“She was born to be free, let her run wild in her own way and you will never lose her.” ― Nikki Rowe
On Saturday, April 9th, I ran my 4th 50-miler in DC. This was my 3rd time running the DC North Face Endurance Challenge. And for the first time in a very long time, I went into a race without a goal. As I started running ultras, I became more and more focused on goals (if that’s even possible for my obsessive brain) and the pressure of meeting these self-imposed goals started to get to me. Race after race, I would put myself through moments of despair and self loathing that I would come out wondering, why am I so mean to myself? I was afraid that I was heading towards being burnt out so I re-evaluated my goals for the year and frankly, they are pretty aggressive. After taking a look at the big picture, I realized that I needed a freedom run. I needed to toss out the goal of setting a PR and let my spirit and my heart run free. And so I did.
I couldn’t have picked a better race for a freedom run. I was familiar with the course and knew I would blow away the cut-off times (remember how I used to chase those damn cut off times). The weather was pretty shitty and if I had my original goal of breaking 11 hours, I would have struggled with it.
I recalled in previous years that the beginning of the course was for some reason muddy. This year was no different. I started out with a nice little fall before the end of mile one when my legs got tangled on a small branch. I quickly recovered and laughed it off. As I settled into my pace, I relaxed my body and started to just let things go. I had planned on leaving my Garmin at the hotel, but decided that I needed the timer on it so that I could fuel properly (100-200 calories every 30 minutes). I was worried that I might start looking at the pace, but really, I didn’t. And I had no desire to. This was my freedom run. No pace checking allowed.
It was about 34 degrees at the start out but I was actually dressed appropriately this time. I warmed up by mile 3 and was pretty good to go for the rest of the day. Suddenly, out of nowhere, it started to sleet and I laughed. I thought to myself, THIS WAS AWESOME! I was having the time of my life! I didn’t care that it was sleeting, I didn’t care that the mud was ridiculous, I didn’t care that the rain and winds would eventually hit. THIS WAS LIVING. There I was out in the wild (humor me) running like a child in the woods. THIS was what trail running was about. Freedom, oh my freedom.
As I continued on I chatted with some runners that were around me. I was feeling great and I was keeping a good relaxed pace. As slippery as the mud was, I did a pretty decent (but not perfect) job in controlling my slipping…until I came to, what I refer to as, Rolly Polly hill. At about mile 8 there was a really gigantic 4 foot hill (yes…it really was tiny). For some reason, I could not get up this little bitch of a hill. As I tried to get my butt up this hill, I kept slipping back until eventually, I was on my hands and knees and then eventually, on my ass rolling around like a rolly polly bug with arms and legs in the air. I had bowled over the runners behind me and it was a group effort to get me up this stupid little hill. Someone was pushing me up by my ass, another was trying to grab my hand, I felt someone grab my hydration pack to help lift me up…ridiculous. Then of course in the process I got the uncontrollable laughter. The guy in front of me was all over the place and while I didn’t mean to laugh AT him, I did belly laugh at every slip and slide because dude…I get it…that mud was slippery as shit! The trail from Algonquin Park to Great Falls was a muddy mess. There was no avoiding it…it was an ankle deep shit show if I ever saw one.
The mud subsided by the time we got to Great Falls. This is where I should have changed my shoes and socks. I didn’t and I will pay for this later. The three loops around Great Falls was fun. I bombed the down hills sometimes hitting an 8 or 9 minute pace (yes, I peaked only because I was curious) and rode the momentum on the uphills. When I felt tired, I hiked and I lingered at the aid stations a little longer than I normally do. I got to recognize of few of the runners, as you do on this course, and it was fun as we encouraged each other upon each passing on the loops. I was thrilled to bump into my friends along the way and happy to run with them for just a little while. Seeing them always puts a smile in my heart.
Believe it or not, as well as I know the course, I ended up getting lost three times. THREE TIMES! I was following runners ahead of me and not paying attention. Couldn’t believe it! I probably added about an extra mile to the course, but it was okay. It didn’t matter. It was part of the fun and part of the adventure and I continued on with my freedom run.
The last seven miles were the toughest. The mud was worse than I’ve ever seen it before and I had to walk most of it…if you call it walking. I was pretty much just trying to stay upright. I admit, I was a little frustrated, but it was still fun. You just kinda get tired of the muck, you know?
There were 375 signed up for the North Face 50-miler and 233 finished. Some people bailed because they were afraid of the conditions, some succumbed to the conditions and couldn’t finish or make the cut offs. I finished the race in 11:43:14 and placed second in my age group. It wasn’t my best time and it wasn’t my worst either. But it sure was one hell of a glorious ride!
There were things that went wrong and things that went right.
What went right? Nutrition. I fat loaded before carb loading prior to the race and it worked for me. With the exception of the first 3 miles and the last 3 miles, I consumed approximately 200 calories or so per hour. I had energy throughout the race and it was probably the best I felt nutrition-wise since my marathon days. Rule #1 of an ultrarunner – nourish and hydrate your body!
What went wrong? I should have changed my shoes and socks as soon as I got to Great Falls. I didn’t want to deal with the mud on my shoes and take the time to peel off my muddy socks. That laziness resulted in some pretty nasty blisters that could have been minimized or avoided all together. I ran a painful 15 miles or so before I had to stop to de-rock my shoe. When I saw the condition of my socks I knew that I made a boneheaded move by not taking care of my feet. Rule #2 of an ultrarunner – take care of your feet!
These were probably the best 50.9 I have ever run (or 52-ish if you count getting lost). I highly recommend to the runners who take their running seriously to allow themselves a freedom run. While we tend to let go during training runs from time to time, I suspect there are quite a few runners like me out there who don’t always let go during big races. It really is quite liberating. The best part was, after finishing the race, I knew in my heart what I was capable of. I knew if I had to and the conditions were a little better, I could run those 50 miles in under 11 hours. And I’m happy to know that in my heart without having to put myself through the anguish of trying to fight for it. Freedom, sweet freedom!
We run to set our minds free and we run to free our hearts. We run to let our spirits soar and we run to remind us how wonderful it is to be alive. But sometimes, just sometimes, we get caught up in chasing our big dreams and larger than life goals and we need to take a step back and remind ourselves why we run. And on this day, I did.
Freedom, sweet, sweet freedom.