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After years of sloth, I am now a mama who runs and practices yoga. I write about exercise; parenting a grownup child as well as two little kids; and whatever is annoying me at the moment.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Palezoic 50K "Finish or fossilize": Race report

This weekend I finished my first ultramarathon, the 50K Palezoic Devonian Fall trail run in 7 hours, 11 minutes and 55.8 seconds.

It was so, so hard, and so, so incredible. It was a day filled with hope, hard work and love -- awesome!

The day before, a Friday, I was a bundle of nerves. I had that doubt most people get when they taper for a long race, that since I had cut my mileage way down in the weeks leading up to the race (which is what you're supposed to do to get your body ready), that I wouldn't be able to run 31 miles. I was most nervous about "bonking", however. Every single marathon I've hit a wall at some point and ended the marathon in a death march, feeling sick and unhappy with my performance.

Logic told me otherwise -- I trained smart and as my former editor Dan often tells me, "trust the training". He also tells me to tie my shoes a lot.

A work colleague Friday afternoon asked me to join a small group for a drink after work. I declined, telling him about my race the next morning. His reaction: "An ultramarathon? That sounds dangerous!" I'd use a lot of adjectives, but not that one! It made me laugh.

Friday night's plan to hit the store for a healthy dinner of salmon fillet, potato and veggie was waylaid by who-can-remember-why-now so take-out Thai it was -- chicken and broccoli, yum. I laid out my camelbak, running clothes, food and other essentials the night before. I fell asleep easily around 9:30 -- typical night for me.

M-man woke me up at 3, coughing. I got him some water and kiddie cough syrup, and settled him back into bed. At that point I thought, hoo boy, I'm doing a race today! I was sure I wouldn't fall back asleep but I must have, because my alarm woke me up at 5:30. I have never, ever before had to be awakened by my alarm on race day!

I was strangely calm. In my still-dark, quiet house I washed dishes before getting all of my cold weather running gear on. My iPhone said it was 19 degrees out, our coldest morning yet this fall. I hoped I would be warm enough for the six-plus hours I would be outside, running.

My trip to the burbs was uneventful. I arrived at Pioneer Woods shortly before 8 for an 8:30 race start. It was cold, but wonderfully sunny. I looked for other Flatlanders -- the Facebook group I've latched on to for advice and stories. I wound up meeting a few of them before the start -- Ed, Nikki and Amanda. Everyone was super nice and encouraging. One of the race directors, Bill, greeted me like an old friend with a big hug. I'd run two of the races he and his wife have held before, and think both they and their races are just awesome.

Finally, it was time to start! Most of the pack was ahead of me from the beginning, which was OK. I forced myself to go slow. It would be my focus throughout the race -- slow and steady means a great race.

I was lucky to run alongside two other ultra newbies, Celia and Liz. They were so nice in letting me tag along with them and chat, which made the first few miles tick by in no time. Near the third mile we were distracted by this enormous gathering of geese next to a small lake that we began to run off course, only barely. Oops, pay attention! My shoes also became untied, which always seems to happen during races. D'oh!

The course was an out and back, and the 50K folks do two loops of that (there was also a one-loop 25k option). That meant an unmanned water station at the 3.5-mile mark and a turnaround at about 7.7 miles. We got to each with no incident, and turned around. It was getting a bit warmer, and I contemplated changing into a windbreaker I had brought and left at the start line.

On the way back from the turnaround, Liz began to struggle a bit. Celia and I hung in there, encouraging each other. I had definitely settled into the run and wasn't struggling, but I was mindful to stay slow and steady so I'd have plenty in the tank for the second loop. I was also hungry -- I don't really eat in the morning before runs, ever, though I had had some yogurt-covered raisins pre-start. Celia was like, yeah, that's why you're hungry. I ate my second kiddie pureed "Buddy Fruits" and felt better.

As we approached the unmanned aid station, a woman in a long, black puffy parka with long brown hair flowing ran toward us. I was like, is that Terri??? It was!

Terri, a running friend and how I wound up adopting the awesome Reckless the cat last year, had texted me she was coming to the race (which is far away for her and it was freezing to boot) but I guess I forgot for awhile. It was awesome to see her and get a great big hug. 

She brought all sorts of snacks, including the lemon Oreos I had hinted for. (They are so damn good, and she had supplied them to a bunch of us during a wee-hour 20-miler earlier this summer, God bless her).

Fired up, I continued on with Celia, chattering about Terri and my cat and lemon Oreos. If I was annoying Celia with all of my stories, she didn't seem to mind.

Finally we approached the start line to complete the first loop. Yay! I crossed the mat that reads the electronic chip around my ankle and texted my friends Krista, Kylene and Janelle I was there. All three were keeping warm in Krista's car and would be running the second loop with me.

I love my running buddies, including these women. I've logged many miles with them, especially during this training season. They're all quite a bit younger than me and have wonderful energy and enthusiasm and great attitudes. They're not jaded yet and they're smart and thoughtful. I just love them to pieces. I was so happy to see them!

They all greeted me with big hugs and exclamations that I looked great. I wouldn't say I was feeling "great" because I was a little tired, but I realized yeah, I'm doing OK. I invited Celia to hang with us, since Liz stayed at the start line and I wasn't sure if she would do a second loop or not. And we were off!

I forgot to change into my windbreaker, which turned out to be a good thing later on.

I can divide this race into Loop 1 and Loop 2. Loop 2 was so fun to have my friends there. It was also more challenging. The weather changed, too, with a chilly breeze and the sky clouding over, hinting at the snow we would be getting later that night. I was glad I kept my fleece-lined jacket on and wound up putting my gloves back on for awhile.

The hills I ran gently the first go-around were tougher the second time. Every time Celia and I decided to walk a steep up or downhill, my friends automatically followed suit. I joked in my head, this must be what having an entourage is like! It was great.

We reached the unmanned aid station again. Terri was still there (!) and she and the table were flocked by runners. I joked she should have gotten some guys' phone numbers! She was pretty popular and the lemon Oreos were disappearing rapidly.

She asked me how I was feeling and I told her I kept eating my purees but that I felt shaky. One little hole in my training plan is that I didn't know how to incorporate protein in addition to food with carbs during a race. At the full turnaround, there was a full spread of chips and soda and peanut butter sandwiches, but I've hated peanut butter as long as I can remember.

Terri said hey, here's some walnuts and almonds. I swear, that woman was a battlefield nurse in a previous life. I like almonds and eagerly ate some. A couple of miles later, I felt better! I had discovered a new race food! Krista tucked a few in her pocket for me for later.

It was slow going after we left the unmanned station and headed for the turnaround. I definitely felt tired, but OK. I pushed aside the thoughts that crept into my head about hitting the wall. Celia noted when we had hit mile 20 (yay, two thirds done!) and I thought OK, dammit, this race is not going to be the same as my marathons, where at some point around this mileage I didn't just hit a wall, I slammed into it.

Hitting a wall feels like someone has just emptied your gas tank. Your muscles just want to stop, which is also what your head screams at you. The last miles are torture. During the Omaha marathon last year, I didn't just want to stop running, I wanted to lay down on the pavement. Once you're there -- at the wall I mean -- there's no going back. Your glycogen is depleted, and it's a death march until you can stop for good.

I asked my friends to tell stories. And they tell great stories. Krista and Kylene are teachers and always have great stories about their kids. Janelle is wicked funny and usually has funny stories to tell. They always hear stories about my kids. As they chattered, it helped settle me. I was so relieved I was not running alone. I don't know how someone mentally gets through 50K alone!

At the turnaround, we grabbed some food and hung out for several minutes. Liz caught up to Celia there, crying. We hugged her and told her she was doing great. Celia wound up running the rest with her -- I was happy to see they would have each other the rest of the race.

I was tired, but elated to know there were just 7.7 miles left to cover. I was so close to being an ultramarathoner! I thought about my kids. They're 3 and 5 and knew I was doing a race today, though too little to know or care that it was a big race. I couldn't wait to finish and go home to my family.

The last leg of the run was slow but OK. Many hills, even gentle ones, were walked. I didn't care. I kept telling myself that I wanted to finish strong and with a smile. It was still within reach. My glutes, hamstrings and calves ached, but nothing serious. At one stop, I squatted to stretch my tight hips and as I looked down, my eyes began to do something funky -- not quite seeing black dots, but the gravel beneath my feet seemed to move a little. Krista said something about blood sugar so I ate some jelly beans stuffed in my pocket.

I also kept thinking to myself about my friends who were there. I felt almost a little embarrassed that they were all making this effort for me. Like anyone, I love attention, and then when I get a lot of it, I'm half thrilled and half thinking I don't deserve this. Just part of my neurotic self, I guess. The race just felt like one big, long, extended hug from friends. Runners are really kind, generous people.

The miles ticked by slowly. Around the point where we had two miles left, a man I had met that morning, Ed, came running toward us. I knew by following him on Strava, the app a lot of runners use to track each other, that he would have been long done with his race. He is an incredibly fast runner and does ultras and marathons a lot, including New York two weeks prior. I wondered if he was adding another loop for fun (?!)

I said "hey!" and he turned around with us, telling us "I love to run first-time ultra runners in." OMG, I could have cried there. That was so sweet! Some of my friends ran ahead, because they wanted to get my photo at the finish line. (Again, how awesome is everyone???) Ed slowed for me and told me about all of the races he'd done. I was still hanging in there, but not dying to talk, so it was great to just listen to him.

Down the final stretch of trail, I could see my girlfriends in front of me. What appeared to be a dog ran around them. But I wondered if it was really a dog, since there didn't seem to be a dog owner with him.

As we got near, the animal darted into the woods but not very far. That was no dog -- it was at least part coyote. It was much bigger than the skinny coyotes we see occasionally on the lakefront in the wee morning hours. I figured there must be some good eating in the forest preserve. He peered at us from a nearby tree, just watching. He was beautiful. I was so relieved I was not alone!

Finally, I could see the finish line! I got excited. At the end, you have to run a giant circle around the park shelter before you can cross the finish line, so it was a little maddening, but I didn't care. I was going to be an ultramarathoner!

As I approached the finish line, I got butterflies in my stomach again. My friends were cheering and I sped up. I crossed the finish line, having completed in every way the race I had hoped and trained for. I cried, all tears of happiness. I was dazed and deliriously thrilled as everyone hugged me. Official time: 7 hours, 11 minutes, 55 seconds.

Janelle, Krista, Kylene and me, with geese friends in the background.

Someone pointed me to a heated tent an Janelle got me a bowl of the most amazing white bean chili. It was 4 pm by the time I was done, and the first "meal" I had had all day. I devoured it and it reminded me of a camping trip to the Boundary Waters my husband and I did in 2001 -- after three days of camping and canoeing in the wilderness, real food and a Coke taste AMAZING. I hope we can do that camping trip again.
Oh happy day! And before dark, too, yay!

The race directors congratulated me and Bill gave me a pint glass that had the name of the race on it and "my first ultra" also printed on the glass. It was awesome! We vowed to be back in March for his 25k race.

My phone battery had died and I stupidly didn't think about texting my husband until I was in the car. Janelle, sitting shotgun, texted him we were on our way. He was like, did she finish? Sometimes I am a crap wife -- who doesn't text her husband after finishing her first ultra? Me. I'm lucky he puts up with me.

By the time I had dropped Janelle off it was getting dark. It was so weird to have spent the entire day at a race and I tried to imagine how people do 50-milers and 100-mile races. 50k is plenty for now.

As soon as I got home, my husband took off to get his hair cut -- he's been trying to get it done, unsuccessfully, all week. 

I kissed my kids and headed for the bathtub -- I was so sore and stiff already and knew a really cold, quick bath would bring down the inflammation. I sat in the tub, clothed and chattering, as my kids ran in and out of the bathroom, chasing each other. As I switched to the wonderful hot shower, C-girl, my 3-year-old, shrieked that she had to go poopy and she wanted me to help her. 

Shower cut short, we finished up and I made dinner for the kids. I was worn out but happy, just happy to be done, basking in my little glow and listening to my little monkeys chatter. 

My husband came home and ordered beef kabobs and beef schwarma (yum) for dinner. I dozed off watchig a dvr'd Colbert Report.

The next day the ice bath paid off. I was sore all over but pretty mobile. I cooked and baked and we hosted play dates for the kids. My husband asked me about my next race and I told him I really didn't know... And it's kind of nice to just "be" right now. I'm an ultramarathoner and I'm just going to roll with that happy thought for awhile.

Adding my final training mileage:

Monday 11/10 Rest
Tuesday 11/11 Unscheduled day off -- M-man up and down all night
Wednesday 11/12 5.2 miles
Thursday 11/13 3.2 miles
Friday 11/14 Rest
Saturday 11/15 RACE DAY! 31 miles
Sunday Rest

Total weekly mileage: 39.4
Total training mileage: 634.5


  1. Congrats on your first ultra! Sounds like you had an awesome time. Really nice that that guy was there to run you in especially with the coyote lurking! Congrats again! :)

  2. Thanks, Pete! It was really great. Glad to rest a bit now.

  3. What a great accomplishment! Congrats!

  4. Tammy it was a great pleasure meeting you and running with you. I loved all the stories and truly enjoyed meeting your friends, I look forward to running with you in the near future and want congrats again on a great finish.