Race Report: Stonecat 50 Miler
9 hours and 15 minutes to the gun
The race starts at 6:15 a.m. Up in the Willowdale State Forest, about an hour north in Ipswich. Went up to bed early, around 9:00 p.m. Set two alarms — one for 3:45 (and a 4:15 back-up). The goal was: eat, hydrate, hit the crapper, and slip the door by 4:30. Before snapping off the light, I re-read my NP-friend Kristen Peterson’s race report from her Stonecat 50M last year. She clocked a whopping 9:02, averaging just over two hours per 12.5-mile loop. She is fast and young. I am not fast and young. But I read it two more times, trying to commit some of her experience and words of wisdom to memory.
7 hours and 28 minutes to the gun
Still motherfreaking tossing and turning. Almost two hours now. And for the last half hour, I’ve been clawing my neck and forearm like a dog. I’ve had some sort of weird, phantom rash going for weeks, my skin at times burning with junkie fervor. OK, clearly, I’m nervous. I never run for more than seven hours and was probably looking at eleven or twelve if all goes according to plan. In September, I tackled the 34.5-mile perimeter of Manhattan in 95 degree-heat and full humidity — running conditions I hate with, appropriately, the intensity of a thousand burning suns — and when I was done, I felt like I’d passed an important mental test. But my mind was now shoving my face in the fact that flat pavement and winding trails with elevation were hardly the same thing, and that the Manhattan run was a good 15 miles shorter than what was in store — in, oh, what, hold on, just five short hours from now, shouldn’t you be sleeping, dude? Shut up, shut up, shut up. I wish I could blast my mind right out of my head. Despite multiple back-to-back long runs, numerous double-stadiums, and endless hours on the trails in the Fells, I felt woefully underprepared, with old injuries stirring during my taper. Don’t look at the clock. Whatever you do, don’t look at the clock. I look at the clock. It’s 11:47. I have to get up in four freaking hours. My neck feels so hot I might set the pillow on fire. And why is my 7-pound dog snoring like a drunken sailor? Should I wear shorts or leggings? Why can’t I stop coughing? Should I just get up and start getting ready? Miraculously, I get back to sleep.
Doyon Memorial School
41 minutes to the gun
First stop: bib table. Second stop: bathroom. The line was super-long with, remarkably, zero lady-runners waiting at the women’s door. As I made my way into the dudes’ room, I found out why. It sounded like the campfire scene from Blazing Saddles. A tuba-soundtrack over a relentless splash-fest, with a donkey-choking vapor cloud you could practically chew. Must be an ultra-dude thing. But in the hallway on the way out, most of the guys seemed pretty relaxed. I understood why.
Willowdale State Forest
It’s one bouncing blur of headlamps as our mass of silhouettes pours across the playing fields, then onto a rocky double-track trail, strobe-lighting the trees on either side of us. A few minutes later, we went single lane and the group morphed into a quiet line of zombie miners on an upward march. My little beam of light picked out the occasional snowflake. It was hard to see your footing and too dark to do any passing. Illusions everywhere. I swear up ahead, climbing the first hill was a dude on crutches. It was all pleasantly surreal. I’d been worried about the nausea of repetition, but found comfort in the idea that each of the four 12.5-mile loops would have a different cast because of the day’s changing light.
After ten or fifteen minutes, the line started to break up and I made my way around a few folks. But lost my gains when I had to stop for the first of many leaks. A few turns later, with the darkness starting to give, I saw that my eyes hadn’t been deceiving me earlier. There was actually a guy running with crutches. I couldn’t believe it. He was navigating the twisting path with hand-brace style crutches, which allowed him to use both feet and sort of skip-run. And he was moving, no stuttering or hesitation. He looked completely comfortable. I was stunned. Was he going to do all 50 miles like that? My next thought was, I can’t let that guy finish before me. But then reminded myself, I’m not here to compete against my fellow runners. It was all about the contest with myself, my body, my mind, my will. “I am beyond impressed,” I said as I caught up to him. I still couldn’t quite make out his face. “Well, talk to me when we get to the third loop,” he said and kept on moving. I had to step on the gas to pass him and was, of course, now super-worried about the third loop. The early-morning sun was bleeding through the tree-line, revealing frosted plants bowing before a small pond. It was calendar gorgeous. I thought about taking out my phone for a picture, but decided best to keep on moving. This wasn’t a phone race.
My pacing strategy — based on nothing in particular — was to average around 11-min miles the first loop, 12-min the second, 13-min the third and 14-min the fourth. It just felt good to have a plan. Though I worried a little about not having enlisted a pacer. The cut-off was 12.5 hours and someone told me, just average 15-minute miles and you’d be fine. Even though I was more or less on track by the first two aid stations, I had a pretty good case of Cut-Off Anxiety and wanted to bank some faster miles in case I had to walk in the latter stages. Plus I’d seen a couple horrifying 16- and 17-minute mile pace readouts on my Garmin on the inclines. Like a number of other runners, I power-hiked a lot of the hills. While it provided a slight respite, it bothered my tweaky hip every time. Mentally, though, it broke up some of the monotony. Ooh, there’s a hill. Translation: Ooh, smooth jazz. I kept in mind Kristen’s strategy of breaking up the loops by aid station. Digestible chunks. Just get to the next one. Then the one after that. They were spaced approximately four miles apart: two along the loop and the third at the start/finish.
Then the marathoners, who started fifteen minutes after us and had to knock off 1.2 miles before jumping on the trails, started coming through. The lead dogs speeding around us, “on-your-left”-ing us all over the place. It was a weird disruption of the scene, but I didn’t mind too much. Whenever someone passed me I scanned for their bib color; if it was a marathoner, with a green number, it didn’t bother me. Again, I had to remind myself to shed the competitive skin. Soon enough, I wouldn’t give a shit if grandma passed me.
To help pass the time, I thought of Kristen’s habit of assigning meaning to her bib number. Mine was 39 so I tried to remember who I was at 39-years-old. I was nine years sober, living in Cambridge for a couple years after a long stretch in Vermont. Our teenage daughter was having significant transition trouble which morphed into serious medical issues and upended our home life for several years to come (all is good now). I was working on a book proposal (for Running Ransom Road) and looking for an agent (and getting rejected). I had signed up for my first-ever marathon (Boston; for charity) after years of happily and solitarily knocking off six-milers four times a week. Before I knew it, I was done with the first loop. Seemed to take a long time, but I clocked in at about 2 hours and 35 minutes.
This was the hardest one for me mentally. My legs had grown tired and heavy, way too early I thought. I hadn’t done enough trail running in the weeks immediately prior, I knew it. And there was SO MUCH more to go. Doubt was now pacing me. The trail was vivid, saturated in light, roots threading the path, golden yellow leaves strewn across rocks, fallen logs to hop over. I was reminded that I’d need to be more conscious of picking up my feet. Still, I tripped numerous times, cartoon-flapping my arms, and white-man-dancing my way back into my normal cadence.
I got to the first aid station and right behind me — the Crutches Dude. I could see his face now. An older guy with glasses and a short pepper-grey ponytail. His hand braces were padded and attached to his wrists by ropes. He grabbed a drink and handful of Pringles and was gone. My god, he was efficient. I drank a few more cups of Tailwind and popped a small square of grilled cheese, which was delicious, but not something I trained with. Fueling was always a big anxiety for me. Again, Kristen’s voice: “Eat before you’re hungry, drink before you’re thirsty.” As if in echo, ultrarunner NPer Matt Elam’s words sprang into my head from his recent 100-miler, that these are “races of consumption.” I decided I would fuel as I’d trained and would just take one or two items at the aid stations; but I hated to pass up an opportunity to eat something extra, and different.
As I stepped back onto the rock-studded trail, my legs definitely not as fresh as I was hoping they’d be at this stage — and why the hell were my forearms so sore? — I started looking for the escape hatch. I seemed to do this at every marathon, hell, at every race. Whenever I’m faced with something daunting, I question myself — profoundly, sharply. Am I just doing this just to separate myself? To be a special running snowflake. This is a harder than I thought. I’m not a special snowflake. I should have followed a plan rather than cobbled together a bunch of shit I’d read online. Why can’t I follow instructions? Maybe I’m not cut out for ultras, for trail running. Can’t I be OK just being a regular old runner? Perhaps I’m better suited for Ping Pong. Maybe I’ll trip, go down, and pull something — that’d get me out of this. Jesus, this is the worst self-talk ever.
Of course, I recognized this thinking, this envisioning of failure. It’s the echo-babble of old addict behavior, always looking for the side exit when the going even whiffed of toughness. But, thankfully, usually tempering this feeling is the horror of giving up, a soul-shriveling emotion worse than failure. Trust your training, dude, go for broke, and if you still DNF or get timed out, at least you did all you could. To not try is the worst. Then, around the bend, like sharp slap to the face, I saw the old dude on crutches again. OK, how could I possibly not go on now? And how the fuck did he get so far ahead of me? I caught up and told him he was looking good. He smiled and said, “You, too.” I opened up some distance between us and at last, I recognized the giant boulder and a series of winding downhill descents that lead back to the playing fields. I tried to ease my foot off the brakes and just let myself go, a ball bearing sliding down a greased shoot. I was flying.
I didn’t like having people right behind me and with much of the trail on single track, I always stepped aside to let people pass. But I also found I was catching folks, too. I’d run with them for a bit, strike up some light convo, share some advice, and then we’d separate, sometimes reuniting at the next aid station. This fortified me. I grabbed a few potato chips and tried a cup of Coke, a favorite among ultra runners. I knew now wasn’t the time to try new things, but I can’t help myself sometimes. And then who should pull in next to me? Yep, Crutches Guy. The aid volunteers knew him. His name was Dave. We’d been trading off leads for what must have been fifteen miles now. It seemed like whenever I stopped to take a leak— bam! — there he was coming up from behind. He scooped up a handful of bacon and dropped some into his mouth. I never missed meat more than in that moment. It actually took will power not to dunk my face in the container. I tossed my trash, popped a salt tab, and started walking away, fumbling with a packet of Stinger chews. Jesus, and there was fucking Dave already moving like a mother, gaining on a couple of ladies down the trail. It took me a good five minutes to catch him. It was time to chat.
Dave was from Connecticut, 66 years old. He had developed bone on bone arthritis from a lifetime of running, but he loved the trail-running community, had been a race director himself, and wasn’t going to leave the game quietly. He designed the titanium crutches himself. I asked what drew him to running in the first place. “I was never very good at the couch.” Perfect. This was the fourth year he’d run with the crutches, he said, and his second Stonecat 50M; in fact, he ran the Vermont 100 last year (in 29 hours). No wonder he didn’t dick around. He was a pro, and one who knew how to adapt, big-time. “This seems to be our routine,” I said. “You catching me, me catching you.” He turned and said, “It would be an honor to duel it out with you to the end.” I was running with my NPHigh5 medallion and decided if I saw him when it was all over, I’d give it to him. But toward the end of the loop, I unconsciously pulled ahead and we separated for the last time. I didn’t see Dave again.
As I was starting back across the school field to begin the final punishing push, my friend and trail junkie Erica Holt speeded up behind me (impressively, as she had just run the marathon). “I just wanted to give you a hug,” she said, wrapping her arms around me. It was just what I needed. She knew. There would be some long, lonely stretches ahead. The last marathoners were done hours ago. I was in no-man’s land mileage-wise, too; 37.5 miles, farther than I’d ever run. Seeing eight-and-a-half hours on my Garmin was bizarre, but also cool as shit. I didn’t come upon too many people. Then I caught my stomach growling and dug out a Stinger waffle disc, kicking myself for letting myself get hungry. I slowed down to a fast walk while I ate. Mall-walking is how my ultra-friend Liysa Faye would have described it, all hips and business and swinging arms, just minus the cardigans and eyeglasses on a chain. I decided I didn’t like the waffles. Too hard to open on the run, plus they crumble and masticating just feels like an unbearable chore at this stage of the game. I should have reversed it; waffles first, then gummies, then gels. Lesson learned. I shifted back into run mode. At this point, my legs were so shredded they felt numb, which actually worked in my favor. Yes, they were a pair of fire hydrants, but I wasn’t being restricted by pain, at least for now, and just willed one foot in front of the other. After a spell, I synced up with another runner named Marybeth, also her first 50 miler. We chatted for a while, but that gets hard on a single track, so we just ran in silence, ran in each other’s company, and that was nice. But then we separated without a word and I was alone again.
About a half-hour later, my Garmin died, just beyond the 10-hour mark. I’d outlasted the fuckin’ thing. I felt a flush of John Henry pride, but was also a little unsettled without that digital guidance. The rest of the race would have to be by feel. Just before the final aid station, I caught up to a young woman and her pacer. We arrived at the food table just about the same time. I grabbed two cups of Tailwind and shoved off, anxious to put this thing to bed. But within a mile or so they were back on my tail, their voices creeping. I wondered if I was being used as a rabbit— “let’s catch up to that old, grimace-faced dude in the yellow.” I made sure to hold them off for a good half-mile, flying down all the hills like I was on Wheelies. Amazingly, they were running the up-hills and that’s where they caught me. “Coming up behind you,” a voice said. And I absolutely didn’t mind. In fact, I was pleased for them. All of us could see the light — dwindling as it now was — at the end of the tunnel. We were all sharing the same near-elation.
The trees were thick and closing in, it was getting harder to see the orange markers, so I dug out my headlamp. But when I came to the giant boulder, I knew there was less than a mile to go. I stopped and planted a kiss on the rock side like the flank of some giant sleeping dog. With the cold from the stone still on my lips, never had I been happier. Actually, it was more like a feeling of contentment, an absence of worry, a blissful emptiness. I knew I was going to fucking do it. I was going to complete this goddamn 50 miler. Despite the fatigue and exhaustion, I was able to dial it up for the last half-mile and that final sprint (well, more like a 10-minute mile) across the field at the end. In fact, I came in so hard — or probably more likely that my legs had minimal stopping power left — that a volunteer had to catch me and prevent me from crashing through the fence tape. “Congratulations, man, well done!” The clock read 11 hours 32 minutes and 16 seconds, almost an hour before cut-off. For some reason, I didn’t want to immediately sit down or collapse as I expected. Maybe I was afraid I’d never get up again, plus it felt good to hang onto that feeling of relentless forward motion that was still coursing through me. I walked back and forth for a bit, stalking my accomplishment, and then, slowly, and somewhat mournfully, made my way to my car.
The fullest of days.
Oh, and on the way home, I was rear-ended on Route 1. But it hardly seemed like a big deal.
The very fullest of days.