Tuesday, May 23, 2017

3 Days at the Fair

Three Days at the Fair. We aren't talking county fair...although it took place at fairgrounds.

There’s a saying, “Get comfortable being uncomfortable.”

The expression that better suits this past weekend on my ultramarathon would be, “Embrace the suck.”

Don’t get me wrong, this was an amazing event and as much as I thought I would never do it again…well, let me set the scene for you.
First, 3 Days at the Fair is an event that takes place at the Sussex Fairgrounds in Augusta, NJ. A beautiful area where not much exists except the fairgrounds where 300 runners converged for 6 days. Yes, you read that correctly. Some people went for 144 hours of running! Pretty much you could choose anything from 6 hours to 144 hours.
Me? Call me crazy, but I signed up for the 48-hour option.

We check in at the aid station that you will be passing every mile. Yes, this is a one mile loop course, so if you ever wanted to know what a hamster feels like running on a wheel…come to 3 Days at the Fair.

Along with your timing chip that you will wear around your ankle like a person under house arrest and will eventually chafe and add to the suck, you will get your swag. The swag was a T-shirt and a pair of flannel pajama bottoms. And yes, eventually you will see half the runners sporting one or both of those items during the run.

You then set up tent. This is not a figure of speech. As you will be spending as much time on your feet as possible, you do and will need some rest. This becomes what I like to call “Tent City.”
Everyone has their own version of tenting. Some folks will be in RVs, others will have tents, and others like me will have a canopy and/or their SUV. Either way, this becomes your home away from home, your respite, your place of worship as you swear to heaven you will never do such a stupid thing again.
As part of this setup you place all the items you will need in just the right spot for easy access so when you stop for a ten or twenty-minute break you can quickly find the Squirrels Nut Butter for anti-chafing, extra shoes, socks, or even sandals to change into when your feet become so hot you swear they are on fire. Or you must rummage through for sunscreen because you didn’t apply any before it hit almost 90 freaking hot degrees! Or you need a jacket because the sun has gone down and now your body thinks that even though the outside temperature reads 70 degrees, your body screams, “It’s 45 degrees, you idiot, put some clothes on!”
Setting up your temporary home is the first place you have an opportunity to meet you new neighbors and your best friends for the weekend and if you’re lucky for the future. This is where I met Mandy, another runner in the 48-hour event and her friends and support crew for the weekend; Sandy and Heather. My first outing with my canopy and the girls helped me get it set up. Thanks, Mandy, Sandy, and Heather!

At last the event you signed up for begins! 9 AM and off to the races. Time to have fun.
The first part of the event was hotter than Hell! Not that I know how hot hell is, but I imagine running on asphalt in 90 degree temperatures where there is no shade AT ALL in a one mile loop is pretty close to what the devil makes you live in. But hey, you have fresh feet, legs and clothes so you are good to go and smiling the entire way.

You get a rhythm and see various runners moving along; some have been there for 4 days and others for less. You can tell the ones that have been there for longer than you because when you take the first turn past tent city to no-man’s land you come across this slight (and I do mean slight) incline and the runner on your left says, “This damn hill.”

At this point you’re musing to yourself, “Hill? Really?” 24-hours later you are thinking, “Not this damn hill! This very steep hill, again!”
Late afternoon you’re feeling good, but the sun beating down on you is starting to have an effect. You can’t get enough fluids, you’re either pouring sweat or stopped sweat, either way, the chafing has set in. I hear one guy as one of the support crews (not his), if they had any Vaseline he could borrow and clarified his request by saying, “The kind where you don’t mind where I stick my hands.”

Yes, folks, there is no shame in chafing and we are all good friends in an ultra.
I met lot of great runners and their crew or friends who popped in for moral support. Besides several laps with Mandy and breaks with her crew, I shared laps and had conversations with Allen who was at the event with his brother. I hung with Michele and her friend Cathy for quite a few laps, and met a runner named John who gave me some of the best advice all weekend.

His advice? Since my goal was to get a 100K, that’s 62 miles, John suggested to get 40 miles in the first 24 hours so the next day when I was beat up I’d only have to get 50% of that the next 24 hours. BEST ADVICE EVER!! I got 42 in the first 24 hours and my feet had started to blister but not terrible, just enough to feel like a constant nag and require taping.
Another runner that I swear never stopped moving all weekend told me to take socks and shoes off at every break to let the feet cool down and swelling come down. Wow! Another great piece of advice. The only drawback to this one was the one time I was stretched out in the back of my SUV with a blanket over my and my bare feet hanging out the door when the temperature dropped. Talk about ice cube toes! But definitely a good idea from the perspective of dealing with my swelling feet.

Did we take breaks? Yes. What do you think they put all those benches outside the bathrooms for? Some folks did little to no running in the heat of the day and then kept moving all night. My first 24-hour routine went something like this: a 15-minute break every 5 miles and 30-minute break every 10 miles the first day. At about 11 PM I sacked out for 2 hours…until the FIREWORKS went off. NOT kidding! All of us were fully awake after that 20-minute display from the local baseball field not far away.
I was up again for another two miles and back down until literally the roosters in the poultry center RIGHT NEXT DOOR sounded the alarm at 4 AM.
Day 2 officially started at 9 AM on Saturday and was a little more interesting or frustrating.

You wouldn’t think that after getting in 42 miles with a conservative approach that 20 more miles would take so freaking long. I swear by early evening the second day I wanted to die. I took a break every 2.5 miles and tried to take a longer break every 5 miles, but my body kept getting me up at 20 minutes no matter what. I’d set an alarm for an hour and my body would be ready after 20 minutes. My body was, but my feet were NOT!

I was putting food and fluids in my body, including fresh made pancakes and bacon. Breakfast on the go for runners. But I didn’t want it. Well, I did, but it wasn't helping my energy level. And oh, yeah, I was freezing. Since the evening of day 1, my body temperature was just cold. No, not cold. FRIGID! So cold I wore a fleece top and jeans over my running clothes, a rain jacket (and at one point event a vest), and two freaking hats.
Hey! It ain’t all about fashion. Although, there were some beautiful outfits on some of the runners. One guy had an airy shirt. Basically, he took a dress shirt and cut holes in it to keep the sun off his skin and at the same time made it breathable. Genius! One woman, Pam, was all in pink (head to toes) all weekend. And let me tell you about Pam…she never stopped and she was always encouraging. Another runner was like me and at some point, she went from running shorts to Hello Kitty fleece pants and a winter coat.

Early evening on the second day I was at mile 57, ONLY 5 miles from my goal and I was ready to finish. Except for my mental breakdown. I could have sworn the timing mat counted lap 57 three times!!! Yup, I am not gonna lie, I told myself there was no way I was going to do this. I was mentally and physically finished.
Then I ran into Michele and Cathy. These poor ladies saw me at my lowest. They picked me up outside the beautiful ladies’ room (no porta-johns at this event), dusted me off and shuffled me along like an old cowpoke and his trusty old mule. Thanks to their conversation and camaraderie, I made it to mile 60.

Then I had to have a break. I planned to take a two-hour nap and instead my body decided one was enough. I got up and made mile 60 to 61 by myself. Then I ran into John. Okay, more like sleep-walked into him, but John encouraged me and said, “Come on, we’ll get you to that goal.” John moved me along to mile 61.5 where Mandy was waiting for me outside our tents to take me the rest of the way to my goal. Mandy and her family all came along for the walk. More like a shuffle.
I am in tears right now as I write this, just as I stared to tear up when I saw that goal and that start-finish line. And yes, ladies and gentlemen I rang that bell like I wanted everyone to know that I had FINALLY achieved a yearlong goal. And as much pain as I was in it felt AMAZING!!!

Thank you: Mandy and family, Sandy, Heather, John, Michele and Cathy. You were my saviors.
On the way back to our tents, I saw John again and he told me, “I think you have more in you. I think you have at least two-thirds of a century in you.”

My response? Besides my jaw dropping?
“Are you nuts? All I want is sleep.”

And to be honest, that’s what I thought. I had planned to go back to my car throw everything in it and head off to a hotel for a good night’s sleep and a private shower.

What did I do?
I packed my car and was too exhausted to drive anywhere so I curled up in the front seat of the SUV, ripped off my shoes, socks, and tape and literally breathed a sigh of relief. The heat that had been plaguing my feet suddenly dissipated and I felt some relief. I pulled the blanket over me and slept. Not exactly the sleep of the dead, but I slept enough until I got too cold. That came to be a total of about 6 hours and then the sun was up and so was I.

I ran to the ladies’ room and noticed that without socks and tape on my feet, I felt pretty good. I mean, I felt fantastic! Legs were never an issue. It was all feet, all the time.
Hmm. Why not go for another mile?

So I joined the night of the living dead; the folks who woke up and decided to go for a few more laps in their pajamas or whatever was handy, like the flannel bottoms from our swag. Only this time I wasn’t hobbling along, I was moving. I was moving well!
I picked up Michele and Cathy who came out for coffee and to get Michele’s last laps. We got Michele to mile 62 and we kept on going.

All total, the last morning of my 48 hours, I got seven more miles in for a total of 70 miles! That is 70!! Seventy, hard-earned, embrace the suck, miles!! With some of my new best friends!!!
Thanks to the McNulty’s (race directing team), volunteers who stayed out there making us breakfast, soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, and just generally anything you needed. Thanks to all the friends and crews who came out to support their friends and family, but also supported every other runner, and thanks to all those runners who I had the honor and privilege to spend so many one-mile loops with just talking and laughing, and even crying with. You made this event!

When it is all said and done then you have the awards and that camaraderie you shared with so many amazing people continues as you cheer on everyone who left their head, heart, and feet out on that unforgiving asphalt. (That's me sitting down in the back wearing only one of my hats and I'm sure my very smelly clothes.)
Did I say I would never do this again? Well, there’s another saying, “Never say never.” And if you are a runner, especially an ultrarunner, you know that adage holds very true.
Cuz, yes, I will do 3 Days at the Fair again. Only I will probably do 72 hours and I will “Get comfortable being uncomfortable.”

It’s not about the speed, it’s about the adventure!!! And this was one heck of an adventure.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Writing prompt Wednesday

A little motivation to kickstart your muse.

I give you the beginning of a sentence and you run with it. Write the first thing that pops into your head and see how far it takes you; a paragraph, a page, an entire chapter. Who knows, it may be the beginning to your next great novel.

Whatever you come up with, just have fun with it and enjoy the free writing time. If you feel like sharing then send your writing in the comments. If you feel like keeping to yourself then that's okay, too.

Have fun and write!

Writing Prompt: The body left drag marks...

Monday, February 20, 2017

50 mile run, beautiful weather, and my father

Fifty miles, beautiful weather, and my father all equal an amazing day!

I signed up for the Iron Horse Ultra in Palatka, FL months ago with the hopes of doing better than last year and not having to slush through puddles and feeling like a drowned rat and spending the weekend with my dad.

My dad picked me up at the airport the day before the run where we then stopped by the family home to say hi to mom, sister, and nephew before taking our time to get to Palatka. Gorgeous drive with very little to see besides forest. I'd say that set the tone for the event since the majority of the race took place through trees.

You never know what the weather will bring. This year, I ran the Iron Horse ultra without rain, without puddle after puddle and wet feet. The weather was almost perfect. Started out in the low 40s and quickly climbed to over 70. Love the sunshine! Not so much the heat. But it wasn't too bad. Had I been at the beach I would have been in heaven.

Oh, did I mention I forgot my running hat at home? Talk about a pain in the butt. Luckily the team at Iron Horse had a visor for sale, which took some rigging with safety pins to fit my small head. It worked! Thank goodness.

The course of the Iron Horse Ultra is beautiful and ever-changing. The first six miles are paved rail trail. From the start you do a 1.75 mile out and then back for 3.5 miles then you have another 2.5 miles of pavement before reaching a dirt road. I love the 50 yards of packed dirt. Can we run on this all day?

The answer is no.

The next section is 1.5 miles of trail at a slight incline to Aid Station 2. This section is dirt, grass, sand, roots. It makes it for an interesting section where you tend to look down, especially when you start the second loop and your legs are tired. But this is still my favorite section of the trail. Especially when returning back to the start-finish line.

Aid Station 2 is the main aid station that you hit 3 times during the course of one loop. Each loop has many out and back sections; most of which return to Aid Station 2. Aid Station 2 is fully manned and fully stocked from sugary sweets, salty chips, fresh fruit and PB&J sandwiches. There is also several people recording the fact that you came through.

Here is where my dad met me and gave me my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. For a girl who cannot eat gluten, this is a serious treat and the only time I get to eat this type of real food. Ready to head East on a six mile loop (3 miles out and back), I told dad to feel free to head out to the hotel to relax and I would text him when I was headed back down to the start-finish.

The East trail is, in my opinion the most challenging of the entire run. I heard one group of runners comment that due to the changing terrain it was difficult to get a good rhythm. I concur!

While it is flat, the changing landscape is a killer. You first hit gravel, then a section of packed dirt that is dug in by trucks that travel through the forest. This part is actually nice. You kind of enjoy the trees and the greenery and your smiling because the day is just fabulous. Then you hit more sand and look for the packed sand so your feet don't slide out from beneath you as you try to run.

And then...sugar sand.

If you've never seen sugar sand, just look in your sugar bowl or to the image to the left. Not kidding! It's pretty and white, but impossible to get good footing. On the first loop all you care about is the beauty that is surrounding you and you love the white sand surrounded by trees and notice the camo site to your right that actually has campers grilling breakfast. I almost went over and asked to join them.

There is no aid station on the East loop, but there is a table with a jug of water and cups. I think everyone is grateful for this because it gives us a point to know that not only are you going in the right direction but a marker to know how far you are from Aid Station 2.

Speaking of markers. The course is extremely well-marked with pink tape hanging from trees and bright yellow pie plates. The pie plates have directional arrows on them pointing the way. Of course, the markers are only good if you look up and not at the sand.

After the six miles on the East loop I returned to Aid Station 2 and was surprised to see my dad. But wow, did that make me happy. We had a quick chat and I refueled then I was off for an eight mile (4 miles out and back) loop on the West side.

The West loop consists of a little more packed dirt and less sugar sand. Thank goodness. I love this side! But the first thing you notice on the West loop occurs about a quarter mile in when an odor hits you. You look around in search of the cause and that's when you discover the charred dirt and the remnants of a forest fire. Black dirt and life. It's amazing to see how mother nature can be so cruel and at the same time so strong and resilient. Kind of like the human soul, I think as I stroll past in awe.

This section of the trail also has water off to one side and you have to wonder where it came from when all that surrounds you is trees and sand. Then, after four miles and several turns you hit Aid Station 3. The first time at Aid Station three it is manned by some kids in ROTC. They do a terrific job of checking you in and asking if you want or need anything. Also, at Aid Station 3 is the only "real" bathroom. No port-a-john! The fact that you get to wash your hands and have a little more than elbow room is pure luxury and you swear that this little creature comfort has been heaven sent.

After a rest stop, I get a handful of Pringles and a chocolate chip cookie and head back the four miles to Aid Station 2 where my father is waiting for me. It was really great to see him there. I tell him to get some food for himself as yes, Aid Station 2 is starting up the grill and is there for the runners and the crews. Only four miles from here and I have hit loop one and 25 miles.

Then we start again with the 1.75 miles out and back. On the out portion I am pretty much by myself; all the runners are spread out and I occasionally see one or two. In this section I notice these gigantic black birds. Lost of them! As I get a little closer I stay to the right as I am a tad fearful. Ever see the Alfred Hitchcock film, "The Birds"?  Yeah, okay, I do not want to be eaten. "Please do NOT eat me," I chant as I draw near and realize the birds are lunching on a dead deer. Ick! Oh, yeah, I ran past that.

At 3.5 miles into the second loop back at the start-finish, I take 30 minutes to re-apply New Skin and add some toe caps. For whatever reason, my feet swell well beyond normal so no matter what I do I get blisters, even with double toes socks and yes, even after adding in toe caps. After changing socks and shoes and another restroom break, I get to spend a little time chatting with dad while he refills my hydration vest.

So far dad's day has consisted of getting up at 4:30 AM, driving me to the event, driving between Aid Station 1 and 2, sitting in his car for hours reading a JD Robb book I got him for Christmas, and greeting me every time I come thru and asking me what I need. While I can't believe he is doing this and only doing this because I'm out there, I am ever so grateful for my dad, for his support and his cheerleader attitude.

Then I am off for Aid Station 2 where dad will meet me once again. At Aid Station 2 it's getting darker now so I grab a headlamp and spare batteries, and the temperature is starting to go down so I grab a fleece and windbreaker.

Halfway thru the East loop for the second time the sun is starting to set so I stop to soak in the beauty and snap a picture. In doing so, I also decide that my sports bra is adding to the chill. With a quick glance around I decide to strip in the middle of the woods and lose the sports bra before slipping the fleece on. Sorry, no pictures of that, but I'm guessing the bears had a good show.

The sugar sand is pretty in the moonlight, and at the same time more frustrating on your footing. And I swear I kept looking for the pink tape and yellow markers. Everything seemed to be a lot further apart the second loop. When I return to Aid Station 2 I know the blisters have started but they aren't bad. YET! So I grab a PB&J and another, heavier jacket, because yes, it is freaking cold, hug my dad and head out for the second West loop.

This is the section where I ran into a runner who was going to quit after her first 25 miles. We ran into each other on the out and back section near the start-finish and chatted for a few. I suggested she not make a decision until she hit Aid Station 2 again. So while I was out somewhere near mile 38ish or so I saw her coming back at me and we stopped for a few minutes. I was glad to see her and congratulated her on not giving up.

She said, "You tricked me."

"How'd I do that?"

"You knew if I made it to Aid Station 2 I wouldn't quit until I got back to the finish."

I grinned. "I only hoped. Congratulations on the 50 miler!"

Then she took off.

The best part of this eight miles on the West loop for the second time was Aid Station 3 and the volunteers. First off, you are greeted by flashing, blinking colored lights and loud, ever so uplifting music. I was surprised and at the same time thrilled. As I enter and they get my take my number to track me they are offering me soup and sandwich in front of a roaring fire.

First things first. Potty break! After I wash up then you bet I took them up on the warm fire and the chicken noodle soup. Soup never tasted so good! I sat there talking with another runner and the volunteers for a good 10 to 15 minutes and it was like once again heaven had dropped just what we needed in the middle of nowhere. Then the volunteers wished me luck and I was off again.

Back at Aid Station 2 my dad met me. I stripped off the toes caps because they weren't helping and then he and I warmed up by the fire for a few minutes. I'm excited because only 4 miles and I am at mile 50. Woohoo!

I take off and dad is going to meet me at the start-finish. My goal was for 62 miles but as I trudge along the paved rail trail path and another blister pops inside my shoe sending a sharp pain into my foot I think there is no way. Not because of the blisters, but because of the snails pace I am moving because of the blisters.

I am moving so slow, thanks to blisters that I don't think I have time to meet the cutoff to hit that goal so once I make it to the finish line I have to decide to go on and get more blisters and not make the cutoff or call it a day and a job well done at 50 miles. It was 12 miles better than last year.

While my goal was 62 miles, I was very excited for the 50 miles. My dad was real excited too. He gave me the biggest hug and had to take my picture with the medal. That was the longest run I've done with him being there and it was the best day because I got to share the experience with him and he got to see what ultra runners and ultra running is about.

Ultra running is about a community of people who want to challenge themselves and encourage like minded people. Whether a fast runner or a slow plodder (like me); it doesn't matter. You are out there giving it your best shot and you are doing something very few people would even think about doing. Especially when most people will say, "I don't even like to drive my car 50 miles."

Ultra running is a journey. It's not just the distance, it's the people, the scenery, the becoming one with nature and the discovery of yourself. It's the ability to leave your everyday life behind you for hours and just be. It's the challenge to push yourself to do more each time or to do better; depending on your goal. It's taking the time to get to know yourself, and your body and to continue to grow and learn. It's respect for other runners, the volunteers, the race directors, the crews that are out there supporting their runner, and it's the self-respect for yourself.

There is so much to be gained and learned by running an ultra and absolutely nothing to lose. Even if you do not finish.

I got my medal for my 50 miles and dad packed me in the car and off to the hotel we went for a good night's sleep.

It's not until 2 days later that I realize I actually could have made the cutoff for my 62 miles, but my mind had been such mush that I couldn't calculate the distance and time. Ha!

Note to self: have someone else do the math for you. Oh, well, next time.

This was a race for the books, not just because of the beautiful environment, and the fabulous volunteers, and other runner. This race was for the books because I did it with my dad. While he had not been running with me, he had been my support and my crew for almost 20 hours by the time we got back to the hotel. I hope my father knows how much his being there with me meant and how this will be my favorite race for that reason alone.

And dad, next year, we will do the 62 miles! Cuz now I know how to multiply when my brain isn't fuzzed over from lack of sleep and blistered feet. Thank you for being there and sharing this event.

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