Sunday, March 22, 2015

First 100 Mile Race Report NJ Ultra Festival

NJ Ultra Festival - 26.2, 50K, 50M, 100K, 100 M - March 21st, 2015.

Finished 100 Miles - 27hr :55 min. 25 people set out to do the hundred miles.  Only 9 finished. 
Only 3 woman.  2 finished (including myself).
Pacers: Nate DaSilva, Chris Paulson
Crew: Jen Paulson, Margot Sherwin, Richard Sherwin

 This is a long, drawn out post that will probably only interest those who geek out on running blogs, but if there are two things to take away from my first hundred experience they are this:

Our amazing crew right after the finish - I owe this race to them.

1. It is really all in your head.  "The first 50 is run with your body, the second 50 is run with your heart/mind." So true.
2. If it was not for my crew and pacers, I would not have finished this race before the cutoff. They pushed me and are why I have the buckle.

If you have been following this blog, you know that the "taper crazies" hit me hard in the form of total paranoid of catching the flu (which was actually founded in reality because Nate and the kids both had it and lot of our extended family did as well).  What was not founded was what an annoying mess I was for a good week and a half.  Suffice to say, I did not catch the flu, but did catch a stomach bug a few days before the race (nothing that would keep me from running).  So on Friday, Nate, the kids and I picked up an RV and headed for New Jersey (and into a snow storm) where we would meet Chris and Jen and my parents to complete the crew.

Can't believe it's done.
We pulled up the New Jersey State Fairgrounds - it was bleak, snowing like mad and we were pretty much the only people there except for a few tents that had set up on the concrete under a fair building to escape the snow.  We had a brief race meeting that reviewed pages of crew/ pace notes that I had painstakingly put together as well as went over some advise we had received from seasoned ultramarathoners and then went to dinner at a burger joint down the road.  I gave a lot of crew advice, but really in the back of my mind I was having some real doubts.  I could try and control and dictate crew notes, pack exceptionally well, be totally prepared, but none of that changed the fact that I still had to run 100 miles in the snow in just a few hours.

I picked up my bib number and had a brief chat with the NJ Trail Series amazing race director, Rick McNulty, who gave me some last minute advise, pointing to his head he said, "It's all in here."   All 8 of us (Nate, Me, Chris, Jen and our four kids piled) into the RV we had rented to get to bed by 10 PM.  Nate and I slept above the cab and I had what is one of the worst nights I can remember in recent history.  I remember reading a first hundred miler blog poster who spoke about the mental demons he fought the night BEFORE the race and that is exactly what happened to me.

I laid in bed from 10 - 2 am while everyone else slept with my mind reeling: "There is no way you will be able to do this", "You have wasted everyone's time", "You cannot endure the misery", "You will let everyone down" - all these thoughts went over and over in my head.  I was able to get about 2 hrs of sleep but at 5:45 I just decided to get up and get ready because I couldn't stand listening to myself anymore.  I was trying to hold back tears as I got ready and everyone slept.  I looked outside, the ground was covered in snow, which meant, of course the trail was covered in snow.  100 miles of could hear the groans of the other runners trudging around outside.

I went out to the hanger where the start/finish was with a cup of coffee to watch the 100K racers head out, my mom walked in and I almost burst into tears, "I just had the worst night, I'm terrified, I don't know if I can do this."  Meanwhile, Nate, unbeknownst to me was having his own doubts - the weather was awful, it was such a bleak, dark day, the course would be torturous and the cutoff was only 29 hours.  Then the 100M racers were called, we heard a brief speech from Rick McNulty and off we went. 

Right away I hooked up with three other runners who were also attempting their first 100 so we stuck together and chatted for awhile and talked about race strategy - which for all of us was the same: go out as slow as possible and pray to finish before the cutoff.

Icy, sketchy plank bridges.
What little strategy I had was just to get to mile 50 still feeling decent and then reassess where I was at, restart the clock mentally and focus.  Miles 0-30 were OK - I was trying to just stay in the moment and heed the advice other hundred milers had given me: "You can't run 100 miles, but you can always run one more mile".  Case in point: don't think about the entire task - just keep making forward progress.  I was cruising along at a comfortable pace, making sure to eat and drink pretty much anytime I thought about food or water.  Eventually my stomach evened out and I ran off whatever bug I had.  The weather was tough, though and a lot of people were hurting because of it.  I actually love running in the snow, but after awhile your body is spending so much time trying to right itself to keep from slipping that it becomes draining.  The weather that day was supposed to be 48 and sunny... it was actually in the low 30s with a mix of flurries and drizzle.

At night time, I was seeing three planks
for every one.
What was operating flawlessly, was my crew.  OMG, my crew.  It was like NASCAR - they met me as I came off the trail and by the time I passed our RV everything was ready for me.  They made sure I was eating, drinking and taking S-CAPs and getting back on the trail quickly.  They had posters made and were so, so, so supportive.  Whenever I would pass them I would not even try to make eye contact for fear of losing focus on the task at hand but their support was unwavering. 

Still waiting for this toenail to finish falling off.
When I came in at mile 40, my spirits were good and I decided to do a quick sock/ shoe change as my feet were soaking.  Big mistake.  One look at my feet and I freaked. I started popping blisters, taping my feet and trying to get them comfortable.  What I didn't realize then was that they were not going to be comfortable, so I was just wasting time.  I heard an interview with Coach Ken who was talking about just ignoring the blisters because once you start messing with them it's easy to get in the habit... so true.  I ended up blowing 15 minutes at that aid station and my goal was 1-2 minutes.  Luckily, Nate (who I came to find out behind the scenes was tracking my every move, every calorie, every sat tab and minute wasted at an aid station) did not let that happen again.

The shoe change that took 15 minutes too long.
When I got to the 50 mile mark, I felt physically fine, but my head started messing with me.  The sun was setting and I remembered the first time I ran the 50 on this course and I finished a couple hours before sunset.  I started attempting ultra-math.  Always a big mistake.  Some runners start to really lose their ability to do simple mathematics: I am one of those.  I forgot to mention - I did not have a watch, no one on my crew would tell me what time it was and I did not turn on my phone for fear of seeing a bunch of texts from well-wishes and losing focus.  So basically, I had no idea what time it was, just that the sun was setting and for the first time, I started trying to do cut off calculations.  I had 29 hours to finish, I had to make 90 miles by 9 a.m., but what time was it?? Was I running behind?  

As I came into the aid station I told the crew that I needed to change my clothes for the night, I was wet and cold.  Nate felt my shirt and said, "You are totally dry - it's still warm - we can talk about changing at the next loop."  As I was going to the bathroom both Jen and my mom were urging me to hurry and "Go, go, go".  I began to get resentful and pity myself... they didn't know how hard this was!  The other weird thing that happened to me was I started to revert to this weird state of being a manipulative child.  As I was leaving the hanger I turned on some tears and said to Nate, "I don't want to go in the dark alone".  His reply, "You'll be fine. Go."  So I shrugged and I went.  It was like I was hoping for him to save me - but he wouldn't so I headed out for my first lap in the dark.

Kiki, Wyeth, Ani and Coco cheering me on.
Miles 50-60 I started to get up in head and confused.  It was dark by then - but I couldn't remember what time the sun went down and then I couldn't remember if the time change was the same every year and how far behind I was from my other 50 mile times.  Basically I couldn't think straight.  As I descended back into the trail I remembered that I actually enjoy running alone at night - this is when I do most of my running and I had been looking forward to the sun setting.  I quickly noticed however, that I wasn't seeing anyone on the trail.  I would see someone maybe every 30-60 minutes - but it seemed as though a lot of people were missing.  On a loop race you quickly get to know everyone and where they are in relation to others: "Oh, it's red windbreaker guy... next will be girl with pigtails and neon pink tights, etc"... so it's easy to notice when people are gone.  This loop I started to slow, badly - I was noticing a lot of people starting to hike and I started taking hike breaks.  I had no idea what time it was, I felt lonely and confused.  Icy plank bridges that I had been trotting along earlier in the day now had me stopping and starting at them... scared to fall off into the water.  I started to hate the sound of sliding through slush and snow... it became like nails on a chalk board.  Food was like ash in my mouth and I found myself defiantly throwing the food my crew had given me into the woods in disgust - I even started to hide it in my pack... again, acting like a child.  Physically my legs felt great - this is something I attribute to a lot of training miles, but my back hurt very badly.

Somehow I am smiling here. I was NOT
smiling on the inside.
At the 60 mile mark Rick said I had 10 more miles until 70 where I could have a companion runner.  10 more miles... I could do 10 more miles - but then I would still have 30 more.  I forced the thought from my head.  I got up from my shoe change begrudgingly with way too many different kinds of food churning in my stomach and headed back out for the trail.  I pulled my mom aside and tried to get information out of her again, the manipulative child with tears in my eyes: "Am I too late? Am I out of time? What time is it?"  She just said, "Don't worry, just keep moving forward".  Everyone was looking at me kind of strange - I had the distinct feeling that they knew something I didn't.  At that point, I knew I must have slowed down considerable and was in trouble.

Miles 60-70 I thought were okay.  I was tired, back was killing me and mentally I was having to focus as hard as I could to drive out all negative thoughts and any thoughts about the distance of the race.  For the only point in the entire race I for one brief moment on this loop thought: "I'm tired, I would like to go to bed," and that was it.  Going into the race I had heard horror stories about people having to fight going to sleep on the side of the trail - that never happened to me - sleep deprivation is one thing I am pretty good at overcoming.  Sure, I was tired, but in control of it.  I did start seeing things here - I saw a pink UFO looking thing in the sky and every once in awhile I would stop and have a conversation with a stick or something about how I knew it wasn't really moving around and following me.  I also would see metal bars over the trail and have to talk myself into running through them - that they were not really there.  I would get into a good running grove and then the little things would mess with me mentally - the sound of the snow would irritate me and I would think: "I can't do this anymore" and one negative thought would take a lot of time to recover from.  I began to obsess over the cutoff time.  It was at that moment that I decided in my head (without really knowing any details) that: a) I probably would not make the cutoff and that my family was hiding it from me and b) No matter what I would not be quitting this race - even if my finish was unofficial, I was running 100 miles over the next however-many hours, even if I would not get my buckle.

My amazing husband (the best crew
leader ever) and our beautiful kids.
When I came into the aid station at mile 70 things started to unravel.  The first thing I noticed were the weird looks on everyone's faces... my crew looked at me with pity but were rushing me along and would not answer my questions.  No one would tell me what time it was, I wanted to mess with my clothes again, they would not let me... Nate pulled all the food out of my bag and said: "You are not eating and drinking enough.  This stops now."  Jen forced me to eat some soup and was trying to figure out how many S-Caps I had taken.  I started freaking out that something wasn't right.  That is when Rick, the RD, called over from his laptop: "That loop was 3:21", I heard the sound of warning in his voice.  I panicked - the cutoff, I would never make the cutoff, what time was it?  How was I moving that slow? - was the snow slowing me that much... I was screwed.  I sank into a very dark place.  Nate was dressed and ready - we headed back towards the trail and he said, "I'm going to let you hike down the road into the trail while you eat and then you need to run hard."  He was not messing around.  Some people say that having your spouse pace you is a bad idea because they will buy into your self-pity games.  Not Nate, he was all business.  I started trying to make excuses: I can't run fast anymore, you don't know how I feel, etc. etc.  He basically just ignore my whining.  We got onto the trail and I started up the "Ultra shuffle".  Nate gave me a Red Bull and some S-Caps and got to a part on the trail where you have to slap this plate with a hand on it and turn around - we did that and then there was a guy hiking in front of us... I was siked - now Nate would like me hike like this other guy.  He leaned over to me and said, "I want you to get away from this guy" and we ran.  Now, I don't know how fast we were running, but all of a sudden I felt this surge of energy.  My body was done - it had been done hours and hours ago - what was taking over was my mind.

Any person who I had spoken with who had run a 100 would say the same thing: "The first 50 are run with your body, the second 50 are run with you mind/ heart".  I could actually feel that happening, my mind was taking over my body.  I didn't feel pain, I just felt smooth and easy and light.  Nate was behind me every step of the way: "That's it babe", "You got this", "I've never been so proud of you".  With each encouraging word I felt stronger.  We passed runners coming and going and they all looked terrible - but I felt great.  After every surge I would take a quick minute to fast hike and regroup and then surge again.  This was the third fastest loop I had run so far - only beaten by miles 1-20.  We were buying time.  Chris was set to pace me for the next loop but Nate and I were on a mission - he was going to make me give this race everything I had.  Nate texted back to our crew that he was going to pace me the next loop as well.  Now mind you, Nate had never run more than 12 miles before.  So here he was having had crewed me for almost 20+ hours straight at this point and now he was going to run 20 miles on terrible snowy, icy trails.  I came out of that loop exhausted, but with a glimmer of hope that maybe I could make that 9 am cutoff to head out on my last loop if I continued to run hard.

We blazed through the aid station and headed back out for mile 80.  I had only ever run 50 miles in one stretch before and now at mile 80, I really didn't feel all that bad.  I panicked a bit when we arrived at the aid station and I saw both my parents there.  They were supposed to be at their hotel sleeping until morning.  Why were they here?  What time was it?  It was still dark, but was the sun about to rise? The manipulation kicked in again briefly at the aid station as Nate tried to tell me we needed to run hard again.  “I don’t think I can… I don’t have anything left”.  Once again, we hiked down the road into the trails while I downed a banana, some canned peaches and a bit of Red Bull.  Again, we started with the “Ultra shuffle” but I was able to use my mind again to control my body and run.  Again, Nate was my own personal cheerleader – for every time that I told him “If I don’t make the cutoff I will just do an unofficial finish”, he would tell me, “You came here for the buckle – let’s do what you came here to do”.  I felt so incredibly grateful to have him by my side.  I don’t think anyone else in the world could have motivated me the way he did.

About midway through that lap, it seemed as though every blister on both feet popped at once.  It stopped me dead in my tracks and I felt my shoes fill with fluid.  I told Nate I had to stop and do something about it - I could not run like this.  He said, "I didn't want to tell you this before, but over 60% of runners have dropped out of the race, if you keep pushing, you have a chance to make it and do what you set out to do".  I started shuffling, my feet were on fire... then running, I could feel my big toe nail on my right foot ripping off.  Then my feet went numb.  Again, mind over body.

Miles 80-90 were fast as well.  Not quite as fast as 70-80, but enough to bring us to 90 miles at exactly 8 am, one hour before the cutoff for my last loop.  I panicked a little at the thought of Nate leaving me – how would I run without him behind me?  Could I go on for 10 more miles? 

Now other than my hiding food and getting sick to my stomach and all that, this aid station was the only time I left unprepared.  The elation at making the cutoff had me saying I didn’t need anything but water, I was good – no food, no HEED, just water.  Chris was ready to roll so we headed out.  Nate was gone now and I realized I could now get a nice break, Chris wasn’t going to push me as hard – we could just take it easy.  My math abilities were completely gone and I could not even figure out how far we had to go or mile splits – I was just tired.  On the hike down Chris said, much to my inner resentment, “Nate said you can hike down the road but once we are on the trails, you need to run, girl.”  Again, the manipulation, “Oh, I think I’m okay. I’m really tired.”  Once we were back down on the trail Chris started running right up behind me, I had no choice but to go.  Granted it was a pathetic ultra-shuffle for quite awhile, but at least it was something.  Chris made sure I was moving.  Around mile 95 I started getting dizzy, I reached for some HEED and realized I had none, reached in my pack and realized I had no food.  Shit.  Then the dizziness really started to set in.  As for fueling and hydration my crew had forced me to take care of myself and therefore saved me, but now I was really starting to feel not having any fuel.  I found a half-eaten granola bar on the side of the trailed and ate it.  We got to an aid station that had been manned last time Nate and I came across it, but all that was left was some food on the trail and some Mountain Dew – I downed as many calories as I could and almost instantly felt better.  Only about 4 more miles to go.  Keep pushing.  Chris was urging me  to keep moving, “Come on girl, I’m not going to be the one who let you come in late”… I started to feel that surge again, mind over body.  Getting closer.  A few more miles.  Up ahead I could see our crew cheering – they had come to meet us at the trail entrance.  We ran faster.  Then the hill back up to the fairgrounds – I started hiking it – but Chris was running – let’s do a “strong finish” he said.  I pathetically shuffled up the hill as best as I could.  Only about a mile more, up the hill and then down and around the fairgrounds to the finish. 

Kiki running me into the finish.
My daughter ran in with me.  I had dreamed of this moment  - that I would run in crying or listening to a certain song on my iPod.  There were no tears, there was no music, no marathon fanfare – just the group of supportive people who had seen me through this race there to meet me at the finish.  Rick handed me my buckle.  Right away it hit me as I looked around at my wonderful parents, Chris and Jen and my amazing husband that they were the reason I was here.  Left to my own devices, I would not have made it.  I ran this race, but they carried me through it.  I had an overwhelming sense of gratitude and still have it today.  I was not going to finish in time but I did because of them.

I can’t describe the feeling.  I had wanted to run 100 for so long but really didn’t know what it meant to do it or what I would experience.  There is a point where the mind takes over and it no longer matters what the body is doing.  Of course, the best part of all of this is that due to this race and the point of this race is the building of The Cindy Lynn Sherwin Memorial Playground in New Haven, CT.  Cindy had no idea she would have playgrounds named after her or that people would run in her name and I know for damn sure she never thought I would run 100 miles… but life is crazy. 

Someone made a joke during the race about, “bet you are done now” and I said “never again” – but I’m already wondering what’s next…

Thank you from the bottom of my heart to my crew: Mom, Dad, Nate, Jen, Chris, Kiki, Wyeth, Annika and Coco.  XO

The buckle I wanted for so long.

My incredibly supportive parents who were with
me every step of the way.

Post-race foot assessment.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Jessica, You are amazing. We are so very, very proud of you and can't wait to see you and give you a bear hug in person....
    Lots of love and hugs,
    Marie and Claus