Sunday, April 6, 2014

50K...or Maybe Just 50Krazy...

"Oooh, look, a 50k! Right here in Chicago! That sounds cool! Hmm, 31 miles? Well, that's really just a full marathon plus 5 miles, and I know I can handle the 26.2, so adding another 5 shouldn't be that tough. Hey, hey, and it's only 45 dollars! Good enough for me...I'm in!"

"Go for that 50K, Rosie," I told myself. "It will be fun," I continued. "You can totally handle it. This is what you love to do! Why in the world would you pass up the opportunity to just try it?"

Okay, so maybe the combination of Friday Euphoria, payday, and an overall love for running was a little too strong when I signed up for the Chicago Lakefront 50K back in late January, but I'm pretty sure most runners (or anybody with a passion for anything, really) understand what it's like when you encounter an exciting new challenge and convince yourself that it's absolutely going to be amazing.

Yes, I ran my very first 50K this weekend, because apparently, 10 full marathons and 17 half marathons in the past 2.5 years (when I first started this running journey) simply weren't enough. Overall, it was a good experience, and one that I would be open to trying again someday--doing several things differently, of course--but for now, let's just say that it didn't come without its challenges.

Getting to that start line on that Saturday morning took a little extra effort. My mom, who has fully supported my running from the very beginning (though she always worries, like any parent), was nervous that maybe this one was a bit too ambitious, and taking place in a less familiar part of Chicago. We talked it over, though, figuring out all the smaller details, so I made arrangements to take the 7:13 train to Chicago on Saturday morning. Then I would take a cab to Lincoln Park, make it just in time for the 8:30 takeoff, and be done within the 7 hour course limit, with ample time remaining to grab a cab and take the 4:40 train back home. That was the plan.

31 miles within 7 hours. Yeah. Good one, Rosie :) It's funny to think about now.

And yet when my mom gently suggested that I might be cutting it close, I just shrugged it off. I rationalized that my average marathon time, on average, hovers around 6 hours, and the 50K is only five miles extra, so even though I've never done this before, I can finish in 7 hours easily...give or take a few minutes. After all, it's not like they're going to say anything if I come in four or five minutes past the cutoff time, right?

Four or five minutes past the cutoff time.

Oh, how I crack myself up.

As it turned out, the events of the day transpired much differently than expected, and while I ultimately returned to the finish line 31 miles later, it took a bit longer. The finish banner, porta potties, water tables, snack stations, and big blue tarp for our coats/bags had been packed up and taken away long ago, leaving behind only one recognizable sign that this was the same bright, bustling spot where I had begun the race with my fellow runners, 8 hours and 20 minutes earlier.

More on that later, though.

This wasn't like the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, where you are surrounded by 45,000 runners from just about every corner of the world, complete with over a million spectators to ensure that there isn't a single empty spot between the start and finish lines. Nope, the Chicago Lakefron50K is nothing like that. It isn't even like the small-town Wisconsin Marathon in May (one of my personal favorites), with 4,000 of us toeing the start line together and very little chance of getting lost.

I'm talking more about a very, VERY small group of certifiable nutcases who think that running 31 miles on a Saturday morning is fun. According to the final results, there were 182 finishers, so that was the approximate number of crazy souls at the start line (probably fewer than that, actually, because participants had an "early start" option if they got their butts to Lincoln Park on time). Based on past online results for the annual Lakefront 50K, they usually have over 200 finishers, but given the ridiculous Chicago winter we have had, I'm not at all surprised that more people had enough sense to not even sign up this year.

Well, in any case, there we were at 8:30 AM, repeating after the very enthusiastic race director as he said "There's no place on Earth I would rather be than here at this start line with all of you!" (Yes, he actually made us parrot that back to him. It was pretty awesome.) Then, after a few more minutes of nervous pacing and hand wringing, we were off.
Truth be told, it was actually a beautiful morning. The sun came out early and stuck around all day long, so aside from a bit of wind at certain spots, it was pretty much the ideal spring racing day--a nice break from the unpleasant temperatures we've been getting lately.
Not that we would have had the option of complaining about it if it was overcast, rainy, or even snowy, because the friendly race people were adament about adding this little line to the banner at the start line. See it? It says NO WHINERS ALLOWED...and there you have it.

Now, getting back to the actual actually started off very well. Friendly runners, smiling volunteers, and tons of adults, kids, and dogs along the course (again, it was a beautiful day to hang out by the beach or get in some miles with friends with the gorgeous, sparkling lake as a backdrop).
Best of all, the runners were all close together, and because it was so early in the race, not enough time had passed for the crowds to thin out considerably, as they would during the second and third loops.
Oh yeah, the loops. This race consists of three equal out-and-backs...or "loops," as they call them. You run a little over five miles out, turn around somewhere near the beach area, and hoof it back to the start line for about five more miles (approximately 10.3 miles total). Then you get to turn yourself right back around and repeat the same thing two more times.
The first loop was fantastic, for all the reasons I mentioned above. Never had to wait in line for a porta potty (another plus), and the water stations exceed those of absolutely every race I've done so far...mostly because they don't just contain water. They had Gatorade, small cups of Coke, pretzels, Twizzlers, cookies, olives, M&M's, Skittles...pretty much all the things you're not supposed to eat if you want to be thin :) To me, there was something slightly counterproductive about grabbing Oreos during a 31 mile run, but I truly appreciated the Coke and loved taking a few sips with my water. That little bit of sugar definitely helps provide a boost of energy.

Anyway, I finished the first loop with a satisfying time, I was on track to be finished in 7 hours, and as I texted my mom to tell her the good news, I was confident that this was going to be awesome. Getting off to a good start is always a great confidence booster, but I was quickly catapulted back to reality when the second loop began. The runners were much more spread out now, and I suddenly realized that the (approximately) two miles that we had to complete before making it back to the lakefront were very confusing. There weren't as many signs pointing participants in the necessary direction, and it occurred to me that I hadn't paid much attention to the route during the first loop. I didn't have to, because I was simply following the other runners. There was one point where I didn't know whether to go right or left, but thankfully, there were two runners coming up from behind me, so I let them pass and followed them as they went right (which was good, because if I had been forced to choose myself, I would have gone left).

So, I got back to the lakefront again, the prettiest and most stress-free part of the course, and everything was good. Cute dogs with tennis balls in their mouths, adorable kids telling their moms that this was "like, the bestest, sunniest Chicago day ever," and friendly runners (some were in the race, and some weren't) with constant smiles and words of encouragement as we passed each other. Seriously, I think runners are some of the coolest, kindest, most supportive groups of human beings in the world, because the vast majority of them care just as much about building up another member of the community as they do about fulfilling their own goals. But, that's another post for another day :)
Making it back to the start/finish area after the second loop was a less enthusiastic affair than after the first one (as evidenced by the text message I sent to my mom about this being the "longest effing loop ever"). With about 20.7 miles completed, I knew I had fallen behind my target pace and would now have a much harder time achieving that 7-hour finish. Plus, the finish line was adjacent to the turn-around point for those heading out for another loop, and this was when a lot of runners were finishing. They were getting their medals, enjoying the post-race snacks, and relaxing in the grass after successfully completing their 31 miles.
As for me, well, I had finished the first loop in 2 hours and 20 minutes, and the second loop in 2 hours and 40 minutes. Now I had exactly 2 hours to get through the final loop and officially be able to call myself an ultramarathoner. Not good. Not good at all, especially since I haven't quite mastered the concept of "negative splits."
Even so, this WAS what I signed up for, and as such, there would be NO WHINERS ALLOWED, so I took a quick bathroom break and headed out again for the last 10.3 miles. That, as it turned out, was where the real race began for me.
About half a mile into the loop, I made a wrong turn and got lost. What's more, there were no fellow runners nearby to bail me out of this oncoming mess, so there I was, staring at some scenery I did not recognize from the first two loops, and instead of turning back around, I just went farther into the unfamiliar territory. To make a long story short, I did eventually make it back to the course, crossing paths with some other racers who were inching closer to the finish line, so the relief set in as I started back toward the lake.
I had a feeling things were turning really sour when I passed a water/snack station (most of the food was gone, along with all of the pop), and the cheerful volunteer said to me, "Woo-hoo, only about 2 and a half miles to go!" I informed him that I was actually still on my way to the lakefront for one more lap, and after checking his paper, he confirmed that I did actually have about 8 miles to go. Fabulous. He said that his water stop would probably be gone by the time I came back around, since they were only allowed to have it out in the park for a certain amount of time, but he said he'd do his best to leave some water on the side of the path.
With that in mind, I started running toward the lakefront to finish what I started. This time, I was left with the very real possibility that I would not be able to complete this race...and even if I did, I probably wouldn't receive a medal. Then I remembered that the course was in a public park and on a public path for runners, so as long as I could avoid getting lost and find my way back to where I started, at least I would be a finisher. Medal or no medal, that was the ultimate goal.

I made it to the turnaround (although the water station down there was completely gone, as expected), bringing the total mileage to 25.9 miles--basically the distance of a full marathon. It was 3:20 PM at that point. The course was only going to be officially open until 3:30, and unless I magically transformed into a Kenyan of epic speed, there was no way I was going to cover 5 miles in ten minutes (and to be honest, neither would the Kenyan, had he actually been there). Oddly enough, I seriously contemplated e-mailing the race director from my phone and saying, "Hey, I'm at the final turnaround, I have five more miles to go, I'll be there as soon as I can, so I would reeeeeeeeeally appreciate it if you could wait for me. Please and thank you!"
Right, because that wouldn't have been weird, like, at all.
What can I say? When you're a runner who just completed 26 miles and had 5 more to go, thinking straight isn't exactly a simple task.
That said, I had told myself that I was going to run 31 miles today. Even if I was standing alone in the end, it would be enough that in my heart, I knew that I had made it through all 31 miles and refused to stop until I was done. All I had to do was avoid getting lost.
Just avoid getting lost. Yep, that was the kicker. That, and the unexpected discovery that after about 28 miles, my body was legitimately starting to shut down. That's the thing about the human body--even when pushed beyond what's expected, there comes a time it starts barking at you and shouting, "Dude, what the hell are you doing to me???" Okay, so it doesn't actually say that, but you get what I mean.
26 miles feels a little more second nature to me now, because I've done it so many times, so getting through that part of the race was fine (minus the whole "getting lost" thing). I was even able to hang on for about 2 miles after that, but what I had failed to understand going into this was that sooner or later, the body is just done, and no matter what you do, you can't reverse that. And I did try distracting myself, thinking about that really great movie I had seen the week before, the funny YouTube video my parents and I had watched the night before, quotable moments from my 5-year-old students, the cute puppies sitting on the beach, etc.... If my cell phone battery wasn't dangerously low at that point, I probably would have turned on some music and belted out a rousing rendition of "Let It Go," but instead, I was focusing more on the fact that I couldn't take a deep breath without fearing that I might have a heart attack. Oops. Not a good sign.
That's when I knew that the only way--literally the ONLY way--I was going to finish this was by walking the rest of the way. Three miles to go. I tried to break back into a jog a couple of times, but after about ten seconds, I had to stop. So, that was the deal at this point. Just keep moving forward, slow and steady, and get to that finish line in one piece. Of course, by now, it was about thirty minutes past the course cutoff time. Thirty minutes turned into forty five, and before I knew it, I was back in the Lincoln Park Maze, where it was oh-so-easy to get turned around, and the course had been officially closed for an hour.
I thought about the jacket and bag I had left at the start line, along with everyone else's personal items. There was nothing seriously valuable in it--mostly some dry clothes, a phone charger, and a bag of Wheat Thins--so it wouldn't be the end of the world if it was taken and donated to charity, but still, I thought about how pathetic it would be if I finished so late in the game that I couldn't even get my jacket back. Then I thought, You know what? Getting a medal and my jacket are the least of my worries right now. I'm going to be lucky if I even find the finish line--or the original location of it-- on my own! I considered cutting through the park and grabbing a cab back to the start line, and deep down, I knew that it was an option if I was in serious trouble, but was that really how I wanted today's story to end after putting in over 8 hours of work? My legs were still working, albeit very slowly, and I was less than three miles away, so as far as I was concerned, I was going to finish regardless.
Then mile 29-something came, and--you guessed it--I got lost again. (Most family members, and anyone else who knows me well, would agree that this is anything but shocking.) If I passed by that water station area where the volunteer had offered to leave me some water, I must have gone right through it without realizing. I remember searching for the two blue porta potties that were stationed there, hoping to use them as a guide, but they were obviously removed by the time I came through, so that plan wasn't going to work. Thankfully, I was able to turn around a lot faster this time, and after doing this same loop twice already, I remembered it at least a little bit better by now. (For the record, I did try hard to study it more closely during the second loop so I would be more prepared the third time around--really, I did--but I clearly hadn't retained much of it.) For instance, that bumpy patch of mud on the path, the ridiculously huge puddles that we all had to jump over, the bridge that led past Montrose Harbor...yep, it was all starting to come together now.
Then, just like that, I saw her, with a black and yellow medal hanging over her arm and a kind, supportive smile on her face. She introduced herself as the race director's wife (I later learned that her first name was Beth) and put the medal around my neck. As it turned out, she had also completed the race (many hours earlier, of course), so it was her medal, really. "It's totally fine," she said as I thanked her for waiting and told her she really didn't need to do that. "I have so many medals at home already--my medal hanger is lopsided by now!"
She walked with me past the spot where the official finish line had been before it was dismantled. I remember saying to her, "Wait. That's where the finish line actually was? It was literally in that exact spot?" I actually asked her twice (as if she didn't know the answer, being the race director's wife and all). After leading me to my coat and bag (and making sure I had a ride home), she offered me a hug and one final "Congratulations, Rose; you did it!" She also took the bottom of my bib number and promised to make sure I was still listed as a "Finisher" in the results, even though I wouldn't have an official time.

It had been a long day for both of us, it was almost 5:00 PM, and looking back on it now, I truly wish I had said more to this incredibly kind stranger who went out of her way to make sure the very last 50K participant was safe. It was a Saturday night. She had probably been there at the crack of dawn to help set up with the rest of the race crew. She had run 31 miles herself, surely she was exhausted, everyone else had gone home, and she probably would have loved to be back at her own place by this time. Still, she found a way to connect with a fellow runner who, despite being in a completely different place physically and emotionally, had the same dream for that day: to complete the Chicago Lakefront 50K.

We live in an imperfect world, and amidst the craziness of it all, we tend to focus on the negative. The world is full of people who are selfish, rude, inconsiderate, and just plain mean. There are people who murder, lie, cheat, and steal...and it's so easy to say things like "What is this world coming to?" I don't know the answer to that, any more than the rest of you, but this weekend, I came in direct contact with a person who was kind to somebody she didn't even know...JUST BECAUSE. "I would have never just left you here," she said. I have heard stories about dead-last runners who are cheered in to the finish by some truly decent people, but it hits you harder when you find yourself in that exact position, and someone is doing that for you.

Yes, Beth is one of those kind people, and really, she is one of many. I like to believe that the positive outweighs the negative, when we choose to see it that way. I hope she knows that what she did, no matter how simple it seemed, went a very long way, and ultimately, I guess all we can do is pay it forward in any way possible. Smile, support, share whatever you can, and know that in the end, being kind matters more than anything else.

So, to put it simply (although this insanely long post was anything but simple), this 50K was a new experience, a personal test that was every bit as mental as it was physical. RESPECT THE RUN, OR IT WILL HUMBLE YOU. Runners love to say things like this, but it's true, and honestly, it applies to everything we do in life. No matter how many times we've done something, and no matter how confident we might feel about it at first, anything can happen. The whole point is to be challenged by it, so you can improve and be stronger next time.

Completing this race taught me a thing or two. First of all, the whole "IF YOU CAN DO 26 MILES, THEN YOU CAN DO 31" mentality? If you have that in your head right now, like I did, just toss it out right now. It's the silliest "racer's myth" I ever heard. Five miles might be "just five miles" if that's all you're doing for the day, but running 31 miles at one time is no joke, and you can't treat it as "no big deal." After fighting through 26 miles, even one extra mile can feel like eternity, let alone five. That's not to say that it's impossible, but it definitely helps to be realistic and know beforehand what you're getting yourself into.

I also learned that while I had the mental attitude and the basic overall fitness level to pull off a 50K, it really does require more than that if you want to do your absolute best. I got a glimpse of genuine human kindness and experienced firsthand what it means to persevere through something really challenging, but would I want to re-live everything that I've written about so far in this post? Probably not, especially if a little more careful preparation could make the next experience run more smoothly.

Getting lost those two times on the course was part of the problem, yes,  and when it's an extremely small field of runners in an unfamiliar area, it suddenly becomes that much more difficult. If we're being completely truthful, though, I have gained a little weight recently, and those extra pounds are not exactly "a runner's best friend." I also have not been following a strict training plan lately. I love my races and still sign up for them whenever possible, and I am always able to finish, but when it comes to getting in some mileage, there's a lot left to be desired. My work schedule gets in the way, of course, but even on my spring break this week, I would do maybe 3-4 miles at a time and be "too tired" to keep going. These kinds of things add up, and by the grace of God, I managed to survive yesterday's 50K, but I know that certain things need to change if I want to attempt something like this again in the future. It will be important to pay more attention to my weight and overall training, because even though the determination of the human mind can lead us to great things, it's still best when combined with old-fashioned hard work. It's a lesson I'm still learning myself, every single day, along with everyone else in the world.

For now, I am beyond grateful for what my body allowed me to do this weekend, and I'm excited to continue doing what I love. Next up: The Bunny Rock Half Marathon in two weeks, the Illinois Marathon on April 26, the Wisconsin Marathon the weekend after that, and the Chicagoland Spring Marathon two weeks after that!

What's that? You're supposed to rest more in-between races? Oh. Right. Well, hey, my summer racing schedule is going to be a little lighter (hard to find local marathons during those hot summer months), so I guess I'll take advantage of the spring racing season while it's here! No better time than the present, right?

God love you if you've made it far enough to read these final sentences. Have an awesome week, everyone, keep working hard, and just have fun!

Celebrating the end of a long running journey with my buddy Ditka! Those four legs of his may have come in handy if he ran the 50K too :)