50 miles down, 0 to go
Running is a great way to spend 12 hrs
I had fun. That’s right, running 50 miles in one day can be fun! I was secretly prepared for my first 50-miler to possibly really suck and figured at some point I might be reduced to a sniveling pile of pain and misery. But that never happened.
Ok, maybe it’s because I was run-walk-hiking
Maybe it’s because I stopped to take a photo at every turn in the trail (“look, more flaming red trees, sweeping vistas, stone walls and rumpled green mountains”). Maybe it was reliving the two years I spent in the Vermont woods as a Field Naturalist (“ooo, is that a butternut? Check out that hand-twisted barbed wire. Oh, look three old apple trees and there’s the cellar hole!”) The Vermont 50 race flows through a splendid mix of logging roads, high pasture farms and soft CCC pine plantation trails. The weather was the height of New England Fall perfection. A cool misty morning filled with the happy dee dees of chickadees, followed by a brilliantly clear, cricket-chirping afternoon.
I drove over to Ascutney after teaching my Saturday morning yoga class. For the last few days I had been developing a fluish cold and by Saturday I was feeling pretty miserable so I spent the seven-hour car ride feverishly chewing on homeopathic cold remedies, and washing down herbs and vitamins with a few gallons of hot tea. I arrived just in time for dinner with my awesome housemates whom I’d met this summer at the Greater Cranberry Island 50k. My taste buds and appetite returned just in time to appreciate the delicious roasted vegetable dish that Jim and Doug made. And of course there was gluten-free pasta, because even vegan, paleo, raw food, macrobiotic ultra runners carbo-load.
After dinner I spent too much time sorting out drop-bags for the next day. This was my first 50 miler, and first race without Jerome available for last-minute rescue backup (“Honey, can you grab the low-sugar Emergen C packets in the glove compartment and add them to the 2.3 liters of tepid, ionized water that are in my dayglo green water bottle, the one with the Velcro strap on the front, not the one with the pocket. Oh, and I need my other socks, the blues ones that are crumpled up under the passenger side seat or mayb they’re in the trunk shoved into my other pair of Newtons . . . rinse them out first, ok?”). Wait, I’m not that high-maintenance . . . but I am still figuring out this ultra-running stuff and I’m not exactly smooth as butter either.
I filled three thermoses with Kitchari (mung beans and rice), bagged up several servings of Cocohydro and Tailwind, and distributed various gels and blocks among my bags. Then off to bed. Where I discovered a very loudly snoring, soundly sleeping roommate. So I relocated to a quiet, comfortable couch, where I proceeded to not sleep for the next six hours. Because no matter how quiet or comfortable I am, I don’t sleep well before events or in new places, and tonight was both.
At 4:45am, we were all up stumbling around the kitchen making coffee and toast. I made my favorite post-race protein smoothie and packed it for later (for which I was very, very grateful). We checked-in for the race around 6am and watched the final waves of mountain bikers take off just as the sun was coming up. It was a chilly and foggy morning, but overall, incredibly pleasant.
At 6:35 we were off. The start is an easy cruise down the road with lots of camaraderie and everyone walking up the hills together. At least that’s how it was at the back half of the pack. Which is where I stayed for the duration of the race. For the first 20 miles or so I was in great company, chatting and enjoying seeing the same faces over and over. I would pass them on the uphills (I discovered I’m a speedy uphill hiker.) But then I would get passed on the downhills. My feet were tender from the sharp gravel and lack of insoles (the liners of my Newton MV2’s felt really rough). I found myself ogling everyone else’s cushy midsoles and even lusted after a pair of Hokas as I gingerly picked my way downhill. The biggest draw back to running barefoot while I’m training is that it is very hard to get faster at downhills. The other drawback is that I still haven’t found a tolerable pair of shoes to wear for racing.
Still, I had some company up until the backside of Garvin Hill (the highpoint of the course) where I had to make a pit stop in the woods. There I sat. And watched people fly by while I rustled in the leaves over my cat hole . . .
Bringing up the rear
From there on out I was the back of the pack and I ran alone until mile 40 where my brother-in-law Paul met me to pace me for the last 10 miles. Somewhere around mile 45 I ran out of water and food and any shred of agility I might have had on rooty, rocky trails. I slowed way down. Besides everything hurting in the usual I’ve Been Running All Day kind of way, nothing hurt particularly badly, but my legs felt heavy and slow, my mouth was parched and I could barely keep a 13 min mile pace. Paul kept urging me to run faster . . . determined to get me to the final aid station before the cut-off time. Which he did – with four minutes to spare!
Lex was there waiting patiently for me with my bag full of restorative goodness. Given that it had taken me something like 4 hrs to run the previous 16 miles, she rightly wondered what the hell had happened to me – just how many pictures was I taking??
The final three miles kind of sucked. Mostly because I was anxious about finishing before the 12hr cutoff. Though there was some confusion as to when that was. Someone had told us the race started 15 minutes late so we had an extra fifteen minutes (my watch didn’t agree with this theory), and we had also heard that once you make it past the final checkpoint they count your finish no matter what. In the end it didn’t really mater because I simply could not move any faster. I was sure I was going to puke (I didn’t) and it was getting dark enough that I really had to pay attention to the trail.
Slow and slower
Paul tried to set a 9-min/mile pace, which was hilarious from my perspective. He said things like “if it’s not at least a 6 in pain you can run faster”. And while this is a wonderful concept, it is rarely pain that holds me back. I fear that I am slow simply from a lack of fast-twitchness at the very core of my being. And for that I need better genetics and ten pounds less per leg, neither of which are likely in this lifetime.
The benefit of my slowness is that I never get truly wasted. Unable to raise my heartbeat into the anaerobic zone, I never reach the screeching, puking, muscle spazing-halt that often waylays faster runners.
Some say that if you reach the finish line with anything left, you didn’t run hard enough. But I say, if I hit the finish line ready to do it all again, life is good. Which is how I felt as I headed down the last few switchbacks and saw my twin brother and my housemates cheering me on. I crossed the finish line bawling with joy and gratitude.
At which point Zeke, the RD came right up to me and said “I’ve got to give you the bad news”. He was so serious I thought for sure he was going to tell me something tragic had just happened to my kids or husband. So it was with great relief that I realized he was there to tell me I had just missed the 12 hr cut-off time. He handed me a jar of maple syrup and I thought maybe this was instead of getting a medal and I wondered how I was going to explain to my kids that not everyone who finishes the race gets a medal after all . . . And just then someone handed me a medal too, and someone else told me that the exact time doesn’t really matter, and someone else told me to ignore what Zeke had said because I was still on the leader board. And then I was hugging anyone who would hug me back and crying and realizing that suddenly it was very cold and almost dark. So with chattering teeth I cheered-on the final woman who finished a few minutes after me (who also got maple syrup and a medal) and headed straight for the car where my delicious (and smelly) spinach protein smoothie awaited.
So yes, I would definitely do it again.
Major thanks goes out to my housemates-turned-support crew: Alexis, Alyssa, Doug, Jim, Jeremy, Jonah, Eric and Marcus. Wow, you guys rock.