Of all the things that might have prevented me from finishing my first 50-mile ultramarathon, a blister wasn’t one I would have predicted. My pained calves, perhaps, or a breathing issue that had been plaguing me this spring. But not something so pedestrian as a heel blister, surely.
Still, as I plodded up a hill just past mile 30 of the Glacier Ridge Trail Ultramarathon 50-Mile Race, already limping to avoid rubbing my heel too much, I felt it tear, a literal ripping sensation that sent waves of pain up my leg. And I stopped in the middle of the trail, tears in my eyes, wondering if this nagging thing – normally no more than an annoyance – would be the thing that did me in.
It seemed so ironic. Going into this race on May 12 at Moraine State Park, just north of Pittsburgh, PA, I had a number of pains and anxieties.
- My calves have been hurting terribly for the last few weeks, surely from the constant miles I had been putting on them. This pain was so bad that I hobbled the first mile at least of every run, and other areas were hurting from compensating for the pain.
- My allergies have been terrible, as spring made a late but sudden arrival, and my breathing had been an issue even before allergy season.
- Mentally, I felt unprepared. Though I was averaging 50-60 miles a week, my long runs weren’t nearly as long as most training plans suggested. The excitement was diminished, and the anxiety was real. I even let in the niggling concept of dropping during the race if the pain was too much.
But I finished. I may have walked more than I would have liked, and I limped awkwardly for miles. Wearing shoes is painful due to the blister that is still infected and aching a week later. But the sense of elation that I felt crossing the finish line at 11 hours, 47 minutes is still with me today. And I can honestly say that the blister may have helped by giving me something to focus on. But more on that later.
Glacier Ridge Trail Ultramarathon is not a large or well-known race (outside of that section of Pennsylvania), but I chose it for a few reasons: I wanted a late-spring 50 miler to keep me training through the winter, and I wanted to travel somewhere within driving distance so I could spend a few days after the race sightseeing, similar to the 50k race I ran last year in Vermont. It came down to this one or the Dirty German in Philadelphia, but since that one was loops and this was an out-and-back, I picked this.
My intention for a spring 50 was to bookend the running season, with Twisted Branch 100k in August closing things out. I signed up for both last fall after being inexplicably ghosted by my former running partners, and I figured committing to these races would convince me to keep pushing and to find new, inspiring fellow runners. A good part of my running experience the last two years was centered around training with my old group, so I wanted to prove to myself I had surpassed that effort and could do this on my own.
As noted, training for this race was hit or miss. Rather than follow a training plan developed by someone else that felt rigid and stressful, as I did the last two years, I wanted to be more relaxed. I started strong in January, building my weekly miles and taking several 15- to 20-mile long runs with Jaime. I ran several intermediate runs with Russ, often on Sunday following a longer Saturday run. And I split some days into morning and evening runs to experience tired legs.
I didn’t, however, get 30+ mile runs in prior to the race. My longest may have been 24. And I didn’t get the weekly miles into the 60s. A few weeks before the race, my legs were protesting. Calves hurt terribly, and other muscles and tendons ached from compensation. I pressed on and make rolling a regular activity, but the pain made me more and more nervous. I even considered dropping down to the 50k, but that seemed silly. If I couldn’t run, a 50k wouldn’t be much easier, and if I felt great, I’d regret not going through with the whole thing.
I only had one run of 50 miles in my history, and that was on a mostly flat and partially paved one-mile loop during a 12-hour race last summer. That gave me some confidence that I could keep moving for 50 miles, especially since I didn’t train much for that event. Still, I had stomach issues during that event and struggled mentally, almost dropping out several times, and the anxiety of dealing with those two things during this race compounded my worry.
Moraine State Park (and Jennings Park, which connected) is about 40 minutes north of Pittsburgh. I watched a couple YouTube videos from people running the 50k and 50 miler last year, and it looked beautiful. All week I obsessed over the weather, which went from high 80s (ugh!) to 60s with ongoing thunder storms (again, ugh). Day of, however, it settled somewhere in between, forecasting mostly cloudy weather and thunder storms in the afternoon.
It was cool, barely at 50 when I got to the park a little after 5 am for a 6 am start. The start was fairly low-key. I hung out toward the back, hoping to pace myself, which always is a struggle for me. As with every race, the anxiety and excitement finally disappears when you start to move, and I felt good hitting the course in the cool early-morning air.
The race includes options for 50 miles, 50k, 30k, and a 50-mile relay, with the 50-milers and relayers starting at 6, 50k at 7, and 30k at 8 to spread people out. It also started on a paved bike path for a mile, which helped spread out the runners nicely before hitting the single track on the Glacier Ridge trail.
The course is sort of Y-shaped. You run 10 miles through Moraine to the main aid station, then cross the road and head left for an about 11-mile out-and-back with a lollipop loop on the end through Jennings. The 50k runners head back to the start, while 50 milers check in at the aid station, cross the road again, and head another way for 20 extra miles on mostly logging roads with a little trail. You get to hit your drop bag at the middle aid station three times, which is reassuring, and that station has the best food for the race.
At the start, when we hit the singletrack, I settled into a nice pace and was able to enjoy the park. The sun was up and bright, and the view was amazing. Moraine is such a startlingly beautiful park, with high visibility, wildflowers and other beautiful plants, and crystal-clear ponds and lakes. I wished I had my camera to take pictures, but it was stuffed in my back and out of reach.
I fell in behind one woman and started chatting. We kept up a great conversation and easy pace for most of the first 10 miles. I pulled away from her up a long hill and figured she’d catch me going back down, but it was hours until I saw her again.
At that first stop of the aid station, I was feeling great. Legs felt good, mind was at ease, and pace was right. I felt entirely confident that I would finish this race. I refilled my bottles and took off for the next stretch.
Now the blister started to nag. Here’s the thing – I bought new shoes a while back. They were cheap online, and they were the same brand as I always wore. But I only wore them a few times on trails to wear them in. And a week before this race, I got a blister on my heel with them. It wasn’t bad, and it was mostly healed up, but I had it covered with a bandage and moleskin just in case.
It started hurting on this stretch of the race, but I ignored it. I fell into a little caravan of people. Here and there a few people dropped off until it was me and the man who was leading the group. We chatted about races and pains and the like and had a nice conversation until he stopped to use the bathroom and I kept going. Into the little loop with a very nice, peaceful aid station, and I was off again heading back. There were a lot of people on this stretch, some going around the loop in the wrong way, and I marveled at one 50-mile relay person wearing a cotton t-shirt and what looked like boat shoes with white socks.
Back at the middle aid station at mile 21 or so, I sat to change my socks and re-bandage the heel. A change of shirt and hat felt wonderful, because the temperature was getting warm, but so far we had been in the shade under the trees, so it hadn’t bothered me.
On the next stretch, it was only 50-mile and relay runners, so far fewer people to talk to or run with. Two women doing the relay leg were running together, and I’d pass them up hills, while they’d pass me down. And that’s what this stretch was for 10 miles: long up hills and long downs, over and over again. Just when I thought I got to the inevitable top, it went down and up again.
And we were on open logging roads, long since unused and so full of ruts and horse poop. (As an aside, how come people freak out if a dog leaves a small pile of poop in a park but it’s totally ok to let the horse splatter a massive mound of excrement in the middle of a trail?) These logging roads were totally exposed to the sun, and the temperature had now risen to the low 80s. Those clouds and rain that were promised were nowhere to be seen, and the heat was getting to us. My heel hurt more, and I was falling into the mode of shuffling up hills with my head down and slowly running the downs.
There was only one unmanned water stop halfway out on this stretch, so when the end came into sight with a full aid station, I was relieved. These volunteers were the nicest and most helpful of the bunch (or maybe I just needed them more), and I gratefully refilled my water with ice and Tailwind. This wasn’t the turn-around, however. We had to go a mile and a half further on, up hill and through a field, to a phone book hanging from an exposed pipe, tear out a page, and return with it to prove we did the extra miles. People like the phone book idea; it’s very Barkley Marathons, I suppose. My heel was killing me, and I just wanted to go back.
But onward I trudged, into the woods (at last) and up a long, steep hill. That’s when I felt the blister physically tear, and I stopped in the middle of the trail and nearly cried out in the pain. I never knew a blister could hurt so much, and I didn’t know what to do. Every step rubbed against it, even with the bandage, and the uphills were the worst. So I trudged on, my left foot turned sideways so I could plant it with as little rubbing motion as possible, teeth clenched against the pain.
Those coming back were running down, and a few asked if I was alright. They could see the pain on my face, and I felt so stupid. It was a blister, of all things, not a hamstring tear or something serious. I nodded and tried to smile and kept going. At last, there was the book, and I tore out a page and headed back.
Downhills didn’t hurt quite as much, but I was landing every step with my foot pushed forward, trying to keep it flat but banging my toes forward to relieve pressure on my heel. At this point, my big toe was starting to hurt too, but I compartmentalized that. I passed the two relay women again, and they complimented me on how strong I looked. I hissed out an explanation of the pain I was feeling through clenched teeth, and both looked aghast as I passed them and went back to the aid station.
There, I turned in my page and sat in a camp chair, taking the first aid kit and peeling off my shoe and sock carefully. It didn’t look as bad as I feared, though there was blood. I patched it up and taped the bandage on to keep it from moving and started gobbling up oranges and watermelon. I didn’t want to leave the shade of this aid station. There was 20 more miles to go, and it was in the mid-80s now. I worried I wouldn’t make it.
Back down the road, walking more than running even on the downhills, each step a wince of pain. I kept a few people in sight, marveling that they always seemed to be in front of me, off in the distance, for the entire day. Later, I would pass all of them, but that wouldn’t be for hours.
I fell in with the man who made a YouTube video for the 50-mile race last year. He finished in 10.5 hours, but he was walking slowly now. We chatted a bit, and he kept repeating that this was not his day. He’d finish over an hour behind me but in good spirits!
I had stopped sweating an hour ago, and this had me nervous, but now clouds were coming in. The light breeze that helped with the heat was gone, but the temperature dropped a bit. Humidity took its place, and this was worse. I kept going, jealously wondering where the man off in the distance found two perfect-length sticks to use as poles for the hills, then passing them by where he had left them for fear of lugging the extra weight.
I came back into the main aid station at long last, figuring I was near the back of the pack of 50-milers but certain now to finish, even if I had to crawl or hop the last 10 miles. I changed my socks, shirt, and hat again, and this time I dug my old, beat-up trail shoes from my drop bag. A re-bandaged blister and new shoes (and perhaps a few more Ibuprofen) did the trick. I started back to the start/finish feeling rejuvenated again.
The pain in my heel came and went, sometimes bringing me nearly to a stop but other times receding into just an annoyance. I was running each downhill and powering up the hills. I passed people here and there, some of whom I had seen for hours, and everyone was struggling with the heat, humidity, and conditions. We all agreed the 50k route was challenging but beautiful; the 50-mile route was grueling.
I just wanted to get to the mid-point water stop. All the Tailwind and Huma gels that I had been consuming were leaving my stomach feeling sick and my mouth coated. I started to feel light headed and wondered if it was the blood, the digestion issues, or something else. I ignored it and kept going. At last, the water stop was in sight, and though it was supposed to be an unmanned water stop, a volunteer was there to help fill bottles and pass out non-frozen but still delicious popsicles. I guzzled water and filled one bottle for the last five miles, and as I started back out, the first drops of rain began to fall.
Glorious, glorious rain! It was as if a switch was flipped. The humidity was tempered, and I was cool and comfortable again. The trail grew slick but not unrunnable, and I took off running. The downhills were bombed, and the uphills were overtaken. I passed a few more people who I didn’t even know were ahead. I felt like I was flying, and at one point I looked up into the rain drizzling through the leaves and laughed. These must be 8-minute miles, I figured (closer to 12, it turns out), and I would be back and done in no time! I was so ready to be done.
My watch droned that the battery was low, but I knew I was under 12 hours. That was my goal, and I had to beat it now. At long last, I burst from the singletrack on to the paved trail, groaning at the sign saying it was 1.2 miles remaining to the finish. Still, it was mostly flat, and I was running like the wind! (Here I was managing a 10-minute mile, my fastest mile since the first one nearly 12 hours earlier, but it felt like an all-out spring.) I passed two more runners who laughed at me, and I encouraged them to run to the finish. They would finish more than 15 minutes behind me.
Finally, to the finish, and the handful of people who were still around. I raised my hands in excitement as I finished in 11:47. I took my beautiful glass medal and hobbled into the shelter for a non-sugary drink and collapsed at the picnic table.
Each time a runner was coming in, though, I felt the need to get up and go out to cheer him or her on. I think moving around helped, because I managed to get back to my car for a change of clothes and wonderful beer, and I sat to watch for those I had talked to for so many hours. They dribbled in here and there, and I congratulated each for what we managed to get through. With 25 minutes left before the 14-hour cutoff, I got in the car to head back.
According to the results, I finished 24th overall for the 50-mile race out of 65 people. Not a point in the race did I think I was in the top half. And judging by the number of folks who finished after me before I left, I never imagined I was so close to the front. I’m sure those ahead of me were far ahead of me, but this result was better than I imagined, especially as I was struggling to place my foot without moaning in pain at each unending uphill stretch.
The sense of elation I get from finishing a hard race at an ultramarathon distance is like a drug. No wonder people keep signing up for these things. Everyone around me talked about the 50- and 100-mile races they ran, and I finished in the top half. I belonged in that group.
Most of the race, I had a smile on my face. The blister hurt for so much of it, though, and I was amazed at how much it could hurt. It got infected, and it still hurts nearly a week later. I think it’s getting better. I’m eager to run again, but I’m trying to let it heal up. Still, I wonder if having that one particular painful thing to draw my attention took focus away from all the other pains and discomforts. My stomach didn’t bother me much, and neither did my legs. Or if they did, the discomfort paled in comparison to my foot. And knowing it was a blister, which seems so small an annoyance, meant I never really considered not continuing to move forward, step after step.
These parks were absolutely stunning in their beauty. There was a wide mix of terrain, from smooth and fast singletrack to rocky, bounder-strewn, ankle-bending trail. There were plenty of hills, but none so steep or unending that they threatened to beat me. I would love to go back here and run again for fun. The 50k route itself would be a perfect race; the logging roads got relentless and difficult. But a 50-mile race isn’t supposed to be easy, and I was never promised an easy first 50.
The volunteers were wonderful as well. There were only three real manned aid stations with a few other unmanned water drops, and the volunteers were such big helps at all of them. Especially when I needed them most at the end of the long 50-mile-only stretch – those people were patient saints.
Now I know my training was good enough and my legs were strong enough. I kept up the nutrition as best as I had to and stayed hydrated. I had packed my dropbag well and used most of the clothes changes and supplies that I brought. It was a success all around.
Fifty miles in nearly 12 hours is a long day in the woods. It’s fun to get people’s reactions when I say I ran that far. But, more importantly, it’s so gratifying to prove to myself that I was capable of pushing myself through such a long and difficult race and finish at a fast run with a grin on my face.
A few beautiful pictures of the park from race day: