I say “first” because then I went and signed up for a 50-miler a few days after this race, because an ultramarathon is an addictive thing. I want more. I want to do this for days.
Pre-Race Calm, and the Weather
Last weekend I finally ran the 32-mile ultramarathon race I have been training for (TARC Fells Winter Ultra). Unlike almost all the races I have run in the past two years, I did not have an anxiety dream the night or a few nights before. I have had terrible anxiety dreams before my last two marathons. I had an awful anxiety dream a few months ago, when I paced someone for the last 25 miles of her 100k (in the dream I forgot my shoes, among other things!). So you’d think, since I’ve psyched myself out of ultras for the past few years, I’d have a doozy of a dream. Nope.
Well, OK. I did dream that I showed up for the race and ran two or three loops but then found out I’d arrived too early and hadn’t picked up my bib … so I had to get my bib and start over! But this dream didn’t bother me.
Seriously, I have never been so calm before a race. The only drama was the previous night, when I was checking the weather and really torn between shorts and capris (looked like 30 degrees at start of race, increasing to 39 degrees … but since I’d be going slowly, I wouldn’t get as hot as usual … see my dilemma? I get really hot when I run). My friend Dana checked in with me to say good luck and when I told her I was down to the huge question of “shorts or capris” she said shorts.
Turns out she was checking the weather much closer to the race location than I was (don’t ask, but it looked like closer to mid- or high 40s later in the race). So I made a last-minute decision for shorts. THANK GOD. I ended up in shorts and a T-shirt, with arm warmers both up and rolled down, depending.
Anyway. I’d told my husband and kids that if they wanted to come watch — and I totally didn’t expect them to or need them to, and it’s a tricky race to spectate — I might be passing by Panther Cave at 8 a.m., 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m. That was a rough estimate based on my plan for two hours per eight-mile loop, allowing myself two-and-a-half hours for my final loop.*
This worked perfectly with my training, expectations, and the prediction that UltraSignup had for me (the registration site makes predictions based on your past races and the general field of racers). UltraSignup had me at a finish time of 8:37, which was pretty close to what I’d predicted for myself. My “hope” was 8 hours. I’d be happy with 8:30 (that means eight and a half hours). And I’d be fine with 9. Honestly, I knew it was a tough course and that a lot of people don’t finish, so my main goal was to finish my first ultra … smiling.
*They showed up!! But I missed them, because my timing was all off. They went and got lunch and came back … and I missed them again!
I also had shoe issues in the weeks leading up to the race. My trail shoes (NB Leadvilles) were pretty worn out. I’d tried one training run in an ancient pair of Salomons, stiff and heavy, not ideal. I tried some runs in my old Leadvilles, which felt mushy. Mushy like you’re running in your grampa’s old floppy wool socks. Not exactly responsive, you know? And I did my 24-mile training run in a brand-new pair of Cascadias which turned out to be too narrow for my poor triangular flipper feet (why oh why do you all keep narrowing your toebox??). While they were nice, my pinky toes deserved a lot better, and I wasn’t going to risk trashing them on race day.
I bought a new pair of Leadvilles, which I didn’t get a chance to run in before the race. Crap. You know how it can take a little time to get the lacing adjusted just right, especially if you have big deep feet like mine? Yeah. (Did not wear them.)
I had my drop bag ready (warm clothes, a baggie of ibuprofen and spare contacts and this and that — and I am really impressed with how weirdly organized I was for this, even though I didn’t need any of it), the plastic heat blanket I’d been given two weeks earlier at the Philly Marathon (I walked the half with a friend), food, a thermos of of coffee. My hydration pack was all packed and ready … though I didn’t have my snacks well organized, it turned out, with just one Honey Stinger Waffle available to me and the rest of the stuff unreachable unless I removed my pack (love my hydration pack, but it’s a pain to remove it/put it back on).
I was so calm before the race. I have never been so calm before a race. I even offered to help set up tables with the race director. I chatted with people. I met a lovely woman in the Portapotty line (I ended up going in the woods) who totally cranked on the trails and remembered my name and greeted me each time we passed and she won for the women in my race (go, Hannah!).
My plastic heat blanket was awesome; I pulled off my sweatpants and wrapped the heat shield around me as a a quick and easy way to stay warm.
First Loop (Miles 0-8)
First loop, great. Except instead of running it in two hours, I finished in an hour and a half. Oops. Crap. I’d be sure to pay for that later, right? The course was short lollipop stem and then the loop, and you had to go down the stem each time to check in at the Start/Finish area each time.
When I paced Annette at her 100k back in October, I’d been a little embarrassing at the aid stations. They’re so full of food! Sandwiches, soup, candy, chips … and I hadn’t eaten well before the race, and a few times Annette left without me while I chowed down (sorry, Annette!). This time I was better prepared and better fueled, and my goal was to spend as little time in the aid stations as possible (there was an aid station at the Start/Finish and one at the halfway mark).
First loop, I breezed in, checked, in, ditched several layers, ate fast, and headed out again. Didn’t even stop at the halfway aid station.
Second Loop (Miles 9-16)
Second loop, stopped at halfway aid station, hugged my pal Alyssa, and marveled at the fact that I was standing out in the woods in December in New England, eating fresh raspberries. Amazing!! Isn’t that amazing? I don’t think I even stopped at the Start/Finish this time except to check in my bib number.
Oh, so here’s the deal: You could run the loop in either direction. I did two counterclockwise, one clockwise, last loop counterclockwise. I had mostly run alone so far. I’d passed my sometime massage therapist standing on a rock outcropping (“Hey, are you here for me?”). I’d run for a bit with a nice guy named Will from New Hampshire, who gave me a gel when he learned I’d forgotten to bring any (THANK YOU, WILL!). He handed it to me on a flat, smooth section of trail, and of course I tripped and fell flat on my face reaching to take it from him.
Funny moment: Will and I passed an older gentleman out for a walk, who stepped off the trail to let us pass.
“You look good, you guys,” he said encouragingly.
Will said, in the most polite, sincere, earnest tone imaginable: “You look good.” I don’t know if he added “sir” but he might as well have. It was tremendously funny to me.
Near the end of that loop, though, I recognized a tattooed calf (this happens when you run behind someone even once) and realized I was running near a guy named Eric, who I should not have been anywhere near, because he’s really fast … so I was still ahead of schedule (that loop was about 1:45).
Third Loop (Miles 17-24)
I caught up to Eric again, somehow, and others. It was nice to run near a group of people for a while. But I felt weird. Dizzy. Lightheaded. I couldn’t talk to them. I knew we had one more small hill to get over and we’d be at the halfway aid station.
I thought I might black out.
Ahead, one of our pack turned his ankle. Runners stopped, gathered near him … “Are you OK?” I asked, hoping like hell he wouldn’t need me because I was about to sink to the ground and what is wrong with my head and he smiled and said, “I’m OK” and others were with him so I struggled on, mile 20, my head is a balloon … keep moving …
Aid station. I ate a lot of quarters of PBJs, and there were pickles, so I ate those too. I ate and ate. My group caught up, fueled, ran off. I watched them vanish up the hill. I couldn’t care. I felt weird. I felt better. I could run again. I should go. I left the aid station.
I was alone again. I couldn’t lose more time. Sure, I’d lost a lot of time at the aid station, but I still needed to keep this loop to two hours. But then there were only orange and green blazes, no white blazes.
For chrissake. I’ve been running these trails for 11 years. I backtracked. I couldn’t find the white trail. I stood there in the trees, still lightheaded, confused. Where did the Skyline Trail split off?
Soon enough, a runner trotted up from the opposite direction. I greeted her, thanked her, and ran off from where she’d come. Hooray! Back on track! I checked my watch. OK, you need to keep up this pace to stay in your two-hour limit. Hahahahaha. The minute I picked up speed, after cruising up a hill, I realized I’d lost the white blazes again.
I cursed myself for choosing to go the opposite direction on the third loop. I’d already directed several runners who’d missed turns, but now here I was missing all the turns and going off trail. I wasn’t dizzy anymore, at least. The food had kicked in. I felt solid again, and I’d simply not paid attention in my quest for speed.
I found the white blazes again and made it back to the Start/Finish. Someone tried to take my pack to refill it, but I wouldn’t let her. I guess I still felt weird (also, my hydration pack is a pain in the butt and if you don’t get the top on right, it leaks all over my back). I didn’t know what I wanted from the aid station. The race director came up and asked if I was OK, and I babbled at her. But I was OK. Just not making a ton of sense. The aid station had cola. Cola! I haven’t had soda in more than a decade. It was cane-sugar sweetened, no high fructose corn syrup. I had three mini dixie cups of it and it was divine. My god. So good.
Fourth Loop (Miles 25-32)
And off I went. This time, I remembered to grab my visor. Remember, I knew from all my training runs to have this? It was on my “must have” list from the beginning … and I forgot it for the first three loops, which probably contributed to my dizziness. Sharp bright sunlight hitting from above, below, the side, straight on … With the visor on, I had a lot more control.
(Oh, control! My shoes! The old mushy Leadvilles! As I said, like running in Grandpa’s old floppy wool socks that puddle around your feet! Sure, my tread is worn almost smooth on those things, but they stuck when I needed them to, going up rock or down rock. They never slipped, they held fast, they might have been a little thin on the cushioning since they’re so old and worn, but they got me through! Thank you, New Balance!)
I could see, and I was fueled, and I’d had cola. I had a sandwich in easy reach (confession: sandwich is still in my hydration pack nearly a week later! I will remove it tomorrow). This last loop, I’d allowed myself 2.5 hours, but I did it in under two again.
Finish time: 7:22. Second in age group, ninth woman finisher. More than an hour under my projected time.
In my favor: Extremely mild weather, good health, good training, a sense of calm. Visor for the fourth loop.
Surprise factors: My old beat-up trail shoes held up admirably. I thought I had my fueling down but didn’t make it accessible so all but one fuel waffle was available. I didn’t expect my first loop to be that fast and thought it would come back to bite me, but it did not.
Oh, and I forgot about this, but I was bitten by a dog in the third loop, maybe mile 23. It was leashed, too! (There were a lot of off-leash dogs in the Fells that day, some not very voice-trained.) It bit me on the wrist, but I had on thick arm warmers and my Garmin, and it didn’t break the skin, and I didn’t want to stop and hassle the owners about it.
Post-race: Ate a lot of chips, ate a big dinner (burgers — thanks, husband!). Was hungry as hell the next day (there was just not enough food for me) but my body felt fine. Quads hurt Monday/Tuesday (the downhills!) but then fine. I ran 5.5 miles today, all fine. I feel like this was much easier to recover from than a road marathon. I’d like to run 10 miles tomorrow but just don’t have time.
Next step: I signed up for a fall 50-miler but am quite sure I need to run another ultra before then. This stuff is addictive!
(There are more pictures of me, from Douglyss Giuliana.)
Bill Howard, who agreed to meet me for a weekday loop and calmly agreed a third loop would be good for my state of pre-race calm.
Dana and Justine and Florentien and Alison and all of you who were never fazed by this idea but instead encouraged me.
Hilary, who met me for a weekday loop and tried to give me an “out” (which I refused), and Lein, who cheerfully came along for a loop one day.
Dana again, for suggesting shorts.
Samantha and Carolyn, online support.
Ardith, all the boot camps and running (Burpees????).
Chris, who not only didn’t mind my taking time for six-hour runs (WHAT) but also knew I’d want burgers the night after the run and got the stuff and MADE THEM. Yeah. While fending off kids so I could just eat chips and shower and feel pretty buff. Thanks for all of it.
All my awesome running people, road and trail, SRR and Weekday Pancake Runners and TARC, because you all are fantastic and supportive and you believe.
TARC, who always put on the best races and aid stations and cheering and support.