After this year’s Point to Point, of which I spent 11 hours and 75 miles suffering the climb up every steep hill and feeling as excited as a child learning what the word fast means on every descent at altitudes between 8000-9000ft; I thought 24 miles running thru the forest at the same relative elevations-cake. Albeit, a remarkably large piece of very chewy cake teeming with nuts; but still, who doesn’t love cake? I know I do. 🙂
What an ultra marathon actually is: It’s not just about running. In fact, there are times when running isn’t even an option. They should rename these events “Adventure Humps”. There is magnificent scenery every where you look; no noise pollution… other than the wildlife, some wind in the trees, my footfalls on dirt and my own panting for more oxygen…it is complete silence. There is overgrown flora dodging and giant boulder scrambling, sometimes a little butt scooting and there is invariably a rightful suffering. It really is more than just “a run”. It’s a daunting and awe-inspiring playground that takes a certain boldness for one to actually delight in.
Having been practicing my pre and peri-race nutrition, this day I was going to truly test it out at the Flagstaff Sky Race. No morning coffee for this gal. 😦 I think it may be what I miss the most on run days. I drank a good portion of my smoothie (oh yea, there is coffee in there. yay!) and did some light yoga and stretching. I love to start mornings off with yoga! Wakes you right up. Beth’s Smoothie (yes, I’m naming it after yours truly) is made with
blueberries, banana, vanilla yogurt, coffee, beet juice, protein powder and some honey. It’s pretty tasty and for someone who isn’t a big smoothie fan, I actually look forward to this on my running mornings.
A chilly morning for this Tucson girl, I soak up the heated car seats while waiting for the start time and the sun to shine over us before heading outside. I don’t feel nervous at all, which is unusual for a race morning, but maybe that’s because I don’t really know what I’m getting myself into. I don’t feel it’s necessary to warm up, not sure why other than the beginning of this course is a fairly steep hike towards the sky…plenty of time to warm up there. Apparently the Sky Race has become popular as there are twice as many people at the start than last year and it had 100% finish rate! Oh, I’ll finish, don’t worry. There are a genre of athletes huddled around, some drinking coffee! Green with envy. There are super fit, mostly naked runners (it’s like 33 out). There are long haired hippies. There are runners dressed for snow with trekking poles. Poles? For a run? That makes me giggle…but we’ll get back to this later. And then there’s me, wondering a little if I should try for the hole shot or take off my long sleeves…and where’ my sunglasses? The start is totally informal with a blow up arch and a guy with a megaphone. At 0800, the whistle blows and we’re off.
Down to a sleeveless shirt and knickers with my new (and super on sale cheap!) running pack, I’m sweating as soon as we pass a 1/2 mile and onto a steep, boulder strewn singletrack. The bird sanctuary. People are kinda bottled up here and someone from behind yells out “I know it’s a bird sanctuary, but are you all bird watching up there?”. Yea, I was sorta thinking the same thing, but hey, what do I know, we’re less than 1 mile into a 24 mile run. So sure, I start passing people and getting ahead of the crowd. Ah yes, this is more like it! The trail gets steeper and more technical. I run where I can, scramble up boulders and around loose switchbacks. A guy with those damn poles is gaining on me. Really? No way. I pick it up. Run back and forth with another gal who looks to be about half my age. She’s faster up and I pass on the downs. I guess I’m not so bad at negotiating the trail on foot, so I smugly think at the time. Finally after about 2000ft of climbing, we hit the towers near the CatWalk around mile 6. Let the legit running begin!
Oh, it’s just fantastic! The scenery flies by on the descents and I have time to peak at it on the climbs. It’s rolling and I can run. I want to run! I feel amazing! Over the CatWalk and down the Hobbit Forest. I feel like I’m running on air. I pass a couple of guys, one passes me. I’ll try and keep up. I’m doing it, too. Short, fast steps. Leaning into it. Negotiating the trail like I know what I’m doing! Until I’m not anymore. I swear, you should lock me in a padded room, I am a danger unto myself. As I launch over a root, my back foot just catches the edge of it. That split second in slow motion: UH-OH. I slam down onto my right knee, keel over onto my chest and forearms and slide down the trail. At least there’s no cactus here. I jump up immediately. “I’m ok, I’m ok!” Oh no, no I’m not and double over onto the side of the trail. I’m sure it was a quite impressive flop to the two guys who were lucky enough to witness it. One says “Take 10 seconds, walk it off”. Walk it off, my ass, I can’t even bend my knee. Crap. Who crashes while running? Yep, this gal does. And yes, after a few minutes, covered in dirt and bleeding, I continue on.
I walk at first and then when the trail turns upwards, I attempt to run again. It doesn’t last long. My knee can’t handle running. I’m like 8 miles in and reduced to walking the next 18? I’ll never get out of these woods. Ok, I didn’t come here to quit; so I walk. I keep walking for miles and miles. I come to terms that I will be walking for a long time. I try to keep my pace up as much as my knee will tolerate and in the next 10 miles or so, I get passed by many, many people. Aren’t they all so kind and concerned…. “Oh my, are you ok?” “Do you need anything?” The best one… “At first I thought that was a tattoo and then I realized you were bleeding, you ok?” Yes, thank you for asking, now let me wallow in my own pool of blood, tears and dismay. Oh! Even better yet… “You had a good fall…niiice.” Really? No. Not nice, not nice at all. I certainly do not recommend it. Falling is a pain in my ego… and knee and elbow and chest.
Ok, so hiking along thru the woods, I consider the beauty and peaceful quietness that doesn’t exist in most of the other places in our lives that I am surrounded by. I find it to be a wonderful thing. My attitude perks up and I honestly hurt a little less. I find I can jog some on the uphills and be mindful of the descents. This is still ok, I’m gonna make it. A man comes along and walks with me for a few minutes. As we chat, I confess this is my first ultra marathon and its becoming quite a learning experience for me. In a voice of shock…and I’d like to think just a tiny bit of awe mixed in there…he asks
why I would choose this particular race as it is “one of the narly-est courses out there.” Huh. Guess no one shared that with me. Course, I didn’t do a ton of research either. I sorta decided to do it the week before. Kevin showed slight concern over the elevation profile posted online; but I brushed it off…. Had I known there might be grades in the 40th percentile, I may have thought twice. Ok, probably not. I am a glutton for punishment, you know. 🙂
At the aid station just 7 miles from the finish, I change out my pack for a running belt and handheld bottle. I’m experimenting what works best for me and up until now, was about 50/50 between the two. Here I get the usual “Gosh, are you ok?!” and then “Don’t worry, everyone is going to be walking soon.” I don’t think I even heard that until I realized what it meant. (refer back to photo 1a…) The trail soon disappears and we begin traipsing straight up the mountain. Excuse me? I finally start to see some of the people who have passed me during my “hike” and moving forward leaving them behind. One adventurist speaks awe at how fast I seem to be moving upwards. Really, I’m just avoiding not rolling back down the hill and therefore would then have to start over again. It’s that steep.
With just around 4 miles left, I can see where we will cross the finish, sorta…..at the bottom of a ski hill…You know how you ride a bike around switchbacks, winding your way up or down a mountain? Yea, we runners don’t do that. We just cut straight thru that shit. The guy next to me is literally scooting on his butt down the loose, pebbley hill. There are giant trenches every 50 feet or so in which it becomes easier for me to find a jumpable width across rather than go down into and climb back out of. This whole stretch here, I now understand the poles. If I only had a pair of trekking poles this would be so much simpler. I have a new found respect for you people using poles….I promise never to silently giggle at you again!
Then we continue out onto the final 3 miles, half of which is the same steep bs we just went down except now with some weird mesh covering the ground that your feet get all tangled up in. The final aid station is a simple 1.8 miles downhill to the finish. I had a shot of coke and descended the longest 1.8 miles I have ever encountered….burping that coke up the entire way. Not quite as good as it was going down…
Baby heads. Loose pebbles. Ruts. Stupidly steep grades, and a slight fear from that minor incident earlier… It feels like the finish will never come. Until it does. A few people clap. Some offer kudos. Some offer food. There really aren’t many spectators at the end. I take my happy meal box and head straight to the car for some warm clothes. It doesn’t matter who was at the finish or if anyone even noticed I came thru it. I did something today that would never have crossed my plate a few years ago. I pushed myself thru the suffering of a nasty fall and the unknown and I am proud of myself.
Things I learned today:
You can crash on your feet…the ground isn’t any closer at 5’2″
I’m actually not the only one who’s falls while running
I can definitely do more than I thought I could
Liquid nutrition is certainly the ticket for me
I love my pack more than my handheld
In reality, no normal human runs the entire ultra
Flagstaff Sky Race stats:
24.3 off-road miles
8200 feet of elevation gain
Altitudes of 7,000-11,500ft
8 hours and 7 minutes overall time
3 bottles of GU Roctane Grape
2 servings GU Lemon chomps
5 GU gels with 5 small cups of water
10oz with GU Nude brew
10oz plain water
4oz of Beth’s smoothie
1 major fall
So since this “training race”, I have been really trying to put in my miles on foot and also trying to be smart about advancing them. I absolutely love what these trail runs have become for me and am completely enjoying the new challenge of these efforts and where they are taking me. Some of the most amazingly beautiful and secluded scenery that I am witnessing is unreachable by bike.
At this writing, I am 3 months away from my 50 mile Antelope Canyon race and still only half way there on miles. My feet hurt. I have discovered new tightness’ arising and pains that go deep down to the bone. I am learning to take better care of my tootsies, calves and Achilles. I have a long way to go…and I want to make it there!