With the beginning of a new year comes a new race schedule and I was very excited to kick off the year with an ultra Tsali frosty foot 50k. My first race of the year was going to be in Tsali recreation area a place I was somewhat familiar with because about a year ago me and three friends camped out for two days and mountain biked the same trails we were going to run. The race site did not publish an elevation profile or mention elevation at all. I was somewhat curious about this since I recalled some long climbs and descents from biking the trails. Not knowing the elevation I did not know what to expected but was pleasently surprised during the course of the race more on that later.
Race day itself had a slightly different start then most from the previous year. I awoke in my bed and not in my car on the morning of a race. How I awoke was different than I had planned. The night before I set my alarm for 4:45am and turned in for the night. I am somewhat of a light sleeper and the dogs know to scratch on our bedroom door when they want to go outside. So I was awoke to the scratching, first thing I did was check the time. It was 4:30am I then shuffled through the living room with dog in tow. As I made the turn to the kitchen the dog also made a turn but in the opposite direction. So I turned around to head back to the bedroom to turn off the alarm before it sounded. Was I surprised by what I saw, not really, apparently the dog decided I needed to get up so she could claim my spot in the bed. Lucky for her it was my time to get up.
So I’m out the door by 5 am and enroute to Tsali. Before I get there I know I must tame the dragon (318 curves in 11 miles) and I am not so sure how it will go. I don’t usually get car sick, but with the stress of the upcoming day and driving to the race morning off I hope to be ok. On the ride over it was just me and the wildlife which I was thankful for until I saw something in my peripheral vision coming from the top of the car on the passenger side. I did not know what it was until it passed the hood and I was startled by the whole experience. It was a huge owl swooping down to claim his morning meal, all I could think is where is a camera when you need one.
I finally arrived and headed over to packet pickup, checked the weather and proceeded to get ready for the upcoming race. Since I did not have an elevation profile or my garmin 305 (it finally kicked the bucket after aprox 5 years) I knew I would need to get a game plan together. I decided to take a course map with me. So I wrote the four aid stations down and distance between each and to the end from the final Aid station. This would allow me to focus on the individual segments and not worry about the distance as a whole. With my plan in place, I still was undecided about what to wear, according to the weather it was suppose to get up to 50 degrees but there was a 60% chance of rain and it had been sprinkling off and on all morning. I decided to go with a jacket with the thought I could dump it if need be later. I was now ready to roll and decided to head up to the start finish line.
As start time got closer, I was hovering around the finish line in anticipation of getting going when the announcer came over the intercom and said “all 50k runners should be heading to the start line.” This caught me off guard, because the race map appeared to have the start and finish line at the same place. Not knowing where to go I followed the droves of people heading to what I was hoping to be the start line. When I got there I noticed a line drawn across the road with official start line written beside it. I lined up in the front of the pack and was excited to get started. The count down finally began and the race was on.
I started my stop watch and off I went. We traveled up the paved road for a couple hundred feet before turning back onto the trails. The race was a rather small event with only 100 entries but I could tell right away this was a fit and fast group. As we continued along, I knew it was six miles to the first aid station and my goal was to run hard and see what the day held. I made it to the first aid Station at 46 minutes and I was pleasantly surprised and thought this is going to be a great day. Unsure of whether I should ease off a bit or continue pushing I favored continue pushing and kept my pace faster than normal. I knew it was only five miles to the next Aid station and that would put me at eleven miles in.
The course was more runnable than I had remembered and had long sections of slightly rolling hills making for a quick course. I was moving right along until about one hour in (aprox 9 miles) when I rolled my left ankle very badly. I screamed out in pain and hobbled to a quick stop. There was a guy close behind who stopped to check on me as he passed, I told him to go ahead I would be fine. His last words were “do you want me to send someone back?” At that point I was unsure but said “no thanks.” I sat down on a log writhing in pain and that is when a couple of tears flowed down my cheeks. I can’t say for certain if the tears were due to the pain or the thought of those three dreaded letters DNF. So I evaluated my ankle and then did the very thing I have always been told not to do. I took off my shoe, not to check my ankle but to get the boulder out of it that snuck in when I rolled it. I sat there for a couple of minutes trying to decide what to do. I decided that I would try to make my way to the next aid station and re-evaluate then. I began by limping along, then shuffling, then some resemblance of running. The pain was still there but was somewhat muted so I continued on. I arrived at the second aid station at 1 hour 22 minutes. I could not believe the time and started thinking that is a decent time especially with a sprained ankle. So I made a decision to forge ahead, I mean it was only 4.5 miles to the next Aid station.
As I continued on there were two things that kept replaying in my head one was the song “Art of Dying – Get Through This” the other was whatever you do don’t misstep. The trail continued to be mostly rolling with a few good climbs And some amazing views. I had started to slow and was noticing more people were catching and passing me. It was difficult, but I kept telling myself you should just be glad with a finish at this point. I had probably the best distraction of the day on this section of the course and was thankful for it. Apparently there was a hunter in these woods and he had brought his hunting dog with him. Unbeknownst to him, the dog decided he would rather participate in the race then hunt. I first noticed him when I heard footsteps behind me and turned to see if whomever wanted to pass and didn’t see anyone. I looked down and there he was falling in behind me pacing right along for two or three miles. At one point he attempted a pass and almost took me out. We continued on until we came to a right hand turn that was wide enough for him to make his move, he sprinted past me and then out of sight. I laughed as he made his way past me seeing how freely and fast he was running, looking like he was having more fun than me. Not long after seeing him sprint off into the distance I arrive at the third aid station, mile fifteen and a half in 2 hours and 15 minutes. Realizing that I was slowing down but still doing ok on time and the pain was bearable onward I went. The next aid station was the last and had the most distance between stations at 8 miles away.
As I made my way out of the station I couldnt help but wonder what had become of the dog earlier in the race. A couple miles down the road I had my answer. He had fallen in behind another runner ahead of me much the same as he did with me earlier. He also picked his point and sprinted off to leave this runner the same as before. I would love to know how much of the course that dog covered as that was the last time I saw him on this day. I can’t help but imagine him crossing the finish line ahead of me accepting his award and making his way back to his master with his head held high knowing he was faster than most on this day.
I came into the final aid staton at 3 hours and 50 minutes knowing there was just seven and a half more miles to go. By this time not only was my ankle tender but both my legs from the waist down were screaming in pain. I trudged along projecting my finish to be at 5 hours and 15 minutes knowing that just finishing will be enough for today.
As I make my way down the trail toward the finish I was assessing my body and noticed that there was blood covering my left knee cap. I remember getting stuck by some sticks but had no idea it had draw blood until just now. It was at this point that I realized that today this first race of the year there had been blood, sweat, and tears on the course. Was this going to set the tone for the year to come? Only time will tell. I ended up finishing the day at 5 hours and 22 minutes and was glad that it was over. I limped to the car changed clothes and headed home.
It wasn’t until I got home that I noticed the nice goose egg hanging off my ankle. So the next time someone asks me what does it take to finish an ultra marathon? I will tell them It can be summed up in one sentence. Somedays everything you’ve got!