I am an ultra marathoner.
|Bought these cute alien antennae at the expo for $3.|
The Full Recap, Ultra #1:
First off, I made a critical error in my trip planning. I signed up to take the 7 am flight out of San Francisco to Las Vegas. I recall doing this because it was a cheaper flight. However, this meant I had to wake up at 5 am (about 3.5 hours earlier than my usual wake-up). I arrived in Vegas shortly past 8 am feeling groggy and in a daze. I was luckily able to check into my hotel early.
Vegas hotels are huge and I schlepped all the way over to my room and swiped the key. The door wouldn't open. Boo. I went back to the desk about a mile away and told them what happened. The guy rekeyed my key and back I went to the room. Swipe the card. Red blinky light. $*%&! Alllllllll the way back to the desk. The next lady helping me was about to just rekey my card again, but luckily a higher-up was watching and realized this was my second time back. She upgraded me to a better room and assured me this key would work.
Success! I have no idea what my original room was going to look like, but this one was pretty sweet. It was BIG and had a fluffy bed and huge shower.
|Big cushy bed with a fluffy comforter and tons of floofy pillows!!|
|You could fit about 6 RoadBunners or 36 Marios in that shower.|
I didn't really have a plan for the day. I had some breakfast and was debating whether I'd go shopping for a bit or take a nap. I eventually ended deciding to try to to take a nap. I managed to sleep a little less than 2.5 hours. I had originally planned for my Saturday nap to be banking sleep for Saturday night. But instead my little nap was really making up for the lost sleep from Friday night. Ah, well. Lesson learned.
After I woke up, I decided to just lounge in my comfy bed watching cable TV all day and killed time until the 4 pm packet pick-up. It was so relaxing in the room I had a hard time envisioning myself running for hours on end later that night.
|Very low-key event.|
On the way back up to my room from packet pickup, I got a late lunch/early dinner pizza. I figured I'd eat a big meal then and perhaps have a quick snack around 7 pm before getting on the buses. I attempted to fall asleep again but didn't get any more sleep. It was slowly starting to dawn on me that I was going to be attempting to run 31.7 miles soon. My leg pain had gotten slightly better as I had taken three days off from running, but it still hurt even when walking. What in the world was I thinking?
I headed down a little before 8 pm to meet up with friends before getting on the buses that would drive us 2.5 hours into the middle of nowhere. I probably fell asleep for only 20 minutes on the way to the race which was a little disappointing for me.
|Black Mailbox, ironically white.|
We were ejected by the infamous "black mailbox" which marks a dirt access road which leads to Area 51. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by the weather. I dare say it was slightly cool. Score. Throughout the race there was often a refreshing breeze which kept my temperature worries off the radar.
|We were all given glow necklaces to wear. Poor photo, but the scene at the start.|
I have previously aired my distaste for marathons which have concurrent half marathons or relays. I think it cheapens the marathon distance and is hard for morale. This race had a 10K, half, full, and 51K. However, the full and 51k'ers started at the black mailbox and all the other distances were shuttled further down the road to start their races. Therefore, you had the feeling at the start that you were truly all in it together and weren't running with other people who were doing shorter distances (I did pass some half walkers, but never caught sight of the majority of people doing the other distances). And for the record, I have no problem sharing the road with people doing other distances if they aren't moving at my same pace. I just hate running alongside people who are doing a shorter distance than me. Does that make sense? In case you were wondering, I wasn't bothered by the marathoners. Ha ha.
We started running and miracle of miracles I felt NO PAIN from my left leg. I haven't run without pain in that leg for weeks. I chocked it up to the extra strength Tylenol I had taken a half an hour before the race started (I never train on pain killers, but always take them before races).
Before the race, I created a distance-only data field on Garfield:
I figured that with all the issues I had going on, the last thing I needed to see was my pace. All I needed to know where was I was distance-wise. With very few exceptions, I kept to this screen the entire race.
I started off running very easy to see how my leg would hold up. After weeks of pain it felt so awesome to be running pain-free. In retrospect, I sort of feel like a lot of the happiness I felt during this race was the gratitude I felt for this gift of pain free running.
At this point, let's look at the elevation profile:
As I mentioned before the race, the first 13 miles are all uphill. No rolling hills. Just UP. It starts off at a pretty gradual grade, and in the dark you almost feel like it is flat. But eventually, make no mistake, it is going up. Too rub salt in the wound, as you climb the elevation obviously increases which makes gathering oxygen even harder.
When I was training for Bear Lake, I did some reading on altitude training. I read somewhere that no matter what shape you are in, the way altitude affects you is just hard-wired into your physiology. I learned at Bear Lake that altitude hits me hard. For my perceived effort, I would have told you I was moving along at a 10:00 pace but in reality I was coming in at 11:20+. Oh, well. That is part of this game. I was feeling pretty good and I remembered that at Bear Lake, around mile 8 I started to feel like utter crap. I crossed my fingers and my toes that wasn't going to happen (it didn't).
I envisioned in my head that I would eventually end up alone out there. But for the majority of the distance I was always in at least sight distance, if not sharing running space, with other runners. There were quite a few I leap-frogged with for most of the race.
|Rare, but surprisingly existent spectators!|
The girls above were howling like coyotes which I thought was funny. It was amazing for how far you could hear people cheering out there.
There were a few malfunctions early on: I put a small piece of medical tape on my arch where my ankle brace rubs. The last run I did another area seemed to be bothering me so I put a piece of tape there, too, before the race. Very early on this tape was pinching the skin on my foot and I had to stop and take off the shoe, brace, and sock in order to remove the offending piece of tape. I generally don't 100% subscribe to the "nothing new on race day" rule, but I suppose it applied here. My glow stick necklace also fell off twice and I ended up running holding it in my hand for many miles before I chucked it when the glow started to fade.
The aid stations were about 4 miles apart from each other. We were instructed to carry our own water bottles. At Bear Lake I realized that the dry air at altitude increases my fluid intake. I was therefore a little paranoid about the water situation and filled up my bottle just about every aid station. Because of this, my right arm got pretty achy from holding a full 22 oz bottle. I started trying to switch hands but am not used to holding anything in my left arm. On the bus ride back I even thought I might get a cramp in my right arm, but amazingly I had no specific muscle arm soreness after the race.
With the increased water intake and slower pace came increased pit stops. I typically stop zero times to pee during a marathon. I stopped 5 or 6 times during this race. Gah. But I was expecting that, having learned my lesson the hard way at Bear Lake last year.
Even though I knew that the "hill" was 13 miles long, I kept looking longingly at the red lights up ahead that were on the backs of other runners hoping they would stop being above my line of sight. I mean, having never experienced a 13 mile uphill grade it seemed sort of illogical that it could keep going up forever like that! The 2.5 mile Hurricane Point at Big Sur will never scare me again after this doozy.
At one point I was running more or less by myself and I went ahead and turned my headlamp off. The full moon was out in full force and it was actually pretty bright out there.
|I had to tinker in iPhoto to get the photo to look like this, but my shadow by moonlight looked just like this.|
It was amazing to be out there running in the moonlight. There was a quote I love from a Sporthill ad of all places that said, "Running takes you places you might not otherwise go." The quote really spoke to me when I went to Kenya to run a marathon in 2006. But I was ruminating on all the other less exotic places running has taken me in my life. If I wasn't a runner I would never have come out to the desert in the middle of nowhere in Nevada. And I sure as heck wouldn't be out here in the dark soaking up the scenery.
Speaking of the scenery, there were lots of little bushes and mountains in the distance off to the side. When I was at Bear Lake some runners were talking about this race and were saying that it got sort of mind numbing not having anything to look at. I disagree. The atmosphere was enough to make up for lack of changing scenery. It was hard to make out too much in the dark and I almost felt like it wasn't real. I had the feeling that I was on a movie set and at any minute someone would flick on the lights and ruin the illusion.
|Hard to capture in the darkness, but the full moon and a mountain in the distance.|
The last two miles or so of the hill were tough. I was taking short walk breaks whenever I ate a gel or hit an aid station (I ate my typical 4 marathon gels but also grazed on pretzels and animal crackers they had out). So I wasn't walking much at all. But the last two miles of the hill I took short walk breaks here or there to regroup. I had broken up the race into the major chunks of 13 miles, 20 miles (you pass the finish and start an out and back), 23 miles (the marathon turnaround), 25.x miles (the ultra turnaround), then the finish line. I was so looking forward to getting to the top of that hill.
The running got noticeably easier on the downhill side of the hill and I kept telling myself that with every step I was losing elevation and gaining oxygen, too. One of the criticisms I've read is that the 10K and half marathon finishers leaving the race site detract from the experience because that puts cars on the road coming towards you. Overall, I didn't mind too much. It only really happened for the miles somewhere between 13 and 20 and it didn't bug me too much. I did put my headlamp back on, though, in order to have better visibility.
I passed by the finish line at mile 20 and took another dose of extra strength Tylenol. I usually take just one dose for a marathon, but figured 4 hours into it I'd dose up again. At the 20 mile aid station I also downed a salt capsule which I've never done before ever. Not sure if it was a great idea, but with all the water I was drinking, I figured it wasn't a bad idea.
Then we were spit into the out and back section of the course. About a mile into this section runners started coming back at me. It was nice to cheer for them and many of them had nice words to say back, too. The marathon turnaround had music playing and it became the next magnet to pull me.
I think somewhere after the marathon turnaround the sun started to rise. And then something totally magical happened. Off to my left, the full moon was still high in the dark sky. Off to my right, the sunlight was peeping over the mountain tops. I felt like I was in a hug between the characters of the "Day and Night" Pixar short.
It was utterly beautiful, humbling, and almost indescribable. I've seen sunrises in my life but something about this was different. Perhaps it was the ability to see both horizons perfectly. Perhaps it was being right smack in the middle of the two horizons Perhaps it was all that plus I was out there, alone for a stretch, doing what I love. I honestly rank this moment as one of the top moments in my running life.
I took a video which doesn't even begin to capture what it felt like out there. The lights ahead at 4 seconds in the marks the ultra turnaround point I was heading towards:
That light at the turnaround seemed SO close and yet it never appeared to get any closer. But eventually I got to the ultra turnaround. A very nice volunteer took down my number and I ate a banana and some pretzels. Then I got to work heading home to the finish.
As the sun came up, the scenery started to open up a bit, too. It wasn't so obvious in the dark, but we were running on a very straight strip of road. It made it feel like you weren't making any progress. In fact, I disagree with the runners who said the dark was mind numbing. Looking down the straight strip of road was far, far worse.
I was happy my leg held up. All those strange pains I've been having didn't crop up at all. Not once the entire time! Towards the end I had the usual groans and aches but I was happy to take that.
I wasn't waiting for it, but I happened to look down when Garfield read exactly, "26.2." Out of curiosity, I switched over to the time screen. I hit the marathon point in 5:25 which was about what I thought I might do out there.
|So that is what I've been looking at the last 5+ hours.|
I have to say that I am really proud with the way I held up. I did take scattered walking breaks during the last 10 miles, but they were pretty short and quick. I have to admit that continuing running was really all mental. Sometimes you hit points in runs where you physically just can't run. I was at the point where walking was exponentially more appealing, but running was still an option and it just took some mental toughness to keep running.
|That cluster of buildings up ahead is the finish. So close and yet so freakin' far.|
When I got to mile 30 I told myself that I was going to run the entire last 1.7 miles to the finish. One of my favorite Central Park loops was 1.7 miles and I imagined having to run just one of those. The plan got slightly derailed as I stopped to take photos of this:
|I actually lost a bit of time here trying to get a self-portrait with the sign.|
I had to pick bushes and signs on the road to keep myself running. "Just run to that bush..." then "Just keep running to that post..." Looking at the finish area not seeming to get any closer wasn't helping. The whole race I had been thinking of getting to 31 miles and I sort of neglected the additional 0.7 miles tacked onto that. My legs had no gear except "run slow" but I was running! The last two miles or so the actual sun started rising and I had to tip my head down so the visor of my hat would shield my eyes. I had debated carrying sunglasses with me, but am glad I left them behind.
I kicked it up just a bit the very final stretch and finally turned in to the Little A'le'inn and crossed the finish in 6:33. Whew.
|The unisex small shirt is like a dress on me.|
I am really happy with the way I ran. Yes, I was slow. Yes, I had to walk some. But I felt like I was in control of the walking and I definitely ran the majority of the way. I felt strong the entire way and I'm really pleased about that. The course is not easy. Altitude and a long incline grind you down early on. And I think since you can't visually see the hill so well, it is hard to understand why things are so difficult. The last few miles I was sort of thinking of how it was crazy to run this far. 26.2 is good enough for me! I declared it a one and done. But not one day after the race I was contemplating doing this race again.
|Oh, and the medal glows in the dark!|
It was awesome to see my running friends, KL, JB & CC. They all ran really strong races out there. 'Til the next reunion race, ladies!