On the last day of my twenty-eighth year, I participated in the fifth annual Lt. JC Stone 50k UltraMarathon. Instead of joining the millions of amateur drinkers in St. Patrick’s Day festivities, I was attempting to propel myself for thirty-one miles, using nothing but my own body.
This race is run in memory of Lt. Joseph Charles Stone, a decorated Green Beret who gave his life for his country during the Vietnam War. There is a football field named after him at North Park, which the course passes six times.
I first learned of this race at the beginning of August 2011. I don’t remember how exactly – probably through searching for races on Active.com. The thought of 50 kilometers intrigued me, and I posted this on Tumblr:
While I’ve only lost about 6 pounds between then and now, my body composition has definitely changed. Also, that whole “pretty flat” thing? Misguided. The lake loop has rolling hills, and while the elevation gain is nothing major, it was for me. Anything that is not exactly flat is a hill to me.
I started official 50k training on November 12, giving me eighteen weeks to prepare myself. At that time, my longest distance run had been 13.1 miles – a half marathon. Somehow I needed to build up my stamina to do that almost 2 1/2 more times. It was a daunting task.
I kept up with my training, but it seemed that the more time passed, the more dread and anxiety I felt. Despite running distance PR after distance PR, I was still terrified – especially after my 30 mile training run exactly one month prior to race day. I wanted to get that run in so that in case I became injured, I would have four weeks to recover before the 50k. However, this training run brought on a new kind of pain in my hips. I have yet to determine what it actually is and how to treat it.
At first I figured that this pain was normal, BECAUSE I HAD JUST RUN THIRTY MILES. It probably just goes with the territory, right? Unfortunately the pain stuck around throughout training – even shortening a race distance from twenty miles down to fifteen. This pain was tough physically, but it was agonizing, mentally. Knowing that my body could do the distance, but it wasn’t letting me.
I tried to take care of myself the best I could with stretching, foam rolling, and icing. After a particularly disastrous fifteen mile training run, my spirit was pretty much broken. I hated running. I was stressed, anxious, annoyed, you name it. Burned out, for sure. It was just a bad place mentally, and having a 50k looming did not help matters.
I had a great experience at the March Mad Dash, so I rode the high until that Monday when I saw the weather forecast. I had been anticipating rain, snow, wind, freezing temperatures for my 50k. I had been training it these conditions, so as much as it would suck, at least I would be prepared. The forecast for the week?
New-found panic commenced. I ran Tuesday and Wednesday, just two miles each, and it was miserable. They say it takes your body about 6 hot-weather runs to get acclimated, and those two were incredibly difficult. I was so upset: I had trained for the distance, but I hadn’t trained for the weather. BECAUSE IT WAS WINTER IN PITTSBURGH. There was nothing I could do but hope for the best.
The weather brought about another conundrum: what would I wear? I was used to running in my full-length compression tights, sometimes insulated ones if it was cold enough. Jackets, long sleeves, gloves – I would need none of these things. That meant that I would be breaking the cardinal rule of race day: racing in gear I had not trained with extensively.
Since the forecast promised almost 80 degrees, I realized that even my 3/4 length compression pants would probably be too hot. I had never run beyond 4 miles in anything but compression tights, so I wasn’t sure how my legs would hold up without them. I decided that overheating would be worse, so I wore shorts and compression calf sleeves instead. I also made sure I brought along my compression tights in case I needed to change mid-race. I also realized that I did not have any hot-hot weather tank tops, so I went out and bought one that promised to be non-irritating. I tested it at home, trying to find any parts that would irritate my skin. Again, I brought another shirt to change into if necessary. So, even though I broke one of my own race rules, I had a backup plan.
I ended up taking off work the day before the race, so that I could prepare myself properly, without rushing, and without staying up late that night. It was definitely a good decision, and I was able to lay everything out, pack my bags, and get to bed at a reasonable hour.
Race morning was finally here, and despite my preparation, I had three hurdles over which I had no control: weather, new gear, and the mysterious hip pain. I knew that all I could do was give my best performance and hopefully those factors would not prevent this.
I woke up around 4:15am and started getting ready. I hadn’t really planned out my breakfast, because I always find it difficult to force down food on race mornings. This was especially difficult, because not only was it so early, my stomach was in knots. I ate a banana and drank electrolyte-enhanced water (which I had been doing for three days prior to the race) and took a couple more bananas to eat along the way.
My dad picked me up around 5:15, and we loaded up his truck with my gear and a basket full of goodies for my support crew. I had to take care of them, since they had committed to taking such great care of me! Luke headed to North Park a little later, as did the rest of my crew: Meghan and Sara.
On the hour-long drive, my dad kept me engaged in conversation, which was extremely helpful because every time there was a pause, I felt the brick-in-stomach sensation. I just couldn’t believe it was finally 50k time. I was fighting the thoughts of not being able to finish. My dad tried to reassure me, telling me that no one would be disappointed. While I knew this intellectually, I still felt that if I couldn’t finish, I would be letting them down.
We arrived around 6:30, which was an hour and fifteen minutes before the starting gun. We found a good spot in the boat house parking lot, which is where I would come through at the end of every lap and meet my support crew. I got signed in, collected my timing chip, race bib and race t-shirts… so all I had to do was wait. Oh, the waiting. I managed to choke down another banana while getting our support area set up and organizing my gear. Soon Meghan and Sara pulled in right next to my dad’s truck, so it was pretty much a proper tailgating situation… complete with “coffee”.
We chatted about what I needed from them (taking a million photos, making me sit down at every lap, sunscreen, food, water refills) and before we knew it, it was pre-race meeting time. I tried to stretch out while the race director made his announcements.
With a Clif Shot gel in my pocket and electrolyte water in my handheld bottle, I lined up at the back of the field of seventy runners, as usual. I was really fighting the feeling of not belonging in this elite field, but I did my best to shove down those thoughts. After the national anthem was played, and a little teasing from the race director… START!
The first mile was an out-and-back loop of the parking lot and part of the main lake loop. I tried to hold myself back, because as with all races, I start out too fast even thought I know better. My average pace was 11:00, which was a little bit too fast, but not by much.
Based on the first half mile, I thought this guy and I would see each other a lot during the race, but he soon pulled ahead of me. At the end of the out-and-back, I seemed to be the last runner already. I knew that this would happen, and I knew I couldn’t let it bother me. I had thirty more miles to go, and my goal was simply to finish.
My first lap was definitely the best – I felt fresh, the air was cool, the sun was low. I knew it would go downhill from there, but I did my best to take it one lap at a time.
At the end of my first lap, I forgot to sit down when I reached my crew/tailgate area. I was all hopped up on endorphins and anxiety to get everything done – sunscreen, water, food. I took off after probably five minutes or less.
From this lap on, I began taking my Clif Shot about two and a half miles into the five mile loop. This was right at the one fluid station along the course (there was one at the start/finish area also), so I would be able to take the Clif Shot, drink the water from the station, and still have enough to get me through the rest of my loop. However, my small handheld bottle later proved to be too small for how hot it became.
I was glad to see/hear that my awesome support crew managed to keep themselves entertained while I was running in circles…
Lap three was pretty tough – I felt really tired, hot and cranky… and the notion that I had to do three more laps was not helping. At the beginning, though, I saw one of my coworkers. He was riding his bike and had already done 50 miles that morning! He wished me luck, and it was a bit of a pick-me-up to get support from someone I hadn’t expected to see.
During my third lap, I began actually refilling my water bottle at the aid station that was halfway through the loop. I did half Gatorade, half water. Though I don’t train with Gatorade, I felt this was my best option to keep myself properly hydrated in the heat.
At each of my crew stops, I sat down immediately. I drank cold water and electrolyte-enhanced water, and ate a few strawberry Fig Newtons. This seemed to work well, and even though I could feel my stomach growling with hunger, it was still hard to choke down food. Right before I would take off again, Sara sprayed me down with sunscreen to keep my albino-like skin from burning.
My fourth lap was pretty difficult, because I knew there were people who had already finished the race at this point… if not most of them. I really wished I could have been one of them. My lap time increased by about five minutes, whereas my first three were about the same. The heat was intense, and I had sweat burning my eyeballs. Ouchy.
Fortunately all my new/non-trained gear seemed to agree with me, so I didn’t need to make any outfit changes. I did, however, need to make a few porta-potty stops at the beginning of loops five and six. Despite my best Immodium efforts, my stomach was unhappy and porta-potties became necessary. Runner problems!
Oh, lap five. You were so difficult and soul-destroying, because I was SO close to being finished. One more lap around that lake, however, made me want to throw myself in front of the oncoming traffic along the course. There were finishers who were driving past and flashed their medals out their windows, yelling words of encouragement: “This is what you’re running for! Keep going, you’re doing great!” Their words were so kind, and their intentions pure… and all I could do was cry. I was just so exhausted, physically and mentally. My lap time increased by another ten minutes.
During my last crew stop, I asked Luke to drive out to a point along the course to meet me with water, because the heat had gotten so intense that I didn’t feel my handheld plus the fluid station would be adequate to get me through the lap. With lots of encouragement from my crew, I headed off on my final 5 mile loop. As I approached the clock & finish line, some enthusiastic finishers tried to guide me to the right, where the finish line was. I sadly informed them that I still had one lap to go. ARGGGGG.
Lap six was by far the most difficult part of this race… and it might have been harder than the rest of the mileage combined. I was exhausted, of course, but around mile 28, I also began experiencing chills despite the heat, nausea, shaky hands, and light-headedness. I felt dread – despite my best efforts, I seemed to be dehydrated and probably on the verge of heat exhaustion. I walked a lot on this lap - it was my slowest, probably around an hour and a half. This was also the moment my Nike+ GPS watch (and subsequently my heart rate monitor) chose to die on me.
Fortunately, Luke was confused on where we had planned to meet, and ended up catching me about a mile sooner than we planned. It was perfect timing and it probably kept me from dropping out and/or requiring an ambulance. I passed off my watch, footpod, and heart rate strap – didn’t need extra crap that wasn’t functioning to slow me down. I drank lots of cold water, and Luke refilled my handheld. I asked him to meet me a mile ahead, where we originally planned, so I could refill again.
Somehow, I managed to run that mile. I think it was because I knew I would see him soon, and when I did, I would only be a mile away from the finish line. He was surprised to see me so soon (not that I broke any land-speed records) since I was in such pain when he saw me the first time. I drank more, refilled, and gave him finish-line photo-op instructions to pass on to my crew. I wanted someone to be past the finish line, so that they could get a photo of my face as I crossed the finish line.
Apparently I did better than Luke expected on my last mile, because my crew was still at the tailgate spot. They weren’t expecting me so soon, so I didn’t get the photo I was trying to describe to Luke, but who cared? I was about to finish 31 miles!
Seventy runners started the race, and fifty-nine finished. I am beyond proud when I say that I was one of those finishers! I finished dead last – and could not be happier.
To my surprise, I didn’t cry as I crossed the finish – despite the huge amounts of cheers from volunteers and runners who had finished hours earlier but stayed for me, the last finisher. I was emotional, but just so relieved to have made it and accomplish a feat that 99% of runners will never even attempt.
I was 59th out of 59 finishers, and my clock time was 7:48:19.00. My estimated (due to my watch dying) actual running/walking time was about an hour less. I paused my watch each time I stopped at my support crew area, and of course in the porta-potties. So basically, close to seven hours of running/walking.
I can’t begin to thank my support crew enough – it was so amazing knowing that they were there for me, every lap, with whatever I needed. They gave up their entire day – St. Patrick’s Day – to cheer me on. So many thanks to Meghan, my dad, Sara, and Luke.
As my dad drove me home, I tried to get comfortable, but it was difficult. I just couldn’t believe it was all over! I was relieved, but still in disbelief that I had actually survived. Months of training – literally blood, sweat, and tears – had finally paid off, and suddenly I was an ultramarathoner.
It was hard to move for the next few days, and going down stairs was completely terrifying… but the morning after, I had to make things official:
Thirty-one miles before twenty-nine years? Done and done.