Background: I ran a marathon last weekend, but after it was over, I really wanted to fit in another long race of some kind (while I’m still at this level of fitness) before my deployment (which begins in 2 weeks). However, this was dependent on the days following the marathon, as I typically feel sluggish and just drained for about a week after a marathon. I looked online and found an 8-hour timed race about 5 hours away for this weekend. This timed event differed from traditional distance events in the respect that instead of being given a certain distance to run and running it as quickly as possible, there is a set amount of time (8 hours) during which runners cover as much distance as possible. The soreness from my marathon went away in 3 days and I did a 2-mile test run on Tuesday that felt great, so I inquired whether or not I’d even be able to get off work early On Friday. Essentially, all the stars aligned and I emailed the RD on Wednesday saying I would run the event; he told me to just bring a check, so I didn’t have to pay the active.com fee, and I also didn’t have to pay the higher race-day price since I contacted him in advance. He seemed very nice.
Friday: I left work at 1200, went home to change, and left for my nearly 300 mile trip. On the drive, I wondered what I was getting myself into and realized there was a good possibility that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I got to the hotel where I was staying around 5pm, then drove the route to the race start, then looked for some decent food and had difficulty finding any decent non-fast food, so I settled for Pizza Hut, with the excuse that the carbs would helped me. I ate, laid out my race day items, and went to bed just after 9pm. I slept quite well, probably due to the fact I had very low expectations for my performance at this race. I also neglected to tell anyone that I could be tracked online because I didn’t want to embarrass myself.
Race day (yesterday): I woke up at 5:25, got dressed, ate a granola bar, checked out of the hotel, and drove to the start line. The race, 8-Hr Run from the Ducks, took place at the Clark Botanical Gardens in Weatherford, TX, and all proceeds from the race were given to the Vietnam War Museum in Weatherford. The site was less than 10 minutes from my hotel, so I got there quickly at 6am. I signed in, and they escorted us to a parking lot that was closer to the staging area where we put out drop bags. Just after we’d all gathered under a tent that was set up, it started to rain. There was lightning, and the rain got a lot worse. We were told the 7am start was delayed an hour due to the lightning.
As I sat looking out of the tent at the pouring rain, I again wondered what I’d gotten myself into. Sure, I’ve run in the rain, but only for a few miles, not for hours. The race was small with less than 40 people total. While I wondered why I was there, I heard the other runners talking amongst themselves about their ultramarathon experiences, which was neat but very intimidating. I’ve done 2 50ks, but that’s hardly anything compared to their 100ks, 100-milers, and 48- and 72-hour runs. I felt way out of my element.
At 7:30, the RD announced that we were doing to jog the course one time together so we could all see it. At this time, I was thinking I was going to try to keep my shoes dry as long as possible. However, not even 10 steps outside of the tent, we found ourselves in muddy water up past our ankles. Wow, this was definitely not familiar to me. The course was a loop that measured .854 miles; there was a timing mat that runners crossed each lap to determine their distance. This loop took about 12 minutes, and I found that I was drastically needing to change my typical shuffle running form to lift my feet a lot more to make any progress in the water; at this point (and for the first couple hours), a lot of the course was at least ankle-deep water. Most of the course was either covered in water, had puddles, or was extremely muddy the entire time. Another unique element of this course was that there was an area (maybe a tenth of a mile long) with trees whose branches hung low over the trail due to the weight of the rain on them. They were unavoidable and required ducking repeatedly and still having to lift branches and get hit in the face with them. I’m short (5’4), but some of the branches hung down to my waist; I can’t imagine how much more difficult it was for taller runners. Luckily the branches slowly rose later in the day when the rain stopped. There were a few really nice features of the course: it was beautiful once the weather cleared up, there were actual restrooms just steps off of the course, and it was quite flat.
After a short devotional, the RD drew a start line in the sand (er, mud), and we were off. I started off toward the back, but I didn’t take a good look at who was behind and in front of me. After the first couple loops, I set a tentative plan: 4.5 miles per hour for the first 4 hours and then 3 miles per hour for the last 4 hours (as I assumed I’d slow down drastically; I kept in mind I hit the wall in my marathon last weekend at 20 miles). This plan would get me 30 miles; I later modified my goal to be 32 (which would surpass my 50k distance PR by a mile). The first couple hours were a little quicker than expected and I hit 4 hours at about 18.5 miles. I took quite a few walk breaks that were primarily driven by how muddy the course was at that point. The water didn’t bother me so much, but on many occasions, the mud almost swallowed my shoes. I also had to stop quite a few times to remove rocks and mud from my socks and shoes. This was inconvenient but very necessary. It was just frustrating because the mud would begin to return almost immediately, but I waited until the mini-sand bar in my sock and/or shoe was pressing on my foot enough to change the way I was stepping.
The other runners were super friendly. At one point or another, I ran with most of them for somewhere between a few seconds to a few miles. One of the funniest interactions I heard between two of the other girls was that they were trying to convince each other that the other one was the crazier one; one runs several marathons a month, and the other runs at least 1 ultra a month. It reminded me of two people in a mental institution arguing about who was crazier.
Around the 4.5 hour point, something very weird happened. As I went through the little gazebo area where the timing mat was located, I noticed that there was a whiteboard with the current top 5 males and females. I wouldn’t have paid attention to it except for the fact that the RD told me I was the 2nd female. What?! That made no sense to me, but I figured it was some kind of fluke and would quickly change. Oh, did I mention the RD memorized all of our names within the first 2 or so hours? Pretty neat. On the next lap, the names on the white board didn’t change. At first I thought this was weird, but then I found out they were only updating it periodically. However, the 5-hour and 6-hour updated still showed me as the 2nd female. This was totally crazy to me. This let’s-just-see-what-happens race had turned into me trying to hold my ground and put in more mileage, but in the back of my mind feeling that it was futile because I’m a realist and there was no way I could place in a somewhat impromptu ultra event with so many seasoned veterans.
Around 6.5 hours, I was feeling a bit frustrated because I felt like I was slowing way down (even though it was evidently the same pace I’d been running since the 5-hour mark). I was also beginning to feel nauseous around the 6-hours mark and the thought of consuming another gel made me feel worse. However, I knew I needed something, so I ate some cheez-its and took some electrolyte capsules form the aid station, even though I’d never used them before. Luckily, it turned out fine. I never hit the wall, which I don’t completely understand, but I’m totally okay with that!
There was a lady who I’d lapped twice who’d caught up to and passed me once, and she seemed to have a lot more energy; she was the 4th place female at that point in time. Somewhere between 6.5 and 7 hours, I heard from other runners that the 1st place female was thinking of dropping. Huh? That is one more thing that didn’t make any sense to me, and the thought of that just made me laugh. Then the RD, who was all over the course with his teenage daughter, told me that if she dropped that I’d be in 1st. Sure, that sounds logical, but my mind did not comprehend that. A couple more laps passed and the same girl was still at the top of the white board, as I expected.
However, at some point, one of the volunteers who was looking at laps said, “Congratulations, you’re now in 1st!” The girl ahead of me had dropped out. News spread quickly on the course and all of the other runners kept commending me for being in 1st. The entire time, I still felt like I wasn’t fast enough and that something would happen to make me lose my lead and bump me from any of the top 3 female positions. However, as time went on, I started doing the math and realized I was at least a lap ahead of the 2nd and 3rd place females and that it would be very hard for them to catch up. I also asked and found out (as I suspected) that only full laps count. At that point, I could easily fit in 2 more laps but 3 would bust the time limit by about 3 or 4 minutes; since the 2nd and 3rd place females were over a lap behind me, I was safe.
After the next lap, since I had enough time to walk the final lap (but not enough time to fit in 2), I grabbed my camera from the bag and walked most of the loop taking pictures of it. I’d wanted to do this earlier, but the competitive side of me had kicked in and I was focused on staying ahead. I thought it’d be pathetic if one of the other girls somehow caught up and passed me while I was taking pictures.
As it turns out, I made it to the timing mat for the final time with a few minutes to spare. It was only at that point I definitely knew I had secured 1st place for the females (of the 13 females who’d started). Logically, I knew 2 laps prior that I mathematically couldn’t really drop in the ranking, but I still couldn’t believe it. I was still in shock about what had just happened.
The RD got up and presented a check to the Vietnam War Museum. Several of the volunteers were Vietnam vets who stayed near the timing mat and encouraged everyone by name as they passed through each lap. He also recognized every single volunteer. Next was something very neat that I’d never heard of before. He recognized every runner by name and mileage, and everyone got individual applause. Everyone also got a mouse pad from the botanical gardens foundation. While there was no actual hardware for the top 3 males and females, we got cash prizes. This was also unexpected. I thought maybe it’d be $20, which I thought would be cool. However, my prize ended up being $125 (from the botanical gardens foundation). Wow. Also, my final distance was 35.014 miles (a distance PR by 4 miles), which was 41 laps! Miraculously, the course didn’t seem monotonous, and it definitely didn’t seem like that many loops!
I can’t say enough positive things about everyone who was at the race, from the RD who was convinced the success of the race was due to everyone but him and made an effort to talk to everyone along the course, to his daughter and the other volunteers who manned the aid station and gave encouragement throughout, to the other runners. They all told me I did well, especially under the muddy and rainy conditions, and that I looked strong. They also seemed surprised when I said I’d only done 2 other ultras before. One lady told me I was a “true ultrarunner” and that she’s eventually going to talk me into doing a 100-miler with her; this is the same lady who got 2nd place (who is also one of the race committee members; the 3rd place female was also a race committee member).
What I realized on this LONG run was that I like being different but not alone. I’ve taken one more step in the world of ultras (which is an area most people, even other runners, choose to avoid for whatever reason), and I love it. Most people think that running over a marathon, let alone 100+ miles, is insane. However, this is the foundation of ultras and that community is willing to embrace new people and treat them in the same way they do their very high mileage runners. This was very evident today by how genuinely happy people were for me and how they offered so many words of encouragement and several added little bits of info they’d learned today about me to the RD’s acknowledgement of my performance (like the fact that this was my only ultra, it was the farthest I’d ever ran, and that I just ran a marathon last weekend).
During the race, faster runners even slowed down at points to encourage me and run with me a few minutes or even stopped to let me pass at a super muddy part of the course because they wanted to ensure I kept my lead. I have not seen this in road racing (although the format of road racing makes this occurrence less likely to happen in the first place, as slower runners typically never have the opportunity to run with the faster runs, unless it’s a loop course). I’m not saying anything bad about road racing, and I don’t plan to give these up fully. I just think the mentality in ultras is a lot different. I think at least part of this is because it is much more about the experience than the result. Since ultra courses vary so significantly (not just terrain but conditions on a particular day), it’s difficult to flat-out compare times for the same distance anyway.
Somehow, miraculously, despite all of the water and mud, I ended up with zero blisters. The sand actually exfoliated my feet, as evidenced by the remnants of dead skin from a previous blister being totally gone by the end and that area of my foot totally smooth now. I also had about a third of the nail polish on my toes removed by the grit, which I laughed about. However, I did chafe! I noticed this after the race when I was getting ready to leave. It felt like shard of glass were accumulated at the bottom of my sports bra. I have a slight outline of the sports bra on the front of my chest (nothing on the back) and 3 very painful patches of rawness in front. I did use Body Glide all over before the race, but I had not counted on being drenched in the first 5 minutes. Oh well, I’ll survive; that’s a small price to pay.
I felt well enough after the race to drive home last night (5 hours). I stopped a couple times along the way to stretch, but I made it fine.
The following photos show the course, beginning leaving the gazebo with the timing mat and ending back at the gazebo.
More of the course:
This was definitely an incredible adventure! I will be doing more ultras in the future! Also, as a side note, this race qualified me to become a Marathon Maniac. I applied, was confirmed, and now I am the newest one!