My first trip to Blues Cruise this past weekend marked my third and final 50K of the past month. You might assume that someone who is experienced enough to tackle three ultras in one month would be wise enough to run without any major mistakes. You would be wrong. Blues Cruise reminded me that even the most experienced of runners make stupid decisions at times.
For only the second time in my life, I did not stalk the weather forecasts in the days leading up to the race. It wasn’t till about 12 hours before that I realized they were calling for 97% humidity at the race start. I’m actually a pretty decent hot-weather runner, but humidity is an entirely different story. My last humid race experience was Delaware Half Marathon, which did not turn out well. I reminded myself of my mistakes in that race, resolved to make better choices, and then made the exact same mistake again.
I felt great going into the race. I ran Naked Bavarian last March, so I knew where to go for the race start. I arrived nice and early, picked up my bib, distributed some Ragnar postcards, and then met up with my favorite former roomie, Steph, who was also running the race. We happily passed the time before the start catching up and planning our race strategy. The main goal for both of us? Start easy and then ramp up the intensity if we felt up to it.
Hanging with Stephanie and representing Ragnar before the race start.
You see where I’m going with this, right? Stephan informed us how competitive the field was, cautioned us to walk the wooden bridges, and sent us off right on time. I positioned myself in the middle of the field and settled into an easy early pace. I actually had my GPS working for once, and I checked my pace frequently in the first few miles. I saw numbers hovering around a 10 minute-mile, registered that it was too fast, and resolved to settle down. I didn’t. I kept justifying the fast pace. I felt strong. It didn’t feel that fast. My breathing wasn’t labored. Maybe I was just on track for an amazing day. Stupid. Naive. I definitely should have known better.
Ultrarunners are pretty awesome in general, but there was a particularly great group at Blues Cruise. I passed the first 10 miles bonding with my fellow runners. I did my best to reassure the newbies, and chatted about my favorite races and training spots with the veterans. As I was wearing my Ragnar Ambassador gear for the first time, I did my best to work Ragnar into the conversation whenever I could.
This race had the best aid station volunteers, including those at Aid Station 2.
By the time we hit the second aid station, I could tell that my spirits were starting to drop, but I told myself it was just that we were approaching the 10-15 mile mark, which is usually my least favorite part of a race. I was wrong. I was actually starting to feel the effects of pushing hard in such humid conditions. The temperatures were in the low 60s, but my tank and capris were completely soaked. My stomach, which had been so steady in my earlier races this season, began to churn, and I knew I was in trouble. I decided to put aside my lofty time goals, and just focus on getting back on track.
I slowed my pace, drawing out the hikes on the uphills, and tried to ease my run into a gentle glide on the flats and the downhills. I ignored the lovely and tempting food spread at the next two aid stations, sticking to Coke, a little salt, and my trusty Tailwind. I actually found myself feeling slightly dizzy at a few points, never a good sign on the trails. That’s when I really dialed it back.
I know that most people read race reports to learn more about the course, and I wish I could share in greater detail. To be honest, I was having too much fun socializing in the first third of the race to pay much attention, and I spent too much time trying to control the damage in the latter two-thirds of the race. I did register that the woods were lovely with the start of autumn showing in the leaves. It was cool to travel so far and still always find the lake on my right-hand side. I enjoyed the festive feel of running alongside many cornfields and I appreciated how smooth the trails were, and how well they had held up to all of the rain we had in the days leading up to the race. The ground was squishy in spots, but there were surprisingly few puddles. I’m not so sure that I trust the elevation chart, however. In the past year, I’ve run a lot of hilly races, but this one definitely felt like considerably more than 3000 ft of elevation.
The beautiful woods, open fields, and just one of the endless hills that we ran up.
By the time I hit the awesome aid station at mile 21, I was simply trying to get through the remainder of the race, one mile at a time. My stomach was feeling slightly better, but I was still not in great shape. In fact, when asked what I needed at the aid station, I wittingly replied, “The finish line.” The guys gave me a hug, refilled my water bottle, and then sent me on my way. I never really felt better at any point, but I somehow found another level of resolve for the last 10 miles of the race. I began to push myself back into more of a run, limiting my hiking to the steeper uphills. I wasn’t running fast, but I was steadily moving forward. I began to pass some runners again, which was a tremendous mental boost. I’m never the fastest one out there, and I don’t mind being in the middle of the pack, but it’s demoralizing when you are feeling lousy and then you continually get passed by numerous runners, no matter how friendly they are. Having the opportunity to start passing some people gave me the boost of confidence that I needed.
It also helped that the second half of the course was the exact second half that I ran at Naked Bavarian in March. I recognized the trails, and so I had a general idea of what to expect. I kept telling myself that I was going to get to the finish, that sometimes a finish alone is victory enough, and that by choosing to run so many races so close together, I had to accept that they weren’t all going to feel great. It’s funny to think that just two years ago I was terrified to attempt my first ultra. And there I was on Sunday, feeling let down that the finish time of my third ultra in less than a month was going to be about 20 minutes off my goal time. Sometimes it helps to have some perspective in the moment.
I tried to take advantage of the smooth singletrack in the final miles.
The final five miles featured a lot of slight downhills, with a few short but evil uphills thrown in to keep you awake. I cursed the uphills, sometimes out loud, hiking them as quickly as I could to get past them. I was beyond relieved when I came to the final long uphill stretch. Not particularly steep, but I remembered it from my previous race because it felt like it dragged on forever. I was delighted to find one of my favorite cheerleaders at the top, a biker who managed to be all over the race course, always with a loud and cheerful, “You can do it!” to offer the runners. That guy seriously rocked! I sped through the final cornfield, came out onto the road, and made my way down the final hill and onto the grass to the finish line. In my mind, I sprinted toward the finish in impressive fashion, but in reality, I probably stumbled across it with a horrific grimace on my face. Either way, I was thrilled to discover that even with my crash-and-burn performance, I salvaged a sub-7 hour time, which would have been my PR until two weeks ago. Again, perspective.
I collected my awesome finisher’s jacket, grabbed a plate and some post-race munchies, and settled down on a bench to try to refuel a bit before starting the drive home. The latkes, applesauce, and watermelon all felt fantastic on my tender stomach, and the Coke was an added bonus. I also enjoyed a bit more conversation with a few of my fellow racers. The best surprise was stumbling over to my car a few minutes later to find that Steph was still hanging out. She can usually finish a good hour ahead of me in road marathons, but a bum ankle gave her fits throughout the day and she ended up coming in only about 20 minutes before I crossed the line. We enjoyed rehashing the course a bit while I changed, then snapped one more photo, exchanged sweaty hugs, and headed on our respective ways.
We look a lot happier than we felt. Must have been those awesome finisher jackets.
Overall, Blues Cruise was not the fabulous experience I was hoping for, but that was definitely a fault of mine, not the race. My fellow runners were an awesome, enthusiastic, and inspiring bunch. The aid station volunteers were utterly fantastic, and they kept me smiling even when I was feeling my worst. I’m not a big fan of all those hills, but again, I think my perspective was skewed since I was feeling so lousy for much of the race. I hope to come back again, run a smarter race, and enjoy all that this awesome course has to offer.