On February 12, I ran my first ever 50 mile race, Rocky 50. A lot of second-guessing crossed my mind in the weeks leading up to the race – like why was I so quick to sign up for this one! After I ran the Dallas Marathon in December, it took me about 3 weeks until I felt like myself again on runs. And in January, for the two longest runs leading up to the 50, I never felt great. But the goal was to finish, ahead of the cutoff times, so I tried to keep that goal front and center in my mind when my brain would go haywire.
My husband and I drove down the day before the race, and a friend who was running the half followed us down. It was a beautiful day! We had reserved a camping spot in the park so we would be close to the start/finish. After running Tyler last year, I didn’t know if parking would be an issue (it wasn’t), and my husband enjoys that sort of thing. But knowing what I know now about the layout of the park, parking, and distance to nearby hotels, I’d go the hotel route if there’s a next time.
The first thing I saw when we pulled in to our spot was our view of the lake, and this turtle on the tree. It was my sign – and I smiled a little. All the way back to my first half Ironman, my motto in tough race situations has been to “be the tortoise.”
I will admit I was nervous about staying this close to the water knowing there were alligators in the park. My husband assured me it was too cold, but my fears aren’t always rational. I could write a whole post on my fear of alligators…
We picked up our race packets (he was doing the half marathon) and killed some time until the pre-race briefing. This calmed my nerves a little, and I was able to eat a light dinner before getting all my gear set out for the long day ahead.
Race morning I was up super early for coffee and calories. I ate a Picky Bar and then had a Honey Stinger waffle closer to start time. This works for me before a marathon too. The temperature was in the 50s, so I decided on shorts and a short sleeve top. It was supposed to cool down throughout the day, so I added some clothes to my drop bag that I would leave near the start/finish area.
My Race Plan:
The 50 miler consisted of 3 laps of about 16.7 miles each. I had 15 hours to do it in. So my goal (to finish) meant I had to come in under 5 hrs on each lap. I would also have to start the final lap by 4:40 pm to continue the last lap. My start time was 6::30 am.
I was pretty nervous in the hour before start time. I don’t know why – it’s running and I love to run! But the fact is, it is a really, really long way to be on foot. I think my nerves were a combination of not knowing how my body would respond to the distance (especially past 50k), and being on the trail in the dark.
The first lap was in the dark for almost an hour, but it helped that there were others around. I could feel some humidity, and I almost wished I had brought a tank top. But once the sun came up, I didn’t notice it anymore. I enjoyed the trail. This lap was about noticing the layout of the course, aid stations, and condition of the trail. I was pleased with how runnable the trail was all the way through this lap. The first aid station was a little over 5 miles in, but I didn’t stop because I wanted to limit the stops as much as possible. Cutoff times were looming in my brain.
The 2nd aid station is another 5ish miles from the first one, and about 5 1/2 miles back to the start/finish area. I refilled my bottles, grabbed some pringles, and kept going. It had been rained on and off throughout the morning, but nothing too hard, and it didn’t seem to have an effect on the trail. I was feeling good and headed out on the dam. The wind had picked up, but I wasn’t cold. After going across the dam, you wind back down around the lake and then into the finish chute. When I completed my first lap, I was excited that I was faster than I had expected. I was well ahead of the cutoffs, and feeling good.
I grabbed a few things from my bag, stopped to use the restroom, and then went out on lap 2. My husband was still on the course with the half marathon, and I wouldn’t see him until I finished my second lap.
I limited my time at the aid stations, refilling bottles and quickly picking what foods I could carry with me. The hot foods in foam cups had to be consumed in the aid station – and I didn’t feel like I had time. In mile 21, my phone rang. It was a pay phone call from Illinois, so I answered it because I figured it was my son. He had left for Navy boot camp on January 12th, and even though we had received some letters, he hadn’t called yet. You better believe I answered it, and that chat lifted my mood enough to get me to the next aid station.
I was starting to feel the miles in my calves, but was still run/walking the rest of the way through the second lap. The temperature had been dropping, the wind had picked up, and my legs and hands were turning pink from the cold. I would need to add some clothes for the next one.
I finished the second lap a little slower than the first, but two hours ahead of the 4:40 cutoff. My husband was there, having finished his first half marathon, and he helped my with my layers. My fingers were so cold. I added a lightweight pullover to cover my arms, and some cheap cotton gloves I could tuck away if I warmed up. I told him I was slowing down, walking more. He said, “that’s okay” and I was reminded of my goal – just finish.
The Final Lap:
The third lap was a doozy and kicked my tail all over the place. I was in unchartered territory. When I started the lap, I was already hitting new mileage, going farther than I ever had. My calves weren’t bothering me as much at this point, but my quads were getting a bit annoying. along with my big toe. I was still run/walking but at one point I realized I could power walk faster than I could run. “Well that’s embarrassing,” I thought.
It was getting harder to navigate the rooty sections, and anything that felt downhill had me wincing with the pain in my quads. At one point, my Garmin locked up and the screen showed a blue triangle. Oh great, I thought, now I won’t know how far I have to go. But after a little while, it reconnected and picked back up where it left off. Most of the people I saw on the course were moving at a faster pace, but my mood was okay, and I knew at this point that I would finish. It also helped that I was seeing messages of encouragement from so many of my friends.
When I pulled into the last aid station (about 5 miles from the finish), the volunteer behind the table asked, “What do you need?” My response with a smile: “better decision-making skills.”
I have to keep my sense of humor – even in the low spots. I can be a bit hard on myself (surprise, surprise), but if I don’t have my sense of humor, then it’s time to find something else.
The aid station had some hot foods, and the cheese quesadillas were just what I needed to tote along with me as I tried to make it across the dam before dark. I made it past the dam, and then turned on my headlamp when I couldn’t see the tree roots clearly. I had avoided falls this far in, and wasn’t too sure I could get back up if I went down. I prayed my headlamp battery would make it to the finish, because I had it on the brightest setting. I wasn’t too confident I could work my fingers to change batteries at this point in the day.
This was the toughest part of my entire race, and I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It was dark; I was cold, and I was moving at a snail’s pace. And still in the back of my mind, was worried about where the dang alligators go when it’s cold! Especially as I got closer to the water. I tried different things to occupy my mind, but this was hard. I talked out loud, gave myself little pep talks, and even cried a little. I run in the dark all the time, but this was my first time on a trail in the dark, and solo to boot. So there was fear, along with the pain in my legs. But the course was marked really well with reflectors, and the alphabet signs gave me some distraction.
I remembered a scene from the movie French Kiss (aging myself here) where Meg Ryan’s character is terrified of flying. As she’s on the plane about to take off, she starts singing. So I tried that, which didn’t do much for my fear, but trying to remember the lines of that song did pass some time.
I could see my breath in my headlamp light from the cold, and I wasn’t moving fast enough to stay warm. I should’ve picked up my jacket for the last lap. It was getting harder to take in calories too, because of nausea.
After over an hour of seeing absolutely no one, I heard some people come up behind me. I was so happy I wasn’t alone, even if it was just for a few minutes before they were out of sight. It was nice to hear voices other than my own!
Somehow in the last mile, I was able to pick my feet up and run (really slowly) toward the finish line. I heard cowbells and cheers as I came into the finish chute. I don’t know what emotion was on my face, but I’m guessing a combination of relief and disbelief. Someone handed me a medal, and then had me step over where there was a heater to warm up. I declined the chair offered because I was pretty sure I couldn’t get back up if I sat down, but standing by the heater was lovely. The race director got me a Dr. Pepper, and I took a cup of Ramen. I wasn’t hungry at all, but so grateful to be done!
I didn’t stay in the finish area for more than a couple of minutes. I was ready to get my shoes off and warm up. It was around 8 p.m. and I had made the cutoff by an hour and a half.
Thankfully, my husband had moved the car close so I didn’t have to hobble too far. My first text after I plugged my phone in (it had died somewhere in the last hour) was to my friend who ran the half earlier that day. It said: NEVER AGAIN! And at that moment, I meant it.
And this is my face within 30 minutes of finishing. I’ve always promised to be real here, and this is it. Relief mixed with a side of goal accomplishment.
Am I glad I did it? Absolutely. It was one of the toughest events I’ve done, but I finished and learned a lot about myself through the pain and fear.
Will I do it again? Maybe. But I have another big goal to tackle first that’s going to require all my focus.
Would I go farther? Only time will tell.
If you made it this far reading my short novel, bless you. This is the longest post I’ve written, but fitting because it’s the longest race I’ve ever done.