Seashore Nature Trail 50k Recap

If I've learned anything in the almost-8 years since I started running, it's to never say, "Never." Still, I can honestly say that, "I'm an ultramarathoner!" are three words I never, ever, ever ever ever thought I would say. I talked about the reasons why I decided to do this thing I said I would never do in my post about registering for the race, so I won't rehash them here, but the TL;DR is that I like numbers and so the only caveat in my claim that I'd never run an ultra was that I might consider running a 50k (31 miles) the year I turned 31. Well, this was the year I turned 31, and a series of events that occurred throughout the year led me to concede.


Training
I've peeked at some 50k training plans over the last few months - not enough to follow any of them, but enough to say that the training I did didn't quite overlap with them. I never intended to train for and/or run the Seashore 50k as its own race, but rather to piggyback on the Richmond Marathon in November, so my training was never really ultra-specific. In total I trained for 23 weeks, with the first 18 weeks being a pretty typical marathon training cycle. In the 5 weeks between the marathon and the 50k, I took almost the full first week off from running (except for a half marathon the weekend after the marathon), then basically repeated the last 2 peak weeks of marathon training, followed by a 2-week taper. My long runs between the marathon and ultra were 13 miles on the road (Harbor Lights), 12 trail miles (planned to be 15 but my brother-in-law had a nasty fall so we ended our run and walked back), 21 miles (9 road/12 trail), and 10 trail miles. One thing I noticed was that the ultra plans had back-to-back weekend runs, with an hour or so on Saturday and then a long run Sunday. It never even crossed my mind to do any of those, but I felt like the base I had built up from marathon training was enough to get me through. I ran almost 500 miles training for and running Richmond, and another 110 leading up to the ultra (not counting the race itself). My average weekly mileage was 27, and my highest was 41 two weeks before the ultra. It should probably be noted that, considering this was both my first ultra and my first trail race, I had no time goals and all I wanted to do was finish!


Run new places, make new friends!

Pre-Race
Requisite base knowledge for this recap: I am not, have never been, and don't think I ever will be a trail runner. I can count on one hand plus a finger or two the number of times I've run any distance on any trail, and the majority of those happened in the last 4 weeks prepping for this race. So, not only was this race a new experience distance-wise, it was my first foray into the trail running world and it was...interesting, to say the least. It was definitely an experience I won't soon forget!

The first time I realized I was venturing into foreign territory was the week of the race. Despite long-range forecasts that a few weeks ago had shown perfect, if slightly unseasonable weather, the week-of forecast showed rain. Lots and lots of rain. Rain from the night before the race all through race morning and afternoon, conveniently tapering off by the time I expected to be done. Maybe I'm just a wimp, but I was sort of expecting some type communication about this forecast from the race director in the days leading up to the race. I knew the chances of it getting canceled or postponed because of rain were slim, but given the fact that we were going to be running on trails which would likely be flooded, at least some acknowledgment would have been nice? I'm not sure what that would have accomplished, but I have run other races in extreme weather (usually heat, but maybe cold, maybe rainy/bad weather?) that have put out a pre-race message, even if it's just to say, "We know the weather is going to be bad but the race is still on, and see's how you can make sure you take care of yourself." But, alas, trail runners are a different bunch, and from what I can gather from online posts and going to packet pick-up, no one else seemed to be too concerned!

I, on the other hand, was very concerned. Not about the rain - I will and have run through just about  any type and amount of precipitation, and have run some of my best races in what most people would consider dreadful conditions - but about the implications of the rain. I have an irrational but very real and very serious fear of frogs, which is part of what keeps me off trails, at least in the summer. I know it's winter, and I know they hibernate, but I couldn't shake my fear that all the moisture and the warmer temperatures would bring them back out. I don't even know if that's how it works (my friend is a zoo tech and she says it shouldn't) but phobias are crazy so it really doesn't matter. I know this makes me sound insane but I was so anxious about this the week of the race. I could just imagine seeing a frog jump across the trail out in the middle of nowhere where I'd be trapped and having a panic attack (which, um, has happened to me on one of those aforementioned handful of trail runs) and I just couldn't handle it. I don't know if pre-race nerves were just magnifying this fear or what, but I was to the point of tears over this multiple times. I had been really excited about this race, but running it on a warm, muddy trail for 6+ hours fearing that I might have a panic attack at any moment is just not what I had pictured, and it really took the wind out of my sails.

Race Day
I woke up race morning a nervous wreck. There were just so many unknowns - the weather, the condition of the trails, the frog situation (I will try to stop bringing this up), and, most of all, could my body even run 31 miles...? In all of my stressing about other things I had forgotten to even consider that major point until I was getting ready that morning. I had just crashed and burned during a marathon a month prior to this, and my longest run since then had been 21 miles (only 12 of which were on the trails, my longest trail run ever) - what on earth made me think I could run 5 miles farther than I ever had before?

I felt better by the time I got to the race start, especially once I met up with my friend Robert who was running with me. He was one of my IM Louisville training partners and we did a lot of long runs together this summer and fall training for different marathons, and did a few trails runs together in the weeks between our marathons and the 50k. Ben was at the start with me, of course, and so was our friend Lisa, and talking to them helped calm my nerves. I also realized as we were driving in to the park that I didn't hear any frogs, which I figured was a good sign!


I'm used to running road races where the start is more organized and official, but the start of this race (as was the theme for the race in general) was a lot more relaxed. There were about 200 runners and for a few minutes we stood in the general vicinity of the start line listening to some instructions from the race director, and literally maybe 30 seconds after he finished talking we had to start running! I'm used to having some time in between the official start and when I actually start, so it took me a little off guard as I was still fumbling with my phone (the fact that I even had a phone and headphones was probably another dead giveaway that I was out of my element). I said a quick goodbye to Ben and Lisa, made my way over to the start, and then we were off! It felt so weird starting my watch and realizing I wasn't going to be stopping it for a longggg time.

One thing that I really liked about this course is that, despite the fact that it's two loops, which I worried would be monotonous and boring, the two loops are made up of various trail sections, so the scenery and terrain changed slightly every 2-3 miles at most.

(I didn't take any photos during the race so all photos from the course, with the exception of the ones with me in them, were taken 2 weeks before the race on a training run)

64th Street (Miles 0-1.5)
The first mile and a half was actually a short out-and-back on the road that leads into the park. That part went by really fast (possibly because we ran them at around a 9:40 pace, the last time we would see a pace anywhere near that for the rest of the day), and before we knew it we were back to where we had started and jumping on the trail. It felt like it was here that the race really began!

Cape Henry Trail - South Side (Miles 1.5-3)
The next mile and a half or so was on a trail that parallels the coast, although it was super foggy so we really couldn't see the water at all. This trail is pretty marshy, where some parts were packed dirt and some parts were packed sand, and a couple of wooden bridges over the marsh. Our pace was in the 10:3Xs which felt pretty comfortable, and I was hoping we wouldn't slow down too much overall (although we weren't pushing for a specific time, we were expecting to finish around 6 hours/11:34 pace).

Even though the near-60 degree temperature warranted less clothing than more, I was creeped out by the thought of having an skin exposed (lest it come into contact with some unwanted trail thing - mud, amphibian, etc.) so I had worn tights with short sleeves, a rain jacket, and a hat. This was a mistake. I had expected to be a little uncomfortably warm in that get-up, but the combination of the temperature and the humidity made it feel downright soupy out there. Even though my nerves had mostly calmed, I still felt oddly unsettled during the first few miles. I'm not sure if it was the daunting thought of having more miles to go than I had ever run before, or the fact that all I could think about was that I was so freaking warm but I knew that I needed to change something or I wasn't going to make it another 29 miles.

Thankfully the first aid station was just before mile 3 (or at least I think that's where it was - there were no mile markers except at one of the two aid stations on the course, another sign that I was doing a trail race and not a road race!), so I stopped to get some water,  took off my jacket and tied it around my waist, and got myself situated. My jacket was already drenched just from those couple of miles, not from rain but from sweat, and I instantly felt better once I took it off and felt a cool dampness from the trail. Side note - everything about the aid stations felt like a hallmark of a trail race rather than a road race, from the distance between them (up to 4+ miles) to the offerings (the regulars like water and Tailwind, but with some extras like PBJs, pretzels, chips, and probably more I didn't notice), to the length of them. I am used to aid stations being maybe a tenth of a mile or so long, with several trash cans spaced out beyond the water tables so that it's possible to walk and drink, then discard and get back to running. These were so short that we really had no choice but to stop at each one, eat and drink what we wanted, throw it away, then get back to moving.

Cape Henry Trail - North Side (Miles 3-4)
Shortly after we left AS1 (hey, I learned some official trail/ultra running terminology!) my watch chimed with 3 miles down and Robert and I both remarked how quickly the first 10% had gone by! However, I was quick to remind both of us that 3 miles was basically nothing in the grand scheme of what we were running that day, so we shouldn't get too excited. This part of the course was along the main trail in the park, which is flat and fairly wide, hard-packed dirt and usually an easy trail to run, but the rain had turned it into a muddy mess. We had about a mile on this trail before branching off onto a side trail, and despite our best efforts our shoes were already getting muddy and waterlogged.

White Hill Lake Trail/Kingfisher Trail (Miles 4-6.2)
The next section was on a side trail, White Hill Lake Trail, which I'd only ever run on one time before. The side trails were more narrow and had more leaves on them so they were in a lot better shape than the Cape Henry. They were still some muddy passages that we had to walk through, but not nearly as bad as the Cape Henry. I remember still not feeling quite settled at this point - even though I was feeling okay, I couldn't shake my uneasiness over how. much. farther we still had to go. I remember hitting 5 miles and sarcastically telling Robert, "Okay, only a marathon to go!" and how crazy that sounded. And the same thing with the 10k - it felt good to have made it that far, but when I realized we were barely more than an hour in and likely had 5 more hours to go, it didn't seem like very far at all!



Cape Henry Trail (Miles 6.2-7.2)
I knew from running a loop of the course a few weeks prior that we only had to jump back on the main trail for about a mile before hitting another side trail, but wow some trail miles feel super long! And it wasn't even that the terrain was slowing us down, since this section is about as flat as a trail can be. After what felt like forever but had actually only been about 8 minutes, we started hearing loud voices from up ahead, and finally we were able to see the aid station ahead. It had been over 4 miles since the last one so I was more than ready! This was AS2 (there were only 2 aid stations, but because of the loop course we passed each one 4 times), and was the only place on the course that gave us any indication of our distance. There were homemade signs that had the distance at that point for each loop, and according to the sign we were at mile 7.2, with 2.99 miles to go on the next trail until we'd loop back to that aid station. 

Bald Cypress/Osmanthus Loop (Miles 7.2-10.2)
This had been my favorite trail when Robert and I did a training run of the course a couple weeks prior, and it was my favorite one during the race too. Almost immediately after it branches off from the Cape Henry there's a wooden bridge over a marsh with moss hanging from all the trees, and I just loved the way it looked. The trail itself was probably the narrowest of all the trails we ran, with more roots and obstacles - including a downed tree we had to climb over, and more wooden bridges that were partially dilapidated - and ups and downs (it's still Virginia Beach so no hills here, but there are some gentle undulations and this one seemed to undulate the most of all the trails) so it was definitely also the slowest. These were the first miles when we hit 12:XX+, but we honestly weren't keeping track of time or pace. It was actually a little bizarre, like being out in the middle of the woods we lost all sense of time and space. It was an unreal experience, unlike any race I've ever run.


Cape Henry Trail (Miles 10.2-11.2)
The loop seemed to go on forever, but finally we came to the end and made it back to Cape Henry and to the aid station. I had started a group text earlier in the morning to keep Ben and friends and family updated on our progress, since there was no tracking, and just after mile 10 was the first time I  texted to let them know our status. I felt like we were making good time, although I was still having a hard time wrapping my brain around having 21 miles left to go. Ben texted back that he would be waiting at the aid station at mile 14, and all I could think about was making the 4-mile trek to get back there!

White Hill Lake Trail/Kingfisher Trail (Miles 11.2-13.1)
At this point we were backtracking on the course we had just run to get back to where we had started...only to do it all over again. Pretty much every time my watch chimed with another mile down I announced to Robert how much we had left, although even 11 or 12 miles in, it felt like we had barely made a dent in the total. The 4+ mile section between aid stations was a little long for me, and although I thought I could make it back to AS1 without stopping, with about a mile and a half left I was feeling woozy and knew I needed to eat something to get my blood sugar up, so I took a walk break to eat my Honey Stinger chews (I may not be an experienced trail runner but I have done enough to figure out that eating + running over uneven ground do not mix well for me). I felt a little better after that but still felt like I was starting to fade, which worried me a little. It didn't feel as strong or as dire as it had near the halfway point at Richmond, but it did make me question how I could keep going.



Cape Henry Trail - North Side (Miles 13.1-14.2)
We hit the half marathon point at around 2:25, then began another one-mile trek on the Cape Henry to make our way back to AS1. I was so happy when we got there! I think this might have been the one where I drank pickle juice. I also had Tailwind at I think every aid station. Ben was there waiting, just like he had said, and I handed my jacket that had been tied around my waist for 11 miles to him. I had been planning on dumping it in my dry bag at mile 16, but he offered to take it and I was happy to get rid of it. I knew the start/turnaround to start the second loop was only a few miles away, so I asked him to wait for 30 minutes or so until we got back.




Cape Henry Trail - South Side (Miles 14.2-17.7)
All I really remember about these miles is thinking about getting to the start line where our dry bags were. While it never downpoured on us, it did rain a few times and was misty for a lot of the other time, so everything I was wearing was completely soaked. I had brought a complete change of clothes just in case, including shoes, but all I ended up changing were my socks. It sounds silly, but my sopping wet, mud-caked shoes were a badge of honor for me at that point. One of my biggest regrets from IM Louisville was changing clothes during T2 - in retrospect it made me feel like a wimp - and I didn't want to have that regret this time. I could have easily changed, but I wasn't really uncomfortable in what I was wearing, so I didn't feel like I really needed to change. Robert did, though, so I sat down on a wooden post and waited for him, and texted Ben and co. to let them know we were halfway!


As soon as we got back to running again, just before mile 16, I felt a sharp pain in my tailbone. I had been feeling pain off and on in my glute and in my lower back/tailbone, but it hadn't been that bad until that point. I walked it out for a few seconds and figured I would just have to deal with it the best I could. Luckily I had taken ibuprofen at the halfway point, so soon after the pain started to dissipate and I was feeling back to normal again. We were just over 3 hours when we hit the turnaround.

I ended up being wrong about the distance from AS1 to the start/turnaround, and I hadn't factored in the 6ish minutes we spent at the dry bag drop, so it ended up being closer to an hour before we made it back to see Ben again.

Cape Henry Trail - North Side (Miles 17.7-18.9)
In fact, not only was I feeling back to normal, I was feeling arguably better than I had all day! I don't know what happened or what changed, but as I started my second loop I got a second wind. I didn't feel quite like a million dollars - maybe a half a million, or a quarter million - but relatively speaking I was feeling pretty great. The miles were finally starting to tick by, and for the first time it felt like we had made considerable progress.

White Hill Lake Trail/Kingfisher Trail (Miles 18.9-21)
I don't remember much about these miles except that I listened to an album I really like (Underoath's Lost in the Sound of Separation), and that this was where Robert started to get a little out of it. I finally understand why so many people had Camelbaks - going 4ish miles between aid stations, was a long time! At a trail running pace that was over 45 minutes, close to an hour!


Cape Henry Trail - North Side (Miles 21-22)
It was around this point that we hit 4 hours total, which Robert actually pointed out to me, and to which I responded, "Holy shit, you're right!" It was definitely feeling surreal at that point. After what felt like another eternity we finally made it to AS2 again, where I sent out my next group text update (4:12 in at that point).

Bald Cypress/Osmanthus Loop (Miles 22-25)
I could feel us slowing a little, especially on some of the little hills, but I never felt like our effort level wavered. We never stopped, never gave up, never quit, and I am proud of us for that. Robert was still not feeling great on this loop and we just focused on getting back to AS2, and getting to the final stretch.


Cape Henry Trail - North Side (Miles 25-26)
I'm not sure what happened at that last aid station, whether I should have chased my Tailwind with water rather than the other way around, or what, but I never felt quite normal again after that point. I could feel some indigestion coming on, and I just felt...off. On top of that, I had wanted to celebrate getting beyond the 26.2-mile mark, but my watch apparently dropped out at some point and was measuring about a half mile behind, so from mile 23ish on I added about a half mile on to what was on my Garmin, but I couldn't be 100% sure about our total distance. 

White Hill Lake Trail/Kingfisher Trail (Miles 26-28.3)
At this point I was breaking up the sections we had left as much as I could: a little over 2 miles back to Cape Henry, then a mile to AS1, then less than 2 miles to the finish. Less than 5 miles left felt so minuscule at that point, but I was really not feeling well. The best way I can describe it is that I felt like my GI tract was backed up, and it was hurting my chest and making it hard to breathe. I had to stop to walk every half a mile or so, maybe a quarter mile at some points, and I felt bad because I knew Robert was feeling better than I was and could easily leave me. But he stayed with me, insisting that it was easier to run together than alone.

Cape Henry Trail - North Side (Miles 28.3-29.3)
One measly mile stood between me and the home stretch, but what a painful mile it was! I finally realized I might feel better if I threw up - I wasn't nauseous, but like I said, I felt like I was backed up, and if it wasn't going to go down then it might as well come up. I stopped on the side of the trail a couple of times to try to force it out, and I could feel it start to come up but nothing came out (is it too late for a TMI warning?). At least I felt better for a few minutes after each attempt. I have never run to the point of puking before, but I've always wondered what it would feel like to run past a marathon, so I guess now I know! I really think I just needed water - I didn't feel dehydrated, per se, but I feel like whatever was going on with my GI tract would have been at least somewhat ameliorated by having more water in my system (translation: I think I could have actually puked and felt better).

Cape Henry Trail - South Side (Miles 29.3-31.1)
I remember counting down the tenths of a mile to get to AS2 for the last time (less than 2 miles from the finish), but I don't remember anything about finally getting there! I guess we didn't linger long - I think we were both ready to be done by that point. I do remember trying so hard to get through the last almost-2 miles, and if memory serves I only stopped once to try to throw up, again to no avail...but this time, with about a mile to go, another runner saw me hunched over and gave me a ginger chew as he passed. I guess that's another trail running thing I didn't know about...?! I don't know if it was all in my head or if it was just the pull of the finish line, but I instantly felt better (not great, but better) and was able to run my last mile several minutes faster than I had run/walked/hobbled through the previous few miles.

It was so strange coming to the finish line, because even though I knew we were getting closer, both by the numbers on my Garmin and the sounds I could hear in the distance, but it really appeared almost out of nowhere. One minute we were in the woods and the next minute I could see people! A road! A clock! A timing mat! A finish line! Finally, familiar race things! It was really happening!

Like 0.01 miles from the finish
Official Time:
6:15:45
(12:05 pace)

Six hours and fifteen minutes after beginning my 31-mile trek through the woods, I emerged: soaking wet, caked in dirt and mud, tired, happy, and an ultramarathoner.

It would be disingenuous to deemphasize that the first 10? 12? 13? 15 even? miles of this race, I had my doubts. Not about finishing - I was fairly certain I would be able to accomplish that - but about what mental or physical state I might be in when I did finally finish. I wondered if I would ever want to run on this trail ever again or, hell, if I would ever want to see another tree ever again. I said both to myself and out loud that I didn't think I'd ever want to do this again, not because I was having that bad of a time, but because I just didn't see how this could be an experience worth repeating. I knew I would get through it, I knew I would be able to check it off my bucket list, and I knew it was be an interesting experience. I just didn't know if it would be one I'd want to have again.

That's how I felt in the beginning of the race; it was no longer how I felt by the end. This race was a true leap of faith in so many ways, but I made the leap and landed on solid ground. It was truly unlike any race experience I have ever had. It was so far out of my comfort zone, or so I thought, because over 31 miles it somehow became my comfort zone. I have not pushed my boundaries like that in quite some time, and it reminded me just how rewarding that can be. I got lost in the woods and found things I never knew I needed.


Another wall broken down. Another limit pushed. Another line in the sand. Another lesson to never say, "Never." 

2 comments

  1. Congratulations!! What an INCREDIBLE accomplishment! I can't even begin to wrap my mind around doing something like this (the distance, the terrain, the totally different vibe from road races). I think it's so awesome that you got it done and I hope you're really proud of yourself!

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  2. Congratulations! This is amazing!!!

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