What I crave…

What I crave…

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to travel to Phoenicia, NY with Josh, my wonderful boyfriend, to support him during his Cats Tail Trail Marathon (actual length as advertised on the website is 26.5 miles) through the Catskills.  We met some trail running friends who were also racing which made the weekend exceptionally entertaining.  Not only did Josh do absolutely amazing during his race (finishing 13th of 89 finishers – don’t mind my bragging!), I was reminded of how truly enticing the trail running community is to me.

I spent this past summer craving trails.  I got out to the trails as much as I could but I always craved more.  I became increasingly intrigued by Appalachian thru-hikers following more and more Instagram accounts of SOBO and NOBO AT hikers.  I craved the serenity of the trails.  I craved dirt beneath my Altras.  Oddly enough, maybe I even craved the hills that torture my muscles (…maybe).  But mostly, I craved other trail runners.

I was reminded of this as I stood shivering at the base of a 5 mile ascent with my cowbell in hand at 6:55 AM.  I patiently waited for Josh to start the race at 7:05 AM.  The first wave of 15 runners went by me and I pleasantly greeted them with a “good morning” and wished them a sincere good luck knowing the next 26.5 miles would be tough ones.  Most of them acknowledged my existence and exchanged warm thank yous for cheering them on so early in the morning. The second wave of 15 avid trail runners came by next and Josh was in the front of the pack.  I wished him good luck as he began his ascent and traverse through the Catskills.  I wouldn’t see him until mile 9.5 and I internally wished him safe travels.

With a few more waves of runners to be sent on their way, I made the short walk up to the starting line where I met a few of our other trail running friends as they waited for their wave to start.  The lax atmosphere at the start of the race captivated me.  For years now, I’ve stood on many starting lines surrounded by anxious runners hopping up and down, checking their pulses repetitively, and stretching out one more time before they’re sent on down the road to pound out speedy miles.  But there, on that brisk October morning, the runners stood relaxed, talking  and joking with each other, and re-tightening their Ultimate Direction, Gregory, or Orange Mud packs.  Everyone knew the next 26.5 miles would separate the men from the boys and the women from the girls.  The trail would do what it does best – challenge every runner mentally, physically, and emotionally.

Again, this is what I crave.  I yearn for the moments where I can step up to a starting line and know that the trail will control the result of my race.  I want to be surrounded by people on a starting line who truly enjoy the swaying of the trees, the silence of the woods, the dampness of the rain sprinkles falling from the clouds, and the dirt caked on their shins.  I don’t find that feeling on the start of a road race.  Instead I find tense feelings and minimal human interaction.  I find people ready to pound their feet on hard pavement instead of loose dirt.  I find people who would rather stand in silence and not make eye contact than someone who is willing to extend a pat on the back and exchange a heartfelt good luck.

As I stood patiently anxiously at the 2nd aid station, waiting for Josh and our friends to come through, I was once again surrounded by down-to-earth trail runners.  The moment a racer came through someone made sure to ask “what do you need?  Water?  Food? Do you have a drop bag?”.  Not only do aid stations become a source of fuel and water but they also become a welcoming place of encouragement and motivation to continue moving closer to that finish line.  I saw this time and time again as I witnessed all 89 racers come through the only car-accessible aid station of the race.  I was truly grateful to be standing at that aid station for most of my morning because I realized how special the trail running community was.

After a 25 minute drive from the aid station back to Phoenicia, I found myself once again waiting.  Waiting for the first finishers.  Waiting for Josh.  Just…waiting. The time keeper and finish line photographer didn’t hesitate to come over and talk to me.  We briefly discussed the difference between the trail running community and the road running community.  Of course we mutually agreed the trail running community is truly special.  They asked me who I was so patiently waiting for with my cowbell in hand.  I told them my boyfriend and our friends.  They expressed concern that I might get tired of waiting, but I assured them that I could spend hours and hours of every weekend engulfed in the trail running scene if I could.  I was in my happy place and I would wait all day for Josh to come towards that finish line.

The first two finishers appeared and at first glance I noticed from a far that they were running stride for stride.  I thought to myself “wow, this is a close finish!  I wonder which one is going to out sprint the other”.  That sentence right there, that my friends, (and I’m ashamed to admit it) is a classic road racer mindset.  I snapped out of it once I saw one of the men had dry blood caked on his face. My next thought?  “What kind of trouble did this guy get himself into out on that trail?!”  The men finished side by side, tying for 1st place.

As the nosy person that I am, I decided to eavesdrop on the conversation between the race director and the two men.  As the story goes, the leader of the race had accidentally ran into a low hanging branch with a sharp knob on it which pierced his scalp.  The 2nd place runner came down the trail and noticed a pool of blood had accumulated.  He followed the trail of blood and came across his wounded competitor basically bleeding out due to this severe injury, but still moving forward.  The 2nd place runner luckily had two extra winter hats to offer to his fellow trail runner to control the bleeding.  With 11 miles still remaining in the race, the 2nd place runner wanted to keep the fearless leader of the race safe and in his care.  They stuck out the last 11 miles together and crossed the finish line with an epic story to tell.

It was a small moment like that as I continued to patiently wait for Josh that showed me the strength of the trail running community.  One man halted his competitive spirit to help a fellow racer.  Out of true sportsmanship, despite probably training for months to compete strongly in this race, he slowed his pace towards the finish line for the health of another man.  I crave the selflessness like that of the trial running community.

Shortly after, Josh rounded the corner and came towards the finish.  I congratulated him and guided him towards the table of food waiting for him and the other racers to munch on.  I asked him questions about the course which he happily answered.  I offered him Gatorade, water, more food, and some arm warmers for added warmth.  We headed back out to the finishing stretch of the race to wait for the rest of our trail running entourage.  And again, we waited.

Josh and I finished that day reflecting on our own separate adventures.  He had travelled 26.5 miles through rugged trails and slippery rocks.  I had seen only bits and pieces of the race and what the racers were experiencing and it left me wanting more.  More time spent in the mountains, more time spent on the trails, more time spent surrounded by other trail runners.

Two days ago I signed up for the Hyner 25k in April 2017 (returning next year as a racer rather than a spectator like back in April of this year) and I’ve been energetically researching trail races to fill up my 2017 race calendar.  I want to step on a trail race starting line and feel excited about the challenge of the trails to come rather than anxious about my pace out on the course.  I crave the ache in my muscles from tough ascents and technical footing.  I crave the stories I’ll be able to share upon crossing the finish line.  I crave the exhaustion.  I crave the passion shared between trail runners.

Don’t get me wrong, I am excited for the two remaining races of 2016 – both of which are road races.  I plan on running both my half marathon in a week and a half and my marathon in late November as hard as I can.  I know that I will ache and I know that I will be mentally tested during these races; however, I can’t help but look forward to my unoffocial “official retirement” from road racing and transitioning fully into the trail scene.  Hyner will be my official debut race as a rugged trail runner.

My wanderlust and craving for trails is at an all time high.  I look forward to satisfying these cravings.  I look forward to the dirt, the potential blood, the leaves crunching beneath my feet, the hydration pack comfortably resting on my back, the congenial smiles of my competitors, and the yearning for a challenge.

Yes, we may all show up at a starting line on a brisk fall morning with competition coursing through our blood.  Competition is inevitable in the human spirit.  But once out on the trail, the trail will speak for itself.  The trail becomes your biggest competition rather than the runners ahead and behind you.  I want to compete with myself.  I want to compete with the trail.  That is what I truly crave.

Dirty German 50k Race Recap

Dirty German 50k Race Recap

This past Sunday, May 15th, I finished my first ever ultramarathon.  I had signed up for the Dirty German 50k way back in the beginning of January because I knew I wanted to make the transition to ultrarunning.  I was itching for a longer race since I was officially fully recovered from my marathon debut back in November and I needed something to train for.  I had completed another Uberendurance race a few years back (the 1/2 Sauer 1/2 Kraut 1/2 Marathon) so I knew how well organized their races were.  I chose the Dirty German 50k because it was a trail ultra and I knew I wouldn’t want to do an ultra on the road.  It was also described to be “easy by trail running standards”.  In the description it said it would be a great race for 1st time ultrarunners.  This race was basically screaming at me to sign up.  So there I was on my computer on January 2nd signing up for this 50k.

received_10207427398541051Fast forward a few months and there I was on a cool May morning in Pennypack Park standing on the starting line surrounded by other racers.  I was wearing my Altra Lonepeaks, a neon SparklySoul, and my UltimateDirection Ultra Vesta pack.  I was accompanied by my boyfriend and training partner, Josh, who also had committed to running his first ultra on that cool May morning with me.  We had done 85% of all our long runs for the past few months together and we both had the same race goals so we decided to race it together.  Our goal was to run under 6 hours and as close to 5 hours as possible.  His speed and confidence running hills and trails mixed with my everlasting endurance and experience with longer distances made us a perfect team to race this ultra together.  So there we were together standing amongst nearly 200 other racers with an accordion playing German music before we were set off to run 31 miles.

I remember the first half mile to be rather crowded due to some congestion on the trail but I never felt like I was boxed in or stuck behind anyone.  There was always a way around runners if I needed to get around.  My anxiety about the start of the race was soon diminished as I settled in behind Josh and powered through some of the hills at the beginning of the race to get around people.

For the first 4-5 miles we were running with a few other racers as we settled into a pace that we knew we could sustain for the entire race.  We had set out to average about 10 minute pace but my watch kept recording splits in the 9 minute range.  I felt comfortable though and Josh didn’t feel like he was overexerting either so we kept the pace.

I passed a few women while hopping from stone to stone across the stream which allowed me to run right beside Josh now.  At some point in the race we also came across a dog owner trying to re-capture her golden retriever puppy who was just too excited to see all the runners.  Josh and a few other runners stopped to helped her but I (selfishly?) kept running.

There were also some sections of the course that were on pavement due to construction on one of the bridges we were supposed to originally cross.  Josh and I were pretty much alone at this point and we were both in very high spirits.  I was happy we were doing this race together and at this point it just felt like any normal Sunday long run we go on together.

Eventually a woman from NYC named Mary (shoutout to Mary!) who had raced this course before caught up to us.  She gave us a few pointers and tips about ultrarunning and Josh told her all about his race up at Hyner a few weeks ago.  I just listened in on the conversation and laughed at her clever race tips.  It distracted me for at least one mile and we got to meet a very nice person (hope you did well in your race, Mary!  It was nice meeting you!)

The miles were passing by quickly and I was barely paying attention to the mile splits we were running.  We stopped at an aide station I recognized that was near where we had started the 1/2 Sauer 1/2 Kraut 1/2 marathon.  I picked up an orange Gatorade and Josh asked for some ibuprofen which they graciously gave to him.  We continued on our way.  I ate some of my tortilla with peanut butter and raisins in it and Josh ate his Stingers.  Every so often we would pop a Shotblok in our mouth to replenish some electrolytes.  We were feeling good.

At every aide station after that we both would stop and grab a cup of Gatorade to maintain our electrolyte levels and to change it up from the water we were drinking from our packs (Josh has a Gregory which he loves and I have an UltimateDirection with I love).  Soon were heading back towards the finish line which would mark 25k complete.

As we were running up a hill, we heard a cowbell.  Josh made some snide comment about the cowbell and I predicted that it was probably my parents.  Surprise!  There were my parents standing at the top of the hill.  Josh surged up the hill and left me to climb up it myself (disclaimer: he’s a very strong hill climber so I’m used to it).  The next 2 or so miles we didn’t run together but I could still see him ahead of me.  I knew I would eventually catch him once the rolling hills stopped.  Some 25k racers who had started 30 minutes behind us began to pass me  – they were going sooo fast!  Regardless, before the completion of our 1st loop, I had caught back up to Josh and we were running side by side again.

Before race day, Josh had predicted that we would run a 5:15.  Through simple math, this would require our 25k split to be about 2:37.  We came through the 25k split in 2:23.  After some quick math we decided a sub-5 finish was completely attainable even if we ended up slowing down (which we knew was going to be inevitable).  Josh made us a new goal which would be to finish in under 5 hours.

received_10207427468102790So here were are back out on the course for the 2nd loop.  At this point we were pretty much alone except for a racer about 100m in front of us and whomever was sneaking up behind us.  We started passing 25k runners and 50k runners in the opposite direction as they were still working on their 1st loop.  A few 50 milers also passed us in the opposite direction, some of which were going much faster than we were.  I was amazed by how fast they were going for a 50 mile race!

We just kept running, kept drinking, kept eating, kept moving forward side by side.  At aide stations we took no more than 15 seconds to grab what we needed and continue to move closer to the finish line.  We had a deadline now.  One of the other racers called us a “pacing powerhouse” because we were running such a consistent pace.  This gave us the confidence we needed to continue moving forward at the pace we were holding.  We don’t know your name but we appreciate your compliment A LOT.

Along one of the paved sections I was feeling sluggish but just happened to look down at one of my mile splits and see 8:17.  At this point we were already 25 miles in to the race  – why did I just run an 8:17 mile in a 50k?  That was never a split I intended on running and I definitely didn’t feel like I was running that fast.  I decided to just go with the flow and keep running.

We also started running with a woman who was in the 50 mile race who was keeping an impressive pace (I think she was actually running faster than we were at some points).  She was extremely friendly and it once again distracted me from any soreness or fatigue I was feeling.  I don’t know your name but I hope you also did well in your race!

received_10207427470022838Once we were back on trails our legs didn’t hurt as bad from the pounding on the road.  By this point 95% of the paved part of the course was done.  We just had to finish the last 4-5 miles of trail and we would be home free.  We took one last cup of Gatorade at the aid station, saw one of our Instagram followers, saw my parents, and started running up another hill.  I knew at this point that we would be under 5 hours if we just kept pushing.  We did end up powerhiking some of the last few hills and we bombed the downhills as much as we could (well, at least it felt like we were bombing the downhills).  I just kept repeating over and over again that we were so close to being done.  Josh probably thought I’d never shut up about being close to the end.  So. Close.

received_10207427468822808The last few miles are a series of rolling hills but we just kept pushing.  We exited the woods with a little less than 4 minutes to get to the finish line before the clock struck 5 hours.  I knew we had it.  I knew we would run under 5 hours.  We ran towards the finishing stretch, made the last turn into the grassy field and made our way towards the finish line.  We crossed the finish line in 4:58:04.  My Garmin Forerunner 230 recorded we averaged about 9:40 pace – not too shabby!!  My legs hurt but I was happy.  We had totally crushed our original goal of being under 6 hours and Josh’s prediction of us running 5:15.  We had ran our sub-5 like the new goal we had agreed upon mid-race and we had finished our first ever ultra.

At the finish line two patient gentlemen ripped off our bib tags.  The one gentlemen also asked me my age and I was perplexed by this question.  I answered with a fatigued “22” and before I could process what was going on he handed me a box and congratulated me on being the 3rd female in the 20-29 age group.  Well, this was a shock!  Josh and I were handed a hat and a medal that also functioned as a bottle opener (pretty awesome medal if you ask me!).

We staggered further through the finishing chute, exchanged a sweaty hug, and reflected briefly on actually completing an ultra.  Shortly after, my parents found us and congratulated us on a job well done.  At this point all I wanted to do was sit down.  We staggered over to a bench and I slowly lowered myself onto the bench.  We took a post-race picture to further document our accomplishment.

received_10207427421301620I soon started shivering because the air was still a bit cool.  I changed into a long sleeve shirt and we all agreed to start walking back to the cars.  This is where the fatigue and soreness finally hit me.  I could barely pick me feet more than 1 inch off the ground and I had a half mile walk back to the car…uphill.  It probably took me close to 20 minutes to walk that half mile.  Runners who were starting their 3rd lap of the 50 miler probably thought I was being overdramatic or something.  I’m sure I looked ridiculous and because I was staggering I probably even looked like I was somewhat drunk.

Later that night Josh and I indulged in some wine (me) and beer (Josh) and pizza – the perfect way to recover from an ultra!  We reflected on the race and all the wonderful people we met along the way.  Surprisingly neither of us ever felt like we “hit the wall” during the race.  I think this is because we ran together the whole time which allowed ourselves to be distracted by any fatigue or pain we may have had been feeling.  Unlike my marathon last November when I still wore Asics, my feet never truly hurt and my toes never started to bleed all thanks to my Altra LonePeaks and their wide toe-box feature. (I am completely obsessed with Altras!)  Throughout the race, Josh and I also paid close attention to how much and how frequently we were eating and drinking.  I believe that our training was perfect for this race which gave us a great advantage with confidence out of the hilly and trail sections.

Just as this race was described, it’s a great 50k to start with for the 1st time ultrarunner.  The course was extremely well marked and not very technical.  Because of these qualities, I would recommend this race to anybody who is just entering the ultra world.  Uberendurnace races are always very well-organized and they always have great prizes, food, and music (i.e. the accordion player!)

We are both extremely happy and pleased with our ultra debut.  I am beyond excited that I got to accomplish one of my goals for this year.  I’m lucky enough to have done it with such an amazing guy – without him I definitely wouldn’t have done as well as I did.  Cheers to many more ultras in my future!  I can’t wait to do another one!