What it felt like to run 50* miles
Fifty one actually, but who’s counting?
BROWNSVILLE, Vt. -- We arrived at the race around 5 a.m., more than an hour before the start to beat the traffic and attend the pre-race briefing. The “we” in this story refers to my wife, who was the only crew member/spectator allowed on the course. In addition to being smart, capable, and extremely well organized, she wouldn’t have allowed anyone else to take the job.
We sat in the car in the early morning darkness and listened to “Fire on the Mountain,” -- Long distance runner, what you standing there for? -- as it segued into “Althea,” my all-time favorite song. Suddenly, all the emotions that had been building for months, if not years, came pouring out in huge waves of tears.
I thought about the first time I heard Althea back in high school some 30 years ago, driving around New Jersey in my buddy Mike’s car after a particularly hellish teenage experience that isn’t worth rehashing. I didn’t know the lyrics were about existential burnout, but the loping shuffle made me feel safe and protected, like everything would eventually be alright.
It’s funny how things in life keep coming back around, the past and future melding into some uncertain present that feels both recognizable and totally foreign. Mike was one of my first training partners. We ran cross country in middle school and into high school. When he left the team before our sophomore year, a part of my heart for running went with him.
That’s not his fault, of course, nor is the fact that I quit the team a few weeks later. That’s my regret to carry alone. I haven’t seen Mike in years, but he reached out in response to my pre-race post titled: Why I’m running 50 miles.
He wrote back, “You’re doing it because you’re a badass. Pure and simple. You’re a badass.”
The song ended and I wiped the tears from my face with the sleeve of my warmup shirt. As I wrote in the post, my only goal was to finish the race and see what there was to be learned. It was time to find out.
Miles 1-12: Your only job is to smile
We started out too hot. That was a given when you combine early-race anxiousness with a long downhill. Throw in a few legitimately elite runners at the front of the pack, and the natural response is to burn out of the chute. I don’t know about everyone else, but I had been waiting so long for this moment, and had so much taper energy stored in my legs, that it would have been super easy to drop a 7-minute mile just because I could.
Not this time. I keep my pace easy, and follow Coach Avery’s plan. I’m good right here in the middle of the pack. Only I’m not in the middle. I’m in the back, like the back-back. There may have been a dozen people behind me when I turned around to look, which left more than 100 in front.
Deep breath. This is fine. Sure enough, I start passing people as we make our way up the first climb barely a mile into the race. They’re breathing hard, laboring. Not me. My pre-race anxiety is gone and my focus is clear. I’m going to run my race, and I’m not going to look back anymore.
Mile 6: Popping out of the forest for a moment on a ridge, watching the fog rise above the hills. Completely alone and at peace. How many times in your life do you get to say there’s literally nowhere else you’d rather be than right where you are?
I’ve been patient to this point, but it feels like a good time to push just a little on the downhills. This requires finesse as well as speed. It’s one thing to run downhill on a road where nothing can trip you up or throw you off stride. It’s another to do it in the woods where the ground is soft and muddy, and there are roots and rocks ready to send you sprawling.
I’ve always struggled with this part of trail running. Sure, I’d like to go fast, but I’d also like to not shatter my wrist or bruise my ribs. Again. Torn between my goal of pushing myself and my desire for safety and security, I tend to engage in an awkward dance with the terrain.
Yet, here I am running downhill on trail and I notice my body doing something different than it ever has before. I’m lower to the ground with a bend in my knees taking short, powerful strides, allowing my whole body to absorb the pounding instead of just my quads.
After all this time, I finally found a downhill rhythm and a place where I can live between ambition and fear. I’m so taken with my newfound ability to pound downhill that it’s almost a shock when I get to the first crew station a few minutes ahead of schedule.
Miles 12-31: Chill up the hill and let it ride
We begin a 5-mile climb to the top of Garvin Hill, the highest point in the race. The sun is burning off the final wisps of morning fog. The Vermont countryside radiates with color beneath an endless blue sky. Bright red barns dot the landscape while horses roam the pasture. I am running in a postcard.
I pass a lot of people here, just like Avery said I would. Feeling good, feeling strong, I work my way up the hill to an aid station with an impossibly gorgeous view of Mt. Ascutney. Best lookout of the day. Lots of folks stop to take photos and I don’t blame them. But I’m not here for that. Fill the water bottle, thank the volunteers, keep it moving.
I hear Avery’s voice in my head, “Now is when you should start throwing in some 8-minute miles on the downhills.”
I take him up on his offer, bombing down a long descent, passing dozens of runners, some of whom would pass me back eventually, but who cares about any of that now. Everything Avery told me would happen has happened. I have total faith and confidence in our plan, and in myself.
Ultra wisdom: Nothing lasts.
At Mile 24, a low point. My quads are hurting, my stomach is woozy, and I can feel a hot spot burning on the back of my shoulder blade along the t-shirt line. I misjudged the distance to the next aid station, and I’m low on water. If I’m feeling this bad already, how will I handle the rest of the race? A brief conversation with a couple of runners snaps me out of the downward spiral.
“How are you feeling?” one of them asks, and I tell him about the quads. He nods. A veteran. “Every single person is feeling the exact same thing,” he says. “That’s what you have to manage between now and the end.”
Heartened by that bit of knowledge, I begin a long, slow march out of the woods. There’s not much running here, just steady, relentless, forward progress. I’m with people who know what they’re doing and I follow their lead. Run what you can run, power hike everything else. Whatever you do, keep moving.
I make a decision to pop an extra gel. My stomach is already starting to resent the gooey concoction, but I figure I need the calories for these climbs. It’s a good call, I tell myself, while I swallow and shudder.
Given the pace, there’s lots of time to recalibrate my race. I have 25 miles left and my last training run was 28 miles. I felt much, much worse during that run so I figure I’m doing pretty well, all things considered. The bad feelings pass. We start running again. I notice I still have a lot left in my legs.
Mile 29ish: The watch beeps telling me I just clocked a 7:11 minute mile. That’s insane. There’s no way I did a 7:11 mile. What I think happened is that the GPS glitched for whatever reason. What that meant was I was pretty sure I had an extra mile logged on my watch, which I knew would play havoc with my internal clock for the rest of the day.
Sure enough, I make it to Mile 31 expecting to see my crew, but there is no crew because I’m not really at Mile 31. There’s only more woods and the woods never end. I’m out of water again and mad at myself for not drinking more at the last aid station.
I’m starting to lose it, so I force myself to smile. Try it sometime. It’s magic.
I make a vow to stop caring about time goals or place because those are gone and they’re not really that important anyway. I start focusing on what I need to do to get to the aid station. It has to be around here somewhere ...
I arrive still shaking off the negativity and decide it’s time for a refresh. I swap out my sweaty shirt for a dry one and grab a fresh hat. The hot spot on the back of my shoulder is actually the size of a softball. Thank goodness I made a last-minute trip to the running store to pick up some Bodyglide.
My wife/crew chief has packed the gels in the outside pocket of my water bottle instead of inside the zippered pouch like we had discussed. It’s Ok, I love her anyway. We get that sorted out and she hands me a ginger chew. Eat it, she orders, and I do, because I’m in no position to argue about anything.
“You got this,” she says, and again, who am I to disagree with this saint?
Miles 31-40: What’s with all the switchbacks?
We enter the woods and begin a long series of meandering switchbacks, weaving our way to somewhere. I’m running well, pounding downhills and working my way over short climbs with purpose, creating a rhythm out of the chaotic swirl of twists and turns.
My watch tells me I’m doing 14-minute miles, which doesn’t track with how hard I’m running. Can’t let it affect me, though. I’m locked in on the terrain. Under different circumstances, this would be heaven. Endless single track rolling through the forest? Yes, please.
At the same time, I don’t remember reading about this many switchbacks in the course description. Had I known they would have been such a prominent feature, I would have done more technical training. Can’t do anything about that now, besides I need to focus. I’ve already caught my foot a few times and lost my balance.
Then it happens, WHAM, I’m down on the ground. Tripped over a rock or a root or a shadow. There’s an art to falling that I’ve learned the hard way over the years. Protect your face, tuck your wrists, try to roll to displace the impact. I do all of that. Pretty good fall if I do say so myself.
A runner named Chris asks if I’m alright and offers an Advil, which I happily consume. We run together for the next few miles. Good guy. It’s his first 50 too. He’d like to break 10 hours, which seems like a fine idea. Ok, I say. Let’s get it.
We take turns pushing the pace while chewing up the miles until the next aid station where they tell us we’ve got a little more than eight miles left. That actually tracks with my watch mileage, so maybe it found a way to recalibrate? That would explain those slower-than-expected miles! Sure, that makes tons of sense.
We do some math and figure it’ll take 11-minute miles to get in under 10 hours. Chris is stronger on the climbs and more determined to get the time goal. I tell him to go for it. He’s got his race to run and I have mine.
Mile 41-51: Finish and find out
I’m alone again in the woods. Shit hurts, but my spirit is unbroken. There’s no doubt, no wavering, no negativity. There's also no wall. Despite my stomach revulsions every time I consume another gel, I’ve stayed on top of my calories. I’ve run a smart race and managed everything I need to manage from food to salt to hydration. All I have to do is keep moving forward.
There’s more switchbacks, because of course there are, only these are harder; more technical, more opportunities to fall, which I do again. Not as gracefully this time. I pick myself up, dust off the grime, and curse one time before rolling on ahead. I pass someone who notes the course is harder this year with all these switchbacks, which makes me insanely happy.
Finally, I get to a clearing and a chance to run downhill. I notice again that I have a lot of legs left and now I’m flying. I cruise through a field where the race photographer has set up shop and I take my hair down because, brother, believe me when I tell you that I am feeling it now.
“How much longer to the next aid?” I call out, expecting it to be around the next corner.
“Not far, about a mile and a half,” he says.
Dammit. Ok, regroup. I’m running alongside a river parallel to a road. I can see the final aid station where I’ll get a fresh bottle of hydration mix from my crew. That’s 200 calories. No more gels. I’m really pushing now, my watch says I’m doing 6:45 pace and I choose to believe it in all its infinite digital wisdom.
I’m feeling so strong, my wife is surprised to see me so chipper. She asks why my hair is down and I tell her it’s because I wanted it that way for the photo. She laughs her great big wonderful laugh and hands me a fresh bottle, a couple of Tums, and reminds me to take my sunglasses because it’s going to be bright at the top of the hill. She’s an excellent crew chief.
There’s one more big climb, which I take by weaving in and out of the woods. Higher and higher I go, feeling so good, feeling like I don’t want this to end. That’s weird, right? To be this far into a run and having this much fun. I don’t get it, but I don’t stop to analyze it either.
For the first time all day I let go and really enjoy the experience. The trails up here are gorgeous and I’m reminded what a privilege it is to be immersed in so much natural beauty. I’m running under giant slabs of rock with water rushing down the side of the trail and I’m pretty sure I could do this forever.
My watch beeps at Mile 50, and right on cue, a sign says I’ve still got one more mile to go. I knew that was true, but it still kind of sucks to be reminded. What I absolutely do know for sure is there’s a long downhill to the finish. Just get there and end this thing.
I pop out of the woods with the finish line in sight and a little voice in my head asks, “Are you prepared to send it?” I am, and that’s how I finish my first 50-miler: blazing down the final descent at full throttle, running as hard as I can, never once looking back.
Thank you to the entire Running, Probably community and everyone else who supported me on this journey. There aren’t enough words to express my gratitude. We’ll get back on our regular twice-a-week publishing schedule this Tuesday.