So, I can hardly believe it, but I am now a 50-mile trail race finisher! I ran the North Fork 50 on Saturday in about 12:45, feeling good most of the way, and -- this is the real triumph -- having done this, I actually am interested in covering the distance again!
It was 53 degrees but felt much cooler as a nervous band of ultrarunners gathered in Pine Valley Ranch Park for the race start. Shivering in the moist morning air, I tried to listen as Race Director Janice O'Grady made some opening comments, but the butterflies in my stomach distracted my attention. What if it gets really hot today? What if I'm not able to make the cutoff times? Am I really going to be able to finish this? But just as the doubts started to creep in, the mass of runners counted down from ten in unison, and we were off!
Sarah and I let a lot of runners pass us, sticking to the conservative pace we'd discussed in the days leading up to the race. The course started on fairly flat terrain, along a creek, and then wasted little time in climbing about 1,000 feet in the first two miles or so as it left Pine Valley Ranch Park and entered the Pike National Forest. "It wasn't that long ago, we were all freezing!" a fellow runner commented, wiping sweat from his brow as we continued to climb.
The race begins in cool, shady forest -- but after a few miles the course winds across two burn areas: the 2000 Hi Meadows Fire and the 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire. Race proceeds benefit the North Fork Volunteer Fire Department, and now that I've run through these burn areas I have a renewed appreciation for the challenging nature of these brave volunteers' task!
The burn areas posed some tough running. Our morning traverse of the Hi Meadows Fire burn area was fairly pleasant, given that the sun wasn't high in the sky, but I could already tell on our first pass that the next time we crossed this section of the course, the sun would make it a lot less pleasant.
Running through part of the Hi Meadows Fire burn area, near the start of the race.
Almost before we knew it, we'd passed through two aid stations. The miles slipped by so quickly, it was unreal. The course moved back into a forested area, which gave us a bit of a reprieve as the sun started to beat down a little harder.
Before we knew it, Sarah and I reached the Shinglemill aid station. Our steadfast crew, Andrea, awaited us there with some other ultrarunning friends, Ed and Pat. They asked how things were going while the aid-station volunteers refilled our hydration packs. Ed told us he'd be the aid station captain of the Sandy Wash Aid Station (mile 42.3) and promised us he'd have popsicles for us when we arrived. Excellent!
Hydration packs filled, we said our goodbyes to Andrea, Ed and Pat, and made our way back down the trail. After a mile or two in shady forest, we ran for several miles through the Buffalo Creek Fire burn area.
The fire happened 14 years ago, but it must have been a devastating one: the trees have hardly begun to grow back, and while wildflowers and grasses do grow here now, the landscape is a fairly barren one, with interestingly-shaped boulders looking out over a broad expanse of burned stumps and logs where a forest once grew.
Soon we found ourselves back at the Buffalo Creek aid station, and I took this opportunity to throw out 20 miles' worth of empty GU packets, resupply my GU stash with what I'd left in my drop bag, and grab the handheld bottle filled with Perpetuem that I'd left in my mini-cooler. The aid station volunteers (and their kids) sprayed us off with cool creek water, and filled our packs with water and ice. Things were going well, we were ahead of pace, and I was feeling good.
But that didn't last for long.
Over the next three miles -- a 1,000 foot climb up the Baldy Trail -- I grew more nauseated with each step. Weakness expanded through every muscle and tendon. I felt hot, despite the ice and water in my pack. Nausea made the Perpetuem taste more like mud than coffee. This was not good.
I didn't see how I could stay in the race. I told Sarah she should consider going ahead without me, since staying with me could mean she'd risk not making the 50k time cutoff -- and she needed these fifty miles as a part of her Headlands Hundred training. She was unmoved by my suggestion.
"We can discuss that later if we have to," she said, "but I'm sticking with you. You're doing great and we have plenty of time between now and the cutoff." Then, she took my pulse, determined it was higher than it should be, and laid out our strategy. "We're just going to take it slowly and walk up this hill. When your heart rate comes down we'll run some more." On I plodded.
In this section of trail we came across a couple other runners who seemed stricken with the same nausea I was experiencing. It was definitely getting hotter, which probably wasn't helping anyone. When we'd walked a little further and my nausea hadn't subsided, Sarah revealed the next step of her anti-nausea plan.
"Break out my peanut-butter crackers. You need to eat one."
I groaned. Eating solid food seemed like such a mistake at this stage, and I hadn't had the best results when I'd tried solid food beyond mile 16 in my training runs. But I didn't feel good enough to argue about it, either. And I figured, even if I eat the cracker only to throw it back up, I could hardly make myself feel worse at this point.
It's hard to describe just how awful the cracker tasted at that moment. The first bite I took, I felt all the moisture disappear from my mouth, so that I had to knock the cracker to the back of my throat and swallow it with water, like a pill, to get it down. It took four or five bites to swallow the whole thing. I kept walking, expecting at any moment to feel a rumbling inside as the cracker (along with all the GU and electrolyte pills I'd taken that day) would erupt all over the trail.
But amazingly, nothing happened. I didn't feel better, but I also didn't feel any worse. So I kept walking.
Soon enough, we arrived at the Miller Gulch aid station at mile 23.8, which was advertised as being an "unmanned water station," but which was in fact staffed by three very friendly volunteers.
"What can we do for ya?" one volunteer asked with a big smile. His enthusiasm was contagious, and I smiled in return, despite my churning stomach. I handed him my pack and asked for as much ice as he could spare. I dumped out the rest of the Perpetuem from my handheld, and he filled that with ice and water too.
"Your next aid station is 4 1/2 miles from here," he said, "And after that, you've got another volunteer at the 50k split. They'll send the 50k runners to the finish line, and the 50 mile runners to the psychiatric tent."
This made me laugh. He had no idea how much my mind was spinning at that point; I was still feeling lousy enough that I thought I might not be able to finish today. But strangely enough, as Sarah and I waved goodbye to him and took off from Miller Gulch, I started to feel better. Was it the laugh? the ice? the passage of time? the dreaded (gasp!) cracker? Some combination of all of the above?
The next stretch took us down a few switchbacks along Miller Gulch, then back across the Hi Meadows Fire burn area on the Homestead Trail.
It was heavenly to feel good again. The seven miles between the Miller Gulch aid station and the 50k cutoff flew by. Soon we found ourselves descending some switchbacks to the sound of cheering: Andrea was at the cutoff to meet us! She'd brought Sarah's iced coffee, and my next bottle of Perpetuem (which I would end up leaving in the cooler, since I hadn't had much luck getting the previous bottle to go down.) She also had cold washcloths ready, and it felt amazing to wipe 30 miles' worth of sweat and dust off my face and neck.
Saying goodbye to Andrea at the 50k split, it was almost unfathomable that the next time we saw her, we'd have run fifty miles. But I was feeling good, and the idea that I might finish this race was starting to become less of a dream, and more of a reality.
The Buck Gulch Trail seemed steeper the second time around, but I was feeling so good I hardly cared. Soon enough, we were back at the Homestead aid station, and the volunteers there filled our packs and got us quickly on our way. We were really going to finish!
We cruised into the Buffalo Creek aid station for the final time, mile 39.6. My giddiness seemed to match the mood of the volunteers: the kids squirted us off with water pistols while the adults scooped ice into our packs, and everyone was jolly. One volunteer wrapped a handful of ice into my bandana and then tied it around my neck. Heavenly! The ice would keep me cool for the next three miles as it slowly melted into cool water down my neck and back.
The next stretch of trail, a two-track dirt road, mostly follows alongside Buffalo Creek. We passed a beaver dam, some small waterfalls, and a number of houses along the road. Before long, we were at the Sandy Wash Aid Station. Ed and his crew cheered for us as we headed up the hill toward their tents. This is where the North Fork party was really happening.
"We were promised popsicles!" Sarah called out as we reached the aid station.
"And popsicles you shall have!" a volunteer quipped, pulling out a cold red one. "That is, unless you'd rather have a beer, or a vodka tonic!"
I haven't had a popsicle in years, but this one tasted so good! Even better than a beer, at this stage in the race. And the fact that we were almost done was really starting to sink in. The volunteers told us we had another 1,000 or so feet of climbing over the next 4.6 miles, and then it was all downhill from there. We headed out of the aid station taking it easy up the hills, enjoying our popsicles. After two miles on the Sandy Wash Trail, we found ourselves back on the Homestead Trail, and would retrace our steps for the final 5.5 or so miles.
These trails were now familiar enough that we could judge just how close we were to the finish. We flew down the switchbacks toward the 50k split, this time taking a right-hand turn toward the finish line. Andrea had stationed herself about .3 miles from the finish so that she could pace us in. She cheered, and ran, and took photos -- all at the same time!
And then, amazingly, we crossed the finish line and it was over. Fifty miles. What a feeling!
Sarah won a prize for finishing third in her age group. I was delighted to have a finisher's medal. It was a wonderful, wonderful day. Special thanks to Sarah, for all those days of training with me, for running this race with me, and for helping me push through when I felt terrible; Andrea, for crewing us (at this race and during our training runs) and offering such great support along the trail; and Christi, for taking care of our little family so that I can head out on wild adventures like this one. I am a lucky, lucky woman.
Special thanks also go out to all the volunteers of the North Fork race. I could not have run these 50 miles without your hard work and good humor. I may run North Fork again one day, but next year I plan to join the ranks of the race volunteers! You made it all look like so much fun, how could I not join you?
Thank you, everyone, and see you on the trail!