Last weekend, I went to Washington D.C. to run in my first 50k. I arrived in DC on Thursday for the race on Saturday, I figured if I was going to fly there I might as well make a mini vacation out of it. As soon as I told my mom what my plan was, she jumped on board and wanted to come too and support me. As it got closer to the race, it turned out that a close family friend was driving around the U.S. in her RV with her dog and she wanted to meet us there too. So there we have my “crew”, which even featured a four-legged supporter, what more could you want!
We spent Thursday and Friday, shopping and enjoying the beautiful spring weather (something that still hasn’t happened in Toronto). I had been obsessively checking the weather for a couple weeks and it has changed drastically from cool (14C) and rainy to hot (26C) and sunny. I ideally wanted something in the middle and no rain. On Thursday night, there was an email from the race director that the course was muddy and the weather at that point was looking like it was going to be hot and sunny. Really, really hot for this Canadian that has only run in temps above 10C a handful of times since the fall.
The course is what I would call a lollipop shape. You go from the start/finish line through the woods and end up at Great Falls Park where you do a loop and then go back to where you came from to the start/finish line. At Great Falls Park, there is an aid station where crew and spectators are allowed. On Friday we went to go check out Great Falls park so that I could see what it looked like and my “crew” could hopefully find their way there the next day (they have a little bit of trouble using GPS…).
We found the park without any problems and had a really nice walk around, it was a beautiful spring day. It was a good thing that we visited the day before because during the actual race the course did go close to the falls once but I was too distracted by the rocks I was climbing over to take in the view.
Then it was time to go back to the hotel, eat, rest and get ready for the early start the next morning.
To reduce parking congestion, everyone had to go to the parking lot of a technical centre and then get bussed to the start/finish line. The last shuttle went to the start at 6:15am, my plan was to get on the 6:00am shuttle. I don’t like to get to races too early because I usually don’t feel great because of being nervous and standing around for hours definitely doesn’t improve that situation.
Everything actually went according to plan! I woke up at 5am, I tried to eat some oatmeal (I think I managed to consume about half of it), I got dressed and my mom (what a nice mom!) dropped me off at the shuttle bus at 6am.
The bus took less than 10 minutes to get to the start/finish line. The bus dropped us off on the side of the road, we went down a path and then it opened into the start/finish line with a bunch of booths and it was situated a couple hundred metres away from a river. I dropped off my bag at the bag drop and walked around a little bit and then decided to go look at the river since I had 40 minutes to kill. I ended up sitting on a bench listening to a podcast and trying not to think about what I was about to do.
With 20 minutes left, I decided to walk around and do some warm up stretches. I was put in the first group to leave the start (I’m not sure why, maybe when I signed up I was really ambitious with my time?). I was walking over the the start line when I saw a dog there with his owner, going to the start line too. I stopped and asked about whether the dog could really run that far and the guy looked at me like it was the stupidest question ever. Another woman was also interested in the dog so we talked about it for a minute and then she told me that she had gone to the pre-race talk and that there had been a lot of warnings about snakes on the trail. I’m not scared of snakes but I also don’t want to accidentally step on one so I decided I should definitely follow behind a pack of people so they could scare away the snakes.
After that, I lined up and we were off. The race starts in a field that was essentially a mud pit due to the rain over the preceding week. Someone in front of me lost his shoe in the mud and had to hop around and find it and then put it back on! Then you are on a gravel road that parallels a golf course. After around 3km, there is an aid station and then you are into the trails. They are single track for quite a while and fairly flat but through a lot of mud. Then you go through tall grass (also muddy) and then there is a hill. A guy running in front of me said that he knew the course and this was the only hill, I was thinking “wow, that’s great, one hill”. But no, there was a second hill later in the course, although neither was particularly steep or difficult.
Some of the course was through bed of bluebells blooming which was really beautiful. Besides the two hills, there isn’t a lot that is notable until you come out of the trails at around 20km at Great Falls Park. At 21km, you are at the aid station before starting the loop. I couldn’t find either of my crew/spectators so after looking for a few minutes I decided to keep going. I did not feel good with the heat and my stomach was not happy so I hadn’t been eating as much as I should have so I thought the best thing to do was keep moving forward.
The loop section was mostly on gravel paths and was open to the public so parts were packed with people. The section was not very technical except a little bit where you climb over rocks and have a view of the falls which I didn’t really notice since all my concentration was on moving forward. The 50-milers had to do this loop three times, that sounds terrible, once was plenty for me!
I was carrying a hydration pack and didn’t notice that I was almost out of water, all I remember thinking is how nice and light the pack felt… And then I was out of water and it was HOT. So after 5 or so km of constantly thinking about water (and convincing myself that I was getting more dehydrated by the minute) I was so happy to be at an aid station. At this aid station, not only did they have all the regular aid station stuff, they had buckets of ice water with sponges! Best. Thing. Ever. I got a couple pretzels and walked out of the aid station while I ate them. From there, it was only 3km back to the Great Falls Park aid station with the spectators and crew. I actually found my people this time! I walked with my mom for a couple hundred metres while I ate a gel and then I was off to go back on the trail where I had come from earlier.
There was a marathon that started a couple hours after the 50k and at this point the fastest marathon people started running by me. I was definitely feeling tired at this point but I convinced myself that I only needed to run for 10 minutes and I could have a walking break and anything that even resembled a hill I walked on. Every time I ran into a marathoner going the opposite direction, they would say good job and that boost really helped!
Up until that point, all the aid stations had had whole oranges but someone got the smart idea of cutting them up and eating the cold orange slices was amazingly refreshing. At 37 or 38k, I found a woman in an orange shirt running at a decent pace (i.e faster than a shuffling walk) and I decided to just stay behind her. She told me to pass and I said no thank you, I’ll just keep following you and then we started talking. It turned out that she had just gotten back into running after a 19 year hiatus and the longest training run that she’d done to prepare for the 50k was 20k!! We talked for a while and she definitely took my mind off the run. At 46k, she decided to walk and I decided that I should keep going so off I went. Some of the mud had dried out from the morning so parts of the course were better on the return trip.
I managed to actually run the last 2 or 3km and after discovering the cold oranges and having some Mountain Dew (probably the first time I’ve had that in a decade), by the last part of the race I was actually starting to feel good!
I crossed the finish line, found my crew and looked for the ice baths. The ice baths were full but I decided that that was probably for the best because if my shoes and socks came off, I didn’t think that I’d be able to get any shoes or socks back on my feet. I went back to the hotel, sat in a cold bath, had a hot shower and then went and got a giant burrito from Chipotle. I tried to nap in the afternoon but I just wasn’t that tired so I just went to bed really early instead.
Overall, I had a great time at this race! I would highly recommend it. It was really well organized, the aid stations were stocked and the volunteers were super helpful. Depending on my race schedule, I will be back next year!
For now, I only have Ontario races planned for the rest of the season.