One word: epic.
Any hundred mile race is epic, for the runner, the crew, the pacer, the volunteers, and the race director. This is a given. My experience at the Viaduct Trail Ultra this year was unusually so, given the weather circumstances and the lack of traditional on-course “support” that a runner typically sees at bigger hundred mile events.
For me, this isn’t a bad thing. It’s actually what I wanted.
RANT ALERT (skip ahead to the race report if you’re easily offended!):
Recently, I’ve been getting a bit fed up with the boom that’s been observed in the ultra world. Ultrarunning magazine, sort of one of the “bibles” of the sport, is in color now, for Christ’s sake! And filled with slick advertisements for products like Ink N Burn’s latest line of “denim” shorts. Seriously, are you kidding me? Am I running ultras because I want to look cute on the trail in a pair of pseudo-denim low rise daisy dukes with my butt cleavage hanging out? Am I running ultras to look cute on the trail in “tattoo sleeves?” The ultra list, which I adore (I’ve been on there for years mainly as a lurker, but also as an occasional participant), has lately become filled with proselytizing vegans, “paleos,” cross-fitters, “minimalist” runners who debate every aspect of “drop” in their shoes…in short, a bunch of people whom in my mind would do better focusing on going out and RUNNING versus worrying about all of this crap. I don’t know…call me old-fashioned or something. To me, if you want to become a better ultrarunner, go out and RUN more. It’s not rocket science. Train hard, and the results will come. It’s not about using Vespa, eliminating every carb from your diet, or wearing Vibrams. It’s about running…not talking about running.
Last fall, after finishing the Javelina Jundred, I started doing research on low key hundreds. JJ100 was great and I had a fabulous time with my buddy Jill; I have no complaints. But – to me – there were just too many people on the trail. I run simply because I love the sport, and especially because I love the solitude. Running is my meditation, and in some ways, it’s a spiritual practice. I can’t think of any other way (besides actually sitting for meditation, which I do on occasion) to be more in the moment than to be on a beautiful trail, or even a country road, alone, with only my steady breathing and footfalls to be heard, along with the sounds of nature. Yeah, that sounds cheesy, sure. For me, though, it’s central to my existence and I just can’t function without that focused time that is about nothing but itself. Not thinking ahead, not looking back. Just being.
I knew, after JJ100, that I couldn’t handle doing another race with that much hoopla and focus on things like costume contests. (Just not my thing…no judgment though against the people that use ultrarunning as their main social outlet!) Last winter, I came across the website for the Viaduct Trail Ultramarathon in Pennsylvania. It was advertised as a no-fee, minimal aid type of course on an out-and-back portion of unimproved, stony, rail trail. Minimal aid was what really caught my attention, as I knew that this would weed out a lot of the “trendier” ultrarunners and “newbs” that I’m seeing more and more in the scene. Additionally, the “no-fee” thing sounded awesome; race fees are growing exponentially – it’s usually in the 200 buck range to just enter a 100 mile event. And stage events? Holy crap. I couldn’t even ever entertain the thought of one of those! Pay thousands of bucks to run a course with no aid (besides water) and bring your own supplies and camp? Puh-leaze. I’d rather just go fastpacking on my own…
So I signed up for the waitlist, and around Christmas, got the news that I was in. That meant I had to train. And I did. This time, it was different for me. I pretty much threw away my Garmin. I quit worrying about mileage and training schedules. I ran as I felt, making sure to run a good 20-30 mile run at least once a week, usually on trail (I know my pace well after all of these years, so I know how long that kind of run takes). I slept as much as I wanted, and didn’t put pressure on myself to wake up at a “certain time” just to get in a run. If I had a busy week, my training decreased. And when I had more downtime, I pushed it. I ate what I wanted…in moderation. I just stopped worrying and stressing and obsessing. It was awesome.
As race date neared, I started wondering if I had trained enough. The last “long” run I did was 57.6 miles at the Lake Waramaug Ultra (a long story in and of itself), in about 11 and a half hours or so. After that, I did weekly long runs in the 4-6 hour range on a variety of surfaces, ranging from technical trail to road, and prepared myself to run in extreme heat. My husband assured me that I was in shape, and that he knew I’d do well at VTU.
I met some awesome new folks at Lake Waramaug in April, including my new friend Tracy, who decided to tackle VTU as her first 100. She kindly made travel arrangements for the race, which was appreciated since I’m always so damned busy. I also met a great guy, Nick, crewing at Mohican, who agreed to come along as my pacer/crew. I hadn’t had either in an event in several years, so it seemed like a real luxury! We had a hilarious road trip to Pennsylvania the night before the race, driving down crazy winding state routes that seemed like they were out of a scene in Deliverance, complete with trailers and shacks and trucks up on blocks in front yards. And we stayed in the most amazingly weird motel I’ve ever had the honor of sleeping in…complete with a 50s era marquee out front, and a Quasimodo-like humpbacked innkeeper who apparently lives in the motel office and feeds the entire local stray cat population. My favorite part of the motel experience was how he showed us how to operate the “night-light” in the bathroom, which consisted of a naked lightbulb mounted on top of the mirror. True awesomeness. The beds were clean, comfortable…and Tracy, Nick, and I all slept great.
The morning of the race, Tracy and I woke up at 2:45 am. I had my usual breakfast of granola, honey, and Greek yogurt along with a big cup of coffee. We packed up the car, and were out of the motel by 4:10. Even though I was using a GPS, I still made a wrong turn exiting the motel parking lot, and had to find a place to turn around. We drove for about 30 minutes, and wound up where we thought the race was supposed to be – in a big park, underneath an old bridge. And NO ONE was there. It was pitch black, and there were no signs. By this time, it was about 4:45, and the race was supposed to start at 5:00. I was getting a little bit stressed, but finally another runner drove up and we figured out where the park was, with the starting line and camping spots. We parked literally with five minutes to spare, just enough time to grab our packs and head to the starting line. I had to shout at the RD: “Hey…we just got here!” and gave him our names. I missed all of the pre-race instructions, but figured, how hard could it be? You just run 12.5 miles down the trail, turn around, and do it again. There’s aid out there somewhere on the course. No stress, right?
And we were off. The course wasn’t exactly marked, and there was close to a mile of road running in town to get to the trail, with one turn off of Main Street, across the railroad tracks. I did my usual walk/run ration of four minutes running, one walking, three running, two walking. Tracy kept me company, and we jabbered away. I told her a bunch of silly stories, including one of the time I was at a Rick Springfield concert (yes, of “Jessie’s Girl” and General Hospital fame) when he literally fell on top of me and then kissed me. This would have been thrilling, had I been a Rick Springfield fan, but I’m not (my friend I was with was), and so to me, it was more hysterically funny than anything else! The story caught the attention of a second-time fifty-mile runner…who was incredibly nice and funny and I feel like an absolute heel because I can’t remember his name. We exchanged lots of concert stories, and I sang him a bunch of Motley Crue tunes from “back in the day.” And before we knew it, we were at an aid station in the middle of nowhere, off of some back-country dirt road, manned by a kind woman who baked the most amazing chocolate cookies for all of us stinky runners. She told me the recipe came from the Ghiardelli packages of chips, which I thought was adorable and very sweet. This woman epitomized to me the spirit of ultrarunning, which in my mind should be support, kindness, and generosity…not the kind of trendy crap I keep seeing advertised in magazines!!
The miles continued to fly by, chattering away. Tracy and I parted with our concert-story-telling buddy around the 10.5 mile aid station/water drop, and headed up a steep, but thankfully short, rocky incline toward the 12.5 mile turnaround. I was pleasantly surprised at the relief in my legs when we turned back, realizing that we had been heading up a slight but very steady incline. Now it was time for a 12.5 mile descent back down toward the start/finish area. We continued to gab each other’s ears off, and nearly made a wrong turn coming out of one of the road crossings; luckily, a crew member for someone else was there to point us in the right direction. Before we knew it, we were back at the start/finish for a 5:30 split, and my amazing crew/pacer, Nick, was there, ready with a chair for both of us, food, drink…it was heavenly. He filled up my hydration pack for me, replenished my supplies, and I was off again in less than five minutes. Here, Tracy and I parted ways, as she had some blister issues she needed to address. (I found out later she made a wrong turn on the road section, and I felt horribly that I wasn’t there to help her out!)
I rarely run with music, but decided here to put on the ol’ iPod and cranked a 90s dance party complete with Lords of Acid, Praga Khan, Queen Latifah, and the occasional Snoop Dogg tune. It was getting really, really, really hot out there, and I needed to stay focused and motivated, as I was starting to “feel it.” That day, it was about 95 degrees with incredibly high humidity, and it felt like I was trying to plod through a thick, steamy wet blanket. Absolutely foul and disgusting, dripping with sweat…ugh. Seven hours into the run, the skies violently erupted and a massive thunderstorm broke out. Remember the word epic? Thunder, lightning, pouring rain, wind. I put the iPod and my camera in a plastic baggie in my pack, forgetting to add my flashlight…this mistake came into play later, as the rain killed the batteries and I stupidly forgot to put spares in my pack (duh!). The rain was heavenly, and it felt so so so good in contrast to the intense heat I had been experiencing. It was during this time that I had one of my silly hormonal euphoric moments, suddenly dancing around in circles, feeling like the trees were my brothers and that I was truly lucky to be alive. I’m such a dork, but it was a nice moment.
At the 35.5 mile mark, I met up with Nick again, who did a quick reconnaissance. Back up the hill, back to the turnaround, back down to the aid station with Nick, and he replenished my hydration and my supplies. Then I was off again, and this time, since it had cooled down substantially due to the rain, I started to hammer a bit. I was still doing my run/walk method, but picked up the pace, and since it had quit raining, I was able to crank the tunes again. I had a blast on that long downhill, enjoying every step, and I hit the fifty mile split in 10:53, my second twenty miles a full seven minutes faster than my first.
It was at the start/finish that Nick noticed the extreme swelling in my hands. I thought I just hadn’t taken enough salt, and so that’s why I was swelling and feeling a bit queasy; I had even had to take off my wedding band because it was cutting off circulation in my finger! When Nick went to replenish my hydration pack, he had a stern look on his face. “You need to stay better on top of your hydration.” Oh my…I had barely taken in twenty ounces in 12.5 miles in 90+ degree heat! Stupid, stupid, stupid.
I drank some chocolate milk, sat for about five minutes again, and then headed back out, promising to stay better on top of drinking and eating. Even so, the heat and dehydration was taking its toll. You go through so many ups and downs in a 100 mile event; this up stretch was one of my down moments, to say the least, and it was one of my slowest splits of the day. Even so, I kept moving forward, staying focused, sticking with my run/walk strategy, and just pounded the fluids trying to make up the hydration deficit, which didn’t really seem to be working.
At mile 60.5, I was excited to see Nick ready to roll in his running gear! I wasn’t expecting him until mile 75, but he had found a ride to the aid station, and decided to run the final 40 miles with me. AWESOME! Immediately, I started feeling better. I’ve never thought I “needed” a pacer, but damn, I’m convinced he saved my race in this case, as I was feeling so hot, tired, and frustrated. We immediately started up some funny conversations about how we met our partners, and shared a lot of laughs about old episodes of Seinfeld and South Park. It was so much fun!
However, on the “down stretch” to the start/finish at mile 75, my stomach started doing some weird things. I told the guys at the aid station something like 40 miles before that I had felt a “turd brewing” and I still hadn’t been able to go by mile 60. Think about feeling like you’re lugging a massive bowling ball around in your colon, and with every step it just sways back and forth. Disgusting. I kept having to stop, only to have a teeny-tiny bit expel forth, never fully being “satisfied” with my output. At this point, thankfully it was getting dark, so I was able to spare poor Nick the visual, although I’m sure he heard the effects of my efforts. He’s a tactful guy, though, and just rolled with it. The worst part, though, was realizing how chafed I was “below the belt.” Every time I pulled my shorts down and back up again, it was like rubbing against raw, oozing skin. The humidity had done a number on me, and I was chafed the worst I’ve ever been in places like my waistline, inner thighs, bra line, etc. Plus, I had a massive case of terrible heat rash, and I was breaking out everywhere. This was truly miserable, but I figured it was simply a matter of damage control. You just are going to feel like complete and total ass during a 100, no matter what, so you might as well suck it up and deal rather than focus on it, otherwise you’ll slow down and never finish. At least that was my strategy.
At mile 75, an amazing volunteer made me a grilled cheese sandwich, which I devoured. We headed back out after less than ten minutes, replenishing all of my calories with liquids like Ensure, Red Bull, Starbucks DoubleShot, and Coke. I needed the calories, and solids weren’t sitting well since my core temperature wouldn’t cool down. By this time, it was about 10:30 at night, and even though the outdoor temperature had cooled substantially, my guts were just boiling inside. I felt awful. While we headed down the road, nature finally “called” and I violently expelled everything out the back end in a most inappropriate public location. Better there than in my shorts, I suppose? It was pretty bad, but I was able to laugh it off and we headed back onto the trail for the final lap.
Mile 80-85 was my “suck moment” of the race. I really f***ing hate mile 80 in a 100 miler. You’re 80% done, but you still have to go 20 damned miles (almost a marathon), you’ve moving like a plodding sloth, and you know you may be out there for six, seven, eight, or even more hours before you can finish. It’s the worst feeling. Nick knew I was in a down moment, and somewhere around mile 84 or 85, he suddenly broke out into singing at the top of his lungs, “For Those About to Rock” by AC/DC. I immediately joined in on “we salute you,” and started literally laughing my ass off. We were still singing when we headed into the aid station at mile 85.5, and the volunteers there must have thought I was insane, because I told them that I was “going to kick this course’s ass.” We then proceeded up the steep, technical incline toward the turnaround, and I continued to shout things like “F*** you hill! I’m going to kick your ass! Take that, b*tch!” Classy, right?
Nick warned me about getting overly defiant, as I didn’t want to entirely “blow my wad” in that one little two mile section. I reined it in, and kept steady. I couldn’t believe that after nearly 90 miles that I was still actually running. This was a first for me, as usually my legs are completely shot by mile 80 and I’m reduced to walking. Not this race! Nick was fabulous, continuing to lie to me, telling me that I was moving really fast. It was very encouraging, although I started to get impatient that the miles were moving by more and more slowly.
Close to the end of the trail, the sun started to rise, which was just extraordinarily beautiful. I remember, even in my loopy, sleep-deprived state, taking a moment to just look at the sunrise and feel gratitude for having such a great experience with such wonderful people – my pacer/crew, all of the aid volunteers, the RD, my buddy Tracy who by that time had decided to stop around mile 66 and who was sleeping in my car, my hubby, all of my friends who support and love me despite how quirky I am…
Since I wasn’t wearing a Garmin or a GPS, I had no idea of my mileage. Nick wouldn’t tell me, either, until we got to mile 99, right before the road section. We snapped a picture (which I haven’t seen yet, but I’m sure it’s just lovely…ha!), I took a little “insurance pee” since I was urinating about every two minutes, and starting running like hell down the road. I had to take a couple of little walk breaks up some slight inclines, but other than that, I was running. Dammit, I was going to run across that finish line!
And I did. What was awesome was that there was no race clock, not really any cheering people, no one except the RD and Nick and Tracy and a couple of other really cool volunteers. My time was 24 hours, 34 minutes. I had won the women’s race by a decent margin, and had placed third overall. I’ve never won an athletic event in my life. I’ve always called myself “slow” when it comes to running. I’ve never even thought of myself as an athlete. Nick said I’m not allowed to do that anymore, since I actually won a race.
I’m still shocked, and it hasn’t all quite sunk in yet. It’s all pretty surreal, to be honest. I’m so happy – so happy to have been able to find such a cool, unusual event that was entirely centered on running! I’m happy to have met other awesome runners and volunteers on the course. I’m happy to know there are other folks out there like me who just want to run without all of the CRAP! But most of all, I’m grateful for every moment I have to just be alive and for every step I’m able to make.
Carl, Mr. Race Director…I loved the course. I loved everything about this race. Thank you for putting on an event that’s about RUNNING! WOOHOO.
My husband, Jason – you are my rock and keep me sane. Lord knows I’m nuts. I love you.
Nick – you are the best pacer and crew of all time. We kicked that course’s ass.
Tracy – thanks for your friendship over the past few months. You rock! Stick with it. The 100 mile finish will come, I promise.
Jilly – love you!!! I wouldn’t be running ultras today if it weren’t for your mentoring early on. Ran this one for you, girlfriend, and that first-place award is yours.
To all of my friends and bandmates – thanks for putting up with my insanity and for supporting me doing this crazy-ass sh*t. I’m lucky you are all in my life.