For some strange reason, I let peer pressure get to me. Funny as I was never the type to let it get to me for other things – but for running, I suppose I’m a glutton for punishment (or new challenges). Maybe it was ‘taper brain’ pre-Chicago. And maybe it was the fact that running an ultra (i.e., anything over a marathon) was a running bucket list item I wanted to check off in the next year (2015). But this year? Yes, yes – the week leading up to the Chicago Marathon I decided to sign up for my first trail race AND 50k (the Arctic Frog 50k) – in December – on a trail in the northern suburbs of Chicago. What. Was. I. Thinking?!
But, low and behold, I was not the only one. Fortunately enough, I’ve had the awesome opportunity to meet some crazy (8s) runners like myself and despite at one point feeling like I might be the only one nuts enough to do this, a few running friends also opted to sign up as well.
After the perfect day that was the Chicago marathon, I took only a couple of days off and started back up again training. I didn’t follow a formal training schedule–rather one I threw together myself – deciding to continue high mileage weeks (40-50 at minimum) – hoping that long runs back to back would train my legs to know what it feels like to run on super tired legs. My longest run post-Chicago was just 16 miles and it was exactly one week before the 50k.
Needless to say – going into the race I did not feel ready. The week leading up to it I did do a proper taper from a running perspective but I felt groggy, made some stupid food/nutrition decisions and barely slept. The night before the race I told myself I could still opt out… but once I also reminded myself that there were a handful of others also doing this for the first time (and that I offered to drive to the race) – there was no way I could back out now.
The morning of the race I woke in a rush. I made my usual pre-race breakfast and picked up my running friends. We were on our way. I can’t recall much of what we talked about – but could tell we were all a little nervous as well as apprehensive about what we were about to do. None of us had ever run beyond a marathon. It was an exciting but nerve wrecking position to be in.
Once we arrived to the forest preserve, I soon realized how much different this would be from what I was used to. We were surrounded by trail, park and forest. The race start/finish was a blown up holiday-themed thing that we ran under. The race instructor gave us the low down on the course – the 25 and 50k runners would face a 7.75 mile loop of both trail, tougher trail and some paved path through the park (I only half listened to him as I assumed the course would be clearly marked…)
Conditions were pretty much ideal for a winter race – hovering just around 40 degrees, cloudy with burst of sun now and then and on and off wind gusts. The first 3 miles went by in a blur. I went out easy spending most of the time talking with everyone else and getting to know each of them. This included learning about an indoor marathon in February that I was told I ‘could totally break 3 hours at’ as well as what a 6-pack involves (6 marathons, 6 days in a row). Seriously – what was I doing?!
Just about 3.5 miles in, we encountered a ‘fork in the road’ – the flags weren’t clearly marked and the race photographer pointed us in what we thought was the right direction. It was about here where we first encountered what I would classify as a true trail or tough terrain – covered in leaves, shrubs and sticks, and with ditches left and right that could turn your ankle and warrant you quickly unable to finish. The only way we knew what direction to go was to follow the orange flags we were instructed to look out for at the beginning of the race. I was so thankful that I was not doing this part alone as this type of terrain was something I had only hiked – slowly – before. At one point my watch noted we were at the 4mi mark but we had not passed the 4 mile marker sign. I didn’t really think twice about this since we were still in a pretty large group and were all running this together. But, by the time we left the tough terrain and were back on the more easily navigated trail, we started to realize we were off – by almost a mile extra. I really tried to not let it get to me – but here we are – not even 10 mi in and the course is not clear at all and I just ran an additional mile. But what could I do?
As I approached the end of the first loop I made eye contact with one of the volunteers and clearly let them know of my unhappiness – we had gone the wrong way and we were in fact a mile ahead of where we were supposed to be. Over the next 2 miles, my running friend Randy and I picked up the pace a bit and lamented about how we could cut some of the course to account for the extra mileage. Long story short – we soon realized we were not the only ones who went the wrong way. By the time we reached the ‘fork in the road’ again, we were clear as to what direction to go. The rest of the 2nd loop went by in a blur and before we knew it we were half way done.
Starting the 3rd loop, we took a pit stop – something I NEVER do as it resulted in my not qualifying for Boston a couple years ago at the Rochester Marathon. But knowing I was only half way done – I knew that this was my last chance. Plus it was a heated, full working bathroom – not a port-o-pot that we are all so accustomed to at big races. It hardly set me back. I was averaging just around an 8 min mile overall. Faster than I anticipated but I felt strong and about half way into the 3rd lap, I unfortunately lost Randy and found myself completely alone with over 13 miles to go. In the woods. Without any real way to get in touch with anyone and running 7:45s like I had not just run 19 miles. Where was this coming from?
I kept telling myself to slow down. That I needed to have enough left for the last lap and the last thing I needed was to hit a wall and/or cramp up. I’ve actually only hit the wall once – and I knew it was bad enough that I did not want it to happen again. It was also during this time I realized I was not only the first female – but in second place. The first place male a mere 1/4 to 1/2 mile ahead of me. That was it. I had enough motivation to continue on – averaging 7:30-8min/mi for most of the rest of the race.
The last loop was as awful as one could expect but also as great as one could expect. When I hit the marathon mark and realized I was in unchartered territory distance wise for the first time since my first marathon in 2008 – I was instantly charged as well as in a state of disbelief. My legs felt strong and my mile average was faster than the average mile I ran back when I ran my first marathon. I took each mile one at a time from that point on.
From a nutrition standpoint I only took 2 extra shot bloks than I would during a marathon. I drank significantly less (would not recommend this – just newbie stupidity not carrying my own hydration system – oops) and I finished with some of the worst indigestion of my life. But that finish line may have been one of the best things I’ve seen in my life. Not because there was a crowd but because this truly was something that if you had asked me 10 years ago I ever though I could accomplish I would have laughed in your face.
And to top it off – I finished 2nd overall, first female and with a mi/min time faster than I ran my first marathon and true to 8 min/mi pacing abilities – at a 7:58 pace/mile. And I got an awesome new belt buckle to rock around town.
I couldn’t have asked for a better day or better people to experience it with. Celebrations commenced over pizza and beers (2 of my favorite things) and we all relished in our accomplishments. Congrats to all the Great 8s and CES family who ran – what a great day it was and I look forward to the next challenge (maybe a 50 miler?!?) with you all!!