Monday, February 28, 2011

My First 50-Mile Race (An Adventure Story)

Originally posted as facebook note on October 20, 2010

Trail along the American River
A few weeks ago I was extremely fatigued, unmotivated, wasn’t having fun running, was voraciously hungry, had gained several pounds, wasn’t sleeping well, and having strange problems with my ankles. It seemed I had done the thing I was always afraid of: I had overworked myself. Some might say I was over-trained. There was less than a month until my first 50-mile race— Rock’n River 50— and I felt like a basket case.

Instead of pushing my body further, I listened. I had just enough time that I could back off training, sleep and eat to my heart’s content, and hopefully be back enough to finish the race. So I took over a week off from pretty much all exercise. I felt like a slug, but knew it had to be done. Then I did an easy 4-mile trail run, but was exhausted the next day. I took a couple more days off, and then decided it was time for an easy return. I ran for 30-60 minutes easy for 4 days in a row. I wasn’t concerned at all about my pace; I just wanted to have fun running again and get a little more time on my feet. After all, it wasn’t about my training over the last month, but the entire body of work that I’d put in all year.

Scott, manager at Fleet Feet Bend had cut out pieces of the tongue and collar of my shoes that had been irritating both my inside ankles. It did not comfort me that my shoes required modification, but I had to go with it. I also started wearing compression socks while running, as opposed to only for recovery. A week before the race I was back up to 3 hours running, and wasn’t having any ankle issues. It was “go” time. I just had to trust that by race morning, everything would be fine. Trusting has worked for me in the past, and I didn’t have another choice this time either. (If you think you’re screwed, you surely will be.)

In the past I have had running dreams where I felt good at 16 or 18 miles. This time I dreamed that I was running and still feeling good at 52 miles! While my body was repairing itself, my mind was seemingly trying to comfort me during sleep. It worked.

Two days before the race my flight from Redmond could not land in Portland due to dense low fog, and landed in Seattle instead. I could not get a flight to Sacramento until 8pm that evening, so was stuck in the Seattle airport for 10 hours. At least the airport had free wi-fi to keep me entertained. I found an unused gate where I hung out most of the day and was able to nap on a bench. Upon arriving in Sacramento at 10pm, I nearly freaked when my bag did not come off the plane. It turns out my bag had beat me to Sacramento. I finally got to my hotel at 11:30pm. Had I flown to Sacramento the day before the race, I would have gotten only 3 hours of sleep. I was thankful I had allowed an extra day and could sleep all I wanted to the day before the race.

The trail meandered through this cool rock garden
Race morning I got up before 3am. The shuttle bus to the start was to leave at 4:30am SHARP and I wasn’t going to miss it! 4:30am came and went with no bus to be seen. Just days before, race director Robert had talked with the bus company who had confirmed the 4:30am pickup time. Turns out though, the driver had been told that 5:30am was the pickup time. In addition, the original driver was not answering her cell phone that morning and a last-minute replacement driver had to be found.

The replacement driver was flustered from the beginning, and had no idea where we were going or how to get there. She had a printout of turn-by-turn directions but was having trouble reading and following them. She made several wrong turns that took us many miles out of our way. Once we finally arrived at the race start, I gave the driver a hug as I got off the bus and told her I hoped her day got better. She began to cry. Poor thing! Robert had held off the 6:30am start for as long as he could, but by the time the bus got to the race start the first runners had long gone. A dozen of us comprised the “second start” at 7:42 am. I wasn’t thrilled about having to run more during the heat of the day or finish in the dark, but at least I had a small headlamp with me. There was nothing I could do about the situation, so decided to make the best out of it.

The Rock’n River 50 course is the opposite of the American River 50 course and has more elevation loss than gain. It is run on the American River Trail from the Auburn Dam Overlook to Sacramento. When I first signed up, I thought I was selling myself short. But let me tell you, it was much harder than I thought it would be. Fifty miles is a long way no matter how easy and fast the course is. The first 3 miles were good downhill on road so I clipped along at a decent pace knowing these would probably be my fastest miles of the day. At the first aid station I briefly met the race director and shook his hand. Then it was on to the dirt trail for the next 20 miles or so. Somewhere between miles four and five I saw a trail marker: 52 miles. Remembering my dream from a few weeks before, I nervously laughed out loud. I hoped this wasn’t the 52-mile spot where I felt good. I wish I had taken a picture of the marker— it looked just like it did in my dream!

Some of the trail was challenging. There were large rocks requiring big steps down over them and waterbars with large drops on the other side. After feeling a couple twinges in my lateral left ankle I started walking these sections. There were some really interesting rock formations along this stretch and beautiful, expansive views of water and green. I was happy and felt good. The next section was rolling hills. None were very long, but they were one after another. Some were steep enough that I felt I couldn’t effectively run up them without tiring myself out, so I walked most of the ups. I started passing people around mile 14. They must have been “regular” starters because they hadn’t been on the late shuttle bus with me. I began looking forward to the wide asphalt bike path starting at mile 23. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about my footing.

As the sun rose higher in the sky and the temperature warmed, I got slower and walked more frequently. I am never happy with myself when this happens, but knew I had to do it so I would have a greater chance of feeling good later. Though I was beginning to get hot and fatigued, I was still feeling good and had plenty of energy to do a little song and dance number for the aid station volunteers at Beals Point at mile 23. From here on out, the course was mostly on a wide asphalt bike path. I was ready to not worry about rocks and footing on horse paths any more, and though it was much more boring, I welcomed the surface change.

 I have never relied much on aid stations, but began utilizing them more during this race, especially after the first 18 miles. I poured cups of water over my head and stuffed ice in my sports bra, which proved really effective at keeping my core cool. When I tired of the sweetness of gels and had problems chewing and swallowing anything dry (crackers, energy bars, etc), I turned to grapes. This was a risk, as I’d never eaten grapes on the run before, but they worked really well for me. They were easy to chew, refreshing, moist, and really perked me up. I stuffed my mouth full of them at aid stations and grabbed a few more for the trail. I also downed a cup of Pepsi at each aid station. I probably spent more time at aid stations than I should have, but felt that by doing so, I was saving time later on (begin with the end in mind). I didn’t want to forget to do anything that would benefit me (been there, done that!), so took the time to stop and think while I was there. At 27.7 miles and my first drop bag, I changed my shirt, which was really refreshing. This shirt was sleeveless, and I immediately felt cooler. I was glad I had thought to throw it in at the last minute.

Folsom State Prison
From before the halfway point on, my Garmin showed that each aid station was at least a mile farther than it was reported to be. Either my Garmin was off, or I’d be running more than 50 miles! Even though the miles continued to add up, as the sun got lower in the sky and the temperature cooled a bit, I was able to run more, and faster too! By mile 40 I had gotten back into a groove. I didn’t feel great, but I didn’t feel bad either. I was just somewhere in the middle, and for some reason, that’s not an easy place for me to be. With me things tend to be on one end of the spectrum or the other. I have difficulty dealing with mediocrity. I questioned why I do this; that maybe I should just stick to easier, shorter stuff and be a cheerleader for others in need of support and encouragement. 

Around mile 40, a local runner caught up to me. Tricia was running 15 miles that day, training for her first marathon in December. Though this woman did not know me, she continually told me how amazing I am, that I was her hero, and asked how I “could still be running after more than 40 miles?” We ran together for the next seven miles or so. In my highly emotional state, I told her things about myself that few people know; as if by telling her about my shortcomings, maybe she would decide I wasn’t so amazing or the hero she thought I was after all. She continued to tell me how wonderful I was and how great I was doing. The last couple of miles we ran side-by-side saying nothing, but rocking out to our own music. I sang along with both the uplifting and angst-filled tunes filling my ears. Music motivates me and makes me fight harder.

Tricia was the first of two angels I met on the trail that day. (Wow, I just now realized that she was sent to be the support and encouragement that I really needed that day.) About 48 miles in, she left me to head toward home with the last words that I only had 3 miles left and I could so do this! It was nearly dark, so I donned my headlamp and pressed on. I was tired and my legs ached, but it didn’t get any worse, so I just kept running. I wanted to run all the way to the finish line. Little did I know the turn off to the finish line was only a mile ahead. I never saw it. And since I was in the hurried “2nd start” group, didn’t get the pre-race briefing on where the turn to the finish was. I thought about the runners behind me and wondered how they were faring. I knew some of them didn’t have headlamps.

While running alone in the dark, I saw low animal eyes looking toward me and heard rustling in the trees and bushes. My mind ran amok. Since I was on an urban trail surrounded by a wide swath of trees, I wondered how many bad men might be lurking in the bushes waiting for a lone female runner to pass by. There is no lighting along the trail. I tried to exude confidence as I ran along. After all, I should see the turnoff for the finish line at any time. I saw a dark animal running ahead of me in the middle of the trail. I thought it was probably a wayward black cat trying to get away from me. As I gained on it, I could see that it was a skunk. Great, I hoped that I would not get sprayed by a skunk after all this! I picked up my pace and without looking back, passed the skunk on the far side of the trail.

Trail-side Turkeys!
I saw two vehicles heading toward me on the path. I thought that I must be nearing the finish, and that they were surely headed out to check on runners still on the course. They kept driving past me I figured, because I was still running and looked like I was going to make it. Then two cyclists sped past me yelling “you’re almost there!” which gave me hope. I watched and listened for signs of a finish line, but none came. I finally realized that I was far past the finish and didn’t know where I was (other than I was still on the American River Trail and heading west). My mind quit on me, and I slowed to a walk. I looked at my watch and saw that I was nearly 53 miles in. I had made it past 52 miles feeling relatively good after all! I chuckled and smiled. While I was scared, I was also happy that my dream really did come true.

I thought about turning around, but didn’t know where I would go. I decided I would just keep moving forward and would eventually run into someone or get to a public place. I could see downtown Sacramento getting closer on the other side of the river. More miles ticked by. Then my second angel arrived in the form of an older man on a bicycle. I flagged him down and explained my situation. I asked if he had a cell phone and could call someone— a friend or coworker perhaps— who had internet access and could look up the race director’s phone number on the race website. At this point, the thing I was most concerned about was a worried RD out looking for me, or perhaps getting him in trouble because I was still out on the course and “lost” thus jeopardizing his chance to secure the proper permits to hold the race next year. Angel 2 told me the only person he could call was his 83-year old mother. Great! I had stopped the loneliest bachelor in all of Sacramento for assistance!

Angel’s Mom got on the internet, but didn’t have the computer skills to get the information I needed. Just then another man on a bicycle came along and I again explained my situation. Something about him was just not right. It sounded like my angel was getting ready to leave me with guy #2. I whispered to Angel to please not leave me with this guy. There was something not right and I didn’t trust this new guy, but I did trust him. So Angel asked if I could keep going and he’d take me to someplace public and safe. He wanted me to hop on his bicycle (which was electric). I said No, I wanted to finish this under my own power. He replied, “that must be a runner thing.” Yep, sure is! I started running again as he lead the way through Discovery Park and then across the river to an exit off I-5 where there were several hotels. I decided to go into the Comfort Inn and stopped my Garmin— 56.6 miles!

I explained my situation to the front desk attendant, who looked up RD Robert’s phone number on the race website. I finally got in touch with Robert and told him where I was, that I was OK, and that I was going to call a cab to take me back to my car at the early morning shuttle location. I was so thankful that I had put $40 cash in my pack before leaving the hotel room that morning (my cab did not take credit cards) and the cabbie got a huge tip. I was just happy to be back to my car and wanted to brighten someone else’s day too.

This photo courtesy of Facchino photography
By the time I got back to my hotel it was 10pm and I didn’t want to go anywhere. So I ate popcorn, greek yogurt, crackers, protein bars and soup cups that I had bought at the grocery store the day before. I really had hoped to be out having dinner and a good time with some new friends after the race, but this would just have to do. I wondered if the people behind me had finished OK in the dark. I was glad this happened to me and not them. Robert and I spoke at length about our experiences that day. He is so thoughtful and giving. Even though I never crossed the finish line, he gave me an official finishing time and will send me the finisher’s jacket. I am pleased to no end.

Now I have a lot of things to think about. I almost feel like I need a debriefing after this experience. A lot of things went wrong. Are they trying to tell me that I am headed the wrong direction in life? Or perhaps they are showing me just how strong I am and that I can do more than I think I can. More than likely I am just reading too much into it. Things happen. I’ve heard great stories from my ultrarunning buddies and wished I had one to tell. Well, now I do.

On the flip side, a lot of things went right. I had a headlamp and some cash (next time I’ll take a cell phone). I listened to my body. I fueled smartly, even when I didn’t feel like it, and quickly found a plan B that worked well when plan A didn’t. While at times I didn’t feel great, I never felt bad either. I had no cramping, nausea, chafing, or blisters. I just kept moving forward at a pace I felt I could keep up “forever,” whether that was walking or running. I always had the end in mind and wasn’t about to do anything that would compromise my well-being during those later miles or might cause me to not finish. That was just not an option.

Overall I had a good experience and learned a lot about myself in the process. During the latter stages of the race (mostly after dark when I was “lost”) I questioned why I do this and if I really wanted to continue doing so. The next day however, I was back online thinking about races for next year! I should stop kidding myself. I enjoy running and the challenges and rewards that come along with it. I don’t have to be front-of-the-pack to have a good time or feel a sense of accomplishment. As long as I keep having fun, I’ll keep pressing forward, one step at a time. 

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