Lookout Mountain 50 Miler - December 15, 2012
12 hours into my race, this was not the sight I had hoped to see. Not even close. After a pretty solid 10:33:07 50-miler earlier this year, I expected this race to be challenging, but doable. In fact, I hoped to finish it somewhere in the 12th hour.
Instead of seeing the lights of the finish line and feeling my hands thrown in the air, 12 hours in to my day of trekking mountains and skidding into valleys, all I had was my sole headlamp illuminating the side of the trail, my knees planted in dirt, my head inches away from nature itself, hands full of dried leaves. The second half of my race was reduced to moments like these. At mile 46, with one final chrun, the entire contents of my stomach were emptied there, a tiny monument of the struggles that had been and were to come.
This was not the way it was supposed to be.
At 5 AM, I rolled out of bed. The nervousness that had gripped me before Rocky Raccoon 50 in February didn’t follow. I had covered this distance before. I knew I was capable. I had trained solidly. All that was left was the implementation.
6 AM rolled around. Fully dressed and packed, we met Billy and Kim in the hotel lobby for the drive up Lookout Mountain to the race start. We went through all the pre race rituals: drop bags, visit port potties and listen to pre-race announcements. Then, just moments before 7:30 AM we took our spot amont 250 other runners in the starting chute.
Our race began with an easy trot that slowed to a walk when the path narrowed onto a short trail. We traveled up the hill to the college and were dumped single file onto a single track trail. Here the terrain was pretty rough and technical. Rolling ups and downs with steep rocky slopes and steps to maneuver. One bad step could send you over the edge to a swift tumble down a rocky ledge. Passing was a bit difficult. You had to call directions to the person in front of you, “on your left!”, and find a moment when the trail widened enough you could pass safely.
The large boulders to our right provided sufficient protection from the wind. With the steady pace we were pulling, I soon needed to shed some of the layers I had felt so necessary at the start. I stepped off to the side of the trail to remove my water pack and pull off my jacket. Before I finished, Kim was by my side and removing her excess layers. Little did I know how important her stopping would be to me later that day.
Kim and I continued on the next miles, enjoying light conversation. We ran up, we ran down, we ducked under railroad trusses. It rained lightly as the path wound down the mountain and lead us to the first aid station. We paused briefly for some nutrition. It was breakfast time.
We left the aid station together. The trail went down, down. The downhill lead to some fast times and easy running. But, all the while, in the back of our heads, we were calculating just how much up, up would be coming soon.
Aid station 2, Nature Center, came quickly. We were finally at the bottom, along the river’s edge. We began our ascent, up the trail that would lead us halfway up the mountain before dropping us back at the base before our final climb to the top.
The climb was terrible. Lung searing, quad burning uphill with a few steeper sections thrown in to make you really appreciate the flats. But the worst part of the uphill came when I realized my water pack was empty. It was a calculation error. I thought there was more water in the pack. I thought there was another aid station before we finished the loop. But as I took the last sip of water as we climbed, I realized I was 4 miles out from an aid station, climbing a steep mountain and sweating terribly.
I continued on. My mouth parched, my stomach empty. I couldn’t take a gel without a little water to wash it down. Now behind on my nutrition and hydration (18 miles into the race!), I asked Kim is she could spare some of her water. My thoughts were I’d take a sip and down a salt tab to battle the dehydration that I felt settling in (just 18 miles into the race!!). I went to pull out a salt tab and realized I had failed add any to my pack. Kim’s Nuun would have to carry me through to the aid station. But what a relief it was to have her there!
We finally made it to the top. D was there and ready to assist me. I dropped my pack off with him instructing him to fill it with water and grab me a couple of salt tabs. I headed to the restroom. When I got back, my pack was full. I took the salt tabs, drank a lot of water (I was STILL so thirsty , downed a coke, ate some pretzels and an orange. We were headed back on the trail minutes later.
Less than a mile out from the aid station a familiar feeling crept in. The feeling that wrecked my run at Graveyard - pressure in my stomach. I pushed the thought out of my head, labeling it pure paranoia. I had trained so much more, raced smarter. Surely this wasn’t happening again!
Several more miles and the pain was growing - pressure, stabbing pains in my stomach with only occasional relief from a deep belly belch. I quit eating and only drank a sip to keep the back of my throat from catching. 30 miles and only 500 calories, I was already running a HUGE deficit and knew that gap would only continue to widen as the day and miles progress.
I struggled through the next miles with Kim by my side. Stopping often on the side of the trail, begging the pain to go away. Running when I could, walking when I couldn’t run and holding back tears. So much pain. And with the pain, the desperation of knowing it would likely end my race.
We were reaching aid stations barely before cutoff. Our margins were narrowing. My confidence to finish this race was dwindling by the footfall and with it my hopes of even taking on Rocky 100. Hopes and desires. ”Who cares anymore?” and “Why do I do this?”
We finally reached Long Branch, mile 34 where I’d pick up Robin as my safety runner. After the Graveyard snafu, I thought I owed her a least a short jaunt in the woods. After all, she traveled 7 hours to get here. I took some of Kim’s medicine, hoping to quell the fire in my stomach and left the aid station fairly optimistic that I could cover the next 4.5 miles and that’s all.
We ran bits of the trail. I felt good for about 1/2 mile, then the pressure built and I was again leaning over the side of the trail burping air and feeling stomach acid slide up the back of my throat. I tried my best to push through the pain, to run until I would throw up. The pain was dizzying, or maybe it was the lack of calories and fluids. My mental state was smashed. If I couldn’t finish the loop here, how could I even make it over the tricker terrain that would lead back to the finish?
I walked the last 2 miles of the loop, cutting straight across an icy cold creek, not bothering to place my feet on stepping stones, because after all what did it matter? These would be my last moments in the race. Even if I could make cutoff, did I really want to?
We crawled into the aid station just as the sun was going down. D begged me not to sit down. I sat down and told him I was NOT moving and he could NOT make me go any further. It was impossible. It was dumb. I didn’t care.
He told me I was going to get up and head to the next aid station. I was still ahead of cutoff (miraculously!) and he wasn’t going to let me quit until I was timed out.
I think I only agreed for two reason: 1) Robin was so excited to be out on the trails, no matter how miserable I was making this experience 2) I was certain that I wouldn’t make cutoff and I’d be pulled at the next aid station (42 miles).
I grabbed my gear, walked to the next trail head and trotted down the trail in the dusk with Robin. I slowly made it a few miles down the trail with some walking and stops to bend over and ease the pressure off my stomach and back. I still wasn’t able to eat and only drank when I had to. At this point, I had burned 4,000+ calories, and only taken in 600. I was feeling the lethargy of calorie deficit.
As we hiked up the steep ridge that stood between us and the next aid station, I had to stop more frequently for breaks. I would bend over, drop to my knees in exhaustion, roll onto my side in fetal positon and beg Robin to be a good friend and leave me in the woods. I would have been happy to spend the night there with the spiders, raccoons and bears.
She did her job each time. She’d listen to my complaints, drag me to my feet and tell me to keep moving. This girl earned her sainthood that night!
We finally made it to the next aid station. I sucked down some broth. It was 7:02 PM. The volunteers told us cutoff was 7:30. I began walking down the trail towards the finish almost instinctively. Because we had made it out of the final aid station under cutoff, I knew they wouldn’t pull us from the trail. I also knew there is no way we’d make it to the finish line before 9:18 PM, the race’s very aggressvie cutoff for the finish.
Even if I didn’t get a medal, even if I didn’t get an official time, I was going to finish those 50 miles. I had come so far. Just hours ago I had acquiesced to defeat, to dropping out, to giving up. Now, 8 miles stood between me and the finish.
And a long 8 miles they were. An eternity. Less than a couple of miles into that section is when I found myself face down on the trail vomiting into dry leaves. At that point, I really hoped I’d find some relief. But there was none. Only pain. Not more than I can handle. I was promised that. Just pain heaped on pain that couldn’t be pushed from my mind. And a gigantic hill to climb. The trail went up and up forever.
I’d fall to my knees and beg for a break. ”Just get me to the finish. Just get me out of these woods.” My spirit was broken. My will to move forward was crushed. I had to rely on Robin’s iron will to get me there. One step after another.
We walked, we hiked, we stopped, we sat on the side of the trail, she dragged me to my feet, we moved forward at a snail’s pace, we slid trough mud, we tripped over rocks and roots and finally, at 9:31 PM, we ran across the finish. 13 minutes too slow to receive an official race time, but I got a medal! And let me tell you, that race wasn’t a given. It was earned. EVERY. SINGLE. STEP.
I have never had to dig so deep. To find what I thought was bottom and dig even deeper. So much deeper. To push through pain that would escalate to the top of the charts. To cry out in agony and continue to push on. To feel hopeless and to find myself clinging to a sliver of hope that was just enough to pull me through.
When I couldn’t think anymore, I had my crew think for me. I did what they said and in the end, I got the medal. But I realize, they earned it for me.
Going into this race, I knew there would be difficulties. I know 50 miles is a long way to cover on foot. And, if I had a perfect day, I could do it at my goal pace. But most days aren’t perfect. You can never expect what you’ll find on the trails. Even if it’s monsters from your past. Monsters that have defeated you before, that break your will and send you to your knees. But, no matter what you face, you can win with the right people by your side.
Just a reminder, as you toe your next start line, no race is ever guaranteed, but it can always be earned.