Saturday, May 21, 2016

Glacier Ridge Trail Ultramarathon 50K

After a successful 6 months of buildup and training, I made it to the starting line of the Glacier Ridge Trail Ultra 50K on May 14, 2016.

Did I really wake up early for this?
The GRT Ultra takes place mainly on the North Country Trail and Glacier Ridge Trails within Moraine State Park and the adjoining Jennings Environmental Center.  There are three available distances: 30K, 50K, and 50 miles.  The day begins with the 50 miler, and the 50K starts an hour later, and then the 30K an hour after that.  They had hard caps on the amount of participants in each race distance to prevent overcrowding the trail.  It was an interesting experience for me, as my last race had around 30,000 people and this one around 50 (for the 50K, slightly more did the 50 miler and the 30K was the largest race, I think).  I was able to stroll in to check in and get my timing chip and line up just a few minutes before the race started.  There were no corrals, no big blow up start line decor, and other than a quick course briefing by one of the Race Directors, no fanfare before the start.  It was oddly calming.  There was so much room to move around, and seemed like hardly anyone was there.  I even had to nudge my kids off the starting area as they were counting down "3....2....1..." to get us going!  I started my Garmin a little late because I was unsure where the start line actually was!  hahaha

It was a little chilly that morning, but I was fine in shorts, a t-shirt and thin arm sleeves.  The forecast predicted rain and the dark clouds were looming over, but nothing was coming out of the sky (yet).

I tried to start off in the middle to back of the pack because I could tell there were some of those hot stuff trail dudes that were itching to move up front and being this was my first attempt at both an ultra and a trail race period, my goal was to just go slow, keep feeling as good as I could as long as I could, and finish within the cutoff time.  That's another difference in trail running versus roads that I love... There's not a lot of hangup on your time or your pace or your splits or all that obsessive crap.  Sure, the people that are going for the actual win take more note of that, but for us mortals?  Just cover the distance in the time allowed and don't get (too) injured or die. Enjoy the scenery. Rock on.  You win.

I wore my hydration pack and carried my preferred drink mix.  I also had a nutrition plan that included Roctane, Clif Energy Food in Banana Beet Ginger (this stuff is frickin awesome!  highly recommend!), and real foods like fig bars and craisins.

There were a few training runs held on this course in the weeks prior to the race that I was unable to attend (hello work schedule conflict), but I can see how that really would have helped.  I was really unfamiliar with the course, but thankfully it was very well marked! I will not lie, though, when I say that this course was a lot tougher than I anticipated in places.  The weather had a LOT to do with that.

About a mile or two into the trail, the sky started opening up.  The rain went from drizzle to downpour and back and forth pretty much the rest of the day.  This made the wooden bridges and especially the rocks and large tree roots very slippery.  In places that were already softened from the spring thaw, water/mud was pooling.  I was running behind two friends who graciously took me under their wing for a few miles and guided me through the course, showing me where to plant my feet to keep from going full on in the muck and warning me of obstacles and huge climbs ahead.  I wish I remembered their names (I believe one was Mary), but they were a Godsend to me during the first 10 miles.  They not only assured that I didn't bite the dust (or muddy, wet trail, if you will), but that I didn't pull my famous "go out too fast" thing.  Their strategy was to walk most of the hills and run the downhills and flats.  This was perfectly fine with me, and I think these early slow miles are what helped me finish, even when I was alone and things got very tough.

At mile 4.7 is the first aid station, but the smallest one, only offering water and Gatorade.  I took some plain water and moved along with the small group I was travelling with.  The miles between this aid station and the next at 10 miles were harder than the last few.  There was a significant climb, slippery spots verrry close to the lake (you could seriously fall in if not careful), and a really rocky patch where a girl ahead of me slipped and cracked her face open.  The conditions were getting more slick as the miles went on and the rain continued.  People fell, dropped water bottles, etc.  Here's another thing about trail runs:  People give a shit about people.  If someone slips or drops something, people around them stop, pick them up, make sure everyone is ok and has their stuff together, and then the miles move on.  No one is worried about the 30 seconds that might mess up their precious BQ or podium win.  I absolutely loved feeling part of something wonderful during this experience!

At mile 10 was the second aid station, and the first station I was able to see my little crew consisting of my husband and kids!  I felt fantastic at this point, and after checking in at the tent as directed I met everyone with smiles and hugs.  I took a Salt stick (as I did at every aid station from here out), finished the Clif food I had been working on, and drank some Gatorade.  I also gave my husband my trash and he replenished my stash.  We also put my iPhone in a Ziploc bag because I forgot before the race and had just spent the last couple hours outside in the rain.  Oops.  I realized I kinda had to pee and noting the open porta potty at the aid station, I made a pit stop before continuing on.

Just out of the woods and to the check-in tent at the mile 10 aid station. It was a requirement to check in at each aid station even if you had your own crew or were just going to pass through.  This is how they kept track of everyone.

I was sort of hoping to stick with the group I ran with, but when I got out of the porta potty, I had lost most of the people, and the two friends I had been right behind looked like they were staying at the aid station a bit longer.  I wanted to keep moving, so off I went to unexplored territory on my own!

After this aid station, there is a fork in the race course.  The 50 miler and 50K both turn one way, and the other way is reserved for just the 50 milers to make their second loop into a different area.  The race director made it very clear that people get lost here every year and to please stop and read the signs if you have to.  So, I did.  Last thing I needed to have happen now that I was going at this alone was getting lost.. lol.  I made the correct turn and went on my way.

From here on, things got progressively wetter and muddier.  After a pretty decent hill climb, the trail was mudpit after mudpit and I started to encounter 50 milers (and eventually some fast 50Kers!) on their way back on this section.  Everyone was so great - lots of "looking good!" "keep it up!" "great time!" "stay strong" "great job!" etc was exchanged here.  <3  Then, I found myself on my own.  It was both exhilarating and scary to be on my own.  The control of the pace and whether to walk/run was my own responsibility and being a newbie, I could only hope I was doing it right.  I was really diligent about making sure that I wasn't getting lost because there are several trails that intersect in this area.  The scary part was because this area is known for being a habitat for an endangered species of rattlesnake and we were warned several times about them!!  I have encountered some snakes during my training runs, but only harmless little garter snakes.  I would surely shit my pants if I saw a rattlesnake, and I hoped that the chilly and wet weather conditions kept them off the trail.  I was looking, though!  Didn't see any!

The next aid station was within the Jennings Environmental Center at around 15.2 miles.  Since this was a kind of confusing interchange (you go through a gate and kind of off the trail to the aid station and then back on in a different direction), they had people there to guide you.  My guide ran with me, clapping the whole way as he briefed me on where the potty was, what they had at the aid station, where the race course led from here, as well as asking me how I was feeling and if I needed anything.  Another gentleman at the aid station quipped "dear, you do not look nearly dirty enough!" to which I replied, "yeah, I'm sure that will catch up with me on the way back"... little did I know then how correct that was...  The volunteers here were just fantastic!!  I had my little family crew waiting for me.  I was feeling wonderful (like, I couldn't believe I'd just covered over 15 miles wonderful), so I didn't stay as long at this station as the last.  Just a salt stick, some Gatorade and some hugs and high fives with the kids and I was back to it.  People kept telling me how strong I looked and how I just had the biggest smile on my face.
Approaching the Jennings aid station and high-fiving Tori and Vince.

Garrett's turn.  Look at that huge smile on my face.  I swear I smiled all day, aside from those couple of hard, lonely miles.
The GRT race course is in a caddywompus lollipop shape - you go out, make a strange looking loop (that's the Jennings/rattlesnake territory), and then find your way back.  After the Jennings aid station, you make the last bit of the lollipop and then pretty much go back the way you came out.  Sounds easy peasy enough, but here's what I didn't account for until it hit me:  How awful trail conditions would be after a few hundred runners stomped on the already soggy ground on the way out.  The return trip became more and more difficult as time went on.  The first time I ran through this area it wasn't too bad, and it was relatively easy to find ways around huge pits of mud... either by running on the edge of the trail, hopping on rocks or branches, etc.  Not so much on the way back.  Everything was so slippery.  Between the fancy footwork and/or being literally stuck in mud and general fatigue, I was starting to feel the miles as I came into the next aid station at approximately 21.3 miles.  My hip flexor and knee were also feeling tweaked due to all the slipping and sliding and climbing.

Coming into the aid station at 21.3 miles.  You can see the miles wearing on me at this point.  See the guy in red behind me?  That was the winner of the 50 MILE race.  Holy crap.

This was the same aid station as the one at 10 miles (remember, the course is going back exactly the way it came out now).  My family was there again and could tell I was not as fresh and chipper as earlier.  I took another Salt Stick, and also some ibuprofen and again traded off my trash for some new fuel, this time choosing fig bars and craisins.  I also had my husband crack me open a coke (real stuff, not diet) and I drank about half of it before feeling like I wanted to vomit.  One of the race director/aid station guys came over and asked if I'd been eating enough.  Being a total noob at this stuff I said "I don't know".  He walked me over to the table and I got some peanut M&Ms.  Then he asked how many times I'd refilled my hydration pack to which I gave him a dumb look, I'm sure, and said "uh, none, but I had it filled up when I started".  He gave a wide eyed look, felt how much my pack weighed, turned to my husband and said "she's not drinking enough, she's dehydrated".  Then he said he wouldn't feel right letting me leave the aid station until I drank more and they refilled my hydration bladder.  So, I did.  Then, finally, I was on my way again.  This would be the last time I'd see my family until the finish since crews weren't allowed at that first (and then last) aid station.

Of course immediately after this aid station started a big climb and then that really rocky spot I remembered from before.  I kind of felt a little better after refueling a bit at the aid station, but this spot of the course really zapped me.  What would follow in the next few miles was just a really bad time.  The course was so slippery and muddy and after trudging up hills you really long for the sweet fly down the other side, but because it was so slippery I couldn't fly down the hills like I wanted to.  Every time I'd really pick up the speed, I'd feel like I was going to faceplant.  There was no traction, even in my Cascadias, and a lot of times I'd "ice skate" for a bit.  It was scary territory for me - I certainly didn't want to get injured - so I started to walk a lot more than I'd like.  This really spiraled negative thinking and anger in me and admittedly, I walked a lot of miles 23-25+.  I guess it didn't help that I was all alone (seriously, I hadn't seen a single runner since the last aid station) and in the pouring rain.  At one point, when I about fell face first into a pit of mud I started crying and yelling "I just want to run!!".  I started talking to myself and the trees saying crap like "yeah, Nichole, real fucking great idea!  just run in the woods in the rain!  Yeah, the mud will be sooooo fun! fuck!"... etc.  Yeah, maybe I was a little delirious..haha.  I'd hit walls in other races before, but this was different.  I don't even know how to explain it.  This was definitely the worst section of the race for me, though, both in performance, mentality, and spirits.  In the distance, I saw a guy ahead of me and he was sliding around as well.  I saw him get a couple of branches and fashion himself some trekking poles to help with the conditions.  Smart!  If I thought I could do that I would have!

Then something happened.  I have no idea how to even approach this, but around the marathon distance point it was like the "wall" went away.  Any little ache or niggle I had was gone and I started feel good again.  WTH?  I picked up the pace a little when I could and was running again.  I stopped caring about dodging the mud pits and slop and instead, just ran right through the middle of those bitches.  And laughed!  I passed the guy that was ahead of me eventually, and I sympathized with him over all that sliding around in the miles before.  I was happy to be feeling better.  I was leaping over rocks, my posture was back to normal, not slumped, and it was like a supercharged second wind.  I've never experienced this in any race I've ever done - EVER.  I wish I knew what caused this!  Right before the trail let out to the road crossing and the final aid station, a volunteer along the trail said "just keep smiling, you're doing good" and that gave me a boost too.

The last aid station, the little fluids only one, brought on my last stop of the race.  There were only two people at the aid station.  The lady said a lot of people had been complaining to them about the mud.  I guess I don't understand complaining to a volunteer about weather conditions, but ok.  I just laughed and said "well, there's nothing you can do about it!".  The guy there wanted to take my picture, so I posed real quick for one.  I hope that one gets published somewhere because so far of the photographers that took pics along the course I have not found one that got a pic of me!  It was like I was never there!  So weird!  Maybe I looked really bad!  haha I finished my cup of water and said "well, I guess I gotta finish now".  The photographer said "you only have around 4.7 miles to go - you can do it".  I crossed the road and got back onto the trail for the last leg of this run.

Edit 06-07-16: I found it!  See, I was there!!
Me, hanging out by a trashbag at a road intersection of a trail with a cup of water.  Still smiling just past the marathon distance!
Photo courtesy of Bill G. @

I was still feeling great and thankfully the feeling stuck the rest of the way.  I kept plowing through the mud pits.  I did pass a few other guys on this leg - I believe they were 50 milers - and as was the norm earlier in the race when you encountered someone else, encouragement was exchanged, which at this point of a long ass day was great.  In the last couple of miles the trail widens a bit and was less muddy, which was such a treat.  Then, before I knew it, I came to the end of the trail and turned onto the gravelly bike trail (think kind of North Shore trail-ish) that lead to the finish.  Just off the trail was a 30Ker walking with her family.  We cheered each other on, and I started picking up the pace as much as I could now that I was out of the mud and the rocks and the roots and all that.  As I rounded the turn off the bike path and onto the parking lot area that was the finishing chute of sorts, I could see my kids waiting for me. Well, two of them.  Vincent had enough of being outdoors and was in the car playing games.. lol.  Victoria and Garrett were there and they said they wanted to run with me to the finish line!  This made me smile even bigger than before, and my oldest and youngest ran their mom into her first ultramarathon finish.

Running with Victoria and Garrett leading me into the finish.

Aside from feeling very wet and chilled from stopping, I felt really good after finishing! Certainly no worse than either marathon I ran, probably better.  I was given my medal (huge heavy awesome thing), and the Race Director shook my hand and talked to me about the race and wanted to take pics of me and me with my family.  Here's something else different about small trail races as opposed to road shows.  When do you ever get that kind of personal treatment from a race director?  She even thanked ME for participating in the race.  What?  No, thank YOU for allowing me to do something freaking incredible!

My favorite race medal yet!

Inside the pavilion they had a cracking fire to warm up by, and lots of delicious food.  They also had hot tea and coffee - much appreciated on this type of day!

Just a little mud.
My recovery from this race has been unbelievable.  I'd compare it to my last marathon or even better.  I felt like I could definitely run just a couple of days later and for the last couple of days I've felt back to "normal" just like any other day in the life.  Amazing!  Honestly, the worst thing has been post race blues from going from training for something really epic to having to take a break and also not have another race registered for.  No worries, I'm starting a big lifting plan for the next few weeks while I gradually build back my running and then... we'll see what happens in the fall.  I'm already eyeballing 2017 races too (since trail runs are so small, they tend to fill quickly so you have to register way early).

Something I haven't done (well too much) with this race is go over all the things I "did wrong".  I finished an ultra, few people do that crazy stuff, who cares about the details, really.  Yeah, I really need to get stronger on more technical trails so it isn't such a shock to the system.  Yeah, if I was really concerned about finishing faster I would have kept better track of the time I spent at aid stations - after looking at my Garmin stats I spent around 25 minutes of time at aid stations!  But sheesh, I was spending time with my kids and just having fun.  I'm not going to beat myself up over that at all!  I finished an ultra!!

I was just in awe and amazed by the whole experience.  First of all - I finished an Ultramarathon! I know I keep saying that - I think I'm still trying to process that myself!  WTH has gotten into me?  And trails??  Who am I?  Well, I can say this:  Finishing this race really trumps anything I've done before.  In fact, I've said this several times recently, but I truly doubt I'll ever run a road race again.  Maybe as a training run or as something just to do, but to set a marathon or a half or anything else as a goal and train for that?  No thanks.  The gratification just isn't there.  I will more than likely head to MCM at some point (not this year - I'm looking forward to more long trail runs), but I think I've found my "thing".  What can I say - I love really going the distance and I like a challenge and I love being in the woods!

Post race with the family.

So, I ran a trail ultramarathon.

Ok, so I guess before I get into the nuts and bolts of this I should add some backstory.

After MCM, as you know, I felt simply amazing.  My recovery was next to nothing and I was ready to tackle something else.  My thoughts turned to what I wanted to do in 2016.  Honestly the thought of trying to train for the Pittsburgh marathon was not motivating at all.  I just didn't want to deal with it, plus I have psychological issues with that race weekend.  I also really wanted to do something totally different this year.  Truth be told, running had gotten boring for me.. doing the same old thing it seemed, season after season.  I was also getting stressed with the whole aspect of "needing" to get faster and faster all the time or else it was a "fail".  So, I figured since my last marathon went so well and I felt so damn good then ffs I should just do something daring and run an ultramarathon.  I set my sights on the J.C. Stone 50K in March.  In my mind (then), it was perfect because I could start training early, get a big race out of the way early and then have a nice block of "off time" before starting to train for MCM again in the summer.  The week of Thanksgiving 2015 (a mere month after MCM) I started training.

Another new thing for me this year is paying my hard earned money for a training plan/coaching.  This was pretty awesome (pats self on back) and I loved every bit of my plan because it was so varied.  I did long runs and easy runs, of course, but I also did 1 or 2 workouts a week consisting of hill repeats, tempo runs, tempo interval runs, 800s, fartleks, timed heart rate runs, etc.  Later I would come to be very thankful for the hill workouts, especially.  I also (and go ahead and crucify me, I don't care) run/walked every long run.  I did 20:1 intervals.  Anyway, my training went great!  Most importantly I stayed injury-free!  I blame this on being made aware (well aware) that "canned plans" out of books and on the internet are pretty much crap in the sense that they aren't meant to be followed to the letter by every single person that reads it.  They can be fine guidelines, yes, but when you have a plan that's yours and someone to guide you through it things can (and will) change - and that's fine!  I moved workouts around, changed some pacing, even skipped (gasp) a long run!  And I'm alive to tell the tale!  OMG!  Back to the story - a couple of weeks before JC Stone, I had some turmoil happen in the personal life.  In the midst of all this, I had a heart to heart and a realization that I really didn't want my first ultra to be North Park lake loops.  Now, I'm not bashing that race at all - I still plan on doing it one of these years - but I'm saying for me, myself, and I, that I would do a great disservice to myself if I ran a route that I've run a million times over and am honestly very sick of and said "yep, that's my ultra!"... particularly if it turned into a one-and-done thing.  And so, after much debate and research, I registered for what would be the most amazing race ever, hoping that I could train hard enough to make the cut off time.

My training changed from progression of speedwork to preserving my base (I was back to hovering around the 50 mpw mark) and staying injury free, while working on elevation gain (here's where those hill workouts came in handy).  Fun fact:  I've achieved more elevation gain in the last 2 months than I have in all the years I've been running combined.  No joke.  The North Shore "trail" is a pancake.  Start at Millvale and go to the jail and back (12 miles) and you'll have gained.... 14 feet.  The south side isn't much better but I think you can get 30 there.  North Park lake loop? A whopping 138 feet per loop.  Hardly hilly at all.  I thought Pittsburgh was hilly?  Anyway - Marine Corps Marathon: 562 feet.  JASR 30K? 467 feet.  Still not hilly compared to a race that has about 4000 feet of elevation gain.  So, I had some work to do.  First, I had to get comfortable on trails.  The North shore and other rail trails don't count as real honest to shit trails and I'd only been on real piddly other ones before.  But now I can tell you I've hit up Boyce, North park, Rachel, etc and am always thirsty for anything new and different.  The harder the better, really.  Gimme dem rocks and roots and water! Second, I had to work on that climb.  Trails are where the big hills are and I got to them every chance I could.   My long runs also got, well... longer.  During marathon training I'd get my 20 milers done in 3 hours-ish or less.  This training cycle had me doing long runs of 3 1/2, 4, all the way up to 5 hours!  I also had to integrate hiking workouts (not just slow moseys) into my training to get more time on my feet on more rugged terrain and yes, climbing more hills.

Something else I had to do, and I have to say this really helped me more than you can imagine is cutting off running social media (except Strava).  I didn't use my Garmin for every single workout and only kept a log on my computer.  I also didn't feel the need to mention every strength workout or core training.  No more yammering about my runs everywhere to everyone and especially no DailyMile.  I find DailyMile to be very irritating - kind of akin to being the Facebook of running.  It just really got on my damn nerves so that had to go.  Being free from having to report to people and feel pressured into keep up with everyone really took the stress off my training.  If I had to take a day or two off, I didn't have to qualify it or worry about what everyone thought.  If I was running slower, I didn't feel, again, like I had to qualify it or be ashamed of it, etc.  I also broke my FOMO streak.  There are people out there that really love to run all the races and do all the things.  I think that's great and I totally get it and at times I'd like to as well.  But I really can't afford to pay for race registrations out the wazoo.  I'd rather spend money on other things.  And my work schedule is really limiting to not just my training, but racing.  I work Tuesday through Saturday - night shift.  When most people are getting up and out to do their early running, I've only been home for a couple of hours.  It's tough, but I make it work.  I'm hoping to have a better schedule soon, but time will tell.  Bottom line:  I need to worry about me, not what every other person in the local running cliques are doing.

My "extended" training cycle went great.  Funny thing about trails - they really are better for you than roads.  After road 20+ milers I'd feel it, no matter how "easy" I took them.  5 hours on trail?  I felt tired, yeah, but I was totally fine.  My recovery from all my trail runs was miraculous.  And when I'd get back on the road for an easy run or speedwork in the days after?  That came so easily.  I absolutely loved the trails for how they made me feel.  I can honestly tell you that I am a trail convert.  Roads just don't hold the same thrill or sense of accomplishment.  In fact, I do not have the desire to train for a road race any time in the near future.

So, the long runs came and went and taper seemed to fly by.  And there I was - 24 weeks of training, nearly 1000 miles logged.  I did 17 long runs over the half marathon distance, 12 of those over 16 miles.  I ran the longest runs of my life in time, if not yet distance (my longest run was 24.5 miles).  Most importantly I came into this race INJURY FREE.  It's now over one year since my last injury.  There has to be something to a "real" training plan, "real" trails, and hell, just me finally being "real" with myself.

Speaking of being real, I think I'm going to be real about the fact that my race recap is going to be a separate post.