I’m still not exactly sure how the seed to run an ultra marathon in 2016 was planted in my mind. Having lived in the mountains for so long, and explored them variously in my travels, it makes sense. Similar to when I decided after undergrad that we were going to move abroad to teach English for a year, or go to grad school in the Netherlands, or have our first child, or buy our first house, I told the husband “we’re going to do x,” where x is some big undertaking that had been circulating in both my mind and less-than-solid conversation between the two of us for a bit of time. After 13 years together, he’s used to this sort of approach from me and still somehow finds it endearing. There is something to be said for a strong female lead, and I suppose it’s always worked out very well, so no room for complaint! So we researched and decided on the Eastern Divide 50k. It was close to home, had rave reviews, looked really hard and was in the spring. All good characteristics!
We decided to stay the night before the race in the Mountain Lake Lodge, which is where the buses leave to take the runners to the start at the Cascades trail head, and also where the race ends. This also meant the littles would stay with my mom, and that we might just get to eek out a good night’s sleep. Yes, I was one of those naïve parents that thought once my kids were not babies anymore that sleep, in all it’s gloriousness, would return to me in previous form. Ha. Hahahaha. Ha. I mean, it does get better, but a good and uninterrupted night’s sleep is still very (very) elusive. Anyways, we went to the Rising Silo Brewery the evening before the race for the packet pickup and race briefing. If you haven’t been to this place, go check it out. The beer is great (I had one IPA.), location is beautiful, and the food looked delicous (just not for a pre-race meal, so we passed). I didn’t see anyone I recognized, which was just validation that we were doing something out of our comfort zone since we usually know tons of folks at local races. I met the race director, Kirby Walke, when I picked up my packet. When I told the lady volunteering my name, his ears perked up and he told me that someone had put me on his radar for the win. My eyes widened, I gave him a deep shush (I was smiling, so it wasn’t as rude as it sounds 🙂 ), and said not to say that out loud! Luckily he didn’t ascertain this information until after he had sent out his race predictions email. I was truly flattered, but with this being my first ultra and coming off a very rocky and injury-laden spring, I just couldn’t imagine thinking that way or going for a W.
The next morning we woke up early and started preparing. We’d been testing various types of fueling, and Generation UCAN seems to work well for both of us with distance, so we downed some of their protein mixes along with our bagels, almond butter and bananas. After quadruple checking that we had everything in our packs, we left the hotel room. It was surprisingly chilly, which was great because I was concerned about the heat. Luckily the altitude and mountains provided some very nice temperatures for a mid-June race. I was a mixed bag of nerves and excitement and we didn’t see the school buses when we left the hotel. We noticed a few other runners wandering around, and all started looking for the buses together. I mean, they are big yellow school buses, so how could you miss them? We then noticed a small-ish sign pointing down a side road, and realized the buses must be down there. Luckily another runner drove by and gave us a ride. We just made the last bus before it pulled away. Phew! Crisis averted. One of the coolest things about the ride to the start was listening to all of the conversations going on around us. One older gent behind us was retired, and spends his free time and expendable income traveling the world to run ultras. There is a club of ultra runners that keeps track of all of the countries it’s members have run in, and this guy is on the leader board. How cool is that?
We made it to the start, and I was amazed at how everyone looked so fit. At most races you get an array of fitness levels, but everyone at this start seriously looked rock hard. It’s quite intimidating, and also very inspiring. The trailhead of the Cascades has a great bathroom, with heat. It was actually a bit chilly while we waited, so I just wanted to stay in there, but ventured out so as to not leave the husband hanging by himself. We meandered over to the start and prepared to take off. I decided to begin conservatively, so positioned myself in the middle of the pack, with about 7 or 8 women ahead of me.
We took off up the first big ascent. The first 1 to 1.5 miles are pretty runnable. A couple miles in we reached the Cascades waterfall. I was power-hiking at this point (along with everyone else), trying to conserve energy. The path continues to climb pretty steeply until you reach AS1, about 4 miles in. After the Cascades, there are short stretches that are runnable, so I tried to take advantage of those without letting my heart rate and breath get out of control. AS1 was an event for certain. I was thankful for the cheers and support, but didn’t need any supplies at this point so I gave them a loud “Woo” and kept on my way. I started to slowly pass people on the way up, and continued this trend as the miles peeled away. I kept telling myself to “run the mile you’re in” and knew that some people that were intent on racing at this point were probably going to suffer for it later on. I’d pass some guys, just to have them work to pass me shortly thereafter. I focused on my own running and pace, opening up on the flatter sections of fire road when possible, and besides the occasional friendly chat with nearby runners, didn’t pay much attention to the guys that were trying not to let me pass them. My strategy paid off, and by AS2 I was well ahead of all of the runners around me at AS1, and was pretty much running by myself. I love the community of trail runners, but for my money, there is nothing like finding yourself alone on a long trail course in a race. This is the space where I can really relax into a rhythm and enjoy the experience. I was happy to have reached that place at this point.
Between miles 4 and 15 there are some definite climbs, and rolling hills, but a lot of the course is relatively flat compared to the beginning and the last 10-12 miles. I was running up a fire road climb when I spotted two females ahead of me. At this point I didn’t know how many women were in front of me, but I resolved not to let those two get too much further ahead. One thing I was worried about with a race this long, where hydration and fueling are so vital, was losing time by having to pee in the woods. It’s actually the perfect situation for it, but I didn’t want to have to spend too much time taking those breaks. The husband and I discussed it before the race, and he said that in a race of that distance, there is just no way that a couple pee breaks are going to determine the outcome. Remember that when you’re reading the part of this post about the finish :). With that in mind I stopped to pee on the side of the mountain, as quickly as possible, and kept on my merry way.
AS3 was a welcome site at around mile 14, and this is the first stop where I refilled my water and grabbed some bites to eat (a banana and peanut butter sandwich square). I felt really good at this point, and was at just under 2hrs and 2omins (I think, approximately…I didn’t GPS this race). The course stayed on some fairly flat fire road for a bit longer, then turned to go up the second major climb. I was mentally prepared for this part since I knew it was going to be hard, and I physically felt good, so I kept running. I passed a number of people hiking/walking, and then around mile 17 I caught up with the 2nd, 3rd and 4th place females. They were power hiking, so I joined them and got to know them a bit. Rachel Corrigan had run phenomenally on this course in the past, but after trashing her legs to get Queen of the Mountain, she didn’t think she had a chance to catch up to the first place lady (who had a huge lead on us all at this point – probably around ten minutes). The other two, Hayley and Monica, are two other badass runners that were also debuting in their first ultra at EDU50k. We chatted for a bit, then I started to run again since I was feeling good and knew the crest had to be soon. I came into AS4, around mile 18, in second place. The volunteers continued to be amazing here, filling up my water cups, handing me watermelon, etc. I didn’t linger long, and stayed ahead of the other ladies for about the next mile or so as we started on some downhill. Hayley and Monica were running this race together, which is awesome, and they caught back up to me on the fire road. They were running strong, so I only kept them in my sights for a few miles before they pulled away. At some point in that stretch I began to struggle. I just told myself, one foot in front of the other. Keep moving, run as best you can, and you’ll eventually come back around. Drink, take in some fuel, and believe that this struggling feeling won’t last for the rest of the race. Run the mile you’re in, work the problem, get through it. And it worked. I’d read about that in recounts of ultras, but to experience it was just so incredible. I felt like total shit for a few miles, but I just believed – in my training, fitness, abilities, in myself. I didn’t give up, and not once did I tell myself I wanted to quit. This was a defining moment for me as an endurance runner, and when I knew that I would want to do more ultras in the future.
I came back to feeling good again right before mile 22, just in time to make a quick stop at AS5 and begin some pretty technical trail running. I knew this part would be tough, but also knew it would work to my advantage because I’m a fairly skilled technical trail runner. At one point I didn’t see a course marker for a bit and became really scared that I’d gotten lost. I didn’t want to turn around until I knew for certain, but found myself running cautiously until I finally saw a little pink ribbon hanging in a tree. What a relief! I was able to run most of this part of the course, with a couple very steep exceptions. It was super rocky, rooty, and the trail was overgrown in many places. I kept up the trend of passing people, at least 5 men, during this section. The final stretch of the course, about the last mile I think, takes you around Mountain Lake. You are literally rock scrambling here, climbing over big rocks and up steep sections of very narrow trail. I had no idea where Hayley and Monica were, but to my surprise I happened upon them toward the end of this rock scrambling section (again, strong technical runner/hiker). They were running right together, but I passed Monica in the rocks. Once we got out of the rocks, she passed me back on a climb, and I just had no idea how much more of the course there was to go. She encouraged me to come on with them, but I could tell they really wanted to maintain their 2nd and 3rd place, and they came to run together. They pulled away, and my legs just didn’t have it in them to keep up. I came around a turn and saw the arch of the finish, and knew that it was too late to catch them again, but sprinted toward the end anyways. What a glorious feeling! Hayley and Monica finished in 2nd and 3rd place, one second apart, and I was behind them by about 40 seconds in 4th place with a time of 5:22. While I really, really would have loved to have podiumed at my first ultra, I also really love that these two ladies went to the race together and pulled each other through to meet their goals. It embodies so much that is great about endurance running. Even so, I can’t help but wonder if that pee break really did end up making a difference ;).
Post-race, I chatted with some friends, made some new ones, ate some wonderful food, waited for the husband to finish (which he did, in 6:42!), and marveled at just how good I really did feel. The magic of trail running I suppose. My body felt tired but not pulverized the way I thought it would. The only issue was that our car, with our post-race supplies, was still parked at the actual lodge (because of the bus pickup misunderstanding), about a mile away. I didn’t want to go get it because I didn’t want to miss the husband finishing. I started to get really cold, so as soon as he finished and grabbed some food, I told him we had to get to the car. He was pretty out of it, and luckily someone gave us a ride so we didn’t have to walk! We cleaned up, put on warm, dry clothes and grabbed a beer at the lodge bar. Then we headed home to the littles, so we could tell them about Mommy and Daddy’s epic adventure. EDU 50k quickly rose up to the top of my all time favorite races, and was such a wonderful experience that I’m planning next year’s ultras already. Who knew this stuff would be so addictive.