(Warning: may contain graphic images of running-related misery)
“Just a training run…Just a training run. I feel fine and I am running within myself. Just a bunch of great folks, having a good time, just running along… so seriously, where the heck is everybody?” I am thinking to myself as I’m running down the trail with no one ahead or behind me for a few hundred meters. This might just be a long day…
Rewind an hour before that moment, Chris, Erin and I are walking towards the starting line in the dark when the announcement goes off. “One minute to the start!” Holy crap! We started fast walking/jogging to the start line and just as we got there, the gun went off. I excused myself from the Bazlers, slotted myself into the middle of the pack and started slowly getting into my stride behind a pair of rather svelte ladies in sports bras. They seemed to be running a good pace so I was content to tuck in behind them for a little while as I was still warming up, feeling out the terrain and digesting the UGo Bar I had just eaten earlier.
As I started to warm up, I started to slowly work my way up, trying to find some people whom I thought would be running roughly my pace. Luckily, I found my group pretty quickly and settled into a groove with them. I just tucked myself behind a guy doing the 50-miler and found that we had very similar running styles/tactics. We would power-hike the uphills and bomb down the downhills. However, he was not wearing a headlamp or carrying any sort of illuminating device but, since we were in a pretty good groove, I wasn’t too worried. I started running off to the side, off his left shoulder as he hugged the right side of the trail so the light from my headlamp would illuminate part of the trail in front of him too. We had a good system and understanding going as we would hug opposite sides of the trail and flowed from one side to another as we pounded down the hills. When he realized what I was doing, he flashed me a backwards peace sign from the front. I asked if that was a good sign. He laughed. I chuckled. We kept running.
About 4 miles in, I was following a girl a little too closely and I really couldn’t see where I was going which lead me to stub my left big toe really hard on something. Man, it really hurt! A few more miles down the trail, I could tell, just from proprioception of how my toe was interacting with my sock, that I had stubbed it hard enough that I had lifted my nail partially off the nail bed. After that, I tried keeping at least 3 feet from the person in front of me so that I could see where I was putting my feet. By now, I had passed my 50-mile friend and tucked behind a group of three guys who were just chatting away. As we got to the first aid station, they stopped to get a drink and drop off their headlamps but I just passed them and carried on, as I didn’t really feel like stopping. I am also quite a competitive person so I really wanted to try and keep moving and see how far up the field I could get without overreaching myself. The morning light was starting to shine through the trees...
It is a very eerie feeling when you’re in a race and you suddenly find yourself all alone. I was running along, trying to find the next person in front of me while trying to run within myself, when I realized that there was no one in front or behind me for as far as I could see (which, by the way, was not really THAT far as the bush was decent and the trail windy). I realized then that I was leading the mid-pack and that was a really weird feeling. I have never lead anything in any race before. Okay, it was still only the mid-pack but it’s the small victories. Couple that with the glow of the morning sun, it was a very surreal feeling that I was on a solo training run but on a route I was somehow familiar with, even though this is my first time on it.
After a few more miles, I crossed a road junction and then immediately ran into a group of guys who were coming the other way. Apparently, we were all going the wrong way and doubled back to the road junction. We started milling around for a little bit, trying to find some sort of marker that would point us in the right direction. At this point, the rest of the mid-front group had caught up and joined us in standing on this road, being very confused. It really was a sight to see - twelve guys and a girl, just standing in the middle of a dirt road, pouring over a tiny, highlighted map in the middle of a race. I had to chuckle at the absurdity of the situation. (I also may have a very odd sense of humor.)
Thankfully, one of the guys sort of knew the way so we just put our faith in him and started down the dirt road behind him. We found out later that some local dissidents had removed the trail markers and replaced them with nothing, except maybe a healthy dose of "screw you". I had some choice words for them. Everyone really proceeded to pick up the pace on this dirt road and I was starting to get dropped. I was starting to breathe hard so I decided to slow down and let them do their thing while I did mine. After all, it’s just a training run, right?
The next few miles were a blur as we ran along and settled into our respective groups and followed the arrows, drawn on the ground to replaced the displaced trail markers. I continued to stick to my race plan of making quick stops and passing people while they refueled at aid stations. This next section was an out-and-back-ish route where I started seeing some familiar faces on the way back, including one Erin Hazler! She looked good and was just balling along. I was just chatting to a couple of folks, who surprisingly are running this as their first trail race and ultra. One guy had never raced above the half-marathon distance on road before. Crazy fast roadies.
I then got to the Stripper Pole, which was this ridiculously steep hill covered in leaves that I just gingerly shuffled down. At this point, it was really hurting me to run down any sort of hill as my big toe will jab into the front of my shoe. This was a bit frustrating as downhills are my forte. After that, we soon got to an incredibly, ridiculously steep uphill - the type one climbs on all fours and by grabbing trees and roots. The whole time we were climbing, my face was about 6 inches from this guy’s butt as I was essentially bear crawling up this incline. If he slipped, I was about to get a face full of sweaty running shorts.
After we topped the incline, my climbing buddy proceeded to take a short break while I continued to walk up the hill to gather my breath. Next up was the section of many river crossings and walkings. I think we crossed two rivers and proceeded to walk in a river for a third of a mile. By then, I had accumulated enough sand and stones in my shoes to build a miniature dam so I actually decided to stand in the middle of the river and empty my shoes as the cold river water was actually helping to numb my feet and sooth my big toe. There’s a pretty funny picture of me doing that on the race site. As I was welcomed to Hell by Satan-guy, I replied, “Glad to be here!” I was quite glad to be out of that river.
The rest of the race was rather uneventful as I tried to hang on to whatever place I was in the race and not let my big toe affect me too much. By then, I had developed a really tight back and had to stop a few times to stretch it out. I think this was caused by me only carrying water on the front of my Salomon race pack and not balancing it out with a camelbak on the back so I might have been hunching a bit unconsciously to compensate for the weight. The field had spread out enough by then that I did not really see many people. The couple of people I saw were the ones that I kept hopscotching with at aid stations and along the course as we tried to stay ahead of each other. I was still navigating the off-trail terrain well enough that I could catch them but then they would just drop me on the uphills. Again, damn those fast roadies. I was not very happy to be dropped but, after seeing their form and their condition, I knew pretty quickly I was not going to be able to keep up with them.At the last aid station, I sat down to remove an extremely annoying stone that somehow had buried itself under my insole and had worked it way up from my heel to the ball of my foot. By this point, I had looked back enough to see that there really wasn't anyone seriously catching up to me.
I was so happy when I started recognizing various areas that signified that I was nearing the finish line as well as hearing a lady yell out to me that there was only a quarter of a mile to go. Thank god and I really hope you are not lying to me! My Garmin was coming up about 3 miles short at this point and I was just really ready for this race to end. At this point, I saw that this one guy who has been elusively staying in front of me for the last 4 miles and I started to see that he was slowly coming back to me and had been for the last one mile so i took that as a sign that he was flagging. I just put the hammer down and sprinted downhill and passed him (and the cheering Bartleys) about 100m from the finish line. Looking back, that may have been a bit of a douche-y move but we shook hands and congratulated each other at the finish line so no hard feelings, I guess.
It was to my elation when I found out that I had won 1st place in my age group and ninth overall! This was my first age group win and first overall top ten finish. I was ecstatic as I had felt good for most of the day, other than my big toe and ran within myself. So much for a training run - a 28.2mile training run. :)
Many thanks go to Chris and Erin who convinced me to do this race with them as well as the Bartleys (Ben and Steph) who came with us to cheer for us and make awesome head cutouts of us! Last, but not least, I am very thankful for my sponsor, the lovely Dr. Mandy Smith at Indiana Spine and Sports, who has been valiantly helping me fight my constant battle with injuries and muscle imbalances. Without her help and support, I would not have been able to start on that start line (or any start line, for that matter) in the shape I was.
Trail/ultra runner, Designer, Foodie, Rock Climber, World Traveler, Triathlete, Level 1 RRCA-certified coach, NASM-Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) and Corrective Exercise Specialist (CES)