I decided to celebrate my birthday a bit early bit by running 34ish miles on tough trails at the end of July. I sure know how to spoil myself!
2 years ago I DNFed this race around mile 19 a few weeks after getting Lyme disease. I was looking forward to getting this one done and checking it off. I wasn’t in the best of shape going into this race, and my training was a bit light, but I figured it would be good enough for a halfway decent finish. I ended up having a rough day out there, and pretty much everything that could go wrong went wrong. I had to dig way too deep, but I managed to get ’er done and check this one off.
Race day was cooler than average with temps in the 70s and low 80s, but it was incredibly humid. All in all, not too bad. After catching up with a few friends, we were off. I rolled along enjoying the early miles and kept the pace fairly conservative. I had two handhelds with me and blew through the first 2 aid stations at miles 6 and 9.
Pretty soon though I started to feel terrible. It was that sinking feeling that has led me to so many DNFs in the past. My stomach was turning, I had no energy, I felt woozy, and my legs were dead. Not good. About 2 hours in I figured I was likely dehydrated, though I had drinking as much as I usually do. I also started cramping in my side, which might have been I was also low on electrolytes. I started gulping down HEED, took an S-cap for electrolytes, and hoped with all my might that I wouldn’t throw up.
My buddy Greg runs and unofficial aid station 2 miles before the turnaround point. I felt like crap at this point, but it was great to see him. I wanted nothing more than to hang with him for a bit, but pushed on and planned on stopping for a bit on the way back. I felt terrible on the long downhill to the turnaround, and I was on the verge of throwing up. I barely got myself across the river cross to the aid station and had no idea how I was going to finish this mother. I was only halfway through and had to find a way to run another 17 miles, starting with a 2 mile climb. I was also fighting mental demons with my prior DNF and felt like I had a mental block on going past that mile 19 aid station. In my mind all I wanted to do was get there so I could stop.
So it all seemed impossible, but what can you do? The aid station volunteer asked me what was wrong, which I assume meant that I was not looking so hot. I gulped some ginger ale and filled one bottle with Coke and one with water. I had drained the better part of two 20 oz bottles over the last 4 miles, and I nearly emptied them again on the 2 mile climb. This was highly unusual for me and way more than I typically drink. The side cramps started again, so I took another S-cap.
I was trudging up the mountain at a pretty pitiful pace and getting passed left and right. I was still exhausted and my legs were shot, but hey … at least I hadn’t thrown up! I took that to mean I was probably dehydrated and kept on drinking. I somehow managed to switch mental gears on the way up. I stopped thinking about how I would physically cover the remaining miles and went into a mode of just moving forward. I ran out in 2:50, so I had all the time in the world to cover the back half. I just had to do one thing first. My wife and I have a baby boy due in 4 weeks, and I was not so thrilled at the idea of slowly walking down a trail for hours on end while she was in labor. I borrowed Greg’s phone and confirmed there was not a baby popping out. Game on!
I decided to spend a bit of time at Greg’s Catoctin Oasis because I certainly needed some help and who better to hang out with?! I put a bunch of ice in my hat and drank some water. I ate some tasty grapes. And most importantly, I drank some Red Stripe. Now we’re talking! Greg really brings alive the race’s motto of “have fun”, and now I was ready for action.
I got back on the trail and started a slow jog. I felt …. not terrible. I’ll take it! I can’t say I ever felt much better than “not terrible” for the rest of the race (and felt worse in spots), but it was definitely a turning point. The ice in my hat was working for me, I took another S-cap, and I was drinking a ton. For the first 30 minutes out of the aid station I felt pretty solid, and then I pushed through another 30 minutes to get to the mile 25 aid station.
I didn’t feel great on the next stretch, but it was only 3 miles. My side cramps never went away, which was strange. I was also drinking about 40 ounces an hour, which is unheard for me and way more than I can even process normally. I still am not sure what happened during this race, but I was managing to keep it together. On this stretch I had a new fun challenge, as my left calf started seizing and cramping when I pushed too hard. Well it was a good thing I didn’t have another 6 mile stretch with big monster climbs! Oh wait …
I stocked up at the last aid station at mile 28 and pushed on to get this thing down. I actually passed a few people over the last stretch and was starting to pick up some carnage. I was a hurting turkey, but I was resolved to finish this race. A long downhill caused my side to hurt even more, and my calf would cramp up on the rockier sections. I was actually relieved to hit the uphill section so that I could start hiking. That was fine for a while, but it was a looong uphill. Whenever I tried to jog on the flatter stretches, I had to be careful or I would cramp up.
I crested the top saw a runner up ahead on the way down when we were about 2 miles from the end. I ended up passing about 4 runners in this last stretch, which gave me something to focus on and motivate me. My legs were just shot at this point, and both legs were cramping now. Finally the end was near, but there is one last cruel uphill that swing wide around the finish and comes back up from the other side of the mountain.
I was for some reason determined not to give up the four places I just picked up, but I was also red-lining. It made for a pretty hilarious sight. I would push hard for a few strides, and then my calf would cramp and I would lurch to a halt. People can see you from the finish line up top and cheer you on as you approach the finish. I don’t think they knew what to make of me. I looked like those zombies in 28 days later!
Finally I crested the ridge and approached the paved homestretch for the last few dozen yards to the finish line. I tried to run it in but kept cramping every few strides and continued my hilarious gait. I finished in 6:32, which was much better than I would have expected when I was at my low point in the middle of the race.
I was happy to finish this race and very happy to bring it back from the brink of despair for a decently good run. The post race BBQ was awesome, and Greg provided some more excellent beer and good company. The race ended up being way too hard, but I am glad I did it. Now we will have to see if I go back next year!