Hadn’t raced in a year. Woefully undertrained. Coming off a weekend on the road with very little sleep while crewing/pacing Steve in his 100-miler. Sounds like a great time to run a 50-miler of my own. Did I mention the undertrained part? My “training” consisted of essentially starting from scratch in June, running 5-6 mile runs a couple days a week and throwing in 15 miler in September and another in October. I could write it out in its entirety on a napkin. But I love the Autumn Leaves 50mi/50k race. And so four days after watching Steve do his thing, and three days before the starting gun went off at Autumn Leaves, I signed up.
Autumn Leaves is a 6.25 mile loop with an out and back section at the halfway point. 8 laps. Three aid stations per lap, so there’s very little need to bring any of your own fuel. Lap 1 started in the dark as it does every year. I ran a nice slow pace with a group of Marathon Maniacs, but that ended at mile three when it became evident that I may hear something like “49 to go!,” “48 to go!,” “47 to go!” every mile. No way. I pulled ahead a bit when they stopped at the aid station and enjoyed the nice quiet, dark morning as I ran the trail section of the loop (the final 1.25 miles of each loop). A 65 minute first lap, right where I wanted to be.
Laps 2 and 3 were fairly uneventful. The sun came up but it was cloudy, making for perfect weather conditions in the low 50’s, though I was a little concerned about how cold my hamstrings were, especially given that I was quickly approaching mileage I hadn’t run in 14 or 15 months. But two 66 minute laps were in the books and although I was starting to feel a little uncomfortable, I was happy with the pace I had been able to keep.
I learned a lot from watching Steve suffer up close the weekend before. One of the big things was the value of Hammer Endurolyte pills. I started popping them early and often and continued to do so throughout the day. Even though I was increasingly uncomfortable from this point on, I never cramped and I continued to sweat. My stomach was an issue though. No matter what I ate or drank, I couldn’t get it to calm down. My gels were making it worse, so no more of those. Nothing on the table looked at all appetizing, and the Coke that I had started drinking around 8am wasn’t doing any good either. Then I remembered Steve’s advice to me during the week to go with ginger. I pulled into the aid station near the start of Lap 4 and asked if they had any ginger ale. They did! I downed a cup of it (it was gross, I hate ginger ale) and within minutes my stomach had returned to normal.
I finished Lap 4 in 73 minutes, and at every aid station I was now grabbing a quartered turkey sandwich, orange slices, watermelon and a cup each of water, nuun, and ginger ale. But I was really hurting at this point. I knew I had blisters on multiple toes, my quad muscles were becoming tender and my ankle and hip joints were becoming increasingly sore (surprisingly, my knees were still alright). But during Laps 5 and 6 I unfortunately allowed myself to begin focusing on all that was hurting and that took me to my darkest place of the day.
I started running less and walking more, not because I didn’t want to run but because I just didn’t have the will to anymore. I knew if I could just get to the end of Lap 6 that things would get better, as I had a friend waiting to run the final two laps with me, but this only served as sufficient motivation for short stretches. I finished lap 5 in 81 minutes and Lap 6 was my slowest of the 32 laps I’ve now run on this course, at 88 minutes.
My wife had arranged for my friend Dave to come out and run the final two laps with me the previous afternoon and I’m so glad she did. Dave is a super gentle guy, but put him in a race atmosphere, even one he’s not running, and look out. The competitive juices kick in quickly. He was the perfect pacer on this day, just the right combination of understanding, encouragement and kick in the butt. We finished out Lap 7 in 78 minutes and I was still taking water/nuun/ginger ale/oranges/watermelon at every stop, but that was it. I was a little concerned about my calorie intake but more concerned that I had another 6+ miles to go and every part of my body was screaming at me to shut things down.
Just past the Start/Finish line were the drop bags and as I concluded rubbing out my legs one last time I glanced at the big clock and saw that it read 8:44:00. I could still break 10 hours but it would take a 75 minute lap. Dave told me to start running and without much sense left in me I did so. I don’t ever recall being in so much pain as I was on that last lap. My knees were now hurting badly, as was everything else below my waist and as we went up and down over a couple of rollers it was all I could do to hold back tears. But we ran. We hit the turnaround and headed for home, bypassing the final aid station. It would be close. The trail section remained and I had 15 minutes to break 10 hours.
The trail section the final few laps was a killer. Uneven terrain, up and down – just brutal on already tired and sore muscles and joints. The minutes ticked by and Dave kept pushing, even getting ahead of me by 40 or 50 yards a few times. We came off the trail and into a parking lot, which led to the final few hundred yards (uphill) to the finish line. As I crossed at 9:58:42 my wife and kids were waiting for me and I needed a few minutes to gather myself.
It’s not the fastest I’ve ever run this course (8:55 in 2013), but given the struggle that it was and remembering where I was in my fitness just four months ago, it may be the most satisfying as a personal accomplishment. This is a great race and a great course for anyone looking to push beyond the marathon distance. It has great organization, great support, there’s a 50k option as well (5 laps) and all the photos taken are free (imagine that!).