I was lying on the ground at the mile 36 aid station with my eyes closed feeling nauseous, exhausted, and defeated. I had thrown up 2 miles back and hadn’t moved from my spot in the shade for about 15 minutes. Let’s say it wasn’t looking promising that I would finish the last 15 miles of the race.
To back up a bit, the gun went off in the dark at 5am. I started running easily in the beautiful, cool morning and was feeling pretty content. I even had some nice entertainment with the crazy guy on my right who seemed to have forgotten to put his shoes on. From the trouble he was having in just the first mile it looked like it would be a long day for my barefoot friend.
I was loving the calm, quiet morning with the mist over the Potomac in the pre-dawn light. I remember also really enjoying the first part of the race 3 years ago when I ran this race and ultimately DNFed at mile 29. The sun came up as we ran the 15.3 mile stretch along the river from Algonkian Park down to Great Falls park.
So far so good, and I got to Great Falls 2:14 into the race, right on 8:45 pace. From here it would be 3 loops of 7 miles through Great Falls followed by 15 miles back the way I had come. For the first loop I ran with a really nice guy named Michael from Hawaii. Time passed quickly on this loop, and I was pleased to finish in just 59 minutes feeling great. Loop 2 was also pretty smooth sailing, and I finished it in about an hour.
I was still feeling strong at the mile 29 aid station and came into 50K in 4:31. Then things took a sudden and drastic turn for the worse. Over just a few miles I started feeling miserable and sick to my stomach. I went into damage control, slowing down and really focusing in on hydration, calories, and electrolytes. But it was too late, and everything came up somewhere around mile 34. I was instantly wiped out and just sat by the side of the trail collecting myself.
I dragged myself into the mile 36 aid station at the end of loop 3 and collapsed on the ground. The race was over for all practical purposes. The strong desire to DNF loomed large in my mind, but I figured no need to rush things. After I while I realized it was still only 10:30 in the morning. It was a beautiful day for a stroll in the woods, and I basically had infinite time to finish the race before the 13 hour cutoff. I mean my car was parked back at Algonkian, so I suppose I might as well start walking, right?
I started trying to nurse myself back to health and began to feel something closer to alive. An orange tasted almost good, and a kind fellow racer gave me some Tums. After over 30 minutes wallowing at the aid station, I started running down the trail for the last 15 miles. Aside from a brief stop to enjoy the view of Great Falls (I mean I wasn’t exactly in a rush anymore), I ran fairly well for a few miles. Then things went south again, and I walked much of the last 2-3 miles into the mile 41 aid station.
The next aid station was only 2.7 miles away. I could crawl that far if I had to, so I spent more time trying to nurse myself back to health here and eventually dragged myself back on the trail. I ran the next mile and slowly meandered the rest of the way, teetering into the next aid station.
The idea of the next 7.5 miles was not very appealing, but I was stubbornly determined at this point. I languished in this aid station yet again, and I was getting to be a pretty pathetic sight. At most aid stations the volunteers will be hardened ultra vets who share their expertise and help get you back on the right path. The North Face 50 was a pretty hilarious and totally opposite experience. I would tumble in and collapse somewhere on the ground. They would initially just back away but eventually would come over to check on me to make sure I was still alive. When asked if I was ok, I would respond “no, not really.” They would then back away, saying “uh, ok. I’ll be over here if you need anything.”
I again talked myself into leaving the aid station and ten feet down the trail vomited again, which came out of nowhere this time. I took stock and realized I actually felt quite a bit better. I started running (yes, actually running!) down the trail and felt better with each step. I was back!
The short of it is that I ran every step of the last 7.5 miles, most of it right around or just under 9 minute miles. I must have passed hundreds of people on this back stretch (counting 50K and marathon runners). I felt amazingly strong up until the last 2 miles, which were brutal since I now truly had nothing in the tank.
Finally I turned the corner and had the finish line in sight. This was a far more emotional and satisfying finish than most, as I had felt so miserable for long stretches and was thrilled to be able to pull it out. Part of me was also shocked that I managed to get to the finish. I have had many races where I was probably in better shape but still DNFed.
I crossed the line in 9:26 and that was that. I had hoped to run closer to 2 hours faster, but that was just fine. Part of the dark thoughts that bubble when you consider dropping are that a slower finish won’t mean much and therefore you might as well drop. Well it still felt pretty sweet to finish, and I was damn glad to get it done. Something to remember in the future when I think about DNFing.
Now let’s hope the next one is a bit easier …