My First 50 Miler: Wildcat Ridge Romp — by Annie Rorem

So, I’m a little nervous for my Mountain Masochist Trail Run.  Though I’m proud of my performances in the earlier races of the Lynchburg Ultra Series, I know that my finish times suggest that I’ll be flirting with the MMTR 12-hour limit.  I have a feeling that I’ll be sliding in under the cut-offs all day, struggling up the climbs, trying hard not to be hesitant on the downhills, and just working like crazy to clock in under 12 hours.

With all this in mind, I’ve been slowly involving myself in CAT training runs, and have been so happy with the company and the challenges they provide.  After a pretty great CATAss 50K in July, I bit the bullet and signed up for an August 50 miler with the intention of familiarizing myself with the feel of being on my feet, moving forward, for that long.  Enter Wildcat Ridge Romp, in Rockaway, New Jersey—my oft-maligned, greatly beloved home state. 
A cursory glance at the elevation profile suggested that this race, a series of loops around a 10 mile course, wouldn’t pose the same challenges as MMTR. 
And, from everything I understand, that’s true.  It did not pose the same challenges as MMTR.  It posed a whole different set of challenges.
Race morning had me up at 4am, caffeinating and distracting my mind with the latest issue of Outside.  My boyfriend Michael and I checked in around 5:30 as two members of a pretty small field of runners.  Knowing that we’d be stopping by the car every 10 miles, we set up our supplies there, along with a notebook to keep each other posted on our progress.  The race director briefed us quickly, triggering just a touch of cognitive dissonance when he followed up his reminder to check out the view of the Verrazano Bridge and New York City skyline at mile 3 with a word of caution to keep our eyes peeled for bears.  Then, pointing to a spot on the ground with his foot, he said, “This is the start.  3, 2, 1, go!”
I chatted with a few guys on my way out, and was not unaware that only two other women were in the pack of 16 or so runners.  By the second mile, only one of these women was out of sight up ahead of me.  I did check out the Verrazano at mile 3, made tracks through mile 5, and then descended from the ridge into a rock field that slowed my pace by over 3 minutes a mile.  As I picked my way across the tricky—even “technical”—terrain, I felt grateful for what would be a repeated opportunity to slow down every lap, even as I was struggling to find places to put my feet.  Mile 7 had us crossing a dam and hauling ourselves up and over some high concrete barriers, and the aid station at mile 8 was notable not only for its totally charming and enthusiastic volunteers, but also because it marked the beginning of a gradual downhill to the start/finish area.  I put in my first lap in a solid-feeling 2:08, left a little hello for Michael in the notebook, and headed out again.
Lap two was a confidence booster, as I felt totally in control of my race.  I knew when to expect some downhills, and the anticipation of the respite they would provide helped me to keep pace through some of the climbs.  I didn’t check out the view this time around, but I did see some wild turkeys, so that was a fair trade.  When I came into the start/finish at mile 20, the race director told me that the woman ahead had about 11 minutes on me.  I promptly forgot this information as soon as I left again.  I blame it on Mountain Dew brain freeze.
Lap three was, unexpectedly, the most mentally challenging of them all.  I had gone into the day thinking that the fourth lap would be my weakest, but the Dew, the climb out of the start/finish, and the knowledge of all the miles to come had me reminding myself, “It never always gets worse.  It never always gets worse,” pretty frequently during this one.  If it works for David Horton, it works for me.  The best part of this time around was mile 25, when I took a break from mantra-repetition to congratulate myself on reaching the halfway point.  “Way to go, Rorem.  You got this,” I said out loud.  I’m always “Rorem” when I dole out encouragement to myself.
Coming into mile 30, I knew my pace had dropped off pretty considerably.  And, while my average pace had climbed each time I stopped at the car to leave a note and demolish some chips, this next lap was the first in which gaining that time back proved to be a challenge.  I kept myself going by setting short-term goals.  “Okay,” I’d think, “You’re good if you bring it down 5 seconds by the end of this fire road,” or, “You’ve got one mile until The Rocky Part.  Make it count.”  In between these thoughts, I reminded myself that the next time I passed these landmarks would be the last time.
Around mile 37, I passed the woman who had been in front of me throughout the race, and chatted with her for a second to see how she was doing.  She looked pretty rough, but was clearly not in any kind of real trouble.  I told her to keep it up, and kept on moving.  Based on Michael’s notes to me, I knew I’d see him at some point before I hit 40, and the thought definitely cheered me.  At 38, he caught up, looking strong and proud as hell to see me on my way to 50 miles.  Knowing he’d be breaking 12 hours in the 100K, I was equally as proud of him. 
Finally, finally, I started on my last lap.  I was not excited to eat at this point, and was mostly just sipping water and trying to keep moving forward.  However, as I scanned the trail ahead around mile 42, I registered a sight that was just as energizing as a gel: a large-and-in-charge mother bear with a cub.  I slammed on the brakes (it didn’t take much), and looked behind me on the trail to see if anyone was there to keep me company.  Nobody. 
I decided to wait it out for a little, since it appeared that the bears were wandering off.  As I stood there, about 40 feet from them, the cub caught a glimpse of me, and bounded away, startling a second cub that I hadn’t seen into climbing a tree.  As if this weren’t enough entertainment for me, this little tree-climber lost his grip about 10 feet up, and slid back down as though the trunk were a fire pole.  I hoped that the mother wasn’t feeling too protective of her baby’s young ego.  Mother bears anywhere are fierce, but we were talking about a Jersey girl here. 
Fortunately, another runner came up right about then, and he and I decided to stroll by calmly, chatting loudly.  Once we got about 100 feet down the trail from our ursine friends, we picked it back up to a jog.  To be dead honest, the combination of relief at surviving the encounter along with a fair amount of tiredness blurred out the next several miles for me, at least until I remembered to take in some fuel around mile 47.  A few bites of a Power Bar seriously hit the spot, and I was renewed enough to commit to running the final miles, however slowly.  And I did. 
Approaching the finish area, I could see Michael with his arms above his head, cheering me on.  I matched his gesture, stumbled across that imaginary line, and felt pretty pleased with myself.  I had the distinct honor of being both the first female 50-mile finisher, as well as the very last runner to finish the race (though it was close on the latter).  My first win and my first DFL, at the same time?!  Too good to be true.

I decidedly have my work cut out for me before MMTR—I still expect to be sliding in under the cut-offs all day, struggling up the climbs, trying hard not to be hesitant on the downhills, and just working like crazy to clock in under 12 hours.  But my love for the trails, for pushing myself, and for running my heart out has redoubled, and I will tackle MMTR one climb and one cut-off at a time.  I’m hungry for a finish, and now I have a new mantra to add to my arsenal: “50 miles.  You’ve done this before, Rorem.  You got it.”

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