Because this is so long, I'll spare those who don't actually want to read this whole thing and just do a quick re-cap. It was hot as all get out, I felt great until mile 21ish, completely bonked and wanted to die, made it to the finish in 5:18, good enough for 2nd place female and 11th overall. By far the most challenging thing I've ever done in my life.
I woke up Saturday morning more nervous than I’d been for a race in quite a long time. As I ate my peanut butter & honey bagel and got dressed, it felt like a mariachi band was playing in my stomach. I slapped a sign on my back that said “It’s My Birthday!!” and took off (it really was my birthday, I'm not just a freak). Somehow the mariachi band and I made it to the starting line with no incidents, where I met up with my running partner, Matt, and said hello to Rob, a new ultra marathoner friend. Matt and I were both antsy as we stood around with the other 200+ people waiting for the gun to go off. At 7:00 it went off and we all took off across a field before narrowing in to a slimmer bike path. Actually, I think it might’ve been for golf carts. I probably got a good 20 “Happy Birthday!”s in the first half mile as I passed people and the read the sign on my back. It was fun. Matt said I was going to get sick of it by the end….but that never happened. If anything it helped me those last few awful miles.
Matt and I are laughing and joking and trying our best to stay close to a 9:00 pace, which was proving to be incredibly difficult. The air was warm, but we were sheltered under a canopy of trees and didn’t have to suffer the brutal beating of the sun directly on our backs. We wind our way through the woods hopping over rocks and roots, climbing over fallen trees, and running through waist-high grass that had overgrown on to the narrow trail. We come to a very small stream crossing, but it is too wide for us to jump. Crap. We slosh through it and come out the other side with completely soaking feet. I’m still very much a road marathoner in that I am pissed to have wet feet this early on in the race. I know I’m going to suffer blisters, I just hope they don’t bother me until after the race. Not even a half-mile later we come to a waterless stream crossing (yeah, figure that one out) which was now a giant pit of mud. Again, no possible way to jump over it. I see the runner in front of me sink knee-deep in the muck, and I smartly skirt around a fallen tree and hop to the other side of the riverbank. Not so smart. I slip and fall face first back in to the mud. Matt laughs at me, but after helping me get back up on my feet I smear his back with mud. Ha. Ha.
Now my feet are ridiculously heavy. I try shaking my feet to get some mud off, but it isn’t going anywhere. We continue to wind our way through the flat wooded trail until Matt hears an “umph” and turns around to find me lying on the ground again. I don’t even know what happened. I was up…then I was down. Minor scratches on my leg, little bit of blood. Good, at least I’m credible now.
We start our first climb up a steep set of switchbacks, but neither of us felt like walking at this point. It wasn’t that steep. Unfortunately we were blocked behind 8 or so runners who were walking, and there wasn’t really room for us to go around. We finally hit the descending portion with very sharp corners, which I quickly learned took some skill to master. I missed my turn on one of the switchbacks and ended up in a tree. Thankfully it was easy to push off and get going in the right direction.
More single-track root hopping, stump jumping, and otherwise flat running until we made it to the aid station at mile 5.7. I popped some endurolyte tabs (which tasted delicious with the added flavor of mud from my hands) and drank the last sip of my water. Grabbed a Rocktane Gu, filled my bottle and took off. There were more steep switchbacks through here, though we alternated running and walking depending on how long they were. Eventually we came to my least favorite part of the course…a wide-open grassy field with zero shade. It was barely after 8, and already I could feel us cooking under the direct sun. Probably because of this particular area, I drank my water too quickly. I was starting to feel pretty hot and started pounding my handheld. I saw Kmax, another “virtual runner” friend, and exchanged words of encouragement. Matt and I were still running quite strong and trying to dial in on the 9:00 pace. I think we were hitting more in the 8:30 range, but it was hard to tell. Up and down more switchbacks, still feeling pretty good about the hill situation. I run out of water about 15 minutes before we get to the next aid station…not cool. It felt like an eternity. My Garmin had us at 13 miles when we finally saw the aid station, but the course claimed it was about mile 12. I don’t know how my watch could pick up an extra mile, but I didn’t realize this had happened until much later in the race. We come in to the aid station, which is essentially the only spectator spot on the course. There’s a nice small crowd there to cheer us on, and plenty of people shouting “Happy Birthday!!!!” Matt and I fill up our water and take off. I have another Gu, and smear my chocolate mint wonderfulness all over myself. I need to pee, but I decide to hold it.
Ahhh, Great Falls…the fun part. This is where the “real” hills are, with a smattering of rock hopping and climbing over boulders. We start to see the 50 milers who had started 2 hours before us and run the Great Falls loop 3 times (yeah, how fun is that?). I see the lead pack of about 4 guys pushing the pace, and Michael Wardian coming down the hill straight towards me. I shouted “Go Wardian! Great job man!”. He looked like he was pissed to be running, and in a lot of pain. Granted, the man ran Comrades last weekend and was the first American to finish. My buddy Matt (different Matt) was not far behind Wardian. Good. Matt has been smoking his races lately and has a good shot at winning. I cheer him on and he perks up when he sees me. I told him that Michael isn’t looking too good; he has a good shot at taking him. The leaders aren’t far ahead.
Eventually we start passing the 50 milers on some of the steep uphills. I felt awful for having to pass them. I’m cheering and calling out encouragement every time we pass, and they all wish me Happy Birthday. More runners starting heading towards us coming downhill as we tackle going up. I see the first 50k runner who shouts “3rd place female!”. Huh? Well…good! I’m still feeling great at this point and naively think that I’ll have no trouble holding this pace for the rest of the day. We skirt along a very narrow ledge and I can’t help but think that if someone is coming around the ledge from the other direction, we’re all going down. Thankfully we make it out of there quickly and run in to the next aid station. My watch has this around 17, which apparently is wrong. I filled up my bottle and tried to eat a peach, but food was just gross. It was so hot, I just couldn’t do it. I took more endurolytes and was off. More “Happy Birthday” shouts from the aid station workers. I thank them for being out there for us. As Matt and I make our way back up more steep climbs, I start to lose him. He was walking and I was feeling too good to slow down. I figured he would catch me on the downhills or flats, but I only saw him once again. I was completely re-energized (not that I needed it) when I came down the last steep portion and wound my way through the rock hopping ankle-breaker area. I stared at my feet the entire time; I couldn’t afford a face plant in this area. My clothes were soaking wet, it felt like I’d jumped in a pool and came out running. Everything (including my feet) was soaked to the ground. Still have to pee. Meh. Not too bad.
After I clear out of the small technical part of the trail I find myself going back up hill again. I catch up to a group of 50 milers right as they hit the beginning of a really technical rock-hopping section. There was no possible way to run through this entire thing. They were walking a little too much though, and I ask them to please let the “slacker 50k runner” pass. They do, and then cheer me on when they read my birthday sign. I run-hop and scurry over the rocks and then make my way down and back up a nice little set of stairs. Suddenly I’m at the Great Falls aid station again (mile 21 according to Garmin), and when the crowd sees me coming they really cheer. “Birthday Girl! Way to go!”. I see a few of the runners from my local running group, they run with me for a second to see how I’m doing and find out what happened to Matt. “I don’t know! He was with me one second, then he was gone!”. I hope he’s ok…it’s too early in the race to start feeling like crap. The aid station workers tell me I’m number 3 female. I try to eat a banana, again that doesn’t work out so well. I accidentally grab mountain dew (I thought it was Gatorade) and choke when I take a big gulp. Yuck. My stomach didn’t feel great after that.
I make my way through the park and as I’m about to hop back on the single track through the woods I see the girl who was #1 female heading back towards me. I realized she got lost. I felt so bad for her, that would just kill me. I hurriedly usher her in front of me and tell her to go straight up the hill. We both walk and chat for a couple of minutes. She had a demeanor about her…you know, that “I race and I win, that’s what I do”. She was wearing a team singlet and looked like the kind of girl that was used to being on the podium. I told her the 2nd place girl (who was now first place) couldn’t be that far ahead of us, she should be able to catch her. We caught a guy just up ahead of us, and we all ran/walked through the steep climbs. Eventually she and the guy take off on one of the downhills and I just couldn’t keep up. No worries, I’m running my own race.
Things took a turn for the worse around mile 22. I know, only 1 flipping mile after the aid station. I got overwhelmingly hot and felt super dehydrated, even though I’d steadily been drinking my water and taking endurolytes. I ran out of water in about 20 minutes, and literally felt like someone had drugged me and spit me out on the course. I don’t really know the words to describe how I felt, other than completely 100% terrible. I had to start walking on some of the flats. Run/walk, run/walk. My legs were hurting, my head was fuzzy. There was no one around me. Where the heck is the next aid station? I needed water so badly. Gatorade. I’ll even take that awful mountain dew at this point. I can’t see anyone or anything, I start to whimper. I need water. I trudge along, run/walk, run/walk. I can’t think clearly, I feel like I’d been running for hours since the last aid station. I hit more steep climbs and was so thankful for the change in stride. I stumble along through the tall grass along the river. How cruel to be so thirsty when the entire race is along a river. Mile 24 something…where the eff is the aid station? Must be at mile 25. I see a coffin. Wait, what? No, just a large tree stump on further inspection. How am I going to get to the next aid station? Run, walk, whimper, repeat. I can’t cry, I don’t have any fluids left in my body. Oh hey, I don’t have to pee anymore! I remember that I have gum in my pocket, I pop a piece and chew the refreshing berry flavor and accidentally spit it out about .10 miles later. Well that was a disappointment. For the love of God, where is that freaking aid station???? I hate my life. I hate my legs. I hate my birthday. This was the worst idea EVER. What was I thinking? I’m no ultra marathoner. I’m a spoiled roadie, with water stops every 2 miles if need be. I don’t run with wet feet and trip through thick patches of mud. Mile 26. I don’t run PAST mile 26. This is absurd. I suddenly notice a cramp in my right arm. Wtf? Oh wait a second, I've been carrying my water bottle in my right hand this entire way! I switch it to my left, my right bicep spasms and I have no feeling in my right thumb. I was gripping the heck out of that water bottle.
I try to cry, it doesn’t come out. I let out a muted whimper that probably sounds like a dying goat. I had a goat. Cookie. She was my favorite. AID STATION!!!!!!!!! WHERE THE HECK….?????
I don’t know how I make it, but at MILE 27.9 I see the aid station. I am too exhausted to explain to them how pissed I am that they aren’t located 2 miles back. They don’t need me to explain, they know. They encourage me, point out the #2 female is just ahead of me. Like I care? Do you THINK I’m going to speed up to catch her??!!!! One of the workers informs me that the next aid station is 3.3 miles away. I look at my watch and realize I’ll be at 31 miles in 3.3 miles, so I say “Yeah, the finish!”. No. An aid station. WTF? I show him my watch, he says sorry…you’re still 5 miles from the finish. WHAT??? NO!!!!!!!! I only have 3 miles of mental stamina left! Don’t they know this??!!!
They wish me happy birthday, I’m slightly less upset now. They help me fill my bottle, I down 2 cups of legitimate Gatorade and a Gu, look longingly at the bowls of M&Ms and Gummy Bears and head off. I run around a 10:00 mile pace and take walk breaks. I realize it hurts less to run, so I push on. I pass the “singlet girl” who was walking, but I figured she’ll catch me soon enough. I still feel horrible, but some how my legs start to move again. I am getting plowed over by marathon runners who started not too long ago and are heading in the opposite direction. Most of them are very nice and move out of my way, some of them all but knocked me off the side of the trail. I was nervous running downhill on the switchbacks, I didn’t know if my legs would hold up. A guy coming uphill does not yield to me and I flail in to the brush at the last second to avoid getting pushed down the side of the hill. Jerk.
A 50-miler guy catches me and we chat for a minute. We’re walking on a steep climb when I see it….a giant flipping snake. GIANT. Like, 5’ long. I scream my head off (yes, one can still scream when completely exhausted and on the verge of collapse) and flail my arms around. It’s slithering across the path, the guy chuckles and tells me when the coast is clear. I sprint my butt off past that thing. Realistically my “sprint” was probably a break-neck 8:00 pace. I feel worked up from the snake incident for a couple of minutes, but then get back in the grind. 50-miler guy passes me and I shout encouragement. He tells me he’ll yell back if he sees anymore snakes. I tell him “don’t yell, just take care of it!”.
I come up to next aid station, somehow feeling alive. I catch another 50k guy at the aid station and we chat as we make our way out. Only 1.7 miles to go (which is terribly disheartening when my watch already says 31 miles). He’s very tall and fit, he sets a pace and I keep up. We were running in the low 8’s and it felt good. I don’t know what came over me, but I owned my body again. He fell back and I just picked up the pace. Some volunteers radio my bib number in saying that the #2 female was on her way to the finish. I hear screaming and laughing up ahead. Finish? No. A playground. Grrrr. There it is! I see the field we have to run through. I pick it up. I hear the announcer say “Amy Lane, #2 female for the 50k! Everyone cheer her on!”. I cross the finish line and try to cry. Still no tears. Then the announcer says “And it’s her BIRTHDAY!!!!!!” There’s a ridiculous amount of cheering and commotion, random people coming up to congratulate me. I finished in 5:18, my watch said 32.7 miles. I never think a course is long, Garmin’s are always off. But this course….well, I don’t know. 1.7 miles is an awful long ways to be off.
I lay in the grass. My legs are on fire. They hurt so bad. If I stand, walk, sit, lay down, whatever I do they are in pain. I have my eyes shut because sweat dripped in my eyes from my hair and now they sting. I hear a voice behind me ask if I’m ok, if I need anything. I said that I’m fine, and I’ll take a chainsaw to chop my legs off. He says “I hear ya, how about some water instead?”. Ok…as he hands me my water I squint to look, and he’s an amputee. I just asked an amputee for a chain saw to cut off my legs. I’m groaning on the inside. I thank him for his kindness and down the water.
A little more than 10 minutes after me, singlet girl came in. I was surprised that she never caught me. She must’ve been pretty depressed after she went off trail. I congratulate her and see how she’s feeling. Pretty much as horrible as me. Throughout the afternoon I talked to a lot of finishers who have run this race before, and their times were off by anywhere from 30 minutes to 70 minutes from what they ran last year. Was it the heat? They think it was. A volunteer tells me the heat index was at 103. Ugh. That explains the coffin hallucination. I see Matt (the 50 miler, not my running partner) and he comes over to talk to me. He won! I’m so proud! He was so excited that he beat Wardian. Yeah, but he ran Comrades last weekend! Matt doesn’t care. He got a $1000 cash prize and a trip to San Fran for the Northface Championship 50 miler in December.
I track down my prize, which was an awesome Northface Gortex jacket. Super lightweight and definitely meant for running. Suh-weet! They ask me if I can wait for the ceremony (which wasn’t for another 4 hours) so Dean Karnazes could present me with my medal. I chuckle, they have no idea. I tell them I have dinner reservations and can’t wait around, though I’m deeply saddened to miss the DK awards ceremony (tehehe).
Matt (running partner) finally finished, poor guy. He was pretty beat up too. We try to figure out what went wrong. This was our first ultra, first trail race. Did we go out too fast? Were we not in good enough shape? Was it the heat? I honestly felt like I was in good enough shape. I thought for certain a sub5 would be no problem at all. I expected it to hurt, but what I felt from 22-29 was unreal. We aren’t really sure why the wheels fell off, but we were so glad to have finished and we’re ready to put this race behind us.
I’ll tell you one thing, it was one heck of a birthday.