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Marathon too short? How to run 50 around Nantucket (part barefoot)

November 19, 2010 – 6:00 AM

By Elizabeth Chabner Thompson

Each August a group of running/eco-challenge lovers, trudge through surf and sand of Nantucket to make the 50-mile Rock Run around the island (the course changes yearly with beach erosion and tidal variances). As race director Hector MacDonald, puts it, “You can count on sand and sun pretty much on every leg.”

The race can be run as a 5-person relay or as a soloist. In 2007, after training for my first ultramarathon, I felt I could run solo – until my family staged  an intervention and refused to crew for me if I ran. While my husband, (“Military Dad”) supports most of my training endeavors, he didn’t think my ankles and knees could withstand 50 miles of soft sand. My father, a doctor, and my mother, a worrier, protested. So in 2007 and 2008, I ran as part of a relay team.

In 2008, I went to the after-party and met Lauren Esposito, who ran as the only female soloist for 6 years. I couldn’t imagine how tired and sore she was yet she showed up and closed the Chicken Box down later that night. After an Ultra, I eat salty Chinese food, take two Percocet and toss and turn all night, too tired to get up and take another. She was dancing!

No matter how I tried, I couldn’t get the idea of running solo out of my head. I have a very short ultra running bucket-list: Rock Run and Badwater. So when my daughter did not qualify for a swim event that would have conflicted with the Rock Run on August 7, I emailed Hector MacDonald to tell him I was running — myself.

I also texted my only potential crew man, Trevor and begged him to get out of work on that Saturday. Trevor, a recent Rollins grad, had been our “Manny” for many summers, playing golf, tennis, kickball, bike riding, cooking, body-surfing and helping me in any way possible with our four very energetic children born within 5 years of one another. Five seconds after sending the the text, Trevor replied, “I’m in.”

Now, I had to do the race. I packed five pairs of shoes (just in case), body glide, sunscreen, and several changes of clothes (what was I thinking?). I made it to Nantucket with 3 of our 4 children. (My husband and our 10-year-old son were in Pinehurst, NC for the 2010 USKIDS Golf World Championships.) If something happened to me, I figured my mother would cart me off to the Massachusetts General Hospital for my father to oversee my recovery.

We arrived to a glorious, blue-sky day on Nantucket. It was 70’s with a gentle breeze. After a light dinner of pasta, I set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. and tucked the kids in for the night. I fell asleep easily. Saturday morning came in no time and my mother waited for me in the kitchen. I wore gaitors on my shoes to keep out loose sand, carried lip balm, salt tablets and Advil. After I applied sunscreen and downed a PBJ, we got into the car and my mother sped off towards town.

A small motorboat waited at the pier at Children’s Beach to take the 17 soloists to the starting line. Runners begin at Coatue, located on one side of the mouth of the harbor. We would pass three light houses on the course; Brandt Point Light House marked the start. We finish at Jetties Beach on the other side of the harbor. Only seven runners showed by 5:40 a.m., so after dousing ourselves with bug spray, taking off our last layers, and saying goodbye to loved ones, we set off across the harbor. There was an absolutely stunning sunrise.

We stepped off the boat onto soft sand and virtually no beach. At that point, we all wore shoes of some sort — two runners in “5 Fingers” and the rest of us in trusty running shoes. Some soloists had no crew, relying on the good will of fisherman and beach goers to supply water and nourishment. I counted on Trevor to meet me at Great Point, 10 miles east of the start, at the tip of Nantucket.

Hector set us off promptly at 6:00 am. He gave soloists a two-hour lead over relay runners, but warned that the race would end by sundown. We spread out immediately, with one seasoned Rock Runner darting off, never to be spotted by rest of us again. Because I had run this leg twice before, I quickly found my place in the relatively flat hard pack sand. After 90 minutes, I had reached the lighthouse at Great Point, ahead of pace (I told Trevor it would take two hours). He was nowhere in sight, but I had plenty of Gatorade.

The views of Nantucket Sound were spectacular. I could not imagine the next leg would be so painful. Two miles down the beach, Trevor, his mother Pam, and my daughter Bebe, 12, met me with smiles, a peanut butter sandwich and words of encouragement. Yet, I was beginning to have doubts about completing 40 miles more in soft sand. I trudged along, my legs beginning to feel the weight of the sand and the energy it took to push off. The landscape was so beautiful with the morning light on the beach grass, intense green meeting water on both sides of the spit of land. Yet I felt like I was running upstairs with weights on my ankles. My greatest fear was disappointing Bebe who counts on me to follow through with everything. But I kept going.

About two miles before the Sconset check point at Cod Fish Park, a 19th century fishing village, Trevor came running towards me. “Give me your shoes and get onto the hardpack at the water’s edge,” he instructed. I argued, worrying that my ankles could not handle the slope for the rest of the race, but he insisted. “If you can’t do it, I’ll give you fresh shoes in Sconset.” I relented, off went the Nikes. My right ankle immediately felt the stress and I told Trevor I couldn’t do 33 more miles. I worried about my achilles, too. Trevor ran ahead of me at the water’s edge and told me stories; we made it through a few more miles.

At the Sconset checkpoint (mile 20), my spirits lifted with another sandwich. A completely buff, friendly girl waiting for her relay hand-off, told me that the next leg was the easiest and I should try to get through it before giving up. I pushed on. Dozens of seals kept me company between Sconset and Tom Nevers. Trevor and my daughters ran beside me for a half mile and boosted my spirits.

The next 12 miles were the best part of the race. The sand was smooth, without pebbles, and ocean water cooled my feet. I could manage the 20 degree slope by taking tiny steps and expending as little energy as possible. I passed Tom Nevers as fishermen offered encouragement.

Then I reached Madequesham, “my beach.” Our family home sits about 1/2 mile from the ocean. On a clear day, from the front porch, I can not only see the surf, but hear it, too. Euphoria set in as I saw my two youngest, Gus and Louisa playing in the surf. “Go Mommy!”

With no new complaints and renewed energy, I looked forward to the Surfside checkpoint at 32 miles. At Nobadeer (the Airport Beach) Trevor, Pam and Bebe met me with another sandwich, water and Gatorade. I took two Advil and a salt tablet and begged for the anti-chaffing stick. Trevor did not have it in his pocket and offered to retrieve it from the car. Not wanting to stop, I said, “forget it.” He promised to bring it to Surfside. I should have waited. My thigh chaffing, humorously known as “Chub Rub,” was starting to sting. My genetically generous inner thighs, salt water, and shorts material, were making hamburger meat of my skin. I tried to block it out. At least my underarms arms weren?t rubbing.

Surfside checkpoint was uplifting as relay runners, (passing me in droves) cheered me on. Beachgoers offered beers and snacks. Just past Surfside, a nude beach is nestled between that family-friendly spot and the hardcore surfer’s beach. I had forgotten about the nude beach. It’s a jolt to the system to see completely naked men spread eagle on the beach. I tried to avert my eyes.  Past the nude beach, surfcasters and surfers were out, a diversion that took my mind off the chaffing and some right ankle pain. Miacomet and Lady’s Beach came and passed. I dreamed about a Vidalia Onion Pie, tomatoes and corn from Bartlett Farm and waved to friends who recognized me running.

Just before the Madaket checkpoint, I had to navigate around a house that was falling into the ocean.

Huge sandbags and boulders barely kept the once-glorious summer home from being swept away. The owner, understandably grouchy, was on property, yelling at runners climbing the bluff to go around his house. There was no beach at all. If I had the spring in my step I might have been able to jump off the cliff going back down to the beach after circumventing the house, but instead I had to slide on my behind. What a mess!

The real calamity came when navigating Madaket. The slope was now 45 degrees and the tide gave us little hardpack upon which to run. Two solo runners were gaining on me and I did not care if they passed. I only needed them to tell me where to turn at Smith’s Point. This skinny penninsula is often an island. This year Smith’s Point was connected and we were told to go “to the truck and run around the truck and then turn into Madaket harbor to the checkpoint.”

For delirious, exhausted runners the mental challenge of figuring out which truck (among dozens) we were supposed to run around was too much. The three of us stupidly ran to the end of Smith?s Point and then turned back. The mushy mud on the harbor side was a relief from the burning hot sand, but we had run an extra 2.5 miles (a point Trevor wisely did not share as I reached the last checkpoint). Pam baby powdered my feet, wincing at the blood blisters that had popped, Bebe fed me another sandwich, and I put on my running shoes. Runners were all over the checkpoint, as all of the relays had caught up with the soloists.

I passed the former Westender, the Madaket Marine, and began the eco-challenge portion of the run. I should have carried my shoes until the other side of Eel Point, but instead I left them on the beach, unwittingly causing myself unbelievable grief for the rest of the race.

The low tide, now upon us, helped me actually see the eel grass upon which I was running. It wasn’t quite submerged, but it was treacherously slippery. I ran through the boggy terrain desperately trying to avoid shells and eels. The mental energy of worrying about my footing took my mind off my fatigue. I stopped singing “I?ve been working on the Railroad” and focused on each tiny step. I knew that I would slice open my feet if I stepped on even one shell.

Everyone passing me had water shoes or some foot protection. Trevor admitted later that he was crestfallen when he saw everyone finishing with shoes. I was the only one with bare feet on the last leg! The shells were mixed with kelp making it even harder to find a spot to place my sore feet.

Hector instructed us to “watch out for the 14 bulkheads” around which we would have to navigate once we reached Dionis. The bulkheads were nowhere in sight. How much longer?! It seemed that I would never reach Dionis. I became so confused that I could not remember if the tide was coming in or going out.

Finally, I saw a beach ranger and asked him how far to Dionis. He told me, “this is Dionis.” I rounded a bend and met my first bulkhead, made out of huge boulders. I took a swim around it. The next 13 came and went and soon I spied the colorful umbrellas of Jetties Beach. Sailboats were gliding into the harbor and the sun was low on the horizon. I had trouble composing myself when I realized that the finish line was in sight. Jetties Beach had never looked so beautiful and the sand became smooth and relatively firm.

My mother and Trevor were pacing the beach worried that something had happened. Because I was behind schedule and without shoes, Trevor worried that I had given up. When he saw me he sprinted and ran me in to the finish. My mother was chanting, “you can do it, that?s my girl, you can do it!” There it was: 10 hours 38 minutes after leaving Cotue I crossed the line in the sand.

I was the only solo woman so Hector handed me the trophy. After a dip in the ocean, we headed for the Juice Bar for some really delicious ice cream.

  1. 2 Responses to “Marathon too short? How to run 50 around Nantucket (part barefoot)”

  2. Hey, this was just great. Your mother sent me the link – we were high school classmates. I am sort of a nut about endurance sports (formerly did many triathlons, Ironman Kona twice) but mostly longer ocean swims and races. They don’t take the toll on the body that the running (which I still do, very slowly). I actually had tears in my eyes when you finished. GREAT JOB! What a great challenge. It is a thrill and I loved reading your piece. Excellent writing, too.

    By Ellen Shockro on Nov 19, 2010

  3. As one of my best friends, Noonie, you are my go-to for good solid advice but also you encourage my sense of adventure for the crazy and stupid and I wouldn’t swap that for the world! Congratulations.

    By Antonia on Nov 19, 2010

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