Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Promise Lane

That was actually a typo, but it made me chuckle so I kept it.

Warning: This post may contain extremely happy and positive content.

To understand a bit about Promise Land, you must first get an idea of the race director (Dr. David Horton) and the notoriously difficult races he puts on throughout the year. His legendary status in the ultra community combined with his Walter Matthau-hold-nothing-back persona draw a large, fun crowd at this annual  (debatably) 50k event. As my first Horton race, I came in to this with the fear and trepidation of a 3-legged gazelle hobbling through a lion’s pride. I’d heard Promise Land was a hard race, in part because the distance is actually 34 miles but mainly because of the total amount of elevation gain (8,000ish feet). I really had no idea what would happen to me in such a long race, but I could only hope that I was prepared.

Friday afternoon I met up with 3 other runners (Keith, Ragan, & Sean) for the 3-4 hour drive out to Jefferson National Forest. Keith and Ragan are really well known in the ultra community, with a lot of impressive accomplishments to show for their years of experience. Sean is a baby runner…22 years old with one year of running under his belt (with a 2:52 marathon…lol), and was more excited than Dakota eating a 32 oz jar of peanut butter when mommy leaves one sitting on the counter.

Our plan was to camp out at the race site with all of the other runners coming out for the Horton experience. Somehow we managed to cram most of my camping gear in the car (minus my pillow…sad face), but most importantly I managed to barricade myself in with bags of food. Ultra runners shall not go hungry. We didn’t even make it to the highway before pulling over for a potty break…and come out with a dozen donuts and more bagels. Awesome, my kind of road trip.

It was raining most of the day, though we still enjoyed the views driving through Shenandoah. This was really the most green I’ve seen since last summer, it’s nice to have clawed our way out of the bowels of winter so quickly.

Unfortunately it was still raining lightly when we made it to the site, the unfortunate part being that it was in the low 40s and getting dark. We pulled up just in time for the pre-race briefing, ala Horton. My first impressions of the man were pretty consistent with the stories I’d been told. He stood in the center of a large crowd of people jammed under a pavilion berating new and old runners, throwing things at people, and being generally curmudgeonly in a comedic fashion. At one point he tossed a “gift” to one of his volunteers (who is a student of his at Liberty University) and as she pulled a shirt out of the bag he threw, her boyfriend stepped forward on one knee when she unrolled it to discover “Will You Marry Me?” in large bold letters across the front. The crowd broke in to applause, hooting and hollering as she said yes. Her boyfriend ripped open his jacket to reveal a matching shirt that said “She Said YES!”.  Clearly this was going to be one unforgettable race.
Camping...minus the rain. We ran alllll the way up there. 

After the pre-race brief (which was short to the tune of: Don’t get lost, if you get lost you’re a complete idiot), a bonfire was started as people stood out in the gently misting (but still quite cold) drizzle. I picked up my bib number which had me seeded as 4th female (Ragan as 3rd), and as I was walking away heart a loud “Amy Lane…where are you, Amy Lane?”. As I acknowledged my name and saw Horton head in my direction, I could only hope that he didn’t already have a reason to pick on me. He slapped me on the back and said he expected a fast race out of me, and moved on to his next victim with a big grin on his face. 

Our caravan went off to set up our tents and get everything settled before it was completely dark. Ragan was sweet to help me with mine, as I kept falling over and being assaulted by tent poles (hey, it was NOT a one person tent).  We finally got situated and grabbed some dinner, which was about 100 boxes of pizza and dozens of desserts. I brought my own chicken and pasta, I wasn’t feeling too confident with eating loads of cheese the night before a race.
Not sure how we all fit in here...

A nice bonfire was was keeping people somewhat warm in spite of the cold drizzle. If only I enjoyed eating soggy marshmallows...

I settled in my cocoon around 9:30 and had a pretty easy time drifting to sleep. I set my alarm for 5:00 as the race started at 5:30, and literally all I had to do was eat a bagel, go to the bathroom, and start running. Car doors started slamming at 4:30am and the campsite was brought to life. I stayed in my warm sleeping bag to eat my bagel, and prayed that the rain would let up. By the time I got out of my tent it was still coming down gently, but the 40 degree temps just made it annoying.

I was really dismayed to have to limp to the bathroom on my Achilles heel. No, really. I had a particularly bad fight with our garbage can (a Monday night ritual consisting of me lugging it down a large drop-off resulting in the can falling on top of me, this time landing on my Achilles tendon), and ever since I haven’t been able to wear shoes without grimacing as the heel of the shoe rubs against a really bad bruise. On a pain-level, it was an 8. I had a brief moment of panic thinking I wouldn’t be able to run, but decided to take some ibuprofen to at least help the swelling go down.
Me, Sean, Keith waiting to get going
Everyone huddled under the pavilion as best we could with the fresh smells of anticipation and deodorant. After a quick prayer and ripe commentary by Dr. Horton, the headlamps were illuminated and off we went. The pain in my heel was remarkably better, especially as running seemed to take some of the pressure of the back of my foot (perhaps my heel striking is improving?)

The first 3 miles took us straight up a long gravel road. And by “up”, I mean UP. It was a strange thing to experience, running straight uphill for the first portion of a race. I was debatably (no, definitely) stupid for running as much as I did. It was hard to tell how steep the road was, because it just kept going and going and going. I had hoped to find Ragan and hang with her for a bit, but I never did see her in the pack. As the lead guys took off I saw 2 girls run by and had no desire to try to keep up with them. After the first mile of running my legs were already starting to burn. I seemed to average about a 10:30 pace for the first 1.5 miles, and soon followed the run/walk pattern the guys around me seemed to be doing. It’s hard walking so early in a race, especially when you can’t see how steep or long the road up ahead is. Looking back on my Garmin data, the grade for the first 3 miles ranged from 10%-40%, meaning I’m an idiot for running so much of it.

At the top of the road we hit the first aid station with the option to drop our headlamps. Since we were now entering the trail head and it was still dark, I didn’t trust myself enough to run on the rocks and roots without the light. I followed behind a single file of guys, all pretty young and athletic looking. As we entered in to a densely vegetated part of the woods I was hit in the face with a large whiff of herbal essence. I thought there must be a chick up ahead, which meant she washed her hair before the race? That can’t be right. Ahhh, it’s just that FREAKING FRESH out here! 

My legs were really tired already, so even the slightest of hill was proving to be difficult. I was walking so much I started questioning just how long this race was really going to take. I did some math in my head, and decided if I wanted to run a 6 hour race (and assuming the race was 33 miles, since I didn’t know the exact distance) I hoped to average 5.5mph. Soon after mile 4 there was a large opening and a sweet downhill. All fears of my legs not working went away as I sailed down the single track and hopped over rocks. There’s nothing like a swift singletrack down the side of a mountain to make you feel good about yourself (unless you fall, in which case your confidence will have to come from something else…like successfully eating a handful of M&Ms without dropping one).

It was finally light out and I could really start to appreciate the scenery while running with happy legs downhill. The trail opened up and found myself in a wide, smooth grassy firetrail, weaving my way down the side of whatever mountain we were on. This was FUN. The birds were singing their little beaks off, a stream was rushing loudly after the rainfall, and the trees were billowing in the wind. I looked down at my watch and realized I was running 6:45s, but then decided it didn’t really matter. If my marathon pace was 7:00, and I was running on a good downhill (and still breathing through my nose) there really was no point in fighting it.

It was smooth sailing until mile 8.5 or so when it started going back up again. My legs were griping on the uphills more than I would’ve liked, but I settled in to a comfortable run/walk and decided to just let it be (cue music).

I decided to bring an iPod this time, my first race ever with music. I noticed in my past races I would hit really, really low points and feel pretty devastated for a while. I was hoping music might be able to help me this time, we’ll see. While going through my walking/running spurts I decided to give the music a shot, and within 10 seconds I took the earbuds out and put them away for the rest of the race. Listening to music completely cut me off from the sounds in such a beautiful spot, I didn’t want to miss a thing. The more senses we use the more we can experience something, so it seemed silly to intentionally cut off one of my senses. It was also silly to randomly hear music coming out of my bra whenever I would accidentally trigger the play button.

I came to an aid station and scarfed down my manna (PB&J). Nutrition was one of the main factors in this race for me, as I’ve rather sucked at it in the past. I’d already had some Gu and a mini cliff bar, and planned on eating a little something at every aid station.  Remembering my handheld today already put me ahead of the game, though it would’ve been better if I’d remember my Endorolyte tablets (salt pills). Ah, well…where’s the fun in having nothing to complain about?

My heel was throbbing again, so I took more ibuprofin and distracted myself with the amazing scenery. There was so much green everywhere, it was exhilarating. This is by far the prettiest course I’ve run on the right side of the country, and I was devastated to not have my camera with me.
            Sidebar: I need to find a pack to wear for the sole use of pockets.

I hit 11 miles in exactly 2 hours, which meant I was just barely on track for the 6 hour finish. Time is pretty irrelevant, but at least it gave me something to think about. Miles 12-14ish were mostly downhill or flat, and I made my way along talking to a couple of guys who had come up behind me. One was a Marine and had been stationed at Pendleton, so we had a bit to talk about.

We came up to another aid station at the top of the mountain and I finally remembered to hand off my headlamp. More food, more water…time to go.
The Marine and I entered a nice patch of somewhat technical trail on a nice descent (at this point I hadn’t realized we’d be running back up the same terrain). We caught a few runners slowing hopping over the rocks, and they were kind enough to move over so we could get a little crazy. Happy happy feet!

I finally had to let Mossi (The Marine) pass me, as I could tell he was itching to take off. I can’t believe how fast his feet were moving over the terrain, it was like watching a football player dance to the end zone. Or whatever it is that football players might do to have such quick feet. That must be a running person…what are they called? Running backs? Or the people who catch the ball? I’m an American Football failure. I pondered over this for a few minutes, trying to name as many football positions as I possibly could (I came up with 4).

Things leveled out a little bit and I enjoyed a briefly flat section of single track through the woods along a stream. A short downhill section dumped me out at the next aid station, where the volunteers were completely energetic and awesome. I was quick to refill my water and take off, as they informed me I was pretty close to the 2nd place woman.

Around mile 18 the climbing started again, enough to make me run/walk, run/walk. I seemed to be following behind 2 guys at roughly the same pace, and eventually caught up to them for some company. I checked my time at mile 20 and realized I was 10 minutes ahead of the 6 hour plan, which made me feel pretty good about my progress. Of course, this was irrelevant because I had no idea how long and how hard the rest of the race would be. I saw a turtle at one point. Wait, I'm on a mountain...what the heck is a turtle doing up here? A rock, I digress. 

We came to another aid station at 20.86 by my garmin and I chuckled at the sign that said “mile 19.26!”. I expected the distances to be off, but that was pretty extreme. One of the guys was excited to pick up an ice cream sandwich, but I stuck with the basics.

Still more climbing for the next 2 miles, this time on the wide grassy fire roads. By now I had been running for at least 4.5 hours, and was amazed that I didn’t feel awful. In fact, I felt absolutely fine. Just another day out running, enjoying nature with some intermittent sugar injections. 

Another long downhill brought us to an aid station, where I branched out and grabbed some grilled cheese. It tasted soooo good. I had to pass on the pieces of chocolate candy dipped in peanut butter available for people to grab, I must be a salty runner. I headed out of the aid station and saw Ragan heading in, so I knew she was only minutes away from catching me. I was hoping I could keep up with her when she came by…

Finally it was here, the dreaded Apple Orchard Falls. Actually, it wasn’t really dreaded at all because I wasn’t really sure what anyone was talking about up until this point. It was really just a lot of walking, for a long time. I couldn’t walk any faster than I did, as it was really more of a hike. My hiking legs aren’t very well practiced, so my speed was less than optimal. Walking up along the falls really made me sad that I didn’t have my camera. Next year I’ll just have to come back so I can take photos. Maybe that race report won’t actually have any words... (ha, yeah right).
There was a section of wooden stairs and somehow I managed to trip and land on a stair. Who runs 34 miles through the woods and trips on a completely smooth wood surface? AgileToes, that’s who.

Ragan caught me and we chatted for a minute, but I couldn’t keep up with her swift hike. I wasn’t feeling horribly tired or beat up, I simply couldn’t force my legs uphill any faster than what they were doing. So be it.

I eventually heard cheering up ahead and realized it was an aid station, which meant it was the peak of the mountain. Yippee! I couldn’t wait to run down. As I came through and grabbed some goods a volunteer commented on how “fresh” I looked, perhaps because I was smiling and laughing instead of crying in pain? Speaking of pain, the heel never elevated beyond “annoying”. What a relief.

I caught a guy heading down a much appreciated downhill track. I wouldn’t call this portion terribly technical, but it was technical in the sense that you still had to watch your footing and be careful not to trip. My legs were fine, I was fine…what a groovy day for me .

I came off the mountain to the last aid station (which was the first aid station this morning). I mentally prepared myself to run down the 10%-40% grades for the next 3 miles, and hoped my legs would hold up for such a long descent. I let loose and allowed my legs to dictate the pace, which at first was in the low 6:00 range (some sub 6!). I realize it is completely different running that pace downhill v. a flat surface, but to have that kind of turnover at mile 31 of a race was absolutely fantastic. I saw a red shirt up ahead and wondered how long it would take me to catch him…less than a minute. I was absolutely flying. I looked at my watch, 32 miles. How much farther? Who cares, this is awesome! I’ve never had so much energy and so little pain at the end of a race. The downhill definitely masked the end-of-race fatigue.

As I ran by Red Shirt, he audibly laughed and said “you go girl!”.  Dogs barking, birds chirping, the sound of…nothing. Absolutely nothing. Just the crunching gravel under my feet. 

I started to wonder where exactly the finish was, as I had thought it was more around 33 vice 34, but oh well... Last 3 miles averaged 6:20 pace. Perfect running bliss.
Finally out of nowhere the turn appeared to bring us back in to camp, and I sailed through the short grassy field to the finish. Keith, Ragan & Sean were all standing there cheering me on as I came to a stop. Dr. Horton congratulated me and boasted on his spectacular seeding predictions (Ragan 3rd and me 4th, which turned out to be accurate). I believe the first words out of my mouth were “That was FUN!”.

The rest of the afternoon (well, before the long haul back home) was a great, social BBQ while watching runners come through the finish. Everyone was grinning ear to ear at having overcome 34 miles of Horton Land. Funny thing, these ultras are. I could go on and on about the post-race ambiance, but as I’m over 3,000 words already it’s time to dismiss the class.

What a day! I’ll be back :)

Total Distance: 34 Miles
Time: 6:07, 4th Female
Elevation Gain: Roghly 8,000ft (though my Gamin inaccurately says 11k)
Course Profile (1,130-4,000ft)


  1. Wow- what a report! I felt like I was right there with you. Congrats on your race!!!!

  2. sounds like you had a great race and nothing like energy at the end a opposed to death march. Can't wait to race with you next month.