I have enjoyed writing this blog over the past year, and often have been pleasantly surprised at the relationships and encouragement it has brought me. Early on it was a huge catalyst in getting people involved with the Memorial 100 and gained me invaluable friendships with people that have since become a huge part of my life, like Heather Duncan, who randomly stumbled across this and has since become a great friend.
What I didn't expect was for people to continue to be interested in my running exploits that weren't as flashy as those of Memorial Day. However after I published my race report for the Columbus Marathon my blog hits increased exponentially and more and more people started approaching me about my running and also sharing their stories and goals in the sport. Debbie Talbott read that same blog after I posted it on the marathons Facebook page, and approached me about wanting to run her first ultramarathon. I love helping people get into running ultras... they are such a unique experience to be a part of that you almost can't help but to want other people to do them too.
I gave her as much advice as I could, in addition to a loose outline of how she should train, and promised I would help her reach her goal. I picked the Bigfoot 50K, even though I had never heard anything about it, because it was local and soon enough that we could both piggyback off of our recent training for other races.
I contemplated at first to let her run her own race and I run mine, having my part be limited to the pre-race preparations, mostly because I had delusions of being able to secure a top 10 finish. I should have never even considered that approach though, for several reasons. One, finishing in the top 10 really was a delusion, at least this year anyways. Two, there is no way to prepare someone for the mental battle that takes place during a race of that length. Finally, if she would have failed, it would have been because I didn't see her through to the finish. The only reason I signed up for the race was her, so it was selfish to have had thoughts of letting her do it on her own.
After injuring my left ankle at the Masochist, my decision was made for me. There was no way I would be fast enough to compete without all the speed work I had to forfeit in the last 3 weeks because of my ankle. My goal now, as it should have been all along, was to do whatever it took to get Debbie her first 50K finish. Another surprise came when I found out that my friend, Tad Inboden, would be running the race too. I had spent a large portion of the Columbus Marathon with him, and this was to be his first ultra as well. He was coming off of an impressive first marathon finish of 3:28:49, which was a solid 12 minutes faster than me. I knew Debbie and I probably wouldn't be staying with Tad, but it was nice to know that another friend was going for their first. In addition to Tad and Debbie, my recent acquaintance and future training buddy Mike Keller, was going to attempt to get a 50K PR at the Bigfoot.
Leading into the race I knew my fitness level was down, but I didn't see it as any significant issue as I wasn't going full bore anyhow. I had finished the Masochist less than a month prior and even with my ankle, I had gotten 3 or 4 runs in between. This was not going to be like the Masochist, so I wasn't worried. However, just days prior to the race, illness had hit both Debbie and myself, depleting our rest and caloric base. Doing these things isn't always this suspenseful, but I assure you, there is always going to be something that doesn't go your way. It's just the nature of it.
I failed at my attempts at sleeping before the race, so I decided to spend the night at the coffee house until I had to start my 4am drive to Lore City. What was more unexpected was a 3am text message from Debbie, who was already at the Salt Fork Lodge, asking me to pick up some pepto bismal on my way out. The race hadn't begun, but the struggle was already in full swing.
Upon my arrival, the last minute checks began and the start was imminent. I met up with Debbie and her husband Naryan, as well as Tad, his wife and sister in law. I went over some tips, got Tad hooked up with a better hydration plan, and went outside in the windy, snowy, 27 degree weather to kick it all off.
No one could hear a word the race director was saying to us, so Tad and I spent the last 10 minutes making sarcastic comments and jokes. Our journey began with a very short parking lot run, before turning into the woods, where we would spend most of the day. As the crowd thinned out, the packs began to emerge. Debbie was having a difficult time finding her rhythm, so we were having a hell of a time staying with a pack to pace off of for the first part of the race. The course was surprisingly technical, with a good variety of short climbs and descents, as well as long stretches of really runnable single track. There was a couple small creek crossings here and there, but overall an extremely quick course, that was fairly interesting. The first few miles contained the bulk of the ascents, but there were no ball breakers to be found, which I was thankful for. At the midway point of the first loop, Debbie was starting to have some stomach issues, that were still manageable at the time. We passed up the first aid station, that was supposedly right around the 5-mile mark but in reality was closer to 6 miles. That was kind of deceiving the first time around, because I started to become a bit concerned about our pace. There was probably a good mile long stretch of pavement in the middle of the loop, that I wasn't particularly fond of. I find asphalt in the middle of a trail run to be monotonous. The second "half" of the first loop back to the lodge I had to coax Debbie into more running than she wanted to do as her stomach issues continued to worsen. Knowing that Naryan was waiting with more pepto bismal and two cups of chicken broth was probably more motivating than my attempts, but she pushed hard through the much easier second half. We had one nearly cataclysmic set back when we reached a confusing jumble of ribbons that weren't exactly clear. There were runners coming and going in multiple directions, so we chose the path that looked like it made sense. We were wrong. Luckily someone saw our mistake and directed us back to the correct turn that would take us up to the lodge. Although they could have marked it a bit better, this was mostly my fault for not reviewing the course map. Instead of a true loop, it was a lollipop course, which I might have noticed at the start if it had been light outside the first time we came down into it. We probably ran 10 extra minutes with the mistake, but in the end it wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been.
We rolled into the first checkpoint at just over 2 hours, well on pace for a solid finish. I knew we would slow down, which was fine, as we had a 2-hour cushion. The break at the lodge was probably a bit longer than it should have been, but we ran into Mikayla, one of Debbie's friends who was running the race as well. All of us fueled up, took a little breather, and took comfort that the next aid station we would see was the half-way mark. Debbie was a bit emotional at this point, probably just beginning to question herself, but she was still in good shape. Mikayla decided to stick with us after the lodge, so we formed our own 3-person pack and took back off into the woods.
After we descended into the woods, made a creek crossing, and went through the turn we had preemptively made just 20 minutes before, Debbie began to deteriorate quickly. Her stomach was leading a coup d'état against the rest of her body, and she began to really fight the battle I had anticipated she would see at some point during the 32 miles. I've fought the same fight before, and even lost it a couple times, so I knew we might be in big trouble. Ailments like this in a race usually come in hard and quick, but typically if you outlast them they will go away. This isn't always the case, but I feigned certainty in my reassurances to her so that she would keep going. One of the most important lessons of running ultras was taught on that second loop: forward progress, however slow it might be, is infinitely better than stopping to take a break. It sounds easy on paper, but when you are experiencing a whole new level of pain, it doesn't matter if you're in the middle of the woods, you just want to stop moving. It was a real struggle to keep her moving so that we could get to the aid station, she had determined it was a lack of food that was causing her issues, so that's what we were after. That's another lesson, when your main goals look to be out of reach, set short ones that you can convince yourself of. Debbie was determined to get to the station, but the look on her face told me that she wasn't planning on going any further. I called her out on it, because if you deal with the dark thoughts by yourself, they'll win. When we finally made it, she was emotional again, and drew quite a bit of attention from the volunteers who, by the way, were great, as they always are during ultras. She got enough confidence at the aid station that we left without too much of a hold up. Mikayla looked like she was doing great, but I briefly had some dark thoughts of my own. I didn't share them at the time, because I knew they'd be like a cancer, but my ankle was beginning to hurt like hell and I was almost to the point of hoping I wouldn't be able to convince Debbie to go on past the second loop, because I wouldn't have minded dropping myself out with her. As we ran on the asphalt towards the re-entry to the trail, Debbie stopped briefly to convince us to go back to the aid station so she could drop. It didn't take much prodding to change her mind, as I used Naryan's location against her. I convinced her to get back to the lodge. I'm not sure what thoughts Mikayla was having, but she picked up her pace and vanished ahead of us into the woods. After a small climb at the trailhead Debbie surprised the hell out of me and started a solid running campaign of about 20 or 25 minutes. We started catching people, and for the first time without my lead, we were passing them. I love these points in the race. You just went through hell, came out on top, and now you're in the zone. We ran without talking, I chuckled to myself knowing that she broke through her wall, and I didn't dare interrupt it. We caught up to Mikayla and Debbie took lead over her and we began running as a pack again. The last half of that second loop was our fastest section of the race. I wasn't sure what Debbie would do once we reached the lodge, but I knew we were still in good shape for a finish. We reached the lodge around the 5 hour mark, leaving 3 hours to finish the final 10.4 mile loop. Debbie had enough fuel back in her tank for motivation that there wasn't even a fight to get her to go back out again. We again refueled and set out on the last loop.
Knowing you have 3-hours is a good thing to get you to venture on, but a bad thing to make you push. We could have conceivably walked the last loop, but I wasn't going to let it come to that. We let Debbie lead the rest of the way for two reasons, the first was that she seemed to make a stronger effort when she was out front, and secondly, we wanted her to be able to dictate the alternation between running and walking. The final lap was without incident, and my role as a motivational speaker was lessened. We walked as we pleased, and it took little effort to incite short sections of running. When we came to the aid station for the final time, we were all in good spirits and had an hour and a half to complete the section that we had most recently done in around 45 minutes. I began to push for a sub 7:30 finish against Debbie's will. We were at a point where we were certain of a finish, so it was a bit of a challenge to convince her to run, because in theory we probably didn't have to. As we saw the mess of ribbons that had delayed us hours before, we were in the homestretch. One last hurrah to the end. As we came to the top of the hill where the trail leads to the parking lot Mikayla picked up her pace for a running finish, I stayed back with Debbie until the final 30 yards and took off, and Debbie ran in for her first ultra finish.
It was cold, muddy, snowed almost the entire time, and sucked for a good portion of the day, but the results were amazing. Debbie and Mikayla both finished their first ultra in just over 7 hours and 30 minutes, and I finished my 4th ultra, and second 50K. It took me an hour more to find out that Tad had finished his first 50K at 6:17 and Mike Keller set a personal record of 5:59:08.
This was a great race on a decent course, and I think I might try my hand at it again next year. However, now that Tad and Debbie have skimmed the water, the goal I intend to impose on them is that fabled 50 Horton miles of Masochism in the mountains of Virginia.
My next scheduled race is the Shamrock Marathon in March... but I have a funny feeling that you won't have to wait that long for another race report.