When I tell people that I ran 31 miles the other week, the overwhelming reaction is: “Why on earth would you do that?”
To be totally honest, I’ve probably laced up my running shoes a total of 10 times in the past year. That’s why it was such a stupid/hilarious/ridiculous idea to sign up for a 50k ultramarathon. Allow me to elaborate:
It all started with some good ol’ fashioned peer pressure, as many questionable decisions do. Ryan, the owner of my CrossFit gym (KDA CrossFit, for you San Diego folks- come work out with me!), had decided to sign up for the Noble Canyon 50k race on a whim. For those of you who don’t know Ryan, he’s this extremely affable, high-energy extrovert with the unnerving ability to put a positive spin on anything. When he mentioned that he was going to tackle the ultramarathon, I was intrigued- he made it sound like a great idea. Matt had run Noble Canyon last year and loved it- it was definitely on my radar.
I’d heard it was a relatively easy ultra (“easy” being a loose term in a sport where ultradistances are combined with treacherous mountain climbs, extreme weather, and whatever other obstacles nature and man are able to conceive). I’d spent the last 1.5yrs becoming increasingly curious about running an ultradistance- Matt has completed 5 ultramarathons since his first in April 2014, so I’ve had lots of time sitting on the sidelines (and crewing him, and pacing him…) to think about how I’d fare after 30+ miles on the trails. Ryan’s confidence and enthusiasm was the push I needed to throw my hat in the ring and sign up for the race. This was in June. The race was in September. I planned out a fairly low-volume training schedule, and figured I’d get a few runs in per week and be ready to go by race day! Simple, right?
Fast forward three months. I’ve spent the summer ignoring the impending race date of September 19th. The little time I spent thinking about the race consisted of me truncating my training plan in my head, delaying the inevitable day where I’d actually have to begin training… until all I was left with was a few weeks to cobble some running together and hope for the best.
Honestly, at this point I didn’t want to do the race. I started making excuses in my head in the weeks leading up to the big day:
“This is ridiculous. You have nothing to prove by running this.”
“You’re just gonna get hurt and you won’t be able to do anything for weeks. Might as well just sit it out.”
“Remember how miserable you felt during your last half marathon? What makes you think you can go more than twice that distance?”
“What makes you think you’re worthy of standing at the starting line with legitimate ultrarunners? You’re barely even a regular runner.”
Matt, in his infinite running wisdom, suggested completing a 20-mile run a few weeks prior to the race. He emphasized that this was the BARE MINIMUM I needed to do in order to be ready for the run. I figured that anything was better than nothing, and decided I’d try my luck on my first long trail run in years. He graciously sacrificed his Saturday morning two weeks prior to race day in order to take my unprepared ass out for a 3.5hr run.
Spoiler: it was, hands down, the most miserable run of my life (and I’ve had explosive diarrhea on a run before). I bitched and moaned the entire way- I was mentally broken before I’d even began. I expected pain and suffering… and guess what? As a result, my body felt terrible- sore knees, tight muscles, tender feet. I finished the run on the verge of tears, ready to throw away my running shoes and quit running forever. Matt was a trooper and endured my negativity- entertained it, even. I completely unraveled… I think of it as almost this crazy purging of emotions that happened that day.
After a few hours, I was able to examine my reaction to the run more objectively. I had lunch with a friend who was writing on the subject of Svadhyaya, or self-study- one of the Niyamas of Yoga. It became this perfect opportunity to understand my nature a little more honestly. I realized that I was scared of failing- of trying to accomplish this monumental thing and not being good enough. I had wanted an excuse to quit- I was conveying all of this misery to Matt, hoping that he’d allow me to give up. The thing about Matt, however, is that quitting is never an option with him (for reference, Matt’s 100-mile race completion: https://marglink.com/2015/06/10/sleep-deprivation-and-oreos-aka-the-ultramarathon-saga-pt-1/). I found out the hard way that he holds me to that same standard. So, after some time to shake out my feelings, I decided to do the damn thing, come what may.
Race day rolled around two weeks later- I’d predictably gotten no more runs under my belt, but I was feeling ready for the inevitable pain cave. Ryan and Christina (fresh from her GRID invitational competition) met us at our house at 4:45 in the morning. We were on the road before 5am, and we arrived at the Pine Valley Bible Camp starting line well before 6am. We collected our commemorative shirts and socks (bright orange this year- good thing I’m a Giants fan), and were surprised by our friend Cris and her mom Carol (AKA Mama Bucks), who had driven all the way out to the mountains to send us off at the start. The entire morning was a blur, and before I was awake enough to comprehend what was happening, we were herded to the starting line. At 6:30am on the dot, the race began, and we shuffled forward, passed underneath the Start/Finish banner… and then we were off.
The beginning of a race always brings an onslaught of confused emotions. I mean, you know that you’re running towards pain, exhaustion, and existential crises aplenty… but YAY RUNNING! So many bright colors and BOY, DO I LOVE BEING OUTDOORS! Resisting the urge to go out at a quick & unsustainable pace, Ryan and I took the first mile as an opportunity to discuss our game plan. We wanted to be deliberate about pacing/walking, since we were both woefully undertrained and speed wasn’t an option.
The race started on pavement, but then quickly caught the trail and immediately sent everyone hiking up a hill. Fortunately, it was still pretty crowded and bottlenecked on the narrow single-track trail, so it forced us to stay conservative with our pace (read: we were basically walking). The scenery wasted no time in revealing itself as distractingly beautiful- 3 miles passed quickly by as we eventually descended into what I assume is Noble Canyon. The first hour was like a dream: the flora was almost otherworldly; a strange mix of desert and forest. We hit the first aid station just before mile 5, which had donuts and all kinds of treats (why run an ultra if you’re not going to stuff your face with pastries during?).
The day was warming up quickly, and as we dug into our biggest climb of the day, we were already aware that heat was going to be a factor. Most of the run is exposed- the high elevation and rocky terrain mean that a particularly hot day can ruin your run, if you’re not deliberate about hydration and electrolytes. As we ascended the mountain, I was taking in water whenever it came to mind, hoping to stay on top of things and avoid any preventable issues.
However, as far as unpredictable issues go, I encountered one pretty early on: Around mile 6, I took a pretty big spill. The majority of the course is technical… the majority of the course is also incredibly scenic. Ergo, I was admiring the scenery, missed my footing, and fell hard. The wind was knocked out of me, but before I had the chance to react, I heard Ryan’s voice: “Up, get up, you’re okay, let’s go.” There was something so comforting about having my coach running with me. I felt like I had to be tough, move well, and stay positive, as if it were any other workout. After dusting myself off, I moved gingerly over the rocks, keeping my eyes on the ground and taking greater care to plan out my footing. Continuous forward progress: that’s the mantra for ultras. With that in mind, I pressed on one step at a time, chipping away at the neverending incline in front of me. My hands stung and my leg was definitely going to bruise, I figured that this wasn’t going to be the worst pain I had to look forward to that day.
We continued to climb, hiking most of the uphill section and getting some running in when the trail mercifully flattened out. Ryan and I chatted most of the time, talking to the other runners and getting to know lots of new people on the trail. We were moving at a conversational pace, which made the whole thing more enjoyable. After the Big Tree aid station, we continued up the mountain, embracing the “suck” and settling in to the rhythm of the day. After only 2.6 more miles, we arrive at Penny Pines aid station, where Stina and Matt were waiting for us. I was all smiles- we’d heard the music from the aid station from about a half of a mile back and I was ready for the buffet of Oreos and PB&Js.
I’ve crewed for Matt at a handful of races, but only now do I understand how nice it is to see your loved ones at aid stations. It put me in a great mood and reenergized me for the next leg of the race- heading to Pioneer Mail, 5 miles away.
By this time in the day, the temperature had risen to the mid-80s: perfect for a lazy day in San Diego, a little hot for a run up a mountain… but surprisingly, the heat didn’t bother me. Besides being a Sacramento girl (San TOWN!) and being used to temperatures in the triple digits, the one part of my training that I didn’t neglect was the underrated practice of heat training. I read in a blog somewhere that I should drive around without air conditioning, letting my car bake under the San Diego sun, as a method of acclimatization. I spent many rides home from work this summer dripping in sweat, content to feel like I was preparing in some way for the race despite not having run at all. So, if you’re a lazy asshole who is planning on running a hot race, you can get some “training” in without actually having to run. That having been said, you should still run. But try the heat training thing. Someone on the internet told me it was legit… so… yeah. I’d like to think that it helped. Yeah.
Ryan and I kept checking in with each other- I was the more experienced runner between the two of us, so I felt responsible for him. He’d only run 11 miles at most, so every mile past Penny Pines was uncharted territory. I knew what to expect- the nagging tightness in my hip flexors, the soreness of my feet, etc… None of this was new pain, and I knew it was manageable. There’s something to be said for having “been there” before. I was feeling surprisingly fresh, even as we approached the Pioneer Mail aid station.
However, there’s a tricky part to the NC50k: approaching Pioneer Mail, the halfway point of the race, you close in on the aid station…. but then you run right past it, turning right instead to head up an incredibly steep hill for a very hot, rocky, and exposed .5 mile crawl to the turnaround point. I was emotionally prepared for this moment- I’d camped out at this very aid station in 2014 to cheer on runners. However, Ryan was incredibly stoic about the whole thing, hiking deliberately and in relative silence. Though he never said anything, I think the half mile power hike was enough to put him into the prodigal pain cave. I was still in a good place- my body felt as good as I needed it to, and I felt mentally locked in.
Finally, after flying down the hill as fast as our worn out legs would carry us, we arrived to the long-awaited shade and provisions of the Pioneer Mail aid station. Matt and Stina were there to meet us, and Matt helped me fill up my camelbak and get loaded up with food. I popped a salt tablet preemptively- a good strategy to prevent cramping, given you’re hydrated adequately. I ate lots of watermelon, potatoes, salt, and candy before corralling Ryan and leaving the aid station as fast as possible.
It’s easy to stay and hang out at aid stations- the food is abundant, the volunteers will literally give you an ice-cold sponge bath, and you’re in this little oasis apart from the hard reality of the trail. However, think about it this way: an extra 5 minutes at each of the aid stations- the time it might take to enjoy your gatorade with a few squares of a PB&J- would add up to 30 minutes in a race with 6 aid stations, such as ours. That’s 30 more minutes on the trail- totally unnecessary. So, our plan for aid stations was to fill up with water, grab a few bites to eat, and keep moving.
We were now in the second half of the race- this is where things were about to get good. My feet were feeling incredibly beat- I had taken the insoles out of my Brooks a few months ago in order to transform them into zero-drop shoes (the “drop” refers to the differential between your heel and your toes)… but I hadn’t had the good sense to find some additional padding. So, it was a little rough on my feet, but I felt strong otherwise. We were moving at a VERY conservative pace- I was still conversational, Ryan perhaps a little less so. Once my body had settled into the rhythm of the trail, I felt so happy and liberated.
The 5 miles from Pioneer Mail to Big Tree 2 were challenging. The views were amazing, but the terrain was rocky and technical, so I kept my head down and kept moving forward. After trekking along the rim for a few miles, we started to descend slightly. You’d think that going downhill would be enjoyable, but at this late stage in the game, the pounding on my joints was unwelcome and the energy required to tread carefully down the rocky path was tremendous. Just as we’d began heading downhill, Ryan and I heard someone scream from below. We managed to pick up our pace and made it to the bottom of the hill way faster than we would have otherwise. Turns out, the scream was from a guy who’d been experiencing a wicked muscle cramp, nothing serious. He had since gotten up off of the ground and carried on running like nothing had happened. Cool, thanks for the scare, bro.
We finally made it to the Big Tree 2 aid station- this was definitely my favorite aid station of the day. I sipped some electrolytes, Ryan and I filled up with water, and we hit the road once more. We were at mile 21.8 at this point- Still about 10 miles left in the day. Running with a partner is both easier and harder- they’ll keep you motivated and distracted, but you have to be considerate of their problems and be willing to run at their pace. Ryan was now 10 miles beyond what he’d ever run before, and with another 10 miles to go, I could feel his fatigue. He never said a word about being in pain, but then again nobody does- the assumption in running long distances is that EVERYONE is in some sort of pain, and everybody just deals with it in their own way.
Just when I started to feel the fatigue set in, the most magical thing happened: we were suddenly running on even soil in this beautiful, shaded little forest (complete with babbling brook, ferns, etc). It was a huge departure from the dry, rocky terrain we’d grown accustomed to over the past few hours- I felt like I’d been transported to a rainforest (looking back, it probably wasn’t as lush as I’d remembered… but still). I think I was experiencing a runner’s high, because at this point I just wanted to take off and frolic the rest of the way to the finish line. I’m sure I was annoying Ryan with my announcements every few seconds: “THIS IS WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT. THIS IS BLISS.” If you look at the elevation map, you can see that this section was mostly downhill. However, it was gentle; carving downwards, the firmly-packed soil was a welcome relief on my body. I still remember this section as being my favorite part of the race. Not only was I happy to be out of the sun and nearing the last aid station, but also I was thrilled that I could feel THIS good so late in the game. That feeling has stuck with me- the experience of being in awe of what your body can accomplish.
We arrived at the last aid station: Mile 26.7, just over a marathon distance. I’ve never run a marathon, so this was exciting for me. A kind aid station volunteer (they’re all kind, for the record) doused me in ice (GAME CHANGER), and sent my frozen ass back onto the trail. Ryan was ready to grind the rest of this race out- he stayed close behind me as we left the comfort of the aid station behind us, addressing the last section of the trail. We’d run this section before- the first and last 10 miles of NC50k are the same path- but I DID NOT remember running down a sandy hill at the beginning of the race. In any case, we were tasked with ascending this same sand trap around miles 27-29, which was a spirit-breaker. It was hot, we were tired, and now we were trudging through sand. However, I kept myself sane and almost cheerful with the fact that we were almost 90% done with the race. We’d come this far, and we were going to finish. Food and beer awaited us at the finish line- I was getting impatient and just wanted the damn thing to be over.
Mile 29 was hard. I kept on recalculating how long the race would take me to finish if I just walked slowly the rest of the way… until I just kept hobble-running because I was SO READY TO SIT DOWN. I’d managed to avoid sitting down at any of the aid stations because I didn’t want to fall into the trap of comfort… but now my body just wanted to rest. As soon as my gps watch beeped to indicate 30 miles, I heard hooting and hollering coming from the road: Matt, Stina, and our friend Tim were there, ready to run us in. It gave me a burst of energy as we made our way to the paved road- the last section of the race. They paced us WAY FASTER than I thought I was capable of running, and I would have told them to slow the fuck down, but Ryan was right there next to me, pushing through the pain. I knew that he was in just as much (/more, much more) pain that I was, so I sucked it up and kept running. This easily became the hardest section of the race- I hadn’t remembered this section being so long! Are we going uphill? WHERE IS THE FINISH LINE?!?
After almost a mile of fast-paced (ha, probably like 10min/miles) pavement running, the “chute” that would take us to the finish line was in sight. Our friends peeled off + left me and Ryan to run in for the last 100 yards. We crossed together, at the exact same time- the perfect way to end a race that had truly been a team effort. The sense of relief I felt when crossing that finish line… I can’t even explain it.
I kissed the rat (NC50k tradition), chugged a water, then ate Doritos in the shade. I don’t normally enjoy Doritos… but HOLY SHIT are they amazing post-race. Our amazing crew had brought an entire ice chest of beverages to chose from: FitAid, Beer, you name it. After basking in the finish line glow & cheering in the other runners, we packed in the car and headed home. I felt almost vindicated in the boldness of signing up for a race with limited training. I wanted to test my mind as much as my body, and it definitely was an exercise in staying positive and becoming comfortable with pain.
This story turned into a monster. Sorry. I’ll do a follow up with my tips for inexperienced ultrarunners. Do you have any questions for me about the run? Let me know in the comments and I’ll be sure to respond.
So… who wants to run it with me next year?