I remember my thirteenth birthday. I’d been looking forward to it for months, that day when magically, overnight, I would transform from a child into a teenager. The idea was thrilling to my twelve-year-old self. At last the day arrived, and my mom asked if I felt any different. Which, of course, I didn’t.
Now, twenty years later, I’ve found myself anticipating for months the day of my first ultra, the day I would magically become an ultrarunner.
It was Saturday, April 9th. The race was the Yamacraw 50k. I had decided to camp near the race, and lured a group of friends to accompany me with the promise of warm, sunny, beautiful Kentucky spring weather. With an average high of 64ºF and an average low of 41ºF, it would be a great day for camping and hanging out in the woods.
Or so I thought. As the weekend approached, the forecast only seemed to get worse and worse. After driving through rain and occasional hail to the campground on Friday, we set up camp during a chilly, windy (but fortunately dry) evening and, after dinner, went straight to bed. I was warm enough (thanks to some generous friends who loaned me the appropriate equipment), but still woke up several times throughout the night to the howling wind battering the tent.
At 5am, Aaron (my husband) and I emerged from our tent into a 30ºF morning and he drove me to the race check-in. We hung out inside the building, clinging to the heat and drinking coffee. I ate a sandwich. Oddly, I did not feel nervous–I think I got all my pre-race jitters at home while I was packing my bags. Finally, Aaron said goodbye and I hopped on a shuttle to the start.
Race Start to Yahoo Aid Station (7.2 miles)
I really had no idea what to expect during the race; my only real goal was to finish. My IT band had been bothering me for the last month, and I hadn’t gotten in as much training as I would have liked because of it, so I started near the back of the pack.
Right from the start, this race was on a scenic, wooded trail with lovely gray morning light. It was a little congested for the first couple miles, until everyone spread out, but I think that helped keep me from going out too fast.
About two miles in was a creek crossing, the first of many. And it was COLD! If I wasn’t already awake, I sure was now. Good thing I had my wool socks. After this, there were several more creek crossings, but none were as bad as the first–in fact, they were kind of fun!
I was having a blast, taking it easy, but I slowly became aware of my left knee. The IT band again, I suspect. I was expecting it to bother me, but not this early in the race! It didn’t really hurt, however, so I kept running and tried to focus on good form to minimize the aggravation.
At the top of a big climb I found the Yahoo aid station, and I saw a familiar face. It was Mike, the Race Director of the Rough Trail Ultramarathon, for which I had volunteered this past November, and which I hope to run in the future. I adjusted the lacing on my shoes (to stave off a hot spot on my right heel), got some words of encouragement from Mike, and off I went. (Oh, and I ate a doughnut hole from a local bakery which was DELICIOUS, and some potatoes.)
Yahoo to Alum Ford (11.6 miles)
The course dropped back down into the gorge, and ran past some amazing rock ledges and overhangs, as well as Yahoo Arch and Yahoo Falls, before turning south to follow the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. There were wildflowers everywhere, trilliums in maroon and yellow, wild geraniums in blue, and lots of other white, violet, and yellow flowers which I couldn’t identify (my horticulture muscle is weak). It was like running through a woodland garden.
The trails were very runnable, but by this point my knee was not cooperating, and I was forced to hike. I had so much energy, and felt like I could be making such good time on these trails. It was killing me not to run, but then, it was killing me when I tried to run, so walk it was. My mantra became “relentless forward progress” (which happens to be the title of a book, too). I repeated it over and over and tried not to be frustrated with my slow pace.
I had some ibuprofen stashed in my drop bag in case of emergency, but that wouldn’t be until mile 22. I was seriously doubting my ability to finish the race. Finally I came to the Alum Ford aid station, and one of the volunteers wonderously, amazingly, incredibly, had some ibuprofen (there hadn’t been any at the first aid station). I waivered a little (I don’t really like to take medicine; I worry about masking the pain and causing injury), but decided this was what I had been training for, so I took 400mg and pressed on.
Alum Ford to Yamacraw Bridge (mile 17.9)
I hiked for a while and chatted with another runner from Elizabethtown who also took some medicine at the aid station for her left knee. Bad left knee karma in 2016, I guess.
After about 45 minutes, I started feeling better and was able to run a little. I made it to the Yamacraw Bridge, changed my wet socks, ate a Nutella-and-banana wrap (seriously, so good) and a slice of cheese pizza (the aid stations just kept getting better and better!) and was on my way.
Yamacraw Bridge to Devils Knob (mile 22.2)
At this point I got a little giddy. I kept saying to myself, “this is really happening! I’m going to do this!” At that point, I knew that I would finish.
This section was basically: stomp through mud, get muddy, stomp through creek, get clean,” over and over again. So many stream crossings! My favorite was the last one, a thigh-deep crossing of Rock Creek, before a big climb to the next aid station. I felt great and powered up that climb with my hands on my knees. The going was good, but I was becoming aware of my knee again.
Finally I reached my drop bag at the aid station. I took another 400mg of ibuprofen and changed my socks, and off I went.
Devils Knob to Ledbetter (mile 27.3)
I started off strong and enjoyed the views from the ridge, but then a steep downhill took its toll on my knee and I had to hike. A couple runners from Nashville, Mike and Rob, caught me just at the bottom of the hill, and we set off running along a gravel road doing the “hundred mile shuffle,” as Mike called it.
These guys were great to chat with. They were both seasoned ultrarunners; Rob had even run the UTMB and still goes to Switzerland every year to run. I felt a little awed.
At some point, the weather warmed up and it turned into a nice afternoon. I’d spent the morning donning and doffing gloves, zipping and unzipping my jacket, and raising and lowering my hood, but finally the sun stayed out and the wind died down, and the running was great with great company.
After we power-hiked up a big hill, a jail work van came down the road, and out jumped Aaron and all my friends who had come camping with me! I had no idea how they got that van (they later told me the van was shuttling runners who had dropped from the race, and they caught a ride back to their car at Devils Knob as the van was headed there to pick up a runner). I was definitely NOT expecting to see my friends in a jail van, so the surprise gave me a nice boost. Good times.
About half a mile later, we made it to the final aid station, Ledbetter. My friend Charlotte was volunteering, so that was another nice boost before the finish.
Ledbetter to Finish (32.2? miles)
I felt strong (probably an emotional boost from seeing so many friends) and decided to run rather than shuffle, so I said farewell to Mike and Rob and headed out into the final stretch. The race website said the final stretch was 4.9 miles (27.3 to 32.2 miles, if I did my math correctly), and the Ledbetter volunteers said it was 6 miles. It sure seemed like there were some bonus miles in there, because that stretch just would not end.
There came another downhill with lots of switchbacks, and my strong run was reduced to a hobble. Every step down the hill was excruciating for my knee, and I developed a sort of gallop that allowed me to do most of the work with my right leg (which is probably why my right achilles tendon is sore today). Mike and Rob caught me again at the bottom of the downhill, and we pressed on toward the seemingly never-appearing finish line. Their conversation helped me forget the pain in my knee, and I shuffled along with them.
I had to pee, but felt I was so close to the finish that it wasn’t worth stopping (plus I didn’t know how my knee would like squatting). Finally we came upon an intersection and a sign pointing back the way we came, saying Ledbetter 4 miles, and another sign pointing ahead saying Blue Heron 2.8 miles. So this last stretch was really 6.8 miles! (Which by my calculations puts the race closer to 33 or 34 miles, but who’s counting?)
When I left Ledbetter, I was feeling good and I actually felt a little sad that my first ultra would be over soon. But now my knee was hurting with every step and I was altering my gait to accommodate it, risking injury. I was ready to be done, but there were nearly 3 miles to go according to the sign, so I hobbled on.
Finally we heard the sweet sound of cheering and rounded a bend to see the bridge to the finish. I mustered a final run/hobble across the bridge while taking in the spectacular views of the river below before finally arriving at the finish line.
As we ate our delicious dinner at the catered post race party (barbecue for my friends, and a tasty vegan chickpea salad for me–so nice to see a vegan/vegetarian option!), it dawned on me that I was now an ultrarunner. And unlike my thirteenth birthday, this time I actually felt different.
But it wasn’t an overnight kind of different. It was a process. It was working hard to slowly, deliberately regain my fitness after undergoing cancer treatment. It was an understanding that, while I might not have as much foot speed as I had before, I am certainly tougher and able to endure so much more. And I think the foot speed might return if I keep at it. It was finally accomplishing a goal that has been years in the making, ever since I first heard about Western States probably ten years ago (and no, this wasn’t a hundred, but it’s still an ultra).
I finished in 9:16:23. I am proud of my finish, but I certainly feel like I have unfinished business here. I had so much energy left at the end of the race, but I couldn’t use it because of the pain in my knee. I want to come back next year on healthy legs to see what I can do!