Ultrarunners warn, Beware The Chair. When you sit down mid-race, it sure can be hard to get back up. After Saturday though, I have a new perspective. Me and the chair, it’s a love/hate thing.
C&O Canal is a pretty low key race. Off the radar screen for most. Yet from the moment I heard about it I thought: that race is for ME.
First of all, I love low key. Western States, Lake Sonoma and North Face are wonderful races to reconnect with many of the people I care deeply about in this sport, but I don’t like the feeling of pressure that comes with the inevitable spotlight. I’ve always preferred being the underdog. Zero expectations. All I need to do is relax and run my race.
Secondly, the race appealed to me in the same way that Brazos Bend did. It’s largely flat. With the exception of a fairly short but quite steep technical incline traversed four times during the race, it’s run on the gravelly, but forgiving, surface of the canal towpath. This type of course not only appeals to those looking to increase their odds at successfully completing a 100 miler — especially considering the generous 30 hour cut-off — but it’s a great set-up for a time-trial for those like me who want an answer to the question, how fast can I do it?
Before I get into the race itself I’m going to tell you something that I told only a handful of people before the race. My real goal. Ultimately, I chose to run C&O because I wanted a clear shot at running the fastest 100 miles on trail by a north American woman. Ever. What an amazing thing it is to even have a chance at something so audacious!
The third reason the race appealed was because average temps for the end of April in Knoxville, Maryland hover somewhere between 40 and 60 or so degrees. An opportunity to try a 100 miler without the intense heat of Western States? I’m in!
In the end things didn’t go exactly to plan, but I guess two out of three ain’t bad. Even by East Coast standards, the day was a steamy scorcher. Temps reached 91 degrees on race day — an all-time record-high. For something like Western States, everyone knows it’s going to be hot ahead of time. Preparatory heat-training is a key element of race-day success. For C&O, the forecast was for seasonally normal temps right up until about a week or so before race day. With no-one prepared, it resulted in the race’s lowest finisher rate (~55%) in its four-year history. I have the utmost respect for how hard those runners worked to try to finish. It felt like running with a sleeping bag over the head. The humidity was positively stifling.
Despite this, I managed to blow through the first 50 miles in about 6:40 (8:00/mile pace. For reference, the 100 mile trail ‘record’ is 8:37 pace). What in the world was I thinking? Well, this is over a minute per mile slower than my Brazos Bend 50-mile pace, and around 25 seconds slower than my 100k pace from three weeks ago on a hillier course. It didn’t seem unreasonable. In fact, it felt just as it should, downright easy.
Until it didn’t. When the hottest part of the day set in, I started feeling overheated. It crept in and I couldn’t escape it’s claustrophobia-like grip. My pace declined, and my stomach stopped absorbing as many calories as I needed to keep up the effort. I ran into the start/finish checkpoint at mile 60 depleted and discouraged, ready to call it a day.
This is where I did something I’ve never, ever done before in a race, not even in my deepest darkest moments.
I sat down.
About a half an hour later, I got up.
As you might have guessed, it wasn’t quite that simple. (P.S. Nothing in a hundred miler is ever simple). Like I said, I ran into mile 60 and I sat down. On a log. And actual-fact reasoned that by sitting on a log, I was not technically sitting on a chair, so it sort-of didn’t count. Also, I didn’t want to get too comfortable.
After a few mins, I decided that since I wasn’t going any further, I would indeed like to get more comfortable. So, I moved to a proffered chair. Thankfully, I was surrounded by some ultra-veterans and my crew. They weren’t about to let me off the hook that easy.
What’s wrong? They asked.
It’s at moments like this that I’m completely aware what a perfectly normal response would be. ‘Well,’ it would go, ‘I’m at mile 60 of a 100 miler. I’m hot, I’m tired and I’m not able to digest enough calories. Forty more miles seems nothing short of unfathomable.’ In ultra-terms, though, that answer can be translated into: nothing. There is absolutely nothing wrong. I am weak and need to work on my mental game.
Sensing my weakness (somehow they knew), they went with the philosophy that you have to be cruel to be kind. I mean, these folks wouldn’t let up. ‘You’re an hour and a half ahead of the next runner,’ they informed me. ‘You came all the way out here,’ they said. ‘Do you want me to call Robert?’ asked my crew Andrea. ‘Sure,’ I said. What they didn’t know is that my husband, Robert, is my security blanket. He’ll tell me it’s ok and he loves me anyway. But dang it, Andrea must have gotten to him first. Because he didn’t. Instead, he sent me a photo of our two boys in front of some of my trophies. ‘They’re counting on you,’ he said. Manipulators.
Devoid of valid excuses, and tired of being badgered (for which, I am of course, eternally thankful…now) I did another thing I’ve never, ever done before. I got back up. You know what was the craziest thing about that? I was fine. Really. Fine. My pacer Colin ran with me for 10 miles until I said, you know what, thank you, and I’ll pick you up here on the way back. I got into a groove, and even though I wasn’t able to take in much sustenance, I kept going. One foot in front of the other. All the way to the finish.
Despite not being a record-worthy performance, there’s much to be proud of. With the help of some incredibly decent people, I bounced back from my low point. And while it’s true that the second 50 miles took me a little over 10 hours, it still resulted in a not too shoddy 100 mile time of 16:51. It was wonderful to win a race overall and to set a new women’s course record. But far more than that is the joy in seeing it through. And finding that just when you think there’s no more to give, if you flip the coin, you might just find that in fact, there is absolutely nothing wrong.