It’s crazy looking back on this year at all the places my running journey has taken me. This time last year, I was still just playing with the idea of signing up for my first marathon. Today, I sit on my couch sore, chafed, tired, and happily reflecting on my first trail 50k last night.
A couple months ago, right after the Joplin Marathon, I wrote about my first trail running experience at the Catsmacker Fun Run. Shortly after that, I got online and signed up on a whim for the Full mOOn 50k coming up in July. What can I say? I had the post-race blues with nothing on the calendar until Route 66 in November. Full mOOn was right here in Arkansas just an hour away, and registration was a steal at only $40!
I had no idea at the time what wonderful experiences and new friends this decision would bring to me over the next several weeks of training. Trail running scared me. I was afraid of tripping and falling, afraid of being alone in remote locations with spotty cell service and limited access to water, afraid simply because it was new to me and I didn’t know if I would be any good at it. Fortunately for a trail newbie like me, it turns out that Arkansas has an amazingly supportive running community. After meeting some fellow runners at Catsmacker, I was quickly added to several Facebook groups where runners would post about upcoming trail runs. And just about every weekend that I needed to get a long run in to train for Full mOOn, I was able to find others to train with. Getting those trail miles in gave me the confidence I needed to toe the Full mOOn start line without being completely terrified.
I left early the day of the race to make sure that I had plenty of time to find a parking place and pick up my packet. I shouldn’t have worried. Packet pickup was very smooth and efficient. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the building secured for our use was air conditioned, and had real bathrooms! And the race organizers went above and beyond in making sure we had everything we might need. There were mini Ziploc baggies full of salt tablets spread across a table inside, plenty of bugspray cans on a table outside, and even flushable wet wipes in the bathrooms. Seriously, they thought of everything!
I was thrilled to see so many familiar faces from my training runs leading up to this event. I parked right behind Wes and Tee, the sweet couple I had run with on this very trail several weeks ago. (That was the run where we rescued a stray puppy who ended up finding a home for all the way in Washington D.C., but that’s a story for another day!) I quickly found my friend Cymber who had introduced me to the LOViT trail near Hot Springs, and Shelley who I’d run the same trail with a week later. And there were Lisa, Andi, Melanie, and the rest of the amazing runners training for the Arkansas Traveller 100, who I’d joined for a training run near Lake Winona just a couple weeks ago. And there were Jodi, Wendy, and Sherry, the Conway runners who I’d met my first day trail running at the Catsmacker; they were running the 25k, but made a special trip to the 50k start line to wish me good luck. It was amazing that I’d only lived in Arkansas a couple months, yet already I felt like I was part of a big, happy, trail-running family reunion. I guess that’s just what an amazing running community Arkansas has, and I feel so blessed to have become a part of it!
Soon, it was time to start. I smiled when I saw a text from Joshua wishing me good luck. (I wished he could have been here, but he was hard at work laying the new laminate floors I’d been begging for ever since we moved to Arkansas. Yep… I know I have a pretty awesome husband!) We departed from the start area at 7:00pm. Since it was the middle of summer, that gave us a couple hours before the sun went down. As promised, it was hot and very humid, and there was thunder rumbling in the distance. But so far it hadn’t rained on us, so we went on as planned. I ended up running with Melanie, who has actually honored me with a request to pace her for a section of the AT100! I was happy to have this opportunity to do a little training together. Having someone to stick with helped take my mind off the difficulty of the run. Even in those early miles, it wasn’t easy. The air was moist and heavy, and no matter how deeply you breathed it never felt like you were getting quite enough oxygen. I’d been having stomach issues all day due to pre-race nerves, and I’d only been running a few minutes before my side started cramping up. I gritted my teeth and ran through it. I might have to drop before the night was over, but I knew I could at least make it through this mile. Just finish the mile you’re in…. that was a mantra I repeated to myself many times before the night was over.
We ran about a mile before the pavement gave way to the gravel forest road. This stretch was the very same route I had run with Wes and Tee, and it was comforting seeing familiar landmarks. I passed the time chatting with Melanie about the last time I’d run here, carrying a tiny puppy in my arms. Before I knew it, we had made it to the first aid station. I had heard that trail aid stations are extravagant compared to the water-and-gatorade aid stations typical of road races, and I was not disappointed. Spread out on these tables was a veritable feast including several different kinds of soda, pickle slices, pretzels, skittles, and just about every kind of salty or sweet snack you can imagine. I am usually not a pickle person, but with the amount I was sweating, I knew I could use the extra electrolytes. I gratefully grabbed a couple pickle slices, and thought they were the best thing I’d ever tasted!
But my favorite part of the aid stations were the huge coolers of ICE! I was so thankful for the volunteers who grabbed the bottles from my hydration pack as I ran up to the aid station, quickly replenishing them with generous amounts of ice and water. Sipping on ice cold water and Tailwind made the hot miles so much more tolerable. I even asked a volunteer if there was enough ice to stuff into my sports bra. She laughed and said yes, and that I wasn’t even the first runner who had asked her that today!
Then we were off again. I refused to think about the entire distance we had left to cover. I stayed focused on the more manageable goal of making it to the next aid station. The hills were brutal, and many of the steeper ones forced us to slow to a walk. But despite the difficult course, I was thoroughly enjoying the beautiful scenery and the peacefulness of being in the middle of the forest. Gradually the sun started to sink, and caused the light to fade to a dim golden green as it sent its last beams through the treetops. When we reached the aid station at the 25k turnaround, it was really starting to get dark, and people were turning on their headlamps. This aid station was my favorite, featuring music and a disco ball that projected a colorful light show onto the surrounding trees. I spotted one of the volunteers wearing a Marathon Maniacs singlet, and she and I had fun complimenting each other’s attire!
After we departed, Melanie realized that the buckle of her hydration pack had somehow broken. We ran for a little while after the aid station without the buckle, but the pack was swinging around too much and she had to drop. At this point, I was on my own. I could usually see a a headlamp or two in the distance ahead of me or behind me, but there were parts of the run during which I couldn’t hear or see anyone at all. Being unaccustomed to running in the dark, I managed to trip over a rock shortly after nightfall. I ended up with some minor scratches and bruises, but thankfully my worst injury was only to my pride. Hoping no one had seen me, I jumped up and continued on, scanning the ground ahead of me ever more carefully for potential hazards.
At this point, my usually positive attitude towards running was starting to waver. I was alone and didn’t have anyone to talk to. Since the sun had gone down, I didn’t even have the pretty scenery to distract me. I had a few moments when I wondered why on earth I was doing this. The water-only aid station at mile 11.5 did little to break the monotony. At some point, my pity party was interrupted by another runner who caught up with me saying that her flashlight wasn’t working. This was one of my biggest fears about doing a nighttime race, so I had actually packed an extra flashlight in my hydration pack. I was glad to lend it to her. Even if I wasn’t having the best race myself, at least I could help make it better for someone else. She thanked me profusely and headed on her way, having a bit more energy and speed in her than I did at this point. And I found myself alone in the dark again.
Finally, I could see lights in the distance. I had made it to the turnaround aid station at mile 15.5! It was amazing how seeing those lights boosted my spirits after miles of running in the dark. This was the most extravagant aid station yet. They had just about every snack and beverage you can imagine. And there was a row of camping chairs I didn’t dare to sit down in, knowing that I would never want to get back up. I scarfed down a slice of cold watermelon and several more pickles. I chatted with the volunteers and with other runners, putting off the inevitability of heading back out into the dark. But I knew that the longer I stayed here, the longer it would be before I finished. So after a few minutes of rest and refueling, I reluctantly strapped my hydration pack back on and hit the road again.
Again, I was alone. I considered how different this was from my road marathons, in which there were always other runners around, and usually plenty of spectators cheering from the sidelines. In my road races, I almost never took long walking breaks; out here in the forest, they were a necessity for getting up steep hills and taking drinks from my water bottle without falling on my face. During a road race, my primary focus was to maintain a certain pace; here on the trail, all I was worried about was staying hydrated and conserving enough energy to finish, no matter how long it might take me. Despite my slow progress, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was actually on pace to finish well under cutoff. That was when I knew I could do this. I didn’t have to go fast, I just had to keep moving forward. And I made up my mind that I was going to enjoy myself in the process!
And even in the darkness, it turned out there was still plenty of nature to enjoy. It had been cloudy all evening. But finally the clouds broke, and I got a glimpse through the treetops of the sparkling white moon for which this race was named. I stopped and tried to get a picture with my phone, but my fogged-up lens did no justice to the beauty of that sky. A little further down the road, I spotted a salamander walking across the trail. I’ve found many salamanders under rocks and logs, but this was the first time I’d seen one out and about. I’d heard stories from other runners about copperheads encountered on this trail and wondered if I would see one. I wasn’t disappointed, and found one crossing the road a couple miles past the salamander. I stopped to snap a picture of the little fellow; then he went his way, and I went mine. I also spotted a possum who looked very confused by my bright light shining in his face.
It seemed to take forever to make it back to the 8 mile aid station, but finally I could hear the music and see the colorful disco ball lights in the distance. The lights had been fun to look at when I came through the first time at dusk, but they were simply spectactular after another long leg of my journey in the dark. I didn’t stay too long, because I could almost taste the finish line with so many miles behind me, and I was ready to be done! By the time I made it to the 3.5 mile aid station, I could tell that I was chafing pretty badly on my thigh and under my hydration pack, so I gratefully applied some of the Vaseline they’d set out for us on the table. I also popped a couple of Aleve… I wasn’t in any more pain than usual for this long of a run, but it was there and I figured it couldn’t hurt. I thanked the volunteers, and set out for the last leg of the journey.
After a distance that seemed much further than the couple miles it was, I felt the gravel beneath my feet give way to a harder surface. I was back on the pavement! I knew I was almost finished now! I won’t say that my exhausted legs were capable of working up a sprint, but they did manage a slightly faster clip than I’d been running for the past several miles. I even caught up with a couple other runners, and we exchanged words of encouragement as I passed by.
At long last, there it was… the right hand turn leading down the hill to the finish! I was thoroughly exhausted, and don’t think I’ve ever been so grateful to cross a finish line. Melanie was there to congratulate me. Wes and Tee were waiting for me too, even though Tee had finished the 25k several hours earlier. Once again, I was so thankful to be part of such an encouraging, supportive community of runners. I had only known these people a few weeks, yet I felt like I was among family.
Then came the hour long drive back home. I was grateful for the Starbucks Double Shot can I’d had the foresight to throw in my cooler earlier that day (wait – actually earlier YESTERDAY!) It was over. The race I had intermittently looked forward to, dreaded, and wondered multiple times over the past couple of months if I would be able to finish at all. It was a very different experience from my road races. It even went a lot differently than I expected my first trail race would go, since I didn’t think I would run so much of it alone. But it was a good kind of different. This race made me realize anew that this body God has given me is capable of so much more than I give it credit for. It can take me on amazing adventures if simply have the courage to start, laying aside my fears and trusting God to carry me through the journey.
When I got home at about 3:30am, my muscles were so stiff that I could barely hobble into the house. And I had chafed so badly from my hydration pack that I couldn’t bring myself to face the shower; a quick sponge bath before bed would have to do. Okay… maybe I was just a little crazy for voluntarily doing all of this to myself. But when I finally collapsed into bed next to my sweet husband and started drifting off to sleep, I was already wondering… when can I do this again?