I returned to Farmville, VA on Saturday, the home of my undergrad alma mater, Longwood University, to do something my college age self could never imagine. I ran my first ultramarathon!
I was definitely not a runner in college. I barely made it to the gym once a semester, just to prove that I was taking advantage of all the “free” amenities my school had to offer. My inner gymnast had retired years ago, and although I did take required physical education classes as part of my degree, including the coveted and impossible-to-get-into water aerobics and gymnastics classes, my college experience exercise consisted mostly of walking wherever I went, simply because I didn’t have a car.
Furthermore, the trail on which we ran as part of this ultramarathon didn’t exist in the 90’s when I studied at Longwood. It was an abandoned train track. The tracks are now long gone, and the High Bridge Trail State Park is now a gem for the town of Farmville. Its presence has helped revitalize the quaint downtown area and caused a bit of a boom in restaurant and retail development.
And who would have the audacity to convince me to do something so challenging as an ultramarathon? My best friend Patty, of course. She’s the one who talked me into running a marathon in the first place. She’s very convincing like that. And, here’s a tip: never hit the sign up button when you’re two drinks in. Ah, well. That’s how shenanigans begin…
Having never run an ultra before, I knew that many of my friends used their fall marathon as a training run for a later fall ultra. That was my plan. I ran my marathon in late October. I signed up for the 50k at the beginning of November. Since then, all of my weekend runs have been double digits except for the weekend before the race, as is normal for taper. I fit in weekday runs when I could, but my work schedule did affect my training. Even so, I thought that would adequately maintain my fitness level through the ultra weekend.
The lead up to the race
So, taper was initially going pretty well, but in the couple of days prior, I definitely felt more irritable. My anxiety about running this distance was definitely pouring over into my daily life. I’ll try to cut myself some slack about this. As the emails confirming details of race day were pushed out, it occurred to me that this was really about to happen. I watched the race prep video, and then had lots of questions, like, “Wait… I might see a bear on the course? Am I really supposed to make noise and draw attention to myself if I see one?,” and, “What’s a pit toilet?”
Virginia Adventures was formed in 2014 to put on ultra marathons in historical, lesser known areas around Virginia. All of my friends who have run their races say that they are well run and very organized. I was not disappointed. The aid stations were well stocked, expectations and information were clear, and volunteers were motivating and helpful. They even had real food after the race, including a Beyond burger and vegetable broth! Of course, there were plenty of choices for omnivores, too. But I was so grateful for that Beyond burger…
The course and mental game
Running on the High Bridge Trail, I was expecting mile upon mile of pea gravel and barren trees. This is exactly what I got. Besides the occasional passing a friend near the turnaround points, entertainment was provided by my innermost thoughts. I kept singing songs to myself in my head. The exceptions to the monotony were the occasional road crossings and the pit toilets. Yes, I did find out what these are! And, of course, the High Bridge itself.
It was a windy day, so I was kind of apprehensive about what the bridge itself would feel like. But I was pleasantly surprised. Since the fences of the bridge are so high, I really didn’t feel unsafe at all. Yes, it seems like you are a mile over the Appomattox River, but the height was actually amazing. With the strong breezes, if you closed your eyes, it was the closest sensation to flying that I have ever felt. It was exhilarating! I felt light and free.
The course itself is 2 out and backs, one eastbound to Rice, VA, and the other westbound past Tuggle to Oliver Road. The eastbound portion crosses the HIgh Bridge. A folding chair marked the turnaround points. I was never so happy to see a folding chair in my life as I did on the westbound side. I had to laugh, too, at the aptly named Hardtimes Road that we crossed on the way to and from that final turnaround. I meant to take a picture on the way back, but forgot.
I’m not usually a fan of out and back routes, but if you are mentally prepared, it’s not so bad. The journey back always seems quicker, as you recognize sights you passed earlier. Oh, look! There’s the field with the big hay rolls. Oh, hey! There’s that massive pile of horse poo that I need to avoid stepping in. Oh, yay! There’s my aid station!
Race strategy for me is never set in stone. I’ve been running long enough to know that some days, everything just clicks. Other days, not so much. This was one of those no so much days, unfortunately. There are also many variables beyond your control, like the weather. But my only expectation for the day was to finish. Strategy is meant to evolve without punishing yourself, and I’ve learned that stubbornness can be a very positive trait, indeed.
I ran without walk breaks to the High Bridge, which was about mile 4.5, then switched to a walk/run interval. It was early in the race, and I wanted to ensure that I had enough energy to endure all the miles. I started with walking the first quarter of each mile and running the rest. Of course, there were a couple of bathroom breaks and a stop to clear the gravel out of my shoes, but I stuck to this schedule until Farmville.
Passing through Farmville just past the midpoint was challenging, especially seeing a few of the faster 50k runners crossing the finish line. That was humbling. I was in a difficult space mentally at that point, but I was determined to finish. I refilled my water bladder, remixed my electrolytes, and set off to finish the race.
I had felt pretty uncomfortable since mile 10. Farmville was around mile 17. And around mile 19, my right knee decided to play the tightening up game it likes to do every now and then. I should have taped my knee, knowing this was a possibility, but I chose not to. Live and learn. I couldn’t run for more than a quarter mile without it starting to hurt, so I switched to quarter mile intervals, running half of each mile.
I had kept my nearly defunct iPhone in airplane mode for most of the race to conserve battery for both my phone and my watch, as my watch picks up notifications. I decided when I passed the final aid station on my way back that I would take it off airplane mode and check in with messages. My younger daughter and my sole sisters provided a lot of encouragement at that point. I needed it. And I waited until mile 29 to play music.
I started to have moments of crying at that point, because I absolutely knew I would finish. I had to tell myself out loud that I couldn’t lose it yet! I still had a couple of miles to go! It was also raining at that point, as if Mother Nature had made her last effort to cleanse my soul of any angst left. And as promised, the course ran long. I reached 31.3 with no sign of town in sight. But I was so very happy to see the lights of Farmville, as it was really getting dark by the end. My watch said 31.8 miles at the finish.
I was relieved to cross that timing mat at the finish. My fellow Pink Nation coaches, Chris and Malerie, were there to greet me. I literally melted into a puddle of ugly tears as we shared a group hug at the end. I’m so grateful they waited for me! Chris made sure I got food to eat, and my friend Selina, who was volunteering, lent me a huge towel to keep warm. I wanted to stay to see Patty finish, which she did, about 40 minutes after me! Her partner, Steve, who also ran the 50k, gifted us with Ultra and 50k plaques for our cars. So sweet!
I’m beginning to think that my involvement with any race will guarantee an unusually hot day, no matter what time of year. For this mid-December day, they were predicting a chance of rain later in the day with strong wind gusts and a high of 72 degrees. On my drive to Farmville early that morning, I encountered a couple of heavy downpours. However, the rain subsided for most of the race. It was actually a pretty nice day overall, with temperatures definitely in the upper 60’s with warm wind gusts. Overcast skies meant that I went without my sunglasses. It stayed this way until about mile 29, when I had just decided to listen to some music and sing out loud to some Smiths and Dave Matthews Band. And then the bottom fell out. It was raining so hard, I could only see about 2 feet in front of my face. But I kept moving. The rain had slowed a bit just before the finish. Wet feet are never fun, but I was grateful this was only for the final couple of miles of the race.
Would I recommend this race?
Absolutely. This is a great first ultra race. It was very well organized with good support at aid stations. Although with the nature of the trail, there’s limited “crowd” support, there are definitely places on the course that your loved ones can access to cheer you on. The course itself is not technical. I even wore road shoes. 50k runners have the entire 18 hours allotted to the 100k runners to finish the race. Although there’s no medal, all the finishers got a really nice hand made pottery ornament. Mine will go on the wall, not my Christmas tree! And all participants received a long sleeve, hooded, super soft t-shirt. Plus, I love the town of Farmville. If you have the luxury to make a weekend out of it, there’s lots to learn from this historic place. If history isn’t your thing, browse some of the shops and restaurants downtown.
Will I do this again?
Ask me in a week how I feel. I think any multiple marathon runner begins to question what’s next at some point. I had considered running an ultra for years, but doubted my ability to do so. Now I finally have! I continue to amaze myself with what I can convince my body to endure. But for now, I’m saying one and done, just like I did after my first marathon.
Have you ever run an ultramarathon? I’d love to hear about your experience!
As always, I hope you all are safe and healthy.