I started writing this post on the plane ride home from New York, 48 hours after the race and yet here we are in September, still unfinished. I'm in the midst of what is commonly called the post-race blues and I think finishing this report as well as writing a few other posts will help me to move forward in training and in my life. Some days it still doesn't seem real that I finished. 33 miles. But I did and here is how it went down.
I had a few mantras going into the race that I had also used over the course of my training. I've used mantras in the past and with great success, so I recommend trying it if you haven't before. Mantras are pretty personal, but what worked for me were short phrases I could easily call to mind and felt natural to say internally and out loud. The first was Show Up. Much has been made of Desi Linden's words of wisdom and all of it is warranted. I've been using this one for several months and it has paid dividends. You truly never know what will happen on race day and so much of it is out of your control, so dammit just show up. Another comes from ultra runner Devon Yanko, Work The Problem. This one is useful when things aren't going to plan. It forces me to move past the feeling I'm experiencing and think practically about what can be done to resolve the particular situation. Do I need to eat? Do I need fluids? Do I need to walk? It dials down the emotion and ups the feeling of control I have over the experience. If you tend to get stuck in your head when things head south, try that one out. Lastly, and probably my favorite, Fit Strong Brave. This one is my of my own making and something that came to me as I was reflecting on a challenging week of training. I thought about what I wanted to feel like and believe about myself. What others have told me they see in me that I want to cultivate. When I got tired or started to doubt myself, I pulled this out.
The other part of my mental race plan involved thinking about two ultra runners that I find motivating, Hillary Allen and Kaci Licteig. If you are familiar with ultras, you know these ladies well. If you don’t, here’s a quick explanation (I highly encourage you to read their blogs, and any recent articles about Hillary's recovery from a near fatal fall while mountain running). Quite simply, Hillary runs with so much joy. I’ve never seen anyone else with a more genuine love of this sport. She always has a huge smile on her face and approaches all of her running adventures with a sense of wonder. Kaci is a tiny powerhouse. She is also the most humble runner I’ve seen, and runs with gratitude in all circumstances. She sees ultra running as a gift, not a given. I wanted to carry those qualities of these women with me on race day. I wanted to remember joy when it got difficult. I wanted to take in the natural beauty when I started to get bogged down with the clock. I wanted to remind myself how lucky I am that I can run, that I can run far, and that I didn’t get here alone.
So, race day. The Finger Lakes 50k is a two loop course of 16.5 miles. Mostly single track with small patches of bridle path and a tiny spit of road. I hoped for a steady effort through loop one, learning the course and conserving energy for what I expected would be the harder second loop. Where the WORK would really be done. Surprisingly, in many ways loop one was the hardest for me. It is where I realized what I’d gotten myself into. What the day would likely feel like. How long I'd be out there (spoiler alert: longer than I wanted to be). Where the anxiety and fear tried to creep in. I kept hearing myself saying “I don’t know how I’m going to finish this.” Nora and I never discussed time goals for the race, it was always about the finish itself, but I was hoping for something in the 7-8 hour range if everything came together just so. I knew by mile 7 that it was not possible. I started doing the math, thinking about the two cutoffs I had to meet. Knowing the second lap would absolutely take longer than the first. The main issue was the course itself. The race is notoriously muddy but I was not prepared for the extent of it. Deep, shoe sucking mud the width of the trail that forces you not just to slow down but to premeditate every step to prevent slipping, injury, falling, etc. Mile splits quickly dropped to 16, 17, 18 minutes.
Honestly, it was frustrating and a bit demoralizing. But it was also what the course was giving me that day and every runner had to deal with it. I kept reminding myself that everyone was suffering. Slow down, step carefully, push on the clearer spots, keep moving forward. I spent a lot of loop one wondering how I was going to finish loop two. When I came into the start/finish line for a pit stop, I was wondering it aloud to my parents. Wisely, I'd already told them that they were not allowed to let me stop unless I was bleeding profusely or bone was protruding from my skin, so quitting was never discussed. The pit stop was all business. Fresh socks. Fresh shirt. Eat this. Drink that. On you go. It wasn't that I didn't think I could do it, I truly just wondered what it would take. How it would shake out. What was the story I would have to tell.
This is also the biggest lesson I took away from both training and racing my first ultra. I don’t need to know how I’m going to do accomplish in order to actually do it. It was going to happen. I was going to finish. I had no idea how but somehow that became irrelevant. It takes as long as it takes. Don't wait to start something because you don't know how you will finish it. You will. Just start. On to loop two.
Loop two was easier in that I knew what to expect. I knew where the mud was and that it was likely worse for having had another round of feet stampede through it. I knew where the aid stations were. I knew what the climbs were like. My focus narrowed considerably, and without effort on my part. My brain knew what needed to get done and it shut out extraneous information. Hike. Stretch. Eat. Keep moving forward. Fuck the clock.
Some of the nutritional challenges that I had during training were managed early. At one point I was so tired that I just wanted to lie down on the course. I was falling asleep on my feet and texted my mom to tell her. She was less than thrilled with the idea of my taking a nap, as expected. So? Work the problem. I suspected that I was starting to bonk so consuming calories became priority one. Sure enough, about 30 minutes and various snacks/drinks later, I was much more alert. Miles 27-33 are hard to describe. As you may have noticed, those are the miles after 26.2. After what is already known and experienced. So far into the race and yet not feeling like I could say I was close to finishing. Reaching that final aid station with about 3 miles to go, having dug deeper than I thought possible, is where I also felt strangely calm. It was going to happen. I'm going to finish this.
I could hear the finish with about a half mile to go but wasn't sure at the time how close I was. I didn't want to push with what I had left only to find out I had at least a mile to go. Only when the grassy pond area fed into a familiar looking wooded trail did I really pick it up and RUN for that line. For the music and the voice calling your name as you approach the timing mat. For the family jumping from their chairs, racing to meet you, cowbells clanging in the air. For the opportunity to leap over the line and smash the bell hanging above you to commemorate the magic you just made. Ultra runner.
In the hours and days since, one thing I realized that I risked and am proud of is how I went after this ultra 100%. The potential for failure was certainly there and because I’ve been pretty transparent with my training it would have been a public face plant. How scary is that? I’m glad that didn’t really occur to me until after the fact, honestly. If I had not finished, at least I could look back at the past six months and know it was not for lack of trying. Race day is unpredictable and a finish is never guaranteed. There are too many variables that will always be outside your control. You just need to be brave enough to give yourself over to the process. To what you can reasonably control. And own it when you have some gaps.
There is certainly room for improvement from this experience. I didn’t strength train as much as I should have, period. I was incredibly lucky not to have any injuries, but I also had niggles and issues that regular preventative work may have avoided. I also let my ego and how I value the clock decide my training run choices, and I paid for it on race day. I should have spent a lot more time on technical single track, since it made up the majority of the course but I was too self-conscious about how long the training runs would take and a bit scared of how hard it would be to do them week after week. I focused on the quantity of the miles, rather than the quality. I knew prior to race day that it would be a weakness but I felt too far into the training cycle to be brave enough to do anything about it.
I learned more than I thought possible about long run nutrition and feel a lot more confident about applying that knowledge to my next race. Most importantly on this matter, be flexible. Do not get stuck in a "just this gel, just this drink, just this chew" cycle. Your body will change its mind without notice (even during training) and trying as many different things as possible will teach you what your body can tolerate come race day. For whatever reason, on race day, all my body wanted was Pringles and watermelon. I tried a few other things at aid stations and was gagging and spitting things out on the trail. Except for Pringles and watermelon, neither of which I had trained with but both of which tasted amazing and caused zero GI issues. Who knew?! The gut wants what it wants and I chose not to fight it.
Race day reveals all, the good and the bad. It strips you bare and leaves you with there with your naked self for hours at a time with no choice but to look. To stare and judge. To break apart and put back together. To wonder and admire. To accept and persevere. I accepted nothing less than relentless forward progress and received a finish line in return. I'm sure there will come a time when giving everything won't be enough but that was not the case this day. Humbled. Grateful. Onward.