I spent the entire week after my race journaling and talking about it, but it has taken me two months to get it up on here. This blog is a recap of my first ultramarathon experience. A recap of a very intensely lived day that happened on September 5th 2021.
- Location: Big Sky Ski Resort — Montana
- Distance: 50K/31 Miles
- Elevation Gain/Loss: 10,500’/10,500′
- Low Point: 7,252′
- High Point: 11,166′
- Goal Time: Sub 9 hours
- Actual Time: 9:15
- Conditions: Insanely smokey with a high temp in the 80’s
The night before my race I decided to edit my alarm to provide an extra 15 minutes of sleep — this decision was later filed in my journal under “What to do differently next year.”
I woke up a little before my alarm but stayed in bed in effort to wake up at a gentle pace. That gentle pace lasted 2 minutes until I flew out of bed in excitement and began my morning routine: stretching, breakfast, coffee, journaling. I shared a condo with my friend who ran the race of her life the day before but still got up at this ungodly hour with me to share in the excitement. As I got ready I blasted “We Built This City” by Starship over and over. Two months have passed since that 5:15am music blast and I still find myself whispering out apologies to the other residents in the condo that they will surely never hear.
The race started in the dark at 6:00 and true to form, I got there at the last possible second because I didn’t want to get too cold. I DO wish I got there earlier, to soak in all the feels of a starting line, to take some deep breaths, to center myself, and so I was closer to the front of the pack so I didn’t have fly out of the gates to pass people before we got bottlenecked at the start of the single track. That was a lesson learned because for the first 1.5 miles you’re on a fire road with sooo many people, but then you hit a single track trail where everyone comes to a halt and you are literally waiting single file to enter it. Standing in line early in a race is exactly what you don’t want to be doing. So, next year, I will wake up 15 minutes earlier, so I can get to the starting line 15 minutes earlier. Being a little chilly is a small price to pay for being able to start the race in a more grounded state. Lots of energy expended when you start a longgggg race like a maniac.
As we filed slowly into the single track and some guy shouted his really great joke of “is this the line for the women’s room??” I started to really get excited. The trail was lit up with headlamps and populated with people who trained all summer for this. Populated with people who overcame so many obstacles to get here. Who love challenging themselves into better people. Who find the way to a fulfilling life is through choosing discomfort. Leaning into the hard things. Putting themselves out there. Taking a bet on themselves. Who, simply, love the same crazy shit that I do. I was exactly where I wanted to be. Physically, emotionally, spiritually. Right where I wanted to be.
Aside from the air smelling like a campfire, those first 12ish miles were bliss. Runnable single track terrain while stealing glances of the rising sun. Airplane arms. Big smiles. Frequent whooping. Two extremely high energy aid stations and taking some time at each to make sure I had everything I needed. I was on pace to break my goal of 9 hours, but it did feel like a tad too fast. “Oh well,” I thought, how do I know for sure? If I went out too fast I’ll feel it soon and then troubleshoot…might as well keep pace and see for myself.
Around mile 13 everything went south. The first indication that my body was under severe stress was how much it hurt to breathe. Between the altitude, intensity of a race and smoke, it felt like I was inhaling many small knives in each breath. I then looked down at my fingers and they were so swollen. As someone who struggles with circulation on a 60 degree rest day, put me at altitude and in the smoke and under race intensity and well, I should of saw this coming.
I made my way up the first major climb, Headwaters Ridge. I don’t have the vocabulary (does anyone?) to accurately describe the terrain of this course, so I am going to outsource to this video to help paint the picture. The ascent up Headwaters was doable, but I definitely knew I was en route toward boarding the struggle bus. Breathing was the hardest part, but then my stomach began to feel off. Nausea crept in and my head felt pretty light. It was absolutely gorgeous and climbing is typically my favorite part of mountain days, but not today. Not this climb. And to think, it was about to get way, way worse.
I reached the top of the rocky ridge and thought it’d be fun to try and run it. The rocks were just big enough to be able to pull this off, but I definitely need practice if I ever want to run this terrain with confidence and speed. As I descended my stomach began to feel better, but it didn’t want any gels. It sounded like it wanted something more substantial, and being close to an aid station I felt hopeful that getting in food (that needs to be chewed) would revive me. Once down from Headwaters we began to climb right back up again, and steeply –> 2.5 miles with 2,900′ of gain to the top of Lone Peak (11,166′).
Before you get to the hardest part of the climb (the last 1.5 miles) there is an extremely high energy and spectacular aid station at mile 18. Despite knowing people at the aid station and feeling so incredibly supported, I stayed pretty quiet and focused on what I could do to feel better. I ate an almond butter and jam wrap that I made that morning because that was the only thing that sounded good and I knew I had the climb of my life ahead of me. My body needed fuel so I admittedly forced it a bit.
The climb up Lone Peak. Dear God, the climb up Lone Peak. It was 11:00 and entirely exposed. The sun beating down on all us tiny humans, the smoke suffocating us all, everyone suffering in their own way — anddd we chose this. All of us. This is the hardest part of the course for most people, the grade is so insanely steep and you’re already 18 miles in with another 13 to go. The air gets so thin and the pace so slow it is unrecognizable to a GPS watch. It was the hardest climb of my life, and quite possibly the most physically challenging hour of my life. I wanted to puke the whole time. Eventually I found a spot on the ridge and went for it, but nothin’. That was incredibly disappointing. Another 10 minutes passed by and I veered off to try again, more dry heaving. This continued up the mountain, leapfrogging with a guy who was also stop and go due to leg cramps. Camaraderie on the struggle bus. Everyone has something. Everyone is fighting some sort of demon. At least I didn’t feel alone in my misery.
I got to the top of Lone Peak and there was a small but mighty aid station manned by all the fabulous people at Missoula’s local running store, Runner’s Edge. It was so great to see their faces and verbally complain to them how hard life was at the moment. I sat down, tried some sprite and a peanut butter pretzel nugget and just continued feel worse. As this was happening I did take a few moments to celebrate getting to the top of Lone Peak because I honestly wasn’t sure if I would ever get here. It took most everything I had to summit and I wanted to soak in the achievement. Figured a little self pat on the back was only going to help. I sat for about 5 minutes in the shade, knowing the two most basic needs nausea has are: “slow down and cool off.” Since food and drink weren’t helping, I needed to at least try to slow down and cool off. Those were still things I could do.
The “slow down” part I didn’t really excel at. For the final 12 miles I stayed adamant on finishing, and finishing in good time. I knew my shot at breaking 9 hours was shrinking, so I re-goaled (new word) my time and aimed to break 10 hours. Luckily, my bottom half was so solid. Legs, MVP. They kept going, and aside from the steep uphills, at a pretty steady pace. I ran all the runnable sections and grinded out all of the steep climbs while continuing to veer off to try and hurl. Every climb made me need to puke, but nothing substantial ever came out. But on the flats and downhills I felt okay enough to keep a good pace — and thank goodness or else I’d still be out there.
Mentally I just tried to keep a really quiet mind. Any noise, both external (please, NO more cowbell) or internal made me feel physically sick. So I kept my dialogue honest and positive: “Keep Going”…”Believe”… “This is Temporary”…”You Chose This”…”You Got This”…”You Love Hard Things”…”Breathe.” Keeping that calm center made all the difference. I listen to a lot of podcasts and read a lot of books and I especially am drawn to the ones on how to keep a calm mind while everything feels terrible and chaotic and hopeless. How to keep a calm center in the midst of a storm. All of that learning and training helped, and got me to the finish line just 15 minutes shy of my goal time.
I crossed the finish line and let out a scream. It was filled with relief, pride, and a hint of disbelief. Once I sat down I immediately felt nauseous again and tried to puke once more — nothin. I was really hoping that once I crossed the finish line all of my ailments would disappear? Is that not how this works?
I was incredibly depleted. The last 5 hours of the race I wasn’t able to eat or drink and it was very, very hot. I sat in the shade and cooled off and sipped slowly on water and maple syrup. I needed water, salt, and sugar desperately, but my body needed time to settle down first. After several people came over to check on me it was decided I should go get some oxygen because my color and oxygen saturation were pretty bad. It helped, and by the end of it I was feeling my appetite turn on and knew things were looking up. Potato chips and water and electrolytes were staying down and I felt so much gratitude for it.
The aftermath of the race was a big headache that night and the following night, and a tanked nervous system for a week. I slept an easy 10 hours a night for 7 days post-race. I didn’t rush back into running or much of anything and let my body take its time and tell me when it felt ready. There was part of me researching other races I could hop into because I wanted to put my fitness to the test since I felt like I couldn’t push it in the way I wanted to because of my stomach. I also love running and racing and the Fall so I’m not surprised I wanted more. I’m glad I didn’t pull the trigger because I needed more time than I thought I would to fully recovery and also to get back into a spot where I found running Fun again. And it gave me more time to celebrate and reflect on this race that I worked so hard for all year and then all day for on September 5th.
My biggest takeaways from my first ultra was how important it is to be prepared while fully knowing that anything can happen. The altitude crushed me, and although there are not many things I can do to change that, I was at least prepared with a mindset that was able to stay calm and make good decisions while feeling under fire. I am super proud of my physical training as my legs really did well on such an annihilating course, and also despite stomach problems, proud of my nutrition plan and front loading calories so I was able to have just enough left for a long stretch of no intake. Lastly, I was really glad I was able to soak in all the amazing volunteers and spectators and friends along the way. I could have easily shut them out because I felt so awful, but I really didn’t want to miss that part of the experience. The energy and support is so uplifting and was a huge help in getting me to the finish line in a time I am incredibly proud of. And yes, I do believe I’ll be signing up for the RUT 50K again. As painful as it was, I absolutely loved it.