Over the weekend, I tried once again to run the Virgil Crest 100 Mile Ultramarathon. And, once again, I did not succeed. I dropped out at mile 57-ish. But this race report is not about failure. This is about fun and beauty, and all of the things that can go right, along with lessons learned.
We showed up in Virgil, NY the day before for check-in and pre-race meal and meeting.
The we was myself and my race crew – my brother Mike, and a friend and fellow runner, Chris. Dinner was filled with running into friends, meeting new people we would be spending the next 2 days with, and lots of tales of trails.
Early morning arrival for a 6am start. Mike, the non-runner, was amused by all the “freaks” who show up to run 50 or 100 miles through really tough trails, and up and down ski slopes. There were people with long hair, no hair, no shoes, kilts, beards half-way down their chest. All of us milling about, fueling up, and rechecking our packs.
Headlamps on, we were off into the dark. Our crew members would drive to the next aid station and wait for us to arrive. The first section was just nasty – ankle-deep mud or ruts and potholes, very hard to get much real running in. At the aid station, Mike and Chris took my pack to refill my water while I grabbed a few bites of food. Then on to the next aid station, around 4 or 5 miles away.
The second aid station was an important stop. The next 2 sections of the course were the hardest, heading into the alpine section – up and down ski slopes. It was very important to eat and drink, and make sure I had plenty of water to carry with me. This is also where I picked up my trekking poles – I would definitely want them on the steep slopes.
This next section started with some nice trails through the woods, but then went out onto the road for a long gradual downhill – so dislike that section. And finally into the alpine serpent. Up and down and over and up and up again, winding our way around the Greek Peak Ski area. This is a tough section leading into the aptly-named Hurt Locker Aid Station. The course description has this to say, “you’ll have 3 of your toughest climbs and descents heading into and out of the Hurt Locker….The alpine section has come to define the toughness of Virgil. Be conservative, respect the climbs…. and embrace the reason that you chose Virgil…that is, because it’s one of the toughest courses in the country (or you’re just local or loco :)”
As I pulled into the Hurt Locker, I saw looming above the station a huge steep hill underneath a chair lift. I wondered where the course went next because I didn’t think we’d run up that. And then I laughed out loud. Of course we’ll go straight up that thing! This is Virgil Crest, where else would we go but straight up a black diamond ski run?!? After a few bites of food, some water, and lots of encouragement from my crew, the volunteers, and other runners, I launched into the hill – onward toward The Crux. (from the website, “The Crux is named as such because I feel the climb toward it, leaving the Hurt Locker, will break a good number of entrants.”)
My goal for these hills in the alpine section was not speed. I am not a fast climber. I just wanted to stay steady, and keep my hydration/fuel in good shape. I’ve had a lot of trouble with my stomach. I’ve been working hard on figuring it out, and one thing I know is that I have to really manage my hydration. So my whole focus on the hills was maintaining a pace that I could still sip my water and wouldn’t upset my stomach. Runners passed me; I didn’t care. I just focused on a steady pace and drinking.
And then I was at The Crux. And I was not broken.
Onward, from one aid station to the next. I didn’t think much about the miles – no point, I knew I’d be running for 2 days, miles don’t matter much at that point. I didn’t think much about my speed – only that I wanted to keep a steady, comfortable pace for my body. And so it went. To the 25-mile point, and the back the way we came (down all of those steep ups).
My crew started saying I was really moving, picking up my pace, flying through sections. OK, this is totally relative to me – I’m not a fast runner compared to others. I wasn’t trying to push, and didn’t feel like I was. I was just trying to run comfortably. But I was picking up pace compared to the cutoff times (there are cutoffs for each aid station). I was 45 minutes ahead, then an hour. Quite surprising to me, I continued picking up pace through the alpine sections. On the return, I was just over 2 hours ahead of the cutoff by the end of the steepest sections. But more importantly, I was feeling good. Really good.
My fuel and hydration were working. At each AS, I ate some real food. At least 3 or 4 little things: salted potatoes, a cup of chicken broth or soup, a piece of fruit or 2, bacon (yes, salty, beautiful bacon!), or pickles. I’d drink a couple cups of plain water and take an electrolyte cap with the food. On the trail, I sipped my water with electrolytes at least every 10-15 minutes. I sipped my liquid fuel (EFS Liquid Shot – been working great for me, lots of energy and doesn’t upset my stomach). I took additional electrolyte caps.
And my training was working. I had put in a lot of solid long runs, and lots of hills. My legs felt good. Yes, of course I felt them, especially on those ski slopes. But they still felt strong.
Then night fell and I donned my headlamp. I was feeling good, and on-pace to get back to the turnaround well over 2 hours ahead of the cutoff. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t keep going and finish. In the past, I’ve had plenty of doubts about whether I could. I just kept going and feeling good.
And then, about 4.5 miles from the turnaround, I got lost. I missed a turn and kept running down a steep powerline hill. I began to wonder if I was off because I thought I ought to be seeing other runners coming toward me, heading out into their 2nd lap. I stopped to consider. I hadn’t seen any reflective markers for a while. But I really didn’t want to go back up the steep hill to check – what if I were right, and then I’d be adding extra climbing in for nothing. So I’d continue a little bit, all the while getting more upset. I was alone. In the dark. On unfamiliar trails. Alone. In the dark. Alone. I finally sat down in the middle of the trail and pulled out the trail description I had luckily printed out and stuck in my pack. It took a while in my state – fighting tears and freaking out by then – to figure out where I was. And where I was was lost. I had indeed missed a turn. Which meant I had to climb the hill and go back to the last marker (like I needed to add more hills on a course that had nearly 48,000 ft of cumulative elevation change – up and down) . It was a costly mistake. It added almost a mile of pretty steep climbing, down and back up. It added almost 45 minutes. But the biggest cost was mental.
That mistake unnerved me. It threw me off my focus, my concentration, my rhythm. I actually enjoy running at night in the dark, but now I was nervous and cautious. I lost my focus on my body – how I was feeling, was I drinking enough, eating enough….All I could think of was the time and miles. I became obsessed. And I stopped paying attention to what I needed. I had been doing so well up until then because of where my focus was – on my body. Now all I thought of was the miles and the minutes.
50 miles, the turnaround. Looking back, here is where my mistake really became apparent. By the time I pulled in, I was only an hour ahead of cutoff. I had lost over an hour. That wasn’t the most important thing I needed to worry about, but that was all I could think of. I was so focused on getting back out and making up the time that I didn’t eat or drink at the AS. Mike kept prompting me to, but I ignored him. I didn’t want to take the time to change into a dry shirt as the temps dropped for the night. Luckily, my crew insisted. I ignored advice to change my socks as I had planned. This wasn’t an immediate problem, but would have become one if I had continued. Running through all the mud, my socks had been soggy all day, and I had a couple of blisters started. I knew I did, but didn’t want to take the time to change. That was a decision that would have been very problematic in another 20 or 30 miles!
Out for the second lap, strong and very determined. But mistakes had been made and they would soon catch up to me.
I did have the presence of mind a couple of times to remind myself to drink and eat. But it was getting difficult. My stomach was getting back to old habits. Because I had stopped paying attention to what works. As I get dehydrated (which happens very quickly for me since I am the sweatiest runner on the planet), my stomach rejects everything. I gag on everything – food, gels, liquid. I try to force liquid down, but soon start throwing it all back up. Then come the dry heaves.
I just could not force myself to swallow. And I was heaving. It was shocking to me how quickly I became weak and stumble-y. I now knew I was in real trouble. I no longer cared about my pace. I was in physical danger at that point, and knew I just needed to get to the next AS. I pushed on, attempting to force fluid down. As my crew met me at the Hitching Post AS, I handed off my pack and told them I needed to sit. I knew I had to rest. Time didn’t matter. My only hope of continuing was to sit and let my stomach settle. Chris brought my puff jacket from the car so I wouldn’t get chilled, and I sat in a chair and tried to sip some broth. I sat for a good 35-40 minutes, resting and sipping broth. And debating whether to continue. I had made it into the AS about 20 minutes ahead of the cutoff, so I could continue on if I wanted. The problem was, I was quite sure that in my state, I could not make the next AS by that cutoff. And when I did try to get up, I would start puking again. So I called it a race.
It would be easy to think of this as a failure. I only ran 57 of 100 miles. I dropped out. I didn’t finish. DNF (did not finish).
But it doesn’t feel like a failure to me. It feels like a big success. So much had gone so right – right up until the moment when it didn’t. I’ve had some issues that have troubled me, that I have worked really hard to figure out. They were working. My nutrition/hydration was totally dialed in. My training was good and solid. My focus was great. I was having so much fun, feeling GREAT! Right up until the moment when it wasn’t.
So what have I learned, and why does this matter to anyone but me? Most of the people reading this are not ultra runners, so what do they care. Ultra runners don’t need to read a report for a back of the pack runner who DNFed.
I think my lessons from this race do matter for others. They apply to just about any situation.
The thing to remember is that I’m still trying to figure all of this out. Although it may seem like I’ve been running forever to some of my friends and family – I certainly am obsessed – I’m still fairly new to it. I only started running about 5 or 6 years ago, completely casually at first. I ran my first ultra just 3 1/2 years ago. And because of my concert schedule, I don’t race all that often. I’m still figuring it out.
So the fact that I was able to stay focused on the right things for so long was huge for me. I didn’t think about everything I had to do, just about what I had to do next.
My training had been good. Of course, I could always have done more. But I made a solid, incremental plan that prepared me for what I needed on this course. This race was my long-term goal. Along the way, I set medium and short-range goals that were challenging but completely attainable.
I asked for help. This is big for me. I have a running coach to help guide me because this is all still pretty new for me. And I asked for help – something that’s not so comfortable for me. I knew I needed crew to help me along the way. I didn’t have any crew the last 2 years, and it’s all just so much more difficult. Some friends were going to come and help, but ended up having to work. So a few weeks before the race, I had to ask others to come and help me. I am so hugely grateful to both Mike and Chris! Their help and prompts were invaluable. (This is such a big lesson – ask for help when you need it! People will help if they can. You just need to ask. It’s not a sign of helplessness or weakness. It’s just help.)
And the big lesson, was just how easily a small mistake can snowball into bigger problems, and how quickly things can go south. I made a navigation mistake. Just a momentary lapse of attention (when I went back, I couldn’t believe how well the turn was marked – I have no idea how I missed it). It was a completely fixable mistake.
But once it was fixed, the mistake stayed with me. I let it unnerve me. I didn’t refocus my attention to where it needed to be, where it had been. And because I was no longer focused where I needed to be, I ignored warning signs of trouble. That one small mistake led to a lot of small bad decisions – not drinking, not fueling, eating nothing at the AS, ignoring my crew’s advice. All those bad decisions, small as each was, piled up shockingly quickly into real trouble.
My coach put it this way, “In a rehearsal or performance, you miss a note, not a big thing, since only you know….I’m sure after that – a mere nano-second – you are back into the piece you are playing….you put that error aside….you are immediately back in the performance….unlike your musical performances, in the race you were unable to get back to the place you had been….Of course, you’re new to this ultra stuff. Your music experience covers a much greater amount of time.”
Julie learns a new lesson.
And that’s why this doesn’t feel much like failure. This feels like a good race.
Lots of people, after 3 unsuccessful attempts, might say, “why keep trying? why not do something else? why not just do the 50M? why not do an easier race?” Of course, that would all make sense. But I love the idea of trying this 100. I don’t know if I can. I know I can do the 50. Perhaps I never will finish the 100. But I love the idea. So I’ll be back to try again. And each time, I will learn something new and valuable.