If the cat hasn't slipped out of the bag by now, I'll go ahead and let you in on a secret: I like to run. Really far. Like, 50 kilometer far. 50 mile far. Further. And, I like to do it a lot. In fact, I've been in the ultra saddle and around the barn so many times over the past few years that I'd have to sit down with a pencil and paper if I wanted to list them all. That doesn't mean the community is planning to erect a statue in honor of my badassery, or that I even have a reputation of being legendary-- because I don't. But, trail ultras are my thing, kind of like how knitting or stamp collecting or hydroponic greenhouses are a thing for other people. And yet, a significant portion of the population, I've discovered, hasn't an inkling precisely of what a trail ultra consists, let alone comprehends the mileage associated with these races...or that fact that this mileage will be traversed by foot rather than, say, a bicycle or a horse or an ATV.
So, not surprisingly, there's just a rather blurred, grey area when it comes to kilometers vs miles and even the vast distance between, say, 40 miles and 62 miles. They sort of merge at some point, I think, after the beloved 5k, until ultimately a 19 mile run might as well be an 80 mile trek up a mountain in a snowstorm.
"How long is this marathon?" asks a coworker, in a manner that reminds me of the little boy who asks Napoleon Dynamite "what are you going to do today, Napoleon?" before he throws the action figure out the bus window to drag on the road. You know, and also suggests that one marathon is longer than another, that we don't really concern ourselves with petty matters like the difference between 26 and 62 miles, that the 36 mile difference between the two is-- psshh, that ain't nothing. Sometimes I want to burst out laughing. Sometimes I feel like saying, "I'm gonna run really far in the woods. What do you think I'm gonna do? Gosh!"
But, it's a lot more than that, really. In fact, running trail ultras doesn't begin and end at the trail. It's a lifestyle--a way of life that infiltrates every crack and crevice of a given day until you're eating it, breathing it, talking about it to people who don't know the difference between 100 miles and 100 kilometers, and shitting it hours after you've come home with half the trail stuck to your shoes and eyelashes. You plan trips and appointments around races, and if you're really feeling its chi, you even incorporate it into things like weddings, birthdays, bar mitzvahs and funerals. You know... like when Little Jonny lost a tooth: What better way to celebrate than with a 30 miler through an abandon coal mine? And then when your stupidity gets the upper hand and your dumb ass dies when the mine collapses, hell, we all might as well run from the church to the cemetery just to remember, even if it's 29 miles away and the tornado siren is sounding. I've honestly seen facebook status updates from fellow ultra running friends that boast of celebrating sub zero temperatures teemed with blizzard warnings by going out for "20 beautiful miles", or something equally sinister. Of course, I've also seen pictures of their frostbite, too.
Anyway, I'm a single mom and I work midnights at an extended care facility, so running ultra stupid to the bewilderment of my peers has taken on a whole new level as of late. Even prior to the introduction of midnight shift, I sometimes found myself running at really strange times and under equally strange circumstances out of necessity. But, once midnights rolled into the picture, I finally found out what it was like to experience the kind of psychosis that things like hallucinogenic drugs simply cannot mimic. I get off work at 7 in the morning, and sometimes drive straight to races and group runs that are easily an hour away and often 15+ miles. By the time I'm done and home, I could wake up not sure whether it's 10am, 5pm, April, July, 1986, or if I'm still sitting in the car with the key in the ignition, or laying in the bathtub with my sleeping bag and a pina colada. I love to tell people this is ideal training for the sleep-deprived hours late in a 100 miler, but honestly it's just a big jumble of the scary. I mean, unless you like waking up in a parallel universe. Or laying in the middle of the living room on the floor wrapped like a taco in your 6 year-old's Hello Kitty blanket at 1:00 in the afternoon.
But, that's the current state of things, so I knew when I registered for the Buzzard 100k that I was going to be in a race against the clock if I wanted to be done in time to go to work for the night. And, not only that, but a race against the clock in a wicked game of northeast Ohio weather roulette, to boot. With trail conditions a complete and total mystery after a week filled with 65 and -5 degree days alike (and everything in between), snow, sleet, ice pellets, and rain, I didn't know whether I was going to be running on ice, mud, or an even more diabolical combination of both, and really didn't want to think about it too much beforehand, either. Sometimes it's better not to know whether you're biting into a cordial cherry or chocolate covered cat food. I was prepared for a blind date with the Hinckley course.
I've heard people say that the hardest part of running 100 miles is running 100 miles, and I guess that might be true of any extraordinary distance, at least for most ultra runners. But, the hardest thing about running 62 trail miles is not the 62 miles part...at least not if you're me. It's food. I've had mid-race gastrointestinal issues that could put down a Clydesdale. So, the Thursday before show time, I found myself wandering through the aisles of Giant Eagle brainstorming a feasible nutrition plan. And, while I was aware I was committing a cardinal ultra sin in dragging a new fueling strategy out of the woodwork without having tested it in a non-race environment, I figured what the hell? What was the worst that could happen? More diarrhea? Like I haven't been down that yellow brick road before. So, Gerber and Beech Nut purees were landing in the cart by the handful along with lactose-free nutrition shakes, and I left the store feeling rather confident. After all, if an infant could handle this stuff, I should be A-Okay.
I woke up at 4:00 on race morning feeling unrested and fat. I condemned myself to a loose jacket and pants that might mask the weight I've gained, setting aside the bulk of my festive St.Patty's Day attire after noting how unflattering it looked on my expanded figure. I arrived in Hinckley at 5:30 and proceeded to set up my drop bags, shoes, and clothes, all the while scoping the landscape for any indication of what waited for me in the woods. I didn't have to wait long.
The first runner fell before we even reached the start, prompting jokes from race director and fellow ultra runner Roy Heger. But, in utter seriousness, when you look toward the course and a scene like this one greets you, you know that good or bad, it's going to be a long day:
As a matter of principle, I refused to check the time during the entire duration of the first 25k loop. I spent the majority of these 15.5 miles running with, or following, a young lady who told me she was training for her first 100 mile race next month. After learning she'd run the North Face 50 miler in 9 hours, I realized she was probably a faster runner than me (my fastest 50 mile time is a half hour slower on an easier course), but clearly not as experienced either running in adverse conditions--especially ice, I discovered, as she fell repeatedly, and with longer distances, noting this was her first 100k. While she had the upper hand in speed, I had the upper hand in experience, and intended to use that to my advantage later down the road. We got lost shortly before reaching the first aid station, missing the turn and continuing onward for nearly a quarter mile before being steered in the right direction by a volunteer who helped us back track to the pie plate pointing to the aid station we'd missed.
Moving quickly but gingerly on the slick ice sheet that covered the trail was not an easy feat, and I lost my footing for the first time around the 6 mile mark. I fell so hard I peed my pants, and resolved to stick to the outskirts of the trail at all cost. After narrowly escaping several disastrous wipe-outs around the lake, the young lady wearing the orange shirt finally took off at the spillway where the trail emptied onto a snow and ice-free all purpose trail, and after about a quarter mile I struggled just to keep her in sight. I enjoyed climbing through the ledges, so much, in fact, that I did not realize I was catching up to a pair of runners including the lady in orange who was, at this point, the leading female runner, until I reached the 10.5 mile aid station at the top of the ledges just as they were leaving it.
The last 5 miles of the loop are, along with the ledges, the best of this course. There's something for everyone in these miles: roots and rocks, a small hand-over-hand climb, a creek of icy water, bridle trail, pavement, rolling hills. And, in better conditions, the last 5 miles make for very fast running. On this day, however, with the exception of the mile of pavement leading to the bridle trail, the ice dictated pace. I discovered, heading across the street and into the final quarter mile of the loop, just how slow my "fast" pace actually was: a whopping 3:24 for the first 25k. I was stunned, and not in the pleasantly surprised kind of way. Clearly, my goal of 14 hours was already on the highway behind me, and 15 hours was seriously going to be a stretch, barring divine intervention or an act defying physics...or basic Kimberly race dynamic: I slow down...a lot.
Heading into the second loop, I held onto hope that with the slower pace and more walking time than usual, I might be able to edge a little closer to an even split. But, with the temperature rising to 40 degrees teemed with additional runners from the 50k and then 25k taking to the course, the pressure of feet slamming the melting ice forming patches of mud and ankle-deep slush bordering the ice sheet that remained over the bulk of the trail. Acceleration, or even a slow, albeit consistent run just wasn't panning out. I reached the 50k mark in about 7:15 (new personal record for worst 50k split), and an estimated 5-10 minutes into second place.
I took to the third loop feeling somewhat relieved that the course was mostly clear now of 25 and 50k runners who were, in all likelihood on the opposite side of the loop. But, I also noted, the course was also appearing to be largely devoid of even other 100k runners. While it made sense that one or two were likely far ahead of me, I knew that the layout of the course was set up in such a way that during the majority of the first 6 miles or so, runners cross paths a number of times, so it was not uncommon to run by someone who was easily 2 or 3 miles ahead, and likewise behind, for example. At a 14-16 minute/mile pace (which is what many of us seemed to have been reduced to moving), that meant that runners who were within about an hour of one another would cross paths 2-3 times early in the loop. But, I'd only seen about 8 faces coming or going, and none of them was the lady wearing the orange shirt. Could she really have gotten so far ahead in just a couple miles that we were no longer crossing paths-- especially after witnessing her struggle on the ice so much early into the race? Impossible.
Slowly making my way into the aid station at the 37 mile mark, the men in the pavilion responded by telling me it was entirely possible-- although they couldn't be sure, that I was, in fact, the first female 100k runner to come through the aid station for the third time. I left as confused as I'd come, albeit running, especially after noting another female runner wasn't more than a half mile behind me. I was winning? How in the hell had this happened? I mean, I'd intended to be annoyingly persistent, but with this luck I hadn't even needed to be annoying-- just persistent. Apparently the ice and mud had taken care of the annoying part, annoying the other female runners off the course and into their cars.
However, a bad feeling had started to creep in by now, and with every halting, ankle-deep muddy step, and glance at an icy hill that loomed before me, I knew I was losing time...and not time lost to other runners. Time was running out if I was going to get done by 9:30 (15.5 hours)-- the absolute latest I'd calculated I could feasibly finish and still make it to work without having to call in late, a terribly guilty thought that was now dancing in my head. It was unrealistic and unlikely that I could cover the back 50k of this race in 8 hours in these conditions, especially given my lack of distance training over the past few months. Plus, there was a sunset that was, I estimated, going to put me in a flashlight-illuminated darkness halfway through the last loop, further slowing my already slowing pace. I didn't know what to do, so I kept running when I could, walking when I couldn't. The miles mounted up until I was again at the top of the ledges, approaching what I feared might be my last aid station at 41.5 miles.
"I don't know", I told aid station captain and 7-time Burning River 100 finisher Michael Kazar, "I'm running out of time. I have to work tonight, and I don't know if I can finish the last loop before I need to go". His optimism, which I appreciated, far surpassed my own. And, the thought of calling in late or calling off sick had become like Edgar Allan Poe's 'Telltale Heart', thumping under the flood boards of my brain like a bad dream. I just couldn't do it. Where was my integrity if I was putting a few miles and a belt buckle before elderly residents who depended on me?
I determined if I could reach the 75k mark in 11:25, it was still possible, but that was the absolute cutoff. That would allow me 4 hours to finish the last loop and then 5 minutes to grab all my gear, pose for a picture with the belt buckle, and high tail it back to Warren. It just didn't happen. I realized with two miles to go that I wasn't going to make it, and when I rolled into the aid station with 11:51 on the clock, I was despondent.
"Yay!" yelled the aid station volunteers and children who had been waiting patiently in the pavilion, clapping and smiling. "It's the first female runner!" someone yelled, to which I immediately buried my face in my hands and just started crying.
"I don't have time to finish", I sobbed, "I have to work tonight and there just isn't enough time!"
With only a little over 3 hours until I needed to be done, 3:30 if I wanted to go to work without showering (and I doubted anyone wanted that), there was nothing left to be done. It had taken me over 4 hours to finish this loop, and the odds of negative splitting the final 25k was possible but incredibly unlikely. So, I did what had to be done: I dropped at 46.5 miles. I hurt, and not just physically. I was also disappointed, and not even at myself. I'd done the best I could do. It wasn't a matter of not making an official cutoff: I could have walked 20 minute miles the whole way and finished in less than 17:00. And, I hadn't wasted time. My baby food fueled nutrition plan had been the stuff of dreams, without even a blip of discomfort. And, I'd planned for everything but a requested night off work, falsely assuming 15 hours would be a walk in the park-- based on the ideal conditions we'd had the year before. The feeling? It was like finding out Santa Claus was, in fact, real, but had run out of presents two doors down. I needed about 30 more minutes. Thirty minutes.
I went home with Roy Heger and Shannon Fisher's kind words, and my sorrow drowned with meatballs. And a 50k medal in my pocket, rattling against my flashlight. And optimism. And 75k-- that's kilometers, 46.5 miles for those non-ultra running spectators still trying to make sense of all those miles and k's, to look back upon any time I really feel like a course can't get much worse. Trust me on this one. Burning River's Bog of Despair isn't even a candle to the blowtorch needed to melt ice sheets of Hinckley.