This was the third year in a row that Peter and I have run the Cape Cod Frozen Fat Ass, and I’ve had a lot of people ask me why we keep going back to this race, especially after our near-death experience last year. I wasn’t exactly sure myself, but I had a lot of time to dwell on this question while I was running on Saturday, and I came up with an answer:
I love the unique challenge that extreme weather brings to the table.
Running 50 kilometers is hard. Running 50 kilometers in sand is REALLY hard. Running 50 kilomters in sand in a 40 mph sustained wind (!!!) when you are drenched, freezing, and getting pelted in the face by rain, sleet and sand is a test of the very outer edge of your physical and mental limits.
And there is nothing so distinctly satisfying as passing that test.
* * * * *
Winter on Cape Cod is brutal, and the weather in January is almost guaranteed to be nasty. As this year’s race approached, sure enough, it was looking like we were going to have a repeat of last year with heavy rain and high winds. The only saving grace was that the temperature would be about 10 degrees higher than it was last time. Still, we knew we were going to be in for a tough race.
Saturday rolled around, and sure enough, it was pouring rain as we drove to the beach. Lovely morning for a race! We got all suited up in our waterproof jackets and hats and mittens, and then trudged out to brave the elements. As we walked down to the starting line, I overheard another runner remark that you don’t have to be having fun for it to be fun. I thought that was quite a good idea to keep in mind during a race like this.
Two loops of this course = 50K
The course starts out on the beach and heads to the west. We started off with a stiff tailwind and, even though we were quickly getting soaked, everyone enjoyed chatting together during these first few miles of easy running. I focused on keeping a very relaxed pace at this point to save my legs for the latter stages of the race. The beach was fairly firm if you stayed in the wet sand, so no complaints there. At 2.5 miles we turned onto the creek trail which took us back in the direction we came from, and we got our first taste of just how unpleasant the rest of the race was going to be. We were now running into the wind, and even though the creek trail is fairly sheltered, the wind was strong enough to pelt our faces with rain and loud enough to make conversation impossible. After a mile this trail brought us back to the beach, and we retraced our steps to the start with the full force of the wind buffeting us head on. This stretch was tough going, and I clung to the hope that once we got off the beach and onto the marsh trail we’d have a break from the wind.
Major flooding at the beginning of the marsh trail
When I got to the marsh trail, I thought for a second that I might be required to take a swim, but then I discovered a little path to the side that wound through the trees and came back out on the trail after the flooded section. Victory! And not only that, but thank goodness, I was finally out of the wind!!! It was still raining, and I was still running in loose sand, but it all seemed so much more manageable without the wind.
For the most part the marsh trail is packed dirt or gravel, but there are extended portions in the loose sand of the dunes. The trick to running in sand it to run lightly. If you push off hard, the sand slides backwards and you don’t go anywhere.
As I neared the end of the marsh trail, I was really looking forward to a nice, 5-mile stretch on the beach with a strong tailwind to make the running seem effortless again. However, when I climbed over that last sand dune and popped out on the beach, I found that the wind had shifted, and it was now coming at me head on again!! I thought that was pretty unfair, but I said to myself, “All right, if that’s how it’s going to be, I can take it!”
This stretch on the beach is always a challenge. It’s completely exposed to the elements. It’s hard to find a good middle ground between the rocky lower beach and the loose sand higher up. You can see for miles, but there’s nothing to see. It seems to take an eternity to cover those miles, and you have lots of time to think about all the reasons why you should drop out once you complete the first loop. But I was determined not to quit.
When I finally arrived back at the beach hut, I checked in with the race director, amid a host of drenched and frozen people who were dropping out, and they all asked, “Are you going back out?” Without hesitation I said, “Yes. I did it last year, and it was worse than this!” So I re-filled my hydration pack with Heed as quickly as I could and grabbed a donut to eat on the way out. As soon as I bit into it, I wished I had taken two because it was one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten!
After stopping for a few minutes, I was a little chilled and being back out in the wind and rain wasn’t helping matters any. I continued to plow upwind, with the rain, which was now occasionally mixed with sleet and sand, coming at me horizontally. I was completely alone on the beach now, with no one in sight ahead or behind. I made it to the turnaround and rejoiced to have the wind at my back again! I picked up my pace to take full advantage of the extra boost I was getting and make up for the slow miles on the beach. I was quite enjoying myself at this point and before I knew it I was back at the race headquarters and heading out onto the marsh trail again.
The marsh trail was also great, and in spite of it being more sheltered I often felt the wind at my back, pushing me along. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to fully enjoy the relative ease of this section because it was then that my physical limits started being tested. By mile 22 various muscles and tendons started protesting, so I took some Tylenol and told myself that pain is cyclical. By mile 24 my legs were telling me that they’d just about had enough, and I fought to keep a consistent pace. By mile 26 they were on the verge of cramping, so I took some Endurolytes, and kept the cramps at bay. At mile 27 I felt better and was mentally preparing for the final onslaught. I climbed up the sand dunes to get back onto the beach for the last time, and I was once again hit by the full force of the wind, which to my utter astonishment, was TWICE as strong as it had been before! I thought to myself, “Well, this is going to be a TREAT!”
I literally could barely crawl up and over that final sand dune, and once I was down on the beach I had to lean forward just to stay upright. It was mostly impossible to run in a straight line, and I felt like I was dragging a 50 lb. sled behind me. At times I had to run with one hand in front of my face to shield my eyes from the sand. It was unbelievable.
Up until this point I had been keeping an eye on my watch and trying to stay on pace to beat my time from last year. When I got to the beach, I had 50 minutes in which to do the final 4.5 miles in order to PR, and I thought it was a done deal. Until I stepped out into the wind. Even running as hard as I could, I was only managing 13 or 14-minute miles.
Photo by Bob Jensen
It took an eternity to push through those final miles, but I turned off my mind and just ran. Eventually I could see the beach hut, and then I could see Bob, the RD, waiting on the edge of the beach to take a picture of my finish. I ran right by him, up the stairs, across the parking lot and right to the door of the hut. I finished in 5:48, which was 8 minutes slower than my time from last year. I didn’t care.
Photo by Bob Jensen
I was the first woman and third overall finisher (Peter was second, beating me by only 10 minutes). And at a race where only the hardest of the hard core show up to begin with, I was one of only 10 finishers. Distinctly satisfying.