Sunday, November 20, 2011

The magically growing, never ending "50 mile" race

My dad mentioned on Facebook the other day that he would need 7.25 hours to read my 50 miler race report, as well as food and water at the ready. Considering it took nearly double that amount of time for me to run the race, if you are nice enough to want to read all about it, break out the popcorn, and get comfortable!

I’ve mentioned before that marathons seem to be never ending, with the miles somehow growing longer and longer as you get past 20 and closer to 26. Well, yesterday, I got to find out what it was like when a race started actually becoming longer and longer in the last few miles, and it wasn’t a figment of my delirious, exhausted imagination.

The day began at 3:20am, when Eric and I got up, threw on clothes, loaded up the car, and headed with Lily to Gaithersburg, Maryland, to a high school where the race started and finished.
Perry, me, and Lily at the start
I’d never started a race in the dark, and, lucky me, I not only got to experience what that was like, but also what it was like to finish a race in the dark! 
Still half asleep
Could not have done it without my incredible support crew!

But, obviously, there’s a lot that took place in the middle. After picking up our bibs, dropping off our drop bags, using the bathroom, and taking a few pictures, Lily and I were off on our first 50 mile adventure! 
Hello reflective gear
The race started with a half mile loop around the high school before heading off on the trail through the woods. Considering that we’d received an email on Thursday informing us that the race would be a bit long, we thought it was odd that they would add that loop, instead of just heading us straight onto the trail. In retrospect, that really should have been a warning sign.

I was worried about going out too fast, but, luckily, that was impossible, due to the darkness of the woods, the slick, frost covered leaves we were running on, and the 300+ people all sharing a single track trail. 

I found running in the dark on trails really stressful, like I’d expected, and was really hoping not to have to do too much of it at the end of the race. HA.

In the first 5 miles, I turned my right ankle three times, which was really painful. The thick layer of leaves hid all sorts of branches, roots, and rocks, so it was like running on a hidden minefield. Additionally, the trail was just nonstop sharp inclines and steep declines. I hoped it wouldn’t be like that for long. Unfortunately, while there were several flatter, more runable sections, the majority of the race was on those type of trails.

Once the sun came up and I could take my headlamp off, my mood improved quite a bit. We couldn’t have asked for better weather, it was dry and cool, but warm enough to be comfortable. The sun was out, and the woods had some really beautiful views, and the terrain was varied enough to keep things interesting. I entertained Lily, as well as our fellow runners, spending about five miles detailing the plots of all of the Twilight novels, since she hadn’t read them and didn’t intend to.

At the 8 mile aid station, Eric, and Perry’s wife Crystal, were waiting for us, as well as bite sized pieces of poptarts, and a ton of other food. Seeing the familiar faces cheering us on was great. 
Look how happy we are.....
At mile 8, it's all fun and games
Every single aid station was well organized, staffed by incredible, friendly, unbelievably helpful volunteers, and filled with every variety imaginable of delicious food. There is no way I could ever remember it all, but some highlights that I had were butterscotch rice krispy treats (baked by a volunteer!), potatoes with salt, goldfish, several kinds of cheez-its, little pieces of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (another race favorite), fig newtons, oatmeal cookies, an amazing little piece of pumpkin donut (and I don’t even normally like donuts), and these rich, decadent brownie bites, also baked by a volunteer. He joked that they were “special” brownies, and I have to admit, at that point, I prayed he was serious (he wasn’t). Some fun items that I didn’t try were grilled cheese sandwiches (literally, made fresh on a grill right there), roast beef and turkey sandwiches, chicken noodle soup, and Jim Beam! The volunteers said people actually did shots of it!

In the first 20 miles, I had two big falls. The leaves cushioned them, so they didn’t really hurt, what actually hurt more was the times I didn’t fall, and just twisted my ankle, or back, catching myself. There were tons of stream crossings, and we managed to keep our feet dry for a lot of them, but they still took time, and one involved “rappelling” down a muddy, 90 degree dropoff by holding on to partially broken tree branch.
 We also had to climb over some boulders, similar to what the Northface 50K looked like, except this was as we went through underpasses. So, it wasn’t just a 50 miler, but also a bit of an adventure race.

Eric surprised us at mile 15!
Yup, climbing over that fence was fun, especially on the way back
At mile 20, we headed out for 3 or 4 miles on the C&O canal. This was the only part of the race where we could just run a normal pace, without worrying about getting lost or falling, so we kept about a 9:30 pace here. The views were gorgeous, but, for some reason, mentally, this seemed really tough. We weren’t talking much, and I just wanted this to end and to get back on the trails. I have no idea how the JFK runners survived 27 miles of that boredom.

After the canal, we arrived at the mile 23 aid station, which had our first drop bags. I was excited, since this was a bit of a milestone. My Garmin said we had run 24 miles, so I started ignoring it at that point and gave it to Eric soon after. I suddenly felt so nauseous and shaky that I couldn’t eat anything, and slowly sipped some Gatorade while Lily changed her wet shoes (my trail shoes dry so fast, so I kept them). I felt a little better after that, and the aid station even had ginger tablets! I somehow managed to eat one of those amazing homemade brownie bites, and we headed out.

This was a real low point for me. I felt shaky, dizzy, and completely lacking any energy as we started running again. My never ending appetite and serious commitment to always having snacks available means I am not really familiar with what “low blood sugar” feels like, so that may have been it, but who knows. I was extremely concerned. I’d never felt like that in any race before, and in both of my previous ultras (50Ks), sure, I’d gotten tired, had pain in my legs, etc, but I always felt strong until the end. I was pretty concerned, since I still had 28.5 miles to go, and if I continued to feel like this, or, worse, decline, I really didn’t see how finishing was a possibility.

This is where I truly don’t see how people can run a race like this alone. Lily entertained me by telling stories of crazy former roommates, and then I entertained her by telling her the story of my number one most hated person, ever. Telling that story got me fired up again, and the anger fueled me enough that I began to feel better. Just in time to traverse the giant mud bogs that almost sucked our shoes off. Just like Warrior Dash, all over again!

We saw Eric again at the 29 mile aid station, and here we were feeling good, joking, and laughing. We spent way too long at every aid station, but I don’t regret it. It was great to see Eric, and mentally, I felt I needed the breaks. In the other two ultras, I felt I was able to let go of worrying about the miles, how far I had to go, and just enjoy the experience on the trails. Yesterday, that didn’t happen. Although there were a lot of times that I enjoyed myself (during the day, anyway), I just couldn’t get past that nagging thought that 50 miles is a long ass way. It was constantly preying on my mind, intimidating me, and making me wish for the end.

My Little Slice of Awesome headband helped me so much in this race

This sign was a cruel joke

Aid station 34 was more of the same, Eric was there, and we met a volunteer who had run a 100 mile race, who told us to stop wasting time, and literally pushed us back onto the trails. We needed him at every aid station!

Once again, as we approached aid station 39, where our second drop bags were, and where we were required to get our headlamps again, I felt terrible. 

It looks like we're leaving, but this was actually our approach.

Can you tell I want to hurl and cry?

Eric was there, being so helpful and attentive as usual, but nothing he could do could help me, other than put me in the car and take me home, which was what I desperately wanted. It was starting to get cold, I felt too nauseous to eat, and putting together sentences seemed difficult. I managed to wash down some advil with the ginger ale that the wonderful race organizers thoughtfully had, and choke down a few goldfish. A guy who had already finished the race was there picking up his headlamp, and for some reason, that just mentally beat me down so much, knowing that he was done, and we had nearly a half marathon to go, and the sun was already starting to set. I felt really bad, wishing I could put on a braver face for Eric, but it just wasn’t happening. Somehow, I forced myself to head out again.

Lily told me she wanted to pray before it got completely dark, so for the next several miles, I listened to her quietly saying Rosaries. Even though I’m not Catholic, and even though some of it was in Spanish, listening to it was incredibly soothing and really helped me cheer up and feel better. Which was good, because when we got to the next aid station, that was where things really started to go downhill.

I really should have just had Eric drop me off here

The next aid station was at the high school where we started, and where we would finish. We had done a big lollipop out and back, and would now be finishing the race on an out and back in a different direction. I asked the volunteer there what mile we were at. He told me “This is mile 41, you have 9 to go.” I desperately cried “BUT IS IT REALLY NINE? Because we got this email…..”
He assured me “Yes, it’s really 9, you see, you are actually at mile 44. You’re just going to go out 4.5, and then come back 4.5”.

Ok, are we seeing a problem yet? If we were at mile 44, and this was supposed to be a 50 mile race, WHY THE HELL WOULDN’T THEY PUT THE TURNAROUND 3 MILES AWAY?? I was so desperate that I told Lily we should just turn around 3 miles out anyway, but since we had no Garmins anymore, and we had to check in at the last aid station at the turnaround, that wouldn’t work. She told me we hadn’t come this far to cheat, and brought me back to my senses.

We continued running to the next aid station, and the volunteer there told us it was decision time. The 12 hour cutoff had already passed (not that we weren’t on track to finish in 12 hours, it had already been 12 hours), so we had to decide if we thought we would be able to finish the race, or drop out here. He said “You have at least 3.5, maybe 4 miles out to the turnaround and back, then a mile and a half from here back to the school, so at least 8.5 miles left of the race.” I’m not great at math in the best of circumstances, and certainly not after running more than 45 miles. However, I was told there were 9 miles left at the school, and after running a mile and a half, I was being told there were at least 8.5 more miles left. I pretty much flipped out on him, demanding to know why the miles kept increasing, then we headed out, and I was consumed with guilt over my meanness for the rest of the race.

I’m not going to lie, just stopping there was pretty tempting, as opposed to heading back to the pitch black woods and running 8.5 or 9 more miles. Now, if you are picturing an 8.5 mile run around your neighborhood, stop. This meant 8.5 miles in complete darkness, surrounded by nothing but trees, having no idea what mile you are out, how much further your have, and constantly risking getting lost or falling. When I originally looked at the course map, I thought maybe they would take it easy on us in that last section. Of course that wasn’t the case, and we were once again on wet leaves, roots, branches, and rocks, going up and down steep hills. The idea of falling and getting hurt was very real and terrifying, because it meant slowly freezing to death while praying somebody could run the trails fast enough to find you and help you. On the other hand, going slowly enough to avoid falling was incredibly frustrating, because it just meant the finish line was further and further away. Going out, running away from the finish line, passing happy returning runners, knowing it would be so long before we were going in their direction, was just so depressing.

After running at least 2 miles (estimated from the reports I got from the volunteers and other runners), we asked a woman coming towards us how far to the aid station. She looked at her watch and proclaimed “I left there exactly 24 minutes ago”. WHAT? We didn’t care for that answer, so we asked another guy. He gave us a dejected, angry look and said “I don’t want to lie to you”. Well, nothing good can follow that. “It’s at least 2 more miles, and you have to cross an icy stream. The aid station is at mile 49. This is actually a 55 or 56 mile race”.

Ok, are you following along? The email said the 50 mile race was 51.5 miles. At mile 44, we were told we had 9 more miles. We ran another mile and a half, and we were told we had 8.5 more miles. We kept running around 2 more miles past that, and we were told we STILL HAD 8 MORE MILES LEFT. Not only that, but it was 25 degrees out, and we would have to cross a nearly knee deep, icy stream, not once, but twice. At the pace we were going, 8 miles would easily mean almost 2 more hours in the cold, pitch dark woods.

Hearing that was like being punched in the stomach. Plus, at this point, the race distance had been extended 3 times, who knows what the last aid station would tell us, if we even made it there? Since that was at mile 49, I prayed they would tell us it was too late, and pull us from the course. At that point, I would have been completely fine with running a 49 mile race.

We got to the stream crossing. It was so wide, deep, and slippery, that there was a rope to hold on to as you went across. The gold medal of the day goes to the volunteer who was sitting in the woods, all alone, helping runners across the stream. The water was truly freezing, and as soon as we got across, Lily burst into tears. Oddly, stepping into the role of comforter seemed to help me, I guess it gave me something to focus on other than my own misery. After the tears, we both broke in to hysterical laughter, and arrived at the last aid station, determined to finish.

I had some cider and a pretzel stick, and we turned back. Knowing we were finally headed towards the end was a huge mental boost, and I actually felt pretty good here. It was still overwhelming to be so far away and to be all alone in the dark, but for the first time, I finally thought I may actually cross the finish line of this race.

We slowly made our way back, this time seeing almost nobody. Other than one wrong turn, we got back to the original “decision time” aid station, where I couldn’t wait to apologize to the volunteer, who hadn’t even noticed anything wrong and wasn’t concerned at all. Of course, the “mile and a half” back to the school had turned into “a mile and three quarters”, but it meant we were almost finished, and we were ecstatic.

We finally exited the woods on the road and saw the school, and in a final, cruel joke, the reflective lights on the trees that had been guiding us led us away from the school, back into the woods, down a huge hill, so that we could finish on a gigantic incline. Eric was there cheering us on, and Lily grabbed my hand and literally yanked me up the hill, but WE MADE IT! 14 hours, 27 minutes, and 35 seconds after we began, we proudly crossed the finish line.
We had originally planned to get home, go out to eat, drink sangria, and celebrate. Well, by the time we were done, the restaurant was closed. We had a little pizza that was in the school cafeteria for us, got in the car that Eric had thoughtfully already warmed up for us, and he drove us home. The second I got in the apartment I stumbled/shuffled to the kitchen, grabbed the wine I had waiting for me and the corkscrew, and poured myself a glass in the bathroom, which I drank while showering. My legs were killing me, so I planned to drink myself to sleep. I ate some Cheez-Its while catching up on the tweets that Eric had sent during the race, drank more wine, and then went to sleep. I wish I could say I passed out until morning, but I slept horribly, my legs hurt even if I didn’t move them, and nothing was comfortable.

This morning, I forced myself to walk down three flights of stairs, and across the street to get bagels. The movement helped a bit, but I’m still so stiff and sore that I can barely walk. Unlike a marathon, everything hurts – my back, neck, arms, abs, feet, everything. I guess that’s because I ran more than two marathons combined. My plan is to not move, and just read, blog, and eat all day.

When I sit like this, it doesn't hurt.

I need to give a huge thank you to the many supportive, encouraging comments that I've gotten from my family and friends (both blog and real life!). Thank you so much to Lily for running with me and getting me out of my bad moods when necessary – I could not ask for a better training buddy! I really appreciate Perry and his wife Crystal waiting around for two and a half hours after Perry finished just to cheer us on at the finish line! Eric wins the husband of the year/decade/century/millenium for driving us to the race at 4am, and spending the entire 14.5 hours following us around to aid stations, cheering at the finish, taking us home, and taking care of me today. I truly could not have done it without him.
I expected running 50 miles to be extremely hard, luckily, by adding mileage and choosing the hardest course possible, Stone Mill managed to exceed even my wildest expectations. Somehow, I'm still glad I did it.

Here's our "thoughts" from after the race (I put it in quotes because real thinking is impossible at that point).


  1. Oh, my goodness! What a crazy, long adventure! You really told the story well, and I'm sure I'll be back to read over this a few more times. Congratulations on an amazing 56-mile race!

  2. You are a beast! Mentally, I don't know how you handled them continually adding mileage--that would've killed me! But you did so great, congrats!!

  3. Uh, what a race! I would have cried like Lily. I told you guys to do JFK with me. :)

    You are so much tougher than anyone I know!

  4. Wow. Truly amazing. Just running 50+ miles sounds hard enough, to do it through that terrain is ... wow. Great post, thanks for all the detail! I hope you are enjoying your recovery day and keeping warm! And kudos to Eric. He sounds really awesome! Congratulations on finishing!!

  5. I had to take a couple breaks while reading this. It was long, just like your race. But I endured. I deserve a medal.

  6. i have numerous comments, so bear with me. first of all, you are amazing. i'm not so sure i would have handled the news of "oh, it's 55 miles now" so well. i would have freaked out and possibly gave up. also, it WAS an adventure race! jeez, 50+ miles is hard enough, let alone running in the woods in the dark and traversing icy streams. lastly, we would get along so well. i can relate to telling a story of my #1 most hated person. i still get all fired up to this day! congrats on an amazing job! rest up and enjoy thanksgiving!

  7. wow! nice recap - i felt like i was there with you! feeling happy when you felt happy, angry when you felt angry and I wanted to yell at that volunteer as well!. congrats on an amazing accomplishment!! now enjoy and recover. let me know when you are ready to get back in action though, cause i miss running with you ladies!

  8. I honestly can't believe this. The mental struggle of a never ending distance would be so hard to handle. But you did it! You ran 50 (ok, 55?) miles and lived. How awesome does that feel right now?
    I want to personally hug Eric for being awesome hubby supporter of the year. CONGRATS!!!!!

  9. 1. Every paragraph I read made me multiply how much I thought you were hardcore by a factor of 10.
    2. Really? They couldn't figure out to cut some loops to make it 50 miles for real? Or at least a little closer.
    3. Have I mentioned that you are hardcore?

  10. You forgot to add that I was constantly texting you in the last few hours to make sure you were still alive and didn't need me to come search for your body :)

  11. Wow, you are amazing!! Congrats on finishing such a crazy race! I don't know how you did it. I was exhausted just reading this! You're incredible!

  12. Wow, congratulations, this sounds crazy! I would've broken down several times if I was attempting that! Handling all the extra miles had to be so grueling and in the cold and dark on top of everything else!

  13. Hey, new follower here! Awesome recap - I just cannot imagine running longer than the promised distance... especially in an ultra! Great job finishing what sounds like the course from hell, what an accomplishment!

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  15. Wow. I have incredible respect for you enduring until the end (and then some!)

    Also, you look ten feet tall in that sexy snuggie picture. Is this a bizarre side effect of running over 14 hours straight?

  16. So, are you going to run another 50 miler?

  17. Haven't finished reading, but I startled a woman running in front of me at one point, running off into a tree just near her. What happened was that my foot caught a root, and I stumbled forward, and then ran faster offcourse because my body was bent forward due to the root, so I ran offcourse into a tree I could grab, to regain my balance.

    I think this probably reflected how tired I was, and how it is exhausting & painful in the abs and stomach when you have to catch yourself after stumbling, and I was probably just getting too tired to be able to right myself that way.

  18. Thank you for running with me....I could NOT have done this endurance race with out you!!!! Although I broke down and cry like a baby I think we can do another one at some point!!!!!!
    Thank you ERIC for being the best cheerleader!!!! And Perry and Crystal for sticking around just to see us :D

  19. Congratulations!! You are INCREDIBLE!! I think I would have sat down, cried, and waited for my husband to come pick me up. I cannot believe it kept getting longer. Did you write to the race directors? I was actually getting angry just reading it. I would have been furious while running.

    Enjoy your rest and relaxation. You deserve every minute of it!!

  20. "There was a lot of peeing". Hahaha! I almost cried at the end of this post (hormones). I think I would have quit around mile 5 and just pouted. You two are amazing and I can't believe you didn't kill anyone for saying the 6 were bonus miles. Great job and I hope you are able to move by now!

  21. I feel like crying just reading this. Now I feel like a sissy for not finishing the full yesterday.

  22. I know that the JFK runners put in great paces and finished in the day light. I know that they can say they ran a 50 miler too HOWEVER (for me and NOT putting down JKF runners because someday I might be one of them but...) a real Ultra is what you just ran.
    Ultra isn't just about the distance. Endurance running is about the distance. And that's an amazing thing. But Ultra running, real ultra running is about going long when the going is hard. It's about those challenges of elements and terrian; struggles of the physical and the mental. Ultra running is when that all comes together and you somehow push yourself and on a GREAT day you push others through it all. That my new friend is what you just did.
    On Saturday you became an offical 50 mile Ultra runner! Welcome to the club! I'm so proud to know you.

  23. That was a wonderful recap, and like others have said...I felt like I was there with you. You share your stories in a gifted and personal way. Very well done on your accomplishment, and may your recovery be swift.

  24. I'm totally speechless!! You did amazing and I am in such awe of you!!

    I love following Eric's updates on Twitter. GREAT JOB!!

  25. wonderful report --- many thanks for posting it! --- I'm the old bald coot with the long gray beard who dropped at the northern turnaround (Watkins Rd, mile 48 by my GPS, longer according to others) at 12 hours 48 min --- and I have to take my hat off to you for persevering! --- ^z = Mark Zimmermann =

  26. You are absolutely amazing! I still can't believe you guys did this and lived to tell the tale! I feel like this race requires a mental strength that I can't even begin to understand. You are my hero Alyssa!

  27. I've followed your blog ever since I saw one of your posts on the BRF facebook page a few months back. Your commitment to your training has been so inspiring! I ran the 1/2 in Baltimore, and actually saw you when the full went past us at our start. I couldn't wait to see how your run went for this ultra! Congrats on the finish and for sharing your stories of your training along the way. This has been my first year of racing and I'm proud to say that I anticipate signing up for more 1/2 marathons next year and may actually shoot for higher. It's people like you that prove to us that anything is possible if you work hard enough! Thanks again for your inspirations, observations, and motivations! Your blog is awesome and I plan to keep reading :)

  28. I am happy for you for any sense of accomplishment this brought to you....but this just sounds nuts. Even notwithstanding the distance lies and extensions, the idea starting in the dark and ending in the dark.... I hope my crazy runner brain never, ever decides to sign up for an ultra.... 14 hours!!!?? I've never run more than 3.5 hours, and that leaves me crippled.

  29. Lily looks capoots in that video clip. But for most of the guys looked incredible - like the race was a cinch. At station 39, you did start to look warn out.

    Did anyone every explain why the race was longer than intended. That would be hard to stomach after running that long. Awesome job!

    So glad I found your blog.

  30. Great report! It was a long day for all of us out there and you handled it with grace.

  31. I just realized I never commented on your recap! Congratulations on getting through this...I can't even imagine finding out mid-50 miles that there's an extra 5 miles. Also, your husband is amazing for being there for you all day!! (And tweeting for you, of course).

  32. I'm reading old 50 miler recaps because I'm contemplating a 2015 50 miler. And here is all I have to say about your recap:

    "It was so wide, deep, and slippery, that there was a rope to hold on to as you went across."



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