Monday, September 14, 2015

Woodstock 50 Mile Race Report (Spoiler: I won!)

Had it not been for social media and running, I likely would have spent last Thursday night watching the Braves lose while sipping a pinot noir from my sofa.

Instead, I found myself at an airport sushi bar (I've made worse choices in life I suppose...) making friends with a bunch of other sots waiting on their delayed flights thanks to a thunderstorm. My chicken udon took nearly 45 minutes and the bartender made her apologies through a series of free drink samples.

Oh, and I was heading off to Michigan to go run 50 miles with someone I met via blogging a few years ago.

My 8:40 p.m. flight didn't take off until well after 11:00 p.m. and the Detroit airport was eerily empty save for a few straggling travelers when we finally landed. It was easy to find Steve in the barren baggage claim area. By the time we arrived at his house and I got settled, it was 3:00 a.m.

Despite getting only a few hours of sleep, I roused myself out of bed and coaxed a bit of excitement through my veins as I remembered why I was there. 50 frickin' miles on the docket for the following day.

We did breakfast and coffee before wasting the rest of the morning talking about running, running, and well, running. Then it was time for a traditional Subway lunch with footlong Italian B.M.T.'s for each of us. Steve mentioned that his stomach had been troubling him over the past few days, but he felt pretty good otherwise.

As we drove to the Hell Ranch Campground, we discussed a bit more of our race strategy (his full of carefully executed thoughts, mine full of I hope they have Mountain Dew at all the aid stations!). The campground was littered with tents, RVs, and ultra-runners. It was heavenly. We picked up our bib numbers and settled down on a picnic bench with an orange cream soda from a food truck.

As the national anthem was being played ala Jimi Hendrix style, Steve noticed his friend Brandi in the crowd. She was running her first 100 miler and we offered a few words of encouragement before the countdown began. I watched the small pack of runners take off around the campground and into the woods in awe of what they were about the accomplish.
Luckily, Dave offered to host a pre-race dinner and we were gladly distracted the rest of the evening. Angie and Allison joined in the party and we put a pretty large dent in Mrs. Dave's lasagna. I had 3 pieces myself. Clearly the glycogen stores had to be topped off and the generous slice of Dave's apple pie help put just on the right side of the edge of being uncomfortably full.

It down-poured the entire way back to Steve's house and I hoped that the trails were not horribly muddy by the time we started running. But there was very little time to worry. By the time we got back, we laid out our gear and went to bed. The very little sleep the night before actually allowed me to get close to 6.5 hours!
I awoke at 3:30 a.m. on the dot and after reading a bunch of encouraging posts on Facebook from friends, I felt raring to go. Time to Vaseline every inch of my body and put on my superhero costume. Once I was friction-less and suited up, I ate a bagel and a banana. Steve's stomach was still in knots and I became concerned when he didn't eat anything.

We got to the start with just the right amount of time to use the porta-potty, drop our gear, waver back and forth about long-sleeves (we decided against), and watch a few of the 100 miler/K runners come in to the start/finish aid station. I was so ready to just get going already!

Joe and Nicole spotted us in the dark and we wish Nicole good luck on her 50K before we all lined up to start. The 6:00 a.m. start time and small field didn't garner much palpable excitement, but I had plenty of butterflies ready to carry me through the first few miles of the race.

Three, two, one....go!

The first quarter mile was pretty wide and I didn't concern myself with jockeying for a position. 50 miles is a long time to sort out placement. As we entered into the single-track, Steve fell in behind me and we trotted off into the woods with the other runners. The headlamps bobbed along the trail in a single file line and talking waned as runners fell into pace.

I had a fleeting moment of feeling like a child. Running through the woods in the dark with a bunch of other wacky people was so perfectly far away from reality. There were no imminent responsibilities other than keep running! And I like running!

Steve and I barely said more than a few words at this point. Partially because I was concentrating on not tripping in the dark and partially because he was likely not in a happy place. I looked back a few times to see him behind me, but it was hard to gauge how he felt in the darkness.

The single-track opened up to a fire road on the 3rd mile and I quickly took advantage of the space and flatness to speed up. Despite a rumbling stomach of my own and the feeling of sore legs, I was still mentally ready to tackle this race. I thought Steve was trailing behind me, but it wasn't until I got back to the single-track section that I realized I was alone. I hoped that he would catch up with me at an aid station and so I just buried my worries and plugged on.

The 50 mile course consisted of 3 loops of 16.66 miles each with aid stations space just over 4 miles apart.
It was cool and dark and I barely had taken an sips of the grape Nuun I filled my water bottles with so I opted to not stop at the first aid station. I ate an espresso GU just after I passed it and kept on moving.

As I made my way through the next section, I was able to see some of the course as the sun rose. The woods were covered in deep green and the dirt was brown! After so many months of running on Georgia red clay, the brown dirt was a sight for sore eyes. I loved watching the cloudy morning slowly awaken. At some point, I switched off my headlamp as I now had complete visibility of the path in front on me.

When I came up to the 8 mile aid station, my rumbling stomach made it necessary to stop and use the fancy latrine. I waited behind another runner in line and then quickly dashed in to do my own business. As I hopped out, I immediately felt better and decided to hit up the aid station and get some Mountain Dew. Though I really wanted coffee, I was afraid it would be too hot to gulp down and I had already wasted enough time.

I immediately started to feel much better as I headed into the next section and I bopped along in a much happier mental state. When I hit the half marathon mark, I began doing runner math and I was barely getting started. Steve still had not caught up with me, but I was hoping that he wasn't too far behind.

The last part of the loop intertwined with the 5K course and I side-stepped a few of the 5K walkers as I neared the start/finish line. I looked down at my Garmin and realized that I was ahead of schedule. I planned to run my laps in about 3:00, 3:20, and 3:40. Negative splits are not really something to aim for, but I knew that I would go out too fast and this would still get me comfortably around 10 hours. But this first lap was in the 2:50s. Oops.

As I came into the aid station, I was elated to see Allison, who had finished the 5K, and Angie. We briefly spoke and as I was gearing up to head out for lap number 2, Steve walked up in his warm-ups and drop bag.


It was just seconds worth of an interaction, but I felt immediately sad and determined. Sad because I couldn't even begin to soothe the disappointment and determined because in some weird way, I was now running for both of us. Plus, there was the ugly reality that I still had 33.34 miles to go. By myself.

My legs had been aching since we practically began. And now I was going to run more than 50K on tired legs and without my RB on the course. I was in a major funk for a few miles as I was humbled by the task at hand. As I ran through the course all I could think of was that I still had to do it again.

Oh man, what did I sign up for??!

Somewhere near mile 20, I came up on another woman who was wearing a 50 miler bib (they were all yellow) and I crept behind her for awhile until I decided to pass her. She briefly passed me when I stopped at the aid station (Pringles, Mountain Dew, and a handful of Swedish Fish), but then I passed her for good. I think this is when I took over first place which I was blissfully unaware of.

Soon after the aid station and passing the woman back, I started hearing conversation getting closer and closer to me. At first I was annoyed because that meant someone was inching closer to me with the possibility of passing me, but the I realized I needed to hear some positive conversation. Luckily, trail runners are pretty friendly and Trevor, Phil, and I ran for many miles until they took off ahead of me.

We chatted about racing, shoes, hydration packs, and farting. Typical runner stuff. I looked back at my splits and realized this particular stretch was the fastest I ran despite all the gabbing. Proof positive that mental strength is key in this ultra business.

I ate a piece of Nutella sandwich, busted into my gummy bear supplies, and depleted all but a few Starburst in my pack. An aid station volunteer asked if I needed my water bottles filled and I was thrilled when she removed them for me and took care of it all.

The marathon mark (26.2 miles) ticked off and then I crossed the 50K (31 miles) mark. My legs were so sore that I almost texted Steve to bring me aspirin from the car. But my self-talk swung wildly and I told myself to just suck it up/ride the suck/love what you do/enjoy the moment.

When I neared the start/finish for the completion of 33.33 miles, I felt like Jekyll and Hyde. My thoughts were consumed with the knowledge that I am going to finish this and how can I run another 16.66 miles? Walking would just me to the finish line slower. So time to just run when I could and walk when I absolutely had to.

Seeing my friends was a huge mental boost and though I was terrified to run 16.66 more miles on tired legs, I started to try to picture running through the finish chute. Here's me at mile 33.33:

Trevor, one of the guys I was running with, went on ahead and ended up placing 7th overall. Phil and I played leapfrog for many more miles. We'd stick near each other for awhile letting the person ahead pace. I realize now that it just became an unspoken reality as we tried to hang on for the last lap.

Maybe I was sandbagging or maybe I was just so unsure that my body was capable of it, but I do remember exclaiming something about not being able to hold another sub-3 lap. At some point in that lap, I told that girl to shut up and just run.

I thought I'd do a lot more walking in the final lap, but I kept making little deals with myself. Just run along the fire road and stop at the single-tracks. Well, just run until the boardwalk on the single-tracks. Run until there is an uphill. Run until the next aid station. Each time I was able to continue going beyond my marker, I took it as a small victory.

I was pretty much subsisting on tiny sips of water-laden Nuun in between shots of Mountain Dew as my hydration. Calories were fistfuls of Pringles and saltines crammed 5-6 at a time in my mouth as I walked away from the aid station. The salty, dry food was perfectly bland, but coated the inside of my very dry mouth. I had to wash it down with water so I didn't choke.

My Garmin had been beeping "low battery" since mile 30ish, but it finally completely crapped out just before mile 40. At this point, with 10 miles to go and my phone in my pocket to give me the real time, I knew my sub-10 hour goal was easily in reach. Without my Garmin I actually felt kind of free. I could just run and run and if I needed to walk, I wouldn't see my pace slipping away.

Oddly enough, the last 10 miles were some of the best. As I reached the 41.66 aid station, I knew I was heading back towards the finish. Phil and I jockeyed back and forth a few more times in the next section as the rain started coming in. I remember feeling cold, but never uncomfortable. The cold was a good reason to just run faster. I thought about putting on my gloves again, but then it just seemed like too much effort. How running 50 miles is doable, but reaching into my pockets to get gloves is hard is still a mystery to me....

The trails started to get a bit muddy in sections as the rain continued to fall. The paths were extremely runnable all day and I hoped that the rain would stay light enough to not cause too many issues. My balance was definitely decreasing with each mile and I chose to walk down steeper downhills simply to keep from falling.

When I reached the final aid station, I saw Phil again and headed back out before he did. I was kind of hoping he'd be right behind me as we'd been in similar spots all day, but I didn't see him again until after we finished. Instead, I took off as fast as I could with the determination that I was going to finish well under the 10-hour mark. Heck, if I could do runner math (a very sketchy proposition at this point), I was in position to run sub-9? That just seemed crazy. Surely I was not computing something.

It hurt my brain to much to try to math after 46 miles of running. So instead I started to alternate between singing She'll Be Comin' Round The Mountain and counting backwards from 100. Both kept me entertained for about 30 seconds before I snapped back to the reality. My legs were on fire and I wanted to stop and cry. But holy hell, I was also about to finish running 50 frickin' miles!!!

Getting to the final tent that was exactly a mile from the finish line seemed to take forever. I spotted 2 women as I came close to the 49 mile tent and my competitive drive took over. As the volunteers shouted out 1 mile to the finish, I mustered whatever kick I could find and ignored their offers of water in lieu of securing my placement ahead of these 2 women. I later saw they were finishing their 2nd lap...oops....

I hauled myself through the final mile until about quarter mile from the finish when a steep hill forced me to power walk for 10 seconds. As I crested the top, I could hear the music and muffles of the crowd. It was the most beautiful sound. I careened around the corner at a seemingly breakneck speed (which clearly it wasn't) and scanned the sidelines for my Loopster friends. As I spotted them, I broke out into a huge smile and flew past the tracking mats into the arms of the volunteer handing out medals.
I gladly took a hug from the volunteer and then a woman with a clipboard had me check in. I was in a daze when she asked if I checked in out on the course and told me that I was the first 50 miler woman to check in. She said she would need to verify the check ins on the course and that I could come back in 20 minutes or so when the received the official word.

Angie handed me a beer, Steve wrapped me in a blanket, Barbara gave me a water, and Nugget gave me a kiss. Along with Allison, Mike, Joe, and Nicole these Loopsters really made my day. I was so happy to finish and kind of couldn't believe it was all over. We sat a bit until I spotted Trevor and Phil and hobbled over to them to congratulate them on their finishes. After a brief dissection of the race, I decided to go back to the finish tent and see if I had been verified.

I had! First overall female for the 50 miler!
I knew it was an outlying possibility, but it kind of just didn't seem like the sort of thing that could happen to me. In fact, as I type this, it still doesn't seem like it could have happened to me. I was humbled by those 50 miles and yet, I still walk away feeling on top of the world? I still am trying to make myself feel worthy.
Post-race thoughts?
-It is actually possible to run for 50 miles. I thought there would be more walking, but I estimate I ran about 47-48 miles total. Link to Garmin data or Strava. Well, the first 40 miles anyway...
-Eating while running 50 miles is an exercise in answering cravings. I ate pickles, Pringles, peanut butter and jelly sandwich squares, saltines, gummy bears, Starbursts, Nutella sandwich squares, and 2 GUs. Aside from the first 8 miles, my stomach felt pretty good the whole time.
-I should not even play the what if? game when I won (??), but I do wonder how I would feel if my legs felt better. They were sore like I had bonked the whole time and like with everything in running, it's pretty impossible to understand why. Dehydration? Salt? Taper issues? Sleep?
-Running 50 miles sounds hard. It is hard. It's one of the hardest things I've done. But awful training runs, bad marathons, and lots of solo runs are actually really good practice tools for ultras. Getting beyond the funky spots is totally worth the pain. It's one of those things that you can't explain until you've experienced it yourself
-Winning is cool. Despite the small field and the fact that it may never happen again in my life, I will hold this little victory close to my heart. I trained really, really hard to get to that finish line and I will never take that feeling I had that afternoon for granted.

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