A year ago (Feb. 11), I ran my first ultra.
I know I’ve spent a lot of time comparing running to motherhood (its kind of the point of this blog, after all), but the metaphor rings so true….Holiday Lake 2012 kicked me in the rear end….revealed hidden strengths…utterly exhausted me…and gave me something so precious that I couldn’t understand until I experienced it for myself.
Like motherhood, ultra running has pushed me beyond my perceived limits, introduced me to some
crazy wonderful people, and provided a structure and rhythm to my life that makes me a better person.
Of course I was going to do it again in 2013!
I had been looking forward to this race for a few reasons. The experience and mileage of this past year made me much more confident…I knew I’d be able to run the distance. But aside from that, I was thrilled that my cousin Mark would be coming down from Delaware to make his ultra debut. Mark, 18 months older than me, has always been like a big brother. We spent our childhood and teenage years at our family’s cabin…hiking, mountain biking, and getting into trouble. I know I can count on him every July for hilly runs and spirited Tour d’France commentary. This past summer, when he mentioned training for a fall marathon, I suggested that he run Holiday Lake with me. He took the bait.
We arrived at the 4H Center and settled into our (unheated) cabin in plenty of time for the pre-race dinner and race briefing. That’s the other reason I was happy to return. Last year, I knew hardly a soul. But this year, it was like walking into a family reunion. So many familiar faces, so many memories of the past year of training runs, races, and adventures.
Morning came too soon, of course, but a few cups of coffee and some oatmeal cleared the cobwebs. At 6:30 we were off. I had lost Mark in the pre-race shuffle, and headed up the first 1/2 mile of paved roads. Like JFK, I tried to use this time to get positioned for the upcoming trail section. The only thing worse than being stuck behind a much slower runner on single-track is BEING that slower runner and sensing others’ impatience! Fortunately, the course has a lot of fire roads and wider sections – I never felt “out of place” on the trail.
There is something so wonderful about the early miles of an ultra. Rested legs, adrenaline, and relief combine to make the first hour effortless. The sun rose, illuminating the woods and trail. The first aid station came and went. At some point between aid station 2 & 3 I realized that my water was frozen in the hydration-pack tubing. Uh Oh. I was able to get some liquid at the aid tables, but by mile 13 or 14 I realized I was seriously dehydrated. I felt tired, much earlier than I expected to. I was carrying 60 oz. of electrolyte-laced salvation on my back. I HAD to get it working.
Biting and bending the tubing didn’t help, so I stuffed as much as I could down my shirt…anchoring it with my sports bra. It didn’t bother me a bit, and a few miles later – TA DA – it flowed freely!! It was AMAZING how quickly my energy returned once I rehydrated, and, feeling well, I picked up my pace as I neared the turnaround.
Holiday Lake’s course consists of two loops. The first is run in a clockwise direction, the second counter-clockwise. I hit the turnaround at mile 16 and felt great, pausing only for a moment to look for my Aunt Sue. I didn’t see her, so I rolled right through and got back on the course.
Last year, I easily spent 1-2 minutes at each aid station (and probably a solid 5 minutes at the turnaround). This year, I had packed sufficient liquid and fuel so I didn’t need to pause at all. I love the volunteers that work these races, and gave them all a smile and ‘THANK YOU’, but it felt great to breeze past each table and know that I knocking time off my total.
The first few miles after the turn are a bit dicey, as runners pass each other on narrow single-track. However, it redeems itself with the best reward – an opportunity to see and cheer the other runners. Spotting friends, giving a wave, the relief (this weekend at least) that everyone seemed to be having a good race, provided a lift that carried me back to the Mile 20 aid station. But one familiar face was missing. Where was Mark?? He’s a stronger runner than me, but had planned to run a conservative pace. I really had no idea if he was ahead or behind, but I totally thought I’d see him at some point. Finally, I passed Sir Nigel, who gave me a nod and told me “go catch your cousin”. ”How far ahead is he?” I asked. ”A bloody eight miles, at least” was the reply. Thank goodness…the one thing I wanted more than anything was to run a strong race AND have Mark beat me to the finish line. I figured that would ensure many more ultra-adventures for us in the future!
This year’s strategy for the second loop was the same as last year’s. Run aid station to aid station, without thinking too much about how many miles remain. Coming into each one, I did a quick inventory. Did I need anything? Since I was running with my hydration pack, I’d grab a cup of water so I wouldn’t have to stop & refill my pack later. How am I feeling? Can I run at this pace for another 4 miles? Go, go, go!
I had switched the display on my watch so I could only see the time of day – no mileage, no pace information. Each mile it would buzz, and I’d allow myself a quick look at my pace. I was thrilled to see it stay consistent for most of the day. When the trails opened up to service roads, I was cranking out 8:20 and 8:30 miles. On the true trail sections, I ran in the low 9′s. I felt strong and solid up as I approached the last aid station. Coming up a long hill, I saw a familiar form. It took me about 10 minutes, but I finally caught up to my cousin. He had run a SOLID race for almost 28 miles, and it was so great to see him. He had twisted his ankle, and was starting to slow down, so he waved me on. I ran through the last aid station, and and started to feel the accumulated distance. I was tired, and the last four miles were tough. Even so, I was able to pass two women, and kept running as hard as I could to maintain my place.
At last, I saw the wonderful orange paint telling us there was 1 mile to the finish. Soon after, I hit the road and ran downhill the final 1/2 mile, crossing the finish line in 4 hours and 44 minutes; 6th female and 41st overall. A Horton Hug made the day complete, and I stumbled over to a soft spot of grass to stretch out and watch the other runners fly down to the finish line.
I soon started seeing familiar forms coming down the hill. First Brian, then Monte. Where was Mark? Even accounting for fatigue, he should have crossed the finish line by now. Finally, I saw his red jacket approaching. He gave me a quick glance, shook his head, and ran through the line. He’d twisted his ankle again, but also veered off course for almost 3(!) miles. Despite this disappointment, he ran so well – especially considering he’d never previously run a marathon. He’ll be back next year, I’m sure…
A year of ultra-running…four seasons of accumulating experience, mileage, and stories. I’m thrilled with a top-10 finish, but more so that I ran my own race, and it was good enough to stack up against the chicks with way more experience and credibility.
And even though it was a good day for me, I’m taking away a few lessons learned:
- DON’T watch the watch! It’s so important for me to run a pace that’s comfortably hard. When I have preconceived pace targets, I end up going off track. Listening to my body is the best way for me to ensure that I’m running at the right speed.
- DO check in from time to time. Noting my average pace every mile or two helps me validate and quantify what I’m feeling. It also gives me data for future runs (Onset and rate of fatigue…physiological response to Clif Shots…etc). My left-brain personality LOOOOOVES this kind of info!!
- DON’T ignore hydration. This caused me problems at Catoctin, and it could have really hurt me at Holiday Lake as well. Running in the cold and not sweating a lot, its easy to think you’ll only need to drink every 4 miles. Stuffing the hydration pack tubing down my shirt to melt the ice probably saved my race.
- DO know your nutrition. As appealing as the aid station food might look, this girl works best with energy gels. Every 4 miles, starting at mile 12, was all I needed today.
- DO enjoy the competition! Of course we all want to place well, but the thing I love about longer distances is that you can’t fake it. One of my favorite moments of the day was at mile 23, when a girl (Kelly Devine) ran past me like I was standing still. I was feeling good, and running strong, and amazed by her speed and fluidity that late in the race. It was a joy to watch. (We chatted after the finish and she shared that it was her first trail run ever- WOW!)