50K of Learning As I Go

Nonevent: Team Slug International Fattest Butt 50K (approximately 32 miles)
When & Where: 8:20 a.m. Jan. 5, Killens Pond State Park, Felton, Del.
Results: 6:05 (1st female)

While focusing on marathon training for the past several years I’ve been inspired by ultrarunners, those runners who get to 26.2 miles and then just keep on going. On Saturday I joined their lower ranks as I took my first strides beyond the marathon distance. Those not quite nimble steps were at times challenging and humbling, mostly fun, and always in good company.

Encouraged by friends Mandy and Derek who I met last spring while supporting my friend Meredith Murphy in her quest for a 100 mile run finish, I decided last fall to put any remaining fitness from Kiawah Island Marathon toward a 50K. The ultrarunning group Derek and Mandy are part of, Team Slug International, organizes an informal one each January outside of Dover, Del. The Fattest Butt 50K “nonevent” is TSI’s variation on a “Fat Ass” run:  A friendly, no-frills semi-race that is a winter tradition in the ultrarunning community meant to encourage participants to get their behinds in gear after the holiday season of excesses.

As it turned out the Fattest Butt would dramatically change the appearance of my own derriere and, in the process, become the week’s second and true Wardrobe Malfunction run.

Festivities started Friday night when Mandy met Staci, Lloyd (two other running friends) and I and took us to a local Dover Italian eatery for pre-run carbs. Between bites of bread and pasta, first-timers Staci and I had many questions for Mandy and Lloyd, who have both completed ultra-distance events. After dinner we walked to a grocery store a few doors down for some last-minute provisions. Temperatures in the 20s felt positively frigid to my Southern-acclimated body, and I hoped the rumored warmer forecast for Saturday would prove accurate. Staci, Lloyd, and I shared some stories over beers back at the hotel where we were all staying. Then it was time to do the usual race preparation routine of getting my gear and clothing ready to go for the morning before bed.

The next morning I woke up a few minutes before my alarm and did not want to get out of the very cozy, warm, and enticing pillow-top bed. I could have stayed under the covers all day. After a few minutes of coaxing, I forced myself from the comfort zone and quickly dressed to converge upon the well-stocked hotel breakfast for coffee and my usual pre-long run meal: oatmeal with peanut butter. Mandy came back to lead our caravan, and Staci, Lloyd, and I followed her to the park. Race Director Derek ushered us in, and the 28 runners began casually setting up water and fueling items of choice on a cluster of picnic tables. There was also a community table in the middle where we donated more substantial eats so people could help themselves during or after the run. Everyone was exchanging introductions and appearing very relaxed. The pre-run routine and atmosphere drastically contrasted marathons, where I get up three hours early to digest breakfast and arrive at a starting area swarming with striding runners and buzzing with nervous energy.

After a short briefing and prayer the run started. Again there was no typical road marathon start of jostling and swerving. Heck, there wasn’t a Start line! Mandy led us out on the 3.2-mile packed dirt trail circling Killens Pond. We would retrace the route 10 times to reach the 50K distance, passing through the picnic area each time for provisions. The sun brightened a partly-cloudy sky and made the 30-degree air feel comfortable.

I spent the first two loops running and chatting with Meredith and Staci, and trying to memorize the trail. Derek’s directions had been a simple “keep the pond to your left,” and after the first two loops I felt oriented and ready to spend a little quiet me time in the woods. Gradually I pulled away and hoped I would meet up with Staci and Meredith in the late loops when I anticipated needing encouragement. I had not done any training specific to a 50K other than run a marathon four weeks earlier, recover for a very easy week, then return to regular easy running with one 16 mile long run thrown in on Dec. 22. Total winging it. Everyone had assured me that was more than enough as long as I took the 50K at an easy pace, but I was still questioning my sanity and a little bit doubting if I could complete the distance. It seemed like such a long way, so I decided to simply think of it as 10 loops instead of a specific amount of mileage.

During Loop 3, I briefly ran and talked with two gentlemen. Larry had come from Texas to add Delaware to his list on his 7th cycle of completing a marathon or longer run in all 50 states. Gilles, a resident of Vancouver B.C., was visiting family nearby and took the opportunity to do a much flatter course. It was impressive to realize how far dedicated ultrarunners will travel for a low-profile run in a relatively low-profile sport.

Even for a coastal dweller like me, the course’s few small inclines barely intensified my breathing.  To give my legs a break, I adopted a method many ultrarunners use of walking the “ups” and otherwise running the “flats” and “downs.” Without nearby trails to run regularly where I live I was overjoyed to have a good part of the day ahead to be on the path, and was deep in appreciation of the surroundings when Lloyd surprised me from behind.  He is a faster runner, but I hadn’t expected to see him that early in the day. Even though his intention wasn’t to run all out that day, he said he’d fallen in with two runners who were out for a race and pushed their pace for a few loops before letting them go. We compared our days so far before he pulled ahead of me.

Before coming in to the aid station for Loop 5, I noticed that my hands were starting to swell. This common side effect can indicate low blood sodium but I usually don’t experience it so early in a long run, especially when drinking Gatorade as I had been. I spent a little extra time at the picnic area and took an electrolyte tablet along with a portion of peanut butter and honey sandwich for some extra energy. Lloyd showed up in the picnic area and I was surprised again to see him before I quickly headed out. I had a surge of energy and motivation all of a sudden and was ready to make some good progress.

My pace picked up to what felt like marathon pace and I had the sensation of flying along the trail. It was a serious runner’s high enhanced even more by the natural setting, always my favorite for reflective running. Last night at dinner we had talked about a different event, the Self-Transendence Marathon in New York, but I felt on the verge of my own enlightening endurance episode in the middle of Delaware. Lloyd had caught up to me by now, and I was enthusiastically evangelizing about what a great trip I was having.

“I feel amazing! This is so much fun!”

“It’s such a beautiful day!”

“I just have to watch my footing a little more on this trail! Especially the downhills! I feel a little off-balance going down!”

“But, this is THE BEST!”

Wheeee … I took flight and time slowed as I floated peacefully for what seemed like 10 seconds before coming down hard on my right side. THUD! I was shocked to find myself face down in the dirt. Not wanting to break the great rhythm I’d had, I moved to get right back up — but was stuck to something. My running tights were clinging to a small stump that left a 3″ hole in the seat of my tights as I stood. Lloyd walked with me for a minute and I remarked “Damn, this is the second time this week I am running with my ass hanging out!” He instructed me to put on his extra pants when I got back to the picnic area, then ran ahead so I could focus on staying upright rather than on talking to another runner. I took two Tylenols to prevent any aching and felt truly lucky to be uninjured and pain-free after that fall. I quickly resumed running, but at a more conservative pace and with my eyes firmly fixed on the trail.

Back in the picnic area there was a little show & tell with my boo-tay boo-boo. Derek and Assistant Race Director Debbie immediately began showing their genuine concern by taking close-up photos of my bloody butt, but Derek did graciously help me put on the other pants. They fit perfectly and after a cautioning to take it easier and be safe by race volunteer John I was ready for the second five loops.

Maybe it was the fall or the break in momentum with a longer stop, but Loops 6 and 7 were groggy. I wasn’t running slower yet, but I felt less coordinated and alert. I kept thinking how a nap would be perfect and daydreaming about that pillow-top bed I’d get to crawl into later. Everyone told me I would have a low period, so I figured I was experiencing the ultra lull. It still wasn’t anywhere near the struggles I’ve worked thorough in marathons, so I just thought positively, kept up my electrolyte-peanut butter sandwich combo at the aid station, and waited for the fatigue to pass. I got a small boost when I came up on Mandy, who is the cutest ultrarunner ever with her assortment of running skirts and always positive attitude. By Loop 8 I felt revived and like a lifelong native of the trail. By now I could anticipate its landmarks: There’s the first bridge. There’s the place where I fell. There’s the cabin area. There’s the good view of the pond that’s just starting to freeze. There’s the tree where dozens of lovers carved their initials.

Before leaving the picnic spot for Loop 9, I knew finishing would be easy and said to Derek “After the next loop I’ll be an ultramarathoner, and one more after that one, I’ll be a Slug!” My legs were heavier now and I was slowing, but still only felt like walking the “ups.” I discovered what Meredith had told me was true, that starting to run again after a walk break is very difficult on tired legs. So I just kept running.

To make sure I learned whatever I am supposed to learn, on Loop 9 just as I noticed I was coming up on the spot where I’d fallen, sure enough I was bowing before the trail gods on hands and knees again in the exact same place. This time I had been shuffling instead of charging, so I got up, shook it off, and kept moving forward. In the aid station I briefly chatted with Derek before setting out on my last and final jog around Killens Pond.

During what I told myself was “the victory lap,” I took a little time to try to come to some personal conclusions about the tiny amount of experience I now had in the sport of ultramarathoning. I would finish in around 6 hours, the longest duration I have spent on a single episode of any physical activity. The whole endeavor seemed a bit ludicrous, yet I could honestly say I’d had a good time the whole way. Spending time outside on trails has long been therapeutic to me, and something I dearly missed especially during the last couple years.  This activity combined trail time with my favorite sport of distance running. Coming up on 32 miles with plenty of energy left, I had no problem imagining tackling a longer ultra distance event such as a 50 mile run with proper training. Still, I wasn’t sure I liked the relatively slower running pace, and at times had thought about how a nice day hike would be more fun with possibly less chance of injury. The fall had been startling, and more than once I’d thought about dearly held plans for the first half of 2008 that would be shelved if I’d broken a bone. But I hadn’t broken a bone. I wasn’t seriously hurt, and the pond loop trail was certainly not the last chance for potential injury I’ll encounter between now and April. 

In a few minutes I would come in to the picnic area and see friends’ faces sharing my achievement of a personal distance record on foot. In the marathon four weeks’ prior, I was fortunate to gain a huge sense of accomplishment and reward for hard work. But as I gave the Fattest Butt its final pat, I savored feelings of gratitude, appreciation, and joy that I wish everyone could and would experience by simply putting one foot in front of the other. Running has so many rewards, but I think this is among its most precious gifts.

Running to the picnic area for the last time, I heard a few claps and cheers. “I am a Slug!” I yelled in response. Debbie and Lloyd snapped photos of me coming in and receiving my award, the famous bad-ass black Team Slug T-shirt. Finally I was reunited with Meredith and Staci, who finished four minutes later to all of our applause and excitement.

It was cold if you weren’t running, and Staci and I went off to change into dry clothes so we could stay as warm as possible. The bath house was closed, so we ended up changing with only the back wall for privacy. Now we were ultrarunners, who are reputed to be the “craziest” in running circles, so it seemed like a natural slightly nutty thing to do. We rejoined the growing number of finishers at the picnic tables and savored delicious Cup-o-Noodles and other snacks before walking back on the trail with Meredith to loosen our legs and remove a few course marking ribbons from branches. Meredith’s husband Eddie came in for his first ultramarathon and first-ever race finish as we headed out, so we got to be the first to congratulate him.

Everyone pitched in to clean up the little spot that helped keep us going that day. Runner and volunteer Slugs alike said congratulations, thank you, and good-bye to each other before spreading out in their various directions, leaving the trail but taking the rewards and memories of its 32 miles.

6 Responses to “50K of Learning As I Go”

  1. 1 Staci January 8, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    I can’t begin to tell you how sorry I am that I missed seeing your boo-boo in person! That pictures looks painful! I had no idea that your ass was REALLY hanging out! Poor bubbie…does it feel better now?

  2. 2 Carla January 8, 2008 at 9:40 pm

    You go, Janet Jackson! Your butt looks like it really hurts.

  3. 3 Andrea January 8, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    Thanks for all the butt love, girls. 😉 The back end has seen better days indeed, and currently about 1/4 looks tie-dyed red, pink, purple, and blue. Pretty groovy really! It’s a bit tender but I think I’m going to live.

  4. 4 Meredith January 9, 2008 at 5:07 pm

    Nice ass. 🙂

    Great job on your first ultra. You did awesome. I had a great time with you at the race!

  5. 5 Amy January 20, 2008 at 7:57 pm

    Finally got a chance to read through this – great work! You fell twice in the same spot? You dummy! 🙂

    And (peremptory strike here) there is no way in hell either you or Meredith will ever convince me to run 32 miles.

  1. 1 Boston Training: Week 1 Recap « In The Distance Trackback on January 27, 2008 at 10:07 pm

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