Once upon a time, I had the brilliant crazy idea to register for an ultra marathon (any race distance over the full marathon 26.2 miles), having only run one full marathon prior to deciding this. My husband thought I was a little nuts (what’s new), but he told me to go for it if I wanted to. So I did, registering for the Fools Trail 50k in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Training was a roller coaster, that’s for sure, full of many running highs and lows (the lowest low being my foot injury that we all thought would prevent me from running on race day). Fast forward to race weekend, and a ball of nerves I surely was.
We were blessed to have Aaron’s grandparents close to the race location, so we stayed with them the night before and scoped out the actual starting and finishing area. Once we got out of the car and trekked over to the area where we would be starting and finishing, reality sunk in, and it wasn’t all feelings of sunshine and rainbows. To be honest, doubt and fear flooded every crevice of my being. Coming off of an injury, I felt very undertrained and prepared. I know I had done my best throughout the four months leading up to it, but somehow the flat landscape of Findlay, OH paled in comparison to the challenging hills and technical terrain of the course. Just what was I getting into? All Aaron and I could both do was laugh. Nervously laugh. Like….both of us fearing for my life kind of laughing. He knows just how graceful I am (read: not at all), so the terrain made up entirely of mud, rocks, roots, and rolling hills….I guess they didn’t name it the FOOLS trail run for nothing.
After a delicious dinner with our sweet grandparents at Olive Garden (where I promptly stuffed my face with carbs—breadsticks and spaghetti, sign me UP), we made a pit stop at the store to pick up some items I had forgotten in my ball of nerves state (FYI, remembering to bring deodorant with you on race weekend is super important…). We hurried home so I could get everything ready and prepped for the morning. I still hadn’t made my race playlist, so I was frantically compiling a list of tunes that I was praying would be both motivational and therapeutic. Finally, with only 6 hours until I had to be up, I tried to get some sleep. Falling asleep was hard but staying asleep was harder. I’m always paranoid that I will somehow oversleep on race day, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what I was getting myself into!
Race morning was pretty uneventful. We arrived and parked with plenty of time, enough time for me to change my outfit 3 times in the car. Literally. Aaron was getting so annoyed with me 🙂 The weather was hard to dress for—freezing in the morning, but I knew it would be warming up pretty significantly throughout the course of the race. I underdressed the first time and then added too many layers the second time, but finally found a happy medium just in time to use the restroom one last time before gearing up. I also remember making a comment about feeling very inferior to this woman in the car next to me—she looked like a natural born trail runner, and I just looked like a bright orange flamingo (?) that should be knocked over in a zoo. Let me tell you, I was feeling ALL the optimism that morning. 🙂 I met up with a group of runners that I ‘knew’ from a Trail and Ultra Running group on Facebook, so we chatted and somehow my nerves were a little calmed by our conversation. The start was very anti-climatic, unlike most road races. We were basically just a group of crazy looking people huddled together, trying to stay warm, and as soon as they said “go,” we were off, trampling through the frozen grass before entering the woods.
One of my biggest concerns about the race was the possibility of getting lost because I had never run a trail race before and wasn’t sure how well the course would be marked. So, I vowed to stick with at least one of the women I met right before the race. Plus, company is always so much more enjoyable! For the first however many miles, we stuck right by each other, chatting our time away—no need for music, just conversation and learning about each other’s lives. Lisa was wonderful to run with! I knew I was taking it very easy the first part of the race (for fear of burning out in the first half—needed to conserve the energy), but it wasn’t until our first aid station when I saw my husband that I realized how slow our pace really was. He innocently asked if everything was okay (since it took me a lot longer than he expected to reach that point), and I glanced at my watch for the first time and thought…wow, guess I do need to pick up the pace, Molly! However, at that point, I was still in the best of spirits and just plain having FUN. The course was icy and slippery from being frozen over, but it was manageable, especially with a running buddy (though we gave each other mini heart attacks many times from near falls!). I had no time goal for this race because trails are so much more challenging than roads…and I truly didn’t know what to expect with my pace. At this point, I felt that my priorities were to have a blast and not die, both of which I was accomplishing by running with Lisa. But around mile 10, Lisa was having some problems with her foot that she had landed on wrong. I stuck with her for a while, going really slow but not wanting to leave her. After a while, she began pleading with me to run and go ahead because the group she came with was still behind us and would be coming up, anyway. I didn’t want to abandon a fellow runner, but she kept reassuring me to go ahead because she felt that she had been slowing me down anyway. When I told her I truly didn’t care (even though it was the truth, I didn’t feel the least bit tired at this point) and that company and having fun were more important to me, she practically yelled at me to listen to her and go ahead 😉 I was fearful of getting lost, but I used these fears to pray aloud to the Lord and ask for Him to guide my footsteps.
I picked up the pace quite a bit and felt God’s pleasure as I ran through the beautifully breathtaking national park. The sights were awe-inspiring! As I was running along, I decided to turn on some music to keep my heart and mind focused. When I went to select my playlist, my phone turned OFF from the cold temperatures. I had forgotten to bring a hand warmer to keep my phone warm, and when it shut off, I may have shed a few tears. I have always been heavily reliant on my music to keep me going. I rarely run without music, let alone doing a LONG run without it. It was at that point where I felt very afraid for what was ahead. Without music, I felt alone, even though I knew in my heart that I wasn’t. The lyrics of music allow me to focus my heart and thoughts on Jesus, not on the pain of running or any other worldly concerns. Though I was upset about the lack of music (not to mention not being able to take ANY pictures of the stunning surroundings), I knew I had no choice but to keep running ahead.
The miles were a true blur on the first loop because everything was new and exciting. The twists, turns, being sensitive and aware of the (very) tiny arrows occasionally marking the course….everything made it fly by, music or not. I knew I was nearing the end of the first 25k loop, and I was feeling quite excited/proud that I had yet to fall! It was a miracle, that’s all I could say. But, the temperature was warming up quite drastically, and by the end of the first loop, everything was thawed and muddy. And then it happened. I completely WIPED out, hurt my elbows, and immediately burst into laughter because I tried unsuccessfully to get up and slipped again. I was thankful that there was another woman nearby who helped me up, and we chatted for a while, the conversation starting with “well I just had my turn, guess it was your turn to fall…” I found out that she had done several ultras before and was currently training for a 100 mile race. How incredible! She was my inspiration to keep going. We both got to see three deer run only feet in front of us across our path! Goodness…what a treat. We slowly ran up the last hill of the loop that led us to the grassy area right before officially finishing half of the race. There was a giant mud pit at the exit of the woods, and of course in front of all the spectators, I managed to get myself STUCK. I fell on my butt, and each time I tried to get up, I fell again. It was both hilarious and pathetic, and I’m sure my husband had never felt more proud of his wife than at that moment, driving the struggle bus through that mud pit… 🙂 Once I reached Aaron (who was accompanied by his grandpa, his buddy and buddy’s fiancé), I was exasperated and didn’t really know what to say besides “please get a honey stinger waffle out of my pack….oh and ps, my phone died, so if something happens I’m in trouble. And no music. Dying.” They gave mostly encouraging words, poked a little fun at my muddy butt and such, and hugged me as I left for the last half, the hardest half.
I was feeling quite dehydrated, but I was also purposely not drinking a ton of water because TRAILS. No bathrooms. Did I mention I was a trail newbie? I basically had no idea what people did when they needed to relieve themselves. I had seen a few people walk back from the middle of forest area, clearly having done just so, but they looked like they were experienced in that area. Like it was norm, relieving themselves in the middle of a national park with risk of getting poison ivy on their behind. I didn’t feel like trying that out for the first time in the middle of a race and risking flashing somebody, so I drank water very modestly.
Enough about the water. As I began the second loop, my spirits were not very high. In fact, I was practically crying out to the Lord, wondering HOW I would possibly endure another entire 15.5 miles of this course without music or company. I knew the course now. I was dreading the challenge of it, especially because my muscles were beginning to feel very fatigued and my quads were on fire. Not to mention the MUD that we were now facing….don’t worry, you will hear more of that later. I kept moving forward, despite not having the best attitude, because I was NOT about to throw in the towel or throw away months upon months of training for this. Embrace the suck, Molly. It’s SUPPOSED to be hard…the hard is what makes it great. Focus on thanking God for the ability to run, the gift of sore muscles, the heavy breathing means you’re alive….basically, I was giving myself a pep talk while still trying to hold back tears from physical pain and mental exhaustion.
And then an angel in a bright orange long sleeve shirt appeared. That’s what it felt like, at least. I slowly gained ground on this woman ahead of me, and as I passed her, I offered a friendly hello (because I was pretty much desperate for human interaction at this point). She smiled and chatted back, but I continued on ahead. And then a few minutes later, she caught up to me and went ahead when I had to stop to fix my sock that was falling down (seriously, I had never had this issue before race day..figures #blistertrauma). I caught her again, and I asked if she minded that I ran with her for a while. “Not at ALL! Please do. You have no idea how much I need human interaction right now” were her words. She held out her arm and prevented me from falling a few times in the first several minutes of running together, to which she apologized for being such a “mom.” It was then I knew I was destined to finish this race with her 🙂 Our conversation flowed so naturally, and I knew Jen was a true answer to my prayers and cries out to God. He knew I NEEDED her, and He knew she NEEDED me. She told me she was so, so close to calling it quits after the first 25k loop. She hadn’t had a very good experience, and we were able to listen to one another and offer encouragement. We WERE going to finish this. The sheer joy of the race began flooding my spirits again, despite the harsher course conditions. The mud was horrendous, and we had to slow down and walk for a much larger percentage this time around. I even walked straight out of my right shoe at one point. Words (or pictures) can’t appropriately convey the thickness and intensity of the mud…it was almost like trying to run through molasses. You were working so hard yet barely gaining ground. However, despite the insanity of the course we were dealing with, we managed to truly have a blast together and bond over the pain we were feeling. We talked about everything and anything, from family, running (duh), school, work, etc., and we even found out that she lives in the town where I work! What a small world. I’ll say it again. Jen was an angel sent from the Lord, and I can’t thank her enough for the friendship and camaraderie she offered during some of the toughest moments I’ve had to endure.
My worries about my lack of music, getting lost, or finishing in a crappy time all disappeared while we were running. I was soaking in all the stories and experiences Jen was sharing and trying to focus on the friendship, not the mud obstacle course the race was becoming. Jen helped me up the many times I fell (I lost count, but that mud did me in gooooooooood). The miles dragged on a lot slower than they had the first loop around, but I expected that to happen. However, what I didn’t expect to happen was getting lost when I was with somebody. Just as soon as I remarked to Jen how happy I was feeling once again (mostly because we were exiting a particularly challenging couple miles of the course), we crossed one of two roads of the entire course only to come across a woman who looked upset, confused, and downright angry. She told us that she thought she missed a turn, because based on mileage, she shouldn’t have been at that point of the course yet. Jen and I soon realized that we must have missed the turn as well, because our mileage was the same. Crap (for lack of better words). There was NO WAY we were continuing forward and cutting the course short. That would be cheating myself, my training, and the other runners. So, we reluctantly turned around, trudging back through the hills and mud we just thought we were finished with. The other woman was absolutely angry about the situation. Jen and I were also upset, but our emotions were mostly derived from weariness—not straight up hatred/anger. We kept moving forward, realizing we missed an entire section and the fabulous aid station (that had grilled cheese and pb & j!) where both of our families were waiting for us next. We planned on turning around and running ~2.5 miles one direction and turning back around to make up the missed mileage, but those plans were also thwarted. We found the spot where we all got turned around, and though I AM directionally challenged, this was actually a mistake on the course’s part. It was a fork in the trail where you had to turn one way for the 25k and the other direction for the 50k, but neither of those were specifically labeled as such (also, the arrows on the markings were 2in x 2in. TINY!!!! and easy to miss!). As we were running back, we decided that we needed to call both of our families and let them know what was going on before they started to worry too much. My husband just laughed when he answered to a “hello, this is your directionally challenged wife who got lost…”—Jen’s husband did the same. Both families left to go get food to eat so we knew we probably wouldn’t see them again until the finish line, whenever that would be.
Our strategy kept changing. Do we just make up the missed mileage and turn back? Or do we completely go back and run EVERYTHING we missed, which would add miles to our course? We opted for the last one, but the other woman was hating the entire world and split off from us because she didn’t want to do .1 mile more than she had to (I don’t blame her, but her attitude was a bit scary). It was just me and Jen running together again, laughing and crying at the situation. Both of us were in such physical pain (mud, hills, burning legs and glutes, Jen lost two toenails, I earned several blisters), but at least we were able to keep encouraging one another (or sometimes gripe a little together :)). My mental state was not all that great, so I was trusting Jen for the path. Jen decided that it was a sure sign from God that we needed to stop and take LOTS of pictures if we had to re-run part of the course. Might as well, I guess… I wasn’t going to complain, even if it was adding a lot of time to our pace. At this point, we both knew that our time was going to suck, so we decided to embrace this opportunity to lengthen our time on these beautiful trails. We stopped and posed for many pictures along the way. I am so grateful for Jen initiating these picture opportunities….I will treasure them forever!
Once we got back on course (well, as much as we could—I’m still not sure I could map out what we ran), we had added 5 miles to our total. I got to see my husband once more as he was camped out in a chair directing runners the correct way (seriously, he will attest that the course was poorly marked). I was so excited to see him, but from the pictures, the pain of what had just happened was more consuming than my excitement. 🙂 Real life struggles.
We were only 5 or 6 miles from the finish!! Hallelujah! At the next and last aid station, I literally hugged the volunteers when I saw they had DONUTS cut into small chunks and Coke. I can’t even describe the emotions. I have never ever fueled with donuts or Coke, and you’re not supposed to do anything new on race day, but I had never wanted that chunk of donut or Coke more in my entire life. It tasted glorious. Clearly, I wasn’t fueling myself well enough, but at this point, crossing that darn finish line was my sole focus. What was done was done!
I thought those last miles would be a little kinder to us because we were in such good spirits from being so close to the end, but they were downright awful. The last 5 miles felt like 20 to us both. The terrain of the last part of the course was the worst the first time around, but by now, the mud made it so sloppy and difficult that I was constantly falling and couldn’t run very well. There were slopes and ledges that were highly dangerous, and one wrong slip could have landed me a nice thirty or forty feet fall. I kept remarking that I must have blacked out during this last part the first time around because I truly didn’t remember it being that long or challenging. Both of us were struggling, but the random runners that we would encounter kept us moving forward. The group Jen had actually carpooled with ended up passing us in the last mile. We chatted for a while, and the group of 3 men were nothing but encouraging. One of the guys looked really familiar, but I figured I was just delirious by that point. Come to found out after looking up the race results, it was a guy I used to work with many many summers ago at Cedar Point! How funny.
I do remember one point after falling that I just sat there and told Jen that I wasn’t getting up and that she should go on and finish without me 🙂 Of course, she didn’t and I eventually got back up, but my mind couldn’t even fathom what I had put myself through. Our families were both waiting for us at the top of the final hill, and as I made it to Aaron, the only words I could muster were “I am never ever doing this again.” He found that pretty entertaining 🙂 (but I must say, removed from the situation, I WOULD do it again) We were a lot closer to the cut off time than I ever would have anticipated, but with getting lost, I had to accept it. Aaron tried to sprint ahead to the finish line to get a picture of me crossing the finish line, but I didn’t know he was trying to do that and interpreted it as he was trying to get me to run faster with him. So I ended up sprinting ahead of him, missing the picture opportunity, but SO relieved to have finished. There were immediate tears and hugs to both Aaron and Jen. Really, the finish line was such a blur that I don’t remember much, but I am SO GRATEFUL that God got me across that finish line. And it sure wasn’t by my own strength, because that had been spent a long time before that—it was only by His strength and grace that I finished an ultra marathon. 36 miles of hills and terrain crazier than I was prepared for.
Going into this, I knew it would be a difficult race, knowing that I couldn’t fully fathom the challenge it was going to be. The course conditions made it more challenging than it should have already been, but what an AMAZING introduction to the world of trail running and ultra marathons that race was. There were many miserable moments, that’s for sure, but the moments where I felt joy more intensely than I had EVER before—those moments made it all worth it and more.