I did it—my first 50K! It was an early season experiment of sorts. I can sit on the couch for months yet head to the track on moment's notice and knock out a 6:30-mile no problem—short-course speed has never been a problem. Endurance on the other hand, historically has been just a tad bit out of my running wheelhouse.
So HPB and I set out to find a semi-local 50K that I could test out and try the ultra-running thing on for size. Let me tell you, at first glance it fit like the best of comfy sweaters—I was in my element, enjoyed the woods, the cruising, Lucy’s pitter patter on my heels out on the local Asheville trails—only to have it get itchy and uncomfortable sort of unravel come race day to realize that trail running is NOT for me. Never say never but “probably never” is what’s on my mind right now! I'm a triathlete at heart, plain and simple.
In the lead up to the big day, we slowly amped up trail time: first 90-minutes, then 2-hours, then 14- and 16- milers out in the woods. I got really sick for a week-and-a-half after New Year's and missed one of the big weekends. The some of the steep mountains I was tackling ended up less like "running" and more like 5-hour endurance extravaganzas, broken up by having to hike up some of the monster inclines.
I visited the Appalachian Trail. Got overly familiar with the Mountain-to-Sea trail. Finally found a happy path down at Bent Creek. All places I highly recommend you explore if you're ever in this part of the country.
By the time Jan 17th and the Frosty Foot 50K rolled around, it was go-time.
Heading into the run, there was no question I would be able to finish—but I wasn't quite sure about how I would be able to keep up the pace or the motivation as the miles ticked on. There's nothing like staring down a new distance PR, especially since this was my first open race outside of Ironman longer than 13.1.
I drove out to Tsali in the Nantahala National Forest, where the run was taking place (highly recommend for both trail running and mountain biking—go visit!). I had last been to Tsali as a mountain biking teenager and don’t remember the trails being particularly technical—so I didn’t really look into any elevation charts or specifics about the course. Adopting the laid-back ultrarunning mentality was nice for once—no gear bags, no bike, no wetsuit and goggles and million other things to weigh the planning down.
Instead, it was just me, my shoes, a hand-held water bottle and a handful of gels. I was parked three cars down from the starting line and only left my cozy heater with 5-minutes to go.
There was an unceremonious send-off and everyone jockeyed for some decent positions in the half-mile we had before hopping onto the single-track. I settled in behind a man with a long black braided ponytail, who I would tail for quite some time before he ended up dropping out sometime after the second loop.
This video really captures the run perfectly—scenic, lots of climbs, amazing aid stations and volunteers and a picture-perfect day:
For a while a man, breathing heavy, sat on my feet, which was fine but a bit annoying, and (EVEN WORSE!) someone just up ahead who was singing “Shake it Off” at the top of their lungs every so often in the first few miles.
Guess what I had stuck in my head for the rest of the run?
Shake, Shake, Shake.
Based on starting positions, some switchbacks and a few passes, I was pretty sure I was holding strong in second place. I was in my little pack of three and every so often I would see the little sprite of a runner a ridge ahead as we rounded the corner. I slowly pulled her into to about 200m but then lost contact over a series of climbs.
Slowly it warmed up and my legs got heavier. While my average pace for the first 15-miles was below 9 min/mile pace, it started to get harder and harder to hold and I stopped caring as much. Around mile 23, I got passed and dropped back into third.
I wasn’t breathing heavily but the uphills and downhills (never-ending!) were doing a number on my legs. I had to walk some of the downhills because I thought my muscles were going to explode from this weird cramping sensation that was going on. I passed more and more walkers and got passed by a few with strong finishes. I wasn’t quite sure where the finish line was, so when it appeared out of the blue no more than 400m ahead, I felt a sweet sweet relief… I could STOP! :) I jogged under the little banner, and the race director ran over to help undo the timing chip. There were awards but I had to sneak in a post-run swim and drive to pick up Lucy from Elizabeth and Jared down in Greenville, so I booked it out of there.
Top three and 4:49—not too shabby for a one-and-done kind of deal.
Driving away, before a stop at a gas station for some much needed refueling, I kind of just sat there like, “holy cow—I just ran 30 miles” and let it sink in on the two hour drive. No medals, no crazed cheering, no "YOU ARE AN IRONMAN" madness bringing you in—just a step across a threshold, nothing fancy. I can’t imagine the feeling after a 100-miler or some of the other endurance challenges out there but let me tell you, even for just a 50K the feeling is AMAZING!
For starters, it will really test your endurance—just as much mentally as physically. "Half-marathon down, only 17 more miles to go...." But oddly enough, the time flies by and you look down at your watch and somehow 2-hours have already passed and you're shoving powerbar gel #4 down your throat. And the whole time you’re "racing" there’s a nonchalance and absurd politeness about it all—in the start, in the finish, in passing people, in letting people behind you pass, in chit-chatting at an aid station before moving on, in not caring about your pace or finish time or final standings. Or, in my case, pretending that I was nonchalant about it all when really on the inside my OCD self was checking pace, fixated on standings, caring way too much to be “real” ultra-runner.
Despite the sense of accomplishment, maybe next time I’m searching endurance, I’ll just stick to a marathon. Preferably one with pacers and mile markers and a well-marked finish line. ;)