Following the successful completion of a 50K (plus a couple of bonus miles) I can now call myself an ultrarunner! My first attempt at the distance (31 miles) took place at the Twilight Zone 6-Hour Endurance Run at Addison Oaks in Leonard, MI on Saturday, June 12th. I signed up for the event in January 2020. COVID hit plus I got injured in mid-April so it was a bust. In a way, I’ve been training to do this run for two years!
Many people wonder why I’d WANT to do something like this. They don’t like to drive that far. They only run if someone is chasing them. I must be a glutton for punishment. I’ve heard it all. I could half-jokingly say that it’s a good way to run away from my problems. For real though, I’ve run seven marathons and I guess there’s a gradual progression of pushing to see what I’m capable of. In 2010 I found out I could do a 5K so then I tried a 10K. By the next year I was up to a half marathon. A couple years later I was up to the 25K and then a marathon. After a bunch of marathons I was ready to try a 50K. I’ve found that I have a knack for long-distance running and enjoy doing endurance events. I feel empowered and strong when I run and I guess I like to keep chasing that feeling. In 2019 I ran Move-It Fitness‘ Loopty Loop 4-hour trail race. I stopped when I hit almost 20 miles that day but it was my first in-person exposure to the ultrarunning atmosphere. Many people were there to run for eight or 12 hours. It was a laid-back environment with a lot of friendly people and I loved it. Although Twilight Zone didn’t specifically have a 50K race, I thought six hours would be enough time for me to accomplish that goal. It was another Move-It Fitness event so I knew it should be a great experience.
Like last year, I followed a 16-week training plan from an ultrarunning book by Hal Koerner. For the most part I just aimed to get the mileage in and didn’t do specific speed or tempo workouts. Occasionally I ran a little faster but my main goal was to get through the segment without getting injured. My weekly mileage peaked at 64 miles a couple times which is pretty similar to what I reach while training for a marathon. The longest training run was supposed to be 30 miles but I thought that seemed a little too risky. I chose to max out at 25 miles for my two longest runs. The majority of my weekday runs were 6-8 miles long. I had a few setbacks along the way like a sore IT band that turned into a hamstring problem, then some pains in my left foot. I took a week off at one point and my body cooperated fairly well otherwise. When lower back and hip issues popped up I realized a weekly visit to the chiropractor was necessary to keep me on track. I rarely get massages but went in for three sports massages/torture sessions during training as well. I was willing to do whatever I could to make sure I would be healthy when I got to the starting line.
On the morning of the race I had a Mint Condition Picky Bar at home then ate another when I got to the park a little before 7am. The park is only 15-20 minutes from home so I went there the previous day for the early packet pickup. The race was based out of a pavilion area that was a short walk from the main parking lot. We were able to park even closer in the grass across from the pavilion. A bunch of people set up tents because they were participating in the 12 or 24-hour races. Some had crew/spectators who hung out in the tents and it also gave the athletes a place to rest if they needed it. There was a bag drop area in the pavilion which I used for stashing some extra gear plus my insulated bag with six water bottles. I loved the convenience factor of being able to easily grab a fresh bottle when I needed to.
I had an hour to kill before the start of the race and was thankful for a building with a real bathroom that had a ton of stalls. No wait and I didn’t have to use a porta potty! I noticed some fog on the lake so I walked over there to take a few pictures. Eventually it was time for the pre-race meeting. The course was a loop that was around 2.55 miles long and people would run clockwise until 8pm, then the course would change direction. We learned where to go if storms should hit. Fortunately the forecast of afternoon storms didn’t materialize but people who were still running at midnight weren’t as lucky. It was in the mid-60’s at 8am with humidity around 80%. Even though it didn’t seem so bad at the beginning, it didn’t take long before it hit me. By 2:00 the temps were in the mid-80s with humidity close to 60%. Conditions were going to be challenging for a long day of running.
This was my first post-pandemic race and it was nice to feel like things were back to normal. We didn’t have to worry about masking up or anything like that. When it was time to line up in the starting corral most people lingered near the back. Based on my experience at Loopty Loop, I realized I probably belonged somewhere near the front. A lot of people were going to take it easy because they’d be out there so long.
I made the right choice because I was within the first five or six people as we found our rhythm on the course. We started on a paved path then branched off into the woods on a single track path that is typically just used by mountain bikers. The path was marked really well so I didn’t have to worry about making any wrong turns. I saw signs saying that the first stretch had two-way traffic and I wasn’t sure how that worked. We got out of that stretch and had a wider path with dirt and rocks before heading back to more single track. We were lucky that most of the race was in the woods where it was shady. Even if I sweated so much my sunscreen became ineffective, at least the shade should help. I made sure to use bug spray as well. I started with sunglasses to help keep bugs out of my eyes but they fogged up quickly because it was so humid. I got frustrated enough to take them off and put them in my running belt, and fortunately I didn’t have any issues with bugs in my eyes.
Nearly a mile into the race we ran out of the woods down a wide path and past an open field where I saw my friend Carmen! She had told me that she was going to come but I had estimated when I might hit the marathon distance and figured it might be best to show up in the last couple hours of the race. I was shocked that she was actually there at the beginning! I usually don’t have people offering to spectate in the first place, but I always figure it’s such an inconvenience because they’ll only see me for a few seconds here and there and be bored out of their minds. I couldn’t believe that Carmen was so kind to to do that for me. She even went to the park the weekend before the race to scope out a spot! I knew it was going to be a hot day and hoped she wouldn’t suffer out there. She was prepared with her umbrella for shade and had a bunch of fun and encouraging signs to cycle through.
She was there every single time I came around. Sometimes I’d joke with her that maybe she should leave for a few hours and go grab lunch or maybe run some errands…basically do anything else but wait for me for hours. She was such an awesome sport though. She always had a positive response about how she had a sandwich with her, she wasn’t that hot, she had a book, and she was there for the long haul. Not a hint of complaining! Of course it was a great boost to my spirit to know that I’d see her during every loop and it meant a lot to me that she was there.
A little over two miles into the race I got back to the point with signs about two-way traffic. It wasn’t really an issue during the first loop but every loop after that had people heading both directions. Even though it was a single track trail it worked out just fine. There was enough room to run in the grass to the side of the dirt path and make sure everyone had enough room. People were good about moving over. When I completed the first loop I was relieved that the course didn’t seem too bad hill-wise. My feelings on that changed with each subsequent loop though! The course was uphill for the first half and downhill for the second half. I REALLY started to feel that uphill climb during the six hours I was out there.
We came back to the pavilion at the end of each loop and could grab stuff at the aid station if we chose. I had a 21 oz. bottle of water in my running belt to start and was good with that for nearly two hours. I don’t think I made any stops during the first four loops. I think by the fifth loop I realized I probably should have swapped for a fresh bottle sooner. It was hot out and I knew I needed to drink enough. I made a quick stop at my insulated bag and grabbed a bottle that had Nuun endurance powder mixed with water for some carbs and electrolytes. The cold bottle was so refreshing! I made a point of grabbing a new bottle every hour or so after that. I brought six bottles and went through four or five of them during the race.
In addition to my bottles I also carried packages of Clif Bloks with me. I started eating the energy chews six or seven miles into the race. I wasn’t always good about keeping track of time but I aimed to eat one every couple of miles or sooner. Sometimes I was so cautious about watching the roots and rocks that I didn’t think about how it was time to eat again. A couple months ago I decided I should try the margarita flavor which has 3X sodium. I’m a salty sweater and I wanted to make sure I got extra salt into my system. Fortunately the flavor was fine for me – just another fruity gummy like the others I’ve used. An hour and a half into the run my stomach got a little annoyed, as it often does, but I was lucky and it didn’t last very long. My stomach was fine the rest of the run which was a huge relief, especially since I chose to experiment with some of the snacks at the aid station. I think the first thing that tempted me was a chocolate chip cookie. I kept thinking about my salt intake because of the hot day so I tried a few Pringles. My mouth was a little dry for those so I grabbed a cup of water to help. Another time I took a little piece of potato and rolled it on a plate that had salt. I know that’s a popular option for ultrarunners. I had a few bites of watermelon during a couple of other stops. Later in the day I had some peanut M&Ms and I think that was my favorite aid station treat!
I usually don’t handle the heat and humidity very well but can get through the half marathon distance fairly well. After that things tend to get more difficult. That held true for this race. When I was on the downhill stretch of the course I had a few mile splits that were under a 9:00 pace. Otherwise I was in the 9:00-10:00 range for the most part. I know trails slow things down because of all of the twisting and turning, plus having to dodge rocks and roots. I usually don’t have any kind of pace goals when I run on trails and my goal for the day was just to complete 50K. Mile 15 was the last time I saw anything in the 9:00 range. By mile 16 I saw my first 11:00 split. I was halfway through my quest to 31 miles at that point and the heat and fatigue were starting to affect me more. My split times started to creep up as I took advantage of the aid station. I started to use the pavilion as a little reprieve where I could stop and stretch and make sure I was eating enough. One of the volunteers said if I had a cloth I could dunk it in the icy kiddie pool they were using to keep jugs of water cool. I had brought a hand towel so I took their advice. I could feel how red my face was and the cool, wet towel felt great. The volunteers and race directors always asked how things were going and provided encouragement. Eventually I told them it was getting harder! I kept hitting milestones along the way though. I got through the half marathon point. Then I made it halfway to 50K. I got past the marathon distance so technically I was an ultrarunner! I kept telling them I could do this – I’ve got it. Even as I continued to slow down, I never felt defeated or doubted that I would hit my goal. I was hot and tired but doing pretty well otherwise. Plus, I was surrounded by people who would be out there for 24 hours and that was extremely inspiring.
I tried to keep running aside from my short breaks at the aid station. Each time I started a fresh loop I dreaded the uphill climb! At times it felt like I was shuffling along more than actually running, but I was still moving. I walked briefly when a strap from my running belt came loose, and several times I decided to visit with Carmen for a few extra seconds. She mostly got to hear me mutter things like “holy crap” when I stopped for breaks.
I knew I had to be careful about shuffling too much and swore several times when I snagged rocks or roots that could have caused me to trip. One of my mantras for the day was to lift my feet. Eventually I ran out of luck and wiped out. Luckily it happened on a flat stretch of dirt and I didn’t really get hurt. My elbow and knee had dirt burns but I didn’t break the skin. A guy in a jester hat was a few seconds behind me and I acknowledged my wipeout as he approached. He said that everyone gets one and I got mine out of the way. He also said that would get my adrenaline flowing!
One thing that I really loved about the race was the support and encouragement among the runners. Some people may have been there to compete, but I think most, if not all, were mainly there to achieve personal goals. Some people ran, some walked, some did a mixture of both. People ranged in age from 11 to 76. I had brief conversations with a few people about their goals for the day. I met one of my Twitter running friends for the first time and he was especially amazing. He is going to crew a runner at the Badwater 135 Ultramarathon next month where the temps will be really extreme in Death Valley. He ran a good chunk of this race with multiple layers to help train for the heat. Carmen and I talked to him later in the day when he took a break and he said he was going to go home to shower, attend his daughter’s graduation, then come back to finish the 24-hour race. He ended up completing 65 miles! Some people on the course told me that I was running really well or commented on how I was lapping them. I’d ask how long they were running and everyone said 12 or 24 hours. I informed them that I was “only” out there for six hours. That was nothing compared to them and they were doing great! I started to wonder if anyone else was running for six hours! The two-way traffic part of the course was a fun spot because after running so many loops, I saw the same people multiple times. A few guys always had big smiles on their faces and it was infectious. There were so many nice and inspirational people out there.
Over and over, I kept looping. Aside from battling the uphill stretches, the looped course didn’t bother me. Thankfully there were downhill stretches too. I spent so much time watching the ground that I didn’t get too preoccupied with the idea of running the same route so many times. If anything, it was helpful because I became familiar with certain areas that had roots and knew which spots had better footing. The heat and humidity would be a factor no matter what but I was extremely thankful that we spent most of our time in the woods. There were a few stretches that were out in the open but it usually didn’t take me more than a minute or two before I was back to the shade. Each time I got back to the pavilion area people around the village of tents cheered. As I started each new loop I looked forward to the kid who asked if I wanted to be sprayed by his water cannon. I looked forward to the two-way stretch where I’d often see the guys who were still running strong and we’d exchange encouragement. I looked forward to the stretch where I’d come out of the woods and wave to Carmen to let her know that I was coming. She was the only spectator out on the course and I know plenty of people appreciated her enthusiasm and signs. Although I understand why a looped course might seem hard to battle mentally, I actually really liked it.
I told myself that even if I had to walk I shouldn’t have any issue getting 31 miles done within six hours. I estimated that I might get through a marathon in roughly four hours then have a couple hours to spare for the remaining five miles. HA! I was a little too ambitious with the thought of the 4-hour marathon! Aside from the terrain of the trails slowing me down, the heat and humidity definitely kept me from pulling that off. I think I hit the marathon distance in 4:30-4:40. Eventually I realized that my loop times had increased to half an hour. I might not have much extra time to spare after all. That was extra motivation to keep running however slow my pace might be. Lap 11 is when I peaked with my slowest loop – 33:08. I had probably spent extra time at the aid station. Once I realized I didn’t have as much time as I thought I’d have, I managed to pick up the pace a little bit for my final two loops. In the end I had less than nine minutes to spare. I got it done though! I hit the 50K distance out on the course and by the end of that final loop I had completed 33.15 miles in 5:51:20.
I was pretty wiped out for a few minutes and knew I’d be sore later, but I was in pretty good shape after running for nearly six straight hours. Carmen and I took some pictures with all of my hardware after I recovered for a little bit.
As I suspected, I was the female winner for my race. The results were posted and I saw that 13 of us did the 6-hour race. I also saw that I had the top time/distance combo out of all the 6-hour participants! That gave my confidence a little extra boost! I received a medal for completing the race, a special keychain for getting through 50K, and a plaque for being the first female.
Pizza arrived so I ate a few pieces of that while chatting with Carmen and some other runners. Before I left I made sure to check in with Geneva, one of the race directors, to tell her how much I appreciated her hard work. Move-It Fitness does an awesome job creating a great race environment. The volunteers and everyone involved are the best. I have such a great time at their events that I know I need to do more of them! I’m signed up for my second Loopty Loop race next month and I’m looking forward to it!
By the time I left it was a beautiful, sunny day that kept getting warmer.
I like looking through the results to see how all of the stats broke down. 129 people participated in the event. Here is more info:
6-hour – 13 total participants – 6 women, 7 men. Top woman & man = 33.1 miles
12-hour am – 28 total participants – 13 women, 15 men. Top woman & man = 51 miles
12-hour pm – 5 total participants – 2 women, 3 men. Top woman = 35.7 miles, top man = 40.8 miles
24-hour – 83 total participants – 32 women, 51 men. Top woman = 81.6 miles, top man = 107.1. Two men ran 100+ miles
The leg soreness was pretty intense for a couple days after the race which led to a couple nights of terrible sleep. Now that I’ve had three days to recover I think I’m starting to round the corner. I was able to sleep last night and handle stairs without too much discomfort. I’ll give my body a well-needed break but know I’ll be anxious to get back to my workout routine soon!
Now that I’ve achieved this goal, what comes next? I always seem to have more races on the horizon so hopefully there won’t be any post-race blues. As I mentioned, I plan to run the 4-hour Loopty Loop race next month, assuming I recover smoothly from this race. Recovery can always be an unknown factor so I don’t want to sign up for anything too soon until I know that I can run without any issues. So far I’ve only committed to one triathlon in mid-July and would like to squeeze some more in this summer. I signed up for a 5K swim in mid-August and need to step up my swimming endurance to prepare for that. I also signed up for the Crim 10-mile race at the end of August. I had to defer the Toronto Marathon last year, and I guess I’ll see if that race happens this October. If so, I’m 18 weeks out from that race now and will likely start training soon. Plenty to keep me busy! For now I’ll give myself a little bit of time to enjoy achieving this goal before moving on to the next one.