Sunday, August 2, 2015

Moosamaloo Ultra: Race Report!

Race director, wearing a moose hat, gives the pre-race instructions.

Race report, short version:

This was my first ultra-marathon, a 36-mile grueling slog in the mountains that became 39 miles when I missed a turn on the course. Best quote of the day: "Moosalamoo, redefining 'runnable.'"

Minuses on the day:
  • I felt undertrained
  • The course was much harder than I expected
  • Three extra miles I really didn't need

Pluses on the day:
  • I avoided all the bad weather (hail!) on the course
  • No injuries!
  • No throwing up or pooping of the pants!
  • Despite moments of serious doubt, I kept moving and didn't drop out
  • Incredible support from family and friends
  • I wasn't last! #noDFL

5:45 a.m., hitting the road with Lisa

Race report, gory details version:

First up, what an awesome reunion with Lisa! (Remember that one time, when we hung out in Antarctica?)  Lisa is a phenomenal and accomplished ultra-runner, with two 100-milers, several 50-milers, and untold 50Ks on her resume. She gave me great advice and encouragement all summer to get ready for this rodeo, and came up to Vermont for a short weekend with a big purpose.

Hey, Beth!
But the social support for this race didn't end there. We had an AWESOME crew registered for both the 14-mile and 36-mile races, with beloved longtime friends like Beth and Erika, and fabulous new friends like Flossie and Mary. It was such a boost to know that they were also out in the woods somewhere, gutting out hard miles. Running the opening stretch with Beth settled my brain and sent me out with really good energy! (More thoughts on the awesomeness of friends below.)

Me, Alicia, Mary, Flossie and snacks!
The first section of the race was rumored to be the hardest - a slippery climb up and over Moosamaloo Mountain on single track and wet rock. Coming into an aid station I caught up with Mary, Flossie and Alicia. What a treat to see them laughing, smiling and cruising into the next tough stretch of hills!

From about Mile 10 on, I ran the race alone. In retrospect, this might have taken a toll on my mental reserves but at the time I didn't realize that. I was super psyched to get to Mile 12, a third of the way there! But the teenage miles were not kind - a lot of grubby uphill climbs and I couldn't find a pace that felt right. Mile 18, halfway! That felt great, and shortly after was the aid station with drop bags.

Already at this point the course had offered up what seemed like a LOT of mud. The mud that came later in the course made this mud seem like a pathetic pretense of mud. But that was later. Coming into the aid station, I was sooo happy to take off soggy, sopping, muddy shoes and socks and get into clean, dry socks and shoes. The next miles felt like running on fluffy, happy clouds.

Several miles later, heading out to Chandler Ridge, I stopped at Aid Station #4 long enough to see Heather coming back in from Chandler Ridge, and then Lisa right after her -- they were both 9 miles ahead of me at this point in the race! Such running rockstars!

Happy feet, around Mile 21.
I had a total slowdown out on Chandler Ridge, walking on runnable single-track and seriously rethinking what I had done to train for this race. My pace was slowing, I was recalculating my finish time, and starting to feel badly for how long Erika and Lisa would be waiting for me to finish. This section of the course was a long, narrow hairpin shape, with a turn-around at an unmanned aid station, and a return route along Leicester Hollow. I was feeling pretty down and tired when I got to the aid table, and I didn't notice the left turn onto the trail that tucked behind the aid station. (Later, the race director explained that some of the markings had been washed away in the rain. I wasn't sure who felt worse about what happened next, him or me.)

"Trail" but at least it's dry.
Instead of turning, I kept going straight, down a hill to a creek. I had heard that this section followed a creek, so that was confirmation bias at work. I also saw a sign that said Leicester Hollow, but didn't realize that I was now in the southern end of the hollow and heading south, rather than in the northern end and heading north.

The course was marked somewhat sporadically with orange plastic tape, and while I did notice a lack of course markings on this stretch it wasn't totally abnormal. At one point there was a line of orange tape marking a side trail, which was purely an unfortunate coincidence - but I didn't know it yet. Eventually, the dirt road ended at a paved highway, at which point I knew, this is way, way wrong. And I was pissed, pissed, pissed.  I briefly considered flagging down a car for a ride to the finish line. Instead, I turned around and headed back the way I came.  I met up with two mountain bikers who told me they had seen runners turning left onto the trail by the aid table, which meant I had to hike back up the hill over extra miles. So at least I knew what I needed to do, but I was pretty despondent about it.

More "trail."
I trudged from the aid table through the woods on endless, endless single-track miles back to Aid Station #4 where I had seen Heather and Lisa earlier, possibly hours earlier. I had spent the previous miles trying to hold it together mentally and thinking through scenarios and deals with the devil - maybe they could give me ride to the next aid station, and then I'd finish at 36 miles like I was supposed to? Maybe I should just drop out and call it a day? But I also thought about every ultrarunner who's shrugged off a worse version of this story ("Yeah, I got lost once on a 100-miler and ended up running 112 miles...") and thought, get it together!

I may have had too much time alone with my thoughts by the time I finally got back to Aid Station #4, where I completely fell apart. The volunteer there, Brent Coulthard, was the calmest, nicest person you could hope to have on your side when you are deteriorating into a puddly mess. I basically went into a sobbing, snot-bubbling meltdown and wailed about every frustration I was feeling: tired, lost, my friends waiting and wondering, being miles from the finish, and a growing certainty that everything everywhere is awful. Brent gave me watermelon and helped me calm down. And then together with two random strangers - Harold and Julie, who were hanging out nearby - he helped me write a note to Lisa and Erika to explain what happened, which Harold and Julie drove to the finish line to hand deliver. (How nice is that?! And it was after this embarrassing exchange -- Harold: "Do you want to text them?" Me: "THERE"S NO CELL SERVICE! THEY'LL NEVER GET THE TEXTS!!" Pause. "WHY AM I YELLING AT YOU??!" Harold: "I really don't know....")

Their collective help was enough to get me pulled back together, and knowing that Erika and Lisa would get a heads up about my MIA status let me relax. Brent walked me back onto the course, resupplied me with peanut butter sandwiches, and sent me off with the understatement of the year: "It's a little wet in the woods up there."
Trying to dry these out. Might be a lost cause.

At this point, I'm 5 miles out from the finish, and going at 17:00 pace at best. I actually had the energy to go faster, but the terrain was not runnable, and nearly impassable. Endless stretches of deep, viscous mud were all I could see ahead of me. Every edge of trail had long since been trampled by previous runners, leaving no unmuddied surface to cling to. So I just slogged straight through, trying step where the mud seemed a little firmer, only to immediately sink in and watch my shoes disappear under black squish. The trail would re-emerge for a bit, but then quickly descend again into muck. I was occasionally yelling (to no one) and trying to remember how Alex dug deep in the last miles of the Vermont 100 and how Jess is so consistently able to deliver tough-love optimism, and how proud I would be to tell my mom and sister that I finished. And all that positive thinking helped keep me going.

And then it got worse.

Finish in sight!
There was stretch of swamp that the trail went straight through. A course sign said, "It's only ankle deep." The light was starting to fade, I had run about 35 miles, and now I was staring at seven-foot tall swamp grass in six inches of standing water. Pure awesome.

Brent at Aid Station #4 had told me that in 3 miles I would get to the last aid station, and then there would be only 2 more miles to the finish. On the far side of the swamp grass, I ran up a grassy hillside and out to a dirt road -- and behold! Mary and Alicia were right there in Alicia's car. Having just finished the race, they were dropping a borrowed piece of equipment back at the final aid station. My Garmin read 36.5 miles and Mary gasped, knowing I was still 2.5 from the finish. Lord, help me.

I picked up my headlamp at the last aid station, but I was stubbornly determined to finish the race before sunset and not turn it on. The finish stretch was muddy, of course, and the light was really disappearing in the woods. I nearly missed ANOTHER turn (which apparently a few runners did miss, and came in ANGRY about it). In the last hour of the race, my Garmin was warning me, "Low Battery". And I kept thinking, "Yeah, no kidding. You and me both."

But eventually, finally, triumphantly (!) I found the last downhill to the finish area. Mary and Alicia had driven quickly back and were right at the bottom of the hill with cowbells, Erika was just around the curve cheering me on with a bullhorn, and Lisa was right beside her going nuts; they all ran up to the finish chute with me. That is the crew you want with you at a finish line!
Blurry because I'm so fast? Not really.

Have you ever had the experience of finishing a goal that loomed large, and was so hard, with incredible friends cheering and celebrating like fiercely proud allies in your cause? I am lucky that I have. And it's incredible. I will always, always be thankful for it.

Post mortem

If you've read this far, you might be wondering if I've exaggerated some of this. All the way to the finish, I was doubting that ultrarunning and I were a good match. I mean, this course was brutal. Lisa immediately and emphatically assured me that this course is no baseline against which to measure other ultras. I quote Lisa: "Of all the ultras I have ever run, this was the most technical, most frustrating course ever. It really should be described as an orienteering-obstacle course instead of an ultra."

At which point, I had to ask her the same question I asked Alex around Mile 98 of his 100-mile race. "Are you going to hate Vermont after this?"

Lisa: "Vermont is gorgeous, and you guys have the nicest, most supportive, cool community of runners. And I would love to come back and take photos of Vermont. But it will be a cold day in hell before I ever sign up for this race again."

The sun set moments later.
The Day After:

I feel remarkably good! Sore, for sure. But I was able to go up and stairs and walk around the neighborhood a bit. The hydration pack that saved me all day long also left chaff marks on my back, but that's about the worst of the injuries that carried over from the race. 

Lisa and I relived the gory glory over breakfast and she helped me think about the next goal. There is big talk on the table about a 50K at the end of September and a 50-miler in December.  The 50K could be a good confidence booster after this race, and the 50-miler could be the ultimate, terminal goal in my ultrarunning. Lisa and Alex both say 50s are a gateway drug to 100s, but I just cannot fathom that. However, the feeling of trying something unusually difficult, and having the effort celebrated is pretty hard to let to go of.

Then there is Amy's reality-based observation. She is no stranger to running, but after listening to me recount race day over waffles and Bloody Marys, she said of ultramarathons, "It's like a train wreck. I don't want to be part of it, but I want to hear all about it - I can't look away!"

Lisa and me celebrating a successful race with penguins scarves!

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