I think this was the calmest I have ever felt about a race. It was strange. It almost just felt like I was in autopilot. I knew my feet could go the distance, and I just didn’t care how. If I ran, walked, hiked, or took it easy, it didn’t matter anymore. I thought to myself that I would just start out running and try my best, but not set any expectations and if my back started hurting I would walk. I usually don’t like to toe the start line for races I have not trained for, and it is a bit of a challenge to my ego to run slowly, but I think I have lost a lot (if not all) of my competitive side after hiking the AT. That doesn’t mean I won’t want to set goals and push myself in the future, but right now I just don’t feel connected to goal setting or trying to perform at my potential. There is a certain calmness and ease at which I approached this trail race that helped me see new views and soak in the experience in a different way than I had in the past. I am a new me.
I woke up in the morning - early, and made a batch of oatmeal for the girls and I. I didn’t get a good morning poop (thanks to being out of a routine), but again, this didn’t really rattle me. In my previous life, getting that poop out before the start of a race was a critical part of my morning and would stress me out if I was unsuccessful. Not this time. I had full confidence in my ability to poop wherever and whenever and knew I could take care of it on the course if it came to that. We left our beautiful and eclectic home away from home in Terlingua and I rode to the race start with my sister Jamie and her two friends Anna and Tanya.
We watched Tanya and Shelley take off for the 50k at the front of the pack - looking strong and confident. I still never got any pre race jitters, not even a little bit. Not even excitement. I just felt like it was my new normal - being on trail. Autopilot indeed. People kept asking me “how do you feel about this race?” and the truth was I just didn’t feel much. I knew I could finish, I didn’t know or really care how, and I was just happy to be moving on my feet again. I didn’t approach this in the same way as I normally would have. I almost forgot to pin my bib on until I saw the other girls doing this the night before. It felt like I was very seasoned and ancient in some regards because I just had a new mindset going into the day about being on trail.
At 7:55 am we lined up at the start line and counted down from 10 and the small crew of us 30k-ers were off into the cold morning desert. I ran the first 7-8 miles well, felt in control and took in the beauty around me. At mile 3.45 we ran through a small crystal field - which always makes me smile. I know it’s there because I've seen it in previous years, but if you’re not paying attention you might not notice it. Sometimes I feel like it’s my little secret even though I’m sure plenty of others notice it as well. Either way, crystals just make me happy and I appreciate their natural existence. Wow. 3.45 miles! It felt like I had just started like 10 minutes prior! The miles were flying by!
I had been running a tiny bit at home, but I was in the habit of listening to music. I decided not to listen to music during this race because I wanted to travel light and take in the experience in a more mindful way. Plus, I don’t think I have ever raced with music on. I wanted to hear if there were footsteps right behind me or if someone was talking to me.
I had to stop running for almost three weeks in December/Jan because after attempting to do 4 miles of fartleks in the middle of a 10 mile run, my back was in staggering pain for weeks. I decided NO MORE SPEED workouts just yet. I dipped my toes back in the pool of running EASY and found that I wasn’t having any back pain. The weekend before the race I ran 12 very flat and easy miles on the Austin hike and bike trail and my back felt fine. My legs were sore (hi new muscles!), but I wasn’t injuring myself if I took it easy. I had envisioned doing a few more runs during the week leading up to the race, but the weather in Austin was sub-optimal (40s and 50s and drizzly/rain) and I just couldn’t bring myself to train in such conditions. I think there is some residual trauma from some pretty miserable conditions towards the end of the AT and I am still in a place of wanting to be warm and dry. Always.
I started seeing a chiropractor for my scoliosis/back/shoulder pain (which was killing me for the last 2 months on the AT), and the adjustments and PT exercises I’m doing for that have helped significantly. The chiro has explained that my scoliosis was a factor, but the main problem was the posture I had with my neck looking down at the ground for 10-12 hours each day for months on end. This pulling of my neck down combined with the weight of my pack pushing my shoulders back took a lot of the natural curve out of my neck, made my scoliosis worse, and nerves were getting pinched causing the pain in my left shoulder region. I tried to be aware of not looking at the ground too much on the trail in Big Bend State Park, and I found I was able to look ahead quite a bit because the trail wasn’t very technical. On many sections of the AT it is ESSENTIAL to look down for each and every step, and the pack weight can really throw your balance off - hence all of my falling!
After the first aid stop at mile 5 we began the quarry loop and the trail got a little more technical and had a lot more climbing. It started to warm up on the climbing section and I took off my thin running gloves and stuck them in my pocket. I was glad I hadn’t worn a wind breaker or arm warmers like I had wanted to. The start was brisk, but a short sleeve shirt, tights and gloves were perfect. I was worried I didn’t have any ear cover or another layer, but I warmed up quite a bit to where I didn’t notice the weather at all. It was 37 at the start and probably 55-60 at the finish with total sun and a slight breeze.
I dropped the people I was running with on the climbs (miles 8-11). I felt strong on the climbs and they seemed so insignificant (compared with all the climbing from the AT!). I took a gel at 1 hr 10 min and decided to stop at the second aid stop (mile 10.5) to drink some electrolytes and fill one of my small water bottles with Skratch electrolyte mix. Drinking all those electrolytes made my stomach a bit off-kilter, but it was going to be fine. I wasn’t pushing myself with speed - easy does it.
After this aid stop I really had to pee. I pulled off and found a tiny bit of privacy behind a short palm tree, but there was nothing else around to give any privacy (no shrubs in this area). Pee turned into the much anticipated poo and I was able to use my AT leave-no-trace skills to quickly dig a cat hole for my poo. Two people passed me during this pit stop and I never caught them.
I was alone the rest of the race. Mile 13.5 ish there was another aid stop and I didn’t stop. I took my second gel before the aid stop at 2 hours. At this point if I stopped it would be so hard to get going again. I was really starting to feel my knees, toes, quads and IT band. Well - this is what it feels like to run a trail 30k completely untrained. All of these aches were familiar and not concerning, but definitely not comfortable. I would probably have a big toe blister (yep), and very sore legs afterwards (yep yep), but no back pain or strange injury type pain ever came.
I was running pretty slowly late in the race - in between a 10:30 - 11:30 min/mile pace. I actually never looked at my pace on my watch during the run, even though it didn’t really affect me one way or another. I ran solely by effort, and miles 14-16 were a tough place for me. At 2 hours 50 mins I took my third and final gel which had caffeine. My stomach was still slightly off from the intense sugar onslaught from the previous two gels and Skratch, but at this point I figured why not. I knew I needed the caffeine boost and it might mask some of the muscle pain. I was surprised I was still running and hadn’t had to walk yet!
Miles 17-19 I got a second wind and was able to click into better form and exert a little more effort. The caffeine was saving me. I could also see the finish line at this point and saw other athletes ahead of me. Out in the desert you can see the shiny metallic reflection of cars for miles, so I could see aid stations and the finish line LONG before I would get there. I ended up seeing the first three 50 mile athletes coming the opposite direction on the trail. They were spread apart by 5-10 minutes. It was so exciting to see Robbie in 3rd place and get to cheer for him! Cheering for Robbie also gave me a bit of boost. He was at about mile 35 and still had 15 more miles to run! Wow! Then I saw the back of the 10k pack on trail and saw my friend Ellen! I got to cheer her on and watching her out there helped push me even more! This was her very first 10k and trail race and I knew she was pushing herself out of her comfort zone - which was super inspiring. I was able to find some motivation by seeing these two athletes on trail.
I turned off the trail at the end and saw my friend Carolyn walking back along the road - probably to run Ellen in to the finish! I said hi and she cheered for me. Now that I was on a gentle downhill on the road I was able to light up and switch gears to a bit of a quicker clip (7:40 pace) for the last quarter mile. I didn’t feel like I was in a hard place, but man my legs were achy and hurting. The whole friend group and NadaMoo! crew cheered for me as I turned the corner into the parking lot to the finish line and it gave me so much energy.
I finished with a time of 3:27 (6 mins faster than last year!) and felt so proud that I had actually run the whole way without feeling any nagging injury creep up! My back felt great! What a huge relief! I ended up winning my age group, which really surprised me because I felt my overall time was pretty slow - but the race is small and sometimes certain age groups aren’t that well represented (i.e. female ages 30-34).
Overall, I felt great reconnecting my feet with the earth. My race time and sore legs didn’t bother me, and I was mostly just excited to see so many friends and family out there really pushing themselves. My sister Shelley outright WON the 50k (beat the top 6 male finishers!) and had a huge PR in her second ultramarathon. My sister Jamie also crushed the 30k with an awful head cold and a new PR also. So many friends pushed themselves to new limits and it was super inspiring to see people put themselves out there like that. I know I didn’t push myself like they did (partly to prevent recurring injury and partly because I just was not trained at all), but I am inspired to push myself again. Not sure about competition just yet, but I think I will begin trying to train and work for something big again.
My body is recovered from the AT now and I can use the mental strength from that experience to push myself to a new place in athletics. Mentally, the race felt so easy. Nothing felt scary, daunting, or tough. Sometimes I lose motivation in races and/or hit a wall, but that didn’t happen out there. Every time I looked at my watch to see my mileage I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly the miles were flying by! Running is so much faster than walking! On the AT, 19.25 miles would have been an entire day, sunrise to sun down with a small lunch break and a lot of hustling and mountain summits. The miles were SO SLOW on trail. The trail race at Big Bend helped me feel light on my feet and fast (even though I was kind of slow). But it really was a confidence booster and I am certain that my mental strength is probably at its absolute peak. Not too much can rattle me these days and I feel confident in a new and more mature way than I was before.