Major surgery…. a broken foot…. Bring on a 50-mile run!
Who would have ever thought, three years after major surgery, one year after having a broken foot, that I’d be running a 50-mile ultra marathon?
But on December 3rd, 2016, I did, and here’s my story.
**LOOOOOOOOONG POST ALERT**
Writing a race report is cathartic for me, but it may help someone else looking to set a crazy goal and attain it. And for those who love details of how the goal was met, such as nutrition, issues that came up during the race, and play-by-plays…this is the post for you! (the rest of you can skim. LOL.)
But first, a little history…Major surgery three and a half years ago had me sleeping in a recliner for nearly two months. My goal to get through that life-changing event was my first ever road marathon. With the help of my coach, I made it through my first road marathon in 4 hours and 34 minutes.
About two years ago, I found trail running. Discovered there’s a whole world of trail runners I didn’t even know about. And then I found out about Ultra Running. With my quirky body (funky knees and feet) long distances weren’t necessarily my friend. But, again, with Coach’s help, we tried a 50k in October 2015 and made it! A few weeks later, I broke a bone in the arch of my foot that knocked me out of the trail running game for nearly three months. I got to ride a cool scooter for two months, though! That was fun!
I was determined to get back out on those trails I’d just recently discovered. So once I worked my way back from that broken foot, I set my sights on the McDowell Mountain Frenzy 50-mile run, December 3rd, 2016.
Several months of hard training later, I found myself at the start line of my first ever 50-mile ultra marathon.
Yeah, I was freaking out a bit, thinking: Can I make it under the cut off? Can I make it period? What if I get sick? What if I fall?
But Coach was there, reminding me I’d put in the time and the miles to get here, and that I could do it.
The start was freezing, but I was determined to start out in a t-shirt and shorts so I wouldn’t overheat any time soon and have to find a place to shed layers. So the crazy runners joining me huddled together near heating lamps until the very last second.
It took me at least four or five miles to thaw out. And to those Minnesota friends of mine reading this, yes, 40 degrees is cold in my book these days. I’m a full-fledged desert girl now.
But after I met that first aid station, I’d found my groove—despite my Suunto GPS watch giving me fits. It had an update the day before and wiped out my settings, so I was seeing everything in Kilometers instead of miles.
And anyone who knows me, knows I suck at math, so I wasn’t about to start figuring miles. I just used the cheat sheet I’d made that showed me mileage to each aid station and how many hours we were hoping it’d take me to get to that aid station.
Plus, I asked fellow runners what our mile were once in a while.
So… I settled into some nice jogging across a beautiful desert. At this point, I was really enjoying things, thinking of my dear friend, Frank, who is struggling with a brain tumor. Praying for him. For those who are held back by that stinking frustrating disease.
Every hour an alarm on my phone went off, and I looked at the past hour. Did I consume about 200 calories? Am I feeling low on fuel? Over fueled? Drinking enough? Too much? That alarm really helped me a lot, because in the heat of running, I often forget to eat/drink enough.
Since I have some mild gluten issues, I packed PBJs in each drop bag I had, and I always kept one in my water pack, so I was never without.
Right around four or five hours into the run, my legs really started hurting. Deep aches in my knees and hips. So, at one of my calorie breaks, I nibbled on a PBJ and took two Aleve. I’d had to do that on one of my longer training runs before, so I wasn’t surprised, but it’s still a bit scary thinking I have more than six hours left and if they hurt this bad already…
But, I kept on going. I knew my legs would eventually hurt, so I had to just suck it up buttercup.
I hooked up with a nice couple of runners, Dan and Michelle, from Colorado. Hung with them as we started the climb that would soon get us to the Thompson Peak nightmare that awaited. It was nice to have company. I’d never gotten out to the McDowell Mountain area to check this famed mountain climb out, but I’d heard stories.
Stories that were hard to believe, too. 45% incline? So steep they had to pave part of the path? Could barely walk up it was so steep?
Those couldn’t be true, could they?
Um…yes. They could be. They were. And really, they weren’t an exaggeration. We could see the peak way back at mile ten or so, and I constantly thought: Oh, wow, we’re going to have to climb that? Okay, I can do that. It’s going to be an amazing view from the top.
So, at mile 31-ish, I started that wicked climb. Yeah. You read right. After 31 miles of running, we hit Thompson Peak.
The reality of that hill slammed into me like a two-by-four to the forehead. I literally had to zig-zag up, it was that steep. To climb it straight up stretched my calves and Achilles too much.
Ever been to a PT session and they told you to stand on one of those wedges to stretch out your calves. Yeah, it was like that, but I had to be at that angle for 2.3 miles.
It was brutal. I often thought: Am I gonna make it? How could a vehicle even make it up this? Why the heck did I sign up for this?
I met some people on their way back down that hill, and their encouragement was priceless. I can’t express how much it meant for them to tell me I was doing well. That I could make it. Just take it one step at a time.
So thank you, runners, who were ahead of me, for taking those few breaths to utter encouraging words to those of us just starting that nightmare.
I downed some calories and turned on my 50-miler iTunes playlist to help me through the pain. Guess what the first song was?
“I WILL SURVIVE” by Gloria Gaynor.
I told myself: Heck yeah, I will survive! I can do this. I’ve come this far. I’m doing this for you, Frank. This is YOUR hill! Screw Cancer!
I put my head down, took it step by step and zig by zag, and I made it up that stinking hill!
And I kicked its BUTT!
I should have timed it, but I wasn’t in my right mind. If I gave a good guess, I would say it took me about an hour to get up, then about 35-45 minutes to get down. But that’s just a guess.
All I know, was that once I was to the top, I took some pictures with Terry T, a badass trail chick who climbed that thing with me, and celebrated. I looked at the amazing views being so high up offered, and I gave thanks to God for making it. I looked down at the path I took to get up to this point and that gave me strength. “I made it up that!”
So heck yeah, I could do this!!
Going down was pretty rough. It rattled my quads, knees, and IT band pretty good. I zig-zagged and took it slowly, and once I was down that mountain, I let out a whoop that was probably heard all the way to the start line!
I took a little more time at that aid station, drinking, loading up on the calories I’d just vaporized on that hilly adventure. I took an extra minute or two, looking through my drop bag to see what I might need coming up. I had my knuckle lights, arm warmers and gloves in there, because I wasn’t sure when it was going to get dark enough.
I didn’t take the arm warmers or gloves, just the lights, in case I was very slow getting to the next station. I shoved an extra PBJ in my pack and I was set.
Then I started walking. I figured I’d shake out some of that fatigue and heavy feeling in my legs after that monster hill. After about five or so minutes of walking, I found my rhythm again and was running.
Some of the thoughts going through my mind at this point were: I’d made it through what I thought was going to be the roughest part of the race. I’d conquered Thompson Peak. I was a badass trail chick. Stay focused on my form. Light steps. Don’t land heavy. Just relax and settle in. Just like my training runs. I can do this. I will do this!
It was flat for a while, which was nice, so I did what I normally do during long runs: prayed, thought about those I run for whose names are written on my bib, sang to my songs, and enjoyed the scenery. I was alone for pretty much the rest of the race, so I just went with it.
I knew I’d see my hubby at the start/finish aid station, so I focused a lot on that. Because when I got to see him, I would be able to say I’d run 42 miles. I’d never done anything like that before in my life!
At this point, my stomach was doing well. I think that was one of the biggest worries. I’d heard a lot about how people often got sick or stomach issues.
But so far, the plan that I’d been training with all these months was working. Tailwind was my staple form of calories. I had two bottles of that with me at all times, while my bladder had about 20 ounces of plain water at all times.
I supplemented the Tailwind with PBJs as well. Gluten free bread, peanut butter on both sides and some jelly in the middle. I don’t like crusts, so I cut them all off and wrapped them in tin foil. I had three in each of my drop bags, so I was never without.
I had a few GU gels over the 11 hours I was running as well, just to supplement if I didn’t feel like eating PBJ. Sometimes I was just too tired to eat a sandwich, so I took a gel instead.
The few miles before the start/finish aid station were brutal. Talk about climbing. It was like miniature versions of Thompson Peak. Okay, maybe not that bad, but it sure felt close!
I was so tired and just wanted to see my hubby. I knew that’d help me. His encouragement and his hug. That was all I wanted right now.
And I got it when I made it to that aid station.
Thank you, Courtney and Jon, for being there, too. It really helped seeing your smiles and hearing your encouragement. And to hear that Courtney finished her first 50K way below her goal time.
That truly inspired me!
But I did have a fear creep in while Jon was refilling my water bottle and my hubby was digging out my PBJ: I am so tired. How am I gonna pull 8 more miles out?
The mere thought of doing 8 more miles really seemed daunting, and I wasn’t sure I’d get them done to meet my goal of 12 hours. I’d made it to the start/finish station at about ten hours. That meant I had 2 hours to do 8 miles.
Yikes. On these shaky legs? And in the dark. My hubby started rubbing my legs, encouraging me to do it.
So, I refueled, got my hugs and encouragement from my hubby (he’s my coach, too, if I haven’t told you that by now), and I took off.
Okay, I shuffled off…
It was getting dark, so I got out my headlamp and knuckle lamps and hunkered down for a dark two hours. That made me kind of nervous. I had never done this course, so I had to stay very alert for the trail markers because I had no clue where I’d end up if I got off course.
The markers were pretty good, even had reflectors on them, which really helped. Only a few times did I have to slow down and actually find one.
This part of the course was flatter than I’d expected, so I kept a good pace—I think about 13 minutes per mile as I look back on those last few miles—but there were some huge climbs and down hills. I could tell it was a biking course, that’s for sure. LOL.
At one point I was basically sliding down one of the hills, my quads shaking they were so tired. But what kept me going was: I was almost done. I could call myself an ultra runner. I could have that 50M sticker on my car. I could eat all the cheesecake I wanted. I would make my husband/coach proud. I could do this for Frank. For Jennifer. For my friend Traci. For those who couldn’t. I would represent them! Do this for them.
When I run or do these crazy adventures, there’s a lot of focus on me with all the training, etc. So, to have names of those struggling with cancer, mental illness, or whatever, it helps me stay focused on others. And that, in turn, helps me. Reminds me just how very lucky and blessed I am to be able to do this. To do this for them!
As I go on, it’s just me out here all by myself. Haven’t seen another soul for miles. I glance at my watch and see I’m at 80KM. That’s 50 miles! So I yelled, “FIFTY MILES!”
At least the coyotes were listening… LOL
I was smiling and tearing up as I ran. So happy, despite the pain and discomfort I was feeling.
At this point, I knew the course was running about two miles long, so I’d figured that around 83KM I should be close to the finish line. So I texted my hubby that I thought I was about 2 miles away (remember, I’m bad at math.)
What I also realized… I only had about twenty minutes left to beat my goal. I kicked up the pace a little—so I thought—it’s hard to tell out there in the dark. I thought I was running fast…but, it turns out I was still keeping about 13 minute miles.
Which is pretty good for me after 50 miles. LOL.
I saw the start/finish area and thought, “YES! I’m close!” And then the trail turned in the opposite direction for a while. Talk about teasing me!!!
I turned on some music again. Got me some Skillet going: Feel Invincible, Back from the Dead, Undefeated, and Out of Hell. Those were pumping songs. I played them loud, too.
Then I saw the finish area again. And…I stayed on course for it. I almost burst into tears when I realized the finish was within reach. And I didn’t have to climb an embankment to get to it. It was marked along the parking lot.
No major rocks.
The tears started burning.
I was going to see my hubby soon. I was going to cross that finish line having run more than 50 miles.
I pumped my arms, making my burning, heavy legs move faster. Just a little faster. I was so close to my goal.
And then I saw my hubby. He stood there, phone up, recording my finish, and I couldn’t hold the smile back. I ran.
The cheers, clapping, and talking faded away and I only saw him.
Yeah, I pretty much tackle hugged him.
And I didn’t let go for a long time. Mostly because I was so happy, but also, I wasn’t exactly sure my legs would hold me up!
I’d done it! Woot!!!
Beat my 12-hour goal by six minutes.
I’d just run 52 miles.
Thank you Jesus.
As I look back, I think the main reasons for my success were:
- I ran every day. This 50-miler marked my run streak at 173 days. Even if I only ran a mile to keep the streak alive, there was something about running each day. It helped me not just physically, but mentally.
- Nutrition. I trained with the nutrition I was going to race with, and I stuck to it during the race day. Didn’t deviate and it held through. I had no stomach issues whatsoever. Now, what works for me might not work for someone else. But whatever you find that works for you, stick with it during your training, make sure it works and then keep with it during the race. To find out what worked for me, I ran longer runs that were loops and had bathrooms at the end of each loop in case I got into trouble. And then I tried different things. How many calories per hour, what kind of calories, etc. And keep notes as to what works and doesn’t.
- Coaching. By far this was the thing that helped me most. It took the thinking out of my training. That’s important to me. I don’t want to have to figure out how far I should be running, when I should be resting, and things like that. To have a plan for every single day, the intensity and duration already calculated, custom to what my goal was, takes the thinking out of it. Let’s me focus on the training. And then when I got some muscle tweaks, how I change my runs to accommodate that. For example, I tweaked my IT band and hip, so I was told to run flats for a week or so and get some PT done. I was back to trail running within seven days. Having someone to check in with regarding how I was feeling, tweaks, what was working or not…that helped big time.
- Figured out the timing of each station. I sat down and kind of determined a target per mile pace, then figured out what time I would be at each station. I made a cheat sheet and laminated it to preserve it. It was the size of a credit card that I folded up and stuck in my gel pocket. It really helped, especially since my watch failed. AND, it helped me decide what to pack in each of my drop bags. Which leads me to my final point:
- Drop Bags: I planned out each bag, labelled them, then set out items for each one. Yes, I totally over-packed, but I tried to think of every obstacle that might arise. And, I’d rather have too much than not enough. J It took the anxiety out of things. And in a big race like this, you can only have control over so much, so take it where you can.
What I used/wore during the run: Merrell All Out Peak shoes, Ultimate Direction Jenny water pack, Oiselle shorts from Tortoise and Hare, my CCV dry-fit t-shirt, and of course my Trail Sisters trucker hat. J I chose a t-shirt instead of tank top to prevent any rubbing and/or sunburned shoulders. I figured I could roll up my sleeves of they were bugging me. But they didn’t. Felt great the entire race.
What was in each of my drop bags: 3 PBJs, 2 Pre-made Tailwind water bottles to swap out my empty ones with, 3 tubes of Tailwind, Chaffing cream, Socks, GasX chewables, Pepto chewables, 3 GU gels, throwaway gloves. And then in one of the later bags, I had my arm warmers and knuckle lamps for when it got dark. I carried my main headlamp on me at all times. I didn’t use most of the stuff in my bags other than the Tailwind and PBJs, but some fellow runners needed some of my supplies, so I was glad I over-packed.
So….it’s done. Now what?
Rest, eat, rest, and then see what next adventure presents itself.
While my 173 run streak came to an end after this 50-miler, I’ll figure out what’s next on the trail running adventures and maybe start another one…
Stay tuned…you just never know.
Thank you to: Coach Charlie @ Cadence Performance Coaching, Tortoise and Hare, Tailwind Nutrition, AZ Traileggers, and Aravaipa Running. The trailrunning community is a great one. Very supportive and encouraging, and for that, I am very grateful. And to Traci, my trail sister. Training all those hours with you has been a complete and total joy. Love you, girl.
McDowell Mountain Frenzy 50-miler December 3rd, 2016