Some of you may recall my awesome experience at last year’s Labor Pain Ultra. The stars pretty much aligned for that race, and it was fantastic in so many ways. My experience at this year’s Labor Pain was quite different, but still wonderful in its own right.
When I signed up for this race, my goal was to hit 40-50 miles in the 12-hour allotted time limit. Then this summer occurred and I decided to try to balance running and life a bit more, which caused me to rethink my goals for Labor Pain. I went into the race yesterday with the plan to play it by ear, with the goal to at least come away with a 50K finish.
One of the big changes about this year’s race is that I was approaching it completely solo. Last year, I had my favorite running partner alongside me, along with a variety of awesome friends who came out to accompany us on some of our laps. I knew that this year was going to have a very different feel without anyone else along for company. Fortunately I’ve gotten pretty good at running by myself over the years, and I’ve learned how to zone out when I’m on the trails.
I’m also blessed to have the most supportive family ever. My husband must have been able to tell that I was a bit reluctant to be on my own, because he decided that he and the kids were going to join me for this one. We all piled into the car before sunrise on Sunday morning to make the 70-minute drive out to the Reading Liederkranz, where the race was held.
2/3 of my awesome race crew and cheering squad.
I love running races that I’ve run before because it’s such a more mellow feeling the second time around. Going into this race, I knew the course, knew the best place to park, and knew where to set up our stuff. We arrived nice and early, got everything unloaded, and set up camp for the day. I checked in, received my bib, pint glass, and t-shirt, and got fitted for my long-sleeve finisher’s shirt. With all of the official race business taken care of, I made a quick stop at the indoor bathrooms and then relaxed on my blanket with the latest copy of Runner’s World.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned before how wonderful it is to go into a race with such a low-key atmosphere. About 3 minutes before the race was scheduled to start, Ron Horn, the race director, asked everyone to head over to the starting line. Once there, we received some helpful and humorous reminders about the race before we were sent off on our way.
Labor Pain is a 5-mile loop that you run as many times as you want in the given 12-hour limit. Having been there last year, I knew what to expect on the course and was prepared for the bottleneck that tends to occur when you first hit the singletrack trail a little over a 1/4 mile into the race. This year I lined up right near the start and I was pleased to find that it allowed me a smoother transition onto the trail than last year. We wove briefly through the woods, circled down onto the grass and around the pond, and then headed up into the main portion of the trails. As I often find in races, it took me the first few miles to settle into a comfortable rhythm. It was made more challenging by the hillier first half of the loop, as well as the fact that I was running without my GPS. When I hit the aid station at 2.5 miles, I checked my watch and realized I was considerably ahead of my goal pace for the first lap. I slowed slightly, and that, combined with the lengthy downhills on the second part of the course, allowed me to get into a comfortable rhythm. I came through the timing chute about 5-minutes ahead of my target time, fast enough that my family was still sitting at the blanket unprepared for my arrival. My husband helped me grab a quick drink and my handheld bottle, and then I headed back out for my second loop.
I settled into a good rhythm over the next several loops. Once the course entered the heart of the woods, it followed a gentle uphill slope before hitting one of three real hills on the course. The first hill had a steep portion, followed by a longer stretch of gradual uphill climb, which feels easy enough on the first lap, but progressively more challenging the later you get in the race. I got into the habit of hiking this stretch until it took the slight downhill turn to the stone wall. Once over the wall, there was a nice stretch of downhill paved road for a few minutes before the trail returns to the woods. What follows is a very runnable section that winds around for about a half a mile before bringing you to another road crossing and the aid station halfway through the loop. The aid station is always a welcome site because it also signals easier terrain ahead. Following the aid station, there’s a good 1/2-3/4 of a mile of mostly flat trail before the course turns to the second hill of the loop. This one is steeper, but also shorter than the first hill. At the top, there’s a very technical, but short, rocky section and a few more brief ups and down before the course turns downhill for good. You run along a mile or so of gently downhill-sloping trail before coming to another road crossing that loops you around to a short grassy section of the course. This connects you back to one final road, with one final descent, before a punishing, but mercifully short hill at the very end of the loop. Honestly, after all my climbing at Hyner & Worlds End this year, that hill was a lot less intimidating than I had remembered.
On each of my laps, I tried to take advantage of the numerous flat & downhill sections of the course. I struggled a bit on my third lap, which is a historically difficult part of most races for me. It was somewhere around that point that I decided that I was going to just run the 50K. I knew that I would be able to push on for a further distance if I really wanted to, but I honestly just didn’t feel the desire to do so. It was a gorgeous day and I wanted to just enjoy my time on the course and then wrap up and head home with my family while the sun was still shining. As I moved into my fourth lap, I was pleased to find that the discomfort I was feeling, while definitely still there, had kind of streamlined. The more I run ultras, the more I find that for me, the hardest part is somewhere between miles 10-18, when you start to hurt & feel tired, but know that you are still really far from your goal. After you acknowledge that discomfort, it often tends to level out, and I find that much easier to deal with because I know that to expect. For laps 4-6, there was still a lot that was hurting, but it didn’t get any worse, so that, combined with my desire to cross that finish line, allowed me to keep moving forward at a steady pace.
The last lap was actually quite enjoyable for me. Every time I came to a new section of the course, I found myself chanting “last time through here” in my head. It was such an uplifting feeling to know that I was almost done. When I ran through the transition area for the sixth time I chucked my handheld to my husband, begged him to meet me at the finish, and then ran out on the short stretch till I found the 50K turnaround mark. Along the way I spotted several runners who were returning to finish their milestone distances, and it was so exciting to know that I was about to be one of them. I reached the turn around, flew down the final hill, and sped into the chute for the final time, happy to report that I was calling it for the day.
The best thing about this race has to be the wonderful organization and great atmosphere. It’s just full of people who truly love trail running. Throughout the day I chatted with numerous other runners, both those who have run races I’ve finished, and those training for ones I’ve considered. It’s really cool to be able to share a course with such a wide range of runners. Some are doing their first trail race and hoping to hit 10 miles, some are walkers who want to complete their first marathon, and others are ultra stars who are crushing 50 or 60 miles. People are so encouraging to one another, that it makes it a lot of fun to share the trails with them. The perks of the race are pretty sweet too – this year we received a pint glass, tech tee, and car sticker for pre-registering. Every finisher also receives a custom item (this year a long-sleeve zip-up tech shirt) about 6-8 weeks after the race. Those finishing milestone distances (26.2, 50K, 40 miles, 50 miles, 100k) get that noted on their shirt. In addition, there’s a tremendous food spread at the start and finish. I brought a lot of my own food, but I also supplemented that with some chips, pretzels, gummy bears, and half a veggie burger. There’s very reasonably-priced food for spectators, and my husband was able to enjoy a cold beer while the kids happily munched their hot dogs and played on the shaded playground. Labor Pain is a race that truly invites you to bring along the whole family.
I enjoyed the beautiful weather, felt good on the course, and finished with a time and a distance I felt proud of. My return to Labor Pain just reminded me, once again, that this is definitely a race worth returning to each year!
Feeling good at the end of the day.