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(Taking a classic fall at the) TARC Fall Classic 50K 2017

Five years ago, the TARC Fall Classic 50K was my second ultra ever (here for a vague blog post on the matter). I made a lot of newbie mistakes: I overdressed, I went out too fast and eventually bonked, I didn’t pay attention to the markings and made a wrong turn that resulted in 4 extra miles, and I had run the Chicago Marathon the weekend before. A more experienced ultrarunner with more miles in their legs could probably handle this volume, but the end result for me was an injury to my right quadricep tendon that persisted for about four months…

…but aside from those lessons learned, the memory that lingers is how when I finally finished after nearly 7 hours, the finish line was deserted except for two guys manning the timing and aid station. They congratulated me, filled up my water bottle, and commiserated about the extra miles. I later found out they were both insanely fast ultrarunners who could finish 50 milers in less time than it took me to finish the 50K. But I never got any sense that they thought any less of my accomplishment because I was slower than them. In fact, they sounded impressed that I kept going after the crushing setback of getting 4 bonus miles at mile 22. They admired my grit.

This was an obvious contrast to other athletic events I participated in, and to a reluctant jock like myself, it was immediately appealing. Despite the bad race and subsequent injury, I was hooked. I have since run more than 20 ultramarathons and a fair number of them have been TARC races. The courses themselves are nothing special, but I just love the vibe.


I signed up for my third Fall Classic 50K about four weeks ago. My legs don’t have a ton of speed in them right now and my training ramp-up was rushed, but my overall fitness is good.  I wanted to go under 6 hours, with 5:30 being my dream and 5:45 being my goal.

During the 30 minute drive to Great Brook Farm at 5am, rain was coming down at a decent clip. The forecast promised more; I toyed with the idea of driving home like one would toy with the idea of buying a one-way ticket to Canada. I arrived with enough time to get my number, use the restroom, apply Glide, and stretch before the 6am start.

The first 5-6 miles were with headlamps. The pack spread out relatively early and I played it cool, with low effort and comfortable breath. (Yet again) I was amazed by the number of other 50K runners who were audibly breathing in the early miles. (That is one of the newbie mistakes I had made 5 years ago!)

Around mile 12, I made a newbie mistake of my own. After having deftly navigated a section of rocky uphill, I was cruising down a gentle downhill of relatively smooth trail. I relaxed my gaze on the ground when my left toe caught a small rock in a sparse patch of grass on the side of the trail.

In one second I went flying onto my stomach, my elbows and knees taking the brunt of the fall. I made an animal-like noise when I landed on the ground and the air was punched out of my torso: “UhhhhOhhhhggggggg.”

There was one man behind me. The noise I made was so primal that he sounded pained. “Are you okay?”

Amazingly, I was. The advantage of falling on a smooth bit of trail is that I didn’t land on any big rocks, just dirt and pebbles. My body scanned itself and didn’t detect anything particularly painful. “Uh, yeah, I’m okay,” I said as I got up. I immediately started running again.

A normal person would have stopped and assessed, but I was so mad at myself for falling I just wanted to keep going. I glanced down at my left knee and saw an alarming amount of blood trickling around the knee cap. My right knee wasn’t bloody but did seem to be bruised. My elbows burned and I saw each one bore some scratches.

I ran another 2 miles to the aid station, which had a pirate theme. “Arrr… arrrr…” the volunteers in eye patches said. I asked for some paper towels and pointed to my knee, which looked horrifically gory. But after we cleaned it off, it turned out to be just a really bloody scratch.

(I later found out that volunteering at the aid station was Joe McConaughy, a young man who just broke the speed record on the Appalachian Trail. He very well might have been the guy who helped me with my knee — it’s hard to tell, what with the eye patch and other pirate accoutrements.)

Falling really peeved me. But in a way, it kept my mind occupied and engaged with my body. The miles ticked by as I ran steadily on. I regularly scanned my body, checking in with each part: how are my quads? My calfs? The major concern was a progressive tightness in my left hamstring.

A surprising non-issue was the rain. Drizzle turned into rain, but only for about an hour, and then abetted.

In the final 5 miles, to motivate myself to finish, I manufactured drama between myself and the few 50K runners that I passed. Don’t let ’em catch up! They’re chasing you! I told myself in order to keep plugging away at a 10-11 minute mile pace.

But no one was chasing me. I finished in 5 hours, 37 minutes, 7th woman. It was in line with my expectations and I was relatively comfortable.

The next day, the sorest part of my body was by far my neck. Falling was like whiplash. It hurt to nod and shake my head, and it was near impossible to sit up from a prone position. My cuts turned out to be minor.

Yet, I’d be lying if I did not admit that falling made me consider if I should really be trail running at my age. What if my kneecap had slammed against a rock and shattered my patella? I’m old enough (40) that an injury that like would likely stick with me for the rest of my days. But on the other hand, I’m way too young to start talking like that. I’ve still got some grit left in me.


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