I became an ultra marathoner on August 4th, 2019. It has only been seven days since then, but race day still feels like a dream. It’s hard for me to put this ultra experience into words.
But I’ll try.
Let’s start with the decision to run this race. It might have seemed last minute (it was) or a little crazy (it was) to sign up for your first ultra with less than six weeks to train. I knew my friend Lex had been signed up for her 50 Miler this day for months and months. It was always in the back of my head that I would join her. I knew attempting to run 50 miles without truly training was silly, but I talked with my coach and we decided that a 50K really wasn’t that crazy for me. I had run two successful spring marathons, taken a pretty big break, and could ease back up to be able to cover the distance in the amount of time I had. My training was ALL RUN/WALKING. I did not do any speed workouts. All of my runs were at an easy pace and had some form of walk breaks throughout. My plan for race day was to run/walk, so that is all I was doing in training. And to be honest, I really enjoyed it. Summer running is not my favorite and having walk breaks always made me a little more excited to get out the door.
My first long run of this little training cycle was 10 miles. The last one was 18 miles. And that was that. I covered a decent amount of mileage each week and I felt fully capable of covering 31.50 miles on August 4th.
This 50K was part of the Badger Trail Series in Belleville, Wisconsin. They offered a weekend with a 100 Miler, 100K, 50 Miler, 50K, marathon and half marathon. Every race covered an out and back course on trail through the Stewart Tunnel. Our races started on Sunday, so we drove up Saturday afternoon.
I was in an Airbnb in Madison with six super supportive friends. My pre-race meal was a $3 grilled cheese from a bar and a Spotted Cow. I told you guys I wasn’t worried… I was trying to be my calmest pre-race self. Sure, I was a little nervous. But I knew at that point I had to remain confident. I was toeing the start line that next morning no matter what.
I probably didn’t fall asleep until almost midnight. Alarm went off at 4:55 a.m. Not ideal sleep, but it was what it was. Jen got up with me and drove us the 30 minutes to Belleville to meet Lex and watch her start. The sun was just coming up, that beautiful pink and orange sunrise sky. We gave her some quick hugs and watched her take off at 6 a.m. to run her first 50 Miler.
Somehow the next hour passed WAY TOO QUICKLY. We chatted with Lexi’s family a bit, and by 6:18 a.m. I was like wait I need to eat. Ran back to Jen’s car to eat my almond butter banana toast and get my race clothes on. It was 6:40 by the time we were walking back over to the start line and the pre-race instruction started. I had to go to the bathroom super quickly. Jen was rubbing sunscreen on me as I strapped into my water vest and tried to listen to the details. The gist was, “If you get confused, do what a train would do.” It made me laugh. These people were really fun.
7:00 a.m. hit and suddenly I was running my first ultra marathon.
There were just under 100 people starting with me. I was around a decent clump of people for about 5 miles, then people started to spread out. I was following my run/walk plan from the start. I ran for 14 minutes, walked for 1 minute, repeat. It was already a hot and humid day and I knew I had to keep this in control.
So, remember how my race is called the Stewart Tunnel 50K. Well, yes it goes through a tunnel. We were warned to wear a headlamp because the tunnel was dark. I figured I would be fine with my phone flashlight. WRONG. Just over four miles into the race is when you hit the tunnel for the first time. The second you are in you are overtaken with complete darkness. It’s wild. A man in front of me shouted out pretty soon after we entered. Turns out there was a giant puddle down the center. Luckily, I heard him, stopped, and took to the concrete edge. Managed to keep my shoes dry (thanks Adam – I later learned his name). The darkness goes on for about a half a mile. My phone was honestly just not enough light. And I planned to listen to music on the second half, so I was afraid it would die before I got back to the tunnel on my way to the finish line.
Naturally, I took out my phone and called my Mom. They were on their way down and I had plans to meet them at mile 22. “Hey Mom, yes I’m running an ultra marathon right now, but can you please bring me a flashlight?” I felt ridiculous, but it was a necessary phone call.
I took my first Huma gel one hour in. It actually tasted good, which was a good sign. And I was hydrating as I went.
The best part about this being an out and back course was that you saw all the 100 milers on their way in. How cool right?? I was inspired just by seeing them out there. And the amazing thing about trail runners is that every single person was saying ‘great job’ ‘you look strong’. Everyone was so nice.
I was next to the guy I went through the tunnel with for awhile. Turns out, he follows me on Instagram and said to me that he had told his wife that morning he thought we might end up running near each other. Small world. It was nice to have a little company. It was his first 50K too.
I saw my cheer squad at mile 9. They looked happy and excited (early in the day) and I just loved that they were there, but I didn’t stop.
I knew I had to keep moving. It was already getting so hot. 85 degrees by 9 a.m. Thankfully a decent part of the trail was shaded. But it made you feel the parts that weren’t so much more.
I felt pretty much on my own by mile 13. You had the occasional person come at you from the other direction, but I had no one around me on my side of the trail. I then spent a good while thinking about how I wish Lex and I had walkie talkies so I knew where she was and how she was feeling. It still felt cool to know we were both out there together.
It felt a little strange to hit 15 miles and not have turned around yet, but I was feeling better than I had expected. I had the 50K turn around in my sights for what felt like a long time. And it was funny that there wasn’t a soul there to see me turn around. But on my way back in within another mile or so, I saw Adam on his way out. He yelled, “How you feeling?” And I said “well I am half way so I feel really good.” And he goes, “F*ck yeah.” Made me laugh. My thoughts exactly.
I decided to wait until after mile 17 to put headphones on. Truthfully, I had been enjoying the silence. There was something peaceful about being in the woods alone. Once I hit 17, I gave myself the ‘treat’ of the music. My playlist was probably the most random thing it could have been. I’d listen to a Motion City Soundtrack song, followed by a RENT soundtrack song, followed by Lizzo. I have a weird taste, I know. But it was a nice distraction.
At this point, I was just looking forward to seeing my people at mile 22. I kept trying to ignore how hot it was and just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
I got to 22, saw my Mom & Dad and decided to take a break. I got my flashlight (thanks!!), drank some Gatorade, and let the aid crew refill my pack. I had gone through over a liter and half of water at this point…yikes. I really had no idea. But that gave me a good indication of how hot it was. I stood around for probably 3 minutes. It felt short and long at the same time. I had been paying attention on the way out though and counted how many women took the turn around in front of me. I thought it had only been 2. So, I said to my Dad “I think I’m third female.” And he goes, “then what are you doing wasting time?” That’s my Dad for you. Made me laugh and it was time to get running again.
I knew the last 9.5 miles were going to be all alone. It was a weird feeling, but I was ready for it. I was just sticking to the plan. 14 minute run, 1 minute walk. And again. My run pace was between 8:10 & 8:40. And that was consistent the whole race. I was just looking forward to the walk minutes every time.
The last aid station was just over 6 miles from the finish line. I stopped to drink one small cup of water and use the bathroom. Probably just a 2 and a half minute stop. This was now the home stretch. I won’t say I wasn’t hurting, because I was. My left knee was throbbing (it had been giving me some trouble) and my arms felt tired. But there was something really motivating when I looked down at my Garmin and saw I had gone 26.50 miles already. Take that marathon — and I was still going.
I do need to say again that this heat was no joke. I took my fourth gel at mile 26 ish and it pretty much came back up instantly. Not so fun, but oh well.
It was time for that tunnel again. I paused my music. Thankful the flashlight, I turned it on and entered confidently. It was at least cooler in the tunnel. And I had never run in this kind of darkness before. It really was such a wild experience. The stillness of it kind of made me feel like I was pausing time.
I reached the end of the darkness, put my flashlight away, turned my music up, and knew I had less than 4 miles to go.
At this point, I extended my walk minute to a walk two minutes. That one minute was just going by way too quickly. I knew I only had three more ‘breaks’ left, so I chose to make them a little longer. My run pace had still stayed about the same, but having a little extra walking time was making me happy, so I took it. There was no pressure on this day. It was not about speed, it was not about beating a PR, it was just about finishing. It was a distance PR day.
With less than one mile to go, I picked it up. You know I love a good fast finish. I was truly surprised by the little burst of energy I felt. “Fighter” came on at this point and the tears came too. I had been having a hard month, and been trying to deal with my loneliness in a healthy way. For me, that means a lot of miles and leaning on my people. And I knew they were going to be at that finish line. I was so stinking proud of myself that I couldn’t help but cry.
The last little bit of the race includes a stone staircase (that felt like a mountain), and then a home stretch into the grass to run under the finish line. I gave it every last bit I had to cruise through looking strong.
I felt strong. I had just become an ultra marathoner. And I had to walk for a minute to keep sobbing to myself.
I gave all the hugs. Mistakenly got a first place marathon medal. And then figured out I actually was third female for the 50K. And I finished top five overall. Pretty dang cool. 4:48:17. 9:07 pace. Farthest distance ever.
This day was a true test of my mental toughness. Sure, it took some physical toughness too. But I will always say I think running is more mental than physical. How you talk to yourself matters. You can’t get to mile 27 of an ultra and give up on yourself. Today gave me the chance to lift myself up. I knew I could do it. And that’s what I told myself all race. I had an incredible support system out there, but it still was me vs. me for most of the hours. And I was really really proud of how I responded. I do things like this because I like to remind myself that I can do hard things. No part of this was easy, but every single minute was rewarding.
And I could not have asked for a better crew. Having them all there meant the world to me. I’m lucky so many people support my crazy. And we really had fun as we waited for Lex to finish her 50 miles. Seeing her cross that finish line was as emotional for me as finishing my own. It was just the best day.
The vibe was so different than a road race or a major marathon. It’s still hard to explain. But there was a new energy that was kind of contagious. I knew as soon as I crossed the finish line that it would not be my last ultra.
You all know I love the marathon. I do. And it’s not going anywhere. But this ultra bug has my attention. New challenges are always fun, after all.