“A champion is not made when he succeeds; a champion is made when you look back at the seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months he has spent preparing.” – Eliud Kipchoge
Flash back to about 4 months ago, and there I was; a deer in headlights. I had no clue how I was going to prepare for an ultra marathon. I had just completed my second marathon, and here I was, signing up for my first 50K, which I still haven’t run, yet. NFEC DC was a race completed on whim. Was I ready for it, you bet your bottom dollar I was!
For the past 4months, I have devoted myself fully to hitting the trails and pavements. I stuck true to the training. It was cold (at points bitterly so), tough, and at times demoralizing. You feel like you are pushing yourself to your max, but you just aren’t going anywhere, as I felt in my last marathon about a month ago. However, the high points of training with all my friends made it all worth it. I consider myself extremely lucky to run with a group of experience runners. Runners who have completed 50Ks, 50 Millers, and even a few 100 milers. Their wisdom has rubbed off on me, and I did what I set out to do.
On April 9th, 2016, I completed my first 50K, and it was the most fun running experience to date! For those of you whom don’t know me, it’s important to note that 4 months ago I stood at a crossroads: leave running or continue on. Running marathons and road had become boring and somewhere along the way of completing my first marathon, I lost my passion. But I can with 1000% certainty, the trails saved me! I have rediscovered myself as a runner again, forming a deep passion for trail running and endurance racing.
I had a few goals for this race. Being my first 50K, the only goal was to finish and be able to walk afterwards. I did have a time goal to do a sub 7, and even a stretch goal of doing it in 6:30. Since it was my first, I didn’t want to push too hard, and I have to consider that I am going to be running another 50K in mid may. With those points in mind, I decided sub 7 was perfect.
The course is listed an intermediate course. It’s an out and back course, with loop in the
middle. If you do the 50 miler, you get the distinct pleasure of doing the loop 3 times, but the 50kers only had to do it once. My GPS recorded 2,031 ft. of the elevation gain and 2,146 ft. of loss. It’s a beautiful course that runs along the Potomac River. There are wildflowers everywhere and the water views are breathtaking, especially during the mid-loop. This would have been a great course to run for my first ultra, if the weather did not produce what it had the days before as well as on race day.
One week prior, we all heard devastating news: Saturday’s forecast was SNOW! Snow in April?! You’ve got to be kidding me! Snow is the last thing that we want to hear during an ultra. As the week progressed on, so did the forecast. Snow, snow, snow, rain, hail, sleet, snow… It was so bad, I had to stop listening.
Race day started early, like 3 am early. I was driving with 2 of the 4 musketeers, the other already being in DC to start her 50 miler at 5 am. I had my hearty breakfast (steel cut oats, butter, and banana with plenty of coffee). It’s rehearsed and works like magic! But even before breakfast, my nutrition was on point. Over the past few weeks I have been working with a nutrition coach, Lauren Schafer from Live-Full, to hone in my nutrition for endurance running in general. We have made a lot of discoveries about my diet: not getting enough carbs during the week, over eating on the weekends, and definitely not getting my pre-race nutrition right. A few days before hand, she even helped me gleam some light into my race nutrition. I was over eating during racing, which is why I was feeling bloated and sluggish. With her guide and wisdom, I completed a 10 day fat load and a 3 day carbo load.
Her one tip that really stood out in my mind was around my racing foods. During a race, I can’t really stand gels. In fact, I hate them. I have had bad GI experiences with them, so I really don’t use them. I have found that Hammer Nutrition and Huma gels work. I carry these with me as a precaution, if I were to run out of food. I also will take one gel 20 mins before the start of a race, tip number 2 from Lauren. My main nutrition is perpetuem from Hammer. This stuff works perfect for me, so far. No GI issues, keeps me full, and is pretty easy carry. I will also sub in Honey Stinger chews. If a race has PB and J sandwiches, I will use those too. I prefer as whole as possible when it comes to nutrition. But Lauren did warn me, that in longer races your body will stop feeling hungry as its diverting blood flow from digestion to your legs when you run. The best tip she gave me was to find something that you can keep getting calories from while in this state. For me, that is Mountain Dew. She even told me if that’s all you can get down, do it; it’s the one time she will endorse consuming such a monstrosity of a drink. With all these tips in mind, and my rehearsed breakfast consumed, I headed out to meetup with my friends Deneen and Tim.
After an hour car ride, and a quick shuttle ride, we arrived at the start line. We headed directly to get our bibs, and then to bag check. As soon as we got to bag check, the rain started. When I say started, I mean poured. It was 6 am and an hour before starting. For the next 40 mins, it rained. We knew what we were going to face out on the trails was not going to be pretty, and boy were we right.
But that wasn’t going to stop me from having fun. I had already accepted the fact that it was going to be cold, wet, and muddy. I moved on and decided to have fun. It was my first ultra and I was excited to be running it.
As we lined up to pass through the notorious red arch that all do when the run a NFEC race, I let all the cares in the world go and focused on the task at hand: get back to this start line as fast as possible. And we were off. My friend Tim and I decided to stay together.
Tim was a great pacer for me. He kept my pace reserved, even though the first 2 miles of flat fire road were done quite fast. But once we hit the trails, we backed off and settled into an easy 12 to 13 min pace. Once we hit the trails though, it became apparent that the weather had destroyed the trails. For the next 9 miles, we plowed through mud that was, as Tim descried it, like brownie batter.
It was annoying at first, being able to barely run and having to use our stabilizer muscles a lot more than we are used to (later this would prove to be even more true). Although our pace had slowed considerably to account for instability, we plowed on. During the 8th mile, we ran through snow, sleet, rain, and hail. Yeah that was the mother load of weather patterns all in one mile. Although the conditions were tough, Tim and I made the best of it. Laughing and chatting our way through the first twelve miles. Before I knew it, 3 hours had passed and we are at Great Falls aid station (12 miles) where we began our 7 mile loop.
As we ran in, I headed for the water to replenish my perpetuem. The plan was to drink 2 scoops every two hours and supplement chews and PBJs. As we finished up, I heard some say “Sandy’s here.” The other member of the 4 musketeers. I peeked my head around, and sure enough it was her. She was just coming in finishing her first loop for the 50 miler. Everyone finished up refueling and left for the loop. It was great to run with her for a few, but since Tim and I had “fresh” legs, we left her to plow on ahead.
The loop was no joke! I knew the majority of the elevation came in the loop. There were huge climbs, but we stuck to our plan: walk the hills and power on the down hills. The down hills were great allowing us gain some valuable time. The views also were great! Some of the most beautiful river views I have seen!
Around mile 15 to 16 my stomach started to not feel good and I started to get that feeling of phasing in and out of it again. For a small flash of a second, I thought it was going to be the DC marathon all over again. I knew I had to get something in me, so when we got into an aid station, I ate an entire PBJ and downed some Mountain Dew. I hadn’t been drinking my perpetuem to this point, so I needed some calories. Around this point too, I started my enduralytes, also from Hammer. They are like salt tabs with some extra vitamins. Later, having these would save me.
With extra calories, I started feel better in minutes. We had another 3 miles to go to reach the end of the loop and the last 12 miles back in. We passed by the Potomac Falls, and I stopped and looked out at the beauty of the area. It truly was breath taking. For a few mins, Tim and I just took in the sights not giving a care about time.
After taking in the sights, we put our game faces back on, and made it back to mile 18: the turnaround point. We got in, and Tim said to me, go ahead without me. I looked at him, and I said are you sure. He said yes. I was feeling okay at this point. But right then something clicked for me, I felt a wave of energy fill my body, and I knew that I could finish this back half with a negative split. With Tim telling me to go, I grabbed some Mountain Dew and told Tim I was heading out. I left Tim and it was me, myself, and I for the next 12 miles. I looked at my watch, and saw I had 3 hours left to get 7 hours.
I knew I could do 12 miles way faster than that, and that was first time I thought to myself “I could get 6:30” and I could do negative splits. 12 miles before this, I had said to Tim “I am going to kiss that 6:30 bye.” Yet somehow that had now come back into my sights, and I wanted it bad!
With that goal in mind I went to work. I passed people left and right. I felt an overwhelming surge of energy filling my body and pushing me on. I knew the next 12 miles were going to be tough. And they were extremely tough. For 8 miles I fought with my quads and calves consistently wanting to seize up. I knew that if they did, I would be done. So I played it smart. Kept to my plan of taking eduralytes every hour on the hour. I remembered reading of Hal Koerner’s story where was having similar issues with his calves. A runner had given him salt tabs, and that gave him the ability to run while barely staying on the edge of cramping and not. I knew that this would apply here.
I made sure that I used perpetuem, as it also has some enduralytes mixed in with it. And drank Mountain Dew. I wasn’t really feeling hungry, but Mountain Dew, as Lauren advised it would, was just enough for me take in. I passed 60-70 people in the end. Each time I would get some sort of encouragement from them. I used this drive me forward.
Despite my legs wanting to seize up, I pushed through. I knew when to stop and give them a quick massage, going slower to let them recover, and push the downhills hardcore. I had done a lot of training on downhill running, and this proved invaluable here. In the last two miles, the flat fire road section, I punched the pace to 8:30 miles after being completely drained and legs in awful condition. It didn’t matter, I knew that I could do it and finish strong.
Crossing the finish line I looked down at my watch. 6:30 something. I literally almost broke down in tears. I told myself a sub 7 (and by sub 7 I literally meant 6:59 would have been completely acceptable) would be good enough for my first ultra. But chasing that 6:30, passing all those runners, and doing negative splits, was the best feeling in the world.
To be sure of my time, I headed directly to live results tent, put in my bib number, and stood there in awe. The screen read 6:38. It wasn’t the 6:30, but in my book it was better. It was a number that represented hard work, months and months of hard work. It represented my strength to push my body beyond its limits, and to go further than I could imagine myself going. I represented my passion for a sport that I was about to give up. I represented me. The conditions were bad, my body beaten up, but I had done what I set out to do more and then some.
The race that was done on a whim proved to be an amazing experience. I had no hopes to do so well, especially after coming off a horrible marathon a few weeks beforehand. I only wanted to run. I only wanted to enjoy what has become a defining feature of my being. I only wanted to enjoy the company of other runners who are just as crazy I am. But what I ended up doing was rediscovering myself as a runner. I came to the trails lost like a deer in headlights. However, today the trails guided me to find myself and strength again. I claim to be the average Joe of trail running, but today I feel like a champion.
To all my friends who have I come to know over these past few months, I want to thank you for being a great inspiration on me. A special thanks to Tim for running with me and keeping me on pace for the first half and for telling me to go when I needed to go; you truly pushed me without knowing it! To the other two musketeers, Sandy and Deneen, thank you for being a great inspiration. You both really have bestowed in me the joy of running trails! You have shown me that the body knows no limitations as long as you believe in yourself. To all my CCR running friends, thank you for rubbing your wisdom and running expertise off to me, even just a little. I stuck to the plan and prevailed.
I am still grinning ear to ear. I am excited to have just entered this sport, and can’t wait to run even further. Ultras are tough, challenging, and all so worth the reward. I will always be average in terms of speed, but I will always feel elite at that end. A mile is mile no matter what pace it’s done at!