Monday, May 12, 2014

50 Miles

It sure was a beautiful day, but I kind of wanted to die.

Every so often I like to reflect on my current affairs: "If someone told me a year or two ago that I'd be doing this today, what would I say?" Living in Warsaw and later in Madrid... writing a master's thesis about capital letters... walking around an island in Wales for a week... living at home for a year after getting home from abroad (see?—it's not always glamorous). I have a habit of finding myself in unexpected places.

Me at mile 9. Don't get mistaken by the easy-looking terrain... after this 9-mile loop that all changed.

Here's a peek of the single-track trail. Sure looks nice. It wasn't all this casual, though; most of it was endless hills and turns.

This weekend I had another one of those moments. I was running my first 50-mile race, a distance that not so long ago was truly unfathomable.

The first 30 or so miles were a cakewalk. I guess that's how it is when you have so long to go. My favorite part was this old guy bouncing around and shouting about how wonderful life was and how he felt like a little kid again and I thought that was really cool. I remember wondering to myself if it would ever get difficult—I pictured myself at the finish line remarking at how much easier it was than my first marathon—and then it occurred to me that maybe if it wasn't truly difficult, it wouldn't have been worth it.

And then I got my wish. Around mile 30, my legs started cramping up. First it was just a little spasm on my inner right thigh that eased up with a bit of walking. Then it was the left. A few miles later it was everything. By mile 35 I couldn't really run except for 30-second intervals every few minutes, leaving me to power-walk-slash-hobble for the remainder of the course. And then it got worse: Some parts of the course were so steep that even walking induced cramps, and a few times I was almost immobilized for stretches of a few seconds. And amidst all this my stomach was fighting its own battles, and I felt vaguely like I'd be throwing up in the next hour (though I never did). But I kept going, because I don't know why. It just seemed like the appropriate thing to do.

I carried on. Around mile 49 my legs got a little happier and I was able to run through the finish. I finished in 10:37:56, so I made the 12-hour cutoff and got my awesome belt buckle. Through all the 30s and 40s I felt like such a failure. I had planned on finishing in 9 hours (conservatively!), and somehow I managed to screw it up. But then, once I finished, I felt really good. Like really good.

Me after the finish, still standing

Finisher's belt buckle

To learn from anything, you need to analyze what went wrong. As usual, there were countless challenges  for me in this race.

  • It was a hot day, peaking in the high 70s, whereas it'd been in the 40s and lower for weeks (though it did start out beautifully in the 40s and 50s). I guess I should have been taking some salt tablets along the run (I didn't until like mile 35 when an aid station guy suggested it). I think those helped ease up the cramping. 
  • It was a tough course, and it was back-loaded: The first 9-mile loop was on easy ski trails, the next 26-mile segment was on rolling single-track, and the final out-and-back had the highest climbs and most treacherous turns of all. 
  • Maybe my training was on the minimal side (I had a couple 70-mile weeks, but no run since my February 50k that was over 24 miles). 
  • I still haven't mastered ultra-nutrition; I tend to do fasted training runs and I just haven't focused on in-race nutrition enough. 
  • I think pacing might have come into play; since the easiest part was at the beginning, I figured I should take it a little faster while still trying to keep a realistic pace given the remaining distance. All said, I started out around 9:30/mile, which was probably simply too fast. By the marathon mark I was around 10:30, and I fell apart shortly thereafter. (Granted, I'm not convinced the cramping was entirely due to speed.) 
  • And of course it was my first 50... going up a distance is always something of a crapshoot. 

I distinctly recall promising myself that I'd never do another 50 (or was it that I'd never run, period?), but I'm already planning one for the fall. I really am hopeless, aren't I?

Other Things to Work On:
  • Fine-tuning 50-mile nutrition plan
  • Figuring out what drop bags are for 

  • I hit the 26.2-mile mark and I felt like I hadn't even gotten started. My watch read 4:40, meaning if that had been a marathon event, it wouldn't nearly have been my worst.
  • When 50 miles started to seem like too long a distance for me to go, when those thoughts of dropping out crossed my mind, I told myself that if I kept being such a baby I'd have to run home after the race, which would be another 50 miles. It made the first 50 miles seem a bit easier.
  • When my brain got to smart for that little trick, I told myself I'd sign up for the Kettle 100 in a few weeks and that if I couldn't even finish 50 miles then that one would be truly horrible.
  • I brought my iPod as an in-case-of-emergency device, but I didn't really need it. For a bit I thought I did, but that only lasted an hour or so. In retrospect, I think that was my lowest point in the race mentally, and I don't think it was in spite of the music, but rather because of it.
  • When it got really hard, I focused on thinking of things that I was grateful for. Even in such strange adversity, there's much to be grateful for. That helped a lot.
  • It must be easier if you have loved ones crewing for you. I didn't feel like I really needed supplies or anything, but getting to see a familiar face every now and then would have been nice. 

It's now two days after the fact, and I still feel different. This race shook me down to my core. Not in a bad way, necessarily, but I wonder if I'll ever be the same. When you get to the point where you'd honestly deny all the money in the world for the simple chance to just sit down—even for a minute!—you're not so quick to come back from that place.

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