It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged, but I had to write down my thoughts in the wake of this year’s goal race – the Finger Lakes 50s 25K – otherwise known as the race run in the Sixth Circle of Hell. I’m being only slightly dramatic. I’ve been working toward this goal all season, and training was cruising along – I mean, I was feeling GOOD, people! I was crushing long trail runs left and right! I was unstoppable! I was gonna crush my first 25K and obliterate my time goal! Never tell a middle-aged mom she can’t do hard shit! And, then, injury. Of course. I spent the last 6 weeks of training rehabbing and training as much as I could around a pretty nasty SI joint/piriformis injury. My coach and my chiropractor/ART provider were able to keep me fit enough to get me to race day, but we knew I would be going in under-trained and we were all crossing our fingers I was able to make it to the finish line and not blow the rest of my season up. My race goal changed from a time goal, to “just get it done,” and I spent a couple of weeks going through a shift of emotions and mindset about it.
As race week approached, my coach fielded my increasingly panicked calls and emails and kept me stocked in encouraging Old Man Wisdom, like sayings about a blind horse leading a cart (I still don’t know what this means). He also assured me time and time again that yes, I would finish this race and that yes, I was fit enough and strong enough to make it through this. As race day approached, it also became clear that yes, the massive heat wave that was coming our way would hit the day before the race and that we would have no reprieve on race day. Hydration and fueling became my number one concern, overtaking my worry about my injury. My coach walked me through step-by-step what I needed to do leading up to and on race day and introduced me to the wonderful world of S!Caps. I trolled the local vitamin shops for some, but they didn’t carry electrolyte pills of any kind or know what I was talking about despite advertising “sports nutrition,” so Amazon Prime came to the rescue, yet again. I also decided to reward myself with a pair of Oofos (finally) and another collapsible water bottle that I could stash in my camelback backpack and fill with Tailwind. Even though I was worried about breaking the “never try anything new on race day” rule by taking the S!Caps, my coach assured me the Caps would help settle my stomach in addition to being crucial for keeping my electrolytes balanced, which would keep me out of medical on such a hot day, so I decided to throw caution to the wind. Me and heat/humidity DO NOT mix when it comes to running, so I wanted to position myself the best I could.
As the week wore on, I upped my fluid intake and added coconut water and Gatorade into the mix. The day before the race, it was in the upper 90s and I took in over 100 ounces of liquid. To make matters more interesting, I also got my period the day before the race. I fretted over whether I needed to change my choice of race outfit, since I planned to wear my Gotta Go skirt from Skirt Sports with its secret trapdoor for easy peeing out on the trail, but a quick post the to the Skirt Sports Ambassador Facebook group and some messages exchanged with Noelle, one of the head honchos at Skirt, left me assured that the Gotta Go had been designed to use even during your period and that I would be able to insert a small pad and feel comfortable running in it (yes, women! This is truth!) I couldn’t imagine how else I would somewhat discreetly pee on a single track trail during a race.
The day before the race arrived and I left work early for the long, boring drive out I-88 to Ithaca to meet my friend Karen, who was also running the race, and her amazing boyfriend, Dave, who thought we were crazy for running this race (even though he’s a runner himself) and would be acting as our sherpa/chef/moral support/professional smart ass for the weekend. I stopped every hour on the 3.5 hour drive to stretch out my piriformis, as instructed by my “handlers.” Later that day, after a mandatory stop at Wegmans, me and my friends met up at the Airbnb we had booked and Karen I left to pick up our bibs at the park where we would be running the next day, while Dave prepared us a carb-laden meal. At this point, I was more excited than nervous, and as I said to Karen multiple times “I can’t wait for it to be tomorrow and this to be over.” I just wanted to be in the middle of it or on the other side of it, no matter the outcome. Karen and I arrived at the park, which was about a 15 minute drive from our Airbnb, and found the place crawling with ultrarunners camping out and swilling various forms of adult beverages.
After almost getting lost on our way up the trail to find packet pick up (generally not a good sign, we had a good laugh about it, though), we snapped a couple of pictures and headed back.
That night, we ate a delicious pasta, veggie and chicken dinner and I swilled Gatorade out of a wineglass because, although I really wanted a drink to calm my nerves, I didn’t want to put anything dehydrating into my body.
We looked at the detailed course description and mused over the names of some of the aid stations like “The Morgue” and “The Library,” and portions of the course with names like “Bear Woods” and the aptly named section called “The Oven.” After laying out all my gear, packing my Camelback to the brim with Honeystinger chews and waffles, tailwind packets, S!Caps, iburpofen, Squirrel’s Nut Butter and various other things, including my essential inhaler that my coach had reminded me in all caps NOT TO FORGET, there was nothing to do but nervously try to sleep. I made a quick call to my boyfriend, who assured me I would do well and made me laugh a bit, and then I sacked out for the night. I slept surprisingly well and since our distance didn’t go off until 8AM, I didn’t have to be up too early. I usually don’t shower before a race, but I decided to do so since it was so hot, so I could braid my wet hair and retain some of the moisture in it for as long as possible.
We got all our stuff packed up and I struggled to fit the bladder of my Camelback into the bag since it was so stuffed with other detritus. I noted to my friends how, in the few minutes it took between filling up my bladder and putting ice into it, and getting it stuffed back in my bag, all the ice had melted. This didn’t bode well for the heat factor that day. We drove off to the race and arrived with about half hour to spare. I was immediately put at ease by the dulcet tones of our running club president, Josh, who was in charge of timing the race. It seriously calmed my nerves that there were people I was familiar with staffing the race and running some of the distances. We met up with another running club friend, Lara, and we chit chatted and snapped a couple of pics.
The usual pit stop at the port-a-potties had been made and then, we were standing where we thought the starting line was talking to Michelle, Josh’s fiance and an amazingly talented ultrarunner, who asked “Aren’t you running? Shouldn’t you be at the starting line?”
“This isn’t it?” Karen and I asked. “No, follow the flags,” she said pointing at some flags going off into the woods. Oops! Good thing Michelle said something or we would have missed the start! (SMH)
We all headed over and I did some quick stretches, but I had decided the race was long enough that a full warm up wasn’t really in order. There were about 80 of us milling around – all different ages – and the field looked to be more women than men. The race director called us over to give us some instructions, like which colored flags and signs belonged to the race and to ignore all other markings out on the trails, and another entreaty to make sure to close the gates behind you at each cow pasture so the cows don’t get out (“don’t let the cows out!” is the race’s mantra) and then Josh told us to line up and he sounded the airhorn. We were off!
All distances of the Finger Lakes 50s follow the same looped course. My distance, the 25K, consisted of one loop and we started 1 1/2 hours later than the 50K and 50 milers, who were set to run 2 loops and 3 loops + a “baby loop,” respectively. There are places on the course where you see the other distance’s runners out there, cross paths and even start to mix in as the day goes on. We started on a downhill packed dirt road and I had my race strategy at the forefront of my mind: go slow and steady for the first half of the race and don’t take the bait and plow down the early downhills leading to the first aid station called “The Morgue,” which is at the bottom of a steep 1 mile uphill climb. My plan was to go super easy for the first half of the race and then open up pace a bit on the second half, hopefully saving any possible blow up for the very end of the race. This strategy paid dividends on this super hot day where temp was about 71 degrees at race time and in the high 90’s by the time I finished 4+ hours later. My fueling strategy was constant slow sips of water, an S!cap at the start of the race and then every hour thereafter with 6-8 ounces of water taken in quickly after the cap. I was also going to eat a packet of Honey Stinger Chews or waffle every hour and would intake tailwind as necessary. At the aid stations, I planned to take my time, refill my camelback with water and ice, dump a cup of water on my head and/or wet my cooling towel to drape around my neck, chat with the volunteers to gauge my level of delirium and snack on some watermelon.
We cruised down the downhill section before turning right into the woods. I stayed with the back of the pack and knew things would take a few miles to open up as we headed onto the single track. This was a whole new world to me – a new distance, my longest ever on technical trails and my first time being around and immersed in the ultra community. I didn’t know quite what to expect of the race, my body or of my interaction with others. I went into it focused only on my strategies, which I knew could carry me safely through the day, as long as I followed them to a T. We crossed the first cow pasture (no cows were seen, just cow pies), each runner closing the gates behind us as we had been instructed many times to do.
I found myself in a field with no shade trudging along a double track path which was still crowded with people. I debated whether and when to pass people. There seemed to be a lot of people running in groups, which could make passing difficult and be an energy suck this early in the game, so I took it pretty easy, only passing when it became more feasible to do so or I got super antsy to get around a particular group. I could tell this was going to be a laid back race, with many people walking large sections and most of the uphills. This put me at ease, because that was my plan as well (at least for the uphills). At an intersection that had two-way “traffic,” I bumped into the awesome Diva of running – Latoya Snell (Fat Running Chef) who was finishing her first loop of the 50K and I paused to give her a big hug, wish her luck and tell her she looked strong (I know now from her race report that she was struggling, but her body really did look strong as fuck). We ended up on a packed dirt road again and headed downhill for a while into the first aid station at 3.5 miles: “The Morgue.” At this point, pretty much everyone passed me and took off like bats out of hell down the hill. I resisted the urge to follow – we had a long day ahead and soaring temps – I had a feeling I’d be passing many of these people later in the race if I conserved energy now. I kept a slow, steady pace and jogged into the aid station in 2nd to last. I took my time chatting with the volunteers, refilling my water, eating watermelon and shoving ice down my sports bra.
I chatted with the woman in last place for a bit and then headed up the long, steep 1 mile climb – the biggest hill in the race.
About 1/4 mile into the climb, I caught up to a group of 3 women and decided to hang with them for a while. They were going a bit slower than I wanted to, but that was good and would reign me in this early in the race. I didn’t want to bomb up the biggest hill in the race and blow up at only 4 miles in. I ended up staying with this group for about 4 miles, up the hill and through the next aid station. During those miles, we chatted a bit and I learned the woman setting pace was pregnant, as I overheard her talking about what her doctor had advised her about running this race and running during pregnancy, in general. I wondered if I should say something and decided that on the trails, we are all friends, so I yelled from the back of the group “Hey! Congrats on your pregnancy from a total stranger!” and we all laughed. I told her I had two kids and if she could get through a race like this pregnant, she’d do fine as a mom. From behind, she didn’t look that pregnant so I figured she was first trimester. When we got to the aid station, I saw how wrong I was. She was more than 20 weeks and out there kicking ass. We walked when there were hills and ran slowly and carefully when there weren’t. Finally, I got antsy to open up a bit, and when we hit a wider portion of the trail and they stopped to do something with their gear, I pushed past them, thanked them for running with me and told the pregnant woman what a bad ass mom she was going to make. This pregnant woman, her strength and determination, carried me through some tough miles later in the race when I was doubting my ability to get to the finish line.
I held steady until the next aid station, which was at about the half-way mark of the race (7.5 miles). We came out of the woods onto the packed dirt road again somewhere between 6-6.5 miles and I started passing some folks. I caught up with Waldo, who, because of his red and white striped compression socks, I had christened as such at the beginning of the race when I had run with him a bit . “Hey Waldo!” I said. We got to chatting, slowing down to a brisk walk as a rest after tackling some pretty hard single track before hitting this road. He told me he had run this race before, running the 50K here the two prior years, including last year’s Year of the Flood. He had DNF’d last year’s with just 6 miles to go, but had completed the race the year before. I could tell he was struggling with the heat and I asked if he had any electrolyte pills. He said he had taken one the night before and one at the beginning of the race but hadn’t brought any with him on the course. I told him I was taking 1 per hour under strict orders of my Coach and asked if he wanted a couple. He gratefully accepted and I joked about our weird drug deal out on the course and how willing he was to take a mystery pill from a stranger. “Well, it couldn’t make this any worse, so why the hell not?” he joked and then suggested we run it into the aid station. Here, I took a nice long break to grab a refill of my camelback with ice from the awesome volunteers, have some more watermelon, wet my cooling towel and chow down on some honeystinger chews. I looked across the road at the aid station we had hit before this half-way mark station (it was at about the 5 mile mark) and saw…Karen! I thought that was odd since she had been ahead of me the entire race and I hadn’t seen her since we left the starting line. I said “hey, Karen!” and waved as I heard her tell the volunteers she’d taken a wrong turn somewhere and asked them how to get back on track. “Uh, hi.” she said back, clearly distressed at getting lost. Shit. I felt instantly bad for her and knew that kind of thing can throw your race and kill your mental game, so I hoped she was able to regroup (she did and finished a few minutes ahead of me). The ladies I had run with earlier caught up to me at the aid station, but I took off before them and quickly caught up to Waldo who had left before me. I overtook him as we turned back into the woods and wished him a good run, assuring him he’d likely catch up to me soon. I didn’t end up seeing him again until he crossed the finish line.
Having entered the back half of the race, I started implementing my strategy to open up my pace and catch some of the people who had went out too fast and would start struggling as the afternoon wore on and the temperature crept into the high 90’s (it eventually topped out at 100 degrees). This strategy served me well. Having come into the first aid station 2nd to last, I ended up passing 20 people before the finish. I never pass anyone. I am a true back of the packer and am used to getting passed left and right and it honestly doesn’t phase me. But, my fueling and hydration strategies, as well as keeping to my race strategy to take it really easy early in the race, paid off, and I actually found myself using a strategy I had read about in Deena Kastor’s awesome book, where you imagine the person in front of you is like a target you tether yourself to with an invisible rope and then reel them in. All of this came to fruition because I had the help of a good coach and I listened to him (this is not my usual way of handling life LOL).
The back half of the race is largely a blur. There were more uphills, including one deep into the race where I came around a corner, saw it and yelled “motherfucker!” out loud. It was a short but steep gravel uphill and I picked up a stick I found on the ground and used it as a makeshift trekking pole to help myself up. There was also a super steep downhill where I thought I was going to go over into a ravine, as I caught up to and briefly followed and then passed, another group of people running together. I caught up to a few other groups, ran with them briefly, and then passed them, and then began to catch up to single runners as people were spacing out late in the race. I ran into an older runner on the course pulled off to the side, who, when I asked if he was OK (I always ask if someone is OK if there is any doubt in my mind that they are), said he was cramping. I offered him an electrolyte pill which he gratefully took and I let him know most of the aid stations had them and he should ask for more. He told me he had an electrolyte drink, but it just wasn’t enough in that heat. I didn’t have many extra pills with me, so I decided I needed to save the rest, but I was happy I was able to help another runner out. I even “chicked” a couple of guys late in the race. Oh, and I have forgotten to mention the mud.
This race is known for its mud and it did not disappoint. I almost lost my shoe in countless areas of mud that had turned into full on mud pits after so many feet had pounded them (thanks to Dave for tying my shoes in a superb lace lock that morning).
I hit a really hard patch at about mile 10, where I started to worry I couldn’t do this and that I was falling apart. Panic started to set in. I checked in with my body – everything was OK there. My SI joint was complaining, but not enough that I had to pay it much mind. I was staying on top of hydration and fuel. I had my tunes fueling me forward in my one earbud (safety first)! My body was good, but my mind was starting to crumble. At least I could isolate what the problem was and that it was not physical. Out loud, on that wooded single track trail full of roots and mud, I said “This is The Shit. Right here. This is where I dig in. I will do this. This is The Shit. This is what it’s all about.” I didn’t care if anyone else heard me and I knew they would understand – I think all runners tackling these types of long, hard races under seriously difficult conditions reach a bottom where you have no choice but to dig in and yank yourself up and go beyond the fear, or quit. One of the last things my boyfriend said to me in the days before the race was “believe in your own strength.” I clung to that like a life raft. I often believe I can do hard things, but when up against something even harder than I’ve ever faced before, where I don’t know what’s on the other side, that’s when my fight or flight kicks in, my lifelong struggle with anxiety triggers, and my brain starts to try to go down the path of negative self-talk and doubt. Not that day. I knew this point would come during this race and I had prepared for it. And I knew it might come again in the miles before the finish, so it was time to dig in and have a “come to Jesus” talk with myself out loud to tell the world and the trees that today I would dig deeper and go beyond what I had thought I was capable of in the past.
It worked. I regrouped at the next aid station, gauging how I was really doing by whether I was joking back with the wonderful volunteers who were refilling my water and offering me snacks. I was laughing and chatting. I was OK. I hit another hard part of the race in the couple of miles leading into the final aid station – “the Library” – which was at mile 13 or so. The stretch leading up to it was not in the woods – the sun beat down on us on a dirt trail that was wide, but ugly, and just hot as hell. This area of the race is aptly named “Siberia.” It’s desolate, you’re already beat up physically and mentally, and there was a hot wind blowing at us. I was tracking a woman in a pink tank top at this point and gaining on her. She was like a buoy keeping me moving forward as I made my way toward her. At one point, I was worried she was going to fall over because it looked like she was weaving, but it turned out she was side-stepping another wide mud bath. Then, I came around a corner and she had disappeared! I didn’t understand where she had gone. She had been moving about the same pace as me and taking walk breaks, and now she had vanished! I had a panicky moment where I thought that I had hallucinated her. Was this the part of the race where I would lose whatever was left of my mind? I decided I didn’t give a shit. I was only 4 miles or so from the finish. I could find my mind again later. I was relieved when we went around another corner and she reappeared. She must have taken off a little faster and gotten ahead of me and now she was beat. I caught up to her at a place where two trails intersected and she asked me which way we should go. I spotted the race markers and pointed her straight on, passing her as we headed into the last 1/2 mile or so before the last aid station. When I got there, the volunteers were doing an excellent job of checking in on everyone to see how we were all doing so late in the race. I chatted with a guy about to finish the 50K and the woman in pink who had caught up to me at the aid station. I joked with the volunteers. There was a dude in an orange shirt who had been at the aid station for a bit, hadn’t spoken one word, and was now wandering off, dazed, across the last cow pasture of the race, named “The Oven.” The volunteers asked the rest of us if we thought the guy was OK and I said “well, he didn’t say anything so that’s not usually a great sign.” I then took off after him.
I had been dreading “The Oven” all day. But, honestly, it went by quickly. At that point, we had 3.5 miles to go and I knew that, barring an injury, I was going to cross the finish line. It was another open cow pasture and no relief from the sun, but it seemed to be a bit shorter than the others. I was happy to close the last cow gate behind me and get back into the shaded forest. It was also the last time I saw my favorite pair of Goodrs, which I managed to lose in the last few miles of the course (RIP limited edition sold out “Carl’s Single & Ready to Flamingle”). Orange shirt guy was just in front of me for most of the rest of the race. I kept almost catching him and then he’d get a burst of energy and take off (I really think his ego couldn’t take being passed by a woman, but that’s just speculation). He was struggling and tripped hard over a root, yelling out an expletive I could not blame him for, and continuing on. I decided it wasn’t worth trying to overtake him if it meant I might get hurt and at this point, I was having to remind myself to pick up my feet and focus on getting around the roots, the mud, and not twisting and ankle on the multitude of broken boards we crossed on this section of trail. The dude finally pulled away with about a mile to go and I let him go. I passed another guy shortly thereafter who graciously pulled to the side and wished me a good run – that’s how a gentleman behaves! As I pulled out of the woods, I heard our club president’s voice over the PA and I knew I was almost home. My watch read .9 miles to go. These are the times I’m happy that Josh is so loud! I ran down a hill and crossed over the section we had come up earlier in the race, where I had run into Latoya. I came out of the woods was directed left on the dirt road and right around the corner was the finish! It surprised the hell out of me and I did my best version of a sprint and crossed the finish line strong as Josh said my name and congratulated me, informing the field that I had just finished my first 25K after battling a late training injury. I was handed a pint glass with the race logo and my friends were there cheering and waiting for me! I was tired, but not completely dead. I’d done it! And I realized in that moment, I am capable of doing so much more. This was the race that made me believe in my bones that I can be an ultrarunner!
I loved every minute of this race. Even the moments I hated and thought I might legitimately die. There is nothing more life affirming than taking on an epic challenge and succeeding and that’s not always how these things turn out. There were moments on the course where it was just me, the trees, the mud and the bugs (and the crushing heat and humidity) and I was struck by how lucky I am to have this healthy, strong body and to live this life. At the finish line my friends were waiting with success stories of their own and there was food and beer to be drunk. I stuck around to cheer others crossing the finish line, including that bad ass momma and Waldo. And I got to see my friend Alanna coming through the aid station at the finish line, gearing up for her third loop in her first ever 50 mile race (a race she WON, by the way!), and being paced by Michelle – both fierce, strong, amazing athletes who are equally humble and supportive of other runners. I saw the older dude I gave a salt pill to out on the course cross the finish line and then turn white as a sheet, almost pass out and/or puke, lay down on the ground for a while, recover and grab a well-earned beer while we gave him a round of applause. I saw my friend Linda, who was out there waiting for her husband Darryl, who was attempting his first 50 miler (and ended up, as many did, opting for the 50K because of the aforementioned Sixth Circle of Hell). Linda (who is also a runner) asked what us runners needed, gave us chairs to sit in, and even brought me water.
Every runner had different and very personal reasons for being out there that day, and everyone who crossed the finish line – even those who DNF’d – dug deep into their reserves to do their best under extremely hard conditions. I am proud to count myself among them and can’t wait to come back next year and try my hand at my first 50K!
I also want to give a shout out to the Race Director and course volunteers. This was an extremely well organized race, especially for a smaller, more local race. I never felt unsafe or uncared for at any point, which is crucial in that heat. They tracked runners at each aid station and left nothing to chance. And, of course, thanks to the wonderful folks at AREEP for the timing, DJ’ing and countless puns.
See the Finger Lakes Runners Club official Race Recap here https://fingerlakesrunners.org/finger-lakes-50s-a-race-of-ice-and-fire/