Trail & Ultra Running.
My son is currently working on a documentary about mental health and running. Here is a link to the trailer.
I race a lot. I have my reasons. It’s something that I enjoy otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. This does not mean that every second of every race is all hunky dory. The events that I repeatedly put myself in continuously challenge me to extreme levels. I don’t always feel the need to write about each experience but sometimes I feel compelled to do so. The Autumn Leaves 50 Miler is one such event.
First, a little background. At the start of 2017, I had my entire race calendar laid out. I made sure that I had some weekends free for family and generally I don’t like to race two weeks in a row because I feel guilty leaving my kids at home. I had two “A” races; the Boston Marathon and Pine to Palm 100. Everything else was either for fun, adventure, or a training run for one of those. Then…the Pine to Palm 100 was cancelled due to wildfires. I panicked a bit because I wanted to earn my Western States Lottery tickets for 2018. So, I registered for the Chimera 100 which was in November but within a day of this, I realized the race didn’t meet the cutoff and it would be a qualifier for 2019 instead. Shortly thereafter, all the Pine to Palm runners received an email from the Headlands 100 race director telling us that for this year only, the race would be sanctioned as a 2018 Western States Qualifier. Also, all the P2P runners would receive a 30% entry discount. How perfect! It was even going to be held the same day Pine to Palm would have been. Perfect, except that now I had TWO 100 mile races in a 2 month period…having only completed one prior to this, in which I missed the cutoff for an “official” finish by over an hour.
So, this is what you call “taking a risk.” I didn’t even know if I would be able to finish Headlands in the allotted time or if I would walk away without injury. After Mountain Lakes 100 in 2016, I dealt with a foot tendon issue for months before it healed completely. Fortunately, the race went well. Ok, “well” in a one hundred mile race is a very relative term. But I finished Headlands in under 30 hours, got my qualifier for 2018 Western States, met a couple of really cool people, and gained a bit more confidence in the longer race distance.
After this, I had the opportunity to meet some friends at the Grand Canyon to run the Rim to Rim to Rim distance. This had been planned for months, prior to knowing that I would be running another 100 miler the next month. Most 100 mile training plans call for a 50 miler or 100k distance about a month before. Even though I was doing the long distance at the Grand Canyon, I knew we would be stopping frequently and that it wouldn’t be quite the same as a race. That’s when I decided to add on Silver Falls 50 Miler. The timing wasn’t completely perfect. It fell 3 weeks before Chimera 100 and only a week before Silver Falls 50k, which had been planned out for months. It was so last minute. I registered without really looking at the course. My friend Mary later mentioned to me that it was loops and a mostly paved trail so I decided I should actually see what I’ll be racing. She was right. A 6.25 mile loop that we would run 8 times; 80% paved bike path, 20% single track non-technical trail. My first thought was “ewww, yuck.” But I decided I would make it work. I really didn’t have any other options unless I wanted to go run a solo 50 miler on the Burke Gilman Trail in Seattle like I did the year before. No thanks! I researched a bit more and figured that at least loops would help break the race up into bits. This actually ended up really helping me out.
Friday evening, the night before the race, I left the house around 4:15 and pulled into French Prairie Rest Area around 8:30…brushed my teeth and went right to sleep on my air mattress in the back of the Xterra. This has become a new money saving routine for me, which I actually quite enjoy, although sleeping in the mountains is my preference. Saturday morning, I only had a 15 minute drive to the race start at Champoeg State Park in St. Paul, Oregon. I met my super speedy friend Robert there. He was the only runner I knew. It was very dark and secluded. I picked up my bib and they gave me a nice quality beanie leftover from a previous race. I was #30, which seemed pretty cool since my birthday is on the 3oth. Both seemed like quite good omens.
Overall, it was a fairly low key event. There was a 50k and 50 mile option, both which had less than 100 registered runners in each. I was a bit worried because most of my training had been for mountain ultras so I wasn’t even sure how to run this. The race had offered a 6 am start as well because the park closes at 7 pm; that allowed slower runners to have ample time to finish. That first loop was quite lovely. It was dawn; a brisk morning but just the perfect temperature. I had on a few extra layers that first loop but felt quite comfortable. I’m highly sensitive to smells and this race was named very appropriately. The scent of autumn leaves was abundant. The colors surrounding the forest reminded me of the opening scene from the Lion King cartoon. They didn’t even seem real; so vivid and bright. I’ve been in situations like that before in the early morning hours and there is nothing quite like waking up with nature. The way the sights, sounds, and smells reach your senses cannot be matched. I didn’t listen to music on this lap at all…or on the next two, which I think allowed me to be more in touch with my surroundings. On the third loop, another runner came up from behind and set pace with me. It was his first 50k. We ran that loop together, which was quite nice.
Because the loop had a turn around point, you got to see a lot of the same faces for the duration of the event which made the comradery level quite high. Since moving back to Washington, I’ve been running a lot of mountain ultras. Even though this was ultra distance, it had a different tone to it. There were some pretty fast people, especially leading the 50k and the men’s 50 miler (Robert!). I really don’t consider myself to be of that same caliber at all. I noticed that this race brought in a different type of crowd; a group of people that really inspired me. There was a 75 year old man who basically speed walked the entire 50k with one arm in a sling. A heavy set middle aged man with his knees wrapped up, also power walking, that looked as though he was in immense pain with every step he took but would somehow manage a smile every time I passed by him. Quite a few older runners who had awkward gaits so you could tell this was more of a struggle for them than your Average Joe. Lots of people either power walking with a friend or doing run/walk intervals and turning the entire day into a friendly social hour.
When I reached the halfway point of my race, it occurred to me that I that I hadn’t prepared specifically for this terrain…I mosly run hills or trails and hadn’t done anything over 15 miles on the road in months. As the pain from the pavement began taking it’s toll, these people I had seen throughout the race; their faces, their fortitude...that's what got me through those last 4 loops. Whatever I was feeling was surpassed by my thougths of them. When all I wanted to do was stop and walk, they kept me going. So often, I think of people who are unable to run for various reasons and feel gratitude that I am able to do this thing I love. But right here were real life people…people who were doing what they love despite whatever obstacles were in their way. It was so empowering.
So, this turn around previously mentioned. That is how I knew where I stood in the race at all times. I wasn’t sure if there were any fast women who may have started early but based on the 7 am start, I was 4th place female for the first half. The number 1 lady was only a mile ahead and the other 2 were scattered between us. I’ve participated in enough ultras to know that the true race doesn’t begin until the second half and that’s exactly what happened in this case. But I wasn’t truly prepared for how things fell into place. I came in at the end of my 5th loop and saw the second place girl just sitting at the aid station. Just sitting there. So, I moved on. During the middle of the 6th loop, I passed up the next girl in front of me at the other aid station. When I turned around to start my 7th loop, she was just coming in and gave me a big high five. I later found out that she had dropped from the race at that point. This now put me into second place.
My head began playing tricks on me. I was thinking second place was pretty freaking awesome. I’d be perfectly fine with second place. The number one girl looked strong the whole time. I didn’t think she would falter and I knew I was still at least ten minutes or more behind her. My body was achy and sore and all I could do is keep moving forward, trying not to walk, knocking one slow mile off at a time. I was in the mode of just anticipating the next aid station, resting for a few seconds, then making it to the next aid station. I was about a mile from finishing lap 7, roughly mile 43. I came around a corner and there she was. The number 1 girl. Walking. No freaking way! I came upon her very slowly. She had looked so amazing during the race. This was the last thing I had expected to see. Part of me wanted to stop and walk with her but I knew if I gave into walking, it would be hard for me to start up again. So I just gave her a smile that I hope she took the right way and slowly trudged by her.
I kept thinking that any second she would find her second wind and come powering by me. I made it to the turn around and spent just a few seconds getting a drink and fuel. My friend Robert who had already finished (first overall male) yelled “Yay Tabatha! Sub-9 50 miler!” as though I was already finished, like it had already happened. I thought “oh great, more pressure.” I came out to loop #8 expecting to pass the number 1 girl in the first section that has two way traffic but there was no sign of her. I knew I now had at least a ½ mile lead. Then something changed within me. I went from being worried about her passing me to discovering an extreme sense of self confidence. I was the number one girl. Me. Of a 50 mile race! Elation, pride, pure happiness…it all came over me at once.
Race "bling." I do feel that buckles should be sacred for the 100 mile distance, however, I'm still keeping it.
I picked up my pace. I tried to stay extra positive on this loop, give extra praise to the people I passed and to the volunteers. I was receiving the same in turn. So many of the runners there knew it was my last loop somehow and encouraged me to finish strong. It was more fuel to the fire. My feet, ankles, legs…were like running on constant pins and needles; it was heart and soul that carried me through to the finish line. I went through the final aid station and hit the singletrack trail (my favorite part!) and slowly started picking up the pace. I looked at my watch. I was getting pretty close to the 9 hour mark. I thought back to my first Ironman when I came in at 14 hours and 29 seconds. I thought, “Oh hell no! That’s not happening!” so I gave it everything I got.
My official finish time was 8:58:45. When I think about my pace during the run, I don’t think each mile was fast at all. But when the thought crosses my mind that I ran 50 miles in under 9 hours, I’m a bit in awe. I may never be able to do that again. I’m still astonished that I finished a race as the first place female. It kind of all feels like a dream. But then I go from a seated to a standing position and my hip flexors, knees, and ankles quickly remind me. Nope. Real. Definitely real.
Ultra runner in Washington state with dreams of setting a Guiness World Record in 2019.