Toward the end of September my friend AK asked me if I would do a race with her. She wanted to do the Stone Steps 50k in Cincinnati. This race is billed as “Cincinnati’s Toughest Ultra.” It is no joke. And even though I hadn’t ran any real distance (any more than 8-10 miles at a time) in recent months I decided why the hell not? So I signed up and went about formulating a 4 week training plan that would at least give me a shot at finishing the race.
The day before the race I did something I’d never done before: bought a pair of trail shoes. Yes, that’s correct. Although I run on trails quite regularly and was about to embark on my 4th ultra (all 4 on trails), I didn’t own a pair of trail shoes. Yes, I know getting shoes the day before a race isn’t ideal. To be fair, I didn’t plan on running in them the whole time. (Spoiler alert: I did run the whole race in them.) Anyway, I visited my local running store, Up and Running in Troy, and tried on a few pairs. I fell in love with the Mizuno Waves. They were lightweight yet sturdy. And after Sunday’s race, I’m hooked on them. I walked away from that rugged trail race with NO blisters. And I’m not going to lose any toenails either. Woot!
I left my house at 6am on Sunday morning and drove to Cincinnati’s Mount Airy Forest, an absolute gem of a park very close to downtown. To be honest, I was really nervous on the way down. It was over an hour away and my stomach was in knots the whole time. I felt tired and nauseated and wondered why I was wasting some perfectly good sleeping time to run around in the woods. (I am not a morning person.)
When I arrived at the race I quickly found AK at the sign-in spot. It was chilly and dark when we got there but by the 8am start time the sun had risen. The race directors gave us all a pep talk (I think there were around 100+ people signed up to run) and turned us loose on the trails at 8am. This event consisted of 4 big loops of 5.3 miles alternating with 3 loops of 3+ miles each. Both loops lead back to just one very well equipped aid station. There’s over 10,000 feet of elevation change. Basically that means that you’re always going either up or down. There are very few flat stretches. It is also mostly one track and very technical – meaning full of rocks and roots. There are spots where a misstep could send a person tumbling down a ravine that looks beautiful but probably wouldn’t be fun to land in.
The namesake of the race happens during the big loop – the dreaded stone steps. I started calling it the hellish hill to Hades. Those steps last forever. And we had to do them FOUR times. That loop also had Gummy Bear Hill to contend with, another extremely challenging uphill battle. (It did have a big bag of Gummy Bears at the top. That was nice. It would’ve been better if they were soaked in vodka, but beggars can’t be choosers.) The smaller loop was no piece of cake either. It didn’t have any HUGE hills to contend with but it had plenty of gradual raises of elevation followed by quad busting downhills.
In the weeks leading up this race I had faced some emotional turmoil. I was looking forward to talking with AK while we conquered the trails. We run well together. There are times when we talk non-stop, and other times there’s complete silence. I also got some solo time as I ended up running the last few loops on my own. I needed that – time alone to absorb some recent changes and reflect on life.
Although I have some excellent friends I talk to on a regular basis, I desperately needed some time to do some deep thinking – just me and the trails…a time where no one was asking anything of me and all I had to do was concentrate on the moment. A time to reflect and think about what is important to me - what to hold on to, as well as the things I need to let go of. It was a perfect day to do that. It was a sunny day – crisp and cool. The color of the leaves on the trees and the ground ranged from green to gold to vivid orange and red.
While in some ways those last few loops felt very cleansing, they were also painful. My left hip and knee were killing me. My quads were also extremely unhappy. I’ll be honest, I was giving myself pep talks during the last 5 miles. Out loud. In the woods. Alone. Judge if you must, I don’t care.
As I crossed the finish line at the end of my final loop the race director caught me and asked my name and age. I answered, curious as to why he wanted it. Was I the last one on the trail? I knew I wasn’t setting in course records on this crazy hard course but was I the reason he and many of the EXCELLENT volunteers were hanging around? But to my extreme surprise, I actually placed first in my age group. I was shocked. I’m 41 – the age group for 40-49 females is usually very competitive and there are plenty of women in that range that excel at ultras. I don’t consider myself an accomplished or expert runner. But when the race director handed me the award, I was stoked. I wish I would've gotten a picture with him, the guy is a legend. Thank you, David Corfman!
Overall, this race was as fabulous as it was challenging. The trail was well marked. The volunteers were incredibly supportive. The other runners were encouraging – including the ones who were flying by and trying to set course records. The scenery was breathtaking. I drove home exhausted but happy. I was very sore for a few days. Getting up and down the spiral staircase at work required time, effort, and a few choice words. Don’t get me started on the chafing in my armpits and from my sports bra. I guess all that’s a small price to pay. And I’m already scoping out ultras for next year… there may just be a 50 miler on the horizon.
If you're looking for an intense race that will cause you to dig into your inner reserves just to finish, Stone Steps 50k is a good option. It is not for the faint hearted...but it is well worth the effort. Be sure to train on hills...
P.S. I didn’t run for a week and then went out and did The Narrows 10k this past Sunday. It’s put on by ORRRC and was super fun. There were over 150 runners and I managed to place 5th in my age group. No chafing this time. Holla!