T-minus 48 hours.
It was Friday morning and I knew I had to begin cooling down those morning runs. Those precious minutes before the daily hustle to get ready and slam out the door to scoot off to work was my time; time to breathe, take in the sights and sounds (usually in darkness with a glimpse of sunrise prior to daylight saving ended) of the beginning of the day. So I ran up the snow covered hill and down to the part of the roads where the car traffic begins, 5.6 miles round trip.
I was feeling good despite my hamstring still giving me grief since November, we three (Ciara, Tuesday and I) had all gone for massages the weekend prior – the focus: my hamstring. I can really say I was feeling pretty darn good in the days following that massage, running felt loose, climbing stairs was, for the most part, tolerable. Everything felt smooth that Friday before the 50K on Sunday, work passed by as it usually does and I tackled the methodical 1.03mile jog back to my car where the tightness typically creeps in. The night was followed up with banana nice-cream, foam rolling and stretching. I didn’t know what else to do to get ready, “just be yourself”, I told myself.
T-minus 24 hours.
Saturday was going to be a day of rest, but when I saw that cantaloupe colored sunrise coming up and Ciara mention ‘packed snow’ and ‘running with the dogs’ in the same sentence – I was in.
The good thing about running on packed snow is that the grip is iffy, so our pace stays well below blacktop running, but the attribute I enjoy most about these trails are that, yes they are groomed and packed, but still soft as long as the runner focuses on not rolling an ankle in the groomed grooves. It was a great time – we ran, we chatted, we walked here and there – it was just a wonderful time to be out together (aside from the other dogs who were off leash!).
Saturday was basically our ‘date day’, or so I took it! We followed up the run with a trip to the local co-op and bought some Kombucha to share later on – which was on sale..bonus!! We ate our lunch and spent what little time we had together before I hit the road, headed to New York to with a 100% chance of snow – exactly what we needed for the snowshoe run the following day. A fist full of carrots and some good ol’ tunes are what accompanied me as I made the trek over the Killington Mt pass along Route 4. Traffic moved above the posted speed limit (which is an almost ‘never happens’ along those roads), which proceeded to keep my spirits high, jammin’ along to music from years past on the iPod that I dug out for the first time in 5 years (music I loved, and had long forgotten!).
My destination: Tuesday.
I had been offered a night out in one of the cabins at Merck Forest where the 50K Ultra was being held, but as I saw the prediction of inclement weather and temps dropping well below zero, I gladly accepted a stay with our fellow half-marathoner: Tuesday, or also known as Ciara’s mama, however one refers to her – they are super similar – very fun folks to be around!! I assumed this would be stellar company to be around the night before a big run, as I needed to try to keep my mind clear, exactly what I didn’t want was to worry about was stoking a fire or who I would be booked up with in a cabin while it was 15 degrees all night long.
It was such a stupendous idea, and I am terrifically grateful for the invite to stay with Tuesday the night before the 50K! The predicted 2pm snowfall began promptly at 3:30pm as I pulled into her driveway – I assumed it to be a good sign, the weather being on my side and allowing me to make the hour and a half drive to New York safely!
The snow was falling and looked like a scene right out of the corniest Christmas film as I walked the stairs to the cabin: the cabin de la Tuesday! I was greeted with the most ridiculous “Runners This Way” signage, directing me up the stairs and welcoming me to the front door, I was greeted once again – this time with a big hug and all the smiles, definitely a friend that I enjoy wasting time with! Walked my running duffel bag to the room that Ciara and I called ‘home’ during the holidays when we came to visit; this time the sign read “Room Reserved: Hamilton”. I could not stop cracking up and getting a good belly laugh from all the welcoming surprises that she had come up with.
I had hardly dropped my bags in my room and I was handed a glass of Cosmic Cranberry (GTs) Kombucha to drink as she finished prepping a hot plant-based specialty for me – waaaay more than I could have ever asked for or expected from anyone, especially seeing as I was already using her spare room as a base camp to layout all my gear! I had come prepped with my bag of carrots, turmeric kombucha and some other raw tasty treats that would treat my tummy good pre-race, but to my surprise I would find a warm dish of veggies and date balls with home-made cashew creme topped with Himalayan pink salt.
With a full belly we enjoyed each other’s company, chitted and chatted as I sewed the tongue to the side of my sneaker in my brand new pair of Salomon SpeedCross4’s (my older pair also had the tongue sewn for the MDI marathon, but the trail runners that I enjoyed so much were pushing beyond the 700-mile mark, so I set them aside for their clone which had logged about 10 miles up to this point), I hoped these trail shoes would treat me just as well as their older brothers had!
I brought everything to concoct my enhanced electrolyte beverage of choice; 16oz of coconut water, real maple syrup and about a teaspoon of Himalayan pink salt – shaken up and filled one of my soft hydration flasks, the other side featuring just plain water.
T-minus 3 hours 30 minutes.
Morning. According to my COROS watch app, I had slept for 6 hours and 22 minutes. I felt awake, turned the gas on to boil water for my black tea (I had been steering away from coffee for the past several weeks and not regretting the decision!), fired up the lap top to one-last-time check the weather, motor through the emails. There was an email that came along the prior night from NorEast Trail Runs, I briefly saw the details but didn’t get a chance to follow the map the prior evening. What caught my eye was that the “cut the total elevation gain from 11,000 feet“.. in attempts of “making the race finishable“. That devilishly made me chuckle to myself, it sounded like a Presidential Range kind of elevation day – something that Ciara and I had done over a long day several months prior, but over 30+ miles.. I wanted the pain, I wanted the struggle, I wanted other racers to struggle. Somehow inside I felt ready to push further than I had in the past. I knew deep down for the past several days, that this would be the most difficult anything that I had ever attempted, albeit on snowshoes or no snowshoes!
I messaged Ciara that morning – actually she had messaged me first as I sat with my tea and course map. I told her about the mention of 11K of elevation. I could tell by her messages, she knew I craved the hurt.
As I neared Merck Forest, I could tell the area had accumulated some snow overnight – the roads were slick with a packed-down dusting. I arrived with several other runners who were unsure of where the “sap house”/base camp was located, I graciously directed them toward the check-in since I knew my way around thanks to the several adventures Ciara and I had taken around the preserve trails prior.
At check in, I was definitely a bit surprised to see so many other brightly colored racers adorned with their race bibs, stretching and going back and forth to retrieve gear from their vehicles. I was happy to say ‘good morning’ to Adam and Eliza, the famous race directors who would encourage us through the brutal 4 lap day.
T-minus 10 minutes.
I did one last finicking with my layers as we had the ‘final briefing’ inside the sap house, which was maybe 10 degrees warmer than the outside air! As the day was calling for a bit of warming up with some spotty sun here and there, I was unsure if I needed all of the layers from the start; 1 tight moisture wicking base layer to prevent chafing, 1 Gore-tex wind jacket layer, topped with a Gore-Tex Marmot outer shell; and the same delightful Salomon (fleece-lined) running pants that I loved for the prior two snowshoe runs, and of course – the newly sewn Salomon SpeedCross4’s to fit into the 21″ Dion race snowshoes. I felt ready as I did some final stretching along a hand-hewn wooden beam!
Lining up at precisely 8am (there were only six of us crazy runners, so punctuality was not really an issue for us!) at the line drawn in the fresh snow, Eliza went over the final details of where we would go when we ran back down the hill completing our 12.5K laps, one. by. one.
With mild fanfare, we were off. Each racers’ face was down, being sure to hit the Start buttons on their GPS watches, I made sure my Coros had linked up with GPS satellites in the minutes leading up to now and was ready to go, no questions asked by my watch, it only cared about me logging miles and gaining elevation. The four men took off out of the gate, despite Adam warning us that “the race really begins at lap three!”, I was hot on the heels of these guys. Breathing was regulated, but we were on a 3.5 mile track of constant ascent out of the gate, so I tried to remind myself to slow down, calm down and save any bit of strength for pushing on later.
I let the guys drift off, then I got hopeful as I passed one who had pulled over about a mile in to pee on a tree. I cruised down the bend past and wished him well, thought I would stay ahead as I was feeling good – but the next time I looked back he was coming in hot, right on my heels, I couldn’t push so hard so fast so I let my new friend in the black and green jacket pass by. I was in last place for the men, not bothered by this, we all topped the first ascent of Mount Antone and wasted no time – 3.5 miles of ascent would in turn mean 3.5 miles of descent as we began our first trek back to the sap house.
The course was absolutely beautiful, for a while we were socked in with clouds, but I didn’t mind. The snow kicked in not long after we began our return trek, cruising through 3-5 inches of fresh powder was not an issue for fresh legs – yet, still I reminded myself of what lay ahead: 3 more climbs, 25+ more miles, a few packets of Muir Energy, some rehydrating at the stations – and probably some mixed thoughts about what I had gotten myself into!
It wasn’t until reaching the 8K point that we, again left the starting line/aid station to head down a dead-end trail Stone Lot Road. It was all coasting downhill on this fresh layer of powder – but I quickly found the powder had latched itself onto the wet outer-layer of my Salomon trail shoes – these were not Gore-Tex, and I quickly found out why people would spend the extra $30 for Gore-Tex running shoes. My feet were soaked and beginning to chill, all with 20+ miles to run; now I was really becoming concerned for just-what I had gotten myself into, these were clearly not the groomed, packed trails that I was used to at the Viking Nordic Center!
There was no stopping this time as Eliza jotted down my time and I pulled a quick 180 as one foot hit just past the starting line; lap two: here we go. I was still seeing the guys as they were pulling ahead of me, the guy who had the rockin’ long hair wrapped in the Buff (I exchanged names pre-race but for authenticity of writing this, I could not remember anything at the time of actually running, all I could muster up are words of encouragement as we passed: “Dude, you’re crushing it!”, I would exclaim as we passed!) was not too far ahead, but I was definitely not in a rush to catch him just yet!
Ascending once again, I felt my body really start to struggle with being soaked and cold at this point. I knew that I pushed too hard on the first lap, allowing myself to sweat way too hard as I tried to stay with the professionals early on. Luckily I was able to sample from my Ziploc of dates and sip on the water as I cruised along, trying to stay warm.
I slowed down so far to just over a crawl, hardly putting one foot in front of the other as I made the second 600′ ascent of Antone that I simply could not keep the warm blood pumping to my toes, the thoughts of disbelief actually started to pass through my mind: “I am in way over my head”, “I am not made for this kind of race”, “I’m actually okay with two laps, that’s all I can do today”, “15 miles with 4500 feet of elevation gain, it was a good push, a good day”. “I’m done.” I thought to myself, I was okay with that. Too cold to press on, I could not stay warm, I was not there to loose toes, the second lap brought fear, acceptance, disappointment, but above all – I was okay with what I had accomplished, my day was done.
Heading back to the starting line and aid station, I felt a sense of calm, knowing that I only had that last push of Stone Lot Rd, then I would ditch my snowshoes and go get warm. Just then I passed the guy in first place (or did he pass me..?), still destroying the course and elevation (he never even appeared winded at any point along the course! Later I would find out the struggle was real with him too..) he gave me a wave and when I heard him say “Great job brother – someone dropped out, YOU’RE IN THIRD .. KEEP GOING!!”, this was music to my ears, but it didn’t bring my mind back into the race.
What did take my mind off of my early retirement was a wave coming from the starting line – a wave from someone who was not there on the prior lap; Tuesday was here!! I told everyone how cold my toes were as I pounded cup after cup of ginger ale (saved me during my last 50K event!!) and that I was going to do the Stone Lot out and back, and I’d be back in twenty. I gave Tuesday a hug as I now wanted to get back on the course, complete with a smile that I did not expect to find upon my face for the remainder of the day!!
I returned to the aid station after my second trip down the Stone Lot out and back; to that lonely sign next to the lean-to at the bottom of the hill, just to turn around and re-ascend through the woods and past a children’s community garden and two towering horses who watched us wacky folks sweat our bums past their barns. To my surprise, Adam handed me a cup of something, it was a steamy grassy looking something, I took a sip – it was a hot cup of green tea! And just like that the fire within was rekindled, I was back in this game, ready to kick it into high gear and warm my toes back up!
Lap Three, another 12.5 kilometers.
I was beginning to feel like myself again, relaxing into 17+ miles of running/power-hiking on snowshoes. I was well hydrated yet still sweating and moving hard enough to stay warm, I was fueled with 1 packet of Muir Energy and nibbling my way through a pouch of dates stored in the back of my Salomon running vest – taking 3-5 dates each time that I knew I had a long ascent ahead – chewing, sipping and climbing – not traveling so fast as to cramp up from breathing too hard, it was all coming together and working out oh so well, finally!
The gray clouds which brought snow flurries earlier now began to part, giving way to beautiful blue skies, warming sun and high hopes of finishing this thing, no.. I knew that I would be finishing this thing. I hiked the hills when I needed to conserve energy and ran as if floating over the flats and down the descents, no pain in my knees nor nagging from my hamstring which had plagued me for months on and off – I couldn’t believe how good I was feeling, handing out smiles and waves every time a 25K runner and I crossed paths. Unfortunately, I remembered no names at the time, but all of the faces I recognized from previous events, all so familiar!
Lap Four, the final 12.5 kilometers.
After a quick snack of more ginger ale, hugs and high fives, I was out for my last and final lap. I was tired for sure, but by now I was beginning to envision myself crossing the finish line – all I had to do now was run, walk the hills if I needed to, ‘just focus on not twisting an ankle or doing anything stupid!’, I reminded myself every several minutes. I had kept just enough dates, ginger ale, coconut water, salt, green tea in my system to not officially hit the infamous “wall” – things were going. This lap was more a victory lap for myself, congratulating myself in my head for being strong and not giving up when I wanted to nearly 5 hours earlier.
I was out on the course with one other woman who was racing the 25K distance, I told her she was kicking butt, she glanced up just long enough for some eye contact and glanced back down at her trail – she kept on kicking butt. By now the newest resident at the Clark’s Clearing cabin was out back spending all of the quality time with her golden puppy dog, she glanced up at the sound of my snowshoes clacking and gave a big wave – almost surprised that there would be anyone running on snowshoes, well I was.. just that nuts to run on snowshoes!
It was not just another round of quad-busting ascent this time, it was bittersweet. The final ascent; now with blue skies illuminating the freshly fallen snow all around. The course was beaten and battered from snowshoes of all sizes, runners of all speeds. What was a hard-packed trail for most of the day had now been broken, shifting underfoot. Traction was certain a hard thing to find this late into the afternoon on that final climb up Antone, I knew I was alone out there – all the other’s miles and hours ahead of me; it was my race now, just me and my happy-go-lucky mind.
On the final lap I finally felt free enough to break out the GoPro which had hitherto caught a 20-something mile ride all through the forest, the battery was warm enough to hold a charge so I grabbed some photos and had a bit of fun – with a fair taste of delirium – so why not, right?
With all concerns for pushing too fast right out the window, I pushed on further and faster than I had earlier in the day, knowing that my time out on these trails was almost complete. Checked in at the aid-station/starting line as the cowbells clamored and Adam manned the bullhorn, rooting on the last 50K-er of the day – wasting no time, my direction switched for the final time, heading past the barns, past the horses, past the winterized gardens, past the fella’s in the flat brimmed hats taking photos who jumped off the trail for me to pass – almost home!
I took in all the final sights that I could, noticing a lean to at the bottom of the final hill, making a mental note to remember to camp there some day! One last, fast paced climb back up Stone Lot Road and that was it – I only hoped that someone had fingers that were pliable enough to help me get these dang snowshoes off!!
I switched out of autopilot for the final time, now kicking harder than I had yet during the entire day, it didn’t matter to me how out of breath I got now, it was show time!! Adam on the horn yelled something about “bring it on home”, and that was it – full on sprint-mode! Camera’s out, sweaty gloves in the air, and just like that, 30.04miles were run.
With no vivid ‘ah-ha’ moment of clearly becoming a better, stronger version of me, I calmly walked over, sat down and with stiff, cold fingers tried to rip the ice-balls from the black straps of my Dion snowshoe bindings so I could unwind the straps and walk freely into the sap house and remove quickly my chilly layers. Tuesday and I took turns huddling around the propane heater as several other runners loaded up their cargo bags and prepped for their journeys home.
With a cooler of apple cider on deck, I opted for some home-made Sweet-heat (apple, beet, pineapple and ginger) juice from the kitchen de-la Tuesday. I can never consume enough of this fine pinkish red beverage – and today was certainly no exception! After a quick shake of hands and good byes to my running pals, it was time to return briefly to the cold, cold world outside. I was shaking badly by now, chilled to the bone and needing some calories in my life.
I thanked Tuesday for hosting me for the weekend, but I didn’t have it in me to let her know how much of an impact her presence had on encouraging me to press on when my body and mind so clearly did not want to. No matter how strong and stubborn we think we all are, it is a true blessing in life to have those strong personalities and willful encouragement. This file in my mind titled “Merck Forest 50K” will forever remain in my consciousness as one of the hardest, most painfully draining, things that I have attempted (I’ll give it a few months and I’ll probably be pushing the envelope even further..!).
Later that day..
It was a long, late day, but the feeling of pulling in the driveway, shutting the car off for the last time, climbing the stairs with my gear, it was so nice to walk in the door to overly-excited puppy dogs with their waggling tails and Ciara! She had surprised me and my grumbling belly with a Buddha-bowl; everything that I could possibly dream of all in one bowl! Home-made cashew cream dressing with sauteed veggies, quinoa, salad greens, tomatoes.. oh so good!
..The next morning..
I checked the emails, refreshed the website – results were in: points for the first two 50K finishers, no points for third place, last place. There was one more race for the winter snowshoe series: The Punxsutawney Phil 5K taking place for one last hoorah at the Viking Nordic Center.
I was in.
Two minutes later I was signed up for one last jaunt on my Dion’s with this fun crew, I had just two weeks to recover and prep for more snow!
Overall 50K stats
Recorded with my Coros Pace GPS watch
- 3rd place out of 3
- 8hr 10minute
- 8,189′ elevation gain
- Mount Antone (x4) – 2600′ summit
Coming up next:
Punxsutawney Phil 5K, the final jaunt!
Friday, March 15th 2019