Last year at this time, most of the runners were huddled in the school gym to stay out of the cold. It was just below freezing and the sun hadn’t come up yet. This year, it was about 10 degrees warmer for the 6:15am start of the Stone Cat Ale Trail Races, so many of us were hanging around outside, tending to last minute details and making sure our drop bags were in order before heading into the woods.
The race has two distance options. Marathon or 50 Miles.
Due to a technical issue the start would be a little different from previous years. From what I understand, due to a website problem during the registration process, the race oversold by more than 50 runners. Living up to their reputation for basically being awesome, the race organizers allowed the extra runners and didn’t cut anyone out that had problems with the website. With all of those extra runners, they decided to stagger the start and have the 50 Milers go out 15 minutes before the Marathoners.
The other big difference for me between this year and last is that this would be my first 50 miler!
With my head basically about to explode from nerves, someone shouted “GO!!!”, and we went!
Together with the rest of the 50 milers, I headed across the soccer field of the Doyon School in Ipswich, where the race is held, and into the woods. After a couple of quick bottlenecks where we were forced to walk for a few seconds here and there, we were off and running.
One very cool thing about starting before the sun comes up is the surreal environment that is created by more that three hundred runners running with headlamps. Once we got into the winding singletrack trails of the deeper woods and started to spread out a bit, I could look back occasionally and see a winding snake of headlamps stretched out literally as far as the eye could see, following the same route that I had just come by. Of course there were just as many in front of me but, well, I couldn’t see those!
I settled into my slow “all day pace” and slowly the nerves calmed down.
My original plan was to run the first half of the race with some new friends I had made at recent races. Amy Mosca was kind enough to invite me to look for her and her friends at the start and run the first two loops with them. Since our finish times at a recent 50k were within 10 minutes of each other, it seemed like a perfect plan. After the second loop, my pacer Mark Brown would join me for the last 25 miles. I was delighted to see that Brenda Morris was one of the friends she would be running with! Anyone who has been around the New England trail racing scene knows Brenda. She has done a million Ultras and, with her huge smile and personality, is one of the most inspirational runners I know. And I barely even know her!!
It didn’t take long for the plan to fall apart though. About 4 miles into the race, Amy and Brenda (the only two in the group that I knew) pulled off into the woods for a bathroom break. For a couple of seconds I thought about waiting, but that felt creepy, so I continued on. This really bummed me out because my biggest concern for the race was to NOT get stuck running alone. The biggest challenge I have faced in past marathons and Ultras had been the “mental demons” that start creeping in during the second half of the race. The mind starts throwing everything including the kitchen sink at you to convince you to stop running. The demons are hard to ignore in the best of conditions, and nearly impossible to do so when I’m alone.
Normally, on any given run, I feel crappy for the first couple of miles. Then I start settling in and somewhere around mile five, I start feeling really good. For some reason, that wasn’t happening today. I’m not sure what the problem was, but I just felt crappy all morning. The only way I can describe it is that I felt heavy and slow. I had no problem keeping moving, but I felt like every step was an effort, and that’s not normal for me. I don’t know if the bagel with peanut butter I had eaten for breakfast was too much to soon before the race, or if it was something else, but SOMETHING wasn’t right.
My nutrition plan was to drink Perpetuem (2-3 scoops in about 10 ounces of water) in between each 12.5 mile loop of the course. I would also take salt pills during those breaks. I kept Hammer gels with me while running and planned to take them halfway through each loop. I would supplement this with “real food” at the aid stations.
Somewhere around the first aid station of the second loop (16 miles or so into the race ), I really started to feel like I might have a problem. I had run more than long enough to be warmed up and feeling good, and had not been running nearly long enough to feel as bad as I did. Sitting here writing this, I still don’t know what the problem was. I just didn’t have any energy or pep. I even started to have some thoughts about dropping down to the Marathon distance instead of trying to finish the 50 miler. It was way too early to make that decision though, so I just kept on.
By the time I finished my second lap (25 miles), I had decided that I wasn’t giving up, but I wasn’t feeling very optimistic about how the second half of the race was going to go. One reason I wasn’t willing to quit was because my pacer Mark would be joining me for the last 2 laps of the race. He woke up early and drove an hour up to the race to get there in plenty of time to join up with me between laps 2 and 3. There was no way I could bail on him. When I came in from lap 2, he was waiting for me along with Andrea Leonard who ran a blistering 4:13 in the marathon. I told Mark, “dress warm, we’re going to be doing a lot of walking!”. Judging by the concerned look on Andrea’s face, I must have looked pretty bad! I stuck to my plan and downed some more Perpetuem and Salt pills. I threw in a few Advil for good measure and headed back out onto the course with Mark.
Some things simply can’t be explained I guess, because for some reason I just started feeling better and better. As the miles started going by, I was feeling stronger. Not necessarily faster, mind you, but stronger. Because of how badly the first half of the race went, I knew I wasn’t going to break 10 hours, but I thought that if I could adjust my plan, I could maybe do sub-11. My new strategy became to perform as well as possible, for the third lap, and just get my ass back out onto the course for lap 4. I knew that if I could get out there for the fourth lap, I would finish one way or another!
I strategically walked a few of the hills, but I ran everything else on the third lap.
Having Mark with me made a huge difference. We have been running a ton of trails together in the last few months and are very comfortable running together. He paced me perfectly. I noticed that other pacers were up ahead of their runners, sort of pushing them to keep up. I don’t think that would have worked for me. I would have been stressed into feeling like I needed to keep up, and struggling to do so. Mark just stayed right beside me, keeping my spirits up, keeping me moving, and most of all, keeping me company. The end result was that the mental demons never had a chance to creep in, and with every step I was getting more and more confident.
When we came in from lap three, 5 or 6 of my friends who had run the marathon were still there to support me! That was a huge lift. My time so far (after 37.5 miles) was 7 hours and 15 minutes. I wasn’t sure how my last lap was going to go, but I knew I could at least break 11 hours. When I said as much, they all told me I was crazy and that I could easily break 10! I wasn’t so sure about that, but I definitely felt uplifted. I felt even better when Andrea told me that I looked a lot better than I had after the previous lap.
A big thank you goes out to Andrea and Rich Leonard, Jeff Hattem, Brad Waterson and of course the Dales! I don’t know if you guys stuck around for me, or were just hanging around, but either way it was awesome to see you guys after lap 3!
My plan for the fourth lap was basically to walk the hills, run as much of everything else as possible, and take quick walk breaks when I felt like I really needed them. I had one scare about 3 miles into the lap when my left thigh muscle suddenly just seized up! I had never had that happen before, and it REALLY hurt. Fortunately, I was able to massage it out and keep running. After a few minutes the pain totally went away. Somewhere around mile 43 or so I started to believe that I might be able to break 10 hours. My stomach was starting to bother me, but it wasn’t terrible. I kept pushing as hard as I could. I came into the final aid station with five miles to go feeling really confident. I downed a cup of ginger ale for my stomach and inhaled a few chunks of grilled chicken and took off.
Earlier in the week, I made a comment to one of my friends that my biggest concern was miles 35-45. I knew I had the fitness for the first 35 miles, and I knew excitement and adrenaline would carry me through the last 5 miles, but I had no idea what to expect from those 10 miles in between. (I had never run more than 31 miles before).
Well the first 35 miles didn’t go as planned, but the last 5 went off without a hitch.
I continued to make up time over the last few miles, and came out into the finishing stretch on the soccer field feeling great! Kate and Max (my wife and son) were there waiting for me and I was able to cross the finish line with my son in my arms in 9:45:34!
I got my long awaited “50 Mile Finisher” jacket, took off my shoes, sat my butt down and had a beer (or two) with Mark and Kate while we cheered for the other finishing runners.