Pre-Race Photos at Loch Haven
Because of the early summer heat, the race was set to begin at 6:30 A.M. My friend, Brittany (also awesome training buddy), and I were very nervous before the race started. We had some extreme climbing to put behind us during this trail race, which we were also simultaneously excited about conquering because of Strava’s Dipsea Elevation Challengecurrently happening.
The first mile of the race took place on a private road, leading us immediately into a steep grade hill, immediately climbing 600-800 feet. This sign was located on the course… Mountain Junkies says that they “only follow skulls and crossbones”. Yes, we forked “right”.With 25+ miles ahead, there was no way I was going to pop myself on that hill. I power climbed soon after my hamstrings and glutes began to burn. Not to mention that my calves were seriously on fire! It takes me a really LONG time to warm up, and so it was challenging to focus on my own race when other racers were passing me, but the marathon race was also combined with 25K’ers, so I was able to rationalize my way out of feelings of unpreparedness. I reminded myself to trust my training and make prudent and precise decisions so as to avoid “the wall”.
Finally, I crested the hill and plunged into swerving switchbacks with rocks and roots dominating the trail. I remembered to overemphasize knee drive so as not to catch toes on protruding objects from the dirt. I’m not a very fast down-hiller (yet), so I lost some placement in this section of the race. My strengths are rolling hills, flats, and moderate downhills. I played to those later in the race.
I caught up to one man around mile 5. He was a steady-paced runner. Ran the hills, ran the downhills, all at the same pace. I decided to hang onto him for awhile. That was smart – he helped me chase down several women ahead of me, one of which sadly frustrated me. The race directors requested that headphones only be used on one ear and the volume to be low enough so that one would still be able to hear people (and animals like snakes and bears) around them. One racer decided to wear BEATS size headphones, likening her to Princess Leia from Star Wars. Anyway, I had to grab onto her shoulders (we were on single track) after calling to her multiple times that I needed to pass. She was surprised when I touched her, but I even increased the volume of my voice again before doing so. Oh well. I think that was the most frustrating part of the entire race experience, so I’d say it was an awesome race!
The running club, Mountain Junkies, directing the event was incredible. This club provided some seriously great aid stations. Chunks of chocolate, Stinger Gels, potato chips, fruit, supportive and cheerful volunteers. Volunteers rushed to pour water into our handheld bottles and hydration packs. They provided us with ice cold, water-soaked towels contained in buckets for us to remove salt deposits and provide respite from steadily increasing heat. (The towels were discarded into another bucket after one use – no double dipping here!) Anyway, it was gloriously refreshing and got rid of the salt deposits on my face and arms. I didn’t feel (and probably look) as nasty and gritty as I would have given the absence of that simple provision.
I met a woman named Alana, from Durham, and ran with her for awhile from mile 8-18. We encouraged each other and made sure that we were being gracious to our bodies. We discussed goals and how we became runners, specifically trail runners. It was glorious! Because she was wearing a hydration pack, she would ask me to unzip her pack so that she could refuel with fruit grabber pouches. We ran through “the enchanted forest” together, a forest floor covered in pine needles and towering, well-spaced pine trees. The scenery was stunning and was definitely my favorite section of trail during the race!
As we approached miles 15-18, Alana began to tire. I needed her company in order to stay strong leading up to the 1200 feet climb coming at mile 18. So we took a walking break. Finally, we discussed some strategies to keep the race moving forward at a steadier pace. Her favorite go-to strategy was to try to run 5 steps and usually, she could keep going. I recommended that we give it a try! It worked. We approached another hill and I shared my strategy, which was to run for 30 paces, assess my exertion level and distance from the crest of the hill. If I was close to the top, I’d push through, and the reward would be sweeter. So we did it! Before long, we were at mile 18, the base of the 3 mile 1200 feet climb on the fire road.
She decided that she wasn’t running any part of this section, and that was when I knew our time together had come to a close. I planned to run a minute, walk a minute the whole way up this climb, and after bringing my heart rate to a manageable rate, I did! It was empowering.
As the fire road twisted and loomed higher and higher, I encountered a runner from Pittsburgh. His name was Kevin, and this was a training run for his upcoming 50K. He was employing similar strategies as me, and so we kept each other company throughout the duration of the climb. He was positive and upbeat, and I was thankful for it! During the first climb of the race, my calves were screaming because my body was exerting too much prior to being truly warmed up (it takes me a good 2-3 miles to loosen up). The outside of my right ankle was in a lot of pain, and any flat or downhill running would result in excruciating, tearing sensations to my ankle. We’d pick a locus (such as a dangling branch or a patch of grass) and run to it, take a break, and then prepare to go at it again.
It was heaven to hear the resounding jingle of the cowbell, which represented the top of the fire road climb and an aid station. Kevin ran ahead to notify them that I needed an ace bandage. He and I both knew what was coming: a treacherous, technical 2.5 mile downhill, likened to a free fall, a trail known amongst runners as “The Gauntlet”. I sat down in a chair and began to wrap my ankle to the best of my ability. I wanted to brace my ankle and provide stability for its tiring, searing muscles and ligaments. As I was taping, a girl appeared from nowhere it seemed and flew down the mountain. I hastened my wrapping and began the descent.
The downhill descent was a welcome change to my muscles, but I am so scared of falling that I descend much slower than my strength and ability would predict. I was never able to catch the girl who passed by (who ended beating me out for first place in our age group), but I did catch back up to Kevin, and we tackled the final “hill”, which wasn’t really a hill, just enough of an incline from mile 24-25 to demand all the mental toughness I had left to muster.
We hit the road just after mile 25, and it was time to finish the race. I picked up my pace, skipped the water station, and held on for dear life. I finished the marathon (a distance measured on a bicycle computer at 26.45 miles) in 4 hours and 37 minutes and 10 seconds. My watch clocked in at 24.45 miles. While I came very close, I never met the dreaded “wall”, and it was important to me that I a) enjoy the race experience b) finish strong and c) with a smile on my face. Circle all of the above!
My goal for the day, however, had not yet been completed. I wanted to run a 50K (31 mile distance). I did the mental math and began running the course in reverse to meet my friend Brittany and run with her to the finish. I ran 1.75 miles in reverse and encountered her as she was approaching the “hill”. It was a wonderful experience to encourage her and help her finish. She finished strong, coming in at about 5:27.
I continued running, as there was about 1 mile left to run. I finished my 50K in 5 hours and 33 minutes, and it felt amazing. I slowed a lot during the post marathon section, but at that point, I was just running for distance. I’d never run that distance before, and that in and of itself was a huge accomplishment to me. 3 days later, I am still enjoying that success!