Tuesday, May 3, 2016

How I Became an Ultra Runner

A few months ago I decided to attend a meeting about something called Promise Land 50K++ at Crozet Running. It was an informational meeting about a race, but people were invited to learn more about trail running , too. I had started running 5 years ago and when I started running I pretty much stopped hiking as I had no time to hike with all my weekends taken up by long road runs. Lately, I felt called to the trails again and was interested in learning how to run on trails.

Michelle and John Anderson gave a very good presentation and are very enthusiastic about their sport. Their enthusiasm was very contagious and by the time I left the meeting I was ready to sign up for Promise Land. My husband wasn’t so sure, as I have only run 1 marathon and swore I would never run another one. But, February 1st came, and I filled out the registration and mailed in my check. There was no turning back now.
Elevation profile. 

I spent many weekends with my friends Heather and Ashley running trails all over the place. We ran in Charlottesville, in Crozet, on the AT, on crazy hard trails that we knew we could conquer. I still ran some road runs during the week and ran more miles I ever knew I could and enjoyed it. I was learning new lingo and looked forward to 4 and 5 hour runs on the trail. I was finally combining 2 of my favorite things…trails and running.  And I was making new friends that got me through the highs and lows of longer runs.

As race weekend drew near I was nervous and excited. I couldn’t believe that I was going to run 34 miles with almost 8,000 feet of elevation gain. And in a race that I am told is one of the toughest 50k’s on the east coast. But hubby and I started planning the weekend and gathering needed things so we could camp out the night before and get the whole experience. We were ready.

Friday, April 29, we loaded the car and drove up to Promise Land campground in Bedford, VA.  Brian (my hubby) and I have never camped together and this whole weekend would be a new experience. Our friend Ken had already started setting up his camp, along with many other members of our local trail running group. We chose a spot and started setting up camp. I found my friend Ashley across the way and Heather pulled in not to long later.  My friend Liz pulled in next to us and set up her neat hammock contraption, while I was blowing up an air mattress. I like to camp, but I need some comforts!
Our pink and grey tent in the background.

Hanging out before dinner. Liz's cool hammock contraption she built.

I decided to check out the bathrooms and ran into David Horton, the race director and ultrarunner.  I grabbed my bib and headed back to camp. It was nice just hanging out with friends and chilling. We ate some pizza, had a drink and then headed to the prerace meeting. I was warned about how long the meeting could be, but I thought it was great. I even won a pair of socks!
Campground started getting packed.

Start and Finish line

David Horton's pre-race meeting.

We headed back to camp and checked on our sleeping quarters, aka tent, when we found our air mattress half deflated. Pulled it out, found a hole, patched it well and blew it back up. After hanging out with others for a while we finally headed to bed about 9ish. Let’s just say my night went about as well as any night before a race. First it was too noisy so I put in some ear plugs. Then it was too quiet so I had to take them out. Then our air mattress deflated again and we spend the night cold and lying on the hard ground. I slept about 30 minutes the whole night but instead of stressing about it I just relaxed and waited for wake up call.

Wake up came at 4 am when my phone started singing about all the single ladies. I think I woke half the camp near me. At least it was a musical wake up!  I ate a bagel and checked in again. It was a misty, drizzly morning but it felt good. We all got dressed, made our bathroom visits and lined up for the most epic race I have ever run.

The race started at exactly 5:30. What a surreal sight to see 300+ runners lined up in the dark with headlamps. Everyone was so excited and so nice. The first 2.7 miles is on a gravel road that gets steeper and steeper and steeper. Did I mention it gets steeper? Thank God for Jarmans Road to train on! Heather, Ashley and I started off at a nice warm up pace and within the first mile we started power hiking. It was a decent hike, but I was prepared and I swear the dark helped me as I couldn’t see how steep it got. At the top of the road we ditched our headlamps at the first aid station, such friendly people, and then entered the trail. The next few miles would be all up still, but we were finally off the road and on the trail. I like this single track section. And it looked so different from the training run a few weeks ago when it was covered in snow! This time it was all green and so pretty.

Somewhere in mile 5 we headed off the trail onto a fire road. Now it was time to speed up and get in some faster miles. There were a few ups but lots and lots of downs and if it wasn’t so cloudy and misty we would have had beautiful views of the mountains. We caught up with some people here and passed some people there. It was really fun to meet new people and chat. Around mile 9 we hit AS 2. We were whopping and hollering. It was exciting to get the the next AS! It was nice to get a short break. Again, very friendly and helpful people. Drank a coke or 2, took a potty break and then we started to head up again.  This was technically climb #2 and I remember it from the training run. It isn’t as hard as later climbs but it was still a challenge. This climb takes us up to the Blue Ridge parkway. Once we cross the parkway we get some nice downhill running to Sunset Fields, AS #3. We came in hooting and hollering again. We were doing it! We saw Michelle Anderson cheering us on and reminding us not to stay at the AS too long. I was looking forward to the next section because it would all be new to me.
Having too much fun on one of the fire roads.

As we left the friendly aid station we proceeded down again. This was a big down. And much of it was pretty technical. We had to really pay attention as there were rocks, roots and water. I was really enjoying myself. We got a break from the technical as we hit another grassy road and then another technical section. I broke away a little from our small group and hit Cornelius creek AS. I wasn’t there but a minute when everyone else showed up. We recouped and took off. After a few more miles we hit Colon Hollow AS. I believe this is where we had some of the tastiest ice pops ever….That is what I thought anyway. Now it was time for a road 5k. Right before we hit the pavement portion we took a bathroom break and took in some fuel. We decided to power hike the paved portion and I am glad we did. My left knee had been feeling sore and I didn’t need more pounding. I decided to take some Tylonel  before we headed back on the trail.
Just so beautiful out there.

We were now heading back up for climb #3. I didn’t think this climb was too bad and the tylonel kicked in and I felt great again. We met up with small groups and passed some more and finally settled in with 3 new people. Ralph, John and another Ashley fell into pace with us and stayed with us almost till the end. I am so glad we met this small group. They were so positive and so much fun. I really think they made this section of ups and downs so much more doable. John was just a great motivator and we had fun moving around and playing and chatting. Who would have thought that 20 miles into a race I would be having fun. I even had that thought while running. I was really enjoying myself!

After many ups and downs we hit Cornelius Creek aid station again. This was an important stop as we were about to head up Apple Orchard Falls, the hardest part of the race.  I took off my vest to refill the bladder, grabbed some more tylonel and some Tums and pulled out the rest of my fuel and put it in front pockets. I was ready…or I thought I was! Man, was this a really tough part. In just a few short miles you climb a few thousand feet! It starts off easy enough and just like climb 1 gets steeper and steeper. There were boulders to climb over, stairs to climb, and by far the hardest incline to get up. Amazingly, never once did I think I couldn’t do it. And with John still being such a motivator, I just kept moving up and up. When I made it to the waterfall I had to stop for a pic. It was breathtaking.

Apple Orchard Falls is beautiful!

During this section we started splitting up a bit. We all had our own race to run and our own demons to fight and we were doing it. Even though we weren’t right near each other we all kept yelling out to each other to keep track of one another.  Towards the end of the section I found myself alone with John, the super motivator. I couldn’t believe it when I could see cars. I was almost to the top! Back to Sunset Fields aid station and the beginning of the end!! I ate some salted potatoes, some chips, had some coke and not wanting to stay long I kept going. New Ashley was still ahead but I left John at the aid station. With the exception of one more climb, the rest was all downhill!!! And I was ready. I love downhill!

This section is where I really knew I was an ultra runner. I was running alone for much of it passing a person here and there and really enjoying it. I was ticking off the miles and trying to calculate when I would finish. But as may know, math during a run is hard! So I just decided I would finish around 9 hours and I was ecstatic! I started getting faster, watching my footing as the trail became a little technical again. I could see Ashley and was excited to catch up to her and I think, Ralph.  We kept together as we hit the road again. This was it. 2.7 miles back to camp!!! During the training run I had to walk part of this as it is very steep. But this time I never felt the need to walk. I just kept coming down the mountain. I could do this!

I left my 2 new running friends as they took a little walk break and then passed a group of 3 runners. I couldn’t slow down and let them pass me. The only time I stopped was when I got to the squirrel. I missed it before and had to look at it. It also let me check on the group behind me. They were still there so I took off. Amazingly, after running 32 miles up and down mountains with a 7,600 elevation gain I ran my last two miles faster than any mile I have run in my half marathons. 9:20 and then 8:55. I remember seeing the end of the road and the entrance to the campgrounds and just feeling so strong and amazed. I heard my friend Liz yell out that I was coming in and heard lots of cheers and yelling from friends and my husband. It was so surreal. I ran right into my husband’s arms, as I stopped my Garmin of course. 8:42! I finished under 9!
David Horton and I at the finish.
Photo Credit: Michelle Anderson

My husband, Brian, and David Horton.
photo credit: Michelle Anderson

I got a hug from David Horton too. And Michelle. And others. And handshakes. I walked around a little and just kept thinking about how I did it. I ran an ultra….and I can’t wait to do it again! I hung around waiting for friends to finish and I loved I got to cheer them on as they came in just as strong. We worked so hard for this and we deserved it.

I look forward to running many more ultras in my future and I will be adding Promise Land to my calendar next year. I have to do this amazingly epic course again. The aid stations were staffed with the nicest, most helpful people ever and the course was marked amazingly well. What race will I do next? As I start coming down from my runner’s high I am thinking another 50k in the fall along with a marathon. I want to do a 50 miler too, but I feel I need some more experience before I take the plunge…which I will do next year. It’s amazing what our bodies are capable of. I am ready to see how capable it really is.
From camp. L-R, me, my husband Brian, Ken, Costi, Liz
Photo credit: Costi Sifri

I feel so blessed to have such a supportive husband and such great friends. I know without Heather and Ashley, the training would not have been so much fun. And without Michelle and John Anderson I would have struggled figuring it all out. I have made many new friends over the past few months and look forward to many more races and training runs with them. Running friends truly make great friends.
The best running partners and role models.
L-R, Heather, me, Michelle, Ashley
Photo credit: Michelle Anderson