...otherwise known as longest race report ever (but it seems appropriate since it was my longest race ever).
My emotions are still raw from yesterday. It was the most intense day of my life. There's no way I can do the whole experience justice...
I left midday on Friday, and I headed straight to the hotel in Huntsville. Total coincidence, my room was right next door to Suann, who was also running the 50. I hopped a ride with her and Kai to the trail briefing just minutes after getting there. I was a little nervous since this was my first ever trail race.
The trail briefing was interesting... everything that was in the race document, but with that special "trail" spin to it. And we had seen (and been told about) the sign...
But when the race director tells you which bridges to make sure you go over instead of around because there are gator-nests underneath, that's when I make an insanely shocked face and think (out loud, apparently), "What did I get myself into?"
Fiona, Greg, Dat, Suann, Melissa, Kai, and Me
As we were leaving the trail brief, I spotted Ian Sharman
(course record holder with a 12:44 for 100 miles. Do the math, then be impressed.), ... and in typical blogger fashion, I had to get a photo. I felt a little odd asking him for a pic, but he was seriously the nicest guy ever. He asked all about my race - which distance, had I done an ultra before, etc. And then we got into a discussion about the alligators. He didn't look too happy about possibly being alligator lunch either. (This discussion led to one of my tweeps nicknaming me #trailbait . Still cracks me up. Classic.)
We went out for dinner after this (fajitas!) and then back to the hotel for bed. We had to decided to get to the race start super early to avoid the parking nightmare. I hardly slept at all... no surprise. I couldn't believe this was it... the day I had trained so many hours for.
We woke up to sheets of rain.
100 mile start photo by DryMax
It was unbelievable. I don't think any of us were really concerned with getting wet, as it was warm enough to not be a huge issue, but the trail conditions were a major concern... and we were right to be concerned.
Before the start!
Suann, Dat, Greg, Jeremy, and Me
Suann and I cheered the 100-milers off, and then went back for another potty break and to double-check our gear before dropping our bags. Then it was time. As we all huddled under the tent to catch just a few more minutes of dry, I felt crazy nervous. This is it. I trained my rear off and mother nature was not going to cooperate. Guess what? I'd just have to work twice as hard. So be it. Bring. It. On.
Loop 1 - We started in the dark at 7am... not too long before sunrise. I had no idea what to expect. There were some clear areas, and some mud puddles, but by mile 3, we were going through patches with ankle deep mud that had been kicked up already by the 100-milers in front of us. There was no way around it. Since the trails there are sand, the small grains would creep right into your shoes and start to form hard globs in any crevice it could find. For me, it was the line between the ball of the foot and the toe pad. It felt like a giant stick in my shoe, and there was nothing to do about it. There were other spots where it would glob too, and I immediately knew this was going to be a long long day.
I was constantly playing games of trying to stay just behind a group of people and letting them drag me... walk the uphills when they walked, run when they ran. It seemed to work. But still, by 8 miles in, I felt tired. Pulling heavy shoes out of suction-cup mud and leaping roots, was already taking it's toll. Trying to stabilize myself while going uphill on slick red clay was no picnic either. I pushed through the rest of the loop almost completely alone. Sometimes I couldn't even see another person. There were brief moments when a friend would pass... I finished the first 16.67 mile loop in 3:40ish, and I knew I was on track for the kind of time I wanted, but I also knew that the added effort of the mud was elevating my heart rate way above where it should be. I was also already emotionally drained from going through that level of intensity alone.
As I ended the first loop, Corina and Fiona were right there asking what I needed. I was already emotionally raw and all I remember is squeaking out "I need a hug, I feel so alone out there." Most of you know what a social runner I am, so that was really hard for me. They obliged my hugging needs and drug me over to the tent, where Erik and Michelle were also waiting to help out. Lesson of the day... when Corina tells you to sit down, hush, and let her help - do it... she knows what she's talking about. Shoes off, socks off, feet wet wiped and dried, feet re-lubed, new socks, mud scrapped out from the insides of the shoes, and Fiona trying to make me eat anything she could. Angels, I tell you!!! It's amazing how much I did *not* want to eat. I had to force myself. I also dropped the hydration pack after loop 1. I couldn't handle any more weight with the added mud on the shoes, so I grabbed my handheld.
After loop 1
Loop 2 - I probably spent 10-15 minutes there, but really at this point, I knew the day would be about toughing out the conditions. Complete change of plan. I came up behind a runner early in the loop, and she moved over for me to pass, but I told her I wasn't going to pass. Then I realized, she was a mutual friend, so I introduced myself and fortunately, she was desiring company as much as I was. People > Pace any day of the week. I was already sore and tired, and I just wanted to not be utterly alone for another 33 miles. Ali and I took on the loop in small chunks - just get to the aid station, just get to the halfway at mile 25. And we spent a little too much time playing "who can get through the giant mud pit with the least amount of damage"... a game which usually by the end of the pit, we had both lost with mud flung up to our knees. We passed a guy who looked up at us and said "Good morning ladies, no wait, afternoon?" That pretty much summed up the day. We were just out there a long time and it was all running together.
I can't remember where Ali and I were on this loop, but all of a sudden we heard a huge cracking sound, and we looked up ahead and saw a giant tree fall. We were maybe 200m back, so we couldn't tell if it was on the side of the course or over the course. Well, soon enough we realized it had fallen over the course. Thank God no one had gotten hurt. And by the way, even though it was maybe only 2 or 2 1/2 ft in diameter, pulling sore and tired legs over that thing was not welcome.
By this point my feet were killing me. They were on fire. Because of the constant water and mud, the shoes were heavy, the sand in the shoes was like walking on rocks, and the cushioning in the waterlogged shoes was useless, so there was no support. Ali and I saw a few smiling faces on this loop as well, that brightened the day for a moment. When we finally came around the corner for the start/finish/turnaround chute, it was like the heaven's opened and angels started to sing. I could see Ian Sharman turning in his chip to the race director. My heart sank... oh no, what is going on out there today? (Turns out he strained a muscle while dealing with the muddy conditions. Let's not mention the fact that he was dropping at mile 60 and I was at mile 33 - dude is FAST.)
After loop 2
Awesome volunteers immediately ran up asking what I needed... I just made a direct line toward Corina and Fiona. After the first loop, I had tried to do stuff on my own despite Corina's direction, but lesson-learned, this time I let her work the magic. Fiona brought me any food she could find while Corina did the whole foot process again - shoes and socks off, feet cleaned, dried, re-lubed, insides of shoes scraped down, socks and shoes back on, water bottle refilled, etc. They went through the checklist as I insisted I had to go before I lost my will to get out there again. Got up and headed over to Ali's area to wait for her to finish up with her feet, and then we were off. This stop was at least 15 minutes.
Loop 3 - Renewed, I was ready to attack it and get it over with. I think Ali could see that I was ready to go, as she gave me the "if you want to go ahead, you won't offend me". But there was no way I was giving up having a companion... especially knowing that I was about to embark on navigating mud pits and mud slides as well as ridiculous roots in the dark of night. Our goal was to get past the steep downhill that had the slick clay on it while it was still light outside. Not far in, I saw Tony. I shouted his name and gave him a big hug (seriously, not sure what my hugging issue was during this race, but I was really that much of a crazy needy emotional mess).
We were going to take this one aid station at a time. Note to self - never say that it's "only 4 miles" between aid stations when it's a trail race... 4 miles on trails, especially in poor conditions, can be well over an hour. But we did eventually hit that first Nature Center aid station. My feet had started to cramp badly, so the volunteers asked me to take some endurolytes, so I listened. As with all the aid stations before, I forced myself to eat. I think Ali and I both grabbed a quesadilla, and I may have grabbed a couple oreos before heading out. I was spending so much focus on my feet and where they were going that I wasn't drinking nearly enough, so I definitely took advantage of the aid station stops to replenish fluids as well too.
My feet hurt so bad. My muscles were screaming at me, but nothing I couldn't overcome... but the feet... oh, I just wanted to sit down and put them up so badly. I kept eyeballing logs and even the occasional park bench with the thought "just 5 minutes", but I didn't do it. After a tough haul, we hit aid the DamNation aid station. These people are angels, I tell ya. Ali and I were both shoving down what we could stomach and appreciating the brief break before we knew we had to move on. I saw my friend Dave at this stop, he was on his way back in for the finish, and I was still on my way out. He asked me how I was, and I think I said "I want to die." At the time, I'm pretty sure that would've been the less painful option. I know he could tell I really felt like it too. We were around mile 39.
Now it was one mile at a time. We soon got over that dam area with the steep slick clay slope I was worried about having to do with the dark, and that was one less thing on my mind. Ali and I had fallen into a routine of walking every uphill (even slight ones) and trying to push out as much of a run as we could on everything downhill or flat, except where there was heavy mud since we had to be a bit more careful. I should mention that my core was also on fire. Those stabilizer muscles got quite the workout from trying not to fall. There were times where we thought we were in the clear and we'd start running to find a huge section of mud only 10 seconds later. Deflating.
Finally, we hit DamNation on the way back in and we knew it was 8 miles. This time we didn't linger nearly as long knowing that the further we got in the light, the better, and we didn't have much light left. With around 6.5 miles left, we both had to turn on our lights... and so it began. I have never ever run trails in the dark before. Hint: I don't suggest you leave your first nighttime trail run to miles 43-50. My dexterity was already compromised, and now add lack of light. I will say that the majority of the miles in the dark, we walked. Every time I tried to pick up the pace, we'd hit a long stretch of mud or a section of heavy roots which seemed to be a lot more difficult to traverse in the dark. It seemed like it took forever to get to the Park Road Aid station, but finally there was a huge row of glow sticks and people everywhere cheering, and I almost had a breakdown from happiness. Ali needed a pit stop, so I stood around at the station while she was in the porta-potty, and I tried so hard to force myself to eat, but I couldn't stand anything... one bite of brownie, nope... a chip, nope. They were offering me everything from PBJ to potato soup to apple pie... it all sounded terrible, but I didn't care because there were people there smiling... and *that's* what I needed.
Ali finished up and we were on our way for the last 4.4. At some point, a guy (who I honestly only ever heard his voice since it was pitch black) tagged onto us and asked if he could stay with us. He was on his 4th 20-mile loop for his 100-miler and his light had gone dim. He didn't seem to care that we were clearly WAY slower than he was. This dude turned out to be an angel, because at one point I couldn't see the signs in the dark, and I hear him shout "WAIT, STOP... I know there was a left here." Oh my goodness, if I had gotten lost that late in the race, I might still be out there crying. Thank you, whoever you were! I had a lot of trouble at this point discerning where the path was, so I was looking forward to just making it to the portion that was out and back so that the oncoming runners would let me know I was going the right way. It felt like forever, but we finally did hit that out and back patch and the miles clicked down so incredibly slowly. It was all we could do, though, to stay upright. Right as we clicked to mile 49, my emotions went crazy. Really? Is this it? Are we really about to finish? I wanted it to end so badly. I needed a hug and a good cry and a bath and a blanket!!! (And in that order.)
When we got into the last quarter mile, I hear a voice behind me shouting my name. I asked "Is that Jeremy?" It was (he was finishing up mile 60 of his 100). He ran up right next to me and told me to go. He wanted me to finish strong. As we hit the final straight away, he started shouting to the crowd "This is her first 50!" The crews and family at the start/finish were AMAZING. They went wild. As I crossed the finish, the lady asked me "What's your number?" (They manually record everyone as a double check.) I shouted back "I don't know." I couldn't remember anymore. Jeremy had to look over and read my number to tell the lady. Still makes me laugh. What a disaster I was. I grabbed my medal quickly so I could run out of the "runner only" area... and there were Corina and Fiona waiting for me. I think I almost collapsed in Corina's arms. I was so incredibly happy to see them and to be done. I was all emotion at this point. I don't think I could've possibly talked to anyone without breaking down. All finished in 13 hours and 23 minutes. That is a long long time for relentless forward progress.
Thank you Suann for being my go-to person all weekend! Thank you to all the smiling faces on the course, especially Greg, who stopped each time to make sure I was feeling ok. Thank you to all the familiar faces helping crew, but especially angels Corina and Fiona - I wouldn't have made it without your hugs and care. Thank you to Ali for being my companion for 33 miles! And thank you Jeremy for making the finish that much better. It was an honor to have you next to me for the end.
Congratulations to Suann, Dave, and Ali on your 50-mile finishes!
And to the beasts that attacked 100 miles... I think you are amazing for even attempting it. Over 40% of the 100 mile field dropped during the race, which just tells you what rough conditions it was out there... with the top male and top female contender both dropping as well for injuries (slick mud is no joke!). Huge congratulations for Greg, Fawn, Matt, Kai, and Jeremy on their amazing 100 mile finishes. You guys (and gal) inspire me!
(Thank you Corina, Fiona, and Suann for the photos!)