Almost two weeks have past since I ran TNFEC 50 miler in DC (actually in Virginia, but close enough). It was a day I won’t soon forget for a large number of reasons.
Going into this race, I knew it had the potential to be much hotter than the conditions I had trained in. That’s pretty easy to figure out given the race was held in the DC area in the early part of spring, where temperatures and humidity have been known to begin rising much more quickly than in the Boston area. Training through an intense New England winter, my toughness was not in question, but my acclimatization to heat certainly was. To try and combat this, I did quite a few “heat suit” runs in multiple layers, a running coat, a hat, tights…
Unfortunately, I was quite simply not prepared for the race day conditions. Forecasted temperatures for the start of the race were mid-70s with high levels of humidity, rising into the low 90s as the day progressed. Standing at the start line, I was absolutely sure the forecast was right; it was going to be a very hot day.
Strangely enough, standing there in the half-darkness with Joel, it still hadn’t fully occurred to me that I was about to run 50 miles. Maybe because I had never done it before my mind quite simply couldn’t grasp the task I was about to undertake. Joel made some similar remarks about how he was feeling and we traded some giddy banter about the strangeness of it all. Before long, the first wave of runners had departed. As we were in the second wave, 1 minute later, we too were off.
My goal for the race was to take the first 14-15 miles of the race very easy. I knew I’d be fighting adrenaline and didn’t want to ruin my day early. Especially in the heat, I took great caution to run slowly, to drink often and to stay in touch with nutrition and hydration from the get go. The schedule was simple: a Gu every 30 minutes. Every 90 minutes, a cliff bar. Every hour, 2 SCaps. Anytime the thought of drinking occurred to me, I drank heartily. Every time I ate, I drank heartily.
The first part of the course has a lollipop out-and-back. I didn’t like this section at all as it felt counter-intuitive, like tack on mileage to an already arbitrary distance. Once we got through the lollipop, though, and settled into some nice single-track, my mind started to settle. Unfortunately, as we rolled alongside a golf course, the single track was so tight, passing wasn’t going to happen very easily. I wasn’t running fast by any means, but I did catch up to some slower runners in front of me. My flow was interrupted by their slower cadence and constant chatter, so when I saw a slight opportunity, I made a break off the trail to get around them. I accomplished my goal, for sure, but in doing so, I ran into some stinging nettles. Ouch!! “Stay on the trail” I told myself.
When we reach the first of the short but very steep climbs on this course, I walked, despite feeling strong enough to run. I was being extra cautious. My climbing legs felt great through, and it felt great overall to be climbing. I kept my pace measured on the downhills and my mind focused on staying upright.
I didn’t stop at the first aid-station as I still had plenty of water in my camelbak and plenty of nutrition as well. The trail was quite hard to find as I ran past the Frasier aid-station, as it had become overgrown since I’d run that section earlier in the year with Joel. Still, my mind was in a good place, my hydration, nutrition, body temperature and effort were all under control.
Soon enough I jogged down a steep decline and onto the road into Great Falls Park. Waiting for me at Great Falls was my sister, who had taken great efforts to get to the park early enough to great me there and had prepared a number of helpful items to keep me fed and hydrated. It was great to see her, and I was feeling really good. She handed me a burrito, gave me some helpful words of encouragement and I headed over to my drop bag.
Thanks to Joel’s good thinking, I copied him and prepared separate plastic baggies for each aid station stop at Great Falls. This made the first exchange rather easy. I emptied my trash, dumped the GU and Clif bars into my pack, dropped some nuun tablets into its bladder and headed to the actual aid station to get a fill of water.
I munched on the burrito Jen had given me and started up the fire road into the Great Falls loop that would be my undoing on this day. I had done this loop twice with Joel during our course recon run earlier in the year. I felt very confident I knew it well enough to know when to push and when not to. Despite feeling strong enough to run, I walked as soon as the incline turned up, as many of the runners nearby me did. As I turned from the fire road into the woods, I started to run, feeling quite good. I made my way through a serious of ups and downs, none too high, but certainly steep enough. Passing back towards the fire road, I saw Joel, who looked as if he was feeling quite good too. This gave me a boost as I headed towards the next aid station. Unfortunately, things soon started taking a turn for the worse.
I started to feel some stomach pains. I have trained with burritos and found them to be the most agreeable thing to my stomach while I’m running. Not so on this day I guess. The heat was started to ratchet up, and I had been drinking a LOT of water as well, so these were surely contributing factors. Regardless, my stomach was not well.
As I passed through the next aid station and onto swamp trail, I made a special note to stay upright, as I had fallen in this technical section twice in my previous run here. It’s made up of a lot of roots and rocks and if you don’t pay attention, they can jump up and bite you. I did manage to stay upright the first time through this section, but my stomach was not getting better. Back on the fire road, I took a detour to use the bathrooms that were near the turn. Once I emerged from the bathrooms, I had a bit of an exchange with a course official who thought I was trying to cut a loop. In the end, after he conferred with another official, they agreed the mark on my bib indicating that I had already made a stop at the second aid station was enough, but the situation frustrated me. I had already lost enough time having to stop and this just send my mental state into the negative.
I then hit the iconic section of this course, a ¾ mile section along the exposed cliffs of the river bank. The sun took its toll on me during this section and the relentlessly bad footing kept me from finding a rhythm. Still, I pushed along knowing I’d soon be back at the great falls aid station where I would see not only my sister, but hopefully my wife and son and Joel’s wife and their son.
When I popped back out at the aid station, I saw no one, however, which was strange because I knew my sister (at least) was there. I went to my drop bag and swapped everything out, filled my camelpak with water and peered around the crowds. Turns out they thought I’d be coming from the same direction I had previously come, so they were waiting up the trail a ways. I spotted Joel’s wife and waved for them to come over. I spend some time high-fiving my son and letting everyone know how darn hot it was before departing.
This second loop of great falls park was really awful for me. The day had gotten quite hot at this point, and it was starting to take a toll. I didn’t have much energy, and instead of simply deciding to walk to conserve energy, I relished the chance to walk, if not HAD to walk due to lack of energy.
The loop was unremarkable, apart from my seeing Joel (closing ground on me), taking a spill on swamp trail and deciding that I was no longer able to run this race as I ran along Great Falls approaching the aid station. The heat had become unbearable, and I was losing the battle of core temperature.
As I pulled into the aid station, I immediately sat down and told my wife and sister that I wasn’t able to continue. My wife said that I should keep pushing on, and my sister shouted at me: “You’re a Hodge. Hodge’s finish. You’re finishing this thing.” That plus my son walking over with ice and putting in on the back of my head (he is nearly 2) really sealed it. All that my family endured during my training and to be out here with me today, I owed it to them, to my friends, to Joel still out on the course and to myself to see it through. After a long sit with ice on my neck and a box of coconut water (something I will use again, really good on this day) I got myself together and packed up to go back out for the final loop. This time, I filled my bladder with ice, and put a bunch of ice down my shirt and (ahem) in my shorts.
It was amazing what the a little bit of coldness did for me. It wasn’t apparent at first. I started the loop much as I had the previous one, walking, feeling no energy and with a stomach that was not agreeing with anything I tried to put in it. I was completely off my nutrition schedule, but I did increase the amount of SCaps I was taking and I think the coconut milk really helped as well.
When I saw Joel, he was not too far behind, maybe 15-20 minutes. He told me to take it slow, that he’d catch up and we’d take it in the rest of the way together. When Todd, Joel and I ran the Key Bank Vermont City Marathon last year, I had a similar implosion (though more physical, with leg issues). Joel stopped his race late (mile 18) while very close to hitting his goal time to walk me in. I was very grateful, but also felt awful. I was determined not to let this happen again, even if it meant hiding in the bushes as he passed.
Soon after that, however, the ice started to do its work. I started to cool down. I started to run. I started feeling better, taking in calories. I stopped at the next aid station and had them dump cold water over my head (they were out of ice). I ate two unboiled (no idea why they didn’t boil them, but I assume oversight) with salt and starting taking in clif shot blocs which were available at the aid station. This all helped. I ran swamp trail without falling and more quickly that I had the previous 2 times this day. I made it through the Great Falls “cliff” section mostly running. When I got to the aid station, I was extraordinarily hot, but not feeling too badly. All I needed was some ice to cool me down.
Oh no!!! No more ice!! I’m amazingly disappointed that they ran out of ice. It was an incredibly hot day. Races have been known to be cancelled for this sort of thing… but not an ultra. They ran out of ice and I was going to have to deal with it. I drank some more coconut milk, had a couple pieces of fruit, restocked my pack for the trip back to the finish and set out to finish this thing.
Jen paced me for the next couple of miles. It was nice to run with her and took my mind of how frustrated I was to not have been able to cool down. I don’t get to see her enough, and we spent the time catching up. It was a nice boost.
After a steep climb, Jen left to head home after a long day of supporting me. I didn’t feel too bad at this point, so I pushed the pace a bit. This was fine, until I hit a road section exposed to the sun. The heat crushed me. Soon after, I was in an open field with the sun once again beating down on me. I felt myself boiling… I was reduced to walking and my stomach really started to get bad. By the time I made it back onto the single track section (and into the shade of the woods), I was frantically looking for places to duck in the bushes. This would be a recurring theme for the rest of my day.
As would not being able to take in calories. Be it due to too much water, too much salt, too much heat or some combination, my stomach was done cooperating and was in full revolt. I ducked into the bushes a couple of times, and the rest I walked and jogged and walked and jogged. The trail was littered with folks who were in distress, laying in the tall grass waiting for medical attention. I was handing out SCaps left and right. Whether I drank too much, and took too much salt is still debatable, but I will say I was still sweating, which meant to me I was hydrated. That was the most positive thought I had.
A fellow I had been back and forth with all day came up at one point and we pushed ourselves through the next couple of miles together, him leading pulling me along, and then me leading pulling him along. At one point, I turned around and he was gone. And so with him went my motivation to run.
My energy was gone. The Frasier aid station was a mess when I got there, and I couldn’t (mentally) take the time to get what I hoped for (ice, a beverage other than water, something edible), so I quickly filled my bladder with two cup-fulls of ice (they were rationing) and took off. Still not able to eat, and still ducking into the bushes, my energy hit an all-time low for the race. I was resigned by mile 42 that I would have to walk it in. I could not get my mind around how long it would take in this heat to walk it in. It was demoralizing. Being exposed to the heat through the golf course on tight single track with a stomach that was bursting every half mile or so was really taking its toll on my mental state.
After 4 miles of mostly walking, I hit the last aid station. This was just before the lollipop out and back, which was frustrating at the start of the race, but maddeningly so this late into it. I could not believe how slow I was moving. I could not believe how far off my goals I was. I could not believe I couldn’t just make forward progress to the finish, but had to waltz around this silly lollipop out and back to make the mileage right. I also noticed there was nothing I could imagine eating or drinking at the aid station apart from some coke. I drink two warm cups of it and starting walking the loop.
A few things happened at this point. I think the carbonation from the coke settled my stomach a bit, the calories and caffeine in it spiked my energy and I realized that I was going to finish, no matter what. It hurt to walk and it hurt to run… and I’ve heard the advice time and time again: “If it hurts to walk and it hurts to run, run”. And so I ran. And I started shouting at people, “We’re going to finish these 50 miles”! I think people must have thought I was crazy, and surely, by this point I was. But I was running.
I saw Joel one last time as I was nearly done with the lollipop. I was amazed, by that point, that he hadn’t caught me, but I could tell from his gait that he was dealing with problems of his own (and it turns out, the entire bottoms of his feet were completely covered in blisters and mashed up to bits, making each step nearly intolerable).
But I was running.
I stopped at the aid station to grab some more coke, had them pour some water over my head and took off, shouting.
I ran large stretches, pausing to walk when there was shade. When I reached the golf cart path leading to the finish, I let it all go… I ran as well as my overheating, depleted and battered body would allow, purely on mental strength. I crossed the finish in a sea of emotion, nearly 3 hours off my “best case” time goal, to very minimal fanfare. I was done.
What an experience for my first “real” ultra. It was a super long day, one that surely could have been better had I made some smarter decisions, had I done hotter heat training, had I done any number of things. But it was a true learning experience… I learned (some of) what to do and what not to do in a race of that length, under those conditions. Some tidbits I will take to my next race are:
- change shoes and socks and much as possible, if necessary, to keep the feet in top condition;
- if you cannot take in calories from solid or semi-solid food, take them in from sports drinks or coke;
- if you are sweating, your hydrating is ok, no need to overdo it;
- start a regular schedule of SCaps and stick to it, no need to overdo it;
- Have alternate means of cooling yourself down, if possible;
- Coconut water is quite good, as is coke.
I also learned that I’m made of the right stuff to get me through a race like that. It was revealing and rewarding to finish a race in those conditions, feeling the way I felt. I take away from that experience things that will contribute positively to who I am as a person, things that will positively influence my life going forward.
And you’d better believe I can’t wait to race that far (hopefully more quickly next time) again!