Never mind the fact that most of the people who ran with me that day had run 50K (30+ miles) the day before and would be running 13.1 miles the day after.
Never mind that. There are many different levels of crazy. This year, 50 miles was a BIG freaking deal to me. It was my first ultra and by far the furthest I’ve ever run.
Although, now that I’ve finished the 50 miler, I want to be one of the cool kids and complete the full trilogy. Maybe next year I’ll join the ranks of the true crazies.
West Virginia Trail Runners Trilogy 50 miler
Why did I pick a 50 miler as my first ultra?
Because I knew I could finish a 50K, but I wasn’t so sure about a 50 miler.
Oh, and this particular 50 miler included some hills.
But that’s okay.
I like hills.
The three races that make up the trilogy all start and finish at The Mountain Institute in Circleville, West Virginia. The majority of runners do the full trilogy, or just the half marathon. I was one of a handful of runners opting to run only the 50 miler.
Everyone is welcome to camp for free on the grounds, or rent a bunk or Yurt.
Meals are served in the dining yurt.
Everyone washes their own dishes.
Sometimes when I have a big race (or anything that I’m nervous about) I deal with it by not thinking about it. That is what I did with this race. I put off planning and packing until the last minute and arrived woefully unprepared.
I have a great deal of outdoor experience. If you add up all the time I’ve spent backpacking on the Appalachian Trail, I’ve lived in my tent for more than a year of my life. I’ve also spent countless hours running and hiking in the mountains. I know about mountain weather and being prepared. Yet I still managed to show up for a mountain race where I would be tenting out the night before with only one pair of pants (jeans!) and one long sleeved shirt. No hat. No raincoat. No trash bags to keep my sleeping bag and gear dry.
I’m an idiot.
The wind was whipping and it was pouring rain when I arrived on Friday night. The temperature was 50, but the wind chill and rain made it feel much colder than that. The parking area was about a quarter of a mile up the hill from the registration/dining yurt, so I had no choice but to head out in the cold rain. I have to admit, I was not thrilled about the situation. I was also seriously considering sleeping in my car. I was cold.
Luckily, the rain stopped long enough to set my tent up without everything getting soaked. Even though I was cozy and dry inside, I still had a lot of trouble falling asleep and slept fitfully. I was awake before my alarm was set to go off at 4:20.
I crawled out of my tent and was greeted by a foggy and gray morning. I shrugged on my soggy coat, sorted through my gear and headed down to breakfast. The hot coffee tasted heavenly, but I limited myself to just a thermos and a half.
No, that’s not a typo. I limited myself.
It was very dark, but not too cold when we lined up at 6am for the start.
Starting line to aid station #1 (6.9 miles)
Since the furthest I had ever run before this race was 28.5 miles, and I had finished that run feeling completely spent, I knew that I needed to take the early miles very easy. So, when the people in front of me started walking on the first hill, I did too. I’m a fast walker though, so when a lady came walking by on our left a few minutes later, I followed her ahead. I continued to walk all of the steep hills and jogged slowly on the milder slopes.
We snaked around the hilly (and wet and muddy) grasslands for a while before heading into the woods, then out onto a paved road for our first big climb of the day.
Don’t let my pictures on roads and smooth trails fool you. They are not representative of the majority of the course, they were just the only places where I felt like pulling my camera out of my camelback.
Dawn was just breaking as I reached the first aid station. They were collecting headlamps at this point, but we were heading back into the woods and I felt like I still might need mine, so I held onto it. I filled up my bladder and a volunteer asked if I needed anything else. I told him I didn’t think so and was on my way
Mile 6.9 to aid station #2 (9.2 miles/16.1 total)
I settled in behind the two guys in front of me. The section immediately following the first aid station was rocky and lined with pine trees. The air smelled crisp and fresh. Eventually, one of the guys stopped to pee, then the other one did, so I was on my own for the first time. It was a little unnerving knowing that I was now solely responsible for following the blue flags that marked the course. I needed to pee as well, but I waited for quite some time before I found a decent spot to take a short detour off the trail.
I managed to keep myself on course, and was pretty proud of that accomplishment
After the rocky section along the ridge, we exited the woods and were treated to an amazing view of the valley. I was in awe and couldn’t get over how happy I was to be exactly where I was, doing what I was doing.
It was around this time that I was struck by the magnitude of what I was doing. I was running fifty miles. And I was doing it HERE in this beautiful place on an amazingly gorgeous fall day. Life seemed pretty darned good.
Soon we were back in the woods and climbing again. I ate a gingerbread Clif bar as I hiked up the steep slope. I caught up to a lady in front of me and settled in behind her for a while.
There were many slippery sections and some very deep mud pits on this stretch of the course. I stepped in one that reached mid-calf and nearly sucked my shoe off.
I pulled into the second aid station just as the lady who had been in front of me was leaving. I filled up my water bladder (with the help of one of the volunteers) and transferred some of my snacks from the back of my hydration pack to the front, then I was on my way as well.
Aid station #2 to aid station #3 (8.8 miles/24.9 total)
This was the section I had been worried about. We had been warned at the race briefing the night before to make sure that we didn’t miss the turn-off for the out and back section to aid station 3. I was paranoid that I would miss it.
After leaving aid station 2, the course meandered along the river for a while. We were treated to a nice view of Seneca Falls, as well as several river crossings. That water was COLD!
A mile or so later, we were climbing again. This is where I passed the lady in front of me, as well as two men.
As I passed one of the men, I asked about the turn-off we were supposed to be looking for. He assured me that I hadn’t missed it, that it was at the top of the hill we were climbing.
I was happy to find that he was correct. I was alone when I turned onto the out and back section down to aid station 3. This was the first runnable terrain I had encountered since the road up to aid station 1. It felt really good to be able to actually run for an extended period of time. I came up behind a guy, and also caught sight of a lady just ahead of him. I passed him, but it wasn’t long before I needed to stop for another pee break. He passed me back while I was off the trail.
I was a little surprised at how far into the out and back section I made it before I saw the first place runner headed back in the opposite direction. He must have had a pretty good lead, because it seemed like quite a bit of time passed before the second place runner went by. It wasn’t too long after that that I saw the first place woman. I was very surprised that I never saw another woman headed in the other direction. I wondered if that could possibly mean that I was the third place woman.
Just before the steepest part of the descent down to aid station 3, there were briars all along the trail that tore up my legs. It hurt, but I didn’t mind. The blood just made me feel a little more badass. My energy was still pretty good at this point, but the steep down hills were starting to hurt my knees and IT bands. I was having to walk a lot on the down hills. Even so, I passed the lady in front of me on the last stretch because she lost the trail for a minute.
We ran by a photographer who yelled out, scaring me as I ran by. I’m sure my picture will be awesome!
The lady who I had just passed, passed me again just as we headed into the aid station.
I grabbed some more of my snacks from my drop bag and a volunteer filled my hydration pack for me. I left the aid station with a sandwich (lunch!) in hand.
Aid station #3 to aid station #4 (8.7 miles/33.6 total)
There was a truck blocking my way as I headed back out the way I had come. I had to stop behind him, then once I skirted around, I became disoriented and couldn’t remember which way to go. I finally figured out that I had been heading in the right direction, so I continued on.
During this out and back stretch, I got to see everyone who was behind me, and it didn’t seem like all that many people. I guessed that I was right in the middle of the pack.
It was a very long climb. I wondered if all of the water and food I’d picked up at the aid station was necessary. My pack felt like it weighed a ton. I was still climbing when I glanced at my Garmin and saw that I had just passed 28.5 miles, which is the furthest I’d ever run before this race. In less than two miles, I thought, I’ll be at 30 miles. Then I’ll only have 20 miles left. Wait. What?! Twenty miles is a long freakin’ way. Twenty miles used to be my long run. Now, after running for 30 miles, I would still have 20 left to run. It was at that point that it occurred to me that if I was going to have a chance in hell of finishing, I would need to find a different way of thinking about the miles ahead of me. Less than 5 miles to the next aid station, I told myself. Less than 5 miles. I can do that.
The climb had worn me out. For the first time of the day, I was struggling. My legs and feet had started hurting on the down hill. Now my upper back and right elbow were hurting, too. The trail turned rocky and slippery again. The rocks were loose and sharp and kept biting my ankles. The difficult terrain, coupled with my exhaustion, frustrated me. I wasn’t climbing anymore, but my pace was even slower than it had been on the climb. Every time my ankle turned or I stumbled, I swore. Out loud. Nobody was around to hear. I felt tears welling up in my chest. I reminded myself that I had chosen to do this, and that I could only do what I could do.
Slowly, I pulled myself out of my funk. I caught sight of a runner ahead of me. I was actually catching up to someone! No sooner had that thought crossed my mind when I heard footsteps behind me. Somebody was passing me.
My Garmin battery died.
I never did catch the guy in front of me, but it wasn’t very long before I heard the cheering in the distance that signaled my approach to the next aid station.
I ate a couple of Oreos and a slice of watermelon. I considered putting on dry shoes and socks, but in the end decided not to. I felt pretty disorganized. I had no idea what food I wanted, or would want for the final 15 miles. I stuffed random things into the pockets of my pack while a volunteer again filled my bladder.
Aid station #4 to aid station #5 (6.9 miles/40.5 total)
The sun had come out by this point. A little bit of sugar and seeing some familiar faces had lifted my spirits considerably and I felt like a new person as I pulled out of aid station 4. As I was jogging off, a volunteer told me I had about a mile along the road, followed by another long climb.
The run along the road actually felt shorter than a mile. I was back in the woods and climbing before I knew it. I was walking again, but couldn’t believe how much better I felt at 33 miles than I had at 28. Who would have thought.
I knew that the girl I had passed earlier was right behind me, but I pulled ahead of her on the climb. A couple of miles into the climb, I stopped for my third and final pee break of the day.
Not long after that, I caught sight of two guys ahead of me. I had been walking for pretty much the entire climb, but we were nearing the top and there were sections that weren’t quite as steep. The guys in front of me were jogging every so often. I decided that I would make myself run every time they did. Using this strategy, it wasn’t long before I caught up to them. I found that my walking pace was faster than theirs, so when they offered to let me by, I scooted around them. The trail was leveling out, though. Soon after I started jogging again, I heard footsteps behind me and one of the guys passed me. A few minutes later, the other one did as well. I never saw either of them again, but I did find out later that they had dubbed me “speed walker girl.”
My painful knees and quads were again forcing me to walk on the steep descents. Before long, the lady who had been following me passed me for the final time. She remained mostly in sight all the way to aid station #5. She was leaving just as I approached. I had just finished my second Clif bar (pumpkin pie) but I ate two Oreos anyway while the volunteers refilled my bladder for me. I was eager to get running again. I just wanted to be finished.
Aid station #5 to aid station #6 (5.7 miles/40.6 total)
This was my first ultra, so finishing within the 14 hour time-limit was my main priority. But I also had it in my head that I wanted to finish in under 12 hours. I knew it was going to be close, but I had dropped my dead Garmin off at aid station #4, and had not checked the time on my phone, either. I had no idea what time it was.
I don’t really know my reason for not wanting to check my phone. I think I didn’t want to put too much pressure on myself if I was close, or allow myself to take it too easy if I had plenty of time. Or I may have just been too tired to pull it out of my pack.
There was a lot of mud on this section, but the trail was pretty tame as far as elevation change goes. I should have been running more than I was.
The stretch between aid station 5 and 6 was the longest 5.7 miles of my life. I just kept willing myself to keep moving. Whenever I didn’t think I could take it anymore, I allowed myself to walk for ten steps. I also allowed myself to walk if there was even the faintest hint of an incline, and through all of the muddy sections. There were a lot of muddy sections on this stretch of trail.
Aid station #6 to the finish (3.8 miles/50 total)
I didn’t even stop at aid station #6. As I was approaching, a volunteer asked if I needed anything. I shook my head and told her I didn’t think so. My pack was stuffed full of food and I had plenty of water for the final stretch. As I ran by, the volunteer called out, “She just came by, she’s right in front of you.” Sure enough, I looked up the road and saw the blue shirt of the lady who had passed me in the last stretch. I didn’t have the energy to try to catch her, though.
I almost missed the turn-off back into the woods. The trail was a little hard to follow in this section and I was grateful to be doing it in the daylight. I didn’t envy the runners who would have to navigate it in the dark. I could tell by the sky and dropping temperature that it was getting late. My shoes kept filling with debris, and I had to take them off and shake them out several times. The trail was taking me through pastureland, spotted with apple trees. There were several stiles to climb over and although I felt as though I was moving in slow motion, I was enjoying myself, too. I felt oddly at peace.
At the base of the final hill, there was a sign nailed to a tree that said, “one mile to go.” Somebody earlier had referred to this climb as “heartbreak hill.” I knew at this point in the race, it was going to suck, but I willed myself forward. I wanted sugar so badly. I had some nuts and a Kind bar in the front of my pack, but none of that sounded appealing. I wanted candy; gum drops, jelly beans, Hot Tomales. I had some dried mango in the back of my pack, but I would have had to take off my pack to get to it, and I definitely didn’t feel like doing that.
After what felt like forever, I was out of the woods and in an open field. I couldn’t see the finish line, but I could hear it. It wasn’t easy, but I ran that entire final stretch.
I was done! I had run 50 miles! I was feeling happy and desperately craving the icy chocolate milk that I knew was waiting for me in the cooler. In the car. Waaay up on the hill…
I’m glad I didn’t know it at the time, but the fourth place woman had been gaining on me and ended up finishing less than two minutes behind me. Not that it really matters. The first, second and fourth place women had all run 30 equally tough miles the day before, while I had been sitting on my butt and eating pancakes.
Next year I’ll get to see how I fare running 50 miles the day after running 30.
I’m kind of excited about that.