Pumpkin Holler 50k is a rolling gravel course that follows the Illinois river, farms and the hills of Cherokee County, Ok. That would be my race today. It’s the end of the season for me. It’s been a packed spring/summer with amazing races in places I’ve never seen before. It’s also been a painful summer with the loss of my mother-in-law just a couple weeks ago. Truly, a mother and role model for me. I was left feeling quite hollow, but with a sense of relief that she no longer would suffer. After The Rut in September, I continued to run and train for Flagstaff, the finale race in the U.S. Skyrunning Series. But as Ellen got weaker I knew there was a good possibility I wouldn’t make it, and indeed, her condition became grave the week of the race. Everything seemed to stop all at once.
I was a little frustrated with my racing at speedgoat and the rut as well. I was rather disappointed in how long it took me on both those races and I couldn’t objectively guage my effort during those races...I think due to fear I didn’t trust myself and was afraid to push my effort at all. I was anxious to see if I could push myself a little further at Flagstaff.
Today I didn’t want to wonder if I could have maintained a higher effort, I wanted to know when I finished the race, that I couldn’t have put any more effort here or there. That I made sure to do everything I could to have the best race I could today.
After the Rut, coach encouraged me to run Flagstaff without headphones. I had never run a race or a hard workout without headphones. Easier trail runs less than 3 hours I usually don’t wear them, but for any perceived “hard” or “really long” run, well, they are my pacifier, so to speak. I missed Flagstaff, but from the time he suggested running without headphones I did, and an amazing thing happened. I ran better. I wasn’t distracted, I could actually focus on my effort and know exactly where I was, not just try to “get through” the hard part. I was afraid if I had nothing distract me when it got hard, I would fall apart. The opposite happened...I could better keep it together. I also realized that much of the summer I didn’t “feel” my runs. Maybe in part due to distraction from headphones, but more from stress. As hard as it was to lose Ellen, once I let her go in my heart and mind, I could feel again. I distinctly remember going out for a run along the pumpkin holler course, and it was like I could really see, hear, feel everything...the green river, the vibrancy of the colors in the trees and leaves. I could hear...the crunching gravel, the wind, leaves rustling, and I could feel… the warmth of the sun, the breeze on my skin, my heart beat, every muscle in my legs and arms. I could feel the effort, and I could feel the gratitude and connection with everything around me.
And after that day of being able to feel again, I knew I could run a race and find that line of knowing my effort, knowing when to push, when to back off, because I KNEW I could feel it. There was no fear, no need to distract. And then coach took it a step further. He said something to the effect of, “how about putting tape on your watch so you can’t see the data, just go by feel”. Initially, it gave me a little panic attack. A full 50k with no watch data. I started out with and have become very dependent on my watch to “tell me” what my effort is based on my heart rate, splits, etc. Of course I always see coach’s suggestions as a challenge, and I love challenges so I was in.
So, race morning, white electrical tape over the face of my watch. Looking at the blank white tape, I thought, “I should write something on it”. Todd suggested, “I’m right behind you!”. I thought that was funny and would be good motivation, so I did.
I wanted to do everything right on this race that I had control over. I ate a large breakfast 3 hours before the race to make sure I was well fueled and not full at the start. I did my pre race warm up getting my hr up just before the start. I carried 1 handheld with water and 1 gel from the start, planning to go for 2 gels per hour-ish, but based more on feel than timing. I did leave the alarm on my watch ticking off the miles, so I would at least know what mile I was at.
The race director yelled, “go” and we were off. I knew I was going out a little fast, but not too fast...at least it didn’t feel like it. After a couple miles I settled down a little. at around mile 4 we started to climb gently then steeper. I took a quick peek back and saw the second female right behind me. “Well crap” I thought, “how appropriate, the ‘I’m right behind you!’ on my watch really is!” I pushed on up the hill, a little harder effort than I would have if she weren’t right there. I knew if I could top the hill, I could easily plow down it, downhill is a skill I have and I was sure I could break away. I cruised right on through the mi 5 aid station saying hello and waving to everyone trying to look like I was having an easy time. I could tell by her breathing she was having at least as much difficulty getting up that hill as I was, but I wanted her to think it was a breeze for me. I put just a little gap on the downhill and rolled into mi 7.5 aid feeling good. Grabbed a couple of gels and topped off my water and headed out for the 3 mile out and back section. My effort had been riding a little higher than I knew it should, but I wanted to try and put a little lead on the girl behind me so when we passed each other it would seem like I was widening the gap. I also determined to look as happy and care free as possible when we passed. Got to the turnaround and in less than 1 minute, there she was…”well shit, that didn’t work!” I continued that higher effort back to the aid at 10.5 miles and headed off for the next aid station. By 11 miles I could tell I had extended probably a little too much effort and was feeling a little fatigue in the legs. I thought, “oh it is waaay to soon for this”. I decided to take in another gel, I had only had 2 gels at that point, and even though my tummy wasn’t really excited about taking one on, I thought maybe I just needed more energy.
My energy picked up a little, but now my gut was cramping. “I hope I make it to the porta potty at the next aid station...I hope there is a porta potty at the next aid station”. A long shallow climb lay ahead. Despite the fatigue my legs were feeling I was determined to continue that little bit harder effort. I knew I was moving a little slower, but had no concept of my pace..was it 8? 9? 10 min/mi? I really had no clue. I could tell at this point my HR wasn't as high, so I knew my pace had slowed, but I def was going as fast as my legs would allow at that point, so I didn’t stress. I could hear voices behind me and I just knew it was the 2nd place female getting ready to take me. I kept making sure I was giving all the effort I could, I was not holding back. Any harder effort would not have been sustainable. We topped out about a half mile from the 14 mi aid station and I reveled in plowing down into the aid station. To my surprise I had put a little more of a gap on #2. Unfortunately, my gut required a visit to the porta potty I was oh so glad to see. As I exited and grabbed more gels and water she rolled into the aid station. I took off.
I was worried at how my legs were feeling at under the halfway point. They were really starting to feel more than mildly sore, hips and knees hurting a little and just leg tired. My energy was good, I felt good, but my legs were not as good. I was continuing to get a gel in about every 3-4 miles and drank from my water bottle to quench my thirst. By mi 16 my gut was cramping again. The course is dirt road, flanked mostly by fences. I was looking for an opportunity to dart off the dirt road and find a good hiding place as my gut was cramping more and more. I knew I was not going to make it to the next porta potty! I am quite modest and will practically get myself lost off the trail to make sure not a soul will see me. In this case it would mean about 50-100meters or more off the dirt road through thick brush to a remote enough tree to hide myself. Knowing She was probably not far behind, I decided I would run as fast as I could through the brush to the perfect hiding spot and run as fast as I could back, I would not waste any time! And so ran off the road through thick brush when I got my left foot tangled in barbed wire hiding in the brush. It grabbed me right out of mid stride and jerked me straight to the ground smacking my left knee and shin on the hidden rocks. Stunned by the sudden jerk and sharp pain, and of course still trying to get the hell back on the road before She caught me, I rose to my feet and managed to slice the back of my leg with the barbed wire in my haste. Cursing I took care of business and ran (a little more cautiously) back to the road. A bloody mess, but no real damage done. I looked back as I got back on the road and saw no evidence of her. I was surprised. I knew my pace was slower, I had no idea how much slower, but I felt surely she would catch me. At mi 18 aid station I regrouped, grabbed more gels, salt, water and took off. I wasn’t sure where I was in relation to the guys in front. I figured I was in 5th or so place. I could see one or two of them from time to time in front of me and one I was gaining on very gradually.
The 22 mi aid station was named “hard up ahead”. I really didn’t like that name, as I wasn’t sure how much “hard up ahead” I had in me. This was the only paved section of the course and by now my hips, left IT band and knees were talking very loud. I tried easing up on my pace a bit to see if it would help briefly, but as I suspected, it only hurt more to go slower. The faster I go, typically the less joint pain I have...unless I’m walking or hiking...and walking/hiking just was not an option today. Today was going to be riding that line of hard and unsustainable, and faster was less painful than slower. Faster also meant I got to be done sooner and have a beer and a hot dog. At 25 miles I finally got the feeling that maybe I had really shaken #2 girlie, I also knew if she could muster the strength to pass me at this point, there would be nothing I could do. I was going as fast as I possibly could. I caught the guy in front of me. Good golly my legs were hurting. I heard my watch beep, “Ok, I’m at 27 miles..I’m on the hunt for mi 28” I decided to play this goofy game in my head. ‘I’m looking for mi 28” I would look ahead, plotting, figuring where it would be, like I was hunting it down. “Beep”, ok that was mi 28. now I’m on the hunt for mi 29...I’m going to get mi 29” This actually worked. I could tell my legs were working harder and I was moving a little faster, it was like I had a purpose. My eyebrows furrowed, on the hunt for mi 29. Beep. Ok, mi 30….and on to 31. At 31 I could see glimpses of the river bridge we would cross just before the last 200 meters or so. “oh, thank God” I thought, I am finally there! I crossed the finish at 4:37. I was hoping for under 4:30, but knew I had given every ounce all the way. I don’t know that I have finished a race that satisfied with myself. Maybe Boston Marathon last year. I felt every moment of that race, no distractions and no desire for distraction...that’s the part that surprised me. I didn’t need distraction. I was fortunate to get a little icing on my cake today, first female and 3rd overall finisher. But as I am learning...it’s not about the finishing place, or really even time. The joy is in the effort, in the “doing”. Dealing with the unexpected, adapting and prospering and moving forward with the best effort I can lay down. That is where the joy lies.