Imagine taking some golf balls, baseballs, and even some golf tees and just jumping up and down on them for 8 hours….oh, and for good measure, have someone hammer your toes until you feel like they have a life of their own….
I decided over a year ago that the next race I trained for would be an ultra marathon. I was thrown a bit of a curve ball by not being able to run for 4 months last summer/fall but I wasn’t about to let that change my plans too much. It meant finding a different race and re-doing my training plan but that’s the easy part. From my very first run last fall, every run I did had a purpose and the purpose was getting ready for an ultra. I was prepared to do it alone but was beyond thrilled when Keith told me he would train and run with me. I could not have done this without his support and company.
So, after many months of brutal training, we were ready to go. Of course we’ve each battled certain aches, pains, and slight injuries over the past few months so we weren’t sure how our bodies would hold up but we knew we were as ready and prepared as we could be.
It dawned on us Friday night as we were getting our race gear ready that this would be our first “race first” to experience together! When Keith did his first Half Marathon, I had already done one. When I did my first Marathon, Keith still painstakingly swore he would never do one (and still does!). When I did my first triathlon, Keith had been racing for years. When Keith did his first Ironman, I hadn’t even done a triathlon. So, we were heading into this race with the same amount of unknowns and same amount of accomplishments to be achieved. This made it all even more exciting.
We awoke on race morning with plenty of time to spare, got to the race site (a barn in the middle of nowhere), and dropped our drop bags at the loop. Thank goodness I had seen a race report that said head lamps were crucial. Absolutely, they were! It was country dark…you know the kind of dark where you can’t see your hand in front of your face. We decided with about 10 minutes to spare to hit up the porta potties. There were only 5 and none had toilet paper…how do you not have toilet paper and you still have the 3 races yet to start? I had some spare tp in my fuel belt so I ran back to get it…thinking the whole time, “gosh, i really can’t see anything and it’s really tough to run on this gravel. glad we’ll be off of it and on some trails.” Ha! If only I had known. Well, anyway, much to my dismay, I was in the bathroom when the race started! Those of you who know how Type A I am, know this is not me. I ran out, found Keith, and we ran backwards to the race start and off we went. Unfortunately this put us at the very back of what turned out to be a single file line for the first few miles. I was somewhat irritated but it was so incredibly dark and rocky and uphill that I kept telling myself to just chill. We were finally able to pass some people and got in a great pocket where it was just the 2 of us for a while. After 75 or so minutes, the sun finally started to come up. For some reason, I think we thought being able to see meant that the trail would suddenly not seem so treacherous. Not so much! Being able to see almost made it worse.
We made a pact the night before that the first person to “get negative” had to drop and do pushups. I don’t even remember what Keith said but here’s what came after that
Needless to say, we continued on with a very positive and upbeat day!
This was a 2 loop course (we’re actually not sure what the mileage was- our watches both said 18 miles on the first loop but the aid station volunteers were coming up with just over 16 miles based on where they thought they were stationed. who really cares at that point?! we ran somewhere between 32 and 36 miles!) so all we had been talking about was just getting through the first loop. We wanted to do the first loop, know what to expect for the 2nd one, and just go. We finally got to mile 6 on the first loop and it felt like forever. Luckily, we started on some good downhill from here. The first 6 miles wasn’t steep but was a winding climb. Miles 6 to 10 or so were a little bit rolling but mostly what we would consider flat. We weren’t at all bothered by the course and felt more than prepared.
The terrain was a totally different story. It was about 85% loose, large and small rock. I hadn’t been able to find out much about the course before the race but I did see some pictures of these pine trails that looked awesome. Those were pretty non-existent. Apparently it’s typically very rocky on the trails in Texas (hence the name Rocky Hill Ranch) but they said it was even more so this year because of the big rains they had just gotten that week. Much of the trail was simply not runnable due to the rolling gravel and down or up hills and it didn’t take long for my feet to feel like they were completely shredded on the bottoms.
(here’s what the majority of the trail was like)
We didn’t get too bothered by this though. We ran when we could run and walked when we had to. Every now and then we would round a corner and get about 2 or 3 minutes or soft dirt and it felt like butter under our feet. It was all the relief we needed to give ourselves some pep in our step. Of course it was always short lived but we were expecting that at this point. Miles 12 or so until the loop start contained the 3 “big hills” and even more rock. The hills (named “The Wall”, “The Grind”, and a 3rd I’ve forgotten) didn’t bother us at all on the first loop. We felt like the Red Loop had more than prepared us for those. The toughest part about the hills were how slick and steep they were. After the hills, we had about a mile or so back to the race start where we would start the second loop and do it all again.
I had an arbitrary goal of 8 hours in my head. It’s hard to come up with a goal when you’re talking about a trail race in which you know nothing about the course or terrain but I still thought it sounded pretty like a decent goal. I didn’t really care but I kind of wanted something to aim for, in the event I started to hit a dark place. I had no doubt that we would finish so I wanted something to push for when it really started to get tough.
I wanted to get to the loop start by 3:55 to give us some time to re-fuel our bottles and belts (there were only 2 aid stations along the way and they didn’t have a whole lot so we had planned to refill our bottles from our cooler and our belts) and we had also planned on changing socks if necessary and reapplying Glide or whatever we needed. Speaking of aid stations, there wasn’t a single porta potty in the whole race. These local races sure have spoiled us!
We got to our drop bags at 4:02 and treated it somewhat like a triathlon transition but it still took us until about 4:10 to leave. We had hoped that we would eat and drink from the aid stations and keep our belts full but we were depleted instead. We had been eating at 40 minutes on the dot and doing everything as planned. I knew we needed to make up 10 minutes on the 2nd loop if we were going to come in under 8 hours but I also knew I was planning to take some pictures and really try to have fun on this 2nd loop…and that it was probably going to become harder than I could even imagine. Plus, I really didn’t know if we could negative split this race, especially having seen what the first loop held.
It was interesting looping back through the start because there were people that were doing the 25K who were getting their medals and we just kept going. I never, for one second, wanted to trade places with them though. We wanted to make this happen so I knew we would.
We were both feeling pretty great, with the exception of foot pain – even Keith was having some foot pain due to the rocks. Our minds were good, our stomachs were good, and our energy was good. We did a great job of pushing and pulling each other as it always seems that when one of us was struggling, the other was feeling pretty strong. We made up about 5 minutes before the first aid station and I was a little surprised it wasn’t more but I was also surprised when I saw the trail we had been running on in the dark! It’s amazing this klutz didn’t break a leg!
We were really lucky at this point because the weather was cooperating. It was warming up and humid but still quite overcast and windy. The wind got tough when we would get out in the open fields but that was often the areas with less rock so it was hard not to love being out there. My favorite thing about the “production” of the race was the motivational quotes tacked to trees along the way. We stopped to take pictures of lots of these.
We both started to suffer a good bit around hour 6 but it didn’t slow us down. It helped to rotate who was running in the front and surprisingly, it really helped to start increasing our speed on the more runnable sections. Although, hours 6-8 were the toughest hours we’ve ever had, they were also the most awesome. We were really pushing and fighting off all negativity. It was then that we felt like we were really giving it our all and we were proud that we were able to push this hard, this far into the race. There was something pleasantly welcoming about the suffering. We knew going into this race that we would probably suffer at some point and we really knew after doing Loop 1 that it was going to become increasingly tough. There’s something about just welcoming the suffering that helped.
We did a good bit of talking and we did a good bit of running in silence but most importantly, we were just in a really great rhythm together.
I became overwhelmed by emotion around mile 28 or 29. I didn’t let it break my stride and we laughed about it even in the moment but I just suddenly became overwhelmed and started crying! It wasn’t a “i can’t do this” cry but more of a “holy shit, we’ve really had a great race and i also know how tough these last few miles are going to be” cry.
The last hour was definitely the hardest hour of running of my life but also one of the most rewarding. We knew at 7:50 that there was no way we were breaking 8 hours (we were about 9 minutes over) but at that point we didn’t care. We had stopped to take pictures, chatted with people at the aid stations, and just really enjoyed ourselves. Had we not done those things, yes, we would have broken 8 by a few minutes but our experiences weren’t worth giving that time back. Plus, even with all of that, we had negative splits on the 2nd loop! Very proud of how we ran and how we managed to stay together and focused for 8 hours. And not to mention that we finished strong! (25% of the 50 mile field was a DNF and 13% of the 50K field was a DNF)
Keith, thank you for training with me, running with me, and allowing this ridiculous goal to be our anniversary trip! There’s nobody else in the entire world that I would rather suffer for 8 hours with