I arrived in Florida on Thursday. I opted to have an extra day of preparation as my last races with extensive travel involved didn't go as well as I'd hoped. We landed in Orlando and we all made the nearly two hour trip to Jacksonville. The weather was beautiful and an extreme contrast from Michigan's notoriously frigid winters. I felt so encouraged by the outpouring of support I received, especially from my clients/athletes who were so thoughtful. I felt hungry to compete and felt the rumblings of my competitive spirit, but for the first time in a long time, I wasn't hyper focused on the race.
On Friday, we woke up and did some shopping. We ate a small breakfast and went for a shakeout run. I went 4.5 miles at a comfortable 6:40 pace. I felt great and I felt confident enough in my training. I started to get slightly nervous following the run, but I was less nervous on the eve of a race than I had ever been before. Maybe I developed a deeper self belief, or maybe I've been able to look at the bigger picture more, but it's probably a mixture of both.
I woke up just before 5 AM on race day. I was well-rested, but I was not hungry whatsoever, which made me nervous considering I would be tackling nearly 32 miles in the next few hours. We made the 30 minute drive from Jacksonville to the race location. The atmosphere was incredible with hundreds of racers, spectators and volunteers. Floodlights dimly lit the start and aid station areas. I found a bit more inspiration because it reminded me of the videos I watched on YouTube about the North Face Endurance Championships. Those specific videos made me fall in love with ultrarunning, and they were ultimately the reason I was at the event. I didn't feel nervous; I felt a deep sense of belonging despite never racing an ultramarathon. I’ll never forget that moment, because I truly felt at peace. For the next few minutes nothing else mattered.
Once the gun went off, I knew there were about a half dozen runners who were aiming to run similar times - all of which were under the current course record. I left the runner who would eventually come in third at the 1 mile point and ran the next 31 miles completely solo. As expected the miles were clicking off easily, at first. With the exception of a 6:50 first mile, I ran all in the 6:20s or low 6:30s for the next 24 miles. The miles were clicking off easily, but as the sun continued to rise, the heat was becoming omnipresent. I hit my first minor setback coming out of an aid station at about mile 21. My hand bottle stopped working and I spent that whole mile trying to extract water from it, as the heat and humidity were starting to worry me. I tucked into my shorts and left it with my crew at mile 25.5. When my hand bottle broke, that was the first moment of adversity I faced during the race. It's irrational how frustrated it made me. I think this was the first indication of the elements taking a toll on my body. I came through the marathon point at 2:47, not bad considering the muddy trails and humidity with more than 8k still left to race.
Miles 28-32 would present a challenge to me that was unlike any physical challenge that I've ever faced. My arms were cramping. I hadn't consumed any gels/nutrition/electrolytes after about 30k, and it was coming back to haunt me. The sticky humidity and heat, now in the mid 70s, was nauseating me. It's quite the contrast from January in Michigan. After I completed 28 miles, the whole left side of my body started to cramp. I wasn't bonking or hitting the wall - I was spent and not used to that type of late race strain. I split 7:30s and 7:20s for the final 4 miles and they felt like an eternity. I knew I had 12 minutes on the second place runner, Shawn Webber, with 10k left and I was doing the math to figure out every possible scenario.
I had heard earlier in the race that my training partner, Dan Sowa ran a great race to win the 10k and he certainly lifted my spirits on that final 10k. I crossed the finish line in pain, but there was no sense of disbelief because I knew from before the gun went off that I could push the pace and make it work despite my lack of experience in ultramarathons.
This win felt great, but it's by no means the answer I'm searching for in life. It wasn't the finish line for me. In fact, the finish line of the Hellcat 50k represented the start of new beginnings and outlooks on life as well as a kick off to my ultra running career. As for what's next on the race schedule, I don't know. But I do know that my drive to become a better person and a better runner is stronger than ever. The rest of it is out of my control.