Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Jackson County 50-mile trail run: a race report

I began this year in the midst of a struggle. There were no injuries or life changes to blame; I just didn't feel good and my motivation was nonexistent. I was out of shape, so running felt sisyphean. The mere thought of getting outside to put in a few miles seemed like such a monumental task that I didn't want to face it. I wasn't eating very well and I spent most of my free time curled up on the couch, sometimes getting some good reading in, but mostly doing crossword puzzles or watching TV. Looking back now, it was a really gray time, and I wish I could put my finger on exactly why. I just wanted to hide and not do anything ever.

I tried putting together a running streak at the very beginning of the year, just a little bit every day, to jumpstart my motivation, and that kept up for almost a full month. But I was having to force myself to go and it got to be counterproductive, so I gave that up and went back to just once or twice a week. It wasn't until late April into May that the motivation started to trickle back. I found myself putting together consistent weeks of running in the 30-mile range and I realized I was back.

During the summer, I treated running like a timid animal that I was trying to lure to my hand so I could pet it. I didn't want to make any sudden moves and scare it away. I started running trails again, and it fed my soul. It all started to feel good again and the thought of going long again seemed like an attractive idea. And somewhere in there I thought it might be time to run an ultramarathon.


These sum up how I felt about going longer than 26.2.

Back in October. If you look closely
you can see Chris waaaaay up there.
I didn't want to break my fragile alliance with myself, so I stayed away from structured running schedules and firm plans. Eventually I decided to run the Tecumseh Trail Marathon, and from there, I thought, maybe an ultra. Things went well during training, at Tecumseh, at the subsequent 50K at OPSF 50/50, and in a 30-mile training run. Well. Then. I guess I'll do 50 miles. Going into it I was alternating between feeling fairly confident and certain I was going to break myself. My running friends and I even previewed the course so we could check out the hills.

I don't always run an ultramarathon, but when I do, it's after a week of heavy rain. Most of that was in the two days before the race, including the night before (I read somewhere we got an inch of rain overnight) and right up until the start. Seriously, it stopped just in time, so I guess that's something. I just kept telling myself it couldn't possibly be as muddy as OPSF. Spoilers: it could, just in a different way.

I woke up on race day at 4:30 a.m., which was of course fabulous, and got through my morning routine. Awesome friend Rebecca was down for the weekend to support all of us doing the Jackson County races, and staying with me. It was really nice to have someone else around to help keep my nerves down. The plan was for her to drive me to the start, and Mark would come down later after running a couple of errands.

Photo credit: Rebecca Petrush
The weather forecast for the race itself was promising. At the start it was low 40s and supposed to go from overcast/rainy to partly cloudy in the course of the day. Instead it just stayed cloudy with some wind, and got colder. Thanks for nothing, nature. I started off with a singlet and arm warmers under a thin jacket, and ended up keeping the jacket on for the whole day.

I started off with longtime training partners and friends Chris Neoh and Alicia. Alicia and I ribbed on each other, each accusing the other of getting her into this mess. (But seriously, it really was Alicia's fault. :P) We had agreed we would try to stay together at least for the first loop to help prevent her from going out too fast. We got into a good groove at a comfortable pace. I didn't see any other women in front of us, but almost at once a woman with blond braids went sailing past. I named her Blond Braids because I am creative. "Just let it go!" I told Alicia, because I knew she instinctively wanted to chase her down. There would be plenty of time for that later.

The course is five 10-mile loops with about 8,000 feet of gain total. The first few miles have a couple of significant climbs, then it's rolling to flattish for a little while, then several more significant climbs just past halfway before a pretty manageable last couple of miles. When I say significant climbs, I'm talking head down, hands-on-thighs type climbs. Those hills were killer, but the views from the top were beautiful. The mud was not too bad at first, just enough to cover the shoes, with quite a lot of icy puddles.

We stayed pretty close for the first loop, not always right together, but nearly always in eye contact. At the very beginning of the second loop, I went thigh-deep into a sinkhole and full-on belly flopped into a kiddie-pool-sized mud puddle. Luckily I had kept my jacket on, which kept my core dry, and my gloves were in the pocket, so they stayed dry too. I had my phone in the front pocket of my pack (OF COURSE I had just taken it out of the plastic baggie I was keeping it in), but it was high up enough on my chest that it only got a few drops of water on it. But I'd gotten a generous splash on my face and everything below the waist was now soaked. BUT, look how prepared I was. I whipped out the baby wipes I'd brought along and cleaned up my face and hands on the run, then put the gloves back on. So I was actually pretty comfortable for the rest of the loop despite the dunking.

Photo credit: Katie Yoder
Midway through the second loop, Alicia took off. Chris and I stayed together for a while longer, but I was gradually moving ahead of him (meaning he wasn't having a good day because usually he is way faster than me). I didn't feel all that good either. I didn't feel bad, just not good. It seemed way too early for my legs to feel so heavy. Could I push through and actually finish? I honestly wasn't sure, but I tried to focus on getting through the section I was on and not getting overwhelmed by the big picture. I was mostly successful, but around mile 15 I remember thinking that if I were doing the 50K I'd be halfway and that my halfway point was still 10 miles away and OH SHIT I'M RUNNING 50 MILES WHAT. But those slip-ups didn't last long.

At 20 miles I refilled my pack and changed out my wet capris for shorts and compression knee socks. I kept shirt and jacket the same, but changed arm warmers for ones with mitts. Chris came in a few moments after I did and announced he was dropping. I wasn't surprised but I was sad, and it was compounded when I saw that Adam had dropped from the 50K as well. A true testament to how tough the conditions were. It was a sobering start to the third loop, but on the bright side I did not fall into the sinkhole again.

Thirty miles in. Photo credit: Chris Banul
I'm not sure which was mentally tougher--the third loop or the fourth loop. I realized at some point that my phone had stopped charging, which caused me to waste some time fiddling with it. Eventually I had to give up on it and just let it die, then catch the last eight miles of the race on my Garmin. Oh well. My pace slowed and I was doing more walking. The mud was getting steadily worse. It tended not to be very deep, but it was torn up and slippery in many spots, especially hills, and negotiating those sections was difficult with heavy legs. It was like running on a Slip 'n' Slide. Nothing was really physically wrong, but I just felt demoralized. Luckily the start/finish was packed with friends and encouragement, and Rebecca was working the aid station right in the middle of the really sucky hills at mile 6 in the loop, so I got a boost every so often. I tried to keep my chin up (figuratively, because falling sucks).

After the third loop, I refilled my pack again, gratefully accepting Erin's help (she is one of the most knowledgeable and experienced runners I know, and is always willing to jump in for a bit of crewing where needed). I was mildly worried because Mark wasn't there yet, and I'd been sort of hoping my dad would show up (he had mentioned he might drive up and check out my race since my mom was at a quilt guild meeting that day). This was a big moment for me and I said so as I took off again: "Here I go into undiscovered country!" I'd never gone past 50K/31 miles before.

Sorry about the feels. :(
Well, it was hard. I felt like I was crawling. At one point I stopped to empty some collected grit out of one shoe, and my fingers were so stupid and the laces were so caked with mud that it seemed to take an hour to get the shoe off and back on. I wasn't feeling any standout pain--just the overall sore/fatiguey feeling that continuously begs you to stop. It got very loud on that loop and I wasn't having much luck fending off its advances. I got to the middle road section, which, although flat, really sucked because it was so jarring. I knew the big hills were coming and it wasn't even the last time I would do them.

As I ran along the road, a car came up next to me and slowed down and who should it be but BOTH of my parents! They'd gotten a bit turned around looking for the start/finish and ended up in the middle state forest section. And with impeccably good timing too, because seeing them was a massive boost. I went on, not really moving any faster, but feeling better about it. Another boost when I stopped at mile 36 and got an update from Rebecca that Alicia was already into her last loop. I knew she had gone into first place, but it sounded like she was just getting stronger and stronger. I thought idly how cool it would be if I could catch Blond Braids too, but not really seriously--she had looked really good and strong when I saw her, and Rebecca had said she was "truckin'"--just not as as fast as Alicia.

Forty miles in. Photo credit: Chris Banul
I finished the fourth loop feeling pretty good mentally, despite falling right at the end and getting mud all over my arm warmer mitts. At last, one lap to go. It might take forever, but I knew I could get it done now. Mark was there with the dogs, my parents were there, lots of friends were there--it was amazing. I stripped off the arm warmers and put on a long-sleeve shirt under my jacket instead, then went back to gloves. And Chris Neoh offered to pace me for the lap, which was welcome as it was now quickly getting dark. Let's take a moment to appreciate the hardcore badassery on display here: Chris had already run 20 miles on a bad day, dropped, stood/sat around for several more hours, then opted to run 10 more miles in the dark. Then again, he has run 100 miles, so that was nothing. But still, so much gratitude.

I started this loop with fresh vigor. I didn't have it in me to really pick up the pace, but I could walk less as long as I focused. I promised myself I would run all the flats and at least start running up the gentle hills. This worked really well for pretty much the whole loop, actually. In fact, my legs felt okay, better than they had 10 miles ago. Chris kept up a steady stream of encouraging words and I joked around and quoted movies. At one point he reminded me to drink and I sang "Just keep sipping, just keep sipping, what do we do, we sip, sip, sip."

Mile 46. Photo credit: Rebecca Petrush
We made steady progress, even on the hills, and headed down the hill into the aid station at mile 46. I had decided I needed to think of a funny way to let Rebecca know it was us since she would only see headlamps coming. We're all Firefly fans, so as we ran up, I said, "What does that make us? BIG DAMN HEROES!" She got a kick out of it.

There were several others who had paused at the aid station and I realized with dull surprise that one of them was Blond Braids. I drank some of the magical tomato soup from the aid station and tried to get my breath. Don't freak out, Miranda.

She left a moment later. I finished my soup and we headed out soon after. I said to Chris, "Now I'm not going to flip out about this, but was that...?" He affirmed that I was only moments behind second place and mentioned that I had made up a lot of time to catch her; she must be hurting. I tried to keep my promise not to flip out, but it was hard. I was hurting, too. I knew I needed to relax and stay steady and I might very well be able to catch her. I thought how cool it would be if I could finish second behind Alicia, meaning BARA women would go 1-2, and how excited everyone would be when they realized it was me finishing.

We tackled the last big climbs. I went steadily but not all out; Chris was totally on the same page, telling me to stay calm and be patient. After the hills but before we got to the lake section, we passed second place, and her pacer. We offered some heartfelt encouragement and buckled down to seal the deal. All I had to do was keep going, I told myself.

But I was really starting to struggle now. I needed a pit stop (because obviously that couldn't have held off for TWO MORE MILES after running, you know, FORTY-EIGHT). And I was paranoid that being passed had lit a fire under Blond Braids and I imagined her charging right back past me. Finally I had to pause for the pit stop, but at least after that I felt a little better. Only a mile and a quarter to go. We started our way around the lake. From the lakeshore, you can clearly see the finish. In fact, you see it and have to run parallel and away from it for a while. I kept saying, "We're so close!" and in my head was quoting Red Leader from the Death Star trench run in Star Wars: Almost there, almost there...

At one point I had to walk a bit through an especially muddy section and I asked Chris, "You don't see anyone back there, do you?" He said no and I immediately felt relieved. Just keep it together for a few more minutes. I was thinking only up to the finish line and not one second beyond.

BARA sweep! Photo credit: Erin Hazler
The finish chute is muddy and uphill because of course it is. But I couldn't stop at that point, so I pounded home as best I could. I made it! I actually ran 50 miles! I got a medal and a really awesome trophy for the second place finish, probably my favorite one I've ever gotten: a polished wooden plaque. I also found that I'd finished eighth overall, which I'm very proud of.

After a whirlwind of congrats and hugs and photos, I went inside and sat down and before too long started to feel pretty terrible. My stomach was a little ehhhh and I was lightheaded, then I started getting chills. Luckily Erin and Chris Neoh knew exactly what to do and got some calories/electrolytes into me quickly. Erin helped me into the bathroom, where they had HOT SHOWERS. I had brief thoughts of throwing up, but it passed quickly, and I tottered over to the shower, where Erin had kindly laid out all my stuff and turned on the water. For a while I just sat there with my clothes still on, letting the water run over my legs, then I stood up and rinsed off all the mud. That was a bit of a fright, although it could have been a lot worse but for my friends' quick thinking. In hindsight I think I let my fluid/calorie intake tail off a little too much in the last three or four miles, just concentrating on making it to the finish. I was sipping but not really taking much in. Well, you have to make it through the finish too. Lesson learned!

Quick note on the race itself: This was the first year for this event, and I hope it will continue. As usual with DINO, the organization was great, the trail was tough but rewarding, and the venue was perfect, with indoor bathrooms/showers/warmth just a few steps away from the race start/finish. The course was well marked and easy to follow, even at night. And the aid stations were well stocked with good food and awesome people.

Recovery: I was quite sore the next day, but believe it or not, I would actually rate the muscle soreness as less than what I usually experience after a hard road marathon. My joints hurt more, and most of all my feet and ankles. The muscles and tendons down there had clearly been a little overworked in keeping me stable and upright (most of the time) in that slippery mud. My right foot/ankle especially was actually a little swollen, so I put on compression socks and spent most of the day with my feet up.

By Monday I could walk normally enough that no one at work noticed anything weird. By Tuesday I was still feeling some pockets of soreness, but I could walk and even descend stairs normally. I'm a big believer in active recovery, so either today or tomorrow I'm going to do a very short shakeout jog.

Stats and stuff:
Finish place: 8th out of 22 finishers (34 started); 2nd out of 4 women
Official time: 12:46:43
Moving time: 11:38:02 for 50.7 miles
Approximate loop times: 2:02, 2:11, 2:42, 2:54, 2:51
Elevation gain: 7,611 ft. (mine tends to measure short; it was advertised as 8,000)
Trail falls, January 19, 1982, to December 5, 2014: 3
Trail falls, December 6, 2014: 4
Liters of water consumed: 5
Calories consumed: 2,200ish (about 175 per hour), most of which was Tailwind. Also a uGo bar, nibbles from the aid stations, and magical tomato soup.

Can't wait to do it again! I'm thinking pretty seriously about doing Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky next spring.
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