It had arrived. The eve of the much anticipated Finger Lakes 50s Trail run which would be my first 50 Mile race. The Mister and I had spent the day driving towards Ithaca from New York City and debating, with varying degrees of intensity, exactly how dark it would be when we finally set up our tent in the Finger Lakes National Forest.
I tend to be a little higher strung than my mister and combined with with a healthy dose of pre-race anxiety I was ready to be stretched out inside a tent, full of food, and off my feet. We achieved two of those things earlier in the afternoon by stopping in Ithaca and grabbing a bite of food at the ever-delicious and well named “Gorgers,” which makes huge hot sub sandwiches with in all the styles of your grandest dreams.
Normally, I stick hard to my plain butter pasta pre-big-race, but it was getting late and I was ready to stick with what was accessible than spend more time tracking down pasta and trying to special order it like an asshole. This may have been my one big mistake or at least contributed to my main source of discomfort the next day.
We left Ithaca and wound our way up towards the National Forest, where we parked along side the road. Here, you can see part of the baby loop, and I remarked that I would probably really, really, really hate that baby loop after 49.5 miles. Truer words were never spoken.
We wandered into the camp and registration area with our things (we loaded almost everything into one of those old-lady shopping carts/ big city laundry carts and it was a super smart decision). At the registration, we signed the Mister up as a pacer for the final 16 mile loop and I bought a Finger Lakes 50s hat (that is either brown or maroon, I really can’t tell) for a bargin price of $5.00!! I’m normally pretty superstitious about buying finisher items before actually finishing a race and I will never, ever, wear a shirt for a race during that very race- gasp, the horror. But I didn’t want to miss out on a sweet hat and I was so excited about this race I broke my rule, and luckily, not my leg.
We set up our tent which, unfortunately, was apparently in a spot that was really bad for runoff and rain was headed in our direction. Fortunately, a kind local gentleman who I think was assisting with race logistics and obviously knew the area far better than we did, pointed out our error. We dragged our tent goofily to higher ground and I called it a night as a huge downpour broke open. Laying in the tent we listened as the rain pounded the tent and I watched the silhouette of a tiny gecko climbing around our tent wall with his bulbous toes holding him there like magic.
Morning came and oh, good god, this is happening! This start included both 50 Milers and 50K-ers (the Finger Lakes 50s, eh- eh?). I knew from looking at the participants ahead of time that they were pretty equally registered with about 80 people starting out for each race.
The first lap started out nice and easy, as usual, it always takes me a good 3-4 miles to even begin to feel settled into a nice, easy, loose run. I ran along Al, who from miles 6-15 or so, I came to think of as my “Trail Pal Al.” He was a really nice gentleman from Rochester, if I remember correctly, and he was running hist first 50 Miler too. It was great to stick with him for such a slice of the loop and I would have tried to keep my trail pal for longer, but I slowed a bit due to the start of what would be on and off stomach issues. Ugh.
At the end of loop one, I was 16 miles in and feeling great. I got to see my Mom, my father, and my aunt who had driven the hour down from my hometown to cheer me on. It was a huge boost to see them and know that I got to have them near for such an incredible day. I hit the trail again and began cutting my way into the second loop.
Loop two went well enough- it amazed me during the 60K last fall, and it amazed me again how the marathon mark slips by so uneventfully that I barely notice. 26.2 can be excruciating and is in its own right, a formidable distance. Yet in the midst of even a slightly longer race it is reduced to little more than an “oh, whatever. It cracks me up.
And then, early on this second loop, it happened. The stomach problems. For all the runners, I don’t need to say more because I think everyone understands. I had to stop two or three times because my stomach was so uncomfortable/ I thought there was going to be a real disaster, haha, luckily, there was not.
The real downside to my stomach issues, other than the loss of time, was I became increasingly less able to eat. Which really stunk because it was pretty hot and mentally, the idea that I was in the middle of 50 miles and not going to be able to keep the fuel levels up, was really discouraging.
I came into the finish of loop 2 feeling relatively fresh on my legs, but my stomach was really messed up. I told my family the current status, letting them know I thought this could be something that would slow me substantially on the final loop.
On the upside, my Mister was going to be joining me for my last loop!
On the downside, it was a pretty ugly final loop. The first mile after the home aid station was a complete mind-fuck (sorry about the language, but there is really no other word for it). You spend 15.9 miles thinking about getting somewhere and its pretty motivating. And then after two rounds of that, you depart again and it is like being set adrift at sea with not a hint of land insight. So there was that, and then there was the nausea. And that first mile or two with the Mister was pretty slow.
But I was really eager to show him The Morgue Aid station. We meet another runner there, who looked at us and said “Think we can make it?” I laughed, because I thought he was like 100% joking, and said of course, we were going to make it.
Little did I know.
About 3 miles from The Morgue, IT HAPPENED, mind-fuck number 2. You didn’t know there would be a second one? Well, neither did I.
A guy comes running up behind us, and I step aside, “You should go, we’re pretty slow right now.”
“You don’t want me to do that- then you’ll be on no course” he said, or something to that effect. “I’m just picking up the flags. Take your time, don’t let me rush you.”
And then the entire forest swirled around me- whaaaaaaaat!
Ok, you’re last. That part I could totally deal with. I knew time wise that I was looking pretty good for the cut offs and was well within the normal time range of finishers. I was not, some under-trained lollygagger.
However, the idea that my slowness at this point was now going to actually be holding people up- people at aid stations, volunteers spread over 16 miles, literal forest rangers, race directors- completely destroyed me. I’m pretty shy, so the idea that so many people would be thinking about the last person, and where is this slowpoke, and thinking I wasn’t prepared, just wrecked me.
The Race Begins
We fell into a pattern of trying to run as much as I could, while I wondered if maybe I was foolish to attempt this and should just pack it in. But I keep thinking, well, I guess I can make it to one more aid station, and then we’ll see. I couldn’t even begin to imagine returning to the finish line in a car. So we made it to the South Beach Aid station (twice, as the course has it) and then began the reluctant push to The Library. This was the last cut off of the race.
As we started, the course-deflagger/spirit-crusher ran after us and said “I think you guys can make the cut off, but you are going to have to move a little faster. You were doing about X minute miles last stretch, and you need to do X-2.” (I forget what the times were, but we had to go about 2 minutes per mile faster. Ha. Ha.) I was grateful that this gentleman had done some math for me, but on the other hand the idea that I had any control whatever over how fast I was going was hysterical.
A nice, deep, first-50 miler, burn had settled into my legs, and wasn’t going anywhere. I knew this type of pain was coming one way or another, but because of my stomach problems earlier, I felt like I had to deal with the leg pain for more miles than I expected.
We set off for the Library Aid Station, with the idea that we do the best I could, and whatever happened with the time, well there was nothing I could do about that. When we finally emerged from the woods and made our way across the road for The Library, all the volunteers were cheering.
“You made it!” they said. “Literally, by like a minute!” they added. (I was almost sad I had to keep going). “No one can you off the course now!”
I looked at my Mister, “I know we can go on, but I don’t know if we should.” My legs felt like mush on fire. Why should I waste everyone’s time?
The volunteers were so kind. One of them even said to me, “The next bit goes on and then comes back out after a mile by so-and-so, who has his car by the road. So if you want to stop then, you always can.”
One more mile try? Can’t argue with that. And from that point on, my motto was, “Let’s try.”
Can you run a few feet? Let’s try.
Can you make it one mile? Let’s try.
Can you make it to the next aid station? Let’s try.
And that was how we got to The Outback Aid Station. (Did I mention we met up again, momentarily with the runner from The Morgue, the Do-You-Think-We’ll-Make-It Guy? It felt good to no longer feel like literally the last person on the course).
The volunteers made me feel even better.
“Thank you SO MUCH for being here. I’m sorry I’m so slow.” I said.
They laughed, “Are you kidding? We’ve been out here way later before. You’re doing fine!” And then they tried to get us to eat the rest of the Aid Station food- at some point someone tried to get me to take the remains of a huge package of Twizzlers!
We left, spirits more buoyed than when we arrived, and set out for the final miles.
I should mention, the Baby Loop. As we staggered toward the finish, I thought about the Baby Loop with the fiery hatred of 1,000 suns: F*@k that Baby Loop, I thought, when I get to the finish area I am done. (You have to go *through* the finish, and back out for the 1/2 mile Baby Loop). They can’t make me do it. I entertained myself often those last miles with the absolutely insane notion that I was going to DNF 49.5 miles into a 50 mile race.
But somehow we made it to the finish line and I set off to finish on my own. As I was moving through the final wooded area, I heard it- Eye of the Tiger was playing at the finish area, which was unfortunate because I really wanted to walk. However, I knew that my family must have requested it, because Eye of the Tiger and I go way back to the Musselman Triathlon and when I thought I might drown in Seneca Lake and my uncle yelled “Eye of the Tiger Sam!” And the only way I was going to get to the finish line in time was if I started running right now.
So I ran. And as I ran into the clearing, about to finish my first 50 mile race, I saw that almost every person in the finish area had formed a tunnel, their hands raised up like a bridge, and I had to run under their hands and through the human tunnel to the finish.
I wish I could describe it. I get teary eyed now thinking about how overcome with emotion I was in that moment and I smushed down all my tears so I wouldn’t cry, even happy cry, in front of a bunch of strangers.
That, was my first 50 miler.
And my last. At least, that was what I told myself on the drive home that evening. Well, I don’t think I’ll every need to do that again, I thought with a good amount of confidence. How long does it take to forget the feeling of ragged mush muscles set on fire? Mmm, about 24 hours.
That, was my first 50 miler.
And my last.
-Last doesn’t feel that bad. I knew my training was good and I was well within the time frame of finishers over the years. Other than that, eh, whatever. Last- someone has to be.
-Learn to eat real food for ultras. I ate gels and I ate real food. I wouldn’t describe myself as gel-dependent. I ate maybe 5 before my stomach bonked, but I blame the gels 60% (Gorgers, I’m looking at you for that other 40%). I hate peanut butter sandwiches, but I think I need to learn to love this ultra staple.
-Pacer doesn’t necessarily mean pacer. Spirit guide, I believe is much more accurate. I always kind of knew this (trying to “pace” runner brother often turned into “try to be upbeat, not annoyingly so, and don’t feel bad he is super grumpy”), but now I understand it.
-Anyone can quit. I wanted to quit. But, no one signs up for 50 miles so they can learn what it feels like to quit.
I signed up to push at the expanse of what I thought I was physically capable of. 26.2 miles is a number I had come to know. It had structure and tangible edges- a beginning, a middle, and an end. 50 miles? I stood at a race start three years ago and told myself that I would never be one of those people. That there were some special people out there who could accomplish something as unfathomable as that and that I was wise enough to know I would never be one of them. Three years ago was before my first half marathon. Three years ago, was before my first marathon, before I knew the size, and shape, and scent of a marathon. Three years ago was before I realized that the best leaps of faith, test your faith in yourself.
Not letting my embarrassment or insecurity get the best of me has been something I felt I never quite got the hang of, even after all these years of sobriety. Finishing this race, even with the loop of pain and misery and doubt in all its ugly rawness (sorry you had to witness that mister!) I realized that not every journey, whether on the trails or off, is picture perfect or goes according to plan, but that doesn’t render it worthless.