We hiked a bunch growing up as kids. Living within an hour drive of some of the best hiking areas in Maine (Rangeley, Carrabassett Valley), we were fortunate to get out to the AT often - including to support my grandmother’s through hike attempt in the late 90’s.
My dad especially has always been appreciative of nature. This is probably one of the things I am most thankful to have inherited from him.
The frequency of our hikes decreased as I became more involved with competitive running in high school. Fortunately after meeting Ashten my freshman year of college, we started hiking more frequently in the summers.
My first trail running experiences began after moving to the White Mountains after grad school. I instantly fell in love! With trail running I was able to combine the amazing views I loved that come with hiking & a more intense cardiovascular challenge. I friggen love pushing myself and there’s no quicker way to do that than to start running uphill.
Of course my background running competitively was eventually going to lead me to trail races. Racing is special. It allows me to go to a state that I can’t get to otherwise - no matter what place I am in. For better or worse.
For 3 years I enjoyed pushing myself in local mountain races. When COVID hit, most trails were “closed” early on so I switched my attention back to the track/roads and my familiarity with these types of workouts.
Ashten always laughs at all of my varying interests. Invite me to an outdoor activity and I’m in - especially if it involves getting my heart rate up. Writing this I am laughing too, realizing that this is also true within running itself. Give me the track, roads, and trails, during the same season - all at once. 5k? Half marathon on a road loop? 14-mile mountain race? 1 mile on the track? Yup. And I love connecting with all of these various types of runners.
So at the end of March 2021, with no recent or upcoming races in sight, I was asked to join a relay team for the Riverlands 100 - 6 weeks later. I certainly wasn’t going to say no.
This would be a 20-mile leg and set my record for my longest (mileage) run ever. I had done a few 2.5-3 hour mountain runs, but never more than 17 miles. 15-17 miles used to be our weekly Sunday long run my last 2 years of college, so I was certain I could at least complete it.
My biggest concern was that I was just starting to slowly ramp up my mileage from a winter of mostly nordic skiing. I was running 12-14 miles per week at the end of March - and only had 6 weeks to build up to running 20 miles at once.
Being a physical therapist has been great for my own training and certainly helped me stay injury-free the last few years. I’ve learned how to adjust my training according to various niggles that come up every once and a while. The only potential downside is that it also makes me a little more conservative when it comes to ramping up my own mileage. I know what it’s like to have to take a bunch of time completely off from running so I always tell myself I’d rather be running 20-30 miles per week than nothing at all.
Agreeing to join this team helped encourage me to push my boundaries a bit. I also had a couple of new patients that I started working with around this time that were also signed up for Riverlands - and it was fun to work up to a similar goal together (although one of my patients was doing the full 100 - so I couldn’t really relate to that haha).
I’ve become a big fan of mini-training blocks, especially for increasing mileage. It takes our bodies time to adjust to a new amount of load. It can take up to 3 weeks for an injury to pop up after an increased amount of loading.
That’s one of the most common training errors that I see with runners. They’ll go from not running at all to running 20 miles one week, feel fine, then assume they can jump up to 30 or even 40 miles the next week. All of a sudden they are running 60 miles a couple of weeks later and then wondering why their previous plantar fasciitis issues are back.
It can be a vicious cycle - and the best way to get out of this cycle is patience.
I like to prescribe a significant increase from what a runner had been doing by 5-10 miles for a week (adjusted based on their starting point). I’ll then have them maintain this mileage for 3 weeks, give or take a mile or two. If all is well after this 3-week block, we are much more confident jumping up again by another 5-10 miles for the next mini-block.
So that’s what I chose to do for my Riverlands prep. I had been in the 12-14 mile range throughout March, so immediately jumped up to 21/22 for the next 3 weeks, then into the upper 20’s for the 2 weeks prior to Riverlands.
I also emphasized building up my long run, which was only 5 miles or so in mid-March. Rather than add distance, frequency, and intensity to my training all at once (and significantly increase my risk of injury), I focused on progressing distance over frequency and intensity. This meant many days off from running, allowing my body to fully recover between longer efforts.
I decided to do two long runs per week. I went from 5 miles over the weekend to a 6 miler midweek. I followed this with a 7 mile run the following weekend and a 7.5 miler midweek. I followed this pattern eventually up to a 10-mile long run. For convenience, most of these runs were on the roads. I figured this would be okay after looking at the elevation map of the Riverlands course (about 2,000 feet of gain over the 20 miles, with no large hills). I did scrap a planned 12-13 mile run a week before for a 7-mile mountain run to get a little vert in. This was definitely eye-opening and did probably help me hold back a little more for the race, knowing my legs weren't quite in the shape that I thought they were in.
So a week out from the race I knew that there was nothing more that I could do to prep other than emphasizing sleep, nutrition, and hydration. I planned on taking a few days off, and running minimal mileage that week because the 20-mile run on Saturday itself would put me close to my current weekly mileage (I ended up with 28 for that week).
Race day came and I was feeling good! The race started at 6 am but I was leg 4 out of 5, so I followed along with the splits of legs 1-3 while I worked a bit at home. I couldn’t help but calculate the fastest time of the day for the relay - about 2:30. That was my first main mistake of the day.
We got to the course about an hour before I ended up starting. I had just enough time to find my teammates, get my bib on, use the john, and finalize what I wanted to bring with me during my leg. It was already getting dark (just after 7 pm) when I was making my final decisions. My options were to take my lightweight running backpack or just my waist belt that had one small pouch. The temperature was low 50’s and wouldn’t be getting any colder than upper 40’s that night and there were 3 aid stations out on the course. Between these 2 major factors, I opted to go with just the waist belt with a light, headlamp, a few gel snacks in the waist pocket, and carry one water bottle. I’d regret not bringing that pack - my second main mistake.
My teammate finished as I was putting on my pack - I shoved half a banana in my mouth and ran over to the start for the elbow bump handoff, starting out on the course.
I didn’t know what the net elevation change was for the out versus the way back - but figured if I was a little faster than 1:15 at the 10-mile turnaround I’d be on track to at least match the 2:30 fastest time of the day. That’d be 7:30 miles.
The first mile was on a wide ATV trail that was well packed and slightly uphill. My watch beeped the first-mile split: 6:46. Whoops. I thought to myself that I’d try to slow it down a bit - but I was feeling great (like the first 5% of any race).
The course changed to single track around 1 mile in. The footing was okay - some roots and definitely a few bigger rocks to hop over. The biggest challenge here was the tight turns and ducking under low-hanging trees while trying to watch my footing.
I’ve had some gnarly right ankle sprains. These started early in high school while running our cross country trails. I had one or two in 2016 when living out west and doing some light trail running, but none that were major from high school until 2017 when I picked up mountain running a little more seriously. So that’s always my biggest caution with running trails.
I came out of the singletrack around mile 2.5 or so and onto the ATV trail again, now about half as wide as before. My 2nd and 3rd miles had been in the upper 7-minute pace, so I figured I could pick it up slightly now that the trail was a bit more open.
At mile 4 I rolled into the first aid station. Having barely taken any water yet, I knew I’d be fine to wait to fill my water until the next station at mile 10. I asked the volunteers “Do I have to do anything?” and a man just asked for my number. After telling him I started right out again, hearing a woman say after I left “Yeah - slow down!”
It was still light enough to see without a light so I kept up a 7-minute mile pace until I got to mile 7 - when I figured it’d be better to turn the light on a little too soon than to regret placing a step wrong. I had just got the waist light the day before. I hadn’t done much trail running in the dark before and had heard that the lower direction of the light coming from your waist helps to produce shadows that improve your depth perception. It did seem helpful!
Miles 7-10 I focused on fueling and hydrating. This stretch seemed a little hillier, but I slowed to 7:49 pace probably more due to adjusting to running in the dark. From previous long runs around this temperature, I knew that I could get through 90-100 minutes without any sugar and about 80-90 minutes without any fluids. Obviously I wanted to take these in before those points - so around 50 minutes I started taking in more water - wanting it to be gone before I got to the halfway station where I could fill it up for the return trip. I started on a pack of gummies around 65 minutes and had them finished by 70 minutes when I knew I was getting close to the turnaround point.
I reached the aid station at 1:14. I threw away my trash, filled my water, downed a dixie cup of tailwind, and took off within about 20-30 seconds. My third major mistake...
The first mile after turning around included “a lot” of talking. I was crossing paths with many other racers and exchanging “good jobs” and “on your lefts.”
I was back on a low 7-minute pace and feeling good.
Mile 12 was where things first started falling apart. There was definitely more uphill in this mile. I crossed paths with hardly anyone. I heard some coyotes howling not far away. I noticed that I was starting to drink more water - and about a third of my recently filled bottle was already gone. The next aid station wasn’t until mile 16 or so, so I knew I now had to be a little conservative. I figured I’d take in another pack of gummies close to the 2-hour mark, which I was expecting to be around when I went through the aid station.
Miles 13-15 I started feeling my legs. I thought it seemed much hillier coming back than on the way out, and my pace had slowed to a consistent mid-8-minute pace. I knew I was losing the 2:30 total time pace quickly. I started thinking of my next goal of around 2:38. This seemed reasonable as long as I didn’t get hurt - so I put extra emphasis on foot placement and not falling.
Somewhere within the 15th mile I realized it was time to take the pack of gummies, so I opened it taking one at a time. Between eating and looking at my watch I lost focus of my footing for a moment, and crunch. I could feel my left ankle roll. Was it the end?
Anyone who’s rolled an ankle knows this immediate feeling - the absolute worst. Am I okay? Can I put weight on it? Fortunately the next step there was only mild pain, and then the next was practically fine. Dodged a bullet!
I was mad at myself for losing focus. That’s probably the toughest part of trailing running for me - having to be “on” mentally 100% of the time.
I finished the rest of my water to wash the last of the gummies down. I had to be approaching the aid station soon...
I could finally see the lights on the “Middle Earth” aid station tent and hear the generator. I came into this station wondering if the woman could tell how much I had slowed down. A man asked what I needed and took my water bottle to fill it up. Another struggled to pour a cup of tailwind from a pitcher, which I took in one sip. I was debating going for another cup but didn’t want to wait any longer on the pitcher. The final mistake.
I took off from the aid station much slower than on the way out, with about 4 miles to go and my time around 2:05. I had been hitting mid 8 minute pace pretty consistently the last 4 miles, and my 17th mile clocked 8:36. I did some math and figured if I could keep this pace I’d come in around my second goal of 2:38/39.
Then came the wall.
I think it originally corresponded with an actual uphill, but probably a minuscule one. My legs burned all over. The front of my hips started struggling just to lift my legs. I slowed to a power hike up one hill, quickly realized that this was more challenging on my hips, and returned to a running motion for another half mile.
Somewhere around this time I re-entered the single track section. The turns and roots and rocks that I breezed through only 2 hours before were treacherous. I quickly had no choice but to slow to a walk. I had to focus on each root - bringing my leg up and over these was a challenge. Once my toes caught an exposed root and I fell to the ground. I was lucky that I was going uphill at the time so I didn’t fall far. I resorted to trying to make it out of the never-ending single track alive. I continued to check my watch - showing a 17-18 minute mile pace - but now just to make sure that I was still actually moving forward.
I finally made it out of the single track with a little less than a mile to go, knowing the rest was mostly downhill. I was in a weird state of jogging then walking - my body not being comfortable with either.
And I was getting cold. I hadn’t anticipated having to walk. I knew that I am comfortable running in shorts and a t-shirt in 50-degree weather, so I decided to leave my light jacket in the running pack I left at the start. Regrets.
This now never-ending race finally had a light at the end of the tunnel: I heard my name being called and saw a small light up ahead. It was Ashten - walking out the course to come look for me. She had been following my splits online that were recorded at each aid station. She knew I should have been back at least 5-10 minutes ago based on my last split and was worrying. She figured I had literally broken a leg. I was happy to hear the relief in her voice.
Seeing her and knowing that I was close to the end was what I needed to get my body to start jogging again. I actually don’t know if I would have made it out of that last half mile otherwise.
I crossed the finish line in 2:51 (with an elbow bump tag) and my teammate took off into the night. My relay leg was over, but I was beginning to become fearful for my health. The race volunteers ushered me to an Adirondack chair right next to the finish. I couldn’t have gone anywhere else but the ground if I had wanted to anyway.
A new running friend Acadia was nearby, and she thankfully helped Ashten get me to that chair and they started to gather sleeping bags to throw over me. I was already shaking.
I had had an episode of severe dehydration & body shakes in college after our whole team got food poisoning. That incident I ended up in an ambulance to an ER with an IV in my arm (otherwise fine). At this moment I felt the exact same way. I thought I needed an ambulance. I was looking around for any medical team but saw no one. (I was later told they had gone out to help another racer around when I finished.)
Thankfully my crew was super helpful and forced down fluids. I continued this rehydration and shaking until an hour later when we were in the car traveling to my parents for the night and the shakes finally settled. I was mad at myself for letting my body get out of control. I swore I wouldn’t do any long races again anytime soon.
That thought only lasted for another hour while I lay on the couch with my feet up continuing to drink. Once I shoveled down a big bowl of Szechwan chicken in bed I was able to recognize my mistakes and figured I’d be okay in the future if only I could learn from these hydration mistakes. I’m confident that my food intake before/during the race was fine - I just severely underestimated my hydration needs. I had been used to going out for 10-12 mile road runs without much emphasis on hydration during the run.
I continue to have more and more respect for ultra runners in general. It takes a whole different mindset to commit to pushing yourself for duration over intensity.
I saw my patient who attempted the full 100 two days later. He stopped around the ¾ mark and had yet to really recover his sleep and hydration. I was already mostly recovered, but I could tell he had some mental scars. I tried to be as encouraging as possible and suggested more sleep and water intake. He was talking about quitting racing ultras altogether - which I am sure is a common theme among ultrarunners when dropping out of races and during the next few days.
His mindset shift when I saw him again exactly a week later was incredible. He walked into my office and immediately started telling me how he is going to be the first person to sign up for the full Riverlands ultra for next year. I laughed out loud - hard. He laughed too. We spent the rest of the session talking about how crazy ultra runners are and the ebbs and flows of long trail running.
If you stuck through this whole story - props to you! Hopefully you can take something away from it - whether the importance of hydrating during longer efforts or the training concepts when trying to increase quickly for an upcoming goal. Or perhaps now you’ll try your first long trail run or go set a mileage record for yourself.
Just remember to drink more water than you think you’ll need. :P