Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Brew to Brew

Several months ago, my friend Tricia posted on her Facebook wall that she was planning to do a race called Brew to Brew: a 44.4 mile point to point road ultra from Kansas City, MO to Lawrence, KS.  I took one look at the website and knew that this was going to be my A-race for the spring.

Brew overall

We left for Kansas City on Friday morning and spent the afternoon at Legoland.  Will and Rob were thrilled.  I was a little bit carsick.

Car ramp

Sea of Legos

Lego animals

When we finally left Legoland, we checked into our hotel and then attempted to find something to eat.  It was getting a bit late and we were all stressed out by that point (okay, maybe it was just me), but we still made it over to Tricia's place to say hi to her and the other Buffalo runners who had come down from C-U for the race.  Then it was time to head back to the hotel and unsuccessfully attempt to get a good night's sleep.

Morning came early, and it was still dark and cold when we headed over to the starting line.  It was pretty low key and not too crowded-- there were only something like 70 people doing the Saturday solo run.  I love that aspect of ultra running; I do not miss the crowds and panicked energy that seem to accompany marathons.

Start brew

When it was time to start, all 70 of us followed the race director (well, at least I think it was the race director) across the street.  He asked who had run the race before and a bunch of people raised their hands.  He had one guy come to the front and told us that this guy would lead the way for the first mile, to ensure that nobody missed a tricky turn to get up onto the bridge.  And with that, we were off and running.

Tricia, Jen, Brian

Fun fact: Brian can actually race-walk the same pace that I run.

The first couple miles were a bit crowded, and I didn't like the feeling that I had to carefully watch my step to avoid clipping anybody's heels, or avoid having my heels clipped.  There were also some surprises in the early section that I hadn't really known were coming.  These involved ascending and descending staircases and scrambling up (as well as sliding down) short but very steep banks.  Nothing I couldn't handle.

I was running more or less with Jen and Brian from the beginning of the race.  They are experienced trail and ultra runners, and are quite adept at jettisoning down river banks Kilian-style.  My style of descent is much more grandmotherly.  I would catch up with them again on the uphills and flat sections.

Somewhere, and I am guessing it would have been around mile 8 (there were no markers on the course and I did not have a GPS), as we scrambled up the last bank of the day, the race photographer told Jen that she was the second female runner and me (when I crested a few seconds later) that I was third.

Brew mile8



This was quite heartening news, but it was still early in the race, so who knew what would happen.

We ran along an asphalt and/or concrete roads that were not closed to traffic, and into 25mph headwinds.  These weren't the greatest conditions.  But I felt pretty comfortable  at this point-- I liked it better than the congestion and various hazards at the beginning, even if it was rather boring and unscenic.  Plus, it was great to have Jen and Brian's company.

Near mile 12, we saw Rob and Will for the first time.  Rob surprised me with a baggie of BBQ Fritos-- my secret weapon in ultras, sometimes the only thing I can eat when the sweet stuff (like gel or fruit) just won't go down.  I was ecstatic.  The previous afternoon, I realized that I had forgotten to pack the BBQ Fritos I'd specifically bought for this event.  According to the Frito Lay website, BBQ Fritos were not sold anywhere within a 50 mile radius of Kansas City.  This distressed me, and I had become frantic.  Leave it to Rob, to somehow go out and find them for me.

Grinter house brew

Does this waist-pack make my butt look big?


Eventually Jen and I pulled away from Brian.  I think it was at the next aid station (maybe around the time we saw Rob), we passed a woman who was stopping to rest or change her shoes or something.  Jen and I eyed each other.  That was the first place woman.  We kept going.  Now we were the first place woman.  

I had honestly never been in this situation during a long distance race before.  I am a middle of the pack runner.  This was uncharted territory.  Plus, I now had in my possession BBQ Fritos. Things looked good.

Things didn't look good for long, though.  We entered what seemed like a wind tunnel.  These gusts had to be 35mph or stronger.  There was no respite-- the wind was coming from the SW, the exact direction we were going.

My quads hurt, badly, by (what I estimated to be) mile 14.  When we got to the next aid station around mile 17, I was starting to have a shadow of a doubt.  It wasn't a good sign to be in this much pain when there were so many miles left to run.  So I did two things that I've never done in an ultra before: I drank a dixie cup full of Coke, and I took an Ibuprofin.  

That bought me a couple of good miles.  Plus, it was fun to be running with Jen.  And it was exciting to know that we were still the first place woman.

Meli & Jen

But the wind just wouldn't let up.  The resistance was so strong, it felt like I was running underwater.  Jen is a much stronger runner than I am, but I pushed myself to stay with her because I was really afraid of losing her.  The course was extremely sparse now, no other runners  as far as you could see.  I didn't want to be alone out there in the wind.  I'd get lost or stop altogether or go crazy.  It was killing me to keep up this pace, but I knew I had to stay with Jen as long as I could.

Even without GPS or mile markers, I was freakishly accurate at knowing where we were on the course.  By the time we were around mile 20, things were getting pretty dire for me.  Each step was excruciating.  It would have been one thing if this were a marathon, and I only had another 6 miles to go.  But this was an ultra.  I had another 22.

I hadn't been eating much, so just before we hit the aid station near mile 22, I started trying to eat the Mojo bar I'd brought with me.  When we arrived at the aid station, I decided to use the porta-john while Jen filled up our water bottles.  I set my Mojo bar down before I went into the toilet, and when I came out, I completely forgot about it.  We took off running, and it was maybe about an eighth of a mile later that I remembered.  I was frustrated, but not all was lost.  I had a few extra bars in the car with Rob, and I knew I could get one from him the next time I saw him.  Which would hopefully be soon.  

The bigger problem was that a couple of guys we'd been chatting with and zig-zagging with all day had caught up with us again.  And this time there was a woman with them.  We hadn't seen her before in the race, so I was a bit surprised to see her now.  And, I must admit, dejected.  20 miles to go, and we were losing our edge. We talked with them a bit, but before too long, they breezed passed us effortlessly.  

I hurt so bad everywhere.  I knew that Jen had a lot more energy left than me and she could go ahead and win this thing, so I told her to go and catch them if she needed.  But she stayed cool and said we'd just keep them in our sights, not let ourselves get too far behind.  I wanted to lie down on the side of the road, or at the very least, stop to stretch out my quads, but I was so afraid of losing Jen and being alone somewhere in rural Kansas, that I just kept running while trying to stifle my sobs.  

The other Buffalo showed up in their car and asked us if we needed anything.  They offered me trail mix to substitute for my lost Mojo bar, but I declined.  We saw Rob parked farther ahead down the road, and they drove ahead to tell him that I needed a bar.  By the time Jen and I arrived, he had it out of my drop bag and handed it to me.  My face crumpled up and I started crying.  I was so tired of the wind.

Jen and I kept going.  My stomach was starting to turn and I couldn't even eat the Mojo bar I thought I'd wanted so badly.  It was time to dig deep, really deep.  I thought of our friend Chris, who was out at Umstead running a 100-miler that day.  I reminded myself that all I had to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other.  I was glad there were no mile markers on the course, nothing telling me the unfathomable distance that lay ahead.

By about the time we reached about 26 miles, the group ahead of us stopped at one of their support cars.  When they started running again, the woman wasn't with them.  We realized that she wasn't actually a participant in the course, she was one of their pacers. Maybe it was the half a can of Coke I downed at the next aid station, or maybe it was the knowledge that Jen and I were still the #1 and 2 women on the course, but just like that, the fog lifted.  I'd ridden the wave-- gotten through a very bad patch and come out the other side.  

Screen Shot 2013 04 10 at 12 26 46 PM

It wasn't too long later that we reached the sign about the boat crossing at Stranger Creek.  Saturday solo runners had to run around and take the bridge, but Sunday relay teams had the option of sliding down the bank and taking a boat across.  I remembered distinctly from looking at the course maps that the creek crossing was near aid station 7.  Out of 10 total stations on the course.  For so long I'd had it in my mind that we had 20 miles left to run.  But this sign told me that all of a sudden we were down to 15.  I felt like doing a cartwheel.

At mile 30, the race photographer snapped pictures of us again, and we greeted him with cheers and courageous fists in the air.  30 miles down, 14 to go.  This was manageable.

Linwood 2


Linwood 3

Rob and Will drove by as we descended into the town of Linwood.  I asked Rob if I was hallucinating-- were we really this close to the end?  He confirmed that once we got through town, all that remained was a half marathon.

Jen and I were giddy.  We had this, we totally had this.  To me, it didn't really matter what place I ended up getting or what time I ended up finishing in.  All I wanted was to finish.  And now I knew that even if Jen went on ahead, I would be able to make it on my own.

It was fun running through Linwood, very nice to be in a town again instead of out in the open.  The guys we'd been running with earlier told us that once we got through town, we would run on a roller coaster-like gravel road.  Constantly undulating hills.  That didn't worry me, in fact, hills are fine with me.  Jen and I hadn't been doing much walking up until this point, even on the dozens and dozens of hills we'd already encountered.  But on the roller coaster after Linwood, we started walking up the hills and running down them.  We were strategic about it, making deals with ourselves like, "Okay, let's run to that black mailbox, then walk to the top of the hill."  We kept ourselves moving, going forward.  Relentless forward progress.

My phone rang while we were running the roller coaster hills.  I tried to hit the button to ignore the call but ended up answering it instead.  It was  the massage place where I'd booked an appointment for Monday morning, wanting to confirm.  This struck me as hilarious.  "Yes, yes!" I shouted over the wind and into the phone.  "I'm at mile 30 of an ultra marathon!" I added, but the wind was so strong I didn't know of the person on the other line could hear me.

Meli & Jen

Who would have thought that Kansas would be so windy?

The hills were manageable the way we tackled them, but the worse part by far was the condition of the road.  It was gravel, each rock about the same size as a silver dollar's diameter.  Painful.  The bottoms of my feet soon felt broken.  It was kind of like running on the volcanic rock on Ometepe, except there were no smooth parts anywhere.  This rocky roller coaster section went on forever.  Eight miles, I think.  My euphoria at mile 30 extinguished, burned out completely.  I was once again in a very, very bad place.

There was supposed to be aid around mile 35.  We saw porta-johns but no volunteers or card tables with cups of water on them.  We thought, maybe the aid is just up ahead, so we kept running.  And we kept running.  Nothing.

We must have run another mile, and I was dangerously low on water and extremely dehydrated.  I realized that there was not going to be any aid ahead until the next station, nearly 5 miles from where we'd seen the porta-johns.  That was a long way from where I was now.  It was 75 degrees, and we'd been running for nearly 6 hours.  i had maybe 2 swallows of water left.  My mouth felt like cotton.

As we walked up another big, rocky hill, I took my phone out and called Rob.  I almost couldn't believe that I had signal.  When he answered I asked him if he could come and find us, we were out of water.  I don't know how he does the things he does, but much like he managed to find the BBQ Fritos, he managed to find Jen and me in the middle of rural Kansas.  He didn't have much water with him, but he poured out every last drop into my bottle and Jen's.  Then he left to go find a gas station and bought a 36 pack of bottled water.  He came back to that point on the course and handed out water to other runners who were stranded and thirsty.  This, this is why I love him.

Screen Shot 2013 04 10 at 12 36 37 PM

Rob had told us that there was another aid station about 2.5 miles ahead.  The water he gave us brought me back to life, at least a little bit, and it occurred to me, "Jen, do you think the next aid station is at mile 40?"  The aid stations were roughly 5 miles apart.  Mathematically, that's what it worked out to.  Could it really be that we were so close to the end?

But so close can be so far.  I burned through the water Rob had put in my bottle almost instantly, and I wondered if I would make it another 2.5 like this.  We crested a hill and saw a bunch of cars and vans ahead.  Was it the aid station, or a mirage?  Whatever it was, it was going to save us.  I came back to life just enough to raise my hands in the air and yell, "Suitcase of courage!!"

It wasn't an aid station, it was a bunch of people crewing for runners, including the Buffalo.  My heart sank at the thought that we still had not made it to the aid station, but at the same time I was overjoyed to see the Buffalo, and they gave me cool water.  I think I cried.  They assured us that the aid station was less than a half a mile away and that soon, soon, the rocks would end.

The aid station was even closer than the Buffalo had said-- less than a quarter mile away.  As soon as we went down the hill, we could see it.  "I am so happy to see you!" I sobbed to the volunteer who was working there.  He popped open a cold Coke for me and I ate some Pringles.  He told us we were the first women, and I hugged him.  We asked him how far we had left to go and he said less than 5 miles.

Less than.

5 miles.

This was totally going to happen.  All we had to do was start moving again.  The rocks were over.  For the rest of the race we would be running on a smooth berm separating two areas of farmland.  We were almost in sight of Lawrence.

We started off walking, trying to will ourselves to run.  I forced my legs to do it.  But I didn't even have a mile left in me before the darkness enclosed me again.  i desperately needed food and water, but I couldn't swallow anything.  I'd get some water in my mouth and try to swallow it, but my throat wouldn't work.  I'd have to spit it out.  Nausea began to strangle me.  "Jen, I'm going to throw up," I said about a hundred times.

On the berm we could see behind us forever.  We kept looking back and there was no one there, but at some moment, maybe 41 miles into the race, we saw someone.  Whoever it was was gaining fast.  

At first we didn't think much of it, but then we realized that the person was a wearing a pink tank top and was, in fact, a woman.  "Jen, go for it," I told her.  I knew she had enough energy left that she could do it.  We couldn't come this far and lose first place.  I wanted her to win.

When she went, she went.  She sprung into action like a gazelle.  I realized how much she'd been holding back to stay with me for so long.  She was out of sight within a minute.

The pink tank top lady caught up with me just a few moments later, and she cheered me on as she passed by.  "We're almost there!" she said encouragingly.  "Lawrence is just up ahead!" She pointed to the water tower we could see through the trees.  I think I tried to smile and return her kindness, but I'm not sure I was able to.  

The berm was frustrating.  The crushed gravel felt good to my feet, but I was out in the open with nothing to shade the sun, and the terrain was completely flat.  At least when there are hills it gives you something to focus on, a reason to walk the inclines and give yourself some rest, then run down the descents and gain speed.  The flatness of the berm was killing me.  The nausea was killing me.  I stumbled and gagged a little bit.  I shuffled to a walk.  Then all of a sudden, I threw up a massive wave of fluid.  And I kept throwing up.  Each time I thought I was finished could move on, more vomit erupted.

When at last it was over, I felt like I was in the eye of a storm.  I was tired and woozy, but the nausea was gone.  It was a welcome relief, but I didn't know how long it would last.  I picked myself up again and started running as fast as I could (which probably wasn't all that fast).  I thought I might have as much as 3 miles left in this race, and I wanted to cover as much of them as I could during this interlude without nausea.

Screen Shot 2013 04 10 at 12 45 29 PM

The respite didn't last long.  A few minutes, maybe?  Certainly not a whole mile.  As the nausea strangled me again, I saw Rob up ahead.  He had water, and I was so thirsty.  I should have drank just little sips of it, but now that I was able to swallow, I stood there and guzzled it.  "Keep moving," he said, "You have less than a mile left."

I thought he was playing a mind trick with me.  Telling me that so I would think I was close to the end and I could make it.  I kept asking him, "Really?  Really only a mile?" And he promised that's all it was.

I moved forward inch by inch.  I saw someone up ahead.  It was Jen-- she had finished the race (first place female!) and come back out for me.  I cried. 

Finish2 brew

"See that bridge just up ahead?  That's where the finish line is," she assured me.  It seemed so far away.  How on earth could I make it?  "It's less than a half mile," she said.  But with each step I seemed only to be getting farther away instead of closer.  I closed my eyes for several seconds at a time, hoping when I opened them again I would have made some sort of noticeable progress.

"See those people?  That's the finish line.  You can see it now," Jen told me.  There weren't big banners or bands playing or the kinds of flashy things that go on in big marathons. This was much more subtle.  I would have known it was the finish when I got there, of course, but even a few hundred yards out I still wouldn't have realized that was it.


Finish3 brew

"Jen, I'm going to throw up," I told her.  I was heaving when I finally crossed the finish line in 7 hours, 59 minutes, and 17 seconds (just 43 seconds under my secret goal of 8 hours, but almost a half hour over my super, super secret goal of 7:30).  There was no euphoria, just me staggering away from people so that I could throw up into the grass again.

I felt better enough after puking a second time that I could smile for a few pictures, but I couldn't eat and could only manage a few small sips of water.

Finish brew



Finish kiss brew

I puked for the third time, and then tried to take in some fluids.  But even water wouldn't stay down-- I puked for the fourth time right as Brian finished.  So I missed that.  

We had an approximately 44 mile drive back to our hotel in KC, and since I get carsick even on a good day, I knew this was going to be rough.  We left after my fourth puke, hoping that a brief window of reduced nausea would buy us enough time to get back to the hotel.

It was a difficult trip.

I puked for the fifth time shortly after we got to our room.

I showered and then lay down for about a half hour, and was finally able to keep down some water.  It had now been about 4 hours since I'd finished the race.  I was starting to feel a little bit better, and I really needed something to eat.

We went to this awesome vegetarian restaurant called Eden Alley.  I think it was in a Buddhist temple or something.  I got a veggie burger and was able to eat about half of it, really slowly.  Will was thrilled because there were toys over in the corner and he enjoyed playing with them.

Bear hug

We went back to the hotel and everybody was exhausted.  I fell asleep but woke up only a few hours later-- thinking of Chris still out there on the trail at Umstead.  I kept checking my Twitter feed (he was live tweeting the event!) to see how he was doing.  Finally around 6am, he tweeted that he had made his goal-- 100 miles in under 24 hours!  I was thrilled for him.

I've been kind of exhausted, euphoric, and loopy ever since Brew.  I'm glad I did it, and I'm glad I left everything out there on the course, but honestly, I do not think I will do this race again.  I had to turn myself inside out, leave some of my soul on the course, in order to stay with Jen and get to the finish line in the time I did.

Brew posted the results a few days after the event, and they have this weird handicapping system in which you get time deductions based on age.  So in the end, even though Jen crossed the finish line first, she was the second place female (someone who was older than her finished 40 minutes after her, but that was good enough for first).  Their scoring system bumps me down to 5th, which honest to god feels pretty much like a slap in the face.  Sometimes races have handicapping systems like this, but it doesn't usually impact the overall placement; it's more like a tool for comparison.  Oh well.  I guess I will appreciate this system when I'm in my 50's.  Brew can place me wherever the f*ck they want to.  I know what I did out there.

Maybe its the lingering euphoria, or maybe its the nagging disappointment scoring system, but all I want to do is go back out there and do another ultra.  Soon.  Today even.  I found this great 50-mile race called Frisco Railroad Run on April 27th.  It's on a rails-to-trails path, which is one of my most preferred running surfaces.  Logistically, it would be difficult to pull it off (I have a work event, that I planned, on April 26th, so I can't leave early.  And the place is 3.5 hours from here). Practically, it is not wise to try for a 50-miler just 3 weeks out from Brew.  Not enough time to fully recover.

Rob said not to do it, but I think I should.  What do you think? (Mom, don't answer).

Thanks for reading!


Anonymous said...

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! sorry~~ I just couldn't NOT answer!PUHLEEEEEEEEZE , DO NOT, attempt another RACE , at least SO SOON! next time you might leave YOUR BRAIN cells out on the course~~ I do NOT understand the RATING system for that ultra, BUT IT IS UNACCEPTABLE!! what MORONS!!! FIRST is FIRST!!geeesh!! ok, i've spoken, I shall remain QUIET... and 'you can "run that RACE next april!! OK?? I need to go lay down, I"M EXHAUSTED after reading YOUR blog, and I do think I forgot to breathe some of the time!! laswey sakes!! luv you , mama

WoodChuck said...

Excellent race. I've been looking forward to the report, and sad I missed you and Rob. My 9 miles on the relay were fine: my 10 hour drive starting at 4pm Sunday was all the ultra I could handle.

And you should recover with something a bit smaller. Dunno if you and Rob can find a race that will let you duet?