Last year I reviewed the book, Born to Run and was simply amazed at the stories and the miles logged across varied terrain. Hot days, cold (and dark) nights, sore toes and what to eat are just a few of the basic “obstacles” that come to mind when I think of the world of ultra-running. This doesn’t even come close to the training involved for completing the race itself. Running three marathons took a lot of courage and guts for me, but I have never imagined what it would be like to run past the 26.2 mile mark, let alone know someone who has. The ultra-marathon—anything over 26.2—is in a class all its own. My friend, Sarah, who I met in January at Seal Team PT, decided she was up for the challenge and completed her first ultra on May 4. I am in awe of her dedication and courage in taking on this incredible feat. As we say at boot camp, this deserves a big “Hoo Yah!” Job well done!!
Guest Blogger: Sarah Topping
The question I was asked most often over the weekend seemed to be “are you okay”? The real most asked question was “how did you find us”? My answer? Google. Yes. I signed up for and ran an ultramarathon because I Googled “running” and “New York” and Rock the Ridge caught my eye. I participated in the SEAL Team PT 90-Day Fitness Challenge and wanted a challenge when it ended. I found that challenge over 50 miles of the most beautiful woods I have ever seen. And I’m from Washington state, so I know beautiful woods!
I had never run more than 13.1 miles before, but I knew I could finish RTR because I had 24 hours to do so. Unlike most ultras with course time limits that are well beyond my capabilities, RTR gave me the chance to try something that was calling to me. I can tell you right now that I LOVED IT.
The race was a fundraiser for the Mohonk Preserve. I had never been there before, but I’m all for raising money to preserve any bit of nature we can. After experiencing it for myself, I’m determined to raise even more money next year to help maintain that special place.
I rolled into the area the Thursday before the race. I stayed at Clove Cottages so I would have a kitchen available when I was recovering. If you know me, you know I would rather stay in a one room cabin than be stuck in a hotel room somewhere, the only outdoor area being a parking lot. The cottage came stocked with home ground coffee, homemade granola, and the most wonderful homemade soap. While checking in I was offered fresh eggs from the resident chickens. Sunday mornings bring fresh baked scones right to your door.
I spent Thursday and Friday at the cottage, mainly reading on the porch. I kept telling myself that it was to save my legs, but I wasn’t even kidding myself. I was just enjoying my downtime. Michelle, one of the owners, brought me a hammock. What more can you ask for?
Friday night was packet pick up and the pre-race dinner at the Mohonk Preserve Visitor Center. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop on the woman in front of me in line, but she cracked me up, and I couldn’t help laughing. She didn’t mind my intrusion a bit, and she ended up inviting me to join her and her friends at their table for dinner. That was the first of the really nice things that happened on my odyssey. Who happens to come sit with this group of folks? Um, the race director. Oh, yeah. I was so meant to participate in this race! Todd is this animated burst of energy who managed to get me even more excited about the race. He talked about some of the different things I’d be seeing and places I’d be going. I had reviewed the course map beforehand, but since I didn’t know the area, things just didn’t really mesh in my head as far as what was where and how the course would shake out for me. That uncertainty was part of the excitement.
I was actually so excited I found it nearly impossible to go to sleep that night. I managed a few hours sleep then got up in the pitch black dark and drove to New Paltz to grab a shuttle bus to the start line. I grabbed some coffee, a chair, and watched the sun come up while I got more and more nervous. There was a loop of random things going through my head: Fifty miles…Maybe I was insane, just like people told me from the first time I announced I was doing this…Fifty miles…But it was in the woods…Maybe I’d see a bear!…I so wanted to see a bear…Most of the other runners had never done an ultra either…I could totally do this…And it was really too late now…We were just about to start.
A few people asked what my strategy was. I didn’t really have one. Never having done something like this, I had no idea what I was doing. My strategy was just to finish, and have fun along the way. As I found throughout the day, not having a clue was both a blessing and a curse.
I started out running. I walked the inclines. Ran everything else. Didn’t really stop that until about mile 13 when blistergate started. About mile 8 my feet started feeling not so great.
I’ve gotten blisters before on my long runs, so I didn’t really think anything much about it. Until it got worse. And worse. As my feet swelled, more and more blisters came to visit. My great trail shoes became my worst nightmare. Everywhere there was stitching I got blisters. By about mile 17, I was walking everything and not even doing that well. I couldn’t walk properly on my trashed feet, and my hips were taking the brunt of the change in gait. I was a walking ball of pain.
I am a slow runner. I will most likely never get much faster. I have gotten much more efficient over the past nine months, and that will continue, but I doubt I will ever take more than a minute or so off my best mile time. And I’m okay with that. So I didn’t mind people passing me. It’s not like that has never happened. Most of the folks running this race were kind and funny and like me, just excited to be there. Like any race, I ended up with people of like speed around me. I can’t tell you how nice it was to have people offer ibuprofen, snacks, a “you’re doing great” for oh, about fifty miles of the fifty miles. Add to that the amazing volunteers working the water stops and aid stations and this race soared to the top of my list of favorites, eclipsing even my first half marathon. Go figure.
One of my favorite memories was the water stop at Rhododendron Bridge the first time through. I was at mile 19.4. The guy who placed fifth was there at the same time. He was at mile 42.2. See. I’m slow. Anyway, we’re there at the stop and one of the volunteers asked if we wanted Coke. Apparently the guy who won the race was sad panda when he got there and there was no Coke. One of the volunteers drove to a store and bought some so he could have it on his next pass through. Did I not tell you how amazing these volunteers were?! That’s when I found myself pouring Coke into my cup. Because if number 1 wanted it so badly, I figured he had to know something. Right?! I don’t really know if it helped me at all, but just the thought that it did sent me on my way with a smile.
I spent a lot of the race alone on the trail and I didn’t mind that one bit. I’m perfectly content being on my own. Starting around mile 33 (I have no idea what time that was, but it was still daylight), the rangers began driving by checking on each of us left on the trails. It was nice to know that if I keeled over I wouldn’t be lost on the trail for long. I made it to mile 40 before it was really too dark to take photos. I was thrilled because that was on Undercliff Road. I wanted to see the climbers in action and I did. I got to see the last of them finishing their climbs.
That’s when the headlamp went on. There I was, shuffling along in the dark, feet on fire, hips on fire, and it got dark. Really dark. Mentally I didn’t have any issue with that, but physically I was hurting. I had to spend most of my time in the dark looking down so I could make the best foot placement choices available. I hurt. I hurt a lot. And when I stepped on big rocks or stumbled or anything like that, my hips screamed in pain. I wandered along in the dark for quite a while before getting to Rhododendron Bridge again. 7.8 miles to go!
But then I wasn’t feeling so well. My feet hurt. My hips hurt. I was sunburned so my face hurt. And I was cold. I came up to the last of the volunteers somewhere just before mile 45and they had coffee! Coffee! That sounded so good. So I had some. Then I barfed. Oh yeah, good times. Could I have hurled on the trail in any of the miles I was alone? Oh, no. I had to wait until I had everyone left on the trails around me. I felt horrible. But I was not going to quit. The volunteers there were about as nice as can possibly be which made me feel even worse for barfing. So I left my pack at their truck and started on my mile and a half wander in a big old circle. At that point, going through my head was one of the sayings from SEAL Team – if you don’t mind, it don’t matter. Yup. I didn’t mind, so it didn’t matter. I didn’t mind, my feet didn’t matter. I didn’t mind, so I was not cold. I didn’t mind, so it didn’t matter that I barfed. It took me an hour to stumble that mile and a half, but I at least my stomach felt better at the end of it. I picked up my pack and started off on the last few miles.
I can’t even describe how great it felt to walk across that finish line. Up until the last minute I was thinking about running across it, but my feet and hips did not want to play along with that fantasy. My body may have been trashed, but my mind was not. I knew right then that I will be back to try it again, and I will do better.
I just had to live through the next day. That Sunday was one of the most unpleasant days I have ever experienced. I could barely sleep as every time I moved, I woke up from the pain.
My feet were swollen and a mass of open sores. My hips wanted a divorce. I could barely sit up, much less stand and walk. And I needed to eat. I did manage to hobble to the door when Noah knocked. He’d brought me scones! I curled up in bed with a basket of still warm from the oven scones and was almost in tears. That was the best thing to happen to me that day. I knew I needed to eat more, but the kitchen was 10 feet away from the bed. It might as well have been 10 miles. It took me two hours to sit, stand, walk to the refrigerator, pull out the cheese, put it on the counter, walk back to bed, lay down, lather, rinse, repeat until all the sandwich fixings were out and on a cart I could roll to the bed. Once that chore was done, I sat up, pulled out the bread, lay back down. Sat up, pulled out a slice of cheese, lay back down. You get the picture. It was one of the best sandwiches ever. I spent another day and a half enjoying my downtime before leaving for home.
So many plans for next year. Next year I plan to finish during daylight. Next year, when people ask me what my strategy is, I will have one. Next year I will not forget to pack my ibuprofen. Next year I will have better shoes. Next year I will carry better food and eat more regularly. Next year I will have electrolyte capsules so I do not flirt with hypernatremia like I did this year. Next year I will have a fleece in my drop bag so I won’t get cold, even though I don’t expect to need it because all the other “next years” means I will be running the race better and won’t be out in the cold.
This year, I completed an ultra. Fifty miles in 18:04:11. Am I an ultrarunner? No. But I will be.