I signed up for the Skyline Challenge 50k Tuesday last week. The "thrifty fifty" option offered a 50k supported long run in the mountains for $20 with aid stations stacked with Hammer products (my new favorite nutrition line). I had to get up at the god-awful hour of 1:15 a.m. to catch the last metro train out to Bethesda to get a ride with Brian out to Ward, VA. It started pouring rain, and the drive was actually quite frighting. I can't believe we didn't get lost, and made it to the race start with about 40 minutes to get situated.
I'd been feeling awful and tired all week. My knees still hurt a little, my foot was starting to bug me again, and my stomach hadn't felt well all day on Friday and I really didn't want to eat any food that morning. I expected to have a really bad run. The elevation ended up being twice what I expected (I was told 3,000 feet of elevation gain and it was close to 6) and I had no idea what the terrain would be or what the course was like.
This was a memorable race start, when over 100 runners took the wrong trail in the first mile. We were heading up a hill when everyone started running back down it, and almost everyone just laughed it off. The first few miles included some big climbs so steep that climbing them could be considered a calf stretch (elevation profile said 18% incline). It also got so muddy from the rain that the trail was unrunnable unless you wanted to trip. Being in a group was helpful since you saw what worked and what didn't. Climbing on the side of the trail worked. Trying to run up the muddy climb caused you to slide and fall into mud covered rocks. We all climbed our way on the side of the trail. It took almost 2 hours to do the first 8 miles!
I ran most of this alone, chatting some with RussianBear (Peter) and some of Brian's friends. I did my best to focus on strong climbing, running up some of the easy climbs, and keeping my form and nutrition in line. I was passing people like crazy as I focused on my climbing and really felt those Mountain Man reps I've been doing. My hamstrings, hips, and bum were really being put to work! When we reached the top of the climb, you looked out and should have been able to see three states and seven mountains, but instead it was white. There was a 2 mile detour to an aid station that you could barely see because of the fog, and thank God because on the way back it looked brutal! This was a pretty rocky course and that was the worst of the rocks.
After hitting that detour, the trail was gorgeous. I tried to get in some quicker trail running since I felt good, and ran about 3 miles with a girl to the next aid. The switchback down the mountain was rocky and covered in wet leaves and so I took it easy and safely. After the next aid station at mile 13, there was 8 miles of road with the turn-around in the middle. I tore through it, running almost all 8, and finally getting some speed under my legs. My pace was dipping far under 8:00 and I tried to keep it slow! I did! A truck passed me and told me I was fifth woman, the fourth was ahead of me, and I could catch her. Fifth!?!? I had no idea I was doing so well! The guy lit my competitive side and I picked up the pace.
Brian came through in fourth place and it was great to see him running so strong. The first woman was all smiles and yelled "hey lady! Looking awesome! Go get those boys!" Feeling good, I gained on the group of men ahead of me (they told me to slow down!), and passed them. I was starving, but didn't want to stop for a gel. When I get to the aid station, I contemplated waiting to eat since I'd be doing some hard running back, but decided it wasn't smart. The fourth woman just left, and so I crammed pretzels, bananas, chips, and soda. The volunteers were quick to fill up my water. I totally improved my aid station times in this race.
On the way back, I did about 7 miles with John, a Navy guy who has attempted and finished six 100s! The company was great. We caught up to the next woman and got some great running and climbing in. We did a lot of talking, he had great stories, and he complimented my trial skillz (I have them apparently). I was doing great on the technical stuff for a novice ("don't be offended by that word") and I've only been trail running for what, 2 years, right? "No, more like 2 months." He gave me lots of tips, including switching up the climbing so that your toes pointed outward and it used some different muscles.
Finally, we finished the climb, and he told me to go on and let him go. I ran ahead, concentrating on speed and using my small feet to navigate through the rocks. I came around a boulder and there was a fork in the trail. I looked for streamers and turned to find two, big, black bears.
I stepped behind the nearest tree and caught my breath, going over in my head about what I was supposed to do. Don't run. Make noise. But, I was pretty sure you shouldn't make noise when they were right there. So, I slowly went back around the boulder, and ran back toward John. He was totally confused until I told him about the bears, and so we ran together back through, talking loudly and clapping our hands. I hoped they were gone while he hoped he'd get to see them.
I jumped ahead again, and finally hit the last aid station. Now that I could see the mile detour, it looked awful! The last four miles were downhill, which my knees were not looking forward to. I was back alone on the trail, and now scared of bears. I started saying LA LA LA really loud in hopes to make enough noise, which turned into Ra ra ah-ah-ah-a ro-ma ro-ma-ma gaga ooh la la... want your bad romance.
Lets just say, the bears ventured away from my Lady Gaga singing. My knees weren't feeling too hot, and I switched my form which really helped. When we hit the last mile of road to the finish line, I took off! I got my pace well under 8:30 and finished in about 6:33, fourth woman, first in my age group, and 23 among 117 finishers! I'm really happy with my experience here! I learned a lot and proved to myself that I really can do this whole trail ultra thing.
Brian finished second! Totally kicked ass. He has so much potential! (He didn't sleep the night before, we did a trail marathon the weekend before, and he had the death race prior to that, and got SECOND! I'm amazed.) I stayed in Winchester, VA for the night and did a 7 mile hike on Saturday. My legs felt great! I'm really starting to feel more confident about Grindstone.