Climbing, Clawing, Crying: My Exceptionally “Not Ideal” First 50 Mile Attempt
The Black Toe Run
Last spring, after many of my training group finished their second 50k, we began exploring the possibility of increasing distance. I, following the reasonable guidance of Poncho Blanco, our Thursday group leader, was committed to the mantra of “three per distance,” meaning I wanted to complete three races or runs of each distance before increasing. I too felt the pull to consider the 50 mile distance, and our local training program was offering a 50 mile program for the first time. However, the race they targeted put them through what I feared would be too quick of a time period to prepare my body, and after pacing 55k at Dark Sky in May, I needed one more 50k distance before I could allow myself to increase distance.
Last January, I volunteered at a local race for the first time, and had the most wonderful experience. The Black Toe Run is truly a spectacle of athleticism, grit, and perseverance, and I witnessed much of it first hand shortly after completing my own first ultra. Like many events I attend, I thought about how I’d like to race it some day.
Running a point-to-point or loop 50 mile course seemed incredibly daunting to me for numerous reasons. I thought about what time of year I do my best running (winter), and selected an event that I thought catered to my ability to complete 50 miles in a safe, relatively-controlled environment. I chose the Black Toe Run. With a 5-mile loop format and a 24-hour time window, I was confident that due to its proximity to Nashville, the course support would be unparalleled. As a bonus knowing the race director personally assured both myself and my mother that no poor decisions would be made on my behalf come race day.
I trained for 6 months to have a steady build up in base mileage. I celebrated my teammates when they completed their 50-miler in November. I got to play aid station captain for them at the turnaround, and it was such a joy to triumph in their accomplishment. In November, I returned to the site of my first ultra and completed a self-supported 50k training run with some of the most wonderful trail sisters a girl can ask for. I set a 50k PR by 20 minutes. In December, Aid Station Panda was back at it again to close out 2019 watching the Dirtbags complete our most successful year of trail running to date with an overall female win at Bell Ringer 50k. This core group truly means everything to me.
The last month of my training focused exclusively on loop-based workouts to simulate race day. We are blessed with a 4.5 mile trail loop with just under 1k feet of elevation gain at PWP, which is as close to the race loop as I could get. I got discouraged by my own fatigue in the first few workouts, disappointed with my climbing ability as I knew that would be an incredible factor in my success with this endeavor. However, I trusted my body and I trusted the process and allowed the growth to occur naturally.
Many factors prevented this effort from being “ideal” (although, no ultra is ideal). Here are just a few:
3 weeks before the race, in my last week of really focused training, I got slammed by a gnarly cold. It messed with me mentally and physically. What a big ole middle finger to the end of my training. I had been feeling the fatigue and whatever this was really knocked me out. Not ideal.
Two days before the race, my grandfather had passed away. Although not entirely unexpected, I still found myself confronting emotions I had not experienced in my adult life. Not ideal.
In true Tennessee form, January weather is as unpredictable as it gets. This race in particular is notorious for troublesome weather. Last year, the entire course turned into a slip ‘n slide in the early evening when rain moved through. I guess that’s what you get when you hold an event in Watertown, right? In true Black Toe fashion, the forecast predicted a 100% chance of rain the day prior to and during the event, with temperatures dropping from 50s and 60s to 30s and snow overnight. Not ideal.
I bolstered my running gear box with a second pair of Salomon Sense Ride shoes, rain pants, a new waterproof shell, and the best $1.02 I’ve ever spent at Dick’s Sporting Goods - a pair of size medium youth hot pink waterproof mittens. I packed 7 boxes of gear for this race, as if I was prepared to fend off the apocalypse. I was prepared for ten 5.25-mile loops, each with around 1400ft of elevation gain for a total of 52.5 miles and 14,000ft of ascent.
Before the race had even started, we were informed that the course had been shortened due to wash out and runner safety in the first 1.5mi. This was, simply put, not good information. The first 1.5mi are the only flat portion of the course, so, we weren’t cutting any elevation. Also, by cutting the course, ten loops would no longer get me to 50 miles. It would be much later in the day that I’d calculate based on my watch data that 14-15 loops was my new endgame. Fifteen 3.5mi loops with 850ft of ascent.
The additional 5 loops I was now faced with completing was an immediate mental battle. I expected this race to be more mentally challenging than anything I’d ever done before, but I didn’t expect to confront it so early. Not ideal.
I ran one loop while volunteering last year, so I knew that the nearly all the climbing was in one, early part of the course. I fell into hiking mode, and started chugging along. The trail was gushing water. There was going to be no keeping my feet dry, but it was warm enough to shed my waterproof shell fairly quickly and cruise in shorts and a tee. Due to the flowing water, my Sense Ride lugs were being constantly cleaned and I found great footing and traction on the highly technical descent off the high point. I felt like I was in a rhythm, and I was having a blast.
I had a nutrition plan that was going to keep me on top of calories without having to consume large quantities of food. It all hinged on the new Spring Energy Speednut gel, which boasts 235 cal. Speednut just launched last week, so I didn’t have a chance to train with it, but the allure of the high caloric quantity seemed like a home run. I tried it once after a training run a week before my race, and my stomach didn’t love it, but I passed it off as a reaction to something else I’d eaten. Nope. I took in one Speednut, and thought I was in the clear - until I wasn’t, and my stomach was wrecked from there on out. In my first 50-miler, I’d screwed up my nutrition with the first thing I put in my body. Not ideal.
Finishing my first loop, It became clear what the reality of the situation was: due to the trail and weather conditions, the time I anticipated per loop would remain the same, approximately 1:15 per loop. However, the loops were shorter and I had more of them to complete. Not ideal.
It was going to be a long day, and after I immediately bombed my nutrition, I did what Emily always does: I kept moving, but I stopped eating. I tried, but nothing tasted good and I was having trouble swallowing. I hit a low in the first 8 miles. How neat is that? It is in fact not neat, it felt absolutely terrible. I grabbed Keith and dragged him out on course with me. I needed major moral support.
Loop 3 is where I really began to understand the course. I knew which sections to hike, which sections to run, and had a really good course map in my head. Big climb to the left turn sign (what’s up, fungi tree?), slight descent across two waterfalls (points for both beauty and excessive water), climb up to high point. Halfway. The back half you tick off the five B’s, landmarks that outline the descent. It’s a decent haul to Butt Crack (rock formation), Bamboo, then the “wet section” (which seems redundant, but if you ran this year, you understand the truth to this), bear left and climb to Big Log, and then a sliiippery descent past Bridge and Basin (talk about a straight up creek), before coming back home.
Keith and I ticked off a few loops together, and I grabbed my poles. As soon as I had those in my hand, I couldn’t believe I had ever attempted a loop without them. I bounced back for a loop when I got in some calories in and hot tea. It was different but great to have people crewing for me, but Alaina nailed it all day and night. My Opa brought out the sun for 30 minutes so we could catch the sunset at the top of the high point, because he knew I needed a boost more than anything. On a day with a 100% chance of rain, it was everything.
Keith ran with me until dark, and although I was moving as best as I could, the limitations of my progress were largely out of my control due to trail and weather conditions. It rained near constantly the entire day. Alaina was helping me swap between two pairs of shoes, rinsing them off periodically, something I’ve never done before. I changed each time one got filled with mud and dirt to the point of blister danger. Putting on dry socks was useless as they stayed dry for perhaps 100 yards, but wet socks and SNB Happie Toes was working.
By about mile 22, I was getting severely discouraged by my perceived lack of progress. The temperature had dropped 30 degrees and the wet shoes and socks were getting colder and colder. It was hard to come in to the aid station and see all these people who were relaxing, done for the day. I was not done for the day, and I realized being around them was not helping. Becca took me aside, helped me cry it out, and sent me away with Jim. We had a great loop. I stopped worrying about what I couldn’t control, and focused on what I could. I wanted this, I would keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Physically, I felt remarkably good - probably because I wasn’t moving fast at all. I stopped looking at my watch because I knew seeing another 22 minute mile wasn’t exactly going to be a boost of confidence. Becca picked me up off the floor again and carried me through another good loop. I continued to struggle to eat but I kept grinding away. Keith and Jim each took one more turn keeping me company. Jim was the lucky winner of being there for my slowest 50k ever - (12:07:36 what a boss). Keith got the honor of once again witnessing my longest run to date (besting the 34mi from when I paced his first 50 in May).
On lap 9 I started getting sleepy, but once Jim and I calculated that I had 5 loops to go after we finished the current, for some reason it felt doable. It felt achievable. It felt within my reach. I was happier on the trail than at camp because I felt like every minute I spent at camp was a minute I wasn’t using to get closer to being done. I planned to zip through the aid station and head out for loop 10 with Jim. We were getting it done, but I was so tired. My body was fine, but it was the middle of the night and I was shocked that I wasn’t falling asleep on the trail. I told Jim that I promised I wasn’t quitting, but that I needed to pause and rest after that loop. I huddled up in a chair next to the fire and started shivering. It was so cold, and my feet were in wet shoes with wet socks. I had every blanket available around me and a fire in front of me and I couldn’t get warm.
I was starting to be exhausted from the sheer time elapsed, but my body still felt okay, and I still had the willpower to finish the distance. I just couldn’t go for 8 more hours. I couldn’t do four more loops. It wasn’t reasonable to ask that of myself, and even more, I simply would not ask anyone around that fire to go back into those woods with me. For the last two loops, I had said how I wanted to get the distance, but I didn’t care if it was on the course. In fact, I wish it wasn’t on the course any more. If I was able to run, I’d be able to tick off miles at a faster rate than 25 min/mile. I made the decision to finish my run on the gravel service road we had used as an entrance to the event when the bridge to John’s property was severely flooded from all the rain.
Folks took turns tipping liquids into me while I huddled - I loved all the coffee and tea Alaina made me the whole event. Joy brought me stomach meds and a high calorie liquid to sip and soothed my spirit. She put me in her truck with her husband and human trail running superhero, Steve, who was resting because he already had enough of a lead that he could take a break until other runners caught up on his laps. That’s hilarious. I probably spent almost an hour in there resting, eating 400 calories, and warming up. I got out of the car and for the first time, put on dry shoes (Nike Kiger) because I didn’t need the traction from the Salomons. I bundled up and myself and my two trail companions headed out to get the last 13 miles done. What I did to deserve two dads running with me at 2am is beyond me, but I would have experienced a colossally different day had it not been for them and the rest of my teammates who were out supporting me. We battled for 5 miles until I needed another break. Keith was done, and I couldn’t blame him for a second. He gave everything he could to see me do this and got called to put in much more than he bargained for.
As we came in, I turned to Jim and explained that I was going to get to 45mi and call it. I’d been moving for an insanely long time, and at that point, it wasn’t about the number, it was about the effort. I was already proud of the effort, and I could not ask anyone to keep running with me. I took in a few calories and we just went out to send it. 2.5 miles to go, and I was going to do it. Just one more out and back on the service road and I could let go of everything I’d been holding on to all day and night. All the expectations I didn’t reach. All the calories I couldn’t eat. All the mistakes I made. All the gross underestimations of how Mother Nature can humble you at the snap of her fingers. All the things I thought I’d feel but didn’t. All the things I never thought I’d feel but did.
At any other 50 mile race, I would’ve been done hours before, I would’ve completed the distance I set out to do, but I wouldn’t have experienced literally everything that a person can feel during an ultra. I am a better, more compassionate, confident, and strong woman because of this race. To everyone and anyone who offered me a shred of anything between 10am on January 19 and 4:30am on January 20: I am grateful for you and I appreciate you more than words can describe. Thank you for telling me to cry and for running with me and for allowing me to struggle just enough that I knew I was never in danger of being unsafe, just in danger of growing more than I ever thought possible in an 18 hour stretch of time.
The Black Toe Run will not hand you 50 miles. You have to pry every single mile from that course with your own two feet and some serious mental willpower. This year the course only gave up 50 miles to a select few runners, and I was not one of them, but that’s okay. I climbed, clawed, and cried my way through that course and gave that day everything I had.
Total mileage: 45.04
On course: 37.16
Service road: 7.88
Total time: 18:32:59
Elevation gained: 9,488 ft
Salomon Sense Ride trail shoe
Coros Pace GPS watch (this thing had 49% battery life after nearly 19 hrs of use. Wut?!)
REI Traverse trekking pole
SNB Happie Toes salve
Outdoor Voices Hudson short
Under Armour HeatGear thermal tight
OR waterproof shell
Columbia youth mitten (best $1.02 I’ve spent in a long time.)
Gu Roctane drink mix - Summit Tea flavor
**All photo credits to Misty Herron Wong - thank you for also braving the weather and providing these images as lasting memories. You truly capture our sport in all its highs and lows.**