Photo by Jay Proffitt
You know that feeling when you find yourself out in the middle of the woods, leg muscles burning, slogging along at a snail’s pace, feeling queasy like you might puke at any moment, thinking, “This isn’t fun anymore!” and “What am I even doing out here?”
I was in the midst of racing the Promise Land 50K, my first stab at the distance in a race setting. It was also my first race in over year; the last being a 10K on the track at the Teddy Twilight in Portland, one week before just about everything shut down due to the pandemic.
I had many reasons to feel confident and excited going into the race. After a somewhat shaky start back to running after completing the Appalachian Trail last summer, over time I slowly regained my balance, coordination, and confidence on trails again. Between this past December through race weekend, I’d done more trail-specific training than ever before, racking up hundreds of miles and thousands of feet of elevation gain. Every so often I hit the track to test my speed, and was delighted to find that it hadn’t gone anywhere. I worked really hard at becoming a better uphill runner, culminating with a personal best up Saltzman Road in Forest Park a few weeks before the race.
There were a couple things that made me nervous going into the race: first, the stellar quality of the women’s field! Perhaps “nervous” isn’t the correct word to describe how that made me feel, as ultimately I was very excited to mix it up with those women. Maybe “humbled” is a better way to put it. From the uber-experienced to the up-and-coming, this race was chock-full of amazing competitors. Second, I was a bit worried about how I’d do running with so many people, in terms of my field of vision and seeing what’s in front of me, along with how I’d do in some of the more technical sections of trail. I’ve had my fair share of epic falls resulting in trips to the ER. I was worried that I’d either slow way down on the technical downhills out of fear, allowing other runners to put a huge gap on me, OR let my competitive side get the best of me and trip over a rock or root in my haste to run as fast as I could.
I made several goals going into this race, mostly based on the bit of research I did on past race results, along with what I knew about some of the other women entered. Based on the top ten fastest times in race history, and knowing this would be a fast field, I guessed it would take running at least under 5:30 to win, or maybe even to make the top three. Based on my training, I felt that if I had a really good day, it would be possible to finish around 5:30, so I made that and earning a place on the podium my A+ goal. Ultrasignup.com has a feature that predicted my finish time at six hours and change. With one previous ultra to my name (Hellgate 100K, which I ran on a very cold and rainy year), I took the prediction with a grain of salt, but figured breaking six hours would be an appropriate “B” goal, along with aiming for a top five finish place among women.
Weather conditions on race morning couldn’t have been better. It was cool and overcast, and it hadn’t rained recently so the trails were perfectly dry. I slept in BB, my Honda Fit, at the Promise Land Youth Camp along with hundreds of other participants car camping in the field by the start line. I had my typical on-the-road breakfast, Belvita breakfast biscuits slathered in peanut butter accompanied by a canned espresso. Now, maybe this is TMI but we’re all friends here, right? Plus, context is everything! As the race director Dr. David Horton reminded us the night before, the pre-race poo is very important. I thought I had woken up early enough to allow for things to move along. Maybe it was from being really cold from sleeping in my car, maybe it was the early wake up call, maybe I was feeling nervous about the race, but for whatever reason, very unfortunately I could not “go” before the race. Not ideal, but not the end of the world. My stomach felt a little sloshy, but what could be done?
The first few hundred yards into the race were a bit funny because I found myself in the lead overall when I had no business being there. I looked to my left and right and wondered why no one else would go. I tried slowing down a bit, but still no one would take it. My plan was to start conservatively, let others go if they wanted to, and run my own race. Maybe that was everyone else’s plan too! As we continued along the gravel road gently sloping upward, eventually a group of men went around and pulled away, then one-by-one the women started to move up as well. I made sure to count as they went by so I could have an idea of which place I was in.
There was some chit-chat among the runners as we made our way up the hill, which is typical at the start of any race when everyone’s feeling good and fresh. I, on the other hand, could hardly bring myself to utter more than few short, polite responses. My stomach felt unsettled, which was making me feel very queasy. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but just put my head down and kept working my way up while trying not to expend too much energy. The hill became steeper and most of us switched from running to a fast hike. The lead women pulled ahead out of sight, and I leapfrogged back and forth with a few of the other women as we continued to climb.
After about 4.2 miles and 2,000 feet of climbing, we were treated to a gentle, rolling downhill on a soft, grassy wagon road accompanied by a beautiful sunrise over the mountains and valleys before us. Some of the women around me took off down the hill. It was hard to let them go. I tried to just float down the hill and let gravity carry me. Not pressing the gas, but not hitting the brakes either. There were plenty more long downhill stretches to come, so I just tried to enjoy this section while taking deep breaths to manage the discomfort I was feeling. I hit the one hour mark, at which I had planned to take my first Spring Energy gel. Eating anything seemed like a gamble considering how sick I was feeling, but I also knew it would be necessary to take in calories if I wanted to perform well. I rolled the dice and downed the gel, accompanied by a few big swigs of water from my handheld bottle.
Mile 8 marked the start of the next climb up to the highest point of the course (4,004 ft) on Apple Orchard Mountain. I honestly don’t remember much from this section other than reeeeally not feeling good. Thankfully the gel didn’t make me feel worse than I already did, but overall I felt wildly uncomfortable and very nauseous to the point that I was audibly moaning and groaning. Once we got past the gate on a forest road at the high point of the course, we were treated to another gentle downhill, this time on a wide open gravel road. A younger blonde woman, I believe her name was Sawyer, started to pass me down the hill, but in my stubbornness and perhaps frustration of being passed over and over to that point, I passed her right back and raced down the hill toward the aid station at Sunset Fields. Warren Doyle (“Jupiter”) who had supported me on the AT last summer, made an appearance to spectate and show support. He came into view off to the side of the road and had a look of deep concern on his face. He told me afterward that he could hear me whimpering and thought I might be hurt. He said he was expecting that I might drop out at the aid station just ahead.
Thankfully, outside of the discomfort and nausea, my legs felt fine. My glutes, on the other hand, were absolutely on fire after 4,000 feet of climbing to that point! Luckily for my burning behind, the next seven miles included 3,000 feet of elevation loss. Adrienne Mitford, who was there as my support crew on behalf of M1ndurance, met me at the aid station and asked if I needed any water. While I definitely could have filled up, the blonde runner was right on my heels, so I shook my head and kept on running, hoping to put a bit of space between us. I also knew that the next section would be downhill on technical single track trail- no way was I going to try to manage drinking water while navigating that tricky section! I was too worried about falling on my face. I had a few sips left in my bottle, and figured I could fill up at the next aid station a few miles down the way.
I skipped and tip-toed down the rocky, root-filled trail, taking short, quick steps, keeping my knees nice and high, and overall just finding a flow. For how nervous I felt about this section of trail leading up to the race, I had a lot of fun with it. It was like a game, similar to Guitar Hero, where you see the notes ahead and calculate each move a second or two in advance. Or to a make another musical analogy, it was kind of like site-reading a new piece at tempo. The stakes are high, and you might have to fake it a little, but it’s thrilling when you nail every note. I even passed one woman in that section, something I never expected to happen.
The trail ran parallel to Cornelius Creek for a while before spitting me out at the next aid station around 18 miles in. David Horton was there to cheer me and the other runners in. I asked an aid station volunteer for help with twisting off the cap of my bottle and refilling it with water. Horton said, “you should be filling up with Tailwind!” and I responded, “I feel really nauseous!” and that was that. He told me to get going, followed by, “You’re doing good, girl!” and off I went.
The next stretch was the one I had most looked forward to. It was a gradual downhill on a gravel road, then eventually it even turned to paved road. It was every road-runner-turned-trail-runner’s dream! After having to concentrate so much on the single track trail, it was nice to relax a little and cruise. I could see several runners far ahead of me, and was able to reel them in over the next few miles. One woman, Jana, flew by me with another guy by her side. She promised me that I’d catch her on the next uphill, which made me smile. It was a nice thought, but I wasn’t so sure!
We took a right turn back into the woods for some more single track running. That part was mostly rolling, on relatively “easy” and runnable trail. I was getting tired though, and really took my time on the uphill sections. Looking back (hindsight is everything!) I really think this particular section determined how the rest of the race would turn out. There were many times that the uphill was steep enough that the only run I could manage was quite slow; but if I power hiked instead, it wasn’t quite steep enough that it felt very productive. It was very humbling in the sense that all I could produce was a little baby-jog mixed with some hiking.
A couple runners came up and passed me, including Sawyer (I think), the young woman from before. She looked totally collected and had an effortless stride. I told myself to go with her, but she kept floating along and I couldn’t will myself to keep up. Eventually Jana came back to me a little, but she was powering up those hills like it was nobody’s business. Though I never caught up to her, it helped to have someone to chase, because otherwise the runners were getting quite strung out.
At that point I felt pretty discouraged. All that talk about hoping to make the podium, and I was getting my butt kicked by the other runners and the course itself. I started to question why I was putting so much time and energy into something I wasn’t even good at (that was the negative voice in my head talking; I don’t truly feel that way). Jana was long gone and for a while there was no one in sight ahead of me, or behind me.
With no one around that I could see, it was hard to conceptualize that I was participating in a race at all. It was like being out in the woods on any other day. I lost my sense of urgency and took my time skirting around puddles and hopscotching over streams (yeah, that thing you’re not supposed to do).
I thought of Mike McCauley, who’d joined me for a couple days on the AT last summer. Promise Land weekend would have been the next time we’d seen each other–he would have joined Adrienne in crewing–but tragically, he passed away suddenly in March. I remembered him telling me on the AT to run every “runnable” section, even the short little bits that didn’t seem to make a difference. With Mike on my mind, I made an effort to run the runnable bits of trail, and did my best to convince myself that each step did matter. Unlike the AT, I wasn’t going to be out there all day. In reality, I had only maybe an hour and a half left to go.
I rolled into the Cornelius Creek aid station where a volunteer graciously filled up my handheld bottle one last time (this time I did request Tailwind), and up the final climb back to Sunset Fields I went. Not only was I facing 2,000 feet of elevation gain over three miles, but I had the infamous wooden steps up and around Apple Orchard Falls to take on as well. My glutes-already-on-fire hadn’t seen anything yet!
In my mind, how well I could get up that last big climb was my last chance to make any kind of difference in the outcome of the race. I knew that once I got past Sunset Fields, I could run the final 5.2 downhill miles fast no matter what, so I really had to make the uphill miles count.
Soon into the climb, I was passed pretty handily by two runners: one guy, and then Rachel Corrigan, who I recognized from Hellgate 2019. You’d think getting passed yet again would be discouraging, but it really helped to have someone to key off after the long stretch on my own. I tried to mimic Rachel’s strong, energetic strides up the steep hill. When she hiked, I hiked, and when she ran, I ran. We zig-zagged up the switchbacks, passed by the beautiful falls, and commiserated going up those awful wooden steps together.
I started to hear cheering coming from the Sunset Fields aid station up above, which meant we were getting close. I felt good enough to run a little bit, and pulled ahead of Rachel again. Once again, like a mirror image of the first time I reached Sunset Fields, I found myself not wanting to lose any momentum with someone hot on my heels, so I blew right through the aid station, caught up to Chris (“Chicken Boy”, lovingly nicknamed by David Horton) and began the final segment of the race.
The sudden gear shift from the steep uphill to the quick turnover downhill was enough to make my stomach start reeling again. I felt like I was about to toss my cookies. Cue the moaning and whimpering. I took big, deep breaths and even yelled a few times to try and shake off the nauseous feeling. Poor Chris. I felt horribly embarrassed by the racket I was making and apologized to him for having to bear with me. He laughed and said he was feeling all of those things too, just internalized.
After climbing up one last bump of a hill, we began the nice, long descent back to the Promise Land campground. The trail at first was mostly dirt and scree, filled with ankle-rolling rocks ranging from the size of golf balls to softballs. Similarly to how I felt on the technical downhill earlier in the race, I had fun with this part, dancing my way down the trail, feeling like a kid on a playground.
The trail opened up onto a gravel road, continuing downhill and retracing the way back to where we started the race. Earlier, Chris had told me that once we hit the road there would be three miles to go. That was easy to wrap my head around; it was essentially running a 5K with a downhill assist! Without any big rocks to trip over anymore, I opened up my stride and went for it. The road continued to wind down and down. I peeked behind me at one point and there were no runners in sight.
Back at Sunset Fields, I had glanced at my watch and saw I was well over the five hour mark. I thought there was no way I’d be able to finish under six hours which made me sad, but I hadn’t accounted for how quickly the last few miles could go by. I glanced at my watch with one mile to go, and was thrilled to see that it read 5:46 and change. That last stretch seemed to go on forever, and the road flattened out just enough that I couldn’t solely rely on gravity to carry me to the finish. Finally I rounded the corner onto the grassy field at Promise Land youth camp and ran quickly down the homestretch with David Horton shouting excitedly into his megaphone. I crossed the finish line totally exhausted, smiling and exclaiming, “That was sooo hard!!” Understatement of the year!
There was some confusion about where I’d placed at first; I was the fifth woman to cross the line, but it turned out I’d had a three minute head start on Rachel Corrigan, who had started with the second wave of runners. That meant by the time she caught me heading up to Apple Orchard Falls, she had already made up those three minutes! My last push from Sunset Fields to the finish was not enough to put a three minute plus gap between us again, so Rachel ended up with a well-deserved fifth place finish in 5:50:01, and I finished in sixth place with a time of 5:51:56.
I’ve had mixed feelings since finishing the race. On the one hand, I’m glad to have made one of my initial goals of finishing under six hours. There were many positive takeaways from the race, like overcoming my fear of the really technical sections, walking away with no falls or injuries, and running while feeling ill most of the way. On the other hand, I’m disappointed that I wasn’t tougher in that long meandering section before the last big climb. I’m disappointed that what I felt was my best wasn’t good enough for the A+ result I’d hoped for. I wonder if I was too conservative at the start; perhaps I let go a little too easily in the beginning and didn’t consider how “short” the 50K really is when compared with a 100K or a multi-day run/hike. There are many “what-ifs” that left me wondering. The best I can do is take what I learned and apply it on the next go.
Kudos and thanks to David Horton and all of the race volunteers for putting on an incredible race. I loved the challenging and beautiful course, and all of the details that went into making the race weekend very special.
Thank you Adrienne / M1ndurance for crewing me and providing support this weekend. The “M” square on my shirt was not only to represent M1ndurance but to honor and remember Mike.
Thanks “Coach K” for helping me feel so prepared for this race. I don’t know how I would have gotten through those thousands of vertical feet without all the specific practice and plain hard work over the last 4-5 months. I’m really excited to continue building momentum into my Smokies FKT attempt later this month and the Kettle Moraine 100 Mile in June.
Shoutout to Spring Energy for making awesome gels that didn’t further upset my already-very-upset stomach, and kept me fueled and energized through the entire race. I’m honestly amazed! If you’d like to try Spring Energy for yourself, use the code “TEAM” for 10% off your order.
If you made it this far, WOW, kudos to you and thank you for reading! If you connected with this or feel inspired in some way, support my writing by buying me a coffee! It would mean the world to me if you shared this with someone you think would enjoy it. As always, share your thoughts by commenting below. ‘Til next week! ~Mercury