"Oh crap…WHAT am I doing?"
That was pretty much the only thought going through my head at the beginning the North Face Endurance 50 miler. I was one in a sea of runners with headlamps and flash lights necessary to navigate the ups and downs of the trails in the pitch-black 6 am start. It didn't take me long to learn the trail running etiquette of calling hazards to my fellow runners (Stick! Mud! Ditch! Root!). When I missed a 2 person-tree collision around mile 4, I thought of my starting line friend Tim who had said, "Don't get out your mp3 player until sunlight." Yeah right…with terrain like this, you couldn't PAY me to have the distraction of music!
By mile 6, I had gone ankle deep in mud twice- shoe sucking, deep, squishy mud. As a "roadie", my first instinct was to worry about the blisters my soaking socks would inevitably create. That was the least of my concerns! Combined with wet leaves, the slick mud caked on my shoes made the entire course a hazard- especially the steep down hills. After a wrong turn for a quarter mile, the white ribbons marking the course guided us out of the woods and into an open field. The sun was beginning to come up and despite my less than stellar start, I was able to calm down and focus on getting a good rhythm.
Having chosen to have my first drop off bag at mile 21, I stopped only to take the rocks out of my shoes and ditch my headlamp at the first aid station. By this point, the field of runners was settling into "groups". I met Marathon Maniacs Bekkie and Joe as well as another gal right around my age, which is uncommon because ultra running isn't exactly a younger person's sport. I instantly liked Katie because she had a cute pink shirt on, a feeling solidified by her confession that this was (also) her first 50 miler, she had not (also) been over 35 miles, and she (also) was more of a road racer.
By the 4th hour at mile 21 (also well within the first hard cutoff), Katie and I had a "come to Jesus" regarding terms of our partnership: we were grateful to have shared the miles, but if one person was holding the other back it was totally fine to separate. When we got to the aid station, her husband Chris must have realized we DTRed because he attended to me as well. With fresh socks (hallelujah!) and a dry shirt, I felt like a new woman!
Even as the elevation changes became more drastic, I was able to maintain a steady pace with the help of my now established partner. After comparing running histories, recurring dreams, and deciding that giving birth wouldn't be that far from the pain we were experiencing, Katie and I both splashed into a mud puddle, completely soaking another pair of socks. We squish squashed to Aid 5 at mile 28, where my pacer was scheduled to meet up and run 7 miles. Charlie was waiting with a smile, fresh legs, and wait for it…a pair of extra socks!
Charlie, who was my coworker in 2004 and has been a great friend ever since, had planned to pace me only 7 miles that day. I was already grateful to have the QT from such a great athlete, but as we were out there I realized what a mental boost he was. Not only could he deliver great one-liner jokes, having 3 people watch for course markings was a blessing. Somewhere around mile 34, he mentioned that he may take us through the end. I'm not sure if it was our whimpering or what, but his "may" turned into a "definitely" and the three of us became a package deal for the rest of the race!
Combined with the sounds of a local shooting range in the distance (oh Wisconsin!), we twisted back to a tight single track portion of the course. The thing about trail running is you have to be alert and focused at all times…the second you let your mind wander, you've tripped on something or turned a non-turnable body part. Physically, I was feeling fine enough but my mind was all, "Isn't this running? Don't I get to zone OUT?!"
Mentally, I was so spent by mile 40 that I didn't even care about the two HUGE blood blisters on both of my big toes…in fact, I joked that they were an advantage as "extra toes", knowing good and well that when they popped I would be in for an even more painful ride. I fought an overwhelming urge to call Trey, who is still training at Fort Knox, for a pep talk...but I knew exactly how the conversation would go: "What do you need from ME? Call me back when you are finished with YOUR race!" He later confirmed that this is, in fact, how he would have responded. And it's one of the reasons why I love him.
As we made our way back to Ottawa Lake, Katie began to recognize some of the earlier markings and we realized we were less than a mile from the finish. I was perfectly happy with a slow grind in those last turns, but Katie and Charlie convinced me otherwise. Running is inherently an individual sport, but on Saturday I felt as accountable to them as any teammate and cannot imagine having done this race alone. When we finally crossed finish line in 10 hours 11 minutes (putting us in the middle of a field that was overwhelmingly male), trying to wrap my head around what I had just done seemed impossible. Although I felt exhilarated, stunned, overjoyed and accomplished, I couldn't help but still think: "Oh crap…WHAT did I DO?!"