The day of my sixth ultra marathon began at 4:15AM — as most long race days do. Even though I slept fine, that alarm still felt like it came WAY too soon. Perhaps it was just that I’d seen the race day weather forecast and knew that the day ahead was gonna be a long one — more than 31 miles in the woods in temps that’ll hit the mid-90s with soul-crushing humidity … awesome.
Now, I live in DC which during the summer months, is essentially a swamp. But during training, the temps hadn’t yet reached anything close to this. In fact, the hottest run I’d done for the year up to that point was in the mid-60s. But as one of my athletes so eloquently (and accurately) pointed out, unless the other runners trained in the Amazon, we’ll all be in the same boat out there. Thanks for the words of wisdom, Chris.
The last time I was at this event, it was my very first 50k two years ago. I had no idea what to expect and I nervously followed the crowds to the start area. This time around, people were following me — two guys were even pumping me for insider info on the race course on the shuttle to the start.
At the 7AM start, it was 68 degrees and already feeling super sticky at 95% humidity. As I waited for the start and packed my Camelbak, I was getting eaten alive by bugs so I had someone’s mom spray me down with bug spray — gotta love the moms, always prepared for everything.
The start and the first few miles were uneventful. Tough but uneventful. At Mile 11, I had to put my Coach hat on as I assisted a runner struggling with severe cramping, sharing my salt tabs with her before continuing on.
We reached a major aid station at Mile 13 (that also serves as the Mile 18 aid station) so I texted my family to let them know that it’s “really effing hot but I’m fine so far”. While I was fueling up, I saw one of the guys from the shuttle in the medical tent so I walked over to check in. With a defeated look on his face, he told me that he had chosen to drop — his knee wasn’t cooperating and it made him nervous. Sad. He wished me well and I was on my way again.
Somewhere around Mile 16, I saw the cramping lady from Mile 11 as I headed back from an out-and-back section of the course. She waved and said she was feeling great.
I felt strong until Mile 20 then the heat went from minor annoyance to major factor and it wasn’t just me. The medical tents looked fuller at every aid station with runners being treated for heat-related issues. My aid station stops got longer and longer in duration as it became increasing more difficult for me to stay hydrated and properly fueled with electrolytes and calories. I did what I had to do to keep myself safe.
When we came to the aid station at Mile 26.5, I stopped for my usual combination of water and electrolytes. Out of nowhere, I started choking — all the pollen I’d been breathing in had finally caught up with me and formed a thick paste in my throat. The aid station volunteers looked at me concerned but I assured them I was fine. Besides, the woman with the bag of ice on the back of her neck sitting next to me looked like she needed far more assistance than me. There was no color in her face and I wasn’t convinced that she actually knew where she was at that point. But before I could get the pollen paste to clear and resume a normal breathing pattern, she stood up and headed back onto the course.
After a few minutes, I was good to go and made my way back onto the course. It’s hard to describe the feeling of aid stations in these long trail races — they’re nothing like aid stations in a road race. On the road, you could mindlessly blow through, grabbing a cup without every even seeing the face of the person handing it to you. On the trails, aid stations become part of the adventure. It’s no longer about getting through them quickly — they’re a welcomed necessity and seem very much like small parties in the woods as you Vaseline up, grab a handful of M&M, and refill your Camelbak with a bunch of people who made the same crazy decision as you. Good times.
I went in to the aid station at Mile 26.5 feeling pretty awful and emerged feeling like I had the strength to carry on for another 6.
But Ice Bag Lady was having a different experience. A half mile out from the aid station, I found her bent over on the side of the trail throwing up (well, more like dry heaving). I stopped to check on her and it wasn’t good. Not wanting to leave her alone, I walked her back to the aid station and left her with the medics. Then I headed out once again, retracing my step — what’s an extra mile, right?
Between Miles 28 and 30, there was a lot of walking for me. At that point, temps were well over 90 degrees and I’d been out there for more than 7 hours. Perhaps tired of being hot and dehydrated, I somehow found a second wind though and picked up the pace as I approached the final miles. I was cruising as I hit the home stretch and the finish line never looked so beautiful.
Not sure I ever really needed to know what it was like to run a 7 1/2 hour 50k but I know now. And there’s the big difference between road running and running trails. It would’ve been easy for me to feel disappointed by over-shooting my goal time by more than an hour in a road race but on the trails, not so much.
When you sign up for an ultra, you’re signing up for adventure. It’s completely unpredictable out there and that’s what makes it so fulfilling. You set out on a 4-5 month training plan, hoping for the best on race day. This was the second time I’d run a Spring 50k in sweltering heat and insane humidity after having trained through the brutal cold of winter — including being pelted by sleet and freezing rain. Talk about extremes.
And like most runners, I’ve spent years running on pavement with visions of everything going right on race day so I could cruise in to my goal. But in trail ultras nothing really ever does. There are just too many variables. And that’s what I love about it — you learn to endure whatever is thrown at you. On any given day, you’re not competing against other runners, or even yourself, you’re competing against the course — the distance itself.
You train, give it all you got to prepare, and try to control everything you can. Then, you toe the line and give it over to the powers that be. Every once in a while the stars align and when it does it’s absolutely magical. But the reality is, that’s not the norm. The forecast for this 50k proves it. Conditions were not ideal at all … but so is running (and life).
In racing at these distances, it’s an inevitability if you stick with the sport long enough you’ll end up with a few DNFs (Did Not Finish). I’m beyond grateful that this day wasn’t that day for me. I survived and once again proved that I’m a whole lot tougher than I thought.
And I gotta say, I really do love this North Face Endurance Challenge Series DC course. I’ve now run it three times and every time I’m struck by how beautiful the scenery and Potomac River rapids are. It’s got a fair amount of runable flats and just enough change in elevation that you can’t get too comfortable. And North Face puts on such a wonderful and organized event.
I highly recommend you give it a go. There are event weekends in DC, NY, MA, Ontario, UT, WI, and CA. Take your pick of distances ranging from a 5K to a 50-Miler. Or grab three few friends and relay the Marathon. Just be prepared for adventure and unpredictability.