The Holiday Lake 50K was by far the hardest thing I've done, maybe ever. What small shift in balance creates the difference between a perfect race and a hellish one? What sets one race apart from another in this way? Now that I'm finally thawed out and rested up from this weekend at Holiday Lake, I've gained a small amount of perspective on what was a brutally humbling experience. I've broken the recap into multiple posts, because though I'm typically an advocate for concise language, this race affected me profoundly, and there's just so much to say.
“Drink it up, faster. You need the calories, you need to keep moving.” The aid station worker at mile 28 was doing his job, but the sweet, cold liquid felt thick in my mouth, and it was all I could do to swallow once, much less several times in quick succession. “Just get it down. If you need to be sick, throw up and keep moving. Good, now get back out there.” I obeyed, exhausted and done thinking for myself. My feet moved back toward the trail, and I dug in for the final 4 miles of the 32ish that comprise the Holiday Lake 50K.
The race had begun at 6:30AM, with temps in the mid-teens. Crossing the start line, I felt content and adequately dressed for the weather in a long sleeve base layer, a long sleeve, zip-up middle layer, and a winter weight outer layer, lined Sugoi Subzero leggings, a tall pair of compression socks over my short Injinji’s, and gloves with hot packs activated inside.
David Horton, uber-accomplished ultrarunner and Holiday Lake race director, had done his best to prepare us for the worst - there would be ice, fierce winds, deep stream crossings, and treacherous bridges - so after all that buildup, it was a relief to start the race under a clear, starry early morning sky, running just like it was any other day, albeit a cold one.
Headlamps are necessary, but not for long - around mile 2, the sun rises over Holiday Lake. The sky - all oranges and pinks - reflects beautifully in blue-gray water.
Between miles 2-3, the course moves to single track, and I realize just how frozen the ground is - the dirt is hard as rock, with absolutely no give. It feels like uneven, chewed-up asphalt, with frequent stumps and branches mixed in. My left foot catches a tiny stump and I fall, hard. The first fall of the day is always jarring, and I’m not pleased it happened so soon - for me falling usually indicates I need more sleep, which is not an option - or more caffeine, which is more of a bandaid than a solution. I’ll find bruises and dried blood later, but in that moment, I recover quickly and keep running. I trip several times more in the first 16 mile loop, regretting my night of fitful sleep, but my guard is up, and I won’t let myself fall again until much later.
At mile 4, I lift the hydration pack nozzle to my mouth only to find it’s frozen solid. I’m bothered, but not too worried - the race is stacked with ample aid stations, the first of which arrives at mile 4.5. I stop briefly to drink some water, and eat an energy gel as I get back on the trail.
Mile 7 includes the much discussed stream crossing. There’s no jumping over, no skipping rocks to avoid the plunge. The stream is just about knee deep, and once through, I am relieved to feel my wet feet, shoes, socks and tights go from cold to warm fairly quickly. From the knees down, it feels like I’m wearing a cozy wetsuit.
Around mile 8, another runner lets out a cheer - his hydration pack has thawed - and I quickly move to his side and start a conversation. At the next aid station, he helps relocate my frozen gear - taking the pack off my back, removing my layers, putting the pack back on, adding the layers overtop - so that I, too, have water to drink again by mile 10.
Mile 16, I’m back at the start area, which is the halfway point and turnaround. I make quick use of the facilities, drink some warm broth, and get started on the second loop. It’s 9:30 AM - I’m making pretty good time. I feel strong and focused. The day is just getting started.