The Wednesday before Bear Chase, Rob and I went to Loveland to pick up our new pop-up camper for the station wagon. After the guy finished installing it, he asked if we had any camping trips coming up, and Rob told him we were camping at Bear Creek on Friday night. The guy was like, “Oh, cool, how come you’re going there?” and Rob said, “We have a race this weekend."
I think Rob phrased it that way because he knew I was in such a state of panic that I couldn’t talk about it. I was standing there, feeling the pain of my re-injured tibialis posterior tendon, knowing full well that there was no way I should be running at all until I let this tibia heal, which could be months from now. It would have pushed me over the edge to publicly state that I was the one running the race this weekend, that it was 50 miles long, and that even attempting it was probably the stupidest thing I’d ever done.
Sometimes life leads you places you never expected.
On Friday, Will had a Walk-a-Thon at school. In between frantic bouts of packing, Rob and I biked to school while the kindergartners walked. Will asked me to do a couple of laps with him, and he took off running.
My leg hurt. Not bad enough that I felt like I couldn’t run, but not good enough to give me any confidence that I could cover 50 miles. I felt grim.
We went ahead with the plan, and as soon as school let out, we picked up Will and hit the road. Packet pick up was my last chance to drop down to the 50K, which really seemed like the most reasonable thing to do, but I didn’t. I finally decided, come what may, I was doing this. If it hurt, it hurt—I would have to drop regardless of what distance I was attempting. This race had a 15 hour time limit (very generous for 50 miles, could include lots of walking), and there was no other race on the horizon for me. If this injury became severe and I had to take several months to recover, so be it. At least I would never wonder, What if I could have done it?
It’s going to be great.
Home is where you park it.
We quickly tried to make it to the campground and get dinner ready and everything set up before dark. I had tried so hard to have my drop bag packed and to have Rob and Will’s stuff situated for while they were waiting for me out at the start/finish area all day, but in the end it all got so discombobulated. And then it was dark.
Story time in the camper
The bed in the new pop-up camper was comfortable, but I could not settle down because my calf hurt… from running 1/2 mile around the track with Will at his Walk-a-Thon. Ribbons of pain and tightness threaded their way from the back of my knee to ankle, on both the medial and lateral sides. It felt like the way your leg feels after having a charlie-horse. I tried to work out the knots as best I could, but really I just panicked and didn’t sleep all night long.
5:00am came early and dark. This is the first time we’ve camped before one of my races, and it was a lot harder than I’d anticipated to get ready in the dark, outdoors, with sub-par bathroom facilities.
We were camping in the park where the race was being held, only about 2 miles away from start line. However, we had found out that most internal park roads were closed “after hours” and not re-opened until 7am, which meant there wasn’t a good way to get from the camp site to the start line on time. We solved this problem The Ragfield Way, which is to say, with the cargo bike. Will and I sat on the back while Rob biked us (and all our gear) to the start of the race. It was dark, cold, and uncomfortable.
Everything was taking a lot longer that we thought it would. We arrived at the start area around 6:05 (25 minutes before race time), and I still hadn’t eaten, put on my race bib, set up my drop bag, or applied Body Glide. I briefly wondered if this was some sort of bad dream and I would wake up soon, but it wasn’t.
I was nervous and sick to my stomach, and when I tried to eat, I couldn’t swallow. I finally managed to force down a Clif Z-bar, which at only 140 calories, was not an ideal way to start a 50 mile run, but it was better than nothing. I was so nervous I was shaking as I made my way to the start line. It was time to go.
Loop 1: There are some things medical science can’t explain
I started with the mayor. Meaning, I was in the way, way back. There might not have been anybody behind me, but considering that I was both injured and undertrained, this was exactly where I needed to be.
The sun peaked up over the horizon just as the race began. My first few steps felt easy. I tried to relax, I tried to breathe. This was better than I had feared it might be, but I was still nervous.
Photo by RunningGuru.com
The first few miles were the easiest part of the 4-loop course—mostly smooth dirt paths along the creek. I wasn’t completely at the back of the pack anymore but settled into a comfortable pace with a group of 4 or 5 other runners. Chatting with them helped ease some of my nervousness. They were seasoned trail runners. The woman who made up the back of our pack would periodically call out, “Does anyone need to pass?” and the woman in front of me would silently gesture with her hand if there was any hazard on the trail, such as a rock or root.
After a few miles of running and chatting with them, I found out that they had travelled to Colorado for this race from—of all places—St. Louis.
We gradually split up, but I stayed with the woman in front of me. We were very easily, comfortably, running about 11:30-12:00 minute miles. My leg did not hurt. It had hurt when I ran with Will at his walkathon, it had hurt all night long in the camper, but now that I was out on the course, it strangely, miraculously, did not hurt at all. There are some things medical science just can’t explain.
My St. Louis running partner really seemed to know what she was doing with this 50-miler, plus I enjoyed talking to her, so I resolved to stay with her for as long as it seemed reasonable. She was going exactly the pace I had told myself to stick to. This may have been the first time in an ultra that I haven’t started out too fast.
We stayed together on the climb up Mt. Carbon (approx 5 miles into the loop) and the descent as well. I’d been worried about this part— on the reconnaissance mission Rob and I had taken last June, the descent had seemed narrow and rocky, and I’d been concerned that there was no place for me to let other runners pass if they were coming up fast from behind. But it was fine. The trail was much more smooth than I’d remembered, and everybody was taking it easy.
A mile or so after Mt. Carbon (about 7 miles into the race), we hit the 3 stream crossings that we would encounter with each loop. I was glad that my run in June had prepared me for what this would be like. Although the photos don’t quite do it justice, the water reached my knees at the deepest sections. The cold felt wonderful on my calves. Once out of the water, my shoes, socks, and feet were completely dry within about a half a mile.
Photo by RunningGuru.com
I split up from my St. Louis running buddy somewhere on the back half of the loop. She was using a run 15-minute, walk 1-minute strategy. A lot of runners employ similar tactics, but I had decided I didn’t want to time my walk breaks by a watch for this. There were parts of the course that I would definitely have to walk, such as the stream crossings, Mt. Carbon, and the many jagged little hills. I was confident that the trail would keep me honest so I didn’t burn out out like I had at the Frisco Railroad Run.
Photo by RunningGuru.com
By the time I finished first loop, I felt more relaxed than I had in weeks. I'd seen the entire course now, and it was much easier than I remembered. Much easier, even, than many of the training runs I did on a daily basis. Plus—I couldn’t describe how or why—my leg felt fine. There was still a long way to go, and anything could happen, but for the first time since I re-injured my tibia, I allowed myself to feel cautiously optimistic.
Loop 2: Running easy
I came into the start finish area somewhere around 2 hours and 20 minutes, which is exactly where I’d hoped to be if everything was going well. Rob was waiting for me, with my drop bag and everything I could possibly need. I remained focused and efficient. I had him fill up my hydration pack with more Tailwind and water while I quickly changed my shirt—somewhere around mile 10, my pack had started chafing my shoulder, and I didn’t want to take any chances.
I ate a couple orange slices and Fig Newmans, and took off for Loop 2 without wasting much time.
On top of Mt. Carbon, running with my crazy gait. Heel striking with the right foot...
…and forefoot striking with the left. (Photos by RunningGuru.com)
I was doing pretty good on hydration, but I knew I wasn’t keeping up with calories, because I never do. I’d managed to eat 1 gel on the first loop, plus I’d been drinking sips of Tailwind from my pack and orange slices whenever they were available at aid stations. Orange slices were the only thing that seemed remotely appetizing. Tailwind tasted sweet and terrible to me, even the unflavored version, but I managed to force myself to keep drinking it. I hoped that would be enough.
My right foot started bothering me during this lap—it felt like a blister was forming on the ball of my foot. This early in the race, that could spell disaster. I tried rearranging my sock, but that didn’t help much. I wished I’d had more time to put Body Glide on my feet in the morning, and I hoped I could make it back to the start/finish area before too much damage was done.
“This is not my most graceful moment,” I said to the photographer. (Photo by RunningGuru.com)
The back half of the course was unpleasant and exposed, and by this time, there were a lot of slower 50K runners that were sometimes difficult to get around. Eventually I got tired of trying to pass them and just went a slower pace. I didn’t really care because I was still making decent time and feeling good. And most importantly, I was getting excited that by the end of this lap, I would reach a significant milestone: the halfway point.
Loop 3: In which I encounter Kaci Lickteig, make less of a fool of myself than that time I met Amy Ray
My blister, which had been bothering me for most of Loop 2, didn’t feel as bad anymore when I came back through the start/finish area. I decided to put a small tube of Body Glide in my pack and deal with it out on the course if it started hurting again.
I asked Rob to put more water and Tailwind in my hydration pack. What I was thinking was that I wanted very little Tailwind (I knew I needed it, but it tasted terrible) and much more water (I was drinking a lot, and it was getting very hot). But I didn't tell him any of that, and I didn't check the proportions of what he put in my pack.
There was an aid station about 3 miles into the loop, and all the volunteers on the course were so incredibly kind and helpful. We chatted as I stuffed my face with potato chips—no longer able to eat the sweet stuff and needing salt—and they asked if I needed any water or ice in my pack. I declined, since I’d just had Rob fill up the pack at the start/finish area. As I ate chips, another runner came into the station, and I immediately recognized her as Kaci Lickteig—one of the fastest ultra runners in the world. The volunteers treated her with the same kindness they had treated me. In fact, I’m not sure if anyone other than me knew who she was. As we stood side by side eating potato chips (actually, it may just have been me eating potato chips), I heard myself ask her, “Are you Kaci?” (I didn’t say her last name because I’m not sure how to pronounce it). She smiled and nodded, looking fresh as a daisy. I told her she was awesome and that she was doing a great job. She looked so touched and said something like, “Oh my goodness, thank you! You too!” Because it was a loop course, she was on mile 40, whereas I was only on mile 28. We both left the aid station around the same time. She bounded down the trail like a gazelle, and within a few minutes, she was gone from my sight. She went on to outright win the 100K race (meaning, she beat all the men too) in a time of 8:40:45 (nearly an hour and twenty minutes ahead of the second place runner).
Shortly after my Kaci Lickteig sighting, I tried to take a sip of water from my pack and nothing came out. Shit. I realized that Rob must have filled the Tailwind side fuller than the water side (knowing that I needed to keep drinking the calories and assuming I would get water at the aid stations), and I’d already drained the water in just 3 miles. I wished I would have actually told him what I wanted instead of being too out of it to ask. This was a really stupid mistake on my part.
Unfortunately, it was a long way to the next aid station. Almost 5 miles, in fact, and that included the difficult, dusty climb up Mt. Carbon. I was thirsty and it was probably over 80 degrees by this point, but I tried not to panic. I went over my assets: I still had tons of Tailwind in the pack. And that would provide everything I need (calories, electrolytes, hydration), just as long as I could force myself to keep drinking it.
But I couldn’t. I was so done with anything even remotely sweet. When I tried to drink it, I just gagged. It tasted exactly like the suero a pregnant Chilean girl had given me in Nicaragua when I lay dying of the vortex, and in that particular instance, I had decided that death was preferable to drinking suero.
Volunteers were ready and waiting when I arrived at the next aid station. They asked what I needed and I tried to say, “Water,” but my throat was too parched for any sound to come out. I took off my hydration pack and saw that there actually was still water in there. Not a whole lot, but at least 10 ounces. What the hell! I felt a wave of some kind of unpleasant emotion I couldn’t name. Maybe there had been something wrong with the tube leading to the water reservoir and it just wouldn’t come out. I don’t know, whatever. The damage was already done.
A volunteer quickly filled my pack, and I guzzled water as fast as I could. I set out for the ugly last 4 miles of the loop. My St. Louis running parter (the one who was doing the 1-minute walk breaks) passed me during this section, and I cheered for her as she went by. I didn’t see her again—she ended up finishing an hour ahead of me.
Loop 4: In which the wheels fall off
I arrived back at the start/finish area still feeling okay, but knowing that I was walking a fine line between holding it together and letting all hell break loose. I was seriously depleted—I simply could not eat and was in deep caloric deficit. My throat wouldn’t work. I’d tried to take an electrolyte pill but ended up spitting it out because I couldn’t swallow.
I took extra time at the start/finish area, this time making sure I had plenty of water, and doing what I could to get some calories. I was slightly manic at the realization that I had covered 37.2 miles and was still pain free. Even my foot blister wasn’t bothering me anymore. I now knew that I was going to finish this, for sure. There was only one loop left, and I could walk the entire thing if I had to. This was essentially a victory lap.
But it was so hot and sunny. There was no shade on the course. And this time, the trail was going to be very sparse. The 50K runners were mainly all done, and the rest of us 50 milers and 100K runners were incredibly spread out. This kind of isolation could easily let the crazies seep into your brain.
Another woman pulled into the aid station about the same time as me and said she was running the 50M as well. We decided to work together as much as we could, knowing there was safety in numbers and insanity in trying to go it alone. I told her I was just thrilled that I wasn’t nauseated and throwing up yet by this point in the race. She smiled and said, “It’s never too late for that.” I knew she was right, but I also knew that even if it hit me right now, I could still finish the last 12.4 miles.
I wanted to cover as much distance as quickly as possible during the first part of the loop. Though none of the course was technically difficult, the first section was much smoother and prettier to look at. Once you got past the stream crossings about 8 miles in, the last section was narrow, rocky, v-shaped single track, with un-scenic views of a heavily trafficked road.
My new running parter was awesome. We chatted a lot, but I was having trouble keeping up my end of the conversation. Eventually, I told her I couldn’t talk anymore.
There was no more denying it—I was was nauseated. But I didn’t panic. I mean, for the love of god, I lived through hyperemesis. I could run the last 8 miles like this.
I was moving very slowly, not even trying to eat or drink anymore, almost looking forward to vomiting because at least after that, there would be some relief and I could probably take in some water. I also kept thinking about Rob and Will, and especially how Rob had told the guy in Loveland, “We’ve got a race this weekend.”
Rob and been completely unfailing in his support throughout the entire day—biking me to the start line, getting me water and ice (and whatever else I needed) each time I finished a lap, and even riding around the course to cheer for me at different locations. As challenging as it is to run 50 miles, in all honesty, I’d rather be in my shoes than his right now. He races much more frequently than I do, and I am all too familiar with the difficulty of crewing for someone out in the elements (cold, wind, rain, snow, sun, oppressive heat) while also trying to keep your child safe, entertained, and fed. It was nearing 4 in the afternoon, and they’d been out since 6 this morning. Some male athletes seem genuinely bemused regarding the “inexplicable dearth” of female distance runners in this sport, but when you’re not an elite, the only people you have to get you through the day (and sometimes night) are your family members. That’s a lot to ask of your spouse, and in particular, of your child. It is an incredibly selfish thing to do.
Mile 45. I’m not smiling—my lips are pressed together to keep from throwing up.
My running partner and I caught up with another guy around Mt. Carbon. Even as terrible as I felt, I stayed ahead of them on the ascent. When we began descending, I told them to go around me. I could finish this, but I couldn’t stay with them anymore.
By the time I made it to the aid station after the stream crossing, my mind was completely gone. I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything on this lap because of the nausea, and I started sobbing as I walked into the aid station. Rob and Will were waiting there to surprise me. I didn’t want Will to see me like this.
The volunteers were so amazing and supportive. They sprang into action, getting me stuff, asking me what I needed. I couldn’t talk. I had my hand over my mouth, I managed to whisper, “Throw up."
The medic got me a ginger ale and poured 2 salt packets in it. I forced myself to sip it while another volunteer put ice on my neck and in my hat.
Another runner entered the aid station around then. She said she was supposed to be doing the 100K but had decided she would drop down to the 50M and this would be her last lap. “Come with me,” she said, and I nodded. I followed her to the path that led to the ugliest section of the course.
She stayed in front of me. We mostly walked. When she broke into a run, I followed. When she stopped to walk again, so did I. The many short, steep hills on this section didn’t bother me. My legs were fine. It was the nausea that hurt.
The next aid station was around mile 47.5—just 2.5 miles from the end. I lost my running partner just before this because I could no longer do anything but walk. I started crying again as I saw the volunteers. They put ice on me and gave me more salted ginger ale. I took a few sips and then went to the side of the trail. I threw up, again and again.
So close to the end. There was a tiny modicum of relief, but not as much as I’d been hoping for, and I didn’t know how long it would last. I took off from the aid station, wanting to cover as much ground as possible while I still could.
I walked most of the last 2 miles, and suddenly, I arrived at the park service road that led to the finish line. A handful of spectators cheered enthusiastically. I nodded, crying.
I rounded the corner and could see the festivities. A group of 3 runners singing the Canadian national anthem sprinted past me with 100 yards to go. I didn’t even care.
Rob and Will were standing there, and Will ran out to meet me. I realized, he was going to run with me across the finish line. I could see a race photographer up ahead and I didn’t want to be ugly-crying in the pictures. I tried to get it together but couldn’t. Will grabbed my hand, pulled me across the line, and the announcer said, “Melissa from Fort Collins, Colorado, finishing her 50 miles!” I lost it, I was gone, gone, gone. But at least I was done. Beyond every conceivable expectation, I had finished.
Photo by RunningGuru.com
My legs felt completely fine, but judging by the way my body shut down after I crossed the line, I guess I really had left it all out there.
Although I'd only thrown up once on the course, I started throwing up without abandon now that I’d finished. Rob kept trying to get me to eat or at least drink something, but I couldn’t swallow. The race officials tried to get me to see a medic, but I didn’t think there was anything they could do. Eventually I sat down in a lawn chair and occasionally leaned over the side of it to puke.
The sun started to go down and it was getting cold. Will and Rob had been out all day, subsisting mainly on snacks, and they needed food. The car was parked about 1/3 of a mile away, and we began the arduous trek to the parking lot. It was one of the longest walks I've ever done. I lost count of how many times I had to stop and puke. Rob went on ahead, so he could get to the car and begin loading it with all our stuff. Will stayed behind with me and held my hand. I felt guilty, selfish, and embarrassed for putting him through this, and I hoped he wasn’t scared.
There was no way I could eat or drink anything. I stayed in the car while Rob stopped to get something for Will and him to eat. It was like when I had hyperemesis—I couldn’t even stand the smell of food. I threw up into a large ziplock baggie because I hadn’t thought ahead to bring a bucket. Rob asked if I wanted to go to the hospital for an IV, and I said no, even though I knew that was exactly what I needed. We didn’t have anyone to watch Will, and I couldn’t put him through anything else today. It was a very long ride home.
Once we finally got to our house, I made it to the couch and fell asleep while Rob carried Will to bed (his teeth unbrushed). I wondered if the sacrifices we had all made so I could do this were worth it.
I was caked in 50 miles of salt and mud; I hadn’t even taken off my running shoes and socks. Rob helped me up and got me to the shower. Then I crawled into bed, puke bucket in hand.
It was a long night, but somewhere near morning, I was able to drink some vegetable broth, and I think that’s what helped me turn the corner. At last, I had found a way to get my electrolytes back in balance without consuming anything sweet. Recovery wasn’t instant, but I could gradually feel the nausea recede as I sipped the broth.
Now I’m 4 days out from this, and most everything has returned to normal. The crazy thing is that my legs never felt sore… not even my injured tibia! My appetite is still a little off, but at least I’m feeling hungry again and able to eat. And here’s the kicker: I’ve even started searching for spring ultras.
What I learned from this race:
1. Although my time was almost an hour slower than my finish at the Frisco Railroad Run, I actually prefer this kind of course. The hills and terrain provided natural walk breaks and saved my legs from falling apart.
2. I am never going to be “2nd place female” ever again after moving to Colorado.
3. My legs can carry me a lot farther than my stomach will go.
4. I may be the only person on the planet who cannot tolerate Tailwind. I have got to figure out how to eat and drink on the run.
Would I do this race again?
And another thing:
The answer to Anton Krupicka’s question about the lack of female long-distance ultra runners is really quite simple: most of us do not have the luxury to be that selfish.
Thanks for reading.