The Sand Spur Ultra: An Event Like No Other
This past Saturday I ran in my first official 50 mile race. The Sand Spur Ultra is an event like no other. Last year, at the inaugural event, I ran the only distance available–the 50K (31.1 miles) and got on the podium with a finish time of six hours and 13 minutes. But this year I just had to challenge myself to the distance that no-one in history had ever conquered at this venue, 50 miles! 15 brave souls signed up originally, but by the time of the race, only seven remained. The Magnificent Seven!
Since I’m pretty new to ultra running and at 56 years of age, I knew I would have to prepare well for this one. After all, the course is at least 75% soft sugar sand, has a few thousand feet of elevation to climb, and there is always the possibility of horrendous heat (and this year didn’t disappoint!). My training went pretty well, but I didn’t get in as many long runs as I had planned, which had me a little worried. But the taper period right before the holidays was fantastic! Now onto the race report…
Sand Spur Ultra Race Prep
I woke up at 3 AM to get my pre-race prep started. Of course I did as much as I could the day before but there are just some things you can’t do ahead of time (such as fill your cooler with ice, have a cup of coffee, use the potty, etc.). So after waking up the first thing I did was make the coffee. I then got dressed, slathered sunscreen all over my arms, chest, neck, and face, and sprayed liquid Aquaphor all over my toes before putting on my socks and gaiters.
I filled my cooler with some ice, water bottles, and various food items, including chocolate pudding cups, a ham and cheese wrap, mandarin oranges, watermelon, etc. I made sure all of my food was portable because I knew it would be better to be able to walk-and-eat than to sit-and-waste-time-and-eat. So I cut the fruit into bite-sized pieces and placed them in small, snack-sized ziplocks that I could take with me.
Since I had plenty of time before the race I decided to treat myself to a pre-race Normatec Boot treatment. And what a treat it was! I used a mild-to-moderate strength level because I didn’t want to overdo it too close to race time. During my treatment I ate a bowl of Rice Krispies with sliced banana and milk.
After the boot treatment and the coffee, I managed to successfully use the potty one last time before packing everything into the car to head to the park. My husband graciously offered to drive me there because I didn’t want to chance not being able to drive myself home 14 hours later! But since my car would not be accessible on-site, I had to pack everything I needed in as small an amount of space as possible, which is a big challenge for me as I am a self-proclaimed pack rat!
Here’s what I took:
- Small igloo cooler with ice, food, Core/Smart Water bottles, Gatorade, replacement Nathan water bottles pre-filled, and spoons.
- Small plastic container with essentials like bluetooth headphones, wired headphones, portable charger and cords, hand sanitizer, wipes, Aspercreme with Lidocaine, spray Aquaphor, Neosporin, a full array of different sized bandaids, tweezers, electrolyte capsules (in a small baggie), Extra Strength Tylenol and Ibuprofen.
- Two foldable chairs.
- Cooler bag with two extra pairs of running shoes, extra gaiters, socks, pants, shirt, and hat. I also had extra microfiber cloths, cooling towels, etc.
I WAS READY!
Arriving at the Sand Spur Ultra Course
I arrived at The Ridge by 5:15 AM, as the start time was 6. I spent 15 minutes or so getting my stuff arranged under the tent that was provided for us as I feared it might rain (but it didn’t) so I wanted to make sure everything would be covered.
The RD’s started the pre-race meeting at 5:50, so I gathered with the small group of runners and volunteers to listen to the last-minute instructions. When the meeting was over they said “two minutes” and I started freaking out…I hadn’t pinned on my race bib yet and my HydraQuiver and water bottle were on my chair, which was a little distance away! I hated to do it but I ran over there, pinned on the bib, put on the vest with the bottle and ran back over to the starting line. Whew, I made it in time!!
I wasn’t nervous at all, which is one of the reasons I love ultras so much. Back in high school when I used to run track I used to get so nervous before my races and I hated that feeling! With ultras, you know you can start out slow and take as much time as you need to get warmed up which eliminates those pre-race jitters . Plus the feeling of camaraderie and friendship amongst the runners that you’re actually competing against is unreal-we are all one big happy family!
Sand Spur Ultra 50-Miler
So, at 6 AM sharp The Magnificent Seven were off!
As I started running, physically, I felt great. My plan was to try to run 11-min miles for at least the first seven miles or so (two loops), and then slow down the pace a little. By the two-mile mark I had settled into the pace I had planned on running and as it turned out my average pace for Loop 1 was 11:07. Perfect.
On the second loop I was right in the middle of the pack–three runners in front of me and three behind. I knew this meant nothing because by the middle of the race I would be walking and I had no idea if the others would be doing so as well. So I tried to block my co-runners out of my mind and just run my own race.
I ran Loop 1 with no music as I knew I would want to take it all in-look at the beautiful scenery, watch the sun rise over the white sand dunes, learn as much as I could about my co-runners as I figured after this loop I would probably not be seeing too much of them. (I anticipated finishing last, considering my age and all). But by Loop 2 I put in my headphones and had a 3-hour playlist going of 180 BPM music. Since this was a pretty fast cadence I actually wound up passing the other two women in the field as I was going up Mt. Ridge at Satan’s Ski Slope! I wasn’t trying to pass them and I knew my lead would be short-lived but I was trying to run my own race and that cadence led me to that pace and I maintained the lead for the entire second loop.
Unfortunately, mid-way around that loop I noticed a dull ache in my right leg…down low, around the outside of my ankle. This was definitely a new feeling for me–never have I ever had an ache in that part of my foot before. What could it be? Had I injured myself? Would it get worse?
Well it didn’t take long for me to find out because when I started Loop 3 (behind the other two women, by the way), as soon as I hit the soft sand I felt a sharp pain shooting up my right leg. OMG…what the heck was this? And would it keep me from continuing after all of the preparation I had done leading up to this day? Even though my plan was to run (not walk) the first four loops (at least) I decided to walk a little, run a little, and experiment, to try to figure out what was going on. Suffice it to say, over the next mile or so I realized that when the sand was soft, and on uphills in particular, it was impossible for me to run. I had to walk because if I didn’t, the pain was sharp and my leg would buckle. So I decided to alter my plans and walk/run from this point forward, whenever there was a sandy uphill. I switched over to a slower playlist of music (173-176 BPM) and tried to settle into my new running pace. For the first four loops, here’s how I did:
|Lap #||Lap Time||Avg Lap Pace|
The next few loops were pretty uneventful, except that any time I attempted to run on the soft sand in the uphill direction I got a searing pain up my leg. I didn’t mind, though, I just had to try to remember not to do that! Every time it happened, though, I was worried it would be the last step I would be able to take because when the pain came it was sudden and intense and my leg would buckle again (such a weird feeling) and it would take a few steps to recover so I must have looked like a crippled person, hobbling along…except there was nobody around to see this except me so you’ll just have to believe me when I tell you it was scary and strange. To train for months and months for a race and then to experience the uncertainty of possibly not finishing was almost unbearable mentally. Going into the race I knew there was nothing that could stop me from finishing…no matter how painful…no matter how tired or sore my legs got, I knew I could persevere with mental grit. But this? This was not something I could have ever imagined happening and I didn’t quite know what to make of it. I found myself literally trying to go back in time to before I felt it getting sore, hoping that in hindsight I might be able to prevent it from happening, but that, obviously, was not something that I would actually have been able to do! This isn’t “Back to the Future”, after all!!
Soon enough, the sun came out in all it’s glory and the heat index hit 90, so I’m told. The aid station volunteers were amazing and the cold ice sponges to the neck and back were a necessity as heat exhaustion wasn’t out of the picture.
As I came up on the mid-loop aid station on my eighth loop I saw my friend Lisa’s floppy white hat just getting ready to take off…if I could get there quickly I might be able to catch her and have some company for awhile, as the miles were getting lonely. I stopped briefly for a water refill and an ice sponging and ran up ahead to try to catch her. As she ran ahead of me I tried to call after her but the wind was in my face and I knew there was no way she’d be able to hear me…I HAD to actually physically catch up to her or there would be no way she’d even know I was right behind her!
I mustered up all of my strength (I didn’t want to overdo it as I still had more than 20 miles to go) and caught up to Lisa as she rounded the bend towards the first of three huge sand dunes on the course. To my delight right in front of her was another friend, Darlene (they were both 50K runners so I didn’t actually start the race with them) who was walking at a pretty slow pace. I knew what that meant-her IT band was acting up…I didn’t know what to expect when I caught up with them. When I did I started walking and talking with them and it was so great to not be running alone anymore! We walked the next half-mile or so together and then when the sand headed downhill again I told them I had to start running. I knew I had to run the downhills or I might not make the cut-off and be able to finish. I said good-bye and was off. As it turned out, Darlene was determined to finish her race even if it meant walking the entire thing despite her physical condition and for now, Lisa was staying by her side for support!
At this point I need to digress for a moment to mention how disappointed I am with my Garmin Fenix 5s watch…don’t even get me started! I put the watch in UltraTrac mode to ensure the battery would last for more than 11 hours having no idea the distance travelled, and hence my average pace indicators, would be totally inaccurate! Basically the watch was under-calculating my distance and my average pace started to look horrendous! I was so afraid I wouldn’t make the cut-off when in reality I had a ton of time! I ran into another friend, Shelley, who was on her way to a fantastic 50K finish and when I told her my average pace was over 14 mins/mile and hers was in the 12-range I felt horrible for me (but great for her!). As it turns out, our paces were almost identical and it was my watch that was wrong!!! She went on to finish her race second-place female-way to go Shelley!
As I finished Loop 8 I was surprised to not only see my husband waiting for me with the lunch I had ordered (two McDonald’s cheeseburgers and a large Diet Coke!) I was also greeted by the fifth Fab Fiver, Gina. She has been plagued by plantar fascia issues and thought it would be best not to race on a swollen foot (smart move) but she came to cheer the other Fab Fivers on and support us!! Thanks girlfriend for coming out!
Then, as I sat in my chair to regroup (I had to massage some Aspercreme into my leg, pop an Ibuprofen, two electrolyte capsules, and eat the burger, etc) I saw Lisa come in as well. She was so afraid she would miss the cut-off and disappoint her granddaughter who would be at the finish line to greet her that she decided to (with a heavy heart) run ahead of the limping Darlene. I was so happy that she did because I needed her too!
Here’s my performance for Loops 5-8. Just happy each loop was under an hour at this point (of course, the times include my chair-sitting too).
Lisa and I were able to run the next three loops together, her final ones for the 50K and my toughest “middle” ones! Well, “run” might be a little generous…it was more like a walk/run/shuffle. And we both experienced quite a few ups and downs over those three hours. She, with leg cramps from low salt and me with my, you know, constant and continuous pain in my right leg, which incidentally wasn’t only in the ankle now, it was pretty much affecting the entire leg! And the sun was relentless-there were only a few clouds in the sky and Lisa’s walk was so fast it was hard for me to keep up. Between the sun and the pain in my leg I kept saying that I wanted to crawl under a rock and die than try to finish the race, that’s how miserable I felt.
A few ice-sponge baths later and we rounded the bend toward the finish line for Lisa’s 9th, and final, loop and my 11th. As we ran down the boardwalk we were delighted to see her husband waiting there for her and her granddaughter-who ran up to her and gave her a huge “I love you so much and I’m so proud of you” hug!
It was quite the sight to see and after nearly running the little girl over (I was so delirious from the heat I couldn’t even see straight) I let Lisa relish in her victory as I headed for my chair for cheeseburger #2. When I finished my between-loop maintenance a few minutes later I was off for Loop 12! Only three more to go. Wow, had I actually made it this far with this bum ankle and all? I could literally smell the finish line, which is ironic because I still had a bout three hours of running ahead of me.
Alone again, I mustered up the strength to shave five minutes off my previous loop’s time. Now I was heading into Loop #13. The sun was almost down at this point and I knew I would need my headlamp to finish out the race. I wasn’t too far behind the others-only one runner had finished at this point but I knew the others were way ahead of me. I didn’t care, though, as my goal was to just finish.
At the aid station I saw another 50-miler who had resorted to walking the rest of the race. I walked with him for a half-mile or so and then decided to run because the course turned into a downhill. I stopped on top of Mount Ridge (another one of my happy places) to take a short video before finishing out this loop. Then it was onto the final loop!
Oh how I had looked forward to this moment for so long. It may sound weird to say but I did kind of feel a little sad that it would be over soon. I had my headlamp and glasses ready to go on my chair because I knew I would be needing them soon. The only thing is that I left them right where I had placed them and it was getting dark. Half a mile into this final loop I realized I would be in trouble. Not only did I not have my headlamp, my sunglasses, which are prescription, were making it really hard to see with the setting sun. I had my phone on me, though, so I knew I could pull it out and use it like a flashlight when darkness set in if I had to. As I got to the (mid-course) aid station the volunteers cheered me on and empathized with my situation-I was now having to run alone in the dark in a nature preserve that was full of weird sounds and spiders with glowing eyes that look like crystals in the dark! When I came around to the aid station for the second time (It was on a part of the course that we passed twice for each loop) they realized I didn’t have a headlamp and all scrambled to help me. I wound up accepting a lamp from a friend (who had recently finished his 50K) and was off for the final two (DARK!!!) miles.
There was something truly magical about this point in the race. It was dark, for sure, and I was so happy to have that headlamp! I still had my sunglasses on but without them everything would have been a blur because I’m so near-sighted it isn’t even funny. So I stumbled along the course and made my way up the final uphill. I had ascended Mount Ridge for the last time!!! (Yes, I had to climb to the top of that sand dune 42 times during this race and it was almost over!!!) It would be all downhill from there-one more mile to go! To say it was PITCH DARK would be an understatement. I ran as much as I could but I was in so much pain at this point it was more like a stumble/hobble/sprint/walk kind of a thing. When I finally made it to the sidewalk/boardwalk final stretch I rallied for one final sprint! I managed to fly over the finish line in true Jeanette fashion…my final kick has always been my strength! Oh what a feeling to have finally finished!!! I hugged my awesome race directors, collected my medal and race swag (I won my Sand Spur gaiters!!!), posed for a picture and plopped in my chair for a quick rest before gathering up all of my stuff. My son was there to drive me home and I was so grateful to not have to get behind the wheel of a car I cannot tell you!
The Sand Spur Ultra 50-Miler in the Books!
I settled into the backseat of the car and proceeded to look at and respond to what seemed like hundreds of texts, Facebook Messenger messages, and Facebook posts that had been collecting on my phone all day!
Wow, what a day that was for me. It was more fun and misery than I could have ever imagined!
Sign me up–TO VOLUNTEER–next year!!!
The final loops:
|TOTAL||12:32:43||15:04 avg pace|
If you ran in the Sand Spur this year or last, leave a comment below!
Featured Image Photo Credit: Sara Ayers-Rigsby