I shot the mile 37 aid station volunteer a wily smile. I threw back my second cup of Mountain Dew and wanted more. I took the 2 liter from her hands and tipped it up to the sky. The plastic sides buckled under the pressure of my swallows. She leaned in close to me and said, Well Honey, you’re our leading woman, now go catch those guys ahead of you. I had a several mile margin on the other females in the race so there was no fear of not winning my division. But I could possibly catch a man.
I trotted out of the aid station and into the prairie section of the race, Dances with Dirt 50 Mile. I was on my second lap of the course and knew how hard this six mile exposed portion would be. The prairie radiated heat off of tall grass and the dirt was loose and sandy. After I zigzagged over rolling hills through the prairie for a few miles, I stopped and put my hands on my knees. I felt a wave of dread roll through my body – I was winning but far from finishing. As I stood up I tilted my head back and squinted at the sun. Tears and sweat streamed off of my face and into my hair. I still had 11 miles to go and it was only getting hotter. I dumped the rest of my water bottle over the nape of my neck. The cool water stung as it mixed with salt and flowed through my top, over my stomach, into my shorts and down my legs, burning all of the raw, chafed spots along the way. I took a deep breath in through my nose and blew it out through my mouth. Ok, Jonnah, just do your plan.
So what was my plan? To win – I had reduced this 50 mile course to that. A few weeks before the race Jesse and I were driving back from the field after turning off an irrigation system. He glanced over at me and smiled. What? I said as we bounced over the rutted out farm road. Oh, nothing. Well, I have a goal for you. I think you could win the whole race. He meant an overall win – including the men’s division. Why would you say that to me? You know that’s impossible. I’m not even sure if I can finish. While I ended up finishing way behind the winning man, Jesse’s wild goal, as unlikely as it was, stuck with me. I’m not sure if this was intentional but by putting me up to that feat, I decided that I would at least win the women’s division – as long as my injury stayed at bay. Leading up to the race I didn’t know if I would finish because I was still recovering from an injury that had caused me to drop from my previous 50 mile race. Back in January when I was planning out my race year, I was going to compete in the Dances with Dirt 50k event, not the 50 mile, but when I dropped out of Ice Age 50 Mile in May, I knew that I needed a redeeming race to reassure myself that I could be competitive in the 50 mile event.
So there I was at Dances with Dirt 50 Mile leading the women’s division by several miles. I had nothing left to do but race the clock for a strong finish time, and possibly catch some of the guys ahead of me. I was in a great position and was able to put myself there because my training was so specific to this race and the conditions I might face.
Training on the trail: This was the first trail race where I had done almost all of my training on trail. I ran less often but the quality of my runs were much better than running on the road. For a month and a half I ran at Devil’s Lake State Park, the location of the race, once or twice a week and I ran at Blue Mound State Park (just down the road from home) twice a week. I usually added in a 6-10 mile road run as well. My peak week was about 60 miles.
In addition to having very relevant training, I also got super familiar with the course. I knew it well already, but learning how my body would hold up on challenging sections was very valuable. A lesson that I learned on a 23 mile training run was that my favorite descent, a 2 mile technical trail with a lot of opportunities to get air time, would destroy my quads. In the race we ran down and up this hill twice. On both descents, I fought back the urge to tear down the hill because I knew I could compromise my legs. It was a smart move, but I could have run faster on that hill, as well as others, and still had strength in my legs. Ultimately, I played it too safe, but during the race I knew that the only way I wouldn’t win was if I was foolish with my pace.
Heat training and management: July in Wisconsin can be really hot and humid. I raced the Dances with Dirt 50k last year and was very lucky with the weather – it was overcast with a 75 degree high. Those mild conditions might be one of the reasons I was able to come in second female overall. For this year’s race, I wanted to be super prepared.
I was sure to run on the hottest days, ideally during mid afternoon when the temperature was peaking and I was tired from the day. I knew that if I suffered in these grueling conditions prior to the race that I would have an advantage.
I spent 20 minutes twice a week in a sauna at the gym. Sauna heat is very dry and easy to relax in for a few minutes. But once I got over 10 minutes I was pretty miserable. Pushing your body to acclimatize to the stress of heat can be valuable in a race. I am a big believer in sauna heat training, but advise that anyone seeking the benefits to consult a physician prior to starting a program.
I run with an Ultimate Direction Jenny Running Pack to carry supplies that I need for most of the race. Jesse had the brilliant idea of leaving my pack at an aid station toward the end of the race to allow my body to cool more efficiently. At mile 37 I left my running pack in my drop bag and picked up my handheld water bottle. Taking off the pack, even though it’s not heavy, made a huge difference in managing my body temperature.
Fueling my delicate system: I have always struggled with eating during distances over the marathon (26 miles). In my past races I’ve had such bad nausea that even keeping liquids down is challenging. I took time leading up to Dances with Dirt to figure out what works with my stomach. Ask any experienced ultrarunner what the key is to fueling and they will all have a different formula. For me I found that I need natural sugars anchored with whole foods topped off with plenty of coke or Mountain Dew; Gatorade is good too. I ate 1 Honeystinger gel every hour for the first five hours, a potato dipped in salt at every aid station, some fresh blueberries, a few handfuls of dried cranberries and two pieces of dried papaya. I’m not sure how much water I drank, but I know it was too much. I guzzled soda whenever I had a chance. I still have a lot to learn about what is perfect for my body, but at least I can get through a 50 mile race without needing to throw up.
Learning to improvise: The Dances with Dirt 50 Mile and 50k courses were changed last minute due to miscommunication between the race organizers, Running Fit, and Devil’s Head Resort. From what I understand, it was handled as well as possible by Running Fit. I had studied the course map and elevation table very closely and was concerned when I learned, at 5:20am race day, that my course had been changed. Less than 10 miles were affected but the new terrain was very different.
We skipped a climb at the beginning and a descent at the end, making the overall elevation gain lower. I imagined that this should make for an easier course, but the shady hills were replaced with burning hot, sandy prairie which really took a lot from me physically and mentally. This last minute change was a good exercise in improvising in a race setting. I am sure that I will encounter more uncertainties in future races.
I was able to pass one man ahead of me at the finishing chute. He took a few seconds longer than I did to pickup his little girl. We both ran over the mat with our toddlers in our arms. I’m happy with my standing in the race, 1st female overall – 4th overall. I think that I was too conservative with my pace. I was afraid of running out of power so I held back knowing that I would win anyway. With every training run I do and each race I compete in, I learn more about my body and what I’m made of. I am looking forward to applying some of these lessons from Dances with Dirt to my next 50 mile – The North Face Endurance Challenge Wisconsin.