I alluded to being prepared for every possible outcome previously. But of course, while those things cross your mind, they don't dominate. They can't. You have to think you'll succeed (however you measure that), or the starting line only precludes a walk to the gallows.
But there has to be balance. Hubris is punished, severely and constantly. Thus you strive to equate your respect for the distance with a respect for your fitness. Lean towards the latter, and, well, you'll end up like me.
The starting line was inauspicious, which was only surprising if you expected this to be a mega-marathon. There was a streak of white flour strewn across a paved road, and behind it, about 50 people. The disparity in appearances took some digesting, even disregarding my previous knowledge of the subject.
We huddled, then spaced out, roughly gauging how fit we looked in relation to everyone around us. I stood behind three well-equipped runners, all sporting Salomon gear and running store technical shirts. I had no hydration device whatsoever, thinking that there would be cups and fluids every four(ish) miles.
At the start, the three in front set the pace, and I followed, along with two others. We chatted a bit, once we turned on to the gravel road, and settled in to our pace. (On that note, I should say that, if this was gravel, steel wool is a toothbrush.) We comfortably slid in to the first aid station, which was no more than a marked cooler by the side of the road. There were no cups.
Frustrated, I pushed it. Slowly, a gap emerged between myself and the three behind. The two others had fallen behind. I was feeling good, and let my legs go. At about the nine-mile mark, I arrived at the first manned aid station, downed two cups of HEED, then sprinted off.
By now, I realized that building any substantial lead would be impossible. So I slowed just a touch, and the three trailers caught up quickly. I finally asked about what pace we were keeping, and was a bit horrified to hear we were regularly clocking 7:30 miles on some gnarly rock. Still, my pride wouldn't let me drop too far back, so I stayed with them until the second manned station, at mile 17.
There, I met my Dad (my crew for the evening), who gave me the water bottle I should have started with, and a change of shoes. By the time I left, the three had built a lead of at least 100 yards, and I resigned to let them go.
I ran alone until the turn-around. My legs were beginning to feel sore, but not horribly so. I expected some muscles soreness after running the first half in roughly 3:40, and was getting just that. Even still, I felt strong. I imagined an eight-hour finish, with which I'd have been pleased, and felt capable.
By now, there was a substantial gap between myself and the leaders, as well as myself and those following. This was lonely, silent trudging, the only sound the metronomic crunch of my foot on gravel. I had started with an mp3 player, but turned it off. The night was nice enough to not require distraction. Steadily, I made my way forward, concentrating on maintaining an easy effort.
Still, I bombed down the hills, as a nearly effort-free way to make up for lost speed. This, as it turned out, was not altogether wise. These were rolling, gradual hills. They were akin to setting the incline at "3" on a treadmill, in either direction, and they were very long. So my bombing was long and arduous. And my knees were beginning to feel it.
Even still, when I next saw my Dad, at mile 33, I was confident in a strong finish. I was solidly in fourth, and third was close enough, should he slow. But I wasn't counting on that. I took advantage of a second wind, courtesy of some ginger snap cookies, and went looking for third. I found him, not too long after, recognizing the glow of his Salomon gear at the bottom of a hill. Motivated, I charged, and my already aching knees disapproved. Specifically, my right IT band seized, and I stopped. After a few minutes of attempting to stretch it out, I decided to try and walk it off.
As it happened, that's what I'd spend the rest of the night doing. Walking. From about mile 35 on, I didn't run more than 10 yards consecutively. It hurt, first of all. But primarily, my leg simply wouldn't extend enough to make an attempt at the running motion. My goal of a sub-8-hour finish vanished, and I trudged across the finish line in just under eleven hours.
My Feelings on All of This
It would be very easy to feel defeated right now. After all, I can't really walk, and nearly everything on my body hurts just a little bit. There are dark spots on top of my feet, where I'm almost certain I pulled something. And yet I'm encouraged, paradoxically, by my strong start and awful finish.
I started too fast, as I tend to do, but held the pace much better than I had any right. On that course, I'd have been very happy with my half-marathon, full-marathon, and 50k splits. But of course, the race was 50 miles. And my 50 mile time, sadly, was not anywhere near what I wanted and expected.
Mostly, the whole experience is motivation. I tested my fitness, and found that it's improved significantly sense I began doing this somewhat seriously. By all rights, I should be pleased with where I'm at, and I am. But I'm far from satisfied. That's where the finishing death march comes in. I proved I could run all those previous distances well; but there's still this challenge, incomplete. Until next year.