What ended with a final push along the tree line around a random open field, carrying a piece of wood to add to the fire began actually a week earlier. October 30th was to be the morning of the 2011 Fire on the Mountain Trail 50k and 2 person Relay however, winter decided to show it's self with a little more force than is typical of a late October day. With heavy snow piling up the decision was made to postpone the event by one week.
This decision had multiple consequences for me and my race day experience. Having been ready to run the 50k on the 30th, I struggled with handling the postponement correctly. But I don't want to tell you how the race ended before telling you how it went.
Thanks to the new November 6th race day I was blessed with an additional hour of sleep the night before the race. I had no trouble getting up in the morning and easily got ready, kissed the kids goodbye and slipped out the door after final instructions to the oldest who would be in charge for the day since the postponement meant the super secret spy couldn't be home to support me in the race or bring the kids to the finish line.
Having gotten my race packet the day before I knew I didn't have to rush my drive or stress about being late. (Which is one of the big pre-race worries). I arrived at the finish area in plenty of time to double check my gear for the day and visit the port-a-potties in lieu of the woods, that would come later.
I had made the decision the night prior to not drop a bag. With Stone Miler 50 miler a mere 2 weeks after FOTM I felt certain that I would probably not be racing this event. I had packed 5 Gus in my hydration pack so I would not have to rely on aid stations and of course with me there is always the possibility that I could get lost. This year however that would not be the case.
As the skies started to lighten the buses arrived and we all got on board. I was fortunate enough to sit with some local running friends, Darla, Joel and Michelle.
Joel: veteran distance runner.
Darla: been running and supporting distance events for at least a year now. She was back to FOTM to get some satisfaction after seriously twisting her ankle last year in the first two miles. She gutted it out to the finish last year HERE and I hoped she would enjoy the course a bit more this time around.
Michelle: new to distance running and trail racing. She was hoping to finish with nothing left in the tank.
Our ride was filled with chatter bouncing from one subject; nature calls in the woods, to another; every one's expectations for the day.
With all the chatter our ride seemed like a brief one and we were all too quickly out of the warm bus and back into the cold morning air. Thanks again to the time change we did enjoy getting to see the view at the start line a Point Lookout near Little Orleans. he view was amazing.
Photo credit: Bill Fallier
After final instructions which basically were; red trail, green trail, logging roads, purple trail we were sent running up a forest gravel road for about 1.2 miles. Even though our pre-race topics had included starting out too fast, I still did it. I allowed myself to be pulled along with other runners who I knew were stronger and in better condition for this race than myself. But with no protest from my broken tail bone I ignored my own mental chatter and raced to the single track. I mean it was only a mile. Or was it mile 55?
Red Trail aka the Wet Goat Trail
Honestly if I were in the kind of shape I should be the Red trail is mostly what I love about trail racing. The only problem is the Red Trail has it all to the extreme. It has narrow basically non-existent trail. This time of year it is leaf, branch and down tree covered testing your trail following abilities to the max! DCNR does have excellent trail markings on all the trails along this course so even with the cover a runner familiar with following trail markings can find their way.
The Red Trail has climbs and descents. Did I say descents? More like suicidal drops into nothingness. It has tiny narrow edges of cliffs to run along and climb down only to find yourself tip-toeing in front of a partially frozen water fall. Typically I would have been in ultra runner's heaven.
But along with my feeling of being over-trained, one of the biggest issues early in the race was my fear of falling. Well, I was mostly afraid of the impact from falling if I were to fall on my tail bone. So that meant I couldn't even slide down the steepest descents on my backside. I knew it was holding me up when Joe another veteran ultra running passed me. It was pretty early in the race and honestly I was surprised to realize that I was holding back that much on the descents. Not that Joe isn't typically a stronger runner than I am, but he is also running Stone Mill in two weeks so I knew he probably wouldn't be running with everything he had.
I had managed to navigate some of the steep early descents without falling only to finally be brought down by my numb feet, a stubborn root and frozen laces.
Luckily I fell straight forward when the root that grabbed my lace wouldn't let go when my foot refused to stop. After allowing a few runners to slip by me I had to stop and undo the frozen laces and re-lace the shoe. This might have been the beginning of a mental downward spiral for me.
When Nature Calls
In a race this long I sometimes have to stop for a nature call. Not always. But it happens. FOTM 2011 it happened three times. After the snagged lace fall, the GU I had taken after about an hour of running choose to no longer want to be with me. I investigated the largest tree I could find. I wish I could say I felt better but I did not. Buck Up! I told myself and headed back out.
That cycle repeated it's self minus the face plant after I attempted to take a second GU around 2 hours in. And a final time just barely off the trail late in the race.
I share this to help myself remember not only the wonderful things about ultra running but the reality of my experience at this event this year.
Maybe my candor will help other runners when planning their own 50k adventures.
The trees in the Green Ridge State forest are going to give me a reputation seeing how I visited so many in the same day!
The Green Trail
The Green Trail was really more of the Red trail with less severe descents but lots of continued water. I usually enjoy creek crossing and these were some great ones. Nothing much over knee deep and rocky bottomed creeks with very little silt to quickly become sand paper once inside your shoes. If I had to say the best section this year's race, it would be this section. Simply because I still had enough energy to be enjoying the challenges as they presented themselves.
Somewhere along late into the Green trail I did something I rarely ever do. So to do it in a race situation was a little bit of a learning experience. I was not able to hold anything in so my fueling and hydration was completely off. My energy was tanking and my tail bone was screaming at me. That's when I saw a bright yellow shirt behind me. It was Michelle. I already realized that today, this course, my physical condition was not going to allow me to PR this distance and probably not allow me to PR this course. I slowed and waited for Michelle. She had started with Darla and Joel so I asked where she had lost them and we chatted for a while. The simple act of thinking about someone else was enough to help me over my mental block and I was determined to help Michelle at least to the oasis aid station and in helping her, she helped me.
We cheered each time we crossed another creek. We chatted when we could. We were silent when we needed. We were running near a group of other runners. One female runner wearing purple was ahead of us. I told Michelle how I struggled with "letting" her be ahead of us with more than half a race to go I was still hoping that I would get over my fueling issues and be able to make better time on the second half. Purple girl and I traded places multiple times until finally Michelle and I passed her when I remember to follow the trail and not those ahead of me. We would not see her again until the final miles.
The Aid Stations
I didn't stop at most of the stations. I didn't visit the little DNR building to duck behind this year. I only topped off my hydration pack at the oasis aid station and took four chips for salt only to discard them shortly after. With the GI issues I was having I didn't have to rely on the aid stations for fueling because I simply wasn't able to put anything in me. I did however benefit from the cheerful young men manning several of them. It was great to see their smiling faces and joke with them repeatedly after having seen them at an earlier station. The quick exchanges were a mental boost.
The Logging Roads: The "Fast" Section
Having ran this race last year and been lucky enough to have joined in two of the training runs, I was looking forward to my twice practiced second half of the course. I was still thinking I could pull this race together for...for what? Some kind of magical number that would make all the effort seem more sane?! Whatever it was I thought I could find, I didn't. I found something a little different. I found a few 7ish minute miles on that logging road only to have my tail bone scream me to a dead crawl on the hills and be forced to walk backwards.
Under the right conditions those logging roads can easily be a boast to a FOTM runner's overall pace. This year I ran a stupid. I ran injured. I ran over-trained. I ran under fueled. But I did remind myself that I was still enjoying being out in some of the most beautiful areas I've been lucky enough to see. I was still sharing my love of this sometimes brutal always challenging sport of ultra running with a new friend.
The Purple Trail: The Mountain Bike Trail
I was so happy to be back into the woods again. Back onto single track trails. The sounds of the forest. The smells. The thought that I might see a friendly face at the sixth aid station got me going each time I wanted to stop. Michelle hung in with me the whole way. As we had the majority of our run together, we took turns pushing each other. Often silently or some times not so silently thanking God for carrying us through such an amazing experience.
Last year I remember not loving the mountain bike trail section but this year having practiced it twice, I loved it.
I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I was using the memory of a really great guy to pull me through this final section. Last year I ran the majority of this race solo. I usually prefer to run alone. I find my own trail, set my own pace, push myself. The memory from last year of coming upon the 6th aid station while praying aloud and finding Champ rising from his chair to greet me, lifted my spirits like a answered prayer.
So this year, I was eager to see him again. So eager that I allowed my attention to wane and I hit the ground. Hard! Michelle helped me up and I didn't even admit why I fell. But Champ wasn't there. It was a little like a secret rendezvous that only I knew about. Even though he wasn't there the fall had helped to get me moving a little more quickly because now I just wanted to be done.
One Last Push
With a few miles to go and newly creek dampened feet, we began to hear shots off in the distance. I think it made both Michelle and I quicken our pace. Well, the shots and the knowledge that we soon would be done. We navigated another small stream and when I glanced back to check on Michelle's progress, I saw a purple shirt. Now I wish I could say that the old road runner in me was completely gone but she's not. Even exhausted, injured and dehydrated I simply couldn't imagine allowing one more person to pass me. It wasn't that runner. She was a great runner. Purple shirt was running a smarter race than I had run. She had saved something for a final push and I didn't think I had...little did I know.
The one thing I did have going for me
aside from a huge blessing from God to never want to give up
was those training runs. I could remember the end of this course very well, which isn't always the case with
short-term memory loss Shelly.
I knew just how many more hills we had. I knew that just when you think you are done, you are not. I had practiced that feeling of coming through those trees and seeing that finish line only to have to push up another grade, around the tree line and into the finish. And that's what I did. I told Michelle we needed to finish strong. Michelle said, let's finish this. And we were off.
I could smell the bon fire and hear all the earlier finishers. I grabbed a piece of wood and tucked it in my arm as I raced around the tree line feeling like a female Scott Jurek.
It no longer matter what the clock said. The only thing that mattered was once again I was given an opportunity to allow God to use me in an amazing way. My name won't go down in print as the winner of the race so you might think that my experience serves as little more than an self fulfilling afternoon. But I would argue that if someone like me can do this, if I can use the gifts God has given me, just imagine what you can do.
Huge Thanks to all the volunteers, the RD, the trail markers, the grill master, DCNR and Sheetz for putting on one of the best trail 50ks. All your efforts are noticed and appreciated!