Saturday I ran the 40 mile race in the Triple Lakes Trail Races event out in Greensboro, NC. As I mentioned previously, this was my first ultramarathon race since the Potomac Heritage 50k in November of 2009. Going into the race I was feeling pretty good, I hadn’t put a lot of pressure on myself because this was primarily to serve as my last hard long run before the 50 miler next month. The reduced volume in the days leading up to the race helped my legs feel fresher than they have in a while. I didn’t know what to expect except for lots of roots, some beautiful views, and a long day out in the woods.
The night before I managed to sleep alright, about 6 or so hours which is very good for a pre-race night. I woke up at 4:30 am not feeling particularly tired, got myself dressed and packed and out the door by 5. I got to Bur-Mil Park just north of Greensboro, where the race would start and finish, at 6:30am. It was a short walk from the parking lot to the picnic tables for packet pick-up, I was one of the first people there it seemed, and I was enjoying the early morning calm and chill. I wasn’t freezing but I would have been uncomfortable without my jacket. The weather, which had been pretty bad all week, reversed course for race day. The high was scheduled to be about 70 and it was probably about twenty degrees cooler right then. I had an hour and a half before the start so I walked back to my car and then drove about a mile back down the road to Harris Teeter where I used the warm bathroom instead of dealing with the port-a-potties. I got back to the park with about a half hour to go and set about getting ready — getting my Brooks Launches on (I didn’t get my Pure Grits yet, and debated between the Launch and the Green Silence, ultimately going with the somewhat more substantial Launch for cushioning with the roots, I didn’t want my feet to get too beat up), vaseline-ing appropriate areas, filling my handheld with Cytomax (this was a last minute decision but one I was pretty confident would be good), and filling my shorts’ pockets with gels. I headed over to the start area wearing a sweatshirt. As I got to the start, they made an announcement that they were starting the half marathon first (there are three races — a half, a full, and the 40) and then the full/40 five minutes later. I milled around waiting, not feeling it would do me any good to warm-up in the way I normally do for races, so I peed in the woods and did some dynamic stretching and eventually ambled my way to the start line.
The course runs along most of Greensboro’s watershed trails around some really pretty lakes, with about about two miles at the start on the paved park road and a greenway and a few road crossings along the way. The marathon and 40 mile races share the same course for the first 11+ miles along the north side of the lakes before it splits, 40 milers doing an out and back while marathoners skip that and head right back to the finish on trails south of the lakes. Going into the race, all I knew about were the roots, I wasn’t sure how hilly things would be but being a trail race I was ready for whatever.
There was a pretty good crowd of people there. I made my way to the front where there were mostly marathoners. I asked a few what their goal time was, hoping someone would say around 3:30 as that was the pace I was looking to run. We were told that the 40 milers would be crossing a bridge on the out and back section that was flooded. Sounded like fun to me. I drained a 5 hour energy and got my mind ready to go, my legs were already there. The RD got in the gator, sounded the airhorn, and we were off.
We got off the greenway onto some trails finally, a little loop that went around Bur-Mil park, then back onto the greenway and then a bigger loop around the park on trails. We passed mile 3 right at 21 minutes. I was talking with the other guys, not out of breath, not pressing, just cruising. Being out on the trail on a crisp fall morning seemed like the only place I could possibly want to be, I was pretty happy. Around mile 5 we came off the trail and the ran over a bridge which afforded some more gorgeous views of the lake. This was where the first aid station was. The pack was still together and I briefly slowed to down a cup of gatorade. To this point, I was sipping my Cytomax every so often, and figured I’d take a gel around mile 8 where another aid station would be. Back onto some trails we went, I was running second behind the shirtless guy, the other two right behind us.
This is how things went for most of the first 11 miles. I took a blueberry pomegranate GU Roctane as planned right before the next aid station, a little less than an hour in. I still had plenty of Cytomax so I just had a water or two, crossed the road and carried on. The next three miles were also uneventful. There WERE plenty of roots but that was it; no significant ups or downs, just rolling trail with intermittent views of the water. Around mile 11 we briefly came out of the woods to another road, I had a cup of gatorade and we continued on a trail for another little bit. Coming back out of the woods, we finally reached the split-off point. I wished the three marathoners well as they headed along the route that I would be running a little bit later. At this point I was done with my Cytomax and filled my handheld up with mostly Gatorade and some water at the aid station before crossing the street and beginning the next part of the race all alone. I glanced up the road as I entered the trail and didn’t see a soul.
A short ways into this section I passed the mile 12 sign. I was at 1:26:30. 28 miles left, I’ve run 28 miles quite a few times already this summer, I’m feeling good, this is gonna be a great day. This trail seemed a bit more rugged, there were a few larger hills but my legs were still feeling fantastic, I was backing off slightly on the really steep sections but by and large I was running, and quickly. I dunno how off the next two mile signs were but apparently I covered the next two miles in 13:50. I passed the “flooded” bridge and don’t remember getting my feet wet at all on the way out, there was only a few boards that were submerged. Around mile 15 there was another aid station where I downed another cup of Gatorade. Around this point I noticed something concerning going on — as I passed close to the water in a sunnier section, I noted that my vision seemed to be a little foggy. This has happened before, most notably at Pikes Peek and Broad Street in the spring. I hoped it wouldn’t get much worse as I still had a long ways to go but I also knew there was nothing I could do about it now. I remember hitting mile 16 in 1:55ish and it was there that I began thinking about HOW good a day I could possibly have. I knew there were still 24 miles to go and I’d probably slow some but I knew my legs could handle the distance and I’ve run quick long runs before, plus the weather was perfect so I was gaining confidence by the minute.
Then I made my first mistake. Shortly after the mile 16 sign I apparently missed a pretty sharp left. It was entirely my fault, because there were multiple arrows telling you where to go. I didn’t turn. And eventually I ended up at a road. Which I proceeded to run up a bit to see if the trail came back, despite not seeing anyone (all the other roads I crossed had at least a few people) or any pink arrows. Eventually I realized I was off course, cursed loudly and retraced my steps. I was pissed. I ran back until I saw arrows marking an intersection, but I didn’t know which direction I had come from so I guessed. I guessed wrong. Eventually I came BACK to the mile 16 sign, almost 9 minutes after the first time I’d seen it. I basically had just ran an extra mile. I saw a few guys in the distance and cursed again, my stupidity and carelessness had all but erased my lead. I immediately reversed course and began booking it the right way this time. I tried to let the whole incident melt away but I was pretty angry with myself. I was now no longer way out in front and I had wasted a considerable amount of energy and got nowhere for it.
Three rolling miles later I came out of the woods to another aid station. I had been eating a Gu Chomp every few minutes throughout this 40 mile only section and was about halfway through the package of eight. I re-filled my bottle with more gatorade, took a few cups of water, doused myself with one and then asked where to go. They said, back, as this was the turnaround point already. Awesome. I bounded back into the woods, eager to see where exactly the rest of the field was. About 2 minutes later I came across the first person, but I’m pretty sure he was a relay runner. Another minute and I saw a guy with long dreadlocks and a dude in a red shirt. I was pretty sure this was 2nd and 3rd, so I figured I had 5-6 minutes on them still. I gave them a nod and continued on. I was still feeling pretty good and moving pretty quick. I came up to the mile 20 sign in about 2:31. Halfway done with a bonus mile and I was right near the pace needed for a course record which was ~5:03. Not knowing anything about the second half of the course I allowed myself to think maybe it would be possible. If nothing else, the 5:20-5:30 goal was definitely doable it seemed.
And that’s basically when I started a completely different race. The first half of this race went so differently than the second half for me it’s like I ran two different races. Almost immediately after the halfway point, my stomach began to send me warning signals. I was still moving at this point but I could feel the gatorade I was putting in begin to just sit there, sloshing around. I knew I still needed to consume some calories but the chomps stopped appealing to me immediately and I didn’t want to take another gel yet. The Gatorade also became instantly unappealing. And it seemed my energy levels dropped precipitously. It was like a light switch had just been flicked off. I was running still, but I had slowed. I was now powerhiking any signifcant uphill section. I took my first fall around this section, tripping up a hill as some people ran by the other way. I managed to scrape up my knee but nothing worse. I also at some point literally ran into a tree. It wasn’t hidden or anything, it was off the trail, I didn’t trip, I just ran right into it with my right shoulder, bouncing off it like a pinball and continuing on. I was getting my money’s worth.
I came back on the 15/23 mile aid station and forced myself to down another cup of liquid, and also poured a few waters over my head. My stomach was feeling worse and worse. I had hit my first significant low point in the race, and I was not happy. My legs felt fine, they weren’t tired or stressed, but I just didn’t feel very good overall. I needed calories and I needed liquid but it felt like my body wasn’t absorbing what I put in. It was a rough stretch to the point where we had split from the marathoners. I managed to get back to that split about an hour after leaving the turnaround. Still, on the way out I had run in a few minutes faster despite adding an extra mile that way. I was nearly 26 miles in and I had been running for 3:25. The fact that I still had 14 miles to go weighed heavily on me at this point. I took a bit extra time at this aid station, impulse downing a Hammer espresso gel from the table, refilling my handheld again and pouring more water over my head. Back onto the trail I went, for the first time more worried about being caught than about any time I could potentially run.
The stretch to the next aid station was only about 4.5 miles but it felt exceptionally long and arduous. It was in the section that I stopped to walk for the first time, meaning not powerwalking up a hill, just walking, on the trail, in a stretch that was definitely runnable. I was angry again. I was really struggling with my stomach and considerably worried about my ability to run and hold anything down. Every time I started moving I got nauseous. When I stopped I could feel the energy draining. I fell again at some point. I stood with my hands on my knees hunched over, wondering how the hell I was going to even FINISH the race. In my head I kept repeating the mantra “relentless forward progress” and I forced myself to do just that. I figured walking (more like stumbling) was better and more productive than hunching over. I would hit good stretches and I would force myself to run some but for the most part this must have looked pretty ugly to an outside observer. I figured it was just a matter of when, not if I would be caught and passed.
Finally I came to the marina and the next aid station, where I tried a handful of pretzels as that was the only thing appealing to me. I forced down some water and gatorade, knowing I needed something to keep me moving. People there were really encouraging and said I looked good (LIARS!) and that there was about ten miles left. Someone offered me a bandaid. “For what?” Then I looked at myself quickly and noticed I was bleeding from my shoulder where I ran into the tree and it looked pretty grisly, and also from my knee. I declined and ambled through the marina and back onto the trail. 30 mile sign, and I was at a little over 4 hours. It HAD been a rough 10 miles. At this point, I adjusted my goal to “don’t die” and thought it was about 50/50 on that. I trudged along, trying to break the race down into training runs. 10 miles left, that’s what I did on Monday, no problem. The mile signs were coming slower and seemed to be further apart. My energy levers were really nosedived at this point and it felt like everything I had drank the past two hours was just sitting in my stomach. I forced myself to take another Gu Roctane which didn’t help at all. I was beginning to come up on some of the back of the pack marathoners. I tried to use them as motivation to keep plugging on, encouraging them as I passed and reminding myself that I wasn’t the only one suffering. It made me think of my friends from the beginning of the race and how I was kind of jealous that they were surely done already.
The trails in this stage of the race were more difficult than the early ones. They were all up or down, the hills were a bit bigger, the roots were still bad, it was not pretty. I was actually surprised that I was still leading. There was a lot more powerwalking, or just regular walking, or slow walking. There was also another fall when I was attempting to run, this time I was on flat ground and rolled onto my back so I wouldn’t break anything or twist an ankle and managed to get up pretty quickly and keep going. Both knees were now scraped up, my hands were stinging with dirt in scrapes, my left hip flexor felt strained from the combination of the fall, the downhills, maybe the thigh wrap I had on for my hamstring. It was just another thing to pile on. I found myself questioning what the hell I was doing and why exactly was I subjecting myself to this. And each time I did that, I reminded myself I LIKED this, I WANTED this feeling, I WANTED to scrape the bottom of the barrel, to test myself and my limits. I reminded myself that it’s easy to be tough when things feel good and you’re cruising along. But NOW is the time where actual toughness is proven. I made up my mind to be tough.
FINALLY, I came to the last aid station. Right before mile 35 I came out of the woods again and to a table. There was a woman working there who seemed pretty disinterested and also didn’t attempt to hide how disgusted she was by me. I’m sure it didn’t look pretty, I was bleeding from a few different spots, I was staggering, I could feel gel dried up and probably mixed with snot in my beard, I was a mess. There were cups of Coke and water and Gatorade. At this point I could barely stand the sight of gatorade, let alone the taste. I though maybe some flat Coke would help settle my stomach like when I was a kid. Problem was, this was not flat Coke, not even close. So it made me hiccup and it made my stomach WORSE. I dumped a couple waters over my head. It wasn’t that it ever got particularly hot, and even when it warmed up some, the breeze off the water kept things pretty cool, it was just that the water on my head helped sort of keep me from spacing out too much, and kind of woke me up each time. I had lingered long enough so I set out again, decided that I would walk to the bridge a few meters away and then begin “running” again when I got to the trail on the other side. I left two women at the aid station who were wearing bright pink shirts that said something like ‘Christian Runners’. As soon as I got on the trail, I felt an overwhelming urge to pee. Up to that point I hadn’t even thought about it, and definitely didn’t need to, but it just hit me so I looked up the trail to make sure no one was coming, looked back to see if the women were behind me (they weren’t), pulled to the side and peed for a good minute. I was not in the least surprised to note it was dark dark yellow. Obviously I had been correct in assuming that my body was not absorbing any of the liquids I had been drinking for some time. I was severely dehydrated and didn’t seem to know how to fix the problem. I had a full bottle of Gatorade, the same gatorade that hadn’t been working at all. How the hell was I going to get through another five miles?
I took a few big swigs from my handheld, forcing down the Gatorade. I started running again, slowly. Almost immediately I knew I had finally passed the edge of the cliff. The combination of the carbonation from the Coke and the gatorade and the running was too much. I stopped and hunched over, again. I thought maybe it was another false alarm. It wasn’t. For the next two or three minutes I was bent over on the side of the trail and bright orange Gatorade was being vomited back up. It was awful, it felt awful, it looked like something out of an exorcist movie, it was the lowest point in the race for me. To make matters worse, I basically couldn’t see out of my left eye and my right one was pretty cloudy too. But then something strange happened. As soon as I was sure I was done and there was nothing left in my stomach to throw up, I stood and… felt better. MUCH better. Somehow I felt MORE energetic than I had a minute ago. My stomach felt great. I started moving, much faster than I had the previous 15 miles. I was by no means cruising like I had been early but I was definitely running again. At this point, the fatigue had set in though and my legs were beginning to feel the effort and undernutrition and I was trying to squeeze as much running out of the before allowing myself to walk. I ended up only powerwalking up the steepest hills, as I was now on a pretty up and down mountain bike trail. I also impulse downed my last remaining gel, a pineapple GU roctane, which actually tasted delicious. I had hit the lowest point and I had recovered and now I was less than 5 miles from being done with it all.
I was still running scared of being caught, but with my new found energy, I though maybe I’d be able to hold on long enough to get to the end before someone caught up. Each mile sign I passed I converted into a regular running route back home, which helped make it seem shorter. I counted steps. I had “Edge of Glory” playing on repeat in my head, but mostly just the chorus. I came down another hill and out onto this greenway and there were people there pointing ahead and saying it was just around the pond now. I didn’t know what they meant until I came to the grassy field on the other side of the greenway. I looked left and could see the Finish arch. All I had to do was run (uphill) around this small pond and I would be done. Maybe 1/2 mile left. It was here that I finally felt comfortable that I was going to win, but even still I pushed with whatever energy I had left in my legs. I passed one more marathoner and gave her some encouragement. Around the pond and now just a straight line to the end. I guess some people noticed I was the first 40 mile runner and began clapping and cheering. It was cool but I was kind of out of it and it all sounded like it was going on underwater. Finally I crossed the line and came teetering to a stop long enough to get handed a finisher’s medal. The clock said 5:37:43.
Post-race thoughts and musings
I drank a few cups of water right after, as that was the only thing I could stomach. Then I pounded a can of Coca-Cola and this time it was delicious. I had a banana and just kind of walked around. Eight minutes later the dreadlocks guy, Andy, ran in for 2nd place. A few minutes after him, the guy in the red shirt, Darian, finished third. I congratulated both of them and headed over to wear I saw a massage table. Unfortunately the massage therapist had left shortly before I finished. Damn. I walked the quarter mile or so to my car to get some clothes and my Boost shake to start the recovery process. Walking back up the hill we started on, I was amazed and kind of questioning how the hell I managed to do what I just did, especially considering how impossible running one more step seemed to me at this point. I hung around the finish area for a few hours, cheering people in, talking to other runners, trying to get calories in in the form of chocolate chip cookies, pretzels, and bananas. It’s strange that I had no lingering stomach issues after I finished running, and while I was tired from running, I wasn’t feeling nearly as bad as I did during the bad stretch, nor did I feel much worse than after a long run or hard workout. I foam rolled before getting back in the car for the drive home and rewarded myself with a big dessert and beer from Bella Mia near my apartment.
Some things I learned and took away from the race –
If you actually got through this whole thing, thanks for reading! If you have any comments, input, advice, criticisms, etc I would really appreciate it. I’m still pretty new to this ultrarunning thing and I know there are A LOT of people out there with significantly more talent and experience whom I could learn so much from. Til next time… RUN HAPPY everyone!