As we started 2021, the pandemic continued to affect the ability to participate in in-person races and my goal races of St Croix Winter Ultra and Arrowhead 135 were canceled. I decided to set some goals for myself to help keep me motivated during my training. Ultimately I decided to set a goal of racing 50 miles by my 50th birthday. After a few discussions with Coach Pat, we started ramping up my training in February to run a fast flat solo race with the goal of a sub 8 hour 50 miles. It was good to have a goal and a focus for my training but I was also looking forward to getting back to in-person races. Enter Tom O’Leary and his vision to add a 50-mile distance to the Chester Woods Trail Races Mason Run. As Tom worked to get the approval to host this event, I changed my goals to tackle the 50 mile race with a midnight start and 4,500 ft of climbing in under 9 hours, my goal “50 Miles for 50 Years” race was set.
Fast forward to June 5th. Mentally and physically preparing for a midnight start is not an easy task. I slept in a bit on Saturday morning and topped off my “tank” on my third day of carb-loading while packing for the race and just taking it easy. We had an unexpected opportunity to use a campsite at the park so we headed out and set up a place for Mandy to hang out while I was out running my 10-mile loops. As evening came we went for a nice leisurely walk and covered a few miles of trails that we’ve never explored before because they are not part of the racecourse. Being the anxious person I am, I couldn’t sleep so changed and we went to the parking lot that would serve as my main aid station at the end of each 10ish mile loop. Chairs, a small table, my food, etc were set up and we went over the plan for the night.
Race Director, Tom O’Leary, covered the pre-race information and then got us started by lighting an incredible torch. As he extinguished the torch we started on loop #1. The loop starts on a paved road and then switches to a gravel road which gets you through the first 1.3 miles before heading into the variety of trails that make up the remainder of the course. As I went out with the lead group, I quickly realized that I needed to back off the blazing pace the 5 runners ahead of me were setting if I wanted to achieve my goals. Fortunately, I knew the course route well and I was still close enough to notice the lead pack missed a critical turn at the 2 mile mark. I was able to shout loud enough to get them to turn around and they were eventually able to catch and re-take the lead. As we continued into the heavier wooded section of loop 1 and the group of 25ish runners started to spread out we were presented with the first challenge of the early morning hours. I’m not sure what specific species of insect they were but I’m going to go with mayflies. These mayflies liked the light, they actually swarm to lights, so as a group of runners wearing headlamps entered the dark woods it became an episode of Fear Factor. There was a point where they were so thick around my head that I could not see the ground when I looked down. Fortunately, I was also wearing my Kogalla lights on my waist so I switched that on and turned off the headlamp. While the insects were still there they covered my legs instead of my face. I may have nightmares in the future, but that’s for a different story. Loop 1 continued and I found that my new friend, Nick, was running at my pace so we chatted for the rest of the loop using my Kogalla to light the way for both of us when the mayfly swarms would “attack”. As I approached the end of the loop, Mandy was waiting ready with freshly mixed bottles of Tailwind and a mini buffet of my favorite trail foods. I grabbed a PB&J, some salted potatoes, and a can of Coke and ate and drank while she swapped out my bottles in my pack. She kept me on track and in 2.5 minutes I was back on the move. Overall loop 1 was a bit faster than I had planned but I was feeling good and knew that I would be able to set my own pace for loop 2.
I was joined for about half of loop 2 by Nick, but as he too had his own goals, he decided to drop back and maintain a more comfortable pace. As Nick dropped back, I was entering a long downhill section and took advantage of it picking up the pace as the course rolled through the “Fairy Woods”. I was running most hills but there were 3 bigger hills that I still walked up. I continued my plan of drinking every 15 minutes and kept “learning” how to run the loop in the dark, where I could pick up the pace, and where I needed to watch my footing. I finished the loop feeling good physically, but my stomach was not cooperating. Maybe it was the heat and humidity of the evening or something unrelated but I was unable to even swallow the first bite of my ham and cheese sandwich which along with PB&J were my running food. It was about 3:30 am at this point. I drank some plain water and knew that I was going to have to do the next 10 miles on the calories in my Tailwind drink alone and no solid foods. Fortunately, I trained for this option and knew that while it would not be the same as eating, I could make it work for me. I grabbed some Pringles and headed out for Loop 3 as one last effort to eat something.
At the start of loop 3, I just couldn’t eat the chips I had taken with me, so I switched my focus to trying to feel better which usually starts with Gin Gin hard candies (ginger candy). While I didn’t know it at the time, I wouldn’t eat solid foods for the rest of the race, but the ginger candies worked and I was not feeling sick to my stomach. Loop 3 was completely solo, I saw a few runners on the out and back section but it was very quiet and I was able to enjoy the solitude of the trail. It was the least eventful and most peaceful loop of the race for me. The mayflies had disappeared and I was mesmerized as I watched the sliver of a moon on the horizon and the stars that had helped light my way over the early hours fade in the sky as the glow of the sun slowly intensified. For me, there is something magical about running during the transition of night into the sunrise and watching the new day start. It recharges me and motivates me as I look forward to running without a headlamp. I arrived at the end of the third loop and as always Mandy was there cheering, smiling, and ready for me with everything I needed. One of the best parts of having Mandy crew me is as I grew more tired, she was able to predict what I needed even when I didn’t know I needed it. In this case, she had new buffs and a sleeveless shirt ready as the day was going to get hotter with the sun up. She also had a small snack bag with more Gin Gin candies and some gum in case my stomach turned on me again.
There was some new energy as I headed out on loop 4 as cars of 50k runners started arriving. Lots of waves and cheering as I ran down the paved road section. I was feeling pretty good for the first part of loop 4 but as they say in ultras, “Everything is great until it’s not!”. About 4 miles into the loop, I rolled my left ankle as it slipped off a rock that moved as I stepped on it. While I didn’t break my stride or fall my whole left leg hurt and started to cramp. I started to slow my pace and that is when I started to think about how I could miss my goal because of one misstep. It's amazing how quickly self-doubt and negative thoughts can creep in and start sabotaging you. I started walking the smaller hills and started rationalizing that this was it, it was over. The negative thoughts continued to grow and I was starting the death spiral to a dark place in my mind feeling sorry for myself and how much I was going to disappoint everyone cheering for me to hit my goal. As I wallowed in self-pity, I continued to push on but without the energy I had carried throughout the night, I was simply on auto-pilot. I was about 6-7 miles into the loop which is still in the out and back section and I started seeing 50k runners heading toward me. They were fresh and full of energy and as they saw my 50 mile bib number they started cheering and telling me how good I was doing. It’s amazing how something like positive and supportive cheers from someone I don’t even know could change my outlook. My left leg was hurting but mentally I started to think more positively about what I was doing and decided that no matter what happened I was going to finish what I started and even if I ended up walking, I was going to end the day with 50 miles. As I passed the Team Red aid station the crew there were cheering for me and shouting my name as I passed so I decided to run up the hill that leads away from the aid station. I passed the two gentlemen walking up the hill, one of them shouted to me, “Congrats you have just moved into 3rd place!”. There was a feeling of hope that as long as I kept moving I may miss my goal but I was going to finish well in the race. As I passed more 50k runners, I continued to feed off of the energy the fresh runners had as they headed past me on their way out. Then there was the “spark”. I got a text from Mandy asking if I was ok because I hadn’t checked in on my tracking app that was giving her estimates on when I was going to finish the loop. I was so lost in trying to pick myself up that I simply forgot. I checked in so she knew where I was on the route and as I marched up the “Big Dam Hill” I got inspired. I voice texted Mandy to have some Grape PowerAde and a few ibuprofen waiting for me at the end of the loop. If I could just get my leg to feel a bit better and could run the hills again there was a chance that I’d be able to hold on to my third place spot. It was a struggle but I was running with purpose again. As I finished loop 4 there was an amazing energy level in the parking lot that served as my aid station for the previous loops. The 10 mile and 5k runners were arriving and so many friends were there cheering and congratulating me on how well I was doing. Mandy had me sit as I regrouped and I took a few ibuprofen, drank some Powerade, and then some water. I dumped a cup of water over my head to cool off and after getting a pep talk from Mandy I headed out.
If you know me, I like to do "trail math" when I run. For some reason, it distracts me and helps me reassess my goals and expectations. As I headed down the road, I calculated that loop 5 would need to be my fastest loop of the race and take no more than 1 hour and 40 minutes. While I let that thought sink in and debated the possibilities of making that happen I was getting cheers and honks from friends that were driving down the road to get ready for their 10 mile and 5k races. It was some awesome positive energy. I decided as I turned onto the gravel road that I would not walk anywhere on the course this loop and I was going for my goal or was going to blow up trying. I found a pace that I could maintain, maybe it was the Powerade and ibuprofen cocktail I had or it was my change of attitude but I was running well. I wasn’t sure it would be good enough, but I was giving it everything I had, or at least I thought I was. About 6 miles from the finish, I was passed by one of the 10 mile racers. As he went by, a support ATV drove by and asked me if I wanted some water. I hesitated for a moment but then I turned back and grabbed a bottle of water. As I ran, I drank half and dumped the rest on my head and arms then crushed the bottle into my pack. The 10 miler that had passed me was just ahead and walking up a hill I was able to pass him on the uphill and as I ran by, I decided this was it, this is where I was going to make my final push and race the 10 mile runner for the final 6 miles. With the sound of footsteps behind me, I started to pick up the pace. I never looked back and I never slowed down from that point on. A pushed hard up the hills and even harder on the downhills. As I was entering the final stretch, my watch beeped at the 9 hour mark and read 50.08 miles. I did it! I hit 50 miles in 9 hours. With a half mile to the actual finish line, I sent Mandy a voice text, “I’m on the paved trail and coming in hot”. I ran with all I had and finished in 9:03:34. I had hit my goal, I had a third place overall finish and managed to hold off the 2nd place 10 miler from passing me.
As I sat to recover and eat some solid foods, Mandy gave me the most thoughtful finisher award commemorating my 50 Miles for 50 Years race. I am so lucky to have her at my side in our adventures and I know that I could not have done this without her support. She kept my aid stops fast and efficient and kept me positive even when things were not going well.
I want to thank Mandy simply for everything. Thanks to Coach Pat at Trail Transformation for putting together the training plan, the race plan, and all of the encouragement that put me in the position to reach my goal. Alex at Alex Larson Nutrition gets a huge thank you for working with me over the last 3 months and teaching me that running nutrition is really daily nutrition and you “eat to run” not “run to eat”. A special shout out to both Steve Tannen who let us use his campsite as a “home base” for Mandy during the race and to Mike Schmitt who put the icing on the cake, quite literally, and delivered a birthday cake to the finish line.