by Ian Parlin
Running 50 miles is easy. It’s like my friend Jamie told me a few weeks before the race “Running 50 miles is easy. You run slow, and you walk.” For the most part Jamie was right. You don’t have to be a unique physical specimen with exceptional endurance abilities to be able to run a 50 mile ultramarathon. You don’t have to run 100 miles per week and do 8-hour long runs on the weekends. I’ve learned that the most important aspect of preparing to run a 50 mile race for the first time is convincing yourself that you want to do it, that you can do it, and you will do it. If you honestly believe this then covering the distance is easy.
One thing that could make a 50 mile race difficult is approaching it like other races of much shorter distances. I had to stop worrying about what other people were doing and focus only on my race. Your first 50 miler shouldn’t be about racing other participants, it should be about proving to yourself that you can do it. Perhaps the most dangerous thing an inexperienced ultrarunner can do is to get carried away with what others around you are doing. It’s great to be able to feed off of other runners, to let others pick you up when you’re feeling down, but to run at someone else’s pace or to try too hard to outrun someone else can be disastrous. If you burn out 35 miles into the race, you still have a long way to go before you’re finished. It’s important to set realistic goals, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet them.
In the weeks leading up to the Stone Cat 50 Mile Trail Race I kept reminding myself of what Jamie had told me. Whenever I questioned my training or mental preparedness I told myself “Running 50 miles is easy. You run slow, and you walk.” I also sought the advice of other friends who had successfully completed the 50 mile distance, they all gave different advice and made different suggestions, but agreed that I could in fact run 50 miles myself. We all did such a good job of convincing me that I could do it, and I became so relaxed about the race that the night before I began to question whether or not I was taking this seriously enough. I thought to myself “I’m going to attempt to run 50 miles tomorrow, shouldn’t I be crapping myself right now?” The fact that I didn’t have any of the usual jitters before a big race suggested that finally I had gotten to a place where I didn’t care about the competition and I knew I would be happy with whatever I did on race day.
On Friday evening, the night before the race, Emma and I checked into the hotel, met up with Erik and headed down to the pre-race pasta dinner. We had a relaxing meal with entertaining stories from local ultrarunning legend Phil Pierce. No one really likes being beaten in a race by someone more than twice their age, but these are the kinds of things that can happen in ultramarathons when young inexperienced runners go up against veterans of the sport and I decided I wasn’t going to worry if I found myself trailing him the next morning. It was also good to see our favorite shoe reps at the pasta dinner, Lisa and Thomas from Inov-8. It was hard to resist picking up a pair of new shoes, but since I had brought 4 pairs of shoes with me (2x Roclite 315, the F-Lite 300 and a pair of Asics Kayano in case things got really bad) I didn’t think there would be room in my luggage for any more. After dinner we checked the weather forecast, thankfully no longer calling for rain and snow, laid out our running clothes, packed our drop bags and attempted to get to bed early. No such luck. I felt kind of like a kid waiting for Christmas, but a scary Christmas where you weren’t quite sure if the toys were real or if they were filled with explosives that would really hurt when you played with them.
The morning of the race we had a fairly quiet breakfast with all the other runners who were up earlier than they wanted to be but, like me, were probably glad that the waiting was nearly over. I was surprised to see the waffle iron getting so much attention, I know you’re not supposed to try new things on race day and I doubt that many people have waffle irons at home so I hoped they knew what they were getting into. After breakfast we called the rest of the Trail Monsters, who were absent from the meal, to make sure they were awake and ready to go. Not surprisingly Erik was gone and almost to the start line when we called, and the ladies had just woken up. We followed the steady flow of traffic out of the hotel and to the start of the race, I did remind myself that just like on the trail you can’t always expect the person in front to know where they’re going.
After parking the car and positioning our gear at the drop bag site, near the beginning/end of each loop of the 4 lap course, we headed into the gym to warm up and see if we could find the other Trail Monsters. It didn’t take us long to find Erik and James who were both planning to run the 50 miler, and Jamie who had come down to support us. There was a brief pre-race meeting, we stripped off our warm layers and headed outside to the start line just as the sun was coming up. It was there that we finally caught up with Shauna, Rachel and Theresa who were all planning to do the marathon. We were in the middle of exchanging greetings when the crowd starting moving forward. Apparently the race had begun!
LAP 1: 0-12.5 miles, 2:15:33
The start of an ultramarathon is somewhat of a funny sight, hundreds of runners loaded with all kinds of gear just shuffling along in no hurry to get anywhere. Everyone knew it was going to be a long day. I kissed Emma goodbye and she took off with the other marathoners to run a 1.2 mile loop before rejoining the rest of us on the 12.5 mile course. I knew I’d see her again soon. James and I didn’t plan to run together, in fact I had been warned against running with him, but we took off together at a very comfortable pace. I didn’t know what to expect from James, he has more experience than me in ultramarathons, having finished Stone Cat in under 8.5 hours a few years ago and recently running very well at the VT100. His lack of training recently seemed to reduce him to my level of athleticism and I was glad to be running with him, but neither of us knew how long it would last.
The course started out on double-track trail, which was good to allow people to find their pace. There was a lot of chatter in this early part of the race, and everyone in the ultrarunning community is very friendly, but there are some people you know you don’t want to spend a long time running with. So occasionally James and I would exchange a glance or a few hushed words that meant “Pick up the pace, we gotta drop this freak!” It wasn’t long before Leigh Schmitt, leader and sure winner in the marathon, came cruising past us. A few minutes later, and now on single-track, the rest of the top marathoners started picking us off. That’s right, we were 2.5 miles into the race and Leigh already had a lead of several minutes on the rest of the pack. A few more minutes passed, I looked over my shoulder and saw Emma, first woman in the marathon, working her way through the 50 milers. “Outta the way, my wife’s coming through!” I shouted. Emma ran by my side for a minute but I knew she couldn’t wait to drop me like the rest of pack, so with her unique style of polite aggression she pulled away weaving through the long line of runners ahead, dodging trees, jumping rocks, quietly intent on maintaining her position in the race. That’s a Trail Monster.
After making a few disclaimers to James about the potential for me to get cranky later on in the race we relaxed in to casual conversation and had a very enjoyable first lap of the course. Thankfully the weather forecast from early in the week, including Sherpa John’s reports, turned out to be wrong. The sun burned off the clouds and it turned out to be a gorgeous day, I couldn’t have asked for better conditions for running 50 miles. One race day prediction that was correct was the atmosphere at the aid stations. The GAC is a great group of runners who really know how to put on a top notch ultramarathon. The down side of this is that you end up wanting to hang out at the aid stations and socialize, you forget that this is supposed to be a race. Thankfully James was there to remind of the task at hand and he kept me moving.
I finished the first lap feeling great, as would be expected only ¼ of the way through the race. The weather was perfect, I felt good physically and mentally, I was running in good company and Jamie was there at the turnaround to cheer me on and help me to get ready for the next lap. He reported that Emma had come through about 20 minutes before me which meant she was on target for a solid sub 4-hour marathon, pretty damn good for this course.
LAP 2: 12.5-25 miles, 2:19:01
A few days before the race Erik had warned me of the dangers of running in cold weather with a handheld bottle (cold hand) so I opted to carry a small Source hydration pack filled with Hammer Sustained Energy and a few gels in the pockets. After a quick refill James and I headed out for the second lap and on the way out we passed Erik who was just finishing his first lap, we exchanged encouraging words and a high five and got down to some serious running. By now runners had spread out and James and I didn’t encounter too many other people on the course, this was fine by me because it seemed to make it easier to run at my own pace.
My nutrition strategy for the race was drink regularly from my hydration pack, take a gel every hour on the hour, take an electrolyte tablet every hour on the half hour and at the aid stations drink water and take as much solid food as I could manage. I remember being told that the typical runner burns 100 calories per mile which meant I had to try to take in 5000 calories during the race if I was going to keep my energy levels up. This is one of the really fun parts about ultrarunning, trying to eat as much as you can without making yourself sick. Many ultrarunners, especially first-timers have to deal with stomach problems during a race, but I was lucky enough to be able to eat everything I tried without any trouble. During the second lap I ate cheese and crackers, salted potatoes, Pringles, chocolate covered pretzels, M&M’s, grilled ham and cheese, all in addition to the gels and calorie laden energy drink. Oh what fun.
After reaching Fast Fred’s aid station at around mile 20.5 I really felt like I was getting into a good groove. There was a nice downhill stretch and I took the opportunity to open up my stride, stretch my legs and inject a little speed into my running. Bear in mind I’m talking about stepping up the pace from an 11 minute mile to maybe a 10 minute pace, nothing to really get excited about. When James caught up to me he warned me that I was probably going too fast so I did my best to try to run more sensibly.
As we neared the end of the second lap I couldn’t stop wondering how Emma’s marathon had turned out. As we got closer and the anticipation built I think I began to pick the pace up again, I was pulling away from James and even passed one or two other runners. When I arrived at the edge of the field to complete the last stretch of the lap Jamie and Emma were waiting there and I could tell right away that Emma had a good race. She finished first female in the marathon in 3:51.
LAP 3: 25-37.5 miles, 2:41:19
Seeing Emma and hearing about her victory gave me a huge boost. I quickly refilled my pack, changed my shirt, hat and gloves and was ready to go. James needed a little more time and I could tell that I shouldn’t push him so said goodbye and started the third lap by myself, hoping that James would catch up to me before too long. Although I felt really excited my legs were beginning to tire and I knew that I would have to run this lap smart. I had been warned that the third lap is the toughest mentally, because this is when you start to feel the effects of the distance and for many people the option of dropping out at 37.5 miles when they finish this lap is too tempting. I knew that I was going to slow down, by this point I had covered as much distance as my longest training run and I was only half way through the race.
Al Cat’s aid station at mile 29 (4 miles into each lap) was the first opportunity to get a check on my pace, 4 minutes slower than on the previous loop. If I had been a bit more alert I would have realized that I had slowed by 1 minute per mile already on this loop, but at the time all I could think about was eating. A big plate of kielbasa, fresh off the grill, was laying on the table and an enthusiastic volunteer was convincing me that I needed it. He had been right about the grilled ham and cheese sandwich on the previous lap so I took his word and a big piece of kielbasa. My legs were starting to tighten up so I stretched a little and grabbed some more food. If James had been there he would have made sure were had left the aid station by now but I felt that I needed the time, and maybe I was hoping he would catch up.
At this stage of the race, running alone and without any pleasantly distracting conversation, I really focused on my running. I couldn’t stop thinking about how tired my legs were getting, and how annoying all that crap in my shoes was! I should have worn gaiters. Although I didn’t notice it on the first two laps it seemed that all of a sudden my shoes were filled with woodland debris and it was starting to piss me off. To keep myself going I set a series of goals that hopefully I would be able to check off, one after another. The first goal was to get to the next aid station, and the prize would be taking my shoes off.
I had been warned about sitting down during an ultramarathon, some people never get up, but I needed to empty my shoes. When I arrived at Fast Fred’s the volunteers could tell I needed something, as I was about to sit on the ground to remove my shoes someone shoved a chair underneath me and I collapsed into its comfortable embrace. I was relieved to find that despite the distance and all the junk in my shoes my feet were in great shape, no soreness or blisters, but I meticulously removed every leaf fragment, twig and pebble that was stuck to my wool socks. I got my shoes back on and thought I was ready to go but found that I couldn’t move. Stephen was right, the chair was covered with glue, I couldn’t get up! There I was, 33 miles into the race sitting down. I had run farther than Jim Dunn ever has and I couldn’t get up to continue running. I couldn’t finish the race with a chair stuck to my ass so maybe I should just stay here and eat. The chili did smell awfully good.
As I regained awareness of my surroundings I realized that several runners had come and gone while I was trapped in the chair, this was just enough motivation for me to release myself from the chair’s grip. I quickly downed some Coke, took a cup of chili to-go and was finally off running again. On to the next goal: finish this lap. The prize: run one more.
LAP 4: 37.5-50 miles, 2:54:10
Once again Emma and Jamie were there to help me make the transition into the next lap, I warned them that I was likely to continue to slow down and that it may take me as long as 3 hours to finish the last lap. I was also pleasantly surprised to see Shauna, Rachel and Theresa who had finished the marathon and stuck around long enough to cheer me on as I began the last leg of this journey. After 7 hours and 15 minutes of running I was really feeling the distance but it was a huge emotional boost to have my wife and friends there to encourage me.
It didn’t take long for me to notice how lonely it was on the trail now, although I didn’t know my exact place I figured I was somewhere in the middle of the pack and runners were now spread out all over the 12.5 mile loop. I must have blacked out or something, because all of a sudden it felt like someone went Tonya Harding on my right knee. I don’t remember anyone jumping out from behind a bush and pummeling my knee with a crow bar, but based on the way it felt I’m sure that’s what happened. I’ve heard about people hallucinating during ultras, but is it possible to have a reverse hallucination? To think that everything is normal while you’re being lambasted with a crow bar? Where was James when I needed him? How could I distinguish reality from fantasy all by myself?
Without much else to think of besides my aching knee I looked for any opportunity to take a walking break. One of the challenging aspects of the Stone Cat course is it’s relative flatness. Without any significant ups or down you end up using the same muscles in the same stride for mile after mile with little variation. Walking allows you to change your gait, take big long steps and give your running muscles a rest. I found myself inventing hills out of ordinarily flat ground just to give myself an excuse to walk.
My next set of goals was to make it to each of the aid stations, take what I needed as quickly as possible, thank the volunteers and be on my way. By now I knew the course very well. I knew when the aid stations were coming up and I knew what I wanted. There was no excuse for lingering too long, especially since by now I had done the important part of the hydration and nutrition strategy. I figured I could pretty much cruise in on what was left in my tank without having to stop for a major refueling.
Cruising is a relative term. After leaving Al Cat’s aid station for the last time at mile 41.5 I felt really pumped up that I was getting so close to completing this race, but the pain in my knee was so bad that I could only run for about ½ mile before I had to take a walking break. The next 4 miles were probably the toughest of the race for me. I began to get frustrated in the fact that my mind and my muscles wanted to run but my joints were letting me down. The more I thought about it the worse the pain got. It probably took me close to an hour to cover the 4 miles between Al Cat’s and Fast Fred’s aid stations. I heard Fast Fred’s before I saw it. I may have been hallucinating but I seem to remember some freakish hillbilly band playing home-made instruments. I don’t know what they were playing but at 45.5 miles it was very entertaining. After a quick stop to drink some Coke I took off for the final stretch of the race with a big smile on my face, party because of the band but mostly because I knew that soon I’d find Emma and Jamie on the trail to run me in.
Again I couldn’t stop myself from thinking how much my knee hurt, but I began to realize that I could walk almost as fast as I was running. The sun was starting to get low in the sky and I was reminded of my goal to finish before sunset. I began looking for, and finding, reasons to push myself on as fast as I could go. I knew the course well by now so I was able to plan a strategy of running and walking to get me to the finish. When I came to a flat stretch that opened into a field I knew there was less than 2 miles to go, as much as my knee was begging me to walk I finally found the strength not to give in. Just as I made the turn onto the last stretch of single-track trail I found Emma and Jamie walking towards me.
This was all I needed. All pain was immediately forgotten and I picked up the pace with Emma and Jamie following right behind. Running big long strides was actually easier than the short shuffling I had been doing for so long. Why didn’t I think of this sooner? To re-use a popular ultrarunning quote “I was passing rocks and trees like they were standing still!” I was flying, I must have been doing at least a 9 minute pace, which compared to the 14’s I had been doing felt like a sprint. I felt better than I had all day, the energy and excitement of finishing was almost overwhelming. I actually felt embarrassed to be running so fast, like I hadn’t worked hard enough throughout the day if I had this much left at the end. But I was glad that I ran a conservative race and had a strong finish. The joy of crossing the finish line was unlike any experience I’ve had at a race. For a first 50 miler I couldn’t have asked for anything better. The prefect combination of course, conditions and support made this the highlight of my life as a runner.
FINISH: 10:10:03, 40th place out of 81 finishers/125 starters
thanks to Emily Trespas for “letting” me use some of her photos