Shorter version: I have a history of not training for races. I decided to train for a 50-miler and got a coach to help. It was the Labor of Love 50-miler, near Las Vegas. Random facts about my training: 177 days since I started training, 985.81 miles (597.78 running and 388.03 walking), 1 injury (tendinitis in knee) that halted running for a month, 8 pounds lost, 5 races (including 2 marathons w/new PRs at every distance I ran). Total time on my feet (running+walking) was a bit over 224 hours (9.35 days). Average pace for all running miles: 10:45 min/mi. Longest run: 26.22 miles. Longest walk: 27.72 miles. Peak weekly mileage: 72. Peak monthly mileage: 274.65. The entire course was on a road that was almost entirely hills; there really weren’t any flat areas. There was about 4,000 feet of elevation climb (which honestly isn’t a whole lot for a race that distance), but I wouldn’t say it was easy. Elevation varied from about 3,600 to 4,700 feet, a bit higher than the 2,200 feet where I live. Last week, my husband and I drove the course and the course was covered in snow and it was snowing at the time; yesterday, there was no snow at all, I started the race wearing just one layer (a tank top) and the temperature actually rose into the 80s. My primary goal was to finish strong and not do a death march the last 30, 20, 10, or even 5 miles. I didn’t have a time goal, but I was hoping to get under 12 hours. I had an awesome time. I finished in 11:21:05 and was the 3rd female finished overall! It was a small race, but there were at least a dozen women; my husband, who volunteered at an aid station, said there were about 20, but I don’t think the number was that high. Regardless, I was shocked I did and FELT so well.
Longer version: After repeatedly doing races, including marathons and ultras, either minimally trained or barely trained at all, I wondered what it’d be like it I actually put in the time and effort to train for a race. A bunch of little things occurred around the same time last year that led me to want to exercise some of my potential, including but not limited to coming across this quotation: “No one has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for one to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which their body is capable” (Socrates). I’ll never be an elite runner, but I seemed to have become resigned to the fact I was slow and that that’s how I was “meant” to be. True, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being slow (which is a relative term anyway), but I wondered, “what if…?” Around the same time, I stumbled across the blog of a very experienced ultrarunner who had just posted something about coaching. I was hesitant initially because I thought I’d just be wasting my money and the coach’s time. I also felt silly because the coach was literally twice as fast as me at any distance. If you look up Ian Sharman, you’ll likely understand my reservations. I mean, last year, he ran the fastest trail 100-miler on U.S. soil ever recorded, in 12:44! However, after exchanging some emails with him, he seemed very inviting and down to earth, as everyone else I’ve met in ultras has been.
Training started 6 months ago, and Ian and I would Skype once a week. He also sent me a revised training plan every week based on my goals, recent performance and mileage, and also took into account other time commitments and events in my life. The plan included mostly running but also some walking. In ultras, time on your feet is sometimes more important than the actual miles run. Ian also worked with me through a 1-month period of time in January when I had tendinitis in my knee and didn’t run for an entire month. He had me do runs that I didn’t think I was capable of doing at paces I’d never imagined (i.e. 4 miles at a sub-9 minute/mile pace…actually 8:40, when I’d only ever kept that pace once before for any distance, and it had been only 1.5 miles). I know that getting a coach isn’t the solution for everyone, but it definitely helped to keep my on track and to give me individualized attention and a customized training plan. I put my running fate in Ian’s hands and did what he said (yet there were a few days I made modifications, like cutting a run short or skipping a shorter run due to fatigue, other time commitments, etc., and he was okay with this), and I’m very pleased I chose to trust him. While training for the 50-miler, I ran races at the 5k, 10k, and marathon distances (as well as a 1.5 mile run for the Air Force fitness test), and I set PRs at all of those distances.
Getting closer to race day, I didn’t really have a time goal. I’d previously completed 50+ miles on two previous occasions, both during fixed time events. Both previous races were on flat courses near sea level in cool temperatures. My best performance had been 51.88 miles in 12 hours; I’d calculated that I’d passed the 50-mile point at roughly 11:36. While I was significantly more trained for yesterday’s race, I didn’t want to assume that I could beat the previous time due to the significantly different race conditions. Just seven days prior, my husband and I drove the course and I was shocked to discover it was covered in snow; I thought I may have a cool race after all…but that was not to be. I hoped to break 12 hours if everything went perfectly, but I really just wanted to finish the race feeling strong. I did NOT want to feel terrible and do a death march for any distance at the end.
The course was on an 11-mile stretch of road; the 50-miler consisted of two out-and-back runs of this plus a shorter out-and-back the third time. There was also a half marathon, marathon, and 100-miler going on at the same time on the same stretch of road, which I liked. It was neat cheering on and getting encouragement from other runners the entire time. There was about 4,000 feet of elevation climb over the course of the race, which isn’t very much for a race of that distance, but I won’t say it was easy! There really weren’t any flat sections of the course and most of the ascents and descents lasted for miles. There was one particular part of the course, at one of the highest points, where I looked down and could see the aid station from about a mile back way down below and then looking off in the distance from that, I could see the road climb and disappear into the distance. I wish I would have had a camera to capture that view. The elevation ranged from about 3,600 to 4,700 feet, which is a *bit* higher than the 2,200 feet I live at.
Despite the snow last weekend on the course, it was significantly warmer yesterday. I first noticed it when I got out of the car at 6:20am wearing a tank top and a loose long sleeved shirt on top and I was warm. So much for all of the extra warm clothing I’d packed in my drop bags! There were three points at which people could put drop bags: the start/finish, the midpoint, and the far end. My main drop bag was at the midpoint since I’d cross it every 11 miles; I had another one at the start/finish area. Inside the drop bags, in addition to extra clothing, was gels, solid foods of all kinds in little ziploc bags, bandages, moleskin, scissors, duct tape, sunscreen, compression sleeves, pain meds, an additional water bottle, lights, reflective belt, body glide, and tampons (yes, mother nature has “perfect” timing, haha). I always way over pack to ease my mind and know I have whatever I need to handle almost any situation.
The race started out going uphill for about 3 miles, so I ran slowly until it started to feel effortful and then walked. I figured there was no reason it should feel hard at the beginning. The effort factor was based on my breathing because I was feeling the slight elevation change from where I live. Just a couple miles in, I started running and walking with two guys. One of them was doing his first 50-miler and wanted to finish in 13 or 14 hours. The other guy was doing the 100-miler and was a seasoned 100-miler who traveled all around the country doing different ones. He said his favorite one was Hardrock, which is notoriously difficult and actually has a much longer cutoff than any other 100-miler I’ve heard of. He was thinking he’d run just under 24 hours for this particular one. I figured that if I stuck with him for a while, if his intuition was right, I would get under 12 hours. The three of us ran and walked and talked for about an hour before the 50-miler backed off a little bit and the 100-miler stayed longer than I did at an aid station. I try to be very quick at aid stations and plan while I’m running what I’ll need to do at the next one so I have a plan when I get there. Some of the aid stations took a few minutes while volunteers re-filled water bottles, but I really couldn’t complain. I loved the volunteers and made it a point to thank all of them for being out there.
When I got to the turn-around aid station at mile 11, I was happy to see my husband for the first time. He’s not only supportive of my running, but he wanted to help at the race too. I gave him a kiss and one of the other, much older, aid station workers made the comment, “Oh wait a minute! If he gets a kiss, I want something too.” He held out his arms and we hugged. It was silly and made me smile. Heading back the other way, I passed the 100-miler I’d run with earlier, Scott. By that point, I was about a mile ahead of him. He said some words of encouragement as we passed. That’s one of the things I love about ultra events. Everyone is so friendly and supportive. It seemed like regardless of how tired someone way, if I said something to them, they ALWAYS responded. There were also quite a few high fives throughout the course of the day. I was taking gels every 45 minutes, which seemed to be working well. I was also getting a cup of water from each aid station, which were positioned about a mile and a half apart. I’d read, though, that all of the aid stations wouldn’t be open the whole day; after the 8-hour point (which was the marathon cutoff), only the end and midpoint ones would be open (meaning every 5.5 miles). I ran into a silly problem at mile 15.
For the last few runs, my Garmin had been warning me that my lap database was almost full. Of course I intended to remedy this before the race but I forgot. But at mile 15, it kept beeping (non-stop) and kept telling me to acknowledge that the database was full; simultaneously, I was trying to get back to the history to delete some older runs, but the information alert kept getting in the way as it was coming up every second. Finally, I stopped the timer and was able to go back and delete some older runs and restart the timer. I walked during this time and I felt foolish for having to deal with that in the middle of the race. I think I lost about 5 minutes and the distance associated with it, while I was trying to get rid of older runs. While I was at it, I got rid of more than I probably needed because I didn’t want to run into the same thing later one. I made it to the end of the first out-and-back in about 4:36. I still felt great, so I went back out.
I ran the vast majority of the race by myself, but I didn’t really feel like I was alone because of all of the interactions I had with runners going the opposite direction. When I was going out the second time, I was surprised that Scott was now 5 miles behind me. I really started to notice the heat on this stretch. I made it to the mid-point aid station (mile 27.5) easily and munched on some potato chips while they refilled my bottle. About 3 miles later, I was becoming concerned that I hadn’t seen another aid station (since it was still under 8 hours) and I was running low on water. I took a gel, drank the last of my water, and decided to be conservative and walked the remaining distance to the turn-around aid station (mile 33). My husband was still there, even though his shift ended about 30 minutes prior, because he wanted to wait to see me again. When I first came up, one of the volunteers asked, “Is that the kisser?” I was confused before I was reminded I’d kissed my husband the last time I was there (duh). We kissed again and the other volunteers cheered. Luckily, my husband had an extra water bottle he’d brought, so he filled it for me and I took both bottles from that aid station. Before I’d left, my husband had asked if I wanted him to pick up my drop bag from the midpoint aid station. Not thinking, I said yes. Of course, he got there first and I therefore didn’t have the gels in my bag (which were the only thing out of the entire bag I actually used) when I got there. But there were some gels at the aid station, so it wasn’t a huge deal.
I felt good from mile 33 to 38.5, probably because I finally had water (with ICE!) and I’d also walked about 2 miles to the turn-around so I was a bit refreshed. The hill right beyond the mid-point aid station was a tough one, which I walked, and it felt harder than the first time. I continued alternating between running and walking as I felt like it. I’d been playing little math games in my head since mile 28 about the pace I needed to get under 12 hours…then 11:30. I was able to keep on pace pretty well with the forward motion I was putting in, but it got close when I factored in aid station stops and potty breaks. I was happy to see that my husband had somehow created an aid station about halfway between the start/finish and the midpoint that hadn’t been there since much earlier in the day. This meant I was able to top off my water, get a quick kiss, and head on my way. I’d reset my watch at the beginning of the second lap so my Garmin miles would match with the course markers (since I’d messed it up the previous time with the lap issue). I finished the second out-and-back in about 5:19 (elapse time of about 9:55).
The third time out was pretty exciting because I only had to go out 3 miles (actually it was about 3.2 since the stretch of road was actually a little less than 11 miles, meaning there was a little extra mileage that had to be made up on the last out-and-back. Heading back out, I knew I could get under 11:30. It was pretty much uphill to the turnaround, so I walked most of it, with the intention of running most of the way back. I left the aid station at the same time as this one female 100-miler who I’d been seeing all day; she was faster than me, but she spent a lot of time at aid stations. I mentioned to her how awesome she was doing, and her response was, “Really? I just keep trying to pace off of you!” We were both wearing purple shirts and she said a few people had asked her if we knew each other and had come together; she said she just told them, “No, but I love her! And I really like her hair!” LOL. We chatted for about a mile, but while I was trying to pick up the pace a little bit, she was being more conservative; I only had about 5 miles left at that point and she still had 55 (yikes!). My husband was near the turnaround point and I asked him to turn on my second Garmin, which I’d intended to pick up from the midpoint aid station at mile 38.5 from my drop bag he’d already picked up, and once it had a signal, to drive toward the finish line and to make the Garmin swap on the way (because I really wanted Garmin data for the whole race for some reason).
After I got to the turn-around point at about mile 46.6, I decided to run as much as I could. There was one woman who was only about a half mile back who was heading to the turn-around; she inquired if I was on my final stretch, to which I told her that I was. I was hoping I could keep my lead on her, just because I don’t like being passed, particularly late in a race, especially a longer race. I actually discovered in the few miles previous that while I wasn’t able to run significantly faster than I was walking, that running actually felt easier! I ran the last 3 miles without taking any walk breaks. It wasn’t fast, and I had a side cramp that lasted about a mile, but I felt good. Several times, when I realized I would definitely get under 11:30, my brain kept rationalizing, “Hey, you’ve made it. You can walk a little bit here. The woman who was a half mile back is nowhere even in sight,” to which my body responded, “No, I don’t want to walk. I don’t want to get to the end and know I could have done the last stretch without walking.” While this internal “conflict” was going on, I just kept moving forward. The last tenth of a mile is up a pretty steep hill, which I ran. At the very top, it leveled off for a few strides and I was able to give one final little kick. I completed the last 2.77 miles (which is where I got the new Garmin) in 32:18, which was an 11:39 pace. My total time for the 50 miles was 11:21:05. I was very happy!
When the RD looked at her paper (the race was manually timed), she said, “Oh, congratulations, you’re the third female finisher!” WHAT?! I was shocked. It was a small race, but there were at least a dozen women; my husband, who volunteered at an aid station, said there were about 20, but I don’t think the number was that high. Regardless, I was shocked I did and FELT so well. I got a cute little cactus in a pot that was hand painted and said the name of the race and “3rd Woman Overall.” I was very happy at how well I had done, and I was happy with the training I’d put in to get to the start line, which impacted how I got to the finish line. I’m thrilled that things worked out as they did and I was able to see that hard work really does pay off and that there truly is hope for everyone to improve, IF they’re willing to put in the work. 😉
Props to the 100-milers who were out there yesterday. I have no idea how they ran twice as far, particularly in the heat. Yet they remained encouraging the entire time to those of only doing the “half,” lol. Scott told me early on when we were running together that the only difference between a 50-miler and a 100-miler is mental and that if a person is fit enough to do a 50-miler that they can complete a 100-miler. While this may be true, I can say I don’t want to venture there yet. I was happy enough to finish my 50-miler feeling good.
I’m not really sure where I’m going to go from here. I’d planned to do a marathon in 6 weeks, but it sold out 9 hours before I tried to register this morning. I’m on the waiting list, but I’m not sure how that’ll work out. I’m scheduled to do a 24-hour race in September, but I’m not sure how serious I’m going to train for it. My husband will be doing it too, but he’s had some issues with his foot recently. If he can train with me, I’ll likely keep my coach an train hard for it. But if my husband can’t train for it seriously, I won’t either, as we just started living together 4 weeks ago and I don’t want to spend a significant amount of my free time away from him; I’ll also not keep a coach if this is the case because I know I’d just be wasting money.
I was happy to wake up this morning with only some minor soreness. The only “battle wounds” I got yesterday were a slight sunburn on my shoulders/chest and three small blisters which I know will be gone in a few days. 🙂 If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading this. Or even if you skimmed it, thanks for taking the time.
Here are a few photos from yesterday: