Publicly, the goal I'd set for the Stone Mill 50 was 10 hours. This is what I'd told my friends and co-workers, and what I'd convinced myself would make me happy. I crossed the finish line at 9 hours and 26 minutes, comfortably succeeding in this regard and feeling extremely satisfied. On the other hand, I'd failed in the pursuit of my super secret goal – the one I'd only shared with the devil on my shoulder. Missing it by only 26 minutes isn't exactly a miserable failure, but given my halfway splits were 4 hours and 5.5 hours, I have to admit I'm a little disappointed I couldn’t finish in 9 hours. And I'm ready to point the finger.
At my belly. Actually, no, my belly was willing, but my brain was concerned with other things. Apparently when I'm tired, I forget to eat. It doesn't matter how many training guides you read, or podcasts you listen to. Or to what degree you've convinced yourself BEFORE the race that you need 200-300 calories per hour. It doesn't matter how grand your designs, if you don't execute. And I didn't execute. The really unfortunate thing was that I didn't know it until it was already too late.
I'll be the first to admit that going in, I didn't have a complete fueling strategy. This is more due to my lack of experience than anything else. I had the framework of one and I'd certainly practiced eating solid foods during my long runs, but I just had no idea what would be provided at the aid stations, or for that matter, what I would want to eat after 28 miles, 35 miles, and 43 miles.
What I did know was this. Early in a run, I can usually consume 300 calories an hour. In my marathon training, this meant most of a handheld of Gatorade and two shots of Just Plain Gu. Obviously though, I wasn't going to spend my 50-miler eating a full case of Gu. For one, that's a lot of caffeine (not a big fan of the other flavors). For two, I was limited by what I could carry in my pack. For three, ewww, that's a lot of goo. So, early in training, I learned to substitute some of those Gu for Clif Bars. I'd still run into the problem of limited space in my race vest, but my "strategy" was to carry a few hours worth of calories via Clif Bars and Gu shots, consume additional calories via Gatorade, and supplement with aid station foods.
Excepting one hiccup, this worked great for the first three hours! I efficiently made my way over the rolling single-track trail, walking all the steep inclines and letting gravity pull me quickly down the declines. The day was cool and sunny, the course was well-marked, and the creeks and streams had mostly recovered from Hurricane Sandy. The one hiccup though: the temperature at start time was about 35-degrees. In and of itself, this shouldn't have been a big deal, I was more than adequately dressed. But holy crap, it takes a lot of effort to chew a semi-frozen Clif Bar!
At first, I just dealt with it, huffing and puffing as I chewed and chewed and chewed. After two and a half Clif Bars though, bonking my face off, I'd had enough. I doubled up on Gu and decided to start making better use of the aid station cuisine starting at mile 25, earlier than I'd expected. The problem was that while I'd decided to make better use, I wasn't actually making better use. I got to the mile 25 aid station hoping to find a bagel or a banana, but found PB&Js, Oreos, and M&Ms. After four hours of running, these options just didn't sound appealing, so I sucked down another Gu and made for the next aid station, three miles away.
Cookies, Snickers, Pringles, and grilled cheese sandwiches this time. Those grilled cheese sandwiches were tempting, but I'd never trained with greasy foods and wasn't sure how my stomach would handle it, so "Do you guys have any bananas?" "No, but we have a few potatoes left." By this point, I was in serious need of calories, and so it was that these potatoes were the sweetest, most delicious anything I'd eaten in forever. I had gotten to the point of being hungry, swollen, and irritable, but this faded away with each little nugget I consumed. Wow. Potatoes boiled in salt water. Who knew?
This, a couple more gels, and the knowledge that I'd soon be seeing Ama and Nugget got me to the mile 35 aid station. I had already decided that I would hang out for a bit, eat some, chat a little, and handoff all my extraneous gear. The extra few ounces of weight from my jacket, gloves, and knee-high compressions socks had become an increasingly heavy burden as I tired. Five minutes, a few hugs, a banana, some ginger ale, and lots of Gatorade later, I headed off to the mile 38 aid station.
Thank goodness for Gatorade. Looking back now, I realize the only reason the wheels didn't completely come off was due to the thousands of calories I was getting from Gatorade. But why I'm only realizing it now is unknown - the evidence was right in front of my face.
I left the mile 35 aid station in relatively good shape, but was already pretty worn by the time I got to the next aid station three miles later. The hills were wearing me down more and more quickly. I was starting to trip on even the smallest of rocks, including one time, while speeding downhill ("speeding" might be overstating things), I kicked a root and went flying. Literally. My arms extended out in front of me like Superman, I hit the ground belly first and slid through the leaves about ten feet, scuffing up my knees and chin. I was so short on calories, I was having trouble lifting my feet up high enough to get over the smallest obstacles. I was really in need of some more potatoes and Gatorade. What I got was a single pretzel and water.
Despite the little cheat sheet I'd made for myself indicating which were which, I'd completely forgotten that some aid stations were full aid stations and some, like this one, only had water. In fact, it was a stroke of luck that they'd even had pretzels. As I entered the clearing at mile 38, I was sooo happy to see this little folding table and immediately sooo sad to find out they didn't have Gatorade. But then I was happy to see they had pretzels, I love pretzels. But then I felt betrayed! Apparently, pretzels really (really) dry you out when you're already dehydrated. It only took one pretzel to completely gum up my mouth. Tired and grumpy, I trudged on.
I'd already bonked one or two times now, but the next five miles set the bar for just how low I could get during a run. I'd made a HUGE mistake not knowing my aid stations. And what's more, I had had and given to Ama two packets of Gatorade powder I didn't think I'd need, and was now kicking myself for that error in judgment. The five miles from mile 38 to 43 were just brutal. I would have completely fallen apart if not for three things. First, I was inadvertently paced by a younger woman who seemed to be bonking just as hard as I. For no particular reason, I decided to try to keep up with her. If I hadn't, I could definitely imagine this section going from 70 minutes to 100. Second, I was going to see Ama and Nugget again. I recognize how childish this is, but I really couldn't wait to have open ears to complain to. I was tired and hungry and grumpy, what better relief is there than to complain to a sympathetic ear? Finally, I met my first trail angel.
This young woman and I were holding our slow pace for three miles or so, when I'd just about had enough. I left the last aid station maintaining the intent to walk the uphills, and running the flats and downhills. Unfortunately though, my definition of "uphill" was changing with every additional mile. Now, I was walking more and more of the flats, such that, when a round, shirtless, late middle-aged man approached me from behind, I stepped off the trail with the full intention of stopping (and remaining stopped) to take a nice, long, motionless breather. This guy came out of nowhere. It wasn't until he was within fifteen feet of me that I heard the even, persistent rattle of... I don't know... aspirin(?) in his waistpack. I mumbled something insignificant like, "Good job, Dude," as he glided effortlessly by me. And in a quiet way that was calm and crystal clear, he replied, "You too. Stay with me now." I'm not really sure what he meant. It was probably just generic hyperbole, like, "Keep it up!" But for some reason, I determined that he'd seen something weak and fragile in me and that he would help guide me through this low point. So, I got back on the trail and stayed with him. The young woman had gotten a ways ahead, but we caught up to her in short order. Apparently, she too was in a tough spot - she had just run out of water and was getting antsy about the distance to the next aid station. The shirtless man didn't know how far it was, but, "Here, have the rest of my water." She did and he took off up the next hill, leaving the both of us in a much better position than we'd been in just a few miles before. Moments later, I reached the mile 43 aid station and the whole race changed.
Nugget was sleeping in the car, but I spent a few moments complaining to Ama, who listened and encouraged me to stop worrying about the clock and take as long as I needed to get to the finish. And just like that, as though she’d commanded it, my watch died. Which was awesome. I could no longer over-scrutinize my agonizingly slow pace every two-tenths of a mile. I drank some Gatorade, refilled, and drank some more. Then a volunteer offered me some "nectar of the gods," and I was off again.
That's not really what he said, but I'm pretty sure that's what he meant to say. I was handed a styrofoam cup of overboiled ramen noodles and broth, which I downed quickly and excitedly. Too excitedly. I had to walk the next ten minutes to keep from throwing up, but suddenly... Suddenly, I was exploding with energy. I was actually running the flats again. And bounding down the declines. And even passing people!
I have no proof of this because my watch was conveniently persona non grata, but I'm pretty sure the last seven miles were my fastest all day. I had energy again. My body didn't hurt. And because I was finally repeating trail I had run earlier that morning, I sensed the nearing finish line.
At one point during this stretch, I came upon an older woman hiking toward me and pulled over to let her pass. "What are you doing?" she said. "No, I stop for YOU. You get back on that trail and start running. Go. Go. Go. Go. Go!" I smiled, thanked trail angel #2, and took off.
Where the distance from miles 38 to 43 seemed to take forever, miles 43 to the finish flew by. It was only moments later that I heard some chatter in the near distance - an announcer had just congratulated a runner finishing ahead of me. I came out from behind the trees to see the finish line, took Nugget into my arms, and he and I crossed together at 9 hours 26 minutes.
I cannot over-emphasize how satisfying it was to cross the finish line. I was my own hero for that moment. Completely spent, but in the best way possible. So spent that I decided to never ever do this wonderful horrible thing ever again. Ever.
Until I changed my mind three days later. I finally recovered enough to go on my recovery run (ironic, right?), and started thinking about what I could have done differently. Eat! I should have been eating from the very first aid station. The reason I didn't feel like eating was because I was tired, and the reason I was tired was because I wasn't eating! To make things worse, despite everything I read suggesting I should do otherwise, I waited until I really needed calories to try to consume them. I waited until it was already too late! I need to be more proactive next time, and I need something that takes longer to digest than sugar. Part of the problem was the calorie deficit (obviously), but part of the problem was the mental fatigue of feeling hungry. FOR HOURS! Next time, I'll be sure to have Ama special deliver some bagels or a turkey sandwich or something. And next time, my super secret goal time will be 8 hours 30 minutes!