Race Recap: Breaks 40-Miler

From the website on the Breaks 40-miler:

"THIS IS NOT A RACE FOR FIRST TIMERS. The terrain is treacherous, and the elevation is extreme for a 43 mile race. If you have not completed an ultramarathon in the past, this is not the race to start. The Breaks 40 Miler requires experienced trail runners due to the variations in terrain, complexity of navigating the course, and elevation levels."

Elevation Chart
The quick and dirty about the race:
  • This was an inaugural race. It was listed as 42.3 miles with 11,400' net elevation gain; most runners ended up with 45-47 miles by GPS watches. (My Garmin Fenix 5 Sapphire had 46.91 miles with 11,300' net elevation gain). 
  • 62 registrants, 57 starters, 21 finishers. First place overall finished in 10:22 and last place finished in 15:35.
  • This is the kind of race for people who like technical ultras with more climbing and tricky footwork than running.
  • No matter how hard this race looks and sounds, it's harder than that. 
  • This is a great race for testing your hill work, especially in training for a longer distance race.
  • Many runners used trekking poles. (I have never used them, and did not try them out on this race).
  • Aid Stations were well-stocked and volunteers were all wonderful. 
  • Course marking was good, but could have been more clear in a few places. I referred to my location about 3 times via GPX app and downloaded course maps. Each time I was in the right place, but unsure because ribbons were a bit far apart.
  • Heat and humidity this time of year is definitely a factor in performance and race management.
  • Managing nutrition for this race was harder for me because of the additional effort due to climbing and weather.
  • Being alone on top of a mountain during a wicked thunderstorm is scary.
  • Crew access was very limited - there was only 1 crew point and it was late in the race. 
  • I had a pacer but I wouldn't say it was necessary. 
This race was more than just a race. I signed up for it on February 9th. I was still in so much pain from the broken rib/bike accident that I couldn't even turn over in bed. I had no idea when I would run again. I had canceled my Lake Martin 100 registration a week earlier. I bought a bike and a trainer and was staying fit and hiking and meandering with no goals and no training plan and what felt like nothing good in sight. I was determined not to become depressed. I was reframing all of my goals for 2018. That's where I was when I signed up for this race. 

My training was okay but far from ideal. The summer was busy with the kids in different summer camps each week, work, learning how to be a single mom, and an awesome canoe/camping trip to Quetico. I managed a few long runs between July and August, including participating in the Hot Hot Hundred 100k relay where I did 3 6.5 mile loops and had a great time. I also went on an adventure weekend where I did a 30 mile trail run on Saturday and a 10 mile trail run on Sunday. So I got some miles, just not a lot. Biking and strength training fell by the wayside mostly, too. 

My crew/pacer, Thom, picked me up in Louisville and we drove the four hours to Breaks Interstate Park, arriving late afternoon the day before the race. I checked into the lodge, went to the race briefing, got some pizza in Elkhorn City, KY, and then went back to the lodge where I got ready for race day. I slept terribly. 

View from a scenic overlook on the way into Breaks Interstate Park

View from balcony in lodge room

The course was an out and back. My feet would be wet almost the entire race. I put some Trail Toes (lube) on my feet to protect them from blisters. I ate a Honey Stinger waffle on the way to the start line.

About a mile into the race, heading down a steep rocky hill in the dark.

The race started just after 6am and we ran on the road for a bit before getting to the trail. It was foggy which was challenging in the dark with a headlamp. Fog so thick that we couldn’t see the end of the parking lot. The trail was slow going at first because of the terrain and the usual starting bottleneck. We weren't on the trail for too long before we had to run on the highway for a bit. It was starting to get light, and then we had the river crossing.

Crossing the river at sunrise. At its deepest point, it was nipples deep for me.
The river current was swift and I was glad for the rope to hold onto at the crossing point. We headed up to the trail and the first big climb was upon us. I took my time, watching my effort and reminding myself that starting slowly would pay off later. Per my plan, I ate a Gu every 45-60 minutes and took Base salt every 30-60 minutes because of the humidity. I was dripping in sweat before I'd finished my first mile, so I knew the day could be brutal for hydration. I increased water intake after the first 4-5 miles, too. I knew I should be drinking at least one entire bottle every 5 miles, and maybe more than that with the weather and effort. 

At 6 miles, I started passing people. I knew I had started slowly, and I made sure to only pass when I knew I would be able to sustain my effort. One of my goals in this race was to not get passed by people I had passed much earlier. 

After mile 15, the race felt like it finally was underway. We had to head downhill for about 2 miles to Ranger Cabin Aid Station. I methodically made my way down to the aid station, preserving my quads for harder downhill running later, grabbed some real food (PBJ, pickles, chips), Coke, refilled my bottles. I still am always surprised by the amount of time some runners spend at aid stations. I checked out by telling the volunteers my race number, and then headed up the hill. I saw the first place runner, Scott Buser, coming back down it as I neared the top. Honestly, I had expected to see him much sooner, so it worried me that the course was so tough I was just seeing him now. 

The climb was really tough! Long. It would be even harder the second time. As I got to the top, the volunteer there asked, "How'd you like that hill?" and I said "FUUUUUUUUCCCCCCCKKKKKK" and he laughed as he took a photo of me. I managed a smile, and thanked him for being there. He pointed me toward the next aid station, which would be in another 3 or so miles. I focused on steady running/hiking for those 3 miles. It was now heating up, and I felt like I had hardly done any running so far. The 2nd and 3rd place men were coming back now, and then I saw the 1st place woman. She seemed to be a mile or two ahead of me and was looking strong and determined. Later I saw Lauren, in 2nd place. I had met her at War Hammer 100 where she had a fantastic finish at a brutal race. I knew she was a much stronger runner, and she was looking the part as we passed on the trail. 

The climbing continued to be tough.  At the top of one of the peaks, a runner was sitting on the rocks changing his socks. We chatted as I hiked past him on the peak. I had fresh socks in my hydration pack but I decided I didn't need them. My feet were doing just fine despite being wet. I did not have any lube with me, and I didn't want to risk changing into dry socks without reapplying lube. 

Finishing the climb out of Ranger Cabin, the first time. The photographer had just asked me what I thought of that hill.

Arriving at the next aid station, it was hot. There was a runner who was cramping, and a few runners who looked like they might be done. The volunteers at this aid station were very helpful as I fumbled with my water bottles and trying to figure out what to eat. I had not peed yet, and I knew I needed to soon. I looked at my phone and I had a text from Thom. He was out on his run at that point, and had sent me a picture of a bear print on the trail he was running. That gave me something to think about. 

Seen on the trails around the course by Thom.
I checked out of the aid station after being there long enough to eat and refill my water. I was at 20 miles. Almost halfway. Feeling it. Tired and hot and anxious about the rest of the course, knowing some of what was ahead. Also knowing I could start to pick up my downhill pace.

As I left the aid station, I ended up running the next stretch with John from Indianapolis, who was running with trekking poles like some others. I was beginning to think those poles would be nice on some of the uphills. I stayed behind John, and we chatted about his running group and races and a fun adventure he had done recently with his wife, and a third runner was also chatting with us at this point. We were actually moving more slowly than I felt like I needed to be moving, but we stayed together until the hill back down to Ranger Cabin, when I decided it was time to pick up my pace again. During this last stretch, we passed a lot of runners who were just coming up from Ranger Cabin the first time as we started to head back down the second time. Seemed like I was about in the middle of the pack of overall runners. I would be happy to sustain middle of the pack for this race. 

Ranger Cabin for the second time was where I began to fall apart. I sat down and ate quite a bit more food, drank some Coke, ate more food, tried to decrease my heartrate. Maybe I had taken that downhill too fast. And I knew I would have to do that nasty climb back up, so a break would be fine. I was way past any type of goal times, but so was everyone else. The course was just really fucking hard. I heard the volunteers talking, and a dozen people dropped at that 20 mile aid station, all together. A DOZEN!!! Wow.  

I checked out of the aid station and did that climb. Lauren had told me on my way down that it was actually not as bad the second time. I giggled about that. She was right - it wasn't as bad. But it was still bad. I got to the top and I was feeling pretty low. I was around 26-27 miles in. I took out my phone and had another text from Thom cheering me on, but also telling me that Scott (first place runner) had come through Carson Island and it was actually at over 34 miles by Scott's watch. I knew that meant I needed to plan accordingly to be running more miles and managing my nutrition. I texted Thom that I was dying. I wasn't sure if Carson Island was the next aid station. I couldn't remember. I did some math and realized that I might have 7 more miles to get there. I had one bottle of water left after that climb and it wasn't going to last more than 2-3 miles at this point. I peed for the first time. 

I scanned my body. Nothing was wrong. My feet were fine, no hotspots or blisters. No chafing anywhere. No soreness in my shins or calves or knees or thighs or hips or...anything. Nothing was hurt or wrong. Okay. I couldn't quit. Maybe I needed to eat. But if I ate, I'd need to drink, and I was really low on water. I ate anyway. I had a Gu. Salted Caramel, my last one of the good flavors. The Gu helped, so I had another. 

Then a fantastic thunderstorm came through. It rained for awhile before I could feel any raindrops. I picked up the pace and found my smile and stayed on top of my nutrition better. The storm was actually a little scary. I wondered how everyone else was doing, and who else was on top of a mountain in a thunderstorm. I wondered where the bears were. I thought about the amazing things that have happened in 2018, the bike accident that started the year, and the adventures I've had with friends on the trails - Lake Martin 100 crewing/pacing, sweeping the Yamacraw 20K course, Big Turtle 50-miler - the new friendships I've made. I thought about the divorce - final papers had been signed just 2 days before this race. I thought about how sad I was about the divorce. I thought about how happy I was about the divorce. I thought about each of my kids and how wonderful they are and how much fun we had this summer. I thought about other adventures I'd taken over the summer, with and without the kids. I thought about happiness and the changes I've made these past few years to become a better person, and the changes I'm still working on. I stopped on top of a mountain in the storm and let the rain wash my face, opening my arms to the sky, feeling grounded and happy and determined. 

I started passing runners again. I leapfrogged with a guy who was running his first ultra. I forgot there was an ATV access only aid station and was so grateful to refill my water. I had been out for about a mile. I asked for Coke, and a runner who was waiting for a ride (he dropped at this aid station) handed me the rest of the can of coke he was drinking. I didn't even think twice about germs before finishing it. I asked for ice and was grateful to get some. I shoved it into my bra. The post-rain heat and humidity was just awful. There were 3 other runners at this aid station so we compared mileage. We were all ahead of where we thought we should be. The volunteers said we should be at 29.7 but I think I was close to 33 or maybe a bit more. I didn't eat at the aid station. I got distracted and forgot to grab food. Oops.  

This next section was all on ATV "roads." It was steamy and muddy and rocky and hilly but I kept going. Soon I would be at Carson Island and wouldn't be running alone and having to do all the problem solving myself. I ate the ice cubes out of my bra. I knew it was gross, but it felt so good to have the cold crunch in my mouth. There was a downhill on the roads in this section that was so rocky/muddy/treacherous that it was unrunnable. Then there was a volunteer pointing directions. He told me I had 1.3 miles to go to Carson Island. Sweet baby jesus, was he fucking kidding me? I was already at 34.7 miles. UGH. I texted Thom that I was 1.3 miles away. I kept going. 

As I rounded the last corner to Carson Island, I could hear cheering. Thank god. I was so happy to finally hear other people and see the aid station. I picked up the pace and came in smiling.

Coming into Carson Island aid station at about 36 miles (on my watch).
I started eating PBJ while Thom refilled my water bottles and I sat down on the cement. Thom pushed more food and had me take my time getting fueled up. Just what I needed. He was being wonderful.

Fueling at Carson Island before tackling the last 10 miles with my pacer.
That was my longest aid station stay, maybe 10 minutes, and then I wanted to keep going. My watch said I was at 36 miles. It seemed that everyone else's had been around that too. 

We headed out of the aid station together and up the hill for 1.3 miles to the turn off. I was dragging. I had promised myself I would not apologize for being slow, or be embarrassed about my emotional/mental/physical state at this point in the race. Thom is an experienced ultra runner and knows I'm still new to it, and is the kind of person who just meets me where I am. Once we turned onto the trail, I found myself able to run again. Food had clearly helped. Thom told me I was looking strong and still running well with good form, especially down the hills. I know I'm slower on the uphills and I still have work to do with those. Lots of work. I would see what I could do between now and Redbird Crest. 

We did our best to chat. I asked Thom to talk to me, and mostly he ended up singing to me. He sang songs about sunshine. That perked me up and I played along for awhile. Thom talked about his day so far, the people he had met and the conversations and the weather and the bear print and his 10 mile run that he had already done. I kept going. I ran when I could, and walked when I felt like I needed to slow down my effort. He checked in with me on fueling and hydration. I had my last Gu at about 40 miles. Salted Caramel. It did not go down easily but I forced myself to swallow every last bit, with big gulps of water to thin it out. My GI system was still working, so that was good. It stormed again at some point, but I don't remember when. 

Then we got to the river crossing. The water felt good. Thom suggested I pee while in the river. Great idea! Then we headed the short jog to the next aid station and saw David Nichols and Jessica. It was great to see them, they really lifted my spirits! I ate a rice krispies treat bar and some pickles and drank some Coke, and we headed out to do the road portion of the end of the race. 4 miles left. Or so I thought. I was totally prepared to handle 4 more miles. But I knew the end of the race would have one last brutal "fuck you" of a hill. I found it hard to run on the road. 

Five miles to go, with a little pavement.
As we headed back to the trail off the road, we got to the stream we had run up earlier in the race, and had to run back down it. As I was heading to get into the stream off the banks, I slipped on a rock and fell in. Ouch, I hit my shin HARD. Running down the stream was awesome, though, and Thom took a few great photos.

Running downstream, right in the river where it was less slippery than on the banks.
Then we began the final miles. Oh my god the trail was totally unrunnable. 
Check out that trail!
There were too many rocks and it was too technical to run, even with fresh legs. There was steep climbing and erosion. I was using my hands to pull myself up. I was having to stop and take breaks. I was a mess. It was hard and awful and getting dark and I was feeling discouraged. We wondered if Scott (the first place runner) had been able to run this section, and vowed we would ask him if he was still at the finish line when we got there. We walked a lot of this - even when it was runnable, I found myself unable to run. Thom kept things positive. He kept me moving, Relentless Forward Progress. We had to get out our headlamps. We could hear and see a group of 3 men in front of us, but I was not going to overtake anyone at this point. I was done. More climbing. Endless, awful, hard, dangerous climbing. When would this ever end? 45 miles passed and there was no end in sight. 46 miles. Ugh. WTF. I started to run again a little. It didn't feel like death so I did my best to keep running as much as I could, still taking walk breaks. 

And then there was the final road inside the park. That meant I was almost done. Less than a mile left. I jogged what I could. Another thunderstorm was brewing. I picked up my feet and managed to run in the final section. Nothing like cheers at the finish line to lift your spirits and enable a strong finish!

There were a lot of people at the finish line, which was surprising since it was dark and so late. I knew there were still people on the course, but I figured most people were done with the race and would be gone by now. I sat in a chair, drank a beer, ate a sandwich. The thunderstorm cut loose and I felt bad for everyone still on the course, now dark and in a downpour with that horrible climbing at the end. I got to chat with other finishers and NOET members who were there. I finished 13th, in 14:21. 

This race will always hold a special place in my heart because of its place in my own journey, but also it was just a fantastic race and experience. If I don't end up doing Sawtooth 100 next year, I would love to do this race again and recommend it to anyone looking for a really special challenge. 

Finisher! Third Place Female Overall. Time was 14:21.
View from the first mountain top peak.

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