“Campers, it’s 5:30. You should be up by now. Actually, it’s 5:29 and 37 seconds.”
I didn’t hear my alarm clock go off, but I heard the voice of David Horton, the race director of the Holiday Lake 50k++ race, pierce through my cabin walls as he stood outside at the starting line and woke up a field of 300+ runners over his handheld megaphone. There was nothing soft or pleasant about waking up to that drill sergeant-like voice, and I knew I had a hell of a race ahead of me if it started with that harsh of a wake-up call.
As I got ready that morning, deciding on shorts or pants for the mid 20 degree temperatures, I thought about all I knew about the course. I knew it was supposedly the easiest of the races that David directs, I knew there was a knee-deep creek crossing somewhere out there, and I knew we’d have two-way traffic on a narrow single-track trail around the halfway point. Something in me also knew that if David Horton was directing the race, a man known for coming up with tough race courses, simply because he loves the toughest, most rugged, most pain-inflicting adventures that are out there, the course would have plenty of difficulties.
Before starting any race, I come up with a Plan A, which is usually very conservative. I base it on my past race times, my knowledge of the course, and my current fitness. I didn’t have much hope for a great time at this race, as I only had a 50k road time on which to base my plans, I had very little knowledge of the course, and my training hadn’t been stellar due to snowy, icy, and cold conditions in the Midwest. With all that in mind, it was time for the race to start.
At the start of the race, I set out with the goal of being under 5:30. When we ran the 31 mile Wildwood Trail in Portland, Oregon at the end of December, it took me 5:18, and that was with a big uphill to finish the run. I hoped I could at least race just as fast with 2 extra miles tagged on. Just to clarify, the race had the ++ behind the distance because it was 33.26 miles long as opposed to the official 50k distance of 31 miles. Yes, true David Horton style to tack on 2 extra miles.
We started with an uphill on a road to reach the trail, and when I checked my split at the 1 mile mark, the only mile marked on the course, it was 10:20. And that felt fast. Undeterred, I tried to find my rhythm in the crowd of runners on the single-track trail as we awaited the daylight. While the first few miles were technical, it was still very runnable and I reached the first aid station at 4.04 miles in 39 minutes. “I’ll take it,” I thought.
The next 8 miles were much more runnable than the first four, and dare I say it, quite comfortable. The sun came out among clear skies and though the temperature was still chilly, only my hands were cold. The course consisted of single-track trails, dirt roads, and long stretches where I could get a good rhythm without concentrating on my foot placement. I tried pushing the pace without tiring my legs out, as I didn’t want to burn it all up on the first loop. We crossed the knee-deep creek just before the aid station at mile 8.23, where my watch read 1:16. I had picked up the pace a little bit and felt great during that section. At 12.14 miles, my watch was at 1:49. Suddenly my conservative plan of 5:30 was looking too conservative, and the thought of breaking 5 hours started creeping in. I decided not to get too excited yet, as I still had 4.5 miles until the turnaround at 16.63 miles.
The revised plan of breaking 5 hours stuck in my head until the turn around. I checked my watch several times in that 4.5 mile section, knowing that I would be very close to 2:30 at the half if all went well. Since I didn’t know the course, I also didn’t know that the final 4.5 miles into the turnaround were quite a bit more technical than the last 8 miles, and the pace slowed.
We also started the two-way traffic game, where I had to shift my body to let the faster runners pass, and at some points, I stopped to let them go by in the narrowest of sections. There were also a few rollers thrown in and my plan B wasn’t looking as good as I had hoped and I came into 16.63 miles in 2:31.43. It would take a negative split on the second loop to break 5 hours. The other catch? The second loop was backwards on the loop I just completed, so all the uphills became downhills, and all the downhills became uphills. I had hope of a negative split because I felt like a good portion of the first loop was uphill.
I left the turnaround with new energy. I had seen all the people ahead of me who had already started their second loop and when I passed Matt on the way in, he yelled to me that I was the 15th woman. My goal was to take 4 minutes off the total loop, so about 15 seconds per mile. That goal was crushed pretty quickly when I reached the first aid station at 21.12 miles in 3:15. I had gained 2 minutes rather than losing one, as I had to walk one of the steepest hills on the course. As I left the aid station I was faced with another uphill, and I began wondering which direction on the course was actually harder.
Plan C quickly formed on my way to the next aid station, after I struggled on some of the long, gradual uphills that I hadn’t noticed on the first loop because I was so comfortable going down them. I was at least comforted by the fact that all the other people around me seemed to be struggling as well, and I still found myself passing people along the way. Once I reached the aid station at 25.03, my watch read 3:53. I had roughly 8 miles to go, and unless I could magically pull out 8 minute pace, I was definitely not getting under 5 hours. But, I was still hopeful that I could do better than my original plan of 5:30 and my new goal was to be under 5:10.
The next few miles to the next aid station were finally a relief and I felt my stride come back to me as I ran on the relatively flat, relatively smooth, leaf-covered trail. It was a lonely stretch, as I only saw a couple of runners, and none of them were women. I had hoped to at least catch a few of them, but when I reached stretches of trail that allowed for a half-mile sight distance ahead of me, I never saw another woman.
I reached the final aid station at 29.22 miles in 4:28 and I still felt good about my chances of breaking 5:10. As I went into those final four miles, I tried to think back on the morning and I couldn’t remember a darn thing about the miles. Something about running them in the dark skewed my memory and I couldn’t recall the footing, the hills, or even a tiny recollection of the difficulty. At that point, I just wanted to cruise into the finish without too many surprises.
True to ultramarathon form, the course still had a few hiccups in store for me. With about 3 miles to go, I took a left turn on a bridge that had a streamer tied to its railing. I continued up the trail for almost a minute before I stopped and said to myself, “This just feels wrong.” I looked around and couldn’t find any other streamers, and as I looked back beyond the bridge I just crossed, I saw two other runners pass by the bridge and go another way. Crap! I went the wrong way.
I hurried to catch the two runners, two men I’d passed in the previous four-mile section, and cursed myself for taking a wrong turn. I couldn’t believe it as I rejoined the course and saw the obvious streamers just beyond the bridge I turned onto. Someone must have broken the tape that was supposed to be blocking the bridge.
At that point, plan D was put into effect to forget about the time, forget about the placings, and just finish the race. I didn’t want to take any more wrong turns, I didn’t want to fall, and I just wanted to get to the finish. I picked up my pace to re-pass the men who were surprised to see me come up from behind again, and I caught another runner in the process. With exactly one mile to go, my watch read 4:59 and I saw my first woman. I couldn’t believe it. I had gone almost the entire loop without seeing another woman, and there she was, with a mile to go and no gas left in my tank. I tried picking up the pace to catch her, but my hamstrings threatened to cramp, and I almost fell twice while I focused on her rather than the ground. “Plan D,” I told myself, “Just finish!”
A half mile later we reached pavement and it felt blissful. I ran as fast as I could on the downhill while I watched the other woman ahead of me do the same. I would not catch her, but I also knew I would finish. In my final strides into the finish line, I saw David Horton on the other side of the line, waiting to congratulate me on my finish. As I crossed the line in 5:08.22, David confirmed I was the 12th female and I was elated to be done. It wasn’t my best race, but I did better than I originally expected and didn’t have any major blowups.
It had been a while since my last ultramarathon, a 50k in Guatemala City in March of 2012, and running this race reminded me of why I love running and ultras so much. While there was competition, there was camaraderie, and while the trails were mostly runnable, there were also obstacles like creek crossings, hidden roots under piles of leaves, and suction cup mud. It was fun, it was hard, and most of all, it was rewarding to be part of such a special, tightly-knit community where the race director gives every finisher a hug and/or a personal congratulations at the finish.
Thank you to David and Nancy Horton for putting on a great race, thanks to all the volunteers who made the aid stations possible, and thank you to all the runners for participating in such a unique event with me. I’m already looking forward to my next ultra.