Last Saturday I was able to do something that I've had in mind for quite a while- run in my first ultra marathon. I know that 50K just barely qualifies as an ultra, but still...............
We had been planning a trip to see my in-laws, who live in South/Central PA, so a few months ago I started looking to see if there were going to be any races when we were down. Lo and behold, I came across this amazing guy named Don Halke (http://www.donrunsfar.com/) who organizes events in that area, and it happened that he was putting on a 50K about an hour's drive from my in-laws' place when we were planning to be there.
Going into the race, I wasn't entirely sure how it would go- I had run 47km in training a few weeks ago, and it was brutal- I hit the wall hard, so I was a bit worried that would happen again. My plan was to take it nice and easy, and just try to finish in decent shape.
At 8am we were sent off. Right from the beginning I was near the front- just a group of 3 guys ahead of me, but they were going pretty slow (6 min/km) so I just hung out where I was. The first few km were very rocky single track- picture rocks the size of 5 pin bowling balls everywhere. It wasn't the easiest terrain to run on, but it was do-able. At about 3 km in we hit our first big climb- gained almost 1000 feet over about 3 km. I took most of it at a good power hiking pace and was quite comfortable. Most of that climb was on forest access roads. Once we hit the peak of that climb, there was a steep descent down some single track, another access road back into the valley to the first main aid station (where my daughter was helping out) and then another big climb. That one was long- about 1200 feet over 4km. At the top of that climb is where we got into the really fun stuff- ridiculously steep climbs and descents over really hairy terrain. It was a blast, but so tough. My slowest km split was 21 minutes- grinding up the side of a mountain with no trail.
I kept rolling along with Tom, and when we got to the final manned aid station at 34km we found out that the second place guy was just ahead of us. I had told myself that my only goal was to finish, not to run for a place, but to find out that 2nd place was within reach got the juices flowing, and off we went. Within a couple of minutes of leaving the aid station we spotted the guy in second, and he looked like he was hurting. We passed him, and then Tom pulled off to relieve himself and told me he'd catch up, but that was the last I saw of him for the next hour.
At that point I was still feeling really good- at close to 40km I came out on to a road section and I was cruising at 5 min/km easily. From there it turned up the mountain and on to single track again, and I was rolling happily along............. and then the pink trail markers disappeared. The race director had told us that if a marker didn't indicate that we were supposed to take a turn, just keep following the trail we were on. Up until this point though there had been markers everywhere, so to have them disappear was a bit disconcerting. I took a guess at which way to go, ran about 5 mins down the mountain until I hit a road, realized that was wrong, so I headed back up. When I came back to the intersection in question, I ran into Clayton, the guy who was in 4th, and he was trying to figure out where to go. After discussing what to do for a few minutes, we heard Tom come crashing through the bush- he'd been trying to figure out where to go, and had ended up back at the same intersection again. We figured that either someone had stolen the markers, or for some reason the director hadn't marked that section, so we double checked the colour of the blazes on the trail we'd just come off, matched that up to the correct trail at the intersection, and headed off. For about 15 mins we ran along, and then started to second guess ourselves (by then it was just Tom and I again). We stopped to get out bearings, and as we were standing there another runner came down the trail and said he was pretty sure we were headed the right way. This guy had been in 5th- there was no way I was going to lose my 2nd place spot to a guy who'd been in 5th just a few minutes earlier, so I decided to just go- I kept on the red trail and ran as fast as I wanted to. I knew we had to be close- though my watch had died an hour earlier, Tom's watch was at 30 miles, so we should have been within 1 mile of the finish. Pretty soon the trail dropped down to the road, and I could see the turn in to the parking lot and the finish line. I got a surge of adrenaline, and felt like I was flying! I got to the finish line feeling like a million bucks- 2nd place in my first 50K! I felt like it couldn't have gone better- I didn't hit the wall, my stomach was good the whole time, and I kept a strong pace for the whole race.
We found out from the director after the race that he had indeed run out of ribbon, thus the direction that if you're on a trail with coloured blazes, and you get to an intersection, follow the same trail unless otherwise indicated!
I thoroughly enjoyed that experience. I've wanted to test myself on longer distances and tougher terrain, and this was a great introduction to ultra marathons. I'm really looking forward to more ultras in the future.