I used to be one of those runners that planned out every training run, to a T. I followed my plan exactly, and if I had an off day and couldn't crank out the miles I had planned I'd get really down on myself about it. It could get to the point that I'd lose sleep over missing a run one day, or not being able to finish an easier 5-miler. How frustrating, and completely ridiculous! A strict plan works for some (well, many) runners, but not for me. It drove me nuts and I'd actually had to take time off from running because I'd burn myself out so much.
The course had a 5++ mile loop that ran through the aid station, followed by a 3++ mile loop that returned to the same aid station. Rinse and repeat. The first 5 or so miles were great, I felt great, and I felt really optimistic. It was a little weird passing runners in the beginning because a) it was a single track trail with little room to pass without forcing the other runner into the brush; and, b) I felt like a 'typical' ultrarunning newbie, passing early, only to get passed up by those same folks who were more conservative in the beginning. Oh well, you run, you learn. We soon make it to the Stone Steps around 2.5 miles and I began to run up them, quickly realizing that I wasn't going to be maintaining my pace for long. So, I took to walking fast up the steps with Mike. Here are the Stone Steps...I'm only about 1/4 of the way up...
It was so hard to catch my breath after that first ascent of the steps. Lesson learned. We were going to be running those 200+ stairs three more times, so we had time to come up with a strategy before we came around to them again. Around mile 4 on this loop we came to a tupperware bin filled with gummy bears (the hill we had just climbed is called Gummy Bear Hill). I had never been so happy to see processed gummy sugar! That's all I needed to motivate me through the next 8 or so miles :)
The next loop sucked. I quickly decided that I hated the 3++ mile loop way more than the longer one. It had us running across and down a road, through some fields (one of which felt longer and crappier each time we crossed it), and the trail was much more technical (rooty and rocky), but still very runable. If I'm recalling correctly, it was mostly downhill on this portion and that's what really got to me. I'm a terrible downhill runner. I couldn't get my footing most of the time, so much of this portion was more speedwalking for me. Mike flew down the downhill sections like a pro. He glided over the techinical stuff like it was nothing, and I was so hesitant with every step. I was so worried I was going to just bite it. I lacked any confidence on these parts and couldn't just let go and let my legs do the running. So, I gingerly descended the hills, while Mike waited at the bottom for me each time. Best running partner ever.
I began to look forward to the uphills and the stairs, imagine that!
The course was gorgeous, but it was hard to really take it all in because, even with my limited trail experience, I know that the moment your eyes leave the ground in front of you it could easily spell the end of your race. During our planned one minute walk breaks after each mile I made sure to look around a bit. The place is gorgeous! Deafeningly quiet, serene, a canopy of green overhead with rays of sunshine breaking through here and there providing some much appreciated warmth throughout the day. It was cold enough that we both ran with our gloves on the entire time and I kept the Buff around my neck all day. I probably would have been uncomfortably cold had it not been for my tights. They really held up well. I was comfortable the whole run.
At mile 12 we passed one of the stranger sights littering the trail here and there throughout the day. Just random hikers. It was a couple with three dogs of varying sizes, all were barking, and on the arm of the woman was a ginormous white bird, squawking! What the hell is going on?! It was hilarious! The dogs were going nuts because we probably appeared to come from out of thin air, and then the bird started squawking out of control because the dogs were so loud. It was all the poor couple could do to keep the dogs off of us, and keep the bird on the woman's arm! Oh the woods, what a magical place.
I was feeling great, all things considered. Then around mile 15 I felt hot spots on the balls of both my feet. I was planning on ignoring them until mile 17 when I stepped on a sharp rock that rocked my right foot to the side and burst the blister that had formed on that side! It sent a shooting pain up my leg to my knee and I sucked in air so hard I coughed. Ok, no worries, at least now that it's popped it'll go numb! However, I couldn't stop thinking about it. Mike was doing a really awesome job of distracting me with great conversation and positive reinforcement, and at mile 18 I needed it. For a brief moment, my legs just stopped working and my left foot caught on a root that it didn't clear and down I went! I landed flat on my frontside, somehow missing smacking my face on the trail. I was up just as quickly as I went down, but not before dropping the F-bomb very loudly and repeatedly. Mike had sprinted ahead (it was a downhill section) and immediately knew I had bit it. "Did you fall, Troelstrup?!" I started laughing so hard I could barely move, knowing that it must have looked hilarious, and wishing that Mike had gotten it on video. "I'm so jealous, you've had your first ultra trail fall. I want one!" Not a bruise, not a scrap, nada. I was lucky, it could have been ugly!
At mile 20 my body began to protest. At the aid station, nothing looked appetizing, so I stuck to Mountain Dew, grapes, and a bite or two of a granola bar each time. It was strange feeling like that, borderline nauseous. After the 2nd full loop I began to even feel nauseous while running. I've never had that before and it was a little scary, but I did my best to just push it to the side. Taking walk breaks became so necessary, but getting back into a full on run became harder every time I took a walk break. I was literally reduced to bargaining with my body. I've read a lot about how an ultra is more of a mental/emotional feat than it is a physical one. I was finally experiencing this for myself. My legs felt heavy and everything was sufficiently achy, but never so bad that I felt that I couldn't go on.
There was only one other woman in my division and she was gaining on us at the end of the 3rd loop, and when Mike said as much, I said "I don't give a shit if she passes me." He laughed at me, but we were on the field-crossing section of my least favorite loop, the part that seems to go on forever, and stopping to rest was the only thing on my mind. Mike didn't want me to rest, he wanted me to push on. So we pushed on.
I'll say this, the volunteers at the aid station were awesome. They were so nice and so enthusiastic. The race director, David, was there the entire time cheering each runner on as they came through the station. At the first stop, I had my mouth full of water, granola and grapes and I was trying to tell Mike that they had PB&J. I made no sense to anyone but Mike who knew exactly what I said. David found that pretty amusing and proceeded to jive me about it each time I came through the station :)
Each stop became harder to get out of. It gives too much time for the muscles to stiffen and makes it difficult to get them rolling again. On our way out of the final loop, Mike grabbed his camera to get some shots of the scenery. We were having a lot of fun, and I needed it to distract me from the pain on my feet from the blisters and the fact that my quads were totally trashed from the downhills. Just before we reached our last set of the Stone Steps, Mike found the perfect tree limb and started rolling his legs, getting them prepped for the hard effort ahead of us...
I was so tired and felt like one giant cramp waiting to happen, and every muscle in my body ached. I never realized how much my lower back and abs come into play during a run. They were both on fire. I could feel every single muscle contraction during every single step. It was weird, but really cool at the same time. You learn a lot about your body during long runs, and this day was a crash course for me! During that last loop Mike and I were pretty quiet, concentrating on the ground under our feet. The more exhausted you are, the more you have to pay attention to avoid a spill.
I thought a lot about how I got to this point, why I was there, and how I felt about it. I knew I was technically undertrained for this sort of distance, I knew that I could finish it because I wanted to finish it. It's amazing what you can do when you actually want to do it. I felt like crap and my body ached in a way it never had before, but I loved every second of it. When I would pick up my stride after a walk break I was amazed that I was doing it. I thought to myself multiple time throughout the day, "I feel like total crap and my legs feel like cinder blocks, but I'm still running!" It was so cool! I knew I was going to hurt in the aftermath, but I also knew it was totally going to be worth it.
We were a football fields distance from the finish line (which I didn't realize) and Mike was pushing me to pick it up a little more so that I could finish under 7 hours. I didn't care at this point what my time was, I just wanted to finish. I looked at my GPS and thought to myself "no way that's happening", but he sprinted ahead to give his camera to a volunteer at the finish line (which I couldn't see as it was around a bend, hence the reason I thought we were farther off than we actually were) and when he returned we crossed the finish line together. It was perfect. I saw the clock at the finish and it read 6:57:09...we finished under 7 hours!!
Holy crap! I thought my legs were going to give out. I was running for nearly 7 hours! I've never done more than 3 1/2 hours, and only half the distance before. My legs almost immediately stiffened, then my back and shoulders followed suit. The RD high-fived us and everyone congratulated us as Mike announced that I had just finished my very first 50k. I stood over the aid station table staring at the goods, knowing I needed to eat (I had just burned off two days' worth of calories, I should be starving!) but the sight of food made my stomach turn, so I just downed water and gatorade. A volunteer handed us our split cards, and we got our picture taken, then we walked around for a few minutes and stretched out our legs. It felt like I couldn't control my legs, it felt very weird. I was scared to take my shoes and socks off and look at my feet, it felt like they were both giant blisters.
Now it was time to go home! We had a 5 hour drive ahead of us into Chicago. Mike was able to switch his flight back to D.C. to Monday morning, so we didn't have to worry about rushing back to the city to make his flight. After a stop at a convenience store to get 4 bags of ice, a slushy for me, coffee and bananas, and then tacos at Taco Bell, I sat in the passenger seat and iced my ankles and shins. Mike used his Ace Bandages to attach ice packs to his knees while he drove the first half of the ride...
Ooo la la! The lady at the counter came on the loud speaker when she saw this and exclaimed that he looked great :)
Wow, what a day! I finished my first ultra marathon, and now all I could think about (besides the pain I was in) was when I do my next one! It was an amazing experience, and I'm so glad Mike was there with me. Honestly, I wouldn't have gotten into it if it weren't for him, and I don't know that I'd have finished if it weren't for him. I'd have probably cried more than a few times, but his positivity and humor kept me laughing and in good spirits, even on the downhills. Lucky me :) It really is a mental and emotional challenge. It was really cool to experience something like that and I looked forward to my next ultra. I'm looking forward to an '09 50-miler...which to choose!
I've been hobbling around since Sunday, and each time I come to a flight of stairs, I stand at the base and just stare at them knowing it's going to hurt to climb them, but damn it's good to know why it's going to hurt!
At work, no one understands what it is I did and it absolutely fascinates them. The general response is, "31 miles? You what?! Who does that, on a whim!" And I just smile.
"If you start to feel good during an Ultra, don't worry - you'll get over it."- Gene Thibeault