Riverlands 100 – Maine’s first 100 mile trail race
The week before the race I had a very rare (for me) moment of “keeping up with neighbor” anxiety. It happened when I saw my friend Melissa’s facebook post that featured a picture of her car fully packed with her well-organized race gear four days before the race. Her drop-bags were all packed and ready to go while I was still in big-time dithering mode. “How many extra headlamps and batteries should I pack? How many warm shirts am I going to need? Should I leave my raincoat at the 5 or 10 mile aid station?” Gear organization is a great, if unnecessary, way to channel pre-race-anxiety and though it does take a bit of time to sort everything out, the logistics of this race were as easy as they get. A last-minute trail re-route meant there would be three aid stations on the 20 mile out and back course. One at the start, one half-way out and one at the ten mile turn around. That meant runners would hit one of three aid stations every five miles and thus would never be more than an hour away from their gear or food.
Spurred on by Melissa I started collecting my gear into big piles. Starting with food I packed several small ziplock bags of cookies (about 200 calories each) that I could grab on my way through the aid stations. Mr. Muffin, our house rabbit, was particularly interested in the Fig Newmans and it took some effort to thwart his insistent snuffling. In protest he ate half of the piece of paper I had written my gear list on.
That night my brother called and casually mentioned how he needed the next batch of his Appalachian Trail resupply boxes sent out ASAP. So in the middle of packing my race gear I was also assembling and packing four priority boxes with a very precise combination of breakfasts, lunch, dinners, snacks and random, but very specific hiking supplies (like his favorite brand of wet wipes . . . OCD much bro?).
In the process of packing my brother’s boxes I came across a pair of his spare rain pants. Oooo, those could come in handy during my race! I pulled them out and put them in my own pile of gear. (I might have also borrowed some of his spare headlamp batteries.)
By Friday morning I was almost ready to go but I had to work in the morning and I only had an hour to finish packing before meeting Melissa to drive to the race. I was frantically running around throwing all kinds of random things into my final bag – extra warm clothes, an umbrella, trash bags, Tailwind . . . even as I wondered “does one really need anything to run 100 miles?”.
During this final frenetic hour my girlfriends secretly dropped-off a basket filled with homemade snacks, chocolate, Epsom salts, inspiring poetry and tear-jerking notes of support. I discovered the basket on my way out to the car as I was finally getting ready to leave. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to be cared for and cheered on in this way. From a very early age, by necessity, I taught myself to be independent and self-sufficient, which probably explains why as an adult I don’t expect most people to support me or agree with what I do and I certainly don’t expect them to cheer me on!
Finally I was off. And I was only ten minutes late to meet Melissa. [Note: If you ever make travel plans with me please know that I will always be 5-15 minutes late. Pre-kids I was compulsively and predictably always on time, but a critically important part of my internal-timing mechanism broke with their birth and I find it nearly impossible to account for the irregularities of life with kids.]
On our way south to Turner we stopped at a friend’s house, a member of the Team Turtle Tracks relay team, for a visit. Doug made us coffee and showed us around his gorgeous “Maine, the Way Life Should Be” home.
Then we were off again. We went to our campsite first to set up our tents. The site was alongside a river and filled with spring activity – birds, frogs and black flies. From there we drove to the pre-race dinner and picked up our race bibs. The dinner was a classic pasta dinner put on by the local ATV club. For many years I skipped these dinners because I either found the food unpalatable, indigestible or both. But I think it is a testament to my increasing resiliency that I happily enjoyed two big servings of pasta, iceberg lettuce salad and white dinner rolls. Then back to the campsite to for sleep. Which sort of happened. It was just so damn loud! Between the five (at least) barred owls hooting very near and very far away, the loons, coyotes and mysterious things (raccoons or porcupines?) mating or fighting nearby and the song birds joyfully waking up around 4:30, it was a busy night!
We “woke” up around 5 and headed to the start line for a 6am start. I drank the thermos of hot earl grey tea I had brewed the night before but didn’t manage to eat anything. It was foggy and only a bit chilly so at the last minute I stripped off my tights and long sleeve shirt and left them in my gear bin at the start line. And then, right at six o’clock, after the race directors did a roll call of all the 100 mile racers we were off. Like a herd of turtles.
The goal I had in my head over the last few months was to finish under 24 hours. But when I sat down the week before the race and worked out what that meant pace-wise for each of the five laps I realized I was being a little unrealistic. To make that happen I would have to try to run the first 50 miles in a little over ten hours, and maybe on a slighter flatter, faster course that would be possible, but it would still be an aggressive pace for me and I’d still have another 50 to go! So I mentally backed myself up and thought maybe 25 or 26 hours? I was still totally unsure of how fast I would be able to run in the dark and how much the short, steep hills would slow me down after the first 60 miles.
I ran my first lap with Melissa in about 4 hours and 20 minutes. I tried to keep a nice easy pace and keep my shoulders and arms lose and I made sure to take in some calories even though normally on a 20 mile run I wouldn’t eat or drink much.
My second lap took 5 hours and this is when having my period and needing to stop every hour for urgent woodland bathroom breaks became a literal pain in the ass. This is also when the black flies started to get fierce. Fierce enough to keep me moving faster on the uphills where they could catch up to me. At the end of this lap my kids and cousin were at the start/finish line and it was great to see them! I teared up when I saw them running toward me, and my cousin’s support means so much! I think they were disappointed with how little time I spent at the aid station but I got them to walk back up the first hill with me while I drank some guayusa tea to get me through my third lap.
I felt like I was moving well through my third lap and my digestion held steady past the 50-mile mark. The aid station volunteers were very helpful and helped me refuel and move on as quickly as possible. As soon as I got to the aid station I handed them my backpack so they could fill it with Tailwind while I grabbed a 200 calorie bag of cookies from my drop bag. I probably spent less than 3 minutes at most of the aid stations and only sat down a few times when I had to take care of my feet. I did end up getting one new weird blister between my big toe and second toe. It started to hurt quite a lot going down hill and was making me limp a little so I decided to pop it. When I took off my socks I immediately saw the problem – my shoes and socks were filled with abrasive sand. I popped the blister, sprayed it with Glide, put on new socks and had no further foot problems after that. I finished my third lap in 5 hours 20 minutes.
Things started to really slow down on my fourth lap. Jerome had headed out about an hour before me to run Team Turtle Track’s fourth lap but since he wasn’t out to break any records, he waited for me at the midway aid station. He tore his knee meniscus last December and had run a grand total of 10 miles since then, most of them the week before the race. It’s possible he’s lost a little perspective living with me. His main goal was to complete his 20 mile lap uninjured, and if possible, before sunrise.
I had told him to bring hiking poles just in case but he refused to use them and I ended up carrying them while we ran the next 15 miles together. “Ran” is a generous term. Around the 70 mile point I realized that I was running and Jerome was hiking fast next to me. Hmm. I decided fast hiking was probably the more efficient way to go at this point so we ran the flats and hiked everything else. It was about this point that Laura Perry, the first female, passed me finishing her final lap. She claimed to be hurting but she was definitely still running uphill! I finished that lap in about 6 1/2 hours and got Jerome back to his car by 3:30am so he could take a nap while I ran my final lap.
The fifth lap was really quite lovely, the cacophony of barred owls and loons started back up again and the sun rose around 5am. I took off my headlamp and stopped worrying about my impossibly slow pace.
I am often told “oh I hate running, it’s so boring!” and other people ask “What do you think about for that long?”. All I can say is I don’t think much. I used to get trapped in thought loops and I could spend several miles worrying about daily life and problems that I couldn’t do anything about in that moment (because I was running). But that slowly changed and now when people ask me what I think about I realize “not much”. I’m really pretty much in the moment, I do frequent body scans to see how everything is feeling and if I need any self-care. I listen and watch my surroundings, not too carefully to be honest, but enough to be tuned in a big-picture kind of way. For example I noticed the beech leaves unfurling throughout the day and the rhythm of bird song ebbing and flowing with the brightness of the sun. And I noticed a few of my favorite species of spring ephemeral flowers, the quality of mud (soil type, saturation , , ,) and the kinds of rocks underfoot. But none of it sticks firm and my mind just floats along most of the time. It really is quite medatative and soothing, not boring at all!
I stopped at the 90-mile aid station for some lovely fresh off the griddle pancakes and I headed out of that aid station feeling excited and ready to run! The running feeling lasted for about a mile. It had finally started to rain, at first a light mist but then, with ten miles to go it started to really come down. With five miles to go I paused at the final aid station and put on a dry shirt, my raincoat and my brother’s rain pants. I hadn’t eaten enough over the last 20 miles (it’s hard to eat at 4am!!) so my pace slowed way down and I was having a hard time staying warm. But with only 5 miles to go I knew I was going to make it. Having re-adjusted my goals several times I thought maybe I could finish before 11am? I scuffled along as fast as I could, cheered on by the fat raindrops dripping off my nose. I contemplated the last 98 miles, feeling good about how well I was feeling overall. I never sank into a negative mood and no single part of my body hurt beyond the bland, pervasive feeling of fatigue. I never felt sleepy-tired (which surprised me) but I was a little frustrated that I simultaneously felt so go and yet couldn’t move any faster but maybe that’s why I felt so good – my easy pace preserved my overall wellbeing for the past 28 hours of running.
I happily ran down the final hill and finished at 10:54am. Jerome was there (awake!) to greet me and he helped me jump into our warm car where I awkwardly stripped off my wet muddy clothes and put on dry ones. He handed me a hot bowl of homemade chicken soup, which I happily slurped down. I was so tired and really just wanted to go back to my tent to pass out before the kids came back with my cousin but I also wanted to see Melissa finish, which she did 45 minutes later. I honked the horn and waved but couldn’t get out of the car because I was still so cold! This was her second successful 100-miler after having attempted three others previously.
I definitely felt a special bond with the other female runners out there and was so happy to see them lap after lap. The winning woman, Laura Perry, was so fun to watch – she has the really quick, short, efficient stride that many champion trail runners have and that I can only dream of. She finished seven hours before the rest of us. Yeah, you read that right. The rest of us women finished between 28 ½ hours and 31 hours. For most of us this was our first 100-mile race and of the nine women that started, eight of us finished. It’s inspiring to see other women who, like me, have clearly worked really hard to be here, who love pushing themselves and who are just as happy as I am to run alone through the night in the rain and on slippery, rocky trails. I was happy to be part of this small, cheerful, determined tribe of ultra trail running women.
Recovery. We went back to the campground briefly where I took a quick, not nearly hot enough shower and then blacked out in the tent for half an hour. This was the kind of deep relaxed oblivion that some people use drugs to achieve and honestly, I can understand why.
Jerome woke me up in time to get to the awards ceremony where my cousin met us with the kids. This is when my low back started to scream in pain. It was the same place I injured it this winter when Jerome and I took the girls on a sea-kayaking trip to the Everglades and on the last day we paddled hard in or ill-fitting rental kayaks for five hours into gale force winds. The injury has nagged me ever since, flaring up painfully for weeks at a time. Now I desperately rubbed an ice cube over the joint wondering how I was going to sit in the car for the three hour drive home.[Link to youtube video above: https://youtu.be/nCXcNPBTX5Q] I shouldn’t have worried. It turns out sleep trumps pain when one hasn’t slept for 36 hours. I woke up as we pulled into our driveway. It was 7pm and I said to Jerome “Ok, our main goal is to pull together a quick healthy dinner and get everyone to bed as soon as possible.” And then when we got inside, there on my counter was a gallon jar of homemade warm, creamy potato nettle soup that my friend and yoga student Deborah must have dropped off only minutes earlier. I was so incredibly grateful and that soup was so ridiculously good.
The hardest post-race event was getting up Monday morning, packing my kid’s lunch and getting them to school on time. I went to work until 4:30 and when I got home I crawled into bed and didn’t move for the next twelve hours. Not that my family let me sleep that whole time but at least I wasn’t on my feet.
The most surprising part of this race has been the lack of soreness or injury. My back has felt better than it has since February and I have no hint of plantar fasciitis. I did notice that my entire system was inflamed for at least a week. I felt puffy, my chin broke out, my fingers are numb from a nerve in my shoulder that gets pinched when there’s a little extra swelling. I haven’t been particularly hungry or tired since, though I have definitely been wanting more sugar and carbs than I did before the race. I’ve run about 15 miles in the last two weeks and gone on a few long but easy bike rides. Early this week I swam for the first time since last August. I plan to take it really easy for the rest of the month and I my next big race isn’t until September. Well, except for that half Ironman in July. And maybe a few smaller triathlons in June. But other than that, I swear I’m taking it easy.
Will I run another 100? This is really weird but somehow this race didn’t feel any more challenging or interesting than a 50 miler. There was the unknown of running for 24 hours (or more), and of what would happen after 70, 80 or 90 miles, but the truth is, nothing really happened. I slowed down but other than that my mental and physical state very much matched that of my 50 milers. This race was very simple logistically, which was great for being able to finish it, but not great for creating the sense of adventure and need for creative problem solving that comes with more complicated mountain races. I think for now I will focus on improving my 50-mile time and on finding more adventurous and scenic ultra trail races.