First of all, how do you sum up something like that? How do you put into words the experience of what running 50-miles is like? I will make my best attempt, but just note – there are none!
Emily, Melissa and I headed up to Philly on Friday afternoon to check in to our hotel and rearrange our race bins for the following day. The drive was full of nerves, and every once in a while a bit of banter about expectations, reflections of the past few months, and last minute prayers about the weather forecast – which was not on our side. We were finding comedy in the fact that we had just completed our final training run (31+ miles in a Ragnar Ultra I have yet to write a race recap about) in 92F heat and insane humidity, and were about to embark on our first ever 50-mile race with temperatures in the low 50’s and rain predicted throughout the entire day.
We had each packed our own dinners instead of relying on eating out in restaurants. I have a saying when it comes to running races: practice how you want to perform, perform how you practiced. Restaurants just add a variable that we weren’t willing to risk with food safety/choices. I opted for a Mountain House camping meal (beef stroganoff to be exact) and made it with hot water from the coffee pot and paired it with a mini-bottle of red wine. Thankfully, we were all quite exhausted and ended up crashing really early for a full night’s sleep.
Saturday morning we woke up to exactly what we expected: rain. Rain, rain and more rain. We made breakfast (another camping meal for me, this time Mountain House biscuits and gravy!), coffee and stretched while we dug through our piles of clothing options and figured out what combination would be most comfortable for a 12+ hour haul in the rain. I had 3 rain shells of varying thickness, and selected my lighted coverage to start with, a medium layer for loop two, and my most dense layer for loop 3. That strategy was based on the theory that as I get more and more broken down, I’m going to have a harder time keeping my body temp up coupled with the persistent rain, wind, and cold, and I’ll want warmer layers as I go on. (theory was correct… this worked very well for me).
I was prepared with 3 pairs of shoes, 6 pairs of socks, 5-6 long sleeve under-layers of varying thicknesses, 3 tank tops, and some running arm-sleeves. My first outfit was a tank top, extra-thick compression under-layer from Target’s athletic brand, my Salomon Agile Trail running jacket, a buff, a hat, my Fabletic capris, compression sleeves for arch support, thin running socks and my brand new – fresh out of the box Hoka Challengers! I run with my Nathan hydration vest filled with water, and a bottle in the front pocket filled with Tailwind. I also carried a Clif bar and a Honey Stinger waffle just in case I needed something between the aid stations. We headed out to Pennypack Park, set up camp and met the rest of our crew.
The loose plan was to conserve energy, conserve our bodies, and run each mile for what it was. We would use the first loop as a test run to figure out the terrain, which parts were runnable, how well the aid stations were placed and how well they were stocked, too! Within the first half mile, I gave up trying to avoid puddles as I felt like I was already wasting too much energy hopping around them and flip-flopping from one side of the trail to the next… It’s probably a good thing I did because at 1.5 miles we came to our first river crossing so any hope of dry feet was out the window. There would be 3 river crossings on our first loop, though, with the relentless rain, there was constant water and mud that was only going to get worse throughout the day.
The first aid station was right before 3 miles, and I consumed 2 cups of Mountain Dew, a fraction of a PB&J, and a twizzler. Upon leaving the aid station, there was a nice hill to walk up while we finished eating and let things settle. Melissa started to pull ahead and Emily and I stuck closer together. The second aid station was around mile 7 and I snagged more Mt Dew (who knew!!) another twizzler and a half of a PB&J. I was still feeling great, and our pace was solid around 11:30-12 minute miles. The trail conditions were very runnable with a few sections being more impacted by the weather than others. I remembered some last minute advice from the TAUR Facebook page that mentioned to be aware of your water consumption… Often in cooler weather, we forget that we need to keep drinking and then find ourselves in dehydration. I used the mile splits on my Garmin Forerunner 35 as a reminder to drink water and used the brief walking breaks as reminders to consume the Tailwind. Aid station three hit at slightly over 11 miles and was cooking up some grilled cheese! I ate a couple fractions of those, washed them down with Mt. Dew (at this point I started to laugh at myself because I had no idea I would even have an appetite for Mt. Dew, but I guess it makes sense! Liquid calories and caffeine, really easy for your body to use… embrace it, I guess, right?). Heading out for the last few miles before completing loop one, I was still feeling great and optimistic.
Some time after the final aid station, I must have pulled ahead a bit. I get mantras stuck in my head and find a healthy rhythm to my stride, and as long as it feels good, I was just going to ride whatever pace my body was comfortable with. I came in from loop 1 at 3 hours and 21 minutes. Since our crew was out running their own races (the 50k started 30 minutes after our 50-miler, and the 25k started 30 minutes after that!) we knew our first resupply would be on our own. I made the decision to stick it out in the same shoes and socks due to the trail conditions… Even though I had plenty of dry socks and even dry shoes to change into, it was so incredibly wet that to me it wouldn’t be worth the time and effort to swap out. However, I did change tops and get dry clothes on a tech fabric top again from Target’s athletic brand, and a Brooks running jacket with slightly more weather protection than the Salomon. A quick refill of my water and tailwind, and I was off for lap 2. Melissa and Emily were only about 4 minutes behind me, so I set out on my own feeling confident.
At the start of lap 2, there was a pop-up aid station and Emily mentioned the boiled salted potatoes were amazing, so I stopped quickly to grab a few and another Mt. Dew while the volunteer informed me that our first river crossing had actually gotten too dangerous and we were rerouted. She said the trail markings had been relocated and to follow them. It was right about this time I started wishing they hadn’t relocated it because I had begun to notice an accumulation of sediment in my shoes that were nagging my feet. I’d have to wait for the second river crossing. Along the way, I noticed the trail condition had worsened with the rain and abuse from so many runners. There were parts that were runnable in the first loop that I started taking more caution with on this second round. Each aid station I welcomed a combination of grilled cheeses, boiled and salted potatoes, PB&J’s and Mt. Dew, and each mile I continued to build confidence that I would actually be able to finish the entire 50 miles (trust me, in training there were MANY moments that looked daunting and lacked confidence!). When I got to the river crossing, it was perfect timing to take off my shoes, stretch a bit and wash out my socks. There was A LOT of junk in there and if I didn’t take care of my feet, it was going to be a rough go! The idea was so genius that several others had a seat and did the same. The cool water was welcomed, and the fresh start on clean feet was refreshing!
I kept chuggin along, singing Sanskrit mantras and verses to usually-annoying songs that somehow felt therapeutic on long runs alone. By aid station 3, Emily had caught up to me right when I was about to head out… She was without Melissa and hadn’t checked in with her in a number of miles. I had already been at the aid station for too long and needed to set out, but it was comforting knowing Emily was still doing great and right behind me. She would catch up to me toward the end of the loop and it was welcomed the company to have someone to talk to again and share the miles with – though we both expressed concern for Melissa and hoped to have an update before we started our last round.
Coming into the finish from loop two in 4 hours and 9 minutes (including my 9-minute break from lap one before heading out for lap 2), our PHENOMENAL crew of 25k finishers had everything ready for us including much welcomed hot chocolate and ramen soup! I scarfed down as many calories as I could! To our relief, Melissa came running in shortly behind Emily and I and was feeling great!
By this time, my fingers were so cold that I couldn’t untie my shoes and couldn’t get my socks off! Thank goodness for amazing friends, as Camille and Lucia helped me out while Bethany prepped some food. I changed into my final outfit and the warm, dry clothes were positively rejuvenating. I stood up and looked at Bethany and screamed “it’s working!! Holy shit it’s actually working!” as if I were surprised to still be moving after 34 miles!
We started loop three, intending to run the last 16+ miles together. It was clear almost immediately that the conditions and the mileage were taking a toll on me, and I fell back with some weird knee pain that I just couldn’t run through. I could walk, but running was not my friend. However, I had just downed another 800mg dose of ibuprofen so I was hopeful that when the anti-inflammatory properties kicked in, I would be back in the game. Melissa and Emily eventually slowed their pace to match mine and we just kept moving forward. We had started loop 3 at 3:23pm, and had a goal to finish no matter what. We had come so far and there was nothing that would deter the goal at this point!
The aid stations became familiar friends at this point… We were never looking ahead at how many miles we had left to do, we were always running the mile we were in, with a short-sight of making it to the next aid station. My NSAID kicked in and I was able to jog better as well! We came to the first river crossing, our 8th of the day – this may be TMI, but I had to pee so badly that I just sat down in the river. I was soaked from head to toe anyway, and my fingers didn’t work to try to wrestle with wet spandex, so I literally just sat down and went.
Shortly after aid station 2 on loop 3, the sediment had built up so badly again that I had to try and remove my shoe. With frozen fingers that just don’t work, and tight muscles screaming at you for trying to sit, squat or stop… it was far more of a struggle than I had imagined! The efforts were worth it and I was able to keep moving. After persistent rain all day, and persistent traffic through that rain – the trail conditions just kept getting worse. By this point there were miles where I felt like I was running through 7″ thick brownie batter… That really gooey, yucky, thick mud that grabs your feet when you step into it and holds onto your shoe when you try to step out of it. My muscles in my legs were getting exhausted beyond belief from the extra effort, nevertheless – we persisted.
At the final aid station, we popped out of the woods to see our crew walking up the trail! Not only our crew, but my husband was with them! Tears of joy welled up in my eyes as I momentarily diverted from the mission to give him a hug and a kiss (in my condition I’m surprised he was willing to accept either! HA!). I downed some boiled potatoes and Mt. Dew while talking and chatting up a storm getting as much food in and as many words out as possible – looking back, those few moments seem like such a blur, I don’t remember what was said or what I did and ate… we had 4-5 miles left and it was insanely clear at this point that it was actually happening! We were going to finish a 50-mile run!!!
We set off from our final aid station with a burst of new energy – a little too much excitement perhaps as I took a wrong turn at the top of the hill (that was quickly corrected, thanks, guys!). Our mission was on schedule, our bodies were keeping up, and I was thoroughly impressed with the fact that there were still sections we were capable of running. I use the term “running” very loosely, as you can imagine the condition we were in after 11 hours now, but “slightly more than walking rapidly” is considered a run at this point. I started chanting things out loud, just random things… Sometimes it was the mantras in Sanskrit I have learned in Yoga Teacher Training, sometimes it was my personal mantra: Inhale confidence, exhale doubt, which I will repeat to myself (normally not out loud, haha!) for hours at a time. Other times it was a mantra my husband and I had on a really challenging winter 13-er in Northern Minnesota: Burger, sweet potato fries and a big fat beer! I’m certain I screamed this many times throughout those last few miles… Along the last loop, we leap-frogged a runner and his pacer whom we would later find on the TAUR group on Facebook to be Greg. Greg joined in on our banter and helped us keep a solid pace for the last hour. We just kept moving forward as relentlessly as possible, me screaming mantras at the top of my lungs hauling ass through the woods until we reached the final river crossing…
That final river crossing was about a half mile from the finish and that’s when shit got really real for me. I have no idea how, but I started running – 49.5 miles, 12+ hours on my feet in some of the worst conditions I have ever persisted in, and I was still capable of running! When we got to the final home stretch and popped out of the woods into Pennypack Park, I started yelling… Just yelling and running! Like Steve Carrell in Anchor Man: LOUD NOISES!!! And just like that, it was over. We crossed the finish line with enormous smiles on our faces and knew that we had just accomplished something unbelievable.
It is said that “only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” As a breed, persons who take on long distance running or ultramarathons are a pretty gutsy kind of people… When people asked why I was doing this or why I would attempt ultra-running, my answer has become very simple: I think it’s important to do shit that scares you every once in awhile, just to remind yourself how awesome you are and what you can do. I had this paradigm shift recently that I don’t run for results or to get something out of it… I do not have an attachment to the outcome of a training run or race, I do the work to do the work because that’s what has to be done. Going into this race, I never once ever looked at the finish line. I never looked at the result as an end. In retrospect, this is how I have looked at my health and wellness journey, and after my accident, that is how I started looking at my happiness journey, and now I have begun to look at my running journey as such: a journey… never a destination. I don’t want to arrive at a destination, I want to experience the journey – whatever that journey has in store for me. There will be pain, suffering, happiness, joy, sadness, anger, laughter, peace, restlessness, fear, anxiety, but it is all the same. Isn’t that amazing??!!
As for what’s next, I know I’m 8-days into my mandatory 10-day run break and then I have a few more runs before tackling my favorite race: Grandma’s Marathon in my hometown, Duluth, Minnesota. I am still in awe of the distance we covered, the attitude with which we covered it (I literally smiled every single mile!!), and the efforts our friends contributed to supporting us physically, emotionally, and financially through donations to Girls on the Run of Central Maryland. We were able to raise almost $2,000 (our goal was to hopefully hit $500, so you guys BLEW us out of the water with your support!!!)
I’d like to conclude with a quote from Melissa, right before we ran because I cannot think of a better way to sum some of this up:
“I have never been so unsure about what will happen during a race as with this one. What will happen those last 20 miles? We shall soon find out!
That said, regardless of what happens- here is what I have learned along the way:
Our bodies are capable of way more than we often give them credit for. I recall saying that I’d never run a marathon- that it just seemed like “too much.” Well, these last three months I’ve now run the marathon distance + in training 6-7 times followed by another run the next day of 5-10 miles (which I just couldn’t fathom doing after running my first or second marathon). Well- mind over matter- I’m not dead, and I’m not broken.
When challenging yourself, your body will feel broken, but it will get stronger. Then, it will feel strong. Sometimes all in one run.
3.) When challenging yourself, your mind will feel broken, but it will get stronger. Then, it will feel strong. Sometimes all in one run.
4.) There is ALWAYS time to run (or fill in the blank with said activity). Sometimes you just have to make that time.
5.) Long distance running is more mental persistence than anything else. The mind game is way more difficult to master.
6.) Never underestimate the power of doing something that scares you. It inspires in a way that multiplies. For the three of us that are self-proclaimed terrible fundraisers, I’m proud to say we are surrounded by AMAZING family and friends that have led to more than tripling- nearly quadrupling- our original fundraising goal for our local chapter of Girls on the Run. I love having a greater purpose and inspiration behind us. I have truly felt so much support from my MRTT HoCo ladies and family/friends!
7.) I’m not sure I’m ready to continue my ultra running career after giving this a go, but I’ve also learned to never say never.
8.) Life is a balancing act. The support and sacrifices of Mike and Kolton (insert: and Scott and Jackson to Emily, and Chad and Landon for me) to make this crazy goal happen has been more than appreciated.”