Finally. After many ultras with many things gone wrong, I got one right.
I ran to my expectations, which is funny, because I came into the race with no expectations 🙂 Really! The month following AR50 had spotty training, as there was only 4 weeks between the two races. It took almost 2 weeks to recover fully from the race (and subsequent muscle death from the pacing/nutritional disaster), 1 week of normal mileage (but was traveling for work), then 1 week of taper. I had a lot of work stressors too, to keep my mind worked up and off of Miwok. Let’s just say – my mind was not on it, and I was honestly wondering what my body could do for 62 miles and 12,000+ ft elevation gain. The mileage didn’t scare me as much as the elevation gain, as I haven’t done any race-specific training.
We drove down the day before and checked into the worst hotel in all of Mill Valley. Better than camping, I guess. We ate Thai for the pre-race meal and ordered mango sticky rice for desert, of which we took to go. A quick stop at the Whole Foods for breakfast options and we got back to the hotel to arrange the drop bags and prepare. I slept fine, but only about 5 hrs, as we had to wake at 3:00am for the 5:00am start. I ate a Hammer Perpetuum caffe latte flavor, a packet of oatmeal, and 1/2 the mango sticky rice from the night before. SO good. I decided mango sticky race is the best pre-race meal for ultras. We somehow were well organized from the night before and got to the start with good time. Got checked in, bathroom, then just hanging out in the pitch black for a while before the start.
I saw so many hipster runners at the start (to get a good description of what I mean, read this). Mustaches, trucker hats, neons… it was fantastic. We grouped together near the start and Tia, the RD announced that it would be a “European Style Start” aka everyone funneling immediately onto single track trail. She said to be patient and take time getting up the 2.5 mi hill as we have 60 more miles to run to sort it out 🙂
So that is exactly what happened. We were off, and we all started jogging only to walk 5 ft later when we hit the trailhead of the Matt Davis Trail. Everyone laughed. At least everyone was in a good mood to walk up a hill for 2+ miles in the dark! I certainly didn’t mind walking, even though it was a slower hiking pace than I wanted. Someone joked ‘what if someone is THAT guy who tries to pass everyone?’ and no worries, that happened too. 5 mins later a guy tried to pass people in the pitch black, regardless of how there were 150 people in front, all walking.
Once we got up to the top of the ridge (45 mins later…) and were on the Coastal Trail, the race started moving. It was incredible to look down and see all of the headlights below, snaking up the switchbacks to get up there. I was hoping someone would take a photo of it (I was lucky!) because it was so surreal. The grassy slopes were crazy steep, and it was still dawn with very little light, so I was careful of where my feet were landing as to not fall down off the trail into a 100+ foot ravine. I got to listen to many conversations while Joe and I remained mostly silent, just taking in the early morning sights. We could see Stinson Beach down below with the ocean waves crashing in. The world was still asleep! We had 59 more miles to go!
Eventually we got in some tree cover and came into the Bolinas Ridge aid station (6.3), where I think I just filled up water. We started running in the redwoods, which was really pleasant. We were passing a lot of people who were shuffling, which made me consider if anyone got an early start (I don’t think so) but which was also the reason we were walking the first 2 miles. The trail was more of a road-width at this point so it didn’t matter. When we got closer to the turn around, I started seeing the leaders and counting. I stopped counting men at 20 and that’s about where I finally saw the first woman. I counted myself in about 10th and knew there were several women around me and just behind me that could make some good moves later on. In and out of the Randall Trail aid station (12.9) and I still didn’t feel like we were running hard. That’s a good thing! I grabbed a few cut up bananas and potato chips to take with me. I hadn’t eaten anything yet until this point. Coming out of the aid station was a really long climb, which I didn’t notice as much going downhill (Isn’t that always the case?). Two more women passed me, which made me 12th going back into the Bolinas aid station (19.5). The 11th place women at the time was right ahead of me with another woman catching up behind me. When the one behind me saw the one in front, they were thrilled to see each other (obviously friends) and immediately slowed down, making me 11th. They both stopped to use the restroom, which solidified me in my place for the time being.
The sun was up by the time we got to the grassy parts of the Bolinas Ridge, and I knew we were on an out and back, but I couldn’t figure out what new turns we were making. We obviously went a different route because we made out way to the west side of the ridge to come down off the mountain. Joe and I were slightly separated but still running in the same group (like 20 feet apart). I was chatting with some people and trying to stay slow, but still passing groups at a time. Eventually, my group got caught up to a woman that was going slower than all of us, and when a man behind me asked to push by, I followed him. In this move, I passed that woman and two others, moving into 9th, I believe. Joe had made his way around this woman 20 feet before I did, but he was able to stretch it out and pick up the pace, which made him more like 300 feet ahead of me. I could still see him as we wound in and out of drainages, and once I called out to him that he was looking good. I stayed about 10-20 feet back from the man in orange that made the passing move earlier, and the race was going downhill at this point, so I was just trying to keep my pace in check.
On the way into Cardiac aid station (26.5), I passed another woman who seemed like she was tired. We were in a forested area and dropping down the other side of Bolinas Ridge. I just filled up my water and grabbed some more bananas and potato chips, and the man in orange says – You’re keeping up a good pace! I said, you too! then took off. I was in 8th! But not for long! We started descending down this long long trail (where, apparently, my pace slipped into the low 8:00 min miles) and a girl came out of nowhere and charged past me. I let her go, not wanting to go any faster than I already was. We rambled out onto a road section (still keeping with fast miles) where I passed a few guys. We made a quick right turn into a grassy section and I got a bit panicky because I have a tendency to get lost. It felt like we were running in high school XC again and I decided I hate running on actual grass (think – golf course, or lawn running). A couple of bridges, and a rickety one that bounced when we ran on it, then two stream crossings. I made it through all of this without getting lost, so this was excellent.
We got into Muir Beach aid (31.5) and I noticed I had gone through the 50K in 5:48. I calculated that it wasn’t too shabby of a pace, if not too fast at this point! But I knew there were more hills yet to come and I really didn’t think I was running out of my element. I hadn’t seen Joe for quite some time, so he must have gotten ahead of me by a few minutes. I took fistfuls of bananas and potatoes with salt [finally!] and ran out, where I ran into another woman. We ended up chatting and hiking up the first climb or two together. It was so nice to talk with another woman for a while out there! These races get a bit lonely and I was so happy to keep the pace under control while sharing ultra stories. We ran by the cutest farm (Joe loved it) then up a climb. To be honest, I was having so much fun that I didn’t notice the climb. We got up on a ridge then made some turns that I would have SO gotten lost on if I wasn’t with a local, then descended down a long downhill into Tennessee Valley (36.5).
I saw Joe immediately at our drop bag (!) and was so happy to see him! He said he was only there for a minute. I sprayed myself with sunscreen (as it was getting warm out there) and got more water and my potato chip and banana handfuls. Joe and I left the aid station together and hiked up the same climb I ran out with Peter when I paced him in for TNC 50 a few months ago. We hiked it instead of ran, passing the woman I was chatting with. I was hiking fast at this point, hard, and somehow figured out how to do it without using my running muscles. I felt really really good. We reached the top and luckily figured out the way to go, as some of the flags weren’t obvious (not for lack of flags, the wind was blowing the flags into shrubs, making it hard to spot). Beautiful views of the Golden Gate Bridge up at this point and of SanFran. I was in heaven! Somewhere through this section I passed the girl that flew by me earlier down the hill and I figured I was in 7th place.
Through Bridge View aid (appropriately named, 41.3) and I was feeling really really good. I got more food, and noted I was getting more hungry as the race was going on, but was satisfied with my bananas and potato chips. I had only had 1 shot block package overall at this point. No stomach nausea, which was remarkable. There was a loooong descent again, where Joe told me to make sure I was running my own race. I told him I was, just feeling very good. I was running fastish, but really, I think Joe was having a low point right then. The trail flattened out, crossed a road, and started climbing for a really really long time. Somehow, Joe got out of his mini-bad spell and started hiking like a champ. I hiked hard, and started alternating running/hiking to keep my pace up. I caught up with a guy from Ashland, and we talked for a while. Talking really made the hills go by quick. I had lost Joe at this point and also realized my legs were just starting to feel tender going down the hill into Tennessee Valley again (48.6). Actually, my feet hurt a little more than my legs, as I think I had developed a toe blister at this point.
I got water, food, dropped off the headlamp, gloves, long sleeve, etc etc I had been carrying for the last 49 miles (don’t ask me whyyyyyy I was still carrying this stuff) and felt lighter getting rid of it. I had a feeling that Joe had not visited our drop bag and wondered if he was ok. A volunteer was standing there and talking with someone and I had NO idea where to go, so I just yelled out, WHICH WAY and they got me sorted out. The Ashland guy found me again and was laughing that I had to make such a fuss over which way, but I explained to him how many times I’ve gotten lost, and I definitely couldn’t bear the thought of getting lost at that point. 5o miles! Can you imagine getting lost after 50 miles in?
We went up and over some smaller hills and got separated. Then – the worst descent I’ve felt ever up to that point – the gorgeous and yet terrible descent into Pirates Cove. I was swearing under my breath and yet gasping when looking at the site. The view was just insane: ocean and rocky coast and Muir Beach, whoa. But the descent was also insane. Rocky decline, with my gps recording a slope of over 30%, one area was 42.3%. It may not sound like much, and it certainly wasn’t a long hill, but IMAGINE running over 50 miles and descending a hill like that. It honestly felt like we would be thrown right over the cliff into the ocean. Anyway, I survived it, and wasn’t happy about the condition of how my legs/feet felt after that torture. I curled around and started a small incline back up. I was alone at this point and kept thinking another woman would careen around the corner and pass me since I was feeling slow after that downhill debauchery. I made it back to Muir Beach (53.4).
I checked in, filled water/got food etc, and then I wanted to see if Joe was still in the game. They took an extra minute or two to find his race # that he had passed through (he did) and I was relieved. This was certainly my most leisurely aid station so far, and I have no idea why. I didn’t feel rushed and I definitely spent a few minutes there. As I causally jogged out of Muir Beach, I noticed 3 women absolutely ripping their way into the aid station (!!!!!!!!!). My jaw dropped and I kinda freaked out, why did they look so fast and good?!?! So I got the heck outta there!
This was the spark I needed to get me back into focus. I was convinced these women would catch me. I had an absolute mission to prevent this from happening. I ran around the winding trails out of Muir and jumped over the two creeks (how can one jump at this stage?) over two bridges and through the grassy stretch. I cursed the grassy stretch. Back on the road, then I cursed the road. I was thinking – I hate roads. I hate grass. What? Nothing made sense. Then I caught up to a guy who ended up being a complete riot. We ended up hiking together up the looooong incline (Deer Park road, 2-3 mi, the same one the one girl passed me going down earlier) and I wouldn’t let the pace wane. I told him I was on a mission because there were 3 fast ladies behind me. We were joking, talking ultras, it was a real entertainment. I was so happy to have some comic relief at this point because it truly was comical.
Somehow, the awesome local guy and I got separated before the final aid station, Cardiac at 58.2*.
*My Garmin was way off the whole time – and not the way you would think. My watch was AHEAD the entire time, so the mileage I am reporting here reflects what the website says these aid stations were. My watch was insisting I was ON track for 62.5 miles (final recorded miles) and at the final aid station said we had already run 60 miles. I believe it, as how can a garmin record a distance BEFORE you’ve run it?? Has anyone had this happen? You can’t record miles before you have physically and actually run them. Especially since I didn’t warm up or go off-course. Mystery.*
So we will go with what my watch said – 60+ miles were already run. I get to the aid station, they write my # down, I grab some potato chips, and start running away when I hear everyone yelling. I turn around to see the entire aid station tent blow up WAY up in the sky and hit a telephone pole. I got the hell outta there because I imagined this tent landing on me with only 2 miles to go, thus ending my perfect race. I was running with a guy in green who warned me there were a ton of stairs yet to go. I was quizzing him – how many stairs. How long of a distance? what type of stairs???? He would laugh, but I was serious! I needed to know what I was in for if I wanted to make it!
I tried eating a few potato chips and my mouth was so dry I had to squeeze water in to even chew. I ended tossing most of them out because I was 2 miles away and was so happy to be that close. The dreaded stairs appeared. The famous Dipsea Trail stairs, to be exact. Those crazy stairs, there were 300 of them. (actually, I looked up that there were 600+ stairs on the Dipsea, so I took the 1/2 as we didn’t run the whole trail). They were crazy steep, close together, and terrible. It was like that Pirate’s Cove trail but the stair version. And longer. And it was forested, so the view wasn’t as nice right then. But the finish was so close that I was freaking out thinking about people passing me in the last few minutes, so I ignored the pain and charged down those stairs, strait down. The steepest grade my garmin recorded here was 43.3%, but the majority was in the 20s %.
I got to the bottom, where the guy in green had warned me there was one more hill. I saw it, apparently called Insult Hill, and I decided it was no big deal. NONE at all, given the finish was just downhill of there. It was insulting that the hills as called that, actually. So I ran up that insulting hill, then absolutely tore down the rest of the descent into Stinson Beach. I roared in, trying to keep my emotions in check, while my watch chirped for 62 miles (62.5 actually) and I crossed the finish.
I burst into tears, well… dry tears, when I saw Joe waiting. I sort of hyperventilated because I couldn’t stop crying and couldn’t breathe. The RD came over to check to see if I needed medical attention!! To everyone reading, it probably isn’t smart to cry like that if you aren’t hurt 🙂 Joe had an amazing race at 12:04 and I finished at 12:21. Joe took 44th place for men and I took 7th for women. 12,750 feet of ascent! 12,750 feet of descent! I was just overcome with emotion with finishing our first 100K and having it go so well!
I sat there and tried to breathe and eventually picked up my goody bag while Joe went around and fetched the car. We had to wait over two hours for our drop bag to be returned (major bummer) and luckily we could change so I could stop having a freeze-seizure over being so cold. (it wasn’t actually that cold, just post-run, you typically have a chill esp when the sun is setting). I tried to eat food, as my stomach was not upset, and we shared a soda. We reminisced about the race with ourselves and I congratulated the women around me in the race and the guys I ran with. It was so much fun!
SO: What led to a major turn around with the amount of suffering that seemed to not happen during this race? The longest race of my life? The most elevation gain and loss I’ve ever had in one day, including all of the mountains I’ve climbed? I’ll go with: NUTRITION. PACING. NOT OVERTHINKING.
On nutrition and pacing: I’ve made almost every mistake of nutrition in ultras. Ate too little, got nauseated. Ate nothing, got nauseated. Ate too much, got nauseated. Ate too frequently, got nauseated… ate too much sugar, got nauseated. You name it. All resulting in major disasters that have led to despair in the latter stages of an ultra race. Some even resulting in a DNF after too much vomiting and losing 10 lbs. I believe that nutrition is linked to everything. If running too fast, at a non-fat burning pace, too soon in the race, the body becomes unable to digest enough calories needed for the rest of the race. Thus, being unable to feed the muscles, leading to lactic acid buildup, leading to a bonk or very low energy. We can get away with this in marathon distances and maybe even 50Ks. These low energy spots mark almost every one of my ultras (minus Hagg 50K this year) and also come with a bad mental fog. I get terrible negative-thoughts when this happens, likely because my brain isn’t getting the nutrition it needs! All very simple. In addition, nutrition is very individualized. I spoke to a woman during the race that seemed to get most of her calories from drinking, a la Pam Smith. Seems to work very well for them! For me, my stomach needs something to chew on. This race, I changed it up to 75% ‘solids’ or real food – like bananas, potato chips, and potatoes with salt. I’d eat at every aid station minus the first one. I also didn’t eat too soon, as I had a lot of calories in the morning. I’d grab handfuls of food and take them on the go, and just ate bits at a time whenever I felt a tinge of hunger. Whenever I felt my energy lag or my brain get the teensiest bit foggy, I would take a chew or a gel. This was not often – I think I had a total of 2-3 servings over the whole race (contrasted with taking a serving every 30 mins in AR50 until I got severely nauseated from excess sugar). I did take an entire Accel Gel with super amounts of caffeine in it with 7-8 miles to go: it worked, I think. It gave me that extra boost in my running away from the perceived ladies that were chasing me down. I had pretty constant energy throughout the day and a very clear mind.
Of note: a very positive mind. Perhaps it was the scenery? Or perhaps it was solid nutrition. I didn’t over think this race. I was so fearful and respectful of the elevation gain that I printed an elevation profile and taped it up on my desk next to my computer so I could stare at it every day and contemplate what it would feel like to run those hills, ups and downs. So – call it over thinking, but I call it mental preparation. I had an incredibly stressful workweek leading up to the race and didn’t sleep well, and I had some big decisions to make and discussions that were had, and so, I didn’t have time or energy to over stress about the race at all. Also, having two chances this year to get my WS qualifier was a relief, as I didn’t put too much importance on one race.
Another strange note: although I had it with me, I didn’t listen to music during the race. Not a single minute, I didn’t ever reach for it. I was engaged and focused every single minute of those 12:21:00 hrs. I’ve never held concentration like that. Hagg came close, but that was also rainy, and I didn’t care to make the effort to drag out the iPod to get me through that one. This one could have been an extension of the same feeling, but I didn’t really consider getting it out. It was the scenery!!!! How could I ruin such a gorgeous run by listening to Ace of Base?? I was already so happy and peppy, there was no need for more.
Pearl Izumi N2s (perfect!), Defeet Sally Lizard ankle socks (yup, stylin’ in my high-top ankle socks with lizards), lululemon groovy run short, Nike Hagg Lake shirt (got some nasty burn/tan lines from mis-application of sunscreen), moving comfort phoebe bra, Brooks running hat. Wore the Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta Jenny pack (love it. UD packs were SO popular in this race – I saw hundreds of them. Get yours at Asana!!). I used Salomon 17 oz soft water flasks in the front and figured out how to keep them from wonking around when too full. I won’t tell you what this looks like, but it may be similar to a woman trying to run without a bra. Anyway, seems to work 🙂 I only ate cliff shots margarita flavor and Accel Gel in espresso, I think.
It’s with a heavy heart that I add this last piece: I was crying tears of joy at the end of Miwok then was crying tears of sorrow once we returned to the hotel and were in cell coverage again. I got the news that a former teammate of mine at University of New Hampshire was in a taxi in Chicago when a drunk driver drove up her one-way street the wrong way. He hit her taxi and she died in the hospital the next day. He got out of his car and urinated on the median while her taxi looked like it went through a meat grinder. It broke my heart. I stood in the shower and sobbed with burning hot water washing away the dirt of the day. I couldn’t conceive why? Why would this happen to Laura, who had so much going for her? We never think these things can happen or do, we never imagine they will, but it happens. I can ask a lot of questions, but it isn’t the place here. I will always remember the runs I had with Laura through NH trails, the discussions we had, and how smart and energetic she was. She had a sparkle in her eyes that will never fade, even if she is no longer with us today.
In remembrance of Laura LaPlante.