The short version? I LOVE TRAIL RUNNING!
The long version? I’m still processing things, and I don’t feel like words can fully give it justice, but I’ll give it a shot…
Wow. What an incredible day! I went into this race with a crazy mix of emotions: Excitement at attempting a new distance (my first ultra!), confidence at having an accomplished ultra runner friend pacing me, yet fear over the unknown of how my body would respond to a new distance over different terrain.
I set the alarm for 5 a.m. and even though I had crazy dreams the previous night — running naked through poison oak, for instance — I slept well and felt rested by the time my alarm went off on Saturday morning. I did my usual race morning prep, met up with Jamie (my trail angel), Casey (her fiance) and Maria (another ultra-awesome runner friend), and we were on our way.
The drive over to Oakland from San Francisco was uneventful, and we actually arrived early — a little more than an hour before the race was scheduled to start at 8 a.m. But by the time we did the three pre-race P’s (park, pee and packet pickup) we had just 15 minutes until go-time.
No corrals here; everyone just casually lined up for the start and we chatted with a few other friends who were running. I love how much more relaxed the environment is as compared to road races where the throngs of people only seem to increase my anxiety.
Right before we took off, Jamie and I got down to business and went over our game plan. As my pacer, she said her goal was to get me across the finish line without “bonking,” which would require a careful mix and continual monitoring of running strategy, smart nutrition and mental stamina.
After all, as the race distances grow longer, so does your potential chance of something going wonky. And Jamie was focused on having us run a conservative race to give me a great experience for my first ultra distance.
Loop One: Miles 1-13.1 (~2:37 total time)
We crossed the start line and immediately started climbing. And climbing. Jamie warned me not to get swept up in the crowd since we’d have to tackle this big hill two more times (at the beginning of each loop), so we stayed to the side of the path and went at our own pace, alternating jogging and walking.
After we cleared the top of that first huge ascent, things leveled out a bit and we got to enjoy running through some rolling hills. The weather was a perfect 60ish with a mix of fog and clouds, so we crossed our fingers and hoped that it’d stay cool as long as possible.
Not too far into the first loop, Jamie and I ran into Vivi and Molly, my partners in crime from the Lake Chabot 30K back in February. They were doing the 30K to prepare for a rim-to-rim Grand Canyon run next weekend, so we ran with them for a bit; great conversation is always a welcome distraction, regardless of distance!
Jamie wanted us to keep things slow and steady for the first loop, so we kept the pace conversational after broke off from the ladies. We also made sure to eat every few miles (I made rice balls and salty balls) and drink every few minutes.
There were aid stations at miles ~5 and ~11, so we stopped each time to fill up on electrolyte drink, salt tabs and snacks. For some reason PB&J sandwich squares and pretzel crisps were hitting the spot, so we’d grab handfuls to munch along the way.
At that second aid station, the volunteers told us that the next station was ~3 miles away, so we knew we were coming up on the finish line area (the first of three times we’d travel though it!). We were in high spirits, and I was proud that I hadn’t once checked my watch (Jamie threatened to take it away from me because of the mind games the mileage can play).
As we spotted the flags near the finish line, I was pretty excited to see that we had completed the first half marathon in ~2:37, and Jamie said she thought we were making great time. We pulled up to the aid station to refill as another friend, Marlana, flew up behind us into the finisher’s chute to complete her 30K!
Mentally, it was
a little very daunting knowing that we’d have to pass through here again before coming in for the finish. But rather than dwelling on it, I tried to focus on the task at hand: the second half marathon.
Loop Two: Miles: 13.1-26.2 (~5:17 total time)
We started the second loop just as we did the first — with lots of climbing. Yes, it was tougher this time. But we were chatting away and laughing — as you can see, Jamie and I were determined to put the “fun” in 50K.
Oddly enough, even though we were repeating the same 13.1-mile loop, there were parts that I remembered clearly and others that I didn’t recognize at all. I also experienced a few moments of “ultra-runner acid trip,” as Jamie called ‘em and started seeing a few things out of the corner of my eye, like a runner crouched behind a tree or a polar bear (it was a stump and a fire hydrant covered in plastic, respectively).
Visions aside, Jamie said that this loop was a crucial one; if we could make it through smart and strong, we’d be in good shape for the last five miles. So even though the sun was starting to heat things up and our legs were showing the first signs of fatigue, we continued our strategic mix of walking and running.
This time, the aid stations seemed to come a little more slowly. But we passed the time chatting away and kept up our eating and drinking schedule, particularly at the aid stations where we upped our intake of S! Caps salt tablets to two at a time.
Before we knew it, we were at the mile 24 aid station, with the next aid station a mere 2.2 miles away at the finish line area. I knew that would be a big mental crossroads, so as we pulled in we kept our stay there pretty brief so as not to lose momentum.
I did pause long enough to look at the clock, though — 5:17 for the marathon! That was just the boost I needed. I still hadn’t checked my watch, so I’d been running “blind” with no idea how we were doing on time, although Jamie had assured me we were still steady and strong.
I didn’t want to let my mind get too far ahead of me — Jamie’s advice was to focus on the finish rather than the numbers, on which I tend to get fixated — but I did tell her then that I had secretly wanted to finish in less than seven hours.
And now it seemed within the realm of possibility (after the race, she told me she knew we’d be coming in under 6:30, but didn’t want to get me too hooked on expectations = an awesome pacer).
Loop Three: Miles 26.2-31 (~60 mins for final 5 miles)
Again, we went up that hill. Although this time (as you can see from the elevation chart above), it wasn’t quite as long. Well, maybe not in distance — but it sure felt about five times as long as the previous two climbs due to the accumulated fatigue in our legs.
But Jamie kept us moving forward — she gave me tips on not only how to maneuver up the hills and to take advantage of the downhills, but also how to keep consistently moving forward in the mounting heat, which was starting to get to me.
By the time we got to the turnoff where the trail split into the smaller final loop from the previous two loops, we knew we were in the home stretch. But at this point, moving was starting to be more of a struggle with stiff legs, achy knees and a flutter in my gut that I’d been managing over the previous miles.
Instead of backing off the food and water, though, we doubled down when I’d feel my gut start to go, which did help. And soon we were back running under a canopy of redwoods, so the cooler air combined with the softer pine-needle-packed running surface was a welcome respite.
After what seemed like a whole lot more than four miles, we made the final turn back toward the finish and saw a sign marking where the half marathon loop and the five-mile loop met. I started getting a little emotional because I knew we were so close, but Jamie reeled me back in to focus on the final portion, which was a series of paved paths through the park.
She warned me that it would feel endless. And it did. But at the same time, it flew by in a blur and we saw the finish line flags through the last set of trees. We turned the corner, sprinted (or as close to that as we could) toward the finish line, and Jamie slowed at the last second to let me cross first…
Final time: 6:17:34 (30th overall, 8th female, 3rd age group)
I think my exact words were, “Holy shit!” as we saw the clock. Not only did we finish, but we finished strong and well under the time I was expecting. THANK YOU, Jamie! We hugged the sweatiest hug and collapsed in the shade under a tree near the finish line.
Only then did I check my watch, but unfortunately the GPS must’ve skipped when we were under the canopy, so it only read 30.58. Right then and there I told Jamie I was doubly thankful that I listened to her advice — I had a great run by feel without time, and I knew that the GPS being off would’ve totally thrown me for a mental loop.
Luckily, though, she had recorded it on her Strava, so I’ve got proof!
What did I learn from this experience?
- The company you keep can make or break your day — even though Jamie was feeling the effects of the later miles, too, I never knew it because she was so focused on keeping things positive for me
- Nutrition and hydration are critical — Staying ahead of the curve (eating and drinking before you’re hungry or thirsty) is the most important part of maintaining efforts for long periods of time
- Salt tablets are your friend on hot days — We took ‘em at every aid station to help keep us drinking and ward off muscle cramps
- Don’t be afraid to walk, but do so “with a purpose” — As with eating and drinking, don’t wait until you need to walk; use it strategically up hills to conserve energy so you can make up time on the downhills and go the distance
- Training will only take you so far; attitude is everything — I agree 100 percent with Jamie’s philosophy: It’s not all about the miles; you’ve just got to build a good base of fitness and the rest is smart strategy on race day
- Embrace the unknown — It’s damn scary to push your mind and body to a new threshold, but so worth it
So there you have it. As I told Jamie yesterday, if you asked me a few years ago, I never would have considered doing ultra-marathon. In fact, a little over a year ago, I wasn’t even sure my body could handle the 26.2 distance again.
But now? Well, thanks to her encouragement and guidance I had an amazing day out there. Hitting that new 31-mile milestone was an incredible feeling; not just because it was about redefining my limits — it was about resetting expectations for myself.
And you know what? The sky really is the limit.
Thank you, Jamie, for making my first 50K experience “ultra-awesome!” Now, when’s the next one??