For a long time, pretty much right after I finished my first marathon, the ultra distance–anything beyond the standard marathon–has intrigued me. You name it, I’ve read it, books or online stuff by acclaimed ultra (and usually, trail) runners, like Scott Jurek and Rich Roll, as well as stuff from a bevy of amateur/sponsored and local-to-IL-or-CA runners. Basically, time and again, I’d read all this stuff from ultra runners, and soon enough, I’d get all fired up about the potential to “go ultra” and try my hand at a totally different type of running: a type of running that I figured I’d find myself quite disinterested in the time on my Garmin and more just looking to have as much fun as possible, soaking up the experiences of running 26.2/42k+ through some non-pavement terrain … for no other reason than simply because I could and wanted to. I always thought ultra running was like running for the hell of running, to the backdrop of some really pretty and challenging scenery, and dammit, that just sounded awesome. All this trail and ultra stuff just seemed so cool, such an interesting departure from roads and marathons, and on a personal level, so much of what I had read or seen about trails and ultras just seemed to jibe with me on a bunch of levels; it kinda seemed logical to eventually extend myself from “Erin the road marathoner” to “Erin the trail ultrarunner,” though this extension was probably a touch more quixotic than it was logical.
Inevitably, though, by the time I’d finish racing a (road) marathon, regardless of how strong (or not) I felt or how much I had enjoyed the experience, I’d quickly mentally revisit that idea I had about going after an ultra, and two words rang out time and time again:
Why would I ever want to run a step more than 26.2?!
When I’m happy with roads and 26.2, really, what more could I get out of another (at least) 8k? (And really, I am happy; I’ve got unfinished business with the marathon distance still…)
Basically, though the notion of going after an ultra was so lovely and romantic, eventually I’d talk myself out of it, figuring that my typical marathons of late, of running for three hours and change was just great, thankyaverymuch. Throwing in a few more hours, and most likely, on seemingly-never-ending hills-that-feel-like-mountains, even if the views were to die for and the scenery was something like I’d never before experienced, just wasn’t in the cards for me. That notion of “going ultra” was just quixotic, my tilting-at-windmills delusion, and quite honestly, probably some pathos-filled ideal that I had gleaned from reading some trail or ultra propaganda when I was emotionally vulnerable, or bored, or frustrated, or something.
Like I wrote before, though, when it came time for my CIM training to start after I had paced at SRM, and when I learned that a family conflict would preclude me from toeing the line in Folsom and racing that net downhill to Sacramento, the timing just seemed right, and that idea of “going ultra,” the idea that I have pretty habitually abandoned year after year, finally seemed… well, it seemed okay. When it came time for me to decide what to do in the absence of racing CIM, somehow, going after an ultra seemed manageable.
Good grief, reasonable, even.
Finally going after something more than 26.2 and what the hell, on a course with more elevation (about 5,000 feet) than any course I’ve ever run before? Game on.
The expectations were low–finishing, and preferably vertically, not horizontally–because for the first time in forever (cue Anna and Elsa), I was entering a brave new world of lands, distances, and, what the hell, topography unknown. I committed and was in for the Woodside Ramble 50k.
The very small town of Woodside is a straight-shot from us in SJ, about 40ish minutes, so the entire race weekend was more or less a typical weekend at home with the family. On Sunday morning, after sleeping in my own bed (win!) and doing all the pre-race song-and-dance routine stuff, I even had time to spare and decided that cleaning my kitchen at 6am would be probably one of the more responsible decisions of the day. I drove off and was about three miles from home when I realized that I didn’t put the correct race shoes in the car–moron move, Erin–but quickly doubling-back cost me little time, and I was still pulling into Huddart Park, the staging area of the race, around 7:15 for an 8 a.m. start time. I grabbed my bib (race day pick-up only), hung out for a little bit, and eventually ran into twitter/strava pal/fellow vegan and very accomplished ultra runner Kowsik, who so kindly asked that I leave some beer for him at the finish (best joke of the morning). The RD, Tim, threw some instructions at us (the 50k and 35k runners– the half marathoners and 10k runners wouldn’t start until later in the morning) over the megaphone, and soon after, we were off.
[Here’s where I’ll apologize for my lack of photos from this race and race weekend. I’ll give you some short paragraphs, though, to give your eyeballs a break even now and then…]
If you’re not local, please know that the world pretty much ended late last week in the Bay Area because we had gotten hit, from all the way north of Marin/Sonoma/Napa all the way south past Santa Cruz, with some #hellastorm or #pineappleexpress. That horrible three-year, worst-drought-in-1,200-years that we’ve been stuck in have might have been mitigated a teeny, tiny bit by the absolute deluge of rain that we got on Thursday and Friday–in SJ on Thursday, it rained for over 14 hours straight–so come race day on Sunday, since we were running through the woods, one of my biggest concerns was the potential for this to be a muddy muckfest of a slog. Prior to the race, I’d never been to, let alone raced in, Woodside, but I knew that much of the race would be in and through the woods and under these towering, super-old redwoods, and the thought of dealing with ankle-deep, pull-the-shoes-off-your-feet mud was completely unappealing, though I figured it’d make for a hell of a first 50k story. Fortunately, though, the mud wasn’t an issue at all; my concerns quickly shifted from mud to being extra careful to mind the slippery foliage underfoot. I can handle my own on the trails, but truthfully, I just didn’t want to fuck up somewhere early and jeopardize my ability to cover the distance.
Anyway, with the 35k and 50k runners starting together, things were a bit narrow for the first few miles of the race. Immediately after we crossed the timing mats, we descended a hill before entering the woods, pretty much single-file, and crossed some little bridges; some parts of the course early on necessitated a full-on stop as each runner had to wait his or her turn to go over a bridge or do a hairpin turn on a technical patch. Between the logjam of runners ahead of me, and wanting to be pretty deliberate with each footfall, so as to avoid tripping over a root or something buried under piles of (wet) leaves or downed trees/piles of tree debris, taking these sections extra carefully seemed right.
Unlike a road marathon, I can’t really describe sections of the race in distinct or different terms; we weren’t running through a bunch of different ‘hoods or seeing tons of different spectators holding goofy-ass signs along the way, nor were fraternity boys giving us beer or panaderias baking bread or tortillas at mile 23 on the course. Instead, we were running through the woods–quite literally–and I repeatedly had these little moments of is it really mid-December? am I really going to be running in the woods for 31 miles today? and whoa, is that my breath I see?, that latter question being especially amusing because a) I don’t think I’ve had a day since we moved here where I’ve actually been able to see my breath while running (sorry, midwest friends), and b) because I’m pretty sure it was 50 degrees… but then again, maybe running under the tree canopy affected the temperature more than I realized. At any rate, for most of the race, it was a matter of following the leader, but with an eye for the appropriate flags that I should be seeing along the course: yellow out, orange lollipop loop, yellow back, and avoid blue at all costs (wrong turn). I occasionally tried to figure out how many women were ahead of me, which was tough to do because of the nature of the course and because, with both the 35k and 50k runners together, it wasn’t totally obvious who was running which distance unless you could actually see the color of each runner’s bib.
Sidenote: for some really cool in-course pics, as well as another RR, look at Kowsik’s entry. These woods were beautiful.
For most of the run, I just simply … ran, basically. That’s it. There weren’t the mind games, or the mental math, or any of my little tricks to help the time pass or to make me stay on a targeted pace like I use during marathon. Instead, this was really about the enjoyment factor. I took in the scenery, looking around a lot at the enormous trees above me and in front of me, and continued to have these moments–I wouldn’t call them ‘moments of clarity’ as much as I would ‘moments with myself’–where I couldn’t help but think how refreshing it was to just run for the hell of running. I haven’t run a distance in years now that I haven’t run before, and usually, with each time I toe the line at a race, I have some semblance of expectation, usually something like well I did this workout in such-and-such time, or my last LR was at this pace, so today’s race should put me at a xx:yy, if the fitness is there, or whatever.
With this new distance, though, nothing I had done before really mattered. I knew that the fitness was there to complete the distance, barring catastrophe, but how long it would take me? No fucking clue; as long as I could keep it under 8 hours, the course limit, I’d be golden. These little moments I kept having with myself, almost as though I kept getting moments of man, this type of running is just refreshing right now, brought me back to when I ran during my pregnancy because then, kinda like during the 50k, I had no expectations; simply put, I was just doing it–just running–because I could. Having these feelings in a race was a little weird but mostly just… refreshing. It’s hard to describe. I haven’t run or raced for the hell of it in years, and it’s a nice feeling.
Anyway, out of my head and back on the course, the aid stations were at miles ~6/18, and ~12/24, and as I understand to be true to ultra/trail race form, they had a small buffet of food offerings, ranging from candies, sandwiches, various soft drinks, fruit, lots of simple starches, and water and Tailwind, among other items I’m surely forgetting. I had also brought and stuffed a small smorgasboard of food in my UD pack–2 different types of nuun, water, about 6 clementines, salty pretzels, and oatmeal PB cookies, along with emergency AccelGels–so my time at the aid stations was fairly brief. I usually just refilled my fluids and took handfuls of candy, fruit, and chips, saving what I had in my pack for if and when I’d be between stations and needing a respite. The volunteers were fabulous (and cold, poor guys). It was at these few aid stations that some spectators, like maybe 1-2 families per station, had made their way onto the course to see their runners. Otherwise, save for a few random hikers and a couple errant runners, the entirety of the 31 miles spanning the Huddart-Wunderlich Parks out-and-back was owned by the racers. Kinda cool.
The differences between road and trail races, and marathons and ultras, are obvious and numerous, but one thing I hadn’t really anticipated with this race, especially after the 35k folks separated from we 50k’ers around mile 12, was for how long I’d be completely by myself. It first happened after the 35k folks turned around, somewhere near mile 12; there were stretches between 12-16 (I think) where I couldn’t see anyone in front of me, nor could I hear anyone behind me. Occasionally, I swore I heard something, like some crunching of leaves and twigs underfoot, and I’d turn my head, see nothing, and immediately think… fuck. incognito mountain lion. I’ve only done one small road marathon back in IL where this basically-solitary running mid-race has happened before, and both there and during the 50k, it was very cool but also a little unnerving (simply due to the very important ‘shit am I lost!?’ factor). Again though, potential for being lost aside, it kinda goes back to that quixotic thing I keep talking about– how lovely does it sound to run by yourself, in the woods, under a canopy of redwoods?! It’s you, your thoughts, your footfall, and nature.
Here, let me tell you: it’s really fuckin’ lovely.
That’s the shit Brooks/Nike/ Saucony/Mizuno/Strava ‘everyone should be a runner’ ad campaigns are made of.
Eventually, I leap-frogged with a guy for a while–there weren’t any women around whom I could see, aside from a gal who was already returning while I was still going out (she’d go on to win the women’s side in a sub-5 and looked like she was having the time of her life!). Somewhere between miles 15-20, when we were climbing out of Wunderlich, during the hardest climbs of the day (with some climbs going on for more than a mile at a time), I caught up to more people and began seeing more glimpses of humanity. My ‘strategy’ for the day was to run or power walk/hike when and where it made sense, so I felt like I was constantly changing gears when I was ascending from Wunderlich. Another runner and I chatted for a bit, and we eventually began leap-frogging each other for the remainder of the race.
I can’t remember where it was, though I’m guessing it was around mile 23ish, I was beginning to feel tired–nothing too crazy, but it became apparent to me that I was under-fueling and that getting to the next and final AS was going to be just a stupid and unnecessary pain in the ass if I didn’t rectify the situation pronto. I ended up walking for the longest single stretch of the day, about a .4 mile stretch, as I downed 4 of the 6 clementines I had been carrying with me. Calorically, I knew they weren’t much, but I figured the sugar shot would give me a boost, and if nothing else, I had convinced myself (in the hopes of attaining some sort of psycho-somatic effect) that the clementines would induce some sort of magical power to pull me from pending malaise and allow me to arise anew, a la a phoenix, to finish the final bit of the race as strongly as possible. Delusional, to be sure.
The magical clementines worked, and I continued to catch-up to and leap-frog people, both 50k and 35k folks, to the final AS at mile 25.6. It was at the AS that I learned that my Garmin was a solid two+ miles off from the actual race distance–two-plus miles UNDER–which stoked me beyond words. Though I didn’t have a time goal for the day, I kinda wanted to at least break 6 hours, only because running for more than 6 hours just seemed like a really long-ass time to be running. When I learned that I had two fewer miles to run than I thought I did, I thought sub-6 could be feasible after all.
Much of the final five miles was downhill, probably the large majority of it, so I tried to press on the downhills when and where I could, given the terrain. At that final aid station, a woman 50k runner snuck by me, so I thought it’d be fun to play chase. I eventually caught up to her and passed her, only after pressing her for a while, though she ended up catching me and finished just a couple minutes ahead. It was also in this final 3-5 mile stretch that I caught up to, and then passed, many of the male 50k runners who had passed me early on, and the camaraderie was just very cool, a la hippy dippy runner love party: lots of you’re almost there, you look great, kickin’ butt, that sort of thing.
Before I knew it, after a few tiny uphills in the final 1-2 miles, I was back in Huddart and barreling downhill toward the start/finish line arches and then, like that, I was done. Though my Garmin said 29.1 something, apparently, I had just run 31.1 miles.
I HAD JUST RUN MY FIRST 50K!!!!!!
I know I keep comparing between roads and trails, marathons and ultras, but usually, when I finish a marathon, I feel it. I stop at the finish chute, the world keeps moving ahead of me (kinda like a weird tipsy or drunk feeling), I take a second to gather myself, and then yea, for sure, even if I feel great, my body knows I just finished a marathon. When I finished the 50k, the only thing that I kept revisiting was did I really just do that??? There’s no disbelief for me in marathons, but for this 50k, I felt like I needed verification from someone. My watch said 5:53 and change, the RD was to my right congratulating me, Kowsik was hanging at the finish line, IPA in hand, assuring me there were still more in the cooler for me (if you know me, that would be funny), and yea, somehow I had just covered the distance and had been running in the woods, mostly by myself, for the past almost-6 hours. what?!?!
This isn’t some veiled attempt to humblebrag or anything like that, but I was stunned: because I actually signed up for and trained for this race, because I finally got outta my comfort zone by leaving the roads for a time and posting a fair bit of my training mileage on some tough-for-me trails, and because I actually did it, pretty irrespective of any time goal. There’s no time or experience like your first, and going after the biggest distance of my short running career, on a trail system that the RD said would give me my biggest elevation gain ever in a single run–my data said 6k’+ and Kowsik’s, 8k’+–with an arbitrary time goal wasn’t what I was about this time around.
The fact that I did it–that I kinda took a huge leap of faith and convinced myself that I could actually, maybe, probably do it–was just, I don’t know, for lack of a better word, it fucking stunned me. It was all I could do to not shake my head in disbelief and ask someone the hell just happened?! because I sure as hell couldn’t believe it.
Kowsik and I hung out for a bit and chatted trails versus roads and marathons versus ultras, and I probably ate a fair bit of my bodyweight in the most heavenly pineapple I have ever tasted. As I was milling about, I learned that I had pulled 2nd in my AG and 7th woman overall and finished about middle of the back–around 35th or 36th out of 76ish runners. Whatever. Vegan gravy. That woman who had passed me, and whom I had pressed for the final 5 miles, and I chatted it up, and I learned that just the week before, she had run CIM (badass!) and qualified for Boston for the first time (very cool), and of course, since I had been wearing my Boston ’10 shirt, we quickly bonded over that magical unicorn race and began to talk strategy. 🙂 Shortly thereafter, I bid adieu to my new friends and came home, where I chased the aforementioned world’s most heavenly pineapple with the world’s most heavenly shower.
Going off-road and playing in the trails and woods for the past three+ months has been a nice change of pace, both literally and figuratively. I think everything I’ve read about trail running’s effects on our running abilities–in terms of injury prevention, increasing our strength and mobility, giving us a fresh perspective, and more–all rang true for me for this training cycle. I’m satisfied with how I trained for my first 50k and how everything ultimately transpired; for sure, for that I have to thank many people’s blogs and guides and books I’ve read, since it’s from their experiences (and their self-proclaimed mistakes) that I was able to learn a lot in a relatively little amount of time. Also, it definitely helps to know lots of people who have done/who do ultras (and trails), if not also folks who have run this particular race or this specific trail system.
Will I do another 50k? Indeed. I don’t know if I am as interested in cranking out 50ks as I have marathons, but I think including them in my running will make me stronger, and I definitely think there’s good room for growth me here in trails/ultras. Besides–truly–it’s really fuckin’ fun, guys! Maybe it’s all couldawouldashoulda, but I think if I had really been all-out racing this 50k, I could have taken a considerable chunk of time off… but for my first time? Pssshaw. No thanks. Not interested. You only have one “first ____ k/mi race,” and I wasn’t interested in bogging down my first 50k experience with an arbitrary time goal; that 6-hour thing I mentioned earlier came mid-race. Prior to race day, my one and only goal was to finish before the 8 hour cut-off.
What now? Bizarre I’m admitting this, but I’m entertaining thoughts of a 50-miler in 2015, maybe later in the year, after going for that elusive sub-3:20/3:15 at San Luis Obispo in April. A 50-miler sounds so ridiculous that it’s intriguing, and I take that as good a sign as any that I should seriously consider it. I hesitate to commit too far out to anything in 2015 because C and I are trying to give A someone to boss around, so obviously, things could change sometime in the near future. Time will tell, at any rate.
My sister told me that if I ran a 50-miler here, she’d fly out from Ohio to support me, and since I adore my sister and want to see her as much as I can, I guess that means I should just start doing some research into fall/winter 50-milers in the Bay Area, just to be safe.
This is much too loquacious already, as my RRs are, but if you get nothing else from this, get this… or these:
a) woodside ramble 50k in woodside, CA: A+. Best $65 I’ve spent on a race. a LS tech shirt, medal, beer stein, AG medal, the opportunity to run in the beautiful woods for up to 8 hours… yeah. for sure that shit’s worth 65 bucks, ‘migos.
b) 50ks are doable. do your first simply for the hell of it. in fact, if you’re going from 26.2/roads to 50k/roads, I bet you could even do one mid-26.2 training and suffer little consequence (though don’t take my word for it). the jump from 26.2/roads to 50k/trails definitely brings with it a sizable learning curve, but truly… it’s doable. also, unless you want your data, don’t even bother wearing a watch during your 50k on trails because I bet you a dollar that your data will be inaccurate; see my Strava map above for proof.
c) this stuff is quixotic, indeed. why else would grown adults willingly run through the woods (or deserts, or mountains, or whatever) if it weren’t completely amazing and fun and just fucking awesome?! I’m not even kidding you–and I should have mentioned this earlier in my RR–but for almost this entire run, it smelled like CHRISTMAS out there. CHRISTMAS.
d) seriously, if I can do it–the girl who has been reading about this stuff for years but always found a good-enough reason that convinced her against doing it–if I can do it, and dammit, I DID–then you can, too. really. I’m not being all rah-rah; I totally believe that if I could get outside my own head and just do the damn thing, then anyone can. it’s a matter of choice.
Thanks for all your encouragement and support and congratulatory remarks! You rock.