40 miles for bib number 40

The 2018 Quad Rock 50-mile race was held on May 12th. For me, that fell two days after my graduation, four days after my mom arrived in Colorado, and one week after all my graduate school and TA obligations were complete. I was also working 20-24 hours a week in Denver. The commute to this job cut an extra 6-8 hours away from my free time each week.

Needless to say, it was hard to prioritize daily training and pre-race preparation during the semester, and I definitely underestimated how much high stress levels affected my training and ability to recover. Due to these circumstances, I did not have an ideal training block, and my body often gave me signs of fatigue much sooner than I expected from my perceived fitness level.

Nevertheless, I registered for this race in February, well aware of these potential logistical challenges. I decided to trust in my abilities to go with the flow and just do my thing on race day. It’ll all work out, right?

A few days before race day, I started checking the weather. Rain, thunderstorms, more rain, cloudy–all those fun spring weather surprises. Even more fun after two weeks of exclusively sunny days.

If you don’t already know, rain mixed with sweat is an old-fashioned recipe for a runner’s disaster:  chafing. Apparently spandex isn’t something sold at REI, Target, Marshalls, BRC, Amazon, etc., so I prepared for the worst by cutting the legs off a pair of nylon tights so that I can wear them as spandex shorts under a pair of running shorts. How else is a girl supposed to avoid chafing?!

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With hopes that race day forecast was somehow inaccurate or that we might get lucky and the sun would come out, the day started optimistically, even though we left the BnB to the sounds of raindrops. It’d been raining all morning, and I drove through some of the thickest fog of my life to arrive at the Lory State Park Parking Lot. With mom in tow, I pick up my race bib, number 40, at 4:45 am on race day. I safety pin it to my shorts and stand in line to use the bathroom.

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The race started at 5:30 am, just moments after the sun rose. Headlamps weren’t necessary, but as we would soon learn, soccer spikes would have been very helpful.

Yep, you guessed it. Lots of mud. Mmmhmm. This was going to be fun. The first few miles were, surprisingly, fairly flat and mostly runnable. Included in ‘runnable’ is ‘skateable,’ by which I mean mud skating. Rain was slowly coming down, but I was feeling warm enough to take off my jacket. It was this weird feeling of being chilled but also covered in sweat (I think). Perhaps I forgot what running in humidity feels like?

The first aid station was about 7 miles from the start, and by the time I arrived, I only wanted water. I filled up quickly and headed back out. The next section of the trail was mostly uphill, and since it was a fairly rocky trail, the potential of me sliding a muddy death down the mountain was minimal.

Mile 11 was the next aid station. I smelled the bacon from at least a half a mile away. Can you say “motivation”? After 2,000 feet of climbing by this point in the race, I was ready for a second breakfast, so I ate a few pieces of bacon and a couple of orange slices. I filled up my water bottles and headed out for the next 1,600 feet climb over 3.4 miles.

My legs were feeling pretty good at this point. I have never been a strong climber, and considering the minimal time I spent at two of my favorite training places–the stairmaster and Mt. Sanitas–I knew I just had to quiet the voice in my head saying “come on, go faster!” and let my body take over. I focused on breathing a lot, too. I had gotten chilly from the wind, so I put my jacket and gloves back on. They pretty much stayed on for the rest of the race, as the rain and occasional breezes never ceased after this point.

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A lot of the course was rocky, but there were also long stretches of smooth single track. Although the weather on race day was cloudy and visibility was not so good, I imagined I was surrounded by beautiful views. I arrived at the next aid station (17-ish miles) and ate some cheese, avocado, potato chips and more orange slices. I filled up on water, too, as the next aid station was 7 miles away. Mile 24 was also the end of the first loop, where I would find my mom and friend Adam waiting for me. I knew one of the most difficult parts of the day would be to turn around and go back out the very same way I had just run in.

I started feeling lousy on the final descent into this aid station. I could see the aid station from at least a mile away, so I thought it was closer than it actually was. I didn’t smell bacon, so that also was not a good sign. Navigating the single-track trail in the mud with runners coming from the opposite direction was no fun. I was losing motivation, because I felt like I was slowing down.  My pruned feet were sliding around in my soaked shoes. I knew what I needed:  a fresh, dry pair of socks.

I focused on how to acquire them once I got into the aid station. I knew I could convince my mom to give me hers, as there were plenty of dry ones in the car that she could change into later. What I didn’t expect was for hers to be wet too. That shows you how self-centered runners can be sometimes–she was standing in the rain and wet gravel for hours, of course her socks were wet!

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Adam was also at the aid station, and he completely saved the day. He had a couple of pairs of socks in his car, and in true ‘Adam’ fashion, he sprinted off to his car to grab them. I am so lucky to have him as a running buddy!

I inhaled a bunch of pickles, half an avocado, warm chicken broth, and some more orange slices. I filled up my water bottles just as Adam arrived back with his clean, dry socks. I sat down, took off my muddy ones, and put on the clean ones. I also tightened my shoes and was good as new in just a few minutes. Yas!

I got back out on the trail 20 minutes before the cutoff time at this aid station. I knew time would be a factor going into the second half of the race, but I didn’t think I was already so close to the cutoff. I put the numbers out of my head and just focused on keeping my fresh, clean pair of socks in said state as long as possible, dodging mud puddles and wet grass as countless runners were slipping and sliding down the trail in my direction.

Before I knew it, I was out of the muddy section and running most of the ascents. Very unlike me. I also put on music. Let me just say that new socks on my feet combined with the Hamilton soundtrack playing in my ears were a TOTAL GAME CHANGER.

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I was crushing the uphill as I sang along, “I am not throwing away my shot!” My legs weren’t done yet, “just you wait!” I know how silly and goofy all of this sounds, and it’s really hard for me to describe the sensations and out-of-body experience of that section of the trail, but I felt unstoppable. I ran my best miles during that stretch. I guess my body needed a 25-mile warmup. Or, perhaps reading all those pages of North allowed me to channel my inner Scott Jurek on the AT and run my own race. I was crushing it, passing people left and right, and I could tell I was looking strong based on the reactions of other runners.

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Unfortunately, my effortless flow was interrupted by my jarring experience at the next aid station. I arrived just ten minutes before the cutoff time, which was slightly unbelievable based on how fast I’d run those 7 miles–I figured I created more of a cushion for myself, but apparently the opposite was true. Nevertheless, I felt like I had plenty of time to fill water bottles, eat all the food, and use the port-a-potty for the first time in the race. The race staff, on the other hand, felt the need to push me out of the aid station as fast as possible. They graciously put sandwiches, chips, and other things into a baggy and told me to get back out of there. Even though I know they were only trying to be helpful, I felt like these interactions disrupted my own experience and needs at the time. I didn’t take the baggy, nor did I use the bathroom.

The next few miles were mainly climbing. I knew they would be tough, but my legs still felt okay when I left the aid station. I put Hamilton back on and tried to find my rhythm of the previous stretch. I was still moving well, but the fatigue was slowly starting to hit as the climbs got steeper and steeper.

I should explain a bit about my mental state at the time. I was genuinely enjoying my time out there on the trail, probably because I was mainly by myself and had time to process my day, my life, and all the things going on. The weather provided a mystic atmosphere that I don’t often experience, so I savored it and took a few pictures. As for my outlook on finishing the race, I was realistic and knew my odds were slim given the tight cutoffs. I wanted to finish, especially after having such an amazing stretch of miles, but I had a feeling that I was “running out of time.”

And that felt okay.

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The climbing took a bit longer than I expected, and I definitely felt like my energy was long gone and not returning any time soon. Running the flats and downhills was getting harder. Judging how close I was to the cutoff at the last aid station, I figured my odds of meeting the next cutoff were pretty slim. I asked the other runners I passed on the trail if they knew the cutoff time, but none seemed to. Just before arriving at the aid station, two women passed me, running phenomenally well. I wondered how they felt so great after 36 miles and nearly 9,000 feet of uphill climbing.

I arrived at the next aid station in desperate need of calories. That’s a very generic way to say, “Give me all the bacon!” I genuinely expected to be told my race was over because I didn’t meet the cutoff time. I felt okay with that, I mean, 36 miles is no small feat and definitely warrants a proper post-race celebration of food and drinks and the massage I had scheduled for the following Monday.

Instead, I was told there was no cutoff at that aid station. WHAAAT?! I HAVE TO KEEP GOING?!

Alrighty then. Off I went. I knew I would be descending 1,600 feet and only climbing 500 feet over the next 3.8 miles, so I felt optimistic about being able to accomplish that in 85 minutes, the time of the cutoff at the next aid station. I continued listening to music, but J-pop just wasn’t hitting the spot like Hamilton. I think the previous climb really took a toll on my legs, too, as I even started moving slower on the downhill sections. From the tiny muscles in my feet to the giant muscles in my quads, I could feel all of them collectively yelling at me with each step, “OUCH!” I shuffled down the rocks and tried to run the flats, but my legs slowly began to shut down. They suddenly became unresponsive and only walking felt okay. I still had about 2 miles to the aid station and only about 40 minutes. The climbs seemed endless, even though this section was supposed to be “mainly downhill.” It’s amazing how your perspective is altered by other people’s outlook. Had the aid station volunteers told me the section was “mainly uphill” would I have felt as bad?

In all fairness, I climbed up that very same trail about 6-7 hours prior, yet I didn’t remember all the ups and downs. Short-term memory during ultras is not to be trusted.

I had already made my peace with not finishing the race. I think this was possible largely because the reason for me not finishing wasn’t necessarily a reflection of my lack of ability, just lack of proper training. Had I had another hour or two, I knew I could have walked it in. This is not an ideal way to finish, but is often the reality for many undertrained ultrarunners.

I was told at the previous aid station that the cutoff time for the next aid station was 4:45 pm, and as my pace slowed with every muscle-aching step, I realized just how badly I was hitting the wall. I arrived at 4:40 pm and I was prepared to tell them I was done. Much to my own surprise, I had received inaccurate information at the previous aid station and missed the cutoff time by five minutes. Hah.

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As you are probably sensing by now, the mental ups and downs of an ultra race reflect the constant oscillations of the trail. You never know what’s around the next turn, at the next mile, or how you’ll feel after the next aid station. It’s a fantastic, yet vulnerable feeling to breathe and run in the moment, to be present for the whole day, taking in the changing views of the trail. For me, because I was able to experience this type of ecstasy, this level of mindfulness, I consider the race a huge success, even if my finish line was 10 miles before the official one.

The point of this blog entry is to demonstrate not only what happens when we, as trail/ultra runners, grad students, and humans, try to take on slightly too many amazing challenges and opportunities than we can handle, but also how we can adjust and adapt our mindset to allow for growth and positive experiences, even if these experiences take a slightly-altered shape than we expected or intended. I hope those ideas have come across here clearly as I feel reflecting on my race experiences has helped me become a more mindful runner with a greater sense of what I enjoy about running.

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