50 miles

It’s been 12 days since I ran 50 miles.  I’ve been reflecting on the experience for all this time, with a huge smile on my face and just a big giant heart full of happy, as I think back through the day and the journey and the whole entire beautiful, amazing experience.

To put it simply, it was INCREDIBLE.

All that I imagined and hoped it would be … and honestly SO much more.

I’ve wanted to sit down and write all about it, to tell the whole story with loads of details – all about the strategy and the logistics and what went on inside my mind and heart over those 12+ hours, but wow has it been tough to find – or really let’s face it make – the time for that.  We’ve had a lot going on around here over the last 12 days – the biggest events being that my son graduated kindergarten and my daughter turned 8 years old.  Lately I’ve been struggling with writing about everything.  It’s not for lack of things I want to chronicle or reflect on or share, but rather more about getting into a new routine with my kids getting out of school and having so many priorities to balance.  I’m figuring it out though.  We all are, and a rhythm is starting to form and feel good around here.  Hooray for that!

So, about those 50 miles.

Running my first ultra trail race (and I say first because I hope and believe that there are many more to come in my future) was about soaking up the experience and taking it all in.  Celebrating this incredible sport that I love SO VERY MUCH.  Feeling gratitude for how blessed I am to have such amazing people in my life – many of whom would not be in my life it weren’t for our shared love of running.  Trusting in and feeling thankful for my able body, my strong mind and my faithful heart and believing they could carry me across rocks and tree roots, up and down steep hills and over streams, through tall grasses and forests, across blazingly hot sunny fields … for hours and hours and hours … without failing me.

I did not care how fast I moved or how long it took me to get to the finish line.  I truly did not care about that one tiny ounce.  It was going to be an adventure and a journey and just such an awesome, beautiful day.

I had a few goals for this race, and they were the following:

  • Stick to the strategy.  At all costs.  No excuses.
  • HAVE FUN!!!
  • Expect low points and negative thoughts to come at me full force during certain parts of the race, and especially during the second half of it.  Acknowledge them and accept them but MOVE ON from them.
  • Check in with my body regularly and make sure any pain I am feeling is not an injury.  I would be fine with a DNF if it meant protecting my body from injury – big picture big picture BIG PICTURE.

We started running at 5:00AM, which meant that I set my alarm for 3:00 in the morning because Chris and Jodi were picking me up at 3:45.  This was insanely early, but totally necessary because the race was about a half hour away.  I had everything laid out the night before – my race bib was pinned to my shirt, my pack was loaded with water, snacks and necessities.  We dropped off our extra bags at packet pickup the day before.  I was all set and as ready as I could be.

ready to go!

There were a few key strategies that we were committed to sticking to, just as we had practiced on our training runs:

  • Eat every 30 minutes, whether we are hungry for it or not, starting right from the beginning of the race (I wasn’t counting calories, but typically I would eat 2-3 shot blocks, a gel, a half a bar or maybe a handful of pretzels or potato chips when it was chow time.  My buddy Chris who is a lot bigger than me would eat double what I ate most times.)
  • Take one salt tablet (we used Lava Salts) every hour, right from the first hour of the race.
  • Drink to thirst (I had water in my pack) the whole duration of the journey, and make sure to drink every time we eat even if we weren’t feeling thirsty.
  • Walk up ALL the hills, no matter how much we might feel like running up them.
  • If we think we are running slow – especially in the first half of the race – then we need to slow down even more.

It was a great plan and an excellent strategy.  But as we all know, things don’t always go just how you hope they will … sometimes unexpected obstacles barrel at you or sneak up on you and cause you to take stock and change your tune, and sometimes things go even better than you imagined they would or could and you are soaring higher than you ever thought possible.

In the case of our 50 mile race, I would say we experienced both.

Before the race even started, Chris wasn’t feeling right.  He had an air bubble in his chest or something and was burping.  A LOT.  Under practically any other circumstance I probably would have been really grossed out or annoyed by this, but in this case I wasn’t at all.  I imagined what it would feel like to be in his position, with air trapped in my chest while trying to run farther and for longer than I ever had before in all my life.  We were both hoping it would work its way out quickly so he could move on from it, focus on the task at hand and enjoy the race.  Neither one of us was really sure what to do about it, so we just stuck to our plan and hoped for the best.

smiling early on

Things started off really well.  I felt mentally really happy and excited.  I had to reign in my emotions a bunch during those first 10-15 miles because I would speed up with all the bursting joy that was overtaking my spirit.  I was just all smiles and so chatty with the other runners.  This may have been the reason that I fell (not once, but twice) during the 7th mile (thankfully nothing major, just good ‘ole klutzy Jess falls for no apparent reason).   By Mile 10 I noticed that it was getting really humid and hot and when I flexed my hands my knuckles turned white – I could tell my fingers were getting a little puffy and that the heat was on the rise.  It was going to be a high of 90 degrees and sunny.  Chris was feeling this too.

chris in the early miles as the sun was rising

The first 15 miles took us from Algonkian Park in Sterling to Great Falls Park – mostly through the woods and across some sunny fields.  I didn’t love running through the tall grasses – they made my skin super itchy.  I adored the forest, though – crossing over streams along rickety wooden bridges, climbing hills and soaking in the beauty of these amazing trails was lots of fun.  When we got to Great Falls Park the loops began.  We would run the same loop three times and then head back to Algonkian Park for the last 15 miles of the race.  The loop was a little more than 6 miles long and going into the first one I was really worried that it would get OLD.  I thought I would detest having to do the same loop three times and that it would make me cranky and antsy.  I could not have been more wrong about this!!

loop love

I found that I really LOVED the loops in Great Falls for the following reasons:

(1) The route was insanely beautiful – thanks to breathtaking views of the Potomac River, and serene, magical wooded areas.

(2) I came to savor the predictability, especially the aid station (oasis!) about halfway through.

(3) We got to see our buddies – my sister Jodi and our dear friends Terri and Michel – as well as the newly familiar faces of other runners we met that day – along the course lots of times because of the way it was designed.

(4) Our AMAZING INCREDIBLE BEAUTIFUL AWESOME OUT-OF-THIS-WORLD friends were waiting for us with ice and cold wet sponges (!!!!) and refreshing drinks and hugs and high fives and love and support every single time we came through there.  I really cannot express how much this meant to us.  Knowing they were there just lifted my heart a gazillion times over and made me feel so blessed and lucky.  I was sad when it was time to head back to Algonkian for the last 15 miles of the race because it meant we wouldn’t see them again for a while!

As the miles and the hours ticked by, it became more and more apparent that my buddy Chris was not feeling very well at all.  He never stopped burping the whole way.  His stomach was somersaulting and he had a hard time eating for a good while.  His hands were so swollen and puffy (as were mine).  A few times, he was so convinced that he had rocks in his shoes that we would stop and take off his socks and his shoes and dump them upside down and shake them around only to discover there were no rocks to be found at all (we later realized that what he was feeling was the process of the formation of MASSIVE blisters).  His shoes were literally falling apart and – I am not kidding – he put on a second, practically brand new pair about halfway through after one of the Great Falls loops and then again before the final 15 miles he had to actually put duct tape around one of his new shoes because it was so busted!

I knew all along that my friend was having a TOUGH time and that he was being faced with a totally different kind of day than I was.  Several times, he told me it was okay for me to just go on and leave him behind, but I wasn’t going to consider that.  Though I believed in my heart that he would be fine, I also knew that if our situations were reversed he would stay with me without hesitation.  That’s just what friends do for one another on a day like this.  Plus, part of the experience was sharing it with him and I wanted to see it through together.  I was holding up with lots of physical, mental and emotional strength and energy, and I knew that we would make it all 50 miles and have smiles on our faces and in our hearts when we completed our adventure.  Neither of us planned to have pacers for the last stretch the way our friends did, so I kind of saw it as we had one another’s backs come hell or high water.  We were going to stick together.

seeing it through

Not once did I hit a low spot emotionally, mentally or physically – not for a minute across all 50 miles – which literally amazed me.  My muscles and joints felt great, I’m sure because of the softer surfaces and all the walking we did.  And my feet were fine, too – I didn’t feel the need to change my socks or my shoes at all.  I had no chafing anywhere which in that heat was kind of astonishing to me.  I lubed up with BodyGlide really well before the race but never reapplied it, though at the second stop at the aid station within the Great Falls loop I had a volunteer put Vaseline on my back where my pack straps rubbed just in case.  That did the trick in preventing any hot spots.

My energy level was up up UP, and this may or may not have had something to do with the fact that I realized I seriously LOVE cold Mountain Dew when I’m running in the heat all day.  It was incredibly refreshing and rejuvenating.  For someone who never ever drinks soda, this was a huge surprise!

doin’ the Dew!

Chris and I basically walked the last 15 miles of the race from Great Falls to the finish line in Algonkian.  My sister Jodi passed us along this last stretch and we could not have been more overjoyed to see how strong she was powering through.  She had ACL surgery a year earlier and now she was completing a 50 mile race!!  Who does that?  My sister, that’s who.  Our amazing friend Terri also forged ahead, looking so strong and so so happy.  Chris and I were both lifted up by seeing them and by knowing that they were both in good places that day.  The Honey Badger love is fierce, you guys!!!  So freaking fierce.  We are all so lucky to have each other.

The last 15 miles were some of my favorite miles ever in all my life.  The conditions were NOT so ideal, but that didn’t matter at all for some reason – at this point we knew we were completing this journey in one piece and we were going to make the best of whatever came our way.  It was disgustingly hot out.  The water in my pack was not just warm, it was HOT and stale and gross.  My hands were so swollen that they truly looked like they belonged to someone who weighs 100 pounds more than I do!  It was freaky.  The aid stations were muddy and picked over, no longer the oases they had been hours earlier.  There were people all along the course who looked like the living dead – doing all they could to just survive – getting taken back by medical personnel, limping and covered in mud and cuts, throwing up and hunched over.  There were a million reasons to be miserable but we weren’t.  WE WERE RUNNING 50 MILES!  We were doing it!  And we were almost done!!  There was so much to be happy and grateful and totally psyched about.

So we soaked that up and carried on.

Over those last several miles, Chris and I met some really cool people who walked along with us and told us awesome and inspiring stories about their adventures in ultra trail racing and in life. We laughed as we shared our own stories too.  We talked about how amazing it would feel when we were done – and were dreaming about jumping right into a cold pool.  We actually texted our spouses at this point and asked them to bring our bathing suits so we could go with our families straight to the pool from the race.  For the first time in my life I was yearning for an ice bath!

About a mile before the finish we thought we would try to run again, but pretty much as soon as we did that Chris felt what he described as an explosion in his foot – a massive blister had popped!  So we walked a little more and then ran once we actually saw the finish line.  Our families were there cheering for us and it was so so so COOL to see them.  Crossing that finish line was amazing.

approaching the finish!

My sister Jodi was the first person I saw as I crossed the finish line and she was so excited to see us – I will never forget her sheer joy upon hugging me!!  It was so much more than awesome.

SISTER I LOVE YOU

It is really hard for me to describe the truly overwhelming feeling I had upon reuniting with family and friends after an experience like that.  It completed the day in the most perfect and wonderful and essential way.  The fact is – there is no way that I would have even made it to the start line without their love and support.  And all along the way, with every step that I took, I know that my heart was fueled by the love that I have for them and that they have for me.  I am just so thankful.  Beyond words.  So very thankful.

We hung out at the finish line for a while – everyone surveying their bodies (there were some pretty nasty blisters on both Jodi’s and Chris’s feet!) and telling stories about our adventures and how amazing the day was.  I drank an ice cold beer and it was easily the best beer I have ever had in all my life!

the honey badgers ran 50 freaking miles!!!!

After we left, we went straight to the pool.  I was grimy and gross but I totally didn’t care.  The water felt good, but surprisingly not as awesome as I thought it would — I think the tiredness and fatigue were setting in and I was just so ready to crash.  I didn’t sleep well that night, tossing and turning a whole bunch.  It took a few days for me to feel like the swelling in my hands and feet totally dissipated, but overall I was really amazed by the recovery process from 50 miles of trails.  My muscles were hardly sore, my joints not sore at all.  I had one blister on my foot but it never popped and just absorbed back into my skin within a day or two.  Even all of my toenails were intact and not bruised at all.  I have felt worse than this after a hard training run – it really was incredible!

Even still, I spent the following week taking it pretty easy.  I went for walks and did light weight training, mostly my upper body and abs.  By Sunday, just over a week after the race, I went for a nice 12 mile run at a pace that felt really easy to me – right around an 8 minute mile.

first run after 50

This week has been all about running for the pure and simple joy of running.  I haven’t been pushing my pace and will tally about 50 miles when the week is over, but I’ve been getting back into a routine of running in the early mornings with my friends.  I’m not planning to begin training for another race (Richmond Marathon!!) for another month or so, but I will be running and smiling a whole lot between now and then.

One of the biggest things that I came out of the 50 miler with is knowing that running is so truly and completely a part of WHO I AM.  I love it so much.  As cheesy or as strange as that may sound to anybody, it is just the simplest and truest kind of truth.  Running is a blessing and a gift and I am my happiest, most whole self when moving my body outdoors is a regular part of my life.  It doesn’t matter to me how fast I run or how far I go.

I am a runner and I am a runner for LIFE.  It is who I am.

And this fact, and the fact that I know this about myself, makes me extremely happy.

me and my beautiful trail

14 thoughts on “50 miles

  1. I did not enjoy those high grass areas either. I only had to go through them once during the half. I can imagine how unpleasant it was to come back through them at the tail end of 50 miles. Thanks for writing this up as I can use the lessons in preparing for my September ultra. I'm running Richmond too so we will have to meet up at the start. You won't want to wait around for my slow finish. 😉

  2. Congratulations!!!! I totally get the overwhelming feeling you described, as I felt the same way in my first (of hopefully many) 50 miler last November. Just reading your post and looking at your photos brought it all back for me 🙂

    Way to go!!

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