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My First 50 Mile Ultramarathon

I got the flu 3 days before. The weather was hot as hell. I became dangerously ill during the race. Things went to complete $hit. But even though part of my body quit on me, my mind did not. I harnessed the power of my mind, and used my half a year and 1,400 miles of training, to successfully complete the Tejas Trails Rocky 50 (miles) in Huntsville State Park (TX) this past Saturday, February 11. It was ugly. It was beyond brutal. And it was a memory of a lifetime, and quite the learning opportunity as well. But clearly, my last post jinxed the hell outta me!!

Here is the PG cliff notes version:

I tested positive for Influenza A on Wednesday. Three days later on Saturday I had my 50 mile race. The low was 72 degrees and the high was about 85. It was humid as hell. [NOTE: None of these facts are remotely good for endurance running by any means.]  I ran about 20-25 miles when I realized my stomach was having issues (massive understatement about having “issues”). I muscled through to about mile 33 where the nurse forced me to sit out for 30-40 minutes in an attempt to cool down and recover. Despite being (literally) sick to my stomach, I took off again for the remaining 17 miles. I walked about 97% of those 17 miles because I was so sick that my body would not absorb any water or food and everything I tried to consume would pass right through me.  I was unable to even drink water let alone get any calories in my body to replenish my nearly 5,000+ calorie deficit. The 50 miles took me 13.5 hours total, but I finished. Immediately following, I went to the ER and got an IV and my gut imbalance got better and I was released to go to the hotel at 11:30pm.

Here is the dirty (PUN INTENDED) version for those brave enough to read on (Sorry, Scott – he’s gonna kill me for disclosing the dirty details):

So as mentioned, I headed into the big weekend not only sick, but sick with Influenza A. You know the one: fever, body aches, congestion, etc. But let me rewind a few days. Poor Rex crashed in the middle of the Super Bowl (6 days pre-race) and upon visiting the urgent care clinic mid-game, he tested positive for the flu. Meet Patient Zero. Fast forward to Tuesday, where I felt pretty crappy and made a morning doctor’s appointment. It felt like a bad cold coming on, so I begged for a steroid shot and my wish was granted. They told me that I’d feel like a new person the next day and to call if I didn’t. Sure enough, I felt even worse Wednesday morning. So I called them as instructed, got a prescription for a nasal spray and inhaler, and continued with my day. By afternoon, my back was aching and I knew something wasn’t right. I called the doctor again to see if I could drop by for a quick nasal swab for a flu test. I just wanted to rule it out so that mentally I could convince myself I was getting better and just imagining these symptoms. As I sat in the exam room, waiting for my results, my three children ran around screaming and acting like wild apes. I suddenly felt even more sick and exhausted and laid down on the table. Knock, knock, and in comes my doctor with a sad look on her face. “You tested positive for Influenza A,” she said. Devastation immediately hit me. She knew about my race, and knew I would do anything to run. She gave me clearance to attempt the 50 miler if and ONLY IF my fever was gone for the 24 hours immediately prior to the race. This meant starting at 6am on Friday, my fever had to be gone. I left very discouraged, and drove straight to the pharmacy to pick up my Tamiflu, hoping that because I did have the flu shot and discovered the diagnosis fairly quickly, the medicine might do the trick.

Once we got home, Landri began whining that she didn’t feel well. I had also noticed that Ty seemed more whiny than usual as well. Reluctantly, I got the thermometer, and to my horror, discovered a 102 fever on Landri and a 100 fever on Ty. You know what this means. Long story longer, we had yet another doctor’s visit, and subsequent pharmacy visit. And as some of you might have heard, there was a flu outbreak in our area and the pharmacy sold out of Tamiflu and only had enough for Landri. It was of course after hours by now and because it had been called in for us by the pediatrician, I didn’t have a paper copy of the prescription, but now still needed one more bottle of Tamiflu for Ty Baby. So off we went to another pharmacy. I think it was about 7pm by the time we finally were all home with all of the correct medications. And at this point, despite our $905 per month school district health insurance premium, we had spent exactly $900 dollars on the flu. This figure does not include the cost for the actual flu tests for any of us, so I expect several more bills to arrive shortly. I also had unfortunately spent the entire day driving to and from doctor offices and pharmacies and have spent zero time actually resting so that I could perhaps recover and recuperate.

One of the best parts about marrying Scott was getting his parents as my in-laws. For those of you that know them, you will understand when I say that they the most incredibly loving and giving people in the world. Glenda came over the next day to help me manage my sick brood of children so that I could get some rest and regain my strength. She is such a saint!!! And I’ll be darned – it worked. My fever vanished mid-morning on Thursday, breaking my 24 hour deadline by a good 20 hours or so! I started to feel decent, and my biggest complaint was that nagging back ache.

Friday morning came, and I still felt decent (with back pain), and I packed up the car. Scott came home early and I left to pick up my friend Christy and head to Huntsville. We got into town, ate dinner, unpacked and watched TV in our hotel. Christy made us some really awesome shirts (see pics below), and I dozed off to sleep.

We woke up around 4:30am, got ready, and headed to the park. We picked up our packets, took a quick photo, got our drop bag ready to go, and made it to the start just in time. The clock began in the dark at 6am sharp. The race started off slowly, the trail was more or less single track (or at least fairly narrow) at the start. You had to pay very close attention to your footwork, not only because of the dark, but because of the large protruding tree roots that caused quite the tripping hazard. I wore my Night Runner 270 foot lights and I felt totally fine, was having fun, and was very excited. All was well. Soon the sun began to rise, and the sky slowly began to lighten. The race was three 16.67 mile loops. We completed the first one in 3 hours and 24 minutes, stopping back at the start where our drop bag was, reloaded on a few items, and continued onto loop #2.

The second loop was where I began to struggle. I had brought my own Tailwind (a sports drink that I have used before without issue in other ultras) in my hydration vest. I had told myself that because of the heat, I needed to drink AT LEAST one pack per loop (2 liters). I was doing a great job meeting this goal, but somewhere around 20-25 miles, I noticed some discomfort in my stomach and some bloating. Pretty soon, I had to stop to go potty in the woods fairly often (every 15-20 minutes maybe?) and eventually Christy and I split up about half way through the race. There was no sense in her standing around waiting for me to repeatedly desecrate the woods. And I have to make a quick side note that 1) the energy it takes to go potty in the woods (squatting) is tough on the legs after 25 miles, especially when you are doing it so often, and that 2) this course doesn’t easily lend itself to this as the brush is quite sparse and one must go a significant ways off trail to find privacy. The heat wasn’t helping either. I was so thirsty and kept forcing myself to drink my Tailwind in an effort to stay hydrated, especially since I kept having to go $hit in the woods so often. But after a little while longer, my body spoke to me. Sometime after mile 25 or so, the Tailwind no longer tasted good. It suddenly didn’t seem to quench my thirst anymore. I felt it fermenting in my belly and causing the severe bloating. I looked like I was 8 months pregnant, belly swollen and distended, rock hard to the touch, and full of very sharp, cramping discomfort and pain. I knew I needed to quit drinking the Tailwind and was glad that my body had spoke to me and that I was able to hear it, and respond by switching to water, which I did at the next rest stop. Unfortunately, this was after I had already consumed at least 3+ liters, maybe even more. I didn’t know it at the time, but the damage had been done and the only way to correct the problem would take a visit to the ER after the race.

I began to notice an odd cycle happening with my body. I would drink water or eat food, and my belly would bloat to what I called “full bloat” (aka 8 months pregnant looking) and be in severe pain. I would then have gut wrenching experiences off-trail (if you get my gist). My stomach would then return to “half bloat” as I called it (aka like 4 months pregnant) and I would experience a small amount of relief. There was still pain and discomfort, but it was slightly more tolerable and I was able to still maintain a slow jog. I would then attempt to drink water so as to hydrate (again, attempting to combat the dehydrating effect of the tummy troubles and the extreme heat), only to find myself back at “full bloat” again moments later, needing to relieve myself in the woods moments after that. This cycle continued on and on. I am embarrassed to report that on more than one occasion, I had an accident in my pants, unable to get far enough off trail in time to drop my drawers. And not only that, but I once ran out of toilet paper and had to reuse my own dirty toilet paper from the previous loop when I had made an off-trail excursion before. And then another time when I ran out of toilet paper, I had to use the cloth bag for my sunglasses. Finally, I completed the second loop, bringing my total mileage to around 33-something miles. I literally came flying full speed into camp, straight to the porta-potty, enjoying not having to squat in the woods for once. I emerged feeling much better. I had slowed significantly, not only in speed, but also due to a severe increase in numerous emergency potty breaks. I completed the second loop in 4 hours and 14 minutes. My mom and her friend had come to cheer me on and they had briefed the volunteer nurse about the situation. Becky was incredible and had me sit down with some Pedialyte, a PB&J sandwich, and a banana. We talked a lot about everything and I ate and drank. It was so nice to have my mom there and have people waiting on me hand and foot. I sure didn’t have the extra energy to expend, so I very much appreciated the help. I probably hung out for a good 30-40 minutes and made several more visits to the porta-potty. Sadly, the full bloat came back in full force as always, and sitting still caused me so much discomfort that I asked to leave for the third loop. I was still under the impression that because I stopped drinking the Tailwind, that I would start to feel better at some point in the near future and was anxious and optimistic about that. I also was hearing and seeing many fellow runners with the same issue (maybe not the visible bloating, but the gut imbalance) and everyone was blaming the Tailwind. While that didn’t help, it made me feel less crazy, LOL!

Becky did not want to me to keep going, but I knew I needed to move in order to get the gas and everything out again for the millionth time, so that I could return to the “comfortable” half bloat again. She agreed to let me go if I promised to WALK to the next rest stop around 3 miles or so away. My mom and Carla were going to meet me there and reassess the situation then. So off I went. I was very gassy and of course had another few episodes, but landed at the next aid station at half bloat and feeling decent again. I told them I felt okay and took off to finish the rest of third and final loop (about a half marathon or so left at this point). I next met a wonderful woman named Angie who kept me company. We ran together for a few miles and she was awesome. We talked about ultra running and all kinds of things. I learned a lot from her, and she was a good voice of reason and influence about my plans for the rest of my season and my original idea to attempt a 100k (62 miler) three weeks after this race (more about this later). Per my usual, I lost her due to my horrific and miserable bloat/bathroom cycle. I ended up walking as my gut proceeded to get worse and worse and worse. And yes, you are correct. I didn’t even know that it could get worse at this point, but it did. And it just kept getting worse and more severe and more painful. After a while, I met another woman, Paulina, who was having very similar issues, but more with nausea. We spent a few miles together and again, I enjoyed our fellowship on the trail. But as with Angie, I lost Paulina as well, due to my countless unavoidable emergency bathroom breaks in the woods.

I lost track of how many times I went in the woods. It was at least 30 times, but probably way, way more than that. I swear on my life that I’m not exaggerating about this. And pretty soon, I was not even going off trail but just a few feet anymore. I didn’t even care, and I just was losing energy and seemed to never have any warning at all anymore. I used almost an entire three inch package of baby wipes during the third loop if that gives you any idea as to how many potty breaks I had to take. I again $hit my pants another 2 times during this loop. The baby wipes were a LIFESAVER though and was how I was able to clean up and keep going. [NOTE: In the future, I will ALWAYS bring baby wipes or at least have some in my drop bag no matter what race I’m doing. They kept me as clean as possible barring an actual shower, and thus helped minimize chafing and rash (hey, I warned you this was the dirty version!).] Finally, at the next aid station, after discussing the situation with volunteers and asking for advice, one of them gave me the best advice of the day: STOP EATING AND STOP DRINKING. DO NOT CONSUME ANYTHING AT ALL. I know, this sounds ridiculous. I’m dehydrated from hours of the most monumentally massive and explosive diarrhea of my entire existence. On top of this, I’m recovering from the flu. It’s 85 degrees and I’m 38-40 miles deep into a race, with another 10-12 miles or so to go. And I have a 5,000 calorie or so deficit going on. And now I’m going to stop drinking water and eating food.

I get it. That advice sounds so freaking stupid. But it wasn’t. It was genius and I believe that it is exactly what allowed me to finish the race. The chemistry in my gut was completely destroyed. My body was INCAPABLE of absorbing water or nutrients of ANY KIND. Period, the end. That was NOT going to change anytime today so I needed to adapt and change my mindset moving forward. So, as counter intuitive as it seems, I needed to STOP TRYING to refuel my body. It was the only way to survive. Yes, I realize this was very dangerous and I’ll address that in a minute, so hang on. When I finally realized this (probably 7-8 miles from the finish?), I was able to make a feasible plan to finish the race.

I knew I was on fumes. I knew I had no fuel in the tank (calories), and I knew that I was not only dehydrated, but severely dehydrated. Besides that I already hadn’t been running much since beginning the final loop due to the gut-imbalance-induced pain, I knew that I did not have the capacity to run any longer without consuming water and food (which was clearly not a viable option for me). The only way to finish would be to go nice and slow (walking) and not eat or drink and carefully monitor my symptoms. I know you might be are thinking about how grossly irresponsible my behavior is at this point (and has been), but I would like to emphasize that I continued to check in with volunteers at each aid station to discuss my situation and reassess at each stop. They had already gotten to know me from previous stops and helped me determine my current status through a series of questioning and examination, and I was able to convey each time that my ONLY symptom was still the stomach issue. Other than that, I felt great. Lungs and breathing was fine. Heart rate/pulse was fine. Legs and feet were good. No chills, no headaches, no dizziness, no lightheadedness, no nausea. I promise you, that had I experienced any of these symptoms, I would have pulled myself from the race. So I continued on, keeping a very sharp eye on my symptoms.

On I went, and in doing the math, I began to get nervous about the impending nightfall. I still had my shoe lights on, but having used them already a few hours this morning, I knew that the batteries were likely quite low. When I left at 2:30 or so to start the third loop, I still had thought my stomach would have settled by now and never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be finishing alone and in the dark.

I’m sure I’ve written about it before, but my motto for running has always been “slow and steady wins the race.” One foot in front of the other. Just keep moving forward. And even now, in writing this and reliving this memory with you in this post, I take a deep breath and a long pause to remind myself what I kept repeating that hot winter day.

Slow and steady wins the race.

Pretty soon, night fell and I was alone in the woods. It doesn’t help to think that our state prison housing Texas’ death row is only a few miles away. Once the sun sets, the woods become alive, very loud in the dark, as the nocturnal creatures begin to emerge and the thoughts of snakes and gators (there were some swampy areas on the course) enjoying this warm weather began to work their way into my mind. On the bright side however, it is so much easier to have emergency bathroom breaks in the cover of darkness, and I enjoyed just being able to barely step off the trail a couple steps in order to take care of business (sadly even though I was no longer trying to consume food and fluids, I still was having issues, but at least able to maintain only half bloat and not full bloat).

I forgot to mention that Christy went on to not only finish in a record 10 hours and 28 minutes, but she also won our division! We had been texting all afternoon, and I had kept her up to date with the situation. She was a serious trooper when she offered to come back onto the trail to meet me with more lights and finish with me. I’m so glad she did, because shortly after finding her, my foot light batteries died. Christy walked at least 3.5 miles until we met up (i.e. adding an additional 7-8 miles to her day on top of the 50 miles she ran hard!). Talk about a true friend!! It was so, so, so great to see her and be around her uplifting personality. PS. I was in awe of the pep in her step even after a day like that. She is a tremendous athlete. Soon after meeting up with her, we ran into Paulina who at this point was still struggling just as I was. She too, didn’t have any lights so I gave her my headlamp that Christy had brought for me and I used the flashlight on my iPhone (Paulina’s battery in her phone was almost out). Together, the three of us walked in that last 3-4 miles together. We talked and laughed and enjoyed each other’s company. I get emotional just thinking about seeing the lights at the tents at the finish line shining through the dark woods. With our broken, beat-down, weakened bodies, we waited until we were only a few yards away from the finish line, and we began to slowly run. We ran across that finish line and completed the Rocky 50 Mile. I ran the third loop in 5 hours and 52 minutes.

I didn’t even have the chance to get too emotional or caught up in the moment. We quickly snapped some photos, said our congratulations and goodbyes and I hurried off to find Becky to check-in. I knew my body was in even worse shape than ever and I was very worried and didn’t know what to do. I was almost afraid to go to the hotel to go to sleep so I did not protest when she strongly recommended a visit to the ER. So off we went. Christy was a saint and drove us, dropping me off (we had no idea how long it was going to take and by this point it was after 8pm and had been a very long, hard day).

Long story short, I was given an IV and after a bag of fluids was a completely new human being. Once the water was able to enter my blood stream (because it was injected there), my body could finally absorb it and use it. I instantly perked up. I passed a stomach x-ray and full blood panel with flying colors and after testing out my new stomach on a bottle of Gatorade, two cups of water and a bag of goldfish, I was discharged around 11:30pm.

Christy, again came to the rescue, picking me up and taking me to the grocery store to get some food. Originally, we had plans to go out to eat dinner, but little did we know it would be midnight by the time I would be free to dine, LOL! We got back to the hotel around midnight, snacked and I finally took a shower. You can imagine how disgusting I was at this point. However disgusting you imagine me to be, I was probably a billion times even more disgusting than that, haha! The shower was great, and we finally wound down for bed at around 1am.

It was still a phenomenal experience even though it was so horrific. And I’m glad I did it and pushed through. I’m sure that deep down I always knew this, but I can’t help but recognize and fully acknowledge now that I am capable of anything that I set out to achieve. And so are you. And even if I hadn’t been able to finish the race this weekend, I know that I would have tried it again the next year and the year after that, until I got it done. In fact, the whole third loop, I kept thinking about my strategy for next year and my goal to shatter this year’s time and set a new PR for myself.

As I’ve said with other ultras, the community on the trail is incredible. From runners to volunteers and race staff, these events are full of some of the best people around. The encouragement and support that I received out on the trail was a large part of my success. I am so grateful and thankful for the wonderful folks that were a part of my journey this weekend. The trail itself was beautiful and the course they chose was perfect. As always, Tejas Trails put on a top notch event.

So what’s next? I’ve got a half marathon or two in the next month or so, but if I can recover nicely from this race, I’d like to hit up another trail run or two. As I briefly mentioned earlier, I was originally considering a 100km in a few weeks since I’m all trained up. However, after my experience this weekend and my conversation with Angie, I’ve decided against this because the one I picked is self-supported (i.e. only water, ice and shelter and the rest stops, no food or people). I was naïve in thinking that I could show up and handle it without a crew and only a pacer to run the finish in the dark with me. I’m glad I learned this the easy way and not the hard way! If I hadn’t had the experience that I had this weekend, I might have walked myself into a very dangerous situation and found myself in some real trouble. That’s not to say that someday I still don’t want to do a 100km, I just know it isn’t going to be here and now in three weeks. So we’ll see what happens. I’m going to take a few more days off and go for a run and see how I feel. I’ll figure it out from there. No pressure at all.

And, for a few final thoughts…

Lessons Learned

  • Be prepared for anything and everything.
  • Be smart, and be willing to make adjustments as needed.
  • Listen to your body, it knows a lot.
  • Do not be afraid to ask for and accept help and/or advice.
  • Pay attention to ingredients in what you are consuming (I’m currently looking into magnesium as the possible culprit in the Tailwind).
  • Always bring a light source even if you think you won’t need it. Emergencies happen.
  • Baby wipes are awesome.
  • A positive attitude can work wonders.
  • Slow and steady really does win the race.
  • I really can do anything I set my mind to.
  • Oh, and I will never drink Tailwind ever again.

8 thoughts on “My First 50 Mile Ultramarathon

  1. Oh wow! I thought I had it bad with being on my heavy period day with cramps and not nearly enough portacans per mile! I was the one in the pink polka dotted shorts. They hid the blood stains fairly well. 😂 But what you went though sounds horrendous. You are a real survivor! You needed some probiotics! Hope you get a chance to rest. I know it’s hard with a family. Congratulations!!

  2. Oh my gosh, Megan. You are super woman. What a wonderful feeling that must be to know you kept going despite the odds. You are my hero!!!

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