Throughout four months of training for my first ultra marathon, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. And even seconds before the gun went off, standing in the grassy clearing at the start line of this race in my Pace Gloves and my Team SquirrelWipe tank top, I still had no idea. I have come to the conclusion that one has no way to fathom what a trail ultra is like, until one completes a trail ultra.
My friend Sherée and I started the race at the very back of the pack because I knew we’d be there soon enough anyway. Besides, I’m not too fond of watching 300 people (including my more talented running friends Shelly Robillard, Adam Gentile and Brad Waterson) whiz past me at the beginning of a race – it’s just not great for morale. And I had to pee in the woods ASAP because the lines at the porta-johns were too long.
We started at a modest pace, feeling brave and adventurous. I knew there would be hills, lots of them. Steep ones. But I did my best to ignore that reality for as long as possible. We flew over the first few of those hills and glided back down. The trail was clean, soft and mostly rock-free. There were frequent breaks from the woods into acres of gorgeous, grassy pasture that had been mowed down to form perfect 5-foot wide trails snaking around and crossing over each other. I was exhilarated and the view was breathtaking. There were cows, white picket fences, farm houses and sunshine. It was ridiculously awesome, and I’d never been happier to be running.
We had a timely arrival to the second aid station of the race, which was actually three stations in one, all set up at angles connected to different sections of trail in the middle of a mowed pasture. Turns out I would have some important encounters with people at this very station throughout the race. The first of them was right then, as Brad waved at me from the second of the three stops. Damn he’s fast. “How did he already get there?!” Sherée asked me as we stuffed our faces with bananas, Oreos and quartered PB&J sandwiches (we didn’t give ourselves time to eat breakfast before the race). I didn’t know…but all of a sudden I needed to catch up.
I might have wanted to catch Brad a little too much, though, because we probably went too fast and I lost Sherée once we got back to that station again. Her injury was flaring up so she decided to call it early. At first I was thinking “lucky bitch,” but it wasn’t until many miles later that I would realize how lucky I was that she didn’t run the whole race.
The second time I met someone at this three-in-one aid station, it was Jason Robillard. He was on mile I-dunno-what (he was running the 50 mile race) and I’d just started my second of two laps around the course, probably somewhere around mile 17. I had just left the porta-john and was busy eyeing the water truck that had just come in, fantasizing about hopping in the back and calling it a day. Just as I opened my mouth to ask someone if I could get a ride, I was pulled violently from my reverie with the sun-shiny words “Hey, Trisha!” to my right. There was Jason, looking fresh as a fucking daisy.
I will admit I was thrilled to see him again, after having already spent some time running together a few miles back. When he came up to me then, hooting and hollering something about Team SquirrelWipe from behind me, I was insanely relieved to have him there. I was working on mile 12 or 13 (now’s a good time to mention that I purposely didn’t wear my Garmin – the jury is out on whether that was a smart move), and hitting my first major low. We chatted a bit and compared notes, and then before going ahead on his own, Jason helped me visualize running past the start/finish at mile 15.5, and then moving on to that second lap without even thinking. He told me to ride out the low end of this wave like these rolling hills, and then he took off up the hill like a barefoot stallion. Er…yeah.
He probably didn’t realize that every one of the 50 or so 25K runners that flew past me after that were going to sink me further and further into that wave.
But I digress. Now I was past the start/finish, and I’m sure he was glad to see his advice helped me get this far. He listened to me garble on about being tired and completely ignored my ideas about quitting, as if I hadn’t even voiced them. He didn’t seem to give one or two shits that I’d been crying only minutes before reaching this aid station. He told me this was all normal – normal! – and sent me on my way, telling me which station I should plan to get food from. He never stopped being positive for one millisecond. Damn him.
And after some time I found the aid stations were becoming part of an emotional pattern for me. I’d see one, speed up, arrive with a smile, and then someone would ask me what I wanted in my handheld (eventually they stopped asking and just took it from me, because I was too exhausted and confused to answer). I’d spend a few moments lollygagging around (later, I’d spend a lot more moments) and then I’d grab a handful of the closest food item from the table and shove it in my mouth as I left. Then I would run for a good clip, feeling refreshed and rather happy. And then after awhile I would grow tired, come to the bottom of a big hill and start to walk. Then I would sink into a deep, lonely despair, unable to run much more (because there were too many hills) until I caught sight of the next aid station.
This cycle repeated for me until the 6th and final time I reached that infamous three-in-one aid station. I let the nice aid station lady (it could have been a dude for all I know – people were getting sort of fuzzy by now) fill up my handheld with Cytomax and I took a little sit-down on the grass beside the food table. I was perhaps at mile 23 or so, and I couldn’t feel my face. This time I was definitely going to get someone to drive me in. I don’t know how long I sat there deciding, but it might have been ten or more minutes. The teenagers were starting to give me worried looks when a 70 year old woman named Terry came along. I remembered passing her back at mile one (good lord). She asked me why I was sitting down, and I nonchalantly told her that it was because I was waiting for my ride back.
Now, tiny little Terry might have looked frail, but she pulled me off that grass like she was plucking a daisy in a field. “Let’s go,” she demanded. “You’re nearly done, you’re not stopping now.” I spent the next three miles walking with her, while she distracted my exhausted tears with stories from her long and amazing ultramarathon career (and I do mean amazing). She got me as far as the start/finish area (mile 26), where I decided to take a short pit-stop at the porta-johns. I had only five miles left.
In the porta-john I decided that since I’d just run a marathon, that was good enough. That it was taking too damn long for me to finish this race, and that it was time to go find Sheree in the crowd, tell her I’m all set, and have a beer together. Mmmm. Beer. Then I realized there was no more toilet paper, so it was a damn good thing that I’d shoved some in the side pocket of my handheld that morning. Phew.
I stepped out, looked up, and…shit. There was Sherée. Standing at the top of the hill like a monument of resolve. The look on her face said she wasn’t going to let me stop. “Let’s go, honey, there’ s just five miles left and I’m running them with you.”
Now I realize that obviously, I never really wanted to quit before I finished. If I did, I am more than pig-headed enough to have overcome all of my friends’ determination to keep me going. It’s embarrassing now that some of them had to watch me whine like an over-tired 5 year old as I walked through the start/finish toward my final 9K loop, but I was going to do it either way.
I think in the end I just needed some companionship, and I’m not sure I could ever make Sherée understand how much it meant to me that she was there right then. Those hills, those woods were really lonely. It’s fairly obvious that my legs were not quite prepared for the constant barrage of hills on this decidedly hellish course, but I was absolutely blindsided by my emotional despair and overwhelming sense of aloneness. Normally I prefer running alone, I even have written articles on the positives of running alone. But my mind, my heart, just could not handle my loneliness during this race. And that’s probably why I lingered for so long at the aid stations (I figure I wasted about 1.5 hours at them), and why I practically waited for people like Terry and Jason to come along and lift me out of my interminable funk.
I was also surprised that I preferred the fields to the wooded parts of the course. Everyone around me (er…passing me) was bitching about the heat and sun as the afternoon closed in, but throughout the day I found that the sunny fields were the only areas I really felt like opening up to a run. The sun was hot and yucky, but I barely noticed. Its familiarity lifted me out of my emotional darkness. But more than anything else, contrary to the woods the fields were more or less flat. Even toward the end of the race I found I could maintain a much better running pace on these flat areas. In the end I guess it really was the hills (and, perhaps, the hills alone) that made this race so profoundly difficult for me.
After a quick stop at the bag drop-off to bandage a small blister and check my phone for inspirational text messages (of which I had many, because I’ve got amazing friends), Sherée and I took off for the last five miles. The first half mile was in the fields – those lovely fields – and Sherée gingerly commented that I was going pretty fast. I didn’t care. I felt good, I wanted to run fast and I wanted to be done. Soon as we entered the hilly woods, I fell apart again like clockwork. But she whisked me through this last hour as fast as she could on fresh legs. She was so unwaveringly supportive, that I’m pretty sure she would have carried me to the finish line if necessary.
But before too long (well…nevermind, it was way too long), we were almost done. All I had to do was cross the street and enter the clearing toward the finish line. Sherée sent me on as I sped up to a trot, then a run, then a faster run. Brad appeared before me – barefoot, flailing and making wild noises like he was trying to scare the cows. There were strangers clapping and hooting at me, and cowbells ringing out their metallic monotone as I sprinted for the finishers chute, dead fucking last, with a colossal grin on my face.
I have a few conclusions about this race. Some of them relate to my embarrassingly bad finish time, my feelings about having walked too much and whined too much, my regret over picking such a difficult course, etc. And others point to the little victories, like the fact that I didn’t get hurt, that I handled all the downhills surprisingly well, and that I finished at all, even though I was the last one to do so.
In the end, perhaps my finishing this race was more of a testament to my will and determination than it was to my
slacker training. But the bare fact is that I finished. I did it. I might be the slowest one under the age of 70 but I am an ultra-marathoner.
And as Jason Robillard promised would happen, I kinda can’t wait to sign up for my next 50K.
One with fewer hills.