Monday, May 4, 2009

24 Hour Adventure Run

As race day got closer and closer, I grew more and more worried. It didn’t help that I had read horror stories of all the bad things that could go wrong during a 24 ultra event – things that could land you in the hospital, or even worse, the morgue (kidney failure, pneumonia, severe dehydration, hypothermia, puking up your stomach lining from taking too much aspirin, etc). Then there was the fact that, with this nagging cough, my training wasn’t where I wanted it to be. My goal had been to run at least 50 miles once before the race, but the longest training run I had managed was 26. Thus, my expectations were lowered and I had but two goals: 1) to finish uninjured and healthy, and 2) to beat my distance of 31.5 miles which was attained at the Icy 8 hr race in February.

The race course was an eight mile trail loop in Prince William Forest Park. There were lots of hills to climb, roots to trip over and rocks to maneuver around. At the end of each loop, there were bathrooms, a table laid out with food and drink. This is where you checked in and out for each loop. You could stay there as long as you wanted.

Race packet pickup and the pre-race meeting was the night before. We got to the campground and when we opened up the popup camper, we realized mice had gotten in the camper, chewed through stuff, and left their nasty little droppings. We had to pulled everything out of the camper, throw a bunch of stuff away, clean everything up and then put everything back in. The only vindication was finding a dead mouse that had fallen in a bucket and couldn’t get back out. I said we should put him on a stick as a war trophy like they used to do in Roman times. By this time we had 20 minutes to get to the pre-race meeting. Oops. Fortunately it wasn’t too far away and we made it just in time. They covered the usual information – the course, the aid stations, hydration, etc. There were about 70 runners total, including the teams. One difference between road races and ultras is the size of the crowd. The largest ultra is the JFK 50 Miler and last year had 922 participants. Most are limited by the fact that you’re running on single track trails and in National Parks. It’s not much of a spectator sport either.

My husband and daughter were there to crew me. That was a real blessing as the race went on. It was good to see them there at the end of each loop, catering to my every need. And I’m sure I got pretty bossy as the day went on! I love them and they’re a blessing. There wasn’t a whole lot of room down near the start/finish line, so they set up under a tarp up on the hill. This meant I had to run down the hill, check in (go potty) and check back out before I actually stopped at my crew station.

Loop One (miles 1-8)
I had decided to wear my skin compression tights, my TOP Challenge t-shirt, and my vest with which I would carry my gels and things. I also wore my trail shoes because I thought it might be pretty muddy and I wanted the extra traction, and I was using my camel back mule pack for hydration. We started the race (I hung way in the back, didn’t want to get in the way of the speedsters) and off we went. This was the only time I ran up the hill leading through the cabins and onto the gravel road that led to the trail. Once on the trail, I began the series of twisting climbs and descents. I got behind and met a nice gentleman named Farouk who was setting a comfortable pace and let him lead the way. He was walking up the steeper inclines and running everything else. He was an experienced ultra runner; in fact, this was his third consecutive weekend of racing ultras. He had done a 50k and a 50 miler. His goal was about 80 miles. I told him I was going to follow his lead for a while, walk when he walked and ran when he ran. After the aid station at the midway point we began the long ascent up a steep fire road. I was feeling pretty good and went ahead and passed him. The second half of the loop is worse than the first half. There was a series of ups and downs with some tricky footing that slowed you down. Finally I arrived back at the start in 1:45 which was about a 13 min pace. It wasn’t raining but it was humid! I was soaked and hot. I took off my t-shirt and just wore the vest. That felt so much better! I took 15 minutes to refuel, eat a little, go potty and off again I went. I noticed that while I beat Farouk in by a few minutes, but he left for the next lap before I got started. He remained ahead of me the rest of the race and lapped me at least once, finishing with 80 miles. Yay Farouk!

9:00am (miles 9-16)
Loop Two – I started this loop at about the same pace and tempo as the first loop. Now I was running alone. It’s interesting that with all the runners on the eight mile loop, that sometimes you would go for a mile or two and not see anyone. Usually I would hear someone coming from behind me and it would be one of the team runners. Those guys were going fast! The first half of the loop has some nice trails that run along side the creek and are fairly flat. This was where you could make up some time from when you had to slow down to crawl over rocks and stuff. I came up to the halfway point after running about 45-50 minutes. So I was still setting a pretty good pace. As I started the climb up the hill, I did one of my race strategies. When I was walking up a hill, I had to drink. On this hill, I was going to take a gel or eat some sport beans as I was climbing. As I finished this loop I realized I was having some serious problems with my trail shoes. They were too big and my feet were sliding. I was getting some hot spots that threatened to turn into major blisters. I had slowed a bit and finish the loop in about 2 hrs. Still on a good pace. The first thing I did when I saw my husband was tell him I needed my other shoes. Unfortunately, they were in the back of the car and he had come in the truck. I took my shoes and socks off, lubed my feet with Aquaphor and headed back onto the trail. Meanwhile my husband was to go back to the campground, switch vehicles and meet me a little over halfway where the trail crossed the road and there was a parking lot.

11:20am (miles 17-24)
Loop Three - I decided also to switch to the fuel belt with the water bottles. The camel back needed to be refilled and at the mid point aid station there was water and Gatorade but no cups. I was thinking that Gatorade might be needed as the race went on. The Aquaphor helped and I was able to keep my pace up pretty good, and hit the halfway point at about an hour. I had empty two of my water bottles and so refilled on Gatorade. I climbed the big hill ran through the woods a bit and was so happy to see my husband waiting for me with the shoe exchange. That felt so much better. It was still hot and humid, but every now and then a rain shower would sprinkle me and cool me off. My legs were tired but nothing major (now that I had the right shoes on). I came into the starting area at about 2pm, a 2 ½ hr loop. Now you can see that my memory is getting fuzzy on what happened on which loop. Don’t worry; the last loop is painfully clear to me!

2:15pm? (miles 25-32)
Loop Four – I was excited to do this loop because when I finished it, I would have a new PR for miles traveled (by ½ mile) in a day. That meant that anything I ran beyond this loop would be new territory. It was also the first full loop in my road running shoes and I was glad to have them. I think psychologically that lifted my spirits. A lot of the race, I concentrated on form and trying to be efficient with the use of my body. I tried to stay loose and keep my core strong. I was still drinking and eating on schedule. This loop passed without incident and I raised my hands as I went through the chute – a new PR! But, I wasn’t done. After all, it was only about 4:45, another 2 ½ hr loop. Now the fun could begin.

5:00pm (miles 33-40)
Loop Five – My legs were getting tired and I thought I might have to walk more of this loop, but as I started moving I began to feel better. Once I got passed the first part of the trail and it smoothed out a bit, I began to pick my pace up again. I reasoned to myself that the aches I was feeling at 35 miles were no different than the aches I was feeling at 27 miles. One thing Farouk had said on that first loop was to keep moving forward – it was the key to adding up the mileage. So I did. Again I kept focusing on body form and paying attention to whether I needed to drink or eat. I was feeling pretty bloated by now and had cut back on my food in between loops. I was also wondering about whether I should spend so much time before I started each loop. I would often see people come in after me, and leave before me. Sometimes I caught back up to them, and passed them, some of them I never saw again. But I also knew that I needed that short little break, if just to sit down for a few minutes, or stretch. I’m not sure if my leave times are really accurate. I may have spent more time at my crew area than estimated. The first half of this loop went fine; it was the second half of each loop that was getting to me. Somewhere during this loop, I turned on the headlamp as it started getting dark in the woods. Still I pulled into the starting area at about 8:00pm, 3 hrs later.

8:20pm (miles 41-48)
Loop Six
This would be the first full loop in the dark. It would also put me close to the 50 mile mark! I knew that if I finished this loop, I would definitely have at least one more in me to cross that 50 mile threshold. I was still wearing the vest and the skin tights. Showers would come and go and it was finally starting to cool off. That revived me and even though I told my husband I thought I might walk more of this one, after I got my legs going I felt like I could run some more. I also realized that if I needed to go potty, all I had to do was go off the trail a few yards duck behind a tree and turn my headlamp off. No one would see me. (Don’t know why that made me feel better, except knowing I didn’t have to wait until I got back to the start). I actually began to cut my water, Gatorade intact back. My stomach felt alright, just bloated. If I erred, I erred on the side of over hydration. The hooty owls were out, lizards scampered across the trail, and the hills seemed to get steeper and steeper. In fact, I don’t remember some of those hills being there before. It’s amazing what darkness and fatigue can do to you. I finished the loop a little before 11pm. I actually beat my husband and daughter back from wherever they had gone off to. My daughter was going to go back to the camper and sleep. My husband was going to come back and lay down under the tarp. He was thinking of walking my last loop with me, if I had it in me to do an eighth loop. It was getting cooler, so I put on a dry t-shirt under my vest and that seemed to be just enough. I was now getting ready to break the 50 mile mark.

11:00pm? (miles 49-56)
Loop Seven
The midnight hour. I started walking and again was able to run a bit once I got my legs back. Now, I was pretty sure “wasting” time at my crew tent was a good strategy. This loop went okay for a while and then it started raining, and raining, and raining…You could see the rain coming down in front of the headlamp; you could also see your breath. Plus in places it was foggy. It was basically hard to see. I kept my head down and focused on the path, not wanting to be surprised by any rocks or sticks. The amazing thing about the whole race was that I stumbled a few times, but never fell. For my knees, I had the straps that go under the knee and stabilize the leg. I took them off for a couple of loops because I felt like they were rubbing under my knees a little. I had also been doing some targeted exercises to strengthen the whole leg area around my knee as well as the quads and hamstrings. So I think the combination of all that really helped, especially when climbing hills. I had adapted a sort of shuffle run where I could keep moving at a pretty decent clip while not jarring my legs too much. By now, I was forcing myself to drink and eat. I was pleased that I never had GI issues during the entire race, just bloat. It was muddy and slippery. Parts of the trail were like walking through a creek. The long steep hill was a muddy mess. But I thought, if I can finish this loop, there will be still five or six hours left. Maybe I can get one, or even two more laps in. Just think, 64 or 72 miles. And so I kept going, kept telling myself that the aches I felt were the same aches at 30 and 40 miles. No difference – just keep moving forward. Finally I was back at the start. Before I went down to the start area I went over to my crew tent where my husband was sleeping. I didn’t want to, but I woke him up. I had to decide before I went down the hill whether to try for at least one more loop. He decided he wasn’t going to walk it with me. I decided I needed to do it anyway. I took my shoes and socks off and lubed my feet, and put dry thick Smart Wool socks on. I took off everything off my top, toweled myself dry, and then put a dry bra, long sleeve tech shirt and my rain jacket on. Finally, I felt warm. A little bite to eat, then down to the starting line to check in and out. This time I knew it was 1:30 am because I remember saying “Five and a half hours left, right?”

Loop Eight – (miles 57-64)
The final loop. I was tired, but I thought I still had a few running legs left in me. Shortly after I started the loop, the rain began to let up. I took off the jacket and tied it around my waist. Once I got on the smoother section I started doing my shuffle run number. The fog was whirling around my face and it was pretty mystical. I remember one runner come running by me and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I passed two “zombie” runners. I swear one of them looked over at me and his eyes were glazed over. I seriously don’t think he knew where he was. About half a mile before the half-way point aid station, I started slowing down big time. The shuffle run was gone and I was simply walking. It was 3am when I reached it. An hour and a half to do the first 4 miles. I reasoned to myself that I only had to go one mile an hour and I would make it back to the finish line. I was still thinking, well if I can make it back by 5 am that gives me two hours to get to the halfway point. Maybe I can at least do 68 miles. Ha – maybe I was getting a little delusional by then. The rain began again as I started climbing the hill. The jacket came back on. The hill was even more slippery, and by the time I reached the top I realized I was done for the night. A runner came up behind me. He was one of the front runners and he said he was on his twelfth loop. He was hoping to make the big 100. I was pleased for him. At this point, on the steeper ascents and descents I really was down to a one mile per hour pace. One foot in front of the other, just keep moving forward. I was afraid one wrong step and down I would go. I tried to make up for it on the flatter sections. I began singing out loud to stay awake and keep myself from focusing on the pain. The legs hurt. The feet hurt, my shoulders and back hurt. I had a coughing spell and leaked a little urine. It burned on the legs. (I told you the last loop was going to be gory). I hit the wall. I started crying - I’m not sure why. Was it because I hurt, or because I knew that it was over and 64 miles was my limit. Or was it for joy that I had achieved the 64 miles at all. I don’t know. I just know that I had to keep putting one foot in front of the other and soon I could stop, I could say I had done it. I had achieved a dream that at times I thought impossible. I had tested the limits of my body and my endurance and had passed the test. I was okay, I would survive. I had met and exceeded my goals. One step at a time. As I drew nearer to the finish area, I passed and was passed by runners coming in and out. I saw Farouk; he had one more loop in him. Several runners asked if I was okay. I put on my best smiley face and said yes, I think I can make it. As I traveled down the last hill, I saw my husband walking toward me. He had gotten worried and was about to go look for me. I think he really wanted to carry me to the finish line when he saw my pained expression. I told him he was supposed to tell me how wonderful I looked, that’s what crew members do, but I know it hurt him to see me in pain. So I let him hold my hand as we climbed that last hill. Then I turned and walked down alone to the finish line for the last time. It was 5:30am. I raised my hands in victory! I had done it.

The race director and volunteers were wonderful. While I couldn’t eat a lot of the food due to my gluten sensitivity there was plenty there for everyone. The runners looked out for each other and encouraged one another. I don’t know how many times I heard “You’re looking good.” I tried to return the favor. I got lots of high fives at the end. By the time it was over, we all hurt, but we were still smiling knowing we had accomplished something tremendous, whether it was the first or the fiftieth ultra we had run. I was pleased to meet Bill Sullivan who tried his hardest to get to 50 miles, and Farouk who gave me a high five at the end and when I said I couldn’t keep up with him, he told me it was just a matter of experience. Or Mike Huff who runs to raise money for the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund. I felt privileged to be part of such a group.

My motto still stands. It’s what I live by:

Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

PS – I run for Teens Opposing Poverty. This is my first race in the TOP Challenge Racing Series. Anyone can join the series, you don’t have to fundraise to be a part. And if you want to fund raise but not run you can do that too! Check out these websites: – the ministry website - details on the race series - sign up to join the challenge or donate funds - sponsor me using this website address.

I’m hoping to do a 10 hour endurance run at the end of the month. I need sponsors! Consider sponsoring me at $1/mile or per hour!

God bless!