Tucked in the heart of the Russian River area is a quaint little town called Healdsburg. If you find yourself stumbling around what I can only call Downtown Healdsburg and you’re a runner at heart, your feet will walk you through the doors of the Healdsburg Running Company. There may be tents outside with people in trucker hats milling around and chatting. There may be a family fun run about to happen. There may also be a Salomon Demo Fleet. Above all else, what you will definitely find is a gentleman by the name of Skip whose warm, fun smile fills his face and whose voice captivates and fills the room. You’ll be greeted with the familiarity of a regular, and brought into conversations as though you were there from the beginning. HRC isn’t a large store, but it’s the cornerstone of the local running community. In the 30ish minutes we were there, we were given about 10 things we could do and about 10 restaurants, tasting rooms, and breweries to visit. It was like walking into a family friend’s home.
Asking goal times is a commonality among friends when a race is thrown into the conversation, and with this one, I did and I didn’t. My last race, Squamish 50, was highly unsuccessful, suffering from nausea for most of the day. Lake Sonoma had 2 purposes:
Erase the emotional scar of Squamish 50, and complete a race the way I know how: 100% physical effort and 0% stomach issues. Time-wise, anywhere between 10:30-12:00 would be reasonable.
To witness a really great friend, Elaine, cross the finish line of her first 50 miler. We trained together, until the last 6 weeks before the race when she encountered a foot injury. She was smart during those 6 weeks and didn’t push her recovery too soon. The main thing I told her was that she would go in under trained a little bit, but she’ll finish.
Death by Paper Cuts
Drive about 20 mins outside of Healdsburg on April 9th to the South Lake Trail around 6am and you’ll find almost 400 runners ready to toe the line at the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile ultramarathon. The field is deep, as this race is a Golden Ticket race for Western States. As I made my way to the portapotty line, I couldn’t help but overhear 2 runners ahead of me chatting about, surprisingly, running! Way Too Cool 50k was a month prior so stories were shared, and then they moved onto the impending race. One talked of how they’ve consistently done a positive split of an hour on the course, even though they thought they were going out conservative. Then, “Death by Paper Cuts” was how it was described. What an odd and unpleasant way to describe the next 50 miles we were about to run.
Without giving it too much thought, we proceeded to go through the morning pre-race motions and got ready for race start. I told Tav that my goal was to hit the halfway mark at 5.5 hours feeling good. So, let’s see how the day would unfold…
There was no California sun that day with rain in the forecast, so I was geared up with a tank top, arm warmers, and a jacket, and off I went. The first couple of miles were on undulating road and Elaine and I were quickly separated. I tried to balance my road instincts with my ultra brain (READ: Don’t run too fast ahead). We then jumped into the trails and it was, again, undulating. I didn’t go into this race with a pace in mind because, as anyone who has ever run an ultra before will tell you, there’s no way to run “a pace” the whole way. My watch auto-beeps every mile so it gives me a gauge of some average based on whether the last mile was more uphill or downhill. Seeing the times that were coming through, I felt like I was doing well at being conservative – almost a bit too conservative, BUT, I’ve never actually run a race conservative, so there’s always a first. I was tempted, and even gave in on occasion, to pick up the pace though, because you gotta have a little fun!
Every ultra I do, I do want to make sure I take the time to enjoy what I see and experience so I always carry a camera. Today was no exception. Along the way, there was a view of the lake and I stopped to take a shot or two. A runner (Oscar!) came up behind me and told me to hand over my camera. It caught me off guard, but I did what I was told. He took my camera, went past me, and then turned around to take a couple of photos of me. “Smiles before miles” was what he said. So very true, and a great reminder.
I knew the first aid station I would see my crew was at 11.6 miles (Warm Springs) so it would be quite a while. There was a small water-only aid station before that and it came and went – a little earlier than expected – but this is trail and distances are generally approximate. Next thing I know, I’m rolling into the aid station where my crew was, with jacket and arm warmers in hand. No sun, but high humidity had me stripping down layers after the 2nd mile. I looked at my watch. 9 miles. Something’s not right. But, not something I can do anything about, so I grabbed what I needed and continued on.
The course continued to undulate, with varying grades. Reviewing the elevation profile before the race, I knew there were a couple of bigger hills I’d have to deal with at the midpoint, but it didn’t worry me too much because that just meant bigger downhills – my favourite. What I FAILED to see in the elevation map was the lack of flat sections to recover from all the climbing or descending. I hit the aid station at Madrone Point (18.8 miles on the course, not according to my watch though) and my crew was nowhere to be found. I remember Tav mentioning about missing the aid station somewhere but I was sure he was supposed to be here. So I had a drink and a 1/4 peanut butter & jelly sandwich and waited. And waited. And then I decided to just go. The climb out of that aid station seemed long. I asked some people at the aid station if crews were coming from where I was going to be going and they said yes, so I was hopeful. I climbed up the steep hill and at the top of that hill were the familiar faces of Tav and Sean (Elaine’s husband). I was relieved. Tav checked my fuel and fluids, said Elaine looked good, and then sent me on my way. But I was getting tired, and my legs hurt and I knew what was coming. This was a big downhill, then a big uphill to the midpoint aid station, and then turn around to redo what I just did, backwards.
My mind was all over the place. I tried to stay as focused as possible, but my legs and back were hurting a lot more than I was expecting. When I finally got to the halfway aid station (appropriately named No Name), I was so relieved. At halfway, here was a rundown on me:
My watch read 19 miles. I don’t know what was happening with it. I don’t use my watch necessarily to tell me to go faster or slower, but I do want to know how far I am. My watch turned into an annoying stop watch at this point. The distance between aid stations became a guesstimate on what my watch would ACTUALLY read when I got there.
My legs. Oh, my legs. My quads were hurting from the downhill. My hammies were hurting from the climbing, which aggravated my back and sciatic.
At this point, I knew I was going to have to fight hard to finish. It wouldn’t be a strong finish, and I anticipated a big fade, but I knew I would finish. And it would hurt. A lot.
Leaving the halfway aid station, it would be a big downhill and then a big climb. The downhill turned into awesome, to ok, to tolerable, to sharp shooting pains in my quads. The uphill teetered between a slow jog, to a strong hike, to a stroll mixed in with aching hammies and stabbing pains in my lower back.
I finally made it to the top of that hill where I saw the guys earlier, about 1/2 km before the next aid station (Madrone Point). I was hoping for a bit of comfort, but I was rushed forward. All day, they kept saying that I was right on pace with the fastest time on my chart so I knew they just wanted me to maintain momentum. What they didn’t know was that my legs were done. But that’s what your crew is for – to keep you moving forward. So there I go, flying down the hill to the aid station, and exhausted from pain when I arrived. Another PB&J sandwich, and I continued onwards. It would be 7 miles before I saw my crew and it would feel like forever. Each step chipped away at what was left in my legs, assuming I still had something in them. But each step forward proved there was more. It would just take more of me mentally.
Finally, the last crew aid station. Warm Springs. 38 miles. Watch: 29 miles. I had 12 miles. Somehow, at this point in the race, I was STILL on pace with almost the fastest time on the pace chart I gave my crew. I have no idea how that happened, but I prepared them for a BIG fade. I told them that I was done and then overdone. I was in a lot of pain. And there would be no hope in hell of me doing the next 12 miles in 2.5 hours. Probably not even 3 hours. But, they are my crew and they are here to not let those doubts seep in too deep. So we parted ways and the next time I would see them would be when I was allowed to stop.
The next 12 miles were not pretty. I could still run the downhills, passing many people, but the uphills were literally just a slow stroll. I had no strength in my step, and I was getting a strange pain in my right foot. I resolved to the reality that this would be the rhythm for the next 3ish hours, with a sitting break at one brief sadistically placed aid station (Island View Camp – 45.5 miles), a 400m out and back section, to stretch my back and legs. I’m going to take a moment to describe this aid station. The 400m was downhill. You can’t access it by car so the crew takes a boat in with the supplies. Think about that. That means, we are at the lowest point possible. The lowest. But I digress, because I have a race to finish.
The moment I heard the sound of cheering in the distance, I was filled with happiness and relief. But I still had to move forward. So, forward I moved. One step at a time, until the trail finally ended and it was a straightaway to the finish line. I stepped across the line, high fived the race director, and took a huge sigh of relief into the arms of Tav. It was over. Finally.
Watch, I hate you.
Legs, you hate me.
Body, you hate me.
Stomach, you’re hungry but we did it.
11:17:59. 30mins on flat according to my data.
Death by paper cuts. Spot on.
Note: 30 minutes after I was done (a pattern throughout the day), Elaine and I shared our finish line hug. I couldn’t have been thrilled and proud of her!!