My biggest goal this year was to qualify to apply for Western States 100 Endurance Run for 2012. Just to apply you have to run one of a list of qualifying 50 mile races in less than 11 hours. Once you apply, you have about a 10% chance of your name getting drawn in the “lottery.” Yeah, that’s how many people want to run the granddaddy of ultras. My first shot at qualifying for States was Mt. Hood 50 at the end of July. I was ready, felt strong and confident, and knew without a doubt that I would achieve this goal. Alas, I did not. Enter Autumn Leaves, my 2nd and last shot this year to qualify for States. Looking back on it now, I’m not sure I was convinced that I could do it this time, and in the end I think that hurt me. But in return, I gained so much more.
I took the early start at 6am for runners who need more time to complete the course (“regular start” was an hour later at 7am). The course, entirely within Champoeg State Park consists of eight 6.25 mile “loops”: two out-and-back sections (one much longer than the other) connected by a one-way loop. 80% of the course is on lovely asphalt bike paths, and the remaining 20% on single-track trail.
|Race course in red. The point on the far left was the start/finish of each loop. |
The point on the far right is the turnaround at the end of the longer out & back.
I felt great the first three loops (about 19 miles). My pace for each loop was pretty consistent and right where I wanted it to be. Starting on the 4th loop, I really began to feel it. My legs weren’t tired and didn’t hurt, but I could feel it in my core being (somewhere between my head and my torso; it’s kinda hard to describe). My pace slowed considerably during lap 4, and I began to take walk breaks. I worriedly looked at the average pace displayed on my Garmin far too often, and it just kept going up and up.
Coming in to the aid station a little less than 2 miles into loop 5, I was feeling sleepy, light-headed, and a little hungry. I finally recognized this feeling as one I had experienced on a trail run this summer. “Shit! I need sugar and I need it quick,” I thought. At this point I began to drink a couple cups of Coke at nearly every aid station in addition to my gels, and also stuff a handful of grapes into my mouth when they were available.
I knew I had started taking gels a little late. It wasn’t until 40-something minutes into my run and probably another 40-45 minutes after that that I had a gel (I’m used to taking them every 30 minutes or sooner if needed), but I thought I was back on schedule. Perhaps just being off the first couple of hours did me in. My coach had warned me about the longer out & back section being not only distractingly beautiful, but distracting with people both coming and going. I was obviously not above the distractions. The trail gently undulated through a forest of huge trees, large orange fallen leaves covered the path, and leaves occasionally fell as I ran past. Moisture dripped from the trees from the previous day’s rain and the early morning fog. It was a beautiful wonderland, and I so wanted to just walk and gawk at it all. This area made me really happy. I smiled a lot, and even sang along with my iPod quite a bit.
I enjoyed watching people come toward me, seeing their smiling faces or looks of determination. Even the front-runners said “good job” as they passed, though they’d already lapped me, even starting an hour later than I did. One speedy gentleman in a red shirt, glasses, and stocking cap even said to me, “Good job, Laura” twice in passing, though I had no idea who he was, and my name was nowhere on my person. Perplexing. I smiled and exchanged salutations, high fives and hugs with friends Jeannie, Lori, Scott, Jeffrey, Gregg, Sarah, Moises, and many others. They all looked so happy and strong!
By four miles into loop 5, it was apparent that I wasn’t going to make my less-than-11-hour time goal. I didn’t allow myself time to grieve. I told myself, “Oh well, I can decide to run another 100 miler next year. Western States will still be there in 2013. I can still work this winter to get stronger physically and mentally to be the best damn pacer at Western States that I can be in 2012. And I can still do the training runs too.” Then I was over it. I decided not to look at my pace any more. Worrying about it was not doing me any good. The only thing I looked at was the Time of Day. I had to start my 8th and final lap by 4pm. My focus had completely changed within minutes. I would not let failing to meet one goal keep me from succeeding at another. One little victory.
I did however, consider quitting after the 5th loop to finish at the 50k distance instead of 50 miles. Truth be told, I was quite concerned at this point about making the 4pm cutoff to start the 8th and final lap. Bret, the Race Director, had said there was a strict 4pm cutoff, and those not making the cutoff would be disqualified. I considered quitting at the 50k distance because another goal I had for this year was to raise myself to 3-star “Gold Level” Marathon Maniac status (12 or more marathon distance or longer races in a single year). If I was disqualified from this race, it wouldn’t count, and I really needed it to count. I finished lap 5 and kept going. I didn’t hurt, and I’m no quitter when things get mentally tough. Just keep right on moving. Another little victory.
I had about 90 minutes each to complete laps 6 and 7. That sounds like plenty of time to run 6.25 miles, but there are a lot of variables that play in to that equation (aid stations, potty stops, potential walk breaks, battling mental demons, and just the fact that you’re already 31 miles in with nearly 20 miles left to go). About a mile into loop 6, I wondered if Bret really would disqualify me if I were to start loop 7 at 4:02pm. It was a chance I could not take. I began to run more and felt better as I went, though my right ankle and lower back began to ache. I ignored them. Except for the minor aches, I finished lap 6 feeling much better, but that lap had still taken a little too long.
I pulled into the aid station at the end of lap 6. Race Director Bret was there and offered to help with whatever I needed. He’s an ultrarunner too, and understands. I handed him my Recoverite powder and handheld bottle. As he mixed up my bottle of Recoverite, I downed a couple more cups of Coke and took another gel. For my 7th lap (miles 37.5 to 43.75), I knew I would not only need to run every single step, but I’d have to pick up the pace as well. I wasn’t sure I would be able to do it, but I was going to give it my best effort.
Loop 7 followed my 4-page written Race Plan exactly: “Focus more on me. Enjoy the moment. Send loving thoughts to my body. Encourage others who are down or hurting.” I now had to focus on the goal at hand. I still admired the scenery though. How could I be sad running through such a glorious landscape? I found a pace that felt like I was haulin’ ass, but that I could keep up for the entire 6.25 miles. I told myself to relax, that I had this. I enjoyed the smiles of those heading toward me on the out & back, most of them on their final lap. I sang along with the songs playing in my ear. If the song was appropriate, I sang to people as they passed me. I sing not only for my own joy, but to bring joy and inspiration to others, to share breath, inspiration, energy.
I had stashed my water bottle in a vest pocket but began to find holding the other bottle (my now-empty Recoverite bottle) quite annoying. It seemed to be taking away a bit of my focus. So as I approached the next aid station, I tossed the extra bottle 10 feet to a volunteer as I ran by, shouting “I’ll pick this up later if I remember.” I realize it might have seemed rude, but I really didn’t feel I could take the time to stop.
I looked at the Time of Day on my watch only a couple of times on loop 7. Though I thought I had the cutoff time beat, I continued to push myself to the end of the loop. I finished loop 7 with just 5 minutes to spare. I was ecstatic. I could now take as long as I wanted to for my 8th and final lap. All I had to do to earn my finisher’s medal AND my first belt buckle award was finish the last lap. I was so very happy and thankful that I hadn’t quit. I holed myself up in a porta-potty for a minute and just cried happy tears of relief. Then I jogged down to my drop box of supplies and did some nice things for myself that I felt I couldn’t take the time to do earlier: I changed my shirt and used a cold wet towel to wipe the sweat and salt off my face, neck, and hands. It felt so good! Friends that finished the race an hour or earlier were still there and cheering me on, even though I was at the back of the pack.
Loop 8 also fit my Race Plan to a T: “Victory lap!!! Do whatever comes— I know the course now!” Since I met the cutoff, I could take my time now, and I did so by walk/jogging (wogging?) most of the first 3 miles of the loop. About a mile in, I caught up to a fellow wearing orange, who was running his first ultramarathon. He’d jumped from marathon to 50 mile distance, completely skipping 50k. I’d met a couple more people like him today. Man, do those people get my respect! He asked me for my recovery advice and I gave it to him, then I started jogging again. At the last turnaround, I was surprised that he was just seconds behind me. Unless this fellow had a finishing kick better than mine, he would not beat me today! I am competitive with the people I can be competitive with, and he was my competition at this moment. It was a race for “not last.”
As I approached the final aid station, I caught a glimpse of “Mr. Orange” still right behind me. Damn! This was the aid station where I had tossed my empty bottle earlier, but once again, felt I could not take the time to stop, since I had someone hot on my tail. I yelled to the volunteer, “Do you still have my water bottle? I’m sorry, but I can’t stop.” She jogged to her car nearby, produced the bottle, then jogged ahead and met me farther up the trail. I never had to stop. What a sweetheart!
I knew it was time for me to pick up the pace to the finish. Just before mile 5 it was back to trail for most of the last 1.25 miles. I wanted to look back to see if Orange was still right behind me. I didn’t though, but just kept going. The thought of him potentially right behind me made me push harder. The song “More” by Usher started playing as I made the approach to the finish line. It’s uncanny how many times this song happens to play as I approach a finish line. The lyrics are perfect:
“I’m a beast, I’m an animal, I’m that monster in the mirror,
The headliner, finisher, I’m the closer, winner.
Best when under pressure, with seconds left I show up.
If you really want more, scream it out louder,
Get it on the floor, bring out the fire,
And light it up, take it up higher, Gonna push it to the limit, give it more.”
|My first belt buckle award! Usually you have to run a 100 mile race to get one, |
but a few 50 mile races also give them out. This is one.
Autumn Leaves is a fabulous course. One might think you’d get bored doing eight 6.25 mile loops. But any boredom is all in your own head. The course is absolutely freaking gorgeous. Race Directors Bret Henry and his wife Gail are both so giving and loving. The volunteers were helpful and gracious, and the aid stations superbly well stocked. There were lots of cheering spectators in the middle of the day. One man in particular who looked more than a bit like Santa Claus was awesome. I looked forward to seeing him and hearing his cheers each time I passed by.
Ultrarunners are such an awesome, loving group of people. Never has one told me that I should be ashamed of myself, that I should have done better, run faster. Instead they give cheers of “good job,” “looking great,” or “keep up the good work” even when I’m obviously not feeling great or doing so well. Ultrarunners are proud of you no matter how long you take to finish (even if it’s 2nd to last) or what you look like doing it. I am so thankful to belong to such a wonderful group of people. Thank you to everyone who was a part of my wonderful day of absolutely no regrets.