That Time I Ran a 50K in the Mountains

By Clif Light

What does it mean to run over 10,000 feet of elevation gain?

Why did I sign up for a 50K in the mountains?

When will these giant ski slopes become flat?

When is the next aid station?

How am I only at mile 28?

These were some of the many thoughts that ran through my mind as I took on the “Beast”, as it is known in Killington. When the opportunity was presented to us to take on the UA Mountain Running Series in Vermont, I took a look at the distances and thought, 50K sounds like a fun challenge. Go for it. I’m currently training for the Chicago Marathon, so I knew I would be able to complete the distance, and I figured it would be a good way to continue my long-distance training. Little did I know, I would be in for the biggest physical challenge of my life so far.

Killington, Here We Come!

DRC took a charter bus to Vermont and left promptly at 6 a.m. from D.C. Once we began to load the bus, I knew it would be a great weekend because the energy on the bus was so high. Everyone was excited and talked for hours. As we got closer to Killington, the energy level rose as we blasted some trap music on the bus (…and there may have been a few shots of Whiskey taken). But as we arrived in Killington, it began to sink in for me–These are legit mountains. We noticed the elevation change immediately as some people complained about their ears beginning to pop.

Once we arrived, we checked into our condos. As I was walking to my room, I noticed a sign on the dumpster. It read, “Caution! Bears in the area.” –a warning to close and lock dumpster doors. Then it became really real–bears possibly on the resort. What did I sign myself up for (I asked myself that question plenty of times)?

As we headed to dinner, I started to get nervous. We got closer to the mountain and started to see where we would possibly run on Saturday. I felt like the entire night everyone asked me if I was ready. In my standard reply, I would always say, “I stay ready.” I think everyone knew this race wasn’t going to be the standard race. After some serious carb loading, we headed back to our rooms. Some people hung out for a while, had some drinks, or even got in the hot tub to relax. I had serious FOMO because I knew I had to prepare my race kit and get some serious rest. So I ended the night earlier than I normally would have before a race day.

Race Day

Race morning was a beautiful. We woke up and finally saw the mountain without any fog covering any of it. The 50K race began at 8 a.m., so I woke up at 5am to eat, stretch, and hydrate. While heading over to the race, I was trying to mentally prepare myself to run for 31 miles and was pretty focused. Once we arrived at the starting area, I felt better as I saw our New York fam that was also running the 50K. I was able to relax a bit since I knew I wouldn’t go through this struggle alone.

The countdown to the race had begun. We took off and shot downhill, and I thought, I can handle this pace here. And then we made a turn, and it was a massive ski slope on mile 1. This set the tone for the entire race. We ran up for another couple of miles, and then it would flatten out only to be followed by a more massive ski slope.

The race itself was a blur merely because of the length of it and my exhaustion. I tried to break it down into eight-mile increments to give myself milestones to reach throughout the race. Miles 1 through 8 were pretty tough, but I was full of energy, and I enjoyed the scenery they provided as we climbed to pretty much the peak of the mountain. There was plenty of elevation throughout the first eight miles, but the downhills felt great at that point because all of the strain I put on my calves going uphill so early in the race.

Miles 9 to 16 were probably the best point of the race for me. Around mile 14, my energy was low, but at this point the 50k course merged with all of the other courses. So I was able to see other runners that were participating in the marathon and half marathon. It felt good to run with a group of people instead of alone in the forest. It gave me enough energy to keep pushing on as other runners encouraged me to keep it up. Mile 16 was the lowest point of the course at 1,174’. Miles 17 through 24 were the toughest because they involved some of the highest elevation gain.  From there, we climbed to 4,134’ at mile 22. This was the part of the course where a lot of runners began to drop off. The only thing I could thing about was to keep pushing. Heading into mile 22 from 21, I ran into some of my DRC crew who cheered me on as I stopped at the aid station. I drank a can of Coke, ate two cups of Lay’s chips, and continued to keep pushing forward. The support from DRC kept me going as I headed uphill. I kept running for as long as I could, but when I realized I could no longer see anyone or hear any cheers, I just stopped, gasping for air, and took a look up this massive slope. My strategy was to find a landmark on the slope to reach, stop, take a breather, and then keep pushing. This went on for miles, sometimes running and sometimes power walking. But I just kept thinking, Keep moving. Don’t stop until you reach the top. After reaching the summit at 24, there was an aid station where I drank another can of Coke with ice. I also had a cup of plain M&M’s, a cup of Skittles, and two cups of Lay’s chips. Who knew junk food would taste so good on a run? But at this point, I was starving, and I would eat anything that would keep me going.

Photo credit: Angela Hooks

From miles 25 to 31, it was all about finishing and not dying trying to. At this point, we had steep downhills where if you lost control, you would probably tumble to the bottom of the mountain. There was plenty of mud, and the footing was slippery, so I decided to just kill this downhill no matter what. I slipped and fell the entire way down on my backside, which felt good because my hamstrings and quads were completely dead, and the mud was cold enough to cool my body temperature down.

I finally reached a flat portion of the course, and I heard screams from DRC finishers waiting for me at the finish line. I ignored them for a while until I saw them running towards me. They began to run with me, and I thought maybe they shortened the course because they put the 50K runners through hell. I was wrong. There was a race volunteer that pointed left—50K runners had to go up another massive hill. I just stopped, bent over, and dropped every curse word I could think of. I kept pushing with the help of DRC. We proceeded to a flattened area of the slope, stopped to get a breather, and though it was the homestretch–until we hit the bottom of a hill and saw another sign to make another left and hit another massive hill. At this final climb, it was a total team effort. Brittany, Jasmine, Nye, and Tutu lead the way up the hill, which gave me a sense of how far I had to climb. Steph, J. Knight, and Carlos gave me encouragement alongside of me as I climbed. When J. Knight offered his shoulder to help me up I said, “No, I am good. I can do it alone.” But after a few steps, my hamstrings couldn’t take climbing, and I just reached out and kept climbing. Allison and Angela joined in, and I realized I was almost done and powered up and down the hill.

Staggering to the finish line, everyone cheered me in, and I was welcomed with a champagne shower. Finally done, I didn’t want to stop walking because I knew the pain would set in, and my body would lock up. I entered the recovery zone, and I felt like a patient in the ER. But with all that, I appreciated all of the support at the end because I needed every ounce of it.

What an experience looking back! I feel like if I made it through this race, I can do anything, and it will help me when facing future challenges. If there is an opportunity to take on Killington again, I would accept it and prepare myself better. But until then, I can’t wait to take on the next extreme challenge.

 

The Other R-Word

Although it’s a beautiful thing, life moves fast. It can be hectic, and busy, and complicated. Add adulting into the mix and you’ve convinced yourself that you need a special assistant just to help you stay on top of it all. Add another layer on top–running. So, you’re telling me I have to pay bills, keep Sallie Mae happy, deep condition my hair on a semi-regular basis, make it to all these social events, AND make sure I’m getting exercise? This is the life we chose, folks!

It’s always exciting to see fellow runners smash their goals, come down on their times, or complete another race. The desire to go up another level in our running careers is almost addictive; but with that high can also come the need to take a break from it all. Yep, rest. Our bodies physically, mentally, and emotionally need it. Sometimes there’s the temptation or the peer pressure to keep running without proper recovery and relaxation.

“I have to keep up.”

“I can’t lose the mileage.”

“The marathon is around the corner.”

“I’ll lose my speed.”

“What will others think?”

So, we keep going. Out of guilt, out of pressure, out of competition, out of not wanting to look weak.
But you know what? It’s actually ok to take a break from it all once in a while. It could be a day. It could be a couple weeks. It won’t last forever.

We all know that running, especially long distances, is more mental. Sometimes your mind just needs a break, and that’s ok. No one is saying to rest every single time it gets tough. Sometimes you need to push through because that helps you get faster and stronger. But if you’re experiencing a difficult time emotionally, haven’t gotten enough sleep the last few days, or you’re injured, it’s ok to relax for a bit. Promise. You’ll get back on track.

The miles are never not coming. They’ll be right there waiting where you left them. You’ve got this!

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