Friday I was feeling pretty good: My nervousness was behind me and I was in high spirits, excited to run and finally experience Promise Land for myself. After many traffic delays, we arrived at the race around 7pm, set up camp, enjoyed the pre-race festivities (aka listened to Horton talk forever) and went to bed early. I slept well and Horton did a good job waking up the entire camp with his bullhorn around 4:30am. Pre-race was uneventful, though I struggled to eat my breakfast and get other things moving… I had a feeling that would come back to haunt me but tried to not worry about it. At 5:30am sharp we were off.
The start was pretty neat with bouncing headlamps lighting up the trail like fireflies. I’ve heard people describe the first climb of the day as being “in your face” steep... to me it felt more like a slap in the face: “Wake up, Kristen!” Ready or not, this race was happening. The 4,000 ft of elevation gain in the first 11-12 miles presented quite the mental battle in maintaining a positive attitude. I could have easily become discouraged early on, instead I decided to be patient and essentially told myself to “shut up and run.” The goal was to run an uncomfortably conservative pace to start… Anyway, I covered the first 4 mile climb in roughly 52 minutes and tippy top of the mountain in roughly 2 hours, positioned somewhere around 8th female.
During those first 2 hours, I noticed that my stomach was feeling unsettled but took some tums and figured it would pass. I chalked it up to the tough climb. Regardless, it’s not a good feeling to look at your fuel early in a race and feel queasy... Following the long climb was a nice section of gradual downhill and I set off to gradually catch a group of girls ahead of me. I made a concerted effort to eat more here but my body just wasn’t tolerating things like normal. At this point I was 2.5 hrs in and fighting a delicate balance between needing to push the calories and avoiding getting more sick.
After Sunset Field was a long stretch of technical downhill, which to me felt more like an obstacle course with the constant dodging of rocks and having to carefully plant each step. It was fun but mentally taxing, at which point I was thankful to have pretty resilient ankles. This downhill section (near mile 15) marked the "high point" of my race, yet somehow I just couldn’t comprehend running 19-20 more miles (the race is actually a solid 34 miles, not 31 as advertised). At this point I forced down my favorite flavored gel, mocha, and reminded myself to take one section at a time...
Aid station 4, Cornelius Creek, marks roughly the halfway point of the race. I went through this point right at 3 hours and was happy with my progress. After refilling my pack, I picked up a pretzel and half of a potato hoping those would sit better with my stomach... no such luck. At this point was a steady downhill on pavement and though I managed a sub-8 mile here, my nausea continued to worsen and before I knew it I was bent over in pain. A few minutes later I tried to eat again and immediately threw up, which of course wiped out what little energy I had. I proceeded to stumbled into the woods with hopes that the worse was behind me...
The next few miles were slow, but I was moving. I managed to get down some gingerale and a fourth of a PBJ sandwich at the aid station, not much. I was just starting to get back into a groove again somewhere near mile 21 when I felt a very sudden and sharp pain in my left ankle. I knew I had gotten bitten or stung by something as I screamed pretty loudly (ok maybe a few times? =), jumped into the air then sprinted a few hundred yards to get away. Ok, I'll admit to being pretty skittish. Either way, it certainly woke me up and left me feeling rattled/ paranoid. My ankle was hurting but I was too afraid to look down. I figured if it was something bad I was better off getting to the next aid station sooner rather than later. Thankfully we later discovered it had been a painful bee sting and nothing worse.
Around mile 25 I made it back to Cornelius Creek, which marked the start of the tough climb up Apple Orchard Falls. This was the lowest point of my day- After looking at the aid station foods with disgust I sat on a rock, inspected my ankle (red and swollen but fine) and contemplated whether to continue. I was facing the hardest climb of the day while running on fumes, dehydrated and with the sight of water making me sick… a DNF was really tempting and the old me probably would have done so without hesitation. But I knew that a DNF would also mean not finishing the Lynchburg Ultra Series and that my husband would be waiting patiently for me at the finish. Oh, and we had a wedding to get to... I opted to keep going, slowly at best, reluctantly acknowledging that the racing portion of my day was likely over. This section presented the worst mile splits I never hope to see again, ranging b/w 17-30 minutes per mile... yea...
It was a slow trek up… I got sick again and was light-headed so when I finally made it to the waterfall I took a seat to "enjoy it" for a minute before battling the final mile to the top (Reality: I didn't care about the waterfall at this point). Shortly before that a girl had passed and asked: “are you ok? Are you the dietitian girl?” I reluctantly said yea and admitted I was having major GI issues, at which point I just felt really embarrassed. I have to say, I was truly impressed with how kind and concerned the other runners around me were. Another mile later (mile 29) and I was finally back at Sunset Field ... all that remained was 4-5 miles of downhill. Easy right? It was nice to be moving again yet so sad to feel like you’re sprinting downhill while only managing 10 min pace! About half a mile from the finish Jordan was there faithfully waiting and taking pictures per usual. I informed him that he was to run with me to the finish (in his flip flops, after rocking a top ten finish of his own… yea, he’s awesome). Crossing the finish line was fun, certainly a huge accomplishment but more so after everything a huge relief...
In conclusion—My race certainly didn’t go according to plan and with that was a disappointment, especially since I still don’t know what made me so sick. Pushing through physical fatigue is challenging, but I’ll admit physical illness/GI issues is the one thing capable of knocking me to my knees. Only managing to consume maybe 500-600 calories in a 7 hour span certainly doesn’t make for productive or fun running, and it’s tough looking back on the results knowing I was fully capable of a much better placing. That being said, two years ago I would have scoffed at the thought of running 34 miles including 8,000+ feet of elevation gain… for me to START and FINISH this race is a huge accomplishment, regardless of what happened in between. I am proud of that and will most certainly be back again in pursuit of a much better experience... =D
Post-race : After grabbing some food to go, we quickly packed up and headed off to Richmond for a friend's wedding. The curvy and hilly roads only added to my nausea (it stuck around until the next morning) but we managed to make it in time... a quick turn-around and a long day but totally worth it! Congrats Ben & Ashley!
Kristen Chang is Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) and triathlete residing in southwest Virginia with her husband and dogs. Follow along as she shares favorite fueling recipes, general wellness and sport nutrition tips and stories from her athletic endeavors.
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