Less than a week ago I was on the beautiful trails of the Prince William Forest Park in Triangle, VA for a little stroll called an ultra marathon. Reflecting back to the day, I’m still in a bit of shock that I completed a total of 45.5 miles. That came out to 7 spins around the 6.5 mile looped course, just under a 12-hour time frame. Had I done one more loop and some change I would have had two marathons under my belt in a day! Whew! And for those of you keeping track via steps–my Fitbit calculated over 90,000 steps that day.
The peacefulness of a trail run. Photo credit: Athletic Equation
The 12-hour Athletic Equation Adventure Trail Run was so different than anything I have ever done in my life and in many ways so much more rewarding. The course was a 6.5 mile loop and you completed as many loops as you wanted to between the hours of 6 am and 6 pm–we all started together and participants decided when they had enough. My friend Sarah who did the race as well (and knocked out 32.5 miles!) warned me that I would either love the experience or hate it (blame her for getting me to sign up) and never do such a thing again. Well, folks…for those who know me, it’s probably not too difficult to guess that I loved it! A huge part of that was the warm and welcoming trail running community. Unlike the marathons I have participated in, this race was so much more laid back. Yes, it was crazy challenging, but being outside in nature rather than on a city street just has a completely different vibe. Also, the smaller size of the race (about 100 runners total) was a stark contrast to big city marathons that host thousands of people. Throughout the day people were encouraging one another on the trail and sometimes even stopping for a moment to chat trail-side or at the aid station. Even if you knew someone had already lapped you once or twice it didn’t matter because we were all out there to experience the day together. Because of the length of time on our feet, pacing also takes on a whole new meaning. The marathon is all about even splits or if you’re lucky negative splits (when the second half of your race is faster than the first). I’m not sure exactly what the ultra is about–survival!? On one of my last laps one guy on the course shouted, “I’m running positive splits!” which was a pretty funny way to describe this craziness. Unlike with shorter distances, if you go out too hard too quickly you’re going to pay for it rather quickly and there will be no way to recover with so many more hours ahead of you.
One of many bridges we crossed. Capture the flag? No just the orange streamers to mark the course. Don’t get lost!
The week leading up to the race I was so nervous (I was eating everything in sight and just felt a bit off all week) but for some reason the morning of I felt really calm and composed. Don’t get me wrong, I was excited but I didn’t have nerves the way I have before a marathon…or even worse before a triathlon (and I’ve only done a few sprints). While I didn’t know exactly what the day would bring, I think the fact that I did not set a mileage goal made me less inclined to put as much pressure on myself. Something that I have a tendency to do–overachieving can be a blessing and a curse.
So the night before and morning of I loaded my car with all kinds of extra gear, most of which I did not need–change of clothes and running shoes (in case the trail shoes gave me trouble–they did not), multiple pairs of socks (I made 4 sock changes throughout the day), calf compression sleeves (a first for me and so amazing), a headlamp, a visor, sunglasses, sunscreen, bug spray, a camera, an array of snacks (in case I couldn’t stomach the food they had–I did fine though), Nathan pack for hydration, and extra bottles with my electrolytes mixed in. I was in bed by 9:30 the night before and when the alarm went off at 4 am I was up and ready to go! I purposefully did not exercise on Thursday or Friday leading up to the race so my legs were raring to move come that morning. Upon my 5:10 arrival, I parked and little did I know I would get a primo spot right by the trail head which was great for coming on and off the course and being able to quickly grab items. I found my friend Sarah and made my way to packet pick-up. After a little bit of time to get my gear in order, hit the restroom, eat a banana with peanut butter, and drink my IDLife Pre-Workout mix, it was time for Race Director Alex to give us a quick 3-minute spiel of the day. He called all the first-time ultra runners to the front and congratulated us for being out there. We all got donned with some Mardis Gras beads and were asked to wear them for at least one loop. I was officially inducted into this new community.
And then right before my eyes it was 6 am and my new adventure had begun! With head lamps guiding our way, I was paying particular attention to the path before me to make sure I didn’t trip over any roots or rocks. After about a mile or so into the race I randomly started talking to a guy who was ahead of me and the funny thing is that he ended up being my running buddy for the duration of the race. Reflecting back on the day I recall that on my drive there I was praying in my car about the race, that I (and all the runners) wouldn’t get injured or sick, that my body would hold up, that I would have fun, and that I would meet someone new during the race who could help encourage me along the way. And all of that certainly happened. Having someone to talk to truly helped get me through the race because I wasn’t bored at any point or focused too much on how much I just wanted hour 12 to get there! Someone once told me that if you can carry on a normal conversation while running you are doing just fine (or maybe you are just going too slow) and is a good way to control your breathing as well. For my new friend Rob, who is in training for a 100-miler, this was just another day in the park. No pun intended. So when I had a tendency to get a little overeager and pick up the pace he was good at telling me to slow down and we made an effort to make sure we walked every single hill. So unlike the marathon where I was set on keeping a certain pace and running the entire race, the run-walk method is a must on the trails.
Throughout the day there were a couple of tumbles–none from me–those trail running shoes were ah-mazing (future blog post on that). But poor Sarah did a wipe out at some point. As I crossed paths with her a loop or so later I saw that she had scratches on her knees and arm. But she’s a fighter and kept on going!
In her words: “Dirty shoes. Scraped knees. Baby food. Must be a race.” Photo credit: Sarah Topping
And later on my last loop of the day I saw another guy with bloody scraped knees holding a rag on his scraped hand. I asked if he was ok and he said yes, just a little fall! Yes we runners are tough (and stubborn) cookies.
I had been thinking during the week leading up to the race about what on earth would be going through my head while I’m out there for so many hours–what would I think about, meditate on, pray about, make decisions on, plan, bucket list, zone out on, sing about, etc. (because I knew my phone battery for music and podcasts could only take me so far). Well my day of introspection was still there but in a very different way since I had a new friend to talk to. And you certainly do get to know someone well on a 12-hour run. Once the surface level chit-chat is over you basically have a decision to make, much in the same way that any relationship in life must go–do you ditch your new running companion because they are boring, annoying or too talkative and do the rest of your run alone; sneakily fall back and start running with another unsuspecting runner (maybe in fact you are the one who should be ditched); feign stomach cramps at the rest area; or simply make the decision to stick with the person and keep on truckin. Well the running pace seemed good for both of us and since we each seemed to have plenty of random conversation starters to keep the time interesting and entertaining we kept on running.
We were RUNNING. Photo credit: Athletic Equation
And what does one talk about for 12 hours in the middle of a forest? Just about every topic imaginable–exercise, diet, music, business, politics, faith, family, relationships, marriage, divorce, music, travels, races, life struggles, pets (mainly “piggies”), and lots and lots of other musings because you do start to go a little punch drunk when you are moving for such a long period of time. I remember my training buddy from my first marathon…another Robert…and the interesting conversations (and groaning as we ran up hills) that ensued on long runs. There is just something about running that seems to bring down walls when you have a captive audience and what else are you going to talk about otherwise. Later when we saw other runners putting on their headphones (and we forgot to grab ours) I was a little jealous because it would have been nice to get some music playing. So what does one do in that case–well pull out the songs in your head and start singing. That was probably more him than me though.
Somewhere along the course (loop 6ish) with my new running buddy, Rob.
I remember when I was training for my first marathon and the first time I ever passed the 10 mile mark. I was with my marathon-training buddy, Robert, on the trail and I was so excited that day! So during this race, as we approached the 26.2 mile marker and later the 50K mark, I again had to do a little happy dance–I could now officially call myself an ultra marathoner.
Quick selfie! Looking pretty good nearly 30 miles in at this point. Quick stop at the car to change some socks before getting some provisions.
Between loops runners had to go through the start-finish timing station and that is where I greatly enjoyed my 10-15 minute breaks to do a quick stretch, take a restroom break, change out socks (the new trick I learned from Rob was to use Body Glide and rub it between my toes to prevent chafing–blisters were close, but this did the job), get some food/hydration, and have some chit-chat with the volunteers and race director. They were all awesome!!
Going into the race I was unsure whether I would want to or be able to eat the food that they provided so I had back-ups just in case (a lot of which I did not end up eating). Here’s the run-down of what did go into my belly that day (at least from what I can recall). First starting with the food brought from home:
- 1.5 homemade rice cakes (made by Sarah) that had fresh raspberries and mint inside. Delicious, cooling, and easy on the stomach.
- 4-6 (I lost track) homemade energy balls (made by me) that had oats, dark chocolate chips, peanut butter, coconut flakes, slivered almonds, dry tart cherries, and IDLife chocolate whey protein shake
- 1 IDLife HER Bar (100% certified organic, non-GMO, gluten-free and Kosher super foods–the Kid and His bars are awesome too, by the way)
- Couple of slices of fresh pineapple
- 1/4 of a grilled chicken sandwich
- 1 pouch of organic fruit and veggies on the go (GOGO SQUEEZE)
Things start to get a little fuzzier in the aid station itself. Every time I came through there seemed to be something new added to the menu and it is intriguing to me the things that we runners can eat while moving our bodies. It’s a good thing I’m not lactose-intolerant because I ate a lot of cheese! Makes me a little sick thinking about all of this stuff now.
Mmmm food and lots of it! Photo credit: Athletic Equation
- Handful of pretzels and Chex mix
- 3 pirogies filled with cheese
- 1/4 of a grilled cheese sandwich
- 1 or 2 cheese quesadillas
- Handful of boiled potatoes with salt
- Couple of strawberries and banana slices
- Small cup of chicken noodle soup
My hydration plan:
- Nathan pack with water (70 ounces)–I carried my water pack on my back for laps 1, 6 and 7
- 5 smaller water bottles filled with IDLife Hydrate (total of 50 ounces)–I filled these up and froze them the night before, then had them in my cooler by my car for swapping between loops. This was great and made my load so much lighter. Halfway through the course there was a water jug, so I was able to refill them. This electrolyte mix is so much easier on the stomach than Gatorade and there are no added sugars!
- 1 cup of Gatorade at the aid station
- 1 sip (literally) of strawberry Fanta at the aid station (I can’t stomach soda anymore, but felt I should at least try!)
- Couple of cups of water at the aid station
ESTIMATED TOTAL OF FLUIDS ON RUN: 175-185 ounces (I will not even attempt to estimate the calories of food I ate during the run.)
Muscle shot! #IDLife
Another thing I learned during this race is that ultra runners are a bit of a different breed…and races all have their own little traditions.
These ladies were great, a new costume change every loop! Photo credit: Athletic Equation
For example, somewhere along the way a participant went by carrying a blow up white goat! Rob yelled, “THE GOAT!” I had no idea what was going on, but apparently the race director always has this goat that he hands off to a lucky runner who has to carry it for one loop of the course. By the end the goat was looking hot (not in a good way) and deflated.
God’s glorious wonders of nature.
As far as photography went for this race, it was pretty low-tech. Again runners took turns carrying the race camera (a small Go Pro type camera) with them with the duty of getting photos along the way. I brought my camera out with me for the last couple of loops because I wanted photos to remember the day and to show the beauty of the trail that I got to spend time with for 12 hours! A few I grabbed from Athletic Equation’s Facebook page as well to add some more variety.
Stopping to check out this interesting lady’s foot gear…she said the sock boot things were to protect her from poisonous snake bites. Guess I’m gonna be out of luck if something bites me! Photo credit: Athletic Equation
As I began the 6th loop of the course I saw Sarah at the aid station. She was really feeling the pain of the course and said she was going to walk the last one. I decided, ok this will be my last loop and then I will go out and find her and walk the rest. On the way back in to finish that loop I saw one of my boot camp instructors, Ken, and his wife walking towards me. What an awesome surprise to see a friendly face I knew! I told them to keep walking and they would eventually find Sarah and that I would come back to meet up with them.
Trail run photo shoot. Photo credit: Athletic Equation
Meanwhile, Rob said he was going on to get one more loop in so he took off. After another moment chatting with my friends, I headed back toward the starting area. The volunteers were asking me are you going out for another loop or turning in your chip? I hesitated…um, I don’t know, I’m going to find my friend!? One volunteer looked at the clock and said, “you have an hour and thirty minutes you can do it!”
She’s got this! Photo credit: Athletic Equation
And with that he started shoving some boiled potatoes in a bag for me and I took off again. That was a stop with no restroom break or idle chit-chat. So off I went…in my head still not certain what I would do when I met Sarah. I finally saw Ken and his wife and they were already heading back toward the parking lot. He said keep going, you got this! I was flying on that trail..running the uphills, trying not to wipe out on the rocks and uneven surfaces. I took a few moments to take it all in, to breathe in the fresh air, to appreciate this amazing gift of running I’ve been given and the ability to push my body in ways I never dreamed about.
Smiles all around! Photo credit: Athletic Equation
Halfway through I saw Sarah, but I just had to keep going. I could feel the finish line. With about two miles left on the course I caught up to another girl (who I later learned was on her 8th loop and came in second overall female!) and Rob who was a little surprised that I went out for another lap. A few more inclines to go (cursed hills) and I was on my way to a 45.5 miler under my belt! Crossing that finish line was pretty awesome…while there weren’t huge crowds of people waving their cowbells like at most road races, the community of runners who were out there that day and their families cheered us in. I found this to be so rewarding…runners who completed their race cheering other runners in to the finish.
Later my friend Jenn, another boot camper, joined us–she went out to do a loop of her own to get a workout in–and it was so nice to have the support! I chowed down on a burger and some chili and then it was time for the awards.
It was really nice–all the first-time ultra runners got a plaque and they handed out engraved beer glasses for folks who completed a 50K as well as special glasses for all the top finishers! I learned that I came in 10th place for women which I cannot believe! Seven of us ran 45.5 miles and the top three women did one extra loop for a total of 52 miles. In total, I was out there for 11:41:07 with an overall per mile pace of 15:25 (which includes the time spent hanging out at the aid station). My last loop was my fastest with an 11:52 per mile pace. The top male finisher ran 71 miles!
After the awards it was time for a little bit of stretching with Jenn. I didn’t last long as my stomach was finally catching up to me and grumbling at all that cheese…I’m sure the burger didn’t help things. But it felt so good to sit for a few minutes before getting on the road to settle back in at home, shower, and head to bed.
I’m so thankful for the beautiful day–literally perfect temperatures in the high 70’s/low 80’s with a nice cloud cover throughout the day; my friend Sarah for teaching me the ropes of ultra running and going on training runs to help me get acquainted with the course; my friends Ken and Jen for supporting us out there and helping to keep us encouraged in our weekly early morning workouts in the nation’s capital; to all my friends and family members who reached out and wished me good luck–even those who think I’ve lost my mind; my new run buddy Rob for making the day a more fun-filled one and teaching me a thing or two about life and ultra running strategy; and the awesome race directors and volunteers who also spent 12 hours on their feet making sure we were well-fed and hydrated and had a safe and memorable time on the trails.
See you on the trails! Photo credit: Athletic Equation
You might be wondering post-race how I have felt…let’s be honest here…sore, stiff, tired. But with that said being active has actually been better than propping my feet up all day. I’ve done some yoga sessions, went to boot camp a few times (possibly not a good idea though), have been foam rolling, got a massage, and have taken some nice hot Epsom-Lavender salt baths. The interesting thing is to see how different parts of my body feel on different days. During the race and a few days after it was mainly my right side that hurt, now it’s my left side. My body must be re-calibrating itself in some way. My eating, unlike the week before the race, has gotten back to normal too. Clearly a few aches and pains are part of the story and I am excited to get back to the trails very soon. More than anything else, though, those miles taught me a lot about perseverance and strength both physically and mentally. Mentally probably more so, as my longest training run was only about 12 miles. And I know that I don’t take any of it for granted. I trust that God guides my life path forward and in many ways running to me is so much a metaphor for that journey. While I don’t entirely know the rationale for having chosen to run that many miles, I know that there is a reason behind every decision we make. And as for whether ultra marathoners are crazy or sane–I’ll leave that to you decide and welcome your comments below.
“Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it. Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.” Psalm 96:11-12