Thursday, September 18, 2014

NFEC 50-Mile Race Report

In my mind, this was the race that should not have happened. It defies explanation.  Injured all last
winter with IT band issues, not even that excited about running heading into the spring, I signed up for the North Face Endurance 50-Mile Challenge completely on a whim. Part of it was due to the fact that I had seen my husband run enough ultras now, that I was finally intrigued. Part of it was surely due to the fact that two friends of mine were training for their first 100-miler and were making it sound so F*U*N (yes, with all-cap/star emphasis).  To be honest, I was feeling left out. So, after waffling at the end of LAST year as to what I wanted 2014's goal to be, I finally decided what the hell and signed up for this 50-Mile C*H*A*L*L*E*N*G*E (also with all-cap/star emphasis) back in the early spring.

Since I haven't been writing, you are spared all the gory details about training and the emotions that went with that.  The short version is that I kind of pieced together a program based on Relentless Forward Progress and what a handful of friends and my husband suggested.  I opted to err on the side of undertraining, versus overtraining - so my program was by no means going to get me some outrageous time goal. The goal was to finish - and finish happily.

Basically, the gist of what I did was this: I ended up running four days a week. The Wednesday and Friday runs were my mid-week runs. They were generally at least an hour long, on trails, or involved some kind of hill or speed workout. Sunday and Monday were my back-to-back long runs.  Sundays were the longer of the two and built up to a 22-miler about two and a half months prior to NFEC in preparation for the one and only 50K I did in mid-July (Dances with Dirt).  After DwD, I built up again to a 24-miler, three weeks out from the 50 Mile.  These Sunday runs were typically done on roads. As they got longer, though, I usually incorporated a 10-mile loop that involved some good hills and then would run to the local state park so that the last few miles of the long run was done on trails.  I somehow thought running the trails on tired legs would be good experience.  Long Sunday runs were run every other week.  The "off" week was typically a 10-miler, done on trails.  I should add that - especially for the road runs - I utilized a 5/1 run/walk ratio.

The Monday runs varied in distance but were meant to challenge me to run on tired legs.  I kept the same run/walk ratio and pace, inasmuch as I could.  Quite often, they were run on trail, however.  And, after the DwD 50K, I took the advice of a friend and endurance coach and switched those workouts to a 1/1 run/walk interval.  That may sound crazy, but the whole idea behind it was to really work on my walking. Since it was a given that I was not going to run the whole 50 miles, but would rather incorporate quite a bit of walking, the hope was that I could teach myself to walk quickly. Up to this point, I have always been a dawdle walker. To this end, I think I had some very good success with adding this workout into the regimen. My Monday 1/1 run/walks weren't significantly slower than my Sunday 5/1 run/walks, due to the fact, I would guess, that in running and walking for "just one minute," I was able to convince myself to go faster at both paces.  That is to say, my runs and walks were just darn faster. (Ex.: 9-something versus 10:30 pace for the runs and 14 versus 17-something for the walks.)

Last year, while training for all those marathons and the 50K I did, I offset my running with bike riding and the occasional yoga.  I thought it was important to keep pounding away at the cardio for some reason.  This year, because of the injury I had recovered from, I thought maybe I should back off a bit. So, instead of doing two more days of cardio a week, I opted to do yoga instead: one class a week of hot/power yoga and one class a week of the stretchy/slow flow type of yoga that feels so good on tight muscles.  Saturdays were my one and only true rest day a week.

Was this the best plan ever? No clue. But, it seemed to work for me.  I had a really good, solid summer of training. I did manage to tweak my IT band about two and a half weeks out from the 50, though, and that added some stress going into the race. If I had just listened to my body at that point, though, it wouldn't have happened. Lessons learned.

So, on to the race.

When I first signed up for this event, it seemed like a brilliant idea to forego the traditional hotel room and go with camping instead. Seeing as the race start was scheduled for an uncivilized 5 a.m., sleeping at home and driving the two hours to the start would have been impossible. The race is staged from the Ottawa Lakes Campground, so tenting it there for the night and walking to the start at o'dark thirty seemed like a phenomenal choice - until it rained.

Home, sweet, home!
Getting to the campground and setting up the tent in a steady drizzle, the choice to camp suddenly seemed like a colossally bad decision. Add to that the fact that the lows overnight were supposed to be in the upper 30s and it was hard not to tell myself what a dumb ass I had been. And, I didn't just have me to think about, but also two kids. Suddenly I was very concerned we were all going to freeze to death in our sleep. In the spirit of adventure, though, we bundled up in double layers, crawled into our sleeping bags, piled high with fleece blankets (suddenly it wasn't such a bad thing that we had saved all those no-sew, double-layered fleece baby blankets. Cookie Monster and Winnie-the-Pooh were more than happy to help keep us toasty for the night).  Two phone alarms set for 3:45 a.m., it was time to sleep. Or was it?

As it turns out, it wasn't time to sleep. Listening to the rain fall on the tent, snuggled deep into my sleeping bag, I would have thought nothing would keep me awake. However, the idea of waking up and running 50 miles was apparently enough to do just that.

So it was that after a rather restless night of sleeping, the alarms sounded the time to wake up, face the chilly morning, and my fate. (Duh, duh, DUH! That sounded dramatic, didn't it?)

Getting dressed was done quickly. Despite the crappy weather the night before, the forecast for the run was actually ideal.  The start was to be a bit chilly with a temp of around 40 degrees, but the high wasn't supposed to get much above 60 degrees all day. And, no rain. All in all, fantastic!  I had decided for this run I would wear my Pearl Izumi N2 trail shoes, compression socks, Saucony Impulse shorts, PI ultra inside out shirt (short-sleeve), Smart Wool arm warmers, knit cap and gloves (for the start), as well as my Patagonia light-weight wind-breaker.  After getting dressed in running gear and then throwing my flannel pajama bottoms and a fleece jacket over everything, it was time for a quick bowl of instant oatmeal and some Via instant coffee, which my husband had thankfully gotten up to make for me.

We said our good-byes at the tent (the kidlets were still sleeping, after all), I grabbed my two drop bags, and walked by the light of my headlamp through the quiet campground, around the south end of the lake to the start area. Welcome to tent city!

The race had taken over a good-sized chunk of grass, bordered by two roads, the lake and a parking lot.  A dozen or more tents were set up around the perimeter with Clif hydration, blocks/gels, drop bag drop-off, and all the other trappings of a major event. I managed to find my way to packet pickup, got my bib and some pins, as well as my shirt, buff, and a pair of SmartWool socks. I was a few minutes late for the drop-bag dropoff, but I still managed to get there in enough time to shove my race swag and fleece jacket into the emptier of my two drop bags and send them on their way.

Corner of the race event's compound. (Picture taken the next day.)
Waiting around for the next fifteen minutes or so for the start, I wasn't too chilly.  Fires were blazing around the clearing to keep warm the runners and spectators alike. There were to be two waves to the 50-Mile start. According to announcements made, we were to line up in the appropriate wave according to what was marked on our bib. If no wave was indicated on our bibs, though, we could choose whichever one we wanted. Sweet! I didn't have a wave marked on mine and thought for about half a second to line up in wave 1. However, [not to stereotype here] when I saw who all was lining up in wave 1, I decided wave 2 would suit me just fine.

At 5 a.m., wave 1 was underway.  Three minutes later, it was our turn. Finally! Time to get the show on the road.

Anyone who has read my stuff in the past knows that I am not one for mile-by-mile blow-by-blows. (Thank goodness, right?) So, read on for my discombobulated account of this race.

The 50-Mile, as stated, starts at 5 a.m. What that means is that it is dark. In fact, it is dark for about an hour. You start off with about a half mile or so of road before getting on to the trails. I have to say that I loved this hour of dark. It was just fun. Except for the headlamps of other runners and the ground illuminated by the steady glow of my own headlamp, I couldn't see much of anything. It was like being in another world - a very insulated one. Being so early in the race, I was for the most part around other people for the entire time we were in the dark, so I wasn't too worried about getting lost. Glow sticks hanging from trailside branches showed the way.  Keeping my eyes on the ground in front of me helped me not to trip.  But also looking up once in a while to orient myself to the other headlamps let me know if a climb, descent, or bend in the trail were coming. It didn't take long (the first long climb) before I got a bit overheated, so I shimmied out of my jacket and tied it around my waist.

I didn't run this race with anyone. In fact, the idea that I would be able to spend 50 miles by myself was one catalyst for finally signing up for an ultra. I wanted to know - more than anything - that mentally I could spend the time by myself. So, I was alone for most of the race, and I didn't listen to music. I entertained myself with my own thoughts - and sadly with eavesdropping too. To be honest several miles of this first loop were spent on the heels of two ladies who were holding a jolly conversation about fellow acquaintances, household stuff, and life in general. Shamelessly, I trotted behind them, entertaining myself with their conversation. Don't get me wrong - there was no judgement on my part. It was just something to do to pass the time.  If these ladies noticed my eavesdropping, they didn't seem to mind. Sadly, I eventually lost them, as they were clearly faster than I was.

That hour of darkness was almost magical in a way, and I was sad when it started to fade.  The time spent doing the first 7 miles went quickly, and I couldn't believe when we had looped back at mile 7 to a point in the trail that we had passed five miles earlier.  This was the first clue I had that this might be a good run, rather than my typical long distance slog.

Miles 7 to 21 passed in a blur.  Nothing really stands out in my memory about those miles.  I remember random thoughts, such as when I passed the half marathon mark, then again around 18 to 20 miles. How it seemed weird that I was passing mileage that typically are "are we there yet?" mileage.  The idea that I still had over half my race left flitted through my mind. However, as with meditation, I tried hard not to dwell on any thoughts, just recognize them and move on.

In those first miles, I stuck pretty well to my plan of eating three Clif Blocks every 45 minutes.  That is what I had determined beforehand.  I thought if I could stick to that as my base eating plan and simply supplement it with real food whenever I felt hungry, then that might be a good way to go.  Somewhere in those early miles I vaguely remember eating some potato chips and maybe a couple of bites of PB&J, but I didn't go too crazy on the food.

Approaching 20 miles, I started to look forward to the fact that I would be able to see my husband and kids.  They were planning to see me at miles 21, 28, and 35 - those aid stations with the easiest accessibility.  Little did I know that that mileage would contain the hardest terrain for me to handle.  Approaching the mile 21 aid station, we ran along the perimeter of a shooting range (clearly marked). Obviously, it was a busy day at the range, because the sound of shooting was loud, echoing as it did off the hills and through the trees. It sounded very close and was a bit unnerving. I kept wondering where the shooters were in relation to where I was and hoping they were farther away than they sounded.

Coming in to McMiller (Miles 21 and 35 aid station) the first time, I was so happy to see my family. The kids had obviously been told that they could dig into the bag of junk food Andy had only after I had come through, because as soon as they saw me it was a quick, hi mama, and then they began clamoring for food. (To show you how engaged my kids were with this event, they apparently quizzed grandma and grandpa the next day at their hotel about all the race shirts they were seeing: So, is 50K or 50 Miles longer? Did Mama do the 50K or 50 Miles? Is that the shorter distance? Sigh.)

Just coming in to Mile 21. Finally able to take off the hat, gloves, and jacket.
As a crew person, I have to say my husband was brilliant. He was supportive and cheerful and got right down to the business of seeing to what I needed before sending me off again with nary a moment wasted. (I'd like to think he learned this all from me, his intrepid and indefatigable crew chief over the past few years.) While it was fantastic to see the family (even if the kids only cared about the Fritos and Kit-Kats in the crew bag), it was a bit sad to leave them behind.  I had made the Mile 21 aid station, passing the cutoff, but I had a rough 14 mile out-and-back in front of me. Luckily, at the time, I was blissfully naive as to how rough it would be.

Heading out from McMiller, the trail started innocuously enough. It wasn't long, however, before it morphed onto a xc-ski trail with some hellacious climbs. In fact, they were so impressive to me that I can honestly say that I am now convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that I will NEVER be a serious, hardcore xc-skiier. I don't know how people go up or down those hills. In fact, even running, it became quickly clear that I was going to have trouble going up OR down these hills.  Actually, the ups weren't the problem (I was going to walk those anyway), however the downs were tough. That IT band that had started barking a few weeks earlier decided that it really didn't like the downhills. So, many of those steeper descents that I would have otherwise hoped to run down ended up being walkers as well. I spent the next few miles cursing myself that I had turned Andy down when he asked if I needed any Excedrin.

The hills aside, or maybe because of them, I would have to say that my lowest points in the race came between miles 21 and 26. At the time, I found this strange. I kept playing in my head how a friend of mine says that the hardest part for her is usually between miles 31 and 35, and how Andy always feels at his lowest between miles 40 and the finish. I couldn't help but think, Good Lord, if I already feel this crappy even before the halfway point, how is this race going to progress?  I remembered my first 50K where I had felt I hit the wall at mile 15. Although that was not the best feeling at the time, I also remembered that it never got worse - just stayed the same level of bad.

Hitting that low stretch mentally in the 50-Miler forced me to do a few things: the first of which was to ask myself how badly did I want this finish? The answer was pretty darn badly. I reminded myself that everyone has low points and challenges in ultras. I certainly haven't run very many of them, but I have crewed and cheered and now even paced one. I know that low points pass. The next thing I started doing was what I should have done from the start - that is, NOT to look at this race as one big whole, but rather break it down to its parts.  I was kind of doing that already. I was focusing more on getting from aid station to aid station, but then I started looking at the distances I was covering. Luckily for me, that played in my favor a bit. I was happy when I reached the marathon mark - certainly not a PR by any means but it was a time that was acceptable given the trail. I got a PR in the 50K distance. And, I got a PR in the 8-hour distance (as compared to Moose Mountain Marathon.) Additionally, I reminded myself over and over again, this is what I had trained for. I really needed to convince myself to trust that training.

So, in the end, it was in a way the little things that got me through. Heading up and over those hills in that middle section, I entertained myself with my bit of PR-vs.-non-PR math. As I got closer to the mile 28 aid station (the turnaround point for this hillacious out-and-back section), I did get a bit emotional. For one, I was happy at the chance to see my husband and kids again. Secondly, though, I thought there would be a good chance my parents would be there as well, and I couldn't wait to see them. (They have never seen me run an ultra and had decided this was the one! Not only that, but they had signed up to work an aid station that afternoon too at mile 45). Thirdly, I was more than ready to tell Andy to give me the drugs! Finally, on a negative note, I was a bit emotional because I knew that the turnaround would mean that I would have to go back over those damn hills again. Ugh.

At Mile 28, I got the family fix I needed with the husband, kids, and my parents. I got my one Exedrin, and I turned around and took off again into the woods. Heading back over the hills didn't seem as bad the second time around. Part of that comes surely from the fact that I knew there would be an end to them, but also I have to give the Exedrin some credit. It did take the edge off of the pain enough that I could start running down the hills again. Although the effects only lasted two-and-a-half hours, I was happy for the break I got from the nagging pain I kept feeling. It was during this stretch that I passed the 31-mile mark, entering that territory of "longer than I have ever run." I thought I would feel more jubilant or something at that point, but like the other thoughts I had entertained throughout the day it mostly just was noticed and then flitted out of my head again.

I guess I expected the last 19 miles of the race to be something crazy significant or mind-blowing. I mean, I had STRUGGLED through my two 50Ks, finishing with usually an average 14:30 pace. I was DONE after both of those races.  Hell, most of the marathons I have run have left me feeling spent and like crap - slow as I am. I thought for sure these last 19 miles would shred me. The fact is, though, they didn't.

I made it back through the worst of the hills and back to McMiller with plenty of time to spare before the hard cutoff. The miles leading into mile 35, I was once again treated to a volley of gunfire. (Don't those people ever give it a rest?) I was excited to see the family once again (minus my parents who had needed to head to their aid station duties), but I was also looking forward to seeing four of my friends who had surprised me the Thursday before by saying they were planning on coming down to cheer me on for the last part of the race. One was also planning on pacing me, which was allowed by Mile 35 as long as that person had registered and gotten a Pacer bib. I was excited at the thought of having a pacer, not so much for the pacing itself, but after almost 8.5 hours on the trail alone, a bit of conversation sounded nice. Plus, I knew that R. would be the person I needed to keep my walking going, because while my running pace was still pretty darn steady, my walking speed had flagged considerably over the course of the day - and there was more of it.

Coming in to Mile 35. Really, the only muddy part of the course.
I tried not to get too excited as I neared the aid station, though. I didn't want to be disappointed if for some reason they weren't there. I knew they had some other things going on in the morning hours that might hinder their timely appearance on the trails of southern Wisconsin. And, as it turns out, they didn't make it on time.

As I got into the aid station, I asked Andy if they were there, and he said they had called ten minutes before to say they were almost there. So, I took some time to have a couple of ginger chews (the tummy was fine but it just didn't seem like a bad idea), grabbed my hat from the drop bag, refilled bottles with Coke and water, stuffed a Snickers bar I had brought in my pack, and finally went to the bathroom - my only time through the entire race (probably not a good thing), and checked out the "cave" my children were digging out in a big pile of rubble. I asked Andy if I should worry that my hands were swelling a bit. He said no, just don't drink so much. I shoved a second Exerderin tablet in my pack in case I needed it, dawdled around a minute or so more, before Andy finally broke the news that I should probably head out.

So, off I went. Without the brilliant conversationalist in tow that I had dreamed of, I latched on to a couple of girls that I had been playing leapfrog with for the past many miles. We chatted a bit, and they told me about their experience running this event the year before. Their news that the worst of the hills was behind us cheered me considerably, as did their attitude that now with the last hard cutoff of the race also behind us we could just dilly-dally our way to the finish if we wanted.  Yay! Even the realization that I still had 15 miles to go couldn't dampen my spirits at that point.

As the girls planned on walking for a good five minutes before cranking the legs back up again, I decided to trot on ahead (we would play leapfrog still to the finish, as it turns out). I enjoyed the first half of my Snickers - tucking the second half in my pack to save it "for a special occasion" (such as when I was hungry and wanted a Snickers).

As it turns out, the hills weren't completely behind us at Mile 35. There were still some pretty good ones on the way to mile 40.  The leg was starting to bother me again, but I was hoping to avoid taking the second Exedrin if I could help it. Getting out of the woods and hills again and cutting through the prairie, I was super excited to see my friends there to cheer me on! They had gotten lost on the way to the last aid station and felt bad about missing me. We had a nice chat, although I am sure I was a bit out of it. R. was ready to pace me at that point without a bib, but being such an obnoxious rule follower at times I felt I had to turn her down. Although the chances of anyone DQ'ing me at that point (clearly I wasn't a front-runner) were close to zero, I didn't want to take the chance. Besides, a part of me wanted to see if I could do 50 on my own. At this point in the event, it seemed important to try. Of course, that didn't mean I didn't want to see my own personal cheering squad as often as possible, so I was thrilled to see them at all the aid stations heading into the finish, as well as major road crossings!

Between Miles 40 and 45, there was one last, long hill climb, which I had been warned about by another friend. I enjoyed the second half of my Snickers somewhere in there, and I became a bit more gregarious during the last few remaining interactions with fellow racers.  None of us were going to win anything; we were just in it for the finish. With that all but assured at this point in the event, conversations had more of a tinge of "job well done" bonhomie. Everyone was more relaxed, except of course for those who were really still struggling.

For myself, I definitely felt tired, but I can't say I felt any worse really than I had 10 miles earlier. Mentally, I was ready to be done, but physically, while I wasn't fantastic I also wasn't miserable. I was somewhere in between the two. Everything after that mile 35 cutoff had the feel of "I can do this." There was no hurry. At one point, given my pace I knew I could break 11:30, but that time had passed.  I suppose at some point it went through my head if I made an effort I could then get under 12 hours, but now that the end was near the finish time didn't seem to be that important as long as I finished.

As I approached the Mile 45 aid station, I once again was able to look forward to seeing my parents who at that point had spent the afternoon working the aid station. Seeing them and chatting a bit about their hours there just added to my overall happiness. It was nice to have introduced them to a rewarding experience as well.

Mile 45 aid station with mom and dad.
And then I finished. I continued my run/walk, walking a bit more just because I could. I did take that second Exedrin before the Mile 45 aid station, I believe. My leg was uncomfortable and I didn't want to finish out the race at that level of discomfort. At any level of discomfort, though, I think running into the finish was the best feeling ever.

All in all, I am really happy with my first 50-Mile experience. Unlike my first marathon eight years before, I finished feeling good and ready and willing to take on another similar challenge.  I am pleased with my time, too. My average pace was only 14:29 by the end, but that is the average pace of my two 50Ks! That means, I added on 19 miles without significantly lowering my average pace. I am sure a lot of that has to do with the perfect weather conditions, but still - it's enough to encourage me that this ultra distance trail running may not be so outside the realm of possibility for me.  In any event, I am already hatching plans for my next event.

What little was left of the day was spent enjoying the afterglow of finishing. The family, a friend and I all grabbed pizza in town, and then with the kids bundled off to enjoy the warmth and swimming pool of grandma and grandpa's hotel, Andy and I enjoyed an IPA in front of our campfire. I'll spare you the details of my second sleepless night where every move meant roaring discomfort and I finally felt hungry again at 2 a.m., meaning I had to leave the warm sleeping bag to scrounge around for food in our car. But, I will leave you with something someone once told me - if you feel like you might want to do an ultra, then do one. Don't worry about whether you can finish it or not. But if the feeling is there, you might as well follow it. I am glad I did.

IPA in hand. Now I am really done.