Ghost Train 2018: Living to run another day

“The real purpose of running isn’t to win a race, it’s to test the limits of the human heart.” ~ Bill Bowerman

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This past weekend I attempted my second hundred mile race at Ghost Train Ultras in Brookline, NH.  Although my fitness and mental game were at their peaks, I had an injury going in that I knew could potentially wreck my day (or night, as it were).  However, I’ve learned that sometimes even though things don’t go quite as you planned, things turn out even better than you expected.

I arrived at Camp Tevya with my crew extraordinaire  (Brad and Carolynn) and fellow runners Liz, Kim, Laura, and Mike.  We had managed to get our primo spot and were getting everything laid out as we awaited the start of the race.  A neighbor came over and told us that someone else had told her to make sure she set up next to us, as my crew chief was awesome at taking care of feet.  Apparently our reputation precedes us!!  We got everything set up and finished getting geared up to take off at the sound of the Yeti yell.

the gang before

I had decided to forego my run/walk strategy in favor of just running until I couldn’t run anymore.  It had worked well for me this past summer at the VT100k, as I had figured out the the walking is what caused me so much foot pain.  With that in mind, I settled into a relatively easy pace and ran most of the first 7.5 miles with my friend Peggy, who was attempting her first hundo finish.  What I love most about this race is the social aspect of it all.  You can run in your own head if you like, but if you prefer to chat while you run, well, this race gives you the option for both.

I had scarfed down some chow at the Milford aid station and was heading back to Camp Tevya when I heard a familiar voice.  Familiar as in “haven’t I heard that voice on TV before?”  As I approached the individual belonging to said voice I asked, “Are you Tim?”  He turned to me with a raised eyebrow and said, “yes….”.  Don’t worry, dude, I’m not a stalker.  OK, maybe I am just a little.  I told him how his name had come up on FB  as a recommended friend (we have a few common connections) and told him that I remembered him as the human sacrifice from the Barkley.  He chuckled and said, “geez, I’m never living that down.”  I took a quick selfie as I figured he would soon leave me in the dust, but as it turns out we were pretty well matched for pace at that stage in the race.  We ran the incoming 7.5 miles together, chatting about races and how we got into running.  The time flew and before I knew it we had arrived back in camp.  Thanks, Tim, for getting me a segment PR and my fastest loop ever at Ghost Train.

I had chosen to change my shirt and socks each time I came in to Camp Tevya because again, it had served me well in Vermont.  I sat down to change socks and realized I had a blister brewing.  It was way too early in the race for this nonsense, but given the fact that my gait was altered due to the injury, it was an evil that needed to be addressed.  Brad quickly patched me up, and I had some food and Coke, geared back up, and headed back for loop 2.

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I realized that the pace I ran for the first loop was not going to be sustainable, so I slowed considerably the second time out.  I was still moving well, eating and drinking plenty, and having a blast.  I leapfrogged Mike and Tim a couple of times, saw Liz and Kim and Laura in passing, and enjoyed the cool weather and the New England October scenery.  At this point, there was still no doubt in my mind that I would finish the hundred.  I blazed into the Milford aid station, crammed more goodies down (hard-boiled eggs, avocado wraps, and bacon – OH MY!!!) and then shot back over the bridge and onto the trail south.

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This was where I’d made a crucial mistake last year.  At the 30 mile mark I had not thought to put on warmer clothes and I paid the price by not being able to warm up the whole night.  That would not happen this year.  I again changed shirt and socks (and yet another blister had to be lanced and patched) and threw on a pair of warm pants.  I headed back out on the trail, this time with Brad in tow.  We covered miles 30-45 pretty well, and I know I ran way more during these miles than I had last year.  I still felt pretty strong and was continuing to eat and drink well, although I did notice that my mouth and throat seemed a bit dry.  This had happened last year, too, but much further into the race.  I didn’t pay much attention to this nuisance and just keep trucking along.  It was starting to get dark and it was very cool to see the new lights in the tunnel.  The volunteers had pulled out all the stops with decorations this year.  I hope they know how much we appreciated their efforts to make the trail as entertaining as possible.

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Back at Camp Tevya, I had Brad check out my injured foot.  It was beginning to feel bruised and I was getting a burning sensation after running for 5-10 minutes.  It would resolve itself after walking for a few minutes but I really didn’t want to go down that rabbit hole if I didn’t have to.  He couldn’t find anything but we patched the area anyway, thinking maybe a deep blister was brewing.  I was still moving along pretty well and was happy to now have Amy Rusiecki as my pacer for the next 30 miles.  I planned to pick her brain clean of whatever ultra knowledge she had while she pushed me forward towards the 75 mile mark.

Miles 45-60 passed much the same way, although I slowed considerably after leaving the Milford aid station.  Amy passed the time by telling me stories of her first 100 and meeting her husband Brian (B-Dog to his friends and competitors, as I found out).  It was so much fun running with her, and she took amazing care of me.  Even though I was hurting and slowing down I still had a smile on my face and was in really good spirits.  I was still on top of my fueling and hydration, and other than screaming quads and that nagging foot issue, I was jonesing to keep pressing on.  I tried to do the math in my head to figure out how I measured up to last year’s efforts, but runner brain took over and I quickly gave up.  Just keep swimming, I thought.

Coming into camp this time was a very different experience.  The world was (mostly) quiet and it was dark, with many runners of the shorter distances now sleeping and the finish line party subdued.  We looped through the covered bridge, across the start/finish mat, and back to my crew.  It was at this point that the very slightest notion of not finishing crept into my head.  The pain in my foot was multiplying and now showing up as compensatory pain behind my knee, in my hamstring, and the right quad was really sore, as it had taken the brunt of unloading the left foot with every stride.  I sat down for probably 20 minutes this time, eating noodles, getting my feet checked, and drinking down another Coke.  I added more warm clothing, changed the batteries in my fading headlamp, and Amy and I headed back out into the dark.

I made it most of the way to Milford before my foot gave up completely.  I was now reduced to just walking and it was taking its toll on all the joints in both feet, and the right leg was now almost useless for doing anything but moseying along on the flat.  The hill and the stairs were brutal.  Any uneven ground sent my foot into spasms.  We got to Milford and I sat by the fire with my feet up on the woodpile while Amy filled my pack and brought me food.  I had maintained a good mental outlook for 67.5 miles, but now I gave in to the emotions.  Amy dragged me out of the aid station and soon after we got back to the trail, she pulled out the big guns.  I had had my students write me notes for my crew to read to me when the shit hit the fan, and that time had come.

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She read me the first few and my emotions just came crashing in.  All I could think about was letting those kids down.  I tried to summon up the strength to push those thoughts out of my mind.  A mile or so down the trail, she read me a few more.  When the tears came again, Amy asked me to tell her about the students who had written the notes.  I know she was trying to help me get my mind right again, but I had already given in.  The pain in my foot wasn’t likely to get any better.  The compensatory pain in other areas of my body would also continue to get worse, and I thought about what kind of damage I could be doing.  I already had my qualifying race for Vermont, so I had nothing to prove here.  I gave a voice to my concerns and we spent a few miles talking through my decision.  The more I thought about dropping, the better I felt.  Emotionally I was disappointed, but physically all I felt was relief.  We got back to camp and as we passed my crew spot, I looked at Brad and said “we need to have a conversation.”  Amy and I made our way through camp and across the 75 mile mat.  We got back to our crew and Brad sat me down to take a look at my feet.  Although he couldn’t see anything, I was in so much pain that I couldn’t imagine shuffling another 25 miles.  Just as that thought made its way out of my mouth, the wind and rain started.  That was the definitive moment for me.  I looked at Amy and said “can you go tell the timer that I’m done?”  And with that, my ride on the Ghost Train came to an end.  And I didn’t regret it one bit.  The only regret I have is that I didn’t get any photos together with my awesome crew.  I guess some things get forgotten when you try to run a hundred miles.  Couldn’t expect Amy to take any pics with her “I’m stuck in the 80s” flip phone.

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The wind and rain continued to increase as we packed up and headed back to the hotel.  Just before I collapsed into bed for some sleep, I checked out my foot in the harsh light of day.  It seems that the painful culprit was a large blood blister growing under the callus that had built up on the outside of my foot, evidence of me landing heavily on the outside of the instep.  At least now I had an answer.  When I woke up late that afternoon, I had pizza delivered to the hotel, opened a beer, and indulged in Gilmore Girls reruns on Netflix until I flamed out again around 11pm.

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I won’t be returning to this race in 2019, as I plan to do the VT100.  I’ll take what I learned from my 20 hours on the train and hopefully be at 100% and ready to tackle my dream race.  After having done the 100k option a few times now, its time to put the big girl pants on and step up to the plate.  As always, there are too many people to thank for all their help…all my running buddies, my crew Brad and Carolynn, and my pacer Amy.  Most of all I need to thank my incredible husband, Joe, for being endlessly supportive and never letting me give less than my best.

PS: I checked the results and I finished 8th overall, 2nd female in the 75 mile division.  Not to mention that I got to share some of the trail with not one, but TWO Barkley veterans.  Silver lining?

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Posted in Ghost Train, running, TARC, trail running, ultra running, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Follow your dreams and you’ll never look back

“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” ~ Steve Prefontaine

 

When I started running in 2011, I did it because I wanted to run a benefit 5k for my hometown tornado relief fund.  Back then, I hadn’t thought that it would eventually lead me to a new career path.  Since that day I’ve learned to expect the unexpected and just go with it.  I’ve discovered that despite what others may think, I can still achieve my dreams – even if they seem far-fetched.

I followed the usual path from 5ks to half marathons to marathons.  I got slightly faster but not as fast as I wanted to get, and since I came to running late in life I figured I was experiencing the point of diminishing returns phenomenon.  At some point in the 5k to half marathon transition I discovered trail running.  Trail running fulfilled my sense of adventure and got me off the roads and into the woods.  I continued my road racing while getting stronger on the trails (after a couple of falls resulting in a wrist fracture followed by an ankle fracture) and after a few road marathons, I began dreaming of an ultra.

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Over the course of the next few years, I participated in many 50ks (some self-supported training runs), several 50 milers, three 100ks (one with a 97 minute PR!!) and my first hundred miler in 2017.  I still do road races, but my love lies with ultras.  I may not be faster, but I can grind down into a low gear and just keep on trucking.  I like the challenge of the trail, and I love pushing my body to limits I never thought I could.  I’ve had to tackle unique problems because of my age and my lack of a lifetime of running experiences, and I can relate to others facing similar issues.  I love figuring out how best to approach a training plan with an eye towards the mature runner (I hate the word older because it has a negative connotation for me).

I’ve ridden horses practically all my life.  It was my passion for many years, exploring several different disciplines and finally settling on endurance racing.  Its a lot like ultra running, only you have to worry about 6 legs instead of 2, and two living, breathing beings instead of one.  It taught me to multi-task under stress, focus on nutrition and pacing (for the both of us), and to be almost anally organized.  I had a tack box that went with me to every race and was only unpacked to clean everything and then repack it to be ready for the next adventure.  My ultra gear is no different.  I can just about do nothing but pack some clothes and food and throw my drop box in the car and go.  It takes a lot of the pressure off, knowing that everything is always ready to go…and I encourage my clients to do the same thing.

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I’ve been incredibly blessed to meet and run with some amazing athletes.  While I was in college I worked part time at a run specialty store originally owned by a local running legend, and it opened a lot of pathways for me.  I’ve been encouraged by Deena Kastor, inspired by Colleen Alexander, and coached by Amby Burfoot.  I’ve run races alongside Jeff Galloway and in the footsteps of Bill Rodgers, and I’ve shared trails with Hal Koerner and Amy Rusiecki.  Nothing like learning from the best.

I like to stay involved in the running community, and give back when I can.  I serve as a guide for Achilles CT, I have fundraised for Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports, I belong to the Shenipsit Striders (a local running club), I have led pace groups for local races, and I am an brand ambassador for Skratch Labs and UltrAspire.  I also volunteer at several ultras each year, enjoying the camaraderie and watching others live out their dream races.  I firmly believe in the old adage, “you reap what you sow,” and I apply that to my coaching as well as to my own experiences in my running life.

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I’m a scientist by training.  I earned my associate’s degree in liberal arts and sciences from Manchester Community College in 2010, my bachelor’s degree in marine science from the University of Connecticut at Avery Point in 2013, and my master’s degree in oceanography from UCONN in 2015.  I guess you could say I love to learn, and I have a very analytical mind.  I like facts and figures, and I like the data to back them up.  So when it came time to choose a coaching certification program, I searched for one that was steeped in scientific data and had lots of peer-reviewed references to back up the training philosophy.  I found United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy, and it was a perfect fit.  The course was totally online, I could study at my own pace, and it had hundreds of references throughout the text to scientific articles that I could access and read for myself (luckily I still have my sign-in credentials from UCONN).

I’m looking forward to a lifetime of helping runners reach goals they never thought possible.  If you are interested in learning more, please feel free to contact me at runlongrunstrongendurance@gmail.com.  We will spend about an hour together on the phone discussing your experience and your goals, and then I’ll create a personalized plan just for you.  As a client, you can expect that I will be checking your data daily, and we will have weekly conversations to discuss your progress and any changes that might need to be made in your plan.  If you need any more convincing, please check out the testimonials below and then drop me a line.  #runlongrunstrong 

“Faith Strafach has been my coach throughout the running season of 2018.  In June, I had unexpected surgery and needed a plan to ensure I could fulfill my goal of returning to ultra racing in the fall. During that time, she prepared structured and graduating workouts, slowly increasing in mileage, while adding challenging speed work and tempo workouts.  She has proven herself to be a generous and giving leader who trains her athletes hard and encourages them to do their best.  She listened to my needs, reviewed my data frequently, and altered my schedule when necessary to ensure the program was tailored for me and my progress.  Her strategy encompasses a unique balance between coaching, mentoring, informing and challenging that has helped me immensely in getting back into racing shape.

She teaches discipline, hard work and dedication to her athletes. If you are looking for a passionate coach and are ready to do the work, I highly recommend Faith to achieve your goals and make your dreams a reality.” ~ Laura B., ultra runner 

“Faith has served a guide for Achilles athletes since April 2015.  She combines her passion for and vast experience with running, and pays it forward to individuals with a variety of medical conditions and disabilities.  Whether they are just starting out, or have to modify their walking/running, Faith helps them set goals and provides support during their workouts/training runs. On race day, Faith motivates, paces, and crosses the finish line side-by-side with her assigned athlete.  It’s hard to tell who is smiling more when the finisher medal is distributed.  Achilles is lucky to have Faith sharing her love of running, and giving of her time and talents in the service of others.”   Erin Spaulding, President  Achilles International-Connecticut

“Faith is so very encouraging and enjoyable to spend time with that you might not realize what great running knowledge she possesses, until you find yourself accomplishing running goals you had only dreamed about. I  recommend her coaching to any runner, from beginner to ultra distance runner.” ~ Neal B., runner

“If you are looking for a running coach who will motivate, inspire, and become part of your life you found her.  Faith is all of this and more.  As Faith learns about your abilities, and limitations, she uses this information to help motivate and push you to become a better athlete.  She is brutally honest (I love this).  She gets out and runs with you.  She learns your style and helps you with your pacing, breathing, hydration, or whatever else you need to reach your goals.  If want a coach that understands running, has a passion for the sport, knows about different terrains, ability levels, and how to fuel the body look no further.  You found her.  Trust me, Faith is the coach for you.” ~ Adam F., physically challenged ultra runner

Posted in coaching, running, running coach, trail running, ultra running, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

VT100k 2018: The race that finally happened.

Well I’m finally coming down off the high of the VT100k so I guess its time to get my adventure down on (digital) paper.  The weekend went off without a single hitch and I still can’t believe the amazing time I had, considering the difficulty of this course. With that being said, let’s get down to the details.

 

We left CT for the Green Mountain State on Friday afternoon, picking up Liz on the way.  We went directly to Harpoon Brewery to meet up with Tammy and Kenny and a few of their friends from the Trail Monsters.  Now I don’t suggest that everyone start a huge race weekend with beer and pub food (wait…what am I talking about???) but we couldn’t resist the urge to visit this local brewery, especially since it was only about 10 minutes from our rental house.  While most of us had burgers with our brews, one of Tammy’s group decided that chili was a great idea.  Thank goodness he was running the 100 miler because I really didn’t want to be behind him on the trail the next day.  Hopefully things didn’t go south for him (see what I did there?).  We also met Samantha and Sean there (the last two members of my crew team).

 

Our group left Harpoon and headed to our rental.  Now, the listing had described this as a gem in the woods with a beautiful view.  What an understatement this turned out to be!!!!  The house had everything we needed and more, including an awesome fire pit and sheep to serenade us.  While Sean spoke to the sheep, we unloaded the car and investigated the rest of the house.  It was cozy and inviting, with beautiful hand-made wool blankets on the couches and bird feeders and flower gardens right outside the windows.  We quickly unpacked and then headed to bib pickup and the runner meeting.  This was pretty uneventful, as we had been through it a few times now.  Once we left there, we headed to Quechee for dinner and then returned to the house.  We packed for the following day, relaxed for a while, and then hit the rack for our 6am wake up.

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Race morning arrived with better weather than had been predicted.  We got to the venue plenty early so we could see Amy (the RD), check in with all the awesome folks we knew who were running the 100k, and then chill until gun time. It’s always fun to chat to first-timers and veterans alike, as they all have new stories to tell.   It wasn’t long before we heard the timer yell “ten minutes to start time!!” and that always send butterflies through my stomach. I love this race.  And knowing how ready I was this year, I was jonesing to get out on the course and give it the beat-down.  The ten-second countdown began, the air horn fired, and we were off up the road.

The first 9 miles of the race are fairly easy.  After the initial ¾ of a mile of uphill, most of the next section is rolling to downhill, so I’m usually trucking right along until I get to Camp Ten Bear the first time.  I had the honor of running a few miles with Kyle, a VI runner and RD Amy (his guide for the first 9 miles).  We chatted and ran and eventually I let them go, as they were doing a pace that was a bit too much for me at this point in the race.  I had told my crew that I planned to at least change socks and re-fill my hydration bladder at every crew spot, so they had everything ready for me when I came blasting into CTB.  They were incredibly efficient and I was able to do what I needed to do and head back out on the course within about 5 minutes.  One crew station down, 5 more to go.

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The next 11 miles are a mix of rolling to uphill, culminating in a 2-mile climb up to the Margaritaville aid station.  I cruised along for the first couple of miles, knowing that it was waiting for me – Agony Hill.  This lovely stretch of the course is a one-mile climb starting on dirt road and ending on rugged jeep trail.  For the previous two years, this hill has been my nemesis – forcing me to stop and catch my breath or turn around and walk backwards when my calves and hamstrings were screaming.  Not this year, Agony Hill.  I’ve been training for you.  All those Wachusett hill repeats I’d done had given me the legs and the lungs to beat this one into submission, and I climbed all the way to the top without stopping. I was so dang proud of myself that I started singing as I ran the flat section to the next aid station.  And then I proceeded to run/walk the climb to Margaritaville.  Well, this race was going quite according to plan.

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I spent a little bit of time at this crew spot, as I had overheated a bit on the climb and I knew I still had more climbing to go before starting the downhill trek back to Camp Ten Bear.  I took a few minutes to just sit and enjoy the atmosphere while I chowed down on fruit and Coke.  I finally changed my socks, laced back up, and headed back down the trail.

I’m always surprised at how deceptively tough the descent back to CTB is.  After some rolling to downhill dirt road, the course follows a rugged Jeep trail for quite a while before popping back out on the dirt road a couple of miles from the aid station.  While it is downhill, the footing is tricky and the legs were getting fatigued.  At least this year it was dry – mud adds to the fun but it also adds to the difficulty.  I’m still fairly new to this level of ultrarunning so I’m less appreciative of the extra challenges that are brought on by mud than some of my trail buddies are.  I kept glancing at my watch to see if I was still on pace, and I was dancing dangerously close to my self-imposed time cutoff of 15 hours.  I pushed as hard as I could up the last hill and charged back into Camp Ten Bear, knowing that I would be accompanied for the rest of the race once I got there.

Arriving at CTB the second time is like running into a giant party, because now a lot of the 100 milers have joined us and there are runners coming into the aid station from two directions.  It can also get pretty confusing if you haven’t done the race before.  I witnessed two runners go out the wrong way and have to retrace their steps back to the aid station and get on the right trail out.  Luckily we had this down to a science, so I raced in, changed my shirt, socks and shoes while Liz filled my pack, got some food, and Samantha and I were off towards Spirit of 76.  Ahead of us was nemesis #2: Heartbreak Hill.

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I was able to climb Heartbreak without much issue, only stopping a couple of times to catch my breath.  This section of trail was partially unfamiliar to me.  The race committee had to re-route part of the trail to accommodate for local logging so I told Samantha we were in uncharted territory somewhere after Heartbreak Hill.  She took this information in stride and we continued to pick our way down the trail.  When we got to the new section, we slowed down.  I mean WAY down.  Loggers had left the trail strewn with branches and bark and the footing was rocky and loose.  I moved along as best I could but I was getting very fatigued.  My spirits were still high, though, because I knew I was still going as fast as I could and I wasn’t too far off from where I wanted to be. By the time we dropped down to the road that led to 76, I was about 10 minutes behind my pace but I didn’t care. The race was unfolding so well, and despite being tired I still felt really good.

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Coming up the hill to 76 we were met by an aid station volunteer, and he asked me who I was and where I was from.  Samantha also told him that I was on pace to do a two hour PR. He proceeded to announce my arrival with his booming voice, adding the tidbit that Samantha had shared. Everyone along the sides of the road and at the aid station cheered, and I was in tears.  When you’re this deep in an ultra, emotions are right at the surface and it doesn’t take much to bring them out.  I had a little cry and then set about the business of again changing my socks while someone filled my pack, enjoying the yummy fruit smoothie the volunteers had made for me, and just taking in the moment.  I had 23 miles to go, and I was ready to tackle them. Riding the high of the welcome I’d gotten, I headed down yet another new section of trail, now with Liz in tow.

 

Liz and I have run many miles together.  She knows when to push and when to just let me be.  Often we ran in silence, just enjoying the time and saving our energy for the climbing.  Fortunately this section had a lot of downhill, and Liz took full advantage of it.  We passed several runners and spent very little time at the aid stations.  When we crested the hill at the end of Bryant Rd, a sight I had never before seen greeted me:  the start/finish area in the daylight.  It had always been dark by the time I got here.  This was yet another boost to my confidence, and we flew down the hill to the Cowshed aid station.  Here we fueled up on Ramen and Coke and took off.  We had less than 5 miles to Bill’s, and we wanted to try to get there before we had to turn the headlamps on.

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We just missed our mark, having to use our headlamps for the last mile or so on the climb up to Bill’s.  We started searching the sides of the driveway, which was where my husband had always met me at this aid station.  We didn’t see him, but Liz tried to calm me by reminding me that he was getting ready for his pacing duties and maybe he was just back at the barn. We got all the way down the driveway, and I searched the aid station for my crew and came up empty-handed.  Panic set in.  Liz and the volunteers tried to reassure me that I could just go on with her. Just as I was about it crack, I saw Joe. He had missed us on the driveway because, well, we were unexpected.  Liz had helped me make up the 15 minutes I’d lost between CTB and 76.  Holy crap I might still make my goal, I thought.  I opted not to change my socks or shoes because my feet felt good and I didn’t want to waste the time.

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Then I remembered the horrific hills out of this aid station and knew I didn’t want to wreck myself and not be able to finish strong. It was here that I decided that I was just going to keep moving, not worry about the time on the clock, and enjoy the rest of this ride.  I had been looking forward to this section all day.  My husband and I don’t get to run much together anymore because of a chronic injury that he sustained years ago.  It really meant a lot to him to do this, and I know the pain he would have to endure to get it done.  I made a silent vow to give him my very best, as little as that might be at this point, and we grabbed some final snacks and headed out on the last 11 miles.  I knew that we had some fairly flat stuff before hitting the last obnoxious hills, and I did what I could to keep moving along. Joe kept inching ahead of me, and I kept calling him back.  I knew how much he wanted me to get my time goal, but I just didn’t have anything left in my legs for the technical trails and the slippery fields.  I did manage to power hike up Hunt Rd at a pretty good clip and felt good about that, but I knew I was losing a lot of time.  I kept telling myself, “just get to Polly’s and you’ll be almost home.”  I nearly wept when we finally saw the signs that Polly’s was just ahead.

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Here I was going to drop my pack, change into a long sleeve shirt, and take my handheld for the last 4.5 miles.  I was dying to get the pack off, as my back and shoulders had tightened up miles ago.  I did some easy stretching and sat down for a couple of minutes while I drank a Coke and had some aid station chow.  They had a whole spread of food, including waffles, drumsticks, sandwiches, and soups. I didn’t eat too much as I wanted to get going and get finished.  Samantha and Liz sent us off down the trail and headed back to the finish line to wait for us.

 

The first couple of miles out of the aid station are very hilly as the course climbs back into Windsor.  This was the only time I hit a low spot that day.  I desperately wanted to run, and all I could do was slowly hike up the hills and silently (ok, not so silently) swear.  I cried, feeling like I’d let everyone down.  Joe had none of it.  He assured me several times that he’d never been prouder of me, and that I had run my best all day and couldn’t complain about that.  Of course he was right, and I quickly turned my thoughts around and focused on getting the final miles done.  When I saw the two miles to go sign, I glanced at my watch and did some mental math.  I said to Joe, “I don’t think I can make it under 16 hours.”  He told me to just do the best I could and not worry about it. When the 1.5 miles to go sign came into view, something in my mind switched.  I suddenly decided that I really couldn’t let that 16-hour mark go. Even though I’d originally wanted sub 15, a sub 16 hour would be a HUGE personal best for me on this course.  I put my game face on and ran as hard as I could, glancing at my watch every few minutes.

 

When we finally reached the last section of single track with a half mile to go, I looked down at my watch to see a black face.  It had finally died.  I had thought I could make it with the battery I had left, so I hadn’t worried when I dropped my pack at Polly’s (and the charger with it).  Oh well, I said to myself.  Just keep trucking.  Whatever the time is, it is.  Suddenly we saw the milk jugs lit by glow sticks, and I knew we were really close. Then I heard the finish line.  I reached out to grab Joe’s hand, and together we ran up the last hill and crossed under the banner.  Shock registered on Amy’s, Liz’s, and Samantha’s faces because we were very unexpected.  Unbeknownst to me, the finish line had a monitor that showed the runners’ split times and anticipated finish time.  Because I had run that last section so hard, we finished 40 minutes before my expected arrival time and surprised everyone.  Amy shouted at me, “You finished in 15:51!!!!” and I threw my arms around her.  I had run a 97-minute PR.  I almost couldn’t believe it.

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As I walked to the med tent ahead of everyone, tears flowed down my face.  I had finally run the race I always knew I had in me.  I had emptied the tank almost perfectly, and raced every single mile to the best of my ability.  I savored this moment by myself because I knew that even though my crew had been instrumental in my race, it was me that had run those 62 miles.  I felt I owed it to myself to enjoy this time in silent gratitude, blessed to have a body that can run this crazy distance and still come out on the other side.  I’ve never been so filled with peace and deep satisfaction.

 

We wrapped up and piled into the car for the ride back to the rental, where Sean had stayed behind because he’d had work to do. Imagine my surprise when we were greeted at 2:30 in the morning with a roaring fire in the pit, and cold beer ready to be drunk. The entire day had been incredibly amazing, and this was the perfect ending.  We all sat around and talked about everything that had happened, filling Sean in on the details of the race.  When I finally fell into bed about 4am, I slept better than I ever have after an ultra.

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Words just can’t express my gratitude to everyone involved in this year’s VT100k.  I am humbled. I have the most amazing people in my life.  People who truly care about my success.  People who will go above and beyond the call of duty to make sure I have everything I need. People who refuse to let me quit. People who love me.  And people who inspire me to be better every time I set foot on a trail.  Without you, I would not be able to fulfill these crazy dreams.  There are just too many angels to name, so I will not even try – but you know who you are.  Because of you all, the journey continues.

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Vermont 100 mile – I’m coming for you.

 

For those interested, I tried to mentally keep track of food and hydration:

Approx 120 oz of Skratch Sport Hydration (various flavors)

Approx 24 oz of Coke

4 bags of Skratch Matcha Green Tea Chews

8 oz V-8

Frozen grapes, watermelon, and oranges (unknown amount)

Salted potatoes (unknown amount)

Approx 8 oz of Ramen (broth and noodles)

Cheese quesadillas and avocado wraps (unknown amount)

Smarties

A lot of water!!

 

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Loon Mountain Race: what the hell was I thinking?

On July 8, 2018 I ran my first mountain race at the USATF Mountain Running Championships at Loon Mountain in Lincoln, NH.  I planned to use this race as my last hard training run prior to my goal race at the VT100k on July 21-22.  My husband Joe and I decided to turn it into a mini-vacation, so we arrived on Friday afternoon and planned to stay until Monday morning.  Lincoln is a cool little town with plenty to do, lots of great places to eat, and a couple of breweries within a short driving distance.  It also happens to be right at the entrance to Franconia Notch State Park.

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The race directors for Loon Mountain partnered with the Trail Sisters to encourage more women to participate in this event, so I had connected via Facebook with a few ladies from New England who were planning to run.  It was fun to make plans to meet in person!  Joe and I met Lisa at a popular local breakfast place on Saturday morning and enjoyed her company immensely, so we decided to spend a little more time together and let her show us some of Franconia Notch.   We climbed the couple of miles up to Kinsman Falls and then made the return trip to the car, visiting a few of Mother Nature’s works of art on the way.

 

 

 

Since Lisa hadn’t gotten sick of us yet, we made plans to meet at bib pickup at One Love Brewery and then grab some dinner.  Bib pickup was a zoo, being that it was the championship for USATF, the collegiate championship, and the NACAC.  It was cool to see amazing athletes from all over the world and to know that we would be literally running in their footsteps.  We learned that we’d be running with almost 1000 of our closest friends over the imposing course the next day.  We chowed down on burgers, toasted the mountain with our beers, and returned to our hotel to settle in for the night.

 

 

We arrived early to the mountain so we could get parking in the primary lot and meet up with Lisa. Joe’s race started at 8am, while mine wouldn’t go off until 9:15.  When Loon hosts the championships they split the start to make things a bit easier. This year made it doubly effective since they had record attendance.  Even though the trails are wide access roads, cat tracks, and cross-country ski trails, it was nice to know that we’d have a little breathing space by splitting the field.  While we waited for the men’s start I saw everyone I knew that was there.  Odd, considering the crowds!!  Soon it was near start time so Lisa and I went down to see the men off and await our own gun time.

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When it came time to start our own ascent to the top, we placed ourselves in the middle of the pack and chatted about our goals.  We planned to stay together until we couldn’t stay together anymore.  The gun went off and we got an easy half-mile or so of flat ground to warm up, and then the trail went up.  And up.  And up.  A staggering climb punctuated with a few flats and two nice downhill sections.  One spot was particularly muddy and Lisa attempted a quick trip through it – and succeeded in a face plant and a hilarious moment.  Luckily she wasn’t much worse for the wear and we continued on towards the summit.

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If I’m to be honest, the course wasn’t as difficult as I had expected.  The weather was perfect, much cooler than the previous two weeks had been, and the footing was mostly dry and non-technical.  I had been doing a lot of hill training over the previous two months so I felt well prepared for the climbs.  As we approached the first aid station, I saw a familiar face.  Pat Caron had run a spectacular race, had run back down the mountain, and was now at the aid station handing out water. What a tremendous athlete and an amazing person he is.  I’m honored to know him.

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It was soon after this that Lisa started to fall a little behind.  I felt bad leaving her, but we had agreed to run our own races.  I knew she’d been battling a hamstring issue, and I hoped that she wasn’t dealing with a lot of pain.  I tried to put it out of my mind and just kept pushing forward. The race organization has a twisted sense of humor and had put out what I can only assume were supposed to be motivational signs.  I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one to do the one-finger salute to some of them.

 

 

I arrived at the second aid station feeling pretty good.  I had drank about 10 oz of Skratch sport hydration and about the same in plain water, and had eaten a bag of chews, so I was well hydrated and fueled up.  I knew I had a nice downhill stretch before the big tamale.  Upper Walking Boss has a nasty reputation for bringing runners to their knees – literally. It is a kilometer long and has an average grade of 40%.  Yikes. I really wanted to blast the downhill section but I knew if I did, I’d pay for it on the Boss.  I tried to relax and just let gravity take me down the hill while I mentally prepared to get through the final stretch of this race.

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I crossed the timing mat at the bottom of the Boss and took a deep breath.  I looked up before I started to climb, and almost wished I hadn’t. Holy hill, Batman.  I remembered my training at Wachusett Mountain and tried to focus on just one step at a time.  I made it about a third of the way up before I finally had to stop and rest. I’d been looking down at my feet, and took this opportunity to look up ahead of me again.  Just a bit ahead of me was my friend Diane.  Thinking that it would be fun to cross the finish line with her, I pushed a little harder to catch up.  I pulled up alongside her and realized she was suffering, too.  “Well, Diane,” I said to her, “we are going to get this thing done together.”

 

 

 

We death marched the final half kilometer, stopping at each flag for a breather.  Several Striders, including Joe, dotted the sides of the course, yelling encouragement, making jokes, taking pictures, and just generally being awesome.  We crested the top of the steep section and I turned to Diane and said, “I haven’t walked a finish line yet, and today is not going to be that day.”  So we started to jog (if you can call it that) and struggled to get to the mat.  I glanced up and saw the time on the clock and burst into tears.  Everyone had told me to take my road half marathon PR and add 20-25 minutes to it to get my estimated finish time for this race.  By those calculations, it should have taken me 2:15-2:20 to get to the top.  We crossed the finish line in 2:04:10.

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Lisa crossed a few minutes later, and we all celebrated by taking group pictures, watching a finish line proposal, and taking in the breathtaking scenery before starting our way down to the gondola that would take us back down to the lodge.  I took a moment to appreciate having the strength and the opportunity to take part in this race.  What an incredible blessing.

 

 

I love these challenges. The ones that you don’t think you should be undertaking.  The times when you feel out of your league and wonder just what the hell you’re doing there.  The events that you have to claw your way to the finish line are the ones that show you just how tough you really are.  Nothing good comes easy, and I hope I never forget that.  Loon Mountain Race brought me amazing memories, cherished new friends, and an incredible sense of accomplishment and confidence.  I’m ready.

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See you at Silver Hill.

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Inaugural Chesterfield Gorge Ultra: The Race That Almost Wasn’t

This past Saturday was National Trails Day, and I chose to celebrate it by running the inaugural Chesterfield Gorge Ultra.  This race is a 30-hour, run as much as you want in the time allowed event.  The fact that this race was the brainchild of legendary RD Amy Rusiecki (one of my pacers for this year’s Ghost Train 100 mile) made it extremely appealing and I couldn’t wait to get to the trail and start knocking out the miles.

 

I spend Friday night in Holyoke with Laura and MJ, and we met Crutch and John at Fitzwilly’s Pub in Northampton for pre-race food and beer.  It was so much fun to sit and relax and exchange crazy stories while we enjoyed awesome sliders and local craft beer.  I highly recommend you hit this place if you are ever in the area.  On our way back to the car we passed a cool little place called the Tunnel Bar and wished we could stop inside and check it out, but it was time to head back to the hotel and rest for the day ahead.

We got up bright and early Saturday morning to head to the race.  Amy really outdid herself with this venue, and she managed to order almost perfect weather for us – overcast and dry.  We arrived at check-in to find that not only did she lie to us about having no bling (she got us awesome pint glasses with the race logo), she fully intended to share the beer that all the runners were bringing for her (bonus!!). We got our bibs, dropped off our inter-loopal gear, and awaited the start.

 

Laura and I intended to run together until it no longer made sense.  I was doing the 50-mile as a training run towards the VT100k, and since Laura couldn’t make VT this year she was using this race as her 100k.  Due to the difference distances we planned to run, we knew that our paces would eventually have to be different.  We started off down the trail at what we thought was a good pace and enjoyed chatting with other friends who’d come for the race.

 

The views along this trail are really awesome.  We spent a lot of time following the Westfield River.  It’s a popular spot, and it was cool to see people out in the river fishing and swimming.  Neat rock formations, wildlife, and the sounds of the moving water all added to the experience, and we took it all in as we made our way towards the 7.75 mile turnaround spot.  As we approached the far aid station the overcast and dry weather had turned to sun and humidity, and with more than a mile of exposed trail we knew this would eventually take a toll on runners.  We focused on staying hydrated and cool, and made the decision to slow our pace.

Along the way we met Dave and Rob, who were brothers doing their first ultras.  We ran the return trip with them, chatting and laughing about life and running.  The miles were rolling by pretty well and I managed to eat and drink better than I have on most of my ultras.  We had been stopping to stand in the icy streams that cross the trail because the cold water felt so good on hot, pounded feet.  Little did I know how this would come back to bite me in the ass later in the race.

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We arrived back at base camp and mile 15.5 feeling pretty good despite the higher temps and sunshine. I’d been drinking about a liter of water between aid stations so felt really well hydrated but behind on calories. I ate quite a bit, exchanged my wet singlet for a dry one, and debated on changing my socks and shoes.  Since I didn’t feel any hotspots I elected not to spend the time changing my shoes but instead used the porta-potty while Laura changed her own wet shoes.  Within a few minutes of arriving at the aid station we were ready to head back out, still feeling pretty damn good.

 

We spend a fair amount of the next 7.75 miles discussing our plans for the rest of the race and decided that the time had come to split up.  We agreed to stay together until we reached the far aid station and then I would go on alone.  It was hard to leave Laura, but I knew I wanted to move along faster and we both had to run our own races.  We got to the turn around and spend a few minutes refueling, refilling our packs, and getting ready to take on the trail alone.  I gave her a hug and took off, moving away before she could see my tears.

 

About a mile or so after the aid station, my right foot started to get annoyed.  I noticed a hot spot forming right in the center of the ball of my foot, a place I’ve never had a blister before.  It still wasn’t bad, just a slight discomfort, so I pushed on. I did notice that the loops seemed to be getting longer, a fact that brought attention to my declining energy level. I still felt good, though, getting iced down at every aid station and filling my pack with ice water, and eating and drinking well.  When I arrived back at base camp I wasted little time, quickly refilling my pack, changing into yet another dry singlet, and heading back out for my last long loop. I would still have to do one short out and back to complete my 50-miler, but at least the worst would be over.  Or so I thought.

 

Just past the half way point in the loop was a nice little stream that I had stood in almost every single time I passed through it.  The cool water felt so good on the hot and tired feet.  This time when I did it, I felt the stinging of a probable blister (or two) and immediately regretted not changing into dry socks and shoes.  Ah, well, I only had 12ish miles to do, how hard could it be?  I pushed on to the far aid station and spend a little bit of time there, getting cooled down and chatting with the volunteers.  I was still way ahead of my 12-hour goal so I was ok with using up a few minutes of time getting some mental energy.

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A lot of the far end of the trail was covered in traprock, which hadn’t bothered me until the last loop. Now, each step on that right foot was excruciating, forcing me to walk way more than I wanted to.  I started a rapid downward mental spiral.  I recognized it but couldn’t seem to do anything about it.  I tried some of the tricks I’ve learned, desperately trying to spin the situation around, but the more I tried to rebound the farther down I spiraled.  My foot was just screaming, and all I wanted in the world was to stop and take that shoe off.  By the time I got to the mid-point aid station I had made the decision that I was dropping at what I (incorrectly) thought would be 45 miles.  For some reason I was thinking that it was a 15 mile loop, and that my watch must be wrong, because they said I still had 3.5 miles to go back to base camp and my watch showed 43 miles.  I knew there was no way I could do another 8.5 miles on this foot.  I headed off down the trail, sad that I would miss my 50 mile goal, but confident that I was making a responsible decision.  After all, I have a big race in 7 weeks.  I had basically walked most of this loop, and that didn’t change for the remainder of it.

 

I arrived back at base camp and said “time for taps”.  Anyone who has any knowledge of the Barkley Marathons knows those dreaded words.  Amy came over to me and asked me what was wrong. I quickly told her how my foot felt and told her I couldn’t do another five miles.  I even stopped my watch.  She told me it was only 3.5 miles.  I redid the math in my head and realized my mistake and said, “aw crap” and re-started my watch.  Everyone laughed and suggested I sit down and let the crew take a look at my feet.  I removed my wet socks and shoes and was shocked to see how macerated my feet were.  Holy shit, what a mess.  Deep crevices in my right foot explained the pain I was feeling.  They found a blister between my toes (another first for me) and drained that one.  MJ ran over to the car and got my cushioned Hoka road shoes, and grabbed dry socks and Gold Bond powder from my drop bag.  Amy and her crew of volunteers fed me some acetametaphen, dried my feet, covered them in powder, put dry socks and shoes on, and sent me back out with MJ.

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I was shocked at how much better my feet felt, and I jogged alongside MJ’s long walking stride.  I ran the whole last 3.5 miles, hills and all. Leaving MJ in the dust, I tore into the finish line at a sprint, surprising everyone.  Despite all the problems of the last 12 miles or so, I managed to miss my time goal by only minutes, coming in at 12:07.  Amy wrapped me in a big hug and said, “that’s the runner I want to pace at Ghost Train!!!”  She’s just the best, pouring passion into each event she does and deeply caring about her runners.  I’m so blessed to call her my friend, and I hope she knows how much I love and appreciate her.  She even gave me one of her coveted Sunday Morning Stouts, which rapidly dulled the foot pain and returned me to my cheery emotional state.

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I spent a few hours cheering other runners on to their finishes while I waited for Laura.  She did a tremendous job, finishing her 100k in just over 18 hours.  It was a great day for both of us.  Turns out she had been having her own blister issues, and had to use some mental tenacity to get through her race.  I think we both learned a lot about ourselves during our time on that trail.  I know I learned that I have more grit that I thought I did, and I’m confident now that even if things go to hell in a hand basket, I can fix it and move on.

Many, many thanks to Amy and her crew for a spectacular event.  I hope to return for as many years as she chooses to host this race, and I’ll be sure to change the damn shoes and socks no matter how good I feel. I also need to recognize the many people who make this crazy shit possible for me: Liz, Donnie, Crutch, Beth, John, Jon, Laura B, Carolynn, Brad, and Laura L for sharing all the miles (and beer);  the CT Trailmixers and the Shenipsit Striders for the cool training events and races they host; Skratch Labs for taking care of my hydration, electrolyte, and fueling needs;  and most of all, my husband Joe – my rock, my biggest cheerleader, and my best friend.  Thank you all for everything, and I’ll see you at Silver Hill.

 

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When your best is just barely good enough. (Ghost Train 100 mile endurance run)

“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”

~ Steve Prefontaine

 

Pre has been an idol of mine since I started running. Maybe it was because he was a bullied, scrappy kid like I was. Or maybe it was because we shared the same birthday. Whatever the reason, whenever I run I think of Pre; but it wasn’t until I attempted my first 100 miler that his words really meant something to me.

The Ghost Train Trail Races are held at the end of October at Camp Tevya in New Hampshire. This seemed like a good venue for a first 100, considering the mostly flat terrain and the out-and-back course. Laura and I arrived on Friday in Nashua to check into our motel for the weekend, and it became clear very quickly that we probably weren’t staying at the Ritz. After meeting with our crew to set up our camp, we headed out to dinner and then back to the motel. We were awoken not once, not twice, but three times during the night by the, um, colorful clientele. Loud exhausts, drunken screaming matches in the parking lot, and yowling cats (yes, apparently someone living at the motel had a cat that wanted to be let into the room at 4am) all added up to not much sleep. Oh well – who sleeps well the night before a race anyway?

Brad and Carolynn picked us up early Saturday morning and we headed off to the race venue. They had picked out the BEST site…right next to an outbuilding that apparently had outside electrical outlets. This meant that we could have lights and boil water for food during the night. Perfect!! We had picked up our packets the night before and dropped off our bags at the Milford aid station, so all we had to do was wait for the race start. It was such a low-key, friendly atmosphere that I really didn’t feel nervous at all. It would be fun to get out on the course.

The YETI yell went off at 9:01am, and we were off down the trail. The plan was to do a 5:1 run/walk ratio until we couldn’t do that anymore. The trail was a mix of single track, old railroad bed, and a little bit of road. It went through people’s backyards, by picturesque ponds, and over a nice little technical hill that was just enough to keep it interesting. We also had to navigate a steep set of stairs and a tunnel under the highway. Not bad for the first few times, but obviously these little landmarks were going to be tough in the later miles.

   

The first 30 miles went by so fast that I don’t actually remember much about them – except for coconut bra guy. At first I thought I was already hallucinating, but no – I wasn’t. We laughed, got a photo taken with him to prove that we weren’t hallucinating, and started on the return trip to Camp Tevya.

When we arrived back at Camp Tevya at the 30-mile mark we were able to pick up Brad for his first 15 miles of pacing duty. The first 7.5 miles we kept up the 5:1 ratio but on the way back to camp we had to reduce that to running every other run segment. Clearly reality had started to set in, as well as fatigue. It was going to be a long night. It was at this point that I lost Laura, as she was starting to have blister issues. Brad texted ahead to Carolynn that we were two miles out and asked her to get some noodles ready. I was getting cold and the hot food would hopefully help me feel a bit better.

 

I left Camp Tevya with Jamie (who was doing her first 7.5 miles of pacing), leaving Laura with Brad to address her blisters. It was getting dark and colder and I hadn’t put on enough clothing, so all I wanted to do was get to the other aid station and my drop bag. Jamie took off her long sleeve and put it over me, and I felt bad but she assured me that she was ok. When we arrived at the aid station I added more layers of clothes and filled my camp cup with coffee, planning to walk the next couple of miles (which included the hill) and sip some hot coffee. I told Autumn of this plan, as she would be doing the next 7.5 miles with me. She kept me laughing when I hit my low points and kept me moving when I wanted to stop.

 

We had passed Laura on the out and back and discovered that she was moving well and not very far behind us. We arrived back at Camp Tevya and now it was my turn to have a blister taken care of. While Brad dealt with bandaging my foot, Laura arrived and I was happy to see that we’d be able to go back out together. We had run so many training miles together that it just didn’t seem right for us not to finish this race side by side. She waited while I finished up changing socks and getting some food, and we headed back out on the trail with Brad (now doing his second 15 miles of pacing).

The wheels had seriously come off the bus by now. We were 60 miles in and about to enter uncharted waters. It had been dark for hours, we were cold and tired, and there wasn’t much running involved. One foot in front of the other was all I could muster, and it was frustrating to have each mile take so long to pass by. I felt like we were getting nowhere fast, but I just couldn’t run anymore. I had succeeded in shutting out the demons for 60 miles, but they finally got a voice. I started saying how done I was, how hard this was, and how much I wanted to stop. It was WAY too early for that, but I couldn’t help it. What kept me going was remembering that I had so many people supporting me and tracking me, and letting them down was not an option.

 

Earlier in the day I had seen Amy Rusiecki on the trail and she had given me a big hug and told me to never give up. It did my heart good to see her again, this time volunteering at the Milford aid station. We were at mile 67.5 and all I wanted to do was sit by the fire and get off my aching feet. She listened to me whine, filled my cup with coffee, and sent me back out on the trail. I knew she was right to do that, but at that moment I hated her just a little bit. The good news was that this was the last leg we’d be doing in the dark. OK, I could deal with that. It has to get better in the daylight.

Arriving back at Camp Tevya and mile 75, we took some time to rest and eat. It was so cold. I kept thinking that I just wanted to be warm again. I had known that this was going to be hard, but it was still so much more difficult that I had ever imagined. I saw other people suffering out there too, so I knew we weren’t alone. We passed a guy dressed as Fred Flintstone several times, and each time his “yabba dabba do” got weaker and weaker. He was clearly having a really hard time. We cheering him on each time we saw him. It’s amazing how a bunch of strangers become like family when you are going through the same ups and down together.

 

We left Camp Tevya with Jamie on our last full out and back, and it was starting to get light out. Our spirits were lifted slightly by this, but I was still in a very low point. We had been walking for 15 miles, and it didn’t feel like that was going to change. I was exhausted, freezing, and my feet were throbbing. Luckily I had only the one blister (a small silver lining). I was well-fed and well-hydrated and amazingly alert, but I still didn’t want to walk anymore. Again, the thought of everyone tracking me made me leave the comfort of camp and go back out onto the trail.

As we approached the Milford aid station, Jamie said Autumn had texted her and told her she had hot chocolate for us. Nectar of the gods, as far as I was concerned. Amy was still at the aid station so of course she wouldn’t let me stay by the fire and enjoy the warmth. I hated her a little bit less this time; maybe because it was light out, maybe because we were headed back over that dreaded hill for the last time – whatever the reason, I knew that she did the right thing by encouraging us to keep moving. We shuffled back out of the aid station with Autumn and our hot chocolate and headed for home once more.

 

Carolynn was our pacer for the last 10 miles, and she was ready to go when we arrived back at camp. I didn’t want to spend any time here at all because my motivation to continue was seriously flagging and I knew if I didn’t just go back out there, I might not go at all. I shed most of the layers I had put on during the night, refilled my water, and we left camp. Brad decided to go with us as well (I think he realized that both Laura and I were completely shattered and Carolynn might need backup on the trail).

 

It was shortly after that that Brad got a text from my husband, Joe. He had been unable to come up due to work issues, but now had decided to make the two-hour drive from CT to see us finish. Brad assured him that he would arrive in time because we had been reduced to 20-minute miles. The thought of seeing Joe at the finish is the one thing that kept my feet moving for those last 10 miles. I wanted nothing more to do with the trail, the race, my food – I just wanted to stop. It was the most hollow feeling I’d ever experienced. Even at the turnaround mile 95, I felt like those last five miles might as well have been a thousand. I began to understand how people can drop at mile 95, or even 97. The slow pace of our footsteps made those miles drag on for what seemed like hours. Not even the knowledge that we had turned around for the last time that day helped get me out of that low.

I don’t think I let myself believe I would finish until my feet hit the pavement of Camp Tevya for the last time. We had less than a mile to go, and my feet had been screaming for almost 40 miles. I looked at Laura and told her that I thought this would be my first finish line walk. My feet hurt so bad that the pavement was just excruciating. As we approached our camp, I saw Joe and heard everyone cheering for us. My eyes filled with tears and I said “not yet. We haven’t finished yet. Everyone has to finish with us.” So Brad, Carolynn, Jamie, and Autumn joined our little caravan as we headed for the last time through the covered bridge and to the finish line.

We hit the little covered bridge and had 500 meters to the finish. Suddenly nothing hurt anymore. I swear my feet didn’t even hit the ground. Laura and I picked up the pace and we sprinted towards the finish line. I saw 29:03 on the clock as I mustered everything I had left and jumped over the timing mat, smiling like I’d just conquered the world. Holy shit, I thought. I freaking did it. The tears came as my husband handed me my buckle. Ghost Train 100 mile finisher, it read.

We went back to our camp and finally sat down for celebratory beers and to get off our poor feet. About 15 minutes after we finished, we saw our buddy Fred (who is really Benjamin Manning) pop out of the woods and onto the pavement. We gave him a standing ovation as he passed us, and hollered out our best yabba dabba do. So glad to see him make it after all the suffering he’d been though as well.

 

It really does take a village. None of this is accomplished on our own. I had the support of Honey Stinger (my fuel of choice in between the bacon and sweet potatoes of the aid stations).  I had the most supportive and unbelievably crazy training partners (thank you Laura L, Laura B, Crutch, Donnie, Liz, Beth, Nancy, Eric, Jamie, Autumn, Courtney, Tracy and countless others). I had the best crew EVER (my deepest, most heartfelt thanks to Brad, Carolynn, Jamie and Autumn for keeping me going and for mostly ignoring my shenanigans). And of course, I could never ever have done this without my awesome husband Joe, who not only continues to support this crazy journey I’ve chosen for myself, but who also continues to surprise me by showing up unexpectedly – usually when I need it the most.

 

I learned so much about myself in those twenty-nine hours and three minutes that I was on the Ghost Train trail. It wasn’t always fun, but it was a blast. I dredged up amounts of perseverance that I never thought I had. And at the end of the day, I gave nothing less than my best to this race. I hope I made you proud, Pre.

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TARC Summer Classic (or my version of the Amazing Race)

“Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods.  Wash your spirit clean.” ~ John Muir

 

The Trail Animals Running Club Summer Classic was held in Medfield, MA on August 12, 2017. I had signed up for the 50k as a way to get in a long supported training run in preparation for my first 100 miler (Ghost Train!!) and see some new trails. My longtime training partner Laura had originally signed up for the 40M but I convinced her to drop to the 50k so we could run it together and enjoy the trail. Misery loves company, right?

TARC summer classic pre race

The weather stalking began earlier in the week and it looked like we were in for a wet run. Fine with me, as this would cut down on the heat and the bugs. We knew that this race has had some issues with bees and I was not interested in dealing with bee stings during a long day (not to mention that Laura is allergic). As the week progressed, the weather forecast didn’t change so we felt confident that this would not be a problem.

 

Laura and I, along with our friend Caitlin, arrived at our host Eric’s house Friday night. Seemed like a good plan, considering he lived the closest to the race venue. After a dinner of Subway grinders (yes I know, not the healthiest but it was easy and seriously – who wants to cook the night before an ultra??) and watching the end of an awesome classic movie, Eric headed to bed and left us girls to hold court in the living room. It was like a high school slumber party. Probably not the best idea before running 31 miles, but it was so much fun. I highly recommend it.

 

The alarm went off way too early on Saturday morning, giving us girls only about 3 hours of sleep. After coffee and a small breakfast we headed off to Medfield in the rain. Shortly after arriving at the race venue the rain stopped and we were able to get our drop bags ready and to the start line while staying fairly dry. After a quick briefing by RD Jeff Dixon, we were off like a herd of turtles, ready for the day.

 

The plan was to run very easy for the whole 31 miles, and we stuck to it right from the beginning. When we stopped to walk the first hill, we had to move aside to let a group of runners go by and we learned that two of those runners were doing their first trail race. They had registered not realized that the 50k was trail, not road. Oh boy, I thought. They are in for a tough day. We continued with our run/walk pattern, keeping the heart rate way down, and just enjoying being together in the woods.

 

TARC Summer Classic 2017

(photo courtesy of Mike Kenney)

We were part way through the first of three ten-mile laps when I spotted something up the trail. I’m always nervous in the woods, especially these days with all the bear and coyote sightings. Hoping it was nothing we slowed down but continued at an easy jog. As we got closer I realized we were blessed with a once in a lifetime experience. A rare sighting of a legend. I managed to get a quick picture before he darted back off down the trail.

TARC summer classic Yeti

We finished the first loop in 2:50. Our goal was to stay under 9 hours, so this was perfect. So far, the trail had been fairly easy. A little hillier than expected, a little more technical than expected, but the challenge was fun and the trail was well marked and we were having a blast. We filled up on snacks and soda at the aid station, topped off our water, and started out on loop two.

 

This loop was pretty uneventful. We knew it would be the toughest one mentally so we just walked and ran and chatted about life. When we reached the lookout on this loop, there were hikers there also enjoying the view. One of them offered to take a photo of us and we quickly agreed. Preserving memories is so important to me, as we sometimes forget details during those long miles. After chatting with them for a few minutes we continued on our way, and the rest of the loop went by in a blur.

TARC summer classic 12

Coming in to the start/finish area for the second time was awesome. We had walked in the first time, trying to be conservative. This time we came jogging in and got a cheer from the volunteers. It’s such a lift to the spirit to hear people whistling, clapping and yelling for you. In most sporting events, only the winners get this. In running, even the final runners get the same enthusiastic greeting. Its one of the reasons I love this sport. We finished this lap in 3:02. A little bit slower than the first (which is to be expected) but still in the ballpark of consistency.

(photos courtesy of Edith Dixon)

We headed out on our final lap feeling pretty good. Yes we were tired, but it was satisfying to know that we would be running the technical parts and climbing the hills for the last time that day. So far everything had gone according to our plan, which is a rare thing in ultras. We were eating well, staying hydrated, keeping the heart rate down, and had managed to stay on our feet. In this last loop I did have one slip on a wet bridge and went down, but sustained no injuries. I consider that a huge win.

 

A lot of the trails are two-way traffic and it was so fun to see other runners, especially the leaders, so many times during the day. Getting encouragement from those other runners (and giving it back in kind) helps to cement the trail family. We passed one girl who was having a very hard time and we spent a few minutes walking and chatting with her. As we starting running again, Laura heard her start sobbing and it broke my heart. I understand the struggle out there on the trail – I’ve been there many times.   I hoped she would pull out of her low and start to feel better.

(photos courtesy of Laura Bachiochi)

We arrived at aid station 7 (mile 25 for us, mile 28 for the 40 milers) still feeling pretty good. By chance we got there at the same time as Caitlin and Eric and we took a few minutes to catch up and see how everyone’s races were going. At that moment, the solitary runner we had passed a mile or so back arrived, and we all cheered loudly for her. She seemed in good spirits and I hoped that we had helped her just a little. At this point the two trail virgins came into the aid station behind us. We found out that they had taken a very long rest break at the start/finish area. They looked super strong and we thought they were pretty lucky considering they’d come into an event completely unprepared for the challenge. After a few more moments of snacking and talking, Laura and I headed off in one direction and Eric and Caitlin in the other.

TARC summer classic 13

About a mile down the trail we caught back up to the two runners. They seemed to be ok despite just standing in the middle of the trail, so we kept on going. Taking advantage of the relatively flat, buffed out section, we ran as strong as we could without depleting ourselves for the final miles.

 

As we entered the last half-mile, we decided that we’d walk until we hit the last corner and then run the finish. We were both getting pretty fatigued and had been doing nothing more than shuffling for the last 5 or 6 miles. Somewhere during those last miles we had had a conversation about how much the brain acts as a governor, conserving your energy and giving you the impression that you are more tired than you really are. Little did we know how prophetic that conversation would be.

 

You can really smell the barn when you crest a steep little hill and see the algae covered pond. At this point you are about a quarter mile from the finish, and we were very eager to be there but seemingly unable to do more than a halting, staggering jog over the rocky, rooty terrain. We navigated the steep downhill and began walking around the pond and towards the finish line. A few seconds later we heard whooping from behind and we turned to see the two trail newbies, cresting that same little hill. I became a split personality in an instant. While I was so glad to see them finish and I was super happy they came through the race uninjured and looking strong, I just couldn’t let them finish ahead of us. I looked at Laura and said “oh HELL no”, and took off like I’d been shot out of a cannon with Laura hot on my heels.

 

When we rounded the last corner and came into sight of the finish, the volunteers went nuts. It was the fastest quarter mile of our entire race and we were just flying. After being careful all day long, and thinking we were so done-in, it felt amazing to be going that fast. We crossed the finish line in 8:56. The two trail newbies came in a few minutes after us, and we all exchanged high fives and congratulations. If it hadn’t been for their arrival at the top of that hill when they did, we wouldn’t have broken our nine-hour goal. I was glad to see them finish their first ultra, and I was glad they had gotten us to our goal, but I was especially glad because we were all still smiling.

TARC summer classic post race

A big thank you to all the Trail Animals for putting on such a great race. What a fun group of people!!! From the race director to the aid station volunteers to the photographers out on the course, there was never a time when we were not greeted with smiles, encouragement, and laughter. I’ll be sure to be back next year, hoping for another legendary sighting.

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