whatever mileage that lay ahead of me, without considering how far I had come or how far I had to go. It sounds crazy but I also never thought about how long I had been running and I never considered the fact that every step past 26.2 miles was a new personal distance record. I simply had tunnel vision on the task at hand and focused on putting one foot in front of the other. I think that’s why I never hit a low. I just kept trucking along until it was done.
Looking back on that day I can’t believe I did it. I know a few things that helped, though. The race was well organized and the volunteers were top notch. I also received so much support, encouragement, and advice during training from both family and friends – in person and through social media. That makes a huge different on race day. I don’t have the words to fully capture my experience, but I’ve done my best. It was just so exhilarating. I definitely want to run another one! I mean, I’ve got to see if they’re all this muddy and crazy, right??
Well… have I convinced you to run an ultra?
What is the strangest/most unique thing you have eaten during a race?
This recap is part of the Weekly Wrap link up hosted by HoHo Runs and MissSippiPiddlin’. I think they may penalize me for writing such a long blog post, though, and my ban me for the next two weeks to make up for it or something 😉