Within 100 days of finishing Born to Run, I was signed up for my first ultra. I remember sitting in Starbucks waiting for my husband to get out of a grad class at UNF. I entered all my information on the Everglades Ultras website and looked at the “Submit” button for several minutes before realizing that I needed to hurry up and click it before my husband could say anything about spending ~$200 to run a race I was not trained for.
In Over My Head
I had completed one marathon several years before deciding to run this 50k, and the longest training run I logged in the month before the Everglades was a measly 15 miles. My dad had just run his first 50k the month before (I paced him for 13 miles) and told me that I had to run at least 15 miles in one go if I wanted any chance of getting through 31 miles on race day. I don’t know how he calculated that, but I did finish the race under the cutoff, so the “run half the race distance” thing became my training method for every subsequent ultra I have run. I do not recommend this method unless you, like me, really enjoy trying to put yourself on the miserable brink of death during even the tamest of ultras.
The distance was not what caught me off guard at the Everglades 50k. I had no freaking idea what trail running was. The closest I had ever gotten to trail running was my cross country meets in high school that took place on golf courses. That was not what the Everglades course was at all. It had been a particularly wet year, so the course was extremely muddy.
Not just muddy, but mud with standing water. I remember being briefed at the pre-race meeting by Bob Becker about the amount of mud and water on the course. He said he had gone out and put in “workarounds” for the bad spots. I was just listening to all of this and thinking I was going to encounter a tiny puddle or two and the “workarounds” would just be a detour around the water or mud. Some of the muddy spots had a wood board thrown into them that you could kind of walk along and sink completely into the mud. I was actually angry when I got to the first muddy spot. You would never encounter something like the picture above at any road race. I didn’t know the first thing about trail ultras.
Trouble on the Trail
After I finally learned to accept the mud, I started having fun. I hadn’t run through mud giggling since I was a little kid. That’s the appeal of a messy race like this one!
I felt pretty good until (surprise) mile 15. My knee had been hurting a bit and it just popped and my leg collapsed. It was a shooting pain that I’d never felt while running before. I was certain that with 16 miles to go and that kind of pain that I was not going to make it to the finish line. I walked and hobbled alongside my dad for a mile to the next aid station. Aid stations are magical places where nearly any stupid predicament you’ve put yourself in can be reversed. I was so delighted to see M&Ms there. That’s another thing I was surprised to learn about ultras: you have delicious junk food snacks at the aid stations instead of just gross gels and gatorade. It’s way better than any regular marathon! I used some Biofreeze on my knee and grabbed a handful of M&Ms. My hands were covered in Biofreeze so the M&Ms tasted like mint and chemicals. It turned out to be some magic concoction that completely changed how I felt. My knee was suddenly completely fine, and I was full of energy and excitement.
In other ultras I have purposely eaten M&Ms with a little Biofreeze residue because of how good it made me feel at the Everglades when I was ready to quit. The rational part of me knows that it was probably just the rest and sugar that helped me recover, but I like my Biofreeze M&Ms when I’m feeling really down and defeated. It’s become a thing.
What I learned about tiredness and pain at the mid-point of this 50k was that it’s often just temporary. When you start spending hours out running pain and fatigue can be insignificant blips. I like that about long distances.
Painful Toes, Mosquito Swarms, and Stupid Tiny Rocks
Around mile 20 my big toes really began to hurt. I was afraid of what I would see when the shoes came off. The stories of runners losing toenails horrified me. I didn’t know if that was something I could handle. Losing baby teeth was terrifying to me as little kid, too. I really don’t like chunks of my body falling off. It felt like my big toes were hitting the top of the toe box in my shoes. Because I had run any distance like this before, I had not tried out any shoes past 15 miles.
My dad and I really slowed down after 20 miles which was right about the time the swarms of mosquitos came out. We were so undertrained and sluggish that we just couldn’t outrun the mosquitos. I kept getting bit on my butt and thighs. I hate getting mosquito bites on my butt.
The last 5 miles of the race really sucked. It was around this time that we turned onto Janes Scenic Drive. This was the final part of the course that took you into the finish. I couldn’t run much by this point because I was so stiff. My feet were on fire. I knew they were covered in blisters. Janes Scenic Drive was not muddy or filled with mosquitos, but it did have tiny pieces of gravel. Every tiny rock felt like a huge, sharp boulder under my feet. My dad was tripping on pieces of gravel that were maybe a quarter of an inch high. Obviously we were just walking and stumbling and not doing anything that even resembled running at this point. We spent the final three miles swearing at every single piece of gravel. Stupid tiny rocks.
I was so happy to finish! My time was around 9:30 which is horrendous but I was still happy about it. It left me with plenty to work with on my next 50k.
Right after the race I had to get in a car and drive a couple hours to my in-laws’ house near Tampa. I was already stiff from covering 31 miles of mud and stupid tiny rocks, but the car ride was undoubtedly the worst part of the whole experience. I’ve never felt a stiffness so painful. I very clearly remember thinking that I would never run an ultra again.
The next day I went home to Jacksonville. I had a gig as a long-term high school substitute and had to be at work on Monday. My feet were so torn up that I didn’t wear shoes to school. Instead I wore black Injinji socks so my toes could recover. That is technically against the dress code, but I could not squeeze my poor feet into any shoes. My toenails looked like they were going come off. Yep. Not ever doing another ultra. That Monday evening, one of my co-workers texted a race flyer to me that was advertising a 50k called The Angry Tortoise just outside of Jacksonville that took place the following weekend. I immediately signed up for it without hesitation because if I discussed it with anyone, they’d surely talk me out of it.
That is a glaring sign of someone with Ultra Signup Disease (USD). It cannot be cured.