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!!
Completing a 50miler is definitely a big accomplishment. What they don’t tell you about are the raw unbridled tears at 3:30am on the bathroom floor, sobbing into a towel to keep from waking others, as you start to absorb the magnitude of the day you just had and what it took to cross the finish line.
As much as I’d love to curse Gary Robbins for designing a soul-crushing course at the Squamish 50 miler – in actual fact, I cursed him all day – the day unfolded the way it did.
The months leading up to race day were focused more on adventures with friends than regimented training plans. I crested peaks, found and strengthened friendships, laughed immensely and rejuvenated my soul in the trails. I filled a void that was missing and it healed something I didn’t realize was broken.
I toed the line a little less prepared, throwing a bit of caution to the wind, but in the company of good friends. I ran a bit of the first 6mi with Jamie, who was running his first 50miler, but he soon peeled off and I was on my own. I went through the first aid station at 6mi on target and handed my headlamp to Tav and Teppo (our house guest from Finland). Onward to do the steady climb into the Alice Lake for Aid Station 2 at 12 miles, where I saw lots of familiar faces. A little bit of chatting, a little bit of doddling, and then I got shooed out by Elaine – I prewarned her that I like hanging out at aid stations a bit too much.
I saw Tav quickly on the trail just leaving Aid Station 2 – we exchanged a quick peck and off I went to go through some rolling trails to meet up with my #RunRobson crew at Aid Station 3. I rolled into the aid station and there was my crew running it like a well-oiled machine .. and playing Cheerleader, as I requested! Kat filled me up and then I was off to do a 6mi loop til I hit their aid station again. Just before I hit the aid station, things started to feel off. My sciatic was starting to act up and things started to hurt from my lower back through my hips and down my legs. This isn’t necessarily new but it wasn’t encouraging only 3ish hours in. As I continued through the 6mi loop, it started to get worse and my stomach didn’t feel quite right – well, not quite my stomach, but the connection between my stomach and my throat. I’ve never had nausea on a run so I just continued to fuel the way I normally did and pressed on.
About 400m from the aid station, I caught my toe on a rock and superman’d myself into the service road and my left calf cramped immediately. It subsided and I looked down to assess the damage. My knee, which took the brunt of the fall, was covered in dust and dirt covered flaps resembling overly ignored dust bunnies, but those weren’t dust bunnies. Those were the remnants of my skin. Ew. I wiped myself off a bit and headed into the aid station. Kat met me again and made sure i was filled up and even wiped the dirt off my chin – something else I didn’t realize I hit.
I left Aid Station 3 for a 7mi jaunt up Galactic trail and down to Word of Mouth (Aid Station 4). I quickly messaged Tav and Elaine letting them know of my fall and sent them a nice little selfie of my bloody knee. I needed a bit of comic relief plus I wanted to give them an update. The Galactic climb goes on for several miles and things started to get worse for me. At points, I had to pull off to the side to collect myself. The nausea in my throat was getting worse and I needed to just pause. I remember Linda telling me to always eat if you felt nauseas so I kept trying to eat. I chased every bite with a ginger candy. After another 20 minutes and not feeling any better, I messaged Tav and Elaine again asking them for Advil and some Glory lemon ginger juice. I thought the source of my issue was the pain from my sciatic. It was a long and slow climb with many pauses but I finally made it to the top of Galactic and I made my descent to the Word of Mouth Aid Station and saw Kelly (btw, she makes the BEST gear bags). It was the first time I verbalized how awful I was feeling. Kelly was awesome – she’s had similar issues before so she gave me a bit of advice, a lot of sympathy, and encouragement to get to the next aid station. It wasn’t far away – 3 miles. I just wanted to get to Quest to see my crew and try to sort out what was wrong.
So much nausea and so little fuel, but I dragged my body into Quest. I lacked my usual perk and it showed. I was a bit disoriented on what I needed – asking for things, then saying I didn’t need anything. I swapped watches with Tav as mine were on its last legs, and I reluctantly left the aid station. The nausea had to stop. This has never happened before. How much longer could it last? Well, I was about to find out. I left Quest about 8.5 hours into my run and I knew my goal was out the window. I was in tentative survival mode.
The road out of Quest was a long uphill that took me up Climb trail. As I continued up the relentless hill, my body started tingling, my hands started shaking, and I felt extremely light-headed. I was worried. The nausea hadn’t calmed down and I felt like I was going to pass out. At one point, I messaged Tav that I wasn’t feeling well and even gave him my location in case something happened to me, but he just messaged back words of encouragement and that he was at the Farther Side Aid Station – #7. I still needed to get to Aid Station 6 at Garibaldi Road first. I was hitting a low point. I had no way out. So I continued to climb. And pause. And climb. And pause. Until I reached the top and I started to make my way down to the Aid Station. At one point, the trail led to a platform with a steep ramp down and I had to stop. The volunteer joked around and said I had to go down it but I told him that I was feeling faint and that I had to turn around, go back down and around. I continued on not feeling any better, fighting back tears, fighting back feelings of despair and helplessness, and fighting the pangs of hunger… just fighting. I was near panicking. Somehow I calmed myself down somewhat and got into Aid Station 6. The nausea still didn’t subside. I could only take small mouthfuls of food at a time, and when I mean small, it would be about a teaspoon of food, chased with ginger candy, and a few sips of liquid. Nothing else. Nothing.
I stayed at the aid station for a while, contemplating my options – wondering if it was really safe for me to continue. Tav and the rest of them were going to be at the next aid station which was 5 miles away. I didn’t feel right so I sat down. I never sit down at a race. I always say once I sit, I won’t want to get up, but I just needed to think. There was a medical staff beside me treating someone else. I wanted to ask him to check me out. To see if it was safe. But I couldn’t find my voice. I sat for a little while longer. I fought back tears again. Eventually, I got up from the chair, took a deep breath, and forged onward. It was 5 miles. I wasn’t confident I would make it but I suppose I would try. About a mile in, a volunteer was at the entrance of a trail and directed me in. I had to take another moment to collect myself. It took 2 offers from the volunteer for his chair before I took it. A few deep breaths and a few internal struggles, and I slowly got up and started on the rolling hills to make my way to the Farther Side Aid Station.
I made it to the service road that led to the aid station and saw Greg (best RMT EVER). As soon as I saw him, I started walking. We approached a bigger downhill and I let myself go. Thankfully, despite all the nausea, I was still able to run downhill. As soon as I hit the flat, I walked. I had nothing in me. No fuel. No lift. No life.
Tav and Teppo met me at the bottom of the hill that led to the aid station and all 4 of us walked up the hill where Kat and Leica were waiting. I sat again as Greg checked out my legs. I had some ginger ale. I had some watermelon. And my pack was refilled. I didn’t want to leave. I so wanted to stop, but again, I lost my voice. As depleted as I was, I couldn’t bring myself to quit. By then, it was too close. I knew, from what Elaine had told me, what was ahead. I had another climb. I knew it was going to be awful. I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat. I knew the nausea would not go away. Slowly and reluctantly, I left the aid station. I had 7 miles left and what I did know is that I would be able to finish – even if I had to walk the whole thing.
Every climb required herculean strength. Each step required a long pause. At times, I would find bouts of energy on downhill or slightly flat runnable sections, but it would disappear as soon as I hit any sort of incline and be replaced by large waves of nausea and rapid short breaths. There were a few false summits, and eventually I reached the large rock where a volunteer announced that I was finally at the top. I just needed to make my way back down a few kms and then it was another few to the finish. Just to be clear though – it was not all downhill on the way back down. But, I did eventually reach the bottom and I was at the Bluffs. A few kms isn’t much, but it takes a long time to get there when my body isn’t fueling off anything. It was somewhat runnable so I ran what I could. I ran into John (he and I leap-frogged through the day) who was having a rough go so I offered him my ginger candies, my Tums, and some other ginger candies. Apparently, I felt as though he needed them more than I did and that I was close enough to the end to give them away. As soon as I left him, I regretted not keeping one ginger candy for myself. Every encounter with a volunteer made the finish line seem closer but yet so far away.
Finally, I made it to the final stretch down the road the finish line. Tav was waiting and I gave him a fly-by kiss, which was more like a kick in the face (sorry babe – bad aim on my part) and as I approached the grassy patch towards the finish line, I was greeted by the most amazing receiving line of my #RunRobson crew. I ran across the finish line and into Gary’s arms. I was overwhelmed with familiar faces and hugs but lacked all energy for any sort of expressive emotion.
It was over. Finally over. Official time was 14:49. I battled through 11ish hours of nausea. About 1,000 calories consumed. I felt like a shadow of my true self. But it was finally over.
That day took something out of me that I’ll never get back. It took a bit of my heart and soul and beat me into submission.
I know it’ll take some time before I can truly feel as though I gained strength from this experience – or I may never feel that. As I’m writing this, I’m already fighting back tears at how this 50miler broke me.
Again, I will say this over and over again – there is no one to blame. I had a really really bad day. It wasn’t Gary’s fault. It wasn’t the course. My body decided to punish me and make me suffer beyond anything else I’d ever experienced and at some point, I will have to make peace with that.
What I do have is an immense amount of gratitude to my community, my crew, and everyone who cheered me on from near and afar – those who had more confidence and faith in me than I had in myself. I am truly and deeply humbled.
Did it really happen? Some days I forget that I even did the 100k. But if I think about the events of the day, I question how I could forget the way everything came together so perfectly. Maybe it’s because it felt like it was too perfect…
The alarm offensively rang at 2:30am and, one by one, we got up to get ready for a long day – myself, Tav, and Greg. By 4:15am, we were ready to roll out the door with everything in check. After an extremely windy drive, which eventually gave Greg motion sickness, we arrived at the Stinson Beach Community Centre – the hub for this year’s Miwok 100k. Race bib acquired and pinned. Now, to find my partner in crime / training partner, Linda, to make up the Power of Linda^2. With 15 minutes to race start, I spotted her and I was calmed. For over a week, I was a huge bag of nerves..
Am i ready? Did I train enough? What if my sciatic rears its ugly head? What if I can’t do it? Am I in over my head?
The pep talks I got all week helped: Hoz offered good advice about the course, Tav was amazing in keeping me focused on the execution of the day, and Linda, who was there for so many of my long runs, gave me the confidence in my fitness that the finish line was more than attainable. But even still, it was difficult not to let my mind race about all the negative potential possibilities.
So there we were, at the start, headlamps lit and ready to take on the next 100km. I don’t remember if there was a gun, but a quick send off from the boys, and Linda and I were on our way. The race started at 5am so the sun hadn’t risen yet, which meant it would just be a hike/trot until the single track line of over 400 runners started to spread out. It was, in fact, a blessing in disguise. There was no ‘going out too hard’. The opposite, actually, and it gave Linda and I a chance to spend about an hour chatting, almost forgetting that there were runners around us. I’m sure they were all entertained by our banter – at least that’s what we told ourselves. I don’t know how to describe that first hour or so, but it really was something else. Tav had described the scenery to me before that it was very ‘Sound of Music’esque’ — The Hills Are Alive!
There was a calming melodical tone to everyone’s footsteps and relaxed demeanour. The time went by quick and the gap between Linda and I started growing. I could feel my old road runner instincts wanting to kick in and dart forward to pass, but I had many voices in my head to hold back. I did pull ahead, but bit by bit. I was crossing a small road section as one trail ended to another trailhead, when I caught sight of the sunrise. I took my camera out and snapped a quick photo. The photo doesn’t do it justice, but it was beautiful and so worth it.
Unfortunately, the ‘Sound of Music’ hills didn’t last forever, and I went right through Aid Station 1 (Bolinas Ridge – 6.3miles). I knew I wouldn’t see my crew until Aid Station 2 (Randall Trail – 12.9miles) so I set my sights on that. The trails between AS1 and AS2 were rolling and I found myself able to run more than I needed to walk. My strategy for the day was to be conservative on the hills. They weren’t my strength so I was better off hiking the uphills and using the downhills to my advantage, as that was where I excelled. What I didn’t account for was the long downhill into AS2, but it was glorious. I flew right into AS2 to meet Tav and Greg at almost a 14 hour finish time pace. They grabbed my pack to fill it up as I went into the portapotty line up for a quick tinkle. Little did I know that the line up would be longer than anticipated – almost 10 minutes. As I was waiting in line, I hear.. “Honey…”. I look over and Tav has pulled a near full bladder out of my pack. Ooops… I guess I wasn’t that thirsty.
As I got ready to leave AS2, the boys told me that it would be close to 4 hours before I would see them – this was key information for me. We did a quick check for fuel and I was on my way back to AS1 (doubled as AS3). What goes down must go up, so that glorious downhill into AS2 became a grunt of hike. About 5 minutes of climbing, I see Linda flying down and we hollered our hello’s. For those that don’t know Linda, well, you should. She has a smile and an energy about her that perks anyone up.
Again, I go right through AS3 (19.5miles) and on to AS4 (Cardiac – 26.5miles). I tried to stay on top of my fluids and my fueling to avoid getting the evil eye again when I was renewed with my crew at AS5 (Muir Beach – 31.5miles). During this time, my crew would grow by 1 as the boys met up with Soroush, a good friend who lived in the Bay area. From Cardiac to Muir Beach, it was mostly downhill and it was fabulous. There was also a small road section so I was able to maintain a fairly good pace. In fact, with the downhill and road section, I surprised the boys by meeting them en route – them in the car, and me on foot. They sped ahead to the aid station to get there before I reached it. Apparently, it was close. Mentally, I was still feeling good.
Physically, my legs were a little fatigued but my back and hamstrings were starting to act up – a symptom of my sciatic issue. I kept this in the back of my mind to ensure I didn’t do anything to aggravate it anymore. You might, however, say that running ANOTHER 50km would be aggravating it.. you might.
The boys filled up my pack, loaded me up on my fuel and I was on my way. I was still in good spirits and I was still having fun. From here, it would be about an hour before I would see them again at the next Aid Station (Tennessee Valley – 36.5miles). I can’t recall much about the trail, but I did spend some time hiking a big hill and chatting with someone from DC – an investment banker actually. Unfortunately, he misread the instructions and thought his drop bag was being moved forward from each drop area and he didn’t have any of his gear until he reached the next AS, where he was planning on pulling out. As soon as the trail started to go downhill, “we” decided to try running. “We”, however, soon turned into just me. I was feeling strong on the downhills and seemed to fly by a handful of runners, with some commenting that I seem to always pass them on the downhill.
I came into Tennessee Valley (AS6) a little more fatigued, a little more sore, but in ok spirits. I had a little niggling pain in my soleus area and Greg checked it out. There was really nothing to do except a little bit of extra compression with his magic hands. I asked the boys how long til I saw them again as I knew they weren’t allowed at the next aid station (Bridge View/Rodeo Valley – 41.5 miles), but I was coming right back to Tennessee Valley (doubling as AS8 – 48.9miles). Now, doing simple math, you would be able to deduce that the difference would be 12.3miles, but the day was long and charts can be confusing. I heard 7.8miles and I would be back. There was a sign at the aid station saying that it was 5 miles to AS7 so in my head, it would be a short 2.8miles back to my boys. Then I would have a pacer to the end.
The trail from AS6 to AS7 was tough. It was a climb. A big climb. And it was DAMN windy. So windy that I was blown sideways into the railing. But the view. Amazing. Clear view of the Golden Gate Bridge. I came into AS7 feeling a bit battered, tired, and was looking forward to a mere 2.8 miles til I saw my boys again. And then I saw the sign. 7.3 miles to the next aid station. My heart dropped. This can’t be right. But it was. I took a minute to absorb what I was reading and struggled to think of what I needed to do, as it would be closer to 1.5 hours until I saw them again. I took my pack off and refilled it. I wasn’t thinking clearly, but I remember telling the volunteer that I should eat. She agreed, but nothing on the table was appealing. I may have grabbed something but I can’t remember. I just wanted to go.. but I also wanted to stop. I left the aid station and it was a good downhill to the bottom of the mountain, but that only meant one thing. We had to climb back up to the top and then over to get back to the boys. I started hiking and I was joined by a few of the guys that I had apparently been passing on the downhills. We chatted a bit – they were all so nice. Slowly, they pulled away from me, except for a guy (whose name I later found out to be Sascha) from Florida. We climbed to the top together and then it was downhill to the boys at Tennessee Valley.
Greg met me along the downhill and tried to gauge how I felt. “Garbage” was my response and I started to choke back tears. I came into the aid station, gave them my pack, and went to the loo. I came out and as soon as I saw Tav, the tears starting rolling. All I could say was, “I don’t feel good.” And I couldn’t stop crying. Tav pulled me back together, somewhat, and tried to send me on my way. Before I would leave, I swapped watches as mine died and I went to the aid station to grab something to eat. The volunteer was so lovely and told me that my outfit was her favourite of the day. I thanked her as more tears rolled down my face.
Tav wiped my face and looked me in the eyes. All I had to do was do 5 miles with Soroush and then he would take me to the finish. Just 5 miles. I can do 5 miles. So the 3 of them started to walk me out of the aid station. After about half a km, Greg and Tav left and it was Soroush and I. We started to climb and it was like someone flipped a switch. Everything was fine. I felt really bad for Soroush – he was so great to come out and he was excited to pace me, and here I was, a tearful mess. But, everything was fine now. I had my crew.
So Soroush and I went through the rolling 5 miles which had more downhill than uphill. At one point, we bumped into Glenn Tachiyama – my favourite photographer with the most uplifting smile. He had situated himself at Pirate’s Cove (~51miles?) and we continued on our way. We flew down the hill into Muir Beach (AS9 – 53.7miles) and I was greeted by Tav and Greg. I swapped pacers – Soroush for Tav, or as Soroush was saying, Stud Muffin 2 for Stud Muffin 1 – and we were on our way. And everything was good – it felt like home.
Of course, I whined a little more and Tav had to invoke the “tough love” strategy to get me to the next aid station – a 1300 ft climb to Cardiac (58.7miles). As I said, uphill is not my strength so the poor guy had to listen to me hyperventilate and stroll uphill as best I could. He knew, though, that all he needed to do was get me to the top and I would be golden for the 3mile downhill to the finish. We got into Cardiac, I did a quick pit stop to the portapotty, and we were on our way.
I was tired and sore and had been on my feet longer than I had ever been before, but I’m pretty sure I was flying on those downhills. We passed a number of people and all I could hear was Tav telling me that I was doing SO good, that he was SO proud of me, and to NOT look at my watch. He pushed me to keep going and as we came down the last set of stairs, we were joined by Greg and Soroush. We turned right onto the road and there was the fire hall – the community centre where the finish was next to it.
As I started to make the last turn, Tav was yelling at me to get under 14:05 as I could see the clock reading 14:04 and 30 something seconds. I dug deep and managed to actually pick it up until I crossed the finish line.
Tia, the Race Director, congratulated me and put the medal around my neck. I turned and saw Greg and Tav. Greg gave me a hug. Soroush was behind him filming (see the video at the bottom of this post). And then I turned to Tav and fell into him. I was so overwhelmed .. physically and emotionally. I did it. I really did it. I don’t know how it happened, but somehow, I managed to cross that finish line.
And then I couldn’t move. After sitting for a bit, I slowly made my way to the washrooms to change. I must have been in there for 30 minutes as I was moving at the rate of snail snot. I was also choking back tears. Finally, I came out and was looking for Linda. I soon found her and we had our big teary hug.
It’s been almost 2 weeks and I’m still absorbing the whole experience. I get glimpses and flashes of pieces of the day, but I’m having a hard time stringing it together into one full day – into the fact that I did a full 100km ultra. What keeps going through my head is that I had a pretty damn perfect day, with the absolute best crew, best training partner, best support from back home and my community. I am truly a lucky girl – I don’t know how I got to be this way but I am ever so thankful. It’s probably why thinking of the full experience still makes me cry. damnit.
And, if all the support wasn’t enough, here’s a fantastic video that Soroush made of my day.
…or something like that. With the recent uprise of participants in trail races and ultramarathons, it’s easy to get swept up in the chatter and commit to a 50k without actually knowing what you’re in for. Yes, it’s ONLY 8km longer than a marathon, but it’s leaps and bounds more than that. You’ll know once you’ve done one.
My goals had changed about 2 months ago from doing a 100km or a 50miler this Fall, to landing at running another 50km trail run. Due to circumstances beyond my control (such as getting pneumonia in June) and scheduled commitments (Wanderlust and SeaWheeze), I had to step back and think about what was the smarter choice. And sometimes smarter means doing less.
This 50k (or, actually just over 53k) would be different though. I’ll be solo for this one. Of course, with any race, your race is yours alone to run – there’s no tag team like a relay, no one’s going to piggy back you, and no one’s going to pretend to be you and run it for you. Usually. Originally, I picked this race because a friend was doing it and long races are always better with company, for training and for racing. It was also in the right time frame. Unfortunately, like many unplanned things in life, what was planned was not what happened. Life happens and you have to learn to adapt. So, I set out to make the 4 hour drive down to Cle Elum, WA solo on Friday, run the race on Saturday, and then make the trek back right after the race – with multiple stops to stretch my legs.
Luckily, my friend Hozumi and his four-legged furry companion, Miles, were able to join me last minute. Whew!
So, late afternoon on Friday, we packed up our gear and headed across the border. Based on the emails that I was receiving from the race, we were told to be prepared for all types of weather. And, even on the drive down, we experienced everything from sun to torrential downpour. This was going to make for an interesting race day. But another day, another 50k, right? Not so much.
We arrived that morning and it was chilly, but not raining. About 20 minutes before the race, I decided to do a quick shirt change – from a single t-shirt, to a double-t-shirt. They had said that the ridge at the top could be quite windy and cold so better safe than sorry, and I was already cold at the start.
The clock was ticking and it was time to go line up at the start. In the true fashion of ultramarathons, the race director told us to imagine a line where the start was and line up there. 🙂 10 second countdown, quick bye to Hozumi and Miles, and off I went. The course profile showed 17 miles of climbing to START, followed by 12 miles of downhill, then half mile uphill, and half mile downhill to the finish. I was definitely looking forward to the downhill, but most certainly not the uphill.
So, a few days before the race, I checked online and did the regular pre-race analysis – check the course profile and map out how long it would take me to get to each aid station. Ultrasignup, the registration system, targeted my finish time to be 7:29. I’m not crazy fast but I didn’t think it was going to take me that long. So I started to make predictions, with a finish time of 6:30 hours thinking that it was a fairly conservative time. My predictions were:
Aid Station 1 (9.5mi) – 2:05
Aid Station 2 (14.5mi) – 3:10
Aid Station 3 (21mi) – 4:20
Aid Station 4 (25mi) – 5:10
Finish (33mi) – 6:30
The climbing was relentless. Not just ‘relentless’, but ‘RELENTLESS’. By the time I arrived at the first aid station, slightly ahead of schedule (1:58 vs 2:05), I was in a lot of pain. I had to shake my head when the volunteer told me I was the 5th woman overall so far. You gotta be kidding me. Do you have any idea how many illnesses or injuries I thought I could fake to stop the madness of this uphill climb??
My right hamstring has been an issue for the last 2 years, and for the last week, my left one was starting to feel not quite right. The climbing in the race started at mile 1, but it really started at mile 2. The running quickly turned to hiking, and because of the early onset of increasing pain in my hamstrings, it quickly turned into an uphill shuffle walk. To be honest, I was in so much pain, I wasn’t sure if I would make it to the finish line. But, it was a bit too soon to call it a day. I grabbed a quarter of a peanut butter & jelly sandwich and continued the hike uphill. And then I saw a friendly face – Hozumi & Miles – just a little outside of the first aid station. I called out to him as I passed saying that it would take me 7 hours, and he responded with 5.5 hours. A little comic relief is always nice.
The climbing continued, varying from slightly runnable to steep steep steep – so steep, in fact, that I felt like gravity was going to roll me backwards. It was definitely wearing on me mentally and physically. Looking at my watch, I knew I was close to Aid Station 2, but not close enough. I looked up at one point and saw a ridge and saw the aid station, but then I realized where I was, and it was still a good amount of climbing to go. And the pain in my lower back and hamstrings were only getting worse.
One by one, people were passing me and I had nothing in me to retaliate. Each time I tried to lift my leg to take a bigger step, it would cause so much pain that I would nearly be winded. So baby steps it was. I didn’t stay long at Aid Station 2 as it was on a ridge and, as the race director said, those areas were quite windy and cold. Aid Station 2 was at 14.5 miles and I knew the high point was at 17 miles. I only needed to climb 2.5 more miles before I could get some reprieve and make the downhill trek.
Finally, I was at half way (according to my watch) and it was 3:54 into the race. Was it going to be an 8 hour day? Should I just pull out? I just didn’t know if I had it in me to be out for that long.
But then things changed. The downhill started and I could just let go and enjoy it. I was passing a lot of the people that passed me on the way up. Some even commented on how much time I had made up on the downhill and stepped aside for me to pass. There were a few motorbikes on the trail that we had to move aside for, which made for not so pleasant fumes, but there were few interruptions. My spirits were starting to lift.. until I stumbled on a rock. As I stumbled, my calf decided to cramp and I had to stand on the trail for a few moments to let it subside. Whew. That was odd – I had never cramped in a race before. Well, shake it off and continue. I passed through Aid Station 3 barely stopping as it was a water only station at about 4:35. I still had 10-12 miles to go. I knew that would take me over 2 hours. It was definitely going to be a long day.
Glenn Tachiyama, an awesome photographer who’s often at ultras and has a talent for capturing the best moments, was coming up. There was a creek crossing at about 22 miles and everyone knew he would be there. When I arrived at the creek, I saw Glenn on the other side. I stopped at the entrance to the creek and thought, “What the hell. Just go for it.” And THAT was pretty damn fun. Amongst all the suffering, it was nice to just get back to being a kid and to play in water.
Things started to go sideways for me after that point. Hozumi told me that the back half would be a bit undulating, but it was a net downhill. This meant that overall it was going downhill, but there would be small sections of uphill. I had good momentum for a while, but then suddenly every time I hit an uphill and tried to run, my calves would cramp. When my left calf cramped, my left shin would cramp. When my right calf cramped, it would cause my right foot/arch to cramp. Ugh. So, time to adapt. For the next 2ish hours, every time I hit an uphill, I would have to walk. I would then rely on the downhills to make up more time.
I knew I had one more aid station, where Hozumi and Miles would be, and I was really looking forward to seeing them. They walked up the trail from the aid station and waited for me. As soon as I saw them, I felt better. I stopped and chatted with Hoz and told him I was cramping like a bastard, pardon my French. He asked me about my nutrition and if I was taking enough salt. I could tell that based on my answers, it wasn’t sufficient. He told me that the aid station station was a minute ahead and to take some salt tabs. So I trudged on to the aid station and did as I was told. Salt tabs, a couple of potato chips, 2 small cups of Coke, and a water refill for my pack. I hadn’t run out of water but knew that it was dangerously low. I left the aid station stocked up, with 6-8 miles to go til the finish. It was just over 5.5 hours into the race and I knew it would take more than an hour to get to the finish. Maybe it really was going to be a 7 hour day. Dear God.
By now, even the downhills were getting tough. I had leapfrogged with a bunch of people for the last hour or so. I even chatted with a runner who recognized me from the Gorge Waterfalls race. “You’re the girl that fell, right?” Yup, that’s me.
We were back and forth for a little bit and then I pulled ahead. I then caught up to a young guy wearing a BMO Vancouver Marathon shirt, who I had also leapfrogged with earlier. When I got to the next uphill, I had to walk again as the cramping episodes were still happening. He came up behind me and I offered to let him pass. Instead, he asked if he could walk with me. Of course! But I did let him know that I didn’t care where I placed and if he was gunning for a particular time, I was more than happy to let him go ahead. He said it was his first one and he was happy to just run with me and I was definitely happy for the company. We bantered back and forth and it was really nice to finally chat with someone and take my mind off of how I was really feeling. I knew there was a big’ish hill about 2 miles from the finish, but it ended with a nice downhill. So we joked at every little uphill section as to whether this was the hill or not. Finally, it really was the hill and we were on the last downhill section. This section was on a service road with my least favourite terrain – large sharp rocks that didn’t offer very good footing. I was bouncing left and right trying to find some flow, when my shoe suddenly caught on a large stick on the ground and threw me forward down the trail. In mid flight, my right calf decided to cramp badly again while the other end of the stick impaled me in the chest. Awesome. I was lying on the trail face down on a downhill slope and trying to un-cramp my very tired calf. My poor running companion stood there unsure of what to do. It took every ounce of my strength to roll over, stretch my foot, and then spin myself around so that I could get myself into an upright position. Damnit, James Varner! Why do I fall at every one of your races I run?
The best was when my running buddy said, “Wow, you were like completely horizontal.” Oh, so comical and tragic. I pulled myself together and we continued down the trail. Not too long after, I saw Hozumi and Miles again. As I passed him, I yelled to him that I fell. I can’t remember what he said as I was just focused on getting to the finish line. And then I could hear it. I could taste it. Down a little steep hill and over a bridge, and there it was. Amazing. 6:51:07. 35th overall and 7th woman in.
This was the least prepared I’ve ever been for an ultra – not enough volume training, not enough hill training, and poor nutrition.
Each ultramarathon offers something different. And each ultramarathon can teach you valuable lessons. It was my slowest and toughest 50k, but at the end of the day, I had a few good takeaways on what I needed to do for the next one. Yes, there will be a next one.
The ultramarathon community, as I’ve described it to many friends, is like walking into somebody’s home. Not house, but home. Each aid station is like an invitation to someone’s kitchen to sample some of the goodies they’ve personally prepared for you. Each volunteer’s face is like a warm hug. Each cheer helps to propel you one step further. For this, I am so fortunate and ever so grateful.
I went through a natural progression from being a beginner road runner to a not-so-beginner road runner. I started with a 10km, did another 10km, thought it was too hard, so went to a 5km and worked my way up. I was never a fast runner, and the thing I loved about running was that it was an accomplishment that was measurable and was completely my own. How well I did or how poorly I did was 100% completely dependent on me. Some may like that and some may not. Sure, we can argue on the advantage your fellow runners in a race give you, as well as the lift you get from cheering spectators, but at the end of the day, I’m the only one powering my legs to push forward.
My motivation for many, many years was speed. I wanted to get better, run faster, be stronger. I’m not out to win races, as I’m a realist and that will never be me. I’m completely ok with that. But I knew I could do better than I was – it just took time, effort, and determination.
Then came injury. Recover, rebuild, and try again. And then another injury. This time recovery wasn’t so easy so I was introduced to the world of trail running, but not JUST trail running – it was ultramarathon trail running. All of a sudden, I was running longer and farther, and staying injury-free. And the pressure was off. There was no pressure of speed, pace, metrics, or race results. It was all about setting a goal, and crushing it. Get to the finish and high five.
Over a year ago, I was feeling torn between these two different spectrums of the running scale. As friends who run road continue to get faster, I feel my inner roadie pulling me towards them. Taunting me. I’ve spent the last couple of years just getting miles under my belt, and I’ve become very comfortable in one speed. And even that one speed can become difficult the longer you run, so it’s not come without its own set of challenges. But I want that speed back – at least for now I do. There has to be a happy balance I can find between high miles and speed. They say there is, whoever they are, but they are always the experts, right?
I lead the lululemon Robson Run Club, and last week, in light of the recent tragedy in Boston, I went back to my old roots to when I was training for Boston and led the group in a track workout. Although I didn’t actually participate (a sacrifice I’m happy to make when leading), it stirred up some old feelings in me. Track was always tough, but it was always good. Even when it was bad, it was good, because I knew it was helping. Plus, track, and the people with whom I trained, propelled me into the vast world of road racing and where I saw the most gains, physically and mentally. It was all good, so now it’s time to reintroduce that good back to my world.
So, here’s the plan. The track. It’s not that exciting or elaborate, but I’m going to try it out and see how my body reacts, as I’ve got a nagging hamstring. Once a week for the next couple of months. Wish me luck and let’s hope my legs remember how to turn over quickly!
Four ultramarathons and close to 2000 miles of training – after all that, some assume that each one gets easier than the next and training somehow gets easier. That’s a myth. To get to the start (and eventually the finish), you still need to put in those miles. And each training block leading up to a race is still a test. Athletes constantly test themselves and see if they can train more efficiently and perhaps improve on the areas that they feel are the weakest. And sometimes, the thing that needs improving most is your mind.
I’ll be the first to tell you that my mind has not always been in “the game”. I’ve struggled to get through weeks of running – yes, I said weeks. Getting mentally prepared to walk out the door and go for that long run, especially in the winter when the weather is not necessarily ideal, is not an easy thing. And even during runs, for whatever reason you’re struggling, it can be the most challenging thing to convince yourself to push through it. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. In that regard, we are no different.
After running many races, I feel the only thing I’ve mastered at this point is my mindset going into the race and getting myself to the finish line. With 4 ultramarathons completed, I’ve definitely not mastered the training. Or, rather, I’ve not mastered the mindset of training.
I still get excited about the prospect of ultramarathons, whether it be the challenge of conquering new distances or exploring new places. When I signed up for Way Too Cool 50k, although I wasn’t sure whether I was quite ready to want to train again, I was excited about the possibility of running a race that had a great reputation for being very well organized and had a beautiful and fast course – elements which made it very popular and attracted some darn, speedy people. All reasons why registration was a lottery.
I had a few other friends who were interested in running this race, but the main reason why I was motivated to run was because one friend wanted a training partner. This was paramount. For my last race – my first 50 miler – I had friends who would jump in and run with me for parts of my long runs, but there was no one person who I was sharing the whole experience with and someone who kept me accountable and motivated. So, to have that agreement going in was a game changer.
Sadly, a couple of months before the race, she had to cancel. She was devastated, and my heart sank. My training suffered; without needing to go back to my training log, I know it was evident, with some training runs cut short or even missed. More importantly, my head was no longer in the game.
The only thing that kept my spirits high was the trip as a whole. Way Too Cool is located in northern California and we (Hozumi, who was racing, and Greg, who was supporting/spectating) had planned to spend an extra couple of days in San Francisco. Now, some may say that SAD (Seasonal Affectiveness Disorder) is a farce, but it’s not. Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, we are all affected by the weather. Look at how the mood of Vancouver changes when the weather changes – from Raincouver to Suncouver. You’ll all of a sudden see people smiling with heads held high even when the temperature is nipping at our noses and fingertips, which is a far cry from the glazed reflection of defeat in our averting eyes when the clouds roll through and rain envelops the city.
The Way Too Cool 50k was located about 2 hours north of San Francisco in a great little town called Cool, CA. With a high of 16-18 degrees Celcius, I couldn’t complain. I was happier, more energetic, and slept better.
The morning of the race, the sun was shining and, as with most events, everyone was in good spirits.
Even finding tears in both of my shoes en route didn’t dampen my mood. We arrived at the race about 45 minutes early, unbeknownst to us that the line up to park would have us rushing to the start line with only 15 minutes to race start. To add insult to injury, I needed to to park myself at the back of a long bathroom lineup. Stress levels were not good. With 5 minutes to go, Hozumi came by and wished me luck as he took his position at the start. I, however, was still patiently but not so patiently waiting in the line to the loo. Finally! In and out as quick as I could, I rushed out of the port-a-potty and ran to the start with less than 30 seconds to start. In fact, they were mere seconds from doing the 10-second countdown. At this point, I was positioned right near the back. Now, I’m not expecting to win the race – far from it – but I knew I wasn’t in the right spot. And then the gun goes off! So, what do I do? Run a little hard to fight for a spot further up along the chain. The course was quite runnable, especially in the first 8 miles. It was a large expansive meadow with single track trails and a few creek crossings. Some took the extra minute to cross the creeks, while others splashed through them to get a bit ahead.
With seemingly less training in my legs, I projected a time close to 6 hours – hopefully under. My pace for the first 8 miles, which loops back to the Start/Finish area had me finishing just over 5 hours. Big mistake. And boy, did I feel it. After the initial 8 miles, there was a good downhill section, which most people know I love. So, throwing caution to the wind, I barreled down earning myself a handful more spots. Note the photo of me sideways on the trail – this would be due to a lack of control running downhill. SO FUN.
My legs were starting to fatigue and the hamstring which had been giving me problems for almost 2 years started acting up and I hadn’t hit halfway yet. By the time I was halfway in, I checked my watch and I was at 2:29 – uh oh. And this was when the wheels starting falling off. This was also when most of the downhill was over and it was time to start climbing back up to the Finish, including a ridiculous hill called Goat Hill, meaning it’s a hill that’s meant for 4 legged animals naturally inclined for climbing ridiculous hills. FYI, I am NOT a goat nor am I feeling like a goat at just over a marathon distance in.
Up until this point, there was really no chatter on the trails, which added another element of difficulty to this race. There is a lot of self talk that happens on runs, but the tone of that self talk declines rapidly the longer the run. The best cure for that is to distract yourself by some great chatter with others who are also suffering. Sadly, I didn’t get to enjoy this aspect and was stuck in my head, until I heard a voice that broke through it all at about 28 miles in. My first reaction was one of relief and rejuvenation because I was feeling very much beyond my abilities. But then the voice got clearer and clearer. And it wasn’t good. Unfortunately, this woman who was also in the race who was just behind me was told by someone on the course that the next aid station was 300 yards away. When I first heard it and looked down at my watch, I knew it was off. And by quite a bit. I quickly told her that I think it was more like a mile .. at least. This didn’t go over well. We passed another person on the course, either a volunteer or spectator, and she confirmed this. I all of a sudden heard a broken record of negativity behind me of how she had been wronged. Don’t get me wrong – it was wrong and I can empathize with how she was feeling, but I also couldn’t be around it. I had to get away or she’d weigh me down mentally.
I knew the next aid station would be coming up soon, and from there, the finish was very close. When I first looked at the course map, I questioned having an aid station less than 2 miles from the finish. At this point, it was a Godsend. I got to the aid station first, saw her come in and heard her start her rant. She started the final 1.4 mile uphill trek to the finish just a bit before me, but I passed her within the first 5 minutes. There really was no running to be had on this section, as it was very rocky ascent so it was more hiking and scrambling.
A very enthusiastic volunteer just a bit ahead was announcing that we were a mile to go and I was ecstatic. Energy is contagious and this volunteer was giving it away like it was nobody’s business. Thank you – I’ll take what you got! But then, the woman behind me started her rant and I had to get away as quick as I could. And at this point, there was really no speed until I got to the top of the rocky ascent and was back on a single track packed dirt slightly uphill trail that led to the finish line. Now, THAT was a glorious sight. I had left every single ounce of my being out there and my hamstrings felt as though they were going to snap.
I hate to end to race report with a negative tone and everyone has good and bad days, and clearly, this woman was having a bad day. So, I’ll end off thanking her for giving me that extra little push to get me to the finish line with all smiles.
Hozumi, of course, did amazing. He finished 13th overall with a time of 3:56, which only shows how strong of a field he was up against. After I managed to hobble my way around the finish area, we got to have a quick sit on some hay bales before heading back to the hotel for a quick turnaround to our trip to San Francisco!
The shoes, in case you were wondering, never came back from California. 🙂
I love setting goals and it seems I’m a bit late in getting this post out. Really, goals can be set anytime, but the romance of declaring goals and resolutions at the start of a year is irresistible to many. The sentiment of my declaration being late, admittedly, was only directly related to the fact that I had chosen my blog title 2 weeks ago. 🙂
Ultramarathons entered my life in 2011 after road running injuries put me on the sidelines for nearly 3 years and it gave me affirmation on something that I felt was true down to my core – I am a runner. Ten years ago, I would have had neither the confidence nor the conviction to make that statement. Today, and every day going forward, it’s a part of my life and who I am. Road or trail? That still remains to be seen but I think somewhere in the middle.
I’ve noticed that there are a few recurring themes in my life and after writing my goals down, it’s very evident: Running/Fitness, Personal Development, and Community.