Finally it was time to head to Ohio. I had completed all of my training, gathered everything I would need for a full day in the woods, and now I just had to do it. I arrived Friday afternoon in Loudonville, OH and made my way to packet pickup. It was a light-hearted atmosphere filled with old friends and making new ones, and of course, beer. Filip was there, who I had paced with in Ann Arbor, as well as Scott and Tom who were also ultra veterans.
I headed back to the hotel where I assembled my drop bag, loaded my vest with supplies and fuel, and laid out my clothing. And then it was time: One more sleep until the BIG day. Except, I didn't sleep-I never sleep the night before a race. So, I tossed and turned for six hours and was already awake when my alarm went off at 4am. After chugging some coffee and downing a protein bar (which I do every single day) I got ready to go. I made it to the Start Line, where runners were slowly congregating. The 100 mile runners had already taken off and soon it would be our turn. I placed my drop bag filled with extra shoes and socks and anything I thought might sound good after 27 miles of running in the designated area and headed in search of a bathroom. A pre-race poop is a good omen for me, and this day did not disappoint! Whew! One less thing to worry about out on the trails.
After that, I scoured the start area and found Leanne. This was her second 50 miler-a stepping stone to her goal race of 100 miles in July at Burning River. We had discussed running some miles together at this race and I was excited to have a companion at the start.
I always find the start of ultras a little funny. There is no big fanfare, no gun fired, no big to-do. Everyone just kind of gathers near the start, someone says"GO" and we go! At the start of the race it was already 70 degrees and the humidity was so high you could feel it on your skin. With temperatures predicted to reach near 90 degrees, everyone had hydration on their minds. We started out at a comfortably slow pace and talked about races and fueling strategies and how lucky we were to get to spend an entire day in that beautiful forest. It seemed like we had just begun, but there stood our first aid station. I wasn't hungry, and I still had plenty of fluids, but there was watermelon and I couldn't resist. I quickly ate a piece and took off again, following Leanne. The next aid station had a little bit more distance to it, but we chatted and laughed and shared stories and at the top of a small climb, we made it to our second aid station-Fire Tower. I again had some watermelon and a few orange slices and the volunteers filled my pack with water. We didn't stick around long and then we were off and running again. I was excited for the next part of the course because I knew what was coming-a descent into an amazing canyon with a waterfall. The route took us right through the bottom of it and it was breathtaking. Leanne and I each took turns taking pictures for each other and I have to admit, I was pretty sad that I'd only get to see that spot once during the race.
The next aid station was Covered Bridge and boy, was I happy to see those tents appear. By this time, I was drenched with sweat and the temperature was rising. A volunteer took my pack and filled it with ice and water. As I grazed on watermelon and pb&j squares, a tall man who was volunteering approached. When I asked him if he ran and he said, "a little", I knew that meant a lot. I asked him what his next race was and he said Western States! If you don't know, Western States is to ultra runners what Boston is to marathoners. He told us to hydrate well because the next portion of the race would be the most difficult and it would be seven miles until the next aid station.
Let me tell you right here, that guy was NOT joking. As soon as we left the road and headed back onto the trail, we were faced with endless steep climbs and switchbacks. We took it slow and steady and were thankful for any portions that leveled off or gave us any kind of downhill. The trails were very narrow and filled with roots and taking your eye off the trail for even a moment could trip you. I found this out personally around Mile 16. I lost focus for just a second and CRASHED. I hopped back up quickly and shook myself off and kept running. Leanne and I had discussed earlier that if one of us had to back off or speed up, then so be it. When she started to pull away from me around Mile 17, I let her. I could tell she was feeling great and I was happy to see her go.
I came up to the Hickory Ridge aid station and realized this was my last aid station before I was back to the start. They took my pack from me and filled it and I snacked on more watermelon and a cookie and hit the road. On this portion of the trail, I met up with and older man with a thick accent. He was so positive and talkative and I was thankful to be following him. He talked of races he had run all over the country and asked about my family and I swear he talked me all the way in to the Start Line aid station.
When I got to the Start Line after 27 miles, I was starting to feel it. My feet had begun to hurt and I was HOT. Filip and Tom were both there and while Filip helped me get my pack off and filled, Tom told us how he had already fallen four times and had a pretty good gash on his leg. I knew that this stop would be the hardest for me. All I had to do was get myself going again. I was feeling nauseous from the heat and didn't want to eat anything. I wanted to change my shoes, but Filip advised me to keep the shoes and change my socks. He was so full of energy and I most definitely was NOT. He pulled off my socks and I put the new ones on and then he tied my shoes for me while I sat there and panicked. I told him I was going to go to the bathroom and I'd wait for Tom and him by the start of the second loop, but he told me to just take off. He must've somehow known that had I stood around much longer, it would be doomsday for me.
After about five miles, I came to the next aid station-Gorge Overlook. I was at a low point, and I asked the volunteers if I could just sit for a minute. I took one look at all of the food and decided I wanted none of it. I pretty much collapsed into a chair, and this angel woman appeared and asked if I would like some overnight oats with chia and agave. HELL YES I DID. She pulled a magical container from nowhere and gave me a full cup of deliciousness. I think I sat there twenty minutes savoring that treat, but it was totally worth it. I thanked her and told her I loved her and took off down the trail once more.
This is where I entered uncharted waters. I had never ran more than 31 miles before. I had never been on my feet running for more than seven hours. I was now entering hour nine. I could feel the ache from my feet slowly moving up my legs as the time moved on. I was walking along the trail when I was passed by a smiling 100 mile woman and another couple running the 50. They called to me to join their "train" and I did. They were not moving fast, but they were slowly running and chatting and it definitely raised my spirits. At the next aid station, those of us running the 50 had a right turn, and we wished good luck to our 100 mile leader as she continued on her journey. I stuck with the couple for a few more miles and then they stopped for a break and I didn't see them again.
The next few miles were long for me and I started doing the math in my head. I was traveling about four miles per hour; I wanted to finish by 9pm; I wanted to finish before it was dark. At that rate I'd be done around 7:00 or 7:30. And then I got even slower. The pain had reached my knees and downhills were no longer appealing. I was alone in the woods and WHERE IN THE HELL WAS THE COVERED BRIDGE AID STATION?! I had expected to see it by Mile 37, but there was no sign of it. Was I even on the right trail? When was the last time I saw another runner? When was the last time I saw an orange flag? And then, of course, I saw an orange flag. And then I saw the sign indicating I was approaching the Covered Bridge aid station. As I got closer, I saw the same tall man I had talked to during my first stop. I stared at him in disbelief and he said, "We've been waiting for you!" Me?! For real? Was a dreaming? He followed me into the aid station and my pack was quickly filled with the last ice they had to offer. I had a sandwich and wanted to sit down, but knew I didn't have much time. I went over and thanked him for his encouragement and wished him luck at Western States and promised to follow his race, and I was off. Somewhere along my way, I turned around and spotted these guys just watching us all pass by!
I had a little over seven miles to the next aid station and I was all alone. I slowly started climbing through the steep terrain and realized my bug spray had long ago worn off. There were black flies constantly swarming me. I expended WAY too much energy fighting off those beasts. I was moving slowly-only about three miles per hour at this point. But I only had 12 miles to the finish! Just 12! HOW WAS I GOING TO GO TWELVE MORE MILES?! My legs were really starting to hate me and my shoulders were throbbing from carrying my pack for so long. I just wanted to be done. Around Mile 39, I caught a glimpse of white behind me. Filip. Who was this guy?! He seemed to have endless energy as he came upon runners and offered advice and skipped and told stories. He finally caught up to me and encouraged me to shuffle run when I could and to fast walk the uphills. Easy for him to say. I tried to follow him, but soon enough he was too far ahead to see. I guess I started to space out, when suddenly something was coming AT me on the trail. I let out a yell and stopped in my tracks. There, in front of me was a groundhog. What the hell? It looked like it was going to charge at me. My first thought was to pick up a rock and chuck it at him, but I decided to take out my camera instead. If that thing was going to attack me, I at least wanted it documented! As I snapped a photo, it decided to turn and take off up the hill. Adios, dude. On my way.
At the final aid station, I ran into Filip once again. He tried to get me to eat, but I was really angry at this point. Everything hurt. Badly. He waited for me to gather myself and we set off to the finish together. It was only about five miles away, but I knew that meant two more hours on the trails. TWO MORE HOURS! No turning back now. I might not have been moving very fast but I wasn't standing still! As we hiked and walked and shuffled, I mentioned that I had had a confrontation with a groundhog. Filip told me I was probably just hallucinating. I promptly gave him the middle finger and told him I was super happy I had taken a picture! Those last two hours were excruciating and even though Filip tried to cheer me up, I was nothing but an angry beast. Everything in my body wanted me to stop. My quads were toast, I could feel random chafing everywhere, I was SO dirty and hot, and I was saying really unpleasant things to Filip, despite his best efforts to urge me on.
The last three miles of the race were spent winding in and out of the campground. As we passed campers and volunteers and other runners, Filip kept yelling out, "THIS IS HER FIRST 50! ISN'T SHE DOING GREAT?!" That of course, would get cheers and congratulations from everyone and I couldn't help but smile. I crossed the finish line at 8:51pm, nearly 15 hours after I had begun that morning. I was so elated that I had made it. I was so elated that it was over! I JUST RAN 50 MILES!
As I headed to find a place to sit down, I spotted the man with the accent I had run with earlier in the day and collapsed into a heap at his table. He congratulated me and said he knew he'd see me crossing that finish line. I think it took until that moment to realize that it was actually over. That I had actually done it. And when I was sitting there ugly crying and that man said, "Hey, mom of five, those better be happy tears", he took my phone and snapped a picture.
Ultrarunning is about more than just running. It is a community. The people that I have met are the most genuine souls. Many of the volunteers are runners themselves, and they know just what you need and just what to say. I could not have completed this race alone. So many people helped me along the way. The runners I encountered, the volunteers, the fans, they all helped me succeed. And when I was finished? I had a few people waiting to hear the good news as well.
I told my husband on the phone that night that I was pretty sure I had gotten this ultrarunning thing out of my system, but I think I'm going to have to take that back. It's been two days since my first 50 and I still can't go down one single step without flinching, but I'm already dreaming about when I can get back out there. Afterall, who could give up all this?