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“It’s going to take me about five or six of these races before I figure it out”.
It was somewhere around mile 37.5, if I had to guess, just before the sun set. We were a quarter mile or so into lap number 13 (maybe?) when we caught up with a runner we hadn’t seen since lap number one, almost 9 hours earlier.
“Yeah, I thought you went out a little too fast, but I didn’t want to say anything.” he replied.
“I know” I said. “Boy do I know.”
One Epic 24 Hour Race was everything I wanted it to be, though it turned out nowhere near how I expected it to. And I’m 100% content with that.
If you are here simply for a review of the race, here are my thoughts in two simple words: RUN IT. I do not have one negative thing to say, not even a “positive criticism” suggestion. Nothing. It was perfect just the way it is, and I’ll be back next year. The race director was awesome, the aid station overflowing, the volunteers were always smiling. And the course was really fun; a 3.1 mile single track trail loop, with the perfect combination of climbs and descents. Approximately 237 feet of elevation gain and 237 feet of loss per loop.
If you want the long version, may I now present you with another one of my notorious novel length race recaps.
(Seriously, one day I might just type “You should have been there” and leave it at that. Alas, today isn’t that day. )
Croft State Park, Spartanburg, SC.
We arrive Friday afternoon and set up our tent. A flashback to Paris Mountain 50K, just a few weeks prior. Except this time, the entire campground was full of runners and their crew. As a part of the $65 entry fee, you were provided a campsite. Sure, you shared your site with other runners and their tents, but you can’t beat having pre race lodging already figured out for you. We would be sharing campsite #7 with our Myrtle Beach friends Michael and Toni, a New Yorker named Nick, and a couple that set up their tent but decided to spend Friday night in a hotel.
The temperature dropped into the low 3o’s that night, so I can’t say that I blame them.
Friday night the five of us (Geoff, Michael, Toni, Nick, and I) spent our time around a picnic table, where the following occurred:
– I stubbornly fought with a fire that would not light, but I refused to quit trying because of my Vermont status. No, I don’t ski, so the least I can do to maintain my authenticity is light a damn campfire.
– Laughing at Toni as she chased Michael around the campsite yelling at him in a motherly tone. I heard “you are worse than my son” more than once as she tried to get the tent set up in an orderly fashion.
– Discussing how my 9 year old wants a pet crawfish. Wondering if a pet Rock Lobster would suffice…
– Eating Christmas cookies.
– Retelling the story about the time our neighbor, who closely resembled Steve Buscemi, lit our apartment complex on fire. And while it burned, he stood in the parking lot wondering if his Pepsi and cigarettes would survive. If you’ve never heard the story, ask me sometime, it is hilarious. Related: my Camelbak bladder STILL tastes like smoke.
We went to bed relatively early, but I hardly slept that night. It wasn’t nerves, it was just really, flipping cold. For the first time, the sleeping bag that I always brag about let me down. Turns out, sleeping on near frozen ground can penetrate countless layers. I love tenting, but I was painfully envious of those in RVs that night.
The next morning we had PLENTY of time to get ready, as the race didn’t start until 9:00 am. We checked in, got our bibs, hooded sweatshirts (!!!!) and stickers. I ate more Christmas cookies while deciding what to put in my drop bin. Our tent was literally 50 yards from the trail head, so I didn’t over think it. I also didn’t want to have to return to the tent anytime I needed something either, but still, I really didn’t stress about what to put in my drop bin.
Race director Angela started off the pre-race meeting by saying that she hates pre-race meetings. She told us basically to check in after each lap and have fun.
And then she said “go”.
The start of a long race is so hard to pace. You know you need to conserve energy, but you also don’t want to get stuck on a single track behind people who are significantly slower than you. So you pass more people than you probably should, just to find your very own slice of open trail. Fortunately, this happened really quickly for us, as the first half mile of the trail consisted of a fast downhill, a wooden bridge, and then intervals of climbs and flats. The pack thinned out quickly.
I really had no idea what to expect of this course, other than I knew I had to be on it for a long, long, time. Our initial goal was 100 miles. A lofty, ridiculous goal, but a goal I had planned out down to the minute per mile pace (14:21) and lap times. At about the one mile mark, I came up a little too quickly behind one runner. He politely called back “just let me know when you are ready to pass!” to which I replied “You know what? I kind of like your pace.”
And so we stuck with him.
I feel horrible that I can’t remember this mans name, but he was incredibly friendly and shared with us everything he knew about the course. This was his second year running, and he remembered every climb, every bridge, and every downhill, alerting us to them just before their arrival. We passed a large berm no more than 25 yards to the left, that separated the trail from a very active firing range. This would be a terrifying and hilarious backdrop to the entire day, as very loud guns went off and violent sounding bullets hit their target. Though I found the speedier, quieter “thwack” of other bullets seemingly coming from silent guns to be even scarier. This went on from pretty much sun up to sun down.
Soon after the firing range came the first downhill. Long and gradual, steep enough to give you some speed, not steep enough to put too much stress on your legs. At least not yet.
Another long climb that ended with a 90 degree turn right. The course was marked with a sign clearly pointing right, to which Geoff said “Don’t go left.” Thus, this would become known as the “don’t go left” intersection from this point forward.
Then the longest downhill I ever recall running. Well, other than those few times I ran down the face of Killington mountain. And by run, I mean slid on wet grass and tried not to tumble to certain demise. But this, this was a trail runners DREAM downhill. Gradual, but fast enough to open up and GO. Some technical spots and a few small turns. We ran relatively conservatively behind our new friend, though my brain was screaming at me, just begging to barrel as fast as I could. I refrained…for now.
Eventually the downhill ended. It was followed by a gently twisting flat, two more small stream crossings, a few very short climbs, and then we crossed the bridge back towards the aid station. We checked in at 37:17, a good 7+ minutes faster than we needed to, according to my plan. As I ditched my sweatshirt at my drop box, I whispered to Geoff “I want to run faster, let’s go” and dragged him back out on the trail without even a moment to refuel.
Speaking of refueling: we did a kickass job at first. We both ran with a handheld water bottle, as a hydration pack was really overkill for a 3.1 mile loop, on a 50 degree sunny day. I started my day fueling with a pack of Clif Shot Bloks, and followed that over the next 12 hours with these foods, in no particular order (brace yourself):
– GU Energy Chews (Strawberry- good, Cherry – not so good)
– Cold, boiled, potato chunks dipped in a bowl of table salt (amazing)
– Donut holes, both cinnamon and glazed flavors
– Potato chips of varying flavors: plain, pepper, and salt & vinegar. The last ones surprised me, I normally hate that flavor.
– Donut sticks of some sort. I don’t know what they were, but they were good.
– Orange slices
– Little Caesars cheese pizza, which I actually ate while running. That is talent.
– Sour patch kids (someone assured me these are vegetarian…)
– Three huge bites of a veggie burger
– Pickle slices
– A giant whole dill pickle
– Tomato soup
– 3 Musketeers Bars (snack size)
-Chocolate chip cookies
This was just a small sampling from the aid station table, which was chock FULL of more goodies. I’m just too damn picky to eat most stuff. Geoff horded some sort of chocolate covered peanuts stuck to a pretzel.
The next few hours flew by. The day was absolutely gorgeous, the trail simply amazing, and I felt GOOD. It had warmed up a bit and I was comfortable. We were consistently banking time which made me happy, but in retrospect, it was probably too much time.
Lap 2: 34:29
Lap 3: 34:57
Lap 4: 40:36 (we stopped to visit the port-a-potty)
Lap 5: 37:40
Somewhere around mile 18 we had just taken the “don’t go left” right turn and started flying down the hill. I was feeling absolutely fantastic, which meant the universe felt it was time to throw a bump in my road.
You know when you have one of those slow motion falls, where you trip and it feels like you try to catch yourself for about 100 yards, before you actually give up and land on the ground? This was not one of those. I tripped and slammed on the ground so fast I didn’t know what happened. Thankfully I somehow managed to land on my left side, with my thigh and hip taking the brunt of the trail’s bitch slap. Now, as most of you know, I fall often, this is nothing new. But this time I heard serious concern and shock come out of Geoff when I hit the ground. Turns out it was partially because of the impact with which I hit the ground this time, but more so the fact that my head landed just inches from a big, gnarly, tree stump.
I sat up, assessed my situation for a few seconds, didn’t feel any immediate pain, and declared “I’m good!”. I then looked around to see if anyone witnessed that fall, because it was equal parts epic (pun totally intended) as well as embarrassing.
I stood up, brushed myself off, and started running again, albeit slightly more cautiously.
And so we kept running. 3.1 mile loop, check in and eat some potatoes. Another 3.1 mile loop, check in and eat some candy. The left side of my body started to let me know a little bit louder with each step that perhaps I wasn’t as “good” as I thought I was immediately after I fell. It started with my hip, then my ankle, and then my toes started to swell. Three cheers for Altras and their wide toebox.
Lap 6: 39:10
Lap 7: 44:26
Lap 8: 45:07
Lap 9: 48:19
As our pace began to slow and my body starting to seriously protest, I told Geoff I was out of the 100 mile running and I was perfectly content with that. I knew that this pain was only going to get worse, so I wanted to be OK with my decision early on. Whatever was going to happen would happen, but we would just keep running.
We came into the aid station at 29 miles. I used the port-a-potty, grabbed some food, started talking about my INKnBURN sweater with a volunteer, and Geoff disappeared. I went looking for him, only to find him at our tent doing an impromptu shoe change. Now, the running “crazy” was slowly starting to creep into my brain. Though I was fueling constantly, I know without a doubt I wasn’t fueling enough. I struggle with finding a balance between taking in enough calories and not pissing off my digestive system. So at this point, we have been running for 6 hours, and I’ve probably only consumed about 1/3 of the calories that I’ve burned. I’m starting to get just a slight touch of running delirium. And at that very moment, I decided that I wanted to hit the 50K mark in under 7 hours. Why? Who the hell knows. Seriously, that is the most obscure, meaningless number. We had taken the first 9 loops relatively easy, so it certainly wasn’t going to be a speed record. And as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to trail running, PR’s are meaningless, unless they are on the exact same course. You can’t compare a flat, fire road 50K to a multiple peak bagging 50K, and everything in between. Point is, MY 50K TIME DIDN’T MATTER.
But I wanted it. And I found myself highly irritated that Geoff chose THAT lap to change his wardrobe, eating away just shy of 20 minutes of lap time. (Do you see? It’s the crazy talking.)
Finally we hit the trail, and my unfounded desire to finish the 50K in under 7 hours had me hauling ass around that 3.1 mile course. I was passing people left and right and didn’t think twice about falling down the hills again (thankfully I did not fall again.) . We finished that loop in 50:23…including the nearly 20 minute transition time. In other words, it was our fastest lap of the day.
We finished 50K in about 6 hours and 52 minutes. Clearly I need to learn to shut that inner voice off if I ever want to excel in this ultra running world.
Anyway, now that we have the 50K done, my new plan is to just keep moving forward, with time now being irrelevant. I put in a quick wardrobe change myself, as the sun was setting and my legs were getting cold. We find our friend Todd, another former Spartan racer that we had met & shared a condo with during the 2014 Vermont Spartan World Championships. He decides to tag along with us for the next lap. It would be his last of the day, as he was still only weeks recovered from a 100 miler. So we run, walk, and shuffle our way through the loop, discussing important topics such as the merits of Phil Collin’s work.
On the last long downhill of the loop, my right knee gives out, in one of those awkward, semi painless ways. You know, when your knee just says “ha-ha, jokes on you!” and just stops holding you up? It was like that. So I begin a cycle of walking until it feels stable again, then running, then walking when it refuses to play along. I assume this is happening because I have been inadvertently favoring the left side (the one I fell on) and putting more stress on the right side.
Sorry, right side.
Lap 11: 47:07
We finish the lap, grab some food, and say goodbye to Todd. We also decide to put on our hydration packs, as a) we plan on spending more time out on the course walking, so it’s going to take longer, and b) they help keep you warm.
Which brings us back to the very beginning of the blog post. Maybe. At this point, my miles and loops are all blurred together. But somewhere around this point, just before the sun set, we cross paths out on the trail with the same guy who had led us through the very first lap. He asked how we were doing, and I laughed and said “Not as well as we had hoped”. I told him about my fall, and about the fact that yeah, we probably (definitely) went out way too fast.
“It’s going to take me about five or six of these before I figure it out”.
“Yeah, I thought you went out a little too fast, but I didn’t want to say anything” he replied.
“I know” I said. “Boy do I know”.
We shared a few more minutes together on the trail before Geoff and I took off running again. This would be the last lap that any “running” occurred for the two of us, as now my body was genuinely pissed off at my shenanigans. But mentally, I felt good. You see, there comes a point during these kinds of events where the pain doesn’t go away, but it doesn’t get any worse. At least for a while. And during that time you sort of get used to it. You just keep pushing forward.
And so we did, for another 5 hours and 15 ish miles.
It was a lot of time to kill, but who better to do it with than your best friend? We talked about life, our dream to one day live out of an RV, and sang Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” AT each other (this is vastly different than TO each other) in random intervals. All night long. We also contemplated whether or not that little musical break was gibberish or some sort of actual language. My gut reaction was gibberish, which made me feel like it probably WAS real, and I was just being an ignorant sheltered American. Alas, it turns out I was right. Lionel fooled us all.
The aid station was literally the highlight of my night. You would end a loop feeling tired and mentally drained, only to be greeted with music, smiling faces, and SO MUCH FOOD. It was enough motivation to get you right back out on trail.
Lap 12 1:08:52
Lap 13 58:28
Lap 14 1:16:13
Lap 15: 1:06:57
At some point during lap 16 (miles 46.5-49.6) I had my first really big mental slump. I knew it was partially nutrition related, as my attention to eating enough had deteriorated. At one point it had gotten very quiet. And by “it”, I mean me, I had stopped running my mouth as I had been doing for the past 10+ hours. Geoff recognized this and said “tell me a story” as we were climbing a hill. I replied “my story is that I need to eat at the top of the hill.” Point taken. Two GU chomps, a 3 Musketeers mini bar, and a few minutes later I felt somewhat normal again.
We had decided to get to at least 100K (62 miles) before potentially calling it. I had suggested once we hit 50 miles that we rest for a bit, then rally for the last 12 miles (4 loops). Besides, at this point we still had about 12 hours left to complete 12 miles, there was more than enough time to rest. Geoff suggested that we keep moving, and make the decision on the fly, instead of making the decision while resting…which can notoriously coerce you into more resting. I agreed with him, but I won’t lie that it took the wind out of my sails. I just wanted to sit down.
Lap 16: 1:04:45
Once we got to the aid station I heard a voice say “Heather?” It was my friend Stephanie, who had come to pace me. I had never actually met her (wee, Facebook!) but she was from the area, and knew this course well. She is also an experienced ultra runner and pacer, so I was really excited when she said she would come out and help us. I told her we had 4 more loops to go to hit 100K, and she got busy packing food for me and getting ready to head out herself. She said goodbye to her husband and dog, and headed down the trail. Geoff and I dutifully followed.
Stephanie hauled ass down that trail. Walking of course, but it was so much faster than Geoff and I would have walked if left to our own devices. This, my friends, is why you have a pacer. She told us stories, about this race, about other races, about so many random things simply to distract us and keep us moving forward. It was so very QUIET out on the trail. On this loop we passed one other racer, and we were passed by one other racer. And that was it.
And this is where my race went to shit. It’s my own fault, of course. It took so much mental focus to keep up with Stephanie. Sure, I could have said “I need to slow down a little” but I didn’t want to. I wanted her to get me back to the aid station, again and again and again (4 times, actually) as fast as humanly possible. So I didn’t tell her to slow down. But I also didn’t have the energy to do anything but keep up with her.
So when she yelled back to me, multiple times, “are you eating and drinking?” I said yes.
Except I wasn’t.
Hindsight is 20/20, and this is why I said it’s going to take me 5 or 6 of these 100 mile attempts before I get it right. As I sit here and write this today, I remember that I did the exact same thing at Infinitus at almost the exact same distance. Geoff asked me if I was eating and drinking, and I totally lied to him and said yes, even though I wasn’t. Why on earth would I self sabotage like that? Your guess is as good as mine. At that point, food starts to become less and less appetizing. My beloved boiled, salted, cold potatoes now seemed as appealing as wet, soggy, cardboard. I didn’t want to eat and in my quickly lowering blood sugar state, I also didn’t want to argue.
So I lied.
Side note: when I was about 17 years old I had my very first serious boyfriend (coincidentally, also named Jeff, but with a J.) I will never forget (because I was embarrassed at the time) when my father told Jeff that the secret to keeping me happy was to make sure I never got too hungry. I had a notorious reputation for being an unreasonably angry hungry person for as long as anyone could remember. Just ask my dad about the time in Epcot Center when I was 5 years old, and the scene I caused when we waited far too long for a table at a restaurant, in England, if I remember correctly. Everyone in my family knew that a hungry Heather was a menace to society.
Maybe my dad should crew for me. But I digress.
Lap 17: 59:38
We got to the aid station, I used the port-a-potty, and then I snuck over to a random 20 gallon tote between a fire and the check in table. I sat down, and I just started crying. It was an interesting feeling. I wasn’t crying because I was sad or upset. My body was just so exhausted that tears just started falling. Eventually Geoff came over and I even said something like “I don’t know why I’m crying”. It made no sense…it was just happening.
Stephanie forced some food in me (thank you) in the form of tomato soup, some potatoes, and some veggie pasta. We kept contemplating what we were going to do, but I knew in my heart I was done. My left side was on fire, my toes starting to form hot spots because they had swollen enough to start pushing against each other, even in my wide Altras. I stood up to move my seat/tub closer to the fire, every step felt like agony. In my mind, continuing on was just a stupid idea. I also knew that it was probably highly unlikely that I would make it 9 more miles, so why bother? But also, I didn’t want to disappoint Geoff or Stephanie, who had come all this way to just pace us for one measly loop.
I shed a few more tears, finished my soup, and told Geoff I wanted to rest for a while first. He said OK. I said, no, like, go to bed for a while, then get up and finish. He smiled and laughed at me, and said “you know damn well if you get in that sleeping bag, you aren’t getting back out. But OK. ”
I hobbled to the tent, then to the bathhouse for a hot shower. It literally took me five solid minutes, if not more, of fighting with my clothes while fiercely shivering, in order to get my clothes off. I was incredibly close to just showering WITH my compression sleeves on my legs, they were that hard to get off. But once I finally made it in the shower, it was glorious.
Sleep came fast. As promised, however, I did get up with my 4:00 am alarm. I hobbled to the bathroom and back, and let the shooting pain in my left ankle be the determining factor.
We were done.
52.7 miles in 14 hours and 14 minutes.
Despite calling it so early, I still managed to place 7th for distance out of 79 females, and 36th out of 168 runners overall.
But far more important to me than the new stats on my ultrasignup.com profile were the lessons I learned out there.
1) Eat, damnit. Eat, eat, eat, and don’t lie about it.
2) You need a plan A…but you also need a plan B, and a plan C, and maybe even a plan D. 24 hours is a long freaking time to run, and ANYTHING can happen out there. And you need to be OK with that.
3) 100 miles is so freaking far. You can fake a marathon. I’ve seen it done. Hell, you can even fake a 50 miler, I did that once too. But you can’t fake 100, and you can’t even just half ass train for it. I don’t feel that I did either of those, but I also knew going into this that I wasn’t nearly as trained as I could have been, due to the “cankle” injury that I’ve been suffering from the last few months. So many people are always saying that 100 mile finishes are all about mental fortitude. And yeah, I totally get that. But if your body isn’t ready for that kind of abuse, well, there is only so much mental willpower you can muster up…it still isn’t going to prevent your knee from saying “f*ck you” and giving out.
The next morning I was sitting around a campfire waiting on some pancakes, and listening to one of the 100+ mile finishers talk to another runner about the Western States lottery. He said that he had four tickets in the lottery that year (most likely meaning he’s run at least 4 qualifying races over the last few years), but he still didn’t get it. And then he said that it was OK, because he didn’t want to get in yet, he wanted a few more years experience. And it hit me that this sport really is about experience; you HAVE to put in your time.
I often get caught up in the world of FOMO, as so many of us do, wanting to do the next biggest, baddest, greatest thing. I see it in new runners all of the time: they finish their first 5K and immediately want to do a marathon ASAP. And once that marathon is over, they want a 50K or a 50 miler, or an Ironman, more, more, more, now, now, now. And though I’ve been running and racing for almost a decade now, I am not immune to this thought process. In retrospect now it seems silly to want to go from regularly running shorter (in the grand scheme of things, a marathon is short) distance races to 100’s. They are not the same beast, at all.
But…my time will come. And this race was proof that I absolutely have the potential to do it, I just need to put in more training and time.
My goal is to tackle a handful of 50 milers and 100K’s, and probably a few 24 hour races (just because) in the coming year, with the goal of my next 100 mile attempt in the fall of 2016. I’m not sure which one yet (suggestions for something that isn’t already sold out?). Without using the cliché saying of “good things come to those who wait”, I think that my finish line will be more rewarding when done the right way, rather than trying to force it on an untrained body and not-quite-ready mind.
48 hours post race: my left ankle and foot are pretty jacked up, though I can put pressure on them. The rest of my body? Fine. I don’t fear the three flights of steps I have to climb to get to our apartment, and I don’t even have a limp in my walk. So naturally, I’m already trying to figure out which race is next. Though truthfully, I’m probably going to take the next few weeks off from running and focus on getting my strength back in the gym while the foot heals.
THANK YOU’s go out to so many people : Angela and all of her volunteers for putting on a fantastic course, Toni for crewing and updating our progress on Facebook, Stephanie for coming out to pace us, even if just for one lap, it was so appreciated. Thank you to everyone at home cheering us on. And a huge congrats to Michael Major for finishing his first 100K, with a big smile on his face.
But my biggest thanks goes to Geoffrey. I’m pretty certain he has no desire to actually run 100 miles, but he never tells me no when I present him with the latest race registration and training plan. His unwavering encouragement and support would be more than enough, but the fact that he tags along and runs by my side (or behind me, as it may be) for these races means more than I could ever say. Chasing big dreams can be kind of scary sometimes, so it’s pretty kickass to have your better half in the co-pilot seat saying “this is really stupid, we should totally do it”.