In April of 2009, I joined my husband’s office team in the American Cancer Society 24-Hour Relay for Life. Hubby and I walked a lap (3.75 miles) on Saturday then went back in the wee hours of Sunday and I ran 3 more. I decided then that I would be back next year for 35 miles and someday I would get a 50 mile plaque.
Fast forward to April 2010 and there I was, at the back of a small pack of Ultra Marathon runners, knowing I would be far away for next year’s race, and that this was probably my one shot for a plaque. I promised myself I would start slow and keep it that way so I walked the first mile and then set my Garmin to beep at me if my heart rate went over 151 BPM (my max is 206 if you want to do the math). Everything was going along swimmingly, we had lots of people, some running as single runners, some in teams like mine where the group wanted to rack up as many miles as possible, and some running a true “one man on the track at a time” relay. The track was shaped like a backwards P so the first ¾ mile or so was the same piece of road as the last. Everyone was chatty and friendly, filled with smiles and waves, friends greeting friends, and people cheering each other on. It really was the most fantastic group I have ever run with!
The first few laps were great. I was feeling great, the weather was great, my time was moving along great and my hope of meeting my goal was great, I was a very happy camper! Between each lap, I took at least a 10 minute break and put my feet up while noshing on sports gels, or crackers. Each time I passed the lap counting table there were different members of my track club waving hello and cheering. It was fun to see who would turn up next and gave me one more thing to look forward to at the end of each lap.
After the first 3 laps, I decided to change from my VFFs to trail shoes, mostly just to change things up before I had a problem, but also because my feet were feeling a bit battered, and because it was beginning to rain seriously. The path we were following was and old gravel road with rocks ranging from the size of a pea to the size of my fist, and often they were set it the dirt with one unforgiving corner sticking up to catch a toe or dig into an arch. Ultra runners do not complain about rough terrain, but if we talked about feet, it was the rocks that were cursed. Half way around the lap in my trail shoes my ankles started to hurt, a lot. It was all I could do to keep running. I would have taken them off and run bare, but the rocks were way too wicked for my feet. All I wanted to do was get the lap over with and get back into my VFFs! Strangely, the rain never really bothered me. It wasn’t terribly cold and the trees kept most of it off of us. We had the rain fly from our tent stretched over the table to keep stuff dry and my body was pretty much soaked with sweat anyway. At least the rain relieved the oppressive humidity that had been pressing down on us for the first few hours.
I started slowing down a little after lap 5. I had been maintaining close to a lap an hour with breaks and had covered almost 19 miles so I relaxed for a while, ate a peanut butter sandwich, and stared lap 6 at about 1pm. The weather was really starting to heat up. Our predicted high was around 70, but it ended up around 80 once the rain clouds cleared and the sun started beating down in earnest. Fortunately, most of the trail was in the woods with just one stretch that was really exposed and sunny. During this lap my husband called to tell me he and my daughter were at the camp. Last year it was a true camp with tents and elaborate set ups to support the runners. This year they wouldn’t allow tents, but people still had awnings and tables full of food and drinks, and were ready to roll out sleeping bags for the night time hours.
With Hubby to keep me company, we walked a lap to give my legs a break. My hip flexors were screaming and my quads were already getting sore, but the lap of easy walking really helped give me fresh energy and calmed the complaints of my legs. After another all too brief break, Rusty and I decided to run the next lap. Off we went at our slow slogging pace, waving to people we knew or had gotten to know, asking about what lap they were on, saying “Good job!” and continuing on. The end of lap 7 meant I had covered the distance of a full marathon and was just over the half way point! I had used up only 1/3 of my hours and felt good about my time. While we were out, my daughter blew up the air mattress for me so I was able to lie down and elevate my legs for a while before setting out again.
Lap 8 behind me meant 30 miles done and time to get some dinner! We called a pick up order in to Pizza Hut and I ate two pieces immediately. There are certain times in your life when pizza tastes like Ambrosia of the gods, this was definitely one of them! I dropped Hubby and kid at home and took my pizza back to camp. At this point, the most ambitious member of our team was finishing her 12th lap. She is training for her first full Ironman and could easily have done 75 miles, but she wanted to be done by night fall so she wouldn’t risk getting hurt in the dark and mess up the half ironman she is doing in 3 weeks. By sunset, Brandi had packed up her 50 mile plaque and was gone.
With too much pizza in my stomach, I started out on lap 9. I was really beginning to drag at this point and not paying attention to what I was doing when I stumbled on a tree root. I have no idea how I managed to catch myself because all I remember was the ground coming at my face and somehow getting my foot underneath me to stop it. It would have probably been the end of the day for me if I had hit the ground because I had both hands out in front of me and surely would have broken something if I had kept going down. Back on my feet I felt okay, other than a little shaken up. I knew I had pulled and jammed a few things and hoped it wouldn’t come back to haunt me later in the race.
I only vaguely remember lap 10. The sun was setting and I was cursing the fact that I didn’t think to take my flash light as it got darker and darker. I managed to catch a group of walkers near the end and enjoyed the light of their beams for the last mile to camp. 37.5 miles done!
Now it was seriously dark, but there were still a lot of people out so it wasn’t too creepy. The crowd had thinned down considerably with many people having enjoyed the day and a few laps and headed home. Considering the number of people out there, it was lonelier than you would think. Everyone had strict paces set and joining another runner or walker for any length of time meant sacrificing your own pace to match theirs. A few times I slowed down to enjoy the company of walkers for a while, but there were few runners that go as slow an me and I didn’t want to risk putting too much energy into any one lap to keep up with them, even if I could have. By now there were walkers, shufflers, and the true relay runners that would blow past us like wraiths in the dark, the light from their head lamps sliding by like a train on a prairie. Their approach was heralded only by the crunch of the rocks behind me and then they would disappear into the blackness ahead of me. But for the most part my laps in the dark were alone. I had even abandoned my MP3 player, preferring to be alert to the sounds around me.
Growing up, I was terrified of the dark and this paralyzing fear stayed with me until I had my first child so I was shocked when I realized I was on the darkest stretch through the woods and not completely freaked out. Looking forwards and back, there was no sign of another runner, not a single glow of a flashlight or head lamp, not a speck of light from the occasional glow sticks to mark the trail, not a single sign of human life beyond the pale glow of my little LED penlight. I felt peaceful and safe. I didn’t even panic when I suddenly heard loud splashing in the canal alone the path. Swinging my light in the direction of the noise, it illuminated a small heard of deer who were much more terrified by the light in the dark than I was by their noisy splashing. I’d like to think my brain registered that loud noises meant something was running away and not sneaking up, but I suspect my brain was simply too dead tired to react.
I stumbled into camp after lap 12 hungry, sore and exhausted. The jarring stumble on the root in lap 9 was starting to rear its ugly head as a swelling knee. It was after 11pm, long past my bedtime, and I still had 5 miles left to go. The temperatures had been falling all evening and somewhere around sunset the wind had started blowing. By this time it was howling and the stretch of path that had been in full hot sun in the afternoon was now the place where the wind whipped across the shallow lake and nearly blew us off our feet. We were down to two intrepid lap counters, Jerry and Kristin, who were bundled in hats, scarves and mittens against the cold. They never lost their cheer though and encouraged every runner that passed their table with jokes and smiles. All the runners seemed to be at the same level of tired. Anyone left was giving it their all, whether they were on lap 10 or lap 25.
I was really at my low point. With over 7 hours left to go, I knew I had time to rest and regroup, but wasn’t sure it would be enough. I ate a piece of cold pizza, downed a couple of Tylenol, and crawled into my sleeping bag shoes and all. An hour later the aching in my hips woke me up. Looking around I realized about 30 people had packed up and gone home without my noticing. Many had dropped out, falling short of their goals due to injuries, blisters or just plain utter exhaustion. The camp looked like the night of the living dead, with stiff, sore, cold runners digging in packs and hobbling around like every joint below the waist was frozen. I was no exception. I’m not sure what was harder, talking myself into getting out of my sleeping bag or actually making my legs work enough to get me up. Thank goodness I was close to a picnic table and could use my arms to pull up to a stand! At that point, getting up was about the last thing I want to do, but after having traversed 45 miles, 5 more was too few to give up. Once again I changed clothes to get into something warmer and hobbled to the lap table to start my last full lap. It was a blur, but the feeling of relief when I passed the water can at mile 2 was wonderful.
Finishing lap 13 meant I had 1.25 miles left to go and the race director and graciously set up a marker so that people going for a 50 mile plaque need only run to the 50 mile sign and back to finish their distance. This was what I planned, just get finished and call it a night. Then I spotted big Ed. Ed had been resting and could barely walk so he was moving at about my speed and had also completed 13 laps. We set off together into the dark and by the time we passed the 50 mile marker, he had talked me into completing the full lap to finish a double marathon distance. Now, big Ed had once been a RIO (navigator) in fighter planes, had worked for NASA, taught public school for 10 years, and is now retired. Ed made that last foray into the woods very entertaining by singing Korean War songs and telling me stories, but foolishly, I stopped thinking and relied on Ed to navigate our way around the last lap, you know, since he was a navigator and all. This was a mistake because by the time I realized we had taken a wrong turn, we were on the wrong side of the lake. I have no idea how far we went, but by the time we got back on track, we decided to just go back to camp. Poor Ed felt horrible for getting us lost, but I assured him that it was okay as he made my last miles very pleasant and I had met my 50 mile goal.
What I ended up doing was drinking a beer and falling asleep in my chair, dozing on and off while I listened to people talk and count off laps. Just after sun up, the track club president arrived with 4 dozen hot Krispy Kreme doughnuts! It was a perfect end to the day!
Course records were set for the men and the women, 125 and 101 miles respectively.