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In The Mind Of A 50-Mile Trail Race Champ

Author: Ashley Spring Gateless

June 03, 2014

Mile 40. Broken, cold, collapsed under a trash bag, I had come so far, but the reality was that in that pre-hypothermic state I couldn’t go on. I couldn’t finish. The stubbornness, drive, passion in my soul was crushed by the thought of it.

I have run through shin splints, stress fractures, chaff, blisters and shredded toenails. Some might think of it as commitment or maybe stupidity. I’m pretty sure I’m just stubborn. I did my due diligence and ran the “marathon,” but have always preferred trails. I prefer making my way through a staircase of rocks and dodging tree roots to pounding pavement with a mob of people. I could run 26.2—what’s next? A 50k didn’t sound so bad. It’s only another 5 miles. And hey, there are only a few miles between 50k and 50 mi., right?

We herded onto the street waiting for 6 a.m. to arrive and then took off. I was armed with my hydration pack, a gps watch I could barely operate and my playlist. There was a nip in the air and a threat of rain, but I was feeling good. Actually, I was feeling great.

“Run your race.”
“Pace yourself.”
“Only 49.7 miles to go.”

It’s hard to explain that moment when you find peace in your cadence; each step is a refreshing moment. You love the suffering, perhaps more than the success. I was cruising, every so often taking a deep yogic breath. My heart flushed with the feeling of being present every step. It felt right, all the training, or lack thereof, didn’t matter anymore. What mattered was the next step.

“I wonder what snacks they’ll have at the aid station.”
“100 songs. That should get me a least six hours of play time.”
“Coke, yeah, coke." (Thinks the person who will forever say no to high fructose corn syrup.)

I hit the 50k mark and headed into the unknown. Each step took me farther than I’d ever run before, and I was still feeling good, maintaining a steady pace. I calculated that I was well ahead of any other woman on the course. I was not only going to crush this race, I might actually win. If that doesn’t add a little giddy up to your step, I’m not sure what would.

“Did I lock the door this morning?”
“Life ain’t a track meet, it’s a marathon.” (Thanks for that one, Ice Cube.)
“Mmm...bubbles.”

Mile 33. The wind picked up and it wasn’t chasing me, it was charging me. My pace slowed a bit, the miles taking toll on my hips. Still positive … sort of.

“Only two more miles…”
“Then only five miles to the next checkpoint.”
“Ten after that—that’s nothing.”

My stomach churned. The steady stream of energy gels, chews and electrolytes left a foul taste in my mouth. Eating is important, but trying to get anything to stay in my stomach was challenging. The lack of quality sustenance was taking its toll. Dropping down the hill toward the checkpoint, I saw the woman in second climbing back out. She had taken the 5 a.m. start, so I had a good 45-minute advantage.
And then I hit the wall. Not physical, not mental, but of (super) natural origins. Fog enveloped the trail; wind, a cold hard blast to the core; rain saturated everything. Then came the hail, a harsh sting as each pebble ricocheted off my exposed skin. My heart sank, drowning every last bit of psych left in my chilled bones.

“Stay strong.”
“just finish.”
“Keep moving.”

A dead stop. Mile 40.

As I stumbled down the trail at a snail’s pace, I looked up and saw myself: Adorned in an oversized green patterned fleece, bright blue gloves and an industrial size trash bag. I was a dilapidated human trudging along as the spry young relay racers sailed by.

“Just give in.”
“Epic failure.”
“Run the world, girls.” (Yeah, Beyonce!)

The sun peeked through the clouds, baking the trash bag. Off went the sack, and the rest shortly after, leaving behind a determined runner with the number 9 pinned to her hip and three miles left to go.
I crossed the finish line. Doubling over, it hit me—I didn’t win this on my own. It wasn’t simply the people cheering at the finish line, at the 40-mile checkpoint with a spare fleece and gloves, the man with the extra trash bag, or all the people on the course that day testing their own strengths puffing out a “nice job” as I passed by. It was all the people who inspired, coached, cheered, and challenged me through the years that got me to that finish. And I am grateful for every one of them.

The amazing thing about the trail-running community is the true solidarity of others struggling on the course at your side. You are cheering for each other as much as you are competing. You test your limits and expose your limitations. Though I have many passions, running is the one thing I’ve always come back to, and while I may not ever run faster, it makes sense that the alternative is simply to run further.

At 50 miles, you’re halfway to 100, so might as well keep going, right? Sound logic!

My recipe for getting to the finish line:

“Leadville, anyone?”

Ashley Spring Gateless