Have you ever had one of those experiences where you try something for the first time and almost immediately it just feels right? That doesn’t happen to me often, but it happened this past weekend, when I ran my first trail ultra.
As I wrote in my last post, my next big goal is to tackle the Keys 50 in May, but what got only a parenthetical mention was the fact that my training plan calls for a 31-mile run, which I decided to take on in the form of what was technically going to be my first ultramarathon. Up until then I had been stacking long runs on Saturdays and Sundays, including a four-race series at the Gasparilla Distance Classic two weekends ago. The Long Play fit into my training plan, even though the race distance clocked in at slightly longer than than the called-for 31 miles and the race itself took place on single-track trails rather than roads.
(For those of you who are curious, I’m following a modified plan based on one I found in Bryon Powell’s Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons. I’ve found this book to be indispensable. It’s one of three ultra-focused books I’ve read as part of my psychological training. The others are Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness and Vanessa Run’s The Summit Seeker. Speaking of which, The Summit Seeker is available in e-book format for a whopping $1.25 through the end of this week, but I loved this book so much that I would happily have paid twice the full price. I strongly encourage everyone who reads this blog and who owns an e-reader to get this book, and also follow her blog. I mean it. Do it!)
Rather than trying to encapsulate everything about this in one post, I’m going to split it into two. The first post – the one you are reading – will cover the actual race itself, while the second post will cover logistics, equipment, nutrition, things like that. Otherwise this post would be way long and I’m already blessed/cursed with logorrhea as it is.
I won’t lie: I was terrified leading up to this race. About two days out, it hit me that I was going to be running 33 1/3 miles in the Withlacoochee State Forest, and furthermore, I would be doing it solo, as Brian has been struck with a gnarly case of plantar fasciitis. I immediately fell into a bit of a panic that could not be quelled, no matter how many times Brian said to me, “You got this, I know you do.” The night before the race, my anxiety became so intense that I sat quietly through dinner and through the drives to scope out the park where the race began and ended. The morning of the race, as we drove to the park, I told Brian, “My brain is telling me that it’s not too late to quit, that we can turn around and go home.” Brian said, “Actually, it is too late. We’re almost there. You’re doing this.”
I puttered around for about a half-hour, trying unsuccessfully to choke down one last hard-boiled egg and flinching every time I heard the wild birds in the forest squawk, and then it was time to go. I lined up with the other couple dozen racers – all of whom seemed to know each other, and most of whom were dudes wearing Hokas – and at 6:35 a.m. we were off.
My strategy for all of these long runs and for the ultra races is to run-walk them, with a three-minute run and a one-minute walk, and this race was no different. I started out at an easy pace and quickly fell to the back of the pack. I tried not to care for two reasons. First, because my goal was just to finish, and second, because experience has taught me that I will often end up passing a lot of those runners later in the race. It definitely requires the ability to flip the override switch on one’s ego, though, especially if you know you are capable of running much, much faster.
The race course took us off the paved bike trail and the roads after about a mile and a half and sent us onto the singletrack that snakes for miles through the Croom Tract, which is one of the most popular places for local trail runners. Now, I haven’t run a lot of trail races, but every time I do I find myself utterly smitten with the singletrack. There’s something about it that makes me feel alternately like a kid and a wild animal. Fortunately I had miles of it to play on during this race.
Early in the race the lower canopy of the cypress forest was filled with fog, which gave the whole experience a rather spooky and primeval atmosphere. However, I couldn’t really take it in because I had to focus on what I was doing with my feet. Every time I looked up to enjoy my surroundings, I’d land badly on my foot or nearly trip on a root. I quickly learned to narrow my attention until it encompassed only the short span of trail ahead of me and nothing else. This sounds like it has the potential to be boring, but it wasn’t. On the contrary I actually found it rather meditative, almost Zen-like. I couldn’t sustain it for long, but when I did get into that place of flow, it was almost downright euphoric.
It was during these moments that a sentence popped into my head. I’d read it several times during my psychological training: “If you start to feel good during an ultra, don’t worry, you’ll get over it.” I decided to enjoy the good feelings while they lasted and to wait to deal with the shit until it actually happened.
Here’s another thing about running in the forest – my usual running music just didn’t cut it. I usually listen to dance, pop and electronic music when I’m running, but every time a fast-paced song made mostly with computers came up on my iPod, I felt jarred and uncomfortable. The best music, I found, was all of the 90s alternative/indie rock I enjoy: Spoon, My Bloody Valentine, Beth Orton, Wilco, stuff like that. I particularly liked running while listening to Elliott Smith, Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley. I guess there’s something about sad, dead young men with guitars that works well in that environment. Go figure.
For the most part I ran alone, but I did spend a mile in the company of a lady named Susan, who had taken part in Ultraman Florida the previous weekend. Susan was a hoot, very gregarious and outgoing, cracking jokes in her southern accent. Ultimately I ended up passing her, as well as an older gentleman we later learned had raced both Ironman Florida AND Ironman Arizona last year. Basically I was surrounded by superhuman athletes of all ages and genders.
For the first twenty miles, I felt fabulous. Brian had brought a bike and he was using it to ride to each of the aid stations. He met me at each one and made sure I had plenty of water, nutrition, dry socks, sunscreen. If I needed a Clif bar, he got one for me. If my Camelbak needed a refill, he took care of it. Then he’d tell me I was a rock star send me off with a huge kiss. Every time I saw him, I perked up a little more. He was fantastic as my crew, and knowing that I’ll have him crewing for me during the Keys 50 has done a lot to bolster my confidence about that race.
Things were going swimmingly until the course headed into an area where the singletrack was replaced with grassy driving paths and where there were few trees. I started to melt. By the time I emerged at mile 26, I felt considerably less fabulous. I only had seven more miles to go, though, so I kept plugging away, even though my legs were starting to burn and I could feel blisters raising on both feet.
The course took us onto a road for a brief distance, and it was during this time that I caught a woman who was ahead of me. She had been walking for a while, as her legs were cramping up on her, and so I walked with her for a little bit. Then the course took us back into the forest, and it was here that I made a total bonehead move. Later I realized there was a fork in the path, and that one side was marked with orange flags while the other was wide with ruts dug by years of pick-up trucks. I was exhausted and not thinking particularly clearly at this point, as I had been on my feet for about five hours by now, so I went down the rutted path. The lady behind me followed. About three-quarters of a mile later, the path dumped me onto a road, with no orange markers or signs in sight. I waited for the lady behind me to come out, and we were both completely confused as to what to do.
I was about to start running down the road when, by what I can only describe as the most serendipitous of events, the race director pulled up in his van. He told us we were lost, then offered to drive us back to the fork so we could go the right way. We climbed into his van and he drove us back three-quarters of a mile so we could get back on the trail. I felt so stupid. As if I needed to run even longer! And furthermore, the side jaunt messed up my GPS, so when I went back into the Croom Tract, I had no idea how far I needed to go before I could expect to see an aid station.
Whatever, I couldn’t do anything about it, so I just got back on the path and kept running.
It was about two miles later, in the twenty-ninth mile of the race, that I revisited that sentence – “If you start to feel good during an ultra, don’t worry, you’ll get over it.” – this time from the other side. The sun had burned off the fog and the trees were providing scant shade. I told myself that this was what the Keys 50 was going to be like, times a thousand, which helped a little bit but not much to be honest. I caught myself listing to the left a few times, and had to deliberately pull myself upright so I could at least walk straight. And my quads…dear god. It was like someone had pounded them with a meat tenderizer, then taken a blowtorch to the remnants. This was my gift from the hills on the course. I freely acknowledge that the course’s hills would make westerners laugh hysterically, but please remember that I am a flatlander who has to do her hill repeats on overpasses, and take mercy on me, please.
And by the way, those hills? Were not in the past tense. Miles 29 through 31 took me back over those hills. At this point I dispensed with the whole idea of run-walking and walked up all of them. I reached the high point of one of those hills and turned around to look behind me at the dusty scrub and longleaf pines I had just passed through. There was no one around. I was completely alone. It was surreal. It also helped to kick my ass into gear, because I realized that DNFing was not an option at this point. What was I going to do, sit down on the trail and wait for people to notice I was still missing?
I kept moving. Even though my mind was playing tricks on me and making me think the shadows cast by branches were actually snakes, I kept moving. I told myself that if I could make it to the end, I could call myself an ultramarathoner, but I had to make it to the end. I kept moving.
Finally, I made a turn and saw the last aid station. And then a little further in the distance, I saw the red shirt Brian had worn that day. He met me at the road with a huge hug and told me that he was so in awe of me, that I looked so strong and was running so well. All I could croak in response was, “I have never been in so much pain in my whole life.”
The paved road actually felt good to me, which are words I never thought I’d say in my life, and I soaked up some energy both from being on terra firma and from having Brian pedaling alongside me. The last two miles were a slog but I kept up my pace and I finally made it across the finish line. Everyone who had already finished was still there, and they all applauded. I realized they were doing this for everyone, that every last runner who crossed the finish line got a round of applause. It was excellent.
My final time was 6:49, during which time I covered 34 miles, which is slightly longer than the 33.3 miles of the actual race. Here’s the wild part: I’m pretty sure I was fourth female overall. (The results aren’t up yet because, you know, trail runners.) And even though I had suffered through those last miles, I knew the second I crossed the finish line that I wanted to do it again. I had fallen in love with trail running. The only thing that would have made it better was having Brian with me.
Brian had set up camping chairs for us, and after he helped me take off my shoes and got me a cup of Coca-Cola, I sank into my chair and luxuriated in all of the feelings I was feeling. Yep, I hurt like nothing I’d ever experienced before, but I also felt so calm and so, so proud of myself.
It’s been about three days now and I am finally getting back to being able to walk like a human being again. I’ve told some people what I did this weekend, and the responses – the wide eyes, the exclamations of “you’re crazy!” and “girl, you are not well” – both embarrass and delight me. But best of all is how I feel about what I did. I feel pretty damn good about it. It was tough, but I was tougher. I can’t wait until I get to do it again.