The day dawned crisp and clear for the 9th Annual Stone Cat Trail Races. It was the type of day I had wished for and I took it as a favorable omen of things to come. There was much excitement packed within the small confines of the Doyon Elementary School Gymnasium. Three hundred runners ready to take on either 26 or 50 miles of twisting single track trails and carriage roads in Willowdale State Forest. When I finished my first trail marathon here at Stone Cat one year ago I knew I would be back again to tackle the ultra distance and my first 50 mile race. My day of reckoning had arrived.
I saw tons of familiar faces prior to the start of the race. The crew from Lynn Woods was so large they required their own zip code. Even though I don’t get to train or run with them very often, it’s always nice when I see them at some of the local trail races. They all ran the marathon, and I know at least one of them set a PR by breaking 4 hours.
I also met up with some of my ultra friends, Dave (as in Nipmuck), Julie, Kevin, Michelle, Steve and Streph who were running the 50, and Emily, who is much more sane than the rest of us, and was doing the marathon. Steve, Streph and I decided to stick together (strength in numbers) and try to qualify for the Western States 100 by running under 11 hours. Running a sub-11 pace was not Steve’s pre-race goal but he adopted it under duress.
But we in it shall be remembered; We few, we happy few, we band of brothers and badass sistha! (Photo credit: Emily T)
Loop 1 – Approximate time, 2:31 (including aid stops)
The race starts in an open soccer field and shrinks to a narrow opening in the woods about 100 yards into the race. Can you say bottle-neck? It took a little time for the pack to pass though the small opening and get onto the main trails. Once there, I maintained a slow but steady pace trying to loosen up and shake off the cold that penetrated my bones while waiting for the race to start. I wanted to follow a 5:2 minute run:walk ratio but the trails were congested for the first loop and it was easier to just run when the train ran and walk when the train walked. Steve and Streph seemed to be fine with this strategy and we stayed together, talking, telling jokes, laughing and having a general good time for the first 12.5 miles. Steve was most happy when we stopped at the two aid stations on the course. The boy can eat!
Steve starting salivating each time he saw this sign.
Loop 2 – Approximate time, 2:37 (including aid stops)
Traffic on the trails thinned a bit on the second loop so we started to follow the 5:2 split more stringently. I skipped some of the walking breaks when it seemed more advantageous to run and walked some of the hills that we ran on the first loop. I got called out by the guys a few times for skipping the walking breaks but they were just joking around, I think. About 14 miles into the run, I could feel two hot spots developing on the bottom of my toes, one on each foot. I thought it was odd to be getting blisters so early until I realized I had put a newer pair of inserts into my shoes. Mistake number one! I should have gone with a broken-in pair. Although it was painful for the remainder of the race, I was able to alter my foot placement slightly to relieve some of the pressure on my toes.
Loop 3 – Approximate time, 2:50 (including aid stops)
Everyone who has run 50 miles at Stone Cat told me the third loop is the most difficult. I was no exception to this phenomenon. Between miles 28 – 32 I was very nauseous and thought I would heave at any moment. I’ve never been nauseous during a run and I was thinking now is not a good time to have a new running experience! I started to doubt myself and questioned if I would be able to continue to run for another 25 miles. The thought of dropping at the end of the third loop crossed my mind briefly but I didn’t want to be the only one in my running group to drop out. My mind was racing, trying to figure a way out of this predicament. I surmised the cause might be the consumption of too many gels over the past five hours. In training, I eat one gel every 45-60 minutes. For the race I was taking a gel every 30 minutes to assure I had an adequate intake of calories. Mistake number two! Don’t do something in a race you haven’t tried in training.
In the meantime Steve, aka Cookie Monster, had been eating his way through the race consuming bacon, grilled cheese sandwiches and whatever else wasn’t moving on the table. I thought, if he can eat everything but the kitchen sink, maybe I should give some real food a try. I had some chicken noodle soup and it tasted Mmm,Mmm, good. A few miles later my stomach settled down a bit and I stuck with chicken noodle soup for the rest of the race. Thanks Steve for showing me the error of my ways!
It was getting colder when I finished the third loop so I put on a vest before heading back out. I grabbed my head lamp and flashlight since I would be finishing in the dark. I also took a very long 10 minute break at the start/finish line aid station having some more chicken noodle soup. During the race I didn’t realize how much time I was spending at the end of each loop at this aid station but it turned out to be about 22 minutes of my total time. That does not include the time spent at the two aid stations out on the course. I think I could have done a better job of time management and shaved 10 minutes off my finishing time if I was more efficient at these stations.
Steve, Streph and I started across the field for our final loop though Willowdale. Not far into the loop Steve told us he was going to run his own pace for the final 12.5 miles. I was glad we got to run together for 37.5 miles but I knew we would probably all split up eventually. Streph and I determined if we were going to break eleven hours we would have to ditch the run:walk method and just run like Forrest Gump. So we ran and ran some more. We ran more on the last loop than we did on any of the previous three.
It was dark now and following the trail was difficult. I was being very caution with my foot placement. I didn’t want to twist and ankle or worse with only two miles to go. Streph was running very strong and I was barely hanging on to his pace. He would pull ahead and then I would regain lost ground. I was thankful he kept turning back to check on me. It was comforting seeing the glare of his headlamp and knowing I was heading in the right direction, or at least running on the same wrong trail as Streph!
When I made a sharp left hand turn up a short, steep hill I knew I was about 1.5 miles from the finish. I took a quick look at my watch and knew I had a sub- eleven hour finish in the bag unless I fell and broke something. Streph, who was about 100 yards ahead, was calling out to me but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. When I saw the pie plate with the arrow pointing straight ahead I knew there was just a half mile to go. Maybe he was letting me know the end was near.
Dark, cold and finishing strong. (Photo credit: Emily T)
When I entered the soccer field I could hear people cheering me to the finish but I could not see them in the darkness. It was so awesome that these people were standing out in the cold, cheering on someone like me, finishing in 10 hours and 54 minutes, 4.5 hours after the winner. It made me feel sort of special. I think you only get that treatment in the ultra running community. Every runner is important; anyone that finishes a 50 mile race is special, no matter how long it takes them.
Ultra runners rock!