Big Turtle 50-miler and the elephant in the room
Somehow these two things tie together, so I’ll do my best to make it an interesting read. I ran the Big Turtle 50-miler this past weekend in Morehead Kentucky. It was an out and back with very little flat and a bit more road than I had anticipated. I want to say it was a beautiful course, but the trail portions were mostly deep in the woods and very few of those grand views you expect from mountain tops were really available and the road portion even offered running over a freeway... so I think the real beauty of this race was in the volunteers and the other amazingly supportive runners out there on the course.
I arrived at 6:00am for a 7:00am start and delivered my drop bags full of my gluten-free vegan fare and some extra clothes. I had felt guilty about the size of my bags when an email went out the day before the race suggesting we use 1-gallon ziplocks...so I had taken any extra shoes and other things I deemed possibly unnecessary out of my bags, which I would come to regret by around 30 miles. It was cold at the start, a chilly 33 degrees. I had heatpacks in my shoes, but standing on the pavement waiting for the gun to go off gave my reynauds enough time to kick in. The nozzle on my hydration pack was leaking and I hadn’t realized that until it drenched the left side of my sports bra which led to some pretty uncomfortable chafing within the first few miles. I was off to a stellar start... The first little stretch was on the road from the university where we started and then we reached the trail and started out on a climb of switchbacks. By the time we reached the top, the pack thinned out and some actual running was possible. The trail conditions were nice, very few spots of mud and all of the water crossings were manageable without getting my feet wet. The sun started coming out and my feet warmed up around 2 hours in and I had a few miles of thinking this was going to be a great race. And then things started going really wrong. We hit a pretty long stretch of road that I hadn’t anticipated. I was in a pair of trail minimus shoes with about zero support and cushion in the soles and within a couple miles on that hard surface I felt as though my Morton’s Neuroma had exploded inside of my shoe. I started favoring it which then led to some pain in the opposite hip and knee. I felt my attitude going downhill and kept trying to smile and think of positive things and remind myself that a good friend frequently tells me that everything can turn around in a run even when it seems like it won’t. Finally after more than an hour on the road I saw the trailhead flagged up ahead and tried to cheer up and look forward to things feeling better. My pace picked up markedly once I got back on the trail and I did feel for a moment that things might turn around. And then the sun I had been so looking forward to started getting hot and I felt the first signs of my nausea rearing it’s ugly head as I worked my way up a long climb. I got to the next aid station and found that my drop bag had been baking in the sun and was full of condensation, my sandwich bag had blown up in the heat and everything in the bag was soggy and unappetizing. I ate the last of a mushed up pbj from my pocket and had a couple pickles from the aid station and headed out. The nausea was becoming pretty pronounced by 15 miles and when I reached the aid station at 16 miles I looked with jealousy at the 50K runners turning around to head back. During the next stretch to the halfway point a woman running her first 50 miler caught up to me. I had been running clenching my gut for a couple miles at that point, it felt as though anything I had eaten was sitting there like a rock threatening to come back up. I chewed on some pepto bismal tabs I had in my pack and stuck a couple Zofran under my tongue in hopes of warding off the inevitable vomiting a little longer. We chatted along the way and again I felt as though things might actually turn around, the distraction of conversation was helpful and my optimism was on the rise. We came into the aid station with more than 2 hours to spare on the cutoff and her husband turned his attention to me once she was taken care of and he offered support and food. I cannot overstate how much this meant to me. I’ve never run anything longer than a 50k without a crew and I’ve been pretty spoiled with having really attentive crews at my races. I have more to say about running this race “unsupported”, but I’ll save that for later... I left the aid station before my new running partner, knowing she would catch up, I was fading again fast and the nausea was returning pretty strongly. She did catch up and I managed to keep up for a few minutes and then I watched her disappear ahead of me. I took comfort knowing that I was on my way back, but because it was an out and back, I knew perfectly well what was in store for me. I struggled to get to the 33 mile aid station and repeatedly looked at the cutoff times sharpied onto my arm. I was repeating the “rules” in my head- you either miss a cutoff, finish or die, but there’s no quitting. As much as I wanted to quit or be forced to quit by missing a cutoff, I wanted to finish more. I wanted to see how much I could really push through. I made it mile 33, now only an hour and a half ahead of cutoff... Benny, the sweet husband of the woman I had run with earlier greeted me when I finally arrived at the next crew access aid station just a couple miles away. Again my drop bag was literally a hot mess of inedible food and I knew the road stretch was coming again and I longed for the shoes I had removed from the bag and left in my hotel room. Benny offered me pickle flavored potato chips and for the first time in hours I felt encouraged as I ate them and was actually able to swallow them and get some calories in me. The next stretch was the longest without aid and I tried to focus on the fact that I “only” had a half marathon left. A really nice guy caught up with me after the climb leaving the aid station and we talked as we ran along and ran right past a turn off. We were on our way up a pretty steep incline on what seemed to be a fire road, discussing the social norms of trailrunning- that you wouldn’t grunt and groan in front of someone you just met in a bar the way you do after making introductions on a trail when he looked up and said “I don’t remember coming down anything this steep”... We continued up a little further- I was hesitant to descend before I was certain I wasn’t going to have to climb it again- and then we heard yelling from below and saw a runner and her pacer pointing towards the turn we missed. Once back on course we seemed to be keeping a good pace and the conversation was definitely a nice distraction from the suffer fest I was battling. He was kind enough to wait for me at the top of a few rough climbs when I needed to pause and catch my breath and let my stomach settle. We made it into the mile 40 aid station and it turned out that his friend he had spoken of running her first 50 miler was the sweet woman I had run with earlier and her husband Benny was there waiting for both of us. My new friend was ready to head out before me, I was in a somewhat disoriented state and found myself sort of wandering aimlessly around trying to decide what I needed. I felt like everything had spiraled out of control and I really had no idea how to fix it. In desperation I turned on my phone and texted a crew member from my 100-miler and briefly described what was going on...I was trying to troubleshoot but felt like things had gotten too out of control for me to manage. He offered the encouragement I needed and then a fellow runner offered me some of her Tums. Again I am brought back to the thoughts of what we find acceptable on a trail as compared to what’s acceptable in normal social settings...never in my daily life would I watch a filthy person on the street dig a crumpled up sweaty ziploc bag full of half crushed tums out of their pocket and not politely decline the offer. In this situation however, I didn’t think twice before sticking my disgusting fingers into her little bag and shoving some of her almost identifiable Tums into my mouth with nothing but thoughts of gratitude for this amazing stranger and her sympathy for my plight. I then headed out for that stretch of road that would pretty much cross the T’s and dot the I’s on the destruction of my feet. I could hear my new Tum’s-toting friend not far behind me as I searched for a spot to drop down into the woods off the road to pee. The drop off was steep and I knew my ability to climb back up was limited at that point. I finally found a spot and as I was crawling back up to the road she approached and our 9 or so mile journey together to the finish began. It was the longest 9 miles of my life. We chatted along the way and once again, a turn off was missed. Fortunately another runner saw us and called out so we were able to get back on course without straying too far. The road seemed to go on forever. We were still running what we could, but we were both struggling with nausea and dizziness, so the inclines had to be hiked. She had a great hiking pace and we managed to stay ahead of the cutoff and cover ground somewhat quickly. We discussed the possibilities and likelihood of vomiting or shitting ourselves because that’s a socially acceptable conversation to have with someone you just met...the ridiculousness of the conversation provided some much-needed levity. We finally got back to the trail and a somewhat runnable section. The climbs were becoming increasingly difficult and the sun was going down. How we were still running in the physical states we were in is still a mystery to me. There might have been some tears of joy when the lights of the university and the finish line below came into sight. The mountain seemed to go forever at that point and there was no shortage of profanity on either of our parts during that last hour. We crossed the finish line with 43 minutes to spare and not an ounce of energy left.
I feel I have set the bar pretty high for myself on my suffer tolerance level. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to quit anything again...if I could push through that level of discomfort, I can push through anything. It was monumental on several levels that I went out there unsupported. I know that I have dietary restrictions that require me to have my own food when I run and I knew that not having someone to crew and cart my food around for me was risky. But I felt like I had something to prove to myself...here comes that elephant. This blog was started to document my journey of preparing for and running a transcontinental run. As I’ve written about in previous posts, the purpose of the run came about as a result of a lot of loss and grief and a need to heal myself and help others. I’ve been transparent about the good, the bad, and the ugly of the whole journey so far and as I stated in my very first blog post- ours is not a warm fuzzy story of trying to have a baby that ends with us actually having a baby...incidentally our journey led us to separation and ultimately to the courthouse the day before this race to officially file our dissolution papers. I want to say there are no hard feelings, but there are plenty of feelings of all varieties on both parts. We’re two well-intentioned people who just weren’t able to get through the grief together and we grew apart. We needed different paths to work things out and accept what happened to us and eventually, hopefully, both of us will be able to be at peace with the last 5 years and appreciate all that this experience has taught us. I left for the road trip to the race after leaving the courthouse with a sense of independence I hadn’t felt in a few years. I knew that it wouldn’t be an easy race, admittedly I hadn’t anticipated the level of challenges I was about to face, but I knew heading out that I needed to finish no matter what- I needed to prove to myself that I am in fact enough and I can succeed on my own. Mission accomplished.