After two summer 50 mile races I did not finish, I had been toying with the idea of trying to run 50 miles informally. It seemed like a good idea, really. Races have a lot of benefits of course, but they often also entail a lot of planning, travel, cost, along with the added pressure of time cutoffs. Why not just plan to run 50 miles one day and keep it simple? I can live without another t-shirt or a medal. I am capable of hoarding some junk food in my running pack to eat. I can do it! I will do it! I did not tell too many people about my plan and was thankful when a couple checked in the day before to see if I actually was going to go through with it. Of course, once I get an idea, I prefer to follow through. More on this trait of eagerness later.
I really thought I had 50 miles in me. I’ve never been especially sore after running 50K or 55K (mainly because I don’t push it hard enough to truly break down my body) and I really wanted to do it. I ran a marathon distance in Greece two weeks earlier – and despite the conditions being somewhat brutal – high heat, all road, no shade, a ton of traffic – I really felt like I could have continued on if I had more time to spend running that day. I realized then that I really should try this soon. The fire was well lit.
I also really felt like everything was going to come together for me to try it the last weekend in August. I was traveling to Pueblo for a family event, which meant there was some built in child care, and the weather looked almost perfect – 70s and sunny. Plus I have run the trails at Lake Pueblo State Park before and knew I would enjoy the scenery. Many of the trails have views of the Sangre de Cristos, the most beautiful mountain range in Colorado in my opinion, and they overlook a reservoir. The trails wouldn’t be in the mountains, and would mainly be flat with some rollers, but again, what was really important to me was to conquer the distance. To increase my confidence level so as not to feel like all my training efforts towards this 50 mile distance were in vain. Plus, I really do want to persevere in a real 50 mile race someday!
I did not think too much about the fact that I would be running all 50 miles by myself. In hindsight, after talking to a few people, I realize that perhaps this added to the accomplishment in some way. Although I was clearly born an extrovert (actually kind of an uber-extrovert, “the General”, according to Myers-Briggs) I have spent a lot of time by myself in my life. I lived by myself in Chicago for seven years, I basically sit by myself in an office all day long, and I have spent many miles running by myself. Luckily I can have a good time by myself and enjoy being in my own head. So it didn’t really cross my mind that this could or would be problematic.
The main thing I worry about before a big run or race is sleep. I realize I need to get over this, because sleep is generally elusive before a big race or run and there is nothing I can do about that. And as expected, sleep proved to be elusive on Friday night. I set my alarm for 4:15. I remember feeling like I hadn’t slept at all when the alarm rang and thinking “%*$#*, I guess it’s go time.” I was on my own at my brother and sister in law’s place and was happy that they were all up early too. So after answering my sister in law’s question “Why 50 miles?”, filling up my pack with food, water, and various sugary running aids, I left downtown Pueblo and set out on my way in the dark towards Lake Pueblo State Park.
A nice, rolling 7.5 miles to get going. The air felt perfect and I was excited to see yet another sunrise while running. I saw some people setting up for an outside event along the road, which wound up being the state 4-H Archery competition. Ok. I made a mental note that they had a ton of Port-o-Potties. Then I passed a decrepit looking barn that was gated off and crumbling, with big signs saying “Save the Barn”. After further research, I have learned that, according to someone, the barn is “one of the most important historical structures in the American West” and part of the headquarters for the Goodnight-Loving cattle trail, one of the most traveled upon trails in the West and an inspiration for the series Lonesome Dove. Who knew? Pueblo is an “interesting” place. Ok, enough history.
After arriving at Lake Pueblo State Park, I scouted out where I wanted my family to leave my cooler, which had Coke, Gatorade, water, ice, pistachios and chocolate covered goji berries in it. I wasn’t sure what my exact route was yet, but I knew if I had a stash I could return to from time to time throughout the day, I’d be happy.
The trails in Lake Pueblo State Park are fun to navigate. I think they are mainly used by mountain bikers and have names such as “Broken Hip” and “Skull Canyon”. You can kind of get lost in there and I didn’t mind that. I spent the next 8 miles or so wandering around the trails, running around the reservoir, enjoying the blue skies and feeling strong and excited about the day ahead. I came around a corner and one guy was sitting above on a ledge, and shouted “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” I thought maybe that should be my mantra. A few moments after that, I saw some birds feasting on a huge animal, I think it was a deer. All sorts of nature.
Around mile 15, my family dropped off…an amazing breakfast burrito! Usually when I am in Pueblo, I get this same burrito and it is smothered in green chile. If you didn’t know, Pueblo is known for its green chiles. Last year I even placed in a 5K race during Chile Fest! Ha, see, Pueblo has many redeeming qualities! But I digress. Basically I am writing about the burrito because I laughed all day thinking about the fact that I had a burrito in my backpack. Not only did the burrito make me laugh, it made me happy every time I took it out and ate some. Around this time, I also got a text from my son Hayden which was encouraging. He honestly really was interested in me finishing.
At this point, I wasn’t sure where I was headed next. I could have gone back into the state park….but the mountains were beckoning. Basically, the road outside of the reservoir leads to the Sangre de Cristos. I really had no idea where the road led to, except I could see the mountains. I understand that running on the road may not have seemed ideal, but I decided to head west. The road had a lot of rolling hills, the sky was entirely blue and I just kept running…I saw some bikers, who said various iterations of “Good job!” to me and at one point, in the middle of nowhere, I saw a lone woman walking on the other side of the road who was blasting music. We waved at each other and I continued on. Even though I was probably another 30 miles from the actual mountains (I think I would have come to Westcliffe eventually) the mountains seemed like they were accessible to me. The open road and the mountains. And I still felt great, although it was getting hot. Of course I forgot a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen…
My memory of the entire run up to this point is that anyone who saw me must have wondered what I was so happy about. I was running literally that entire time with a huge smile on my face, or a stupid, silly grin, depending on your perspective. Thank you to endorphins, blue skies, a strong will and body, and music. I don’t always listen to music when I am running, but I think it was integral to my happiness on this particular run. Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, Wilco, to name a few, and a bit of Bon Iver, Iron and Wine, and Gregory Alan Isakov when I was feeling mellow.
I started to tire of the heat a bit around mile 23, so decided to take a break, take off my shoes, pull out my burrito and relax. It was at this point that I also thought about the fact that I was close to halfway and still was in great shape. Usually when I am running and hit the half way mark, I feel like I am done, because I just have to head to the finish at that point. Not sure of this logic, but it works for me. I pretty much felt like I knew I would finish at this point too and then set my sights on getting to mile 36, which is the farthest I have ever run before this day. At mile 25 I did a little jump. Halfway!
Eventually I figured out that I should probably turn around and head back so I started dreaming of Coca-Cola and my stashed cooler at what would turn out to mile 34. Miles 30-34 were hot, and my feet were sore, but I kept moving. Found the cooler, took off my shoes, chugged my coke, ate some burrito and relaxed.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. In hindsight I think I should have gone back to the trails at the reservoir where it was peaceful but I started thinking I should head back to town and complete the run on the Arkansas River Trail. The sun was blazing, I was totally sunburned, and did I mention that my feet hurt? Some couple stopped and offered me a ride back to town. No thanks!
Mile 36 – another little jump because I was surpassing my longest distance run ever! It was around this time that got another text from my son with a dozen emoticons and started getting texts from my friend Lizzie who was on a boat on Lake Dillon and was checking on me. She was sending photos of them toasting me with wine and really this was hilarious, so it gave me some extra energy. A remote crew to make me laugh! Awesome.
Made it back to downtown Pueblo and had 9 miles to go. I can do this! I will run 4.5 miles and 4.5 miles back on the Arkansas River Trail. There was a lot of walking at this point…I soon realized that this plan probably wouldn’t work either. Although in theory the river trail should be a great place to run, and I am not particularly intimidated usually, there were some sketchy people on the trail including an obvious tweaker. I ran about 4 miles in and knew I had to figure something else out so I cut back into downtown although now I would have to figure out more mileage. At this point I started thinking about who I wished would show up and start yelling at me to get it together. I see my friend Andrea filling this role at some point in my running future, and she probably wouldn’t let me stop in a bar. Because, at this point, I was also dying for a cold Sprite and stopped in a bar. That was funny. The bartender wondered what I was doing and when I told him I was at mile 45 of a 50 mile run, he responded with, “Wow, you look pretty fresh for having run 45 miles.” Well, thank you!!! Told him I might come back later for a beer (yeah, right), left the bar and ran around the Pueblo Riverwalk a bit.
Oh yes, it is Saturday night and families were enjoying the stroll around the Riverwalk and I am finishing up my 50 mile run. Right. Eventually I made it to mile 50 and to my finish line which was a stairway that was all lit up. No, I wasn’t crawling up the stairs. Frankly, I felt like I could have run longer, although I had already told myself that I wasn’t going to run one more step over 50 miles. I actually think I ran around 52 due to forgetting to turn my GPS back on twice. And that was it. I did it.
But why did I do this? So many reasons, probably a never ending list of reasons. I love running. I love challenges. I have a lot of energy and I need a lot of stimulation to get by. Once I get a big idea in my head, I will try hard to make it happen… And lastly, I think it comes down to the fact that I am an eager person. This is not a bad trait, although I have certainly seen my eagerness be misinterpreted in my life. I am eager to do many, many things. I am eager to have new experiences (I am definitely an experience junkie), I am eager to make new friends, I am eager to maximize my time, I am eager to live it all. I was eager to train for and run 50 miles. And now it’s done. I did get a medal at the end.
Ilene Bloom is a mother/evolving ultrarunner/lawyer who lives in Denver. She plans to deal with cut-offs again in the upcoming Javelina Jundred 100k. Ilene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions about this article.