Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Long Awaited Ultra Recap

Well, here goes nothing. I have spent the last week trying to figure out how to talk about my first ultra marathon experience. I've felt overly conflicted about the entire thing. I didn't have the experience I was hoping to have, but I learned so much more than I could have ever imagined.

It's been so difficult to process because crossing that finish line was the single greatest thing I have ever accomplished while simultaneously being a crushing, embarrassing failure. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let's start at the beginning, shall we?

I felt ready and excited as we packed the car and headed out on our epic trek to Montana. The day was beautiful and cool. A storm had rolled through, bringing with it the promise of cooler temperatures for race day. The drive went smoothly and we had entered Big Sky Country without incident. The western Montana landscape is gorgeous. I knew I had chosen the perfect place to tackle my first ultra.

Pretty darn gorgeous. 
We arrived in Montana on Thursday; I knew I would need all day Friday to recover from the long drive. This was a lesson I learned from the Rock n' Roll Denver back in 2012. Getting in a day early allowed us to rest, relax, and explore the area. We even found a little dirt track that I could do a little shake out run on to loosen up my legs after the drive. The weather was still pleasantly cool when we arrived, and stayed pretty nice through Friday. But of course, it wouldn't stay that way for race day.

Thanks for being there, little dirt track.
I didn't even get nervous when I picked up my packet on Friday. That's usually where the panic starts to set it. But I was just excited and looking forward to the next day's adventure. We had checked out the surrounding areas for a place that had something besides diner food and I was able to have some pasta as my pre-race meal. As much as I dig a big juicy burger and a shake, it's not the best pre-race meal.

My hotel was right next to where the bus would be picking us up, so I was able to just walk over without having to wake anyone up to drive me. I was ready to go sooner than expected, so I was about 10 minutes early for the bus. I wasn't the only one though, and that gave me a chance to get to chat with some of the other runners. I met a very nice man named Jeff who was running this race as his 199th ultra. Sheesh. Everyone (all 17 of them) were  very kind people. Ultra runners are a different breed. It's not like people are mean to me at other races, but this was a different feel all together. They treated everyone there as if we were all friends and had been for some time. There was no air of competition, just camaraderie. Another thing I noticed is that most of the people there were quite a bit older than I was. That helped me feel optimistic about my future as an ultra runner. My best years are still ahead. I've got time. (Those are some of the things that were said to me at the start. And they're right.)

I have to go how far?!
I finally got butterflies in my stomach when they announced that it was 5 minutes to the start time. The reality of what I was about to attempt finally hit me. I still felt ready, however. Silly me.

When the gun went off and we started on our way, there was a marked difference in the pace at this race versus all the other races I have been in. No one took off like a jack rabbit. Everyone was content to cruise along and enjoy the scenery. Within the first three miles, we came to my favorite places on the course. The Dominion Tressel and the railroad tunnel.

Seriously, this was my favorite. 

And running through a cool tunnel, second favorite.
 The weather was staying nice and cool, the trail was shady because of the time of day. I enjoyed it while it lasted because it didn't stay that way for long. The high for the day was supposed to be 86 degrees. And it delivered.

If it would have been like this the whole day, things might have gone a little better for me.
The trail was pretty smooth for the first 13 miles or so. No huge rocks to dodge or obstacles to deal with. So I cruised along really well for that portion. I was still feeling really good about being out there, enjoying the day. But when mile 14 rolled around, the trail conditions changed. For over 2 miles, the trail was covered with what looked like river rocks. Rocks that big are very difficult to run on. So I spent those two miles picking my way through to find the best sections to run on. These conditions continued to pop up later on as well. It was unfortunate. Also, the sun had gotten high enough and the trees had thinned out enough that the sun was starting to be a factor.

That's still a lot of miles...
With the aid stations being about 5-6 miles apart, I wasn't able to get the relief of dumping cold water on my head at regular, life saving intervals, like I do when I get hot in other races. I was carrying water with me in my Camelbak, but it was starting to get warm from the heat too.

At this point, the struggle really started. 
At each of the aid stations, I lingered too long, just trying to cool down. They didn't have any ice that I could put in my water to cool it down. That made me very sad. But the water they had was cool enough that I could drench myself and have some relief from the heat for the next two miles. But that's about as long as it lasted. After each stop and drench, I felt much better and would proceed down the trail at a good clip. But as the miles wore on and the water evaporated, the heat would creep in and sink me. I kept trying to follow intervals of walking and running to keep moving forward, but eventually, the heat would reduce me to a walk without fail.

By the time I reached mile 22 (Only 11 more miles to go! Hooray?) all I could think about was how badly I wanted to be at the finish line. The heat was taking a toll and I was beginning to hallucinate. My brain decided that it wanted to hallucinate a cow. So it did. That was unsettling.

Here are some actual, non-hallucinated cows. This was at mile 32.5 and I was using every excuse to stop and take pictures. 
I could tell I had stopped sweating and I was going to be in big trouble if I didn't get cooled off. I ended up finding a shady spot and just sitting. And drinking. And trying to get a gel to go down. One thing I learned during this race is that I actually want real food. In all my previous races, I haven't wanted to eat real food. Gels and shot blocks have always been fine and the thought of trying to eat something more substantial always made me nauseous. So now I know how to fuel differently during these types of events. Learning is good.

I kept hoping the aid stations would have something to sate my growing hunger. Sadly, I was spoiled when I went to the Umstead 100 and I had unrealistic expectations of aid station fare during an ultra. There was everything and anything you could possibly want at Umstead. Here, there wasn't much choice. I did enjoy the dried apricots and ate copious amounts of them, but what I really wanted was salty, crunchy things. I would have loved to have some potato chips. Or salted potato chunks. A hard boiled egg with salt. I was taking electrolyte tablets, but the salt craving was intense. Another thing I really wanted was some flat soda, like Coke. I felt an intense need for that sugar and caffeine. These are all things I could have carried with me, if I had known how badly I was going to want them. And now I know. Knowing is half the battle. LEARNING.

I could tell by mile 24 that my seven and a half hour time goal (goal A) wasn't going to happen. So I settled for my B goal (sub 8 hour). When it became apparent that was not happening, the C goal filled my brain (8.5 hours, because there was no way in hell I was going to finish in 9 hours. That was unacceptable.) When I had a total breakdown and cried for all of mile 31, the D goal of just finishing was all that was left.
I knew I was the last 50K person out there, the 50 milers had started passing me some time before.

The breakdown at mile 31 was interesting because it followed a strange surge of speed and awesomeness that happened when I hit mile 30. When my Garmin told me I had gone 30 miles, I was filled with overwhelming excitement. It was a milestone I had never hit before in my life. And it just so happened that that mile of the trail was shaded. I took off running and I ran that mile in about 10.5 minutes. Which is a fast mile for me on any regular day; it was a bonafide miracle after having already logged so many miles on my poor legs. And then the breakdown. It was a dizzying high, followed by the soul crushing low. Ah, running. You do know how to toy with my emotions. LEARNING.

By mile 32, I had stopped crying. Now my effort had devolved into a death march. I just kept trudging along, not even bothering to try running anymore. There was nothing left to give. It seemed that everything I had in me had been sucked out by the heat, distance, and time on my swollen feet that for some reason wouldn't just go numb already! People running the 50 miler had been passing me since about 16 miles in. And they continued to pass me in that last mile. But at least many of them were also death marching at this point. We were all miserable, together. That helps, it really does.

32.5 miles. I hurt most everywhere. LEARNING.
I slowly wound my way down the streets of St. Regis. I was to the point where I could see the turn into the park where I would get to stop moving and end my suffering. And yet, I still couldn't run. The death march continued until I rounded the final corner and initiated Zombie Shuffle Mode. ZSM is not much faster than a walk, but it looks a little more like running.
I AM moving. Just very, very slowly.

When I crossed that finish line, I was thrilled. 33.25 miles and I was still alive. But my Garmin also told me that it took me 9:09:48 to manage that distance. And that hurt. It embarrassed me and shamed me, even though no one else was mocking me or shaming me, just good old me, my own worst enemy. Jeff, the 199th ultra guy, was there at the finish line and gave me a hug. Everyone was happy that I made it. My mom was proud of me and took a ton of pictures (thanks, Mom!).
Something I need to remember here. 
As I sat there and tried to process everything that had happened, one of the race officials brought me over an envelope. The envelope contained a certificate for getting third in my age group. That has never happened to me before. There have always been more than 3 people in my age group. And this time, there wasn't. This added to my excitement and my shame. Please enjoy this dialogue excerpt from my brain: "I placed in my age group! Hooray!"  "But you only placed because there were only 3 people in your age group. Boo."  "But a certificate is cool! Hooray! And look at this sweet railroad spike! It means I didn't quit!" "Yeah, you only didn't quit because they'd never find your body out there until it was too late."  It was a tough, confusing day, to put it mildly.
I somehow managed a real smile!
Even though this experience wasn't the one I wanted. I think it was the one I needed. I've not been deterred from the ultra distance. Instead, I have been filled with the desire to take what I have learned and do better next time. Because there is going to be a next time. I am going back next year and I am going to show this distance that I can conquer it in a way that won't confuse and upset me. I'm still sorting through the emotions and disappointment but I'm already stronger for it. There's been a shift in my thinking, a shift in my plans. But this is good. This is exciting. And I'm ready to continue to push forward and out of this comfort zone. Nothing neat happens there anyway.

And this is pretty neat.
In the end, one quote has kept coming back into my mind. I'll leave you with that.

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly... who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly." -Theodore Roosevelt

I dared greatly.

Happy running.

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