Yesterday I ran the Bear Chase trail race 50 mile race. I have run this ultra twice before. In 2012, I ran the 50 mile in 8:39, finishing as third female overall. Last year, I ran the new 100k and was first female. This year, as I went through my cancer treatments, I kept it as a goal of mine to be back this year for one of the distances. I was not sure what I would be able to run, but I hoped to run one of the ultras (there are 10k, half marathon, 50k, 50 mile and 100k distances offered at this race). A couple of months ago I decided to go for it and sign up for the 50 mile. My husband, Stephen, and my friend, Vanessa also signed up for the 50k.
I will skip over the my less than stellar prep, other than to say I did the best I could given the circumstances. I have written about it previously, and those interested can scan over my previous blog posts. In the week leading up to the race, I thought about how I felt like I was brand new to ultras. I felt like I still had the same brain, but after my pancreatic cancer surgery and my 18 rounds of chemo, my body was different and there was a big question mark in my brain as to how my body would respond when I really demanded something difficult.
Steve and I picked up Vanessa at 4:20 am and headed up to Morrison, CO. The forecast was a little scary. After some unseasonably cold weather, we were in a heatwave, with temperatures predicted to be in the mid 80s and sunny. It was 66 degrees at 5:15 when we arrived in Morrison. We put our drop bags down in the staging area, took care of last minute business and those of us running the 50 mile and 100k lined up for the 6:30 am start.
Last minute “good byes and good lucks” with Vanessa…
And with my husband, Stephen.
A group of us in front of the porta potties, because that’s just what runners do.
From left: Ali, me, Jeff, Christoph and Dan.
At 6:30 am, we were off. The fifty mile race consists of four 12.5 mile loops. When I ran the race two years ago, I finished my first loops in just over two hours each. I knew it was going to be hot, so I wanted to get the first loop done as quickly as I could. I normally go out fairly slowly, but I wanted to bank some time for the inevitable slow down. I saw Heather just as we were starting off, so we chatted and ran the first couple of miles together before eventually splitting up to run our own races.
I felt pretty good on that first loop, running pretty much every step. I got back to the start area in 2:02. I thought, either I am going to hang on and have an amazing finish or I am going to blow up. I had to spend several minutes at the start area, refilling my supplies before heading back out. On the second loop, runners started spreading out a bit, however, this is when the 50k racers, who started at 7:30 on a different loop, begin to join the people who are running the longer races. Many of these runners are running faster and look a little fresher. This is where my competitive spirit kicks in and I want to chase people down, but I had to remind myself not to be an idiot and just to run my own race.
I felt ok on the second loop. I was running a little more slowly, but more in line with a pace that made sense to my body. I was not pushing myself as hard but had settled into a rhythm. The sun was now up, and even though there was a breeze, I was starting to get a sense of how hot it was going to end up being. I finished my second loop in about 4:15. Slowing a bit, but still thinking I might be able to run a sub 9 hour if things went well.
I went out on my third loop. This was where I would be getting into unknown territory. My longest run had been a flat 24 miler about two months before the race. While the Bear Chase course is not mountainous, it does roll, notably going up Mount Carbon four times, followed by a long downhill. I lacked hill training and I knew it. It was also getting very hot as we headed into the late morning. I now walked up all of Carbon to save myself for the rolling, exposed nature of the last half of the course. I was running strong on the downhill after Carbon somewhere around mile 30. A gentleman stepped off the trail to let me pass. Something seized up in my hamstring. I thought it popped, but couldn’t be sure. I could not run at this point. In fact, I was walking with a significant limp. I thought my race was over and didn’t even think I would be able to finish the third loop. I walked, limped, massaged my leg, and tried to dunk it in the creek, but could not bend. I walked up to the next aid station, only to find Stephen there waiting for me. We each grabbed a drink of Coke and moved on walking together. I told him I really did not want to drop, but I did not know if I would physically be able to finish or not. It was at this point that Stephen threw up the Coke he had just drank. My poor husband has been plagued by stomach issues in ultras. We talked about our races and what had gone wrong so far. We alternated between small bits of jogging and longer stretches of walking.
Finally, I was able to run slowly for a consistent stretch and thought perhaps I could get the last loop in and salvage a finish after all. Stephen and I ended up splitting up again, as he told me to go ahead. I got through the start/finish area again somewhere around 7 hrs. My slowest loop by far, but considering how much I had walked, it was not too much of a disaster. I was greeted by Vanessa’s husband Andy in the start/finish area. Andy graciously helped refill my water bottle and helped me get my head straight while I tried to face the last loop on my own. Stephen came in while I was still at the staging area, finishing his 50k in 5:58:14. He told me that he had thrown up two more times after we parted ways. I am so proud of my husband for finishing so strong despite the stomach issues that continue to plague him!
I finally got off on my way to the last 12.5 miles. Maybe a third of a mile into my loop, I happened to cross paths with Dimitar, who was running his first 50 mile race. We decided to run together and ended up sharing 6ish miles together until the top of Mount Carbon. I had run on my own for much of the race, and had not been looking to a very long and slow final loop on my own. Finding someone who I could share miles and conversation with made it so much more pleasant to keep going in the face of pain. While we parted ways for the final miles of the race, we ended up leapfrogging and finished within a minute of each other.
Here is a photo of us from the finish.
The final six miles were hard. Every step hurt. I kept pounding salt down my throat, trying to stave off the cramps that now plagued both legs, my arms, my neck, and my back. While you can hide your weaknesses in shorter races, ultras will always expose them. I know the last year has taken a toll on my muscle tone and strength and this is something I really need to work on if I want racing to be remotely pleasant. I wanted to walk desperately, but I really wanted to finish quickly and just be done with it. So, I kept pushing as hard as I could. I briefly thought I could break 9:30, but then I realized it was not going to happen. I knew I could break 10 hours, and did so in 9:34:15.
I have never been so grateful, thankful and relieved to finish a race. When I finished the Vermont 100 last July, I was ecstatic. Everything hurt, but it was a different kind of pain. I was well trained and had a great race. This time, it was painful and difficult most of the way through. About two miles prior to the finish, I finally let myself think I was going to complete the race, and tears welled up in my eyes. I would not let myself cry until the finish line. As soon as I crossed the finish, and saw Race Director Ben Reeves coming towards me with my medal, I started to cry.
I finished as fifth female, and second in my Age Group. Here I am with RD, Ben, who gave me my award.
So many emotions welled up at once. I thought about everything I had been through this past year since last year’s 100k, and how much it all meant to me. I thought about everyone who had supported me. I thought about the list of cancer survivors I brought along so I could remember them and run in their honor. I thought about how I almost dropped, but did not and fought through to the end. I thought, I may not be 100%, but I have not allowed cancer to beat me nor to define me.
While everything did not go anywhere near perfectly this time around, I had an amazing experience. As I have discussed with other runners, it is not the races that go perfectly that show how tough we are. It is the races that go south, whether we ultimately finish or not, that really show our inner strength. How we handle circumstances when things do not go as planned really reveals so much about ourselves, and also teaches us so much about ourselves. I am still processing things, but one thing I learned while out there yesterday is that while I love competing, I really had a lot of fun when I spent time running with Heather, my husband and with Dimitar. Sometimes pushing the pace all on my own is really fun for me. Yesterday, I had the most fun when I spent time chatting and working with other runners. There is a place for both intense competition and for fun and joyful companionship in running. Neither are wrong and both can be fun, depending upon the goal for the race.
A lot went wrong yesterday. I think I got behind on nutrition, fluid and electrolytes early in the race. I pushed the pace too hard too early. I was not trained to run fast and I could not maintain the pace. The heat was monstrous and small mistakes are magnified when the weather does not cooperate. I should have taken it conservatively from the start. Really, what it boils down to is that I am out of practice and not in the shape I was in before. These are mistakes that can be fixed, but I had to go into damage control late in a long race. That is not fun and is quite demoralizing. I kept pushing the electrolytes and was able to turn things around enough to continue and even run, albeit slowly.
I am so appreciative of everyone who has sent words of support and encouragement as I have endeavored to return to running ultramarathons. Knowing I had people following me and cheering me on kept me going. I want to send a special thanks to my running partners who have shared many miles with me. Thank you to all of my friends, both long term and new friends. I love you all and am so fortunate to have so many amazingly supportive people in my life. Thank you to my family. My parents, kids and husband all think I am insane but they have supported me unconditionally. They may not always understand why I want to run crazy distances, but they know it is something that makes me feel happy, whole and alive. I am forever indebted to my husband. I am amazed that we ran into each other at a mutually crappy moment yesterday, but we both encouraged and pushed each other. What a wonderful and supportive partnership we enjoy.
Today there is not an inch of my body that does not hurt. I will be spending the day sitting on an ice pack. My hamstring is tight and painful, but hopefully it is just a minor injury that will heal with rest, recovery and some rehab exercises. As for what is next, I will be focusing on making myself stronger physically for the next few months. I still have a long way to go.
Finally, the finish with Vanessa, who did awesome in her first 50k.
With Stephen. Words cannot adequately explain how much he means to me.