Hijacked by Hills: Surf the Murph Race Report
After so much research, preparation, training, and organization, it almost seemed surreal to be heading up to MN on Friday afternoon. The beautiful epicurean and I left early enough in the afternoon so we had time to get up to MN and visit with family, as well as get settled and have a nice relaxing dinner. I may have felt some nerves, but more than anything I was just anxious to get out there and start running! The combination of so much training and the taper of the past few weeks had left my legging revving pretty high, just waiting for the starting “gun”. I didn’t quite know what to expect from my first 50-mile race, and this race met all of my expectations and more!
Friday Evening: I set out my clothes for the next morning, got my drop bag ready, and laid out my breakfast so I didn’t forget to take in any early nutrition. I made a last second decision to wear my shorts over my running tights and commit to having them on for the entire race. The forecast called for early morning temps in the high 20s and highs in the low 40s so I figured I was safe. I had done a good job of carbo-loading the past two days, so I had a nice simple meal of quinoa with roasted vegetables and chicken. I may have wanted a beer to calm my nerves, but I resisted. I set the alarm for 4AM and closed my eyes in an attempt to get some sleep.
Saturday, 4AM: When I was young, I could never sleep on Christmas Eve. The anticipation of waking up the next morning to see what Santa had delivered was too much for my little mind to take, and I tossed and turned the entire night, seemingly amped up on a bottomless pot of coffee. The anticipation for this race matched that excitement, and I found myself tossing and turning quite a bit, but still jumping right out of bed (quietly, of course) as soon as the alarm went off. I proceeded to get my running clothes on, and consume my banana w/ peanut butter and protein bar, along with 12 oz. of water. I was ready to go!
Packet Pick-Up, 5AM: There was no packet pick-up the day before the race, no doubt because of the small number of participants. Thus, they began handing out race packets @ 5AM, and we arrived at the park shortly after 5AM. We had driven out to the course the night before, but I was still paranoid enough about something going wrong that I didn’t want to take any chances. As expected, the fact that I over-planned meant that we arrived with no problems, I walked right in and picked up my packet, and headed back to the car to stay warm, all in about 5 minutes. I’ve never been a fan of “hurry up and wait” and this was no different. Can’t we just start running, already?
Race Debriefing, 5:45AM: All of the runners convened around the starting line to listen to one of the race directors give us a heads up. Everyone performed their own personalized warming dance, huddled around headlamps, covered in varying layers of cold-gear. A few folks managed to come in varying degrees of costume as an homage to the impending pagan ritual of high fructose corn syrup gluttony. I figured that dressing up for my first 50-miler probably wasn’t necessary. The director’s debriefing consisted of letting us know that the trail had been personally marked by her with reflective ribbon, the trail was in great shape, and they had seen plenty of deer and only one pack of coyotes. Great!
Lap 1, 6AM: The “gun”, otherwise known as the race director yelling “go!” and starting the clock, went off @ 6AM, and our shivering group of runners headed off into the dark, light dancing playfully off the various reflective materials as our headlamps and flashlights pierced the darkness of the forest. I’ve never started a race in the dark, nor had I ever used a headlamp and/or flashlight to run, so this was an added virgin experience. I quickly realized several things. First, my headlamp wasn’t putting out enough light to be helpful, but my flashlight (which conveniently clipped onto a pocket in my gloves) worked perfectly. Second, NOBODY WARNED ME ABOUT THE HILLS! I suppose it should have occurred to me that they didn’t randomly name this race “Surf the Murph”, but good grief! The first 5.5 miles contained enough elevation change to make me sea sick and leave my quads burning. This didn’t bode well for the next 12 miles. However, I was hopeful that contained within this 17 mile loop would be some compensation for the hard labor we put in during the front half of the course. The middle 6 miles did provide some respite from the undulation of the previous 5.5 miles, at least in as much as the hills weren’t quite as steep. After the first hour or so, the sun began to rise, and I was able to start taking in my surroundings. Despite several close calls on the downhills, I had managed to stay on my feet, and I gained some confidence as the morning sun illuminated the beautiful wooded trail we were running along. The aide stations were wonderfully spaced every 3-4 miles, and very well-stocked with nutrition as well as eagerly helpful volunteers. One of my favorite parts of small races is the volunteers always seem to be experienced runners themselves. Having that kind of support and encouragement along the way goes a long way! Now, lest we get complacent with the smoothly rolling hills through the fields during the middle 6 miles, we were revisited by the storm surge of the final 6 miles back through the beautiful tree cover. The hand-made signs encouraging us to talk to our pain and embrace the hills made it clear that the organizers understood the joke they were delivering. They just weren’t terribly eager to deliver the punch-line! I came rumbling up one more hill (of course) towards the starting area, happy to see smiling family, and felt like I had already run a marathon. I had to repeat that journey twice more. Lap Time: 3 hours 14 minutes.
Lap 2, 9:14AM: I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to head back out, but the sun was up, I was refueled and restocked, and ready to roll. My legs were already pretty darn sore but I had a better idea of what to expect, which was nice. Again, the first 5.5 miles were brutal, and they all seemed new in the daylight. Suddenly I was cursing entirely new hills, and my catchphrase for the day quickly became “seriously?!”. The worst part about this loop was having a complete sense of what to expect and knowing I had to do it for a third time before I was done. I definitely took full advantage of the aide stations, though, and the brief rest at each stop was very welcomed. Around the half-way point, I began running with a far more experienced ultra-marathoner, and it was great to hear about some of the other races he had done, as well as pick his brain a bit. He had done the race twice previously as well, so he gave me some great pointers on tackling some of the hills. This lap also saw the first of 4 distinct distance memories, that of the half-way point. At that moment, however briefly, I relaxed and let out a giant smile, announcing the milestone to a runner a few yards behind me. She didn’t seem all that amused. I rolled into the starting area at the end of the second lap, holding onto a better pace than I had expected. Lap Time: 3 hours 28 minutes. Total Time: 6 hours 42 minutes.
Lap 3, 12:50PM: I did a lot more refueling before venturing out for the third lap, which I was not looking forward to “running”. A fellow runner came into the start area a minute or so after me and announced that he was done. He had cramped up and had no interest in trying to run the third lap. Was I feeling leg cramps at that point? Maybe I was? At any rate I left my wonderfully supportive parents, announcing to them that I wouldn’t be back there for at least 4 hours, and I gingerly headed out. This time I knew exactly what to expect. That didn’t make it any easier. I repeated the same 5.5 mile torture for a third time, all along calming myself with the reminder that each hill I tackled would not be one I’d need to tackle again. I found myself alternating between walking and running a bit more on this third lap, and didn’t even try to run up any of the hills. As expected, the descents just kept getting more and more painful, as I felt my quads get shredded. My next distinct distance memory came at mile 38.5, which was around the end of the 5.5 hill torture. I’d never been so happy to see an aide station in my life. I cheerfully continued on, hitting 40.1 miles (my next distinct distance memory), which marked the longest single distance I had ever run. From there, the last 10 miles were probably fueled by a strange combination of emotion, commitment, vanilla wafers, and M&Ms. Final Time: 10 hours 49 minutes.
I had mentally established a goal of finishing in under 11 hours many months ago, based on what I thought I knew I was capable of or planned to be capable of in the future. When I approached the final hill and could see the finish line, I’m pretty sure my entire body let out a sigh of relief as the intensity of the day hit me like a wave breaking on the shore. I crossed the finish line, somewhat unceremoniously, but was greeted by the beautiful epicurean and my mother. In their own way, each of them understood not just the accomplishment, but the work I had put into it, and they were all the congratulations I needed after such an incredible day.
It felt absolutely incredible, and all of the miles I had logged seemed that much more worth it. I had just run 50 miles! I gingerly headed to the car, eagerly awaiting the shower and warm meal that awaited me. This leg of my running voyage was complete. I guess the best way to learn how to surf is to be thrown into the waves after all. Oh, and I guess I have a new PR, eh?!