"Grind that shit out, brah..."
So, the story starts as I'm sitting at my computer (actually, not my computer -- a borrowed computer -- mine had a very unfortunate accident with a large amount of coffee on Friday morning and is thus in the angelic hands of the Apple Gods in hope that it can be repaired...).
I'm sitting here with a bit of a blank look on my face because the big question that I'm sure everyone wants to know is "When did you decide to run a 50k?!?!?!?" The exclamation points are especially important to the story because of all the text messages I received after the race when I regained cell service.
So to answer the "why" question, that is simple: Because I thought it would be fun.
The rest of the questions: "when," "how," "what in God's name were you thinking?" are a bit harder to answer.
So let's just start.
When: Tyler had signed up for the Sky Island 50k months ago, and I knew that this was going to be one of the roughest and toughest races that he had ever done. The longest, too, even though he had done 30 miles in training before. But, in my summer of training meandering, I hadn't fully committed to doing any one distance. I had planned on going out to the Davis Mountains for a camping excursion since Day 1 and had just assumed that I would sign up for the 25k while I was there. A morning sitting alone at the camp, albeit with the promise of sleeping in, just seemed like a waste of a perfectly good excuse to run and get dirty.
However, having signed up for and then injured myself before many races, I like to procrastinate in the grandest sense. So fast forward to about a month pre-race. I was feeling pretty good. I had been doing my own sort of training that was seemingly working quite well for me. I felt like I was in a good place and I was working at being as consistent as possible with the time restraints and the scheduling conflicts that I always had with my job. I was doing my best to get some long runs in, and thinking about what I might want to do in the fall for races when my XC coaching season was over and my schedule freed up.
I started to pick up the distance on the long runs the closer we got to Sky Island. Tyler was having some rough runs on the trail with the Austin heat and he was dealing with a nagging injury. I decided about a month out that I was going to pace with him on the course and make sure he got through his race in one piece. And if not, the cooler head would prevail and I'd yank him out before he really hurt himself if things so happened that way (ssshhh... don't tell him that!).
About a week before the race, I had mentioned to Mallory, the race director, that I was planning on pacing Tyler through the 50k and she had mentioned that the park required that only official participants be on the course. Looks like I was signing up for 50k! To say that I wasn't even in the least bit nervous is simply an assault to the distance. Of course I was nervous! But a quick look over the course's loops showed me that I had several strategic exit points if I needed to take them.
In the days leading up to the race, I started to come to peace with a lot of the aspects of the upcoming race. Was my training solid? Maybe not what you would think of when you thought about 50k training, but what has always worked best for me has been unconventional to others. Did I feel strong? Yes. Stronger than I had ever felt going into any race. But the big question just sat and glared at me: COULD I do it?
That's the thing about trail running that I love. There's a bit of endurance magic that happens out on the hills. A former coach of mine had told me numerous times, "Trail running isn't about who is the fastest. It's about who slows down the least." I loved that mentality.
So Tyler and I sat down and we talked. He talked with his coach. And we decided we were going to do it together. And that the DNF was off the table. Actually, I think the exact words were, "You only get to DNF if you die." But, you know, same logic.
How: Damn carefully, that's how.
The whole week leading up to the race was full of weather what-ifs. The whole week long forecast showed nothing but thunderstorms. I was getting nervous to go camping, and to be honest, that we would drive all the way out to the mountains for lightning to cancel the race.
But, alas, you miss 100% of the chances you don't take, so we set off Friday morning (post-laptop meltdown) with Miss Wanda (my Subaru Forester) packed to her gills with camping supplies and sleeping bags.
Friday night was something eventful. When you think about perfect pre-race setup, it probably doesn't consist of having driven 7 hours the day before, setting up a tent about an hour before dusk, and then making delicious gluten-free mac and cheese on your handy camp Jetboil. We ate by the light of our headlamps in our tent and promptly dozed off at the adult hour of 9.
Sometime in the middle of the night, huge thunderstorms rolled through the Fort Davis area and savaged our campsite. I woke up in the middle of torrential downpours, ridiculous winds, and insanely close lightning. Tyler was holding the sides of the tent to keep them from blowing in on us. The rain was beating against the tent so hard that it was literally coming in through the walls of the tent lining. So that was fun.
Needless to say, we didn't die, so we couldn't DNF the next morning. Race morning is always pretty uneventful. Eat, get dressed, go run.
7:30 guns goes off.
Tyler and I started off at a fairly steady pace, but we were barely out the gate before we started climbing. And climbing it was! The first mile was straight up through the amphitheater and into the switchbacks. I guess that was a good thing because it prevented me from going out too fast!
We started the run out with Matt and Brandon, both of who would leave us fairly early on, but not before one of them passed on a few words of wisdom that became my mantra for that day, "Grind that shit out, brah."
I can't really even begin to describe how beautiful the terrain was. Once we got to the top of the switchbacks, we were rewarded with this incredible mountain overlook. It was hard not to want to take a minute to stop and look, but a quick glance over my shoulder showed me that some of the girls were right behind me. I still wasn't 100% sure at that point that I was racing, but I did know that I was out in front and wanted to keep it like that, if possible.
We hit the first aid station pretty early on in the first loop and I stopped quickly to grab some water. I always have that initial race feeling of "Quick, we gotta go!" but I've learned that it has to be displaced in trail races because you've got a LONG way to go and you need to take your time.
Jumping out of the aid station, we headed up and were rewarded with more gorgeous views as the sun was just starting to come up through the clouds. We did some more twisting and some more climbing and even some stair stepping...
...before the trail spit us out into the old Fort Davis base. It felt really good to get on some gravel road and stretch out my legs here, and I felt like Tyler and I were making a decent gap on the rest of the pack.
I know that my skills in trail running most definitely do not come from technical course climbing. The rock here was too ragged and gnarly for me to feel confident (and at mile 5-6 I wasn't risking much!) to just jump up or down crevices. But, I also wagered that no one on that course had the legs to catch me if it came down to an out-in-the-open chase, so I took full advantage of the breakaways when I could.
Out of the fort, we immediately started climbing again as we headed back to complete the loop to the aid station we just left. Still feeling pretty good, we cruised through the next aid station. Heading down the hill and away from the first loop went well. The terrain was much more to my liking here and I felt like I could open up and stretch out my legs. We cruised past the start (Hi Mallory!) and headed up the road to cross the highway onto the Primitive Loop.
The aid station before the highway feeder was a great mini stopping point. I felt like I had put some sizable distance on some of the other females in the race, but had no clue, to be honest. Good to see some more familiar faces (Hi Missy!) and at this point, I realized that the sun was getting HOT. Good time to splash yourself with some water (in hindsight, sunscreen would have been a good call here) and move on.
The Primitive Loop took us down the hill and under the bridge (You've got to pay the troll toll, to get into the boy's hole!) before dropping us into several creek crossings. Usually I hate getting my feet wet (and I was a little intimidated by the length of the course and no fresh socks!) but it was getting hot enough, it felt amazing.
Then the climb began. Another winding, grueling, tiring switchback up to the top of the cliffs. Took a salt tab and a gel, was feeling pretty good. Then, I saw it. Cue Midwestern girl's first experience with a live tarantula. Let me just explain. No spiders. Nooooooooooooppppeeeeee. I damn near flew off the mountain as I shrieked. Tyler thought it was hilarious.
From this point on, we waded through heavy grass (which I was convinced was now full of hungry spiders), carefully picking our way to make sure that we didn't trip on any rocks.
I saw the leaders of the race come flying through (Hi Muz!) as we approached the first aid station and was slightly baffled. I opted to use the bathroom and eat my oatmeal (Sorry Mallory!) instead of listening to the important pre-race briefing (but seriously, oatmeal), so I didn't realize that the Primitive Loop marked a lollipop route on the course. So, needless to say, seeing speeding shirtless men come running at me made me worried.
We hit the aid station at the Primitive Loop and I knew that this was going to be one of the most mentally challenging parts of the entire race. The spacing on this aid station was the furthest, so I knew that I wouldn't see another human being, aside from Tyler, for quite some time. We seemed to be in a bit of a dead zone too. Neither of us had seen anyone either in front of us, or behind us, in quite some time.
We took some to drink some Coke (oh glorious Coke on the course!) and refuel our packs. I chugged down some electrolytes (cue nasty face here) and we were off again. The course up here was fairly flat, and the grass made for a great view across the valley. Several miles in, mentally I was starting to wear thin ("Grind that shit out, brah"), but looking back now, I think the sun was making me loony. Tyler and I had good conversation going and the miles were clicking by, but mentally, it was long, the terrain met that weird middle spot where you couldn't quite hike, but you couldn't quite run, and all I knew was that I was ready to be away from this godforsaken spider filled grassland*.
*No more spiders were actually ever seen in this race.
When we finally rolled up to the aid station, it was a glorious site. This was the first time that I asked someone where I was in the race. I knew that I had been the first female and I knew no one had passed me, but the burning question was, "How far back was the next female?" They didn't really know, but it was a bit. Score.
Pushing through the rest of the Primitive Loop, I was happy to be scaling down. I knew that the last loop was the same as the first, and mentally, that seemed doable. We came down the mountain at a good clip and hit the creek crossings (yay blissfully cool water) and ducked into the tunnel again (Got to pay the troll toll!) which seemed MUCH harder to squat into on the way back.
Saw Missy again at the aid station at mile 20. Confirmed I was first female (hoorah!). More dumping of water on head, more refueling of body. I was still feeling really good.
Heading off into the next mile was some sort of sadistic nightmare. I really did think we were running back down into the first loop the way that we came (bad runner! bad! Pre-race talk miss #2), but instead we headed up the most god awful, wretched piece of terrain I've ever encountered. Seriously, cruel evil nasty joke. Once we finally got to the top, it was immediately back down the other side.
Remember when I said I was feeling good? That was before we climbed almost 600 ft in the mile. ("Grind that shit out, brah")
There's a point as which you say, "What is the difference between a marathon and an ultramarathon?" Well, one would say the distance. I thought in this case, the suck would really come at mile 25+ because it was the longest I'd ever done, the longest I'd EVER been on my feet. Oh no, sir, the suck comes far before that.
Steve Sisson had told Tyler that the difference in the marathon vs the ultra is this: In the marathon, you try to stay as close to the redline as possible without going over. In the ultra, you hit the redline, accept it, and push through it. You know what the redline looks like? These rocks. These stupid rocks. I hate these rocks. THESE ROCKS ARE STUPID. WHY ARE THESE ROCKS HERE?*
*Actual conversation from redline
So mile 22 is my redline. It was this nasty stretch of downhill. Steep, chossy rock. No footholds. I wanted to run, my body wanted to slip. I hated everything about this section.
Thankfully, Tyler was wonderful and patient ("Grind that shit out, brah") and told me to focus and keep my mind going. We were already SO CLOSE to being finished that it was stupid to mess it up now. Besides, I had led all day. The only way that I would lose is if I gave up.
We took a bit to reorganize ourselves and do a system check. How is everything feeling? Legs? Surprisingly good. Feet? Getting a little sore. Hip flexor. Trying to bug out, but maintainable. Ok good, let's go.
Rolling through the last loop was a tremendous blur. We saw Mallory at the start and she dunked our hats in the water. Glorious. Back through the amphitheatre. Climb, climb, climb. I was starting to become aware, but only vaguely, that my skin was getting hot. The route seemed like it never ended ("Grind that shit out, brah"). I was really just over it by this point. Mentally, I knew that I needed to hit the marathon mark. Something about ticking over the last few miles just made it seem more manageable.
We came back across Brandon, who had stopped to take a bathroom break (a story we would hear all too frequently later), and he joined our party for a while. We passed another guy that we had started the race with and just kept grinding. I felt a little possessed at this point. Let's go, let's go, let's go. Don't stop moving.
There's something evil that goes on in your brain when you're grinding out the final miles. The extra rocks that stick up to trip you, the hills you swear weren't there the first time, and most importantly, ALL THE BENCHES. They were a lie. Don't sit. Like a siren's song, they were there to trick you!
We came back around the Fort Davis base and it looked more like a shuffle. I just kept telling myself that I didn't come out here for so long to lose it in the end. The only way you lose is if you stop. Seriously, possessed at this point. Keep it moving. Keep it going. Grind. Grind. Grind.
Finally got back to the last and final aid station. From here I knew it as literally (figuratively? mentally? emotionally?) all downhill from here. They said 1.7 miles left. I could do 1.7 miles. Let's go, my feet hurt, let's go, it's getting hot out, let's go.
I felt like I was sprinting the final miles. And by sprinting, I mean an elevated level of shuffling. My right hip flexor was tightening menacingly, and I was so ready to be done.
Down the hill, up the hill (who put this here!?! It wasn't here the first time!!!), down the hill... out into the parking lot! At this point, I was running with whatever I had left and was fully spent. Around the corner and there was Mallory with ice-dunked cold finisher hats.
8 hours and 12 minutes. I've never spent that long on my feet ever. I've never run a race that long. But there it was. First female, from start to finish. Words cannot even begin to express how good it felt! A serious feeling like no other.
I can't thank Tyler enough. This was his race, through and through, but we chose to run it together and our teamwork is what made it shine. Not many people could make it through 31 miles without pushing each other off the mountain, but we did! And we came out smiling! And it made the experience that much more amazing.
I can't thank everyone enough. Spectrum Trail Racing for putting on an incredible race, the craftsman behind the incredible awards, the volunteers at the aid station that kept me hydrated and motivated. Ya'll are the dream team!
And to answer the last and final question: "What in God's name were you thinking?"
Well, I still don't know.
Until next time...