Sunday, November 17, 2013

Stone Mile 50, 2013 retribution edition

I'm pleased to report that I did not die in the woods when the Stone Mill 50 became a surprise Stone Mill 77 or something like that. The race ended up being about 51.5 miles (by our estimate) and I successfully crossed the finish line after just 11 hours and 35 minutes. That's nearly a 3 hour course PR! If more races could cut down the distance by 5 miles year to year, I'd be PRing all over the place.

Friday night, I arrived at the fabulous and extremely classy Hilton to join Kara around 9:30pm. We were pretty much in full race panic mode and frantically debated outfits, counted Gu packets, and discussed bathroom logistics that are normally completely taboo at slumber parties. A Full House marathon in the background kept us sane - if we started to get too anxious, we just paused for an Uncle Jesse eye candy break. 

I was shocked to see my name and a race logo on my bib and a timing chip. Stone Mill had really fancied things up since 2011!

I think we settled down and went to bed between 10:30 and 11. Although I was pretty nervous about the race, I took some melatonin and slept great. 

Being a ten minute drive from the race start meant we got to sleep in until 4:30 am (last time I had to wake up at 3:20!). That's still pretty early and I was groggy and questioning my life choices, as always. I stumbled to the bathroom to brush my teeth, and found my mouth unexpectedly filled with nasty fake bubblegum flavor that was disgustingly sickly sweet. Apparently I had grabbed the wrong toothpaste.

Hazards of waking up with a #motherrunner.
After that I was wide awake. We headed over to the high school where the race begins. About halfway there, Kara realized she'd left her carefully packed drop bag at the hotel. The race began at 6am, and it was already 5:30, so that meant she was pretty much screwed, since her headlamp was in there.

Since it was so late, we had to park half a mile away, and predicted that was really going to suck after the race. We were right. The good news was by the time we used the (heated!) bathroom, it was 5:56 and we didn't have any time to freak out, fake a pulled hamstring and and spend the day in the hotel hot tub. We walked up to the start and checked in at about 5:59. With no formal command, the race just began when everyone moved through the start line.

If I had seen this crazy eye picture before the race, I'm pretty sure I would have DNS'd.
As you can see in the picture, the race begins in complete darkness. According to an email we received, lights wouldn't be necessary due to the nearly full moon, but I did not find that to be the case. The last time I ran this race, it was my first 50 and I had packed everything I could ever possibly want 3 days ahead of time, made color coded google documents, and was really on the ball.

This time, it hadn't even occurred to me to pack a light, and if Perry hadn't mentioned it in a Friday morning email, I wouldn't have brought them at all. Which is surprising, considering I am still mentally scarred from the horror of running for 3 hours in the dark last time. 

The race starts around the school, then goes down the steepest hill I have ever run (seriously, this is not 50 miler distortion, it's insane, and the race finishes by going right back up it). Since it's 6am, everything is coated with a nice slippery layer of dew. After the hill, it's single track trail, and instead of wet grass, it's wet leaves, which cover pointy roots and jutting rocks. Did I mention it was pitch black, which quickly turned into that grey twilight that is possibly even more difficult to see in?

I had thrown my knuckle lights and headlamp in my suitcase at the last minute, but I hadn't bothered to check the batteries. I gave my headlamp to Kara, but it seems she considered going from her expensive Petzl to my $9 Walmart headlamp a bit of a downgrade, and was dissatisfied with the quality. My batteries were nearly dead, so we were pretty close to running blind.

Things quickly got even more fun. Apparently, we were starting on an out and back (I guess I could have checked the course map a little more diligently). Through a swamp. So while we were navigating thick, slick mud, runners started returning on the single track trail (aka super narrow path), blinding us with their working lights and fresh batteries. 

Annoying as it was this out and back allowed the race to skip the waist high stream crossing at mile 47, and allowed the course to be actually 51 miles, so I wasn't too mad. I knew from before that the race sort of sucked before there was daylight. I was expending 99% of my mental energy on trying not to fall and slice my skull open on rocks, and trying really hard to hold out for sunrise. The other 1% of my energy was panicking about having no lights at the end of the race, when it was also be pitch black, and I'd be tired and delusional.

 As predicted, once the sun came out, my spirits were high, and I started to enjoy the race. While I have bad mouthed Stone Mill for the extra distance, it's really a well organized race and the volunteers are just absolutely phenomenal. For the most part, the trails are really runnable and easy to follow. It's no frills - you pay your $35, show up, run, go home - no medal or tshirt.

I don't need to pay for fancy signs!
Mile 1-20ish were good times all around. I didn't bother to wear my Garmin, thinking it didn't have a long enough battery life. Turns out, everyone else's lasted until the finish, but I didn't regret my decision. I love trail running because you can just zone out and not obsess over numbers, and get all zen with the trees or whatever. I wore a regular wrist watch, and every time I looked it, I was pleasantly surprised with how long we had been running.
I was even still able to smile for the photographer!
Don't worry, he still caught one of my usual horrible form and DERP? face
Somewhere in there we met up with our friends Perry and Crystal, and the four of us chatted and were having a grand old time. Around 2 hours in, it was time for a bathroom break, but there was really no tree cover in the woods. So we opted for the obvious second choice.

Stone Mill is a hardcore, trail ultra. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
Kara was really concerned they wouldn't want muddy, non paying randoms using their bathrooms, but I assured her that during my 6 years as a partner (fancy Starbucks terminology for "employee"), we let anyone and everyone (including much dirtier people) use the bathroom. Additionally, I'm quite sure I've spent more than enough money there to warrant unlimited bathroom use for life.

To keep it classy, I used the men's room to save time. If we had to take turns, our finish could have been like 11:38 instead of 11:35, and you can see how disastrous that would have been.

We were really concerned about mile 20, since that was a low point for both of us when we ran JFK. We agreed to treat ourselves to some Christmas music from Pandora as a pick me up then, but we never needed it. Mile 25 is the "Penny Loch" aid station (you know when they have names, they are going to be extra special and not just have pretzels, like some of the smaller ones). There were a ton of delicious looking homemade treats (including pizza?!). 

I know I had a lot of good stuff there (turned out to be too much, oops, but it was the last time I made that mistake), but what stood out was this unbelievably delicious homemade coconut macaroon. I said before that what sucked me back into this race was the food - so many volunteers take the time to bake special treats, and they are truly talented.

Do you see that grill? They were making fresh hot grilled cheeses! (I did not partake out of fear of GI distress).

After that, you get about 3 miles on the C&O canal (a flat, crushed rock path). It can be boring (it got a little monotonous during JFK, where you are on it for 27 miles!), but it's a really nice change from the rolling hills, having to constantly stare at your feet, and being on your guard to avoid falling. Just like in 2011, I thought I'd love this portion, but I actually hated it and couldn't wait to get back on the trails. I think I got to reliant on my walk breaks on the hills!

Conventional running wisdom promotes negative splits (running the second half faster than the first), but I've come to learn that for me, in an ultra, that's just not the way to go. There's basically no chance that I'm going to great and ready to push the pace at mile 40, so I need to run strong where I can, and that's generally the beginning. Our friend seemed surprised that we didn't have specific pace goals, but ultras have such varied terrain and they are just SO LONG that it's impossible (for me) to plan paces ahead of time. I think we've gotten pretty good at running by feel - pushing it when we feel good, and dialing it back when we need to, and other than forgetting to change my batteries, I think I ran this race to the best of my abilities.

Kara and I each took a picture of the woods at completely different parts of the race. I think it's safe to say that these give you a pretty good view of almost the entire course.

We stared at leaves for nearly 12 hours.
Sometimes we got breaks. To climb over rocks. Under overpasses. This was somewhere in the high 40 miles, so you can imagine how fun that was.

This was my actual view. I can't complain.
Somewhere in the 20s (I think?) we got to see the actual Stone Mill. 

So impressive, RIGHT?

Perry had pointed out that miles 30-40 were really the challenge of a 50 mile race, and as soon as he said it, I knew he was right. At mile 30, you're exhausted because you've run really, really far, and you still have a long ass way to go. Plus, there's that feeling of "would it really be so bad to quit now? I could still say I've ran 30 miles, and that's really nothing to sneeze at". By mile 40, you usually experience that mental turnaround from "eh, if I quit it wouldn't be so bad" to "I've come this far, I'm crossing that finish line if it kills me!", and you get the mental boost of having only single digits left.

So far, I'd managed to avoid that complete and utter depths of despair, I can't do this, I hate everything and everyone feeling that had plagued me in the early 20 miles of Stone Mill 2011. I knew if I could get through the 30s without them, I'd be golden. 

I did, and I was. I'd like to attribute this to working really hard lately on my positive attitude (I've been writing my 30 days of thankful items in my notebook every night and everything!). But that would be a lie. Here's the real secret behind my success.

Yup. This happened.
Drinking and running. I recommend it.
They had Jim Beam last time, and I didn't have any, and I have always wondered about what could have been. I skipped the liquor at mile 25, on account of things like being scared of throwing months of training into the crapper, imminent death or dismemberment as a result of drunk trail running, GI distress, wasting precious running time boozing it up, etc, etc. 

But at mile 29, with those Debbie Downer 30-40 miles looming, it was make or break time. I went for it, and luckily Perry joined me so I didn't have to drink alone. I mixed it with coke, if you were wondering. 

Kara informed that if I became drunk and lazy she'd drop me like a bad habit, so the next few miles were pretty much like when you have too much at happy hour and then a coworker you barely know shows up and in your head you're all like "just sound sober. Did that sound sober? Is that what a sober person would say?". I assured her that I only poured like a teaspoon in my coke. I'm pretty sure that was true, but after running for the entire morning and part of the afternoon, I could certainly feel that teaspoon.

I stand by my choice though, because from what I could tell, of the two of us, the one who had imbibed was in much better spirits.

I honestly wasn't that concerned about time, since I was pretty much assured of a PR. I was, however, extremely concerned about minimizing the time spent running in the dark as much as humanly possible. Although I didn't seem to have any memories whatsoever of the race course, I quite vividly remembered the terror of the woods at night. Aside from the drinking, I felt good about our time at aid stations, we were grabbing food and walking off pretty quickly, as per our plan. I couldn't stop comparing the various miles and times to my previous experience, and since the current one was coming out favorably in every way possible, that was really a pick me up.

For example, we reached mile 25 exactly at 5 hours in. I know before we were at something like mile 23 at the six and a half hour point, because I remember thinking "well we're effing screwed here". I was constantly calculating how many more hours of daylight we had and praying we could finish before the sun set.

There was a big aid station at mile 43. Other runners really saved our lives here. Crystal had an extra headlamp in her bag (they were ahead of us at this point, but she'd given Kara permission to take it). I was so panicked about my batteries that I would have stopped at a gas station and bought them if I had brought money with me. Crystal had 3 batteries in her bag, which I took, and an aid station volunteer gave me a fourth from his own personal headlamp! A second volunteer held all my crap and helped me switch out the batteries, and I felt like a HUGE weight had been lifted. I can't say enough how amazing everyone at this race was.

I still had high hopes of finishing in the light. The volunteers told us there was another aid station in 5 miles, and then 2 more miles until the finish. We had over an hour and a half to cover only 7 miles! 

They did it again though. After 5 miles, we reached an aid station....only to be told we were at mile 47. At, this point I could barely put together a cohesive sentence or state my own name, but I'd had quite awhile in the woods to crunch the numbers, and I was pretty positive that 43 + 5 = mile 48, not 47.

Here you can kind of tell our intellectual level in the later miles. 

This triggered intense, frightening flashbacks of the never-ending race of 2011, and I started interrogating the volunteers.

"How many more miles?"
"Just 3 and some change"
"ARE YOU SURE IT'S 3?? And what does "some change" mean?"
"It will feel like a long 3!"
"I don't care what it feels like....BUT IS IT REALLY 3? OR IS IT 6??"

They swore it was really 3 but I didn't believe anything anymore and it was nearly sunset. 

If you have never run in the woods, in the dark, all I can say is that it's a truly special experience. Even though we didn't achieve my goal of finishing in daylight, I was kind of glad Kara got to find out just how much pure hell it is. When I thought we had maybe 2 miles left, I made sure to point out "now imagine finding out you have 8 MORE MILES". Our new lights really helped out, but it's still really disheartening and scary to have no idea where you are, how many more miles there are to go, and to run for miles without seeing one single other human being. It's one thing to be at the end of a race and know you just have to push through for x more miles or minutes, but it's quite another to have run 48 miles and have NO CLUE when the hell this thing is ending. We were near a road, and the trail kept turning toward it, and we'd be like "finally!" and then the trail would wind again and we would be headed away.

Finally, though, we could hear the finish line cheers getting louder, and the lights kept getting closer, and we exited the woods on the road near the school. They have one last cruel little joke, and put you back in the woods when you can see the school, just so you can go through the woods and up that horrific hill to the finish.

I'll definitely be framing these.
We took some gorgeous pictures, then got the hell out of dodge. And by that I mean baby stepped like old ladies toward the car while talking nonsense because we could no longer do anything remotely close to thinking.

That was long ass recap for a long ass race, and I still feel like I left stuff out (the 900 stream crossings, for one). More importantly, I still haven't had a thin mint brownie. (Kara's hypothesis was that they weren't appealing since 90% of our diet yesterday was candy, cookies, and soda). You'll all just have to wait in suspense for tales of our fantastic post race celebration.

Edited to add: I had a bite of bacon at one of the aid stations!

Edited again (I'm tired) - if this wasn't enough information for you and you're dying to know more, check out Kara's recap!


  1. NO MEDAL!! But, but, but, how do you prove to other people that you even did it?

  2. You're such a good writer that I almost felt like I was there with you! :)

    1. Also, you really nailed the description of how we walked back to our car. I wish we could have captured the difficulty of removing the muddy, sweaty compression gear. That was at least another half mile worth of effort. Ultras need people to help you strip down, just like Ironman races.

    2. I wish I could have captured how disgusting the bathroom was when we checked out.

    3. Ha, you should have just showered in it, called it clean, and worn it to bed!

    4. I mean, it wasn't our bed, so why not?

  3. Anonymous StepfatherNovember 17, 2013 at 8:38 PM

    So impressed and proud, especially about the bourbon consumption. (That's top shelf stuff BTW.) I also had to Google 'derp' which caused me to exclaim: "Derp!"

    Seriously, Mom and I are beaming. Well done you.

  4. You guys seriously killed this race-- congrats!!

  5. This was fantastic, Alyssa! I did feel like I was running the race with you; without the freezing stream crossings, of course! :)

    And I do like you strategy for getting through miles 30-40 (and Kara of course proved your point splendidly in her post, indicating that those were the hardest for you - the whole time I was reading, I kept thinking, "Should've partied with Alyssa at the aid station!" :) ). If I ever decide to upgrade from 50K to 50 mi, I'll bear that in mind.

    Hope you enjoyed a fabulous sleep and some non-sugary carbs, and are feeling prepared to hit the sugar today! :) Congratulations!!

  6. You know what's crazy?! You & Kara make this actually sound fun! Well, a runner's idea if fun... If I ever do a 50 mile race I'll know who to blame! Way to go & congrats on the PR!

  7. Thank you for always making me laugh out loud!
    What a recap! I think I will head over to Kara's page to read her thoughts.
    Congrats on a GREAT race... I don't know if the Ultra is for me or not. When I read reports like this I am equally terrified and intrigued! :)

  8. You look like such a joyful wood-nymph in that first running pic.

    That tale of that last few worst nightmare. Great recap and great job :)

  9. CONGRATULATIONS!!! What a killer course PR and well-executed race!

    I can't believe you were brave enough to drink mid-race. That's ballsy...but I loved your description of it/comparison to happy hour. That is exactly what it's like.

    I feel like you make this sound like fun - until the end. Spending all day running around in teh woods sounds awesome, until I think about Ragnar and my experience running trails in the dark, and I'm like "nopenopenope."

  10. I'm pretty sure you guys can count me out for ever joining you on one of these races. I'll stick to marathons with you.

  11. Congrats! Sounds like a great Stone Mill redemption. I had no idea that at times you could see civilization at a few points at this race. That seems a bit cruel!!

  12. Amazing job! I'm dumbfounded. Who would have thought drinking and marathoning would be the magic combo?

  13. Pretty much awesome. Did Kara make you run behind her the whole way? Your recaps kind of make me want to do one of those but then I remember I am not even a fan of the marathon.

  14. Great job!!! Glad to hear the course was closer to 50 this time. I'd definitely consider whiskey mid-long run on a cold day.

  15. Congrats on your nearly 3 hour PR!!! Crushed it! (I hope you've seen Pitch Perfect) I absolutely cannot imagine being at mile 48 and not knowing how much further or when you'll even see another human or be out of the woods. They would find me the next morning in a fetal position in the leaves or something.

    I don't think I'll ever be brave enough to drink during any race. But not to worry, the alcohol on the course does not go to waste. I ran my first full marathon this past weekend and my dad was able to bike alongside me from mile 15- the finish since it was a small race. He happily accepted beer from anyone handing it out along the way!

  16. Ah, Knob Creek is one of my favorite bourbons. If I didn't dislike running so much, I would run that far some Knob Creek Maple.

    Also, that guy in the 2 pictures above is totally checking out the whooty.


Thanks for commenting! Comments make me probably more happy than they should.