A true and deep test.

My first 50-miler was everything I wanted it to be. It was everything I dreamed of when I registered, my new belt buckle already glinting in my eyes.

Total distance: 50.15 miles
Total elevation gain: 757 feet
Official time: 10:27:20


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Merging with the crowd at the start line.

The morning.

The race was going to kick off at 7:30 on Saturday morning, and we were fortunate enough to be able to camp (for free!) at the starting line. No 3:30 a.m. wake-up call! The morning went by really quickly from the minute I woke up to when I was suddenly standing in a huge crowd of runners who were going to run either  100 miles or 50.

I heard the race director faintly over the din of the other runners, but I didn’t hear the countdown or really even the “Go!” before suddenly everyone was surging forward to run a loop around the campground/parking area before getting on the Tunnel Hill State Trail for the rest of the day.

Nothing unusual happened for a while. The Tunnel Hill course goes along what was once a railroad track, so there aren’t any sharp turns or steep climbs ever. It’s so unremarkable of a course, generally, that I was surprised to see on my GPS that there was a little bit of an S-bend on the trail because it was so gentle of a curve.

We ran south for a little more than 13 miles before turning back to go north for about 25 miles. Then we turned around and went back to the middle to finish.

While the course may seem unremarkable, it’s really quite pretty. There are bridges that go over rivers and valleys, a few small towns, beautiful farmland, and plenty of animals. I saw a lot of cows and dogs.

My crew.

Ashley was waiting for me at mile 16, 26, and 40 – and a surprise visit at probably mile 21. She was there to help me replenish my nutrition and to help keep my spirits up. Several days before the race, we talked about what would be most helpful for me at those aid stations. I had told her to not engage in any negativity I brought with me – and to make me smile and say nice things. This might seem silly, but a positive mindset, even if it’s forced, is imperative for something like this. Being able to see Ashley was always something to look forward to.

The run.

The unusual thing that happened was that I started fading fast really early in the race. My legs got achy too early, and my mind started to drift into negative territory long before that should have happened. When I first saw Ashley at mile 16, I was pretty out of it. I was starting to get crabby.

I tried not to let it get me down, as I ate some of my sweet potatoes and drank Tailwind, just as I had planned. But it wasn’t working. I still felt energy leaving, and nothing I was doing was bringing it back.

I packed 12 dates and four roasted sweet potatoes (in wedge form). I had eaten two dates, and hated both of them. They tasted normal, but I didn’t want them. The sweet potatoes tasted fine, and were enjoyable enough, but they just weren’t doing anything for me. After a while, they would just sit in my stomach like a lump, and I started feeling pretty crummy and a little light-headed.

This was going to be a long day if I couldn’t figure this out. I ran a quick diagnostic. I felt like I was crashing, and my negative attitude was a good sign I was low on electrolytes. It didn’t make sense because I was eating and drinking plenty – but “sense” don’t mean nothing. My mind was telling me one thing, but my body was telling me something totally different: I was fading, light-headed, and crabby. Something needed to change, and quickly.

Luckily, I packed a Huma gel in my hydration pack, and one extra gel in one of my drop bags. I packed them in case I needed a “shot in the arm” later on in the day. This was not part of my nutrition plan, and I have never really practiced running with gels as nutrition. But I brought them anyway “just in case.”

It took me a while to both remember that I had the Huma gel and to move past the safety of my nutrition plan. I had spent a lot of time figuring out what works best for me and doesn’t hurt my stomach – and I was certain I had figured it out. I just need to eat more taters…I just need to drink more Tailwind…but, for whatever reason, it just wasn’t working on Saturday.

I don’t remember exactly when it was that I ate the first gel. I think it was after 25 miles, but I don’t quite remember – but I had a pretty good feeling about it right away because that thing tasted freaking amazing. It was strawberry lemonade flavored, and it blew my mind.

Before long, I was coming out on the other side of some really hard hours, and I started feeling really good. My legs and feet were sore, of course, but nothing was getting me down. The rest of my day, I ate primarily gels and drank Tailwind, and my energy leveled out, and I felt great for the rest of the day. I had a few peanut butter pretzels and some grapes at the aid stations, but I was being really cautious about what I ate.

Strategy.

While by now in my running “career,” I’m pretty familiar with running on tired, sore legs, it can still be difficult. It gets more difficult when you know you’ll be running nearly 20 miles longer than you’ve ever run before. So, when the going got tough, I came up with a plan that kept me moving forward. I would run 1 mile and then allow a .25-mile walk. This was important because running a mile when you’ve already run 30+ miles can seem insurmountable at times. Forcing myself to run a mile in exchange for a .25-mile walk seemed like a sweet deal. It also gave me something to think about besides simply “run,” and it gave me a strategy and took away the option to just stop running willy-nilly. I had to wait until I had gone at least a mile.

Finish strong.

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Finisher photo. (Sadie yanked Ashley’s arm)

I strapped on my headlamp some time after mile 40 shortly before the sun set and the trail went dark. I ran for a little while with only my headlamp lighting the way, calling out encouragement to the other bouncing headlamps and various lights that I passed. I counted the bridges I crossed and noted the mile markers left over from the railroad. I was getting so close. My watch informed me that I passed 50 miles shortly before I exited the woods.

When I crossed the finish line, I was elated. It’s one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done – it’s still hard to believe that I just ran 50 miles just a few weeks ago. Even with multi-day backpacking trips in the mountains, I’ve never covered 50 miles on my feet before Tunnel Hill, and I just did it all at once. I’ve built myself into the runner that five years ago I thought I could never be.

Recovery and run streak.

After finishing, we decided to go home. It was very cold, and we had unfortunately set up our camp under a really bright light, which made it really hard to sleep. So, Ashley tore down our campsite while I sat in the car and warmed up. On the way home, we got fries and onion rings. #treatyoself

On Sunday, we sat on the sofa basically the entire day – except of course for a one-mile run in a park. Another thing I told Ashley was that I really wanted to keep my run streak going, and that she might have to do some convincing to get me out the door on Sunday. But it really wasn’t that bad. We walked a little to warm up, then ran a slow, no-pressure mile, and walked back to the car. On Monday, I ran another slow, no-pressure mile. I’m now 336+ days in a row of running at least one mile a day.

I’m pretty much sold now on the restorative benefits of active recovery of even just one-mile runs. My legs were sore for a few days (I ran 50 miles.), but the soreness faded fast. By Wednesday, I was pretty much good to go, except for a little soreness on the bottoms of my feet, which also went away pretty quickly.

What next?

I’ll have some more detail about what’s in store for 2017 in a later post. For now, I’m going to run without a plan for a little while. I’ve run 1,600+ (injury-free) miles so far this year, and I’ll probably end up close to 1,800 for the year. Stay tuned for a list of goals and races for 2017!

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