Around mile 15, I truly questioned if I wanted to continue on with this race and if I would make it as a trail runner. I managed to accidentally kill a baby snake by mile 10, get lost for two hours and the temperature jumped from 72 to 91 degrees within hours. What did I sign up for?
Operating on weekend warrior status for the last two months has been an incredible experience. I am both exhausted and filled with an incredible surge of energy. My body feels like a brick most days and my weight has been going through a rollercoaster ride, despite my dress size remaining the same. On Friday morning, I weighed in at a solid 233 pounds—typically I only use the scale when I’m either expecting my menstrual or my endometriosis is flaring. Entering week ten of my Javelina Jundred 100K training, I am experiencing a wave of drastic loss and gains in weight. Not sure if I should be concerned but I’ll chat with my doctor and sports nutritionist before the end of the month.
NOTE: I must mention in the age of the Internet’s love of giving unsolicited advice, don’t send any suggestions or speculation my way.
Inspecting my packed bags are a regular part of my routine for any race that requires me to leave NYC. As an ultra endurance runner, one of the worst things to go through is having the wrong gear, particularly sneakers, and waking up the morning of in a panic. By 4pm, my husband and I left our home to go forth on my adventure to do the Finger Lakes 50K/50 miler.
The 'Marathon' Before the Ultramarathon
Our Greyhound bus was set to leave at 5:30PM via Adirondack Trailways. Despite not loading onto the bus until 5:40PM, I wasn’t bothered much. My seat was comfy and my husband made light jokes as we waited for departure. By 6pm, I knew something was wrong—Why are we still at Port Authority? By 6:15, my bus driver - a guy who looked and sounded like T-Pain’s rejected baby brother with the Kevin Hart whine - informed us that he REFUSED to leave the station after he drove us less than 300 feet around the station as he jerked us three times in a loop.
“Hey listen up: The bus is only at 75 degrees and I’m feeling sick. I’m getting nauseous and it’s too hot. I think I might pass out—I REFUSE to die behind the wheel because I have to drive three hours,” he ranted anxiously.
When people vented their justified frustrations, he started yelling at all of the passengers. Turning down the temperature or removing the blanket draped by him would’ve served as an adequate remedy. I shifted from empathy to growing infuriated as he became worse. Questioning him for a solution to the situation made him hover to my seat and we had a separate argument. Is this really happening? Am I about to DNF a race because T-Painella the driver is having a melodramatic moment?
Around 6:30PM, a group of passengers walked off the bus, made several complaints as our driver argued with his supervisor. I complained on social media and through the phone lines about this driver’s lack of professionalism—for the record, they’ve done nothing thus far. I struggled to not have a meltdown in a hot Port Authority parking lot. At 7:30PM, all of the passengers were transported to a new bus that wreaked of a vicious smelling port-a-potty but an operating air conditioner. More importantly, a competent driver was behind the wheel.
My bus ride was a three hour trip to Albany and once I met up with my friend Tanya, I knew it would take us another 3 hours to get to Ithaca. Tanya, my lighthearted and selfless kindred spirit, reminds me so much of an older version of myself but much kinder. Two of her daughters were in the car, greeting my husband and I in such a warm manner; they even gifted me a really cool water bottle. She did the grueling drive from 10:30pm to 2am. In between, we made a gas station stop and an urgent run to Walmart in desperate need of carb loading on every possible food I could stomach; most stores were closed by this hour. After check in, I managed to get 2 hours of sleep after setting out my race gear and tried to mentally wrap my head around running for 33 miles in what was projected to be a very humid 100 degrees.
Race Day Morning
Tanya gifted me with every possible bug spray under the sun at 5AM and purchased snacks and items that I didn’t consider. A person like Tanya is a rare gem to endurance athletes. Most people would give me the ultimate side eye for bringing up a list like buying a box of salt, baby wipes, a random tube of Vaseline for my 33 year old anus and honoring my requests for everything strange.
We pulled up at the Potomac Group Campground in Trumansburg, NY. Unlike all of the road events that I’m accustomed to, this was a drastically different experience. The Finger Lakes 50s race is capped at 250 runners in total. The 8:30AM wave was filled with the 25K loop but my wave was a group of ambitious 50K and 50 mile runners starting at 6:30AM. The Finger Lakes crew are awesome, energetic and exceptionally encouraging. I picked up my race packet at 6:15, listened to the announcements and crowded around the early morning wave who awaited to run in the blistering heat. Uniquely, the 50K and 50 miler have an option to run either wave depending on how they felt and time cut offs. Honestly, I considered doing the 50 miler weeks before I learned that the weather would hover strangely close to 100 degrees. After race announcements, we were off into the woods with bugs, snakes and animals that allowed me to invade their homes for hours.
Tales From The First Loop
My first couple of miles were strong and steady. My game plan was to run when I can, speed walk up all of the uphills and hydrate often. The weather would be paralyzing if I didn’t properly hydrate and replenish on electrolytes; it shifted my typical 32 ounces of water per hour a 80 degree weather considering the morning started off at 75.
Mile one starts on a downhill of the pavement leading into the Potomac Camping Grounds. Intentionally moving faster than required, I told myself to enjoy the company as I had them. The sounds of feet moving through the forest is not something that a well versed road runner like me is used to hearing. Notoriously being in the back of the pack reminded me that I’d be listening to the sound of my own breath and nature for quite some time since I didn’t opted against headphones.
The sun beamed over our heads, even in the early hours, and some areas weren’t forgiving since there’s no shade coverage. I thoroughly enjoyed a strip of land that greeted my left side with a beautiful lake and a butterfly that lingered on my shoulder for at least one minute even after brushing it away; the butterfly was both comforting and creepy as this happened several times throughout the course. In hindsight, the butterflies kept my mind sharp at my darkest part of the journey, a point that even I wasn’t mentally prepared to experience.
By mile three, I ran through my fair share of muddy trails that kidnapped my left shoe early on, muddying my sock horribly. Soon enough, I ran through one of three areas that contained cows and a bull, hence their infamous hashtag, #dontletthecowsout. As I closed the gate behind me, I met a Harland Bigelow-- a seventy something sharp year old man who mastered the course for five years. We exchanged great stories with each other— one of which was his experience as a Marine in Vietnam, getting married and a growing family during the sixties. As a woman who is a sucker for military stories and feel good moments, I slowed down my pace during the downhill to match his stride. For miles, we spoke about stigmas of mental illness and the difference between city and suburban life. With trail running, especially at smaller races, it’s easy to bond with people that you may not have considered conversing with in your everyday life.
After we reached the first aid station - approximately 4 miles in - I took back pickle shots, pretzels, M&Ms and about two cups of soda. The heat and I don’t have a great relationship and mixing this with my endometriosis on flare up mode taught me to practice caution from plenty of terrible experiences. I parted ways with Harland, my real life and course veteran, as he tackled uphills better than I could.
Unlike my initial thoughts, there were a handful of 50K participants behind me, one of which was a shirtless, hefty gentleman who greeted me at least twice on the course before dropping out at mile 22. In my heart, I was hoping that he would make it. Strangely enough, I find myself rooting on strangers and I have a slight bias for plus size runners. In ways, seeing us succeed is a win to me, even if I don’t finish.
“Good morning glutes”— the rolling hills woke up my muscles like they were candy and Redbull loaded children begging for sleep. By mile six, I had a mile of ease as it started leveling off and allowed me to pick up speed. The dirt brushed my feet perfectly and I could see the chipmunks scurrying to the sound of my feet. Nature provided a cadence for my breathing and she was kind for a good stretch. My hydration pack was filled with Skratch Labs hydration mix and two liters of water. I had a 8 - 10 ounce handheld bottle that comfortably rested in my left hand nursing water. I made it a point to drink one to two cups at each station and fill up my water bottle for the road. The volunteers were exceptionally helpful, making light conversation and observing each runner’s visible physical wellness without being super invasive. Sometimes as endurance athletes who are focused on a mission can lose sight of signs of heat exhaustion, heat stroke or being susceptible to heat syncope.
After leaving the aid station in high spirits, I felt this strange splatter against my socks. I knew it wasn’t mud since this part of the trail was relatively flat, dry and there was a strange sound.
“Shit! A snake.”
Call me baby snake killer: I managed to trample it somewhere before mile ten. I was rattled by the mere sight of my forest buddy and going through post trauma from my experience with the North Face Endurance Challenge in the Waschusett Mountains last year with Mirna Valerio at mile seven. From this point, I opened my eyes just a bit harder, bearing a bit of heightened paranoia and damning Mirna. How the hell did I allow her to talk me into this ultra? Knowing I had 20 plus miles to go, I eventually dropped the thoughts; there’s much more things to worry about while running.
My FitBit gave me a warning of a low battery; clearly my watch wasn’t charging at the hotel room as I thought. Fatigue is probably the fault of this negligence I reached exceptionally close to mile ten and saw flags with the same color as the marked ones on the course—these were different. I slowed down my run, moved further ahead to scale the area and doubled back to these suspicious markers. It didn’t look like a trail but I opted to go down this path. About 10 minutes into the path, I saw poison ivy. Why would they have me run here? I took a few swigs of my electrolyte mix, ate some Skratch gummies after losing a bit of sensation in my right hand and realized that I was not only going through heat exhaustion symptoms but I might have been a bit delirious and got lost.
Parts of me panicked for a few minutes but it’s the worst thing to do is panic when lost. I took a few shallow breaths, looked off into the direction that I ran down, glanced at my watch to see where I was and used it as my marker. Turning back around and going straight back up was grueling to my physical and mental-- I was overwhelmed with emotions. A host of thoughts circled my head. Terrible ones. What if I cannot find my way back? That stupid statement about the tree falling in the forest and if it makes a sound, does it exist entered my head. I called out every 30 to 45 seconds in hopes that someone would hear me; nobody did. I checked my bag at one point thinking about how much food and reserves that had if I would be there for a long time. It was only 9ish in the morning and it would be late before the race official sent out an embarrassing but lifesaving search party for me. How ridiculous would that be to explain to others about how I got lost on my own and being pulled off the course; such foolish pride surfaced at a dire moment.
I shut off my thoughts as they grew morbid. I moved for what felt like hours but realistically close to 30 minutes uphill. “Help! Anyone out there?” I yelled out into a quiet forest. Amazingly a woman wearing headphones heard me and stopped. I could see her bright shirt from a distance. Finally there’s life that wasn’t an animal. Following her voice, I was back on course. She asked if I was okay and went back to running but noticed her bib was different than mine. I ventured off pretty far—she was wearing a 25K bib.
I went through a moment of muttering defeatist words to myself in a livid state. My watched jumped to 11.7 miles before it died on me; almost two miles stolen from me and my goal of completing in 10 ½ hours was sitting with in the sunset with a new side boo. Growling angrily, I questioned if I bit more than I can chew. Maybe my hecklers are right: I’m a fake runner. I cursed out my dear Mirna in my head at least two more times before digging my head out of my ass.
Eventually I pushed myself through my second and third section filled with cows, making it to an aid station as the sun blistered me. Shade was non existent for at least three quarters of a mile. My pride was too high to cry but my insides were breaking. This race is my redemption for the two trail DNFs that I received in two years. It was the first of many times on the trail that I contemplated dropping out at the 25K checkpoint.
A section dedicated to muddied trails plagued my confidence along the rolling paths. When leaving, I thought relief was near until I was greeted by more sun, an active uphill road and the start of anal irritation. My Vaseline and shea butter couldn't match the heat today. Mantras of one foot in front of the other was met with 'If it doesn't start leveling out, I'm divorcing this race.' Like a typical social media relationship, I grew amnesia and found redemption at the Interlope Trail. I can hear the spectators and announcer. Yes! I'm at the halfway point. I glanced at my slightly overheated phone and it was 12:09PM--I missed the second loop cutoff.
Second Winds and the Devil's Anus
I'm a stubborn piece of shit at times. If I feel like I'm being told no, the defiant part of me is looking for ways to either negotiate, fight harder or convince myself that I can do it. But on a course like this, I knew the judge of whether I'd go on would lie in the hands of the race director. Sporting an adorable toddler, a really mellow gentleman walks over to me and inquires on what happened.
I probably sounded like a blubbering but contained addict asking for the trail's abuse, promising not to get lost like I did hours prior. With slight hesitation, he cautioned that I make it to 'The Library'- marker 10 aid station on my first loop but 26.5 on my second - to not get pulled from the course. With his blessing and several volunteers being frank about loading up before I left, I was back onto the course. I was delighted to have an opportunity to get the redemption that I was desperately seeking from two trail DNFs within a one year frame.
This go round, I was able to run better than my first loop. The first three miles went by quicker than before and I already knew what to prepare my legs for in each section. Miles 16.5 to 20 were incredible. I didn't care about the sun, the ridiculously muddied paths or losing my shoe for the fifth time--I felt alive.
Mile 22 or 23 warped my perception a bit as I started to feel the affects of the heat and humidity burning onto my skin. I checked my Strava app to see my pace and glanced at the time--the temperature is 105 degrees in this area. The right arm started throbbing as if I did a ridiculous gym routine on the course. By mile 24, my hands were baseball mittens; I desperately started eating packs of my Skratch Labs gummies and a pistachio cherry bar that I held in my left hydration arm pocket. My high morale was escaping swiftly and I felt heavy. I just need to make it to the Library.
Despite some people's inability to understand my purpose of Instagram and Facebook stories, I use them for multiple reasons:
At mile 26.5, I let out an inhumane sigh-- at the ten hour mark, I made it to the checkpoint in time. My phone smiled at me for a minute, beaming 4:05PM on the phone. I spent a few extra minutes at the aid station, noting how bad the swelling was spreading throughout my body. One of the volunteers saw how bad it looked and gave me three cups of cold broth. Broth is trail runner's magic potion. Within minutes, my swelling reduced on my right side. I guzzled two handfuls of pretzels, took in a good portion of M&Ms, filled up my water bottle and took down close to 16 ounces of water. I thought I had enough to keep me going until the next and final aid station, close to mile 30.
My dehydration and electrolyte loss was much severe than I thought. I struggled to push my body through mile 28, annoying myself with grunts and screams. I saw a few 50 milers who were painfully out of it. Miles before, one guy was hurling his heart away and couldn't stomach any forms of food. I honestly don't know if he made it past that checkpoint but he made me nervous of my own fate.
Approaching the final aid station was rough. I managed to get a bit of cellular service after tapping out all of the liquid I toted for well over 10 hours. A male volunteer gave me a can of root beer, filled up my pack partially and gave me iced water. I hovered this time because I really didn't want to move. So close but so far from my destination. I said out loud that I could quit now but too many indicators kept surfacing to tell me that I couldn't do that task. Three 50 milers who were suffering just as much or more than me were struggling across this barbed wire stretch of the last cow gate. As the last visible fifty miler wobbled far enough ahead of me - right before asking if I needed any products - I bawled in tears.
Mile 31 broke every ounce of my spirit and a spotting what looked like a cute and curious baby bear. My wailing may have frightened the poor bastard but I pushed my blistered feet to move close to the speed of my tears. I had enough of all of the first time experiences today: First baby bear encounter, first set of blisters, excessive swelling in my upper body and the horrible murder against nature by foot on Mister Snake. I was done with all of it. My body felt strangely cooler than it was supposed to be on my leg, incredibly sore on my arms and another butterfly wouldn't leave my path for a few minutes. I questioned if I was severely hallucinating at this point. The butterfly both worried me but kept me sharp. For a full mile and a half, I indulged in a conversation with nobody. And yes, I spoke out loud. The sounds of the trail didn't make me feel calm any longer--I needed to get out.
91 degrees. 6:06PM
My glitching app was behind 4 miles and from my delayed calculations, I knew I was near. I saw a familiar woman from the Library and she was running with a man sporting a long kilt. She smiled and asked how I was holding up. I was honest, pushing out a smile as I told her I needed this race to be over. She kept my spirits high for a quick minute and told me I was exceptionally close to being done. And this time, I actually believed her. I heard an announcer in the distance and she was running with the last 50 miler. After two minutes, I saw a tall older fellow who cheered me on with a bull horn. I wanted to show my enthusiasm but fatigued and salt depletion drained me.
"Young lady, if you make that left, you have a tenth or so of a mile left."
I saw three volunteers waiting for me and the sound of a group of humans grew louder.
"She's coming!" I heard a woman announce in the distance. I shifted my weight onto the left side of my body and pushed for the last 100 meters. The race announcer did a countdown as I ran towards the finish line and announced "...and Latoya Snell from Brooklyn, NY just finished the 50K."
Dead. Fucking. Last. And it felt well worth it.
My husband gave me a church hug because I smelled rancid but Tanya's children didn't care. Tanya greeted me with such a warm welcome and a volunteer offered me a quarter watermelon. I didn't give a shit about racial stereotypes at that moment and asked another to layer on a hunk of salt. The food station was still intact along with the signage, clock and spectators. This is much different than the NYC road races that I am accustomed to participating in as a weekend warrior. I asked my husband Eric to take a picture of me and I was too delirious to get him to capture it with my finisher's glass in hand.
I hosed off my lower half of my body and said hello to all seven of my foot blisters. As I changed, I promised to throw away my underwear. Using the bathroom was exceptionally painful and I realized that I managed to chafe my bunghole.
"This ass chafing was sent by Hades himself."
I longed to make love to the shower that awaited my presence three miles away in Albany, NY. My Wendy's dinner was divine. I found marks in places that shouldn't exist. Everything fucking hurt except for my drive. I did that today.
Twelve hours. Four minutes. Fifty nine seconds.
And yes, I'm proud of it. I got lost. Killed an innocent snake. A baby bear did a drive by on me. My booty hole and vagina doesn't feel like an undiagnosed STD. I didn't get stung by a bee although I came ridiculously close to that in my own home by a wasp. DNS wasn't an option and I didn't fall into the temptation of DNF.
As I walked to Tanya's car, the children asked a lingering question:
"If you ran for twelve hours straight, how do you use the bathroom? There's no toilet tissue out there."
Their innocence made me pull out a hearty laugh. Oh my sweet darlings, I'll save that until the next adventure.
P.S. Mirna, I forgive you and you was right--it's a great damn race. You told me so.
Latoya Shauntay Snell