“SO WHAT TIME ARE YOU TRYING FOR?” some people asked me on Friday, referring to my 50K run the next day. This being my first ultra, I had no idea. But adjusting my average marathon time for another 6 miles, I came up with a SWAG (*). “Oh, around five hours,” I said.
Oh, the naivete of the first-timer! Five hours would have won my age group and been a 10th place finish overall. But with my real goal just to finish the race standing up, I didn’t really care much about my time. A good thing.
The 50K gun went off at 6:00 Saturday morning, but we could start pretty much whenever, as it was chip timed. I arrived around 6:10 to find the pack had taken off, and I would be starting alone. No problem – all I had to do was follow the line of pink flags. After a drink and final equipment check, I crossed the starting line around 6:25.
I was in trouble before I even left the campground. The flags seemed to be taking me in a circle, not into the woods. Risking ridicule, I jogged back to the pavilion and humbly asked where the heck was the trail. A nice lady pointed out the correct way, and I was off again. Miraculously, it was the only time I got lost.
I quickly encountered two things that make a trail marathon different from a road marathon. Here’s the first.
Even with an early start, a road race is illuminated by volunteers, buildings, and approaching sunrise. On the trail it’s just you and your headlamp, and with rocks, tree roots, and horse nuggets requiring you to watch every step, ain’t no way you’re going to run at road pace. But the flags had reflectors, so my headlamp made them easy to spot until it became light enough to see the colors. (I should have figured – how else would the all-night runners find their way?)
The second difference is what happens to the running surface when it rains. Road? Gets wet. Trails? See below. It had rained in Pinckney from 11:30 Friday night until 5:30 Saturday morning. I was wearing old shoes, so I didn’t worry about them getting trashed, but with very little traction left on them, the result was a lot of squish-squishing and slip-sliding the first half of the race.
After a half hour or so I began to encounter and pass other runners, ranging from other 50K-ers to the 100-milers. Here are a few vignettes from the folks I encountered and spent a little time talking to.
Jason’s shirt says, “Ask Me Why I Run,” so I did. He has a 7-year-old son with Angelman Syndrome, and he and his team (ahead of him, a bit hard to see in the photo) were running Woodstock to raise money for treatment research. “I started with just me,” he said, “and now we have people from all over the world running with us.” Click here to visit their website and find out more.
Mary was doing the 50-mile race at Woodstock, but her incredible accomplishment is having run a marathon in all 50 states. More people climb Mt. Everest than manage this feat. Naturally, I asked her which marathon was her most memorable. “The Bataan Death March,” she said, referring to a marathon in New Mexico that honors veterans. “Some vets run the race in crutches.”
And here’s a guy who really makes me wonder. Unfortunately I didn’t get his name; I think I was too busy picking my lower jaw out of the mud. I saw he was wearing a Pacer bib, and I asked him which distance he was helping with. “The 100 mile,” he said. The entire distance? “Oh, no. Just five to six hours. Then I’ll hand off to someone else.” He’d completed an Ironman triathlon two weeks ago, and this was his idea of taking it easy. I excused myself, telling him I had to run some seven-minute miles just to get my self-respect back.
Coming up: I finish the 50K and have a memorable Saturday night in several ways.
(*) SWAG = Scientific Wild-Ass Guess