Who better to recap the HUFF 50K than my good friend and fellow Perfect Stranger, Christ, who ran the entire thing. Read on, folks. This is good.
Will this be an ultra awesome experience? Or will this experience prove that I am ultra stupid?? Or perhaps I am just certifiably insane???- All questions that have run through my mind multiple times since last September when I decided to sign up for The Huff 50K Ultra Marathon. I am always up for a new adventure and a new challenge. And this seemed like as good of an idea as any (because 26.2 wasn’t far enough? ? I never said everything I did made sense.), it was only 5 more miles than the full marathons I have become accustomed to running, and, on top of it, I convinced my friend Meggie to run it with me. Strength in numbers. So what if the race was in December in Northern Indiana, how bad could it really be, right??
A few weeks after Meggie and I signed up for this adventure, she unfortunately became injured. As the weeks went by, it seemed more than likely that she would not be able to run the whole thing with me. But being the amazing friend and running buddy that she is, she was determined not to leave me to tackle this beast alone. Thankfully, she was able to recruit 2 other Perfect Strangers (Karen and Bri) to run the 50K as a relay with her. (Read her blog about The Huff at www.seemeggierun.com )
An Ultra Marathon, for those unfamiliar with the term, entails running any distance longer than a traditional marathon (26.2 miles or 42 kilometers). Most of these races take place on nontraditional surfaces, such as trails or dirt roads. (Thank you Bri for including this definition in her blog about The Huff. Read her experience here: www.nursewithapurseblog.com). Our particular Ultra was to be held at Chain O’ Lakes State Park in Albion, Indiana.
According to The Huff website, it seemed as if the 3 person relay teams and the 50K individual participants would run the same 10+ mile loop, relay participants doing one loop each, while the 50K participants would run the loop 3x. This would enable me to have a Perfect Strangers running buddy the entire race. Brilliant!! That couldn’t have worked out better. I was excited. Yes, this would be the longest race I’ve ever done, yes it was on a trail and I have never done a trail race (except for the Warrior Dash, which in comparison to this was a day at Disneyland), yes it was going to be cold, but I would have my girls. That was all I needed. All was right with the world… or so I thought.
A few weeks before the race, we received an email that clearly stated the course this year would be different. The relay teams would be running on a completely different 10+ mile loop, and the 50k participants would have their own 15+ mile loop to run 2x. Upon realizing that I no longer could rely on my Perfect Strangers support team while tackling the 50k, I became deflated. But it was too late to turn back. Once I set my mind on something, I am determined to see it through. The Huff Ultra was going to be mine. Just knowing that my girls would be there at the same race, even if we couldn’t run together, was comforting.
The adventure officially started on Friday December 16 at 4pm when Meggie and Karen picked me up. We were finally on our way. Next stop: pick up Bri in Muncie, then head North to pick up our packets at the race site, find something decent for dinner, and hit the sack for some much needed pre-race rest.
The car ride was a blast. We laughed about everything under the sun. We were like a traveling comedy show. I’m literally shocked we haven’t been asked to do a reality TV series, The Real Perfect Strangers, yet. I couldn’t have been more thankful to have been sitting in that car with those three women who voluntarily decided to tackle this race with me. They didn’t have to do it, I was aware of that, but I was so grateful that they decided to. I am so lucky to have such amazing friends.
For those not privileged to have been on that car ride with us, here are is an insight into some of our discussions: Reindeer are real. Kenny G’s Sleigh Ride can sound oddly creepy when driving through the Indiana countryside in the dark. When it is dark outside, you need to turn your car lights on.
Pulling up to packet pickup, we were already aware that this would be a different sort of race experience from start to finish, but it quickly became more apparent than ever how different it really would be. This “lodge” of sorts was out in BFE. It had been miles since we had seen any sign of civilization. This was the epitome of ‘over the river and through the woods’. Literally drove through a river to reach this place. Thank goodness for our iPhones and the GPS app, or we would have never known to turn “the way of left” to find this place.
Christi picking up her packet
We stuck out like sore thumbs at the “expo” (as we referred to it, in very much a joking manner). The “expo” consisted of one 8’ folding table where you could pick up your race number and t-shirt. The rest of the room was filled with bearded Ultra runners enjoying their pre-race pasta dinners.
We laughed, took a few photos of the mounted deer on the wall in the “expo” hall and continued on our way. After a beer and some food at the local Applebee’s, we settled in for our ‘long winter’s nap’ at the Best Western, Kendallville.
My alarm went off at 5:20 am. I have a very particular routine on race day mornings. I shower (yes, I shower and dry my hair every time before going out and running a race, whether it’s a 5k or a bazillion miles. I never said everything I did made sense.) . I tiptoed around the dark hotel room trying to make the least amount of noise as possible, as the other ladies were still sleeping. Somehow, though, I was the loudest person on the planet that morning, and I really appreciate the ladies for not complaining that I woke them up before necessary.
We got dressed in our multiple layers and ate some breakfast in the hotel lobby. There were several other runners staying in our hotel. They were easy to identify. Beards, trail shoes, Camelbak’s, long hair (one man we saw had hair that would rival mine in a long-hair contest), and a sparkle in their eyes, excited for what was about to commence. We loaded up the car and headed out with our dear friend, Kenny G, playing Sleigh Ride, right on cue as we drove away from the Best Western.
A few weeks prior to The Huff, I was searching Twitter and Facebook, trying to find someone else who was running the 50k individual, as I was. I needed advice. I needed encouragement from someone who had done this before. At some point, I stumbled upon Jon on Twitter who was also doing The Huff. It was going to be his 2nd Ultra. We decided to run the race together. The company on the long, muddy route proved to be a necessity in order to keep my sanity and from completely losing it and breaking down in the middle of a knee-deep mud pit.
Christi & Jon
(The night before, on the car ride to the, “expo,” Meggie, Karen and Bri decided to change their relay registration to the 1 loop “fun run” so they could run together. That was the best decision they made. They had a great time running the 10+ miles together. I am extremely glad they had fun in the mud, and I am a bit jealous that they even had a dance party in the middle of a mud puddle halfway through the race. They also trotted along for a ways with Kenny G, blaring from Meggie’s cell phone. Those are my girls. Proud of them for tackling the mud, water and cold with style and a certain “badassness” that no one I know can rival. I mean, I am pretty shocked that all of the Perfect Strangers haven’t been made into action figures yet. )
I was nervous standing there waiting to start. The girls hugged me, and we started out. 50k individuals to the right, relay and one loop participants, straight ahead. The first few miles went quickly. It was crowded because the runners hadn’t quite spread out yet. During mile 2 was the first glimpse of standing water. I could see runners trying to delicately maneuver over and around this water in hopes of keeping their shoes dry. 31 miles is quite a ways to run in wet shoes, so it made sense to stay dry, right? One guy came barreling up from behind me yelling “It’s an Ultra! Just go for it!” And he jumped right in the water and took off down the trail. The trails became pretty muddy after that. It seemed doable though. “It’s a trail run, of course there is going to be dirt, some mud and maybe a bit of water,” I told myself. “I’m tough, I can handle this.” So, on we went.
By mile 5 the mud had gotten worse. To avoid the really bad mud pits, runners were making alternative trails through the brush and trees. By mile 7 I looked down and blood was caked on my ankles. I was scratched from all the thorns on these alternative routes around the mud.
Shortly after this, was the first real water test. I stood there for a split second looking at it. Who put a lake in the middle of the trail?? I wondered if it was worth it to try and find a way around, but then a Robert Frost quote popped in my mind. “The only way around is through.” I said “I’m not F-ing around!” and marched right into the water, thigh deep. This race just got real.
Frozen, with, ice blocks as feet, we continued forward. And there it was. Like a mirage in the desert, an aid station. Most road races have aid stations with water and/or Gatorade, etc. about every 1.5-2 miles. We had been out on the trails for what seemed like half my lifetime before spotting the first aid station. The volunteers had set up a buffet feast of bananas, doughnuts, pretzels, potato chips, water, hot cocoa and FIG NEWTONS. I had never, ever been so excited about a Fig Newton before. It was like a little piece of heaven out in the swamp we were trudging through. The volunteers at each aid station were very kind and did a fantastic job of stocking the snacks, and helping each and every runner that came through.
As we came closer to the start/finish (halfway point before embarking on the loop for the 2nd time), I looked up and thought I was imagining things. Is that Meghan? It couldn’t be. Really? Is it? She came all this way to support us running today?? Unbelievable! It is her! We embraced. She was all smiles, I needed that surprise and warm hug to give me the confidence to keep on going. I hugged her at least 7 times. I filled her in quickly on how the first half was. “Tough,” I said. Brutal.” She commented on my bloody ankles and my soaked and muddy shoes. I wanted to talk longer. I asked for an update on the girls running the 10mi loop. They had finished not too long before I got there, but were at the car changing. She told me to keep going, that they all would hopefully see me at some point again during the race. We made it to the halfway point in 3 hours and 10 minutes. Pretty close to being on my goal pace. Could we break 6 hours?? The thought danced in my head and played with my mind. If the 2nd lap treated us about the same, I was certain we could.
Just as we were setting out on the trail for the 2nd half, I heard the other girls screaming and running down the hill. They asked me how I was, I yelled back my response: “Cold!” “Wet!” “I’m bleeding!” But I was halfway done. Almost an Ultra Marathoner. Nothing was going to stop me now. Though little did I know 3-4 miles later I seriously was about to consider throwing in the towel.
Immediately we could tell that the trail was going to be worse the second time around. We didn’t remember the 6” of mud from the very beginning. We didn’t recall slipping and sliding and becoming stuck in muck and water this soon into the race. The trail had gotten worse. And by worse, I mean the most horrible conditions ever had been amplified 10x. By worse, I mean the mud had become so debilitating, I was certain we wouldn’t finish by dark, which was the race cut off time. By worse, I mean we were going some of those miles at a 20 minute pace.
Now, I am not the fastest runner ever, but going almost 2.5x slower than my normal marathon pace was frustrating to say the least. Between miles 16 and 22, I no longer felt like we were in a race. It was a survival game. A game that I was certain I was about to lose or forfeit. If we weren’t going to finish by dark, why keep going? I cried. Hot tears rolled down my face. I may have been the only one standing out in the woods at this Ultra Marathon crying into a mud pit. What if I wasn’t as tough as I thought? I said out loud “I want to quit”, but immediately followed that statement by saying “I am not a quitter.” A tough looking man came plodding along past us, and he said, “Your only goals at this point are to not lose your shoes in the mud and to keep upright. Good luck!” He continued on and so did we.
A few LONG miles later, we crossed a road where some volunteers were standing. They looked at me, and I am sure they could see the agony written all over my face. They said that the worst was behind us. They said that they heard the last half of the 2nd loop wasn’t as bad. I didn’t know whether to believe them or cry again. But they were telling the truth. We finally made it to some areas where we could run again. We were RUNNING! I couldn’t believe it. Was the worst really behind us? We were running. And off in the distance I heard screaming echoing across the lake. I turned to Jon and I said, “I bet you anything that screaming you keep hearing is my friends.” It was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. I knew they were there, and I knew I would see them sooner or later.
A few miles later, my hypothesis was proven correct. My friends were yelling, I could hear Meghan’s boyfriend, Jake, yelling my name at least a half mile before I saw them. And then, as we came out of the trees, at mile 29 to cross another road, there they were. Jamming to some old school rap, dancing in the street and jumping up and down screaming for me. I ran straight over to them for the best group hug EVER. They asked how I was. I didn’t even know how to answer, though I tried to explain in a very few words how unbelievably fierce the conditions out there were. I had 2 miles left. They would be at the finish. Time to make The Huff mine.
As we neared the finish line, there they were again, Meghan, Bri, Meggie, Karen and Jake, standing on a wooden fence, cheering for all the runners as they passed by. They ran over to the finish line and started taking photos as I neared the timing mats. As soon as I crossed the line, I was enveloped in their hugs. I cried. I did it. What a great feeling. The mud and muck and water and coldness were instantly a distant memory. I did what I set out to do.
They helped me out of my muddy shoes, I changed quickly into dry clothing, and we were off, back towards civilization, leaving the mud behind. My gold medal (Which also doubled as a belt buckle…do you really think I would have gone through all of that for a regular race medal??) hung around my neck the whole way home. I told the story as best I could to the girls as we drove, but there really are no words to describe the insanity of the mud and water or the range of emotions that I felt that day. Even as I sit here, 5 pages into this, I feel like I haven’t even come close to giving this experience justice.
I do now understand why Ultra Marathoners have the stereotype of having a few screws loose. I get it.
Was I ultra stupid for doing this? No. It was a challenge. It made me stronger.
Was it an ultra awesome experience?? Yes. I bonded with my girls and I learned a lot about myself. I met a new friend and became a part of an elite community.
Am I certifiably insane??? The verdict is still out. Because I am already planning on when I will run my next Ultra Marathon.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”- Robert Frost