Earlier this week, I read (on Twitter, of all places) some commentary about feeling ‘good’ on race day – the quote was something like (but more eloquent than) “People always worry about feeling good on race day, but plenty of people have felt terrible and still had good days. You don’t have to feel good to have a good day.” That idea, that you could feel terrible and still perform well, stuck with me all week leading up to this race, because I had a terrible week.
Work was insanely busy. I had a Godiva holiday party to plan and execute on Tuesday and a work social outing Thursday. I had an all-day meeting Friday that I needed to prep for. The apartment was a mess. I needed to clean the litter box, as I was reminded by the smell of cat shit every time I walked into the bathroom. None of my running clothes were clean. There was no food in the apartment for us to eat. And, on top of all the things, I had to run for 6 hrs on Saturday morning. In my adult life, I don’t often experience the ol’ college/grad school feeling of being so far behind on so many things that you can’t fathom where to begin, but that’s where I found myself this week, leading up to this race I’d actually hoped to target as a ‘goal race’, a term I don’t often use to describe any of my races these days.
Wait – did I say ‘had to run’ up there? Well, it certainly started to feel that way – like an obligation – earlier in the week. But that’s the thing – I wanted to run for 6 hrs. It was not an obligation but rather a thing I opted into because I wanted to test myself; to see what I was capable of. This shift in thinking can sound (and feel) a small and perhaps inconsequential attempt to change one’s perspective, but in reality it (plus the helpful Twitter perspective above) flipped a switch for me in guiding my mental approach to Saturday’s race. In hindsight, given the outcomes of my race, it feels particularly important to reflect on and hang onto for dear life for future races.
I begin dramatically upping my weekly mileage in September, which I’d love to say was well-timed with cooler temps, but I’d be lying. I registered for something stupid happening in April 2020, so to prep for that, I decided around this time to target the 6-hr race at Nutcracker Endurance Run – I wasn’t too keen on jumping into the 12-hr, but 6 seemed manageable even with only a couple months of solid training beforehand. I ended up running a 40-mile trail race in October after only a handful of weeks of training and a singular long run of 22-miles – I won that race in 6:49, giving me some extra confidence that, on a non-trail course, I might get close to 40 miles in 6 hours. Thus, my goals for Nutcracker were born: (1) break the current 6-hr course record of 37 miles; (2) run as close to 40 miles as possible in 6 hrs; and (3) win the race.
Training went exceedingly well leading up to this race – my body quickly adapted to the higher weekly volume; I had some solid race results helping to build confidence in my general fitness (the 40, of course, but also a big 8K PR on Thanksgiving and a course PR at Couch Mountain); and I was recovering well from longer efforts. If I had to pick one highlight from this training block, I’d choose the 30- mile track run Mark and I did in the week before last – the run not only capped off my first-ever 90-mile week but also did wonders in building my confidence and reminding me of my ability to be mentally tough when I need to be. Dear reader, there is nothing like running quarter-mile loops around a track for 5 hours to remind you that you’re capable of pushing yourself to keep going no matter the circumstance.
I wrote a bit above about race week – needless to say, it was not pretty. I did not feel ready. I did not feel capable. But, as I began checking off task after task, obligation after obligation, my mind began to clear. In hindsight, I’m grateful I was ‘tapering’ in such a week wherein running 80-90 miles would’ve proved challenging anyway, but not having the outlet of running for longer than 30-40 minutes per day did not do me any favors. I did get in one 8-mile run with 2 x mile (~6:50/mile) as a pre-race workout, and my shakeout run on Friday evening felt wonderful – my legs haven’t felt so fresh in months. Also notably, I reached the one-year mark of my running streak (minimum of 3 miles per day) on Tuesday and became President of Carolina Godiva Track Club for the next year. A few days out, it’s much easier to focus on the highs from last week and not the lows; there were certainly both.
I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow on Friday night and woke up feeling tired but not terribly so on Saturday morning around 4:30 AM. The drive to Erwin, NC, was only an hour or so, and we got on the road early to have plenty of time to park, pick up my packet, and get situated before the 7:30 AM 6-hr start. We arrived just after the 12-hr had begun (at 6:30 AM).
I was having a very unsettling random pain above my left knee – it didn’t seem to be an issue while walking around, but it caused an intense pulling sensation on the stairs. I started internally panicking about the pain and then realized I forgot to pack the holder for my handheld water bottle. The thought of carrying the bottle just in my palm for 6 hrs sent me down a spiral. I had a whiny fit, briefly blamed Mark despite knowing it was definitely my fault, and threatened not to start the race at all. Some ultrarunner I am, unable to cope with even the most minor of problems… Fortunately, Mark, World’s Most Unprepared and Disorganized yet Successful Ultra-Runner, was already hard at work trying to duct tape a makeshift holder for the bottle then thought to search for a 24-hr store so we could pick something up. Conveniently, there was a Wal-Mart 2 miles away! We drove to the store, rushed in, found a tiny holder we hoped the bottle might fit into, and jetted back to the start line with 5 minutes to spare. With water bottle in holder, I got over the start line (which was, you cannot make this stuff up, simply a crack in the road), and we were off right at 7:30 AM.
The Race (Strava)
I might be able to keep the actual race section more brief than the pre-race lamentations given that it was a generally uneventful day. It feels necessary to clarify that ‘uneventful’, as I’m learning, in ultrarunning does not equal ‘bad’. Uneventful may be boring and may not make for the best story for one’s self-indulgent and gratuitous blog of race reports, but uneventful in an ultra is seeming more and more like all one could hope for if aiming for a ‘good’ day.
Despite the ups and downs pre-race, I felt fine as I began to run down the Dunn-Erwin trail for the first time that day. The course is a 5-mi trail between the towns of Erwin and Dunn that you run out and back for ~4-5 hours before switching to 1-mile out-and-backs for the remainder of the race. I checked my watch and saw 8:20 pace (too fast!) but felt good and like I was running easy (dumb! stop it!), so I kept it going. The first ten miles were smooth and easy, and I enjoyed taking in the surroundings as it continued to drizzle on and off. It had rained overnight and all day Friday, so the trail was wet and sloppy in parts, though fortunately these parts were few and far between. In the first couple miles, I ran past many animals – bleating sheep, mooing cows, a stray doggo. There are many road crossings on the trail, but I got lucky this first loop and had to stop at not a single one. I got to the turnaround, a mudpit from all the rain, in ~42 minutes and was on my way back to the start to complete lap 1. I settled in, clocking ~8:25 miles for the 1st 10 miles. My first 10-mile split was 1:24:18, or as Mark declared upon seeing me run in, “what the fuck, too fast”.
I was planning to fuel only with Maurten for this race, so I’d already downed my first bottle and quickly swapped with Mark for the second. I also grabbed my headphones/phone to listen to music. I don’t normally race with music, but I felt like it would be nice for these long out-and-backs where I was totally alone, and I hoped it would help me stay calm about the pace I’d gone out in, which was objectively faster than I’d (a) planned and (b) thought I could maintain. The second loop of the course was particularly uneventful – I was pleasantly surprised to be able to stay locked into ~8:25/mile pace, was fueling well, and still felt quite fresh. Good. This is where that aforementioned 30-mile run came into play for me, mentally – running 80 laps to get to just 20 miles felt so. fucking. long; running just two out-and-backs to, similarly, get just 20 miles on this course absolutely flew by. I noted this as I finished my second loop, in 1:24:17, exactly even with my first split – I was now at 2:48:35 elapsed with 20 miles done. With a new bottle of Maurten and the same ol’ ‘wtf why so fast’ response from Mark, I was off yet again.
I was mildly anxious heading out for this loop because I knew I’d hit the marathon split in what was looking to be a reasonably big PR for me (note: I’ve just…not run a normal marathon. Sorry, Umstead Marathon, but you just don’t count). I worried a bit that I’d blown it by going out too fast, but I decided to stay positive and tell myself that my new race strategy was to hang on as long as possible. I smiled a lot and tried to encourage other runners. I stayed feeling pretty fresh throughout this loop, which was especially encouraging given how dead I’d felt at the end of the track 30-miler just two weeks prior. I hit the marathon split in 3:42 (over a 15-minute PR from last year’s Umstead finish) and began running with the guy who’d been in front of me, Justin, for a few miles. He was feeling a bit rough, so we chatted a bit about our goals and the day so far until he took a walk break and lost me for the rest of the lap. I was back to the start to complete 30 miles, this time in 1:25:02 (8:30/mile; slightly slower but pretty even).
I was given the option to go back out for a 4th loop, and I was so torn – while it would have been great to avoid the many sharp turns of the 1-mi out-and-backs, I was worried I’d crater over the remaining ~1:40 and not make it back in time to get my full 40. Doing the 1-mi loops was the safe bet, though in hindsight a regret. I opted to switch to mile repeats for the remainder of the race and began quickly continuing to try and get a decent 50K split. I did my first mile loop and split ~4:24ish for 50K. Mark was ready with a celebratory sip of cider, which helped me run a bit quicker for the 2nd mile loop, bringing me to 32 miles.
Then, things started to fall apart. I had plenty of time to comfortably get 40 miles in total, so I felt myself mentally give up a bit on pushing hard. I took a quick bathroom break after mile 32, splitting my first 10:xx mile of the day for mile 33. Sitting for a moment tightened up my legs, so I got back out and split 9:02 and 9:30 for miles 34 and 35. The one-mile loop involves a sharp turn at the half-mile turnaround point, a sharp turn off the trail, and yet another sharp turn at the check-in point (so, you’re basically making a little hook….over and over and over). I started to find this daunting, started to take the turns themselves slower, started to lose momentum, started to get annoyed with Mark’s helpful coaching and guidance…it was just not enough distance to get into any sort of rhythm. I found these 1-mi loops very challenging and wished I was out on one long 10-mile out-and-back. I split 10:04 for mile 36, 9:46 for mile 37, and 9:51 for mile 38, where I officially took the women’s course record. I downed more celebratory cider, leading to a fun and loopy 10:31 39th mile.
I had ~20 minutes left in the race to do one more mile, and I was so ready to be done. Mark was there, telling me I had to do two more miles. I yelled NO! repeatedly as I trundled off for mile 40. I sandbagged, tried to take it slow so I wouldn’t POSSIBLY have time for a 41st mile once I finished 40. As I did so, I checked my watch – still running 9:xx pace. Fuck. I was going to have time to attempt 41 whether I wanted to or not. I finished my 40th mile with a little over 9 minutes to spare. I had to push it. Justin was right there, also just having completed his 40th loop – he had caught back up to me as I struggled on the mile loops – and we pulled each other along. Mark jogged alongside – he jogged 8:30 pace as I sprinted 8:30 pace – it felt like all-out effort just to run the ‘easy pace’ I’d started the race at and maintained for 50K. I blathered nonsensically as I pushed myself towards the finish for the final loop, making it there just behind Justin to claim my 41st mile, a split of 8:27, with 1 minute and 3 seconds to spare. Overall, I averaged 8:45/mile over 41 miles.
I finished what was left of my cider – what a treat during a long race, I gotta say – and was quickly called over for awards. I finished 1st female and tied Justin for 2nd overall. Nowhere yet in this report have I yet mentioned the dude just flying by us constantly, Carter, who seemed to effortlessly split a 4:45 40-miler and continue on to run 48 total miles. Clearly, he won the race and set a new course record – what an awesome performance for what I’ve now learned was his first ultra. With my 41 miles, I tied the previous men’s course record and improved the women’s course record by 4 miles. The 2nd place woman ran 33 miles, and the 3rd place woman ran 32.
Aside from winning and setting the CR, this race was huge for me in so many ways. I ran a 3:42 marathon on the way to a 4:24 50K on the way to a 5:49 40-miler (an hour PR). I am still a bit shocked I was able to pull that off but now am even more eager to continue building my mileage and building upon the consistency of the past few months leading to this race, only my second-ever ultra.
I learned yesterday that this performance is tied for 5th best 6-hr performance of 2019 – if you take off the 24-hr performances at World Championships, it’s tied for 4th, but I think I’d prefer to be slightly lower down the list and have there exist a place on the internet where my name is that close to incredible women like Camille and Courtney. We can totally just ignore the fact that their performances were during a 24-hr race instead of just a 6-hr….right?!
I received a beautiful plaque as an award and was finally free to sit down and get my Cliftons off my feet. As soon as I did, I was hit with a wave of emotion – shock, bewilderment, pride…depletion…you know, the usual. Mark so kindly captured 10 pictures of me ugly crying, my favorite of which is below. Two days later, I’m feeling decent – nothing bothering me too much – and hopeful that I’ll be recovered quickly and building the mileage back up within the next couple weeks.