Race morning started very, very early with a 3:45 alarm. I had all of my gear set out the night before. All that was left was getting dressed and the last minute decisions as the coffee brewed. The forecast was trending warmer than predicted, so I dressed based on that.
And there was a rumble. No. Not from the sky. From my stomach. This was not good. That which happened happened fast and furious. It was like that scene from Dumb and Dumber with the turbo-lax.
Let me tell you, of all the possible ways to start race day for your first ultra, this isn't something that I had even considered. And here it was, two hours until start time, and I was way negative in terms of calories and hyrdation. So I finished getting dressed, finished packing, poured a coffee to go and drove the hour to the start.
Coffee? Yup. That's my typical morning. I was too tired to realize what I was doing. I should have mixed up a liter of my caffinated Skratch that I had been saving for recovery. I spent most of my pre-race time in the porta-potty. (To those with whom I shared my muffins, I used the hand sanatizer!)
I love Weather Underground. They let you choose weather stations near you, or near where you plan to be, and the predictions tend to be pretty dang accurate. Today was no exception. The start was cold enough to justify gloves. And I did not regret the long sleeve shirt. The first three and a half miles to the first (far) aid station went much as planned. I forced myself to start far in the back so I would have to work my through the crowd. This is an exellent way for me to not go out too fast the first mile. But the crowd was small. I managed to get through fairly quickly and settled into a nice pace that may have been just a *touch* too fast, but not dangerous.
At the far aid station the course goes up the hill and climbs for nearly a mile. Having pre-run the course, I knew what to expect. I knew when I would run, and when I would walk/hike. And I was able to maintain that plan for 2 laps. The corresponding mile of down I had planned to bomb as fast as possible. And I was able to maintain that for two laps. Something happened... Shortly after finishing lap two my stomach bloated. Bad. I tried some of everything I had packed. Everything made it feel equally bad. Walking hurt. Running hurt. Hiking up didn't feel too bad, so I did a lot of that. Running down hurt a lot.
Suddenly, I was no longer running happy.
I admit, while my goals for my first 50k were modest (1: Finish. 2: Beat the storms) I did have a rough time goal in mind. And the downhills were a key component to that. The course had nearly two miles of down and I had counted on making the most of those to come in where I wanted. And suddenly that hurt my stomach too much to follow through. The last two laps were going to be rough.
Triathletes have a term The Pain Cave. This is generally reserved for their home gym which usually contains a treadmill and their bike trainer. Maybe some weights. I have my own Pain Cave. It's really small. In fact, it's the few inches between my ears. And I was spending a lot of time DEEP in my Pain Cave. It's dark in there. The darkness is oddly comforting, and I can clearly see the light at the entrance to the cave. But I wasn't going towards the light. I was settling in. While I was sinking into myself I was able to maintain an outward appearance of humanity. I was checking on my fellow athletes that had slowed or stopped. I was still cheering those passing me. I was even picking up some of the trash that was likely to blow away before the sweep crews got there.
But on the inside... Oh that was a dark, scary place. And I was camped out for the long term. I exited from the Pain Cave momentarily about 1.5 miles into the final 8 mile lap. I was trying to remember the last time I had urinated and decided to step into the bushes to see a man about a horse. By now we've all seen this picture.
I was at NewCastle Brown. That's darker than the IPA, but not the Guinness color. This confused and concerned me. My hydration was 100% as planned. One bottle of tailwind per loop, and odd sips from the bladder as I needed. This was about the time I realized just how bad the pre-race events were. The damage there had been done. Now I was trying to avoid hitting the Guinness mark on the chart. I worked the last 1.5 or so miles to the far aid station. During the run, I was deep in my cave. I hardly remember the physical run into the tent. Based on past trips through the aid station, I had figured the guys working there had some ultra experience. So I decided to ask them about my situation.
The three guys shared an awkward look. I'm still not sure if they were just not prepared for such a question or if my situation was worse than I thought. The first to speak pulled me out of the Pain Cave a bit and made me laugh. "Well, you still managed to go, so it can't be all that bad." Truth. I was able to make it happen. The laugh eased the tension and the typical aid station chit chat re-started. Time to start pushing fluids. I was "only" about 4.5 miles from the finish. I decided to sit for a minute at the aid station and drink one full bottle of water, and refill my hydration bladder. (Which was surprisingly empty!) As the nice man was filling the bladder he mentioned that I didn't want to sit too long. I didn't want to stiffen up. This had been in the back of my mind, but it was nice to hear it from someone else. I finished off the bottle, packed away the bladder, refilled the bottle, and headed out.
The fourth hike up to the high point was nothing at all like the first. There was no running. Even the slight downhill in the middle was walked. I even stopped to pick up some more trash. I was receeding into the cave. At the top I caught up to someone who was walking. I recognized this man. I had seen him every lap near the turn around. He had spent all day about five minutes in front of me, and now he was hardly moving. I did the human thing. I slowed whatever roll I had and I checked on him. His name was Josh. His knee was hurt. He wasn't going to drop. He was going to walk it off. No. He didn't want a cookie. So off I went. I pushed the downhill as hard as my stomach would let me. And the stomach sent me back into my cave. I was focusing on the fifteen feet in front of me. Everything else dropped out of my vision. I was driven. Focused on finishing this thing. I powered through the rolling hills. Hiked where I had to. Ran where I could. One last steep, gut wrenching down, one right turn, and very slight rollers to the turn around spot with the drop bags and the trail through to the finish.
As I neared the tent with the drop bags I saw the people there start to rouse. As I got closer, the movement intensified. I was starting to make out familiar shapes and colors. But there were too many of them. I was pretty sure I saw my oldest daughter wearing my race shirt. (I had set it out for her.) And there were other kids that couldn't have been mine, even though my brain wasn't convinced of that. And there were a couple of grown ups who were excited to see me. I admit I didn't really recognize either of them when I first saw them. Still a ways out, my breathing began to get ragged and catch in my throat a little bit. My eyes started to cloud with tears. They were pulling me out of my cave and I wasn't sure I wanted to go.
I didn't slow as I ran through the aid station. I wanted to acknowledge the friends and kids who had come to cheer me in. But it just wasn't an option. Stopping or slowing now meant the finish line would never be crossed. So I shouted. I don't know exactly what I said, but it was something along the lines of, "OK! Let's go!" And they all started to go with me. As I crossed the timing mat at the far end of the aid station I saw a very friendly smile on the timering volunteers face. She said, "You've certainly got a lot of help finishing this!"
And that was when I was ripped from my cave. I was thrust back into the light. My oldest daughter was running behind me. I could hear her giggle (she seems to always laugh while she runs) and hear her sign flapping as she went. There was a little boy I didn't know trying real hard to stay in front with me. My friend and fellow RunJunkEe Melissa was next to me. She fell in step and picked up the pacer role without me even noticing. Somewhere not far behind was Kristi, a new friend and fellow RunJunkEe and her daughter.
From the turn around timing mat to the finish line was about a quarter mile. It took less than two minutes. But it felt like an hour. I still wasn't used to being in the light. I could feel the gravel in my shoes. I could feel the sun on my skin. I could feel the fatigue in my muscles. But I wasn't slowing. I wasn't walking. I was going to finish this now. With Melissa pacing I had someone to speak with. So I said the words that had been in my head the last six hours. They don't need to be repeated here. It's safe to say they weren't very polite words. There was a small rise to the finish. Having run it before the race, I knew it was no more than five feet of vertical. But as I stared it down after 30 miles with the inflatable finish line in the background that little rise looked like Mt. Everest. So I did what any tired, weak, broken, borderline clinically dehydrated runner would do. I picked up the speed. I drove my knees forward. I drove my elbows back.
Sometimes I have a dream where I am running and I turn into a cheetah, a wolf, or some four legged monster. And then I'm cruising along the ground and things start to blur. Somehow I go faster, and start to fly. That's what this sprint into the finish felt like. I haven't looked at my data to see if I can tell just how fast that part went. I don't want to. Because what feels like a sprint after 30 miles is probably pretty laughable.
When I started, I had two goals. 1) Finish. 2) Beat the storm. And I nailed them both. The storm was early. I was late. That one was close. While I had better time in mind, I'm not all that sad to have missed it. I now recognize how the deck was stacked against me. It's a miracle I finished at all.
A couple days later, and things still haven't sunk in. I ran a 50k. I'm in the ultra runners club. Even saying it here it doesn't feel real. But I have the medal. My name is on the results sheet. There are a few pictures. I think the problem is I know this isn't my goal. Sure, it's a great big thing. But it is just a stepping stone on the way to even bigger things. As such, I am having difficulty celebrating it for the victory it is. But it's sinking in. I'm feeling better about it, even if my stomach still isn't quite right two days later.
I remember two things about the finish line. 1) There was no one there. This was not a Rock and Roll marathon. There was the lady with the medals, and the guy taking off the shoe chip. 2) It was incredibly loud. Or maybe that was just my head ringing. Through the din, I heard my youngest yelling for me and my wife cheering. I am sad to admit that I don't remember seeing them as I crossed, and I don't remember when I was able to hug them. I'm sad because without the support of my wife and the understanding of the kids none of this would even be possible.
But in the end, there's a smile and a medal.