Celebrating with our families after the race.
After 11 years of running road races, I attempted my first ultramarathon last September at Sloppy Cuckoo. It was a grudging success. A success, because I did technically complete 33 miles for my first ever ultra finish, but the overall race was such a slogging experience that it could never have been called enjoyable. Within days, I was looking for a “redemption race” to try to stem the feelings of disappointment, and after reading about several races in the mid-Atlantic area, I decided to set my sights on Pretzel City Sports’ 12-Hour Labor Pain. Over the past eight months, I trained diligently on the trails and experimented with my fueling, in the hopes of arriving at the starting line as prepared as I could possibly be.
From the moment that I woke up, I could tell that this year was going to be different. For one, my experience last year at Sloppy Cuckoo had allowed me to have a good idea of what to expect in a race like this, and I was much less nervous heading into race day. The drive out to Reading went smoothly, and I arrived about an hour before the race start and claimed my spot of grass to set up camp for the day. After spreading out my stuff, I picked up my bib number and coffee mug, got fitted for my sweatshirt, and returned to my blanket to relax before the race start. I love the atmosphere at ultra races. There’s a great energy, but it’s much more relaxed and friendly than what you normally find at the larger road race. My running partner, Jen, and her husband, Michel, joined me shortly afterward and we quickly passed the remaining time chatting and completing pre-race rituals. After a brief and humorous pre-race briefing, we wandered over to the start line, and with nearly no fanfare, were off less than a minute later.
The course was advertised as having great variety, and I found that it lived up to expectations. We made a brief road crossing, powered up a grassy hill, and then made our way into the woods and onto the trails. There was a bit of a back-up for the first few minutes entering the trail, which was a bit frustrating, but not surprising given that we were piling 200+ runners onto a single track trail. After that short, downhill trail section, we filtered back onto the grass and circled around a pond before returning to the trails. At that point the field had spread out enough that it was easier to get into a comfortable pace.
A brief pause for a photo among the ferns, mid-course.
From there, we spent the next several miles enjoying the woods. The first mile in the woods was mostly uphill. The majority of the hill was a very gentle incline, though the grade seemed to grow steeper with each subsequent lap. After some easier, curvy sections, we crossed over the road and back into the woods to the water stop just past the halfway mark at mile 2.6. Following the water stop, there was about 3/4 mile of very runnable single track, much of it with a slight decline, which was a nice change from the first half. We made a turn and encountered another cumbersome hill, with an interesting mini boulder field at the top. In all honesty, it was just a 50-foot section of rocky terrain, but it was enough to make you pay careful attention to proper foot placement. After cresting that hill, it was literally just about all downhill from there. A large number of rocks gave a good ankle workout, and forced us to pay close attention to our foot placement, but the sloping paths were a great place to stretch out our legs. After getting through that trail section, the course turned out onto a short stint on the paved roads, before taking us across a grassy field and back onto one more sloping, downhill pavement section. From there we turned back into the woods for a final short uphill climb, a careful step over the guardrail (aided by a strategically-placed step stool), and a steep, but thankfully short scramble up the final hill before crossing back onto the field of the Liederkranz, and through the finishing chute, where helpful volunteers were on hand to record and confirm lap numbers.
After verifying that we had finished each lap, we had the opportunity to partake in the sumptuous race spread. After such an upset stomach last year, I mainly stuck to my own food for fueling, but I appreciated the wide variety of choices and did eventually sample a small veggie burger which had a nice kick to it. The set-up at the Liederkranz made it very easy to take short breaks throughout the day. The indoor bathrooms in particular were an unexpectedly nice departure from what you usually find at races.
I don’t know that I have ever had as fun of a racing experience as I did at this year’s Labor Pain. The 5-mile loop was long enough to keep things moving, but short enough that it felt easy to complete without too much struggle. It was also nice to have an even number for adding, as anyone who has run that long can tell you that your intellectual abilities tend to diminish as the miles add up. I actually found that I loved not having any mile markers out on the course, because it kept me from focusing too much on the individual mile that I was on. Instead, I just tried to enjoy each lap as it came, and celebrated once we returned to our blanket to find that we were another 5 miles further into the race.
Posing with our awesome pacers, Lauren & Nicole, after lap 6.
We were fortunate to enjoy some fantastic course support throughout the day. Jen’s husband, Michel, was great from start to finish. He set up camp at the start of the day, provided food, drinks, and encouragement as we returned after each lap, and even joined us for the fifth lap to provide a little on-course variety and support. When we charged up the hill at the end of that lap, I was thrilled to find that our second cheering squad had arrived. My husband and children were along the sidelines with my brother-in-law, Greg, sister-in-law, Lauren, their adorable puppy, and our running friend, Nicole. After 25 miles spent circling the same loop, it was fantastic to see some new faces. Lauren & Nicole joined us for the sixth loop, which provided extra energy just when we were both needing it. Lauren is a very calm and supportive presence, and as an experienced trail runner, Nicole intrinsically knew when to back-off and allow us a break, and when to push the pace and keep us moving. After completing the sixth lap with their support, we ran a seventh lap on our own and then encountered our final delightful surprise of the day – our good friend and former coaching partner, Scott, who had shown up to lend his support for the final leg. Between the delight of seeing him, and the adrenaline burst that we experienced, we managed to run a strong final lap and cross the line after 10 hours and 15 minutes with a final tally of 40 miles.
The three of us met when coaching Team in Training 10 years ago. So amazing to share the final lap with Scott!
I can’t say enough positive things about this race. The race director, Ron Horn, seemed to be all over the course, including when he came out near the end of the day to lend support at the mid-lap water stop. The set-up at the Liederkranz was fantastic. My six-year old children spent the entire afternoon there, but between the playground, the shaded picnic tables, and plenty of other children to play with, they never really got bored. Jen & I were able to feel a bit less guilty that our husbands spent so much time waiting around for us when we saw that they were each enjoying a cold beer mid-afternoon. The majority of the other runners were both considerate and encouraging when we passed them on the course. In fact, we had so much fun that we hadn’t even finished the race before Jen started talking about coming back to run it again next year. Thanks to everyone at Pretzel City Sports for a fantastic way to spend the holiday weekend!
Jen and I, tired but still smiling at the finish.