Thursday, August 16, 2012


Well, I ran my first ultra this past weekend (August 11th).

After my last marathon, I felt pretty jaded about running and the world in general, and I decided that the way to make it better was to run an ultra.

On a whim that may have been fueled by a couple of beers, I signed up for Howl at the Moon-- an 8-hour ultra at the Kennekuk Cove County Park, conveniently located near where Rob's parents live.  We'd have a place to stay the night before the race, childcare on race day, and the event itself would be like a family reunion with all our friends from Second Wind Running Club.

Training went pretty well for me, despite the record heat and drought in July this year (I think St. Louis has had 20 days over 100 degrees so far in 2012).  I did at least 4 long runs (21-22 miles) in 105 degree heat, and aside from a few blisters, I felt pretty good. 

We left St. Louis on Friday and made a brief stop in Urbana, at Will's birthplace (so to speak)-- Davenport Hall.  It was where I spent 10 billion hours of my graduate career.  Most of the people I knew in the department have gone (including SL, who recently took a job elsewhere), but I did get to catch up with some of the office staff and become overwhelmed by the weirdness of merely visiting a place where I'd lived so much of my life.



We headed on to Kennekuk to pick up our race packets, and upon arrival we ran into at least 50 people we knew  (slight exaggeration), including Cousin Don.  

The protocol appeared to be that everybody had a canopy tent pitched along the start/finish area (where we would be looping around every 3.29 miles).  There, you were to store the various items you would need for the day, such as a cooler of drinks and snacks, extra shoes/socks, chairs for lounging in (or collapsing in).  I was glad Rob knew this is what you were supposed to do (and had brought a canopy tent), other wise I would have been out of luck.

With our race numbers in hand and our tent pitched, we headed to Rob's parents, where Will opened a few more birthday presents:


"Oh boy, a dinosaur!"


And scared his grandfather:

El tigre


We ate some pasta and tried to go to bed.  Unsuccessfully.  Will had skipped his usual nap for the day (refusing to sleep in the car) and was beside himself with exhaustion.  By the fifth time I had gotten up to soothe him, he begged, "Sleep with me, Mommy," so I brought him back to the bed where Rob and I were trying to sleep.  He proceeded to unfurl himself so that he took up the space of 3 adult humans, and neither Rob nor I had any room left.  He thrashed about for the rest of the night and snored and kicked me in the face.  I saw the clock go from midnight to 2am to 3am.  In fact, at 4:59am, I turned off my alarm and just got up because I was already awake.

Not a great way to spend the night before an 8-hour ultra.

IMG 0969

It was freezing in the morning.  After several months of scorching drought, an unseasonable cool settled over the region.  Temperatures were in the 50s--almost 50 degrees cooler than what I was used to training in.  I shivered so hard my teeth shook as I waited in our canopy tent.

I was nervous about running my first ultra, especially on so little sleep, but the atmosphere around the whole thing was completely different than any marathon I've ever run.  Everybody seemed pretty laid back, and for me at least, this event was more about catching up with old friends than sticking to a certain pace per mile.  I had no idea what was ahead of me because I had never run for 8 hours before ("That's an entire workday," Rob's brother astutely pointed out when we told him what we were doing), so all I could do was go along for the ride.

I was just standing there chatting with a friend ES when all of a sudden I realized, oh we're starting, and off we went.  

The miles slid by.  It was fantastic to have ES running with me.  He is a very accomplished ultra runner and he probably could have been going a lot faster than I was, but we stuck together--talking about everything from writing to photography to beer-making to Western States.  He became like my own personal ultra marathon doula.  I am eternally grateful.  I couldn't even feel my feet hitting the ground.

The course was a 3.29 mile loop on grass and gravel, with an aid station about halfway through.  Every time you circled around and got back to the start/finish area, you had to make sure that your "scorer" saw you and marked down that you'd gone another lap.  Each age/sex division (ex: open males, masters males, open females, masters females, etc.) had their own scorer.  I'm not sure how many people each scorer was responsible for, but every time I went through, my scorer looked at my bib number and called out something encouraging like, "Melissa!  Heading out on lap number 4!"

I tried to do the best I could with eating and drinking.  I managed to eat a whole package of Clif Shot blocks in the first 4 laps or so (200 calories), and then I grabbed handfuls of pretzels from our snack stash in the tent every time I ran past.  I carried my own water bottle and topped it off at the start/finish area each time we went through.  Probably by about the second lap, I started taking one S!Cap every time we reached The Big Hill, which 1) wasn't really that big -and- 2) was actually pretty easy, because you just stop and walk up it to conserve your energy.

By around mile 16, ES was having some knee pain and needed to walk for a while.  I was faced with a Major Dilemma.  I wasn't at this race to be a hero or to break a new world record, I was just here to have fun.  So…should I keep going on my own, or stay with ES and walk?  In the end I decided that I felt way too good--freakishly good-- and I wanted to keep running.  I was afraid that I might fall over and collapse a few miles later, but I just wanted to see how long I could keep it up.

I did, however, pause long enough to take a picture of myself and attempt to Tweet it (which failed, because my phone had no signal) and to do some math to figure out how many laps I would need to run in order to make my goal of 35 miles.  (Why it hadn't occurred to me to figure this out before the race, I don't know).  It worked out to something like 10.6 laps.  I decided to try to shoot for 11 laps and make it an even 36.19.

IMG 0971

Un-Tweetable:  Melissa at Mile 16.3

I felt stronger and stronger as the miles piled up.  My laps were pretty even around 33-35 minutes, which was a decent pace to keep.  8 laps in was marathon distance, and from then on out every step I took was uncharted territory.  I fully expected to fall apart, but I didn't.  I ran a great lap and everybody at the start/finish area called out "Buffalo!" (the battle cry of the Second Wind trail runners) when I got back to start my 9th lap.  I was officially an Ultra Runner now.  I felt like a million bucks.

Except that I hadn't eaten in a while--not really since the Clif Blocks and pretzels early on in the race.  I figured that by this point I had run over 29 miles, so I might as well bust into the stash of junk food we'd brought.  BBQ Fritos are vegan and sounded amazingly good right about then.  I dug into our rubbermaid tub and found, much to my disappointment, that I had mistakenly bought and packed Original Fritos instead of the BBQ ones.  I had a moment of extreme disappointment, because BBQ Fritos are much saltier and sounded a lot better to me.  I tried to make the best of it-- I shoved some boring, original flavor Fritos into my pockets and worked on eating them until made it back to the start/finish area again.

Surprisingly, I didn't slow down, at least not too much.  And I felt peculiarly great.  I kept sucking on Fritos (wishing they were BBQ) and I even ate some slices of cold, boiled potatoes dipped in salt.  The volunteers were fantastic, offering huge amounts of support and encouragement as I ran through aid stations and refilled my water bottle.  They even started handing out ice at the top of the hill, and that was like heaven.

At some point I realized that I had 35 miles in the bag.  I could walk it and make it.  I could lie down on the side of the trail and take a nap and still make it.  I was completely and utterly bewildered by this.  I had thought it would be so much more of a struggle.  I began to have illusions of grandeur and wonder if I could make 40.  I spent several laps doing the math and realizing that it was within my reach.

A brief bout of feeling bad hit right about mile 35, when I was at the aid station at the bottom of the hill.  They'd been handing out soda there all day long, and all of a sudden a couple sips of Coke sounded good to me.  After all, it had brought me back to life after a 2-week stint of Vortex in Nicaragua.  I raced into the aid station feeling much anticipation and when I got there, they were all out of soda!  Such the luck.  Like the BBQ Fritos.  I popped an S!Cap and told myself to keep the crazies at bay.

When I got back to the start/finish after my 11th lap, I had surpassed my goal and it was only 6 hours and 30 minutes into the race.  I stopped to talk to my scorer and asked, "What do I have to do to get to 40 miles?"  I had lost all ability to compute.  She told me to run one more lap of 3.29 miles, and that would put me at 39.48.  Then all I'd have to do is a one-mile out and back, and I'd be there.  Perfect.  I still felt good, and I had an hour and half left to do it.

So I took off for my last big loop.  Right about the time I hit the aid station, Rob passed me for the second time since the race began.  "You're an animal!" he called out.  He looked strong, and I calculated that he was on pace for 50.  Now who's the animal?

I knew I had this wrapped up.  There was no need for speed at this point, I could afford to take it easy.  My quads hurt and my feet hurt from crunching down on gravel in 4mm drop shoes with no rock plate, so I walked a lot that last loop after Rob passed me.

I reached the start/finish area at around 7 hours 15 minutes and had put in 12 laps, totaling 39.48 miles.  I told the scorer that I didn't want to try to run another 3.29, I just wanted to do an out-and-back so I got up to 40.  She said that the out-and-backs didn't start until 7 and half hours, so I just had to wait 15 minutes until that began.

I drank some weak orange gatorade and bided my time.

At 7h30m, the announcer called all of us waiting to do out-and-backs and we lined up to go.  It was a free-for-all on very bumpy, rough terrain, and I had wanted to walk the whole way, but I was afraid I would get trampled because everybody seemed to want to go fast.  I tried to jog as best I could.  I really did not like this section of the race and just wanted the whole thing to be over.

At last it was, and I went to report my one-mile out and back to my scorer, while other people kept running to add another mile or two before the 8 hour time limit.

"Great job!" my scorer said.  "You made 37.19 miles."

"Wait a minute!  I was supposed to have 40!"

"No, honey, you never ran that 12th lap."

"Yes, I did!  I ran right over here and you told me I'd gone 39 miles and all I had to do was a 1 mile out and back to get 40!"

The one thing on the instruction sheet for Howl at the Moon was that you must never argue with your scorer, the scorer is always right.

But goddammit!  I was so confused by this point.  Either she had been wrong about how many laps I'd run and she'd misled me, or she had forgotten to write down my last lap.

I stood there feeling a horrendous cloud of doom wash over me.  Here I was, having thought I was so damn tough for running 40 miles at my very first ultra, and this lady was telling me I had only gone 37.19.  There was nothing I could do about it now-- with only about 15 minutes left in the race, I wasn't going to be able to put in another 3 miles.  I was shit out of luck.

Maybe the scorer just wanted to get rid of me, or maybe she wanted to avoid a nasty outburst of tears, so she reconsidered and said.  "Well, okay.  I'll mark you at 40."  She kind of whispered it, and I got the feeling that she still thought she was right but she didn't want me disappointed or make a scene.

I walked away from the scoring table, feeling shitty, and made it back to tent, where I collapsed in a chair and sat there motionless.  Feeling shitty.

I looked at my watch and reaffirmed that I had recorded splits for 12 full laps prior to doing my 1-mile out and back.  Next year I'm taking a freaking GPS.

IMG 0972

I just ran 40.48 miles, dammit. 


Rob showed up a while later, looking like death warmed over.  He'd made just over 50 miles, which is 20 miles farther than he's ever run in his life.

Within a few minutes, he turned white and his lips got blue and he started shaking.  ES and I ran over to find some EMTs, who came over and put some ice packs on him (not what I had been expecting) and took his temperature and blood pressure.  I guess he got so overheated that he became cold.  He felt a bit nauseous, and they gave him some oxygen.  You want to see something scary?  Your significant other lying in the grass with an oxygen mask on his face.

He made a full recovery and the EMTs went away right about the time that my Post Race Nausea knocked me down and everybody left to go to the awards ceremony.  It reminded me of the time that I lay dying in Nicaragua, all alone, and when I heard a German doctor outside my door, I drug myself out of the room and asked her to give me an injection of some mystery liquid that a pregnant Chilean girl had told me would help me stop vomiting.  Ah, the memories.  

When Rob came back from the award ceremony, he said that I won a Major Award (though I think just about everybody who did this race won a Major Award), and he got me to drink a few sips of V8.  It revived me enough that I was able to make it to the car and get back to Rob's parents' house.

I was really happy to see Will again; we'd been gone for so long that I was afraid he would think I'd abandoned him.  He seemed no worse for the wear and was happily playing with his grandpa.

I felt weird and sick but in a different way than after running a marathon.  Not as intense, maybe.  And more tired than anything else.  Maybe that was because we'd gotten so little sleep the night before.  Rob hobbled to a grocery store and bought some veggie burgers, and I was finally able to eat one of those with no bun but lots of ketchup.  Then I fell into an exhausted sleep and woke up the next morning, realizing it had been a really long time since I'd peed.

Thanks for reading such a long race report.  I definitely want to run another ultra again soon.  Tomorrow, if possible.  Recovery has gone surprisingly well, and I was able to run again on Wednesday morning (after Saturday's 40 miles!) without even feeling so much as a little stiff.

Also, many thanks to Rob's parents for hosting us and watching Will, to the Second Wind volunteers who cheered and shouted Buffalo and made my day, to ES for being an extraordinary pacer and friend, to Cousin Don for, well, being Cousin Don and giving me the sage words of wisdom: Nothing to fear, it's just runnin.'



Eric Smith said...

I'm SO proud of you for doing so well at your first ultra. The first time I ran Howl, I got in 29 miles, nothing compared to your 40! :) I had a blast catching up! It's been too long. The first few miles did fly by and I now know why running along is a little more difficult.I'm sure glad I could provide some entertainment. Ha! See you next year at Howl! :)

Anonymous said...

WOW!!!!!!!! I AM EXHAUSTED JUST READING YOUR VERY DETAILED REPORT OF YOUR FIRST ULTRA!!!!!! HOW DO YOU DO IT??????? Thank goodness both you and Rob 'achieved ' your goal 'without any TRIPS to the ER!!!!!!! Just make SURE your NEXT 'ultra ' IS CLOSE by SOME OF YOUR RELATIVES!!!! big thanks to the Scho's for keepin a watch on darlin Will!! I know he had a GREAT TIME< 'with PRESENTS , too!!!! the birthday that kept on giving , >:)!!!! Next Ultra , take your OWN COKE and BBQ chips....... hugs and much love, mama

Ragfield said...


You're an animal.

amypfan said...

I stand in awe of you and Rob. Seriously. I have no idea how you do it.