My First Ultra Marathon

Running my first Ultra Marathon was one of the hardest things I’ve done in a very long time.  Giving birth to my 3 children was a lot easier than running this 50k trail run.  Before I get to the nitty gritty, let me tell you about how I came to the decision to run this race.

What sparked my desire to run a 50k?

When I ran the Dopey Challenge* in 2016 it was a really bad experience in the end.  I had gone in with high expectations for the Marathon. Early on in the Marathon, it was clear I wasn’t going to meet those expectations and I was devastated.  I was in tears by mile 16.

When, I returned to redeem myself in 2018, the main goal was no crying on the course. I had more realistic expectations this time around and also had learned from my experience 2 years prior.  However, I had no idea that I would be setting a new PR for the Marathon. I had beaten my previous best Marathon time by 40 minutes. I finished the Marathon in 4:42. It was a good day. Now, my all time finish goal for a Marathon had long been 4:30.  After running a 4:42 Marathon in the Dopey I realized how close I was to hitting my all time goal. If I could just maintain the training and momentum I should be able to hit a 4:30 Marathon in no time.

Then it dawned on me how much training would be involved, how much work it would take, and that it would be very time consuming.  I decided I really didn’t have the time available to commit to it. Since I wasn’t setting any new records with the 5k, 10k, halfs or fulls, I needed to find challenges in conquering new distances.  I felt like I was better at endurance anyhow. I’m not much of a sprinter and it’s easier for me to place in my age groups with the longer distances.

So that’s when I decided to take on the 50k.

Marathons are 26.2 miles, usually road races.  Ultra Marathons are technically anything over 26.2 miles.  50k’s are 31.06 miles, usually trail races. It’s only 5 miles more than a Marathon.  I’ve done 5 Marathons, 2 of which were part of the Dopey Challenge. I’ve probably walked that extra 5 miles from the finish line, through the post race refreshments, to the shuttle bus and back to my hotel…no big deal.  50k will be doable. Boy oh boy…was I wrong.

The Training

Ultra Marathon training would have gone much better had my plantar fasciitis behaved.  Adding the extra runs and the extra miles to my daily life really caused it to flare up on me.  I was constantly trying to balance running enough but not too much. My ultra marathon training plan called for running 5 days a week (T, W, Th, Sa, Su) with the long runs on Sunday.  I should have ran two marathon distances during my training, but the longest run I was able to get in was only 15 miles. Most of my training miles were on the road, though I did get in a few shorter runs on the trails. Regardless, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the mud that was going to nearly be the death of me.

Playin’ Possum 50k

When researching which 50k to do for my first Ultra Marathon I had looked up those that were in the area, the time of year that they took place and researched their facebook photos.  I didn’t want to do run an ultra marathon in the winter, or the summer. So I studied the facebook photos for snow in the background and the clothing/layers that the runners were wearing.  I wanted to make sure that I was going to be as comfortable as possible.

Ultra Marathons seem to be smaller in size, as far as the number of runners.  For one, only so many runners can fit on the trails at any given time and the directors want to make sure that the number of runners don’t cause unnecessary damage to the trails.  This race limits the number to 150 runners. Playin’ Possum 50k registration was opened at the beginning of the year and I had to get registered quick to guarantee me a spot.

The event takes place at the Delaware State Park in Delaware, OH.  About 30 minutes north of Columbus. We left Friday night after hubby was home from work and then drove the 4 hours to our hotel.  We arrived a little after 11pm, then had to be up by 5:30am to leave by 6:00am to be to the park for packet pick up at 6:30am. I wanted to make sure I got there in time for the First Time Ultra Marathon group photo at 7:10am.

When we arrived I quickly realized that this is the first race that I’ve done in a very long time where I didn’t know a single person. Even when running Disney, I had friends that I met up with. I quickly started sizing everyone up, soon getting a feeling that I don’t belong here.  I’m not ready. I should have trained more.

It didn’t help that I had put on about 15 pounds over the winter, I was seeing it around my waist and in my legs. My plan was to wear capris or tights to cover the embarrassing cellulite all over my legs. When planning my outfit for the race, compression socks were a non-negotiable.  But I couldn’t wear them with capris, that would just look ridiculous. When I saw that it was going to be a high of 85F 2 hours into the race, there was no way I was going to wear tights, I would overheat quick. I had to suck it up and wear shorts. It made me super self conscious, especially when I was comparing myself to all the other women there at the start of the race.

I considered dropping out before we even got started.

When we took our group picture, there I was with 30+ other first time ultra marathon runners. I felt a little less like backing out. After a few announcements, the race started. No gun start, no timing mats, everyone just started running towards the pink flags that marked the course.

Oh boy, here we go

My strategy going in was to stick to my 2min run, 1min walk intervals from the beginning.  I didn’t want to burn out to quick. I was going to walk when I had to, and run when I could.  But nothing prepared me for the first section. It was a total of 8 miles. 4 miles out and 4 miles back to the start, then we head out down a different trail.  Half a mile into that first section, my shoes were covered in mud. There was no going around it, everyone just had to go right on through it. Little did I know that it was going to be like this for 50% of the ultra marathon.

Trail shoes covered in mud only half a mile into my first ultra marathon.
Only a half mile into the Ultra Marathon and I had been through a significant amount of mud. Little did I know how much more was to come.

For the first 2 miles I was dead last and thought that this was going to be how it was for the full race. Better just get used to it. It’s ok, as long as I still finish, I’ll still be a ultra marathon runner. I just need to stick to my strategy. I’ve got 29 more miles I’m sure some of them will start to slow down and I’ll get an opportunity to pass them.  After the first 2 miles I did get a chance to pick off a few, which raised my spirits a bit.

Amazing Aid Stations

Aid Stations were positioned about every 4 miles, which was amazing.  But what made them even better was the volunteers. As soon as you were in sight, they were clapping and cheering you on.  As soon as you were in ear shot, they are asking you “what do you need?”. They were so attentive and such good caretakers for all of us. The first section I ran 4 miles, mostly through mud, to Aid Station #1.  They had water, gatorade, coke, sprite, mountain dew, pickles and pickle juice, peanut butter sandwiches, cookies, gummy bears. All the good stuff! Then I turn around and run those 4 muddy miles back to the start.  Aid Station #2 was at the Start/Finish. Same setup, same great options. Grab what you need and head out to section 2.

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches cut into quarters for the ultra marathon runners to eat at every aid station.
I love that they had PB&J sandwiches at the Aid Stations. This was my favorite snack.

That Dam Wall

Section 2 was miles 8-21.  This is where the temperature really starts to heat up and we are all exposed to the sun for longer periods.  There’s a little bit of trail running, a little bit of manageable mud, and then full on sun running the perimeter of the beach area parking lot.  After completing the parking lot perimeter, then I’m on the paved park roads forever until finally connecting with the next trail section. It’s nice to get out of the sun and under the cover of the trees, but it’s not for long and that’s when I encounter the creek.

This was the first crossing at the creek. At first I wondered if I had gotten off course, and then I spotted the pink flags on the opposite side.

I had no idea how deep it was, and there wasn’t a great way to just step into it. I was just going to have to jump. Fortunately there was a father and son team coming up behind me that had run this ultra marathon a number of times before. He said it was only about a foot deep. I let them go first so I could see how it was done.

The creek is up to the middle of my calves.  Didn't realize this ultra marathon would take me through so much water.
Just got to take the plunge and do it. It was half way up my calf. But it was also refreshing.

Immediately coming out of the creek is a steep slippery muddy incline. I didn’t fall, but I did start to slide backwards. I couldn’t get any footing and there was nothing to hold on to. Fortunately the dad came back to lend a hand and make sure I could make it up to the top. Right after that, I was back out in full sun exposure on the Dam Wall.  This wall was never ending. It stretched on as far as the eye could see, and then beyond. It didn’t matter how far I walked, it seemed like the end was never ever in sight. I just kept telling myself that this is easier than the mud, run when you can.

It doesn’t even have to be a run, it just needs to be faster than walking.

I tried to stick to my intervals, but the direct sun was so draining.

The Dam Wall of Delaware State Park runs parallel to the highway 23 and was the longest, straightest stretch of the ultra marathon.
This Dam Wall went on for what seemed like forever!

About half way across the Dam Wall there was an access road that led down to a parking lot and a park. That’s where Aid Station #3 was, but before I could go to the aid station, I had to run through this wooded section at the bottom of the access road.

A nice view of a creek that runs along the trail during one of the easier sections of ultra marathon trail.
This is near the bottom of the Dam. To the left, out of the picture, are people fishing.

The trail through the wooded section then dumped me at the aid station where there was a bathroom with running water. It was nice to be able to wash my hands and wipe off my face a bit.  At the aid station I needed to fill up my bladder. The ladies there filled it with ice water for me and told me to put on some sunscreen. I’m glad I did. I grabbed some pb&j sandwiches, pickle juice, and a popsicle and headed back out. At this point I head back up the access road, but instead of going to the left to head back the way I had come, I’m directed to head to the right, and continue down the remainder of stupid Dam Wall.

View from the top of the Dam during the ultra marathon.
The view from the top of the Dam.
Opposite view from the top of the Dam during the ultra marathon.
The view on the opposite side of the Dam.

At the end of the Dam Wall I head down a section of road that’s covered with huge loose rocks.  It’s not just a gravel/dirt road. No, I have to watch my footing because the rocks are rolling under my foot with each step I take. Once I’m done with that section of road, I make a right and hit Aid Station #4 that is set up in the middle of nowhere. I turn around and head back down that little section and then continue past the stupid rocky road to a much flatter road that takes me back to the stupid Dam Wall.

After the 4th Aid Station, the road is flatter and more like what I’m used to, I picked up my intervals again. Reminding myself that the run doesn’t have to be fast, it just needs to be faster than a walk.  I continue this down the first part of the Dam Wall, to that access road, where I have to exit again, do the wooded section again, and hit Aid Station #3 once again.

I take advantage of the bathrooms with running water one more time. Then I grab some more pickles, ice, pb&j and head back up the access road to conquer the rest of the Dam Wall. I’m continuing my walk/faster-than-a-walk intervals and end up gaining on the person that was a ways up in front of me. Finally off of the Dam Wall, back into the wooded section with the creek, cross the creek, but then when I pop up out of the trail, the sun is in full force and I have to walk the section of road, to the beach, and then walk the perimeter of the parking lot.

Man, my plantar fasciitis is bothering me pretty bad, and my metatarsals in my right foot are causing me issues.  It feels like my sock had wrinkled under the ball of my foot. I keep wiggling my toes to get it to flatten out.  It’s to the point that I think there might actually be something in my shoe. I sit down on the curb of the parking lot and attempt to unlace my shoe, take it off and straighten out my sock.  My fingers are so swollen it’s hard to get them to bend at all. I get my foot out of my shoe to realize that there is no wrinkle, it’s what I suspected, just the sensation of a wrinkle, but there is a bit of mud that has dried and clung to my sock and my insole. So I get that flicked off my sock and cleaned out of my shoe.

I make my way around the parking lot and I’ve already decided, I can’t physically run any more. If I’m going to finish this dang ultra marathon I’m going to have to walk the remaining 12 miles. After finishing the parking lot, there is the small wooded section with manageable mud and then I’m back to the start/finish Aid Station #2 again.

Did anyone say sausages?

This is where I have a drop bag and had originally planned on changing my socks and shoes.  But there was no way for me to anticipate that my fingers were going to be the size of polish sausages at this point.  It was going to be impossible for me to get my compression socks off, let alone get another pair on. I grabbed the bladder I had prefilled with some Nuun Performance and my Huma gels. Grabbed a few sandwiches and pickles from the aid station and asked where I needed to go next.  To my horror it was back through section 1. The 4 miles out and 4 miles back, where the majority of the mud was in the beginning. And now it’s gonna be worse because 150ish runners have ran through it 3 if not 4 times already.

I was devastated.

Heading that direction and I messaged hubby letting him know how hard it was, and that I just wanted to sit down and be done.  There was still 10 more miles and I wasn’t going to finish it in the 8 hours they were giving us to complete it. I knew there were still people behind me and that I wasn’t going to be the last finisher. At this point they weren’t pulling anyone from the course otherwise they would have done so before allowing me to head out to the last section.  So I kept going.

Text message conversation between hubby and I about how I was struggling with this ultra marathon.

“Oh man!  That’s a dumb amount of mud.” – Kristin Albers

But oh my goodness the mud!  I was exhausted. With each section of mud I encountered any thought I had of finishing the race was a faint memory.  The ultra marathon was defeating me. I had gotten within a mile of the next aid station, which was Aid Station #1 from before. One of the race directors is sitting there with a book and says “go to the aid station and then come back here”.  I get to the aid station and there is a milk crate that says “book pages here”. That’s when I realized that I have to go back to the race director to collect a book page and take it back to the aid station.

I wish it was to be that easy.  I get back to the race director and realize that I now have to head into a different section of trail to collect this. I’m thinking that I just have to duck into this little section grab a book page and duck back out. NOOOO. This section is 1.5 miles in and then 1.5 miles back out.  I think the worst thing is that I had no idea how long this section was. If I had realized it was going to total 3 miles, I may have been better mentally prepared for it. Or I might have just decided to quit right there, at mile 25. I just kept thinking this book has got to be right up here, right around this corner, and nope, I was disappointed repeatedly.

And the mud, oh my goodness the mud. With every patch of mud my will to survive plummeted.

There was so much mud on this ultra marathon trail.
Just a little bit of mud.

I can’t just die here…or can I?

There was no way out.  I had to make it to the end, and then I had to turn around and go back through all of it again to get out of that mess.  I couldn’t quit in there. There was no place to sit down or lay down, there was no way for anyone to come save me. My feet were a hot mess and my back was so sore.  If I thought I could get up, I would have crawled on my hands and knees through the mud. But I was afraid once I got down, I’d never get back up. After reaching the book, ripping out the page and making my way back out, I knew I would be at about 28 miles when I exited that section and had to head back to the aid station to deliver my page.

So…much…mud.

I had decided, I was done with this ultra marathon.  I was going to drop my page in the milk crate, grab some pb&j, and sit on a picnic bench never to move again.  Someone was going to pick me up and drive me back. I had checked out. At this point, I had told myself that I had ran the furthest I have ever ran in my entire life at one time.  I could still technically call myself an ultra runner. Everyone would understand, they had seen my struggle and what I was up against through my social media posts. My decision to quit was justified.  And I could live with that decision. My decision was made. No one would think any less of me.

I. Was. Done.

With only 3 miles to go, I had had enough. I couldn’t physically take anymore. I was walking 20 minute miles at this point and the last 3 miles would take me another hour.  There wasn’t another hour in me to give, not when I had so much mud yet to get through. My estimated ultra marathon finish time was 9hr 30min. The advertised course cut off was 8 hours.

Plot twist

I got to the aid station, I went to drop my page in the milk crate, but it was gone.  The volunteers were starting to pack things up. One of the volunteers walked towards me and asked me what I needed.  I handed her my page. She asked if I needed water or ice. I said nope, I was gonna try and finish with what I have. You see, if they hadn’t of been packing things up, I would have walked straight over to the tables for a sandwich, and sat down, never to get back up.  But when I saw there weren’t any sandwiches sitting out, I didn’t walk any closer. I handed her my page and I turned back around to attempt to finish the last 5k. I knew there were still a few people behind me yet.

Now, at this point the path back to the finish diverts a bit and it bypass’s a bit of the trail that we had all ran on originally.  It does eventually connect to the original path, so I prayed that there would be less mud on this path. There was mud, but at least it wasn’t the amount of mud that was on the original path. And now that it’s starting to heat up a bit more and the gaps between runners was increasing, the texture of the mud was changing. It wasn’t as wet, it was still sticky, but it was starting to firm up just a bit.  Especially around some of the edges, giving me some dryer paths to walk on.

My lower back was killing me.  I would have to stop every so often, bend over and try to stretch it out.  It was during one of those moments when I was doubled over that Jim approached and asked if I was ok.  He asked if we could walk together. It was a great distraction. I told him how close I was to quitting.  He said he was about to quit as well, earlier on. But the group of 3 that were still behind us encouraged him to keep going. He said they would have done the same for me had they found me sitting at the last aid station.

We talked and walked and a number of times I had to stop and adjust my right foot to avoid the pain and the blister that was starting to form. Trying to avoid the pain in my left heel and the pain in the right forefoot was really doing a number to the rest of my body.

Wait, is there a wedding up ahead?

Jim, having done this race one other time, kept reminding me what was up ahead.  He’d say, just up this hill, around the bend and we’ll be out of the woods…just 2 more miles at this point…about 1 more mile.

One of the foot bridges we crossed about 4 times through the ultra marathon.
One of the bridges we crossed about 4 times.

It was helpful to know that the end was finally near and that we were indeed getting closer. I texted hubby and told him to bring my sandals to the finish line.  And then we came to the section I was dying to finally see. We would go down a steep hill, cross a little stream of water and then back up a steep hill, into a grassy area (where there was a wedding party taking pictures).

Jim says, “are we about to Ultra Marathon through a wedding?”

We make it to the top of the hill and popped out of the woods. Just around the bend is the finish line. I can see it through the trees. And then I can see the personalized laminated signs of congratulations for the first time ultra marathon runners stapled to wooden stakes and pounded into the ground in a line that guides you to the finish.  Had I of quit, I would haven’t been able to claim my sign. Jim asked how I wanted to finish this thing. Did I want to run it in or walk it in. I had long ago decided that I was perfectly fine with walking across the finish line and I told him, I wasn’t physically capable of running it in, I was going to walk. But if he wanted to run in it, he should go on ahead. He said,

“Nope, I’m gonna walk it in with you because that’s what someone else would have done for me”.

We crossed the finish line together. I high 5’d him, one of the directors handed me my finisher’s horseshoe, the other director congratulated me and shook my hand…

…and then I cried.

Hubby was there with a hug while I cried it out.  And then I remembered I was going to need a finishers photo in front of the finish sign before they started to tear it all down.  Jim reminded me to sign the finishers pole, because that’s what you do when you become an ultra marathon runner by finishing the Playin Possum 50k for the first time. And then I sat on the ground.

Ultra marathon runner standing in front of the finish line.
Finally!
Trail shoes caked in a quarter inch of dried mud after completing my first ultra marathon.
First good look at how much mud was really caked on there.
I'm holding my personalized congratulatory first time ultra marathon runner sign.
My laminated personalized congratulatory sign.

Awww shucks…you guys!

Afterwards, when I was catching up on all the comments on my social media posts, I was amazed by the outpouring of encouragement you all gave me.  Which of course resulted in even more tears. There was nothing that could have prepared me for the defeat I had felt, or the pain that I had experienced.  But I know that conquering it has made me stronger…or not so much made me stronger, but made me realize how strong I already was.

I’m so blessed to know all of you.  The encouragement from other runners, whether road runners or trail runners, always comes at just the right time. It comes from a place of experience as a peer, whether they know you all that well or not.  The encouragement from friends and family that aren’t runners, comes from a place of love and concern, because they do know you and know what you are truly capable of even when you don’t know it. And when you’re lucky enough to have running friends, well, you can conquer that which you once thought you couldn’t.

I am an Ultra Marathoner!

Playin' Possum 50k ultra marathon finishers t-shirt and tank top.
Some great swag. Glad I finished the race, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to wear the shirts.

*Disney World holds a number of Disney themed races throughout the year.  Typically the longest race distance at any of these races is the Half Marathon. However, once a year in January, they hold Marathon Weekend, where you can run a 5k, 10k, Half, or Full.  Or you can choose to sign up for one of the challenges and get an opportunity to run multiple distances, earn extra medals and get additional t-shirts. The Goofy Challenge is a combination of the Half on Saturday and the Full on Sunday (2 races, 3 shirts, 3 medals).  The Dopey Challenge is all of them, the 5k on Thursday, the 10k on Friday, the Half on Saturday and the Full on Sunday (4 races, 6 shirts, 6 medals).