Filed under: Races
On June 30, while sane North Brooklynites found ways of beating the heat by going to the beach or sticking to air-conditioned environs, a bunch of NBR’iors thought it’d be a good idea to schlep 6 hours upstate, spend the weekend in a place with no showers and no running water and tons of bugs, and run an ultramarathon. NBR had quite the contingent: Mary Harvey (50M), Fritz (pacer), and Pops a.k.a. Reg a.k.a. Mary’s dad (crew) arrived on Thursday evening, found a cozy corner and set up a huge tent, and an equally huge open-air “living room” adjacent to it. After a yummy lunch of bagels, cream cheese, and fresh Acme Smoked Fish lox (and, for my vegan self, two giant Kirby cucumbers), Evy Gonzalez (25k), Zandy Mangold (50M), Erin Petrella (50M), and Mia Chen a.k.a. yours truly (50k) arrived the following day. Sherry Rosenkrantz (50k), Bomina Yu (50k), and Kristin Duvall (50k) got to the campsite a few hours later, after a memorable lunch in Ithaca involving a Chinese waiter in a Chinese restaurant confused by a group of non-coworkers eating together, one of whom was “more Asian” (Bomina), another who “looked a bit Native American” (Sherry!), and someone who was “maybe Scottish” (Kristin). We’re not in not-Kansas anymore! Um, vive la différence? Completing the crew was Just Upstate Of NBR member John Mackenzie, a.k.a. Mary’s cuz (50M), who arrived with just enough time to get his singlet from Mary and pitch tent before it got dark. All told, 9 runners sporting NBR gear, a pretty decent number considering the race was capped at 250.
For Sherry, Bomina, Kristin, and myself, it was our first crack at an ultra distance. Truth be told, though, I was more anxious about the camping–Nature, for me, is best enjoyed in reasonable, controlled doses without sacrificing modern urban conveniences like bodegas and flush toilets. I was glad to find out that Bomina felt the same way. Maybe it’s a Canadians-who-look-more-Asian thing? However, my fears were soon allayed. While unpacking, my case of PBR fell out of the car, and one can punctured and precious beer began leaking into the dust. What’s a poor girl to do? Let me tell you, the prospect of spending two nights away from my beloved concrete squalor felt way better after chugging that mofo.
Saturday morning, we were woken up by cowbells at 5:00 am for the 50k/50M start time. That part wasn’t so fun, although considerably eased by delicious French press coffee courtesy of Pops. As I sipped my coffee and munched some granola, my mood shifted from comatose to grouchy to scared shitless. Just about anything can happen during an ultra, as the experiences of the nine of us would show. The course was two loops for the 50k (actually more like 53k), and three loops plus a half-mile baby loop for the 50 miler. The 25k start was at 8, and they ran a single loop. Cousin John was the day’s first casualty, as his GI tract got confused which way was up and refused to handle even good ol’ H2O. Considering that hydration’s a good idea when the forecast is in the 90s (35+C for my rest-of-the-world friends), John sensibly dropped out at the next aid station. Post-race analysis pointed the finger at the lack of a dinner the previous night and ingestion of too much HEED on course. John showed us how to deal with shitty luck by staying positive–there’s always another race. Meanwhile, Speedy Evy totally killed the distance, winning her age group in a time of 2:55. Despite her 25k success, she says she “might have to move up to the 50k cuz two years in a row now I haven’t seen a damn cow!”
It was a good thing Evy finished early, so that she was able to help put me back together after my race. I believe she mentioned some time during my semi-consciousness that I had to post my race report. It’s pretty long, but what do you expect for an ultra? Here it is: The race started out well, the first bit on gravel road, and then the crowd thinning out a bit when we turned off the road onto singletrack. A mile or so into the course, we had our first cow pasture to cross. At this point, I realized that maybe there’s something to this Nature thing after all, and decided to relax and take in the view, because it sure as hell wouldn’t be as nice the second time around. We switched back to road, and there was a downhill that went on for seemingly forever. I tried to take it easy, saving my quads for the second loop. After that, there was the first aid station, charmingly called The Morgue. Then, there was probably the most technical part of the course, a sequence of rooty uphills that I feared facing the second time around.
By now, the runners were a lot more spread out. I always tried to stay behind a runner or a group–not only did I use them to keep me from going too fast and for giving guidance about when to walk uphills instead of running them, but I was terrified of getting lost! I chatted with a few runners, and everybody was very encouraging when I said it was my first ultra, and said what a great race this was for a first ultra. The terrain was nicely varied–hilly singletrack through forest, open vistas, cute little ponds, a few mud puddles, plank bridges, easier singletrack through younger forests and pine trees. About half way through the first loop, somebody familiar with the course said that the most technical parts were behind us, which I greatly appreciated hearing, but I still feared getting lost. Was I being rude by running behind others and not passing or dropping back? I finally finished the first loop, and elected not to stay at the finish line aid station for too long (The Living Room). I did the first loop in 3:14 something, so considering that the second loop would be much harder due to heat and fatigue, my new goal was sub 7, maybe 6:30 with a miracle.
As the second loop began, I was running alone more often than not, although I was starting to feel more comfortable about reading the course markings. (The course was actually very well marked.) This time I let myself push the long downhill going into The Morgue, knowing that that was the worst downhill. Next up were those hills I dreaded so much the first time around, and I realized it wasn’t so bad–it’s not like you run those hills in an ultra, so it’s actually nice to not have to run! In this section, there’s a part where runners went down the same trail in opposite directions since there was a big “lollipop” in the course. I was sure glad that other runners happened to be around me at that point so I knew I wasn’t going the wrong way. Still, it was a relief to hit the second aid station (South Beach), which you actually go through twice in the “lollipop.” Then, it was my turn to go down the trail “wrong way,” and I ran into Erin. Confusion followed when first she thought I was bailing out, then she got worried she had missed a turn. After we got sorted out, she asked how I was doing. I said I felt like dying, which was only a slight exaggeration at that point, and she said she felt awful too. Yay, ultras!
Finally, I hit the third aid station, The Library, staffed by the local high school cross country team. I asked them how many miles there were left, and realized that I’d just about passed the marathon distance. The rest of the race would be venturing into uncharted waters! I had sent a drop bag to this aid station with a peanut butter and banana sandwich, half of which I ate during the first loop. I continued running, taking the sandwich baggie with me, which also had a few pre-opened ginger chews, now melted and fused together. Mmmmm, dry sandwich, gooey lump of ginger. It took me probably forty-five minutes to finish the half sandwich and the ginger lump. A British chap, who had passed me the first time around, came up again and asked if I was still eating the same sandwich. Not quite, but it sure felt like forever before I was able to finish eating.
And, soon, it was just me and the sandwich. However, I quickly discovered that running alone had its benefits–first and foremost, I could pass gas to my heart’s content. I didn’t have more, um, substantial GI problems, after all! More inhibitions vanished as I started hurting more and more. Instead of suppressing a little “ouch” when I stepped on a rock or a tree root, I unleashed strings of profanities. “Fuck fuck fuck” was my mantra. Or, when feeling more positive, “The faster I go, the sooner I’m done!” Not that I was going fast–my definition of what was an uphill that required walking became more and more generous.
At some point I realized I could either hurt like hell and hate everything and myself or I could go crazy. I chose crazy. I began talking to myself, sometimes in complete gibberish, and stopped caring if any other runner came up behind me. There was one section where there were a whole bunch of plank bridges, and some of the planks would wobble, or seesaw, and to me that was just hilarious. I started laughing hysterically, giggling, babbling nonsense. Erin had warned me of a two mile stretch that was totally exposed near the end of the course, and I realized that I was now in that section. The first time around, it didn’t seem that bad, but there’s a huge difference between 9:00 am sun, and 12:00 noon sun. Now I could see a long way ahead and behind me, and I was totally alone. It was “uphill,” so I was walking, but it’s still hard to power walk in the bright sun when you’ve been on your feet for well over a marathon. I tried to run bits of it, just to alleviate the boredom, but the open field still went on and on. I started crying “why won’t this end, why won’t this end?”
After an eternity in the sun, I saw the next and last aid station, The Outback, and jogged my way to food, drink, and shade. They asked me if I was sprinting, I looked so out of it. I said “no-I-just-look-like-hell-dear-god-how-much-more-is-left-is-this-the-last-aid-station?” It was indeed, and there were 2.7 miles left. (Apparently, they were drunk off their asses by 10 am, but seemed perfectly normal to me in the state of mind I was in.) Warm, flat Coke never tasted so good in my life. And, oh my god, the watermelon. I snatched up the last slice from the aluminum tray, inhaled it, then fished out and gobbled all the little pieces of watermelon. The possibility of picking up the tray and slurping up all the watermelon juice that hundreds of dirty ultra hands had touched was disturbingly appealing. Luckily Coke was a good enough substitute. Another runner came into the aid station, and I slowly, reluctantly made my way.
Back into the sun. Legs hurt so much, mind isn’t working well. There’s forest in the distance, but it just seems cruel how far it is. I jog slowly, look behind me, the runner still hasn’t left the aid station, I’m all alone again, time to go crazy. I hit the forest and feel like crying. It was 2.7 miles left at the aid station, it must be 2.5 now, right? The forest is cooler, but everything hurts. God, my hip flexors haven’t felt like this before. How can my butt be this sore? Watch out for the roots. Ouch–fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. Stumbling, screaming, moaning, laughing. More unstable plank bridges. Running is so fun, it’s stupid! It’s gotta be less than 2 miles now, I check my watch, maybe I’ll make 6:30, sub 7 for sure, gotta prove that I was just ambitious and wasn’t totally crazy in saying I’d be going for 6ish. I hate my competitiveness so much! I remember that there were numbered posts up at the campsite near the end of the loop, and I keep looking for these, but they never show up. Shit–my left quad twitches once, twice. Stop, stretch it out a bit, keep on going. If I change my stride a bit, I can fool the quad. And then I hit a root, and I’m down on my elbows. Haha, I hadn’t fallen yet on the course, and knew that it would have to happen and now it did. Back up on my feet, and I’m so thankful that the fall wasn’t painful that I pick up my pace, but then my thigh twitches again. It must be less than a mile now. Where are those damn posts? Why are there so many damn roots? I’m saying this aloud, and a small part of me thinks how funny it would be if I passed a random camper and they could hear me. Cross a road, and there’s a sign–Potomic Campground 1.25 miles. Fuck! Well, just have to keep running so I’ll be done faster. I’m not going to make 6:30, but I’ll probably beat 6:45, which I’m happy with. Keep on running. I am cursing the roots and the stones for existing. Every few steps, one of them attacks my poor, minimally shod feet. Cry, laugh, whatever it takes. And then–a little clearing with a tent! I’m getting close. I try to shut my blubbering mouth, but it’s hard, it’s hilarious. Oh god, there are actual people and they’re cheering and I’m thinking how lucky they are they’re not me. Then, the numbered posts! Okay, now I know I’m going to make it, I’m going to run my first ultra, and with a decent time too. But now it’s like there are more roots than ever and I just want it to stop. I imagine the pavilion at the finish line. Shit–the path goes out of the forest, and goes by a pond. I thought I was done with open fields, but I’ve got another 200 fucking exposed metres to cross. Keep on running. I pass some dude. Even though everything hurts, and I’m whimpering and snivelling, my stupid competitive side wants to finish strong. At last, back into the forest, and now it’s definitely in the campgrounds, not much further left, I’ll be done. And then–the pavilion, the finish line, the volunteer who asks 50k or 50 mile? I laugh hysterically, no way I’m doing another loop. I run, actually run to the finish line, the clock shows 6:37 something and I think to myself finish before 6:38, it feels like I’m falling, and every step hurts so much, cross the timing mats.
It took me about an hour to come back to my senses, but I was able to speak coherently and hobble around again thanks to some fairly concerned volunteers, John and Evy, and a bunch of nice folks from North Carolina they was hanging out with. I decided to look for Fritz and Pops, who I guessed were on the course, so I shuffled my way back to the crime scene. It was awesome, cheering on other finishers, although nobody seemed to look half as fucked up as I was. Then, I saw Erin again! I screamed, “Yay Erin! You’re going to make the cutoff!” (50 milers need to finish the 50k in less than 8 hours to move on.) She just yelled “I’m having a bad day, this is fucking bullshit!!!!” And then she was gone. I kept on walking, a bit worried for Erin, but I know how tough she is so I knew she’d finish. I hit the pond, stopped and chatted with some ladies I’d met on the course before, then kept on going. Just when I was thinking of turning back to the campsite, I saw Mary and Fritz power walking. I was able to keep up with them for a minute–Mary hurt her foot on that crazy long downhill on the second loop, and had to walk the rest of the loop. She was pretty disappointed not to do the 50 miler (I can’t imagine why), but it was an amazing feat of power walking–she beat her 50k time from last year, and was able to pass a few 50k runners despite walking with an injury.
After letting the speedhikers go ahead, I decided I’d dip my legs in the pond, which I did for a few minutes although I was still in running gear so I stuck close to the shore. Then I realized I should eat something, so I went back to the campsite, and ate 4 boiled potatoes, some pasta salad, and lots of watermelon, chatting with Mary and John and Pops. Then Evy came up, put her running shoes back on, and left so she could pace Zandy for the end of the third loop and the baby loop. I was happy to stay seated–we had a nice spot in the shade where we could watch the 50 milers doing the baby loop. Soon enough, Zandy ran by, looking incredibly strong for somebody who just did 50 miles. He ran a great race, finishing in 9:28:05, second in his age group, eighth overall. What’s his secret? He was inspired by a runner who told Evy, “If you can’t hear the birds, then you’re not running relaxed,” and the advice pushed him on to go for the third loop: “I was banged up and thinking about dropping at 50k, which is the distance I signed up to run, but the opportunity to run with an avian soundtrack and green views spurred me on.”
Not long after Zandy came in, Sherry, Kristin, and Bomina showed up sporting huge smiles–under ten hours, and not in last place! I’ll let Sherry and Kristin describe their experience:
Sherry: I had some doubts about how the 50k would go. Bomina, Kristin, and I got lost on the drive up. If we couldn’t find the GWB, how would we avoid getting completely lost on the trail? Pops must have added something special to our morning coffee, because it was an incredible experience the whole way. A couple things stand out. The pure joy in Bomina’s voice when she said she felt great, 6, 7, 8, 9 hours into our ultrajog-fasthike. Kristin’s bad-ass response to her face plant. Despite a bloody face, she dusted herself off and kept going. Zandy lapping us, saying he felt horrible, but looking incredibly strong going uphill. Seeing Erin run ahead of us in the first few miles then seeing her again at 49.5 miles as she started her final baby loop. By far, the best part was doing this as part of a team.
Kristin: I have a feeling I’ll be measuring all my future races by this one. I loved how friendly, helpful and organized everyone was – you could tell they’ve been doing this a long time. The moving buffet aid stations were all great, especially #3 (The Library) sponsored by the high school team (what cool kids) & the the crazy party aid station (#4) so far away from civilization they had gone all “Heart of Darkness.” Who knew pb&j, pringles and soda could get you through 50k?
The best part was how everyone hung out at the finish line and cheered all the finishers in – the last runner had the biggest audience & it was so cool to see kids running out to see their mom finish a 50 miler.
Plus in addition to a t-shirt and bottle opener, I have a cool new souvenir courtesy of that face plant in mile 15!
This is where NBR shines because I wouldn’t have even known about this race, much less been able to do it without the team. It was fun to hang out with you guys and get to know everyone a little better + how cool was Pops?
It was so much fun chilling with the lovely ladies Pops had dubbed The Three Musketeers, as we swapped first-time ultra stories, moaned about our bodies, cheered on the 50 milers–no matter how long it takes, moving your ass 50 miles up and down hills in insane heat with only your two legs is awe-inspiring, and we marvelled at those who had run one more loop than we did. Twelve hours into the race, we looked anxiously every time we saw a runner come in, thinking it might be Erin. We didn’t have to wait too long before she was actually there! Huge cheers as she came to start the baby loop, and then again when she crossed the finish line. I was especially eager to assist, wanting to do unto others as others had done unto me, and asked her if there was anything I could get her. She paused for a few seconds, and then said, “Beer?” That’s my girl!
I felt so proud of Erin given the rough day she said she’d been having those two times I saw her during the race, but I never had any doubts that she would finish, she’s got so much heart. And she didn’t come in last! Actually, though, she reports being “jealous of the DFL [Dead Fucking Last] prize, although I’m not sure why it’s a bear.” Speaking of bears, she’s glad she didn’t see one this year, but she did see cows: “They were running away from all the crazy people in their field. I don’t think they were very impressed with us.” Well, we may not have impressed the cows, but we definitely impressed each other–and, as Mary informs us, “Just for the record, Pops is already planning next year’s trip!” I’m sure NBR will be well represented, and who knows, maybe I’ll go for the 50 miler….
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