Last year after running my first two 50k ultra marathons I decided to take the next “logical” step and test myself out at the 50 mile distance. Perhaps many people would not see any of this as logical but it made sense to me. I wanted to find a race that suited my preferences. My first two 50k races were very different from each other. One being very flat and one being much more rugged with a lot of climbing. I did not feel like either of those things suited me well for a 50 mile adventure. I really needed something in between, not flat but not too much climbing either, I needed to find something in my Goldilocks zone. I also didn’t really want to travel too far. I didn’t want to have to worry about any extra logistics other than the running of the race. So that obviously limited my options as well. But as it happens just the right race takes place not too far from where I live and even better I had some experience at this race. The Finger Lakes Running Club puts on the Finger Lakes 50’s race each year. This event is comprised of races of 25k, 50k, and 50 miles. I had already run the 25k in 2017 as my first ever 25k, so I was familiar with it. The biggest downside to this event is that it is held on the first weekend of July, and I do not generally do well running in the heat. In my first experience at this event I guess I was fortunate that it rained the whole time so that I did not have to deal with the heat.
Finger Lakes 50’s is a loop course event. Each loop is approximately 25k. So for the 50 miles I would run 3 loops, plus a half mile baby loop to round out the 50 miles. I was a little concerned about the course being loops because of the temptation to drop at the start finish line after the conclusion of each loop especially if I was struggling. I tried to reframe this as loops being a positive aspect of the race. I convinced myself that it would be good to get more familiar with the layout of the course as things went on and know what the course conditions were like out on the course. FYI course conditions can change mid race.
I was able to “convince” one of my best friends to go on this journey with me. And by convince I mean I casually mentioned that I was going to do it and then she was “convinced” to do it as well. We both have run the same two 50ks together and shared many miles of running and training and adventure. We are similar runners, so our plan was to run this thing together and share the miles, the adventure, and the suffering.
We spent the first half of the year trying to pretend that at some point we were going to be running 50 miles. We focused on all the other races we had planned. Once we both completed our 50k in June Finger Lakes 50’s loomed large. In mid April I had developed a some sort of injury to my hip/groin area that had not recovered by Worlds End 50k in June and really hampered me there. I already had tried just cutting back on training some prior to Worlds End. So, post 50k the only realistic option for me was to try and get some type of treatment for my issue and rest as much as I could and hope it would recover or I would never make it through a 50 mile race.
I went and saw a primary care doctor for the first time in about 20 years. I started a prescribed medication other than antibiotics for the first time. I began massage therapy treatment with Soul Ease. I also received chiropractic treatment from Market Street Chiropractic. Orthopedic doctor’s opinion was that it was likely hip bursitis.
The hardest part about trying to recover is that I was really cutting back my running, especially my long runs because that is what aggravated the injury the most. So since the goal was to rest it and not aggravate it I was not testing it either so I had no idea how it was going to respond on longer runs. Just over two weeks prior to the race I decided I needed to try to get a little feedback regarding my injury and test it out. I went for a long run on the Interloken Trail, a side branch of the Finger Lakes Trail and also a location of some of the trails I would have to run during the 50 mile loop race. I ran my planned 13 miles and I was pretty happy with it. I had no major issues. So for the next 2 weeks I did minimal running including zero running for the 5 days leading into the race. I wanted to maximize my chances of being healthy. I figured my best chance at completing this race was to be as healthy as possible. I could grind out the miles on tired sore legs if I at least had my health. After all my very first 50k trail adventure was a solo adventure on the Finger Lakes Trail with very little planning and no training and my longest run prior to that was a 25k, what could go wrong? That is was I kept telling myself at least.
So with less than ideal training and while recovering from an injury I embarked on a 50 mile race. Good idea? Only time would tell.
Race day arrived and it was going to be a hot one. As start time neared the temperature was around 70 degrees. 70 degrees is the temperature around which I start to be unable to sustain my running. Most of the races I have done in this temperature range have not gone great for me. The high temperature for the day would end up being around 88 degrees. Far hotter than I would choose to run in.
The 6:30 AM start time arrive and we were off. Down the gravel road we went and shortly we took a right into the woods and onto the trails. Pretty early on in the first loop before the first aid station there is a long downhill section that is on a gravel road. On a shorter race or at least a race of a distance I was experienced with this is the type of section I would love and run hard down to pick up time. In my one and only other experience on this course I ran down this road hard and was passing people, but that was a 25k race. With close to 50 miles still to go that did not seem prudent on this go around. We talked about how we wanted to handle this section and just decided to run casual, not trying to run hard but not putting on the brakes either. We just let gravity do the work, gaining some speed on some steeper sections and then letting speed dissipate on lesser grades.
As we made our way around the loop the first time the heat and humidity intensified. We played it cautious trying not to burn out before we got to where we needed to really hit cut off times. Especially in open exposed areas and other areas that felt particularly hot we took it easy and even walked. We walked when we otherwise could have run in order to save strength for later on. We were trying to strategize to mitigate the effects of the heat. If we felt like we needed to go easier we did just that without hesitation.
One good thing about the heat the past several days and on race day was that the trails were remarkably dry when the race began. They weren’t totally dry, but much improved from when I had been out in the area on a training run. This made running when we wanted to a much easier thing to do and made walking at a decent pace much easier too. When I was out on the trails two weeks prior there was significant water on the trails during the first loop of the course there was almost no water and not even much of anything that could be called mud except in a few spots.
We complete lap 1 in 3 hours and 35 minutes. That left us around 4 hours to complete a second lap. We took stock, refreshed ourselves, ate and drank, and then headed back out into the heat for lap number 2. At this point I was pretty confident we would get our first two laps done within the cutoff of 7 hours and 45 minutes. As lap two wore on the heat and humidity did not relent. I was having difficulty eating much of anything solid. At aid stations I ate watermelon and drank whatever non water fluids they had for calories, and I was able to eat some of the salt potatoes I had with me, but I wasn’t able to eat any of the other food I had been relying on for fuel that I carried and none of the other food at the aid stations were appealing. As the heat continued to wear me down I exchanged my hat for a buff that I could put ice in. Then at a later aide stations I added another buff so I could carry even more ice. Eventually, shortly before the half way point on loop 2, I gave up everything extra I was carrying just to try and keep from overheating. I gave up my food and I even gave up my camera gear which is saying allot for me considering I am a photographer who documents everything and that was the plan for this race.
Shortly after the half way point of the second loop I really started to feel the effects of the heat. As we ran, my hands started to go numb and I began to feel a little light headed and dizzy. I said I needed to stop running and walk for a bit. We walked and I recovered enough to run after a while. Unfortunately the same symptoms returned and we continued this walk run approach. My friend was not going to just leave me there in the woods even though I encouraged her to do so. We arrived at the first aide station after the half way point and I tried to regroup. I added as much ice as I could. I put ice in both of my buffs and in my shirt and in my shorts to try to cool down. The effect of the cold from the ice on the extreme heat of my body made me a bit dizzy and took me a moment to recover from. I used more ice at this race than I had ever used before at a race and more than I had thought I would. It was a necessity. It was the only thing allowing me to keep going. Unfortunately the ice did not last very long once you started running again. It lasted only mere minutes in the heat. After getting more fluids and fuel I needed more time to recover. I told my friend to go without me. I know she didn’t want to leave me at that aid station, but I knew that she did not have time to spare to wait for me and could not afford to move as slow as I would likely be going once I started off on the trails again. She looked back, frowned, then she went on without me.
I regrouped and then headed back out on the trails myself. I was moving slowly on the trails. The heat and humidity were nearly unbearable for me. Then it happened. First a trickle and then the skies opened up and a deluge of rain burst from the skies. In a matter of minutes everything was soaked. I was getting what I desperately needed. The rain cooled me off significantly. Not only did it help me physically but it lifted me mentally as well. It rained so intensely that the trails quickly flooded. It was like running up a stream. the trail conditions quickly converted from nearly pristine and dry to possibly worse than the conditions in 2017. I ran. I don’t know how fast I ran but I ran as fast as I could. I felt better and stronger than I had since the beginning of the race. I surged forward knowing that I had to beat the clock. I ran at a pace that took my breath away and eventually required me to walk and catch my breath. I repeated this run hard as you can then rest approach trying to surge through the storm. I was running so much better at this point that I actually passed a few people which would have been unthinkable even a few minutes ago. The change in weather and course conditions were so uplifting and provided such a sure of adrenaline with the chance to chase the clock that I completely forgot about the pain in my hip that had begun to bother me again. I kept looking at my watch thinking that I might actually be able to complete the loop in time to move on for a third loop. Could I actually do it?
The whole race my wife had been at each aide station to cheer us on. My friends husband joined our crew stating on the 2nd loop. When I emerged through the woods in the torrential downpour and arrived at the final aid station my wife was there in the pouring rain cheering for me as she had been all day. My friends husband had gone ahead to continue crewing for her up ahead of me as she continued to race the clock as well. As I arrived at this last aid station there was a new face there. Another of my friends had arrived to cheer me on and crew for us in this crazy storm. Seeing another familiar friendly face at the aid station helped to lift me up. They asked me what I needed. I just took a cup of coke. I told my wife I thought I still had time to make the cut off. It was then that she had to do the most difficult thing and break the news to me that I wasn’t going to make it. I had two miles to go, JUST TWO MORE MILES to complete the second loop. But I only had 9 minutes to get there. On my best days on completely fresh legs I couldn’t get that done. There was no way I could make it. My day was going to come to an end without even starting a third loop. As I write this I am fighting back emotions and tears are welling up in my eyes. This was not the outcome I was hoping for.
Despite the news that I could not possibly make the cut off I was determined to push through as hard as I could to what would be not the start of my third loop but my finish line. I somehow summoned the strength to overtake a few other runners on the road with me. I continued to run down the road, towards the end of the loop. I knew that the news of my imminent finish was demoralizing because as I headed down the road the pain in my hip that hope had vanquished returned more painful than I had felt it the entire day. I tried to push through it. I ran as hard as I could for as long as I could, but what was the point. I wasn’t going to make it in time. I walked and relieved the pain. Then when I could I resumed running again. This section of gravel road felt longer than any other stretch on the course even on the first go around, it felt interminable on this final approach before ducking back into the wood rounding the pond and emerging at my finish.
I don’t know if I would have been able to make the final cut off at the 10 and a half hour mark, but I wish more than anything that I had had the chance to find out. If you finish the second loop but do not finish in time to start a third loop they credit you with a 50k finish which is nice, but that is not what I was here for on this day. I was here to push myself to new limits. I was here to run more miles than I had ever run before. I wanted to get out there and try for that third loop more than anything. I would have rather start the third loop and not finish but run more miles than ever before then to finish my 4th 50k. I was here to test my limits and in some ways I did test my limits just not in the way I had hoped for. Apparently when I rolled into the last aid station I was not doing as well as I thought I was. My crew at that aid station told me after the race that I was a bit unsteady and wobbly during my time at the aid station and also appeared to be wobbly after I left the aid station and started running again as well. I did not get the result I had hoped for but I got an experience like nothing I had experienced before. Pushing through pain again, fighting off heat exhaustion, having a resurgence in the rain, and running with fun and joy when previously it had dissipated.
There is nothing better than taking on a new challenge like this race and having my wife and friends there to cheer me on. Running through most of my race with one of my best friends was the only way to take on this new challenge. I am so grateful that she went along on this crazy ride with me. I am even happier that she did make the cut off to start a third loop and then the final cut off to be able to finish that third loop. And I am overjoyed for her that she finish that race and that I got to cheer her on for that third loop and see her finish. That made the day a good day. Seeing my friend overcome the adversities I could not and succeed at this race that stopped me in my tracks was what I needed after not being able to finish. Having our other close friends there at the end was also a blessing. They were there to console me and cheer and celebrate her accomplishments. I am fortunate to be a member of this group.
It is really easy to second guess myself about this race and how we approached it. Should we have run harder on the first loop especially in places we took it easy? Should we have moved through aid stations faster? Should I have started taking on ice sooner? Should I have worn the arm sleeves and filled them with ice as I had planned to? Should I have not carried as much as I did for the first loop plus? What could I have done differently to produce a better outcome for myself? These are all pointless questions because there is no way to know how a change in any one thing would have effected everything else that occurred that day.
Looking on the bright side I learned a lot about myself. I learned that I can maintain enough fitness to run a 50k without a whole lot of training between races. I learned that my hip while not completely healed is actually getting better. I was able to run much farther in this race before experiencing significant pain than in my last race. I learned that if I ever run another long summer race I need to have a real strategy for dealing with the heat. I learned that I can run a 50k without having to change my shoes and have no major issues as a result. I learned that I still have not found socks that my toes will not poke a hole in. I continue to learn that I have a lot more to learn.
One of my goals with this race aside from finishing the 50 miles was to capture as much of it as possible on camera. I carried 4 devices for this purpose: my cell phone, a chest mounted GoPro, a hand carried GoPro, and a small mirror less Nikon camera in my pack. I was not taking many photos in the beginning because I wanted to save it for later when I was tired and needed to take my mind off things especially on the third loop. Then I realized what if there is no third lap. When I evenutally realized I had not been taking many photos and that I would be giving up all my camera gear at the next aid station I just turned on my chest mounted GoPRo to capture as much as I could of the race until the memory card fillled up.
I utilized my chest mounted GoPro the most because it was the easiest to use in the circumstances. I used my hand held go pro a few times. I took a few shots with my cell phone in just one spot. I never even took my Nikon out of my pack. The lack of photo taking was due to the heat and humidity requiring all my energy to just remain focused on the race. There really wasn’t much time where I felt comfortable enough to either stop and take photos or to just make the extra efforts to use cameras. Plus as I ended up losing to the clock there really wasn’t time for it anyway. An even more disappointing factor is that after not finishing the 50 miles I got home and uploaded my photos to the computer and for a variety of reasons, many of which are beyond my control a lot of the photos did not turn out well. So that was extra demoralizing.
The day after the race I needed to do some recovery. I tried to recover with Avital’s Apiaries products I was given to test out. I soaked my sore and tired legs in a hot bath with Avital’s Apiaries Recover Bee bath fizzies. I used their Recover Bee soap. Then once I was done tired soaking my legs I gave them a rub down with Avital’s Apiaries Recover Bee massage oil. After that my legs did feel a little better.
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