Last Saturday, I ran my second 50k! It was in Montgomery Bell State Park in Burns, Tennessee. If you have the chance, you should visit. It’s beautiful, and the people who work there are wonderful.
The executive summary is that the main issues that plagued my run at Gnaw Bone (GI and IT – all my problems are acronyms) didn’t factor in this race. Probably this benefit is part of what led me to finish Bell Ringer in 6:59:46 (official time). This is significantly faster than my first ultra, which I finished in 8:12:26.
But wait, there’s more!
Pt. 1: Before the race.
Unlike before Gnaw Bone, I didn’t have much to say in the two weeks prior to this race. Last time, I had final thoughts and goals, and all sorts of heartfelt flowers and hearts. This time I didn’t. That’s because any goals I had set were thrown out the window when I started experiencing IT Band pain several weeks ago. After the initial injury, I took a few days off from running. After that, though, I had some really great runs (even covering 22 miles) with no pain at all. Then, two weeks before race day, I had a really painful 16 miler. I took a few days off and tried to run again, but couldn’t even get through six miles without having ITB pain again.
So, sparing some details, I took off from running for the last two weeks of training – opting instead for more aggressive ITB rehab, which included daily targeted exercising and foam rolling, but virtually no running. I did run twice, but no significant mileage.
I couldn’t stop thinking about my IT Band every moment of every day during those last two weeks. IT pain is very painful and impossible to run through. I ran 18 miles of my first marathon with that really terrible pain, and it broke me down, both mentally and physically. I was not interested in having that problem again. I had to decide whether to do this race or not. Obviously I went through with it, modifying my lofty goals to the following three:
- Finish the race with no IT injury.
- Finish the race in spite of IT injury.
- Finish the race before my watch battery dies.
I was scared. My mindset was basically “how far can I get before IT pain starts setting in?”
Pt. 2: Race day.
I couldn’t stop thinking about my IT band. So finally, I just decided thinking about it isn’t going to fix anything. I would hand it over to God, and let him take care of that part. I would just hit the trails with water and dates in my pack and my head securely attached to my shoulders.
So, at 7:00 in the morning, in 64-degree weather (unheard of even in the “south”), I was ready to go. The race director yelled, “Ready? Ok…GO!” and all 300 of us took off down the road.
The beginning of any race is always so interesting. I love watching the people around me. Some are warming up, some are standing still, some are setting their playlists – and we’ve all got our eyes on the finish line already. When we cross under the starting banner, the excitement level is high. People joke with each other. There is always, always someone, no matter how long the race, who’ll say “are we almost done? How much further?” No one likes that guy. Well, I guess I don’t know if no one likes him. I just know I certainly don’t.
Nor do I like the guy who, 3 miles into 31, says “we’re one-tenth done!” To which I respond to myself, “I gotta get away from that guy.”
We had pavement for a little while before heading into the woods where the hills, roots, and rocks took center stage for the next several hours.
At mile 8, we came out of the woods to a big aid station that was a hub of sorts. We would stop at this station three times, and it served as the final split for the 25k and 50k course. It was also a really convenient and accessible place for spectators to gather, so it was an energetic, musical, cow-bell-filled location with water, Gatorade, cookies, fruit, and my drop bag. It was also where Ashley was waiting for me.
Somewhere between mile 1 and mile 8, I tweaked my left calf muscle. So, I put some BioFreeze on there and took off back into the woods.
The next part of the course was on the extensive mountain biking trails in Montgomery Bell. These were amazing. At first, we ran up some great switchbacks, which were a little challenging and congested, but after a while, the trails leveled out into four miles of “flats” where we could open up a little and really move. I was at the front of a line of four guys, and the conversations behind me were colorful. One guy dropped back after a while because he couldn’t stop falling all over the place. The other guys talked about nipple chafing (“the red 11”), plastic surgery, and the pitfalls of typing in the wrong thing on Google (it’s DicksSportingGoods.com, BTW. You gotta type in the whole thing).
Five miles later, we’re back at the big aid station. Ashley was there, ready to take care of me. I ate the most magical potato.
It’s mile 14 or so now, and the 25k runners split off onto a trail that goes about a half mile to the finish line. The 50k runners go down the road and up a hill to run 17 more miles. Up until this point, I was always either right in front of or right behind other runners. But when I split to go back into the woods, I found myself completely alone for a long time, looking for the little green flags marking the course, giving me an affirming “don’t worry, you’re not lost.”
The course went up a hill, along a ridgline, and then down to go around a lake. The trail around the lake was one of the most difficult. It was very rooty, rocky, jerkingly rolly, and all around unpredictable. It was too difficult to run it, so I walked that part, giving my legs a nice respite, sort of. It wasn’t a relaxing hike. We went around another lake that was similar to this. Aside from these instances, the course was only moderately technical. It was a very runnable 31 miles.
Part 3: Overcoming the darkness.
In the 20s, things started to get a little rough – not surprisingly. After running for more than four hours, the soreness and fatigue is hard to ignore. My tweaked left calf wasn’t letting up. It really only caused a problem when I was going uphill, so of course I compensated by pushing harder with my right leg on the hills, which made my right quad get sore. Tired, sweaty, thirsty, sore, and not sure what to do about it, I found myself walking on even the easy parts. Wondering if running these long distances is really a thing I want to do. Sound familiar? Probably. Because it happens during every long race. I’ll bullet point this section:
- Of course I’ll keep doing these events. They’re amazing, and I love them.
- I won’t ever walk past this fatigue and soreness, so I may as well run.
- It’s a beautiful day, and I’m privileged to be able to spend it running in the woods – which is my absolute favorite thing to do in the whole world.
So I started running. At the next aid station, I grabbed some Chex Mix, which completely changed my world in ways you can’t even imagine.
My mantra became “Keep going, you’re doing great. Keep going! You’re doing great! Keep going….you’re doing great.”
I knew the soreness wouldn’t go away because I was not going to stop running.
I knew the fatigue wouldn’t go away because I was not going to stop running.
The dark thoughts, however, did go away – because I didn’t stop running. I kept going. I was doing great.
Pt. 4: Finish it up.
I wasn’t running fast, but I was running consistently. I ignored everything except the woods. The trees and birds were singing, and it was just the most perfect thing. If you haven’t heard the trees sing, then you simply need to spend more time in the woods.
At mile 24, I turned out onto a gravel road and ran down to meet Ashley at a creepy little aid station between an old cemetery and a little archway under some train tracks. We talked a little about how I was sore and tired, but she assured me I looked like a badass. I had another potato and some Chex Mix, and headed back down the gravel road and finally back into the woods.
After a little while, I could hear the finish line. Cheering, the big bell that finishers ring, and the announcer telling everyone how great they were doing. Then, the trail veered right, and those sounds died away. That was kinda mean. It did, though, give me a surge of adrenaline, and I was flying down the trail, which suddenly dropped down the side of the hill to the big aid station for the third and final time. The finish line, I was told, was a half mile away. I joked with them about how I already heard the finish line, but it was taken away. And she told me that was torture, “Sort of like how there’s a big staircase right at the end.” A staircase. Great!
I took off, ready to kick that staircase right in the face. The last half mile didn’t have anything I couldn’t handle. There was a big, stupid staircase, but I climbed it. After the staircase, there was a big stupid hill in the parking lot, at the top of which was the finish line. I ran up that big stupid hill with big stupid grin on my face. Ashley was cheering me on “You’re going to come in under seven hours!”
“I know, I can’t even believe it!”
I finished, and I rang the bell.