Back in February, MPF Campmor Teammate, Zsuzsanna Carlson. sent me a text message about a 50 mile race in the Finger Lakes that was filling up fast. It seemed like a great opportunity to see part of New York State that I had never seen and go camping with friends. On a whim, I registered.
This would be my 3rd 50 mile race. I was feeling more confident now about covering the distance and I was familiar with the level of pain that I would experience. As the race date approached I began to read more about the course. It was very runnable, but the weather forecast made me nervous. High heat and humidity were going to be unavoidable.
We left New Jersey on Friday around noon and made our way north to Finger Lakes National Forest. The campsite was already getting crowded when we arrived. It was wonderful to meet other ultra runners, hear about their race plans, and of course get extra nervous about the number of people who seemed to be opting for the 50K due to the weather forecast. Zsuzsanna had called our incredibly experienced teammate, Elizabeth Azze, to ask about the heat. She was confident that we would be fine, but to be mindful of salt intake and to drink early and often.
At 5am on race day morning the race director came through the campsite banging on a pot to wake all of the racers. It was really nice being able to get up, change clothes, find a quiet spot in the woods to go to the bathroom, and walk over to the race start. There was no worrying about checking out of a hotel, setting up the GPS, finding parking, getting your bib number, etc. By the time we lined up, I was feeling nervous. I listened closely to the race director's instructions, warning everyone to drink often and keep electrolytes up.
The day would be sunny and warm. With long sections in open fields we could not avoid the heat. It was a loop course and runners could choose their distance: 1 loop for 25K, 2 loops for 50K, and 3 loops plus a half mile loop at the end for the 50 mile. Off we went. The first loop was a struggle for me to settle down. There were several women in the lead pack, however with no distinguishing factors for race distance and the ability to change our minds at any time, there was no way to know who to watch for.
I was out front early, but during a mile-long stretch of road downhill several women passed me. I let them go, knowing we would encounter this quad crushing downhill section 3 times over the course of 50 miles. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake I have made during downhill races before. Shortly after the downhill road section we turned right back into the trails and started to climb. At the top of the climb I found myself in the lead and started to push the pace. After a nasty fall tripping on a tree root I forced myself to calm down and settle in. I finally found a rhythm about 10 miles in and began to enjoy the scenery. Looking out over fields, hills, and farms, and my favourite trail section which was heavily shaded and therefore a little bit cooler and smelled of pine.
The last aid station before crossing the start/finish area was just before the cow pasture. We had to be sure the gate was closed so the cows couldn’t get out. When I turned to close the gate I saw a women so close to me that I held the gate open for her. I began to panic. My stomach was full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and 2 full glasses of heed. I told myself that I would let her pass me if she wanted to and I would keep her in site. She didn’t pass me as I made my way into the start/finish area completing my first lap. I filled my pack with ice, ate some more peanut butter and jelly, thanked the volunteers and all of the spectators for their support and continued on my way feeling good.
Encountering the long downhill road section for the second time, I kept to my original plan of taking it easy. I heard someone on my heels and assumed it was the woman that I knew couldn’t be far behind me. When the person finally passed we exchanged a few words of encouragement and off he went. I didn’t see any other women behind me for the remainder of the race. It didn’t mean they weren’t there, I just didn’t know how far back they were. I continued to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at each aid station. I had 1-2 cups of heed at each aid station and took the endurolytes as close to every hour as I could. I had a gu every other aid station and tried to take in as much as my stomach would allow. I felt pretty strong into mile 25 when I hit my first low. I started to toy with the idea of running the 50K. I thought of Zsuzsanna and how disappointed she would be. I thought of sitting by the fire later that night and how disappointed I would be. I was hurting, but I wasn’t hurting nearly enough to not cross the finish line.
I could deal with a lot more pain than what I was feeling. I started to pass 50K runners. When I told them I was running the 50 mile race, their excitement and encouragement fueled me onward. The start/finish area lifted my spirits as much as it did the first lap and I think I started to realize then that I was having a pretty good race. I wasn’t feeling great, but my legs were strong with already less than 20 miles to go. I made my way for the long dreadful downhill section for the final time. When I reached the bottom I stopped at the aid station for food and more heed. It was the first time I noticed that all of the aid stations had signs indicating the distance from the previous station and the distance to the next.
I had already run 4 miles from the start/finish area. I couldn’t believe I had gone that far. It was such a boost, until I made my way up the climb that followed and hit the worst low of the race. I really began to struggle, even though I knew I only had 1.5 miles to the next aid station. I was walking far more than I wanted. I forced myself to run and after a quarter mile found myself moving. At the aid station I quickly glanced at the sign to see that I only had 2.2 miles to the next one so I decided to roll through instead. I didn’t want to risk stopping. When I finally made it the 2.2 miles I was in rough shape. The aid station was out of ice, and I was craving something cold to drink. Dejected I began walking out of the aid station, but reminded myself to keep chipping away. I could still break the course record and win this race.
I made it to the final aid station and they had ice. I drank ice cold heed and took a cup of ice to chew on as I made my way through the cow pasture. I had an hour to finish the last 3.5 miles for a course record so I struggled to get myself to run. I was walking and telling myself out loud “Swift, you gotta move”. And then I would answer myself “I know, I’ll run at that tree.” And then I would reach the tree and say “You’re still walking, Swift”. I crossed the pasture, closed the gate behind me and then heard the aid station volunteers start to cheer. That lit the fire that I needed to get to the finish.
Suddenly, I couldn’t remember how far back the last person I had passed was. I didn’t know if the person reaching the aid station was male, female, 50K, or 50 mile, but not knowing made me run scared. I didn’t walk another step from that point on. When I started getting close to the start/finish area, adrenaline began to take over. I heard one of the volunteers say that only one person had finished the 50 mile race so far. The temperature as insanely hot as it was, I had goosebumps everywhere. I couldn’t believe it. I saw Zsuzsanna with other 50K finishers, spectators, and volunteers all cheering me on for the short half mile loop that remained. I threw off my pack and ran the fastest I had probably run all day to finish the race.
Zsuzsanna was there to greet me, all smiles, with a look on her face that almost said “I told you so.” It was great to see her and give her a hug (although I was pretty sweaty and salty, the hug may have come a little later!). Thinking of her while out on the course helped me to keep moving, knowing she believed in me so I should believe in myself.
It was a wonderful race, but it was an even better weekend with an amazing teammate and new friends!