It was a good idea…until it wasn’t. Ever had that feeling? At least I can laugh about it, right?
Last Saturday morning was a 50k race on a course that was new to both Dan and myself. It had been my idea to sign up during the spring, so I had it on the calendar. Then, a couple of things happened.
First, I had a few hiccups this summer with my work, racing, and training schedule. Then, I had a minor injury. Also, another race series that was brand new (and irresistible, I might add) popped up and I really wanted to do it.
So, here’s how it went down.
We woke up at 3:45 am Saturday to allow us time to drive to the location and get our packets before the 6:00 am start. It was an interesting morning since we were both coming off of a two week vacation and had been accustomed to being a little lazy and sleeping in.
It was pitch dark as we packed the car, and a little on the cool side, which was fantastic. We hopped in, with hot coffees in our Yeti’s, and drove out to the middle of nowhere. Then, we drove some more.
In the darkness, we started to see signs for parking for the race; “Yo Momma is this way”. This was our first time doing One Hot Momma, and I was a little nervous about the terrain. I hadn’t really hit the last two long runs that I wanted, and I probably could have done more elevation on my longer runs too. Realistically, I didn’t know if I’d make the entire 50k.
I had been suffering through some foot pain on and off since June. Frankly, it was very annoying. It seemed like my foot was just being moody, and symptoms would come and go without any rhyme or reason. I’d had a stress fracture ruled out previously, and had backed off of my training for a bit, which seemed to help. But, I just didn’t log those big miles going into the race like I wanted to.
Strangely, I was ok with it.
We had also signed up for another race in the evening on that same day. So, our plans were to run One Hot Momma, then drive back and rest, and do our night time trail series run at 9:00 pm called Red Moon. I was really looking forward to participating in both races, fully aware that I would likely be walking quite a bit just to complete them both.
The race description had sounded doable. The course was a loop of about 4 miles and was mostly shaded. The website had said there were a couple of flights of stairs and that it was fairly technical. That translated to more hiking than running for me. Still, I was up for the challenge. I had in my mind a goal of 40k for a couple of reasons: my training supported that distance, and I wanted to be able to run again that night.
I knew Dan would do the whole 50k, because that’s what he does.
At 6:00 am, we lined up with our headlamps on. Dan had disappeared to the restroom, as per usual, so I toed the line alone. It was the coolest feeling to start in a pack of runners heading out to the trail in the dark. I was giddy, to be honest. I saw the headlamps bobbing up and down rhythmically just ahead of me, like an oversized pack of fireflies.
The first section took us over Hargus Lake, and was nice and flat. That flat and easy terrain was going to make it easy later to say “yes” to additional loops. However, less than a half mile later, it would also be easy to regret starting that loop.
We dove into the woods and it was immediately very technical. Lots of roots that were sometimes too easy to miss in the darkness made slow work for us as we hadn’t spread out much just yet. It was also single track at that point.
We approached the first incline. It wasn’t too bad, at least not yet. Later, I would change my opinion.
About a mile and a half in, Dan caught up with me. I heard the subtle “there you are” from behind me. We ran together in the dark for a bit, and then the woods opened up. Suddenly, it was dawn and there was more light on the path. It was beautiful. The air was still a little crisp which was downright perfect.
We hit the first flight of stairs. Not too bad…but this was the first loop. The crowd began to thin out a bit. I took my time on those stairs, thinking that I may be doing them 7 more times that day.
Dan ran ahead a little, which he usually does. He doesn’t like to be behind anyone too closely because he can’t see the path as well as he likes. That was fine, I didn’t want him tripping or twisting his ankle. I was focusing on safety and pace, knowing that more stairs were coming.
Oh yes, they were. We hit another flight, this one did not have railroad ties, it was just earth carved into steps. And it was tougher than the first. And longer than the first, too. Wow.
But wait…That wasn’t all. There were three more flights that happened on the loop. I was still taking my time, knowing that I was going to feel it on subsequent loops.
Dan was chatting with another runner up ahead, which was good. He likes to talk on the trails, and sometimes I don’t. Today was one of those days. I was focusing on the roots and keeping my pace comfortable. It was also a good opportunity for me to get my morning prayers in.
We made it through the first loop and stopped at the aid station. Let me just say, the volunteers were amazing. There is something to be said about the people that come to support the runners at trail races. It is such a selfless act. As we ran up, they called out our bib numbers to acknowledge the lap and record it. And then, we immediately heard “What do you need? What can I get you?”
There was a fantastic spread before us, so I picked through a couple of things, and we took off on the second loop. I was very happy with the pace so far, I was on target to have a nice steady day.
The second loop was a little faster since we had spread out a bit. Dan and I chatted a little here and there. The stairs took a little piece of me again, and we finished the loop still holding a great pace. I was feeling optimistic, but still being conservative. It’s easy to get caught up and start changing your goals, but I just wanted to focus on one loop at a time.
And that’s exactly what I did. I only thought about the loop I was in, that was all. I stopped to take a quick shot of the sunrise at the start of the second loop. It was still cool out, and Dan and I were still together for the most part. He would occasionally go ahead for a bit, but then I would catch him if he stopped to get rocks out of his shoes or use the restroom.
Loop three was good. No complaints from me, but those stairs were working me over a bit. There was also a section coming down that had some steep drops where you had to jump down a little. My foot was ok so far, but I was being a little ginger with it.
During this particular loop, a tricky root got the best of me. I had taken my eyes up for just a second to say something to Dan, and I hit it head on with my toes. It shot pain straight through the bones of my toes and foot that took my breath away. It was like a lightning bolt struck me all of the way up to my ankle. I tried to shake it off, but it was lingering too long for my taste. I voiced my concern to Dan, and he slowed to walk with me for a while to see if it got better. It was relentless, but I was able to start running again without a limp. It slowly faded when we got to the aid station where I decided to go ahead and start the next loop.
The inclines were sending daggers into my quads on the next couple of trips around the course. I imagined my muscles shredding beneath the skin. I remembered this feeling from the Flying Pig Marathon where the hills haunted me for days after the race was over. I had wished for an elevated toilet seat the whole week after that race, and thought I’d never trust myself to run again without my knees buckling.
As I walked on the approach to the first set of stairs on loop 4, I came upon another runner that was also walking. We walked side by side for a quick minute and I could see he was hurting just like me. I said, “I’m taking some time to think about life….” He smiled and said, “I’m taking the whole loop to think about life!” We both laughed as the stairs loomed at us just a few yards away.
I bent forward, my hands on my thighs, and pushed up the hill.
When I started loop 5, I happened upon another runner that was sizing up a set of stairs with exasperation and a hint of disdain. He looked over at me and said, “These stairs seem to be getting bigger…” Exactly.
At the aid station after my fifth time around, I took inventory. I had urged Dan to go on without me, since he was still keeping a good pace. I , however, was fading a little at this point. I knew my legs were gassed, but I still had the desire to continue for as long as I could. I was hurting in all of the normal places, which was expected. My legs were starting to give though, and my balance was faltering. I could feel my quads turning into ground beef.
I refilled my fluids, grabbed some grub, and decided I was ready for loop 6.
I headed out of the aid station with an open mind. I figured I’d see what happened out there and decide when I got back to the aid station again how many more laps I had in me.
I hit the first incline, took my time, and had to walk a bit at the top. This was not surprising, since I was getting tired.
Then, I hit the stairs. Oh boy. My heart rate skyrocketed. My quads seared. This was not good. I paused after the first 10 stairs. I swayed back and forth a little, took some deep breaths, and began to climb again. This time I didn’t get to 10 more stairs before I had to stop again.
I had to continue 5-8 steps at a time, stop, breathe, and continue. I finally reached the top and swayed again for a moment. Wow. I decided to walk a bit. Soon, I was able to run again, albeit slowly. But, at least I was moving.
As the stairs came and went, I felt the effort each time chipping away at all of my reserves. As much as my heart wanted to continue for another loop, my body was telling me no. Not today.
I had fueled the best I could, I had paced myself, and I had realistic expectations based on how my training had gone. I knew that starting that 7th lap was not a good idea. I imagined having to be pulled from the course and placed on the ground with my legs up in the air, and I just didn’t want to go there. As I neared the aid station, I made peace with my decision.
Yes, it would be great to finish the entire 50k, but it just wasn’t going to happen. Not today. I was still happy to have gotten a 40k in, and I knew that we would be running again that night. I felt good about stopping.
I came into the aid station and heard some awesome friends and runners cheering for me. It was so bittersweet since I knew I was going to DNF. I came up the shoot and veered over to the right and away from the finish. I heard them call out my bib number and I made eye contact and told them I was pulling out. I watched them take a big black marker and write DNF on the last two spots on the grid that were where my times would have gone. I was strangely removed from the whole thing, like I was watching it happen to someone else.
I continued to walk toward the aid area. Another sweet friend and trail runner was there asking what she could get me. I told her I was stopping. “No!” she cried. She tried to convince me that I could at least walk the rest of the race, but I politely told her I didn’t think I could even pull that off. I sat on the bench and refilled my bottles. She looked at me and said, “Oh, see! You’re filling up so you can head back out. I knew you would!” I told her I had already reported a DNF. I could tell she was disappointed, but I reassured her that it really was ok. It just wasn’t in the cards today.
We talked for a little while, and she told me she had seen Dan come through before me. He still looked good, and was back at it within a couple of minutes. That made me happy. I headed over to our drop bags and gathered my things. He had left me the key for the car since I had told him I was aiming for a 40k and would probably want to get cleaned up while I waited for him.
I went to the car, changed clothes, and did a quick assessment of my foot. I stretched, drank, ate, stretched again, massaged, and then took a quick 15 minute power nap in the back seat. I had set the alarm on my watch so I could see Dan come through.
I wandered out to the aid station, feeling woozie and stiff. I took a seat on the bench and waited while I talked with friends. A couple of runners came through that were in really bad shape. Volunteers swarmed around them and took such good care of them, it was heart warming to see. I saw Dan coming up the hill and stood to greet him.
As he came in, I quickly asked what I could get him and tried to offer support as best I could. He looked good and ready to tackle the final loop. A few more words of encouragement, and he was gone. I figured I’d have a little time to watch other people finish and cheer for a bit, so that’s what I did. I took pictures for people that came in and wanted a photo with their medal in front of the finish line. It was great to talk with people as they came in. They were sympathetic with my DNF, which was nice. Still, I wasn’t as upset as I probably should have been.
Before I knew it, Dan appeared again. I quickly got my phone out and shot a video of his finish. I snapped a couple of shots of him and then started getting him pickles and other goodies that I knew he’d need. I found him laying with his legs up by the drop bags. We talked a little while he recovered.
When he was ready, we made our way to the car and prepared for the ride home.
The ride home was uncomfortable physically, but we talked and shared some funny stories from the race. We kidded each other about how much it was going to suck trying to run again later that day (it did).
It was a great day and a great course. I might be back, I might not, who knows? It was still a wonderful experience, and that’s what matters the most to me.
Part II will come later….it was a long day.
Run happy. Run long.
Amy is an ultramarathoner and triathlete, a coach, a mother of four, an Exercise Physiologist and a Physical Therapist. She lives with her husband, Dan (also an ultramarathoner and triathlete), and kids in Ohio.