Well, hey. This whole blogging thing kind of got away from me. I’d like to say it’s only been training that’s pulled me away from writing, but, while that was a big part of it, it’s also been life. Working, raising kids, cultivating a new(ish) romantic relationship, trying to keep friendships afloat, school starting again, and trying to keep my house at least inhabitable, if not exactly clean. This blog, and writing in general, fell to the wayside. I have thought of plenty of things I wanted to write about, but the sitting down and writing part just hasn’t been a priority (because I also had to binge Wild Wild Country – that shit was a train wreck I could not look away from!). But, now the training is OVER! I have run my 50K and conquered the ultramarathon distance! So, it’s time to get back to writing for a bit.
As I’ve said before, I’m not a big fan of writing race reports, but sadly, this blog seems to becoming somewhat populated with them because the only time I actually sit my ass in the seat and write is after a race. However, when I thought about how to actually tackle a race report for 31.1 miles and 8 hours of running, I was stumped. My runner friends have been asking me to “tell them all about” my 50K. “I can’t wait to hear about it!” “How was it?” and the like. My non-runner friends just continue to think I am out of my damn mind (“a special kind of stupid” as one of the 50K participants said after the race. And he was right. We are. In the best way.) But, as I said to one of these runner friends, there’s not much to say. Running that many miles for that many hours is the height of mundanity in the best of ways. I suppose that’s the big takeaway for me: that ultrarunning is completely run of the mill and normal in many respects, while being the biggest test of your mind, body and spirit that you will ever undertake. It encompasses the experiences I have always heard about from my meditation instructors and seasoned meditation practitioners, but never really experienced myself on the cushion. Instead, I have found it in the hours upon hours of putting one foot in front of the other in the woods. I have found it in my labored breathing, in the way the light changes with each loop of the course, in noticing little things that weren’t there the last time I came by on this loop, in the constant check-ins with the body to assess if I need food or hydration or another salt pill, in the times when I pray for the sweet release of death. Everything was the same, yet constantly changing, including me.
So, let’s get to the nuts and bolts of this race, now that I’ve gone all woo-woo on you. The Forgotten Forest Ultra is part of the Roosevelt Forest Ultra Trail Series put on by race director Lou Loban, who just loves this sport, the crazy athletes of all abilities and ages that undertake it, and the Roosevelt Forest where this event and a number of other ultras and races are put on every year in Stratford, CT. The course is made up of a 2 mini-loops that equal 10K (6.2 miles). You can run this 10K loop as many or as little times as you want in 9 hours. The trail was varied – some rolling hills, lots of rocks and roots, some single track, but mostly wider paths, some spots of mud and log crossings, but nothing like FingerLakes 50s in that respect. The trails were entertaining but not near as technical as many of the trails my boyfriend and I trained on in our hometowns of Albany and White Plains leading up to the race.
Let’s talk about the RD, because for small races like the FF, the race is only as good as the RD. It’s hard to describe Lou – as I told him at the end of the race, he’s the embodiment of what I love about the sport of ultrarunning. He, in fact, reminds me a lot of my coach. Lou pours his heart and soul into these races, does an awesome job marking the trail by hand (even I couldn’t get lost!) and was there with lots of hugs, laughs and support as you came through the main aid station after each of the smaller loops (at one low point for me, Lou said to me “you need chocolate” and then put chocolate in my hands and it was manna from heaven).
I think the best way to encapsulate Lou is to tell you about the starting line: in the week leading up to the race, Lou tagged a few of us on FB and said we would be in the front of the starting line. I wasn’t quite sure why or what he meant (Lou’s emails and FB posts can be…cryptic). When I got to the race, I understood. As Lou explained, many of us never get to be in that infamous pic of everyone toeing the starting line before the race starts. That space is reserved for the elite and sub-elite runners who will gun it right off the line (and rightfully so, I’d just be in their way). Because FF is a small race (it caps out at 75 runners and about 46 of us actually competed on race day), Lou likes to give us newbie ultrarunners, those of us who are slower, and/or those who have traveled the farthest (there were a couple of people from England or Scotland, I think, racing that day), a chance to be at the front of the pack for that first picture. We were then instructed to move to the side and let the faster people come through. It was a surprisingly cool experience and one that I think really embodies who Lou is, and what the ultra community is about in general – anyone who’s crazy enough to tackle ultras is respected and supported, no matter their pace.
It’s been a
couple of weeks month since race day, so the play-by-play of the course and the race itself is both unnecessary and somewhat hazy. I can tell you this, I thought I would hate running a looped course, but it turned out to be just the opposite. Running a moderate-distance loop allowed me to zone out and get in a groove for much of the race. It also allowed me to play the mental tricks one needs to play when running 30, 50 or 100 miles. I was able to break each loop into chunks: “Ok, next up is the wooden bridge, then the first turnaround, then the biggest hill with the “walk” sign, then the aid station” etc. I was also able to count down my race by loops, which made me feel like I was biting off something I could handle and that I was making progress toward my goal.
The two best parts of running a looped course, however, were rarely being alone out there for very long because there were always folks coming through the turnarounds or heading off on another loop, and coming through the main aid station/bag drop/hang out area/port-a-potties twice on every loop. This allowed me to access my bags and any gear or medical items I may need, and access the main refreshment table, as well as interact with volunteers, other runners and my boyfriend once he finished his 30K, which, as any ultrarunner can tell you, works as mental check (are you making sense to some degree when you talk to others? Good. Carry on. Are you babbling and incoherent or non-responsive. Bad. Rest and have electrolytes and food and then we can re-assess).
Ultras are very personal. You have to dig deep both physically and mentally to complete them and that looks different for everyone. There are highs and lows, but in my experience with this race at least, most of it was just a steady medium ground – just put one foot in front of the other, fuel and take a salt pill every hour, change the podcast or music, or just shut off my earbuds and listen to the forest. As I said to my running club’s president when he asked how the race was, “It was epically boring.” I mean that it in the best of ways. I touched on this in the opening paragraph above. It just seemed natural to be out in the woods moving my body for 8+ hours over 30+ miles. That was maybe the biggest revelation I had: that I was made to do this, that I can do it, and that being able to do it is the best reason to do so. It’s a funny thing when you pass that marathon mark during an ultra and this thing that used to be such a HUGE deal goes by without you barely noticing.
During my 3rd and 4th loops I decided I need a podcast to inspire me and I chose Rich Roll’s because, well, he’s a fucking inspiring dude with a lot of great guests on his pod. He’s a go-to when I need a shift in perspective on a long run or during a race (my other go-to’s being Nicole DeBoom’s podcast Run This World and Kelly Roberts’ pod Run, Selfie, Repeat). I scrolled through the available episodes at the main aid station between loops 2 and 3 and my eye was immediately drawn to one entitled “Sanjay Rawal on Running as Spiritual Practice.” I had no idea who Sanjay Rawal was, but I was searching for a little motivation in that moment and the title had me hooked. Turns out Sanjay is really fascinating and just put out this movie I can’t wait to see entitled “3100 Run and Become.” He was the perfect guide through miles 13-26 (or so).
Let me tell you a little bit about why I needed a little motivation to continue on my journey at that moment. The FF Ultra is almost entirely on trail, but the last 1/4 mile or so is on road. You run down this road and into the aid station and across the timing mat at the end of each 6.2 mile loop. It can be quite jarring on the body (and the mind) to hit the pavement after being in the woods for a while. Finishing up my second loop, I decided to let it go and just fly down the road at a higher rate of speed than I could manage on trails. I figured this was safe because there wouldn’t the roots and rocks to get in my way like there was on the trails. I was wrong. Flying on the slight downhill, I didn’t see the rather large branch (small tree?) that was sticking out on the road. My foot caught it and down I went with full force. I angled myself to the right and my right knee and hand took the brunt of the fall, but I knew in that weird fast/slow motion way that happens at these times, that my head was going to hit too. I angled it so my left cheekbone took the fall rather than my temple or another part of my head or face. It was jarring and scary and the worst fall I’ve ever taken while running. No one was really around, but I was very close to the aid station and EMS volunteers. I took a second to make sure nothing was broken and that I wasn’t feeling concussed. As I was going down I remember only two thoughts “Shit.” and “My race is over.” I quickly realized that while I was really banged up, I was going to be able to continue my race, but probably in a bit more pain than I’d bargained for. My sunglasses and phone, both of which had flown out of their respective holding places in my awesome Gotta Go skirt by Skirt Sports (which has a secret trap door so you can pee in the woods without pulling sweaty
clothing on and off!), were mercifully unscathed.
I hobbled into the aid station and Lou got right over to me, helped me clean up (even throwing away my bloody alcohol wipes), gave me Alieve, filled up my hydration pack, gave me a donut, and sent me on my way. He handled it with concern, but not anxiety. He handled it like someone who’s seen a lot of injured runners in his day and knew I would be OK to continue on. I didn’t panic because he didn’t panic. My boyfriend was still out on the course, so I was happy that Lou and the other volunteers were there to assure me I wasn’t crazy for continuing to run. But, as I got ready for my 3rd loop, I thought a little inspiration wouldn’t be such a bad thing in the wake of this incident and that Rich Roll episode hit the spot. The episode talked a lot about running as meditation, running for the sake of running, rather than to achieve a goal or compete, running as divorced from ego. And it was the perfect analogy for running in circles for 8 hours, even while you are bleeding.
The other great thing about this race was seeing my boyfriend out on the course several times. This man, who when we started dating 4 months ago, was a runner who was running a 2 mile route around his house maybe 3 times per week and had never set foot on a trail, completed a 30K at FF! On our first date, he told me he would never run a 5K because he was too competitive and would feel bad when he didn’t “win.” I have since instilled the gospel of running your own race in him as well as the gospel of how good it feels to set your own goals and achieve them. From early on in our relationship, he has joined me on my long training runs on trails so we could get to know each other and so that he could “impress me” (his words). He ended up taking to trail running like a duck to water. He ran his first 5K in July and followed it up with the 30K at FF and he capped off his trail running season by crushing the Squirrelly Six miler in some crazy muddy conditions (he’ll slay also the Cape Cod Half Marathon this coming Saturday).
I am super inspired and impressed by him. He is strong and confident and not afraid to try new things. And he doesn’t get mad when I hit the wall and get VERY CRANKY during some long runs. Those hours spent on the trails getting lost together and racking up the miles were the perfect way to get to know each other. At FF, because there was a turn around on each of the 2 mini-loops, I got to see him a few times out on the trail and high five him and yell “I love you” as we crossed paths. It was also awesome having him waiting for me through my 2 remaining loops after he finished his race. He gave me words of encouragement, helped me refill my water, and helped me peel off my socks and bandage blisters. He did this all through his own exhaustion after running the most miles he ever had. That’s true fucking love, right there.
The last highlight I’ll talk about is the community of runners and volunteers. I expected them to be awesome and they were. Everyone was supportive, everyone had a sense of humor, everyone “got it.” The “it” being why we engage in this crazy sport. Why we eat up many of our weekends and weekdays for months at time and take time away from our families and friends to train for these races. Why we spend money on race fees, hotels, shoes, fuel and hydration packs. Why we risk getting rundown and sick and injured. You don’t ever need to explain the “why” to another ultrarunner. Every person I saw during those loops gave a word of encouragement and I did the same. We had each other’s backs. Once again, I was doling out salt pills on the course, but this time just to one runner who was just ahead of me on my 4th loop and I literally saw his quad seize up after we went over some logs (I think I said out loud “ouch”). I was happy to see him out on the 5th loop with his friend or girlfriend who was pacing him and I was happy to see him finish as well. Just as I was happy to see at the finish line the two women wearing the purple singlets that had all sorts of amazing encouraging words printed on them that I can’t remember, who were just ahead of me the whole race and who I finally caught up to and passed at about 28 miles (how? how did I pass anyone at that point? I have no clue) . It was amazing to see the same people loop after loop and watch us all get progressively more tired, see the highs and lows as you passed each other each time, watch as the numbers of runners out on the course dwindle as the day wore on and us last runners were running out the clock. It is all a metaphor for life, I guess.
After all is said and done, I am very proud of my first ultra. It wasn’t something I planned on attempting until next year, but my coach and I agreed a couple of weeks before the race that I was ready. And I was. I had quietly gotten ready all season. I hadn’t even told anyone I was going to attempt the 50K except my boyfriend who I told a couple of weeks before race day.
“Will you do it again?” my trusty running club president asked me. “Oh yeah, I’m hooked.” “What’s next?” he asked. I’m still quietly planning the answer to that question, but as long as I’m lucky enough to be able to run these races, be a part of this community, be out in nature meditating as I run in circles, eat salt potatoes, and eventually get a medal put around my neck, I’m going to keep following this unplanned for path – who knows where it will take me?
PS never let anyone, including yourself, tell you you can’t do something you are inspired to do. I’m a divorced mom of two boys under the age of 9. I work FT. I am cultivating a long distance romantic relationship. I’m in my 40s. I’m slow. I’m not rail thin. There are so many reasons I could have told myself that I can’t train for and run an ultra – but I plowed ahead with the support of my coach, my partner, my fellow runners, and my two sweet boys supporting me all the way. You can do it. Whatever it is you dream of doing. And there’s no reason you can’t do it Now. Not next year. This year. Or at least try. As a friend said to me recently about our upcoming Cape Cod Half “what’s the worst I can do – fail? I’d rather fail trying than not try at all.”
PPS also never ignore an injury. After three weeks went by and my wrist still hurt, I took myself over to ortho urgent care and ended up in this splint/”half cast” thing because I sprained my wrist when I fell and ignoring it led to tendinitis. Luckily, I only needed it on for a week and it didn’t stop me from running a 9.3 mile training run and a 4 mile group trail run. But, it was still VERY VERY ANNOYING and I haven’t been able to do yoga for weeks, which is making me extremely irritable.