It’s been exactly one week since I competed in my first 12-hour event, the Riverbend Park Ultra. Last year, at this same venue, I completed my first 50k, so this year I figured I would see if it would be possible to run 50 miles. It is possible, although I missed that goal by a smidge…
Ideally, you should prepare for running an ultra of this magnitude several months in advance and peak at just the right time to ensure you’ll have enough strength and endurance to be able to sustain the effort that is required to keep you on your feet for twelve hours straight. I’m not sure when I started preparing for this one, but I don’t think it was back in May. However, I did put together a training plan around the July timeframe and was able to increase my weekly mileage appropriately so that it wasn’t a “complete” shock to my system. But it was hard…that much I will admit.
In addition, I worked on a carb-loading strategy that I put into place a week before the race. Read more about how I did that here.
Since the race started at 7:00, I arrived at 6:20 AM and parked along the dirt road next to the River Pavilion that would serve as the starting point for the race and main aid station. This year I set up my coolers, chair, and miscellaneous gear right on the side facing outward, so that when I returned with each lap I could sit in my chair and get to my stuff easily. I brought two coolers with me. In one, I had some of those large, flat blue plastic ice packs on the bottom under a thin towel, and on top of these I stacked two Nathan hydration vests that I had pre-freezed all the way through. Usually I only freeze half of the contents (always just pure water) and fill the rest up with water but this time I froze them solid. I knew by the time I planned on putting these on the heat index would be above 100 so I needed them to stay as cold as possible for several hours. I put my third frozen hydration vest on my chair so that I could put it on easily when needed. But I started out with just a fuel belt with two 10 oz water bottles strapped around my waist.
I knew there would be a water/Gatorade stop at the two-mile mark of the four-mile loop and that I could refill these if need be. But I brought the frozen vests because I knew after a few hours I would be too tired to keep refilling the small bottles. Plus the ice in the vests would keep me cooler when the feels-like temps would be in the triple digits!
This year, Robert and Christian (our amazing race directors) started the pre-race meeting earlier than they did last year, which enabled the race to start at 7 AM sharp! I’m glad I was ready as I had expected it to start a little later. After getting all of my stuff set-up, spraying on a little bug repellant with sunscreen (I had slathered up with the SPF 50 stuff earlier when I had gotten dressed) I made my rounds, looking for friends to say “hi” and “good luck” to. I happened to set my stuff up next to another friend, Tim, who informed me he was doing his first 50k. This brought back fond memories for me from one year ago when I did my first 50k right here at Riverbend.
Since this was my first 12-hour event, the thing I was most unsure about was pacing. I knew from the run coach certification program I was in the process of completing that your pacing strategy must be determined before you start your race and that you shouldn’t deviate from it no matter how awesome you feel when you start. As a result, I had practiced and tried out different things in prior weeks, under similar conditions, so I could pre-plan accordingly. My plan was to run four loops (16 miles) before starting some walk/run combos. I knew it would only be a matter of time before I would be walking 100% of the time and I was hoping I would be able to squeeze in 50 miles when all was said and done.
I was successful at running the first 16 miles. As I had expected, I ran these a little faster than I would have liked because it was exciting running and talking and socializing with friends. These miles were all in the 10-min/mile range, except for mile 14, which I can see from my Strava record was 9:38. Ouch! That’s way too fast for me for a 12-hour effort. What was I thinking? (See photo below, and the culprit!)
I planned my eating strategy as well. I had brought along some sliced watermelon, peeled mandarin oranges, a banana (I had eaten one on the drive over), and some peanut butter sandwiches on raisin bread with the crust cut off. I also had a stash of electrolyte capsules sitting on my chair “at the ready”. Every time I came in from a 4-mile loop, I downed a capsule, a bottle of water, and forced myself to eat something.
By the time I reached the halfway point, or six hours into it, I had completed seven full laps (28 miles). I knew I would not be able to maintain that pace for the next six hours so at that point I knew doubling that distance (which would be 56 miles) was completely out of the question. “Would I even be able to get 50?”, I wondered. It didn’t matter, “Just keep at it!”, I thought to myself. It was at this point that my husband and friend had shown up with two cheeseburgers from a fast food joint–I had asked them to come at 1 PM because I knew I would need some warm, solid food to sustain me for another six hours, and I also knew that those would go down fast and easy. Hey, don’t judge! I’m a child of the 60’s when fast food was the “in thing” and now I can’t get it out of my blood!! Downing those burgers was just what I needed (although I only ate one at that time, and the other one two laps later). After ten minutes of resting and eating, I strapped on my first hydration vest and got back on the trail. I walked the first half of this loop because I wanted to make sure that burger stayed down!
After walking for a few minutes I noticed that Tim had set off on his next lap a minute or so before me. When I approached the one-mile mark I saw him up ahead of me, walking. I was pretty sure he had two laps to go, to make his 50K goal, and I wasn’t going to let him quit now! I managed to jog a little so I could catch up to him and asked him what was hurting him the most. He said his legs were tight and that he had thought about giving up. I asked him if he had done any stretching throughout the race and he said “No”. I said, “Well, when we get up to the next bridge, let’s stop for a minute and stretch out our quads, hamstrings, hips, and calves.”. I told him I had been stretching all the way through and that I would show him what to do. When we got to the bridge we eased into some gentle stretches and when we started up again Tim said that he felt so much better. I was happy that I could help, even in this small way! We walked/jogged the entire lap together and then started out on the next.
At this point, each 4-mile lap was taking longer and longer for me to finish. I had surpassed the one-hour-per-lap benchmark that I had been dreading the entire race. Two miles into my ninth lap and Tim’s eighth and final one for the 50k, I had resorted to walking exclusively. I realized at that time that I had pulled something in my left hip. It was becoming increasingly difficult for me to lift my left leg, despite having been stretching it out throughout the day. This made it tough for me to walk and nearly impossible to run. I could see that Tim was feeling better than I was and I told him that I didn’t want to hold him back. I said, “I can tell that you still have some gas left in the tank, so why don’t you go on up ahead and try to run some of your final lap?” He decided that this would be for the best and moved forward with gritty determination. I knew I wouldn’t get to see him cross the finish line but I was sure it would be an amazing experience for him, finishing his first 50k, just the same!
On my tenth lap, I met up with Meredith, who informed me that she had run out of water in her handheld. If I told you it was extremely hot out at this point, would you believe me? The heat index peaked around 2 PM at 102 degrees, so it was surely in the upper 90’s and bright and sunny at this point. Meredith told me that the aid station at the 2-mile mark was out of water and she still had two more miles to go before getting back to the start. I was wearing a full ice cold hydration vest with a tube and valve and thought, “Maybe I can squeeze some cold water out and put it into her bottle so she doesn’t die from dehydration!” and that’s just what we did. At that point, Meredith was feeling a bit stronger than me-she was running for 5 mins/walking for 2 and I was pretty much “just walking” at this point so she went off on her merry way after that.
After lap 10, I saw my friend Shelley at the aid station bounding towards me. She had run 20 miles earlier in the day…went home to entertain company, and came back to help me finish! So, I had a tremendous amount of support on lap 11, my final lap on the 4-mile course. At the start of this lap it was nearly 5:00, and the race would end at 7 PM sharp. Since I had already run 40 miles I knew I would be at 44 when I finished the lap with one hour to go. (Yes, I could still do simple arithmetic at this point.) It was obvious to me, even in the exhausted state I was in, that I would not be able to get 50 miles in before the time deadline, but that didn’t stop Shelley from encouraging me to keep going and meet my stretch goal. At one point I had to say to her, “Hey, I can barely lift my legs off the ground, there is no way I am going to be able to make 50 miles so let’s put that out of our heads right now!” I didn’t mean to be so harsh but this race was a lot like giving birth…and I was at the point where the pain was so great I was starting to yell and curse at my friends and family like a pregnant woman does right before that final agonizing push!!!
So, at 6 PM I made it to the aid station, checked in at the desk, and started on the shorter, 0.9-mile loop around the little island that we were on. How many of these could I do in an hour? With the intense pain I was feeling now “one” is all I could muster up. After that single lap I sat down at the check-in table and thought “I just can’t do it anymore. I am going to have to quit.” The thought of quitting 11 hours-and-change into this herculean effort was really disappointing to me because my only goal was to keep moving for the entire 12 hours. “Could I find the strength to carry on with 45 minutes to go?”, I thought to myself pessimistically.
Let’s stop right here and think about this for a minute. When is the last time you went out for a 45-minute run? Would you consider this a good one-one that would require some strength and endurance? I know I would. Just heading out all fresh and clean on a 45-minute run, any day of the week, would be an accomplishment. But here I was was, tired, in pain, legs throbbing…hungry, thinking about going for a 45-minute run! After having just run for 11 hours and 15 minutes!!! Holy Moly…when you think about it this way it’s just insane!!! And I wasn’t the only one. There were a few other runners who had stuck it out with me.
I decided to sit for ten minutes and then give it another shot. This was the first time I had sat down for more than two minutes since my ten-minute lunch break at 1:00. I thought, “Maybe a ten minute break will be all I need to be able to keep going and make one of my goals.” And I was right!
At 6:25 I set out on another lap around the island. I will admit, this one was tough. But there were a few other die-hards grinding it out right along with me. There was MT and Iris and Caitlin-three unbelievably amazing women that I look up to for encouragement and inspiration. And there was Iris’ entourage as well (Malika, Michael, and Regis, all of whom had encouraging words for everyone who was still moving). Then there was Ann. I didn’t know it at the time but she was here from California, attempting to run an ultra in every state in the US! She was as delightful as she was supportive, with her furry little unicorn-on-a-stick. And there were some guys out there too-Dave and Steve, to name just two.
After eeking out that second little lap I was determined to get one more in. “Could I do it with just 15 minutes left?” Unfortunately, at this time I noticed a “runner down”…she was being attended to by some nurses and the ambulance had just pulled up. I took a good look and saw that she appeared to be conscious and alert so I didn’t let it distract me too much as I had important work to do. (Afterwards I found out she was fine and ran more miles than me to boot!) Starting that final lap was truly one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. I won’t drag it out too much but suffice it to say, I had to dig deep halfway around for one final push. I came up behind Iris and her entourage and slowly jogged by with a few words of encouragement. She was still close enough to me to slap me (hard!) on the butt and I heard “Oh, it’s on!” come out of her tired little mouth. And just like that, we were all jogging, at first, then running, and then all-out sprinting!!! Yes, the pain in my legs was excruciating but finishing with a final kick like that is something I’m known for and I wasn’t going to disappoint today! Strava clocked me at 48.6 miles-so close to my stretch goal!!!
Afterwards, I realized I achieved my second goal as well, which was to not be so completely spent after a race that I can’t walk…Since I didn’t have to run any more I actually was feeling pretty great! I finished that last lap with four minutes to spare and when I looked back at my results my final 0.6 miles was at a 10-min/mile pace. So my final sprint must have been fast. All in all, I came in 7th place (overall) out of 65, although I think only around 25 people had planned to run for the entire 12 hours.
A few minutes later my husband texted me that he was preparing a yummy dinner for me so I packed up my stuff, got a little help from my friends Jen and Malika, headed to the car and drove home. It was truly an amazing experience.
Now it’s time to start preparing for my next 50-miler…can you guess which one it is?