I’m having a pretty shitty morning. I actually wrote several paragraphs here, several times, and deleted them all. Why dwell on it… Instead, I’m going to tell you all about the miles and challenges we conquered 2 weeks ago at the Ragnar Trail Wawayanda Lake in New Jersey as an ultra team! Not just any ultra team, the only all-female ultra team at the event!
We made our way, way way up to Wawayanda State Park in New Jersey on Thursday afternoon. Our 3.5 hour drive was more like a 6+ hour drive with traffic and weather. The forecast was not in our favor, but when you have an amazing group of women who put their minds to something, watch out world! We found the flattest camping spot we could, opting to set up in the woods for tree cover as protection from the wind and rain. The S’mOregon Trail Ultra Runners checked in and then got settled in with some dinner (Mountain House Turkey Tetrazzini for me!). We knew we had a long day and a half ahead of us, and an 8am call time so we packed in early and snuggled in for the night.
Not so bright, and slightly early Friday morning, we rustled around camp and prepped for our day-night-day run to begin. Melissa was up as runner one and would tackle the green and yellow loop back to back. The rain wasn’t strong, but it was persistent, and ultimately it wouldn’t end throughout our entire event. The temps didn’t fluctuate either, but we did find that it was a tad bit cooler than the forecasted low-60’s and hovered right around high 40-low 50. And chilly. We we eager to start running, but nervous for what the race would hold for us. We’re all strong runners, but none of us had quite conquered something like this before. Personally? I have a 27.4 miler and a 55k cross country ski race under my belt… over a dozen full marathons, and a number of longer-distance trail runs, but this was still foreign. Our runner order would be Melissa, Jennifer, Emily and then myself as the caboose.
Melissa set off with the pack, rounding out our first two loops in an extremely respectable time. We weren’t racing by any means, but grateful for whatever speed and distance our bodies allowed us to cover. Her report came back that green was very runable, probably not even what we would consider a trail run the whole way. One section was definitely technical trail and not so runable, but it was short… less than half a mile. Yellow had some stunning views, and some challenges. Still pretty runable, though there were some technical sections to take your time on. Right around the 2-miles to go mark, red and yellow join together, and it gets pretty ugly for a mile. The final mile was flat and easy back to the finish.
With Melissa back, Jennifer tagged out for her two loops: red, followed by green. Upon her return from red, she reported it was tough and at 6.7 miles it was the longest loop of the three. Again, the red loop joined up with yellow for the last 2 miles, making that first mile a little more technical and challenging, but smooth and easy for the last mile to bring it on home.
Jennifer finished her first two loops and we were well ahead of our expected pace. It didn’t phase us because we knew we might lose some time overnight. Emily set out for her first two loops: yellow followed by red. This would prove to be the longest, and the toughest of the combined runs to do, and lucky for Emily, she had this set during the day, and got it out of the way first.
As we came in to meet Emily from her first loop to cheer her on and send her out to red, she came in hot and says something along the lines of “bell… I need the bell… Bear! I saw a bear.” WHAAAAAAT??!?! Alright, it’s pretty early in the game and my brain is waaaaay too paranoid to deal with that. Two big black bear crossed the path slightly ahead of her… she didn’t draw attention, allowed them to pass and they didn’t seem to notice. She coupled with another runner until they felt the coast was clear and bolted out of there! Feeling confident, she went out on her way for her red loop without batting an eye. Me, on the other hand? Well, let’s just say my heart is racing just writing about it well after the fact! Thankfully, that was the closest encounter for the rest of the weekend.
Emily crushed her time, and that sent me on my way for my first two loops, which Melissa had sort of mentally prepped me for. Green, nice and easy, mostly runable… Yellow, decent trail, still pretty runable, but definitely more technical. I will say, my mental game was not on for most of this run. I struggled to stay positive, got frustrated every time runners passed me on the trail (and there were a lot! After all, we were doing double their mileage, and had to pace ourselves). Regardless, I know how to buck up and throw down when I need to and that’s what I did… Tagged Melissa when I came through and we officially started our second set of runs on this crazy journey!
As night crept in during Jennifer’s second set, her fourth run (red loop) proved to be a little more challenging. Her flashlight wasn’t holding up and she had a dying cell phone to boot. With a text letting us know she was off pace and had 3 miles to go, we all reassured her that we were each going to have our own challenges and pace was not one we should worry about. Safety, survival and overall a good time was all we were there for. Sure enough, Jennifer doubled up with some wonderful women from another team and found her way safely to the exchange. It’s moments like this that make us grow. We’re out there on our own, but we’re really never on our own. Sure, it’s up to us as individuals to keep moving and keep going forward, but it is at the encouragement and empowerment of the three other amazing women that we do so.
Emily powered through her night runs so fast, I actually missed her finishing the green and starting the yellow! 9:51pm she headed out for the technical and tough 5.5 miles, sans bears this time! She came in steady and gave me a few slight words of wisdom as I headed out for a red-green combo. “Walk where it says caution, jog the rest…”
Before my overnight run, I had put a call out to a health and wellness group I participate in on Facebook. My friend Lindsey had started a Beachbody coaching business a few months ago and I have been participating in her challenge groups since April. Not to get too far off topic, but it’s just a safe place for women to chat about goals, challenges, health, wellness, life and anything in between. I reached out about my concerns and said something along the lines of “hey guys, I had a rough mental first round, and would really appreciate some positive vibes sent my way.” Well, the power of that short message is indescribable. I made it through those 10.4 mid-night miles with a smile on my face and determination in my legs!
Handing off to Melissa, it was clear that the miles were catching up to us, and the relentless rain was taking its toll. I can’t speak for the rest of my team, but I know I was severely sleep deprived, sore and plain sick of being cold and wet. Melissa’s final run became a countdown… literally, a slow stream of texts: 4 more miles… 3 more miles… 2 more… and then finally:
Slightly around 5am, our first runner was absolutely complete. 32.2 miles down. Jennifer set out on her last run: green then yellow loop, and as Emily prepared for her last run, Melissa and I finally caved and set up camp in the car. Warmth. Heat. Dry. It was amazing… Jennifer crushed the yellow loop and was done. D. O. N. E. DONE!
Around 7:30am, Emily set out for her final laps consisting of red, then green. With two runners completely done with their race, our group text messages became more encouraging to keep moving forward those last few miles. Whatever the pace was, forward was progress and that’s all we needed… Forward, and no injuries.
As I started my last two loops, yellow then red: the hardest combo of the weekend with more than 12 already on my sore and tired legs, I had so much drive and passion in every step. Being the caboose of an ultra relay has to be one of the most inspiring sections to run because I just watched three women completely conquer every step of their 32.2 mile sections respectively. I just watched each one of them struggle, and grow… support each other, and move forward even when it seemed to never end. By the end of my yellow loop, I had started to lose a bit of that positivity and my body started to revolt. I was nauseated, but starving, tired but I knew I had to keep going, and for the last 2 miles of each of my last loops, the yellow and red trails merged together, which meant the conditions of the trail were severely deteriorated and there were twice as many people. Most of those people had ran half of what we had, so with fresh legs, they were able to catch up and pass me. It seemed like every minute or two, I had to jump off the side of the trail to let runners pass me and after a not-so-while, that became even more discouraging. 25+ miles down, I felt so slow, and stopping to let each runner jaunt past me only slowed me down more. Regardless, there was nothing else to do besides keep chugging along.
I missed my team at the exchange and decided to just get on with my last loop and get it over with. I had become emotional and tired, but there seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Another team formed a bridge with their arms just out of the exchange and cheered me through, I couldn’t hold my tears back… This was it, this was all I had left to do.
I broke up the red loop into milestones to help my mental game, and get me through it in phases. Realistically, I had budgeted about 2 hours to make it through these last 6.7 miles…3 miles to the big puddle and water tent… another 1.7 to where red and yellow merge. 1 mile of really shitty terrain and being in the way of faster runners, and then 1 easy mile to the finish.
A little after 3 miles I texted my team “I feel pretty rough. Doesn’t seem like I’m going forward.” I snapchatted my brother a couple of times to pass the time and try to lighten up. 35 minutes to the merge, 20 minutes to get through that nasty mile, and then a little over 10 minutes on that last mile. That was the budget I created in my head, those were my milestones to focus on.
We’ve all learned about goals, and working in the fitness industry for almost 10 years, resolutions are a huge conversation every year. How to stick to them, how to accomplish your goals. You have to have plans, and mini-milestones along the way. That was what I employed here. The big goal? Finishing. But I couldn’t see the big goal right now, I needed those little plans. Get to 3 in under an hour. Get to the merge in 35 minutes. Get through that really shitty mile, and then home stretch. Somewhere between 3 and the merge, I threw on Sia’s latest album for distraction and motivation. I sang along with her and she belted out verses like “I’m still breathing! I’m still breathing! I’m aliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiive!” and if you’ve never paid attention to the song, Unstoppable – well, that was on repeat for a mile or two…(see below for verse)
There it finally was:
All that grit, 2 days of wet and cold weather, barely sleeping, over 29 hours of running between the four of us, 32.2 miles each and I was down to my final steps.
A few yards before the finish, my team met up with me and we ran to the finish line together. I bent over, involuntary tears streamed from my eyes and the emcee says something along the lines of “there’s a Ragnar finish… and then there’s a Ragnar Ultra finish” and I kind of chuckled because I could only imagine how distorted I looked (google-image the words: ugly cry face… insert any of those images here).
4 women, 128.8 miles, 29 hours and 30 minutes. And the ONLY all-female ultra team at Ragnar Trail Wawayanda. 10th place out of 12 finishing teams, with 6 additional teams never making it to the finish line. First place in our division, (because we were the only ones in our division) and there we were:
I’m a Porsche with no brakes
Yeah, I win every single game
I’m so powerful
I don’t need batteries to play
I’m so confident, yeah, I’m unstoppable today
Unstoppable today, unstoppable today
Unstoppable today, I’m unstoppable today”
-Sia, Unstoppable lyrics