Sunday, October 2, 2011

Delivering My First 50k

For me, running a 50k for the first time was a little like being pregnant—I was looking forward to it more before it actually happened, I spent way too much energy just trying to stay upright, and at a certain point I just wished like hell it was already over. 

Near the beginning of the trail
My husband and I chose the Baker Lake 50k for our second attempt at an ultra-marathon because the course is an out-and-back, so there were no double loops to tempt us to quit at the halfway point. It is located in a beautiful region and the course was supposed to be easy, with relatively little elevation gain. It is also just a 50k, that is no 25k or 50 or 100 milers are held on the same day (therefore, if I wore my race shirt there would be no question of which distance I completed). Superficial of course, but you should never underestimate the power of a good race shirt. In fact, I’m wearing mine right now and might never take it off.

Another benefit of the location near Baker Lake, Washington is that the campground where the race started offers free sites after Labor Day. We ended up missing the early start time by a few minutes because we were still breaking down our campsite when the horn sounded about 10 minutes early. The sun hadn’t completely risen yet, so we weren’t that disappointed about not making the early start because the visibility was still a little poor. We spent the hour before the regular start time generally being intimidated by the other race participants, nearly all of whom looked like they usually run 50 kilometers before breakfast. 

There would be only one aid station, so we both wore hydration packs loaded with sports drink (Nuun for me, Gatorade for Aaron) and plenty of gel. I also carried a carb/protein drink (Perpetuem by HammerNutrition) in a handheld water bottle. We each packed an extra shirt and socks as well as more gel and some Body Glide in our drop bag that would be driven to the halfway point for us to use at the turn-around.
One of the numerous bridges
The starting horn sounded and we were off, generally staying toward the back of the pack. We ran up a paved road and across a dam. I’m not necessarily scared of heights, but I still found myself avoiding looking over the edge to the bottom so far below. After we crossed the dam, we went up a gravel road for about a mile and then turned off onto the single-track trail and were instantly enveloped by thick forest. The trail was padded with pine needles and undulated lazily through the woods and over many wooden bridges.

Fortunately, wearing the packs allowed us to carry our cameras and we took plenty of opportunities to take photos—before it started to rain. Yes, it started raining about an hour into the race, and it wasn’t just the omnipresent Pacific Northwest misty sort of rain, it was pretty much a downpour. The canopy of trees tended to shield the trail in most places, but it was still wet and getting wetter. At this point, we were about six miles in and feeling pretty good about our 12 minute per mile pace. Although we told ourselves and everyone else that “finishing is winning’” we both really wanted to finish in between six and seven hours. 
Me leading the way over a river crossing in the mist

The trail became slightly more treacherous and rockier at about this point. It was also punctuated with many stream beds to cross, some with flowing water that soaked our feet no matter how careful we were. The foliage along the trail become significantly thicker, obscuring the ground for large stretches at a time making it difficult to go much faster than a walking pace for fear of tripping. It was difficult to settle in at a comfortable pace and keep it steady for long because of the constantly changing terrain. I lost my footing several times and recovered, except one time when I actually fell. My water bottle broke my fall with a wheeze, prompting me to compare it to an airbag for runners. I was none the worse for wear and quickly scrambled up and kept running. If I had tripped any later, I would have been a road hazard because we ran into the first runners coming back the other direction about a minute later, four miles from the halfway point.

We stopped to let others pass many times in the next hour, stepping off the trail because it was so narrow. Aaron stepped into a patch of stinging nettles at some point and spent the mile before the aid station with a burning sensation on his left calf. One thing that was hard not to notice was how pleasant and courteous all the runners were. Without fail, everyone who passed us or whom we passed offered a kind word. I’m not sure if this is common among trail runners in general or ultra-runners in particular, but I suspect it has more to do with the distance; these people know what it takes to push their body past limits that seem inconceivable to most people and understand that sometimes a friendly word is all that is needed to get through the next mile. 

We finally reached the turnaround about three and a half hours into the race. We refilled our packs and I changed out of my soaking wet shirt, used the bathroom and we were on our way once again. This time Aaron took point and pretty soon I wasn’t able to keep up with him. After Haulin’Aspen, we agreed that we would both run our own races at Baker Lake. Of course, I expected this to mean that I would beat him with no hard feelings, but I was feeling pretty wrecked already and was actually pleased that Aaron hadn’t started to physically break down yet, as he had in other distance races. Normally, my super power is endurance and I typically have negative splits (where I run the second half of a race faster than the first), passing many other runners in the last few miles, but for whatever reason I was merely mortal today and feeling pretty grim about the next twelve miles. 

Those who know me know I never waste a downhill, but I found myself walking the downhills on the way back because I was in quite a bit of pain. I actually walked a majority of the last half of the race, only running when I was sure I could go for a significant distance without having to break my gait because of a steep patch or a creek. Every rock seemed to rise up out of the trail like a whale breaching the surface of the water—surprising and dangerous. The combination of the rain and the footfalls of other runners had caused the trail to degenerate into a muddy morass in several places. I stumbled less on the way back, but only because I was going slower and selecting my foot placement with excruciating care. I hadn’t felt this bad in a race since my first marathon and I hadn’t even gotten to 21 miles yet. I knew I had to keep eating and drinking, but the gels made me gag (in the best of times they aren’t great) and even the taste of my own sweat from where the nozzle of my hydration system had been resting against my chest was hard to take, but I chocked everything down anyway and I’m sure I would have been worse off if I hadn’t.

I overtook a few people on the way back and our brief conversations were a welcome distraction, but I was essentially in complete solitude for the next several hours. I alternated between hoping I would come across Aaron so I would have company and hoping he had already finished. My Garmin had given up the fight at about mile 24  when it got so wet running through the overgrown section of the trail where I held up my forearms to ward off the wet blows of the branches. My Nike Sportband was still going strong, but because it’s a pedometer and doesn’t connect to GPS, I knew the mileage could be significantly off. I got something of a second wind around mile 26, which was probably a combination of knowing I was nearly finished and the fact that the trail became significantly easier; knowing at this point I was going further than I had ever gone before was also motivating. As per my usual technique, I kept mentally breaking the course into tiny fractions (five sixths complete!), but I had to constantly revise my math as my mileage (according to the Sportband) kept increasing but I hadn’t yet reached the road I knew would start about a mile and half from the finish. I finally popped out of the trees at what I thought was 30.25 miles hoped that my recollection of how long the road was had been incorrect. The Race Director waiting there quickly dispelled that notion when he told me I had one and three quarters of a mile to go. I stopped to chat and have a drink since my pack had run out. I took a cup of what I thought was Gatorade but that turned out to my Mountain Dew. I don’t think I’ve had Mountain Dew for 20 years and it is just as nasty as I remembered. 

I started running again before my stomach rebelled, and this time I resolved to run the rest of the way without interruption. I passed one more person on my way in and just after I crossed the dam I saw Aaron waiting for me and cheering me on. He ran me in for a ways, but I have never half-assed it across a finish line before and I wasn’t about to start now—I took off and sprinted across the finish line at 7:44:40—exhausted and sore and happy, kind of like at the end of a pregnancy. And one more reason why the two are alike: I didn’t get a medal when this one was over either.

1 comment:

  1. The irony of this metaphor is that I was actually pregnant during this race. Go figure.