The Ultra Muddy Ultramarathon
By Allison Morrow
Sinking into shin-deep mud, I feel my running shoe start to slip off my foot. I’m stuck. The group of cows to my right pay no mind. I’m 13 miles into what is supposed to be a 50-mile race.
Up to this moment I’d been able to laugh through the muddy trail, telling myself it can’t get any worse. But as my shoes fill with mud and god-knows-what-else,* my eyes fill up with tears.
I signed up for my first ultramarathon on a whim, groggy and a little hungover on New Year’s Day. I was at work, editing yet another story about a commercial plane crash, a subject that became an unfortunate specialty of mine last year. My head pounded. As I waited for an update on the story, I saw a post to my running group’s Facebook page: registration was opening for the Finger Lakes 50s ultramarathon. Almost without thinking, I reached for my credit card and signed up.
I was desperate for a new project in the new year. Work was all plane crashes and other tragedies; outside of work I was reeling from a messy breakup and an even messier rebound. I needed to be alone. I needed to run.
By the time I got to the starting line in Finger Lakes National Forest on July 4, I’d put in at least 900 miles of training, averaging 56 miles a week. I felt great. Before I hit the trail, I estimated it’d take me under three hours to do the first of three 16.5-mile loops. While the course wasn’t especially technical or hilly, it would still be slower than what I’m used to doing on paved roads.
But awaiting me beyond the trees was a relentless slick of mud. Or at least that’s what the race organizers called it. I’ve run through mud before. Mud is fun. Mud is a little icky and it slows you down but mud is a totally manageable obstacle.
This wasn’t mud. This was heavy, sole-sucking slop that threatened to eat the shoes off your feet. And it seemed to never end. Anytime I hit solid ground, I’d pick up the pace for a few hundred yards, only to feel the earth dissolve again. I wasted so much energy just trying to stay upright. If you’ve ever used a Bosu trainer at the gym, you can imagine what this feels like. On top of that, the layers of mud caked the inside and outside of my shoes — making the whole process feel like running on a Bosu with ankle weights.
Over the many hours of trudging, mostly on my own, I entertained myself by classifying the basic levels of muddiness on the route.
The best was the dry mud. Not dirt, but dry mud. This course had no dirt, only mud, some of which was dry enough to run on. I called this mud the Frank and Claire Underwood Mud — dirty but sturdy. It accounted for about 5% of the course.
Glug mud was more common. This was the slushy kind you could run through mostly without falling and just a bit of splashing. Messy, but forgiving. It was maybe 20% of the course.
Then there was the Ramsay Bolton Mud. This mud, like the character on Game of Thrones for which it is named, is the relentlessly sadistic kind that just won’t effing die.** I really hate Ramsay. Like, seriously, give it a rest, brah. Ramsay was all over this freakin’ trail. Like 60% of the course.
Finally, there was the mud that broke me. The mud, seen most prominently in the cow pasture, that seemed to seep up from hell and try to suck runners down into the underworld. This was Beelzemud. It was only a small part of the course, but it’s where I found myself shedding the first of many tears.
I manage to wriggle out of the Beelzemud with both my shoes on. I choke down the tears and finish the first loop in 3:47 — nearly an hour later than I’d planned. I will have to run the second loop faster to be able to even attempt the 50 miles.
The option I know is available but try not to think about is this: I can still legally finish this race at the 50-kilometer-plus distance, which means completing just two loops, or 33 miles, rather than three. Normally, not finishing the distance you signed up for constitutes a DNF — did not finish — but this race made exceptions for those who signed up for the longer event. It was an option I balked at the day before, having not seen the state of the trail, when it was presented to me at the bib pick-up.
At the end of the first loop, I grab fresh socks and shoes from my drop bag and update my amazing, indefatigable cheering crew. I decide I’m not ready to give up on my 50 mile goal just yet; even though it’s grim, I start the second loop with optimism. Now that I know what’s ahead, I figure, I can just run through it and even pick up speed.
The trail has gone from muddy to soupy thanks to some 200 runners stomping through it. By mile 20 the struggle to stay upright is ravaging every muscle from my toes to my neck. My fresh pair of shoes and socks are quickly drenched and heavy.
I talk to other runners along the way who are all in the same boat — “signed up for the 50 miles, finishing the 50K” becomes a common refrain, along with “signed up for the 50K only, thank God.” Seasoned trail runners tell me this is one of the hardest 50Ks they’ve seen. It’s comforting to hear, but as the cutoff time approaches and my legs strain I can’t help be disappointed. I trained for 50 miles — 50K is no picnic, to be sure, but I’d already crossed that threshold in training. I felt cheated.
Every time I hit solid ground and get back to running I tell myself, “screw it, you’re doing 50 miles today.” And every time I sink back into the muck I want to scream.
There’s a famous, perhaps notorious, 100-mile ultramarathon in Barkley, Tennessee, that is said to be one of the hardest races in the world. In its nearly 30-year history, only 14 have finished within the 60-hour cutoff. In 2015, not one of the 40 runners who entered were able to finish. The trail itself won. I think about that as I begin to resign myself to not attempting a third loop. Sometimes, no matter how hard you train, the course bests you.
My second loop is a sluggish 4:53, bringing my 33-mile finish in at about 8:40.
When I cross the finish line, I just cry. This isn’t unusual for me — I cry at the end of most marathons, literally all movies, commercials with puppies, commercials with other animals, really good meals, plane rides, every book I’ve ever read. It’s a standard cry for me, but tinged with anger. I came here to run, damn it, and for the past eight and a half hours I’ve been teased with the possibility of running but ultimately forced to hike. And I never much cared for hiking.
My friends, who are seriously, empirically, the greatest ever, shout my name and bring me beer as I have a good cry and peel off my muddy shoes.
The feeling of running the longest you’ve ever run is undeniably good. But the feeling of knowing you could have run farther, faster, is a hard one to shake.
After a steady drip of beer and a lot of pizza, I’ve mostly recovered, at least physically, from the event. I’m ready to run again. I still believe I have 50 miles in my legs, and I’m not letting one evil trail sap my love of this (admittedly strange) sport. The wheels are turning on how best to extend my training for a late-September race near my parents in Colorado. Altitude could be an issue. But mud, at least, is unlikely.
*Cow shit. That’s what else.
** I’m only a few episodes into season five, so there’s still hope, right? NO SPOILERS!