Two years ago I ran my first 5k, following that with my first half marathon a year later. As I entered this year I decided I wanted to go big to end my second full year of running. Thus my biggest goal for this year involved pushing my limits by running my first race with a distance greater than a half marathon, 13.1 miles. I decided to really challenge myself and set my sights on running a 50k ultra marathon by the end of the year, the Tortoise and The Hare 50k.
During my training I decided to try a very difficult, technical trail marathon, The Mystery Mountain Marathon, a month before the 50k race (details here). I used this race a testing ground for my 50k. On race day it was wet and slippery and I was too slow, managing to only get the first eleven miles completed fifteen minutes after the cutoff. While I did not get to complete the entire course and I still had not ran a race greater than a half marathon, I took away many lessons that I could use, making my first 50k race experience more enjoyable and less stressful.
The Tortoise and the Hare 50k race format involved having all runners calculating how long it would take them to run the course with a 3P.M. finish time. This then would effect the runners start time and allow all runners to finish around the same time, thus enjoying the end of race experience. While this race had a 9 hour preferred finish time, there were no hard set cutoff times. When asked one of the race directors told me they wanted everyone to finish but they would prefer it if all runners were finished before dark. As I knew I would be slow, probably requiring longer than nine hours, I chose the earliest start time possible, 6A.M.
On the morning of the race I woke up at 4 and got dressed. I went to make myself some coffee and realized the hotel did not provide a coffee pot. I had to have my coffee so I went downstairs to either get a pot or grab a cup from the breakfast area. The Comfort Inn hotel I chose to stay at did not start serving breakfast til six in the morning and I was uncertain if they would have coffee at four in the morning. To my surprise the staff was up and they were preparing the full breakfast bar for those of us running early. This changed my plans a bit as I was focused on eating an oatmeal bar or two and then getting to the start of the race early. I decided to have a full breakfast of sausages, biscuits and gravy and yogurt instead of my breakfast bars. This decision caused me to get to the starting line with less than ten minutes before the earliest start of the race, but the full breakfast was well worth the rush and cost me little as everything I would need for the race was prepared ahead of time.
At 6:00 A.M. in Blue Ridge Georgia the temperature reached 21 degrees, it was much colder at the race start. Because of the early start, those of us toeing the start line at the earliest start point had to run by headlamp in the dark for an hour. I often run my Tuesday night group runs on trails in the dark, and I have spent hours running on roads at night, this experience was nothing new. The first three and a half miles were mostly on paved and gravel roads which allowed me to slowly warm up my legs and lungs. I had learned from my previous experiences during the Mystery Mountain Marathon not to push too fast at the start, so I just let myself ease into running. I knew, being a very slow runner, it was going to be a very long day.
Eventually the roads gave way to trails and the true adventure started. The race directors had put some markers up but I still managed to miss a turn, so I wondered for a minute looking for the green blaze marking the Upper/Lower Green mountain trail that I would follow for the next three miles. Eventually I found the path I missed and I eased into my trail running form. After a mile or two, the outer part of my right knee started to radiate pain up my leg when I started to climb uphill. I recognized the pain was caused from a probable IT band tightness issue. I have had this pain before in the past and Pilates classes, stretching and foam rolling rectified it. Lately I went stupid and lazy abandoning these methods. The pain was not mild and made running uphills and steep downhills outright painful. I popped some ibuprofen and realized I had a decision to make, would this pain end my day before I even went seven miles?
I walked a bit, stretching my body out and working to loosen the tightness in my glutes, quads and hamstrings, as well as my I.T. band. This reduced the pain in my knee a bit, so I decided I would push on, the pain was manageable and should not cause any long term consequences by continuing to run and walk on it. The rest of the day this pain would shoot up and make running extremely difficult, but eventually I managed to work it out and lessen it enough to push on.
At one point on the trails I found the other six AM runners coming toward me. It turned out that they came to an opening in the trail leading to numerous cabin driveways but no indication where the trail continued. I pushed on and looked around myself, discovering the trail hidden by one of the driveways. From here I pushed on to the seven mile mark and the first major aid station at Deep Gap. When I ran the Mystery Mountain Marathon, one of the biggest mistakes I made was not keeping fueled, leading to a drastic drop in attitude and energy after only a few miles on the course. This time I decided to always work on fueling myself and thus found myself taking a gel, eating a moon pie or sucking on a energy gummy. When I hit the first aide station I pulled out an empty zip lock bag and filled it with peanut M&Ms, M&Ms, Candy Corns and pretzels, also grabbing several gels as well. My idea was to eat these as I pushed my way up the biggest climb of the race, a 1200+ foot climb extending two miles along the Stanley Gap trail. I refilled my water and thanked the volunteers, then headed out onto the Stanley Gap trail.
The climb up the mountain was very scenic and long. As I made my way up the climb the temperature dropped a bit. One of the coolest parts of this climb was the noticeable white frost covering the leaf cover on the ground. At this point in the race the trail took on new teeth, the loose shifting rocks and jutting roots were covered by a thick slippery matting of leaf cover. This provided a new challenge, making the placement of feet treacherous as loose, shifting rocks attempted to roll my ankles and/or hidden roots attempted to throw me to the ground face first. I had numerous close calls and a couple of slips and slides that made the earlier knee and hip pain flair up as I ran.
At the end of the Stanley Gap Trail was the turn around where we got to go back up and over the mountain we just traversed, twelve and a half miles completed. At this turn around I refilled my bladder at the aid station and wolfed down some peanut butter and jelly sandwich halves as well as a burrito half or two. I almost stayed too long, but I realized I had to go. Before I left I tried my first boiled potato dipped in sea salt and instantly fell in love. I also grabbed some more gels and pushed on.
The following miles I just ignored the knee and hip pain, continued to fuel as I moved and continued to push forward. Eventually the trail from earlier dumped off to the Flat Creek Trail, which provided five miles of rolling terrain. I was slowing down at this point, but I knew I just had to keep pushing forward and I would be able to finish the distance. My hip and knee pain were not making things any easier but moving forward and finishing this race on my feet was my only goal. I knew that at the conclusion of this loop I would have roughly a 15k of trail remaining, on easier terrain than I had already traversed. When I came out of this loop I was back at the Deep Gap aide station. Once again I wolfed down on PB&J sandwiches, burritos, boiled potatoes and candy. I also grabbed another handful of gels to eat on the go, refilled my water and thanked the volunteers for everything. At this point I had ran just over twenty one miles.
As I pushed on to the last loop, and the last 15k worth of miles I focused on getting into a steady running rhythm on the downhills and a fast paced walking rhythm on the uphills. I did not care about pace at this moment, I just focused on getting to my first marathon distance in a race. Previously in training the longest I had ever ran was twenty five miles on trails or road. Getting to the marathon mark would be a new milestone and would be the first time I ever ran a marathon in training or in a race. It became my sole focus and kept me moving forward when knee pain flared up. As I moved down hill and entered the last loop to traverse before getting back onto the trail I ran earlier starting my day, I passed another runner I met the night before and mentioned I was eager to run my first marathon distance. He looked at his buddy and in a matter-of-fact manner stated “Oh we did just pass the marathon mark, didn’t we?”. This kept me chuckling for several miles,only in an ultra does someone not realize they crossed the marathon distance.
Finally I got to the last aide station and I wolfed down my usual assortment of foods and grabbed a few more gels. I also drank down several cups of cola and found myself ravenous, I could not stop eating. I pulled myself away and got a moving again. As I passed the marathon distance for the first time I quickly snapped a picture and posted it to Facebook: ‘ just passed 26.2 miles for the first time ever, only 10k remaining’. At this point I had one last climb to rejoin the Green Mountain trail, where it would eventually dump me back onto the roads and the last three miles for the day. At this point I realized that every muscle in my lower body was hurting and/or extremely sore. But I only had a 10k more to run to finish. I was now looking at a finish time around eleven hours and I was not worried, I could make it before it got dark. I pushed on with the finish line set in my mind as my final destination.
Eventually the trail dumped me out onto the gravel road. With thirty miles done I had no more trail to run, just road. I pushed all the pain and discomfort coming from my lower body to the back of my mind, I would have time to deal with it later, after crossing the finish line. I found myself running until the fatigue was too much then I walked until rested enough to run again. I continued this pattern of running and walking as I ran the final miles. As I emptied onto Aska road, heading to Dry Branch road and the finish line, racers in their cars drove by. As they drove by some stopped and rolled their windows down and cheered me on. This pushed me forward. I turned onto Dry Branch road and there were two of my friends from Big Peach Running company. They pulled over and gave me high fives and fierce handshakes as well as encouragement. I knew I was one of the last runners to come in, but I felt like a rockstar.
I eventually ran into the parking lot where eleven and a half hours ago my day had started. There was a flight of wooden stairs to descend, which at this point caused pain to shoot up my legs as I traversed them. Finally there was the finish line and the end of my long day of slow and careful running. I was and ultra runner, I had completed my first race over 13.1, I had completed a 50k ulta. I hugged the race director giving her my first ultra hug as she put my medal around my neck. Suddenly my body released all the pain it was holding back and I could feel how everything in my body hurt from the days undertaking.
But in the end the pain did not matter, the starving hunger did not matter and the fact that I could barely walk did not matter… I had completed a major accomplishment. I am now an ultrarunner.
Til next time.