A nightmare. About three miles from the halfway turnaround point on the 50-km course, a runnable section of trail gave itself over to a relentless series of boulders, rocky descents, and scrambles across drainages. At any other moment, this would have been a welcome challenge for a trail runner, but for the last hour, my metabolism had been steadily plunging downhill. Now I flailed to maintain third place in the women's race, even as doubt crept in that I would finish at all.
Two miles before, at the 9.6-mile aid station, I hastily filled my single water bottle and headed off into the woods. I had been focusing on staying close to the lead women, but at this point, gradually, my thoughts turned inward and I acknowledged something that had been going on for a while. Things were not right. I had been eating a gel every 20 minutes, for a total of 300 calories per hour. That’s close to the 350-calorie limit they say an average athlete can burn per hour during exercise. Normally I stick to a gel (100 calories) every 30 minutes, but have had some issues with maintaining energy levels on training runs, so I ramped it up an extra 100 calories for this race. By the time I went through that 9.6-mile aid station, though, my body was slowing down. I felt dizzy. Nauseous. Sleepy. Weak.
I reassessed and waited 30 or 40 minutes for my next gel, deciding I needed to space them out a bit. Meanwhile, I just kept trying to move forward, and drank as much as I could.
That stretch between the 9.6-mile aid station and the turnaround at mile 15.2 is long—too long for a single water bottle. I rationed, and eventually ran out of water about half a mile from the aid station. By the time I made it there, my stomach had made no improvements. I was now in fourth place, and there was nothing I could do about it. Angel Clark greeted me with her son Anthony and my kiddo. Tony Clark handed me a coke. I swallowed it down, but it sat like a rock on my stomach, just like everything else I tried to eat. I got my drop bag and unwrapped a Honey Stinger Waffle, filled a second handheld water bottle for the return trip, said Thank You, and left.
A few steps out of the aid station, I took a small bite of the waffle and recoiled. It turned to powder in my mouth. I folded it in half and tucked it into my race vest pocket. For the next hour and a half, I alternated between walking and forcing myself to run the flat, smooth stretches. It was nice to see the rest of the field on the out-and-back, greeting and being greeted by friends. Several called out my position (“Fourth place!” or “Eight minutes back from first!”) and I thanked them politely, though I knew at that point I wasn’t running a race against other people. I nibbled tiny bites of the waffle and drank and drank and drank.
If too many calories wasn’t the problem, then it was dehydration. The technical nature of the course kept my head down and concentration on not falling, so I probably wasn’t sipping water as often as I usually would. I hadn’t peed at all during the race. If things didn’t turn around for me before I hit the next aid station, I told myself I should probably sit down and drink until I did urinate. I thought, You’re going to DNF, aren’t you? I started to believe it.
Then: I remembered wishing that—just once—I could run a race with no IT-band pain and no ankle pain. And here it was. My legs felt fine. After a full year of ITB pain, it had finally decided to let me go. I couldn’t throw away this opportunity. I started to run.
A little while later, I peed.
Eventually, I reached into my pocket and the waffle was gone. I am not sure if I ate it all or if it fell out of my pocket. I went quite a while before I started back on the gels again, but even when I wasn’t eating, my energy gradually returned. I found a good rhythm. Half a mile from the 20.8-mile aid station, my body was gradually letting me back into the race as I woke from the nightmare.
I drank down another cup of Coke at the 20.8-mile aid station. Life continued to soak back into my limbs. Three miles later, I came up on the next aid station where I was offered more Coke, but I felt good and just wanted to keep moving.
Somewhere along the way I ran into Justin Chockley and Luke Hoskam. We walked and chatted for a short distance—then I took off, feeling like I was being chased. About ten minutes later I heard something moving in the woods behind me, and was relieved to see it was Justin. We would push and pull each other for the remainder of the race, and it was great to have the company.
|Pushing to the finish with Justin|
Those last three miles that seemed “not so bad” on the way out turned to misery on the way back. Lots of stepping up and stepping down; uncertain footing; scrambling up through a crevasse, sliding down on gravel—all on tender, tired legs. Looking back at my splits, those miles were just as slow as the “nightmare” miles, even though I did everything I could to keep trotting forward. Justin and I both eyed our watches, knowing the seven-hour mark was approaching. We pressed forward.
At last, we hit pavement for the last 0.75-mile stretch to the finish. Justin took off at an 8-minute pace; all I could manage was a 9 for most of that stretch. Adrian ran out a short distance from the finish line to meet me, turned abruptly to run, and skidded on the gravel, skinning her hand and knee. I stopped, brushed her off, got her centered again, and then completed my run to the finish line with her on my heels.
FlatRock 50k: 6 hours and 56 minutes.
I have struggled to quantify the difficulty of this course. Yes, it’s tough. The trail follows a rocky bluff and consists primarily of a flat, limestone base. There is not a whole lot of dirt. In some places the rock is crumbling, in other places it is broken into foot-sized pieces. If the trail is going up or down, that usually means negotiating uneven “stair-steps” made of rock. Like a needy child, the trail constantly demands your attention—but it was attention that I didn’t mind giving. The terrain is rugged and beautiful, and (when I had juice in my legs) it was a joy to run. But for the ill-prepared, bonking, or injured runner…it’s a bad dream.