© 2019 EMILY ANNE VK 

They call it selfless, I call it selfish.

Dark Sky 50 Mile

Big South Fork - Jamestown, TN

People say that running is one of the most accessible sports on the planet. All you need is a pair of shoes and a destination. No teammates, no fancy equipment, just yourself and wherever you’ve chosen to go. Like-minded runners sometimes band together, but nothing - I repeat, nothing - compares to the trail and ultrarunning community. I will go to battle over that fact.

 

After finishing my first 50k in December of 2017, one of my biggest takeaways was the course support and how integral it was to my overall positive experience. Seeing friends on course got me through the first 24 miles and the last 7. Period. I wanted to become more involved with the trail and ultra community in Middle Tennessee. January rolled around and I volunteered at my first timed event, a 12/24 hr endurance challenge and I was sold. This was what it was all about - I got to run (only a bit as I was battling a gnarly IT band injury at the time) and I got to celebrate others’ accomplishments. All while surrounded by like-minded runners.

 

Our training group set their spring goal race and I knew I couldn’t be there, so I sought out a different 50k for my second ultra but had a really difficult time committing to anything. I figured, worst/best case scenario, I’d tackle 7 loops of the red trail at PWP and call it a day. Maybe I could even convince some friends to come out and join me for a loop. I finally sat down and looked at the calendar, settling on Friday, May 11 as my race date. Someone casually mentioned: why I didn’t just get 50k of pacing done at Dark Sky 50 miler the next day? I had wanted to go and volunteer, so I inquired as to whether any of our group were running. It seemed so selfish that I would capitalize on someone else’s race for my second ultra. Fast forward a few weeks, and I was in week two of taper towards my second ultra, planning to join a training buddy, Keith, from mile 13.7 to the finish - 35 or so miles. This is probably not what a pacer in a 50-miler should be doing (basically running the whole thing), but it was happening!

 

I was a bit nervous because on any given day, Keith is faster than I am. I was worried that I would be literal dead weight for him come race day. However, I realized that my 50k pace was probably pretty close to Keith’s 50 mile pace. Maybe this could work out after all! More than anything, I was excited to run. Taper sucks, and by Wednesday before the race all I wanted to do was get out there and put my training to good use.

We woke up early enough to send our well-wishes to the runners at the start line and headed back to the campsite to prepare for the day. I was expecting 9-10 hours of running, and packed auxiliary nutrition in my pack along with 1.5L of fluids. We arrived at the aid station about 2:15 after the start. Another Dirtbag, Katie, came through looking strong as we waited.

 

Keith did everything right in the first 13+ miles. He stayed conservative, and ate well. We loaded his buff up with ice cubes (it ended up being 90 degrees, but luckily the course was mostly shaded and there were several late-race creek crossings) and went on our way. I took point per his request and we started ticking off the 8 miles to the aid station. Every 30 minutes, we had snack time - for Keith, it was about keeping calories consistent. For me, it was about frontloading. I don’t eat well after a certain period of time, and, knowing that was impending has triggered my strategy of more early-race calories. We passed some really cool rock features, and enjoyed lovely rolling, runnable terrain. Us Dirtbags don’t give ourselves enough credit. Training in PWP is no joke. Most of what we train to do ends up being more challenging than our races. That 20 mile/4,500ft workout where we did red loop repeats? Sure as hell got me ready for this one! It felt comfy and we ticked along enjoying the natural beauty of Big South Fork.

We calculated each aid station distance based on my watch, not total mileage. This made each stretch seem more manageable. As we approached AS3, we brainstormed what we’d need. Plain water (we both had drink powder mixed into our bladders and were looking forward to something different), sunscreen, PB&J, ice. Upon arrival, AS3 had just recently ran out of water. They had no ice and nothing but sugary calories. A lovely volunteer carried in a gallon of water as we got in, but we both felt guilty taking too much, so I filled a soft flask and we carried on towards AS4, which was 6 miles away. Someone handed Keith a frozen bottle of water and he nursed it for the next stretch of trail.

 

The volunteers were not confident that AS4 would have water either, as they were already out and even more remote than AS3. We made a slight navigational error as we kept turning right off a wide jeep road onto offshooting singletrack. Luckily, we caught up with Katie who asked us if we’d seen a flag. We agreed to turn back and quickly realized that we had missed a turn less than a tenth of a mile back. Phew!! Katie was in a tough spot mentally, as she’d gotten zero water from AS3 and was bummed about missing the turn. Coming into AS4 we implore about water, to which they replied they had none. There was a tiny amount of water left in the cooler, and I insisted that Katie take it. I filled a bottle with Coke since it would have been silly to leave without any fluids, but I was really disappointed not to have water. It was definitely disrupting my nutrition strategy but in reality I should have been grateful to have calories going in.

It was 4 miles to AS5 with the promises of a creek crossing just before it, so we dunked our buffs and carried on. Staying wet was the key to success when drinking water wasn’t always there. Suffice to say, that creek was everything. We sunk into it, and my legs were instantly reset. The cool water had some sort of magical restorative powers. AS5 had plenty of water, so I filled my bladder and downed almost two bottles right there. Keith and I both changed socks as our feet had been wet for quite some time. We set out on a 4-mile loop, content.

 

The thrill of having fresh water was short lived as I realized that I’d drank a lot in a short period of time, and was running on a very full stomach. What I know now is that it was high time for my mile 18-22 low. Ultras are damn hard, and most people don’t feel like rainbows and unicorns for the whole time. It was catching up to me, and I knew the solution was calories - but my stomach was so full of water that the thought of putting anything else in my body was not going to have a pleasant result. I started doubting whether or not it was fair to Keith for me to continue. This was his race, after all, not mine. I was just along for the ride. Sure, I wanted my second ultra finish, but I had to prioritize his race over mine. I was honest with him, said I didn’t feel great at all, and that maybe it wasn’t smart for me to continue.

 

“Maybe it will turn around,” I said, optimistically. Maybe if I can pee it’ll help relieve some of the gastrointestinal distress. From my mouth to the ears of the universe, something clicked and we started pushing downhill. I was coming back!! I popped a few chews and we slid back into AS6. I hopped my ass straight into the creek, gave some encouragement to the other guy sitting in it, and got ready to continue on.

 

The next section was tough. I want to say that a majority of the climbs were in the last 12 miles, but that could’ve just been my tired legs talking. We moved steadily even though the miles were kind of slow. My comment: “Isn’t it stupid how I can be having fun again when 30 minutes ago I felt like total garbage? Ultras are ridiculous. You are so going to finish this thing.” A friend at AS6 had said, “12 miles - red, white, and blue. You got this.” He was referencing a popular training run we'd covered numerous times at PWP. We trucked along towards AS7, 3 miles away. That’s white. Just white until the next aid. AS7 had ice and friendly people and ice towels and Pringles and a cooler full of ice. Did I mention the ice? Katie came in just behind us and I yelled to her, “Katie, they have ICE! You are going to do this!” I filled Keith’s and my buff with cold ice, handed Katie a frozen wet towel to cool off her neck. AS7 had it all!!

 

AS7 also had Erin. Let me tell you about Erin. I’m pretty sure Erin and I had met before since we both live in Nashville, but neither of us remembered specifically. Erin finished her first 100 miler just a few weeks ago and had some masochistic reason for signing up to do this race. Erin’s feet had given up many creek crossings ago and as she described, she had “literal trenchfoot.” A nice man had given her his dry socks and the nurse/aid station volunteer had taped up her feet real good. Erin linked up with Keith and I after spending the majority of the day with the top 3 women, and we started working together towards AS8. Erin was super cool, and totally didn’t complain about her feet (at first!).

 

At AS8 I had the genius idea of shoving huge chunks of ice down my pants because my hamstrings were tightening up. It was honestly totally genius, but I also have some sweet bruises to show for it. One dude wouldn’t shut up about his vegan balls, so I ate one. It would have been much more pleasant had I not been so woefully dehydrated. It was mostly peanut butter. That was a tough one. Us three musketeers set out for the last 6 mile stretch. We were so close!! We came to a creek crossing, and there was no way around it but straight through ankle deep water. Fine by me, because every dunk in the cold water gave my feet and legs new life. Not for Erin, though, with the hella damaged trenchfoot disasters she was calling feet and dragging underneath her body. I would’ve carried her across the river had there been anything with which to steady myself, but I knew if I went down it would’ve been bad for both of us.

 

With our constant mantra of “shuffle beats walk” we were still moving along, and even passed at least one runner. Since we were retracing the first few miles of the course back to the finish, I felt inspired to belt out the world’s ultrarunning anthem, Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles.” I think we can all agree that there is simply no more fitting trail karaoke number.

 

Keith got one final burst of energy after the last aid station, and started moving really well. I was getting pretty fatigued having surpassed “longest run ever” territory as well and decided it was more important for me to hang back and support Erin than it was for me to bust it and try and keep up with Keith. Erin and I became fast friends. Maybe it’s because we are both badass ultrarunning women. Maybe it’s because we are both exceptionally single. All I know is that she needed a trail sister, and I had on my TS trucker so I wasn’t going anywhere! Whatever Erin could muster, we did. 30 seconds of running? Sure, you got it. Push to the walk tree? Done. The dang nerve in your foot is acting up?!? Well, shoot, nothing that I’m feeling is that insane, so I’ll just be over here shutting the hell up and helping drag your crazy ass to the finish!

 

Many f-bombs were dropped between the two of us in the last mile as we saw several false signs to turn to the finish, including one half-hearted attempt to “chick” the guy in front of us (congrats on your finish, Michael! Glad I caught up to you and saw you run it in!!). We picked our run spot so Erin could go strong into the finish. I peeled off to the side so she could enjoy the moment. That girl had just ran 50 miles!! My effort paled in comparison to hers. 6th female. A woman won 1st place overall in course record time. Two other women tied for 3rd place female. Trail Sisters unite!!

 

People congratulated me on my finish afterwards. Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for their kind words. I feel selfish that I took advantage of someone else’s race to accomplish one of my own goals. It’s crazy to think that focusing on the needs of another could alter my own running experience in some way, but it did. I always had a hunch that pacing would be my entry into longer-distance ultras. I’m not sure a 100 miler is in the cards for this chica, but I’ll sure come out and pace for 30+ miles. Wouldn’t even bat an eyelash!!

 

Since the race, many people have thanked me for pacing. That confuses me - I got the opportunity to run, I got the chance to contribute positively to our community, I got course support, I got to accomplish my own goal of a second ultra finish. Sure, I didn’t get a medal or a t-shirt, but physical things don’t equate pride in knowing I got to be a part of two runners’ 50 mile finishes. How can it be construed as selfless when I gained more from the experience than I can put into words? Seems more selfish than selfless to me.

 

I called my parents the day after Dark Sky, just to let them know I was home and safe out of the woods. My mother hadn’t realized that I was planning 34 miles of pacing duties. It’s probably better - she’s the best mom, so she’s the best at worrying. I told her about how I hung back to get Erin to the finish after Keith felt strong in the last 5 miles. She was surprised, perhaps, that in some way I had sacrificed my own run by helping Erin push through the pain. That was never a question that crossed my mind. This race was never about me. It was about bringing my runner to 50 miles feeling strong and having the privilege of sharing in their accomplishment. I know that any other pacer would have done the same thing. After all is said and done, I know that I sure as hell have a few ultrabuddies ready to pace me in my first 50 miler. I’ll take them all, selfish as that may be.

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