by Mary Claire Walker
The air was cool and the moon was lightly covered by fog as we stood just under the Testimonial Gatehouse around 5:30 on Saturday morning waiting for the start. My fiancé, mother, father, and I had already had an early morning. We left my parents’ house at 4:15, drove to the Ulster County fairgrounds and rode a shuttle to the start. Now we were waiting with 400+ people for 6 a.m. Rock the Ridge 50 miler has been on my race calendar since May of 2020. It was initially postponed to September 2020 and then again to September 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The excitement and expectation has built over this past summer for me. I put in a long, solid training block thanks to my coach Devon Yanko, who pushed me to places I didn’t know my body could go. Each boundary I pushed in training prepared me for this moment.
We all lined up on the carriage road behind the Testimonial Gatehouse, with the starting line right under the arch of the gatehouse. I lined up about 10’ from the start line. I was near the front of the large group of runners, hoping other runners would line up in front of me, but no one did, and as the countdown began we started moving forward. I found myself on the start line with the top men. We took off into the mist, which was beautiful. I felt like I was flying, with just the sound of feet hitting gravel road and mist swirling all around us. I quickly realized that I was running in a group with the top few men so I carefully pulled back so I didn’t get trampled and found a good rhythm. I was pushing, but found a smooth rhythm and continued to repeat to myself “smooth is fast, fast is smooth.”
The first three to four miles of the course consisted of a climb with multiple switchbacks, I could see an endless stream of headlamps climbing behind me. At the top of the climb the sun was starting to rise. I glanced back, and the mist was still heavy in the Hudson Valley, while the sky behind it was lit up with deep pink and orange hues. I pushed on, but pretty quickly I began to feel nauseous. I had been taking gels every 30 minutes and sipping on hydration. As the trail kept winding up the mountain, I kept my effort hard, but not all out. I continued to feel nauseous but was able to keep down gels. Before long we started descending and came down into the Pine Road aid station, mile 13. My fiancé John Daniel was waiting for me just across the timing mats and led me to where he had set up our crewing box of gels and electrolytes. He took my pack, replenished it and gave me some Tums and Famotidine. After 5-6 minutes I was climbing back out of the aid station, I had a big lift in spirits after seeing my fiancé, but the nausea would not quit.
The second section of the course was just over 13 miles with over 1300 feet of elevation gain. I continued to climb with a strong consistent effort. After I ran the Infinitus 100 miler this past spring, my coach and I have had a couple of conversations about effort during ultramarathons. I think it is easy to start out conservatively to make sure that you can finish strong. I have fallen into this trap in the past, and finished feeling like I could have run harder. I have worked on racing ultras at a harder effort and seeing how long I can sustain that higher effort. Utilizing this pacing strategy I have found success at two smaller ultras this year, a 6 hour and a 60k race where I placed second female overall. Leading up to this race, I was nervous. My coach and I had set big goals and it was intimidating. Big goals are good; they give me something to strive for, they make me work even harder, and push myself to places I’ve never been to before. The pacing plan for this race was to maintain a hard, but consistent effort for as long as possible.
The trail climbed all the way up to Skytop tower. When I reached Skytop the race took a turn for the worse. I was starting to feel dizzy so I reached for a salt pill. I tried to swallow and began to puke. I looked up and in front of me was a photographer. I forced a smile and asked if she had gotten it on camera. After a short loop around the tower, the trail began descending back down and towards Spring Farm. The course was a bit of a tease because it brought us towards the second major aid station then out for a 5+ mile loop before actually going down into the aid station. During the loop I felt a sharp pain beginning in my lower back and shooting down my left leg, and in the next two steps my left leg lost function. I started having to drag my left leg, which was now encompassed in pain throughout the whole leg. I kept as high a cadence as possible and amazingly did not slow down too much, but the pain was so high I could not hold back the tears streaming down my cheeks. I kept my breathing as even as I could. I knew I only had a couple more miles to the next aid station. I kept pushing, and no one passed me and I didn’t pass anyone until I got into the aid station. I limped into the aid station, and the pain had become a bit more bearable by the time I got to my fiancé. He gave me more Tums and refilled my pack. He then stretched out my leg and back. It was a miracle! I stood up and I could run again. The pain was still there, but I could use my left leg again.
The third section started with a steep climb out of the Spring Farm aid station and then had a nice stretch of relatively flat terrain. This did not continue for too long, as this leg was 12+ miles with 1,200+ feet of elevation gain. The course began climbing again, I took another gel and tried to sip water, but nausea overcame me. So I picked up my cadence and kept pushing towards the top. I wished I had asked for my headphones at the last aid station, but I quickly put that thought out of my mind. I couldn't go back and get them and I wouldn’t see my fiancé until mile 39, so I kept pushing. I tried to spot runners who were running my pace so I would have something to focus on, but I would find that after following someone for a couple of minutes it would be more comfortable to pass them. I felt some rocks in the toe box of my right shoe, and it felt like there was one right under my big toe sending pain right down my big toe. I kept running but after a couple of miles I stopped and had to sit on the side of the trail to try to get the rocks out. When I turned my shoe upside down nothing came out, so I put my hand inside and there were no rocks in my shoe. I put my shoe back on and kept running. I still felt the pain, but this time I leaned into it, since I knew there was nothing physically there. If I was feeling pain it was not from a rock so I told myself to push through it and I eventually was able to tune it out. The course finally started descending for about 2 miles all the way to the last crewed aid station at mile 39.
I came into mile 39 feeling sick and dizzy, and my fiancé John Daniel looked at me and said, “how important is it to you to finish this race?” I told him it was extremely important. This has been my A race since spring of 2020 when it was first scheduled. I knew what was coming next. I knew my A goal was gone, I knew I was behind on calories and fluids, but I didn’t know how bad I looked. He told me my lips were blue and I had to take time to sit and hydrate and eat solid food before he would let me try to finish, and if I could not do that, then my race was over. I knew he was serious and I knew that he would not pull me out of the race unless I was in danger of hurting myself physically. So I sat down in the chair I was shaking. I ate some peanut butter M&Ms and a Honey Stinger waffle, I drank a bottle of water and finally could urinate. I had been running for almost 7 hours at this point. My fiancé said I still did not look good, but after consuming calories and fluids, he let me continue. With a full pack and my headphones in I set out to finish the last 11 miles. I felt rejuvenated and horrible all at the same time. I knew I was close to the finish and yet far away. Even with my A goal gone, I still had a good chance at my B goal and a massive PR if I could maintain the same pace.
The last leg was the shortest and had the least elevation gain with less than 1,000 feet, but first I had to tackle the 2 mile climb that I had just run down. I didn’t mind the climb because my climbs had felt super strong all day, thanks to my coach for the intense hill workouts she has been giving me consistently since June. The course had some long rolling hills to the top of the mountain range, then a long descent into the valley where the Testimonial Gatehouse is located. On the long descent I passed a number of runners, including a lady who passed me in the first 3 miles. We passed each other back and forth twice during the descent. Once we reached the last mile I passed her and continued to push. The course was not done yet. We had one more small climb in the last mile and a hill leading into the finish line under the Testimonial Gatehouse. I saw my time flash across the clock: 9:16:48, over an hour faster than my last 50 mile race. I stopped my watch and fell on the grass utterly exhausted; there was no question I left everything I had on the trails that day. I felt so fulfilled to know I performed well, even being thrown curveballs on race day. I am proud that I was able to finish seventh female and first in my age group, but I am even more proud that I was able to keep pushing throughout the whole race.
My day was not over. After receiving my medal, which included first place age group engraved on the back, and changing into warm clothes, I sat at a picnic table and waited to see my mother and friends Amy and Karen finish. I slowly drank water, ginger ale and ate a burger. The burger ended up being the absolute best thing. I never wanted to see anything sweet again!
Looking back on this PR, it’s not only about the training. I’ve logged countless miles since the first time I ran Rock the Ridge in 2019, and I’ve learned some hard lessons and grown as an athlete both mentally and physically. I would not have been able to problem-solve the issues I faced today and continue to perform if it was not for the support team I have around me, and the amount of work I have put in. My dietician has helped me throughout training to ensure I am fueling for optimum performance. She also has guided me through prepping and fueling for all my races. My coach is fantastic and has pushed to places I didn’t know I could go, and I would not be the runner I am today if it wasn’t for her. My loving fiancé is my number one supporter and makes sure to keep me in check and ensures I am racing and training in a healthy manner. I put my trust in him as my crew captain for all my races. He also puts up with me during the taper tantrums and me disappearing for hours during long runs on the weekend. Last but not least, my training partners for all the girl-talk and keeping me company on runs!