My First Ultra

This past Saturday I ran my first ultra, 50K at the North Face Endurance Challenge in Sterling, VA. I finished in 08:20:51. It took way longer than I thought it was going to and the humidity and heat was just brutal. Below is my full, totally long winded race report.

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Pre-race – I got up at 4AM and put on all the things I laid out the night before. Had a plain bagel with PB&J like usual and gathered my gear. I had a camelbak filled with watermelon nuun and packed with snacks, TP in a ziploc, and lip balm with sunblock (which I didn’t use and fortunately didn’t need.) J. and I have an agreement where she only has to come to new race distances (or if I talk her into a destination race where she’s just kind of there already and we can meet up at the end) so she took her duties very seriously and drove me out to the suburbs of VA, dropped me off and agreed to be back at 1ish, the earliest possible moment I thought I would be done.

I saw two Mr. Sweaty-Tops-Off before I was even on the shuttle. The ride took about 15 minutes to the race site, which is gorgeous. I’ve never been there before and I was treated to a breath taking sunrise over the river which really pumped me up; I felt so lucky to be there. So I hung out, I hit the port-o-johns like 16 times, and eventually meandered towards the start with the rest of the crazy folks, who weren’t crazy enough to do the 50 miler. Dean Karnazes announced the start, and say what you will about that man, he is crazy fit.

My plan was to hydrate every mile at least until I felt thirsty, and save my ipod which was strapped to my wrist, until I needed it.

Miles 0-5 – These were pretty uneventful miles. I knew that I just needed to pace myself so I tried to hang back a bit. So I just found people to pace off of. Paced off of two chicks who looked younger than me and super fit until like mile 4ish (to discover later that they were more than a decade younger than me and finished more than an hour after me – small victories). I knew the hills were coming around the five mile markers of the race and sure enough the elevation started around mile four. I was also trying to figure out the passing thing on the single track. I mean I know you kind of announce that you’re coming and where but I knew that I shouldn’t be going all out, certainly not at this point, but I really felt like I could be going faster at some points and just kind of felt conflicted about what to do. In retrospect I wish I had pushed it more when it was cooler, because later in the heat, it was just impossible.

But I ran behind a woman for a mile or so in head to toe pink with flowers in her hair who was talking about the litany of ultras she’d participated in – Javelina, the Vermont 100, then mentioned that she got hit by a car, possibly in two separate instances while volunteering at Badwater and then ran into the emergency room doctor that treated her later at another ultra. I hung out for a while just to hear her story and moved along.

Miles 6-10 – Aid station two came around mile 5.7. The first one was really early and small so I had a cup of water and pretty much ignored it. The second one was the famed ultra buffet and it was a wee bit overwhelming. I wasn’t really hungry but knew I should take fuel so I grabbed some water and unpacked some sports beans and had a few. Already I was having that long run reaction where as soon as I put the food in my mouth I was like, meh… I don’t want this. It really made me wish I did better with gels.

There was a significant amount of grassland in the single track of the first section which I didn’t anticipate (in places the grass was shoulder height) but this section was more of what I anticipated in terms of wooded canopies next to the river which was nice. Even though I face planted somewhere around mile six (no pokey sticks to the face or gut, so no worries) I was feeling pretty good for these miles, it was hot but not crazy, and I was pretty happy with my times. Mile ten-ish took me over some hills that I knew I’d be crossing again. They were pretty tough, tougher than I expected based on the elevation maps as it was less than 400 feet of elevation gain at the peak but it was a series of ups and downs for each hill set. I could already feel the effort in my quads a bit but it was totally dealable.

Miles 11-15 – Great Falls came around mile 12 and this is where we were co-mingled with the 50 milers doing these crazy sadistic not-quite-loops. Around mile eleven I saw a guy, dead behind the eyes who looked like he might fuel by reaching into a tree and grabbing a live squirrel. My guess was that he was the winner. The aid station here was this crazy triangle set-up with tons of snacks. I refilled my camelpak here, shocked that I had drunk at least two-thirds of my nuun. I had a shot blok, and orange slice and a piece of boiled potato. I really did not want to eat, which made me nervous this early on so I just made a decision to consume whatever seemed appealing. So I had a cup of water, the Clif electrolyte drink (which I think I really like) and some Mountain Dew, disgusting on a normal day, but suuuper awesome during the run. I hit the port-o-john and moved on.

The course is really gorgeous here. I put on headphones just after the aid station and had saved this week’s AMR podcast for this week for the race. There was one point where Dimity was recounting catching a glimpse of her shadow during her Ironman training race on the bike, saying that her own legs moved “like pistons” and getting choked up, almost in disbelief that she was capable of undertaking such an effort. I  paused the podcast when I heard the rush of the river over the rocks to my left, and felt my feet hit the ground almost silently as I’d trained myself to do, and saw the runners coming towards me after they hit the turn-around, quads flexing, arms swinging saying, “hey good job” as they passed me, and I got a bit choked up myself. I was there. I was running my ultra. It’s so cliche to always point back to the post-cancer accomplishments, but at this point in my life I am just amazed at what my body is capable of.  I descended to the turn-around point, rounded the turn and took the ascending hill at a run.

Miles 16-20 – The Old Dominion aid station was mid-loop through the 50 miler loop and it was crazytown. I lost so much time here because I was totally overwhelmed. There were multiple tables, tons of volunteers, and I just didn’t know what to do with myself. It looked like a sweaty party — maybe I should mingle? I also started to realize that I was soaked. I couldn’t have been more wet if I had jumped in the river, which I started to fantasize about. Fortunately the race volunteers were amazing. An EMT doused me with a gallon of cold water, another opened a bag of pretzels for me as my hands were too wet to do so, I grabbed a shot block, had a single pretzel, an orange slice and the water, soda, electrolyte drink combo that I decided seemed to be working for me. I chatted with a 50 miler in the port-o-john line who was super nice, had put in 32 miles already and let me go in front of him because I would be quick, and he had stomach issues. I wished him luck and was back on my way.

This section also hit Great Falls again around mile twenty. I was feeling tired at this point and knew I wasn’t taking in enough nutrition. So I had a couple of bites of a banana, and more soda, water, electrolyte drink. I should have refilled my camelbak here but I was afraid of how long it would take and I felt like my hands, and brain quite frankly weren’t working and I just couldn’t process how to make a refill happen and didn’t just go to a volunteer and say hey, can you do this? Which I totally should have done.

Also somewhere in here was the rock scrambling section which the coach (who is wonderful and wildly encouraging) I had enlisted to help me about two and a half months prior had mentioned encountering when she ran it the previous year, and then there were all of these crazy wooden stairs. That part was super fun and exciting. I did some fancy downhill footwork around miles 18-19 (I usually love these miles in a marathon for some reason) and passed some volunteers who seemed a little surprised at my speed and good spirits.

Miles 21-25 – I had my first down moment around mile twenty – twenty-one. I knew it would come and I was prepared for it. I remembered what fun I had hiking the AT in the Poconos back in April, so I just decided to speed hike it until my joy came back and sure enough, within about a mile I felt better. This was the next section of hill repeats so there was a lot of necessary walking through here. Also at some point my Garmin got off track because I thought I was way further along than I was as was evidenced by the extra mile it said that I ran on Saturday.

There’s a flat section around miles twenty-three to about maybe twenty-seven, twenty-eight. This is where the wheels came off for me. The heat peaked and I just felt like I was baking. I started looping around the same group of runners. All of us would run a bit, walk a bit, try to encourage each other. For a few miles I fell into a group of about six guys who were trail and ultra seasoned and really interesting. One fellow had run Bear Mountain earlier in the year and was running about a marathon a weekend for several weeks. Another guy had run with Scott Jurek and Chris McDougall earlier in the week. So we chatted and just walked for a while. I just didn’t have the will to move any faster. I knew I was low on water and nutrition. I tried to eat but it just wasn’t working. I felt like I was going to puke if I moved any faster.

Miles 26-finish – It felt forever to the next aid station. I felt like I could feel the entirety of my quad muscles and where they attached to my leg as a whole. I fell back in with the ultra guys for a few miles and then just broke away. I tried to run two minutes, walk a minute which descended to running thirty-seconds, walking for two. I chatted with runners and we tried to pass out encouragement. There were smaller hills here, which felt huge and my quads were screaming and I realized that camelbak had possibly chafed a huge section of skin off of my back. It was uncomfortable but I really didn’t care. Fortunately after the last big section of hills it felt a little cooler and I started to run/walk with more frequency. Unfortunately, it was this point where I realized for certain that my Garmin was at least a mile off, if not more, and before I reached the finish, I would have to hit that aid station that seemed so close to the start.

Along the way I passed a couple of people just laying or sitting next to the trail. There was a woman pouring water on the head of another runner who was puking into the grass. A few runners asked if she needed help and she asked if we could send someone back at the next aid station. Even though the marathoners still had a loop at the next aid station, we were all still so close. At this point I realized that just finishing was enough.

At the aid station I had two cups of soda, electrolytes, and water. An volunteer pulled a gallon of water from a cooler and asked if I would like to have some poured on me too cool me off I said absolutely, mentioned that my phone was in my pack, so he told me to tip my head back and poured the water over the bill of my cap and it rushed down over me. I gasped. It was a shock to the system, a fantastic one. I thanked him profusely and asked how far it was to the end. He said one and six tenths of a mile.

So I took off, walking one minute, running (really, shuffling) for a minute. There started to be spectators, which helped. Once I saw the finish I was able to shuffle for the rest of the way. I heard my name as I approached the finish and saw J. coming towards me with the camera and I couldn’t believe it. I was done. It was over. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. I think I did a little of both.

Post-race – I wanted ice bath, beer, t-shirt in that order. I chatted with some of the runners that I spent time with on the trail. I drank a ton of water. I was a little disoriented but so, so happy.

The bad: I think I needed to run more trails and hills and maybe I should have overdressed for some of my runs, but I’m not sure how I could have prepared adequately for that heat and humidity. I need to rethink my camelbak and/or practice quick filling it or just be okay with taking the time to fill it because I was definitely out of water around mile twenty-five.

Also, sure I am sore but the worst is the roof of my mouth, towards the back of my throat is sore and my jaw is distractingly achy. What’s up with that?

The good: Listening to Steve Reich in the woods is pretty amazing. I met a lot of cool people. The volunteers were incredibly accommodating. I didn’t walk away hating endurance racing or the distance but for now I think I’ve hit the limit of the distance I’m prepared to cover and I’m okay with that. I’m looking for my next race.

Later that evening: After getting some food we decided we could make it the house of dear friends for their housewarming-turned-engagement party. My friends expressed their surprise that I made it and made a fuss over me, which was sweet, poked at my quads which was actually kind of funny and indulged my race story blow-by-blow race accounts.

In DC when you chat with new people everyone always asks what you do – it can get pretty tedious. This was the first time that instead, what I did that day was a topic. The race had been a floating topic of conversation. One fellow had heard the distance and looked at me and said, “So it was a cycling race.” I replied no, and watched him think for a minute. “Wait, so you were running?” I said yes. “So you ran almost 32 miles.” Yes. “That’s crazy!” Sometimes people say this about marathons and I pass it off, because ultimately it’s hard, but not totally out there. But that evening, I took a sip of my adult beverage, looked at him, and agreed.

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5 comments
  1. Nancy said:

    You are simply amazing! I am so proud and truly impressed by you. You had me laughing and tearing up. Can’t believe you drank a Mountain Dew -gross. Curious about the mouth/jaw thing.
    Much love-nan

  2. Andrew said:

    Very impressive. Congratulations!

  3. SOTI said:

    awesome! you rock!

  4. Cheryl Speer said:

    That is really awesome Sarah! I am so impressed!

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