2012/12/01: Expedition 50-miler (race report)

I really had no idea what to expect from this race.  I intended for it to be a supported training run in preparation for my first 100-miler at the beginning of February.  I like to use races as training runs (when the training runs are marathon length or longer) because it’s just easier logistically and mentally.  I love running, but I find it difficult to map out a 25+-mile long run and to figure out where to stash water, etc.  I find it more enjoyable to do it in a race environment because I don’t have to think about the course and there is ample aid along the way.

I found this race by accident.  The 50-miler was actually listed as a relay, but when I investigated it, I discovered that solo runners were allowed (in addition to the 5-person teams).  However, I was a bit concerned about the cut-off time that was 10 hours.  That’s a 12-minute/mile pace, which is normally very sustainable for me, but I knew the course was hilly, so I was quite concerned about this.  I inquired and was told solo runners could do an early start which would allow for 90 extra minutes.  11.5 hours was better but I was still unsure of it; my official 50-miler PR from earlier this year was 11:21 on an easier course.  However, I thought about it and decided that since my purpose of the race was actually to get in a long training run, even if I finished after the cut-off and wasn’t listed as an official finisher, the run would still be successful for my purposes (although of course I wanted to finish before the cut-off).

In the days leading up to the race, I became increasing concerned about the race, not my ability to complete 50 miles but about the race organization and logistics.  Several days before the race, there had been no informational email sent out; there was very limited info on the web site, and it was pretty much just the course.  Finally, Wednesday night, an email was sent out, however, it only made me more anxious.  The gist of the email would be that there would be a bunch of special awards (like best team name and best decorated vehicle) and that everything else would be discussed at the meeting on Friday night.  I was annoyed that there was a mandatory meeting from 8:30-9pm when the early start of the race was at 6:30 the next morning.  I sent an email to the RD asking about drop bags and confirmation of the cut-offs since there was no official mention of this.  I was assured that I could bring drop bags and designate where to put them.

I drove the 2 hours to the race town Friday in the late afternoon.  My friend Patrick was nice enough to let me crash on the couch at his place, which saved a large sum of money.  I went to dinner with him, his wife, and his little son.  I then went to the race meeting.  There was a comment that there would be water for the ultrarunners at 2 of the relay exchange points.  I thought I had to have misheard that there would only be 2 places with water because that made no sense.  Before I had a chance to do it myself, another one of the ultrarunners (there were 5 of us total… plus over 50 relay teams) raised his hand and asked for clarification.  The RD matter-of-factly said that yes, there would only be water at 2 points (roughly miles 11 and 38) because “ultrarunners are normally self-sufficient.” WHAT?!  I had a 20-ounce Amphipod bottle that I always carry, which I knew would last between the exchange points (which were 3-7 miles apart), but there was no way I could go the middle 27 miles with just that.  4 out of the 5 of us went up afterward and the RD said that we could bring water if we wanted it and it would be put wherever we designated it.  That was better, but I was still very leery of how that would play out.  I was also concerned that it was emphasized that runner should be very familiar with their legs of the race because there was minimal marking.  I read through all of the directions (which were on 10 separate pages, broken up by leg) and realized there was no way I could memorize all of it.  I decided to just hope for the best.

After the meeting, I rushed to Walmart to pick up bottled water and bright labels to label the water; I figured I wanted one of the 20ish-ounce bottles at each of the exchange points, just so I could keep my bottle topped off.  I was honestly afraid someone was going to drink my water (since there was no water for anyone), but I figured I could only do what I could do.  I finally made it back to Patrick’s place.  I let him look at the race directions and got to hear all of his negative comments about them, lol.  Evidently, some of the big downhill sections I had enjoyed so much in my recent marathon and my (major) PR half marathon were along the route but would be run in the opposite direction.  After telling him about the lack of water stops, etc., Patrick told me that if I needed assistance during the race to call him and he would probably be able to bring me something; I appreciated this gesture.  By the time I finally got to sleep, it was after 11pm, and I recall looking at the clock a lot, although the time never changed more than 20 minutes between glimpses.  Not only was I concerned about oversleeping, which is a normal concern of mine, but I was very concerned about getting majorly lost, not having water, etc.

I woke up at 5am, got dressed, ate a banana, stretched, and headed to the start area.  I had 2 drop bags that had some extra clothes, first aid stuff, and gels that I opted to have put at the beginning of leg 5 and the beginning of leg 9 (roughly miles 23 and 38).  I also had a water bottle for each of the exchange points after the first one.  I arrived at the start line at about 6:15am.  There had been an explicit warning in the race booklet not to pee on the course and to use port-o-potties.  When I got to the start, I asked one of the volunteers if there was a bathroom and was told there wasn’t, lol.  Then, I asked another volunteer how well the course was marked and she asked, “Oh, you’re not bringing the directions along?”  No, I’m not carrying an 8.5×11-inch booklet along for 50 miles.  At the last moment, I guess the RD sensed my concern and gave me his cell phone number in the event I got lost.  At about 6:33am, someone said I could start whenever I wanted; the other solo runners weren’t there.  I was disappointed, though, after asking twice previously about the earliest time I could start and being told 6:30am that I found out someone started at 6:02am.  Anyway, they said the time was 6:35am and I took off.

The course was on open roads, which added an element to the race that I’m not used to in races.  Very soon, paying constant attention at every intersection not only for cars but signage indicating each turn, I realized it was going to be a very long day physically as well as mentally.  I also knew that waiting at stop lights would lose its novelty after a while.  Only 2.5 miles into the race, I got confused by one of the signs.  I thought I recalled I needed to turn left at a particular street, but as soon as I followed the arrow across the street from the right side to the left one (which I anticipated), I saw another arrow saying to cross the street.  I tried calling the RD with no answer, so I crossed the street to find the arrow on that side said to turn left (which made sense).  The RD called me back about a minute later but I told him I’d already figured out what I called him about.

The course was quite peaceful.  Part of the course was in Snow Canyon National Park; it was on a paved section, but it was away from the road.  The scenery there was beautiful, but I also knew the biggest hill was in this area.  There was a section that increased by nearly 1000 feet in a mile, so I walked almost that whole uphill section.  I’ve learned that it is so important to stay at an effortless pace early on in such a long race.  At that point, I was only about 10 miles into the race and I knew there was no reason to tire myself out because I’d pay for those couple minutes of time later on if I tried.

As I ran along, I wondered where the 3 other solo runners were (who started behind me) and when they would catch up to me.  I also wondered when the first relay runner would pass me.  They started 85 minutes behind me, but I knew they would be traveling much quicker.  I decided that I would be extremely happy if I had it to over 3 hours into my race before anyone caught up to me as that would mean no one was running twice as fast as me.  The first person flew by my at 3:04, and I saw a person every now and then for the rest of the race.  A few times, I know I confused some people because there were quite a few race members loitering at certain points to check the progress of their respective runners, and I don’t think they understood how I could be moving so slow (relatively) but still be “ahead” of them.  I always laughed and reassured them I wasn’t their competition (literally), I was running by myself, and I started early.

I found it funny on the section by the highway (which was the same section as part of my recent marathon) how much the elevation profile varied from the highway (where the marathon had been run) and the side (where this race took place).  The highway was nice as gradual while the side was literally like a roller coaster.  I love running downhill, but the downhill sections were unrunnable to me due to the grade.  I tried to do a zigzag down each one, but my pace was quite slow (especially for a downhill section).  Somewhere along here, the other male ultrarunner (besides the one that started ahead of me) passed me.

As I passed through the exchange points, I was happy that I could always spot my water bottle somewhere to top off my bottle.  I also always told a nearby volunteer that anyone who wanted it could have the rest of the bottle.  One thing that annoyed me is that there had been an explicit warning against littering in the race booklet.  I totally understood not littering, but I did not understand the order not to litter but not providing ANY trash cans along the way, including at the exchange points.  I was taking a gel religiously every 45 minutes, which meant that I always had something to throw away.  At some points, where everyone was busy, I kept carrying my trash.  At other times, when I wasn’t able to find other cans along the course (there were a few but not many), after asking a volunteer if there was a trash can and being told there wasn’t one, I asked them if I could leave my trash there anyway.  They all accommodated my request, but a few seemed more reluctant.  This frustrated me because I almost felt guilty about my requests, but I wasn’t sure what other options I had.

For the first half of the race, I really didn’t talk to any of the other runners.  I’d say something as they passed, but they were almost all too focused to respond.  When I was getting gels out of my drop bag at mile 23 and ditching my jacket, the runners waiting there realized I was one of the solo runners and everyone else’s eyes got really big.  On that next leg, I was still feeling really good, and I felt like I could have sped up, but there was a relay runner barely staying ahead of me and really didn’t have a reason to speed past her.  On this leg, I hit the halfway point in barely under 5 hours.

I was letting the terrain dictate whether I ran or walked; during my walking sections, I was trying to walk as a decent pace to not waste too much time.  I was walking around mile 29 when a lady runs up to me from behind and asks if she can run with me.  I said, “sure,” and picked up my pace to a jog.  She said she was struggling because she’d done the race before and the second leg was always the hardest.  It was leg 7 and her previous leg had been leg 2.  We talked for a few minutes before she realized I was running the whole thing.  From then on, anyone we saw (whether it was other runners, crews, or random people in their front lawns), she had to tell them I was running the whole thing, lol.  She was really nice, which helped the 4 miles we ran together go by quicker.

I don’t know if it was that lady’s commotion about me being a solo runner or what, but for most of the rest of the race, the other crews offered me aid.  Admittedly, I thought it was kind of funny that the relay runners’ crew vehicles would come up alongside them halfway through their ~5-mile run to see if they needed anything, but I also realized their relay was vastly different from the race I was running and that some of the people doing the relay were doing it as their first race.  And while I don’t even know what I would have done with a crew if I had one, except easier access to water, gels, and a trash can, and I never needed anything from the crews that offered, it meant a lot to me that they did offer to help.

About 35 miles into the race, Patrick texted me and called me to check on me.  I guess my cell phone (even though the screen was locked) managed to dial itself in my spibelt and leave him a 3-minute voicemail with nothing.  He called to see if the voicemail was an accident or if I actually needed something.  I thought that was nice of him.  Around that same time, I also managed to call a number consisting of an infinite number of 1s (the details show the number as a scrolling line of a bunch of 1s followed by “error”), lol.

There was one segment of the race where I was sure I was lost because I was sort of out in the middle of nowhere with some industrial buildings and no people (runners, crews, race people, or ANYone).  After following a road for an hour (maybe longer) that had lots of intersections that made me question whether I’d missed a turn, I finally saw a sign.  Segments of the race like that were mentally draining on me because every step I took, I wondered if I would have to walk it in the opposite direction.  Also, way out there, my cell phone didn’t have reception, so I was totally on my own.

Around mile 40, one of the female solo runners passed me and we exchanged some words.  I was majorly impressed with her.  It was her first 50-miler and she had been so concerned about getting lost that she started with the whole group at 8am, meaning she’d made up 85 minutes on me in 40 miles.  She was awesome (and ended up finishing about an hour and 45 minutes ahead of me).  I always break up long races (or runs for that matter) into smaller manageable chunks because my mind still cannot comprehend running 50 miles.  During this race, I broke it into segments based on the different legs.  This seemed to work, because running 3-7 miles at a time isn’t too difficult for me to wrap my mind around.

As the race went on, I played math games and set arbitrary time goals with myself just to pass the time and keep myself motivated.  My real goal of the race was to do the distance, my secondary goal (which I felt was only borderline doable) was to do it under the cut-off, and my third idea (not really even a goal since it didn’t seem realistic) was to get a PR.  At one point, I realized that I could finish under 10.5 hours if I kept a 15-minute/mile average pace.  It was crazy to think that time was possible, but that pace wasn’t exactly easy to maintain at that point in time.  However, it was somewhere around maybe 42 miles that I realized that running made me more tired but that running (slowly) actually hurt less than walking, so I started running a lot more.  My pace was SLOW but I was moving forward and in good spirits, so I figured that was all I could really ask for.

The finish area came a little sooner than I had expected but I sped up going over this last little footbridge and sped up even more as I made the last turn into the finish area set up in a little park.  My official time was 10:13:56, which is a PR of an hour and 7 minutes!  I couldn’t believe it.  I walked over to the curb to sit down and stretch.  One of the teams that finished right behind me came up afterward and one of the guys asked how much of the race I’d done myself.  When I said I’d done the whole thing, he exclaimed, “You ran 50 MILES?!”  I told him I had but that I’d started 85 minutes before his team (because I didn’t want them to think that I had run the whole thing faster than they had).  It was at that time, one of the other guys asked me what was wrong with my ankle, to which I responded, “Oh, I sprained it at the end of October so now I run with a brace on it to keep it stabilized.”  The first guy exclaims, “You ran 50 miles on a bad ankle?!”  I told him it felt okay, and then all 5 of them walked off silently.

It’s interesting to me that everything is relative.  For example, I don’t want to say that running 50 miles isn’t a big deal because I feel that such a statement would diminish the accomplishments of people who haven’t run that far.  However, I will say that I don’t think that it sounds crazy.  But I surround myself with friends who run much farther distances, so my perception of craziness may be a bit…skewed.   I can understand that someone who just ran ~10 miles over two legs might think running 50 miles is crazy.  But then again, I used to wonder how anyone was even able to run 5 miles.  So…everything IS relative.

I got a ride back to my car (a few miles away) and then I went to the banquet, which was strange.  The food was fine, but it had never crossed my mind that I was supposed to run 50 miles, shower and change into something fancy, and then go to a banquet, so I showed up in my running clothes.  Perhaps if I had finished many hours earlier (and lived locally) like many of the relay runners, this would have been feasible, but that wasn’t the case.  I almost ditched the banquet because I didn’t want to feel out of place.  But I was hungry.  As it turned out, I was the 2nd place female (out of 3), so I got a plaque.  The 3rd lady finished at the last possible second (literally) before the cutoff; I was happy she had completed the race.

I drove home after the race that night and had a lot of time to think about the day.  I was amazed I had gotten a PR and had not managed to get lost.  I also did something I’d never done before in an ultra: I didn’t eat any real food.  During the race, I consumed only water and gels (13 of them to be exact).  I got tired, but I never bonked.  However, I do dislike gel even more than I did before.  But I also realized that I do okay when I have no other options.  I’ve developed aversions to gels mid-race before and not been able to eat them the rest of the race, but at those, I had other food options.  At this particular race, when I started to gag a few times, my mind took over and I knew that taking gels was my only option if I wanted to be able to finish the race, so I did what needed to be done.

The irony about this race is that one of the only reasons I signed up for it was because I wanted a well-marked course where I didn’t need to think and would have ample aid along the way.  I did not get what I thought in those respects, but I gained some more independence and confidence in my ability to take care of myself during an ultra.  Regarding the elements of the race I was disappointed with, from an ultra perspective, I sent an email to the RD.  I got the impression that he truly cares about his race and is passionate about it but that he just really didn’t know how to support the solo runners.  If he listens to at least some of my comments, I have no doubts that this race will improve in the future.  The relay runners seem to have loved it, but I feel there are improvements to be made if it is to serve as an ultra event also.

This race was good for my running confidence.  After about a year of awesome running, the week after my half marathon where I set a huge PR, I did a 50k trail race that did not go well.  That was 3 weeks ago.  My ankle caused me quite a bit of pain whenever I landed on it wrong (which was often), I had some balance issues on some switchback sections, and I was slow.  It took me just shy of 8 hours to finish it, which was a personal worst (when my previous personal worst was almost 2 years ago when I did a race with no training).  I finished the race, but it was a huge blow to my confidence, which was quite concerning to me since my 100-miler is at the beginning of February.  Additionally, I felt very beat up after the race and didn’t run for several days.  I just felt awful and fatigued.  I decided to not even attempt to do a race report because I really did not have anything positive to say except that I finished.  Also, during that race, it was not fun.  I won’t say I enjoy every single moment that I run normally, but the race as a whole was just not enjoyable.

In comparison to that 50k, this 50-miler went very well.  I felt quite good the whole time and I truly enjoyed it, in spite of the concerns I had.  Even the things I was worried about prior to the race did not end up being as bad as I thought they might be.  I won’t say it was an easy race, but it was definitely easier than my recent 50k as well as some marathons I’ve done.

I felt like my running lately shows that sometimes bad runs just happen, but there might be a light at the end of that tunnel if a person doesn’t lose hope and keeps putting in the necessary work.  From the 50k through a week prior to the 50-miler, for 2 solid weeks, none of my runs felt good.  I never seemed to get in the groove where they felt comfortable, and also, all of my paces were about a minute slower than my effort level told me they should be.  Running was not fun and I was frustrated because it had been going so good.  But on one particular run, a 10-miler around my neighborhood, the fun came back and has stuck around.  Again, I won’t say every single moment of every run is nirvana, but overall, I do love running.

There was only one photo of me from the race.  I think it was taken around mile 15 (give or take a few):

Expedition 50m

And here is a pic of my plaque and finisher medal:

Expedition 50m 1



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