Thursday, October 21, 2010

From NR: My First Ultra!

My first ultra! Everything they said it would be all in one little race!

My first response when people ask about it? BRUTAL. In ALL CAPS! But! I quickly follow with how I finished strong and happy and I never said 'never again' at any point.

The day started off innocently enough. I'd been stressing about what to wear (like always, I'm getting better but I swear I can never dress myself for running) and settled on half-tights even though I'd thought I'd get too warm (and I did a couple times but I'm super glad I wore them). I figured I could always just sport bra it if I got too got and then I also packed a pair of shorts just in a drop bag just in case I got REALLY hot and felt like changing quick, but the most I did was take off the tank top I had under my Icebreaker shirt.

Headed down to Canal Park and onto the bus. Of course, with the sudden influx of runners (something like 20 runners registered the night before and morning of!), there wasn't exactly room for everyone. Time to pack us in three to a seat but luckily ultra runners aren't exactly obese so it worked just fine. Now, Highway 35 is still under construction so the bus wasn't allowed on it which meant side roads only for us. I generally hate driving a course before running it and it seemed to take forever to get there but it wasn't as though we were driving the same course we'd be running, so it wasn't really so bad, it just felt like we were sitting on the bus for ages. We got there late but Andy (the race director) gave us extra time so we'd all have time to hit the bathrooms and get our drop bags in the right boxes before starting.

Gather at the start line, listen to last minute course descriptions that no one will remember and we're off! Having never done a 50K before, it was hard to know how to pace. My thought at the Half Voyageur was to run strong while I felt strong so that's what I went for, trying to run strong but trying to hold back. It didn't feel too fast and I knew this section was nice and runnable so I took my time figuring a pace out, which seemed to be hopscotching with Tracy and Catherine for a while and running just behind Marcus.

Picture by Zach Pierce! Grand Portage aid station - I don't know why I look so tired already. I certainly didn't feel that way.

Then I fell in with Tracy and Catherine for a bit and that was quite lovely. One of the times they passed me, I just hung out at their pace. Turns out Catherine was gunning for a 6 hour finish and that's what I figured would be reasonable for me so I ran along with them for a while until it felt too fast. There seemed to be something I managed to forget for those first 10 miles: Whistlestop. Last weekend. I'm plugging along quite nicely when just after Ely's Peak my legs said "Wait. We're doing what? But we just ran a marathon last weekend! What were you doing running 6 hour pace??" See, the 6 hour rough goal was rather arbitrarily reached by looking at how two of my friends ran last year and figuring I'd be somewhere in-between their times. It also was a mark that did not take running a marathon the weekend before into consideration. Oops.

So, Ely's Peak. The only part of the course that I'd never done before the race. Surprise! Actually, as I headed up it, I thought several times of Lisa who was doing her first 100K so she'd have to go down Ely's Peak, run 20 more miles and then go back up. Now, Lisa is significantly shorter than I am and there were several rocks on the way up Ely's Peak that are past or at Lisa's waist so that she would need to heft herself up and down. So I was thankful that I was tall :)

I slowed down after Ely's Peak, stopped to pee, and later almost fell off a boardwalk. Hm. Not much longer after that I took a digger and I'm not too sure what it was that tripped me up. There was a small tree in front of me that I planned to use to stop myself but I didn't make it that far and ended up looking at it from the ground. Of course, I landed on my left side and ripped up some stuff that had finally been healing from my fall at Hawk Ridge. It wasn't so bad, though and I got right back up and continued on my way with barely an 'ouch.' Turns out I manged to sort of burn my left shoulder, though - a very strange mark that left the next few days.

The Magney/Snively aid station was next and after eyeing up their table while the awesome volunteers filled my water, I decided that they only thing that looked good was an orange slice. After grabbing the extra gels from my drop bag, I continued my way up Skyline. Dropping down to the Spirit Mt aid station was the first time I ignored my watch timer - I had decided that the best way to make sure I was eating on time was to set my timer to go off every 45 minutes since I manged to muss up my adding during the Half Voyageur. Well, this time my timer went off and I just didn't want to eat. Which I said out loud. I did a lot of talking out loud to myself during this race. So I let myself go 10 more minutes and then forced one down.

Next up - the Spirit Mountain aid station. I decided ahead of time that juice sounded good but nothing solid looked all that appetizing - my stomach was starting to get just unsettled enough to not want anything. This aid station was manned by Connie's husband and kids, which was nice. They have made some fabulous hot apple cider and I downed almost a full cup of it before thinking maybe that wasn't such a hot idea for my stomach. Ah well, it was super tasty and just what I wanted. I was offered mashed potatoes a couple times but that really didn't sound good so off I went.

Here's where my stomach really started being unhappy. I made it up the stairs okay (all 131 of them!) and after that comes one of my favorite spots on the trail so I tried to let my legs stretch out. And then my stomach wanted to stretch out so to the side of the trail I went and didn't quite throw up. A nice guy went by me here and checked and double checked ("are you sure?") if I was okay. I started slowly putzing along the trail. Coming down to the zoo, where I really love to stretch it out but not this time, Randy caught up to me and asked if I need anything, insisting he had things to spare. I said I was fine, it was just my stomach feeling nauseous. Well in that case, he said, you need an e-cap. Now, I'd heard about these things but never actually tried one. I figured I might as well. Hmmm. It's a fricking horse pill! Shockingly, I had no trouble swallowing it. It seemed to work instantly - fabulous! I hung out with Randy for a bit - turns out it took him 15 years to run another 50K after his first one. He also mentioned that every time he runs something big right after a marathon, it seems that his legs give up suddenly rather than gradually. Hm. Well, I seem to be okay. Not great but okay so maybe my legs are going the gradual route, I'm sure I won't get much worse than I am here. Ah, silly Sam.

Sadly, the e-cap doesn't seem to last very long and I let Randy go. I start feeling really tired/sleepy here, too and think about how this would be a big problem with running a 100 miler (not that I'm actually considering one right now) in that I'd have to stay up all night and I'm not so good with little sleep.

Right around there is where I go downhill real quick like. My legs are shot. I cross Cody St and slowly walk my way up the road wondering why no-one was passing me. All I wanted to do was lie down. I pictured Liz running along (I don't know why it was Liz, but I thought this a few times and it was always Liz that I pictured finding me) and finding me laying down on the side of the trail. Or heck, right in the middle of the trail looked fine and dandy too. I stopped and dipped my hands into a couple of creeks as I crossed over them and that felt nice. I wanted to sit down but managed to convince myself that at least walking slowly was moving forward and sitting was most distinctly NOT moving forward.

Coming up to Highland/Getchell I was in really bad shape. I didn't think there was any way I could keep going for 10 more miles AFTER Highland. My legs just couldn't do it. I was 98% sure I wasn't going to finish. Just one problem - I didn't want to not finish. I actually said (okay, definitely whined - think Luke Skywalker and Toshi Station) out loud once "I don't want to drop" I just didn't think my legs could do it.

Somewhere around there, Marcus came up on me. I'd been wondering where he'd been at - I hadn't seen him since the first aid station and was worried that his leg was bothering him and he dropped. Turns out he'd been power-walking since then. Since mile 6. I'm not sure if my thinking started changing before or after he came up on me but when he did catch me, I thought "If Marcus can do it, then I can do it, even if I have to walk the rest of the way." My thought pattern changed from "I don't think I can do this" to "I don't know if I can do this." Two very different things! I figured the section after Highland was another of my favorites and that it would be easy enough to walk through since it's very runnable. I could make another decision at Haines Road (someone I talked myself into thinking there might be an aid station there). And so I slogged my way into Highland.

Step one, take off the jersey under my t-shirt and shove it in my drop back. Step two, get water bottle filled since I went dry. Step three, plop down on the ground in front of the table and eye up the food. Wait, what? I looked around to make sure I wasn't too much in the way. The other two guys there didn't seem like they needed around me so I stayed where I was for another few seconds. Nothing really looked good here, either, but I had already ignored my watch timer once and was behind on food intake. I nabbed part of a salted nut roll and started chewing (to spit out the second bite after crossing Skyline), grabbed my water bottle and a couple pieces of watermelon, nodded my thanks to Shane since I wasn't up for talking and went on my not-so-merry way. Apparently I was described as 'death warmed over' - probably accurate. Shane also told me later that I was maybe a bit rude which makes me sad. I never want to be rude to the awesome volunteers.

I then promptly dropped a piece of watermelon. I considered not going back since it was a long 8 or 10 steps back but smartness won out and I went back to grab a piece to replace it. I of course didn't think to salt them until I was on the trail and I was definitely not turning back then. I also started taking another gel since my timer had gone off again - a tinsy bit at a time, following every sip with water and hoping that would keep my stomach from rebelling. Ran into Marcus' mom who is great and crossed Skyline, to find Kris! We chatted for a bit as I crossed the road and then I went on my way.

My new mantra started here and took me to the finish - "just a little, just slowly." I took all pressure off and said I didn't need to run a lot or fast. Even if I only ran 3 or 4 steps, it's faster than walking. Bit by bit, I could run further and a little faster. My stomach didn't get better as quickly, though, and kept me from running very fast. I could already tell that I'd be in trouble water wise again, though. My plan of little sips of gel following by water was running me dry fast. I needed to ration - no more than half my bottle before Haines so I'd have half a bottle to take me to the next aid station. I managed to mostly keep to this, though I was really thirsty, so I drank more than I 'should' have. Luckily, a guy went by me after Haines and shared a sip of his water. What I wanted to do was guzzle the rest of his bottle but I kept it to a sip. We both were sure that the next aid was at 27th instead of 24th for some reason and we both went bone dry before then.

I was getting stronger and stronger feeling, though. I was even running for a bit up slight inclines! Very exciting. I no longer felt like death and as soon as I crossed Haines, I knew for sure I'd be able to finish. Though, I couldn't figure out where all the women were! I'd been passed by a handful of guys, but no women at all since Tracy and Catherine. Somewhere after Haines, though, I was sure I was hearing Liz's voice behind me somewhere (again, I don't know why I decided it was Liz). And I kept seeing Eric a ton out there, who said when I asked that he was out cheering for Deb so women were out there somewhere nearby. Not that I was really concerned with my standing but I was wondering where everyone was.

Coming onto the water reservoir, I felt great and passed back the guy who gave me water. Into the 27th Ave aid station - last one! They had apple juice which was all that looked good and the volunteer there poured me a lovely glass of it. I drank a bit of coke since I've heard that can help with stomachs, drank my apple juice, was cheering by Johnny Cash on the volunteers iPod speakers and headed out.

The last three miles were awesome. I was giddy! This is a section that always feels nasty to me for some reason but it felt just fine at the pace I was going. I made sure to hold back some, though, since even though I felt free and clear, I thought I better make sure I finished strong and didn't crash again. I caught up to a guy who passed me up Highland as I crossed Skyline. I was running uphill! Strongly! It's the last uphill before the finish! I paused to ring the peace bell and started my gimp down the last mile. The stairs out of Enger were EVIL! And then the downhill. Ow. It hurt so much but in a 'but I'm so close! Why must it hurt now?' sort of way so that I actually started laughing a couple of times!

Off onto Michigan Street, try not to get hit by a truck, cross the road, over the bridge, under the highway and THERE'S MARCUS! I was super excited to see I had caught back up to him. He was walking his way in and talking to Leslie. The big dilemma, though! What if he doesn't start running when I catch up? Do I walk in with him and try to convince him to run in or run my way by him? Happily, he started running as I approached so we got to run in together. Of course, the two of us seem incapable of running next to each other without picking the pace up bit by bit. I blame Marcus. The punk also decided to sprint in and I not interest in sprinting at the end of my first 50K so he beat me to the finish! Like how I say that as though me deciding to sprint would have made a difference? It was fabulous to feel so great and finish laughing, though!

Picture by Eve Stein.

So a time of 7:20. Not so bad with all my walking (probably a good straight hour of it during my rough spot) and I finished strong and happy to boot! I was excited to be handed a finisher's mug, too. Awesome. A few minutes later, in came Liz - I knew she was right there behind me.

Overall, a beautiful day! I had a good time for most of it (what's an hour or two during a 7 hour race?) and even though I started too fast, I did managed to back off before my body forced me to. I pulled myself through a bad spot and was able to break the rest of the race into manageable pieces. Now I just need to figure out what is up with my stomach and what it wants to eat.


  1. Love how happy and lively you look in that last photo!

    A nice testimonial to how well the trails treat you (and your ability to bounce back from that rough spot).

  2. Congrats! If you ever figure out the stomach issues, let me know - they only get worse at 50 miles (... and 100).