I woke up this morning, put my feet on the floor, and struggled to stand up. Ah, yes, I did run that 50k yesterday. Now I remember. My quads are almost useless, as I have to use my arms to pull myself up and help myself down. My right leg wants to know exactly what I did yesterday because the ITB is tight, my shin is on fire, and my cranky tendon is, well, cranky again. But, I crossed the finish line in yesterday’s PHUNT 50k in a just a breath under 6 hours (5:59:32 to be precise). Was it worth the struggle, the pain, the suffer? You betcha. Especially the suffer.
Each of us has our strengths, and each of us has our weaknesses. Those weaknesses represent limits that offer temporary barriers to our goals. These limits are temporary, because once we learn what they are, we can train to move past them. One of the most useful aspects of races and hard training sessions is that we learn what those weaknesses are, so we can set new plans and new goals for working past those weaknesses. After yesterday’s 50k race, I learned quite a bit about what I’m good at–and what I’m not so good at. Human beings have limits. It’s true. I learned that lesson in a very real and painful way yesterday. Here’s what happened.
Race morning began as almost every one of such mornings begins: early. Even though the race itself was not scheduled to start until 9 a.m., we had to drive about 2 hours to get to Elkton, Maryland. Since we were not completely sure where we were going, we also wanted to leave some cushion in case we got lost. So, we were up by 4:55 a.m. Dressed, fed the dogs, grabbed some coffee, and we were out the door by 5:35 a.m. We arrived at the race site by 7:30. It was located at the Fair Hill Natural Management Area in Elkton, MD. It was a fairly rural area, with plenty of rolling pastures, trees and natural scenery.
We signed in with the race directors, and donated a case of water bottles and about 2 or 3 dozen gel packets, along with some sports beans. Since the PHUNT 50k is what is known as a fat-ass race, there was no race fee and no frills, so donations for the aid stations were greatly appreciated. The Trail Dawgs were also collecting food donations for the local food pantry, so we gave them our bags of cereals and soups. We were more than happy to help. The community-minded aspect of races such as this one is what makes them so special.
The morning was cold, about 28 degrees on the thermometer, with 19 mph sustained winds and gusts up to 32 mph, which made the windchill about 14 degrees (according to weather.com). In other words, not a morning for milling about for an hour. After we dropped off our donations, we headed back to the car to stay warm until it got closer to race time. As we sat in the car, we went through various iterations of what we should wear for the race. We had brought a collection of clothing items, and contemplated various configurations to guarantee warmth and comfort. For my core section, I settled with layering a few tech t-shirts, covered with a windbreaker that I could zip up or down depending upon my temperature. I kept only one layer of tights for my legs. On my hands, two layers of thin gloves, so that I could easily take one layer off to control temperature. I have found that I am able to control a great deal of my temperature by taking on or off my gloves. On my feet, same thing: two layers of thin socks–which was perfect. On my head, a hat and a neck warmer to put around my mouth and neck. As I was dressing, I looked toward the road and observed a man in a Carhart suit, walking his dog. It’s a shame those suits are too bulky and heavy for running…
At around 8:45 a.m., we left the comfort of the car in order to acclimate to the cold. We met a few fellow runners. Kelly was doing her first 50k, like me. Rob was a trail running veteran, having done races on the Appalachian Trail, as well as out West. We stamped our feet to keep the blood flow in our toes, and shared running stories, discussed ideal hydration systems, and talked about our 2010 goals. Turns out, Kelly would also be doing her first Ironman that year, just like us. She will be doing Cour D’Alene in Idaho. Endurance junkies are a funny lot. It’s never enough, is it?
At 9 a.m., the race directors gave out some prizes for a variety of funny categories, such as: “Who’s here from a state that is not contiguous with Maryland?” “Who’s the youngest?” (Turns out the answer to that question was 15!) “Who’s the oldest?” (I didn’t catch the actual age, but it was in the 60s.) Then finally, at 9:10 a.m., it was time to start. We set our watches, and we were off.
The course was beautiful, almost completely on trails that wound through the rural Maryland countryside. The first few miles were cluttered the mostly single-track trail, as the approximately 400 runners jockeyed for place. Complicating those first few miles were also several hills, that required a bit of tactical negotiation. In other words: fun!
Adrenaline pushed us through those first few miles, as it does for most races. Then, it was time to settle in. As we approached the 5 mile mark, the course flattened out considerably. We weaved through the back woods, and got into a very comfortable rhythm. We had planned to do a 9 minute run, 1 minute walk pattern, but we felt so good we just kept running. (Foreshadowing: I would regret this decision later on in the run.)
The trail was exciting, plenty of twists and turns and switchbacks through hilly terrain. There were a few stream crossings, none of which were terribly difficult. My socks didn’t get wet once. (Thank you, Goretex!) Later on in the race, we had to climb up two or three steep faces, which provided rest for my aching quads. In other words, the terrain had a little something for every trail runner.
During the first 20 miles, we zipped along fairly well. John looked at me and said, “You are doing awesome!” And, I felt that, I did. We took it easy on the uphills, but zoomed on the downhills. For John, this was a pattern he had trained over several months. For me, well, I only practiced it twice. I found out that this was not adequate training. The aggressive strategy on the downhills, coupled with a disregard for my race plan of a 9-1 run/walk pattern proved almost disastrous by the time we reached mile 23. I was in terrible pain. I had read in Runners’ World a few years ago about feelings of being stabbed in the quads by ice picks because of running downhills too aggressively. When I read that, I didn’t really understand what the author meant. Suffice to say, I get it now. Oh boy, do I ever get it.
By the time I reached mile 25, I was running about 4 minutes, and walking for a 1 minute. Sometimes, I couldn’t even manage that. I was almost on the point of tears when I saw a downhill section because I knew how bad my legs were about to hurt–even if I walked. But, I pushed through it. I repeated to myself, You don’t quit. You don’t quit. You don’t quit.
When I reached flat or uphill sections, I would count to get into a rhythm again–and this approach worked. Then, I would be looking at another downhill section, and the feelings of doubt and self-pity would return. The cycle would start over again. I would get down somehow, chanting to myself: You don’t quit. You don’t quit. Once I was down the hill, I would count. 1…2…3…4…5…6…100. When I was able to focus on my breathing and just count, I was fine. That cycle, as terrible as it was, got me through most of those later miles. That, and my husband John, who had run a 50 mile ultra in September.
If it wasn’t for John, I’m not sure if I would have finished. Even though, when I was in a pit of dark despair, pity, and self-loathing for being under-trained for the hills (let’s say between miles 25-28), I wanted to throw stones and tree branches at him, he kept me moving forward. He said, “Just trot. Just keep moving.” He taunted me at some points, by running about 20 yards in front of me, which, to be perfectly honest, infuriated me. If you are going to run with me, then run with me. If you want to run by yourself, then go. I am competitive by nature, and even though I know he’s faster than me, I can’t stand to have someone in front of me that I can’t catch.
Consequently, I spent much of the last few miles feeling like I was trying to catch up. It was exhausting. But, he made sure I was moving forward, and believe me, after about the 23 mile mark, that was not a foregone conclusion. During these miles, there were a few other runners that we leapfrogged with. One 50k first timer (like me), one runner who kept getting lost and reappearing on the trail, one very cool guy (whose name I forget) who ran with me for about 3 miles from about mile 17-20. He was an ultra veteran, and ran the PHUNT 50k each year as a way to kick-start his “official” training, after taking November and December as transition months, with low mileage. He had done his first 100 miler in August. Yet another goal to shoot for, huh? I need a few years for that one (I think!).
Mercifully, as we were coming across a field with icy divets, John said, “I can see the finish line.” My “trot” was nothing more than a pitiful shuffle. John was actually walking as fast as I was “running.” But, the sound of the words “finish line” perked me up.
John said, “Let’s kick it up and run it in to the finish line.”
“Okay. Look at me, kickin’ it up,” I joked. My “kicked up” run was pitiful. I wish I had video so you could see how ridiculous I was. But, I was back to trotting instead of shuffling. And we ran, quite unceremoniously, across the finish line. No medals, but we did get a handmade Christmas tree ornament. Perhaps one of my most favorite commemorative finish awards.
To return to the beginning of this post. Human beings have limits. I learned what mine were. To address these limits, it looks like I’ll be doing quite a bit of hill training. After all, Lake Placid is not very flat.
Human beings also have their strengths. I’m proud of my determination. That, along with a husband who ran 20 yards ahead, wouldn’t let me quit. I don’t quit. I don’t quit.