My first ultra

No medal. No t-shirt.

@ Deer Grove after 32.4 miles!

1 day.

7 hours.

32.4 miles.

3033 calories.

… And thousands of smiles!

Somewhere along the line, I got the idea (mostly from my friend Brandi who makes ultra running look easy) that I should run an ultra. The New Leaf Ultra Runs‘ Deer Grove 32.4 mile wide track fun run was just what I had in mind. Most people might think such a run without the glory is a waste of time. But not me. I was in it for the community and the challenge. And the price was right (they even donate a portion of the proceeds).

Of course, I can only do what God enables me to do. And it’s to His glory I finished the run on Saturday. Nothing went according to *my* plan that day or the week leading up to it. The primary obstacle was achilles tendinitis, which began last Tuesday. I had only been able to run .75 and 2 miles, respectively. 2.75 miles the week leading up an ultra? Lame. I also didn’t eat or sleep according to plan. I wasn’t ready. At all. But I showed up anyway, no excuses, and just did what I know God enabled my body to do. The adventure begins …

Starting line! (Photo courtesy of Kelly Gaines)

Loop 1: 8am. It’s 40 degrees, and I am way overdressed in my jogging pants, thermal top and windbreaker (plus gloves!). But I was whisked away at the whistle by the crowd of new friends. My achilles was tender but the conversation around me distracted me. The first loop was a hoot with a bunch of other crazies out for a fun run in the woods. I’m running the hills and getting scolded. “Sara, you’re an ultra runner now!” shouted Brandi who keeps coaching me to walk the hills and save the energy. I didn’t care. “That’s no fun!” I shouted back behind me. “Hills are fun!” (Don’t worry, my tone changed a bit later.) I knew we were going too fast but I still wasn’t sure if my achilles would allow me to finish so I wanted to start out strong and stay with the group as long as I could. We finished in just over 50 minutes, about 9:45 minute miles. And I was feeling great. 5.4 miles down.

Brandi gave me 4 minutes for transition (she has this down to a science). I filled my water bottle and grabbed half a pinole cookie from my aid station (the back of Kristi’s jeep!). Most importantly though, I had to completely change my clothes. I basically stripped in the parking lot (I really anticipated it being much cooler!) Of course in my hurry, I put on the shorts backwards, so I had to do it twice! Brandi started heading out, gave me a gentle but encouraging eye and a “hurry-up!” So, I skipped the bathroom break–I knew I could make it through the next hour–and I was off in time join her in shorts, t-shirt and lightweight jogging jacket. Thank goodness, too, or I would have missed out on the mango-flavored Twizzler.

Finishing loop 2, 11 miles complete! (Photo courtesy of Kelly Gaines)

Loop 2: 9am. It’s just the two of us now but pairs and trios of runners are all around. So, we continued to chat with other runners. I’m still running the hills. “Don’t worry, I’ll slow down so you can catch up!” I joke. Now I am getting really distracted by my achilles though. About 1/3 way through, it began to turn from tender to painful. Ugh. So, against everything within me, I stopped to walk to calm things down. I fear I’ll never see Brandi again but I know I have to slow down in order to make it to the end. I was enjoying the quiet while I was able to run on my own. But I was also thankful for the runners that meet up with me. After short bursts of walking I keep trying to run with them. Eventually, the pain increases again so I stopped to walk until another runner or two can carry me a little further. I met a lot of people on this loop but didn’t have extended conversations with most of them so I don’t remember much. I’m starting to think I might not finish the run afterall. :( Finally, two nice gentlemen, one whose name was Bob and the other might have been Mark but now I am not sure, started to pass me. I couldn’t bear not to finish strong so I hung with them. I told Bob my goal was to run my first ultra, but my achilles tendinitis was trying to stop me. “Trying,” he said. “But you’re not gonna let it.” Just the push I needed! I like the way you think, Bob. I ran the rest of the way in, felt great and was determined to keep going. Took me just over an hour for that loop, not bad with all the walking. 11 miles done!

Amazingly, I caught up to Brandi who was at her aid station. She shared electrolyte pills with me. “Wait, what pills am I taking here?” I figured I should at least ask. lol She took off but I still need a few minutes to rest and refill my water. I also ate another half of my pinole cookie.

Loop 3: 10:05am. I started out loop 3 with a woman named Michele. She’s running a little faster than me but walking the hills. And I’m still running those hills so we leap frog about half the way. So, we have an ongoing but disjointed conversation … It was good to have a friendly face out there. Then I met Val. We had passed each other on loop 2. So, this time I slowed a bit to chat with him (he had told me he was only doing two loops so I had to hear his story!). Eventually, Michele passed us but I was enjoying our conversation. Soon, we were just over a mile to the end of the loop so I left him with another runner we’d caught up to. I finish in less than an hour, and I’m feeling really good now … confident about finishing my first ultra! 16.4 miles, woot!

I see Brandi taking off on her next loop and debate catching her. I know if I don’t, I probably won’t see her again. But I know I need a rest and some food. I’m starting to feel a little lightheaded. I avoid sitting since I don’t think I’ll get back up again! But I take a nice long break, use the bathroom (that’s generous of me … it was the least pleasant port-a-potty experience I think I’ve ever had), refill my water and I ate 1/4 of a pb&j and a few potato chips (Salty! Yum!).

Mid loop 4, about 20 miles (Photo courtesy of Kelly Gaines)

Loop 4: 11:10am. I start out strong with loop 4 and … I’m still tackling those hills! So, I eventually catch up to my new buddy Michele. We’re leap frogging again for a while. But it catches up with me. About 1/3 way through I realize I just don’t have the energy. After she passes me one last time, I began walking the hills. I’m really losing my pep and it’s starting to get lonely. I have my 2nd ClifBlok hoping that gives me the zip I need. I’ve still got a good rhythm, running the flats and walking the hills. The hills seem more daunting when I’m walking though. And there’s not that thrill when you crest. Instead, I have to get motivated to go from walking to running. It starts to get lonely … and I’m tired. I’m thankful to see Kelly, the event’s organizer’s wife who was walking the loop in the opposite direction (Thanks to Brian for all his work! He didn’t even get to run … Doesn’t quite seem fair.). I smile for a picture. I’m back to my aid station after about 65 minutes. 21.8 miles, my longest training run evah!

I see my friend Kristi who inspired me just being there! She ran 15 miles pretty much on a whim and got me to Deer Grove in the first place. I was encouraged by her and so thankful she had waited for me to say hi before she left to go home. I realize I am hungry! I take a slightly longer break, eat the rest of my chips and half the pb&j this time. Plus, a couple of my “healthy” oatmeal raisin cookies. There’s really nobody even around any of the aid stations … it’s just too quiet.

Finishing loop 5, 27 miles complete! (Photo courtesy of Kelly Gaines)

Loop 5: 12:33pm. The weather is cooling off … I should have brought my gloves and maybe the headband. I’m beginning to lose it. Shortly into it, I see Kelly again and smile for another picture. Thank goodness, because I was beginning to think I was the only one out there! I know many runners were only planning on 3 loops so I have no idea who is behind me or whether anyone will even be around when I finish. I’m beginning to think I might have to call it quits after this loop. My walks are getting longer (it feels so good!) and my runs are turning into shuffles. I eat my fourth ClifBlok and at some point I had an ibuprofen. My stomach is queasy. I keep reminding myself I can eat all the pizza I want when I get home! But still, I began to question what the heck am I doing out here? All I can think about is getting it over and done. Why did I want to do this again? This is really stupid. It’s gonna be a long walk back to the parking lot!

Finally, my friend Scott, who is also running his first ultra, and a more experienced ultra runner named Steve catch me walking about a mile out. I convince them into my “ultra” slow shuffle/walk to the finish. Soon, Nick and Geoff join us. I needed the company and hope I wasn’t a big downer. This loop takes me about an hour 15. But … 27.2 miles! That’s my longest run to date, including the Chicago marathon 9 years ago. Woot!

And … only one loop left! There’s a few people milling around this time, thankfully. I’m not alone out here! I see Mike who I had met the week before. He debates taking an *extra* lap to encourage me (he finished his 32.4 in 5.5 hours). It meant so much to me that he even considered it! But he had told his kids he’d be home and I so appreciate his integrity: family always comes first. Thankfully, Scott and Steve are going for one more round so I knew I wouldn’t be alone. I tried to perk up a bit for the finish. It’s starting to sprinkle so I throw on my windbreaker, gloves and headband.

@ the Finish behind Steve, 32.4 miles complete! (Photo courtesy of Steve)

Loop 6: 2pm. I lose the headband immediately. It’s not nearly as cool on the trail as in the parking lot! I had a wardrobe malfunction with the new windbreaker’s removable sleeves. Craziness. Anyway, I continued a run/walk with Scott and Steve, with a little bit more fight in me than in the previous loop. My stomach is really queasy though so there’s a few extra walking steps while I try to calm that down. I know I’d feel better if I just threw up but I can’t make it happen, especially with an audience. So, I burp and belch a lot instead. *rolls eyes* I’m such a lady. I don’t even remember what we talked about, I just kept asking them to tell me stories. lol They made it seem like it was nothing! I was thankful for their strength. Steve’s first ultra was a Deer Grove last year so Scott said he couldn’t wait for next year. All I could think I can’t wait to finish this year. And, eventually, I did! About 65 minutes later, we were at the finish. With less than 2 miles left, we picked up the pace and walked less. And with the finish line almost in site, I had enough in me to stride out and finish strong, even with the hills. I was right on Steve’s heels. 34.2 miles complete. I did it. Stats: I was one of 22 runners to complete the 50k (first place male and female were recognized with awards but I don’t know their times), 10 individuals ran 27 miles, 13 ran 21.6 miles, 9 (including my friend Kristi) ran 16.2, 7 ran 10.8, and another 4 ran 5.4 miles. There were 62 runners total.

I’m still in a bit of shock. Did I really just do that?!?! But the most mind-blowing thing of all is I am beginning to wonder: when can I do it again?


5 thoughts on “My first ultra

  1. Great job Sara! I’m impressed more by your perseverance to complete the race despite how you felt and the loneliness. Definitely something to be proud of!

    • Thanks, Jeff! It’s great to meet other runners, especially crazy ultra runners … everyone is so friendly! It’s a real community. Hope to see you on the trails again soon! :)

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