Wednesday, June 7, 2017

McNaughton 50 Mile Trail Race

I believe I’ve mentioned this before but the start of a trail ultra marathon looks more like a gathering, a clumping, a general standing around until the race director yells go. Depending on the difficulty of the race, the length of the race, and the preference of the runner, some will take off and give it a go while most will barely stop their conversations as they pick up their pace. Our small group of 50 mile and 100 mile runners started at 6 am Saturday morning in the camping area of McNaughton Park and quickly took a left down a short, steep trail before rounding a field. As we lengthened out, the chatter was cheerful and plenty. A similar short and steep ascent brought us back near the starting area where I immediately dumped my headlamp with Bill as it was already light enough to see the trail. Thus began my first 50 mile race.

My new headlamp Bill gave me for Christmas that I never even turned on
I can’t share my race experience without mentioning Justin. We’re both from Huxley. We both run trail ultras. We both did Psycho Wyco this year. And we both signed up for this race. But we never run together. Well, almost never. We ended up doing some treadmill miles together about three weeks before the race inadvertently. However, at packet pick-up (where you pick up your race bib and t-shirt and other stuff), we met up and I invited myself, Bill and Gary to have pizza with Justin. At supper we all talked race stuff where Gary gave us a bit of course description, him having done three loops before having to call it quits on his 200 mile attempt. The guys also talked cars and that sort of thing. I still have no idea what a splitter is but my pizza was good. The next morning when Justin and I started together we didn’t talk any strategy or race pace or anything. Just two Huxley ultra runners who never run together running together. 

Talking race strategy (and beer)

First loops are almost always fun. The runners are generally together and the banter is light and there are lots of jokes. It’s easy to get carried away by fresh legs and bright ideas. Optimism is at its highest during the first loop. Caution to keep the pace easy and attention to course markings blown to the wind. Except I knew better and having been warned by Gary to pay attention as he knew of other runners getting lost on the first loop. The sun rose within our first hour and brought with it warm temps which perked up the spring colors. Around the trail we ran and hiked the hills while the birds exercised their vocal chords. We came into the first aid station about 3 miles in and grabbed some fruit and kept moving. 

Pay attention to the flowers, too
I never rely solely on the hotel for my breakfast and always pack my own. This time it was a breakfast burrito and a banana with almond butter. I’ve tried also eating yogurt but it gives me a serious gag reflex later when brushing my teeth and I’ve come close to a full on throw up. No throwing up this time either at breakfast or the rest of the day for me. (Thanks for reading, Dave. Have a nice day!) I didn’t know about the coffee situation and had brought my own k-cup in case our room had a machine. It did not but as I staggered bleary-eyed out of the lobby, I found that the hotel management had started the coffee early, thanks to the insistence of another runner.

Even though I had been on the course last year, I paid particular attention to how it flowed for me during the first loop. Whatever felt easy to me now and was no big deal would be harder and harder in subsequent loops. I hiked all the hills with momentum but not too aggressively and took it easy on the downhills. Even though I didn’t have as much hill training as I would have liked over the winter, I knew the hills on this trail were short and steep and definitely work but were not that bad overall. I made mental notes of where I hoped to be able to run on the later loops and where I would have to practice patience and get through. The course was marked with ribbons on trees, ground flags and paint, some signs and reflective clips for those running in the dark.

In the weeks leading up to the race, the weather had been quite rainy. This gave me a bit of concern as to how muddy the trail would be and how high the creek crossings would rise. There are two creek crossing over the 10 mile loop. 50 miles, 5 loops, 10 creek crossings. Its not really something I practice during my training runs. Neither is running in mud. Most public trails don’t like traffic on them in wet conditions because it tears up the trail. As it turns out, the trails were mostly mud free though it was inevitable that my feet would be completely soaked at each water crossing. I made sure my feet were well covered with Trail Toes (kind of like Vaseline but better) before slipping on my socks and shoes.

Last  year we could get across without getting wet. This year Moses didn't show up.
Making a 10 mile loop around a park means the trail weaves around established trails, crosses over some open spaces a couple of times, takes you over hills, winds you around the bottoms, connecting all the different sections into one. Almost every part had a name: Totem Pole aid station, the beach, Heartbreak Hill. There is a pretty little section called Heaven’s Gate that stays on the edge of the creek with a sweet single track section before crossing a field that stayed wet all weekend. The course passes through a disc golf course before ending back at the race camping area.  

If only they allowed dirt bikes on the trail
Justin and I discussed what we would do once back at the start/finish line. I had started the race in capris and two long sleeve layers but had already warmed up enough so I wanted to change into shorts. We finished our first loop in about 2 hours and 15 minutes and I dashed into Gary’s tent to change. My crew was Bill and Gary. Bill kept my gels and food replenished, my Tailwind bottles and hydration bladder full and did the math, along with cheering me on. Gary picked up my trash, inspected the condition of my wet feet and kept up the race banter which is code for checking on my mental condition. They were great and made each stop there go smoothly and quickly for me. 

Before Justin and I headed out our second loop we stopped at the aid station table loaded with food. They had donut holes! I grabbed two and practically choked on one stuffing it down my throat. I shoved a half banana into one of the pockets of my vest for later.

The runners had spread out now. We would come across pockets of them here and there along the trail. Often we would pass a runner with a pacer or two. They had started either Friday to complete 150 miles or Thursday evening for 200 miles. So many of them were in good spirits despite having only the smallest amounts of sleep they felt they could get away with in between loops although we did see someone asleep to the side of the trail as his pacer kept watch. We would catch up to one, have a brief chat but since we weren't nearly as tired and didn’t have as far to go, passed them and moved ahead quickly. The birds were singing, the day was early and everything still felt easy.

Justin and I chatted about anything and nothing. It didn’t matter and I barely remember. We were just passing the time and miles. The trail was starting to take on its own rhythm. I kept taking it all in and strung all the parts together from last year and this year. Doing five continuous loops never became boring. For one, it was on a trail and even in one day a trail can take on so many nuances. Secondly, I was always assessing my pace, how I felt, what I was eating and drinking and would this be sustainable for me for the next loop or the next two loops, etc. I kept an eye on the half hour, taking in a gel as routinely as possible, Other than that, I didn’t pay attention to the actual time of day or how long I had been out there, more on the half hour marks and my average pace. My primary goal was to finish the distance and my secondary goal was to finish it under 15 hours. This is an average finish time for most 50 mile races even though this race was very generous by having over 30 hours to complete the distance. 

I had posted a picture on Instagram of all the food I planned to pack and eat such as fig newtons, oatmeal cookies, Twizzler Nibs and Pringles since these were the foods I trained with. However, with last minute advice from a trusted friend, Chris, I changed it all up. He said I should keep my base calories (200 calories/hr) incoming by way of gels and add other foods as needed or wanted. Chris’s suggestion made sense to me and since I have not had a problem with how gels affect my stomach, I went with the strategy of downing a GU Energy gel or HUMA chia gel every half hour. This plan worked really well for me and am positive that I will continue this fuel plan when I race again.

Running is so healthy
Finishing the second loop, I shouted out to Bill what I wanted from my stuff so he could pull it out while I went to the bathroom. I made sure to stop every loop since I didn’t want to go in the woods if necessary. Only once did I have to do that and I’ll tell you there is not much cover in early spring. Having to go meant I was drinking enough liquid. Not having to go more than once a loop meant I was managing my water and electrolytes and caffeine pretty well. Side note- Even though the toilets were temporary, the race kept them clean for the entire weekend. 

We kept this stop short. Minutes add up quickly at aid stations and I like to pass through most of them as fast as I can. My feet still felt fine so I took a new bottle of Tailwind, a handful of gels and headed down the trail with Justin. On the previous loop, I went to eat the banana I had stashed in my vest pocket but couldn’t find it. I figured I must have eaten it already but of course couldn’t remember if I had or hadn’t. A trash can was placed a bit further on then the main aid station and I took a moment to empty the trash I was carrying from gel wrappers and other stuff when I looked down to see half a banana on the ground. Being less than two feet from the trash can, it looked like a runner was a lazy slob and couldn’t throw it away properly. But I knew the real story and exclaimed “Here’s the banana I lost!” So, I did what I normally do. I picked it up and threw it into the trash. Sorry, friends, I did not eat any food off the ground this race. (I probably should get a gold star for this.)

One of my favorite things is when the race starts to take on personality. We came across a young boy with his dad. He had a race bib one so I asked him what he was doing, meaning what distance was he attempting. His reply to me was “This.” (He completed 50k, with lots of careful supervision!) Someone had been out and placed plastic plate signs along the course. I came to think of them as what fortune cookies would say if they had more room.
I did have to put on sunscreen

Is it just me or does this sign have a little too much sass for a plastic green plate?
At the end of the third loop my knees were aching more than I wanted them to be. Having dealt with this over and over by now, I didn’t do anything more than just note how they felt and sprayed them with BioFreeze. I continue to wonder why they hurt only during races. My guesses are that I am unable to train on terrain most similar to the trails I race on and maybe even more importantly, in training I never push the pace because I’m going for a new distance or trying a more difficult terrain. I plan to adapt my training to work on this. We always finished our loops strong and when we came in this time I changed both my socks and shoes after wearing the same pairs for the first thirty miles. The fresh footwear felt so good. Gary stuffed my damp shoes with newspaper to help dry them out faster, remarking about my doll sized feet and how he was saving on newspaper. (I wear size 7 and if anyone wears or tries on my shoes they are on my naughty list.) Bill was concerned I wasn’t drinking enough water but I assured him I was.

The fourth loop waited for us. Neither Justin nor I had gone further than 31 miles until now. My friend, Julia had said the fourth loop would be the worst. It would be new distance territory and also not so close to the finish that you could say you were almost done. I decided to just let this ten miles be its own and didn’t expect anything else. 

We made it to the first aid station and I grabbed a cup of potato soup. Although the temperature was in the 70’s, the soup tasted so good. For ultras, aid stations are placed a few miles apart and are packed with food, unlike road races, which are mainly water or Gatorade. There is fruit- orange slices, bananas, watermelon. All sorts of candy. Salty items such as pretzels, pickles, potato chips. And real food choices like quesadillas, oatmeal peanut butter balls, soup, boiled potatoes, cookies, and more. When you consider runners are out for 6, 12, 24 hours, having real food makes sense. And is delicious. Everything is the best thing you’ve ever tasted. Justin didn’t know he liked fruit so much. Watermelon is amazing. Avocado and cheese quesadillas are magical. Coke and ginger ale have healing powers, I tell ya. 

Not captured- me belching after guzzling this cup of potato soup
Amber had advised us to work through our highs and lows during this loop. At one point, Justin and I separated a bit. When we met up again, I was concerned about how the rest of the race was going to go for us. I had yet to bonk but I told him if I did it would look like me crying, which freaked him out a bit. I told him if that happened to make me eat something and keep moving. 

I really wanted to run so I tried, asking Justin how my running looked. He said I was better walking. I agreed, given my knees were acting like the Tin Man in need of a good oiling along. I was more efficient at hiking than I was at running anyway. I didn't spend much time dwelling on what I couldn’t do but instead focused on what I could do and what I needed to do to keep that up. I wanted to get this loop over with. I wanted to finish the race before I needed my headlamp again. I didn’t want anyone passing me. 

Go ahead, Justin, you pick the best spot to cross. I'll wait.

As we came into the start/finish line for the fourth time, I stopped first at the guys to get the last of my stuff before crossing the timing mat and going out for the fifth loop. All the other loops I had crossed the timing mat and then gone back but this time I wanted to get going as fast as possible. Bill decided to come along with us. He was ready to stretch his legs after a day of waiting around for me to come in every two and a half hours. I filled him in with all the really important details of the day: the banana story, how I lost my balance and dunked my shoe in the mud, how there were 10 horses and riders out for a trail ride on the same course, and pointed out the cemetery from which they get the name of Heaven’s Gate and which I only just found it last loop. Fascinating stuff.  

If you can read this...
The last loop was exciting and I was ready to take it on. Once started though, it occurred to me that I still had ten miles to cover and pacing would still be important. We were about three miles in when I could feel the tears trying to make an appearance. I told Bill I was on the edge crying and needed some space to deal with it. I decided I was fine and didn’t have any reason to break down. I ate something and started focusing on the grape.

On the far bank of the first creek I had seen a green grape in the dirt during an earlier loop. It was there again during the fourth loop and I mentioned it to Justin who had seen it also. We decided if it was there on the fifth loop, we would have to do something. As I got nearer and nearer the creek I wondered about the grape. Would it be there? How did it get there in the first place? What would I do with it? We crossed the creek and with eyes down, scanned the sandy corners where it had been but it was gone. Neither Justin or I could find it. I felt a little let down because I kind of wanted to see it again but consoled myself with the idea that it met it’s fate in the way it was supposed to. Then I spent the next stretch of trail concocting stories about the grape. See, loop courses don’t have to be boring.

I was on the home stretch and I wanted to be finished. I felt I was moving slower and slower even though I pushed myself harder than ever. I finally looked at my overall time and distance to go and started really wondering what time I could finish under. Here I was, about to finish my first 50 mile race and I was going to finish faster than I had hoped. I hadn’t thought all day of how long I had been out there more than about how long each loop took. Wading across the last creek that finally didn’t splash up past my knees, I knew I was about two miles from the finish and went for the final push. Those last two miles were some of the longest of my life. Finally! Finally the campground came into view. I saw the seconds tick by as I hobble ran the last stretch towards the finish line. I finished in 12:44!

Richard, one of the race directors, was the closest person to me and I threw my arms around him in a happy hug. He handed me my belt buckle medal. Bill and Gary closed in and they each got hugs. The grinning was not going to stop for a while. And you know what never happened? I never bonked. I never cried. I didn’t cry in the week leading up to the race, or packet pickup or the morning of, or during or at the finish line or afterwards!! 

Justin was not too far behind and soon he finished as well. I’m really grateful for his company during the race. I know I did not experience the loneliness and the lows because he was there. Which means he’ll be signing up for at least three more 50 milers since that’s how many more I have in mind.

50 mile finishers! 
Wow! I was so happy with the entire day! 

I don't have a belt or a fancy place to wear this buckle
Back in the hotel room, I started removing layers. Off came the shoes and socks for the second inspection of my feet that day. I had a sore spot on the back of my heel but there were no blisters and no significant damage from the continual pounding and dunking they took. As I sat on the edge of the bed later, waiting for Bill to return with our supper of Mexican food, I started to get so tired. I had to get in the shower but I mostly just wanted to sleep. Eventually I chose the shower. I gingerly stepped in because that’s where any chaffing is truly discovered and none was to be found. Again, wow! All my gear had worked well. 
One would think after 50 miles with 8,000 of elevation gain, I would be starving. I was hungry but not overly so. I knew I had to eat so I worked my way through a taco and rice and beans. My feet were starting to swell and were getting hot and painful so I partially filled a garbage can with ice and water and forced my feet and legs in for 10 seconds at a time. Wow! It hurt like none other! I did so a handful of times and the swelling and pain was definitely reduced. I fell asleep that night with my puffy jacket on top of me like a blanket with my lower legs completely uncovered all on top of the blankets. Later on, I woke up only a little thirsty but knew I still needed to drink water. I had to keep balancing the water and electrolytes so at 1:30 in the morning, I sat in my bed eating Pringles and sucking water from my hydration pack. I fell asleep again with all that still on the bed and now a little puddle where the end of the hose had been pinched open under me and leaked. 

Even though Gary said the race was offering free loops the next morning, I took a pass and we headed home. 

I’ve thought a lot about this race since then and writing about it has taken a while not because I procrastinated but because the whole thing needed space. There was so much that went exceptionally well that day. The weather was unbelievably nice. The trail was in great shape and the creeks were tolerable to cross. I spent all day with good company, had a great crew in Bill and Gary and the race itself is well organized with amazing directors and volunteers.


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