This past Saturday was the North Fork 50K trail race in Pine, Colorado. It was my first ultramarathon of the season, and a big test. I didn’t know how the brain would hold up to being out there that long and hoped I wouldn’t end up incoherent on the side of the trail or wandering through the woods somewhere. The race is roughly 50 kilometers, or 32 miles, and about 4,800 feet of vertical gain through the Pine Valley Ranch Park and Buffalo Creek Recreation Area.
I hadn’t slept well last week, so I was concerned about how my brain would handle the drive up there. We drove up the night before and stayed in a little cabin about 20 minutes from the start. They don’t allow much parking at the start, so most people have to park down the road and take a shuttle. I didn’t even think about this being an issue until right about the time the shuttle pulled into the lot. Then as more people were getting on in front of us, and I became aware of the fact that I would have to STAND as the shuttle drove us down the road, I got a little panicky. Everybody loaded up and we were on our way, with Josh rubbing my arm saying “Just breathe, you’re okay”. Within a couple of minutes, I realized I just couldn’t do it and I sat down on the floor between people’s feet. After about 6 hours on the bus (or maybe 6 minutes) we arrived at the start area. Teetering off the bus, I sat down in the middle of the parking lot dizzy and nauseous, thinking I wasn’t going to be able to start the race, much less finish it. Luckily we had 30 minutes before the start and Josh was there to check in, hand off drop bags, and store bags for the finish while I sat there trying to regain my will to live.
In the week before the race, my coach and I had discussed what my goal should be for a finishing time. Based on my training data, she thought I was capable of a 6:30 finish, but gave me pace charts for 6:30, 7:00, and 7:30. I was supposed to run the first 10 miles based on my heart rate, and then see which chart I was on and try to hold that pace. The biggest mistake I made was not listening to her more important advice, which was: “I know there are a lot of other variables that you have to manage, so above all run your own race and finish with a smile!” I felt bad at the start, and I should’ve realized that I needed to give my brain some time to recover from the shuttle disaster and go easy so I could get through the race. But that was far too logical, and I didn’t think of that at the time, so I got through the first 10 miles on pace for a 7:00 finish and went from feeling bad to feeling horrible. The dizziness came back and I was fairly certain I would have to drop at the 3rd aid station. Tucking away the pace chart, I listened to my coach’s advice finally and slowed down. As long as I made it to the finish, the finish time didn’t matter.
It took a little bit to recover, and I had to walk for a while, but after an hour at a slower pace, I started to feel better. The temperature started climbing, and I had to laugh at a few ladies volunteering at the 4th aid station who seemed horrified when I asked for ice to be poured down my sports bra. With the ice slowly melting and soaking my shirt, and my visor occasionally dipped in the creek, I survived the heat and made it to the finish. We finished in 7:34. I say “we”, because Josh did it with me. It was his second 50K ever. I will admit that it is slightly annoying that my cyclist husband is a stronger runner and could’ve done it much faster, but his feet weren’t exactly ready for that distance. He was there to run it with me, and I was grateful for the company. Hopefully, I didn’t break him.
My coach told me to “finish with a smile” and I did. Josh picked up our bags and we headed to the river for a soak. The minor problem with this plan is that I can’t watch moving water. Crazy, right? It’s true, though. The movement freaks out my brain, so I had to wade into the river with my eyes closed and Josh holding me up. The cold water felt good, but balancing against the current was tiring and I didn’t stay long. The rest of the afternoon involved eating, napping, and sitting on the deck of our tiny rented cabin watching the birds at the feeder as we stayed another night to recover before the drive home.
The major lesson from this race was a reminder that I’m not out there to win, I’m out there to heal. I have six weeks before the Sheep Mountain 50 miler, and 100 days before Run Rabbit Run 100…thankfully neither of which involve a bus ride.