From couch to 50 miles – three and a half years ago I started this journey. I finally, after years of making excuses, made the decision to start running and work towards my goal of running a marathon. On a cold winter day late in February 2008, I ran a mile on a track at the local YMCA. I literally thought I was going to die. It felt that bad. Somehow I stuck with it. Three and a half years later I complete my first 50 mile race. You see, I am not a natural runner. I am not built like a runner. I am tall and very thin. My legs look just as thin now as they did three years ago. No bulging calves, no manly quads – just skinny. I shouldn't be able to complete 50 miles.
November 19, 2011 will go done as a very memorable day for me. My first 50 miler is in the books. Let me start off by saying it was, as many ultra-runners state: a mixed bag of emotions and experiences all rolled into one event. In an ultra, it’s easy to go from running a good race to a terrible one and possibly back again.
The Stone Mill 50 mile race was birthed in 2010 as an “alternative” to the JFK 50 miler which is run on the same day no more than 30 miles away in Maryland. Just as there were 1000 or so JFKers running 50 miles (some of them very fast by the looks of the prelim results), we had 300 or so running mostly single track trails. Weather was perfect – a bit cold to start but truly was perfect running weather. Crystal clear skies and little to no wind. The race fee was a mere $35 (got to love race fees that are less than the miles run). For that fee there was little in the way of swag which I personally didn’t care about. No tee shirt. There was a flashlight and a finishing medal but really it was just the experience. I was thoroughly impressed with the amount of food at aide stations and the incredible volunteers. I would recommend this race to anyone. It is low key but very fun.
The theme of this report is “It was not my day!” I could easily say that because I finished in 12:20 and had expected to finish somewhere between 10 and 11 hours. But in the end, the time doesn’t matter. What matters is the entire experience. (disclaimer – I want you to be informed of many complaints through this RR – not complaints about the race but about my health. No I am not a hypochondriac. It just wasn’t my day. I don’t write these things for anyone to feel sorry for me. This was simply my experience on this day.)
The day started with an early rise and a long drive to race central. With a 6am start, they got packet pick-up going at 5am. I arrived shortly after 5 and there was already a nice line. Got my bib, dropped off my drop bags, and waited in line for the bathroom. Race started promptly at 6am (which was nice).
The first three miles were in the dark. One of the coolest things I have seen was the line of head lamps bobbing through the woods. Since this was the start, most of the 300 runners were together through this section. Got to the aide station at mile 3 where most people did not stop. So far, I was feeling good but had thoughts of what the day would bring. After this is when things started to fall apart. Let me back up by saying a couple days prior to the race, I must have slept in an awkward position because for those days leading up to the race, my neck and upper back were very sore. I was concerned as to how they would hold up for 50 miles. Through the race, it was painful at times. I noticed a tendency to run with my head tilted to the right – seemed to take some of the pressure off. I caught myself a few times doing that and wondering what others thought of this dude running with a tilted head. Ok back to mile 3. I said it got worse and it did. I had major GI problems pretty much miles 4 through 25. I kept looking for a nice big tree along the way but it just wasn’t happening. “Runs” on the run ain’t no fun. I was fortunate to come across a gas station at a road section 8 miles into the race that I nicely took advantage of. Two more pit stops along the way between there and mile 23. Prior to this first pit stop, I took a hard fall. Just after an aide station around mile 7 I went to plant my right foot on a downed tree to catapult myself over (something I have done many times before) and to my surprise someone greased it up. Ok no not really but I essentially went down like a ton of bricks directly on my right hip. Wow that hurt. With 3 or 4 runners behind me saying “Ohhhhh….ouch” before asking if I was ok, I got up, dusted off my ego and kept on down the trail. I knew for sure this would hurt the next day (and it does). The pain went numb for a while but kept coming back periodically.
The trail was beautiful. It made it’s way through suburban like areas but was far enough in the woods at times that we didn’t feel like we were in civilization. At times we were deep in the woods and other times we were literally in people’s back yards.
I was trying my best to enjoy the race. I settled in a bit. Just when I didn’t think it could get any worse though, it did. To balance my GI issues, I also started feeling sick to my stomach around mile 16. All of these things combined really slowed me down. I made it through mile 11 in 2 hours which was great pacing, but then it took me almost 3 hours to go the next 12 or so. I have never had so many thoughts in a race of wanting to quit. I felt beat up and the worst part was that I wasn’t even halfway done. My mind was really against me here. All I could manage was a shuffle. We hit a section of the C & O canal way (same that JFK 50 uses except we were further south on the Potomac River). Thankfully we only did 3 miles of this. Despite being absolutely beautiful, it was a tough hard packed canal road. My left leg abductor area was really tight (an area that seems to flare up when doing anything on pavement over 10 miles). So there I was shuffling along wondering how I was going to make it. I was praying something fierce at that point. “God just grant me the strength to get through this”. My goal going into this race of wanting to run around the 10 hour mark were out the door and I was simply in survival mode. It was too early in the race to be in that mode. The aide station at mile 23 served as the first drop bag section. I spent some time trying to refuel, popped two ibuprofen and despite an upset stomach I forced myself to eat and drink. I was off and settled into a mode of just getting to the next aide station. At this point, I was not even halfway and at 5 hours. It was the next few miles where my stomach grew more uneasy. I really needed to throw up. My stomach was acting like it was trying to and I was very close to helping it. The only reason why I didn’t is because I knew if I could somehow keep it down, I would need those nutrients to fuel me for the next 26+miles. I worked through this section as best I could. Mile 29 was the next full aide station. Lots of walking from 23-29. I think I finally convinced myself to just walk until my stomach settles. It took me about 30 minutes or so of a straight walk. Then I started running again and kept flip flopping with a guy who also looked like he was struggling (for other reasons I am sure). After 3 or 4 times passing each other I passed him and never saw him again. It was funny how I wondered how he was doing through the rest of the race. Never did find out how or if he finished. I hit the aide station at mile 29, ate and drank what I could and took off. I felt like I hadn’t eaten enough but had such a hard time mentally – thinking that my stomach would turn again. As I walked from the aide station I saw a sign that said “Only 21 miles to go”. Only??? I know I can do the math but still mentally this is a tough thing to see after struggling for so long. It wasn’t too long after that aide station I started running again and then it happened – the race flipped on me. I felt a renewed energy. I don’t know where it came from but I didn’t care. GI issues were all but gone, stomach had settled, pain in the legs and back were going numb (ibuprofen??). I had no idea where this came from but I was thankful. To summarize, I ran miles 29 – 42 running at a pace of between 11 and 12 minute miles. This was good. I was not pushing it but felt very comfortable. If it were not for this good section of running, I would not have made it. I passed many people who had passed me previously. I didn’t know how long it would last but I wanted to ride the wave as long as possible. I kept doing the math and thought I had a chance at 11 hours. At the aide station at mile 42, we were told that there is a 3.5 mile out and then the same 3.5 miles back to this aide station. From there it was 1.5 miles to the finish. Not sure why but this news was defeating to me. I don’t know if I thought we were further along or what. It was also around mile 42 that my IT band in my right leg started flaring up and never stopped. I struggled on the 3.5 miles out big time. I was again in the shuffle and walk mode. The other pain crept back in my legs on top of my new IT band issues. It was at a point where I literally couldn’t get my legs to move any faster. Energy wise I was fine. It was just the legs. There was a cold creek crossing close to the turnaround which refreshed my feet. The cold kind of woke my feet and legs up a bit. At the turnaround was another aide station. What great volunteers to be out on the edge of the race serving food at sunset and beyond. It was an Indian family who was pushing their hot apple cider, soup and roast beef that they claimed was the best ever. So what did I do? I tried the roast beef. Now I don’t know if you have ever eaten Indian food but everything is spicy. I don’t know what they rubbed this with but it had kick. It was probably bland to them but my mouth felt it the next half hour. This section, like I said before, was 3.5 miles out to this aide station and then back again so you saw a lot of runners going the opposite way. Despite not being able to make the 11 hour mark, my pride kicked in and I didn’t stay long at the aide station. I didn’t want to be passed. So I made my way back (4.5 miles to the finish ). By this time it was getting dark. It really got dark fast. I had carried my head lamp all day (note that I originally thought that I would not need a light for the late part of the race because I was confident that I would finish in the light – which would be an 11 hour finish. Boy was I wrong.) The last 3+ miles were in the dark. I only had a head lamp and struggled to see the ground well enough. There were many tree roots and leaves covering the trail. It was tough just staying on the trail. It was again a shuffle but I wanted so bad to finish. To add insult to injury, a tree very nicely decided to stick out a root and trip me. I didn’t fall but hit my big toe very hard. It was getting late. I had thoughts now of beating 12 hours, and my legs, feet and hips just couldn’t take anymore not to mention this new pain in my toe. I ended up limping the last 1.5 miles to the finish. It was what it was. An aside: I saw many runners still making their way out on the out and back section which meant they still had a ways to go. I have a lot of respect for them for persevering. Not sure when they would actually pull runners off the course but these people were not quitting. This gave me a bit of inspiration to finish what I started. The finish line, also where we started, at a high school, gave us one last challenge – we had to climb a very steep (but short) hill right up to the finish. There was a girl directing runners in with a flashlight and she kept saying “come on, you can do it. Run the hill hard, finish strong!” If it wasn’t for the fact that I was grateful for the many volunteers, I might have given her a piece of my mind at that point. Limping the last 1.5 miles in the dark, I was not running that hill. Clock read 12 hours, 21 minutes and some change. Now the race was advertised as 50 miles but the race director, in an email a couple days before the race, said the course was actually 51.5 miles. Really not that big of a deal but by my watch I think I hit the 50 mile mark around 11:40 (that is if the 51.5 miles is accurate). Not sure how they get an accurate measure though. I did not stay long after the race. I wished I was in better spirits - I would have stayed and cheered for the runners behind me. At that point, I just wanted in my car and to drive home. The pain I felt the night of the race and the next day is more than I have in a long time. I feel like I was hit by a car (more specifically like a car with a low front end hitting me in the legs while flipping me up in the air landing my on back.) Ask me if I will run a 50 miler again?
Thoughts from this experience:
1.) First and foremost I have so much more respect for ultra-runners after this experience – especially those who have done the 100 milers. I can’t imagine doing twice what I did. I do realize that you don’t enter a 100 mile race without being well trained for that distance but I do understand, at least on a minimal level, the mental challenge coupled with the physical challenge that is ever changing through those distances. It does not surprise me that 100 milers have such high DNF rates.
2.) It is my opinion that ultra-runners enjoy pain. Somehow you have to embrace the pain of a distance like this. What makes ultra-runners so sadistic? I don’t believe that distance runners believe that they can ever achieve a “perfect” day where there is no pain. Ultra-runners find some way to accept the pain/discomfort and work with it.
3.) This was the hardest thing I have done in my life to this point. I knew it would be, but I still did it. I have so much respect for anyone that “toes the line” of an ultra no matter where they finish.
4.) I have learned a few things that I must do to enhance my training for the next time I run a 50 miler (or 100k???). First is I absolutely have to get back to strengthening my core – specifically my hips. I was told two years ago that this is a weak area for me. I didn’t do enough of that. Second is to implement more back to back long run days. I am not sold on this but would be something to try more for next time. My overall mileage was low (when compared to others) but I do not think that mattered for me. Third is I might want to try running the next one with someone and/or have a crew to help me as well as training with others. I saw many runners with a partner or having a crew out there. I, on the other hand, did it alone. But the great volunteers and aide stations allowed me to do so. I don’t want to underestimate the value of support from others. And lastly, absolutely need to run in a pair of shoes that are 1/2 size larger than I normally wear. The feet and toes swell and I felt much too much rubbing of my toes on the ends of my shoes.
5.) Ultras are fun. They are doable for most any runner that wants to put in the time and mental effort.