2.30am, Saturday August 26th, my alarm goes off. Here I am, today is the day. I will have a try at my first ultra, a 50 miler.
Breakfast, running clothes, running gear. I step into my running shoes and we are off to the start. It’s pitch dark outside. I’m thinking about the 100 milers who started yesterday morning and are running through the night. What are THEY thinking about?
4.40am, we are at the starting line waiting in the car. I’m shivering. Ok, it’s a bit cold outside but that's mostly about my nerves here. I want to be in the race already. I’m checking my phone, reading messages from my family and the guys (how I like to call them) from Jogging Bonito (a French podcast I'm part of). They know what they are talking about. One of them, Emir, is actually in the middle of a 136 mile race... and he still managed to send me a video message. Not sure they know it but that means a lot to me.
10 minutes to go, headlamp on, sweater off. Time to go out and head towards the starting line... or lack of it. But you got the idea. We are a bunch of 75 runners ready to go. A few words from a race organizer and all of a sudden she tells us to go. Surprising start. She got scared to miss go time.
It's 5am and here I am, going up the first uphill single track trail in a procession of runners with their lights on. I guess it’s pretty to watch from afar. There is no more possible doubt. I AM running a 50-mile race. It’s happening, right here, right now.
[Course map and elevation map - Kodiak 50 miler 2017]
I know I have to start slow. It will be a long day. I'm a bit annoyed being stuck behind people who stop and walk but it would be stupid to go crazy and fall on the first miles, right? It's pitch dark. The trail is narrow. There are rocks and I know there's only void on my right side. I know because I went running there in July. "Just be patient and you'll get to a forest road soon".
Once there, I can find my own rhythm. Forest road, narrow trail again, and back to a forest road. The pack has thinned up. I'm behind a woman running with 2 guys. She runs well. And I'm following... I check my watch. "Too fast, slow down. Don't get caught into mindlessly following someone else's pace." It's funny to realize I'm not used to run with people and that can alter my awareness of what's going on for me.
Running in the dark is something special. You're not really aware of your surroundings. You don't see far ahead. You can't see your feet that well. It's a bit magical. On my right, a flashy pink color is starting to light up the horizon, contrasting with the dark line of pine trees. This image is still stuck in my head.
Ahead of me, the woman and the two men are walking an uphill section. It's not that difficult but I decide to do the same. They seem like they know what they are doing. I have no idea what I'm doing.
As it's getting a bit brighter, it's easier for me to get back to my real sensations. As if I was stepping out of a bubble. I slow down. We are getting close to the first aid station and I know I should not get there too early. A woman and a man pass me. I've passed them before. I'm not playing any game so I just stick to my pace.
6 miles in, Hanna Flats, first aid station, less than an hour of running. Volunteers only, no crew. I just have to make sure they got my bib number. I don't need anything so I don't stop. A woman came behind me just before the aid station. I let her go ahead of me in the following uphill section. It's sharp. My plan was to walk it. That's what I do and take this time to turn off my headlamp and store it in my bag. The sun is not totally out but it's bright enough.
[Hanna Flats - Mile 6 - photo from Paksit Photos]
The sun is rising. The landscape is perfect. That's so pretty. I'm grateful for this moment, being here, running, ready to push my limits. I'm getting to a guy who stopped to take a picture. I have a phone in my bag. For a second I thought about stopping too. I mean, it is a picture perfect sight. Perfect to remember, perfect to share with my family, on Instagram... but I don't want to ruin this moment. I will never need a picture on my phone to remember. And I don't want to take time to share. It's not selfishness. It's just my time, my own adventure and I want to be in the moment, just me, for me. I'll share later by other means (like this post...).
We are now spread out. I can hear 2 guys behind me and I can see one in front of me, and that's all. We are finishing a loop on single track trails before reaching a forest road. I need to pee. Not an issue on trails! But there are people behind me so I'm waiting to find the right tree coverage. We reach the wider road and I still didn't find the right spot. "Too picky... just stop, girl!" Behind bushes... obviously I chose the wrong ones and end up with legs covered in scratches... anyway, it's done. While dragging me out of here, I see 2 women and a few guys passing me. It's funny to realize I'm not that alone on the trails.
I'm back to business and stop soon after to eat for the first time. I could have run this section but I know eating is way more important for the
long haul. I eat exactly as I ate during my training. First food: cereal bar. I've also noticed I had to eat something no later than 8 miles in.
I will reach 8 miles. Walk/eat break according to plan. I've been running for 1 hour and an half. Just a warm up.
(I've trained and planned my walk breaks to eat based on the mileage which is not that clever. On trails, the important thing is the duration. I don't think it would have made any difference on the race but I'll make sure to pay attention to the duration and base my eating breaks on that for future trainings and/or races.)
[Photo taken in July, on the race course]
We've reached a portion that I anticipate will feel long. I'm ready for it. It's rolling terrain. I've run the early miles with the Playboy. I know we will reach an impressive uphill section. We did not run this one but clearly saw the incline! I know there's no point in trying to run it. I'm pretty happy with how I handle the running sections and the walking ones. I'm not frustrated and don't feel the urge to run "because I know I can run it". I was scared I couldn't help myself. I'm happy to see I'm doing good (I think the main reason about me being so clever is: the whole distance freaks me out!).
At some point, I can't see anyone ahead or behind me. For a few minutes I'm questioning myself. Did I miss a signage? Am I on course? I thought I would have reached the 2nd checkpoint by now... I calm myself down because I don't see how I would have missed a turn. Finally I see someone else in the distance. I'm on track.
Just before mile 15, I recognize the landscape (we've been there). A blue tent in the distance. 2nd aid station. Volunteers and runners. I've been running for 2 hours and 50 minutes now. All along the race, every time I reached a checkpoint it felt as if I was stepping out of a bubble.
Now, I know the route. I also know that I'll see the playboy at the next aid station. We reach a road and some houses, and then back to the mountains' trails. I passed guys on the road and we exchanged a few words. I'm running uphill. The sun is already quite hot and it's not even 9am... I'm waiting for a sharper hill portion to stop and eat for the second time.
I get my banana nut butter wrap from my backpack and start eating it. Again, it's not new to me. I've trained with it. But, this time, I have difficulty to swallow... I force myself but can't finish it. I'm around mile 17. Not even 3 hours 30 min in. That worries me a bit but I'm still feeling fine so no need to start overthinking it.
[Photo taken in July, on the race course, going the other way]
The climb is over. I start running again. The trails are pretty but a bit tricky as far as orientation is concerned. So I make sure I'm 100% focused. Long downhill section on mountain bike switchbacks. "Not too fast. Pay attention to your quads. The canyon is coming." It's getting hotter. I start to feel a bit fatigued and I think it's partly due to the fact I'll see the Playboy for the first time very soon. As if my body and my mind were relaxing knowing we are reaching our first milestone. But it's not the end, far from it.
I get to the main road. The checkpoint is just across it. 20 miles in. It feels like stepping back into reality with all the cars on the road and the people at the checkpoint.
[From a video shot by the Playboy on race day]
The Playboy is waiting for me. I'm glad to see him and to exchange a few words. We run to our car. He makes the exchange for my water bladder (the empty one for a full one) while I switch my watch with an old one (mine would have never been able to last the full 50 miles). I stop it on 3 hours and 50 minutes of elapsed time. I drink cold water with Nuun, refill my bag with a cereal bar and a wrap, and take a few pretzels in my hand. Ready to get back to it.
During training I often sang songs in my head over and over again. I obviously had lots of time to think and elaborated a little surprise for the Playboy. Every time I would see him, I planned to sing him a carefully chosen song.
So, before taking off, I sang a few lines for him: "Et ça continue encore et encore. C'est que le début, d'accord, d'accord." ("And it goes on and on. It's just the beginning. All right, all right!") And I was back at it.
20 miles done ... almost 4 hours in. That was the easy part. And right next up was one of my biggest fears about this race: the canyon. Sharp 3 miles downhill, sharp 6 miles uphill. I knew what to expect as I attended the training run on this portion of the course. So I was more confident about how to deal with it but still scared about it.
[Downhill to the bottom of the canyon - Mile 20 - photo from Paksit Photos]
How to deal with the downhill? I had a hard time figuring it out but I ultimately decided to relax into it, not push and slow down as soon as my legs get too much into "brakes mode". I do just that and reach the bottom quite happy with the way I handled it.
Now, the way back up. The first 3 miles are too sharp. No need to play fool: I walk. I cross path with some 100 milers. Some are doing OK. Others... not so much. I'm empathizing with them. What's left ahead is nothing compared to what they already did but, man, it's still a long way!
At the halfway mark, I take a cereal bar from my bag. 25 miles, 5 hours 42 minutes in. I have a feeling it'll be the last real food I'll be able to eat. The heat is getting to me. The uphill is hard. There are flies all around me buzzing to my ears, getting into my eyes, ears, mouth. It's nerves racking.
[Photo taken in July during a training run, making my way up from the canyon]
But all around me, there's also a pretty spectacular scenery and I make sure to take it all in.
I make my way up. I pass some people: 50K and 100 milers. We exchange some words. I run when I can but I feel my energy levels dropping and dropping. I force myself to take a few energy chews in. I make sure to drink. It's getting hard but I knew the canyon wouldn't be a walk in the park.
Finally, the trail is getting less windy and less uphill. I can run more easily... as far as the elevation is concerned. I'm almost 30 miles in. It's a distance I reached only once and it was during this training cycle. It can't be easy. I'm pumping myself up. I'm not done yet. I have to keep pushing and keep my spirits high.
And finally I reach 30 miles and I can spot the blue tent. Champion Aid Station. My Playboy won't be there. I know it's still uphill after that but this tent symbolizes the end of the canyon and the entrance into uncharted territories. After it, I will keep running and I will experience sensations and distances I've never done before. Here we are, the scary unknown that this thing is all about.
I'm so happy to reach this tent. I'm hot. (It's noon. I've been running for 7 hours. But, I swapped watches and I'm not fully aware of what's going on "in reality". So, I don't realize how long I've been running for and what time it is.) They have iced water. The volunteers are so nice. I'm splashing water all over my head. One volunteer comes to me and offers to help. With a sponge he puts iced water on my head, my back, my shoulders and arms. It feels so good. Spa like experience! I can't thank him enough for this spurt of energy it gave me.
I'm back at it. I love the trail we will reach soon. Windy, single track, rolling, and a top-notch scenery... BUT I anticipate I won't enjoy it that much today. So I focus on the views and I try to be efficient. Steady and slow. Slow and steady. I have to save my energy which is already deficient.
[Photo taken in July, on the race course - Skyline Trail]
It's long. It's so so long to get to the next aid station. I knew it would feel long but it doesn't make it easier. Every time I reach the top of an incline I try to spot the blue tent. It's not here yet. Of course it is not. I rationally know the mileage at which the aid station is but, still, I want it to magically appear and the miles gone.
I'm running alone but pass a few people mostly stopped or walking. It's hard. It's hot. But I am still lucid.
Finally I see the blue tent and my spirits are lifted... OK, for a short time, but still. Grandview Point Aid Station. 35 miles in. I pour iced water on my head and, well, almost everywhere. If I could have taken an ice bath I gladly would have done that.
And I start running again. Next stop: the Playboy. At the next aid station, my Playboy will be here and I will get to take him with me as my pacer for the 12 remaining miles. That's my motivation to endure this part of the course which is not that funny.
We leave Grandview Point Aid Station to go down to Aspen Glen Aid Station (which is, by the way, 2 miles from the finish line), and then go back up to Grandview Point Aid Station (not the same trails on the way down and up which eases things up a bit).
My energy levels are down. I'm drained. My legs are fine. I don't want to stop but I want for this thing to be done.
A nice distraction is that I get to a man and we run next to each other for a few minutes. So we talk a bit. We can see the lake. I would give anything to go swim in it right now. I tell him. His answer: "No, I'd rather just sit down there, taking a dip, and not moving". That makes me laugh and we agree that would be the best.
[Photo taken in July, on the race course, views of Big Bear Lake]
Around there I get discouraged. I'm not fresh. I guess my mind is not either. I check the time, the running time and the mileage. I won't reach the Playboy before 4pm. I'm disappointed and discouraged.
The truth is I didn't read and calculate correctly (I got to the Playboy around 2pm). I had switched watches so I have the distance and the running time from the aid station before the canyon. I have to do the maths. Don't trust me when maths and running are mixed... even more when I've been running for 8 hours and a half... believe me, that's similar to quantum physics! Anyway, I didn't realize that until the end of the race.
We are now on a single track. My running buddy and I can't talk. Sometimes I'm ahead and sometimes he is. The trail is tricky, uneven, and at one point, even if it's downhill, I just stop and walk. It is too much. I can't do it.
I still have many hours to run. The man is gone now. It's even more discouraging. I just walk... downhill... I could run... I should run... "Will you quit now and choose to go easy, walking because it's getting hard? Is it really the last resort now? Are you sure you can't run anymore?... no...". So I start running again.
I get to the aid station. I see my Playboy. I am so relieved. 38 miles, 9 hours in. I stop running and sit down on the ground. I tell the Playboy I haven't been able to eat since the canyon... 13 miles away... 3 hours ago.
I drink cold water with Nuun and Kombucha. He insists on me trying to eat something. I manage to swallow 2 ridiculous pretzels.
Before the race I was concerned about how long it would take us at this aid station between exchanging my water bladder and switching running watches again, eating, drinking and for the Playboy to go to the car to put everything back in it before leaving to run with me. It's NOT a concern anymore. I need time to be able to go back there. I will ultimately need 15 minutes for that.
My sister sent a video of my baby niece to encourage me. I gladly take time to watch it. And I also take time to make a video for you, guys. I intended to post it on Instagram (but never did). It's also for me to remind myself how I felt at this moment!
But at some point, if I really want to finish this race, I have to go. So, I stand up and go back there. I go alone at first while the Playboy is putting everything back in the car. Don't worry, it didn't take long for him to catch up with me!
It's uphill. I had planned on walking the most part. So it's not discouraging for me. More discouraging? The effort it takes me to run the somehow flatter sections of the way up. But my spirits are higher as I have the Playboy by my side and we can talk.
It gets to my mind I forgot to sing my 2nd song for the Playboy. So, here it is: "It just takes some time. Little girl, you're in the middle of the ride. Everything, everything will be just fine. Everything, everything will be all right"... (hhmmm... not so sure about that last part)
Every time there's a flatter section, I need to get running. To get to do it, I repeat to myself, over and over again, the simple advice Emir gave me: "When it's flat, you run. When it's downhill, you run. When it's uphill, you walk.". It's flat. I run.
And somehow, we reach Grandview Point again. Iced water all over. Again. And we are back at it. Again.
We are more or less on a ridge. The views are nice. The trail is windy, up and down, but uphill on average. I'm loosing my lucidity. We can't run side by side. I'm ahead. I can't really talk anymore. I don't have enough energy. I can tell. I feel lightheaded. I walk more than I would like to. But I still manage to run the flat and downhill sections.
[Photo taken in July, on the race course - Skyline Trail]
I'm slow. I let people go by me (they can go faster and it's a way for me to stop as I stand on the side of the trail for them to pass me).
At some point, I feel even more lightheaded. I really can't push through it this time. I need to sit down. I do. The Playboy tells me I need to eat. I can't. My belly is full of liquids. It's not that pleasant.
(At this point, it had taken us almost 2 hours to go over 5 miles... but, during the race, I was totally unaware of all of that and actually couldn't care less. My only goal was to keep going forward.)
And I stand up again. I feel sorry but I can't run. I walk and feel bad about it but I can't do better just yet. I'm disappointed the Playboy is with me but I force a "grandma style" hike onto him. I'm frustrated my legs are not hurting but I have no energy. I put a pretzel in my mouth because I know I need energy and I crave salt. But I can't swallow. I chew and chew but my throat doesn't want to function. I have to spit it out on the ground.
A woman running the 100 miler passes me. It helps me attempting to run again... shuffle would be a better word.
I have no energy left. The lightheadness comes back. My peripheral vision is narrowing now. I tell the Playboy. This time he orders me to stop and lay down. I'm in hypoglycemia.
[Photo taken by the Playboy, on race day]
We stay there for 20 minutes. During this time a woman who's running the 50 miler too (I know, I passed her in the morning, hours ago) happily ran by us, music on, singing...
The Playboy found a way to make me feel better: sugar cubes. I'm so glad we took a handful with us. I don't have to swallow them. I just have to put them in my mouth and let them melt. That's what saved me.
(43.7 miles - 11 hours 40 minutes in)
I feel better so we go back on the trail. We don't run even if it's a totally runnable portion. The goal is to progress while saving my energy, reach the last aid station and run the last 4 miles of the race. AND shoot myself with sugar!
I'm disappointed I am not running. I know the Playboy is right. It's safer this way. I know I may feel like running now but I'd feel bad again in no time if I do.
[Photo taken in July, on the race course - Skyline Trail]
But then I see the blue tent. I can't help it, I run. I'm so happy to see it. It means I'm almost there! 4 miles to go!
So I reach the aid station running and smiling. The volunteers here instantly became my best friends. They may not agree with this but for me they are. These guys represent the "almost end". I could have kissed them. They tell me I look great, all smiles. Guys, if you've seen me 5 minutes ago...
I don't want anything here. I decline the offer to sit down. I just want to leave as soon as possible to get into the final miles. But before, just to make sure I'm not hallucinating, I ask how many miles are left. "4 miles". Alleluia.
(46 miles - 12 hours 20 minutes in)
Final miles. I was so waiting for them. I feel so much better (partly due to my sugar high, partly due to the syndrome of "desperation energy"). I want to run! But the Playboy makes me walk a bit more as it's uphill for a few hundred yards. I want to run. I want to get to the finish line. SOON!
Is it flat enough now? I get the green light from the Playboy. GO! I run as fast as I can. I feel relieved. It's almost over. I WILL get to the finish line. I did everything I could. It was hard but I am here right now with energy coming from I don't know where. I don't care. I'm using it.
We pass people who passed us before. I see the lake. I just run. We hiked there in July. I said I would be glad if I got to see this view on race day. This is race day. I'm here, looking at this view. I will finish. For sure.
Run, run, run. As fast as possible. I'm feeling OK. I'm actually exhilarated. The Playboy is by my side joking about the fact I am making him do speedwork. I don't know about that. What I know now is I can do that. I AM doing it. 50 freaking miles!
I know and visualize the end of the race in my head. We will reach the road. We will turn left on the road for a naughty bump before turning right and then straight ahead. I tell the Playboy there is no way I won't run the hill. I walked enough today.
I see the road. I turn left. I keep running. I power through the hill even if my lungs and legs are screaming. Top of the hill. Right turn. Straight ahead. Downhill.
I feel like crying. That's a first for me on a race. I run faster.
[From a video shot by the Playboy on race day]
I give it all I have left. I sprint and I cross the finish line. I did it. For real. Now, I can stop for good. I completed a 50-mile race. It makes me tear a bit...
[From a video shot by the Playboy on race day]
It took me a few minutes to even think about my watch and stop it. I ask the Playboy for the time. I started running at 5am. I crossed the finish line at 6.15pm. 13 hours and 15 minutes of a journey which brought me to various places and forced me to dig deep down my mental and physical games.
Let's round up this post with this video I made to put together the short videos the Playboy took during the race. Bib pickup, start line, Snow Valley Aid Station (Mile 20), Aspen Glen Aid Station (Mile 38), after the last Aid Station (Mile 46), the last stretch to the finish line. I kept it for the end to avoid spoiling my written recap. Enjoy!
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