*Throws confetti* *dances around* *jumps for joy* I DID IT, I DID IT, I REALLY DID IT!!
(All photos by Gregg Gelmis and Melissa Hopper of We Run Huntsville)
I went to bed Friday night feeling anxious. The anticipation was building and I was just ready to be racing– I didn’t know how I was ever going to sleep with how jittery I was. With a 6:30am race start, that meant I needed to be up and awake by 4:30am, so I went to bed EARLY. I slept fitfully and had not one but two anxiety dreams about the race, and I felt like I spent half the night starring at the ceiling. Yikes… I was grateful when my alarm went off because that meant it was time to get up and get going. After downing my breakfast of cereal with a banana and gathering all my gear, I headed out for the state park.
It was still dark when I arrive and cold and windy. I was completely bundled up and happy though, seeing all my friends was a relief, and knowing it was start time soon was helping the anxiety melt away. This race is set up as a series of loops. First, you run one single lap of a ~2 mile loop, then for the remainder of the race you alternate the south loop and the north loop, for a total of 3 sets of each north/south loop. The south loop is the “easiest” as it is flat, but boring and it’s ~5.5 miles long, after that is the north loop, which is more technical and has one monster to climb but also plenty of downhill, which makes it easier to break up in your mind, and it’s ~4 miles long. Timing is done old school style on a giant poster grid with everyone’s names, volunteers marking down your number of laps each time as you go by.
At 6:30 we all gathered together for the start. Me, Kim, and Jennifer were planning to run together and have fun. Since this was the first race in the Grand Slam (three 50ks and one marathon in three months), I knew that taking it EASY would be the name of the game. The last race (Mountain Mist 50k) in the Grand Slam series is BY FAR the most difficult, so going at the first three very cautiously is extremely important. Jennifer is also doing the Slam, so she was planning on running easy, and Kim had a freaking MARATHON to run the day after the 50k, so she was taking it easy as well. We were a perfect race trio!
(This season’s group of hopeful Grand Slammers!)
It was time to begin. In a small crowd of about 100 people, we took off into the woods for the first short loop. It was almost startling to see just how few people there were, and I was reminded of Scott telling me the night before that I have reached that level of crazy where there’s only a small handful of people willing to participate. HA! Plodding along in a long train of people snaking through the woods, I stumbled and crashed to the ground within the first two miles. HOW EMBARRASSING! I landed on my shoulder and earned myself a good scrape on my elbow and shin, but at least nothing critical was damaged. And I got my fall out of the way early, so that’s good right?? The first loop was done quickly. I took a quick potty break and we were off on the first running of the north loop. WEE! Now the race was really getting started.
(Can you see my pink glove there in the back waving??)
I was taking great care to run slowly so as not to wear myself out. I wanted to race this HAPPY, and that meant keeping as much energy in the tank as possible. After all, there were MANY hours of running ahead of us. We followed the trail behind the state park lodge, past the overlook, and then down into the hollow. The theme of the day for me seemed to be stubbing my toes on EVERY SINGLE ROCK AND ROOT OUT THERE! Seriously. Only 6 miles in my toes were already sore, and they were in for a long day. Other than that though, it was nothing but smiles and happiness out there, and as always I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation with my running buddies. At the end of the north loop is the long climb up Sinks trail, and as we huffed and puffed our way to the top, Kim made sure to remind us, “We only have to do this two more times!!”
That was it! One loop down. At the pavillion I refilled my empty water bottle with Skratch water, ate an apple sauce, grabbed a handful of potato chips, and ditched my long sleeved top and gloves. It was warming up fast out there, and I was already burning up. Now it was time for our first south loop, winding around the plateau on the Family Bike Trail, which is flat, easy, and utterly boring. Around this time we fell into pace with a guy named Patrick, who has been running ultras for 11 years!! ELEVEN! We got into deep topics like religion and theology, and surprisingly the south loop flew by. The worst part was the gravel road section. This section would prove to destroy me by the end of the day. It’s just barely, ever so slightly, infinitesimally up hill, and it was a big mental road block for me through out the race. It wasn’t so bad on the first go around though, especially because we got to see our friends Amanda and Rachel! They were both doing a long run together, separate from the race, and their wonderful faces were bright shiny rays of light. Seeing them made me happy.
Boom! Another loop down. Four more loops to go. This was the theme of the day– you might notice that I almost never denote mile markers in this report. That’s because I never allowed myself to look at my watch or to think about the distance ahead. There were only loops. And four more loops to go didn’t seem bad at all! Another refill of Skratch water, one more apple sauce, and a half a can of Coke later, we were off on our second running of the north loop… and I was still stubbing my toes on every thing I possibly could. I had MANY near falls, but thankfully I never ended up in the dirt other than that one time in mile 2. Before the race, my personal trainer/running friend Christy advised me to run without my pack. She emphasized that she knew it was a security blanket, but since we were returning to the aid so often I really wouldn’t need it. As much as I didn’t want to let it go, I listened to her and simply carried a hand held water bottle. This proved to be an excellent decision because my back was aching enough from all the climbing alone, I can’t imagine how sore it would have been with a liter of water on my back.
(Me and Kim, strong warrior women! And yes, we matched our shirts on purpose!)
Another north loop down, another bottle of water, and more apple sauce. I was shocked at how much I was drinking. My bottle carries roughly 16 oz of liquid and I had refilled with Skratch water it at every pass by the aid so far. Despite that, I was covered in gritty salt and only had to pee ONCE during the race. When I say it warmed up, it really warmed up. I was also starting to experience a little nausea at this point, and it kept me from feeling like eating much of anything. From that point on my calories were mostly liquid (Skratch water and Coke) and apple sauce.
Out on the second go at the south loop and during it Jennifer mentioned that we were now exiting the “happy distance”– aka that distance you feel comfortable at, it’s challenging, but not too exhausting. We were around ~20 miles at this point and she was right, my body was exiting the happy, easy distance mode and entering, “okay, we’re tired now” mode. Spirits were still high though! We spent the miles joking around and telling stories, one of my favorites being the one where Jennifer had too much to drink and instead of doing something silly like drunk texting, she did drunk race registering, ha! We got to the gravel road and I slowed to a power hike. My friend Cary passed me by and gave me some encouragement, I said something about how this darned gravel road gets to me every time, and he admitted, “I have CRIED on this gravel road!” Ha! Glad to know I’m not the only one 🙂
During that second south loop, my nausea grew more and more intense. When we finally made it back to the pavillion, I downed some Pepto Bismol in hopes that it would help. Filled up my water bottle once again, and now it was time for the FINAL NORTH LOOP!! WOOO!!! I grabbed my phone from my personal basket at the aid area and text my family that I would be done soon. As we set out Kim pointed out each tree and rock “This is our last time to pass that tree! and that tree! and THAT ROCK!” Ha! I was tired, so tired, and my feet were aching so badly… but the happiness was still there! How could it not be with Kim and Jennifer to run with?? Going down the big descent into the hollow felt MUCH MORE DIFFICULT the last go round. I was at the point where my legs were wobbly and I didn’t quite trust them on the treacherous descent like I did during the beginning of the race. Wobble wobble wobble, all the way down the hill. And still yet, I was stubbing my tired, aching toes on everything. YOUCH! It was starting to get eye-wateringly painful. When it came time to go up the final LONG climb for the last time, I wasn’t entirely sure I could do it, ha. But with Kim reminding me that this was our LAST hill for the day, I made it to the top.
At the top of the hill I made my way back towards the aid area and told Patrick, who I was running with again, that my family might be there by now, and if they were, we would hear them before we saw them. As if on cue, I heard my mom’s distinct voice calling through the trees, “GO CHELSEAAAA!” I looked back at Patrick and laughed, told ya! I came out of the woods and stumbled into the aid station to see my mom, Roo, Scotty, and Sarah all there for me. I was SO happy to see their faces and also excited that this meant I had one final loop left. Just ~5.5 more miles and then I would be done. I talked with my family for a minute or so as my sister refilled my bottle for me, I asked them to go buy me a bottle of Coke at the state park store, and then was sent off for my final loop. That’s when I hit the wall. Just steps into the last five miles it felt like all the energy had drained from my body. Kim and Jennifer were still slowly jogging and I watched as they disappeared into the distance– I was glad they were not waiting for me, I did not want to hold them back.
The winding trail seemed to go on FOREVER and I was doing more walking than running. I began to feel increasingly nauseous and fuzzy, and sad. Suddenly I was so sad that I couldn’t stop myself from grabbing onto a near by tree, leaning on it, and letting out a few dry sobs. “What in the world am I doing?” a small voice inside of me thought, I knew this was ridiculous, but at the forefront of my mind was only the 100% certain feeling that I was going to die out there. Dramatic, I know, but it’s the truth. Eventually I blocked out the sadness and just felt nothing, and thought nothing. The only thing going through my mind was left, right, left, right, left, right. I trudged through the woods and finally made it back to that DAMN GRAVEL ROAD. I wanted to sit down on a log and let the gravel road win, I wanted to wait there until someone found me. But my legs kept moving forward, albeit extremely slowly. Close to the end my friends Remy and Lisa came up from behind. Remy asked how I was and I grouchily snapped, “I don’t feel like talking.” WOW, RUDE MUCH CHELS? (Don’t worry, I apologized after the race). I knew once we finished the gravel road that meant only a little over a half mile to the finish, and I forced myself to run.
Out of the woods and on to the road for the final stretch, up at the corner I heard my family and Kim calling for me and I immediately burst into loud, unrestrained sobs. I was so happy. I was so tired. I was so thankful to see them. I was so tired. I was elated. I was so tired. I WAS NAUSEOUS. I WAS SO TIRED. There were too many emotions and feelings and bodily sensations to process, and I was completely overwhelmed. With tears streaming down my face, I crossed the finish line of my first real ultramarathon. Final time: (TBD, still waiting on official race results, but ~8 hours is what I remember seeing on the clock)
Inventory: at least 3 toenails I’m going to lose, 2 blistered pinky toes, 2 giant chaffing spots that are oozing blood, an extremely sore shoulder from that one fall 2 miles in, a few cuts and scrapes that I have no idea where they came from, and… a whole lotta pride.
Next race is in 3 weeks, the Rocket City Marathon. Bring it on! 😀