…or something like that. With the recent uprise of participants in trail races and ultramarathons, it’s easy to get swept up in the chatter and commit to a 50k without actually knowing what you’re in for. Yes, it’s ONLY 8km longer than a marathon, but it’s leaps and bounds more than that. You’ll know once you’ve done one.
My goals had changed about 2 months ago from doing a 100km or a 50miler this Fall, to landing at running another 50km trail run. Due to circumstances beyond my control (such as getting pneumonia in June) and scheduled commitments (Wanderlust and SeaWheeze), I had to step back and think about what was the smarter choice. And sometimes smarter means doing less.
This 50k (or, actually just over 53k) would be different though. I’ll be solo for this one. Of course, with any race, your race is yours alone to run – there’s no tag team like a relay, no one’s going to piggy back you, and no one’s going to pretend to be you and run it for you. Usually. Originally, I picked this race because a friend was doing it and long races are always better with company, for training and for racing. It was also in the right time frame. Unfortunately, like many unplanned things in life, what was planned was not what happened. Life happens and you have to learn to adapt. So, I set out to make the 4 hour drive down to Cle Elum, WA solo on Friday, run the race on Saturday, and then make the trek back right after the race – with multiple stops to stretch my legs.
Luckily, my friend Hozumi and his four-legged furry companion, Miles, were able to join me last minute. Whew!
So, late afternoon on Friday, we packed up our gear and headed across the border. Based on the emails that I was receiving from the race, we were told to be prepared for all types of weather. And, even on the drive down, we experienced everything from sun to torrential downpour. This was going to make for an interesting race day. But another day, another 50k, right? Not so much.
We arrived that morning and it was chilly, but not raining. About 20 minutes before the race, I decided to do a quick shirt change – from a single t-shirt, to a double-t-shirt. They had said that the ridge at the top could be quite windy and cold so better safe than sorry, and I was already cold at the start.
The clock was ticking and it was time to go line up at the start. In the true fashion of ultramarathons, the race director told us to imagine a line where the start was and line up there. 🙂 10 second countdown, quick bye to Hozumi and Miles, and off I went. The course profile showed 17 miles of climbing to START, followed by 12 miles of downhill, then half mile uphill, and half mile downhill to the finish. I was definitely looking forward to the downhill, but most certainly not the uphill.
So, a few days before the race, I checked online and did the regular pre-race analysis – check the course profile and map out how long it would take me to get to each aid station. Ultrasignup, the registration system, targeted my finish time to be 7:29. I’m not crazy fast but I didn’t think it was going to take me that long. So I started to make predictions, with a finish time of 6:30 hours thinking that it was a fairly conservative time. My predictions were:
- Aid Station 1 (9.5mi) – 2:05
- Aid Station 2 (14.5mi) – 3:10
- Aid Station 3 (21mi) – 4:20
- Aid Station 4 (25mi) – 5:10
- Finish (33mi) – 6:30
The climbing was relentless. Not just ‘relentless’, but ‘RELENTLESS’. By the time I arrived at the first aid station, slightly ahead of schedule (1:58 vs 2:05), I was in a lot of pain. I had to shake my head when the volunteer told me I was the 5th woman overall so far. You gotta be kidding me. Do you have any idea how many illnesses or injuries I thought I could fake to stop the madness of this uphill climb??
My right hamstring has been an issue for the last 2 years, and for the last week, my left one was starting to feel not quite right. The climbing in the race started at mile 1, but it really started at mile 2. The running quickly turned to hiking, and because of the early onset of increasing pain in my hamstrings, it quickly turned into an uphill shuffle walk. To be honest, I was in so much pain, I wasn’t sure if I would make it to the finish line. But, it was a bit too soon to call it a day. I grabbed a quarter of a peanut butter & jelly sandwich and continued the hike uphill. And then I saw a friendly face – Hozumi & Miles – just a little outside of the first aid station. I called out to him as I passed saying that it would take me 7 hours, and he responded with 5.5 hours. A little comic relief is always nice.
The climbing continued, varying from slightly runnable to steep steep steep – so steep, in fact, that I felt like gravity was going to roll me backwards. It was definitely wearing on me mentally and physically. Looking at my watch, I knew I was close to Aid Station 2, but not close enough. I looked up at one point and saw a ridge and saw the aid station, but then I realized where I was, and it was still a good amount of climbing to go. And the pain in my lower back and hamstrings were only getting worse.
One by one, people were passing me and I had nothing in me to retaliate. Each time I tried to lift my leg to take a bigger step, it would cause so much pain that I would nearly be winded. So baby steps it was. I didn’t stay long at Aid Station 2 as it was on a ridge and, as the race director said, those areas were quite windy and cold. Aid Station 2 was at 14.5 miles and I knew the high point was at 17 miles. I only needed to climb 2.5 more miles before I could get some reprieve and make the downhill trek.
Finally, I was at half way (according to my watch) and it was 3:54 into the race. Was it going to be an 8 hour day? Should I just pull out? I just didn’t know if I had it in me to be out for that long.
But then things changed. The downhill started and I could just let go and enjoy it. I was passing a lot of the people that passed me on the way up. Some even commented on how much time I had made up on the downhill and stepped aside for me to pass. There were a few motorbikes on the trail that we had to move aside for, which made for not so pleasant fumes, but there were few interruptions. My spirits were starting to lift.. until I stumbled on a rock. As I stumbled, my calf decided to cramp and I had to stand on the trail for a few moments to let it subside. Whew. That was odd – I had never cramped in a race before. Well, shake it off and continue. I passed through Aid Station 3 barely stopping as it was a water only station at about 4:35. I still had 10-12 miles to go. I knew that would take me over 2 hours. It was definitely going to be a long day.
Glenn Tachiyama, an awesome photographer who’s often at ultras and has a talent for capturing the best moments, was coming up. There was a creek crossing at about 22 miles and everyone knew he would be there. When I arrived at the creek, I saw Glenn on the other side. I stopped at the entrance to the creek and thought, “What the hell. Just go for it.” And THAT was pretty damn fun. Amongst all the suffering, it was nice to just get back to being a kid and to play in water.
Things started to go sideways for me after that point. Hozumi told me that the back half would be a bit undulating, but it was a net downhill. This meant that overall it was going downhill, but there would be small sections of uphill. I had good momentum for a while, but then suddenly every time I hit an uphill and tried to run, my calves would cramp. When my left calf cramped, my left shin would cramp. When my right calf cramped, it would cause my right foot/arch to cramp. Ugh. So, time to adapt. For the next 2ish hours, every time I hit an uphill, I would have to walk. I would then rely on the downhills to make up more time.
I knew I had one more aid station, where Hozumi and Miles would be, and I was really looking forward to seeing them. They walked up the trail from the aid station and waited for me. As soon as I saw them, I felt better. I stopped and chatted with Hoz and told him I was cramping like a bastard, pardon my French. He asked me about my nutrition and if I was taking enough salt. I could tell that based on my answers, it wasn’t sufficient. He told me that the aid station station was a minute ahead and to take some salt tabs. So I trudged on to the aid station and did as I was told. Salt tabs, a couple of potato chips, 2 small cups of Coke, and a water refill for my pack. I hadn’t run out of water but knew that it was dangerously low. I left the aid station stocked up, with 6-8 miles to go til the finish. It was just over 5.5 hours into the race and I knew it would take more than an hour to get to the finish. Maybe it really was going to be a 7 hour day. Dear God.
By now, even the downhills were getting tough. I had leapfrogged with a bunch of people for the last hour or so. I even chatted with a runner who recognized me from the Gorge Waterfalls race. “You’re the girl that fell, right?” Yup, that’s me.
We were back and forth for a little bit and then I pulled ahead. I then caught up to a young guy wearing a BMO Vancouver Marathon shirt, who I had also leapfrogged with earlier. When I got to the next uphill, I had to walk again as the cramping episodes were still happening. He came up behind me and I offered to let him pass. Instead, he asked if he could walk with me. Of course! But I did let him know that I didn’t care where I placed and if he was gunning for a particular time, I was more than happy to let him go ahead. He said it was his first one and he was happy to just run with me and I was definitely happy for the company. We bantered back and forth and it was really nice to finally chat with someone and take my mind off of how I was really feeling. I knew there was a big’ish hill about 2 miles from the finish, but it ended with a nice downhill. So we joked at every little uphill section as to whether this was the hill or not. Finally, it really was the hill and we were on the last downhill section. This section was on a service road with my least favourite terrain – large sharp rocks that didn’t offer very good footing. I was bouncing left and right trying to find some flow, when my shoe suddenly caught on a large stick on the ground and threw me forward down the trail. In mid flight, my right calf decided to cramp badly again while the other end of the stick impaled me in the chest. Awesome. I was lying on the trail face down on a downhill slope and trying to un-cramp my very tired calf. My poor running companion stood there unsure of what to do. It took every ounce of my strength to roll over, stretch my foot, and then spin myself around so that I could get myself into an upright position. Damnit, James Varner! Why do I fall at every one of your races I run?
The best was when my running buddy said, “Wow, you were like completely horizontal.” Oh, so comical and tragic. I pulled myself together and we continued down the trail. Not too long after, I saw Hozumi and Miles again. As I passed him, I yelled to him that I fell. I can’t remember what he said as I was just focused on getting to the finish line. And then I could hear it. I could taste it. Down a little steep hill and over a bridge, and there it was. Amazing. 6:51:07. 35th overall and 7th woman in.
This was the least prepared I’ve ever been for an ultra – not enough volume training, not enough hill training, and poor nutrition.
Each ultramarathon offers something different. And each ultramarathon can teach you valuable lessons. It was my slowest and toughest 50k, but at the end of the day, I had a few good takeaways on what I needed to do for the next one. Yes, there will be a next one.
The ultramarathon community, as I’ve described it to many friends, is like walking into somebody’s home. Not house, but home. Each aid station is like an invitation to someone’s kitchen to sample some of the goodies they’ve personally prepared for you. Each volunteer’s face is like a warm hug. Each cheer helps to propel you one step further. For this, I am so fortunate and ever so grateful.