I almost didn't write this race report. But I'm hoping that I (and you!) will be glad that I did.
Louisville Lovin' the Hills (hereafter "LLTH") is a trail race held in Kentucky. It is, as the name suggests, quite hilly. As will become clear to you, however, NO name could ever prepare you for just how hilly this race is. It's actually three different races--a 6 mile "fun run," 15 miler (the most popular), and a 50K (which is, for those of you who don't speak running fluently, a bit over 31 miles). Each race is 100% on trails.
If it hadn't been for my friend Scott, I wouldn't have even known of this race. However, as he helped me prepare for my 60K next month, I became aware that his next goal race was the LLTH 50K. It was decided that the 15 mile version of this race would be a good tune up in terms of running on technical trails. It would also be a good hill workout for Boston.
Before I dive on in, let me just put it out there, for those of you who might not read this report in its entirety, that LLTH is the best, most fun race I've ever run (excluding, possibly, Dances with Dirt--but that is a relay, so it doesn't really count). The entire experience, from the pre-race pasta party to the post-race soup feast, was undeniably the best running-related thing I've EVER done. So, you should really, really do it next year.
Now, I shall let my verbosity run wild. Tim and I headed down to Louisville Friday afternoon. We had found a hotel close to the race start, and were going to share it with my dad, who was also running. All three of us were doing the 15 miler, while Scott was signed up for the 50K. I flirted, on the way down to the race, with the idea of running the 50K as a "practice" for my 60K. Let me just say, I would not have been at all prepared for it given the terrain.
Now, this is not the first trail race I've ever done. I've done two trail half marathons and a 15K. It is, however, the first "kind of big" trail race I've ever done, and certainly the first of any that are associated with an ultra. I mention this so that you know how unexpected what I'm about to describe to you actually was to me at the time it was occurring.
We picked our packets up at a local running store. Packet pickups are usually not fun. At all. They are either stressful, take forever, or both. However, from the moment we walked in the store, I could tell this one was different. A small woman sat behind a fold up table that was covered with envelopes. She had no computer, but a notebook and a pen. We told her our names, she handed over the packets, the hooded sweatshirts, and told us we were in for a real treat the next day. There, we met up with Scott and his friend Jon. I know Scott, of course, but had never met Jon. Jon is also an ultra runner. Let me just tell you...ultra runners (or the ones I've met) are simply really, really nice people. Not just nice...but thoughtful. "Where are you from? Is this your first trail race?" And then they give you some really helpful advice about fluids, nutrition, etc. And my favorite part? THEY NEVER TALK ABOUT TIMES. Ever. Well, I shouldn't say never--they seem to sometimes talk about course records at some of the major ultras--Western States, Leadville, etc., but they don't corner you and ask you what you're planning to do that day.
If you ever run a major road marathon, you won't believe how many times you'll be asked, in the corral before the start, "What's your goal?" And if you don't happen to have a goal...those road runners will look at you like you are insane, sick, or both. Ultra runners? It doesn't even occur to them to ask...they are just so wonderfully pleased that people are coming out to run the trails. So what I'm trying to say is that Jon was this way, and it made me feel good and relaxed (many of you know I'm generally a basket case before races).
Imagine, then, how relaxed I became when I was thrust into an entire ROOM of ultra runners! Let me back up, though--we learned, from the race blog (which is also a complete anomaly--road races don't have bloggers who go out on the course every day, take pictures, and report back to the runners about the condition of the course), that there was going to be a pre-race party--a pasta dinner--held at one of the sponsor's (Quest Outdoors) the night before the race. So we decided to go.
A lot of races, including big ones like Chicago and Boston, have pre-race pasta feeds. Yes, they actually call them feeds. Because that's what they feel like. You give them a ticket, and you are rushed through a big line where you grab spaghetti, salad, and an over-sized chocolate chip cookie. You eat and fold out tables and then get out of there. This pre-race dinner was so very, very different. But in a good way.
We walked into the store, and wonderful aromas hit us. And then, almost every person already inside turned to look at us: "Hey, come on in...get some grub!" We were shown all the food, where plates/utensils/drinks/desserts were, and told to get as much as we liked and take any seat we wanted. Music was playing--unobtrusively--in the background. Every single person there, eating or not, acknowledged us with at least a head nod. The food was all home-made by ultra runners or their spouses. Tons of different pasta salads, spaghetti, two types of lasagna, homemade cookies, candy, and cinnamon rolls.
"Wow" was all Tim and I could say. The atmosphere was downright laid back. Weren't these people nervous? Didn't we have to hurry up and eat to make room for other people? Actually, no to both. Sponsors came over to us and thanked us so much for coming. The race directors were there, and they wanted to know all about us. Did we want more food? More to drink? Were we comfortable? There's a word for that kind of stuff....it's called hospitality. And LLTH was running over with it.
Tim and I met up with dad at the hotel, and it was lights out early. I went to bed not nervous about the race, though slightly concerned about the forecast, which was calling for snow, temps in the low 20s, and 20 mph winds. Still, though, I knew it was going to be fun.
Race morning, we got up early, agonized over what to wear, and set out for the trails. It was very, very cold...and very, very windy. Driving up to the start, the car had trouble making it up the hills. That is not a good feeling when you're about to go run the terrain. We arrived at the start, and thankfully we had a heated building to be in while we waited. Of course, everyone was super friendly and no one was nervous--perhaps about the weather, but not about their times. Before I knew it, it was time to head out.
I was wearing full tights, two shirts, gloves, and an ear band. I was not sure if I was under- or over-dressed, but figured I probably hadn't gotten it perfectly right. But there was no more time to decide. We saw Scott at the start and I lined up behind him and Tim. One of the runners led a prayer, thanking God for supplying us with this "outdoor church," and we were off.
I had to hold back. The first part was downhill, and I was feeling good. But I had told myself I HAD...H-A-D...to start easy given the difficulty of the terrain (which my new ultra friends liked to call, for some reason, a "real treat"). I wanted the first few miles to feel like a training run. And they did, but I went much faster than I probably should have. My first two miles were around 7:10 (very fast on a trail...well, for me, anyway). But I was just flying down the hills and enjoying the terra firma beneath me (given the last two trail runs I've done have been mud fests).
Here's how the course worked...a six mile loop, then a 1.5 mile straight section, another (different) six mile loop, and back on the straight section to the finish. I can say that the first loop was surprisingly not THAT brutal. Now, there were some steep, steep climbs in it (apparently Kentuckians haven't gotten the memo about something called the switchback), but overall it wasn't as bad as I expected. It was still the hardest terrain I'd ever been on, but I had feared worse. So when I finished the first 4 miles at a 7:30 average, I was really pleased. I felt awesome--strong, fast, and HAPPY. Nothing, aside from a knee that I fell on and bashed earlier in the week, was hurting. And I had enormous energy, even on the climbs. I finished the first 6 mile loop hardly able to believe I had already gone that far.
As I entered into the second loop, I had been running with another guy for quite some time. His name was Kyle. We talked all about running (he's finished five 100 milers!), our kids, our jobs, and our spouses. He would pass me on the uphills, and I passed him on every single downhill. But we always ended up at the same place on the (very few!) flats. Soon, he decided to hang back, as he was running the 50K. Just as he did, we passed a spectator who told me I was the second woman. "Go get first!" he cried. And I took off, but I couldn't even see first. And I didn't really care, because I was having a ton of fun.
And then it got hard. So very, very, indescribably hard. The second 6-mile loop was...I don't even have the words. It was outrageous. Climbs a mile long that went, and I'm not kidding, STRAIGHT UP INTO THE AIR. Many of them couldn't be run...hardly even walked! My pace dropped into the 9's, and I was pushing it. And it wasn't just the uphills, it was the downhills. They were jarring me to death. I could hear my brain inside my skull as I flew down those steep declines. I could feel the weight on my knees and my IT bands. And just when I finally got on flat ground? Time to go up (and up, and up!!!) again.
I was still having fun, though, because I'd picked up a new running buddy. I never got his name, I'm ashamed to say, but he passed me very early on, maybe a mile into the race, and I caught up with him about 8 miles in. "How do you run those downhills so fast?" he asked. "I just let go." "Doesn't that hurt your brain...your head?" "Yes, but I do it anyway." And that's what got us talking. I told him how I'd never done an ultra before, and he's done the one I'm going to do several times. We talked races and trail shoes, and then he asked me something unexpected. He said, "So, why do you run?" He happened to ask this right at the base of some mile-long monster hill, so I had some time to think about it before we got back into talking air. No one has ever asked me that question before.
"I run," I said, "because I'm supposed to. I'm meant for it. God gave me the passion for it, and he lets me do it. He wants me to do it." What this guy didn't know is the horror I had been through a year earlier when my mysterious abdominal pain had kept me from being able to enjoy running. My passion had become a torment. Something that I had been so fond of, and so good at, was being taken away from me. "That's cool," he said. And I asked him why he ran. "I still don't know," he said, "That's why I asked you. I'm always waiting for someone else's answer to click. And that's about the best answer I've heard." We carried on in silence a little while, and then came to another climb. It was so steep that I couldn't even stay vertical on it. I got on hands and knees (truly) and began to scale it. He laughed, and I asked what was so funny. "Your God, he has a funny idea of a playground for us, doesn't he?" I would have laughed, but I was using all of my oxygen to climb (i.e. crawl up) the hill.
We made it to the top, and my legs were utterly trashed. I felt like I was moving in slow motion, but I couldn't get the notion of God's playground out of my head. Because that's truly what it is. God wants his children to be happy, to enjoy His creation. To use His creation (our bodies) to enjoy His creation (the Earth). And if you have any doubt about that, you should go play in the woods sometime--hiking, running, whatever. The only way I can describe it is to tell you that it feels "right." Even when it hurts. Even when you have to crawl. It feels right. Racing does not always feel right, but running, and especially trail running, certainly does.
I zipped down the downhills as though they were slides, and I was reduced to a walk--not even a brisk one--on some of the steepest climbs that appeared in the last few miles. At some point, I got separated from my friend (he pulled away), and I ran the last mile by myself. I was acutely aware of several things. One was how strong I felt. I didn't feel fast, and my legs were trashed, but I still felt strong. Another was how extremely privileged I am to engage in this activity. And yet another is that running is part of my relationship with God. It is a gift He has given me, and now that I'm using it in the way He wants me to, I've never been happier.
I finished strong. I did not bother to sprint because 1) I had just climbed half a mile and a sprint would have looked the same as a jog at that point and 2) I didn't really care about my time. Honestly--I did not. Yes, I promise I'm still the same person you always knew, and I'm not being dishonest when I tell you I didn't care. I kind of had a goal of breaking 2:30, but I hadn't even looked at my watch until the finish. In fact...now, I hope you're sitting down for this...I delayed stopping my watch by probably 20 seconds in order to high five some of the people I had run with. I finished in 2:23:25, a 9:30 average.
As soon as I crossed, I was handed a wooden, heart-shaped ornament, a small tree to plant, and a free fuel belt (for finishing second woman). A guy bent down to cut my chip off, and I informed him I'd tied it with my shoe laces. He didn't roll his eyes at me, he said "Oh, okay, and went after it." I tried to help, but he stopped me, saying "Nah, I'll get it, I'm sure your hands are cold!" And he untied my chip and asked me all about my race. Then he directed me inside the warm building where every kind of soup and cookie imaginable was awaiting me. As well as live music. And a bunch of trail runners.
I finally reunited with Tim, and we sat down to eat. I said to him "This is the most fun I've ever had at a race." That statement still stands. Dad finished right at 3 hours, and Scott finished third in the 50K. I will definitely be back next year...and I'm hoping for the 50K. Gulp.