Nearly nine months ago (nine!) I ran my first, and to date, most magical, 50-miler. Everything about it was perfect. I was lucky to be a part of the North Face Endurance Challenge blog team last year to help spread the word about the series in Wisconsin. And here we are: another year and another blog team. You probably read the following blog post nine months ago when I managed to sum up my experience in about 4-point-nine million words, but I encourage you to read it again. Inspire yourself. And when you're done, head over to the website and sign up. You can always click on the widget over on your left (do you seeeee?) to register any time, as well.
10K, half marathon, marathon, marathon relay, 50K and 50-miles. I'll be rocking the 50K with my best good friend, Rochelle. You know you want to. Go ahead and tell 'em Krittabug sent you. [wink] And let's all just keep reading this 50-mile race recap, instead of the one from a month ago when I DNF'd on my second attempt, mmm'k?
North Face Endurance Challenge Gore-Tex 50-Mile: Sept. 17, 2011
There are clear details from Saturday that I won't forget. Small things. A high five from ultrarunner Dean Karnazes just after crossing the starting line. The twinkling of glow sticks hanging from tree branches in the pre-dawn darkness, like fireflies coming to wish us well on the trail. Fluffy, white clouds, blue sky. Warm sunshine, cool breezes. The adrenaline that boosted my entire being each time friends and family, our cheerleaders, came into view on the course.
Then there are the pieces of Saturday that surprised me. The hours ticked by -- fast. It seemed each time I glanced at my watch it was near time for my on-the-hour refueling. More than once either Tracey or I commented on the passing of time. It was an interesting battle in my mind -- was it possible I wanted time to slow down? It was like Christmas or a birthday, a day you look forward to for months, then before you know it, it's here and gone. Just like that. That's how I felt Saturday as Tracey and I ran our first 50 mile ultramarathon.
I didn't want it to be over so fast.
And so became the fastest 10 hours, 45 minutes and 5 seconds.
That morning we were ready. Despite having woken up in the 2s (for the record, waking up for your day in the 2 o'clock hour is absurd), I was rested. Five months of training prepared me, although I wouldn't realize until about 50 miles later just how much. I didn't have the nervous jitters that normally replace the blood in my veins before a big race. Instead, we laughed with our handful of friends who were with us pre-race at the ungodly time of 4:15 a.m. We took pictures. We hugged. We strapped Penelope Pony to my Camelbak.
Yes. Yes I did run 50 miles with a pony strapped to my back. Don't act like the act strapping a small, stuffed animal to my back shocks you. I would've brought my kitty cats, if I could. Truth. Instead, I had Tracey. Just as well.
In a word, I was relaxed. Ready, even. Excited. OK, that was three words. I kissed Evan, I hugged Amy and Annie, I squeezed Tracey one last time. Before we had one last chance to regret our decision to register for a 50-mile race, it had begun, and I took the first few steps of one of the most amazing days I've ever had.
It was surreal to run the first few miles through the trails in the dark. It felt so calm. All runners were required to wear headlamps until sunrise, and I remember glancing behind us at one point and seeing dozens of headlamps dotting the woods. Up ahead, glow sticks dangled from trees and our headlamps reflected bits and pieces other runners' garb. In an odd way, it felt safe. I almost dreaded the light of day, when I'd be able to see everything around me, including the trail ahead and how far we still had to go. As I would the remainder of the day, I dreaded what every runner fears -- the "wall."
It didn't come.
Trails are a tough beast. You spend so much time as a runner pushing to get faster. Less walking, more running. Not on the trails, not us. Months and months ago, when we first began our trail running adventures, it was a tough pill to swallow. The slowing of the pace to conserve energy. The walking up the hills to save your legs for later miles. Ultra running on the trails becomes less and less about pace and everything about preparing yourself to last another 10 miles. Another 20. Another 30. You don't count miles, you count hours.
It blows my mind how fast both the hours and the miles flew by. We were able to see our crew and cheerleaders about 7 miles in, and then not again until mile 21. Twenty-one miles in, it felt like we still had the bulk of the race ahead of us. And we did. We still had nearly 30 miles to go. Just typing that hurts my mind. But suddenly we had 22 miles to go. Then 15. Then three.
We agreed early on we'd never think about cumulative miles. Nothing messes with your mental toughness more than doing the math and realizing how far you still have to go. Each time we hit an aid station, we started over at zero. Only five miles to the next aid station? Hell, we can run five miles in our sleep.
And so became the magical "Obliviate" as we took off from each aid station. A handy little charm we learned from our favorite boy wizard Harry Potter to conveniently erase our minds of anything that happened previously. It worked, obviously. BECAUSE WE ARE MADE OF MAGIC.
Aid stations became a thing of wonder. The friendly volunteers, the spread of food, the port-o-potties. THE FRIENDS AND FAMILY. You guys, this is where I just can't think about the day and not get teary. The 50 miles, the amazing feat, the incredible journey aside, I don't think anything will top how I felt any time we rounded a corner or exited a trail and were welcomed in by the most amazing people I know. It felt like a finish line every time. Their cheers and hugs and smiles and...
... Every time I left an aid station I felt stronger. Happier. Rejuvenated. I will never be able to put into words (despite all hundred-and eleventy-thousand in this post) how amazing my friends and parents are. Yes, Tracey and I did the physical work, but they were all there, too. They did the emotional work for us. They gave us energy and love and support all these months. They rang cowbells. They screamed their little lungs raw. They hugged. They shouted through air horns. They traveled. They planned. They loved. All of them -- mom, dad, Evan, Amy, Annie, Sara, Miranda, Tom, Rochelle, Alicia, Nicole, Jenny, Jason, Matt, Jordan, Lori. Sara flew here from Cleveland to be with me on my day. That is the kind of love you can cut with a knife. Each of them were the glitter and unicorns of our day.
The first time I saw my parents that day was as we came into mile 21. It was that moment I'd waited for all morning. I was happy, strong, excited. I couldn't wait for them to see that. To see that all the running and all the worry was worth it, that it'd brought me there, to that day.
After hugs and squeals and bathroom breaks and food, mom pulled me aside.
"Kritta, I have something for you," she said as she reached into the pocket of her jacket.
She pulled out a small unicorn figurine. It was old, I could tell. It's horn had actually broken off at the tip. Dad told me she'd had it for years.
"You needed a unicorn today," she said. "I wanted to give you a unicorn."
Even now, as I type this, and every time I look at the small unicorn sitting on the counter at home, my eyes well with tears. My mom -- she of the worrying and negativity and disbelief over this journey from the beginning -- was the person to give me the one thing I needed that day: a unicorn.
I tucked it into a pouch on my Camelbak, and spent the last 29 miles periodically reaching for it, just as I did Penelope Pony, for an extra boost of love. The unicorn pouch was, by no accident it seemed, placed right next to my heart.
As Tracey and I continued on, we made it a point to hang on to the feeling of happy. We knew -- from the start -- it wouldn't last. Eventually the elation would wear off, our legs would turn to logs and there'd come a point when we didn't want to take one more step. I remember an exchange we had with a fellow runner as we were getting close to mile 30.
"How do you guys feel?" she asked. The other runners were amazingly friendly.
"GREAT," was our resounding response, because we did feel great. "We're trying to hang onto it," I added. "Make it last as long as possible."
The woman laughed, and agreed. "It can change at any moment," she said, as she went on her way.
We identified our current feeling as Terror Alert Level Green. We'd been at green the entire day thus far. The level orange and red were on the way, we knew it. But until then, we were going to fight. It was around mile 33, during the most difficult 14-mile stretch of the day, that we began flirting with, and eventually falling into, Terror Alert Level Yellow. We had two miles until we'd see our crew for the last time that day before the finish, and when we'd snatch up Evan as our pacer for the last 15 miles. But it was a long two miles. Our chatting stopped. Our laughter ceased. Our heads were down, and I knew this was it. This was the part I'd waited for, and it was going to be a long, long way to the finish line.
But then we heard a voice shouting through an air horn. We heard cowbell and cheers. The familiar feeling of joy and adrenaline took over, and at that aid station, with our final hugs, it was like I actually obliviated the previous 35 miles. I couldn't believe we were already this close to the end. Where did the time go? Where did the day go? Where did the miles go? In just a few hours it was going to be over. It was the most amazing, and at the same time, sad, feeling I'd had.
We said our goodbyes to friends and family, excited to see them again at the finish line, snagged our third wheel, and headed back onto the trail.
I don't know if it was the energy of the aid station (the Coke, the chicken broth, the cookies, the peanut butter sandwiches, the e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g I could fit into my mouth), the excitement of being so close, or the addition of Evan's fresh face and fresh legs, but the last 15 miles of this race were a complete 180 from how I imagined they'd be. I felt good. I felt strong again. I could laugh again. Evan helped us with our Obliviate charm after the remaining aid stations, called us "bitches" when appropriate to channel our friend Marty who couldn't be there that day (and really, when isn't it appropriate to call us bitches?) and marveled at how great we looked out there.
He said we hardly looked like we'd run more than five miles at that point, and he actually meant it. It was then that it hit me how absolutely prepared we were for this race. For the first time, I think ever, my training paid off in full. Every hour I spent, every mile I ran, and most importantly, all the rest I took in the last couple weeks, did exactly what they were supposed to do. I don't know how many times this summer I finished a long run feeling great, but still absolutely uncertain that I'd ever be able to run another 30 miles. Or 20 miles. Or any miles. I knew I could finish 50 miles, that I was certain of, but I never imagined I'd feel good doing it. Not ever.
As we got closer to the finish, I felt better and better. At the last aid station, as I pounded boiled potatoes and salt, we were told we had just 3.7 miles to go.
It was completely unexpected and perhaps the sweetest words I'd ever heard. Less than four miles felt like nothing. Actually nothing. I caught myself smiling all by myself every few minutes. I couldn't control it. Uncontrollable smiling. We were about to do this. The thought of everyone (plus the few more who joined) waiting for us at the finish line gave me butterflies. As the trail spit us back out onto the road that would lead us to the finish line, our pace and my heartbeat and our excitement all got faster and bigger.
"I'm going to cry," Tracey said, as if in warning, the closer we got. We were in limbo that last half mile between laughing and crying and running and hugging. I think Evan left us to our own little world at that point. I remember laughing and smiling at him, and getting a big, proud smile in return, and then linking arms with Tracey as we made the final turn toward the finish line.
I would have words for what it felt like to see our friends recreating the "power arch" into the finish line -- the energy and excitement were actually palpable -- but there are none. Thankfully there are photos, because I don't ever want to forget what it felt like.
And that was it. Ten hours, 45 minutes and 5 seconds of amazing. Every step. Even the Terror Alert Level Yellow steps. I have so much love for Tracey and for what we worked for and accomplished -- together. Everything here is memories I can explain and that I've processed three days later, but there will always be the memories we had on the trails -- all 50 miles of them -- that are just ours.
And to our friends and family and everyone who loved us every step of the way, thank you. From the very bottom of my very big heart.