Saturday, April 14, 2012

Potawatomi 50M 2012 Report

Saturday, April 14, 2012
Pekin, IL

This was my first 50 mile race and my 4th ultra marathon.  This race has changed hands in the past few years and used to be called the McNaughton Park Trail Run.  Many people still refer to it as that.  I think I'll just call it Mudfest 2012, but I'm getting ahead of myself...

I won't lie, this race scared the crap out of me.  When I was training for my first 50K a year ago, I was nervous, but I knew I would finish.  But 50 miles?  Could I really run 50 miles?  I didn't know, but I sure wanted to find out.


For your listening pleasure.  Two songs that continually play in my head while running.

It was when I threw down a 200+ mile month in December for no reason, that I decided to sign up for this race.  I was consistently putting in 55-60 miles per week and feeling like everything was coming together.  20 milers were feeling easy.  I had seemingly solved the very literal pain in my ass that used to plague me during my previous ultras.  As some of you know, I was going through a lot in my personal life during this time and running was a huge refuge for me.  This winter was particularly strange with warmer temperatures and a lack of consistent snow.  Unfortunately this left the trails an icy mess, so I put in a lot of time on the road in January and February.  I ran (4) 18-22 mile runs during this time -- two on the road and two on the trail.  I had plans to run much longer runs later in training, but...

The Injury:
Stupidly, I was wearing old shoes during all this time on the road.  I started to develop a lot of foot pain.  Then pain in my left shin.  I bought new shoes, which seemed to solve my foot pain, but the shin pain lingered.  I continued to run through it.  I ran a 29 mile trail/road combo run on my 29th birthday at the end of February.  Things went south after that.  The shin pain got worse and self diagnosed myself with a bad shin splint and stopped running.  My training came a halt.  I had planned on peaking at 70mpw with two 30+ mile runs in March.  No dice.  I ended up running a grand total of 63 miles in March (with the majority of that in one week), but spent as much time on the bike as I could.  I essentially had a 6 week taper.  I resolved to start the race if I didn't have pain in my shin and would run as far as I could as long as I was pain free.  I could hop on my shin without pain, but there was a slightly tender spot even the night before the race.  It would have to be good enough.

I drove the 3.5 hours down to Pekin, IL from Madison the day before.  I went straight to packet pick up, where the 150 milers had been at it for about 7 hours already.  The aid station folks said the trail was in great shape.  Oh, if only it would stay that way...  When I checked into my hotel room, the man at the front desk asked if I was here for the race.  I could have kissed him.  I don't look like a runner. 

I did manage to get a little sleep that night.  My alarm went off at 4am and I woke up and thought to myself, "I am going to run 50 miles today."  I lubed up my feet with vasoline and put on my Injinji toe socks.  I wore black CEP compression sleeves, my trusty Montrail Mountain Masochists, compression shorts, a short sleeve tech shirt, and a visor.  My Garmin went on my left wrist and my Timex Ironman went on my right wrist as I fully expected my Garmin to die before I finished.  I was going to carry my 20oz Amphipod handheld bottle.

I drove to the starting line and unpacked more stuff than I could ever need.  My drop bag was practically my own mini aid station.  My little cooler housed my Starbucks Double Shots, which have now become a staple for me during long runs.  I found Thom and Katie and gave them each a hug.  I was jittery and nervous during the pre-race meeting, where approximately 150 of us were gathered to run for either 50 or 100 miles.  Before I knew it, it was go time.  I lined up at the very back of the pack with Katie and let out a whoop as we started.  After so many weeks of NOT running, I was finally, finally able to run!

The Course:
The race is held in McNaughton Park.  We would run a 10 mile trail loop 5 times going in a counter clockwise direction.  The loop had 1,600 feet of elevation gain, so the entire 50 miles had 8,000 feet of gain (or 16,000 feet of total change.)  The trail was mostly dirt and not very technical.  The rocks and roots that I'm so used to dancing over on my normal trails at home were few and far between.  There were some meadow sections, a little sand, and two creek crossings.  One creek crossing you just plunged straight through.  The other had rocks that you could hop on and keep your feet dry if you were so inclined.  But your feet were already wet from the first creek crossing, so what did it really matter?  This course is advertised as being very hilly, so I was pleasantly surprised that it was not nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be.  (This is Illinois, after all.)  That's not to say that it was an easy course by any means, but it was more runnable than I had planned on.  I liked the quote from the race's website: "... comparing the high altitude, long climbs of the Western mountains to McNaughton hills is like comparing being eaten by a shark vs. being eaten by a 1000 piranhas ... both are unpleasant ... just in different ways."  The infamous "golf hill" was short, but practically perpendicular to the ground.  They rigged a rope to help you climb it.  I think that was my favorite part of the whole course.  My arms got a good workout. 

Golf Hill on a non-muddy day.  Photo credit: Kara Fitzjarrald

The Mud:
Oh, the mud.  The mud, the mud, THE MUD.  I don't know how much time we all must have lost to the mud.  I'm willing to bet it cost me hours.  Words really cannot do it justice.  The first loop was fine.  The sky spit out a little light sprinkle if I remember correctly.  But then it started to rain...

Like I said previously, the trail was mostly dirt.  Dirt + rain = mud.  Hilly dirt + rain = Slip 'N Slide, baby!  This is where technical trails have an advantage.  Those rocks and roots that you normally curse over suddenly are your best friends as they provide this lovely little thing called traction.  Unfortunately my friendly rocks and roots were firmly lodged into the hills of Wisconsin and had no intentions of paying Illinois a visit.  So thus began a long day of strategizing.  And I say strategizing because every hill was different and each one required a its own unique way of getting up or down.  I vividly remember my first fall.  It was maybe around 3 or 4 miles into the second loop.  The rain was coming down.  I was approaching the top of a hill that had a steady, steep downhill following it.  A man was stopped at the top of the hill just looking down.  As I approached him, he told me that the previous three racers had fallen on their way down.  I kind of shrugged and thought, well, no time like the present, and started down.  Before I knew it, my legs slipped out from under me and I was on my ass sliding down the hill.  By the time I was able to stand, I was covered in mud.  Mud on my ass, mud on my arms, mud on watch, mud on handheld.  Mud, mud, mud.  Stood up.  Tried to go down the hill again...fell right back down on my ass.  More mud.  Laughed.  Laughed and laughed and laughed.  Somehow made it down the hill and was a complete mucky mess.  And that was just the beginning.

35 more miles of mud.  Thin mud, thick mud, leafy mud, dark brown mud, light brown mud.  All kinds of mud.  I would try to go up a hill and find myself sliding backwards.  I would stand on the top of a hill and scan for a good route thinking to myself, "Maybe I can skid down the left side and stop myself by grabbing onto that tree before plunging down in the ravine."  I would be in the middle of a hill going down and all of a sudden I would start involuntarily skiing in my trail shoes.  I have not skiied in 15 years.  I thought, "What was that thing called when you put the tips of your skis together to slow down?  Oh yeah, wedge.  WEDGE!  WEDGE, DAMMIT!" 

Trees were my best friend.  I used them to pull myself up hills.  I used them to stop myself from falling.  I used them to keep from flying off the edge of the trail.  I held onto them for dear life.  And of course everyone else did too, so even the trees were muddy from so many dirty hands grabbing onto them.  I ran Barkley style, cutting my own trail through the bushes at times where it was just impossible to get up or down otherwise.  I ran with a few race veterans who told me that this was some of the worst conditions they had ever seen.

Oh, the mud.

I'm actually pretty clean in this picture.

My drop bag.

The Race:

Loop 1:  My goal for this loop was to run really easily and finish feeling like I hadn't run at all.  I scoped out the trail, got my bearings on where all the aid stations and bathrooms were.  I honestly don't remember much from this loop.  I ran mostly alone.  I did not linger at the main aid station -- just grabbed more gels and got out.  Split: 2:26

Loop 2:  Rolled into the first aid station and was greeted by a gentleman who asked, "Are you Mandy?"  It was Andy! (a friend from Runner's World.)  It was so great to finally meet him and was such a boost to know someone out there.  This loop was when things started to get hairy.  It rained.  I fell.  A lot.  I used half a roll of paper towel at the next aid station cleaning mud off my bottle and my arms.  Stopped at the port-o-potty at the main aid station and applied more lube.  Split: 2:49

Loop 3:  I rewarded myself with my iPod this loop.  I listened to it on and off, depending on whether or not I was talking to or running with someone at the time.  I experienced a low point toward the end of this loop, knowing that I was only a little more than half way done.  The last section really seemed to slog on.  I kept telling myself, "Just make it back to camp."  Camp was what I was calling the main aid station in my head as there were a lot of tents around.  I mentally prepared for a longer stop here.  I thought about changing my socks, but decided that I didn't want to see what kind of condition my feet were in and just left things the way they were.  Another port-o-potty/lube stop.  Quickly updated my Facebook from my phone to let people know that I had finished 3 loops.  Split: 3:16

Loop 4:  It had stopped raining and the sun was starting to come out.  My spirits were lifting.  I had started loop 4 and dammit, I was definitely going to start a loop 5.  I knew I was going to finish.  I ran much of this loop with a boisterous, fun group of 50 milers.  Did my last port-o-potty/lube stop.  Updated facebook again.  Grabbed my headlamp and a pair of gloves in case it got cold after dark.  Split: 3:20

Loop 5:  The last loop.  My Garmin died just a few miles in.  It lasted for around 42 miles.  I ran with a woman named Julie for a lot of this loop.  She very generously shared her lube with me and we exchanged a bunch of race stories.  It started to get dark after we left the last aid station.  I turned on my headlamp.  It was my first time running from sunrise to sunset and into the night.  That's pretty damn cool.  With about 4 miles left to go in the pitch dark, I told Julie I was going to turn on my music and try to find another gear and run it into the finish.  And find another gear, I did.  I'm amazed that after 46 miles, many of which were slogged through the mud, I was able to RUN.  I wish my Garmin was still working at point, because I would have loved to see my pace.  I'm sure it was still horrendously slow, but I was moving much faster than I had been previously.  The mud was still horrible even at this point and the dark made it even more challenging.  Toward the end, I was Barkley-style running again and rammed my right shin into a fallen tree.  Ouch.  The last 2 miles or so were almost unbearable.  I just wanted to be done.  I started looking for landmarks that I recognized.  I kept thinking, "Where's that damn creek, where's that damn creek, where's that damn creek?"  After that it was, "Where's that damn log with the words, 'Ouch' spray painted on it?"  And after that it was, "Where's that damn sign with people's names on it?"  I had to pee.  I didn't want to stop with less than a mile left, but I did.  I stopped in the bushes and peed with less than a mile left to go.  But then I RAN.  And I ran.  And I climbed up the last hill and had flat to the finish.  And I ran.  It was quiet as I approached "camp."  I saw the red finish clock in the dark and I started whooping.  People began cheering.  And I sprinted.  Split: 3:18

Unofficial finish time of 15:13:xx

The race director handed me my belt buckle and congratulated me and asked, "Why are you breathing so heavily?"  I laughed and said, "Well, I decided to run it in..."

The After-math:
Considering I wasn't even sure that I was going to make the starting line, I was happy to just finish.  I know I have a much, much faster 50 miler in me, but I am very proud of this race.  I hurt.  I am sore.  I popped at least 7 blisters (strangely all on my left foot) yesterday.  My feet are swollen.  My left ankle is bruised and swollen, but I don't remember doing anything to it.  Amazingly, my shin is okay.  It did not bother me during the race.  I am thankful for the soft, muddy trails in that sense.

Coming in through mile 40.

This is something that I'm actually good at.  I always manage my nutrition well.  I carried a 20oz handheld and drank only water.  I tried to come into each aid station with a mostly empty bottle.  I ate 12 Crank E-Gels, which have 150 calories a piece.  (That's a whole day's worth of calories in gel form.  Gross.)  I also consumed the following: LOTS of potatoes dipped in salt, fig newtons, a bean wrap, oranges, grapes, a biscuit, potato chips, mini-snickers, sport beans, two Starbucks Double Shots, and a bunch of Coke/Pepsi/Mtn Dew.  I went the first 30 miles without any caffeine and then I just started chugging it for the last 20. 

The People:
There's just something about the people at ultras.  I had the opportunity to run with a bunch of terrific people during this race.  I initially thought that I would hate the loop course aspect of this race, but I actually turned out to love it since it gave me the chance to interact with so many people.  The man who was running the 100 after a stress fracture and who laughed at my, "Scattered showers, my ass" comment.  The two older women who were running the 100 together.  The man from Missouri in Vibrams who wanted to eventually run Leadville.  Julie, who was running her first 100, and who I leap frogged with and ran with through much of the race.  (I am anxiously awaiting the results to know that you finished!)  Amy from Nashville who was running the 100.  Brenda, who I finally got to meet in person after chatting with on the Madison Ultra group on facebook and who I had the pleasure of sharing some miles with.  Pat, the bacon girl, and that entire crazy group who I ran much of loop 4 with.  The group of college kids who ran the 5.2 mile aid station that made me laugh every time I came through.  The support that every single person gave me when they found out it was my first 50.  (And the numerous comments of, "You're running THIS for your first 50?!  You're crazy, girl!) 

Bib and belt buckle. 

I loved every single horrible, wonderful, muddy, amazing minute of my first 50 miler.  I can't wait to do this again.  Does that make me some sort of sick, crazy person?

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