Back in June, my friend Ann invited me to do a 50K trail race with her at the end of September. It would be in Massachusetts, very near where she lives, and it fell on her birthday. The timing wasn’t great because it was three weeks after Ironman Wisconsin and one week after my Colin’s Hope 10K swim, but I jumped at the chance to sign up because it would give me a chance to (a) meet a new goal that I’d been considering, (b) visit a place I love that I hadn’t been to in quite a while, and (c) celebrate a dear friend I hadn’t seen in nearly two years since we ran in Maine together. I couldn’t pass up all of that! So last Thursday, I flew out and on Saturday, we ran. And oh my goodness, it was a hard, hard thing.
The course was a single ten-mile loop that you had to run three times for the 50K distance. Those doing 50 miles ran it five times. There were also half marathon and 10K runners out there at the same time, but their loops differed a bit. I don’t know how to cover over eight hours of running through the woods, so here are the highlights of the experience and what I learned.
- We started in the dark, and I got terribly lost on the first loop. There was a point at which I came to a juncture and couldn’t tell if I had to go left or right. I went right. (I learned on the second loop by following a random guy in front of me that I should have gone left at that juncture.) Since I went right, I got lost and ended up going a long stretch without seeing any arrows or markers. When I hit a closed gate, I turned around and ran back to the last arrow I could find, and I tried again. Again, I hit the closed gate. So I meandered around and suddenly found myself among arrows and markers again and somehow managed to get back to the parking area where we originally started the loop. The problem was that I had managed to cut the ten-mile loop short by between three and four miles.
- Getting lost completely flustered me. How would I make up those miles? Should I keep going forward or try to backtrack and figure out where I went wrong? Would I get disqualified for screwing up the loop? Would I be able to figure out the loop the second time? I had no idea. All of that uncertainty exhausted me. I ran through the starting area and told the race officials I had messed up. “Did you run the south portion of the trail?” I had no idea. “Did you see the signs that said 50 mile and 50K to the left and half marathon and 10K to the right?” Nope, I hadn’t. Only then did it occur to me that I didn’t see a single aid station out there, and I should have seen two. I had no idea what I had done wrong, and neither did they. But we agreed I should keep running.
- I managed the do a proper second loop. I followed the guy in front of me at the juncture where I had previously gone incorrectly to the right. I saw the signs the race officials had mentioned. I saw the two aid stations. My watch clocked a total of ten miles, as it should have. I was pleased.
- As I started my third loop, I was pleased, but I was also still fretting about how I would make up those miles that I’d cut short. I had come to do a 50K, and I’d be damned if I did anything less. Would I run the next loop and then do an out and back until my watch read the right distance before crossing the finish line? Getting to the finish and then having to continue to run sounded absolutely brutal. But what other options did I have? I was already tired and didn’t know the trails, and I started to meltdown mentally.
- On my third loop, which was, for me, mile 17, I called Dave, who was back in Texas, and pleaded for a pep talk. He masked his own alarm at a random phone call during the race, said all the right things, contacted my friend Jeanie, who is a great cheerleader and immediately started texting me, and then contacted Ann’s husband, who was out there spectating, to ask him for help making sure I was okay. TJ then checked on me via text as well. Sweet Dave. I couldn’t ask for someone to care more about both my well-being and my hitting my goals. I so love that man.
- After hanging up with Dave, I kept going and got to the first of the two aid stations where I had real food for the first time all morning. I was carrying Gu and sport beans and Honey Stinger waffles and intending to rely on my own food, but at the aid station, I stopped for watermelon, and that picked me right up. Also, at the aid station, as I left, a volunteer said, “See you in four miles!” What? See me in four miles? So I asked him what he meant, and he said I’d be back at that aid station in four miles. Only then did I realize that there was, in fact, only one aid station. I had been so out of sorts on the prior loop that I hadn’t recognized the two aid stations as being one and the same!
- It occurred to me that maybe I could just run what I was then calling the “aid station loop” twice to make up the mileage I was missing. As the light bulb went on in my head, I saw the race official I had spoken to when I’d finished the first loop prematurely. He was there delivering bread for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He remembered me. I told him my plan, and he seemed to agree that the make-up loop would work.
- When I went out on the aid station loop, I suddenly felt my spirits lifted. My body was still tired, but I had a plan, and I believed in the plan, and I just felt better somehow. When I got back to the aid station, I had more watermelon and a couple of brownies and off I went to repeat that loop.
- I enjoyed the repeat loop because the area now felt familiar, and it was relatively flat compared to the rest of the course. By the time I’d completed the repeat loop, I had heard from Ann that she’d finished and was super happy. That lifted my spirits too because ultimately it had been important that she have a good day. And she had.
- Running the last few miles back, I walked a fair amount because that portion of the trail was up and down and somewhat rocky. I also talked with a number of 50 milers who were still out on the course. I met a woman who was doing her first 50 miler, and she was celebrating already being at the longest distance she’d ever run. Her energy gave me energy. I also thought about the day and how much of an emotional struggle it had been. It had rained all day, but we hadn’t felt much of the rain because of the natural canopy/umbrella formed by the trees. Though I was tired emotionally and physically, I felt how lucky I was to be running in the woods in Massachusetts with my friend.
- When I finished, Ann, TJ and some of their friends were there to greet me. I was so relieved to finish and so grateful to be able to put on dry clothes and have a beer. I rarely drink, but the occasion felt ripe for a beer, so I enjoyed one. I also enjoyed some birthday cake in celebration of my friend and the fine day she’d had.
- Two days later, I can’t walk like a normal person. I can walk pretty well on flat surfaces, but please don’t ask me to take any steps or ramps of any kind. I nearly fell going up the two steps to get to my porch when I got home yesterday. My legs are just shot.
I learned, perhaps again, that trail running is completely different from road running. While I ran, the negative thoughts in my head were that I’d made a terrible mistake by signing up, that I was a total poser thinking I could trail run 30 miles, and that I should never ever allow myself to venture into the woods again under any circumstances.
Two days later, I’m thinking I might have overreacted a bit. I’m not a great trail runner, but I can train to be one. And I’d like to see what it would feel like to run 30 miles – or more – after training extensively on trails. So now I’m contemplating my next big trail adventure. And if I’m really lucky, maybe I’ll also get to do the next big one with Ann.