I am not going to tell you why I ran fifty miles over eleven and a half hours in the woods last Saturday. I’ll leave it to you to conjure in your head an image of me, whatever context you normally see me in – a sensible wool skirt and boring grey sweater… and now picture me in some tatty Nike shorts over a pair of underarmour tights, a black “Run With The Beavers Trail Race” T-shirt, plaid pink arm warmers and a pink “Pinnacle Trail Ultra” Smart wool hat. If this does not jibe with your usual Curious Monkey sighting, then you are in for a treat, because this is the me I sometimes refer to on Monday mornings. Now you will know the secret of why I come in to work with glowing eyes, scraped knees and bruised elbows. Yes. I run (and often trip and fall) in the dirt. Often far. Mostly slowly.
Stone Cat Trail Races happens every year, usually the first or second Saturday in November, and features two races: a trail marathon (26.2 miles), and a fifty miler. A few months ago, after finishing Wakely Dam Ultra, in one of those punk-post-ultra fevers, I placed my name in a lottery and out came a spot to register for this puppy. So yay. Which now meant that all of my training focus had to somehow incorporate a lot more miles beyond the Portland Marathon. Well, O.K. then!
we do 4 of these loops.
I just want to say before any of this that I really dug the training for this race, especially the last intense month of late September and October where for four weekends straight, Tom and I got out on the Vin Gormley (Little Rhody Runaround route) trail in Burlingame. I got to know that trail very, very well. One fine Saturday I did it four times. I think this is the thing that made Stone Cat so great for me, because Burlingame is physically and mentally demanding, as well as beautiful. It’s not hilly, but it’s unforgiving and complex and stippy-steppy. And although I rarely see Tom while I run, because he is far ahead of me and much faster, there was something about being out there and knowing he was also out there that was very cool. I also got out on some nice road runs with my road pals, a couple of good long rides with my bike buddies, ran a “destination” marathon with some other good friends, and was inspired by incredible endurance feats by a couple of Trail Animals I look up to. Surrounded by so much girly (all of these friends are girls, btw) goodness (the toughest goddess kind of goodness) gave me some awesome pocket superpowers to pull out when shit would inevitably get low at Stone Cat. In addition to the mental game being strengthened by all that, I spent those two months eating some heavy duty carbs and not feeling anything weird about it… I just ate like an offensive lineman and no apologies for it. Learning to run with a fistful of oreos, half a banana, and a few chugs of gatorade is an acquired skill.
The day of Stone Cat arrived and I was prepared. Because I was going to a conference and flying out of Boston the next day, I had developed a very complicated spreadsheet packing list and nothing was left off of it. I was a crew of one, a project manager and narrator of this very silly story. As my alarm clock beep-bop-blee-nee-weeeeeee-doo‘d, I rose quickly and barked at my crew in the mirror to get her shit IN GEAR. Within a half hour I had gooped my feet and chafe-prone bits in diaper creme, dressed, pinned my number on, and gone down to the Comfort Inn’s dining room, where the good staff, indubitably jazzed up on Red Bull, had opened four or five bags of bagels and plugged the waffle makers in. It was 4 a.m. and that place was hopping with Runners and Their Handlers, including dogs (I love a dog-friendly Comfort Inn). Sleepy children and partners-of-runners sat bleary eyed over coffee while their Runners picked at oatmeal. I sat where I could and nibbled a plain bagel with peanut butter. Janet, another awesome trail runner from Rhode Island, came to say hello and introduce her friend who was running the marathon. I didn’t hang out too long, because I just can’t. My crew lugged her gear up and headed out. I sure hope she didn’t forget to print out the DIRECTIONS! Sigh.
At the start, after parking, my inept crew lugged my crap to the left of the ball field, which, now I know, would have been better on the other side, but whatever, I forgive me. Then my crew complained that she couldn’t see shit and WHERE IS MY HEADLAMP? I set everything up, and without warning, the sun popped up and it was almost time to go.
crew monkey tells me I pack all wrong.
My friend Liana, who was running her second fifty in as many weeks, was nowhere to be seen. The night before, she had texted that she was waiting on the mail for her headlamp which still had not arrived, even though she’d had it overnight shipped. I sent a wish to the gods that she managed to get it, and that she would get to the start in time. I recognized a couple of TARC folks at the start, one who came over to say hello and wish me luck, who was doing his nnnnnnth? Stone Cat. His kind smile put me at ease. I patted myself on the back and told myself “Good Luck! See you at the end of the loop!” and the crew in me went and sat down in a chair and took a nap. The Runner Monkey me lined up, listened to the good man tell us some last minute race details, and we were off.
I sat back a little to let the fasties go first. We all ran across the field and then stopped at a bottleneck in the woods. I’ve read that in years past, this race started in the dark. Well, since it was after daylight savings, it was light out, making it certain we would be ending in the dark. I thought about this and tried to calculate at what point or loop this would occur for me as I listened to two women chatting ahead of me. I introduced myself and the three of us ran together the first few miles. The route comes up a double track, hooks left into the woods, and heads up an incline for the next mile or so. We all walked fast for that mile. At the top, one of the girls and I broke out in a light (very conservatively paced) run, which I maintained for the rest of the day, for the most part.
At two miles in, I got passed by Liana. She was heading up a hill. HEY! I yelled. She slowed a little and explained she had been late to the start. She then took off ahead taking my new friend with her, and I hung back, thinking I would see her on the downhill. I did, but then not again for a long while.
At four miles in, the first aid station was playing Tom Petty. They were already partying although it was about seven thirty in the morning. I clapped with delight when I saw they had cheez-its, fig newtons and oreos – exactly the foods I had been training with the past two months. I loaded up, drank a cup of gatorade, topped off my water, and ran on.
When I came to a hill, I hiked up, and then bombed down. It is my way.
I started running with a dude called Loring, who was tall with grasshopper legs. He had a pretty good pace going and I got behind him and tried to stick it out. Eventually, I realized I would not be able to keep the pace up, so I hung back. After awhile, all the runners became fairly spread out. We were still running with the marathoners, so occasionally I would be passed by a fast one, or I would pass a slower runner. Sometimes, I would catch up with someone and we would talk briefly. But mostly, I just ran my own thing. I had a nice flat fall somewhere around here, but I was lucky, there was no horse poop and the ground was soft.
I came in to the second aid station blowing snot rockets, and I guess I must have impressed them because they all cheered wildly. “Oh My God Look At Her Shirt!” said one and then next thing you know I was surrounded by all of these people who wanted to know about my Run With the Beavers shirt. I told them it was a great trail race in Rhode Island but it was like they weren’t listening, they were just laughing at my shirt. I extracted myself from their grip, afraid they might tear my shirt off, grabbed my cookies and split out of there. Whew!
I caught up with Carin, the girl who had run away with Liana, and she ran me the next five miles. I was glad to have her with me when we ran in to the evil clown on the trail. I don’t know why race organizers think it’s cute to place people in the most terrifying costumes out in the middle of nowhere… no. Nothing wrong with that. Right? I might have overreacted a little but nearly punched the poor guy when he revealed himself to be animated and not just the stuffed shape of an evil clown.
photo courtesy farnorthendurance.com from a 2013 race.
The photo above is not my clown, but you get the idea. I screeched, much to his satisfaction, and Carin and I boogied to get past him onto the right turn onto single track. Carin stayed with me all the way to the end of the loop. She was great company and I liked talking and running with her. I hoped we would run together again, but for the rest of the race, we just saw each other in passing.
As we came down the last half mile of the first loop, I saw first Liana, then Janet, then some of the TARC people who I don’t know that well, but know their faces, heading out for their second loops. I hooted and hollered good wishes, excited to see them and anxious to be done with the first loop. Soon enough, we came down the field, into a chute, across the mat, and around a little horseshoe.
photo courtesy Stone Cat Trail Races. Me coming in from a loop.
I came out of the chute and went down the side of the school to the porto, where I very efficiently took care of business while removing my long sleeved underarmour and replacing my t-shirt. It crossed my mind briefly to change into a different shirt, but I thought those aid station ladies would probably leave me alone the second time around, so I left it on. I ran back and now to the left of the chute to get a Gu out of my bag. All in all it was first loop in 2:33 and out of there by 2:39. As long as I kept these things under three hours, my crew reminded me, I would be all right.
I thanked me, gave me a big hug, and off I went, eating a banana and some cheezits.
The second loop was all on me. At the end of the first big hill, about two miles in, I ate the Gu, thinking it was safely far enough away from the next aid station that I could then have Gatorade (because Gatorade and Gu is like drinking wine and then vodka, and then more wine, and then more vodka…) I met a nice girl with a hydration pack in the next section, and we stayed together awhile. She was exceedingly nice and very cheerful, and this was also her first fifty. We spent the rest of that loop leap-frogging one another. This was also when I got passed by a few of the leaders, which was so cool and also a little demoralizing, but mostly cool. One sprite nearly ran into a tree trying to politely pass me on a downgrade. Before I could ask if he was okay, he was gone. These frontrunners are amazing.
At the first aid station they took my water bottle from me, filled it, and told me to take some pumpkin pie because I only live once. I skipped the pie and took their cheezits, a couple of oreos, a half a banana, and some pretzels. Must appease the monkey.
I got into the flow between the two aid stations and was feeling great. Coming in to the second, I got the same shit all over again about my shirt. “Would you LOOK at her shirt? That shirt is AWESOME!” I thanked them all, because really, THEY were awesome, and we all basked in mutual adoration for one another. Because the volunteers are everything. I wasn’t at the point yet that I was like, I love you guys!!! But I think I knew it was coming. I got my food and skidaddled.
In the last mile of loop two, I suddenly felt what had been a developing hot spot in near my big toe go raw and I knew I had a blister that must have busted. I made a mental note to change my shoes before the next loop, and hoped that would fix the problem. As I passed by the scary clown, he had his mask up and was offering runners Pellegrino. I declined and boogied, still mightily afraid.
And before you can say apes agape at the gate three times fast, I was back at the start/finish. I came out of the chute, ran to my bag and changed into different shoes. I texted Tom and before the siren song of the chair could start calling, I headed out for three. Once again, I did the Gu in the first two miles, and mentally checked that the Hokas seemed to be better than the Cascadias because I no longer felt the blister.
Loop Three was that loop that we all do this for. You know, that blissed-out Pocahontas Nike commercial rolling across hill and dale for miles and miles and miles. It was groovy and fluid. I ran alone and I ran with people. The marathoners were pretty much all done, so it was really quiet out there. Stone walls, leaf-colored trail, rubbly up-trail, some logs to step over. My legs grew tired, like, late afternoon tired, the drowsy tired you get when lying on a beach blanket after a long swim tired. I didn’t see people for long sweeps of time, and when I did, they were also in their zones, so we all respected that and kept to ourselves, for the most part. I noted the trees swaying above me in the wind, the angle of the sun, the beautiful pond, marsh, cattails, woods. In passing a runner, coming down a hill, I fell for the second time that day, this time, a comical face-forward first base slide. I immediately got up and said, I’m OK! And asked the guy I had just passed if he would check to see if my nose was scraped. He said it looked okay. I was worried about showing up all beat up at the conference. Dusting myself off, I thanked him and moved along.
Coming in after the third loop, I got pysched. Because I knew I was going to finish. I had done three, I had survived, I was over the hump. Sure, I was tired, and I had a few hours ahead of me, but I felt pretty good, notwithstanding. I hadn’t really eaten any real food, though, and I was a little dizzy and nauseous. At the start-finish I must have looked pale, because someone plied me with noodle soup and a grilled cheese. I ate that, and started out, but realized I forgot my headlamp. I ran all the way around the chute, back to my bag, texted Tom I was on the final loop, got my light and a long sleeved shirt to wrap around my waist, and off I went. I think it was like 2:45 in the afternoon. Knowing I would be out past dark was weird, because it was still sunny. But it was cooler. As I headed up the hill in the first mile, the nausea disappeared, and I got back into a groove. However, I was definitely tired and I could feel the miles beyond what I had ever done before. At this point I was about at mile 40. Now I wasn’t seeing anyone on the trail. I wondered if I was DFL (Dead Last.) The first aid station was sort of wrapping things up. I thanked them and told them I’d miss them and mentally said goodbye aid station, I wouldn’t be back again today.
In another few miles, I ran in to Liana. It was getting dark, and we didn’t have our lights on yet, but I was just about to put mine on. She was walking, because she had injured her foot. It was painful for her to run downhill. I walked with her a bit and asked her what she wanted to do. She told me that Tony would meet her at the next aid station and walk with her to the finish. She told me to go on ahead and she would see me at the end. She didn’t seem overly upset, but resigned at the fact. She had run a good race up to that point, but knowing she had run fifty at Ghost Train not two weeks before in nine and change hours, her body was likely still recovering from that effort. I ran ahead, popped on my light, and watched the sun go down. At the second aid station, they told me they all voted and my shirt won best shirt at Stone Cat. So while I can’t win the race, I can win the fashion show. It was at that point I got very emotional and was all, I love you guys. Because really. Those volunteers. I am getting choked up just writing this.
Five miles left. Out of the aid station, it got really, really dark all of a sudden. I pulled my overshirt on, took my bearings, and headed out into the night. Without light, the woods took on a new shape, and it was hard to know where I was on the trail. Some landmarks appeared in my headlamp, others completely eluded me, making me constantly second-guess the trail. I looked and looked for those pink ribbons. They were few and far between. At one point, feeling hopelessly off-trail, I noticed a bobbing light ahead and headed toward it, hoping the runner in front of me was on the right track. And then I heard coyotes. first far away, and then much closer. It was both really cool and a little scary. My quads were burning and suddenly, I was pretty much done with the trail. This always happens to me, this moment of being so over a run. But I was prepared. This was the low I had trained for. I conjured images of my friends and family who had sent me wishes for a good run, and thought about them one by one (and you guys seriously I felt like I was receiving telepathic messages so if you were thinking of me around four thirty, then I was receiving.) I thought about a family friend who was sick. I thought about my Mom. I thought about my Dad. I thought about Tom, and how he’d probably like running in the dark and tell me “what’s five more miles?”. Suck it up, Buttercup. I thought about a project at work. Not noble or poetic but it would have to do. I thought about those cute freaking dogs of mine. I thought about LMB, or rather worried for her, because that is what we mothers do. But she is tough and honest and creative and I know deep down that she is just fine, because we raised her that way, right? So run along, Mom. And in thinking all of these things, and all of these people, I must have picked up my pace because I caught up with the bopping light, and found myself running with Christy and her pacer. I had run with her earlier. Her pacer was on Twitter updating her friends on her progress. While he ran! Incredible. Where was my tweeting pacer??? We shared a laugh and I stayed with them for the next couple of miles. As we came closer to the end, I noticed that they had put glow sticks along the trail. We had one section of single track left and then it was double track all the way. We cruised through it, considering we were all tired and a little slower from it being very dark. The double track seemed long. I said goodbye to it, I wouldn’t be seeing it again today. We flew down the last hill and Christy picked it up and pulled ahead, leaving me and her pacer to try to keep up. I wasn’t sure I had enough in the tank for a sprint that far out, so waited until I knew the field was in sight. I could hear cheering (still? It felt like nine o’clock or later) and then suddenly, finally, the cones for the field and I was home free. I pumped my arms and with quads burning like hot coals I pulled down the long, dark field toward the lights at the end by the school. I had a big grin on my face knowing I would not have to go back out there. Someone shouted my number and they were all clapping. I sprinted across the timing mat, smiled broadly, and then burst out in tears. Christy gave me a big hug. I told them all it was my first fifty. They gave me some pizza and pretty much fawned over me for a couple of minutes. Normally, I have a big appetite when I cross a line but I wasn’t hungry. I was very sniffly and emotional. I was happy. I did fifty!
Curious Monkey comes across the finish line at 11 hours, 27 minutes and change.
Later that night, as I lay on Liana’s couch in Malden, awoken with a start by a falling dream, I thought about the day and something I had been thinking about. People ask me why I do these crazy things, and I don’t have what I think of as a good “reason.” I don’t run for a person or cause. I run for entirely selfish reasons. It is not necessarily for recognition, because mostly, people think you are insane when you tell them what you are up to. Mostly, I don’t tell people, because it involves answering that “why????” question. Because really, I have no reason that I can readily explain. There is something really primordial about pushing physically and mentally, and the healing that takes place afterwards, including insatiable hunger and need for sleep. These are things that come from living life fully and being exposed to extremes. And when you work in a cube all day staring at a computer, that’s where the real crazy is. And exposure to extremes and elements and the power of achievement can keep those crazies somewhat at bay.