I spread my fingers wide to let the full force of the warm summer air strike my hand as we drove down the highway. The bright sun made me narrow my gaze behind my sunglasses while I watched the farm fields and hedge rows speed past my view. I glanced back and saw that my 2 year old had fallen asleep in her car seat. Lovely, when we get home I’ll take advantage of Mischa’s nap and get out for an hour on the trail, I thought to myself. Wait, what? I said out loud. My husband, Jesse, turned his head away from the road to look at me, I didn’t say anything. I furrowed my brow. Did I race today? I asked. Yeah, you just did a 50k. You need to eat something.
We had raced that day. Jesse and I ran a local 50k, Dances with Dirt, at Devil’s Lake State Park, a half hour from our house. This race series holds a special place in my heart. The 2014 50k was my first ultramarathon and the 2015 50mile was the first race I had ever won. This year’s 50k landed on a cool July day, relatively speaking – the previous two years had been ghastly hot and humid. It was my first time racing anything shorter than 50 miles and longer than 12 miles in over a year and half. I was really unsure what I could do with those 31 miles.
The weeks leading up to the race I was on my first good stretch of training in 10 months. The second half of last year and the first half of this year had been riddled with injuries and serious illness. A mononucleosis infection that started in August plagued my entire fall and kept me fragile and weak up until June. I forced my way through a training block in December and January while suffering from chronic sinus issues, hip and foot injuries, and regular flareups of my mono symptoms. Those training efforts were rewarded with a win at Sean O’Brien 50mile in the Santa Monica Mountains, but the work leading up to that race was stressful and exhausting for me. Following a DNF at Gorge Waterfalls 100k in April, I decided to take a real break from running and pay full attention to my health. As I eased back in a month later, I noticed myself feeling amazing and more on fire than I had felt in almost a year.
My training was in full bloom by the middle of June. I couldn’t get enough. I lapped up the miles like a thirsty puppy. This was the most low-maintenance, spontaneous version of my running self I had ever known. My behavior bordered on reckless – adding miles and hill-repeats onto already long runs, skimping on sleep, forgetting to do my daily physical therapy exercises. This was the running I had been searching for all year. When my Dance with Dirt 50k taper week rolled around I didn’t want it, I felt like I was just getting started. I even considered training right up to the race and using it as training for a 50 mile in September. Ultimately, I decided that if I was going to go out to the race, I might as well try for a podium position.
At 5:30am on July 9, I toed the starting line at Dances with Dirt in the front row, next to Jesse. The fast guys formed a pack and ran ahead. I found myself leading the women with a few chattering girls voices behind me. Although being out front from the beginning was not my plan, the pace felt comfortable, so I decided to go with it. I climbed the first of 4 major hills alone and settled into a sustainable clip at the top of the bluff. The course brought me along the edge of the cliffs where the cool, morning breeze invigorated my entire body. I know these trails so well and was certain that if I held steady in my pace that I would have a strong finish. Several miles later I heard the jangling of a running pack and quick footsteps come up behind me. I waiting for a runner to pass but the breathing hovered inches from my back. We ran like this for miles and miles. I had a shadow that was very well matched with my fitness.
Other than a few surges in speed on my female competitors part, we ran in tandem for much of the race. I held my pace smooth and calm, minding my own abilities while reveling in the competitive spirit of the circumstances we found ourselves in. Coming up a long climb around mile 23, my foot failed to clear a root and my momentum threw my weight forward. When my body braced for impact, my muscles seized in cramps. The knuckles on my left hand, holding my handheld waterbottle, broke the fall on hard-packed dirt trail. My first recovery stride was met with a non-functioning leg. Every muscled in my right leg was locked, from my arch up to my groin. Same thing in the left – arch, calf, quad, hamstring, groin. Then my obliques cramped. I doubled over in pain wondering what had gone wrong. As I sat breathing deeply and massaging my legs, I felt the minutes ticking past. I had not replaced any salt except for a few drinks of Gatorade. The weather was so mild and the distance wasn’t that far, that I didn’t think I needed to eat any additional salt. In 50 mile events I eat potato chips at aid stations to replace what I have lost through sweat. In retrospect, I should have treated this distance the same.
At the mile 25 aid station I poured a mound of table salt into the palm of my hand and licked it clean. The salt made my mouth gush with saliva. I threw back a cup of Mountain Dew and marched off toward the last climb and final miles of the race. My muscles were firing properly and I was moving quickly but the first place female was nowhere to be found. In my final 2 miles I was really happy because the time I was shooting for was happening. I crossed the finish line at 4:57 in 2nd place – just at my sub 5hour goal! First place was 3 minutes ahead, which is about how much time I lost when I sat on the side of the trail. I was so relieved that my injuries didn’t surface and that I had the strength to recover after I blew up. My biggest disappointment was that, because of the close competition, I wasn’t able to slip into the familiar dreamlike trance I experience during ultra distance events. I usually spend a lot of races running alone. Time and space blend together into a beautiful tunnel of trees, rocks, and the trail ahead. I didn’t reach this place at DWD50k but it was an important exercise in competitive clarity and focus.
As I lay in bed trying to fall asleep that night, I could feel my muscles repairing – adapting to the stress I had put on them. All of the magic happening under the surface of my skin was intoxicating. I got out of bed and went downstairs to research other races to add to my schedule. In the morning I told Jesse that I wanted to go to Tennessee in October for some running adventures. I also asked him if he thought I could get away from the farm next summer to run the Tahoe Rim Trail 100. You’re just coming back from a hard year. Focus on getting fast first, then let’s talk about more destination races. Not the response I wanted. That day we ended up working on our plan for some running and racing in Colorado and Utah in November. Jesse talked me down from getting ahead of myself, reminding me that my major focus race is in February 2017, Sean O’Brien 100k, and not to waver from my goals at that event.
I still feel a compulsion to be out on the trail building strength and speed. I drew myself back this past week remembering that I am prone to over-training. I had a childhood friend visiting from MN where she and her husband are starting a farm. She came to work with us to get ideas for her own operation (check out her great blog – Little Big Sky). Her time here was refreshing and grounding and she gave me a great perspective on work, motherhood, and what it means to push hard towards your dreams. I finally feel like my health matches my motivation but I need to be mindful of not ruining what I have patiently waited for. The trails call on me to go farther and faster – I will use this drive to get stronger but need to keep a close eye on my trail fever.