The prettiest log we had to climb over during this self-supported Saturday ultramarathon.

When you can't race, you run really far to beautiful places

July 29, 2020

If you'd rather click through the photos in a gallery, go here.

"I feel like my body is betraying me."

"Your body probably feels like you're betraying it!"

I knew running 50 kilometers was going to hurt. But I didn't expect muscle cramps (never had those while running before), fatigue so bad that I could only shuffle 12 miles in (not even CLOSE to halfway), and diaphragm spasms (OK, I get that last one all the time running). And that was all before I hit the marathon mark.

Two Saturdays ago, I ran my first ultramarathon with my wonderful friends Ali and Ruby. Mikey and I first camped in Olympic National Park nine years ago, five years before we moved to Washington. And since then, I've wanted to run to Enchanted Valley. I mentioned it to Ruby last year, and she told me she was up for it. Meanwhile, Ruby and Ali had signed up for their first ultras this summer. But COVID-19 canceled pretty much all racing around here, including their races. So when I pitched the idea to Ali on a run last month, she immediately started planning with me. I told Ruby the weekend we were looking at, and she committed, too.

So we all ran our first 50K on July 18, 2020. (Note: Garmin got hacked last week, and sometimes the link doesn't work.)

Ali with the sneaky photo taking/Ruby and one of many giant trees/Socially distant group selfie.

We started our run at 7 a.m., so we could get out before most of the hikers. When Mikey and I first camped at Graves Creek, we were one of just a few campers. In recent years, however, the remote campground has filled, as has the trailhead. The weather forecast was also for a warm, sunny day, so we didn't want to stay out there all afternoon. The temperature was about 50 degrees when we started.

The plan was to take our pace easy and stop for as many photo breaks as we wanted. We all agreed the first 8 miles or so went easily, even though we reached quite a few downed trees about 5 miles in. 

I was pretty excited once we reached 10 miles in because that was as far as I had run this trail a couple of years ago during marathon training. The next 5.5 miles would be all new trail to me.

But shortly after my issues began. I started getting pretty tired and had a hard time keeping up with Ali and Ruby when it was their turns to set the pace. (I blame Ali because she recently moved to the base of a mountain and has developed some awesome mountain legs.) And from mile 12 to 13, I started having troubles running. I felt fine standing and walking, but when I tried to change my gait to a run, I just couldn't. I had eaten a gel and some almond butter about 5 miles and 10 miles in (can't remember exactly when) but couldn't find my salt tabs in my pack. I began to suspect I was starting to get hyponatremic. 

I was able to run again, although slowly, after that mile. I caught up to Ruby and Ali at the last tall, narrow bridge. Ali and I'd had a conversation during early miles about our experiences with vertigo. So she waited for me at the opposite end of the bridge where I could see her and keep my eyes on her while I crossed. I'm sure the Quinault River below was beautiful, but I didn't dare look. She also thought to take a photo, knowing I'd want my courageous feat documented.

We turned left and got our first glimpses of the Enchanted Valley.

The valley is most people's destination, and it's popular with backpackers. Ali had actually hiked it a few years ago. But it was only far enough for a little more than a marathon, technically enough for an ultra, but we wanted to get 50k. Our GPS watches all showed different mileage, but we knew we'd reach the valley at 14 miles. Ruby's watch was the closest, so we passed by the chalet and stopped for a short snack before heading back where her watch marked 15.55 miles.

I finally found my salt tabs, and ate an electrolyte gel. I felt way better, but nearly immediately got a diaphragm spasm. But we stopped in the valley to refill our water bladders, and when I resumed running, the spasms were gone.

Hydration bladders all refilled with filtered water and happy to head back.

Unfortunately, my body wasn't finished protesting the lack of proper nutrition and hours of running. On the way back, my right medial hamstring/graclilis spasmed. I have occasional issues in that part of my thigh, but I've never had full-on muscle spasms while running. They continued on and off until about 3 miles to go — when both my tibialis anterior (shin muscles) spasmed on the last downhill. I even briefly got one in the same spot on my left thigh. That's about when the short conversation about body betrayal occurred. (I said the first sentence. I don't remember who said the second.)

We all started losing agility and took the technical downhills a bit more carefully. I definitely took the most almost falls, catching a toe probably 20 times, but I was the only one not to trip and fall. I also appreciated that Ruby and Ali let me set the pace most of the way back, as I was definitely the slowest of us that day.

My diaphragm issues returned again, and I got pretty concerned about the last big downhill, where I'd had terrible diaphragm pain two years ago. In the meantime, we had to make it up that hill. Although we had expressed our appreciation at the shade on this trail throughout the morning, the sun hit us for stretches of the last steep climb. We felt no shame in walking most of that half-mile. (I swear it was longer, but my GPS shows we climbed more than 300 feet in half a mile.) At one point, I had to lean against a tree to let some nausea pass. 


We hit the final crest and got to run the final 2.4 miles downhill! It was glorious, and best of all, no diaphragm problems. I was so happily surprised. Although those tibialis anterior spasms were wicked! I had to stop and stretch my shins against a tree.

When we reached the trailhead, we had only a half-mile back to camp. We all perked up a bit. (Ruby asked me where I got my energy from. I mumbled something back about it being emotional energy, not physical energy.) And as we made the final turn onto the camp road, I had to ask Ruby and Ali to slow down, so I could keep up. Mikey later told me I looked the worst of the three of us on our return.

Ruby and Ali had looked forward to getting in the river when we got back to camp, so we walked down there, and I was pretty impressed that we were all walking pretty well. We rinsed off and soaked up some sun (welcome now that we weren't moving uphill). My mind immediately started letting go of how low I'd felt a couple of hours before, and I tried to appreciate what we had just accomplished.

We all got a little stiff sitting on the rocks, and the walk uphill wasn't as pretty. Ruby and Ali both had to head back home that afternoon, but Mikey and I stayed that night at camp. We did a little self-care, including foam rolling and trying to get some much-needed calories in our stomachs. Ruby took down her camp solo and told us she was eager to do another ultra! Ali and I, however, were quite content to do that once and never again. (Ruby, by the way, had never even run a marathon before!)

After my friends left, I tried to drink some electrolytes and eat my favorite hot-weather, post-run snack: salty chips. Mikey knew I'd want them and had set them out for me, but after about five chips I gave up, as my stomach wasn't having it. We finished running at 3 p.m., and finally about 6 p.m., I was able to get down a salty soup. My stomach settled, and an hour later I was able to eat another soup and a protein bar. Mikey took good care of me after spending the whole day with the mutts at camp.

After that, recovery was much easier than expected. My legs were ready for a recovery run the next day (but my diaphragm was not). I had no low back pain, and the only real issue for a couple of days was some chafing on my midback because my heavier-than-usual pack sat oddly. Ruby and Ali reported some stomachache and sore shoulders, but we all were back on our feet quickly. (Ali even worked an entire shift standing at her bakery the next morning!)

I think we recovered so easily because we took the run as slowly as we did. We stopped our watches 8 hours after we started them. My watch showed 29.68 miles, and Ali's showed 30.87. Ruby's would have shown 31.1 if her battery hadn't died a couple of miles from the finish.

Our celebration of our day was minimal. Because of the coronavirus, we didn't hug or even high five. We spent the weekend 6 feet or more apart. We also stepped off trail when we encountered hikers, unless they beat us to it. We didn't share food or equipment. And although I felt guilt over doing something so extreme while our nation, state, and county's cases were increasing, I knew it was a low-risk activity. We also stayed close to home and made no unnecessary stops. I'm sharing these things not to brag about how safe we were but because I think it's important that we get outside safely. If you have any questions about how to recreate responsibly, please send me a message, or go here.

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