Back in December, I did a thing. A big thing. I had worked on it all summer and all fall and I was scared and ready and uncertain and excited and terrified and confident and wanted to quit and skip it and dominate it all at once.
I ran my first 50k. Months of training…endless miles and countless hours of trail time lead to the last thirty-one on that rainy Saturday. I knew I had to be really brave. I had to tell myself that Jesse had been here a dozen times and I shouldn’t be so nervous…that I wasn’t the only “newbie” to the ultra scene that day…that I had to trust my training. But above all else, I had to enjoy it. That’s the point, right?
“The race always hurts. Expect it to hurt. You don’t train so that it doesn’t hurt. You train so you can tolerate it.” –Mark Rowland
And that’s the truth. I hurt, but I loved every second. It was beautiful, and awful, and awesome, and hard, and painful, and so rewarding all together. The love of distance running I managed to acquire culminated that day.
It was a crazy stormy weekend in the Pacific Northwest (i.e. a typical winter’s day). I also have a knack for choosing races that are far away – this one was northwest of Seattle on the Puget Sound at Deception Pass State Park and was put on by the popular Rainshadow Running. Months prior, I set my alarm for midnight to be able to secure a spot on opening day (it sells out ridiculously fast) and Jesse decided he would join me. We didn’t run it together; it was important that it was my own race, but I was sure glad he was there with me.
I was dressed in a ridiculous amount of layers compared to others at the starting line (short shorts and tank tops were featured.) I had two layers of merino, my heavy rain jacket, gloves, and a headband. I didn’t know what to expect and knew I could always drop stuff at an aid station.
Our race briefing included a warning of 60 mph winds (“Don’t push anyone off the cliff edges and be careful on the bridge”). It touched on us runners being sheltered for most of it (“…but be aware of falling trees around you!”), and if things started getting really sketchy, we’d all be cut off (“…after the bridge we’ll send you back, making it a 13 mile day, instead of 31”). “Awesome”, I thought. Thirteen miles sounded way better than 31…but wait! I had trained for this! This had to happen! Please don’t cut me off!!
And then it began. The course was a series of a thousand lollipops, so I often got to see Jesse as I was headed out and he was on his way back, which was fun. I found a good pacer early on (she was training for a hundred miler…go figure) and some other lovely people to keep me company for a while. I soared past aid station #1, feeling strong. I tried to look brave for the photographer, hiding my windblown misery. I stopped briefly at aid station #2 for a cup of Coke and took off again. I wore my heart rate monitor and tried to use that as my guide for pace, knowing my sustainable heart rate for long runs is around 175-180 bpm. It was consistently in the 190s or above; I couldn’t get it down without walking, so I gave up on that pretty early. Race-day adrenaline? Under-trained for all the hills? Too late for that nonsense at that point…
After leaving the aid station, I was by myself for a while, crossing the bridge for the second time alone. I never saw Jesse again, but I caught up with a few other runners on the other side and we chatted the miles away (one guy, also from Portland, and a woman from BC). We then had a serious climb to do. It was not runnable, it was a slow hike. I was again alone and starting to get pretty mentally exhausted from the slow progress. A woman caught me at the top, we exchanged some comments about the vertical challenge, and then I left her behind, eager to embrace the downhill.
The course popped out of the woods and onto the road briefly, coming into aid station #3 (which was also #4 and #5). I stopped for more Coke and some oranges, and debated losing some layers. Throughout the run I was miserable on both sides of the spectrum, outrageously overheating and shockingly cold, often within minutes of each other. I ran in all my layers for the whole thing. This first stop was at mile 14-ish and I felt pretty spent already (this course boasts about 4,500 ft of climbing overall). The rain had picked back up and I was needing to dig deep at this point.
I walked over to a spectator and pet her dog for a minute, psyching myself up for the 7 mile loop ahead of me. I walked a lot of this loop. I was alone a lot. I wanted my headphones…I wanted Jesse…I wanted the finish line. It was a muddy, sloppy mess through thick forest; I had to navigate some downed trees and had to remember to eat something (I had some Gu chews during this loop, which was my only nutrition besides the Coke and a few orange slices from earlier. Note to self: eat!). I finally made it back to the aid station and I just kind of stood under the tent, arguing with myself about quitting. The woman who met me at the top of the hill earlier, Sybil, showed up and we began chatting again. “Do you want to run the rest together?” she asked. “YES PLEASE!!!” I could have hugged her. We ran the 2nd seven mile loop (actually ran it!) and having her as my running buddy saved my first ultra. I will be eternally grateful for her company (you can read her blog post about the event here).
We reached the aid station again after those 7 hard miles and realized we were last. They were already picking up the course behind us. My spirits dropped. “But you made the cutoff!” the volunteers told us! We were going to finish. We were last, but at least they didn’t pull us from the course like they had to so many others. Which meant only 4 more miles to the finish line.
Those 4 miles took years, it seemed. My whole body was screaming. My shoulders hurt from my pack, my hips were sore, my feet were spent. We ended up catching up to another guy and even paused for a photo op with the bridge in the background. We’d been running all day, what’s a few extra minutes to capture the moment, right?
I whined to Sybil that I needed it to be over. We felt lost and so far away, as the miles ticked off and we couldn’t see the end in sight. We could hear cowbells and cheering, but couldn’t tell where it was coming from. Pretty soon we ran into the photographer again (both surprised and thankful he waited for us!). We ended up with a “sprint” finish (whatever that means after 30+ miles) and we found the end.
Finish time: 7:48. Second to last and proud as hell. The cutoff for the event was 8 hours. I had done it. I didn’t set any records, but I had just become an ultra runner. I burst into tears.
It was almost dark at this point and Jesse emerged from under a tent (near the pizza, of course). He was soaking wet; I was surprised he hadn’t changed into dry clothes. “I didn’t want to risk missing you”, he said and my tears of joy flowed harder. Then I turned to hug Sybil and to thank her for the support and company. I certainly hope to run with her again in the future; at an event or just for fun. She’s super inspirational!
We went into the hut for the after-party. There was a live band and infinite food: sandwiches, pizza, chips, cookies, fruit, beer, Coke, hot chocolate…whatever you wanted, they had it. It was an awesome spread, so many stoked runners and volunteers, and warmth. I was shivering…but I was elated.
Jesse and I drove to our friend’s house in Seattle where we stayed for the night. I peeled away my socks and the beautiful white tile became speckled with mud. I laughed to myself and then showered for what felt like hours.
My legs didn’t function for days. I avoided stairs and tried to move as little as possible. I (surprisingly) didn’t have any blisters, though a few toenails turned black, as expected.
Everyone asks “So, when’s the next one, crazy lady?”. I now respond with: “July”.