PreAlmost instantly after I finished the Bear Chase 50 Mile Trail Race in 2014, I knew I wanted run it again. This race is ideal for me. I am not a strong trail runner; in fact, I'd go so far as to say I am terrible, but the trails at Bear Creek Lake Park are well within my comfort zone. Another major selling point of this race is that it is only about an hour and twenty minutes from home, so we can get there after work/school on Friday. I feel extremely limited in what races I can do now that Will is in school. Even if Rob and I take the day off work, Will still has a place where he's supposed to be. And let's face it. The reality is I can't go to a race by myself. The 12 hours of vomiting I sometimes do after an ultra (chronicled here, here, here, and here) make driving a challenge. And obviously we can't leave Will home alone, so we have to go as a family.
It turned out that Will didn't have school on Friday (I hadn't known that when I signed up for the race last summer), which meant we could leave early in the day. He was supposed to have a soccer game on Saturday, though, so he would be missing that. At first I felt bad, but he didn't seem too broken up about it. Most of the time he's out on the field, he spins around in circles or looks up at the sky. Maybe soccer isn't really his thing. I figured it would be okay to pull him out of the game, just this once.
We picked up my packet and then headed to the campground in Bear Creek Park. The start line was moved slightly from 2014, and we realized our campsite was only about a mile away from it. Runners are not allowed to be dropped off by car at the start line; everybody is supposed to go to a big lot across the interstate and take a shuttle in. But that just seemed kind of ridiculous and time consuming, to drive out of the park so that I could get on a shuttle that would drive me back into the park. I told Rob I walk there in the morning. He said no way. I said we'll see.
|Pre race pasta with the full moon rising|
|Rob ran 4.5 miles to a Whole Foods and bought vegan marshmallows and a chocolate bar (then ran back again carrying them in his hand)|
Rob came down from the camper and began scouring the campground looking for it. By this point it was nearing 5:20 and I knew I had to leave soon. I was not calm. I was swearing, a lot.
I finally found the iPod in my drop bag, which was the first place I had looked. But I didn't find it until the third time I looked there.
It was time to go. I told Rob to try to get some more sleep, and I set off in the dark, acting more confident than I felt. I tried to stay calm and look at the stars.
A shuttle bus passed me, and it was reassuring to confirm that I was headed in the right direction. Before long I was at the start line, setting up my drop bag and chatting with other runners. There was nothing much to do besides shiver in the cold and wait.
Just after the sun came up and we began to shuffle to the start line, I heard a voice call my name. It was none other than Angela, who was going to be running her first ultra, the 50K, that day. We gave each other a hug and took a selfie. I was very happy to finally meet her after many months of chatting on Twitter. It felt like a good omen for the day.
|Sole sisters (photo by @angelmurf)|
|Photo from Runningguru.com|
Loop 1: I've made a huge mistake
Before I knew it, we were off. I had intended on starting near the back, but I ended up starting in the way, way back. We went up a little hill on the road and then came to a standstill as we turned, single file, onto the narrow trail.
It was okay. I wanted to start slow. Better to start slow than too fast. The day was young.
But I was still caught up at the tail end of a conga line of slow runners about 2 miles in when we reached Mount Carbon. I could have passed people before we started the climb, but it seemed too early for that. Plus, I'm better at going uphill than descending. If I passed people who seemed slower than me now, there was a good chance they'd catch up with me on the descent, and it would stress me out trying to get to a safe place to let them pass. So I stayed where I was.
I quickly realized that this was not where I should be. The pace we were going wasn't even a hike. It was a slow, slow walk. My watch actually auto-stopped because it thought I was no longer moving. I didn't even know my watch did that. I started to feel the slightest twinges of panic that I had made a huge mistake by not passing this group when I had a chance. I started to feel very frustrated that I wasn't running my own race. I wasn't even running. For god's sake, my GPS didn't even register that I was moving.
At the bottom of Mount Carbon, the trail is super skinny for a while and passing is still not good, especially when you have to pass several people at a time. Finally we got to a section that was just the tiniest uphill where the trail was a little wider, and the group in front of me slowed to walk. Here was my chance. I went for it. At last, 4 miles in, I was finally running. I barreled through the 3 stream crossings and aid station without stopping. Now when I caught up to people, I passed them left and right. I had been too tentative and too polite to pass anyone early on, and it had cost me what seemed an enormous amount of time (I couldn't be sure how much time, since my watch had stopped working). It was completely my own fault for misjudging where I should be and then not doing anything about it for so long. I knew that getting off to a slow start was much better than starting off too fast and burning out (that's what I typically do and it ends terribly), so I tried to reassure myself that in the long run, this would help me preserve energy and finish strong.
But still, it was a mistake I decided I would not make again.
|"Barreling" through the streams while eating a Clif Bar. I feel kind of bad because I was so grumpy I don't think I even said "hi" to the race photographer. Photo from Runningguru.com|
I flew through the rest of the course on that first loop. Everything seemed a bit off to me, since the start line was about 3 miles away from where it had been last year. I kept thinking that certain landmarks were something like 4 miles back to the start/finish area when they were really 7.
A few miles from the end of this loop, there is a steep descent on a gravel road, and as I was running down it, the bottom of my right foot began to burn. Blister. Continuing down the hill felt worse and worse, and I was pretty sure it was bleeding. This could spell disaster 9 miles into a 50 mile race. I had bandaids in my pack, but I decided to just make it back to the start/finish area, where I knew I'd be stopping anyway, and do my best to figure it out there.
|Mile 12.5, finishing off the first loop, wondering if my foot is bleeding|
Loop 2: Steady
Rob and Will were there waiting for me when I got to the start/finish area. Rob was all business, asking me what I needed. I snapped off my pack and said, "Water, potatoes, another Berry Pomegranate Clif Bar, Body Glide." I went to the port-a-potty (I've never had to pee this early in a race before) while he assembled my items. I thought I'd done fairly well on nutrition during the first lap-- I'd eaten an entire Clif Bar and drained my pack of water (possibly explaining why I had to pee!), but I knew I needed to keep up with this. There hadn't been anything at the aid stations I felt like eating, and I was really glad that I'd gone ahead and brought some boiled potatoes for my drop bag. Those sounded good.
Rob put Body Glide on my foot while I ate potatoes out of a baggie. The blister situation wasn't as bad as I'd feared--it wasn't bleeding, and it looked okay. I hoped the re-application of Body Glide would prevent it from getting any worse.
I started asking Rob how his morning had gone so far and telling about my trouble during the early miles of the race, and trying to apologize again for freaking out so much about the iPod, but he wasn't having any of that. "Go," said, steering me back towards the trail. Rule of thumb: don't waste time in the aid stations.
I felt pretty good as I started out on Loop 2, and I was back on target with my time. Even though my watch was bit off, I was pretty sure I had made it out of the aid station by 2 hours 25 minutes. That's exactly where I had been last year.
Now that the runners were all spread out, there wasn't the congestion that there'd been at the start. I realized this was probably going to be my most enjoyable lap of the day. I'd be mostly on my own (how I prefer to run) but not yet tired enough that being alone would drive me crazy. I settled in for the climb up and down Mount Carbon, at my own pace this time, and the stream crossings.
|Mile 15, Mount Carbon|
The aid stations now had bananas and watermelon, so I ate some of those in addition to my potatoes and Clif Bar. I also started putting Nuun in my water bottles on the front of my "Jenny" vest. All women seem to love the Jenny. I'm not so sure about it. One drawback I've found is that it only accommodates 10 ounce water bottles up front. Nuun tablets are made for 16 ounces. I cut a bunch of Nuun tabs in half (easier said than done) before the race and put them into baggies. It wasn't an exact science, but the best I could do was drop a half a tablet into each of my 10 ounce water bottles. It was working. This little lift of electrolyte and caffeine put me into a good mood.
|Photo from Runningguru.com|
I was starting to catch up to some of the 50K runners (they'd started an hour after us and done an extra little bit on their first loop), and as I rounded the corner into the second aid station, I was directly behind a runner wearing a red t-shirt and watermelon gaiters. Angela! I was so excited to see her on the course. The volunteers filled up my pack with water while I ate some watermelon and talked with Angela. Then we were off again. We ran together a little while before we separated.
I was happy to be finishing this lap. I was mostly on top of nutrition and hydration. My quads and calves were starting to hurt, but nothing major had gone wrong, and once I made it back to the start/finish area, I would be halfway through.
|Mile 25. Oh, oh, we're halfway there. Oh, oh, livin' on a prayer! (Now: say that in a Scottish accent).|
Loop 3: This is where the fun begins
"Potatoes, water, ice bandana, sunscreen," I said, unsnapping my pack and handing it to Rob. He went to fill my reservoir with water and get some ice while Will shadowed me to my drop bag and I got a fresh baggie of potatoes. This pain in my quads and calves was worrying me a bit--there were still a lot of miles to go. I decided to take an ibuprofin. Rob returned with my water refilled, and he sprayed my shoulders with sunscreen (which I'd forgotten to do up until this point). Team Ragfield-- we were a well-oiled machine. I was back out on the trail within minutes.
This will be the hardest lap of the day, I told myself. The first loop is all about getting the lay of the land, the second loop is about relaxing with the comfort of knowing what is ahead, the third loop is where it starts to get hard and the crazies set in if you let them. If you make it through, then the fourth loop, that's just a victory lap. It's already in the bag.
I thought I'd be completely alone by this point (unless I found a buddy who wanted to run at my same speed), but there were still a lot of 50K runners out on the course. In fact, Mount Carbon was more congested than it had been the last time I was through. This was, in part, because the trails were not closed to the public for the race. We also had to contend with the regular weekend traffic of mountain bikers, hikers, other runners, and equestrians out on the trails.
As I started up Mount Carbon for the third time, I saw a line of 5 or 6 horses up ahead, and I thought, oh shit. Horses move incredibly slowly on trails. And they are large and have the right of way. Everybody yields to equestrians. I grimaced. Here I was, all hopped up on caffeinated Nuun and a single ibuprofin, ready to fly up this hill, only to be stopped in my tracks by a pack of horses. At this rate, it would take me even longer than the first lap, when I'd been at the back of a slow conga line.
Much to my surprise, when I caught up with the equestrians, they were aware that a race was going on, and they got their horses to the side as much as possible so that the runners could squeeze through. I really appreciated that because they certainly didn't have to do it. And I really appreciated not wasting this burst of energy and losing more time.
I made it up and down Mount Carbon and through the streams. The volunteers at the aid station met me and asked what I needed. I ate some watermelon and then used the port-a-potty (again! I've never peed twice in an ultra before) while they put ice in my bottles and bandana. The volunteers at this race are fantastic. I felt like I was doing a much better job of keeping cool this time as compared to last year. I wondered if that was what was saving me.
I left for the nasty little middle section of the course, which involved some short, steep hills, full sun exposure, and scenic views of a busy highway. Last year, this section had made me miserable. This year, it felt fine. I was mainly alone now, and since I'd managed to locate Rob's iPod, I decided I might as well use it. I listed to music and ran as fast as I wanted. I didn't have to hold back anymore. By the time I was finished with this loop, all that would be left was the victory lap.
|Mile 35: This is where the fun begins.|
Loop 4: Run stupid
I didn't see Rob and Will in the start/finish area after my third lap. It was probably a good thing that they weren't there, because instead of Rob taking my pack and filling it for me, I went over to the aid station area and ate watermelon--calories that I sorely needed. The co-race director himself took my pack and expertly filled it with ice. It felt cold on my back when I put it back on. That was nice. I wanted to hug him, but instead I just told him what a great job they'd done putting on this race. It was 87 degrees. I needed to do everything I could to keep myself cool and not throw up. The RD was very motivated to get me back out on the trail, and so just as quickly as I had my things sorted out, I was running.
Running! By this point last year I was a complete wreck. But now I felt strong. I was running as well, if not better, than I had been on the first loop.
Before the race, I had told myself to run stupid. I think I first heard this phrase in the documentary Transcend, about Kenyan marathon runner Wesley Korir. Run stupid was something Korir's coach had said to him. It did not mean get stuck in a slow pack for 4 miles, but rather, it meant don't overanalyze things. Don't calculate. Don't worry about the what-ifs. Just keep moving, keep putting one foot in front of the other. Everything else will fall into place.
But now I looked at my watch. I hadn't really trusted my watch after the auto-pause incident (it seemed to be about 2 minutes off from the official race clock). Even so, it seemed that my loops were fairly even. It was now about 7 hours and 25 minutes into the race. Math began happening in my brain. If I could manage to keep going at roughly the same pace, I could finish in under 10 hours.
This seemed like a long shot. Last year, my finishing time at Bear Chase had been around 11:05. My only other 50-miler, a pancake-flat rails-to-trails path that ended up being my most difficult ultra ever, was 10:15. It didn't seem possible that I would be able to finish faster than than that.
Run stupid, I told myself, but don't slow down. I didn't want my mind to take me out of this race, like it did in Howl, when I let my A-goal go fluttering on the breeze like a puff from a cottonwood tree. But I also didn't want to get too fixated on it and face devastation if I couldn't hold on. I still had most of a loop to go, and anything could happen. Last year, I'd been manic and fragile during this lap. I'd teamed up with another lady and told her how glad I was that I hadn't thrown up yet. It's never too late for that, she'd cautioned, and sure enough, in just a couple of miles I was puking on the trail and crawling the rest of the way in.
Up and over Mount Carbon. Through the streams. At the last stream crossing there was a woman sitting in a camp chair, and she called out to cheer for me. I wasn't sure if she was a volunteer or a spectator. She said something like, "You're 82 lady, great job, you're doing awesome!"
I gave her a wave and nod, thinking she must have gotten my race bib wrong. I was number 89. As I went up the muddy bank, I replayed her words in my mind. You're eighty-two lady. Was that what she had said?
No, it wasn't. You're number two lady.
This couldn't be right. Number two, as in the second woman on the course? Impossible. On the first lap, I'd been the third from last runner up Mount Carbon. I must have mis-heard her. She must have gotten my bib number wrong. Or if not, she was mistaken. This was a loop course and there were 3 simultaneous races going on at once (50K, 50 mile, and 100K). I've been in this situation before as a spectator; it extremely hard to keep track of runner places when there is so much happening.
I continued to run, now more analytical than stupid. In a race like this, the first place female would likely finish in a time of around 8 or 8.5 hours, at the most. Second place would not be far behind. I was looking at squeaking by in 10 hours. This was a middle of the pack finish, nowhere near the podium. I needed to put the comment, which I had likely misheard, as far from my thoughts as possible. I did not need to get my hopes up about something that was hours out of my league and then feel like an idiot for having even entertained the notion.
Run stupid, I told myself. When I get to the aid station top of the hill, if there is any truth to that statement I likely misheard, the volunteers who have been there all day will say something.
They didn't. They ran out to meet me and ask me what I wanted, they gave me salted watermelon and filled me up with ice. They cheered for me enthusiatically and wished me the best. I thanked them for being out there and said I was sad that I wouldn't see them again.
I took off for the middle section of the course, relieved that I didn't have to face the pressure of running for a "place" and constantly looking behind me to see if someone was catching up. All I had to do was focus on sub-10. It still seemed like a long shot. But I felt good. Not sick yet, no major pain. Whenever I felt myself slowing down, I asked why, and there was no good reason, so I pushed harder.
At the second aid station, I got more watermelon and ice. The volunteers spritzed and sponged me with cold water and asked me what else I needed. I said I wished they could follow me around like this in my everyday life.
Just 5 miles left. This location was where I'd started throwing up last year, but now I was fine. Strong even. A blonde woman had left the aid station ahead of me and we chatted a little bit as I caught up to her and then passed. She was running the 50 mile too, and this was her last lap. We cheered each other on, and I thought, see, there are tons of women out in front of me on this course.
Sub 10. Run stupid.
Through the exposed hilly section, then down the steep gravel road to the last aid station. Rob and Will were there, cheering me on. I put my hand over my mouth and tried not to cry. 3.2 miles to go. I hadn't stopped at this aid station during the entire race because you had to divert slightly from the course to go over there. But I knew I needed something to get through this last little bit. Watermelon. I was fighting back tears and the volunteers asked me if I was okay. I said I was having trouble holding it together, so close to the end. They cheered me on and I left, just as the blonde woman came down the hill.
Now was the time to give it to glory. It would take everything I had. I would need to keep my miles under 12 minute pace on this last sandy, rocky bit. I'd envisioned myself likely walking much of this on the last lap, but there would not be time for that if I wanted to finish sub 10. It was down to the wire. All I could think about was crossing the line seeing "9" as the first number on the clock.
At last, the sandy section gave way to more hard-packed dirt and I knew the end was near. I red-lined it. I felt like I was flying, hanging on to my barely 12-minute pace.
|IN.THE.ZONE. Photo by Runningguru.com|
Suddenly there it was: the finish line, within my reach. The clock just then changed to 9:59. Will was off to my right, looking a bit bewildered. I heard Angela shout, "Go Melissa!"and I threw myself across the line.
Sub 10, with only seconds to spare.
To quote Christina: Who said there's no crying in ultras?
If there was fanfare, I didn't notice it. I just kept walking until I got to my drop bag and then sat on the ground. I'd been holding it together for the last 10 hours, and now suddenly, I didn't have to anymore. It was such a relief.
Rob and Will came over and found me, and then a few minutes later, the blonde woman finished. It turned out she was one of Rob's friends, who had run the Never Summer 100K. "You were flying at the end!" she said. Then she asked me if I'd finished in third place, because the announcers had said she'd finished fourth.
It was true.
I was so out of it I couldn't process anything, so Rob went over to the finish tent and got me my medal and a trophy for the "Third Place Female." I stared at it in disbelief as I chatted with Angela (who had crushed her first 50K) and her husband.
I was still "running stupid" even though I wasn't running anymore, which is to say, I was just being stupid. I didn't take care of myself after the race. I stayed standing up in the hot sun for too long, and I carried around a dixie cup of water that I didn't even bother to drink (for some reason I thought the water tasted gross) for about an hour. By that time it was too long. I told Rob I wanted to go and threw up twice on the way to the car (which he had parked about 150 meters away). There was more throwing up on the way to Native Foods Cafe, where Rob and Will got dinner, and even more throwing up as I remained in the car while they went inside and ate their first proper meal of the day.
There was a lot more throwing up on the drive home from Denver.
None of my tricks were working. The vegetable broth that had brought me back to life after Howl did nothing. I knew I wasn't as bad off as I had been last year after Bear Chase, but I didn't know how to stop the puking and I was afraid it would only get worse. I managed to shower, then collapse in bed clutching an emesis basin and vowing never to run an ultra again.
About 3am I woke up, feeling hunger instead of nausea, and finally about an hour later I was brave enough to try some food, which I managed to keep down. I wondered if I would have to stick to my vow of never running an ultra again.
A couple days out, I am mainly fine, except for my left tibia and calf, which are wrecked They hurt in the same way that they did all of 2014, when I had a "possible stress fracture," but at this point I am trying to remain optimistic that they will feel better after some rest.
I still cannot comprehend how my finishing time (which is listed as 9:57 on the official results page... maybe the clock was off and my watch was right after all?) was good enough for third place female. Looking at the results, there were only about half as many participants as last year, and the finishing times were about an hour slower. I don't know why the participation dropped from 2014. This is a great race! Fantastic organization and volunteers. It has everything you could possibly want.
What I learned from this race
Sometimes running stupid = running smart.
(Except when it doesn't).
Thanks everyone who sent good vibes, I felt it all. Especially thanks to Rob and Will for giving up their lives for an entire day so I could do this.
Thanks for reading!