Promise Land was not my first ultra. But I knew from looking at the elevation profile -- and from the far-away look in the eyes of ultra vets when they talked about it -- that it would present a significantly tougher challenge than what I'd faced before.
And sure enough, Promise Land race was a day of ups and downs -- not just topographically, but physically and mentally too. So here are some of the highs and lows of a roller coaster experience, in pretty much chronological order.
High -- Camping out!
I admit it, I love camping out -- every new piece of backpacking gear I buy gives me excuse to set up my tent in the side yard. So what better way to spend the night before the race than in the company of hundreds of other ultra runners and ultra runners-to-be inhabiting tents of every description? Even better -- a nice contingent of CATs were able to stay in the same area and chill before and after the event.
High - A predawn start and an epic first climb
Thanks to expert advice from a slew of vets, the beginning of the race held no surprises. And the first climb up the mountain was surprisingly smooth -- I started with an easy jog for the first mile or so and then downshifted to a solid hiking pace, keeping my breathing under control as I went. And what cooler way to start up the road than in the reflected glow of hundreds of headlamps?
Low - Sore quads already?
The long, gradual downhill after cresting the mountain would normally be another high point. But a nagging note of worry had already crept in, as my quads started aching under this very easy load. I began to worry that my illness-imposed spotty training in April was going to catch up to me. More on that later...
High - Trilliums and fiddlehead ferns
Hillsides blanketed with trilliums and thick stands of ferns beginning to unfurl for the spring. It's good to run in the woods. And did I mention I saw a Scarlet Tanager, too?
Low - Sunset Meadows and the down the mountain
By the time I made it up to Sunset Meadows I knew that my legs weren't quite in the game. And the drop down to Cornelius Creek confirmed it. I'm not a great descender (see Terrapin Mountain for more on that), and the rocky route down was complicated by shooting pains in my quads with each step. Add in the frustration of being passed by dozens of runners and I found my patience wearing thin. Two stream crossings with their jolts of cold water provided a bit of relief.
High - Aid stations
All the aid stations were well-organized and enthusiastically manned, but Cornelius Creek gave me a chance to regroup, refuel, and re-energize after a demoralizing descent. And being the old road runner that I am, I welcomed the stretch of gravel and pavement that followed it to pick back up on my pace and recapture a few spots in the standings.
High - Grinding it out, miles 20-27
Was it just a strange coincidence that we ducked back into the woods right at mile 20 (the infamous "wall" of the marathon)? Despite the psychological barrier, I felt like I did some of my best running through this stretch. The mix of terrain and surfaces kept things interesting, and I was able to keep a good consistent pace while mixing up my running and hiking, all the while keeping fueled up and hydrated. The further I ran the more I gained confidence to tackle the final climb and the final descent to come.
Low (Very Low) - The Apple Orchard Falls Trail beatdown
I didn't have any illusions about conquering the climb back up to Sunset Meadows. Just put my head down and keep moving. Get to the top.
But as soon as I started up the trail from Cornelius Creek the wheels started falling off. Sore quads turned into cramping quads. Every step up over the rocks on the trail felt like a ticking time bomb was about to go off in my legs. Soon I didn't have a choice -- walk 100 steps, stretch the quads, walk, stretch, rinse, repeat.
This time-killing strategy held off the cramps, but in my preoccupation with that and my otherwise miserable state I neglected to keep fueling. By the time I reached Sunset Fields, after well over an hour of climbing, I was cold, and flailing to keep moving forward. It was then that I remembered Horton's advice from the night before - "Don't stop at Sunset Meadows - keep moving and get down the mountain!" I grabbed a Coke and followed his advice.
Low - QUADS!!
Eventually I was over the top and descending the single track. The crisis had passed, but I can't say I was a happy camper - it felt like a gang of dwarves was beating on my legs with ball-peen hammers. Finally the gravel road and some relief. At least I knew that the road would level out and the pounding would stop soon.
High - Finishing strong
After being passed several more times on the final descent, I dug in. No more! As the road's grade began to ease my pace started to pick up and my legs loosened up a bit. A quick glance back saw two more runners looming in the distance and something kicked in. My stride got better, speed picked up, and soon I was overtaking some of those who'd passed me earlier. Finally the legendary brown squirrel was on my right and I ran down the grass all alone to cross the line and accept my handshake from the great man himself.
High - What a fun day!
Despite over 8 hours in the woods, I felt surprisingly good at the end. A hot cup of tea and a change of clothes and things seemed fine. No blisters, what was left of my cramps faded quickly, and no damage worse than a little inconvenient chafing.
And realistically I did about what I expected. Earlier in the spring I'd been hoping for around 7:30, but after a pretty much shot
It's been fun dipping my toes into the trail running world, and Promise Land sealed the deal for me. It's a rugged sport, but one that lets you challenge yourself in a lot of different ways - physically and mentally. And I can't think of a better place to do it than at this challenging event!