Thursday, June 10, 2010

50 mile North Face Challenge DC: Saying we ran 50 miles, just doesn’t accurately describe what we did.

June 5, 2010

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.

The scene was dark and the energy was calm as 203 runners readied for the challenge ahead. With headlamps lighting our way, we descending on the course with a couple whoops and hollers. The Potomac was rushing next to us, but was unseen in the moonless early morning hours. We were directed to the Potomac Heritage Trail. The surface seemed to change often. From crushed rock, to single track to dense weeds that stood 7 feet high and licked us as we passed.

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.

Cat and I found ourselves in last place being trailed by the sweeper on a mountain bike. We started to get a little stressed about making the first of the two hard cutoffs on the course. We had to be at the 22 mile aid station within 5 hours and 42 minutes. What seemed a ridiculously slow pace on paper the day before and now suddenly began to look more daunting.

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.

With a name like Difficult Run, you can’t help but wonder about the significance of the name. I quickly put it out of my mind. Soon I would know. We were getting hot and they had a tub of ice which we scooped into our hats and clothing. Quickly consumed some fluids and food and we were off. This is probably where the course became the most challenging. We turned onto the River Trail, which is described at the most technical portion of the 50 miles. We had to follow little orange ribbons to stay on the right path (which we diverged from twice, but luckily for not too long). As we made our way to Mather Gorge and the river, the trail starts to become quite rocky. And I am not talking little tips of rock sticking up through the trail. I am talking about trying to make a trail over boulders. One orange ribbon would be tied to a branch at the bottom of a mound of twisty large stones and then you’d see the second ribbon at the top.

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.
During the 2nd loop, miles 22 to about 28 ½, our conversation fell into a lull and focus increased on the task at hand. We knew what lay ahead this time. We were passed by eventual 2nd place finisher Michael Waridan and amazed at the swiftness of the top runners. We saw members of the CAF (Challenged Athletes Federation). One woman, beautiful, strong and so inspiring, told us she was going to have to drop due to mechanical problems with her prosthetic leg after mud got into it.

Cat, listening to music, would sing out loud so I could hear too. We sang U2’s mysterious ways running through the jungle like forest. But, mostly we ran, stumbled and hiked our way to the completion of the 2nd loop.

Once there, with 28 ½ miles under our belt, our aid station pace decreased. Cat was starting to feel a little rough and I was still feeling surprisingly pretty good. Mike, Cat’s husband, had planned on pacing this last loop, and Cat and I had agreed that we would separate if one felt better than the other. That said, those first 28 ½ miles were the best. My friendship with Cat deepened as did my admiration for her strength and determination.
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.

With few alternatives, and feeling lucky it wasn’t my ankle, I got up and started again. Within a half mile I ran into a course patroller. She agreed it looked a little weird and said the next medical was at Great Falls, 3 or so miles away. Now, three miles may not sound very far, but considering the upcoming technical terrain and my current condition, it could take an hour. So, I put my head down and pushed on. I didn’t feel sorry for myself as I thought of all the other bloody runners I had passed so far. Falls happen in trail running. Part of the gig. The next three miles I had other runners here and there, which was nice. Most commented on my Moeben Cheetah print dress. The dress actually became my identity in a way. I was the lady in the cheetah dress.

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.

It did start to sprinkle lightly and the mist felt wonderful on my skin. Although I appreciated the shade the trees had offered before, I wished now to escape their cover to feel the rain. The dampness that made it through the canopy made the forest feel more like a jungle. I can’t tell you how many spider webs I wiped off my face, how many unidentified bugs crawled underfoot or flew into my face. But, you get to a point where you just don’t care.

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.

I was thrilled when I finally saw the Fraser Aid Station at 42 miles. I called Porter to let him know where I was. My hands were very swollen, due to an imbalance of how much water and salt I was taking in. I took some additional salt tabs and made some soup from the cold broth, cold boiled potatoes and a few tablespoons of salt. I declined a medic offering to clean me up.

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”.

Once at Sugarland, there was a mini loop of about 2 ½ miles off the main trail until heading to the finish line. The volunteers at Sugarland were so nice. One fellow actually jogged with me a bit chanting encouraging words. I attempted to keep my hands above my heart, hoping that may help with the swelling. I am sure I was an interesting site, hunched over in a fast walk, slight jog, with hands held up.

Back at Sugarland for the last time, we turned and headed down the last 2+ miles on a flat open path. There were more people around me that I had caught up with. Two guys were running 30 sec, walking 30 sec. That’s what 50 miles can be reduced down to. Running just 30 seconds. I picked a tree or flag to jog to. It was an incredible feeling to know that I was going to make it. A little bit of competitiveness had crept up over the last 20 miles and I was driven to pass as many people as possible and let no one pass me.

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.

I was also grateful to my sister Jenny, with whom I spoke with a couple times while out there. I felt so blessed that she cared. And I have to thank all my facebook friends who encouraged me through that means. Believe it or not, I checked in with FB a few times and felt very encouraged by the responses people left as the race stats were posted.

After the Race:

Once done, Porter had the Diet Coke I had requested ready for me. He told me he had to seriously protect it from other thirsty runners. I really wanted to meet Dean Karnazes. But he was on the stage busy handing out awards. I did yell “I love you, Dean!” and he yelled back that he loved me too and cheered "Go Mom" as I ran through the finish.

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!!

My Stats:

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:

Mile Time

14.8 3:37:38

21.7 5:11:46

28.6 6:54:37

35.4 8:33:41

164 runners finished within the 13 hour time frame.


Paige said...

Woohoo, Christine! Congratulations, ultrarunner!!! Great report :) I love the D.C. area trails!

Sarah Bowen Shea said...

Wow, such determination and, dare I type it, GRIT, Christine! Awesome job. You didn't mention the heat and humidity. I can't imagine how sweaty you must have been.

You ROCKED that Moeben dress. I agree with friend who hit "reply all" to email--you look lovely crossing the finish line.

Rebecca said...

Great race report. I love the recurrent pics of the young lad (your son?) playing on some sort of electronic handheld device, it was almost as if he was placed at each location like people do with those little gnomes when they travel.

I hope to complete my first 50 at the end of July, getting excited!

EricG said...

Christine, Great job! Way to tough it out and stay strong. Nothing like seeing your family at the finish is there:) Congrats and hope to see you on the trails.
Peace EricG