Five days out from the Blues Cruise 50k I was plastered to the couch, unable to do much more than get up briefly to get a drink or take another round of medication. I’m not sure how I would define my illness exactly – it felt flu-like, with fatigue and weakness and achiness, but my temperature was hovering pretty close to normal and my appetite was still surprisingly decent. But running 31 miles was looking just about impossible from the vantage point of my couch. Still, I reasoned that five days offered plenty of time for recuperation
The following day, Wednesday, wasn’t much better, but by Thursday I finally saw a bit of improvement. I managed to get Brody out for a short walk, though despite all the sleep over the last 48 hours I still was dragging. By the evening I was feeling a little more energetic, and then headed back to work for an extra long day on Friday.
Aside from 30 minutes of easy running Friday and Saturday, I didn’t do much of anything the entire week leading up to Blues Cruise. This was meant to be a training race (for my 50-miler in November) without much of a taper, but an intense, unplanned taper was forced upon me. If nothing else, I headed to the starting line with very well rested legs!
My plan was to forget about any time goals and finish the race without totally wiping myself out. I also planned to pay close attention to my nutrition, which I figured would be extra important after battling some sort of virus all week.
Sunday morning dawned cool and damp and overcast, a typical fall morning which was much better suited to running than the humid, 80 degree weather when I ran this race 2 years ago. I headed out to Reading and arrived with plenty of time to relax and prepare before the race start at 8:30.
The Blues Cruise course is one, enormous 31-mile loop around Blue Marsh Lake, just outside of Reading, PA. It’s rare to find a 50k that doesn’t involve at least some repeated loops – Blues Cruise is unusual in that regard. To keep things interesting, on even-numbered years the course is run clockwise and on odd-numbered years it’s run counter-clockwise. Since I last ran this race in 2013, I would be running it in the same direction as I had previously. The course is mostly single track, with lots of rolling hills for about 3,000 total feet of elevation gain. It’s a beautiful course that offers views of the lake, some wide-open, grassy fields, and only a few very short sections of pavement or packed gravel.
Just under 400 runners headed out from the starting line at the Pavilion right on time, and I let myself drift back to the middle of the pack. No need to rush when I knew I’d be out on the course for well over 5 hours.
The first four miles cover some rolling hills, but nothing overly strenuous. The pack thinned out quickly, which was helpful since much of this race is on fairly narrow single track. While there are plenty of opportunities to pass other runners, there are long stretches where it can be a little challenging to do so. I settled in and didn’t try to pass anyone early on – plenty of time for that later, I figured (assuming, of course, I actually felt up to it).
Despite my minimal running over the past week, my legs didn’t feel too heavy or clunky and I was rolling along nicely. When you’re running the course counter-clockwise around the lake, miles 5 through 10 are the flattest stretch. Though I tried to avoid looking at my Garmin for almost the entire duration of the race, I was pleasantly surprised to see some 9-minute miles during this section of the course. On the road that would typically be an easy pace, but on the trail that’s a pretty decent pace for me.
Mile 11 meant it was time to tackle the “Ski Slope” hill, the longest climb on the course. I power hiked it and felt strong, passing a few people on the way up and, even better, not getting passed by too many on the way back down. I kept powering along through the next 6 miles. While I wasn’t looking at my Garmin, I knew the mile 18 aid station would be coming up soon and I started getting a little antsy waiting for it. But I was continuing to run strong on a lot of rolling hills, passing more people as the crowd continued to thin out.
Finally I got to the Mile 18 aid station. This was where our drop bags were located and I needed to make a quick stop for a few items. I had packed extra shoes and socks in anticipation of a muddy course, but with the exception of a few small puddles, it was surprisingly dry out there. Despite some trouble untying an overzealous knot in the drawstring of my drop bag, the aid station volunteers did a fantastic job getting me in and out of there as quickly as possible. I grabbed a couple more gels and a fruit bar to add to my pack, and a volunteer added water and caffeinated Tailwind to my bag. And yes – powdery white Tailwind measured out in a small ziploc looks awfully sketchy – but the volunteer and I got a kick out of it at least!
I must have slacked off on my nutrition a bit after this stop, because about 4 or 5 miles later I started to feel a little fatigued and jittery. I walked for a bit, had a gel and some big gulps of the water/Tailwind in my hydration pack, and started to feel better almost immediately. I had also conveniently forgotten how many longer hills come in the last 10 miles of this race. While I continued to run all the flat and downhill sections, I started to do more walking than I would have liked over the last third of the course.
I took turns passing and getting passed by a few friendly, chatty runners over these miles, but I didn’t let myself get demoralized when I was left behind. I was sore and tired, but my spirits were good and I kept reminding myself to enjoy the challenge as well as the beauty of the course. And something I had read earlier in the week stuck with me – there’s a difference between pain, and suffering. Pain is to be expected on a run of this distance, but pain doesn’t automatically have to turn into suffering. I let myself expect it, acknowledge it, and then just be as comfortable as I could with it. Even though I slowed more than I would have preferred by the end of this race, I definitely won the mental battle. And since this race was part of my preparation for the Stone Mill 50 Miler I’m running mid-November, the mental training was just as essential as the physical.
The final aid station came with just under 5 miles to go. Aside from mile 18, this was the only other aid station I stopped at. I took a couple Endurolytes and ate some salted potatoes, which seem to have become a favorite for me in ultras! Then it was time to push through to the finish. I remembered what Pam had told me when I got to this aid station during the 2013 race – only 4 miles to go – how many hundreds of times had I run that distance? No problem, right?
There are a couple of evil hills during the last few miles of the race when you run it this direction – nothing that would be too terrible on their own, but with 28 miles on my legs they definitely felt challenging. I pushed through, walking several sections, but then promised myself to run the entire last mile no matter what it entailed. The finish line finally came into view and for the first time in hours I looked at my time. 5:38! This turned out to be a 10 minute course PR and a 7 minute 50k PR. I was the 19th female overall and 7th in my new, competitive, 40-49 year old age group.
There’s so much good to take with me from this race, but now it’s time to focus on the goal ahead – 50 miles on November 14th.