This toasty hot adventure along a lush beautiful trail in full bloom started with a very early wake up time of 1:50am. Needless to say, I was so tired. I need a new word to express my tiredness. Sadly the English language leaves me unable to fully make you aware of my tiredness, so I shall have to invent one right on the spot.
I was Ad-Bay Ired-Tay.
However, because I am a notoriously positive person (and not a bad liar either), I have been trying to tell myself how lucky I am that I get to run all day for 10-12 or even 24 hours straight lately. I mean, it could be worse, right? Surely there are worse things than running all day or night and getting up before the butt crack of dawn to do it. Right?
Am I right?!?
Let’s see here. Shaving the testicles of lions before they get testicular surgery is probably worse. I don’t know… they probably give ’em some kind of lion sedative before they send in the shaver so maybe my current hobby is still worse. Unless the sedative is delivered in suppository form, in which case perhaps the exciting position of lion suppository technician is worse than my adventurous trail running hobby.
In any case, I’d better get going now on this race recap. And maybe later, I’ll find a lion who is need of anal medicine and see how it goes. If I live through it and still have 8 fingers and at least a large part of my face intact, I’m changing hobbies. After all, it’s my shining personality that keeps getting me followers on FB and Instagram. They’ll never notice my lack of digits and half gnawed face… as long as the lion doesn’t get at my shining personality holders that are conveniently stored in my sports bra.
So back to the race recap: I started the dark day with an unusual time-saving pre-race fare. An industrial strength moisture-wicking endurance bra I slept in overnight beneath my Team RWB race apparel (which I also slept in), 2 balance bars to eat in the car, a banana, two anti-diarrhea caps and a cup of coffee w/ lactose free 2%.
An hour and some odd minutes, I arrived at the Saturday’s pre-dawn gathering at the race site. I squeezed myself into the shuttle busload of trail runners with obnoxiously bright headlamps on their hats, visors or do rags. Yet, this did not rattle my pre-race nerves one bit to be sitting so close to strangers in dry max and calf compression sleeves in wildly varying colors eating family sized Costco bags of trail mix while crunching very loudly.
I like these people. These people are the best. I like being around people who run 50 or more miles on a trail in one day. Even though I don’t particularly like talking, I like talking to these people, hearing about these people and watching these people… whether or not they know I’m watching.
When they are not lubing up their no-no places in public, blowing snot rockets and partaking in equally disgusting personal hygiene activities, I find that trail runners, like road runners, want to talk about themselves. But truth be told, most of these runners can’t always find someone to listen to them. Even runners who have stuff in common with other people who are married, in relationships or have bestest friends sometimes really never get to be heard. If they can’t find a therapist to whom they can pay a bucket load of money to listen to them, sooner or later they’ll find an innocent bystander and pour out their inner most thoughts and secrets for no good reason.
Apparently I have “innocent bystander” written across my forehead in glowing 24 hr proof Maybelline with SPF as people tend to want to tell me things. Possibly that’s because I ask so many questions to these trail runners. Enquiring minds and all that. I’m deeply and truly interested in the humanity of ultra runners.
I’m a friggin’ ultra humanitarian, that’s what I am.
I’m also a trail mom now. Especially since I felt the need to clean up that smooshed turd one of ’em left for me on the seat in the porta potty.
Slow down on that Big Grab Mountain Trail mix, Mister! Ick, I say! Just, ick!
Even though I made my hands sting with approximately three handfuls of hand sanitizer dissipated into the pores of both palms, I was certain I was still standing in a virtual boiling pot of grossness. After talking myself down from the OCD hissy fit, I was ready to wait in line with my trail kids who were still divulging their innermost thoughts by the early morn fire pits before posing for individual and group photos on the podium.
This pic features the bravest of Endurance Runners with Team RWB.
And here’s a solo shot that I was sure was a keeper if I didn’t DNF this thing.
The gun went off at 5am sharp and the race was on. There were about 240 runners, and at the start we were all running together at a decent pace plodding through the trails in the black wilderness. There are maybe 40 minutes of pitch dark before sunrise this time of year so TNFEC rules list a flashlight and/or headlamp as “mandatory” equipment. This makes for a magical first half hour of galloping slowly around a cool, dewy, grassy and muddy field with a line of lights snaking ahead and behind. Weaving and bobbing through the darkness onto the Potomac Heritage trail, we plunged through a tunnel of trees all the while following the dangling neon green glow sticks around the first twists and turns.
I started out running a comfortable 10:40-11:40 pace, chatting with a few runners I’d met at Stonemill 50 back in November and a few from VHTRC. We stuck together for about 4 miles until I saw a familiar ponytail keeping a steady pace on the trail ahead. I was feeling strong on the uphills and the downhills at this point, so I thought I’d catch up with this blonde ponytailed run goddess. She had this easy, understated grace about her that makes her seem entirely above all the monotonous mud we were running through and around at the moment even though she may as well have been screaming obscenities on the inside.
Heading out onto the lowlands area with this new fast friend of mine through the long grass and marshy terrain, I knew this was destined to be a fairy tale excursion filled with good times and sweet memories. In fact, this race would be such a thing of wonder and fabulousness, I felt sure I’d want to write a sonnet about it when I returned to the start/finish. (Possibly an ode even. Maybe a limerick.)
But as soon as that thought occurred, the sun came up across the river to the east and south punctuating the course with some unseasonably sporadic heat.
At this point, I guess most of the runners on the course were, like me, not so prepared for 80-85 degree heat. Even though the first two or three hours felt like fresh spring with a touch of warmish air, but not particularly humid, the Potomac in the DC area can be sloppy and downright muggy when the sun heats up. Inevitably, sweat began evaporating from runners in bucketloads.
So. The calm before the armpit bubbling heat storm was the first and happiest third of what I think of as a three-part race (Potomac Heritage Trail; 3 laps around Great Falls Park; back on the PHT). I held good company for a while in this section with the blonde run goddess aka Sara F. However, I had a feeling she must have been feeling pretty relaxed, running at my pace.
We went our separate ways when mom bladder struck me behind a tree on the Great Fall loop and we didn’t pass again for a few more miles when she spotted some porta potties. It was in Great Falls Park that we ran a very convoluted 7 mile loop three times, this is where most of the hills and rocks were. Despite the buckets of sweat, I felt strong the whole time, but definitely did my fair share of walking on the uphills to make sure I had enough in my legs to get through the day. The first lap, 7 or 8ish miles I guess, went by fairly quickly. The atmosphere was still not so smothering hot where I’d need to break out one of the few Roctane electrolyte capsules I thought to pack in my vest pocket. Not too bad, I thought.
Somewhere on that second loop around Great Falls Park, somewhere around 25 miles, I began to feel it. Sun and heat rose from the rocks and heat radiated off my salty sweat-laden skin. My Team RWB shirt was sticking to me and completely soaked. My Orange Mud VP2 pack was sticky wet with salt-crusted sweat. The bottles of Tailwind were emptying faster. I saw increasingly worried, salt-streaked faces on other runners and wiped off salt granules from my own.
It was after noticing my salt encrusted hairline in Great Falls that I noticed the 50K runners had joined us on the trails, which was actually a refreshing change of pace. That is, until I made a wrong turn after the aid station when asking a volunteer if the turn I was taking was the right way to go.
I ran nearly a mile before realizing the famous Dean Karnazes was running behind me. I decided rather quickly that there was no way he’d be behind me as he was probably a loop ahead. When I asked him if this was the correct turn after the aid station about a mile back, he appeared puzzled for a second and then helped me come to the definite conclusion that I missed the right turn with the 50 milers I had been running with. He agreed with me that I should run back to the volunteer who sent me in this direction and get re-routed. All the while we talked, he stopped running and appeared very concerned. As everyone who’s ever met him says, he’s such a nice guy. A real people person.
Meeting Dean while dazed and confused was actually a perfect distraction at this point in the race and the miles just rolled on almost without me noticing up until mile 40 after the lost-and-found-by-Dean incident.
I’m not surprised I got lost because just looking at the map before the race I was thinking, “This won’t work. I won’t remember this.” But I learned if I went with the flow of runners I recognized and didn’t ask any questions of the volunteers it does work. What it all feels like, from a 50 miler’s perspective, is as follows. Relative solitude over the first third of the race. When you get to the laps around Great Falls, increasingly busy-ness, runners going every which direction. The 50k runners join in, their color coded numbers less crinkly and beat up than your reddish number. Then, you pass other 50 milers, either ahead or behind running both directions on the trail (the loop is not so much a loop as a collection of out-and-backs).
Every few miles, heat rocketed up to deliberately sadistic heights. The North Face organizers were ready. Aid stations were stocked with water and volunteers. There was plenty to fill bottles and pour over our heads. One of the best aid stations was the one with three buckets full of ice water and sponges. The DC Striders cheered as runners approached their aid station and were very accommodating as I hit them up for ice to put in my bottles and bra. I couldn’t wait to get to it again on the next loop as the temperature rose near 85 degrees.
I remember the miles after this aid station just zipping by as I was in my icy bra zone, totally focused on navigating the rock garden, focused on avoiding a nasty fall into the Potomac.
On the final, increasingly grueling lap around Great Falls, I ran ahead, behind, and alongside on onslaught of Team RWB’ers either running the 50 or 50k. This is when the course got way more crowded as the race seems to attract a number of first-time ultra runners. One of which was a 66 year old heroine who was set to finish her 1st 50k.
While passing some 50k’ers on their way to the section of the loop I’d just completed with the 50 milers, I saw an EMS vehicle headed in our direction. All the runners quickly moved to the side of the narrow trail to make room for it to pass. Later I heard this upper age grouper woman had fallen on rocks and hit her head on the trail. This did not stop her from picking up where she left off, however. As the EMT’s set-out towards her she swiftly moved in the direction of the continuing loop, covered in blood from head to knee. On her head, a decent size cut and her upper lip was seriously split. She didn’t want to stop running. The EMT’s stopped her well enough to give her a thorough evaluation. She told them she had run 4 marathons and her first marathon was at age 63. This was her first ultra and first trail race so she was adamant about finishing. Begrudgingly, the EMT’s stayed with her for the next 4 miles to ensure her condition did not worsen. She ran an ADDITIONAL 13 miles and finished. You got’ta love her.
Even though I think I may have only seen her once in passing, I will be thinking of her practically every time I run an ultra again. And if I see her again at another race, I’ll have to contain myself from shouting, “You go!” every time I pass by her, she has no idea what a fan she has in me. She has no clue that I am her pupil, her disciple even, although I’m betting it wouldn’t surprise her. I rather doubt she has a problem with low self esteem.
She won’t have time for anything less than insane and total adoration of the incredible woman she knows she is. A true champion!
Kudos to the EMS and 1st Aid volunteers on hand. No mean feat it is, managing the logistics of four trail races on one day (50 miler, 50k, marathon, marathon relay), followed by three more the next (half-marathon, 10k, 5k).
For the last 15-mile section, back along the Potomac Heritage Trail, we retraced our steps from earlier in the day, back along the river to Algonkian Regional Park. Here, is where the marathoners joined in on the fun. Zipping by now and then, as if they inhabited a different time-space reality, the relay runners raced against the heat. And now and then, the occasional 50 miler, a fellow sufferer; as I passed or was passed, I only had to glance at them to share a wordless solidarity of pain.
Then, after three challenging loops in Great Falls Park it was time to hit the dusty trail home for the last 14 or so miles back to the finish line. My A goal for the day was to break 10:30 hours (I ran a 10:28:35 at Stonemill 50 miler in November and around the same (10:28:28) at the Destin 50 a year ago February) thinking this course was supposed to be easier, the truth is it’s really hard to compare one race to another, with elevation, temperature, terrain, there are just too many variables to consider. But anyway I headed out of Great Falls thinking maybe it was possible.
This last section of the race repeats the morning in reverse. In the first 8 miles coming out of Great Falls, there are steep eroded hills along uneven sediment and hard stones. One section had us at the top of a ravine, peering downward while the next section had us running down to the riverside. For relief’s sake, the last 7 or so of the trail flattens and eases up.
I hit the final stretch running, not fast, but strong and passing many people who seemed to be wilting in the heat. After passing each person I felt stronger and stronger and more confident in what I was doing. Though I couldn’t seem to shake the negative chatter in my head telling me I couldn’t keep this pace up, that I should just give up and walk. It was very clear that the challenge was coming from my head more than the course. But the first 6 miles I ran strong thinking I had only a couple miles left to go. Strava GPS on an iPhone may not be so reliable out in the forest and I know this, but I was super discouraged when an aid station volunteer told me I had “only” 2 miles left to go when I thought I had maybe half a mile at the most.
I would like to tell you I didn’t let this bother me and I kept running, but that’s not quite what happened. Instead, I ran out of Tailwind powder to put in my water and drank some syrupy electrolyte drink from the aid station (never a good idea with a sensitive stomach and limited anti-crapyourpants caps left in my vest pocket) so my stomach started bubbling and groaning. I said to myself “I’m not going to make it in less than 11 hours so I should just walk.” So I walked a bit, got passed by a few people, moaned, groaned, ran some more and walked some more. Then realized that when I walked I felt really tired and discouraged and even though I was tired I felt better when I ran and so I’m better off running.
So I ran in the last 1/2 mile of the race and seemed to feel stronger and stronger the closer I got to the finish line. I gotta say it felt really good to finish my third 50 mile race feeling strong, if tired, and having weathered the mental highs and lows that the day brought. My official time was 11:01:42, good for 1st place in my new age group, the 40-44 crowd.
And I made no rookie mistakes this race, unless you count asking a volunteer for directions. I knew I would slow, probably a great deal, over the last 15 miles and in the ever-increasing heat. But it wasn’t a catastrophic slow. I ran most of the whole way back, shuffling steadily forward under the afternoon sun.
One of the things I especially like about this race is that I’m surrounded mostly by young chicks as well as older moms and “battle scarred trail veterans”. I think the next person in my particular older mom category was a close 5 minutes behind me. At one point, when we passed in the last third she commented on how I was, “moving on up”.
I enjoy this stuff. Seriously, I can’t wait to hit 50. This age group thing is getting seriously competitive!
After the race:
In the parking lot, I heard one of the winners telling a buddy it was “brutal out there.” Yeah, well, Mr. Speedy, you only ran a little over 6 and and a half hours. Try being out there an extra 7 hours on top of that. That’s when things really got brutal.
I can’t imagine how it was for those out in the heat 13 hours. I could not have done it. When I was done, I was put a fork-in-me-DONE. Albeit, happy having run 52.2 miles (counting the extra ‘lost’ miles) under wretched conditions; 15th place female, 1st in my age group; still alive, not too beaten up, uninjured, and with my 13th ultra under my belt.
I’d better get going now. It’s time to go to start training for my next 50 miler and research all about this lion balls shaving business. I really hadn’t given the prospect of such a new hobby much thought before now.
I’m thinking I would warm the shaving cream first, but that’s just me.