I left Friday afternoon for Winston Salem shortly after posting my last blog entry. Once I arrived in town I quickly drove around the hotel and familiarized myself with my staging point or home base for the weekend. I checked in a bit early thanks to my wife’s platinum status with the hotel chain and left for the packet pick-up to ensure I not only got what I needed but also had time to eat a decent dinner and digest it before the wee hours of the morning when I would have to wake up. I had already surveyed the area for nearby eateries, wanting to eat early so as not to cause any stoma related issues come race time but thought I might pick up the packet right at 4 o’clock and grab something there. I was mistaken. The winding roads through the North Carolina foothills were reminiscent of where I grew up in Western North Carolina, scattered with farms, antiques, and old country homes. There was a familiar feel to the area. When I spotted a mountain top in the distance I murmured to myself, “There are mountains out here”. I headed back to the hotel immediately after I collected my packet and drop bag. I stopped by the Whole Foods across the street and scarfed down a couple of extra large slices of pizza with kombucha tea, then grabbed a cookie and coffee to go so that I good begin race day preparations.
When I got back to the room it was time to start mixing hydration mixes into camel bak bladders, pouring peppered pickle juice into my handhelds, and laying out my clothes and gear for the morning. The surface area of the bathroom counter littered with water bottles and bags of skratch and tailwind resembled a lab. The weather forecast on race day called for cooler temperatures with highs not expected to get much above 60 and an 80 percent chance of rain. The rain had already begun shortly after I returned to my room. My biggest dilemma in laying out the gear was hat or bandana. I typically go full pirate on my runs as I have found that buffs, bandana, and skull caps are better sweat collectors than even the best running hat and do a better job keeping the sweat out of my eyes. Would that be the case if it rained during the ultra? I reached out to the best group in the world Ostomy Lifestyle Athletes for advice on the matter. In the end I decided to start with the hat but bring the skull cap just in case. So I packed all my items that I may need in ziploc bags due to the forecast including an emergency bag change. My camelbak vest often does double duty as its not only a hydration bladder but backpack too capable of carrying more supplies than one would imagine and as it turns out was even necessary. However I like to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
The night before any race is difficult to sleep, the night before your first ultra is even more so. Despite the fact that my alarm was set for three forty-five a.m. I was up throughout the night. The ostomy never helps in that respect. Up extremely early I took a shower to wake up and put on a new appliance. Once I dressed and gathered my things I was out the door and on my way to Danbury, NC where I would have to take a shuttle from the Green Heron Club to the start of the race. When I arrived it was still very early, almost 5 am. It was very muddy from the rain the night before and a light rain continued to fall. Volunteers in headlamps were out at the club early directing traffic into the parking lot. The 50 milers had arrived some time ago to catch their shuttle to their starting line and already departed. The shuttle for the 50k runners, which was initially scheduled to depart at 6:30 did not arrive until 7 a.m. and departed shortly thereafter. I met an ultra runner from Southern California while sitting on the steps of the Green Heron and waiting for the shuttle and we chatted a bit in route to the starting line. I was particularly curious to hear about her take on trail running out west after having visited the ITT (Indian Truck Trail) earlier in the year.
It was pretty quiet at the start of the race and the occasional rain drop I believe had most runners apprehensive about facing a miserable mudfest. While excited about the race I wasn’t as nervous as I am for most road races perhaps because of the distance and having no expectations or idea on how to run the race. When the gun sounded we were off and I was feeling good. The weather was perfect. The temperature early in the morning was actually in the mid to upper sixties and as fair as rain was concerned, it was a mist at best. The trails were gorgeous and it was really easy to get lost in their beauty. For the first few minutes I had in the back of my mind that this would be a piece of cake. The trails so far were groomed, the weather was ideal, and it was beautiful. I was going to hit my stride and not look back. Then a little over a half mile into the race I pulled up lame. I had done something to my calf muscle. I could not even put weight down on my right foot. Limping along the trail on my left foot while grasping my right leg and wincing, I pulled my cell phone out of my vest pocket and called my wife to share the news. This was the worst. I was done for and the 31 mile/50 kilometer race had not even started. With her words, “Don’t hurt yourself anymore than you already have”, I said goodbye and hung up the phone, switching back to airplane mode to preserve battery life.
I started off front of the pack to start the race but as I hopped along the trail on one leg fielding questions and expressions of concern from my fellow runners I in no time had slipped to the back of the pack and questioned whether I could proceed for thirty plus miles. One thing I knew for sure is that I wasn’t a quitter and I had put to much in to this endeavor to give up so early. It took me a while but I continued to tell myself that I had to push through the pain. Fortunately my focus on proper running form helped as I concentrated on running on the balls of my feet and not extending my stride very much. While I typically don’t over stride my new gait was shortened more than normal. By picking my legs up and running on the balls of my feet I was able to minimize the pressure on my calf. In a relatively short amount of time I had developed a rhythm I believed could carry me through the race. It was painful, no doubt. My right calf felt as if someone was stabbing a knife into the lower calf muscle. The trail conditions did not help either. A few miles into the race there was a small stream crossing along a very slick wooden bridge, missing boards and all. With the first advancement of my right leg I slipped and fell backwards catching myself with my hands holding firmly to the rope rails as I fell back inches from the ground. I popped right up but not without aggravation to the injured leg. At the next stream crossing I attempted to hop from rock to rock to avoid getting wet and ultimately made matters worse and still got wet. Lesson number one from my first ultra, “Don’t sweat getting wet”.
Around the same time I had discovered I would be able to push through the pain I realized it really wasn’t raining that hard and the Outdoor Research running cap I started the race in wasn’t collecting sweat and was slipping from around my head. On the run I shoved it into the back of my camelbak pack and whipped out my tie-dye skull cap which was a much better solution and what I wanted to wear the entire time. The first half of the race was rolling hills, farm land, and horse pastures, which made my injury tolerable as the course was not too daunting. I seemed to be making up ground passing several of those that had passed me at the onset, though not nearly in the same numbers. I came across the woman I met at the Green Heron and helped her avoid a course miscue by pointing out a wrong turn. Around mile 8 I reached a farm and the race took a turn down a long gravel road. I was in some significant pain and wanted badly to switch out my leg for a new one. Stopped in the port-a-john to empty my bag, just because it was there, not long after having emptied it on the trail. There was still 23 miles or so to go.
As my forward progress took me further I knew I needed to get calories and protein to sustain me throughout the race. In the weeks leading up to the race I had become wary of the solid food I had attempted to experiment with earlier in the cylcle in large due to the recent development of another parastomal hernia. Thus, I resigned to the fact ahead of time that I would attempt to subsist on gels and chews along with my calorie and electrolyte enhanced concoctions I carried with me in the camelbak. My mind had plenty to think about during the race so at no point did I lack for mental engagement. I attempted to refocus the pain I was experiencing in on the beauty of the course, the weather, nutrition, and ensuring I did not take a wrong turn or step. The creek crossings were numerous and each time my feet got soaked. As the day progressed the water became colder and colder. With the first water crossing I swore I would have to change shoes as soon as I got to the drop bag site, mid-way through the course. However just a few minutes of running past each creek crossing and I had already reconsidered. As I approached the mid-way point, around mile 12 I had drained my 2L camelbak bladder as well as two handhelds and whatever I collected at the last aid station. The next several miles without fluids for an ultra runner/ostomate were murder.
When I reached the midway point and drop bag location it was a relief. I opened my drop bag almost immediately and pulled out my second bladder. That bladder was a godsend. I also grabbed the ultra aspire reusable cup and filled it twenty times over to quench my thirst right away. After exchanging bladders and refilling the collapsable handhelds I sat down on the asphalt and changed my cold soaked socks. It was at that time that a slew of runners made their way to the aid station and I realized whatever lead I had gained after falling back early was now lost. It was also at the halfway point that the race would only begin. Shortly after leaving the aid station with a twinge of pain in my leg and considerable stiffness I raised myself from the ground and proceeded along a long dirt and gravel road. It was at the midpoint of the race that I reconnected with my morning acquaintance from the front steps of the Green Heron. With about 17 miles to go the two of us continued on together for about the next ten miles, chatting about ultra running, our families, jobs, you name it. While a lonely runner for the most part, reveling in the solitude of my long runs during the training cycle I surprisingly enjoyed the company and camaraderie on the run. For my partner it was more of a training run for a longer tougher Arizona 100 miler. For me however it was the culmination of my training.
As it turned out we had more in common than our love of running and reading list. When I explained that I was running with an ostomy and what brought me to that point, she shared with me the fact that her son dealt with an auto immune disease that had him confined to a wheel chair in his teens and that her mother had crohn’s disease. The comfort level we developed over the course of the next 10 miles made it that much easier for me to say, “hey, I’ll catch up after I empty my bag”. At that moment I would walk a couple of feet off the trail find a low hanging sizeable tree leaf with which to wipe the lip of my pouch upon emptying and proceed. I carried in the back of my pack some hand sanitizer I would apply liberally after each stop and move on. After several more miles of dirt trails and uphill climbs we reached a crossroad literally that diverted the course of a steep climb of asphalt for the next 3-4 miles. In the weeks leading up to the race it had been announced that a section of the Sauratown Trail was closed and would not be open for the race. Then in the days leading up to the race it was announced that the trail section was open. However the weekend before the race saw Hurricane Joaquin hit the Carolinas. The hurricane caused unprecedented flooding in the Carolina’s, some of which I alluded to in my last post, and apparently re-closed sections of the course. Running along asphalt at this point while welcome by some was extremely painful. I was ready to get back on dirt right away and the the pain from my leg pounding the asphalt reverberated with every step and thus I slowed to a slow crawl. The asphalt trail seemed to continue not only forever but also at a sixty degree incline until we reached the base of the mountain. Not long after we reached the mountain, around mile 23, facing a precipitous ascent to Hanging Rock that I parted ways with my compatriot. The promise of a mere eight miles to the finish brought hope. That hope was quickly squashed by what I called nature’s stairway to hell. I was unable to scale the mountain with any semblance what one would consider running. It was all hiking for me at this point. It had begun to rain again and the temperatures were dropping as the wind picked up. The trails at this point aside from being steep were littered with rocks, stones, and roots. Each time I spied a section of runnable trail I was immediately met by nature’s obstacle course and slowed to a standstill. Women much younger than me fumbling with their earbuds zoomed past me. Only through sheer determination was I able to pass them to inevitably be overcome by those same runners mere seconds later. To most this trail would seem impossible to traverse at a decent clip. Nonetheless there were those that did, leaving with me a deep desire to train and improve upon my ability to navigate “technical” trails.
I realized here that long runs of 20 miles or so throughout the neighborhood and adjacent greenway did nothing to prepare me for real trail running. Neither did the groomed trails of the US National Whitewater Center for that matter. I felt like I was crawling on hands and knees as I made my way rather slowly over the treacherous climb to hanging rock. If I look back I believe there were women and children from the Titanic passing me in life rafts up the mountain. I was moving so slowly that I could have sworn that Estelle Getty passed me with a walker along the path and she’s been dead since 2008. With each step I cursed, not thinking as much of the pain in my right leg, though that was always present, but more of the suffering that this race had caused. I swore never again. Why would anyone put themselves through such torture. Yet as I looked around me there was a plethora of sadistic volunteers, some who volunteered willingly or others enlisted by a partner or significant other. What was the attraction I wondered. I had always heard that less than 1% of the U.S. population had completed a marathon. I would imagine that significantly less would complete an ultra, which would put me and anyone else to accomplish those feats in fairly rare company.
After reaching Hanging Rock the trail began its descent through the start park along more groomed trails and paths, past waterfalls and onto towards the finish line. Once passed the technical trails I was able to pick up my tempo and continue running what seemed at the time to be a decent pace. Of course that was relative I am sure. I felt like I was making up ground quickly. The gatorade provided at the park’s aid station provided a burst of energy. My quickened pace was quickly halted around mile 27. It was there that I entered ultra territory, exceeding the marathon distance of 26.2 and approached the parks waterfalls, the upper and lower cascades. Here was one of the more beautiful and at the same time sadistic sections of a race course I ever witnessed. I had already run a marathon, up a mountain, across streams and mud, and now faced a steep stone staircase that descended alongside the waterfalls. Recognizing that no land speed records were being set this day, I paused to take in the beauty of the falls before carefully and gingerly making my down the steps. Steps were murder on the injured calf and I grimaced with each one. The trails around the falls were a bit more congested as the public was out and it made picking up momentum on some of the more groomed single track difficult.
A couple of more stream crossing and the signs for Dan River access let me know that the finish was within reach. At the final aid station I inquired about the distance to the finish and was told 1.8 miles. It seemed like the longest 1.8 miles I had ever run but before I knew it I had arrived. I picked up the pace once I reached the clearing. I had done it. I had completed my first ultra. It seemed impossible after injuring myself at the onset of the race but it wasn’t. Now I could rest and recover.