I’ve heard nothing but good things about the Sun Mountain 50k, so when a friend of a friend was needing to sell his bib, I jumped at the chance. I had a ton of friends running it and I had some serious race envy. Who cares if it was the weekend immediately preceding my big Grand Canyon run, right?
Don’t worry, I was a responsible athlete and asked my coach first. He said it was okay as long as I “run it and not race it.” So that was the goal: hang out at the back and have fun – what I do at every race.
Honestly, I was kind of nervous about the whole weekend because
- I had agreed to carpool with someone I’ve never met.
- I was staying in a house with 10 people, most of whom I hardly knew.
- My longest run since Haiti was only 17 miles.
The thought of being “stuck with” a bunch of people I don’t know made me anxious. I was also starting to worry that running a 50k that close to the Grand Canyon would wreck my body (since I haven’t done that distance in a while).
Thankfully, trail runners are awesome, and being stuck with them is one of the best ways to spend a weekend.
We were all up pretty early on Saturday to get to the race (we were staying about 30 minutes away). When we got there, we were greeted by a bear hanging out on the dumpster near the port-a-potties.
After that excitement, we collected our bibs, met up with some of our other friends, and waited for the race to start. I was so happy to see Jenny and Bethany there. I knew that Bethany would be waaaay ahead of us, but I told Jenny that I really hoped we could spend some time running together if our paces matched up.
I started the race with Jenny and Tim. We hoped that the run along the road at the beginning would thin out the crowd before the climb up Patterson Mountain, but that wasn’t the case. We got to the trail and waited our turn as almost 300 runners squeezed onto the single track that took us up the mountain. Most people find this frustrating, but I think it’s a great way to help me warm up my legs and not start out too fast.
Hiking up Patterson, we were talking about other races we had run. Jenny said that she could never seem to beat her 50k PR (“personal record”). (7:26:48 in 2015. Yes, Jenny, I stalked your UltraSignup.) While talking, we found that we seem to have similar race strategies:
- Start with somewhat of a time goal in the back of our mind.
- Decide that we’d rather be comfortable and we don’t really care that much about said time goal.
- Find someone to talk to, stop to take lots of photos, and mosey along the course until we reach the finish.
- Be proud that we finished at all.
Jenny said that if I could get her to finish the race in under 7 hours, she would buy me pizza afterward. What a great motivator!
Unfortunately, I felt kind of “off” throughout the morning. I felt a little sick driving over the pass the night before and ended up going a pretty long time without eating, so I think that carried over to race day. We made it through the first aid station, I made sure to eat something (chips and pickles! Yum!) and we started along what should have been some really fun trails. My stomach started cramping up a bit and Tim (who had been pulling ahead of us for a while but then waiting for us to catch up) finally decided to take off and DITCH US. (Just kidding, Tim. We enjoyed your company at the start and were glad when you started to run your own race!)
I told Jenny she could go on ahead because I just wasn’t feeling great, but she didn’t want to leave and suggested that we stop for a sec to see if I could figure out my stomach issue. My first idea was to just start jabbing my fingers into my stomach to see if I could work out whatever cramping was going on – something that I always try but never works – and that actually did the trick! We cautiously started moving again and once I realized that my stomach was okay, I took in some more calories.
I’m grateful that Jenny decided to stay with me, because we needed two of us to swat our way through the mosquito-infested section that came next. We ran along the trail hitting each other and made it through the second aid station. (Thank you to the kind stranger who shared his bug spray with us!) I ate some more and finally started feeling like my normal self.
By the time we hit roughly 17 miles, I was feeling great! However, that’s about the time that Jenny started feeling not-so-great. She said a few times that she really didn’t care about getting a PR and that she was just happy to have company. She kept telling me to leave because she knew I could finish faster, but I much preferred staying with her.
She requested that I run in front of her because it was more motivating to her. We started running intervals to keep things interesting: walk to that floofy plant up ahead and then run to where the trail bends; we’ll keep running until that pile of sticks to the left and then we can walk up the hill. We chipped away at the miles, taking turns reminding each other to run if we had been walking for too long.
Jenny and I had never run together for this long before, and we discovered that we both start making up words once our mileage reaches the mid 20s. We also get very emotional and sappy. This made for some great conversations late in the race. We joked that if we had recorded the last 10 miles and played it to anyone in a “normal” state of mind that they would have absolutely no clue what we were talking about. At least we understood each other.
At the last full aid station (there was going to be one more water-only station before the finish), we looked at the course map and saw that we only had two very manageable climbs left! I refilled my bladder with matcha-flavored Skratch Labs (yay caffeine!!) and grabbed a giant handful of cheddar-and-sour-cream chips (one of my favorite flavors!!), and we were off!
I don’t think Jenny knew this, but I spent the entire race monitoring my watch, making sure we were still in reach of her goal that she “didn’t care” about. (Then again, she’s pretty smart – maybe she did know.) I know that she said it didn’t matter and that she just wanted a fun day on the trails, but I knew she could make it.
Another thing that Jenny doesn’t know is that before we became friends, I quietly Facebook-stalked her by way of the trail club group page. Not as creepy as it sounds, I promise. I was always seeing her name pop up places because we had a ton of mutual friends and I just really admired her. She was this incredibly humble ultra runner with killer quads and she seemed to be friends with – and liked by – everybody. I looked up to her and wanted to be like her. I always thought “How cool would it be if we ended up friends someday?”
Anyway, there I was, 6 hours and ~25 miles into a 50k with one of my best friends. I knew that trying to get to the finish in under 7 hours would probably kill us both (sadly, this meant no post-race pizza). Her getting a PR, though, that was possible; and you bet your ass that I was going to do everything in my power to make that happen.
We made it past the last water stop and were finally on the home stretch. After running nine consecutive 5ks already, she somehow didn’t sound too excited when I asked her if she wanted to run one last 5k. I told her that this one, though, we had to run just like a normal 5k: sucky and uncomfortable. She said something to the tune of “shut up don’t tell me that.”
We didn’t talk a whole lot during that last 5k, unless you count the times I tried encouraging her in a way that sounded way too similar to how I try to convince my dog to come to me. “C’mon, Jenny!” I would say in a high-pitched voice while slapping my knees. Thinking back on it, she might not have been talking much because she was too busy plotting how she would stash my body in the bushes.
The trail was mostly downhill and very smooth and runnable, so that’s what we did – we ran. Even up some of the last hills. “Come on! We’re almost there!” turned into “Jenny, the finish line is RIGHT THERE!” She said, “I know, I’m trying! We only have three minutes to get there!”
We popped out of the trail onto the pavement and booked it around the corner, through the grass, and to the finish line. This may or may not have involved holding hands, aggressively passing someone and almost running him off the trail, and an appropriate level of crying.
Jenny’s new PR: 7:23:45. I am so SO proud of her and am grateful that I got to spend hours and hours with her in the woods.
Jenny’s words: “We need to go on 7+ hour runs together more often.” I 500% agree.
Oh – and she still bought me pizza. Win-win. 😉