Photographs are courtesy of Ron Heerkens Jr and Goat Factory Media. Thank you for such beautiful camera work. You can find more of his photography of local theater and trail races at his website.
A little preface before I dive into my most recent adventure. A little over a year ago I ran my first mountain race. Cats Tail was a beautiful marathon that took place in the Catskills, traversing 4 high peaks and 7 mountains total.
Having just set an FKT and finishing the Rochester Marathon in a time faster than I could have imagined, my confidence was high. Everything was going great for the first half, it was harder than I thought but I was holding tight onto 4th female and was moving at my goal pace. As I started to climb the third peak of the day I started to feel it, that deep burn in your legs that let’s you know they are getting tired. Looking down at my watch I was only about 13 miles in. I started to slow significantly and was passed by several people.
Frustrated I pushed harder up the last high peak, as I descended my legs were visibly shaking with exhaustion. Strength training wasn’t my thing, I hated it, I’m a trail runner, I want to run, not lift. It was at this moment I realized why strength work is so important, my legs were gone. Every other step it seemed my feet would jam into a rock as my heavy, useless legs dragged on. It took me an hour to go 3 miles and I was furious but I kept trying to run.
With 5 miles left I tripped AGAIN and my exhausted body didn’t even reach a hand out try and catch the fall. My left hip hit the ground first and collided into a large rock. Pain radiated through my body and I yelled out, laying on the trail, I tried to catch my breath. Little did I know I had just torn my labrum.
Any other race I would have dropped, this race however had one option for out and it was up. Self paid medivac was the only way to get out and we signed off on this when we registered. I was not about to dish out $1000+ just because I didn’t want to walk 5 miles….so I did. I hobbled out and finished.
I continued to train and race for another 3 weeks following Cats Tail. I managed to complete my first ultra at Mendon 50K before the pain in my hip prevented me from even being able to walk comfortably.
A month later I was diagnosed with a labral tear and a stress fracture in the same hip. I was initially told I would never run another ultra without surgery to fix the tear. Luckily I sought out a second opinion which, after 2 months of rest to allow the fracture to heal, landed me in the helpful hands of a physical therapist who helped me with the muscle imbalance that was causing the pain from my labral tear.
During the time before my diagnosis I was granted the generous gift of a sponsorship from TrailsRoc for my first 50 mile race which I planned to complete in March. The reality of having to give this up was overwhelmingly sad. Even though I was working towards running, I knew it would be months before I would even be able to run an hour. With recommendation of my coach, Chris Dunn and the help of Laura Howard, we picked a new race in the fall of 2018, The Bad Thing 50K. This goal helped me look forward, instead of wallowing in the tedious PT and minimal running I was allowed.
I spent months working my endurance up and doing something I had never done before, strength work! Before I knew it October was here and I was back, stronger than ever. Chris and I came up with a bullet proof plan for race day, nutrition, pacing, gear, everything was ready. The day before the race Mort and I drove the 4 1/2 hours up to Ontario, Canada, through beautiful country sides and dozens of farm to the tiny Town of Auburn. I ate the perfect pre race meal of potatoes, quinoa, kale and beets. I hydrated well, felt calm and retired to bed early.
Everything was going perfectly, until my brain turned on as the lights turned out. I lay awake, starring at the ceiling thinking about the race. I stressed about what women would show up, how fast would they be, what if my stomach was off or I wasn’t as ready as I thought. These thoughts raced in and out of my mind for hours, I had officially lost control of my calm. I drifted of for short periods of time only to be awakened by a new variation of the same worries.
By the time the alarm went off at 4:30 AM, I felt like I hadn’t slept at all. I was silent as I ate breakfast and I knew Mort was starting to worry. I visited the bathroom at least 5 times before we left as my entire body was now in full fledged panic and my stomach was revolting. I tried my best to calm myself. “This is only a race, you do this for fun” and my frantic mind would immediately answer “This is your comeback race, it HAS to be great”.
We arrived at headquarters in the pitch black, it was cold and rain had just started to fall. I picked up my bib and my hands were shaking so badly that I struggled to pin it onto my capris. The race was a point to point and headquarters were at the finish line, so the next step was a 20 min bus ride with my fellow 50kers to the mystery start line.
The start was at the end of a pier on Lake Huron. It was brutally cold. The wind was relentless and icy spray from the lake was hitting us as we lined up. I was grateful for my Houdini, gloves, hat and arm sleeves at that point. The RD shouted a few last minute instructions which seemed to get lost in the wind and we were off. For the first 500 ft we followed a race volunteer to the start of the Maitland Trail, which is where the entire race took place.
In the woods and out of the wind I immediately started to overheat. I checked my watch and realized I was running an 8:30 pace which was 2 mins faster than the agreed upon pace. I had agreed upon an all day pace, knowing that would comfortably get me to the finish line within my goal time of 6 hours. Last years overall female winner had a time of 6:07 and I felt that would be safe. I looked around and realized I was just about middle of the pack with at least 5 women in front of me. How could I be running significantly faster than my goal time and still be so far back. Frustrated, I kept my pace.
I met a few Canadian guys who were quite chatty and funny. One of them knew of Rochester and had ran Many on the Genny this year. The brief chatter about mutual acquaintances distracted me for a moment from the competition.
After 1 1/2ish miles on the trail, which was beautiful and technical, we emerged into a neighborhood. I was clearly able to see the women ahead of me now and they were booking it. Again, I ran faster than the agreed upon time and ditched my gloves to Mort, as he and Ron Heerkins were planning to meet me wherever they could. My body craved a gel but the agreed upon schedule for eating was 45 mins, I looked at my watch, 20 mins until gel time, you can wait. Mistake number one.
3 miles on the road, through neighborhoods and deserted highways, was aid station one. I gave Mort my headlamp and responded to his “you’re doing great” with “they are running so fast up front”. My mind was overwhelmed with fatigue and discouragement. I became obsessed with thinking over and over again “how will I ever catch them”.
The next section of trail was BEAUTIFUL. It was what I came there for, it was gnarly, steep and the views were incredible. I caught up to a group of 2 men and 2 women, I passed them but stayed close. I overheard one of the women talking about how a tornado had gone through this area 7 years ago. The damage was unbelievable, trees were snapped in half and many looked as though they had been ripped from the ground and tossed. I had never seen anything like it before.
Shortly after tornado damage area, the trail intersected with a service road, I looked to the left and saw a runner, so I went left and the group followed. Not too long after, the runner came back towards me, he hadn’t seen any flags and looking back down the hill we had just climbed, we could see other runners going straight where we just turned. I booked it back down the hill but still managed to get stuck behind a group of people and the thick brush on either side of the trail made passing the group impossible. It was this moment where I lost all motivation.
I immediately started walking and stopped caring about the race. An intense fatigue overtook me and all I allowed myself to focus on was how badly I wanted to lay down on the trail and close my eyes. I saw Mort around mile 9 and by that point I was a miserable mess. He encouraged me to eat but between my stubbornness and self sabotaging, I refused. My focus was on being tired and how much further I had to go. The fun trail section turned into flat, grass covered service road. It was sometime around this point that I became consumed by my perfect comeback race being ruined, I threw my hands up into the sky and yelled “why is this happening!”. Like some how the God I wasn’t even sure I believed in was going to rescue me from the pathetic state I had dug myself into. By mile 10 we came back out onto the road and I lost it. I walked the next 2 miles until we went back into the woods.
Right before the next trail section, I told Mort I was done, it wasn’t my day and I was dropping at 30K, which was the next aid station where I would see him and Ron. “I’m like in last place so it doesn’t even matter anymore” I whined. He assured me I was 12th woman but understood if I was done.
Something clicked. Well if I pass the woman who is right in front of me, I’ll be in 11th. I passed that woman, wished her luck and made a pact with myself. I decided that if I was dropping at mile 18 I would go out fighting and that I wouldn’t walk for those 6 miles. I then started repeating to myself over and over again “You are stronger than this”. I said this over 100 times, sometimes out loud, sometimes in my head but I just kept repeating it. I spent zero energy worrying about what the women upfront were doing and just focused on me. In focusing on me I was finally able to recognize that I was hungry so I started eating outside of the strict schedule I had made for myself. I would later find out that I set the Strava course record for this section.
I came flying out of the woods at mile 18, charging towards the aid station. As I ran I unclipped my UD vest and threw it at Mort “I’m staying and I need water!” I yelled. I was in and out of aid in a matter of minutes, passing a group of women who were still there. I caught up to two more women within 10 mins and realized I was probably around 6th place. This section of trail turned out to be my favorite. It was steep, mountain technical and covered in mud. I tackled the obstacles with a giant grin on my face even though it had started to sleet.
My favorite section eventually came out onto the road, AGAIN. This road was the hardest for me physically. It was mostly flat. I could see other runners in the distance who looked miles away and it was a mental battle as I dug in as my brain started protesting ‘but look how far you still have to go, they are all the way up there and you’re all the way back here’. I was at 40K at this point and my cardio system felt strained. I wasn’t used to so much flat road running and my joints were feeling the sting as well. Luckily I could see Mort and Ron at the section where I’d be leaving dirt road hell and wandering back into the woods for the last time and that was enough of a boost to get me through.
Some how I had paused my watch while fiddling with my arm sleeves so I would ask other racers as I passed them what they had for distance and then would clumsily try to convert kilometers to miles in my partially functioning ultra brain. Coming up to the final water stop I came up on the runner who I had mistakenly followed off course many miles before. I asked him where we were at, 42K, shit how many miles is 8K, well I won’t ask because then I’ll look like a dumb American it has to be about 5. I spent several more minutes negotiating this in my mushy mind as lost boy Julien and I struck up conversation. This was his first race over a half marathon and he was trying to finish because his brother had been the 25k winner many years in a row but had never completed an ultra.
Julien and I seemed to pick up the pace as one would get slightly ahead, the other would speed up a bit to catch up and we ran like this until the end, pushing each other for every last ounce of energy. With less than 2K left we came upon the 5th place woman. I passed her easily and celebrated silently, it was that point in the race where everyone is suffering and you can’t help but admire everyone’s grit.
With 1k left we reached the highly talked about river crossing and knew it was almost over. I tore through it as happy as could be and narrowly missed a giant dead fish that was laying in the rocks. I had been most concerned about this section and was surprised at how easy it was to cross.
Leaving the refreshing water I realized I had to be really close to 6 hours. The motivation to come in under that fueled my finish line sprint as I breathlessly continued to mutter to Julien “almost there, final push”, it was as much for myself as anything.
I crossed the finish line at 6:00:15 in 5th place.
All in all there were about 13 miles of road. I had spent my time training at OCP and High Tor and this clearly didn’t serve me here. By the time I finished my legs were still there but my lungs were shot. That much constant, flat running was not what I had anticipated. Even though I feel they were more than fair in the description, I misinterpreted it.
I don’t feel I ever need to go back. It was a beautiful, well organized race with amazing people and too much road running for my taste. I learned so much from this experience and the downfall of obsessing over competition. I was finally able to pull out of my funk when I decided to focus on running my race and what I could do in that moment instead of focusing on what everyone else was doing. I am forever grateful for this experience and how it will aid me in times to come.
This report is directly from the runner – #TrailsRoc has not altered, any of the writing and we are not affiliated with the writer in any way outside of sport of trail running