(Warning: This was a long race, so only a long race report will do!)
Prologue: If there’s one thing is more nerve-wracking than prepping for a big race, it’s not knowing if you’re actually going to get the chance to run that big race. But that’s what I got for waiting too long to register for what is apparently the region’s most popular, early season ultra: The Hagg Lake 50k.
As a side note, Hagg Lake and I are not BFF. I ran once around the lake a few weeks ago where I met a particularly aggressive strain of blackberry brambles and decided that if I never saw Hagg Lake again I would shed no tears. But that was before I decided that not only did I want to run a 50k, I wanted to run THIS 50k.
The week before the race I emailed to the race director several times to plead my case. She responded that I could show up to see if there were any dropouts on race morning, but there were no guarantees. Yikes.
Note: This kind of tension does not ease pre-race jitters
My solution? Pretend all week like I wasn’t going to run 50k. Of course that solution also meant that an official taper was out the window (you called it!). Taper for a race that might not even happen? Pish, posh! I’d take Friday off, get lots of sleep and call it done. (I hear this isn’t recommended). But of course, as the title of this update suggests, I did get to run the 50k – so on to the nitty gritty. It’s my ultra race report for my first ultra marathon:
Race Morning: I wake up an hour before my alarm. My first thought: I MIGHT become an ultra-marathoner today. I decide to act like it’s inevitable and switch to ritual mode. These are things I never mess around with on race morning: I shower, shave, blow dry my hair, and put on my lucky earrings. I triple check my race bags. I brew coffee. I cook one of my all time favorite pre-run power foods – squash with pumpkin seeds, doused with maple syrup and sprinkled with raisins.
5:45 AM: I throw my bags in the car, and motor to the other side of town to pickup a certifiably crazy fast runner (we’re talking about a 2:42 marathoner, yo!) who will compete in the 25k race. My plan is for some of his speed to rub off on me during the car ride.
“I can’t believe that I’m might run 30 miles today,” I say.
“I think it’s actually 31 miles,” replies the Certifiably Crazy Fast Runner (whose real name is Ruben and who ran the 50k last year.)
“Oh, right… ” Five kilometers is 3.1 miles, 50k would be 31 miles. Heather, where did you put your math skills this morning? Instantly, the thought of embarking on such a distance seems completely overwhelming. I try to reign in the panic by reminding myself that maybe I won’t be running at all.
Arrive at Hagg Lake: We circle the lake road to the Sain Creek staging area. The sun is coming over the horizon and the main parking lot is already full. It’s a beautiful crisp morning, but right now the only things on my mind are the butterflies in my stomach and my full-to-overflowing bladder. We park in the second lot, grab bags and beeline to the registration table. After several minutes of confusion I get the green light: write a check, you’re in. The race is less than 13 minutes away.
I am not ready!
Certifiably Crazy Fast Ruben to the rescue! He grabs my stuff while I run to the line of blue portapotties (a shrine every runner visits before any race). Thankfully the ratio of port-a-jon to ultra runner is excellent and the wait is short. I speed back to a picnic table where my gear has landed. Out come the arm warmers, hat, gloves, backup watch, Espresso Love GU, salt tablets, hand held water bottle and, after a moment of hesitation, Phil. I stash GUs and tabs into pockets, Ruben tops off the water bottle and I strap on the watches just as the call for the runners goes out. Race time is in less than 5 minutes and I’m ready – thank you, Ruben!
Minutes to start time: 50k’ers huddle around portable heaters while the race director goes over the details: The course will start with an out-and-back on a road – someone whispers that it’s the toughest part of the course – it’s straight uphill and has a vicious downhill. After that we’ll come back through the start area and then head out on the trails for two loops around the lake. There are two aid stations for food, water and GU. I glance and smile nervously to the woman next to me. She exclaims at my minimalist clothing (no jacket, tights or ear warmers), “You must be freezing, or you must be fast to be wearing so little!” Her comment makes me laugh and then it’s time to pay attention again – the race is about to start.
Race start: It’s so low key! No big wave start or gun fire. Somehow, we just start. Our small pack heads out gently through the parking lot and onto a road and then up a hill. I have no strategy except to start slow. . .Very very slow and to keep running as long as I can.
Out-And-Back: I CANNOT believe I’m actually going to run 50k. Or maybe I just try NOT to think about actually running 50k. Ruben is waiting at the base of the uphill ringing a cow bell. He sees me and yells, “Remember: Perky! Perky! Perky!” He has no idea just how many times I’ll tell myself that over the next 4+ hours. But right now, everything seems super. On the uphill I pass what will become one of the most talked about course features: A dead skunk on the side of the road, cuddling a Hamm’s beer can (apparently empty) – A drunk skunk? A skunked drunk? Strange! The uphill turns out to be very long and very steep. I chug through it, get to the turnaround and meander back downhill. Runners on the way up and those on the way down wave to each other and comment enthusiastically: Way to go, Have a great race, Looking good. . .
Beginning of the first loop: We return to the starting area and already the front runners are way ahead. I begin my first lake loop with a gigantic grin. I feel great as I pass Certifiably Fast Ruben The Cheerleader, but within minutes I am in the woods and far away from any sideline support. I settle in with a few other runners and like a true Chatty Cathy strike up a conversation. There are 31 miles to cover, and if talking will make it go by quicker, I’m all for it.
First hour: There are no mile markers in this race, I didn’t pay attention to the exact distance of the loop, and who knows if Phil’s GPS is working correctly. I decide early on that I can’t fixate on the distance – It’s clear I’ve got A LOT of ground to cover and wondering if I’m on mile 5 or 6 or 7 isn’t going to change the fact that there are sooooo many more miles left. I think this is a good strategy – my mood is great. I feel happy and my legs feel like a 7.8 trillion dollars. I pass a runner and he says, “What are you smiling about!?”
I pass a few more runners and eventually settle into a pace with Geoff Donovan- a seasoned ultra trail runner with long legs and an efficient stride that make we wish that I were 7 inches taller. We pass over the Hagg Lake Dam road and I spy the white tent of the aid station in the distance! Oh what a beautiful sight. I take a GU and stop to tie my shoe. I HATE stopping to tie my shoe. There’s something about stopping all that forward motion and trying to concentrate enough to make the small movement required for a double knot. So annoying! I knot, I double knot and within 10 minutes it is loose again! Stupid laces.
After the first aid station: The trail gets more aggressive. The uphills are steeper and there’s significantly more mud. My right calf is beginning to twinge and I wonder if a cramp is in the future. I dig deep into my back pocket, grab a few Endurolyte pills and say a little prayer. At this point in the race any sign of fatigue is bad.
A while later I am mucking my way through the forest and up hills. My mood is still fantastic and I see a white tent in the distance. My already good mood sky rockets. Hoooray! It’s the second aid station. Already! But the trail plays a nasty trick. While the tent seems tantalizingly close, the trail wonders up and out and back and out again and it seems to take F-O-R-E-V-E-R . I stop to tie my shoe once more and catch up to Geoff and a few other runners ahead of me.
Second Aid Station and Beyond: Finally I reach that white tent of hope and happiness. The volunteers are friendly and ready to help. I ask for GU and they point to a bowl full of Espresso Love GU packs and I feel a heady rush of excitement. “Oh Espresso Love! I love you” I blabber. I grab one, rip off the top and squeeze. Ohhhh, sweet GU! A volunteer fills my water bottle and I am off again.
The rest of the first loop takes some time. The mud gets pretty thick in places. Then a blackberry bramble stages an attach on my thigh and draws blood. At some point I realize that I’m about 15 miles into the run and I still have 16 to go and that just seems totally absurd. I can’t fathom running for that long, and yet, here I am trying to do exactly that. I also think back to a conversation about the average course times and seeing something about 5 hours. Again, the possibility that I could be out here slogging through the mud for 5 straight hours seems ridiculous. Laughable. Totally stupid. Yet, here I am, committing myself to running to the end.
First lap complete: I strip off my arm warmers as I enter into staging/finishing area. I throw them on the blue tarp reserved for the 50k’ers, down an Espresso flavored Hammergel share some words of encouragement with Geoff and then we’re off again. Geoff flies ahead and I take off brimming with enthusiasm. Unlike the first loop, the second loop is very lonely indeed. The field is totally stretched out. There is no one to talk with.
Second Lap: Just one more lap. You can totally do that. Just one more lap of 14.1 miles. I try desperately to not think about the 14.1 miles part. Fourteen miles sounds horrible. One loop sounds do-able. I run over a wooden bridge and… Wwwwwommmmppphhfff! I slip and crash onto my shoulder and hip. I scramble back up and I’m on my way in seconds, but I realize this race is far from over. I start to chug forward and give myself a pep talk.
The section between the starting area and the road over the dam passes quickly. I get some encouragement from a few supporters tracking other runners. I fly forward on the road section, down my GU at the aid station and move forward. Just keep moving forward I think .
I am somewhat dreading the part between the first and second aid station. It’s only 4.5 miles, but it feels so much longer. The hills are steep. I am tired and I am all alone. The thought that I could just walk up the hills enters my head and I try to push it aside. Heather, I think, it’s time to run Perky. Perky Perky Perky Perky….! Perky! I say it out loud too, just to hammer home the point.
The miles crawl by. I glance down at my watch at some point and see 22 staring back at me. 22 miles and still nine to go? The task seems impossible.
So I just keep slogging forward. I decide not to think about 9 miles or even 7 miles or even 4.5 miles which should get me to the second aid station. I’ll just think about moving forward. No need to freak out about distance – just keep doing what I’ve been doing for the last couple of hours, everything will be fine!
Second Aid Station: I down my sixth GU of the day and ask how far it is to the finish line. 4.3 miles one of the volunteer says. 4.3 miles! 4.3 miles!!! Suddenly, everything is not only OK, it is great. I turn to a 25k runner who is taking his time at the station. “4.3 miles? I can totally do 4.3 miles! Let’s get this sucker done!” I thank the volunteers and I’m on my way. 4.3 miles? I’ve got this.
I reset my stopwatch. I figure that no matter how tired I am, I should be done in 36 minutes. All I have to do is run 36 minutes. 36 minutes. 36 minutes. 36 minutes. My ability to concentrate on more than that number and the trail in front of me has evaporated.
The road seems long. I pass more 25k’ers and a few 50k’ers and exchange words of encouragement. The mud is slick in places and I fall but it doesn’t even matter. Now all I have to do is run for 24 minutes. 24 minutes. 24 minutes…
As the finish line approaches my grin gets bigger and bigger. Soon I am passing the sign that says it’s one mile to go. Dig deep the sign says. Dig deep!?? I’ve been digging deep for the last freakin’ 30 miles! I cross over the parking lot and suddenly there are many people clapping and shouting me forward. I am overcome! I am so tired, but I am about to finish this gigantic race: my first ultra marathon and I am so happy. The last bit of trail passes by in seconds and then I am at the finish line!
And just like that. I’m done. Finished. Complete. My smile feels so big my face might cramp. My glow is only dampened only by intense leg fatigue. I am wobbly and achy all over. Crazy Quick Ruben appears sporting a matching huge grin and I discover that he’s won the 25k. Whoa! I take a lap of the parking lot at a slow slow walk, shuffle really, put on some clothes, change my shoes and soon I feel pretty good again. OK, it’s not like I wanted to go run a few extra miles or anything. Rather, I recovered quicker than I thought and soon I was ready to socialize, chatter away with some trail friends and eat some good food.
Conclusions: I couldn’t be happier.
4th place female
Race Nutrition: 1 Mocha Cliff Shot (pre-race) 1 Just Plain GU, 3 Espresso Love GU (2x the caffeine) 2 Espresso HammerGels, 7 Endurolyte pills. Water.
Immediate Post Race Nutrition: Chicken noddle soup, 1/2 a fig newton, potato chips, 1 hot dog with relish, 2 more brownies, water.