Cat and I met in the hotel lobby at 4am along with other foggy eyed runners ready for the North Face 50 mile Challenge in Sterling, VA. We questioned our sanity as Porter, my husband, drove us to the start only a few miles from the host hotel to Algonkian Park.
Cat and I planned to run the first 25 miles easy and stay as comfortable as possible. The first two hours flew by as the conversation kept us afloat without much effort. We did start to run into some obstacles along the course that I guess is why it’s called a 50 mile “challenge” and not just a run. We scaled up rocks, leapt over logs and tried in vain to cross streams with minimal shoe immersion.
The course was muddy, due to recent rains, which made the steep climbs and descents that much trickier to navigate. Lots of stumbles later, we made it to the 15 mile aid station, Great Falls, which also was the start of a 7 mile loop that to be completed 3 times with another aid station in-between. Cat and I decided to pick it up over the first loop for fear that we would miss this first cut off. Initially the course seemed quite friendly. Wide and soft. A family of deer appeared next to us. Before hitting the mid loop aid station, called Difficult Run, was a single track so narrow that traffic had to be directed to avoid colliding runners going in opposite directions. It was a decent drop into the rocky river waters below.
The prize for our efforts was an amazing view of the river and of Mather Gorge. Breathtaking really. Cat and I both agreed that this was one of the perks of doing this. Seeing things we would normally never see. Many more climbs and tip toeing later, loop one was complete and about 22 miles done. We’d made the cut off with quite a bit of time to spare. We relaxed just a bit longer at the aid station, meeting with our husbands (Mike and Porter) and our kids (Primo, Addie and Thomas). I was not expecting them as I turned the corner to the station and it was a special kind of happiness and joy to see them at this point. Cat and I were both feeling great.
Quick change of socks, extra lube, delicately applied band aids on developing blisters, a rice crispy treat, electro tabs, and a 6 hour energy drink and we were set for the next round. I felt like a boxer getting ready for my next fight.
Off I went on the last loop keeping in the back of my mind the 2nd hard cut off at 35 ½ miles. I picked up the pace and passed many runners. As we had all gotten to know each other, runners kept asking what happened to my partner. The ultra community is wonderful. My husband said it reminded him of a Grateful Dead show. I made it to Difficult Run station for the last time, clocking some paces in the 8:30 to 9:30 min/m range, anticipating the slowdown that would soon come in the rocky section. At about mile 32 or so, along a big and wide descent, my foot clipped a root or rock and I went flying.
Mid air it seemed there was enough time for me to wonder if this was really happening. I was feeling so great and not having any major problems. Why?! Then I hit the ground, hard, on my left side, hand, knee, lower forearm, elbow, shoulder and upper back. Then I rolled, a few times, banging up my right arm, low back and other hand. I lay there stunned for a moment. Alone. I assessed my injuries. Bloody knee, scrapes and developing bruises. My only real concern was that I had large lumps on each side of the inside of my elbow, as well as a smaller one on my elbow and a bonus one on the top of my shoulder. Knowing that adrenaline and endorphins were pulsating through my veins and deadening any pain I may have otherwise felt, I worried that I had done some serious damage.
Upon the completion of the last loop, which was also a hard cut off at 35 ½ miles, I walked up to the medical tent and showed the paramedics my damages. The young lady, wearing latex gloves, pressed lightly around my arm and shoulder and said it seemed mostly soft tissue but having it checked by a doctor may be a good idea. An older paramedic pointed out that the back of my shoulder was all scratched up. I hadn’t noticed. He assured me that I would feel it all tomorrow.
Fifteen miles still to go and I had somehow assumed the hard part was over. The trail back tracked along where we had run earlier with one added little loop at the end. Aid station #10 (Fraser) was almost 7 miles away. A huge chunk of distance at this point. Lots of twists, turns, sharp inclines and slippery descents. Shoe sucking mud, stream crossings and a couple suck the wind from your pipes uphill climbs. Each hill that I encountered started to seem like a cruel joke. I didn’t recall this one on the way in. And the downhills hurt just as bad as my quads felt like they may buckle after each foot strike.
Now most of my forward movement was reduced to a fast walk. My Garmin watch had died around 10 hours, so I have little idea of the pace I maintained, but it compared to a slow jog and felt a bit more comfortable.
Two more aid stations to go and I would be home! I only focused on getting to the next one, #11 at Sugarland. I’d be there in a little over three miles and what a long three miles it was. I started passing a ton of people. I was so determined to make it and can honestly say I only had one moment of wondering if I could do this before I shrugged that notion and told myself, what I had already said a hundred times that day, that “I can do so much more than I think I can”.
I rounded the last turn on the grass to the finish line. There were people still there cheering and I felt quite humbled. Suddenly I was flanked my Addie and Thomas who ran in with me. I smiled a big satisfying grin and was so grateful for everything.
Once at the hotel, I went straight up to our room for a cold shower. Porter went to get a couple burgers and some pizza (I was starving as you can imagine). He got to meet Dean and have a nice conversation with him. Damn. Then again, the next morning, as he was loading the car, he saw him again, leaving the hotel. Double damn.
Cat ran the rest of the way with her husband, who had only planned to run 7 miles and would now be running 20! At the last aid station they missed the cut off time and were told to skip the final 2 mile loop and head in. So, although Cat didn’t get an “official” time, she is officially an ultra runner in my book!!
141 out of 203 runners
12:29:00 chip time (a 15:01 min/m average)
9 out of 15 age group, women 30-39
29 out of 39 women total (so few women)
Chip times at various points:
164 runners finished within the 13 hour time frame.