It’s been a year since my first 50-mile attempt and I’ve learned a lot about eating, sleeping and general recovery to support my training for an ultra- I’m both humbled and excited by my results yesterday and look forward to progressing as a runner (The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship is only a scant 53 days away) because let’s face it, I love this stuff and don’t plan on stopping any time soon.
So the morning of; the nerves were in full effect, so much so that I woke up 5 minutes before my alarm, up like a bolt. Imagine me standing in my kitchen, arms crossed, staring at the coffee-maker that I preset the night before as it slowly drips out my first cup of the day. I conjured up my best Chandler and was all, “could you be any slowerrrr?”
I drained that cup, took a shower (mostly to cool down because I was already sweating profusely from said nerves) and got dressed in the 5:30 darkness. I readied my race bags and took care of all the last minute stuff I might need (I am a notorious over-packer). I drank my first Vespa at 5:45 and set an alarm to remind me to take some Vitargo at 6:00.
So I got to check-in at 6:10 am, pinned my bib number to my shorts, made sure I had enough salt, a few calories (in the form of Vitargo) and a full water bottle. It was pretty cold, somewhere in the lower 40s I think- so yeah; gloves, head buff and long sleeve.
The start line was all nervous chatter and hugs and byes to loved ones, I heard one guy give last minute crew instructions. I forget that I’ve run a few of these now and that a lot of people were definitely running their first 50 today. I was smiling and all full of adrenaline, trying to slow my pace and just ease myself into the race. The first few miles felt effortless; that first “big” climb felt way easier than last year. I decided at this point I was going to really push myself hard today.
I had a chance in the early going to see my new friend Greg, a guy that had been following my Instagram (because of the ultra-related content I post) that I had met at the Coastal 50k a few weeks ago. We shared a few miles together, mostly those downhills between 4-6 before the Stone Bridge turn on the Brandon Trail. We shared a few stories of running, he’s a rookie long trail runner (first 50 today!) but has been riding bikes at the century and double century distance for years. He was going a bit more gingerly than I was, was nursing a bit of a hamstring issue so I lost him at the bottom of the trail, right before the turn at the Stone Bridge. That was cool, but I expected to run and chat with more folks like last year, but it became quickly apparent that I was running just towards the back of the lead pack, somewhere around 25th place at that point. My Garmin would show that I had been ticking off low 8’s around this point.
I had made a pace chart for my crew, who I told to not show up until the turnaround at mile 26. I hit every aid station before my expected arrival so by Skyline Gate (mile 15) I was 14 minutes ahead of schedule. I was feeling so unbelievably good for the first 18 miles, just ticking off the miles with relative ease I was surprised at the first hint of cramping heading out of the Sibley Aid Station on that big downhill. It was my left arm, and I think it was from holding the bottle weird. I took 2 salt pills and chugged some water. By this point the sun was fully out, having burned off all that think fog. I had been slowly shedding gear and now was down to the essentials.
The next 3 miles there was an 800-foot climb (about 500 to the next aid station at the Steam Trains) and another 300 of rolling hills that were totally exposed. I saw the first marathon runners (the Golden Hills Marathon is the component “shorter” race to the Firetrails 50, they start at our turnaround and go back against us so we all finish at the same place, which is the 50-miler’s starting point). I saw my friend Jesse, we high-fived and that gave me a huge boost- we both remarked at each other’s freshness and strength.
I remembered that in a 50-miler whenever you feel pretty good to ease off just a little or you’ll really pay for it later. So I kept an easy pace, stopping once to monitor a calf cramp (quick little massage/punch to the area and slight gait change makes them go away) and just chugged on up until the crest. Then I hammered down the next 3 miles, losing almost 1000 feet, letting gravity just pull me along. Running mid-8 pace here, I felt great again. I think it had something to do with Pearl Jam (I was listening to the last show they played at the Spectrum in Philly in ‘09).
I rolled into the loving arms of my crew at mile 26, the turnaround at Lone Oak. I was 9 minutes ahead of my pace chart. I got some Vitargo, another Vespa and picked up my first pacer, Demo. At this point I noticed my right hip started its shit, and by “its shit” I mean that pain that shows up late in long runs. It’s like a butt-hip-lower back trifecta of soreness, I can’t tell if it’s muscular, skeletal or ligature related. I also realized it hurt more to walk than to run, so going back up along that 3 miles I had just descended I had to run most of it. Which makes me think that that hip thing may also be partially mental, like my brain is trying to protect my body from itself. Whatever.
Here’s my expected splits- I came into the 26-mile turnaround almost 9 minutes under, then was one minute under at the next aid, followed by being 3 or 4 minutes under the next 3 aid stations, then stretching that to 6 minutes by the 44.1 mile aid station at Bort Meadows.
The next few miles were pretty uneventful, just slowly descending into the “pain cave” as I am wont to do after 26.2 miles. I grabbed another refill on electrolytes at the next aid station and began the sweet descent back to Old Tunnel Road along the East Bay Skyline National Trail (this is my favorite section of single-track in all of the East Bay). We hammered that pretty solidly, I kept my pace somewhere just under 10 min/mile as we entered the rolling sections and was able to solidly chip away at the climb up to Sibley aid. I grabbed a refill on Vitargo and another Vespa at this aid station, bid adieu to my crew and started the quad-melting descent into Huckleberry Canyon.
I kept telling myself “pain is only temporary, only 15 more miles to go, this is where you fell apart last year, blah blah blah”. My pacer Demo would quickly pull me out of it by asking the simplest question: “what books you reading now?”
“Oh, I’m reading this Edward Abbey book, you know him?”
“No, but he sounds familiar”
“Yeah, he’s like the godfather of eco-terrorism, if you could call it that. It’s called the Monkey Wrench Gang, about these nature-lovers that burn billboards and plot to blow up this dam to free their favorite canyon and restore it’s natural beauty…”
This back-and-forth was the thing that pulled me out of my misery; I am a verbose motherfucker and probably need to talk a lot during these times, I completely forget about what’s hurting when I’m talking. After some seriously slow miles coming up out of the canyon we hit the 37-mile aid station and I picked up my new pacer, Carl. I’ve been running with Carl for probably close to 2 years now, we know each other really well (he also paced me last year). The first thing he said to me was, “damn, you look strong!” That gave me a huge emotional boost.
Down Stream Trail into the Redwoods we kept a pretty solid pace, just over 10 min/mile and we made the Big Bear aid station 3 minutes ahead of my pace chart. I was still hitting all my expected arrivals, and was keeping pretty close to the pace I wanted to run. Some chicken broth, shedding of my shirt (it was getting hot by now) a refill on fluids and Vitargo (I had been taking ~140 calories per hour) and we were off.
This was the game-changer here; where last year I completely fell apart on this climb this year I hammered the shit out of it. Absolutely crushed it. I took that 500 feet and broke it over my knee, effortlessly floating up the MacDonald Trail to the crest. This is where I made up more extra time, we rolled into the Bort Meadows aid station 10 minutes ahead of schedule. I asked Carl to sprint ahead and alert the crew to my needs.
“They’re not here…” says Carl as I arrive 30 second behind him.
“Huh, did we out run them?” looking at my watch, “I think we’re way ahead of my split dude.” We were by about 6 minutes.
“We might have out run them…” replied Carl.
So I filled up on electrolytes, took a Gu (gross- Lemon Sublime) and took my first hit of caffeine (some flat Coke) since my 5 AM coffee. The next aid station was only 1.4 miles away with a mild climb after some flat, shaded terrain. We passed a marathon runner that looked hurting, and another 50-miler (turned out to be elite female Meredith Teranova) who was in a terrible mood, having missed a few turns a little while ago and was trying to make up 30 minutes.
Here’s the crew, at the next aid station. I was kinda pissed that they weren’t at the last aid but they seem to remember from last year that I didn’t want them at Bort Meadows because it was so close to this one. That’s cool, I barely drank any of my electrolyte solution and had a Gu in lieu of some Vitargo. What I really wanted was my UD handheld because the Nathan I was carrying was bothering me, it’s my oldest hydration piece and therefore the neoprene isn’t as tight as it used to be so I actually have to grip the bottle, which after carrying this for the last 8 miles I was pretty much over it.
“What do you need?” asked my crewman Colin.
“I guess some Vitargo… oh yeah, my other handheld.” I replied
“That’s in the car.”
“What the fuck, dude. Why is it in the car? I need it.” me, irked as fuck.
“We didn’t think you’d need it.” says Colin
“That’s fucked up, c’mon Carl, let’s just keep running.”
So I ran through that aid station without taking ANYTHING. I was beyond pissed, livid is more like it. I thought, fuck those guys (2 of my best friends and my fiancee) but as we ticked off that first mile I realized I’d probably have to make an amends at the finish line. Yep, I was being a dick because I was crabby because I was teetering on that fine line between just enough calories and just enough water and just enough salt and completely blowing up. It felt pretty good to be angry, too. We were flying down the trail.
We ticked off that first mile out of the aid at 9:53, followed by a painful 11:52 (some uphill here), then a 9:38, a gritty 10:29, then a strong 9:58 and finally an 8:57 to cross the finish.
ONE full hour off my previous 50-mile best (actually 59:37) and 1 hour 46 minutes and 7 seconds off last year’s finishing time here.
It was as satisfying a run as I’ve ever had.
I feel like I nailed everything exactly the way I wanted to; I attacked the ups, hammered the downs, fueled properly and drank at the right times. I kept my aid station stops to under 30-seconds, I probably averaged 10-15 seconds at each (opposed to last year where I probably lost ~30 minutes total at aid stations, not knowing what I wanted). This year I had a strategy of “keep moving”, targeting 2:30 for every Vespa and 1:30 for every 140-cals of Vitargo. I missed my last Vitargo feeding so I supplemented with a Gu and a shot of Coke, so in doing the “Vespa Math”, I took in about 1000 calories while burning close to 5,500. I’ll talk more about Optimized Fat Metabolism more in the coming months (as I continue to try to grasp it, but for now I can say “it works!”).
That’s all, folks. Sorry for the length, I just wanted to get this experience down on paper.