Friends that train together stay together
The plan was to take the year off of ultras. I was burned out from training for and running my first 50 miler last May (the Ice Age 50 in Wisconsin) and was looking forward to my first summer in the Upper Valley not spent running very long circles all day at least once a week. That is, until I met Leah.
Leah moved to the Upper Valley this time last year, and we met in the winter through the Wednesday Pub Run. Being a fellow late twenty-something Midwesterner with a flexible work schedule, an active dog, and a similar relationship and history with running ultras, we hit it off.
After a snowy February pub run up Moose Mountain, Leah, John Walthour and I were standing around talking about races, and they were both considering the Vermont 50. Having run the 50k twice, I gave my two cents about the course and left it at that. After the snow melted, Leah sent Anne Peters and I a message: “Just signed up for the Vermont 50M! Who’s with me?” Anne was going to be 9 months and four days pregnant on race day, so that left me. I signed up right after having a successfully not-awful time at the Mt Wash Road Race.
And then I procrastinated on training until around mid July, taking the “I’ll just run as much as I feel like it” approach. I realized that I didn’t have the drive to do my long runs so I made the decision to add some accountability and invite Leah. Normally, when I train, I do most of my runs alone — especially my long runs because 1) I don’t know a lot of folks who want to wake up early on the weekend to run for six hours, and 2) I have always been pretty insecure about my pace and 3) a lot can happen out there including crying, self-doubt, emergency poops and other icky stuff, and generally not being the best most-likable version of myself.
That Saturday, we planned to run 20 miles. It was about 95 degrees out and 100 percent humidity. It was awful and slow and I almost cried around mile 15, but we made it. And after getting through that, I realized we could handle running through most anything together.
The runs became easier. Leah invited John along and having a third person there turned out to be even more fun. Interesting conversation filled hours of running much better than silence. We shared the burden of planning routes and dropping jugs of water. On one particularly beautiful summer morning run with Leah and our friend Keriann, we ran a big loop around Lake Mascoma and jumped in afterwards all in time for work — summer bliss in a nutshell.
No, it’s usually not fun to set the alarm extra early to fit in a run, or to run through Awful Weather, but having friends around made it a lot better. Normally, looking back on a race involves thinking a lot about the actual race day, but this time it’s looking back on a whole summer of friendship and shared experiences.
But I will talk a bit about the race.
Well into our summer of training together, Anne asked us if we were planning to run the race together. In opposing unison I answered “definitely not” while Leah answered “yeah!” In my opinion, training together provided the support and encouragement to “just get through” an enormous amount of miles week after week, but the day of the race was for running my personal best. I was concerned that running as a group would mean running at the lowest common denominator. During a race this long, everyone has their highs and lows and I thought if we ran together, it was unlikely they would happen at the same time. With a race cutoff time of 12 hours, we had to average 14.4 minute miles. During our training long runs, we never came in that quick. We agreed to run our separate ways in good humor.
The day before the race, I was freaking out. I headed over to Leah’s where we agreed to meet for a shakeout run before heading to packet pickup. I broke down on her porch — a full on taper tantrum. As I sobbed, she put an arm around me. She understood the unique mix of stress and excitement and pressure that comes with running a race like this, and I was so thankful. Once we were running, I realized I was mostly just antsy to run — a great place to be the day before running fifty miles.
The day of the race we found each other in the pitch black pre-dawn, bursting with nervous energy. We snapped a quick group picture and then lined up at the start. Ok, here we go — ready to run our own races. The anxiety I’d felt at a low level for months and at a pressing I-might-nap-or-cry-at-any-moment level for the past two days melted away as I started my watch. Less than fifty miles to go. This is it: I’m finally doing the thing.
I settled into my own thoughts but I could hear Leah just behind me chatting other folks. A couple easy and familiar miles flew by. We came up over a rise where the early golden sun lit up the leaves of huge maple trees and I could hear Leah just behind me exclaiming how glorious it was! And that’s kind of how things went for the first hour or so — Leah just behind me, but not necessarily running “together”. I tripped on dirt and Leah took the lead while I brushed myself off.
The next miles I mostly remember my feet hurting. Luckily, my crew would be at the Skunk Hollow aid station at mile 12 with backup shoes. I spotted Leah on the rolling dirt roads past scenic farms between miles 12 and 18 (the prettiest, in my opinion). I was feeling great, and seeing her ahead motivated me to push a little harder to catch up. We ran together through the next two aid stations. Then with finding a porta potty on my mind, I pulled ahead a bit before Margaritaville, and by the time I re-emerged hobbling (sitting == bad) she was loading up on snacks at aid station.
She was ready to “walk + snack” and I didn’t want to be left behind so I quickly grabbed a sandwich and followed her lead. We hiked up some hilly dirt roads and talked about some of the less-great ways we were feeling now. I pulled ahead around mile 28 as I convinced myself to “just shuffle”. Shortly thereafter, one of my calf muscles started cramping, plus the mountain bike trails slowed me down significantly. I was cursing the roots and rocks that almost got me, and kind of moaning in pain to myself as I battled with all the thoughts that tend to creep up during these kinds of experiences. “You have to keep going.” “Why, this is so stupid and arbitrary. You’re not even going to win anyways… What’s the point?” “Here’s a deal: You never have to do one of these thing again, but you do have to do this one.” “I know you’re lying.” “Yeah, probably, but just try to believe it and keep going.”
Finally I met up with Doug mile 41. Doug and Irene came up from Boston to pace and crew me and generally be the best friends I could hope for. I nearly cried when I saw him. With him running behind me, my dark thoughts went away, but it still hurt. We picked up the pace and even passed a few people. Around mile 45 I heard this excited outcry from some switchbacks away through the woods: “Oh my GOD, AMANDA!” For about three minutes I thought having Leah on my heels might be exactly what I needed for a strong finish. I kicked up the pace but when she easily caught up to us, I had to let her pass — she sounded fresh and energetic and I just didn’t have it in me to keep that up.
The rest of the race I “hung in there” with Doug and enjoyed the accomplishment of already having run 45 miles and still being fit enough to keep going. Heck, I PR’d my 50k and marathon! Mentally, I felt dazed and confused and on the verge of puking. At half a mile to go I saw my friends waiting for me and I absolutely sprinted. I came through the finish with a joyful jump.
In the end, while we agreed to run our separate races, Leah and I essentially ran this one together, and it was great. Rather than run at the “lowest common denominator”, having her there motivated me to run a bit faster than I would have otherwise. I think entering these things with a feel-free-to-run-faster-when-you-feel-great agreement is a great way to go, and I’d totally do it again next time.
I’m extremely proud of all of us: Leah with her amazing finish, John for completing his first 50 miler, and myself for a really strong first half of the race and for finishing well within the cutoff (and in fact 4 minutes faster than my previous 50 miler). I’m also proud to say I was one of only 50 women who competed in this race, compared to 124 men (the 50k was much more evenly split). But I also know I can do better, and I’m already excited to get back on the training rollercoaster, especially if I’ve got some pals along for the ride.