Sometimes I question my decisions. And I often wonder what drives me to do the things I do. That’s always the question, right. “Why?” Often, it’s quickly followed by some comment about not even liking to drive that far, that it can’t possibly be good for your knees, etc. I don’t think most of us have a simple answer to that singular question. Like a lot of things in life, its complicated and it breaks down into many different facets. I run because first and foremost, I love it. I love that it can be as simple or as complicated as I want to make it. I love that I can go out and run for hours at a time and think about everything and nothing. I love taking on a challenge and proving to myself that I can do hard things.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The New River Trail 50K was my first ultramarathon since 2016. To say I was simply nervous about this race would be an understatement…. try nervous as a turkey on Thanksgiving. I wanted to do this, but I felt like I had no business being there. However, something in me just felt like it was time and I needed this.
Race morning started early, and I was on the road around 5:30 AM to drive to Fries. I arrived at the start, got checked in, dropped off my drop bag, and prepared to start the race. The race started at 8 AM, but they offered an early start at 7:10 AM for those who thought it might take them longer than 7 hours to complete the race. I took the early start, along with about 10-15 other runners. We milled around at the start line, as the race director gave us a brief prerace talk. During this time I got to meet Suzy and Courtney, local runners who I knew of through Facebook. Just after 7:10, the RD drew a line in the dirt to mark the start line, and we were off on our way!
Everyone else in the early start group seemed to take off, and it wasn’t long before I found myself running alone. But I felt confident in my pace, so I stayed relaxed and tried not to let any panic about the race distance creep into my mind. One thing that was definitely on my side: the weather. It could not have been more perfect! It was in the mid-40’s at the start and it never got above the low-50’s during the race. It’s a good thing I didn’t have the heat to deal with, because something else was not on my side: my stomach.
Less than a mile into this 31 mile race, I knew I was in trouble. I had had several “successful” bathroom trips prior to the race, but apparently that wasn’t good enough. I think nerves had a lot to do with it. In all, I would end up making four pit stops during this race, around miles 5, 7, 14, and 22. I probably need to sort that out before my next race.
A little after mile 5, I arrived at Fries Junction and the first aid station. However, before stopping there (unless you really needed something), the runners did a short mile-ish out and back. I got to see several of the other early starters, including Suzy and Courtney, which was fun! However, it was during this out and back that I realized the distance on my watch was reading ahead of where I knew we were. I arrived back at Fries Junction at mile 6.15, but my watch already read slightly more than 7 miles. It is what it is, but this definitely ended up playing mind games with me later in the race.
I grabbed a square of peanut butter & jelly from the aid station and continued on my way. Immediately following Fries Junction, we crossed one of the long, picturesque bridges that the New River Trail is known for. I’m a sucker for bridges, so this was definitely a highlight for me.
Shortly after the bridge was the train tunnel. I knew the tunnel was coming, having run the 25K at this race in the past. I didn’t like it then and I still don’t like it.
Oh it’s neat, don’t get me wrong. But I hate running through the thing. It’s dark and I can’t even see my feet in there. Both times I ran through it during the race, I was totally by myself. So both times I sang out loud to deter any rodents who might have been plotting my death in the tunnel.
After the tunnel I ran for a couple more miles before arriving at a road crossing, which was also the 25K turnaround. Per usual, I cursed the runners doing the shorter distance in my head (how much smarter they are than me). The volunteers at the road crossing were enthusiastic, though, so that gave me a boost. My stomach still felt like absolute crap, but I figured as long as the food wasn’t coming back up I’d keep eating.
I never got sick during the race, which is an improvement from other ultras I’ve run. But I definitely don’t think I ate enough, since my stomach was feeling rocky. In total for the race, I had: 4 squares of pb&j, 2 packets of energy chews, 2 cups of Coke, and 4 salt tablets. Probably not enough, but I got away with it.
I hit aid station 2 just before mile 12. I refilled one of my soft flasks with water and continued on my way. During this next stretch, the leaders from the 8 AM start began catching me. I didn’t mind being passed by the speedsters and I enjoyed getting to see more people.
It was 4 miles to aid station 3 (mile 16), and this is where the race started to feel a bit long. I thought about how if I had signed up for the 25K, I’d be almost done now. I wondered what was wrong with me, and why I had to go for the 50K. The good news is this was the only true negative thought I had the entire race. Finally, I started seeing runners coming back down the trail and before long, I made it to the turnaround.
During the race, I was in and out of all of the aid stations in under a minute, except aid station 3 at the turnaround. I spent several minutes here, refilling my water, eating a pb&j square, and accessing my drop bag. After dropping off my gloves and getting another pack of energy chews (which I would never eat) I headed back down the trail.
Before the race, I had made a bargain with myself that I could start listening to music after the first 2 hours. However, I ended up holding off until a little over halfway. After 16 miles, I decided I deserved some tunes. I plugged in my iPod and for the next four miles, Coolio, the Grateful Dead, Madonna, and Young MC carried me down the trail. My mood instantly skyrocketed and I felt like I was cruising down the trail. I wanted to dance, but I stuck with running.
Along this stretch, I also linked up with Suzy and two other guys. We ran together and leap frogged with each other for a few miles. We rolled into aid station 4 at mile 20, where I introduced the guys to the magic powers of Coke during ultras. That Coke was like rocket fuel for me, and I parted ways with the group to do my own thing.
Things were definitely starting to hurt now, and I was tired. But it also felt so darn good to be out there. Several miles ticked by fairly quickly. But by mile 23 I was having to make more of an effort to continue running. For some reason, the mantra “it’s just running” kept me going. And so I kept running.
I got really impatient on the way back. I knew I needed to cross a road, run through the tunnel, and back over the bridge to get to the final aid station. This out and back was feeling so long. But lets be honest, it was an 18 mile out and back. It was long. My new mantra became “where is the damn tunnel?.” Finally, there it was. I’d never been happier to see something I dislike so much.
I came into the last aid station at mile 25.75. I went into this race wanting to finish sub-7. But during those never-ending miles on the way back, I started to realize 6:30 was doable. I came into the aid station 5 hours and 25 minutes into my race.
Suddenly 6:30 was my new goal, and I was all business. I put two squares of pb&j in the empty Ziploc bag I was carrying, while the awesome volunteers refilled my soft flask with water. With a cup of Coke in hand, I headed down the trail with 5.33 miles to go and a little over an hour to do it. It was doable, but I wasn’t going to be able to phone it in.
Mental toughness is something I’ve been needing to work on and I feel like I made some real gains during these final 5.33 miles. I had been using a 30 minute run/5 minute walk interval throughout the race. And even though everything hurt at this point and I was so tired, I stuck to my plan. I was determined to meet my goal.
The final 5 miles felt long. I was doing all I could to keep moving and I knew I had to make it back to the road crossing before I would tackle the final 1.5 miles. I finally made it back to the road, and my watch already read 31 miles. I knew this was inevitable, but it was making me crazy in these final miles with time ticking away. One and a half miles to go, and 17 minutes to do it. Doable on any other day, but with 30 miles already on my undertrained legs, it wasn’t a sure bet.
I continued running. My watch read 32.3 miles and in my head I was screaming “where is the finish line!?” 6:27 ticked by, then 6:28. As my watch read 6:29 I finally saw the finish line up ahead. I pushed hard and crossed the finish line in 6:30:45. It was a 1 hour 40 minute PR, and in terms of my 6:30 goal it was good enough in my book.
After all of that suspense, the finish itself was actually pretty uneventful. Low key, just the way I like it. There were maybe 5 people standing around. A few of them clapped and cheered for me as I finished my race, and then the race director gave me a finisher’s medal. We exchanged a few words and then I wandered off towards the parking lot.
Like a lot of small races, this one also had some special touches. In this case, it was a free hot soup meal in the local community center. After taking a few pictures and getting changed, I headed over there for some delicious chicken noodle soup. I can’t think of any better way to end a fall race!
That’s the end of my race report, but I had one more thing I’d like to share. Barry and I ended up running different races on the same day, so while I was at the NRT 50K he was at Cloudsplitter 50K. He had a killer day out there and ran a great race on a very tough and challenging course!