The Quest for the Belt Buckle Comes to an End!
Yesterday I did the final of my four 50ks in the Bloodied, Boned, Bruised, and Burned series and got my coveted belt buckle. Each of the four 50ks was an adventure in its own right, from the injury and disaster at GreenSwamp, to the shoe-sucking mud at Gnaw Bone, to the hills and views at Devil’sLake, and the final run at Hell was no different.
Let me sum up the race in brief:
Off course: 2 times
Stream Crossings: 4 (including one .25 mile stretch of wading)
Stops to remove rocks from shoes (picked up in streams): 2
Head bumped on tree: 1 (you really only need to do this once per race)
As you might guess from these numbers, this was not my fastest 50k.
The Hell race is my “home” course, and I have done several runs in this area although not this specific course. I love the trails around Hell, and I was really looking forward to this one. However, since my marathon last month at Leading Ladies, I have not felt on my game, have not been training well, and have had a few minor annoying health problems that made me not as confident for this race as I had hoped to be. Still I felt pretty sure I could finish and get the buckle, and I knew that it would be fun (in the warped way that 50ks are) no matter what.
The turn to cooler weather in the last week or so also had me worried. I knew that the course could be a bear if there was a lot of rain, and I know how much I personally HATE cold weather. I don’t mind running in the rain – I just like a warm, tropical rain. When the forecast called for low 50s and scattered showers for the morning, I was a little concerned but knew it could have been a lot worse.
Race morning went without a hitch. The start time was 6:15 am, which is still dark. I did not have a running headlamp (I prefer to sleep when it is dark and run in the daylight), so I purchased a cheap one for $5.99 at the hardware store. It seemed plenty light enough when I tested it at home, but was not really as strong as I would have hoped for in terms of lighting the trail. In this race the 50k and 50 Mile runners start together, with the relays following an hour or so later. There were probably around 250 of us brave and/or crazy souls milling around at the start.
Randy (race director and Head Goat) who is the devious mind behind this foolishness of all the Dances with Dirt races, said “Go!” and we were off like a giant, glowing centipede, snaking through the campground and out onto the trails. As I said, my light was bright enough to light the trail, but not really light enough to see well, so I was pretty tentative through the first few miles. Luckily, there were enough runners, packed tightly enough together, that through this early part of the race I almost always had enough light to be able to see.
I say “almost” because during this section I fell: three times. They were just your basic “caught my toe on a root” type of fall, but given my past experience with the ruptured spleen incident, every fall is a scary experience. Thankfully I had the good sense to get my hands out in front of me on all of these and no real damage was done, except to my pride of course.
Sunrise was beautiful! I had been aware of the increasing daylight as we were passing through a wooded section. As we approached the top of a ridge, I could see baby blue sky. As I popped out of the trees at the top, I got a better view of the magnificent pinks, oranges, and reds that were painted across the sky. It was the best part of the morning.
I thought that once the sun came up I would feel better, but I was wrong. Somewhere around mile eight, I started to feel bad. My legs started to hurt (already!!), and I just didn’t feel right. I have to tell you that it is no good to feel bad only an hour and forty-five minutes into a six and a half hour run. For a few miles, for the first time I felt a little afraid that I would not be able to finish – I felt that bad. I also got off course once in this section. I was following a group of runners (always a bad move) rather than watching the trail markers myself. That type of laziness is never a good idea. Luckily one of the leaders of the little group realized the mistake, and we got back on course quickly.
I tried to keep myself focused and motivated. I started trying to figure out what could be wrong. I was due for an electrolyte tablet at that point, so took the first of those although I really didn’t think that was the problem. The morning had been cool, and I had been sipping the electrolyte drink in my pack. I was also pretty sure that it wasn’t dehydration. That left nutrition. Maybe that was it. I pulled out my Softflask and took some gel. I also decided that I would make sure to get some Gatorade in at the next aid station.
The miles from 10 to 15, while good running, were not that great for me. The name of this leg of the race is “This Sucks, Less?” but for me it sucked in the full measure. I was struggling the whole time. I fell again in this section. I am pretty sure that I fell into a huge bunch of poison ivy. (I will let you know in a day or so.) I also bumped my head on a tree. Yes, I did see the tree and knew it was a low branch, but I looked down to check my footing (so I wouldn’t fall again) and hit my head – hard. I almost cried it hurt so bad.
The one good thing that happened in this section of the course was that I ran into a “friend” from the earlier DWD at Green Swamp. He was struggling that day too. I think his name is John (from Indiana), and he is also 50 and was also going for the belt buckle as his project for the year. I had not seen him at Devil’s Lake and was so happy to see him and find out that he was still on track for his buckle as well!!
Finally, after I left the aid station to head out to one of the tougher sections of the course, including the Stripper Pole slide and Dirt Ladder climbs, I started to feel better. As much as I normally hate the climbs, they did not bother me too much. I was relieved to finally be feeling better. There was a lot of mud on the course at this point, and going up the hills was a slimy mess, but by then I was doing it with a smile again.
With the major climbs behind me, I started to look forward to the stream crossings. I did not know what to expect in terms of how deep they would be. It turned out that the first three were not too bad. The water was about knee deep in the first one and shin and ankle deep in the next two. It also was not as cold as I feared it might be. That just left the crossing of the River Styx into Hell proper.
This section of the course goes straight up the middle of the stream for about a quarter mile or a little more. It started out about ankle deep, but it kept getting deeper as we went. The last 50 yards or so, the water was waist deep on me. It was also pretty cold. Not to worry, I could see the way out up ahead. There at the top of the hill stood Satan, in full robed glory, yelling “Welcome to Hell. We have been waiting for you!” I told him how delighted I was to see him there and then sat down on a bench to dump a considerable number of rocks out of my shoes before continuing on through Hell proper and the aid station there. By this time I was at mile 22.5. I don’t usually eat solid food until after mile 25 of a 50k, but I was feeling hungry and so grabbed a cup of trail mix, something I know from past experience works well for me in an ultra.
The first few miles out of Hell were difficult again. I had hoped the cool water would help my achy legs, but it did not. In fact, it seemed to tighten the muscles and ligaments around my knees. It was almost like starting over again. I felt like I had to warm up. The problem was that although it had been sunny earlier, the sky by this time had started to darken. My wet clothes were cold, and I was a little worried about getting chilled and was relieved that there were only about 8 miles to go. In this section, I also got off course for the second time. This one was all my fault. I just ran right past a turn. It was well marked. I was just zoned out temporarily. Just as I was starting to realize that I had not seen a marker for a while, two guys came back toward me saying we were off course, so we backtracked until we found the trail again.
By the time I hit the last aid station at Silver Lake, mile 25, I was again starting to feel better. I looked for some trail mix, but they were out. I grabbed a cup of peanut M&Ms instead, started to chew, and had one of those “you aren’t swallowing this” moments. It came out of nowhere. I spit the M&Ms into the trash (Eeeewww – sorry volunteers that had to witness that) and headed out onto the trail. Thankfully I still had some gel left and squeezed a big glob of it out of the Softflask to get me through to the end.
About a mile out of the aid station, I started to feel good. I was still cold, and it had started to drizzle, but I hit the point where it feels better to keep running than it does to walk. I fell in behind a pair of guys that had passed me and tried to hang on. For a while it seemed like they would pull away, but then I just kept feeling better and better. Finally, at a spot where they stopped to walk, I decided to pass them.
That started a stretch of about four miles in which I kept passing people. I was amazed because I had spent the better part of the day, especially in those miles where I was feeling bad, being passed by everyone and their pet monkey. It felt good to be passing people. It kept raining harder and harder, and I started to get cold again, but I didn’t care because I was passing people and it was less than five miles to the finish! If only I had felt this good earlier in the day.
I try not to look at my watch too much in ultras, and I am trying to have the attitude of “expectancy rather than expectations,” as Scott Simpson, the writer and musician who ran the writing workshop at Leading Ladies, had suggested. However, somewhere along here I looked at my watch and thought that maybe I could at least get in under 7 hours. I had already figured out that this was going to be my second worst of the four 50ks, but I was still hanging on to a thread of hope that I might get in under 7. I did not have any way to figure it out for sure, though, because I had been off course, so my Garmin may or may not have been anywhere near accurate. I just did the best I could and hoped for the best.
Unfortunately I did not make it. My finishing time was 7:02:06, which was about a minute per mile slower than the pace I had hoped to run. The rain was coming down hard at the finish, which cut down on the finishing festivities, which was kind of a disappointment. Jerry is such a trooper! He had been waiting (and worrying) out there in the rain for about 45 minutes because he did not want to miss my finish.
I was overjoyed to find that I had placed 5th in my age group, especially because the age group awards for this one were the coveted Dances with Dirt chairs. I also got my belt buckle. I wanted to wait for my friend John and congratulate him on the belt buckle, but it was freezing and raining and I hurt. I opted for a quick picture and a warm car instead. (John, if you are reading this – Congratulations!!!).
So, my quest for the series buckle comes to an end. It was definitely a fun experience. I wanted this year to be one of new experiences and new challenges, and the series definitely helped with that, both in the races themselves and in the trail marathons I used to train for them. To tell the truth, though, I am a little burned out. I have one more 50k to do to finish up for the year (in Pennsylvania in two weeks), but then I am going to take a break from the long ones for a while…
Maybe… Of course, there is always that 6 hour race at Bad Apple…