Cara Mason

EF 50k 2023: Coming out of the Pandemic Baby Haze

The VHTRC’s Elizabeth Furnace 50k was my first ultra since (my first) in 2019. I know I’m not alone in saying that 2019 seems like a lifetime ago.

In October ‘19 I was feeling strong and newly engaged to my running partner and co-adventurer Levi, and after running my first 50k, with a half marathon for extra fun 2 days later as part of the West Virginia Trilogy, I was excited to start training for another goal. A week later I found out I was pregnant (the horrendous heartburn should have tipped me off) and then a few months later the world fell apart with the onset of the pandemic.

Cara hiking Dragons Tooth, while Levi runs the Catawba Run Around; at this point 25 weeks pregnant, and the weekend before everything shuts down (March 2020)

I stayed pretty fit during my pregnancy but after our son Theo was born, the real effects of having a pandemic baby were felt. He was a terrible sleeper, so on top of working full time and being up all night, I had very little energy for the first year and a half of his life. Breastfeeding was very hard for us, and my milk supply tanked whenever I worked out, so I eventually resigned myself to eating all the cakes and not exercising until I was no longer his sole or major source of nutrition.

When I was finally able to start exercising, because Levi and I traded off childcare duties without help (at the height of the pandemic), I could only stroller run on our hilly gravel roads near Woodstock, or take him in a backpack on hikes, while Levi worked on building our house. For fun I even tried to cover the whole MMT course (that I hadn’t already been on) in loops with the backpack. Which funny enough is how I had previously explored the Doll Ridge portion of the EF course.

Bluebell hike in the spring of 2022 at Shenandoah River State Park

Eventually I mastered a little backpack shuffle run when he got old enough to think it was fun, but the opportunities to do a solo trail run were rare and cherished. Finally after Theo turned 2 and the pandemic was waning, we made the difficult decision to put him into Montessori preschool for a 1/2 day 4 days a week. Because of my 24 hour shift work schedule, this meant I had several mornings a week completely to myself! I can’t fully describe the joy and relief.

Even if it meant not sleeping after a 24h shift, I made the most out of almost every one of those mornings. I felt like after all this time dedicating myself to new motherhood, I needed to reclaim my sense of self and the way that felt best was to set a goal and put myself out there more in general. Levi and I sat down and worked out a long run schedule (maybe one day we will figure out how to run long runs together again). I connected with some great running partners and motivators and looked for a run to train for. EF 50k seemed to fit the bill: rocky, hilly, slow, low-key, maybe a little too soon, but it fit into my weird work schedule so I was gonna do my best to get it done.

The running felt wonderful, until it didn’t. I had to take several weeks off due to a muscle strain, but I worked with a PT who was also a runner, who said she’d do her best to patch me up so I could run.

Theo! Despite being sick, this little blond dynamo never stopped playing (here at Elizabeth Furnace Aid Station).

Despite this, I almost didn’t show up the day of the run. I had lingering pain from the strain, and Theo was down with a febrile illness that he kindly gave to Levi, and which I was sure I was going to get as well. I kept waiting for a sure sign from the Universe that I shouldn’t run, but it never came, so there I found myself at the start.

The weather had threatened snow and cold rain all week but the day turned out to be beautiful. Cool, sunny at times, windy on the ridges, but comfortable. Aside from the strain, I felt pretty strong despite my erratic training the last several weeks. I didn’t have a lick of stomach trouble or heartburn, which was a bonus.

Becky Convery, who ran virtually the entire 50k with Cara, leading her into the Elizabeth Furnace aid station at mile 21.

The course was everything that was promised: rocks and hills and more rocks in a weird double figure 8 with a twist that made me grateful that I knew those particular trails so well. I ran with a couple of new friends that made the miles fly by, though the last 8 kicked my butt. Levi and Theo were pretty miserable and sick, but I still got to see Theo’s face light up at the last aid station and at the finish when he saw me run in, which made my heart happy.

In the end, it wasn’t exactly what I had hoped, but I got it done (at long last), and more importantly I had a fun day in the mountains with great people and old and new friends. And I look forward to my next adventure!

I’ve never written a race report (for a race I’ve run) but agreed to Quatro’s suggestion to amend a Facebook post I had written, because I know more than a few new parents out there who are trying to find their way back to themselves, and I thought maybe sharing this story could be a help. Don’t be afraid to prioritize yourself, get help when you need it, find something that makes you feel strong and whole and you’ll be a better mama (or papa) for it. The struggle is real.

Cara, Levi and Theo backpacking the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park, where they met up with Eva Pastalkova and Andy Peterson, who were running it