My decision to run Stone Steps came to me somewhere around mile 15 of the Chicago Marathon. I then had 11 more miles to figure out how to convince Matt to run with me, and see if I could lure anyone else in to the trap. I knew Matt wouldn’t take much convincing, but what I didn’t expect was a willing compliance from Chris, a virgin ultra runner. As fate would have it, I ran in to Chris in the finish area who expressed his race was less than stellar. Matt soon stumbled through muttering a similar sentiment. We all sat on the ground on the completely unnecessary milar blanket pondering the race and how we would salvage our training. And then it happened, I made my move. “You know, you can run a 50k off of marathon training…”. They took the bait- hook, line, and sinker. Chris signed up from his hotel room, while Matt and I signed up in the airport on our cell phones. The race filled the day we registered, so I knew we were meant to tackle Stone Steps together.
Fast forward 2 weeks…
Saturday morning Matt and I piled our gear in the car and made the 6 hour drive to Columbus, where we had reservations for the guest bed and couch at Chris and Stevi’s house. Not only was Chris willing to run with us, but he was willing to put us up for the weekend. I only hoped he would still let us sleep there after the race. We were treated to the requisite pasta dinner and obligatory bottle of wine that must be consumed before a race, as a sacrifice to the gods of glycogen…or nerves.
We spent 30 minutes prepping our fuel for the race, stuffing pharmacy bags with candy corn, candy pumpkins, and shot blocks. Stevi constructed our PB&J sandwiches with Matt fulfilling the supervisory role of an engineer. After a brief debate as to how we should cut the sandwiches, we agreed on diagonal slices as it had more adequate bite distribution than its horizontal cohort. Chris came by to criticize Stevi’s excessive use of jelly, but agreed on the angle at which the sandwiches were cut.
We managed to get to bed at a respectable hour, and I slept soundly as I was completely under the influence of Tylenol PM.
I groggily opened my eyes and checked the time, 4:45. Good, I have 15 more minutes to sleep. I hear voices outside of my room, and pounding on the door. Matt asks if I’m awake, and I grumble “it’s not even 5!!”. He replies that we are LEAVING at 5. I suddenly realize that in my state of drug-induced drowsiness, I set my alarm for the time we were leaving instead of the time I should wake up. I leap out of bed and throw on my race clothes, and yell out for someone to please toast my bagel. Fear not, fellow blog readers, my extraordinary ability to slide by on the fly extends to even the most unprecedented situations. I was ready by 5:00 and managed to forget nothing, though I had a more concentrated amount of honey dripping on me due to stuffing my face with a peanut butter & honey bagel.
We all piled back in the car and made the 2 hour drive to Cincinnati with our crew captain Stevi and her assistant, Jinx. We pulled in to Mt. Airy National Forest and soon found a parking spot and managed to not hit any of the runners standing in the road in the early morning darkness. We got our bibs situated and stood in line for the bathrooms, which only had 1 stall. This was probably my biggest complaint about the race—they really needed a couple of porta-potties to compensate for the amount of runners and spectators.
|Me, Matt & Chris|
I quickly washed down a Gu at 7:45, then the RD called all of the 50k runners to huddle around for the pre-race brief. The course consisted of a figure 8 that would loop through the race HQ pavilion essentially in the middle of the figure 8. The big loop was 5ish miles (I think they claimed 5.3 miles) and the small loop was around 3.2 miles. That meant we would be hitting the aid station every 5.5 and 3 miles, which was great. We’d have access to all of our gear, and could easily adjust whatever strategies needed tweaking. Our fuel would be accessible, and best of all…we’d see Stevi and Jinx plenty of times.
The RD explained that we have to cross the timing mat after finishing every loop, and then pointed in a general direction behind his head and shouted “GO!”. Matt and I were really confused, because we thought we had to start by crossing the timing mat, you know, like most normal races. Instead we followed the herd of runners as they took off down a grassy slope and began disappearing through the woods. Chris was bending over tying his shoes when the race started, so he had to dodge around runners to catch us.
|And we're off!|
Soon we entered the singletrack and started focusing our attention on the treacherous terrain. I was behind a lanky guy in a red shirt with a hydration waste pack, and tried to give him some room so I could see the ground in front of me. Matt and Chris fell in behind me, and we spent the first few minutes of the race in silent concentration.
The weather was cool, a breezy 60 degrees that somehow felt more like 50. We were all worried about the weather, as the high was expected to be in the 80s. So far things were looking good though, so I tried not to worry about what would happen in the next few hours.
I was pleasantly surprised that my legs were feeling so springy. I was tempted to pass the red shirt guy, but I knew that was foolish and we were all better off keeping things under control. The first 2.2ish miles were a very fast downhill, but the terrain was rather tricky at times. I felt more confident in my footing than I ever had, but was still cautious with my approach. There were a few minor climbs, but we didn’t bother walking.
Around mile 3 we came across the dreaded stone steps. Later when I checked my watch’s elevation profile I would learn that it was a 38% grade to the top of the steps. Everyone tucked their head down and plugged away until we had cleared the last step, and then resumed running.
My legs felt dead for the first couple hundred feet after the climb, but they soon cooperated with a nice downhill segment. There were more rolling hills, up and down, over and over, until we reached Gummy Bear Hill. The first part of Gummy B. is a long, steep, slick downhill. The steepness was enough to give some of the less confident runners pause before running down it, but the terrain added even more technical skill requirements. The rocks and roots seemed to be placed exactly where I wanted to step, but I somehow managed to make it down unscathed. After surviving the downhill portion, it seemed like we crested around the side of the hill only to come right back up. On this climb my watch was boasting a 41% grade, which would explain why my lungs were about to explode by the time I reached the top.
On the slow climb up I was able to look around a little, and I realized that we lost Chris somewhere along the way. I felt bad since I dragged him in to this, but I knew he’d run his own race and be better off for it. I was momentarily distracted from the climb when I noticed a bowl of gummy bears sitting randomly on the side of the hill. Yippee! I grabbed a couple and kept pushing up the hill.
Matt and I made it to the top and were rewarded by seeing the 5 mile marker on a tree. That meant we were very close to the aid station, and our first loop would be complete. I caught my first glimpse of a girl up ahead of us, but it was too early in the race to care who is ahead of whom. The trail out of the woods and back to the pavilion was smooth and mostly flat. We pushed up one last hill and breezed in to the aid station.
1st Big Loop- 49:25 (9:20 pace)
Stevi was ready for us, and got to work seeing if we needed anything. I filled my water, grabbed a Gu, and we headed out towards the 3 mile loop.
We immediately hit a pretty steep downhill with loose gravel, so it wasn’t entirely safe to really open up here. I kept my stride under control, and shuffled down to the bottom all the while praying my feet wouldn’t slide out of control. Soon we were running down switchbacks, only to then run up switchbacks on the next hill.
We eventually made it up to a clearing where we crossed a grassy field and found our way down in to another trail in the woods. Here we encountered the girl I had seen, and she was running with tall, lanky fellow. They were running a comfortable pace, so Matt and I ended up sticking with them for most of the loop. I chatted up the girl, Alice, while Matt struck up a conversation with her husband. Through small talk I found out that Alice gave birth 16 weeks ago, and was trying to get her trail legs back. I was completely dumbfounded that she was tackling a 50k so soon after giving birth. She said she ran a marathon 2 weeks ago, the same weekend of the Chicago marathon. I started to get an inkling of an idea that she must be more than meets the eye, because she was holding a pretty comfortable pace in spite of her recent mommy-hood.
The couple seemed to slow down a bit, so Matt and I lost them as we wrapped up the last leg of the small loop. We ran essentially all of this loop, with the exception of the steep climb with loose gravel back up to the pavilion.
Towards the end of the loop we encountered some people walking their dogs, and a little boy seemed to be in charge of the cutest little puppy I have ever seen. It was a Boston Terrier, but it was the size of a small hot dog and had a giant puppy belly. I wanted to stop and play with it, but I had bigger things on the agenda at that moment.
1st Small Loop- 28:51 (9:01 pace)
Stevi was at the pavilion asking what we needed, and after a quick reply she stuffed my hand with Gu and candy pumpkins. I grabbed my camera and we were off. Matt pulled ahead of me at the trail head and I tucked in behind him.
We came up behind some runners and decided to pass them, but tried to keep our pace in check. We were both feeling really good and it was hard holding back on the first part of this loop. The lanky guy (Mr. Alice) caught up to use, and we casually chatted while I attempted not to kill myself taking pictures.
|Mr. Alice's legs|
Matt pulled ahead because I slowed drastically to try and get some not-blurry photos. There were a lot of spots I would’ve liked to have taken pictures, but the ground was a little too dangerous to be messing with a camera. Eventually I decided I’d had enough fun with the camera, and took off after Matt. It didn’t take long to catch him on the downhills, so soon I was back in our comfortable groove.
Stone Steps sucked just a little bit more this time, and I tried not to worry how much it would suck the 3rd and 4th times around.
I obeyed the sign gods and did not whine, hoping I would be rewarded for my efforts.
Shortly before Gummy Bear, we saw a guy on the ground rolling around in pain. Matt and I stopped to see how serious the situation was, and it appeared that he fell and landed on his kneecap on top of a rock. Ouch. We told him we’d alert the volunteers at the pavilion to look out for him if he didn’t make it back in a reasonable amount of time.
We took off skirting our way carefully down the steep side of Gummy B and came back up slowly on the crazy-steep grade.
2nd Big Loop- 50:21 (9:30 pace)
|Matt & I, stride for stride|
When we came through the timing mat area, I downed a Gu, drank some heed, and told Stevi I’d be ready for PB&J after I came through on the small loop. Matt and I took off again, tackling the small loop with slightly more confidence after having run it previously. We caught a glimpse of the 50k leader who was climbing up the loose gravel hill as we were carefully making our way down. He didn’t even have to walk, he just plowed up it. Amazing.
There was also a 27k race going on, and we started encountering the 27k runners on the loop. They were pretty accommodating to either give us the right of way or let us pass them on the trail. Matt and I ran the 2nd much more cautiously than the first time around, we were starting to notice the climbs and realized we should be walking more.
2nd Small Loop- 31:25 (9:49 pace-longer transition made this loop a little slow)
As we came in to the pavilion Stevi pulled out our PB&Js while Matt and I took off our shoes and socks to inspect our feet. I started feeling a blister forming in the same location of my previous blood blister, so I was a little worried that they would be in rough shape. No blisters yet, so I put body glide on my feet and quickly got my shoes and socks back on. Matt wanted to eat his sandwich while stationary, but I was too pumped to wait.
I took off down the grassy slope, sandwich in hand, with jelly dripping down the side (for those paying close attention, I did eat a sandwich after touching my gross feet. Get over it).
Matt caught up to me and we enjoyed the first 2 easy miles of the big loop, but somewhere before stone steps I lost Matt. I wasn’t sure if he was hurting or something, but I knew he’d either catch back up to me or he wouldn’t.
A big gust of wind came through while I was on the steps, and the trees above me started dropping acorns like crazy. I was afraid of getting pelted on the head, so I covered my head with my arms and prayed I wouldn’t get taken out of the race by a freak acorn accident. I made it to the top, much more slowly this time around.
I passed quite a few walkers during this loop, and some runners who clearly went out too hard on the first loops. I ended up dropping my candy corn pumpkins somewhere along the way and had to settle for Gu and gummy bears instead. I started feeling a little warm and realized it was starting to heat up, though the wind helped cool me off. Right as I headed down Gummy Bear Hill, I caught a glimpse of Alice. She was catching up to me, and judging by my declining speed I was sure it wouldn’t take long. I made it back to the pavilion, starting to really feel the toll of the last climbs up stone steps and Gummy B.
|Coming in just before Alice...|
3rd Big Loop- 55:38 (10:30pace)- Including the shoe/sock transition
I wasn’t really looking forward to the 3rd small loop, but with Alice now hot on my heels I didn’t have much time to think about it. I managed to get safely down the loose gravel slope yet again, and focused intently on my footing as I realized I was starting to get tired…and thus much more prone to tripping. Alice caught up to me half way through the loop and we chit chatted a bit more. It was nice having some company, and I was still fascinated with her obvious superior ability. She told me she ran all the way up until the day she delivered, and was running 2 days after giving birth. Hard. Core.
|(my favorite picture of the day)|
We walked all of the climbs this time, I marveled at my brazen effort to run them all the first time around. Alice finally passed me just before coming in to the pavilion, but I didn’t feel the urgency to sprint to the timing mat on such an insignificant loop.
3rd Small Loop- 35:50 (11:12 pace)
Stevi was pumped to see me come through with Alice. I guess she’d been hearing the locals chat about Alice, and they had completely written me out of the race before it even started. Come to find out, she’s the course record holder and local favorite to win races. At this point in the race, I wasn’t even sure that we were the lead females. The RD never announced anything as we came through on previous loops, and none of the volunteers told us we were leading. In a loop course like this, it’s really hard to know your placement in the pack. I kept passing runners that I didn’t know were ahead of me, and a woman very easily could’ve been up ahead. I’m still a bit miffed that the RD would announce the lead males, but say nothing when we came through.
Anyways, Stevi had my Gu in hand when I came through so I filled my bottle and took off. Alice had a longer stop, but I knew she would catch me. Apparently they announced the 2 lead females were neck and neck, but I was already gone when they made the announcement. Stevi said the RD commented on the fact that I was keeping up with Alice, which I guess is not a common occurrence. I’m sure if she weren’t recovering from her pregnancy she would blow me out of the water.
Sure enough Alice caught back up to me somewhere in the first mile of the last loop. She apologized for being on my heels, and I said I didn’t mind the company as long as she made her move before Gummy Bear Hill. I didn’t want her to coast off of me knowing she could sprint her butt off in the last half mile to defend her title.
We walked a lot and trudged through the downhill, and I noticed that my downhill pace started matching my uphill pace. Not good. If I can’t run faster than a 10:30 going downhill I knew I had no shot of pushing for the win. Alice said her legs were completely shot, but at some point after mile 2 she made her move and left me behind. I was finally alone suffering through the last 3.5 miles, knowing they were going to be the most painful miles of my life. It hurt to run, it hurt to walk. I finally had my first spill, but landed comfortably on my water bottle. I was sad when I realized I lost some water, I needed every drop. The stone steps were almost unbearable the 4th time around. Alice was just finishing her climb up the steps as I started mine. I went really slow. I mean really, really slow. I put my hands on my quads to help push off, which in hindsight makes absolutely no sense. At one point I looked to the top and saw…
My legs were sufficiently destroyed when I finally made it all the way up. I had to stop for a second and wait for them to respond to my request to walk, and then finally run. I realized that running somehow hurt less than walking at this point, and actually started to slowly run up the hills. None of the crazy climbs, just the average little hills that were completely runnable the first time around. I passed more people, and realized that I was actually lapping them. They weren’t in a terribly good mood, neither was I. I took another Gu and was pleased with my fueling. In spite of the warm temperatures, I never felt light-headed or dizzy, which has been a common theme in my races lately.
I made it to Gummy B hill and really locked in on making it up to the top. I was so close to the finish, but there was still a 41% climb to surmount. Usually when a race gets tough I mentally withdraw in to a psycho-analysis of self and start to feel angry with everyone and everything. This time there was no such emotion. My legs simply hurt, and I was almost done. No analysis needed. I looked to Bryan for inspiration and envisioned him running up the giant hill in our neighborhood while wearing ankle weights, carrying a heavybag, and being chased by our over-zealous pup. He would love this hill, I thought.
|Wishing I had Apollo to chase me up the hill...|
|Isn't my hubbs a badass?|
I then saw the people with the cute puppy making their way down the hill, and this time I stopped to pet the little guy. He squirmed like a giddy little piglet and squealed with delight at being pet. If they have puppies like this in pet stores, I hope I never see one because I will buy it immediately without hesitation.
Up I went, and finally I made it to the top. I forced my legs to run even though they rebelled in every possible way. I came up behind another runner and startled him when I asked to pass. I was so close to the finish, I could finally see the cars in a clearing just outside the pavilion.
Suddenly, I was there. I saw the clock and felt relief when I crossed the timing mat.
4th Big Loop- 1:02:36 (11:49 pace)
Finish Time: 5:14:02
2nd Female (Alice finished about 3 minutes before me, for those who were wondering)
7th overall (out of 82 starters, 68 finishers)
I was dumbfounded when I downloaded my GPS data....my watch claimed we did a total of 7480ft of climbing ( equal amount of decent). Not too shabby at all.
I’ve started to learn that the finish line at an ultra can be a funny thing. Coming from the Chicago Marathon where millions of people are cheering you on, to a small motley crew of volunteers who clap if they happen to notice you’re finishing. The internal sense of accomplishment was great, because I realized that was a hard course and I did my best.
I really, really needed to sit down but they still had to take the timing chip off. I considered just falling over and letting them sort out the mess, but somehow Stevi was able to lead me back to the picnic table where I unveiled the blister that I knew had formed over the last 2 loops.
Stevi filled me in on the boys, it appeared that Matt shouldn’t be too far behind me, and Chris had just left for his last loop as I was coming in. I asked Stevi if Chris said anything about hating me, or making me sleep outside that night, but he seemed to be in good spirits in spite of the holes in the bottom of his feet.
The sun was hot, so we found a patch of grass in the shade and I finally allowed myself to fall back and relax. Stevi was great, fussing over me and making sure I was comfortable. Jinx was quite happy to have a sweaty runner to lick, so he cuddled up on my lap.
We waited for the boys to come in and finally saw the familiar Endurasoak singlet that Matt was wearing. We cheered him in, and he seemed to be in a pretty good mood.
It was only a matter of time before Chris made it through the finish, completing his very first ultra.
The race was definitely well organized, and the volunteers were great. The trails were extremely well marked, and the aid station had a great spread of anything and everything you could possibly want. While this was a challenging course, it’s also a great set up because you are able to loop back to your gear every few miles. I would definitely recommend this race, though I would caution runners to really, really take it easy the first 2 loops.
We eventually made the 2 hour drive back to Columbus, and enjoyed our post-ultra celebration while eating all kinds of fried goodness. Fyi…if you’ve never had fried pickles, you don’t know what you’re
Thanks again to Stevi and Chris for putting us up, couldn’t have done it without you guys! Stevi wins “best supporter ever” award for her patience and ability to predict what we needed.
After the race, in spite of the dead feeling in my legs, I was hungry for more. I want to improve, I want to take on more challenges, and I want to destroy the JFK 50 miler in November.