As I rounded a turn at the base of a downhill section, corn fields stretching to my left and woods to my right, I felt a twinge on the back of my right leg. “Ouch!” I thought. I felt a second twinge. Grabbing at my leg, I batted away the attacker, a bee with an inferiority complex. Just my luck.
The Blues Cruise 50K ultramarathon this past weekend was full of highs and lows – an incredible race, well-marked and well organized, with environmental factors outside of any race directors control dictating the general commentary of the race this year.
It was ‘hot’ and humid – 80 degrees in early October, with 100% humidity at the start. I went into the race with the mindset that I had trained in much worse throughout the summer, so I was prepared for whatever might be thrown at me. What I wasn’t prepared for was a bee sting, and how that sting would shake my entire race plan early on in the race.
Chris and I stayed in a hotel about 15 minutes from the race start the night before, so that we didn’t have to make the 2.5 hour drive the morning before. We feasibly could have done that, since this race starts at a very comfortable 8:30AM. I haven’t started this late for a race in a very long time. Based on the day’s weather, I wish we had a bit of an earlier start to avoid the heat of the early afternoon sun, but I can’t complain about leisurely waking up at 6AM and extending out my morning race prep routine for a full 1.5 hours, which included a lot of extra hydration and caffeination.
When we got to the race start area, we headed straight to packet pick-up, which didn’t have any line when I showed up! We grabbed my bib and race swag and headed back to the car to drop it off. I made a pitstop at the bathroom, and then headed up to the starting line to get ready. A 8:30, we were off to the races.
The First 9 Miles
The Blues Cruise is a 30.something mile race around Blue Marsh Lake in Pennsylvania. Each year, the course changes directions, with even years running clockwise around the lake. The clockwise direction is considered the ‘easier’ route, because you get the climbing and major hills out of the way in the first 20-miles, rather than saving all those hills for the final miles of the race, which the counter-clockwise years do.
I had an incredible race the first 9-miles. I was cruising along, crushing miles at a sub-11 pace, which is quick for me on trail. I felt strong, I felt relaxed. The first few miles were relatively flat with rolling hills that were completely manageable. I navigated around some clusters of crowding and found my groove with a handful of fellow runners, each trading off passing and leading the small pack.
As we came down the hill at mile 9, the course takes a sharp u-turn and prepares to send us back up another hill. As I rounded the bend and kicked into the flat straight-away before the next hill, I felt the bee sting me. It got it’s stinger straight through my running shorts, right on one of the seams near the bottom. I began to panic.
I haven’t been stung by a been in over a decade – and I had no idea if in that time I developed an allergy. My roommate in college developed an allergy for bees as she got older, and we realized it when she got stung an at ultimate frisbee tournament sophomore year. I got to ride in the ambulance with her to the hospital, where she was treated for said allergy. Needless to say, my mind was racing.
Once I was certain I wasn’t going to die from anaphylactic shock, a new concern set it. My toes were tingly, my leg was burning, and I could feel it swelling up.
Miles 10 through 20
I chose to ignore the bee sting as much as I could. I kept playing in my mind the several songs I had purposefully set in my head, focusing on the music in my mind to try and distract from the nervous pain I was feeling. I kept it up through mile 12, and then backed off the pace a bit to make sure I wasn’t overcompensating on my other leg.
The hills at this point were rolling and steeper – we had some solid climbs that required good power hiking. I was happy to have these moments to hike, and recollect myself and reassess my leg. All was going as OK as I could hope for, but certainly not as good as the first 9-miles. My race, in my mind, was slipping from me.
Tragedy struck me at mile 14. On a downhill, my leg all of a sudden gave out from under me. My right knee was experiencing some sort of strange discomfort and pain I had never felt before. I assume it was related to the swelling and pain from the bee sting – my leg was still tingling a bit and visibly swollen. I couldn’t run downhill anymore, the pain was too much. This was devastating to me, because my strength is in my downhill running. My mind started collapsing with my body – losing faith that I would even be able to finish at this point.
I texted my boyfriend as I was climbing one of the hills, and desperately asked him to bring Advil to the next aid station at mile 17, which he already planned to meet me at. I told him I was in pain and needed something to help with the swelling. Tears welled in my eyes for just a moment, then I shook myself off, knowing that relief was just a few miles in front of me.
I rolled into aid station 4, which was at the top of a hill, grabbed Gatorade, downed an Advil, kissed Chris, and got back to work. Right after the aid, we cross a road, and start climbing again. I took my time here, hoping that the medicine would do it’s job.
The stretch between Aid 4 and Aid 5 are arguably the hardest on the course, in my mind at least. This section is where we see our steepest climb. As we climbed to the top of the hill at Mile 20, all I could think about was the dread of going downhill – a foreign concept to me, except for in this race. I LOVE running downhill, but I had to walk this one – a long, steep section that was pounding on my knee. I could tell the Advil was setting in at this point though, as my knee wasn’t too bad but I was not willing to push it.
Needless to say, this 10-mile section was my least favorite of the course, though on any other day, I think I would have loved it. A great mix of hills and rolling fields that will challenge and entice any trail runner.
Mile 21 through 30
I saw Chris again at Aid 5 – he parked on the other side of the road and cheered me on as I crossed the bridge and headed into a flat section of the course.
From Mile 21 to Mile 26, the hills let up and allowed me to kick my pace back up a bit. The Advil was doing its job at this point, and I was feeling a surge of strength and hope that I thought I had lost many miles ago.
I kicked along the course, getting my speed back up to almost what it was on the first section of the course. I felt strong, I felt good.
From mile 26 through the end, the hills came back, and sections of the course opened up in corn fields, exposed to the sun and the heat. I honestly hated this whole section of the course – and desperately wanted to race to be over.
I commiserated with a fellow runner as we climbed a steep hill in this section. What happened to flat and easy!? My solace was knowing we only had a few more miles to go.
At mile 29, I kicked into higher gear, ready to be done. I felt the pull of the finish line in front of me. As my fellow runners hiked up the final hill, I surged past them, power hiking up to the top and then cruising down the road towards the finish. I saw Chris and then kicked in, crossing at 6:15, a solid 30-minutes faster than I have run an ultra before.
With all the trials and tribulations of this race, it was an incredible experience and one I might consider doing again one day. As I passed through the finish line, I was informed I placed 3rd in my age group, and was handed a finishers paddle as an award!
WOW is all I can say to that. I knew going into the race that I had the potential to do well in my age group, but never thought an age group award was a possibility. How cool.
Chris met me with our camping chair and my change of clothes, and helped me stretch and get some fluids in me. I changed, washed the mud off my legs, downed a grilled cheese, and we headed home.
I can officially say I am a 3-time ultramarathon finisher now.