Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Ultra that almost didn't happen

Wow. I never could have imagined how much fun could be had at such a tough event. And, the strength that I had to draw upon (not just from others, but also from myself) was amazing.I have done a few marathons, but they have all happened in daylight. And I have done many races with friends, but never a race of this magnitude with so many wonderful gal pals by my side.

It's hard to put into words all the struggles, feelings and emotions that went down during the 6+ hours of my first ultra, but I will try to best re-create the scenario. First of all, this event, Chistmas in July, took place, as you can probably guess, in July (and Friday, July 17th, was the current hottest day on record at this location). This weekend-long celebration included the usual 5K and 10K, but also 6-hour, 12-hour, and 24-hour timed events as well. My event, the 6-hour endurance race, started at midnight (when most of us, myself included, are usually sleeping). And, I had set my goal on running a 50K (31 miles, my longest distance ever) within the 6-hour time limit. If you do the math, that's already three strikes against me before we even pulled into the parking lot.

Chi-Town, here we come!
Thankfully, I was not alone in this endeavor. My dear friend, Barb, came along for the adventure. We were staying with Penny, another dear friend whom I have known for awhile and have run/raced with before (Rock -N Roll Chicago last summer). We also were meeting up with Karen, another friend I recently met face-to-face at Drake Relays half marathon (but have known via social media for a couple years). New to my "mix" of friends were Maggie, Michelle, and Teri...all gals I have known through Facebook, but had never been up close and personal with...yet.

We arrived at Penny's house on Thursday evening, in hopes of getting at least one good night of sleep. We spent most of Friday inside, trying to avoid the heat (temps in the mid-90's with high humidity). Having never run a 6-hour race at midnight, we were unsure about what we should do regarding food and at the regular dinner time? Have "usual" breakfast food, as if it were a morning race? Or a carb-heavy meal of pasta? What about taking a nap after dinner? Would that give us a little bit of rest, or make us more tired?

All dressed up and nowhere to go...just yet...
As if the food/fueling wasn't enough to worry about, the sudden warm front that had come in Thursday had brought with it a threat of rain and thunder storms. WHAT???? I had brought along a light, "rain proof" jacket (just in case), but had forgone the mandatory hat for rain cover. All of the Doppler reports we checked that evening, though, showed the storm cells passing through, and it appeared all of the major rain would be gone by race time (#fingerscrossed).

Just lounging with the ankle timing device in place

Michelle met us at Penny's house at 10:00PM, and we headed to the race, arriving there around 10:30. As soon we pulled into the parking lot, we spotted Karen's car (Teri was with her), so we were able to park right alongside them. Although we had driven in a little bit of light rain, it had stopped by the time we got to the race. The air was still humid, but felt a little bit cooler. But there were occasional lightning in the distance.

A short while later, Maggie arrived and our UBAGE (Ultra BadAss Girls Extravaganza) team was complete.

First, we set up "camp"

We walked around and checked out all the decorations....

Christmas lights everywhere!

We scoped out the display of awards. Aren't they cute? Nutcrackers would be awarded to various top finishers

We may have taken a few silly pictures.....

I left a graffiti message on Santa (someone had to give him a Herky tattoo, and proclaim "Go Hawks!").

Well, hey there, Santa.....What's that? You're a Hawkeye fan, too?

They called for all of the 6-hour runners to line up, and a few minutes later, we were off and running. All of us are seasoned marathoners, but for the Iowa gals (Barb and myself), this was our first time running an ultra. For all of us, though, (except for Karen, who had run this event last year), this was our first-ever over-night race.

Glow necklace in place (and a bracelet hooked around my headband)...ready for the stroke of midnight so we can get the party started
 A unique feature about this event is the course. Instead of running through city streets, open trails, or looping around town, this course was a 1-mile route (technically, it was .973) that we had to run repeatedly, as many times as we were able, within our 6-hour time limit. There were luminaries all along the route to light our way, several blow-up displays and occasional lighted Christmas trees. The route started out along a street (on the sidewalk), then turned onto an asphalt trail that twisted and turned around a lake (involving a bridge). There was a long, curved path up a hill (that somehow seemed to get progressively steeper as the night wore on), followed by a sharp 45-degree left turn (also getting progressively more acute each time we approached it) that took us back along more curves towards our "campsite," then along the numerous aid stations and, finally, back to the start line. Evey time we crossed the start line, our ankle timing chips chirped and our laps were recorded...and we could began the entire route again for each subsequent lap.

All seven of us started as a group. Penny had master-minded a pacing plan that would get her to 33 miles. Most of us did not wish to go quite that far, but her plan was solid. Her starting pace (10:40), was very conservative, so I thought it would be easy to hang with her and Maggie for awhile to prevent myself from going too fast too soon. 

After the first 1/4 lap, I could already tell my shorts were starting to shimmy upwards. Typically, I don't have problems with chafing, but having never run for six continuous hours, I did not want to take any chances. As we approached our campsite near the end of our second lap, I decided to pull off for a few seconds and reapply some BodyGlide on my upper thighs as a precaution.

Back on the course, I grabbed a water at the aid station just before crossing the timing mat (to start my third lap). It didn't take long to catch back up with the gang. I didn't see Barb, but Penny and Maggie were a short ways up ahead, and the cluster of Karen, Michelle and Teri were just ahead of me. I fell into pace alongside Teri, and her and I stuck together for the next 5-6 miles.

I think it was somewhere during our fourth lap when the rain started to fall. It had been lightning all along, but off in the distance, so we were hopeful the rain would stay away. Nope. Momma N had other plans.

It was a light sprinkle, so I did my best to remain calm. I don't mind a few sprinkles, but do not like a heavy downpour...especially if I do not have a hat to use as a shield to keep the rain out of my eyes or my hair from getting thoroughly soaked. We continued around the course, and the rain continued to fall....but it was progressively coming down stronger and the lightning was more frequent and appeared to be getting closer.

We stopped at the campsite to grab some fuel after the fifth lap. Teri was a little nervous about the lightning, and I was really getting frustrated with the rain. Not only were my shoes completely soaked through, but the sloping trail around the lake was now starting to get numerous puddles. Most of us had either headlamps or knuckle lights, but the puddles were difficult to see in the dark. As the rain continued, the puddles were getting bigger and shifting across the path.

Teri and I stayed together, and did our best to ignore the weather. A few laps later, as we were coming around the final curve by our campsite, we noticed Michelle and Karen. They had gotten a little ways ahead of us, but were walking back from the food stand. Karen didn't look too good. She wanted to sit down for a few minutes, but insisted the rest of us should go on without her. Knowing we'd be around the course in less than 10 minutes, we headed back out.

By now, we were starting our ninth lap, and the rain was still falling like crazy. It had been raining for close to an hour, and did not show any sign of letting up. My stomach was feeling a little weird.  I wanted make a porta-pot stop, and told Teri to go on. I went back to check on Karen after my pit stop. She was sitting in a lawn chair, and I tried to encourage her to bum a spot under a nearby tent to stay out of the rain. She was huddled under a towel, and didn't want to impose on a stranger's tent. Reluctantly, I headed back out.

The rain was such a downer. As I crossed the timing mat, starting my 10th lap, I put in my ear buds and turned on my music. Except it wasn't playing. I had charged it before packing it for the trip, but it was not responding!  My fingers were sweaty and wet from the rain, so it was difficult to pull the cord out ...sometimes pulling out the cord and re-inserting it does the trick, but not this time. A few more attempts, and I was able to hear music, but it was muted. The volume button wasn't working either. UGH!  Frustrated, I yanked the buds back out and twisted them back around my shoulder strap.

So far, despite the depressing weather (and failed attempt with my music), the race was going well. Almost 10 laps done, I was approximately a third of the way towards my goal of 31 total miles. I was running just over a 10-minute pace, and feeling good. I had taped my left foot, and the plantar fasciitis was MIA. The usual hamstring tightness was not present, and my typical piriformis aches and pains were not happening either.  As I was approaching the hill (approximately 2/3 of the way around on the route), I spotted Penny and Maggie walking. I caught up to them and asked if they were doing alright. It turns out, they decided to walk the hill (on most of their laps) as a strategy to conserve energy. Hmmmm....Don't mind if I do!

We made it around to our campsite, and checked on Karen. She still wasn't feeling well, and said she'd gotten sick earlier. My stomach was still feeling a little wonky, so I decided to pass on the fruit snacks (my fuel of choice), and grabbed some pretzels at the food station instead. And, another porta-pot stop was in order.

Another lap later, and my stomach was still feeling wonky. The rain was still falling. My music wasn't working. And all of my gal pals were scattered. This (momentarily) kind of sucked. As I made my way back around towards the campsite, I saw Karen still sitting all hunched over. I yelled at her and gave her the thumbs up. She waved back.

I made another porta-pot stop (seriously, this was getting old!). I stopped by the food table and grabbed some water and pretzels and felt someone tap my was Karen! She thanked me, gave me the thumbs-up, and took off towards the timing mat to head back out on the course. And that was just the little jolt I needed to get my head back in the game. As much as I was hating the rain (and wanting to seek shelter in a dry spot), I had a race to run. I was already wet (actually, I was thoroughly soaked), I might as well keep moving.

About halfway around, I spotted Michelle walking. I pulled over and joined her. She, too, was worried about Karen, and was wondering if I'd seen her. I reassured her that Karen was back in the race! Michelle and I broke into an easy pace and chatted for awhile (a couple laps, I think). She was just coming off her first Olympic-distance triathlon (the previous weekend), and wasn't sure how much she had in her...but she was going strong!

I don't remember exactly when the rain eventually stopped, I think it was around 3:00AM. I was near the 15-mile mark and felt a second wind of energy. I had needed to pull over and stop at the porta-pots several times (so many times that I honestly lost count). My stomach was just feeling so icky! Thankfully, the laps were going fairly fast, and I was progressively feeling better. Still no hamstring distress or PF flaring up, so things were going pretty good.

As I was rounding the curve just beyond the hill on my 18th lap, I was reunited with most of the gang! Penny, Maggie, and Michelle were all walking together. I caught up with them, and saw Karen right behind me! We all walked for awhile, together. I asked Penny how her pacing was, and if she was still on track for her 34 miles.....and she laughed, and said the "wheels came off of that train awhile ago." She had trained hard for this event, probably the hardest of all of us, but the weather was something that had taken her (and, actually, all of us) by surprise. She'd trained in the heat all spring and summer, but this was much hotter and certainly more humid than what any of us were prepared for, especially in the wee hours of the morning.

We made our way to the food table. Karen and I hung back for a minute, and the others continued on. A unique "food" item I had never seen in a race before was flat soda. It was warm, and still had a little bit of carbonation, but tasted great. I also grabbed some pretzels before we headed back onto the course. After a lap, Karen was eager to up her pace a bit, in hopes of making up for some of the time when she'd been resting earlier. I told her to go for it, but I was going to do some run/walk intervals because my hip flexers were really starting to hurt.

I found Maggie on the course, so her and I did a lap together. She has been doing a marathon every month in 2015, so she was hoping to finish that distance within the 6-hour time frame of our event. Before long, we came upon Penny, Karen and Michelle as we were starting our 22nd lap. I had noticed the sky was starting to look less "dark" on the last lap, but now it was starting to take on a beautiful, pink glow. It was almost 5:00AM (had we really been at it for almost five continuous hours?). Penny was worried about finishing 26.2 miles before our 6-hour time limit her and Maggie took off, determined to run the remainder of the marathon distance.

My hips were really hurting! I had not had hip pain since my early days of doing half marathons, and I had forgotten how debilitating it felt. Karen said she could tell my gait was off, and every time I got a glimpse of my shadow (from the few remaining street lights), I wanted to wince. It hurt to run, and it hurt to walk. Sometimes, I'd feel a surge of pain in my calves (from the walk breaks), and other times my feet were shuffling too much that I was worried I was going to trip myself.

I had really wanted to do 31 miles (approximately 32 laps), but it was very obvious that goal was not happening. I did want to get beyond the marathon distance, though. I wanted to be able to officially call myself an ultra-marathoner.....and if I could finish 27 total laps, I would have met that goal. Six more laps, in a little more than an hour. Let's do this!

At this point, I knew I could speed walk almost as fast as I could run. If I ran as much as possible, then did a few speed-walk intervals, I would probably be alright. Michelle and Karen weren't very far ahead of me, if I kept them in my sight and was able to catch up with them intermittently, I'd be able to stay on a consistent pace. Karen had also reassured me that even if I didn't finish all my laps right at 6:00AM, the race officials would still let me stay on the course (the 12-hour and 24-hour racers would still be on the course as well). My "extra time" wouldn't count in my placing, but the distance still would count for mileage finished.

So, onward. I made it around the next lap alright. I managed to catch up with Penny and Maggie briefly on the hill, but I continued to walk a little farther after they resumed running. Thankfully, my stomach was finally feeling relief, so I didn't have to worry about any more porta-pot stops. I grabbed water, Gatorade, or soda each time through the food station after each lap, though.

For the most part, I was on my own for the final 3-4 miles. Although I could see everyone, I just couldn't bring myself to "speed up." I was able to keep my pace pretty steady (despite the strain in my hips), but I knew if I tried to overdo it (even with only a few miles remaining), I might not be able to finish.

I had not seen Teri or Barb in a long while. I saw Barb briefly at one of my food stops, but that was it (other than running the first two laps alongside her). I think I remember seeing Teri from a distance, but she had been out of my sight for most of the last couple hours as well.

This medal came with some serious grit and determination

I finally made it across the timing mat at 6:06AM. I finished 27 laps, for a grand total mileage of 26.271....just squeaking into the ULTRA distance. My stats showed that I finished 5th (out of the 13 women) in the Masters Division, and I was 22nd out of the total 50 racers (males and females combined) in the 6-hour event. None of the gals in our group were able to get to that coveted 31-mile distance (but Teri and Barb finished 1st and 2nd in the Masters!). Actually, only about half of the 50 runners made it past the marathon distance, and only eight of them were able to surpass 30 miles.

We were so proud of Barb and Teri!
But we all finished! We made it through the entire night! We all persevered through the heat, humidity, lightning, and rain. And let's not forget that menacing hill that we had to conquer on each and every lap on our way to the finish line.

Look at that! You'd never guess we just spent most of the past six hours in constant motion! (L-R, myself, Michelle, Penny, Maggie, Teri, Barb, Karen)

A special highlight was seeing Wendy at the finish line!  She's another gal we all know (and love) via our running community on social media. She was waiting for us with a big box of donuts....and none of us had the stomachs to eat one! (#raincheck?)

Hmmm, did someone say "DONUTS?" (Too bad none of our tummy's said "NO".....)

After several minutes of slowly walking around (in a daze), and a much-needed change of clothes, we headed out to have a real breakfast.

My thoughts on this event? It was fantastic!  Even though this race was chocked full of challenges, this event was top-notch. The organizers did a great job with communication, decorations, food, music, and the numerous volunteers along the course and through the night made for a fun time. And the swag!  All participants received a short-sleeved tech (royal blue) event shirt and grey stocking hat, and the endurance racers (6-hour, 12-hour, 24-hour) also received a long-sleeved (navy) tech shirt. And the finisher medals were adorable!

Bottom line, this was the toughest event I have ever done. The midnight start time was a new challenge to face, as were the six hours of (almost) constant motion. The weather was the biggest obstacle for all of us. I don't mind the heat or humidity, but it does call for a shift in perspective and requires a more conservative pace to sustain yourself. For me, the rain was my biggest obstacle. A few light sprinkles are manageable, but a couple hours of non-stop rain makes for a very frustrating battle.

Also, as mentioned in previous blog posts, my training was less than ideal in preparing for this. My spring calendar was full of several other obligations (family and social events) that took precedence. I'm thankful I have a strong endurance base to carry me, otherwise the six hours of running would have ended several hours early.

Although I fell short of my 50K goal, I am more than satisfied with my finish. Technically, with all the trips back and forth to/from the porta-pots, I probably came close to doing 28 total miles. Seriously! That is not an exaggeration.

More important than how any of us finished, though, was the bond we had with each other. Although I had a few miles on my own, most of the six hours on the course were spent with these lovely ladies. There was constant laughter, hugs, chatter and encouragement all night long.

 It's been a few days since this grand experience, and (dare I say it?), I feel nearly recovered. Of course, I realize I am not really as recovered as I "feel" at the moment, I guess the endorphins are still circulating through my system. All of us from our UBAGE group have already tentatively made plans to return next year...and maybe give the 12-hour event a whirl! We had such a great time facing all of the challenges, together, on the race course, why not do it all over again?

Have you ever taken on an ultra marathon? Have you run in a timed endurance event (6-hour, 12-hour, or 24-hour)?  

The Silvah Lining


  1. This will go down as the ultimate girls night! We came, we ran, we laughed (I cried!), we finished. I love our group and I am so proud of you. Thank you for constantly checking on me and keeping my spirits high the whole time. Xoxo Until next year!!!

    1. I am SO glad we got the crazy idea to do this! Believe me, I came close to crying myself when I was "all alone" in the rain with no music and an icky tummy...but thankfully, that was short-lived. You did awesome rallying back, you made us so proud!!!!

  2. You all were so inspiring to me! The way everyone just kept pushing on even tho the conditions sucked. Not that this makes me ever want to attempt an ultra, much less an overnight race...

    The flat coke actually has anti-emetic/anti-nausea properties which makes it a great drink for a race like this! I recommend it a lot to my patients who have the stomach flu.

    1. It was so great seeing you there! Too bad no one could stomach a donut after 6 hours of craziness LOL Maybe I need to consider a hand-held bottle with Coke for every race? :-)

  3. This race sounds awesome! I'd love to do a marathon someday, and an ultra as well. This seems like a really cool way to get that ultra status. Congrats on pulling out a great race even though there were so many challenges!

    1. Thanks !!!!! I always tell people, there's far more satisfaction in completing a difficult race than an easy much learned to be learned while battling the elements :-) (Not that I want every race to be as challenging as this was!)

  4. This is AMAZING!! Seriously... kudos to all you fabulous strong ladies. This is a huge accomplishment!

    1. Thank you!!! It was such a great race, the strength we all got from each other was overwhelming :-)

  5. Congrats on finishing, lady! So amazing!

  6. Wow, this is awesome! Great recap. You guys had some serious obstacles and you all rocked it!! Shoot, I may have to fly out to do this with ya'll next year ;)

    1. OMGeeee....YES!!!! We'd love another runner chick in the group :-) Seriously, this was SO much fun, despite the weather. The six hours on the course with these gals was one of the most memorable things I've ever done in my running "career." True sisterhood :-)

  7. AMAZING!!!! and truly inspiring! I cannot imagine running 6 hours first off and then starting at midnight! I am a in bed by 10 kind of girl! Awesome story- thank you for sharing and linking up!

    1. Thanks!!!!! This was a first-time adventure for me, and so worth the effort! It's amazing what we can make our bodies do when we set our mind to it :-)

  8. Well done! Sounds like you had to fight through a lot but you made it to the finish! Congratulations!

  9. I love the Christmas in July theme. Those prizes are so cool! Congrats on getting that ultra-marathon status!! I'm training for my first full!

    1. Thanks! This race was SO much fun with all the Christmas stuff! Good luck on your marathon!!!

  10. Kim, I love your race recap and all the wonderful memories it brings back! I forgot about the beeping noises at each lap and don't even remember seeing pretzels on the table which sound so good now! Looking forward to another fantastic UBAGE next year with you!!! You are an ultra chick now! :)

  11. Kim, I love your race recap and all the wonderful memories it brings back! I forgot about the beeping noises at each lap and don't even remember seeing pretzels on the table which sound so good now! Looking forward to another fantastic UBAGE next year with you!!! You are an ultra chick now! :)

  12. Kim, I love your race recap and all the wonderful memories it brings back! I forgot about the beeping noises at each lap and don't even remember seeing pretzels on the table which sound so good now! Looking forward to another fantastic UBAGE next year with you!!! You are an ultra chick now! :)