Earlier this year I set out a few goals for the year. One of which was to complete my first ultramarathon. Being in a new relationship with an ultrarunner, I felt it extremely necessary to determine whether or not I really do hate running. Since I have completed a couple half marathons this year, I felt ready to kick it up a notch. Christian had been invited back to the BVI to run Tortola Torture and stay with the race director and his wife. Since I was going to be going with him I felt it was a great opportunity for me to complete my first ultra.
I had several conversations with Nellie and Richard leading up to the event. The mileage didn’t scare me - I mean it did - but the time cutoffs scared me even more. Besides, I’m nowhere near the shape I used to be in. Christian told me a couple of times that it probably wasn’t the best first ultra experience to have, that this ultra was incredibly tough, which only made me more thirsty.
They offer PLENTY of opportunities for you to succeed. The official start time is 5:00 AM - and while it might be local time, they remind you to run on British time and not Island time. They also allow you to start at 4:00AM, if you’re worried about the cutoffs, and even allow a midnight start. The midnight start is only suggested if you’re ULTRA worried about the cutoffs and either don’t believe you need a crew, or are able to provide your own crew. I had wanted to take the midnight start, but finally was convinced to take the 4 o’clock start.
Arriving to Tortola a few days before the race, as we’re heading to the Richard and Nellie’s house, I’m shown a few of the roads we’ll be running up and down. The race suddenly becomes a little [lot] more terrifying. And suddenly I’m reminded of the six-thousand-five-hundred-eighty-seven feet of climbing... which means over 13,000 feet of elevation changes.
The morning after arriving Christian and I took a walk down to the beach, down some ultra steep roads, and I was wearing some cheap flip flops. He looked more than concerned that I’d soon be running 12.8 miles downhill. And, in order to go down, we must go up. The trek back up from the beach he reminded me that a lot of the course would be uphill - 12.8 miles of the course, in fact. Do the math kids, of the 33.74 miles only 7.5 of them are flat. And they’re mostly-all-at the beginning.
I was able to explore more of the course with Nellie as we drove around the island running errands and going to CrossFit. Because, yes, the best way to prepare for an ultra is to complete a workout with doubleunders and lift weights - this was probably a mistake.
The night before the race they host a huge pasta party. Nellie goes above and beyond race director wife duties, not only cooking a pasta party for all those running the race, gluten free-vegan options, chicken pasta, pasta with bolognese sauce. She also prepares all the treats for each rest stops. Homemade banana nut loaf, vegan-gluten-free carrot cake bites, gluten-free flapjacks. Guys. Flapjacks aren’t pancakes, in Britain they’re these sweet oatmeal treats. All of the Americans minds were blown. What else are we doing wrong in America? - Please don’t say EVERYTHING.
I chose to forgo the pasta at the party, because earlier that day I had a mean case of vomiting. I’ve tested my diet a few times lately to see if egg whites can be added back in, the same with pork. It’s back to hashtagging #alltheallergies. So, mistake number two was absolutely playing with my diet days before a race. We make it home after the pasta party, and we all offer a hand to get last minute odds and ends put together in preparation for race day. And finally it’s bed time.
As I lay there, I’m terrified. The only time I’ve ever completed this sort of mileage was during a GORUCK event, and I was wrecked afterwards. And since I was starting early, I was going to be solo for a lot of the race. As I’ve been on a quest to work on my self-esteem, I felt like this would be good time for me to be in my own head. Finally I drifted off to sleep, and was less than thrilled when my alarm went off the next morning.
Christian had reluctantly agreed to drive down with me, to see me off. As we’re approaching the start line I suddenly get a case of the nervous pees. As the other guy and I are getting the 3-2-1, Richard lets us know that when we get to the round-abouts in the road, to stay straight.
Guys, I’m in a foreign country, and my cell is barely working, and I’m about to take off in the middle of the night on almost 34 mile run. I’m hopeful that I’ll make no mistakes. And I’m off. Immediately I forget my plan of jog 5:00, walk 1:00 - and I can hear Christian yell “Don’t start off too fast.”
I make it to the first round-about, and there’s two ways to go… definitely to the right and kinda to the left. I choose the left, and I’m hopeful I’m right. And I start to remember my play. I count to 60 five times. Then I walk. Count to 60 once. Then I run. Meanwhile getting barked at by stray dogs, and jogging past locals. Cars whizzing by. No real way of knowing if I’m going the right way, and no signs to tell me how many miles I’ve gone. I can hear the ocean, and every time I hear a wave crash I reassure myself I’m on the right path.
Somewhere around mile eight-and I only know this because they’ve told me-I hear a honk, and it’s Nellie and Jen (an ultrarunner in Tortola as a guest of the race). The largest sigh of relief. The idea that I had been traveling for well over an hour, with no idea if I was on the right path, was more than a little torturous. But, the view when the sun was rising. Un-fucking-real. Regardless of whether or not I was on the right path of the race, I was on the right path for me.
I was feeling pretty solid at the first checkpoint, but also knew that after the first checkpoint is when the real race begins. The first ten may offer a bit of incline-decline, but the real ups and downs begin at mile ten.
It hurts. It hurts bad. And by this point the people who had started an hour after me were starting to pass me. I told myself I’d walk to uphills, run the downhills, and jog-walk the flats. What actually ended up happening was A LOT of walking. Like a lot. And every painful uphill climb, I reassured myself that the view at the top of the climb would be unlike anything I had ever seen before. I hated it, I hated my body, I felt like I was going to fall over from the pain. But then I’d get to the top of the climb and I’d see the most turquoise ocean, and be greeted at rest stops by the friendliest faces.
After the second checkpoint one of the guys on the course made mention that he was cramping up. Without thinking I offered him one of my three salt tabs I had brought with me. And, while I’d always offer to help somebody else out, I probably should have realized handing off one of two salt tabs I had left at mile 15-ish was not my smartest decision.
Finally, at rest stop number three, and about at my calculation as to when Christian was going to catch up to me, there he arrives. He was running for Hope for Children and as a pretty well known ultra-runner one of the girls at the rest stop says “Oh look, it’s Christian.” And I look over at her and immediately say “I hear that guy is a real douche.” The look on everybody’s face was PRICELESS. I wanted to wait till he made it up the hill to kiss him, but the look of horror on their faces was too much. I laughed and said, “just kidding, he’s my boyfriend."
The back half
Christian made mention that he wasn’t feeling the best, and that regardless of how slow I was going to go, he was going to stay with me. I was painfully slow. But the back half even more magnificent views. He picked me a few flowers, to offer his thoughts of encouragement.
I’m probably the only person at Tortola that begged for the downhills to stop. My left knee was thrashed, and while one of the angels on the course gave me an anti-inflammatory, I wasn’t recovering. I only continued to move slower. And I can’t imagine how frustrating this most have been for an experienced runner.
This is a pretty small race. And most of the people running aren’t new to the ultra community. Eventually I fell into dead last place. And it became apparent how important it was for me to take the early start. Every step of the way receiving encouragement from everybody at the rest stops and constant offers of emotional support, food, drinks, from locals in their cars driving the course. The race calls these people “angels” and they absolutely are. Although, I did have a couple moments where I wondered whether they were really devils when they asked “Do you need anything?” I would think... “Yes, fucker, I need a ride to the fucking finish you asshole.” But, I’d actually say “No, thank you! I’m good, just not a runner.”
Christian started reasoning with me. Run till the yellow sign. Walk to the red reflector. When people would tell me “this is the last uphill.” He’d tell me the truth. Except that one time he pointed to the top of the hill and said we needed to go there - I didn’t laugh when he told me he was joking.
Coming up behind us, nearing the bridge we cross over to make it to the “Fuck you, Richard” loop… where you’re almost at the end, but he makes you run a little extra loop… Richard approaches picking up the directional signs from the race. He’s laughing out loud as he knows what we have left. And when Christian and Richard joked about me hating him yet, I laughed and said… “Guys, I signed up for this. I’m mad that my body is failing me. Not at anybody else." I think Richard wasn’t thrilled about this answer. I think he wants people to hate him.
We finished. With eight minutes to spare, we finished. And I cried elephant tears. And begged for something to eat. And to just sit. And as I type this a couple of days after the event has been completed and I’m finally starting to recover. I can officially say I’ve completed my first (and maybe my last) ultramarathon. And I didn’t run all of it, maybe a third of it, so I can still hashtag #notarunner as far as I’m concerned.
When setting out to complete your first ultra, I’ll offer you a bit of advice. TRAIN FOR IT for fucks-sake. Also, if I ever set out to accomplish this again, I’ll make sure my diet is tight going into the event. I completely depleted my electrolytes and didn’t bring enough salt with me, I’ll make sure I’m a little more prepared if there’s a next go ‘round. Fuck, and already I’m thinking about whether or not I should train and run it next year. They also offer a two or three person relay. Anybody want to be part of a team? Or perhaps interested in an #LLSP sponsorship to pay your entry to the race?
And seriously, even if it sounds scary, pick an ultra that offers you the best views. Because seriously how can you be mad at running close to 34 miles when you get fresh picked flowers and views like this??