HURL Elkhorn 50M
The HURL Elkhorn 50-mile race is billed as one of the toughest fifty milers. And, to be clear, it is 52.5 miles.
Neither of which I knew until the pre-race meeting the day before the race.
This race has taught me to read the full course descriptions before enthusiastically signing up to run. It was hard. Harder than any race I've run before. Determined to not DNF, I finished in 17 hours and 13 minutes, outside of the 16 and a half hour limit so my finish is "unofficial." But in my book? It's an official finish, a mental win, and a triumph of heart over mind and body.
The lead-up to the race was unusual. I'm reaching the end of my racing season, and this was my third ultramarathon since the end of March (as well as two marathons). The weeks before the race, I also moved out of my apartment, and even though I cut back on my training, aside from the rest days before the race, I had been training like normal (70-90 miles per week) until race week. In short? I was tired. Ready for a taper. And not sure that a 50-mile race was exactly what I felt like I should be doing less than three weeks before my first 100-miler.
I always get the pre-race jitters, but the night before Elkhorn, I found myself hoping that I'd oversleep. Or get lost. Or accidentally forget to show up race morning. My legs didn't feel refreshed, they felt tired. Mentally, I didn't think I had it in me to push through 52 miles of mountains. And emotionally, I didn't think I could handle another DNF, which at times, I felt was basically inevitable. I'd driven two days to get there and had the requisite leg fatigue, had no time to acclimate to the altitude (from North Dakota to Montana), and this is a scary-tough course.
"But in my book? It's an official finish, a mental win, and a triumph of heart over mind and body."
This was not normal pre-race jitters. This was all-out panic.
I went to bed worried, but I woke up feeling good. Not necessarily amazing, but refreshed and ready to tackle the course. The race started at 5 a.m., in the dark, so we all started with our headlamps. I'd never run with a headlamp before, and I found it mysteriously compelling to run in my own little world of light. The first few miles were up a dirt road, and I walked up the hills as I normally do in ultramarathons, conserving energy for what I knew was coming. At the end of the road, the trail portion of the course started, and reality hit right away in the form of our first trail mountain. I've run trails before in North Dakota, but they did not prepare me for how steep and technical these trails were. With the altitude, even the slightest incline had me out of breath, and it was clear that this was going to be race unlike any I'd done before.
It was also clear that I was going to have to worry about cut-off times, something I'd never been concerned about before.
Cut-offs are the times at aid stations that one must reach or you will be pulled from the course. Created to ensure people are not on the course indefinitely, they are staggered at aid stations throughout the course. The first Elkhorn cut-off was at the aid station at mile 14, at 9 am. The race started at 5 am, which gave me 4 hours to run 14 miles. At 7:50, I made it to the 10-mile aid station. That's about a 3 mile per hour pace, which is vastly different than my normal ultra pace (about 6 miles per hour). Doing the math, I realized that I might not even make the first cut-off. I left the 10-mile aid station ready to hustle, only to enter the first serious climb of the course.
Until this point, the climbs had been steep, but nothing exceptional.
This was tough. I felt like every step took more effort than the last, and I despaired of reaching the 14-mile checkpoint in time. I was done. Unable to let the race go, I pushed myself through the hill, and finally reached flatter ground and even some inclines. I raced through them, finally arriving at the 14-mile checkpoint. Before they could say a word, I yelled "What time is it?"
They didn't tell me. But they said I made it. The race wasn't over yet.
I took some time at the checkpoint to get more water, and then set off. The next cut-off was at mile 27 and 1:30. I was relieved to keep racing, and the next portion of the course was beautiful. I know I let myself enjoy the scenery a bit too much, and with some steep climbs, I arrived at the next aid station, mile 21, at 11 am. The folks at the aid station misinformed me (although not maliciously) that the cutoff was at 1 pm, and six miles away. I was pretty confident I could run six miles in two hours, and still didn't push the pace as I left.
But again, more steep inclines, but paired with even steeper declines. I'm not a confident trail runner, so while other trail runners literally fly down the inclines, I suspect I may descend these trails even slower than my climbs. This was reinforced when I encountered Heather, who I would trade places with for the remainder of the course. I'm a strong climber, so I'd pass her on the inclines, but she'd fly past me on the descents. As I ran towards the 1:30 cutoff, it became closer and closer to 1 pm, but no checkpoint. I was sure I saw it ahead and around every corner, and became increasingly more frustrated as it was just a tent, camper, or random vehicle. 1 pm hit, and I was sprinting through an old town, desperately hoping that the aid station was around the next corner.
Finally, I saw it, but as I looked at my phone, it was 1:05. I'd missed it. The race was over.
Demoralized, I entered the aid station hoping they'd cut me a beak, only to be told that the cut-off was at 1:30, and I'd had 25 minutes to spare. Relieved, I sat down to change shoes that had been soaked my multiple runs through creeks (the trail ran through many of them), and drank some flat coca-cola (the only time I drink soda). I left the aid station feeling good, which was quickly dashed as I realized that this portion of the course was what the race director, Steve, had warned us about. It was uphill and on small ankle-turning rocks. Even if it had been runnable trail, the incline would have been tough, but with the rocks, it felt impossible. And endless. I knew I had to change up my technique to save my legs for the rest of the run, so I alternated between taking tiny quick steps which required my hamstrings and larger steps that taxed my quads.
At this point, I started repeating my mantra: "this is going to pass. My legs will come around. You've tried to kill them before. They won't die." (Adapted from an ultra-cyclist). I kept moving, short of breath, hot, and tired.
The incline continued until past the next checkpoint and cut-off which was mile 34 and 4:30 pm.
I'd made it. Now I just had to run 18 miles in five and a half hours. Unlike previous 50-milers, I knew at mile 34 that I could do it. In this case, I already felt beat up. And knew that I had more inclines to come and, even worse, mind-numbing descents. But determined not to DNF, I kept moving.
As we reached the pinnacle of the climb, the clouds started to roll in, and we could hear thunder in the background. As it was relatively warm, I welcomed the thought of a little rain. But we got more than just a little rain. It started to pour, big fat drops that saturated the course. If I wasn't tiptoeing down the descents, I was walking through grasslands that had been soaked in the rain so much that it was almost like walking through puddles of water, my shoes were soaked through. Luckily, I'd brought a Patagonia rain jacket that literally folds into an incredibly small square so it fits easily in my CamelBak, and that kept me warm. I think many people were caught unaware by the rain, and were freezing. There isn't much I remember about the last 18 miles of the course, other than feeling like I was moving painfully slow, probably because I was moving painfully slow. I started wishing for inclines because they would warm me up and I was faster on those than I was on the declines
The last 7 hours on the course were simultaneously the longest and quickest hours on the course. Endurance athletes talk about times when the body stopped reporting pain to the brain, and I knew I had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I was, quite simply, miserable. My feet were soaking wet, and the course was mostly downhill, which would have been a dream if they weren't super steep and down scree, which meant I had to tense my entire body to keep from sliding. For an hour after mile 36 I cried. Not slow tears, but choking sobs. I'd been on the course for over 12 hours now, and I felt like it was never going to end.
Physically, I was fine. When the course levelled off and was runnable (e.g. not technical), I could easily run. In fact, I'd run the last two miles of the course that were on roads, for my fastest splits of the day. But now, I just knew I was moving slowly, miserably wet, and I was downright angry that there were 2.5 extra miles at the end if the course. 16 miles left seemed manageable, but 18.5? Impossible.
The thought is irrational now, of course, but that's what happens on a very long, very hard course.
I kept moving, at times only going 2 miles per hour. Finally I reached the last checkpoint, and the volunteers told me it was 2 miles to the road. I headed off on a high, thinking that almost I'd reach the road in 30 minutes. I was even able to run, but 45 minutes later, I still hadn't reached the road. Luckily, the course was well-marked, but I maintain to this day that it was further than two miles to the road. Of course, it was also dark now, and perceptions of time and distance became skewed...
But I did finally reach the road, and once I hit it, I was able to run without any pain. I ran the 2.5 miles to the finish where the line was still open (an amazing and kind gesture from race organizers who must have been exhausted). I finished outside of the 16:30 cutoff, so I was an unofficial finisher. But it felt like an official finish to me. I kept going even when it felt impossible and even when I knew my finish would be with an asterisk.
It was a lesson in persistence, proof that I could keep going when it felt impossible, and an affirmation that it really is just a case of putting one foot in front of the other.