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Sunday, September 18th 2011

8:14 PM

Race Report: North Face 50-mile Endurance Challenge

I’m not exactly sure where to start writing this blog.  I know I should write it right now, while the feelings and emotions from this weekend’s 50-mile race are still fresh.  Plus, I have a crazy busy week planned ahead with two out-of-state speaking events for MS and another 50-mile race in Colorado in 7 days, but…where to start?

This is probably difficult for me to get out because the race was a completely surreal experience.  I simply cannot explain why my body allowed me to run the time that I did.  Compared to my 50-mile races in 2009, my personal challenge of finishing in under 9 hours was a lofty goal.  My running buddy, Aaron Schneider, and I were speaking on Thursday about the game plan for Saturday’s race; he committed to crewing the race for me, so we had to coordinate what I expected from the race with how he was going to help me at the aid stations along the way.  The brief pause he produced after I told him I wanted to break 9 hours said it all; we had been running together since June so he knows my pace and capabilities.  We both knew that breaking 9 hours would be a big accomplishment for me, but he was in.

Saturday morning at 2:50am I woke up before my alarm went off feeling well rested and ready to run.  In packing my race bag the night before, I reminded myself not to over think things.  Fifty miles; I could run fifty miles.  I had done it before, I could do it again.  “Just stick to what you know.  Stick with what works” I kept telling myself.  Fifty miles in 9 hours, shaving 39 minutes off my current personal record.  I felt ready.

Driving out to the course I felt excited.  I had been excited all week, and tried to focus on staying calm.  I’m notorious for hitting the early miles hard and paying for it later.  Aaron has experienced this as we logged 20-mile training runs where I would jump around the trails like an idiot playing “Running Ninja” while singing, and then would pay for it later as Aaron kicked my butt and chuckled at me for the last 10-miles, “Where’d the Ninja go?” he would tease.  Hitting the early miles hard in a 50-mile race is suicide.

Meeting Aaron at the Ottawa Lake parking lot we went over everything one more time, played the weekend theme song, and then headed to the start just a squeak before 5am.  Dean Karnazes, the Ultramarathon Man, set the group off just after a show of hands reveling that half the field was new to this experience.  New 50-mile racers can be dangerous; by being new to the distance, usually excitement can cause them to go out too fast not respecting the length of the race.  I had to remember to run my pace despite what the other runners did.  The countdown started…3…2…1….GO!

50 miles to go.

The first aid station was a nice 6.6 miles into the course.  Following the glow sticks that lead the way I reminded myself to take it easy.  Other runners were out of the gate faster then I knew I should be running, so the real challenge was keeping my pace no matter what went on around me.  Aaron had charted out my pace/time in order break 9 hours, and as I glanced down at my watch entering Aid Station #1 I knew I had gone out too fast, coming in 25 minutes ahead of my schedule arrival.  “Well, so much for taking your time.  Did you even walk the hills at all?” Aaron asked as he shook his head.  I just grinned from ear to ear. “Sorry, I tried I think.  I’ll slow down, I promise,” I replied.  It was dark and cool so it was easy to run faster.  The threat of the Running Ninja emerging was something we both knew was very possible.  Slow down or you will lose it at the end; was the message we both knew I needed to take seriously.

43.3 miles to go.

For the next 4.5 miles I took it slower.  I still wanted to keep a good pace but didn’t want to over do it.  I hiked the hills strong and fast, and let me legs do their thing on the flat trail.

Coming into Aid Station #2 I was still early, but had slowed it up.  Aaron got me all set to go for my next section, gave me a high-five, and sent me on my way.  For the next 10 miles I’d be going at it alone in terms of support; the next Aid Station the crew could access wasn’t until 21.2 miles.  I barely heard Aaron call out as I entered the woods, “Oh Ashley, you’re 8th female!”

38.8 miles to go.

As the sky started to lighten up, I tucked away my headlamp early.  The sooner I could just enjoy the natural state of the trail, the better.  The air was cool and the morning was perfect.  We couldn’t have requested better weather to run an ultramarathon.  Just as I was getting into my rhythm, runners started blowing past me like I was standing still.  We were literally only in the first quarter of the race & these runners were hitting it like the finish was just around the corner.  Again, I had to tell myself to keep my own pace.  It’s so, so difficult to not pick up the speed when runners are flying by, especially when I already know I went out quick.  “I will catch them later,” I had to repeat to myself, “It’s way too early to go.”

Besides being passed ever so often, I was on the trail all by myself, which is something that has rarely happened to me at the beginning of an ultra.  For one reason or another I usually end up near another runner, or a pack, and stay pace with them to chat for a bit.  This morning it was just me and the trail.  It was beautiful.  I smiled and spread my arms out wide as I kicked up the dirt behind me.  There are no better moments then ones like this running out in the woods, race or not.  My breath was deep and my heart was happy as I absorbed every sensation I could.  In these moments I don’t have to be anything else except a part of the trail.  It’s hard to top that feeling.

During sunrise I emerged from the woods into an open meadow.  I let my left hand brush the yellow flowers reaching into the path, as I ran and glanced over to the sun.  The cool morning and rising sun allowed for just a contrast in weather to leave a light fog hovering over the tall grass.  “It’s a beautiful morning!  Ooooooh ooooooh” I sang out loudly.

Picture from Aaron's Blackberry

In the meadow I picked up the pace.  Mentally I had split the race into quarters pre-deciding that if I felt good at 15-miles I would pick the pace up just a notch.  Just before the 16.5-mile Aid Station (#3) I passed three more women on the trail.  If Aaron's counting was correct, I had moved myself up into 5th place for the female division.  I barely noticed though as I heard the distant calling of the Aid Station cow bells.  Food was all I could think about, no matter what place I was in.

I did a side-shuffle shimmy into the Aid Station to show off my number and gained a few laughs.  “What do ya need Ash?” the volunteers asked.  “I don’t know! I don’t know! I’m freaking out, how much farther is it?!?!?” I joked.  They laughed some more as I smiled, chugged some Coca-cola, burped out loud, and then jumped in the air before leaving.  So far the runners I had experienced were taking this race with their serious-shorts on a little too tight, and to me, 16.5-miles in was way too early to be serious.

Coincidentally I also took two salt tablet pills from two women sitting in the Aid Station looking a little defeated.  I couldn’t be sure, but I believe they were part of the group of runners that flew by me earlier in the race.  It didn’t dawn on me until later when I came into Aid Station #4, but that put me in 3rd place.

33.5 miles to go.

I apparently was having just a little bit too much fun during the next 4.7 miles because some where along the way I got lost.  I felt I had been running long enough to be at the next Aid Station, and there were absolutely no trail markings, but I also didn’t want to go back.  Luckily I found my way without putting on too many extra miles and shrugged the experience off quickly.  I told the Aid Station volunteers about getting lost, as I didn’t want it to be disqualified for going off course, but they informed me that I was still okay to run if I wanted to keep going.  My choices were to dwell on the extra miles and ruin the day, or let it go and have some fun.  I chose to have some fun and made conversation as I hovered over the food.  Aaron came up behind me and turned me around quickly, “Ashley, you’re in 3rd place, take the food and go! You aren’t just running this thing anymore,  you’re racing it! Get out of here!” I took my hands and placed them on his shoulders while shaking him, “Oh my gosh, Aaron! What are we going to do?!?!” I joked.  But he pushed me to the trail and pointed to the girl who had just passed me while I was kidding around, “Go get her Ashley! She’s in your place!”

28.8 miles to go.

I headed down the trail and picked up the pace again.  I had passed a good amount of runners that were burning out along the way, but the possibility of actually placing in this race took hold and my competitive spirit emerged.  As I passed the girl in front of me, she held on and made friendly conversation.  I chatted for a few miles, but then decided to get going.  Though she was very nice and I knew I should continue to be friendly, I wanted to secure 3rd place; not to mention the fact that talking can really waste valuable energy.  I waved her good luck as I started to pull away.  She was strong but was wasting a lot of energy running uphill.  I have an advantage that I know of during an ultramarathon; I can hike a hill just as fast (if not faster) than most runners can run.  I was hiking and she was running, yet my hiking saved my legs a whole lot of energy and I started to widen the gap between us during each incline.

The section I was running was a out-and-back trail where I could see the race leaders and their distance ahead of me.  I didn’t actually believe how well I was doing until I was able to view the leaders coming back from the turn around.  I glanced at my watch both times as I saw 1st & 2nd place females coming down the trail.  The leading female had a good 25 minute lead on me, but 2nd place was in striking distance with only a 10 minute lead.  As she passed me on the trail her head was down and her face was contorted.  She was in pain and I wanted to catch her.

Coming into Aid Station #5 I had the joy of seeing a few friends from the Lapham Peak Trail Running group I am a part of.  They had just completed their own 6-mile run & stuck around to see me come through.  Melinda ran to her car to get me more salt tablets as Jose’s dog licked my face.  Aaron was there too, ready in his running gear to join me on the trail as a Pacer for the next 7-miles.  “Hey, we heard you were running fast! How’s it going?  You’re in 3rd place, right?” Jose asked.  “Yeah, it’s going great so far,” I smiled.  But Aaron tugged on my shirt and we headed down the trail as the 4th place female entered the Aid Station.  I needed to keep my lead on her and increase the gap.  I wouldn’t feel this fantastic forever, and Aaron and I both knew that.

21.8 miles to go.

I took the lead spot on the trail with Aaron pushing the pace from behind.  I always feel faster if I’m in front and can see the trail.  We found a rhythm quickly and Aaron started chatting away.  Again, I didn’t want to waste valuable energy by talking, and Aaron and I have become very good at running with together so he knew how to take over the conversation with little feedback on my end.

Just before Aid Station #5 my hamstring and glut muscles started to let me know how they felt about the pace.  They weren’t screaming by any means; this was more of a faint whisper that was the prelude to the screaming session that would inevitably happen.  The whispers from my muscles were more than bearable; it was the thoughts of what was ahead I had to prepare myself for.  As I gave Aaron an update of my condition, he gave me valuable advice that I would later repeat to myself until I reached the finish line.

You started this, and now you will have to finish it.

You set the pace.  You chose this.  There is no way you can let up now.

When the hills bite, you bite back.  From this point on, nothing is going to feel good.

Go get 2nd place.

The run to Aid Station #6, which was also the “back” portion of that out-and-back section; it was increasingly difficult, but fun and energizing.  I enjoyed having Aaron with me, and it was awesome to see all the runners that were hitting the 50-mile course.  It’s so serious in front.  I got more smiles from the middle and back of the pack then I had experienced all day from the other runners I had seen.  I waved and smiled and enjoyed all their colorful crazy outfits.  “Oh, so that’s where all the happy people are,” I said to Aaron.  He responded by reminding me I was holding a pace faster then I even realized.  “Ashley, you keep this pace and you are definitely breaking 9 hours.”

Into Aid Station #6 Aaron had me lay down on my back and hug my knees as he got my fuel pack restocked and my carb/protein shake ready.  I sucked down the shake, popped 2 Advil, took two more salt tablets, and headed toward the food table.  As I got down on my knees and had the volunteer open the spout for ice cold water to pour over my head, the 4th place female passed me and took my spot.  Aaron pulled me up, “Ash, ya gotta get going!” I sighed as I brushed the grass off my knees and outfit, “Aaron, the ground made my clothes all dirty!” He rolled his eyes as I jokingly asked for my mascara, and I took off to regain my spot.

14.6 miles to go.

For a boost I grabbed Aaron’s iPod which he set to Dance Mix.  Though I usually go without music, at this point in the race the beat can be great to keep your feet moving fast.  It didn’t take long before I caught up to and passed the 3rd place female again.  With the brief few minutes Aaron and I took in the Aid Station I already knew the time was well spent.  I felt refreshed and knew I had the fuel in me that would keep me going to the finish.  The other female didn’t take much time, if she stopped at all.  Once I passed her I knew she wouldn’t be passing me again; my pace was too strong and I could feel that she was holding on with everything she had.

I set my sights on the 2nd place as a spectator yelled to me that she was only a minute ahead.  2nd place; who would have thought that was even possible for me today? Not me, that’s for sure.  But here I was chasing it down and close enough to grab it.  A few more miles in I spotted her and tried to assess her stride.  I had a few options.  I could stay behind her, not letting her know I was this close, or I could pass and go as hard as I could to create a gap.  She didn’t look strong, but she didn’t look weak either.  I decided to go for it.

As I inched closer and closer to her, I also started to notice other runners on the trail.  At this point, the 50-mile racers were meeting up with the 50K racers, the marathon racers, and the marathon relay racers.  The course was littered with other runners now.  We were just 10-miles to the finish.

Just at the top of a hill I passed the female and positioned myself in 2nd place.  The glory of the spot was short lived as she saw me pass, looked at my bib color, and realized she had just lost her spot.  She re-energized and took off down the trail at a pace faster than I could hold.  I knew we had 10-miles left so I hoped she would wear herself out and I would catch her again.  Turns out she had more in the tank then I could have thought.  I didn’t see her again until the finish, and after assessing the race results, I realized my pass on her lit a fire in her big enough for her to almost catch first.

I spent a brief reprieve at Aid Station #7 as I sipped on water and swore to myself under my breath.  My stomach was shot so I couldn’t eat anything, I started feeling a pang of nausea I wanted to avoid, my muscles were screaming now, and my energy levels were low.  The real battle had begun and the true test now was to see if I could dig deep to hold my pace and my 3rd place spot to the finish.  When there is nothing left, you find out what kind of runner you really are.

9.7 miles to go.

To our advantage the last 5 miles of the race course is fairly flat.  I just had to muck through a few more Kettle Moraine’s before I was hitting the open fields with whatever I had left.  I kept my gaze forward and started using the runners in the other races as new goals I would set for myself.  As I passed by a runner, I would pick a new one to track down.

I also focused on the ground and told myself it was there to propel me forward.  Each step I imagined receiving energy from the dirt allowing my feet as little time as possible on the earth.  I picked the spot on the trail with the least amount of debris and tried to run as clean and smooth as possible.  As I crossed an open field and rounded a group of trees, I heard a crazy person yelling my name.  Aaron had run down the trail 100 yards to encourage me to keep pace and clear through the upcoming Aid Station.  “You’re almost done, Ashley.  Go get it! You have 3.7 miles left.  You can do this! You can do this!” Aaron yelled.  I dumped water on my face and down my neck as I swore some more.  “Okay, okay. I can do it! Okay. I’m gone,” I muttered.

3.7 miles to go.

I would love to paint a beautiful picture of a strong and glorious finish, but that it was not.  Threads; I was hanging on by threads.  Teansy, tiny, little threads that went something to the tune of, “If I can hold on and place third, Dean Karnazes gives me a medal on stage.” My calves felt more fatigued then I believe I have ever experienced.  My quadriceps muscles were tore to pieces, so much so, I was shocked I was still standing, nonetheless even running.  My hamstrings were barely functional.  I imagined the 4th place female gaining on me, and I hurled myself forward just to hold my spot.  The pain was excruciating.

In the final mile I glanced at my watch to realize I might actually be able to break a 8-hour finishing time.  As I cleared the woods onto the road I pulled out every possible ounce of energy I had left.  I used my arms to pump, hoping my legs would follow.  A sharp right turn into the Ottawa Lake Parking area, and I continued turning my legs over with what they would give me until I saw the big red North Face Endurance Challenge arch that marked the finish.  I could hear the music and the crowd but all I could think about was the relief from all the pain…if I could just get there.

As I crossed under the arch I did the one thing I had wanted to do for the last 9 miles; I collapsed to the ground and started to dry heave.  Thankfully there was nothing in my stomach or I would have made a mess of the finishing area.  Aaron was by my side quickly to pick me up with the help of a medic.  I literally could not use or control my legs, so they carried my weight as I stumbled to the medical tent.

0 miles to go.

Once I was laying down on a cot I was back to my happy self.  With a blanket over my body to keep off the chill and a bag of Salt and Vinegar chips opened by my side, I tried to assess what just happened.

I broke 8-hours in a 50-mile race with an official time of 7 hours 59 minutes 9 seconds.  I placed 3rd in the Female division.  I took 19th place overall.  Dean Karnazes would be giving me a medal on stage.  I started to cry.  The results were more than I ever could have dreamed of.  The experience was more then I ever could have hoped for.  “How is this even possible?” I kept asking myself over and over.  I felt like the whole day was just a dream, but one that I was living wide awake.  The tears were still coming as Aaron entered the tent.

He just looked at me, gave me a high-five, and started laughing,  “Dude, you broke 8-hours.  Holy S#*!.”

Me in the medical tent post-finish

Receiving my medal from Dean Karnazes

1 Comment(s).

Posted by Dean Karnazes:

Howdy Ash,

Great getting a chance to catch up with you last weekend. You continue to impress and inspire me (did you know you won your age division at the half-marathon on Sunday?). You beast!

Keep going strong. I hope our paths meet many times in the years to come.

Best always,
Dean Karnazes

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Tuesday, September 20th 2011 @ 7:57 AM

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