Tuesday, August 13, 2013

My First 50k: Great Cranberry Island Ultra

The thing about a 50k is that it really isn't a big deal. I mean, if you've run a few marathons (I've run more than a few) then it's no biggie, right? - 5 extra miles.  Baaaaaaa. How can you even call that an "ultra"?

And then it's a week away and the freak sets in. This was a little bit like giving birth (or the anticipation of it) for me. I never took a childbirth class - When I asked my doc if I should, she said, "Well, it depends on how comfortable you are with the whole thing". I spoke to all my momma friends and asked: "Did you get anything out of taking a childbirth class?" The singular reply I got was: "I learned how to breathe in and out", with accompanying demonstrations of the crucial breathing technique. Well, I thought, I already know how to do that. And I thought to myself, well, women have been giving birth since the beginning of humankind, so what's the big deal. Then at about 39 weeks I started to freak. It hit me: "OH MY GOD, this thing has to come out of me!!!". And a 50k felt the same way. It was no big deal, until it was right there and I had to do something I had never done before...


We land at the Manchester-Boston International Airport at midnight. Exiting the building from baggage claim to collect the rental car, we walk smack into an invisible wall of humidity. I let out a sigh and a quiet, resigned, 'uggggg', and we load up and head for the Econo Lodge.

The next day we head to Maine. The weather is heavy and thick. I know that lower altitude is supposed to feel good. I'm supposed to feel all light and oxygen enriched, but in reality I usually feel the weight of all that extra oxygen. Add to this the fact that my sinuses are in total revolt, and I feel like I'm moving through a world of mud with a fish bowl on my head - And I can honestly say that I am not feeling very psyched.

Two days before my first 50k, and I barely (NO exaggeration) stumble through 4.4 miles of jogging.

So for the next two days I fortify myself with Sudafed and nighttime Ibuprofen. I gotta clear this noggin, and I gotta sleep. NOW. I can not actually imagine running this thing right now.

I chill. We sail out to Little Whaleboat Island. I sleep. Things improve, a little.

 You can barely tell that my head is about to explode and make a big fat mess all over the deck, can ya??

And then we make our way north, a drive my husband and I used to make so often, from Brunswick to Bar Harbor to climb on Mount Desert. It has been a very long time. So much is the same - exactly the same as it was 19 years ago. That is both comforting and disconcerting. I'm not the same. And yet, I am the same.

We make our way through Southwest Harbor, in a steady rain, to the Seawall Motel situated right at a natural seawall.  It's thick-as-pea-soup foggy out now - and the cool, salty moisture feels good. Except for the gently lapping surf, all is quiet darkness out across the bay where I know Great Cranberry Island sits in wait. I stand on the second floor walkway, and look out where I know the island sleeps. I still can't quite get my head around this...

I wake at 7:30. At this time the air has a cool nip to it. If only we could be running now! The race starts at 11:30 (to allow people to get out to the island and for those who are camping to have time to set up their tents), but the boats only leave every two hours, so I need to catch the 9 a.m. boat. After a frantic search for the ferry dock (small Maine towns like to keep things interesting for those "from away") I jump out of the car in a bit of a fluster bid farewell to my husband and daughter, and trot down to the dock barely catching the boat. 

I'm on the boat with Jill (no longer 'just' a facebook friend) and her boyfriend Brian. Lot's of Marathon Maniacs on board - lots of chatter, introductions, stories shared - and we all know, or perhaps we don't know, what's coming. And I can't help but feel that we are somehow sailing off to battle...And I am reminded of what often plays through my head at these times:
From Shakespeare's Henry V, 1598:
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

I know. A little over the top. A little melodramatic, but there's something to it!

And all is peaceful...The calm before it all begins...

We arrive at the island and there are pickup trucks and decrepit island cars and golf carts a plenty to haul our stuff the 1/2 mile up the hill to the start. As we walk up this hill, it dawns on me that soon I will be running up it, quite a few times.

Then there's time to kill - it's only 9:30. I get my bib, introduce myself to Gary Allen (RD and head of Crow Athletic, a northern Maine running club of which I'm actually a member), park my self and my stuff in a shady spot on the porch of a church and stroll over to a little cafe for some much need coffee.

Clouds obscure the sun, but each time the sun comes out of hiding it feels like a stab of heat. Please, more clouds.

Finally 11:30 approaches. Speeches are made, the national Anthem is sung, and we're off...

 Thus begins the journey of 7.5 laps of  the island...

And everyone seems to take off like a shot. Here's what I'm thinking: "Ummm, folks, we have 31 miles to go. Where's everyone off to so fast??" You'd think that most of us have been around the proverbial block a few times and know better than to try to pull a jack rabbit start - but no. Everyone's happily chatting along as if this was just a fun little island jaunt. What's wrong with me??  Lots of people are running with friends. I have no friends - well Jill is here somewhere, but I don't know where. I trot along, alone, and the arch of my right foot is screaming at me. Now, I do have a right foot injury (from twisting my foot in a hardened horse hoof print on the trail months ago) nagging me (peroneal tendonitis at the 5th metatarsal attachment) but it's never been that arch! Okay. Work it out. (WTF!!)

We round the first turnaround and I'm heading back, seeing the people coming the other way. I spot Jill and Brian. We high five. A guy with a mohawk yells out "Go Chronic". I chuckle and wave, not sure I heard it right and too surprised to say anything. And the first miles tick along...

During this race we pass over the start/finish line, ummmm, I don't know, 14, 15 times - Oh, I can't possibly do the math. Our names are announced, and as always, people struggle with mine. But as I cross and head down the hill toward the next turnaround I hear my name. Then I hear, "Hey, I'm Facebook friends with you" over the loudspeakers. I wave and trot off.

Any remaining clouds burn off within the first hour and the sun beats down from the blue bird blue skies. The only saving grace is slight breeze that feels like a gift from the gods, though the gods could be a bit more generous!

Again I pass the guy with the mohawk - I hear, "Good job Chronic". Okay. I did hear that. "I can't believe you know that!", I call back. "Thanks". He responds, "It's easier than your real name". Then I hear a runner, 'Jim' is on his bib, call out, "Good job Caolan".

And so it goes, lap after lap after lap after lap. You see the same people, over and over and over. You cheer everyone on. They cheer you on. You get to 'know' them is a strange sense. The Islanders come out. They see how you're doing on lap 2...on lap 6... two women have cheered for me each time I pass their house: Lap 6 "Caolan, you're so consistent, so strong. great job" Ummm, I don't feel that way!

As the 80+ish heat and 75+% humidity begin to wear on me I stop at the table where we stash our stuff and pull out my bottle of HEED, pouring it into a smaller handheld. This is valuable time, time I don't ever allow in a marathon - but hey - THIS is an ULTRA, right? I do this 4 times over the course of the run, but I'm glad I did, even though I now wonder just how much time I "wasted" doing that.

As I cross the mark entering my last lap, I see my husband and daughter. My husband asks how much I have to go. Another lap, I tell him - which of course means nothing to him - but to me it means this is the hard one - the last 4 miles. And this lap is hard - really really hard. At the final turn, I can no longer calculate how far I have to go. I look at my Garmin, but still I'm second guessing it. Is it 1 or 2 miles left. Oh, I give up. Just run.

My adductors are cramping on the uphill, cambered roads - and I'm trying to delay the inevitable. With half a mile to go I suddenly realize that it's not the mile and a half I thought I had left. I see the flags that line the road leading to the finish, and my legs come alive. I push with all I have up the final hill to the finish. 5:04:44.

As usual, all is a blur after I cross the mat. All I can think is: "I gotta get these shoes off NOW". A volunteer runs up to me and loops a medal/belt buckle over my head. Another runs over with my finishers 'rock'. My daughter runs to me, excitedly animated as always asking things I can't quite make sense of. I hobble over to my bags - and stand there trying to figure out what to do first. I can't really move.

I wait for Jill. I talk with the people I've spent this long day with: Jim, Bob, Nancy, Maddy, John, Shawn, Zach and Juli... etc...all people I know now - who I didn't know this morning. 

We make our way the half mile back down to the boat dock. Doug (Welch), the guy with the mohawk, is still running, now with a beer in hand.
"How do I know you?" I call out to him. He walks over to me, "Facebook and your blog". "I really appreciate your support today. Thanks", I say. We chat for a bit. We hug, and he trots off up the hill.

And as we wait for our ferry back to Southwest Harbor, I stand in the icy waters looking across Frenchman’s Bay to Mount Desert and the rolling blue hills. And I am tired and hungry and salty and achy to the bone...and happy.

And that's the story of my first 'ultra'. Does that make me an "ultramarathoner"? I don't know. But it has changed me. And now the story continues...
“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face...You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”  Eleanor Roosevelt 


  1. Awesome job! That is so cool about everyone cheering for each other. Makes the laps more interesting.
    I'm definitely calling you an Ultramarathoner!

    1. I thought the lap thing would be difficult, but the fact is, you tend to focus on the laps not the miles, so that sort of changes the mindset. By the end everyone was cheering everyone else on.

  2. Congratulations ultrarunner! That's a heck of a course profile. :)

    1. It was up or down. No flat. The shocking truth about Maine islands!

  3. Enjoyed the report! Congratulations on being an ultra-runner. That sea dip looks nice, very nice. :^)

    1. I can't tell you how many times I wanted to dive in running past this same point 8 times! It would have been nice if someone had handed me a glass of wine! I could have stood there for a Looooong time ;)

  4. Amazing! Both the story and the run!

    1. Thank you. I do this to make sure I don't forget!!

  5. Great race Caolan! That sounds like an incredible adventure and you are so strong! Congrats on the great race.

  6. Great race report! Congratulations on a great finish! Despite the heat and humidity, that looks like a beautiful course.


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