Keep it Together

John, Jeff, Julie, Eric, and Matt, nervous but ready to start the race.

My mantra during the 50 Mile Land Between the Lakes trail race yesterday was simple, “Keep it together.” I didn’t want to fall, I didn’t want to blow up late in the race, I wanted to run as much as possible of the course, and most of all, I wanted to finish with a respectable time. That’s a tall order for such a long distance, on a course I didn’t know anything about, and considering my training has been less than stellar since my 33 mile race a month ago. I blame the Ohio winter for putting such a damper on my training, with its cold temperatures, unforgiving winds, and treacherous footing on snow and ice.

Yesterday’s race started with comfortably cool temperatures, a bit of a breeze, slightly overcast skies, and lots of excitement. Joining Matt and I was his brother Jeff, Jeff’s friend Eric, and Matt’s dad, John, totally 5 racers among us. John ran the 23k race while the rest of us were signed up for the 50 miler. It was very tempting to know from the start that we could drop down in distance during the course of the race since it was a lap course. Tempting, very tempting.

Lap one I was focused on learning the course and finding my rhythm. Since there were four race distances on the course, including the 23k, the marathon, the 60k, and the 50 miler, it was very crowded on the trail. I had been told that the second half of the 11.3 mile loop was harder than the first, and I immediately agreed with that assessment once I ran the 3 hilly miles between aid stations 3 and 4. I ran all the hills on the first loop but I had little hope for the later miles. At the end of the loop, I saw Jeff for the last time as he stopped to get something out of his drop bag and I checked my watch to see that the first lap, not counting the 1.9 road miles to the trail loop, took 1:50.

Coming through the aid station and drinking fluids on my way out.

Lap two was immediately less crowded and I wondered just how many people were running more than one loop. I took advantage of the freedom and pushed all the flats. I passed two men in the beginning of the loop and as I ran quickly past them, they said to me, “You must be doing the marathon.” “No, I’m doing the 50,” I answered hesitantly. “Please, please don’t blow up,” is what I really thought. There’s nothing worse than passing someone early, only to see them pass me later in the race when I’m barely shuffling and they’re practically prancing past me. I took slightly more time at each aid station on this loop, focusing on walking while I drank liquids rather than gulping them. Physically, I still felt good at the end of the loop, but mentally, I was having a hard time signing up for two more laps. My lap time was 1:53. At this point the total time was 4:01 and I was still keeping it together despite an upset stomach, increasing temperatures and the slow onset of joint and muscle fatigue.

Post-race salty hair, Eric’s natural hair gel.

Lap three was tough. I just wanted to be on the final lap, but I still had 11.3 miles and a hilly section awaiting me. Luckily I had my ipod as my treat for making it to the third lap, so I put on one ear bud and let the music carry me for much of the loop. At this point, all the cups of liquids, coupled with about 5 gels, were wreaking havoc on my stomach. I was incredibly nauseous and even gagged on my last attempt at eating another gu. I also started to take a few missteps and though I didn’t fall, my feet caught a few roots. “Keep it together!” I reminded myself. Just when I was hitting a low point before entering the hilly section, I saw Matt’s mom and dad at the aid station, and my spirits were lifted. They told me Eric was just a few minutes ahead of me and the chase was on. In the final two miles of the lap, I saw Eric walking just ahead of me and we ran together until the end of the loop. The best part of this loop was that Matt didn’t lap us. I knew there was a real chance that he’d be so far ahead that he’d be on his 4th lap while I was still on my third. Eric was in complete agreement with finishing the lap before Matt caught us. We even had a train of 2 other runners behind us, all of us pushing as hard as our legs would let us after 30+ miles. This lap took 1:57 and I ventured into uncharted territory (at least since a year ago at the Rocky Raccoon 100 Miler) for a total time of 5:58.

Eric coming though an aid station on lap 3, still looking happy and fresh.

Lap four was harder than I thought it would be. I had hoped that the excitement of the final lap would carry me through, but it started out with some difficulties. At this point, I stopped trying to eat much and just focused on fluids. I also focused on my form and keeping my machine moving as efficiently and as quickly as possible. I could tell my pace had slowed, but I knew I still had some gas left in the tank. About halfway through the loop, I must have tapped into a new bucket of energy, because I felt back in the game. Another runner who I’d been playing leap frog with for most of the race was just ahead of me, and I caught up and passed him. I doubted I would stay ahead of him, but if my body was going to give me a spurt of energy, I was going to take it. Just before the end of the loop, the runner warned me, “So, you know there’s an extra out and back section before we head back to the finish, right? And it’s hilly.” At this point, I was just stoked to still be running, considering I ran about 95% of the course, including all the hills, so I said, “At least it’s pavement and I can stop looking at my feet!” I love trail races, but sometimes I am so mentally exhausted from paying attention to my foot placement that I welcome the ease of pavement running. We finished that fourth loop together and my final lap took 2:06, with the total time at 8:05. It wasn’t pretty but it wasn’t a total blow up, and that’s all I wanted.

Finishing the race with lots of salt on my clothes to show for it.

As soon as we hit the pavement, I chugged Powerade at the aid station and ran the hilly, paved, .8 mile section away from the finish line, turned around at the sign in the road, again passed the aid station after another .8 miles, and my watch read 8:19. The aid station volunteers told me I had 1.7 road miles left and I gave it all I had. I hadn’t seen Jeff or Eric during the out and back, so I knew they weren’t close. I focused on the runners ahead of me and I prayed my legs wouldn’t cramp up. My nutrition hadn’t been the best, including just 5 gels during the race and a handful of granola bar pieces. I was also covered in salt, all over my shirt, my hat, and my face, so I knew my body was about to run on fumes. At the sign marking just one mile to go, my watch was at 8:25.

Finishing the race and even giving high-fives to the fans on the course.

About a quarter mile away from the finish, I saw where the runners were heading into the finish line and I was overwhelmed with happiness when I crossed in 8:33.32. I took stock of the last 8+ hours of running and I realized that it couldn’t have gone much better. I never fell, I was able to push without blowing up, I ran most of the hills, and though I didn’t have much to compare my time to, I was still happy with sub 9 hours. Best of all, I crossed the line and was handed a finisher’s belt buckle and a trophy for finishing as the fourth female. I was ecstatic and glad to finally see the faces of the few men that had been running around me for most of the race, who I could never look at for fear of tripping on a root. I only knew their shoes, their shirt colors, and the sound of their strides.

All the finishers in our crew of five runners.

Thank you to all the people who put on a great race, in a beautiful area, with a great field of runners. I felt supported by everyone out there and was happy I held it together long enough to fully enjoy the entire race. My feet were pounding with pain well into the evening, but it was well worth the effort and the bragging rights of beating Jeff and Eric. Now it’s on to the next block of training before the Ice Age 50 Mile race in May in Wisconsin.

Jeff and Eric finishing their race together, still smiling and having fun.

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