Race Recap: 2015 Santa Rosa Marathon

Last week, I ran a secret marathon. If you know me, I’m terrible at keeping secrets, especially when they’re as big as, “I’m running a marathon!!” Despite my recently attained ultramarathoner-status, I still think 26.2 is a pretty big deal. However, I didn’t want to make it a big deal, hence the secrecy on the blog.

The truth is, I had thought about running the Santa Rosa Marathon for a while. I knew from Angela and Amy‘s experiences last year that it was the kind of race I tend to enjoy – small field, low-key atmosphere, and pretty scenery. During the peak of Big Basin 50K training, as I started feeling strong during midweek 10-milers, I thought, “Hm, maybe I’ll give SRM a try.” I felt like I could capitalize on 50K training and try for a road marathon PR. However, instead of registering for SRM right away, I forced myself to wait until after Big Basin in order to focus on BB as my goal race.

During BB, I struggled mightily and swore off endurance running for a while. I was glad I hadn’t registered for SRM because there was NO WAY I wanted to run a marathon 4 weeks after BB. Well, you know what they say, the pain of an ultra fades quickly, sometimes as soon as you cross the finish line. For me, it took about a week. As happy as I was that I was able to finish BB, I also felt there was unfinished business. I immediately started thinking about fall races. During my first run after BB, exactly 1 week post-race, I made a realization: what if I ran SRM, but just with the goal to have fun? Forget trying to PR or executing any race plans. At the very least, I’d qualify for Marathon Maniacs upon crossing that finish line. With that new mindset, I decided to register for SRM.

It was hard to know how to “train” for SRM with only 3 weeks before race day. I knew my endurance base was there, but I wasn’t sure if my body would recover in time to run a full marathon. Fortunately, everything clicked into place and I didn’t struggle with any post-ultra injuries. My long runs were time-based – 2:30 hours and 2:00 hours – where I started off slow but would negative split without trying. Because I didn’t have any time goals, I didn’t worry about pacing as much as I usually would. At Big Sur, I managed to get to mile 21 feeling good, and then fatigue and cramps got the better of me. At SRM, my hope was to push that envelope even further — see if I could get to mile 22, 23, or even 24 before I faced any major obstacles.

My plan, as written by Coach Gypsy Runner, was to NOT have a plan. The GR thinks that I overanalyze everything (which I do), to my own detriment. He asked me about my long runs, and why I never seem to bonk during those. I answered because they’re training runs, I don’t put any pressure on myself, and I pace myself accordingly. I did decide to implement one piece of race strategy, and that was to start SLOW. Having learned my lesson the hard way at BB, where I went out too fast, I knew the key to enjoying the race AND not blowing up would be to start slow. Not just slow, but “uncomfortably slow” as marathon vet Mike advised.

Because this wasn’t a goal race, I also decided to forego my Garmin and my handheld water bottle — two things I’ve hesitated to run without in high pressure situations.

There was no race day pickup, so I was very lucky that Angela agreed to pick up my bib and swag for me — this, despite the fact that she pulled out of the race due to a stress reaction. (Thanks, Angela!!) On race day, I woke up in the middle of the night (3:15 a.m.) to make it to Santa Rosa by 5:00 a.m. to pick up my stuff from Angela, then drive to the race for the 6:00 a.m. start. Logistically, everything went smoothly, from parking to bathrooms to getting positioned in the corral. For such as small field (1400+ runners), I was surprised that there were corrals at all. Having put down an estimated finish time of 4:45, I was assigned to the 3rd and last corral. I should note that because this is a fairly flat and fast course, it attracts a lot of people hoping to qualify for the Boston Marathon. This is reflected in the fact that the first 2 corrals were intended for estimated finish times of 4:23 or better (for comparison, the average marathon finish time for the biggest 3 U.S. marathons in 2013 was 4:33). I lined up behind the 4:38 pacer with my old-school Timex watch and waited for the race to begin.

The Race
We got super lucky with the weather. The week before, temperatures had soared into the 90’s, and a week after, it’s been unusually humid and muggy. On race day, thick clouds and fog made for a cool morning. The sun didn’t make an appearance until 11:00 or 11:30, after most of the runners had finished.

Waiting in darkness for SRM to start.

Waiting in darkness for SRM to start.

It took me almost 4 minutes to walk to the start line. I started with a slow jog and kept the 4:38 pacer within sight. I focused on my breathing and taking in my surroundings as we weaved around Downtown Santa Rosa. This part of the course wasn’t particularly interesting, so I’m glad we ran through it in the pre-dawn darkness. My mile splits were in the 10:40 range, which I was fine with, considering all of the turns, as well as planned (aid station) and unplanned stops (guy fell down in front of me and a bunch of us went to help him get back up).

After about 3 miles, I heard a runner near me say, “Yay, the pretty part!” We then entered the Santa Rosa Creek Trail, which ran alongside its namesake creek – completely dry, unfortunately, due to the California drought. It was still a pretty greenway, though, and I felt like I was on a big group run. Over the next 3-4 miles, I steadily caught up to the 4:38 pace group, eventually passing them around mile 7. I made sure that I kept my effort smooth and easy; it was still very early in the race, after all. The mile markers kept appearing at a steady rate and I made sure to take a gel every 45 minutes. I didn’t want to spend any extra time at the aid stations, but I was having a hard time gulping down both water and Gatorade as fast as I could. This is something I definitely need to work on in the future! But otherwise, I was feeling great. To pass the time, I looked around and took in my surroundings, and occasionally listened in on the conversations that people were having around me.

Blurry (action) photo of the greenway.

Blurry (action) photo of the greenway.

Between mile 8.5 and 10, I made friends with a runner from Ojai, though I never caught his name. We made small talk about our marathon histories. Neither of us declared any time goals — he had just gotten over a foot injury, and I told him I was aiming for something between my personal best and my personal worst. Then, I said something cheesy like, “I just want to finish feeling my personal best.” It was true though, and declaring those intentions as I approached the 10 mile mark seemed like a good sign.

We ran though the DeLoach Barrel Room, which is one of the highlights of the course. I tried to take a video, but it’s terrible (and was taken sideways). Now I know why GoPro was invented.

Exiting the DeLoach Barrel Room

Exiting the DeLoach Barrel Room

After running through the Barrel Room, I pulled away from my friend from Ojai and started following a strong and steady-paced older lady. I sensed my pace quickening, but I made sure to stay patient. The goal was to make it to the half marathon mark and then reassess. I got to the 13.1 timing mat in 2:16 feeling quite strong. I did the simple math in my head and knew I could PR (beat 4:32:39 from CIM 2012) by at least a couple of minutes, if not more.

I loved running through the vineyards

I loved running through the vineyards

The flat course gave way to short rollers on country roads cutting through vineyards. While some people struggled on the hills, I kept my head down and took short but steady steps to easily ascend the rollers. All of that trail running I had been doing for months was paying dividends on this section. Despite the hills, my pace continued to get faster with about the same effort. Whenever I started projecting to the finish line, I reminded myself to stay in the current mile.

I got to the mile 16 marker and celebrated the fact that I only had 10 miles to go. Single digits! I smiled at the few spectators that were cheering and thanked them for being out there, as well as every volunteer who handed me a drink. Even though I was feeling good (and running ever faster), I told myself to hold back until mile 20 to really start pushing. When I made the turn back onto the greenway and crossed the mile 20.2 timing mat, I could hardly contain the smile on my face. I had just run 20 miles and I was still feeling incredibly strong and fresh. It was simultaneously bizarre and awesome. I knew for sure I would PR; it would just be a matter of by how much. It was so amazing — magical is the way I keep describing it — to have that kind of once-in-a-lifetime marathon. I wish I could’ve bottled that emotion and that moment so I could relive it whenever I want to.

Somewhere in the last miles...

Somewhere between mile 20-22?

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#runhappy

With every mile that passed, I simply could not believe how great I felt. Of course, part of me continued to be wary that a bonk was just around the corner, but my intuition was that I could actually RACE this thing to the finish. I was passing so many people and no one was passing me back. Having been passed a lot in the last miles of a marathon, I knew exactly how those struggling runners felt. I felt simultaneously sympathetic and smug.

Getting close to the finish, with sunblock streaking down my neck (so attractive!).

Getting close to the finish, with sunblock streaking down my neck (so attractive!).

I think I had just passed the mile 24 marker when I looked ahead and saw a white sign bobbing up and down in the distance. It was the 4:23 pace group, now dwindled down to the 2 pacers and 2 runners. Seeing them was the boost I needed in the last couple of miles. I made it my goal to pass them and then some…which I did over the course of the next mile.

It wasn’t until ~mile 25.5 that I started to get a little desperate for the finish line. I was still pushing hard, but I felt that I was finally nearing my limit. Plus, all signs indicated that the finish was near, but I had no concept of where it was. All of the spectators kept yelling that I was almost there, that it was just around the corner, but I couldn’t see any signs of it. Finally, the course took a left out of the greenway and onto a main road, where we continued for a short bit before turning left again into the finish chute. I was still gunning it, so I didn’t see that I was running directly behind 2 runners, who effectively blocked me from getting a finish line picture taken. Oh well.

I crossed the finish line at 4:21:52, an almost 11-minute PR and an 11-minute negative split (1st half vs. 2nd half). Woot!

This medal is almost as big as my head!

This medal is almost as big as my head!

Post-race thoughts
I’m incredibly happy and grateful about how SRM went. Of course, running a personal best has a lot to do with it, but just the fact that I was able to run so strong in the last 6 miles and not combust – that was huge. I think the GR was right – I have a tendency to overthink things, to the point where I’m sometimes my own worst enemy. Running relaxed helped a lot, and trusting that I could start slow and get faster was another big lesson. I also decided to never race with a Garmin again, especially on a well-marked course. I kept hearing everyone else’s Garmins beeping way in advance of the mile markers; I know that would’ve driven me crazy eventually. Not knowing the pace until *after* I hit the split button on my Timex kept me focused on my effort, not on my pace.

Did 50K training help me to PR at SRM? Yes, of course! But I think beyond the physical aspects, having gone through a tough race like BB so recently helped me to stay calm and focused during SRM. Except for the last mile, SRM honestly felt like a walk in the park compared to BB.

A week after BB, I was restless and felt like there was still unfinished business. Now, a week after SRM, I feel satisfied and at peace. I have no plans or goals for the foreseeable future except to run happy. :)

Race Stats:
Official finish time: 4:21:52 (9:59/mile)
56/94 AG, 344/607 F, 955/1441 overall

Splits:
(1-6): 10:42, 10:41, 10:26, 10:45, 10:25,10:30,
(7-12): 10:22, 10:13, 10:25, 10:20, 10:09, 9:57,
(13-18): 10:08, 10:00, 10:00, 9:46, 9:47, 10:50*,
(19-24): 8:39*, 9:27, 9:21, 9:20, 9:25, 9:37,
(25-26.2): 9:24, 9:10, 1:52 (9:20/mile)
* Pressed split button late.

Mile 8.23 split: 10:32/mile
Half marathon: 10:23/mile (10:09/mile for 4.87 miles)
Mile 20.2: 10:11/mile (9:47/mile for 7.1 miles)
Finish: 9:59/mile (9:23/mile for last 6 miles)

Between mile 8.23 and finish, I moved up 286 places overall, 136 places among females, 19 places in my age group.

About the race:SRM logo

  • Website: Santa Rosa Marathon (part of the California Half and Full Marathon Series)
  • Cost & Registration: $155 (plus fees) 3 weeks before the race.  I believe earlybird entries started at a more reasonable $125 (?), and then increased by $10 periodically. There were lots of discount codes floating around that were no longer valid by the time I registered. This was the first year that the marathon sold out, which happened about a week before the race. It’s still a young marathon (this was the 7th running), so I expect that as its reputation grows, SRM will sell out earlier and earlier.
  • Field Size: 1441 marathon finishers. There was also a half marathon (1308 finishers) and 5K (808 finishers).
  • Expo: At DeLoach Vineyard. No comment, since I was lucky that Angela picked up my bib for me. From what I’ve heard, it gets very crowded and traffic can be a nightmare. This year, they were running a shuttle from downtown Santa Rosa hotels to the expo to relieve the congestion.
  • Course: Relatively flat for a majority of the course, with a few rolling hills out in the vineyards (miles 12-20) just to change things up a bit. I would describe it as a lollipop course with the miles 3-9 overlapping with miles 20-26. About 12 miles of the course is run on a greenway, which I liked, but others may find boring. There were very few spectators out on the course, and no bands or other entertainment. At mile 10, you run through the DeLoach barrel room, which was a neat diversion.
  • Parking/Transportation:  $3 for all day parking in a shopping mall garage that’s less than 2 blocks from the start/finish. Super easy.
  • Aid stations: There were aid stations spaced approximately 2 miles apart, with water and Gatorade Endurance. I appreciated that the Gatorade tasted full-strength and not diluted like at other races. Two of the aid stations were giving out Gu gels – I think at miles 14 and 17?
  • Bathrooms:  Decent amount of porta potties at the start/finish area, and 3-4 at every aid station.
  • Swag:  Ginormous spinner medal, a high-quality Leslie Jordan windbreaker with the race logo embroidered, a bottle of DeLoach “Runner’s Red”, and various samples of snacks in a Whole Foods reusable grocery bag. They also had commemorative posters on sale for $5 after the race (and maybe at the expo too). There was a virtual goodie bag, which was full of offers I did not find useful (something I find to be true for 95% of all virtual goodie bags these days).
    To the finisher goes the wine! It was pretty tasty, to my surprise.

    To the finisher goes the wine! It was pretty tasty, to my surprise.

    Modeling the SRM jacket. Tip: they run quite large, so opt for one size smaller.

    Modeling the SRM jacket. Tip: they run quite large, so opt for one size smaller.

  • Post-race food and drinks: At the finish line, they gave out bottles of water, chocolate milk, and cold, sliced watermelon (so refreshing!!). Each bib came with tickets for free pancakes and beer or wine, but the lines were very long. I waited ~40 minutes for 2 pancakes! Luckily, Kind was giving out free samples and I inhaled a granola bar while I was waiting. The line for alcohol was shorter by the time I got my pancakes, but I was by myself and very sleepy already, so I didn’t think a beer would help with my drive home.
  • Other notes/summary: A very well-organized and well-supported race. I can see why people pay extra for SRM – the amount and quality of the swag is pretty impressive. If they offered same day bib pick-up, I wouldn’t hesitate to run this race again. I loved the course and didn’t mind the lack of spectators or entertainment. The only minor criticism I have is of the start area. It was really difficult to see anything in the dark, and there wasn’t obvious signage except for the corrals. I ended up following the crowds to find the porta potties and the start corral, so I was fine, but I heard several people asking out loud where the bag drop area was and no one seemed to know.
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SF FroYo 5K Winner!

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Sorry it’s taken me so long to post the results of the super exciting FroYo 5K giveaway. And the winner is….

[Drum roll please]

Alejandro! Congrats, and hope you have a great race! If you didn’t win and still want to run, there’s a coupon, or you can sign up with a group of 4 or more people for $35/each. Happy running!

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SF FroYo 5K Giveaway!

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Someone from the FroYo Running series reached out to me to give me a free entry to the SF FroYo Run (5K) on Sunday, September 6th. Unfortunately, I can’t go, but I asked them if I could make it a giveaway for my readers, and they said yes! As it turns out, the same thing happened to Angela, so if you want to double your chances, enter both of our giveaways! I’m quite excited as I’ve never hosted a giveaway on my blog before, and I think this sounds like a pretty decent event. I mean, who doesn’t love froyo (aka frozen yogurt)? The swag looks good (see below), and the course seems flat and family friendly – fun for the whole family, really.

SF-course-map-HD-EP

I normally don’t like these type of gimmicky runs, but this race is actually chip-timed for anyone who wants to work hard for their froyo at the finish. And for those who don’t want to work so hard, they can enjoy on-course music stations and cavort through the misting tunnels. For a first year event series, the FroYo Runs in San Jose and Irvine have both received decent reviews on RaceRaves.

5k-Run-Goodie-Bag

To enter the giveaway, simply leave a comment below (something about froyo or wanting to run this race) by 11:59 p.m. (PST) on Wednesday, 8/26. The winner will be announced by Friday, 8/28, and must register for the race by 9/2. If you don’t win and still want to run, you can sign up for a coupon here.

Good luck!!

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Big Basin 50K: Training and Post-Race Analysis

It’s taken me 3 weeks to write this post. I’ve had so many thoughts after Big Basin 50K, yet no desire to write whatsoever. Let’s tackle this in discrete sections, shall we?

Training

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I’ve written previously about some of the non-running things I felt that I did right and wrong, so I won’t repeat them here. In terms of training, there’s a mileage gap from weeks 10-12 where I was sick and didn’t run very much. This was followed by a recovery period, after which I didn’t pushed myself very hard to complete 100% of my weekly mileage goals. Did this hurt me come race day? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I felt pretty strong going into BB 50K (too strong, perhaps). I don’t have any doubt that I was fit enough to do well at BB 50K, so I’d give myself a B+ as far as training goes. If I were to do it all again, though, I’d incorporate hill repeats into my training — either every other week as a weekday strength session, or as part of my weekend long run.

Race Day: What Went Wrong

If you’ve read my recap, you’ll know that I struggled mightily on race day. I’ve had plenty of time to mull things over, and while I can’t point to any one reason why things went as badly as they did, I can think of a number of possibilities:

– I went out too fast. I got caught up in the excitement and found myself running on single track with a group going faster than I should’ve been running for the first 5-6 miles.

– Related: I foolishly thought I would bank time in the first section. This is a case where too much pre-race recon can backfire. I had read that the first section was the most runnable stretch, which was true. However, this translated in my head as: MUST RUN FAST. I got caught up in banking time, which is almost always a mistake in anything longer than a 10K, really.

– I set unrealistic expectations. It think it’s always good to aim for big goals, but being that this was my first 50K, perhaps it was unwise of me to assume that I could hammer out paces that exceeded most of my trail half marathon performances.
– I didn’t drink enough. It was humid, but deceptively comfortable in the shade. I was only taking a few sips from my hydration vest whenever my Garmin signaled a mile split. By the time I got to the first aid station, I was soaked with sweat. The more I drank, the better I felt; it took me the first 20 miles to drink all of the water in my 2L Hydrapak bladder, whereas I finished another 2L in the last 10 miles (where I got my second wind).

– I started freaking out and couldn’t calm down. Yes, I had gone through some tough training runs (see Canyon Meadows Marathon), but I relied too heavily on my general reserve of mental strength and didn’t develop enough Plan B solutions. Also, while I had anticipated suffering during the race, I didn’t think it would happen so early on (mile 7), which made me freak out even more. Even if I went out too fast and got dehydrated, it doesn’t make sense that I could physically bonk so early in the race. (More on this below.)

Race Day: What Went Right

I’m no Debbie Downer, and I recognize there were a lot of things that went well at BB 50K. Here’s a short list:
– I finished. Period.

– Logistics, weather, and fueling (minus a short nauseous period) all went smoothly. I had no chafing or blisters. My stomach cooperated and I never had to run off into the woods for a pit stop. I did not twist, strain, tear, or break anything.

– I got to run with friends.

– I got a second wind in the last 5-6 miles. In my opinion, this was proof that my training was solid. Without physical and mental strength, a second wind would’ve been impossible. And even though I don’t have the Garmin data to prove how fast I was going at the very end, I felt as if I was able to tap into a final kick and sprint to the finish.

Recovery
It took me about 6-9 hours after the race before I was actually hungry, at which point I became ravenous. I even woke up at 3am to eat! I had trouble falling asleep, which I attribute to the lingering effects of race-related adrenaline and very sudden but short-lived pain and cramps shooting through my legs. I wobbled like a penguin for 2 days; stairs were especially tough to navigate. By Wednesday morning, I was finally able to walk relatively normally, albeit slower than usual. I took a 2-mile walk on Friday and ran 3 slow miles (sans Garmin) on Sunday.

Over the past 2 weeks, I’ve resumed a regular routine of running 4 times a week, averaging 27-29 miles per week. Besides very minor niggles in my right hamstring, left knee, and left foot, I’ve had few issues post-50K.

What Now?

Everyone keeps asking me, “So, are you going to run another ultra?” For now, the answer is a resounding NO. Not because of the race itself, but because training was really demanding time-wise. I’m lucky that I have a supervisor who was very supportive of my training, because without it, it would’ve been infinitely more stressful to juggle everything. However, I don’t want to take advantage of her generosity, nor do I want to tax my relationship with the Gypsy Runner. I miss sleeping in on the weekend and doing normal things like going to brunch and the farmers’ market. Moreover, one of the the things that made 50K training bearable was having great training partners – 2 of whom have recently moved out of the Bay Area. So my motivation to train for a 50K is basically nil at this point.

Something I was extremely grateful for during training and during the race itself was drawing motivation from my Running for a Better Oakland fundraiser. Knowing that there were people who had so generously donated money because they believed in me was extremely encouraging. When intrinsic motivation failed me, external motivation like the fundraiser kept me going. When I wanted to quit, I thought about all of the people cheering me on. So, as long as I wasn’t in any physical danger, I knew I had to keep going.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot since BB is my inability to overcome the episode (or whatever you want to call it – when I freaked out/bonked at mile 7). I’ve experienced this exact thing before in the last 10 miles of MCM and Oakland Marathon. I don’t know if it’s a true bonk or if I’m having some sort of mental meltdown, but the effect is the same. The common thread between all of these situations is a combination of physical fatigue and a realization that I can’t meet a predetermined/expected goal or pace. Then, I enter a very counterproductive cycle of self pity (usually accompanied by a strong urge to walk), followed by self-directed anger and abuse (usually accompanied by a lot of cursing). There are the rare occasions where I’ve been able to escape this cycle – e.g., Big Sur, Kaiser Half 2014 – but I’ve yet to figure out how tap into this resilience as needed. It’s frustrating to me that I’m capable of demonstrating so much determination and discipline through months of training only to fall apart on race day. It seems like every time I think I’m getting closer to figuring it out, I get a bit too cocky and self-implode. What I need to do in the future is not only visualize success and general suffering, but what I’ll do when faced with this mental/physical inner demon. And knowing myself, I need several different plans of attack. I guess that’s the addicting part of endurance events — it’s like a puzzle, but the pieces are always changing. (Ooh, so deep! Haha)

Anyway, that’s enough rambling for now. Thanks for reading. :)

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Posted in Big Basin 50K

Big Basin 50K: Race Details

Here’s the nitty gritty about the Big Basin 50K. My race recap can be found here.

  • Organizers: Coastal Trail Runs
  • Location: Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, from Saratoga Gap to Waddell Beach
  • Distances: Marathon and 50K
  • Cost/sell-out factor: I paid $70 for the 50K back in December; prices increase as you get closer to the date. The race did not sell out.
  • Course: 3190′ gain/ 5790′ loss according to the race website, though my Garmin had 3800′ gain/6350′ loss before it died with 1.5 miles to go. The terrain varied a lot; there was pine-covered single track, exposed rock, sand, rocks/roots, and stairs. Then, there were the obstacles: fallen redwoods to climb over and go under, creek crossings, and boulders to jump down from. Tip: if you have gaiters, wear them. I kept getting small pebbles/rocks inside my shoe, which was annoying.
  • Weather: 60’s (F) at the start, but well into the 80’s by midday. I would say 75-80% of the course is shaded. Weather Underground says the humidity ranged from 66-84%. Last year, the temperatures were in the 90’s so we were very lucky this year.
  • Parking: No parking at the start, so you either have to take the pre-race shuttle that leaves from Waddell Beach (the finish) at 6:45 a.m. or get dropped off. The parking near the finish is 1.8 miles from the official finish area. There’s a shuttle.
  • Aid stations: 5 along the course, separated by 4.5-8.6 miles. Each was fully stocked with the usual trail racing goodies, everything from boiled potatoes to cut fruit to peanut M&Ms to PB&J sandwiches. They also had water, sports drink, Coke, and Sprite.
  • Bathrooms: About 10 porta potties at the start. I think I saw real bathrooms in Big Basin State Park (near Gazos Creek aid station), but otherwise, there were no bathrooms on the course. Concrete outhouses at the finish.
  • Swag: Technical tee, medal, and a coaster for the 50K finishers. 
  • Post-race food and drinks: I was in a daze after I finished, but I recall seeing chips, cookies, and a huge tray of hot dogs or sausages.
  • Pre-race communication: I pestered Wendell, the race director, with lots of questions before the race (via email), and he was always quick with a friendly reply.
  • Advice for anyone considering this race: Don’t go out too fast! Several of the downhill sections are just as slow-going as the uphill ones, due to technical conditions. It’s a beautiful trail — enjoy it!
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Race Recap: Big Basin 50K

Race day: Sunday, July 26th, 2015. All signs indicated that things would go smoothly. The week before the race was extremely calm, at work and at home. I ate healthily and slept well. On the morning of the race, the Gypsy Runner dropped me, Kate, and Jess off just before the official race shuttles, enabling us to beat the rush to bib pickup and the porta potties. I was slightly disappointed that the forecast for morning fog was wrong, but at least it was still cool in the shade. And after a year of internet friendship, I finally met Jen K. in person and discovered (once again) how amazingly seamless it can be to go from internet strangers to real-life friends in mere seconds. As the 4 of us (me, Jess, Kate, and Jen K.) waited for the start, my excitement kept growing. This is the day, I told myself, the day I’ve been working towards and I feel great.

Group selfie right before the start of the race. That's my

Group selfie right before the start of the race. That’s my “super nervous yet excited” face.

From Kate’s prior experience (she ran the Big Basin Marathon last year), we lined up in the middle of the pack so that we wouldn’t get stuck behind walkers during the first runnable stretch of single track. After the pre-race announcements, race director Wendell started a countdown and the race officially started, right on time at 9:00 a.m.

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

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Saratoga Gap to Waterman Gap (6.5 miles @ 11:10/mile)
Maybe because I knew from pre-race intel that the first 4-4.5 miles were downhill and very runnable, I didn’t worry too much about going out a little faster than I normally would at a trail race. As Jen K. told me later, she saw that I “went out of the gates like Seabiscuit.” My body locked into a moderately hard pace and it was hard to step off the gas. Not to mention that the trail was just a tad wider than single track, so I was pretty much in a conga line.  All this to say that it was difficult to run my own pace. I felt good though; my stride was smooth and I was breathing just fine. Every mile, I drank some water, and at the 30-minute mark, I ate my Clif Bloks as planned. The trail was absolutely gorgeous – pine covered paths cutting through tall California redwoods.

#runninghappy early on in race

#runninghappy early on in race

Somewhere around 4.5-5 miles, though, something changed. I started feeling increasingly desperate to see the first aid station at Waterman Gap, since my mental strategy was to run from aid station to aid station. I worried about how tired I was feeling so early on in the race, but reasoned that I was well-trained and surely I would be fine. I focused on following the woman in front of me with the blond braid. I forced myself to finish a Gu before arriving at the aid station, but it left me feeling nauseated. As I approached Waterman Gap, I noticed that I was already covered in sweat. When did that happen? It didn’t seem very hot, but I guess it was actually pretty humid. That should’ve been a hint for me to drink up and hit some electrolytes, but I didn’t want to spend too long at the aid station. So after grabbing some watermelon and potato chips, I went on my way. As I left, I saw Jess and Jen K. coming into the aid station. “See you at the next one!” Jess yelled.

Waterman Gap to China Grade (4.7 miles @ 16:43/mile)
I lost the trail for about 30 seconds coming out of the aid station, as did another runner behind me. Luckily, there were some people (not connected to the race) hanging out by the trail head to direct us. I knew there was quite a lot of climbing in this segment – over 1,000′ over 4.6 miles – so it would be tough. Unfortunately, I started feeling horribly even before the real ascent began. I had to take some walk/run breaks up the gentle climb and before I knew it, Jess and Jen K. had caught up to me. My breath was ragged and my heart rate was through the roof. I didn’t know what was going on, but it wasn’t good. This had happened to me before, but usually at mile 20 of a marathon, not at mile 7 of a trail race. I used some loose rocks and sand in my shoe as an excuse to pull over to the side of the trail and take a breather. I let Jess, Jen, and the caravan of people behind them pass me.

The view from somewhere in this section of the race. (Photo credit: Jess)

The view from somewhere in this section of the race. (Photo credit: Jess)

As I worked my way up a small section of switchbacks, I caught a glimpse of Kate coming up behind me. “Kate!” I screamed out, though she didn’t hear me until she got much closer. I was happy to see her. She had an unfortunate run-in with a couple of wasps and had gotten stung early on in the race, and the stings were still quite painful. I told her I wasn’t feeling great, so she took it upon herself to try to get me to pick up my pace and run the easier grades. Every time I tried, I felt like my lungs were going to explode and my heart was going to jump out of my chest. When I confessed to her that I felt dizzy, she let me stop to rest and gave me an electrolyte tab. While we were stopped, an older lady ran by and asked if we needed anything. I told her no, thanks, and as she jogged away, she said, “Well, the great thing about ultras is that you have plenty of time to diagnose and fix your problems. Good luck!”

I tried to stay positive, but it was really difficult. I’m sure it was tough on Kate as well; she couldn’t tell if she was helping or annoying me, so after a while, she let me be and took off. I confessed to her later that I definitely felt a love/hate relationship with her at the moment. She was worried that I wouldn’t make the 1:00 p.m. cut-off at Gazos Creek. 50K runners who didn’t make it by then would be redirected to the marathon course. It was a legitimate concern, but my state of mind was so messed up that I didn’t share her sense of urgency. Plus, I still had over 1.5 hours to go 5-6 miles – no problem, right? Well, yes, under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t be a problem…but not when you’re barely walking/jogging at 17:00/mile. It was dismal. My mind was stuck on an endless loop, that went something like this:

Ugh. I can’t believe I feel so tired/crappy/dizzy/sick and I still have so far to go!
Why did I go out so fast? What was I thinking?!
Why did I even sign up for this? What was I thinking?!
I’m never running an endurance event ever again.
I can’t believe I thought I could finish in X:XX. I’ll be lucky if I make the cut-off.
Holy crap, what if I don’t make the cut-off and I don’t get to run the 50K?
I really just want to quit.
I can’t quit. Think of all of the training and the money I raised for RBO.
I can’t believe I’m not even a third of the way done. This is going to be painful.

I’ll tell you another thing that sucks is trying to eat a Honey Stinger Waffle while you’re hyperventilating. It takes, like, an hour. I also tried to drink more water, as I had a suspicion that dehydration and overheating might be the issue at hand. My feet and calves also started cramping, which was highly unusual this early on in a race. Eventually, I made it to the next aid station, where I drank a Coke to settle my stomach, ate a few pieces of boiled potato, and took another salt tab. Again, I didn’t linger as I was eager to see the Gypsy Runner at Gazos Creek.

China Grade to Gazos Creek (4.7 miles @ 13:30)
This section was almost all downhill, but a good chunk of it was exposed rock and quite technical. I was still feeling nauseous; one mouthful of Salted Caramel Gu, which is usually my favorite, made me gag and almost throw up. This was really weird, as I’ve never had such a bad reaction to eating on the run. I continued to do walk/run intervals and play the negative thought loop in my head. Eventually, I realized that I was cutting it close to the 1:00 p.m. cut-off. It was difficult to calculate how close, as I kept losing GPS signal and therefore, the distance displayed on my Garmin was incorrect. I tried to do a bit more running, but would stop frequently to catch my breath. Upon reflection, and after talking it over with the GR, I have to wonder if I was actually that tired physically or just mentally and psychologically overwhelmed. Sometimes, it’s hard to separate those two.

The trail eventually re-entered the woods (thankfully) and I was encouraged by the orange ribbons along with the pink ones, signifying that the Gazos Creek aid station was approaching. I was doing my walk-run when I looked up and saw the GR appear on the trail, walking towards me. It was awesome to see him! He told me I only had about half a mile to the aid station, to my relief. I arrived with about 20 minutes to spare before the 1:00 p.m. cut-off. Unlike the other aid stations, I decided to take a long break at Gazos Creek. I sat down on a log as the GR tended to my requests for watermelon, ice for my bandana, Coke, potatoes, and salt tabs. Putting the ice-filled bandana around the back of my neck felt so good. I grabbed a rubber band (to signify the 50K loop) and the GR and I went on our way.

Gazos Creek Loop (4.5 miles @ 19:40/mile)
This was going to be another very difficult section — 770′ gain/loss over only 4.5 miles. It started off with a nice, gentle grade on a fire trail. “This isn’t so bad,” I thought. I even recall joking and chatting with the GR as we slowly walked up the trail. With the bandana around my neck, I asked the GR if I looked jaunty. He replied with a terse no. After I gave him a look, he asked, “Wait, did you ask if you looked jaundiced??” Ha!

The good times didn’t last long, as there was an abrupt right turn up a steep hill that led to an even steeper grade. Every time I thought that we had reached the top, there was another hill waiting for us. Spasms and cramps traveled all around my legs, from my feet to my calves to my quads to my hamstrings and finally to my left glute, where I’ve never ever experienced cramping previously. On a particularly steep section, I quietly whined to the GR, “I want to go home.” He responded, “Before you know it, it will be tomorrow, and you’ll be waking up in bed, and this will seem far away.” I couldn’t argue with that. Then he helped me to reset my negative brain loop by asking me what I was thinking about. He encouraged me to focus on the task at hand and to stop thinking those counterproductive thoughts. So wise, that Gypsy Runner.

What goes up, must come down, and eventually we did start jogging some downhill and flat stretches, though I was still stopping frequently for walk breaks. By the end of our 4.5 miles together, I was feeling a lot better. True, I was still moving at a glacial pace, but my body was a least cooperating more and my mindset was much improved. I hit Gazos Creek aid station again and the GR refilled my hydration bladder with ice and water, and I replenished the ice in my bandana. I had 2 hours and 45 minutes to cover the next 10.6 miles. Again, this wouldn’t even phase me normally, but at that particular point in time (not to mention 20 miles into a trail race!), I was worried. Still, I wanted to be brave and try as hard as I could to finish within the official cut-off time of 8 hours. I hugged the GR good-bye and thanked him. As I re-entered the woods, I told myself, “You’ve got this, Jen.”

Gazos Creek to Twin Redwoods (8.6 miles @ 16:14/mile)
I left the GR and Gazos Creek with a renewed sense of optimism. I knew I had to pick up the pace for this last section in order to make the cut-off, which meant more running and less walking. I got into a cycle of jogging for about 20 breaths and then walking for 10. It helped tremendously that there was another runner nearby, with whom I kept leap-frogging over the next 6 miles. After a too-brief section of runnable trail, I hit the next ascent, which slowed me to a crawl. Something had changed though; I was starting to feel a bit more power in my legs as I climbed.

At the top of the hill, I lost the trail for the second time. Yet again, a stranger (trail angel) was there to direct me and the other runner in the right direction. We made a sharp right down toward  Berry Creek Falls. He told us it was all downhill to the Falls, which was mostly true, but it didn’t mean easy running. This was a long stretch of technical downhill, filled with roots, steps, fallen logs, and creek crossings. As we continue to leap frog, my fellow runner shared bits of information with me, such as more accurate mileage readings (turns out her phone app was much better than my Garmin). She mentioned that she had done the marathon course during training, and that if we kept up our current pace (around 15:00/mile), we could make it. This was around mile 25. Then we hit another climb, and I became skeptical about making the 8-hour cut-off. However, I was happy that the end was getting ever closer.

On of the creek crossings. I recalled the second bridge was a bit unbalanced.

One of the creek crossings. I recalled the second bridge was a bit unbalanced. (Photo credit: Jess)

I guess it was around mile 27 when the terrain suddenly leveled out, transitioning from technical single track to a wide fire trail. I fell into an easy jog on the gentle downhill and manged to tick off a few miles at 13:00/mile pace. I know that’s still pretty slow, but it had been hours since I had been able to run continuously without stopping for walk breaks, so I was actually super excited. The GR’s prediction that I would get a second wind was coming true. My breathing and heart rate calmed substantially, I wasn’t nauseous anymore, and I was back to taking Gu and Clif Bloks like a champ. I think the ice – both in the bandana on my neck and in my hydration bladder – helped tremendously. I even managed to pass 2 runners in this section.

As I jogged along, I became overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude. I thought about all of the wonderful people that had supported me along my ultra journey, from my friends who were out there on race day to those who had donated money to the RBO fundraiser, and all of the well-wishers who had texted or messaged me. Despite my many attempts throughout the day to stay positive, the only thing that really worked for me was, “Well it could always be worse…” As in: at least I don’t have to go to the bathroom; or, at least I don’t have any blisters or chafing; or, at least I haven’t tripped and fallen, as many others had; or, at least I made it to the 50K cut-off so I can actually complete this thing and not switch to the marathon… But at mile 28 or 29, I actually felt positive. There was no “at least” about it; I was happy to be out there, almost done with my first (and possibly only) ultramarathon.

I knew from my pre-race recon that this section would seem interminable, given that the aid stations were 8.6 miles apart. Even so, I started getting antsy, hoping that the next aid station, Twin Redwoods, would appear any minute. Getting to Twin Redwoods also meant that there was less than 2 miles remaining, which I very much looked forward to. I caught sight of the aid station right around 4:35 p.m.

Twin Redwoods to the Finish (1.8 miles @ 11:40/mile)
After a quick, “I’m so glad to see you guys!” to the aid station volunteers, I grabbed an orange slice and went on my way. I had 25 minutes to go 1.8 miles, but there was one last climb waiting for me. It was going to be a close one! I tried to run as much as I could before I got to the hill, and attempted to do the math in my head without much success. Then, my Garmin died. Even though the pace hadn’t been accurate all day (because the GPS kept losing the satellite), it was at least an approximation.

Unfortunately, the hill was steeper than what I had hoped for and as I hiked, I periodically checked the time on my phone. 18 minutes left…16….14. I kept praying that I was closing in on the “summit” as the minutes ticked by, but it looked like I still had a ways to go. I heard someone in the distance yell, “Jen!” It was a male voice, but I didn’t think it sounded like the GR. Then, about 2 minutes later, he appeared on the trail ahead, jogging towards me. He encouraged me by saying that I was almost at the top and then it was all downhill to the finish, but that we had to hurry because there wasn’t much time. With the GR behind me, I continued to hike/jog up the hill but it was tough. The top of the hill couldn’t come soon enough. Finally, we crested the hill and began the descent to the finish. It was impossible to see where the finish area was, because at this point, we were still on a trail on the side of the mountain. I picked up speed and felt fast for the first time since that morning. The GR yelled, “Looking good!” and “You’re doing great!” as we sped down the hill. We passed by a spectator or volunteer who yelled, “You’re gonna make it! Just watch your footing!”

This was the view of the Pacific that I missed as I was desperately focusing on the trail and finishing before the cutoff.

This was the view of the Pacific that I missed as I was desperately focusing on the trail and finishing before the cutoff. (Photo credit: Jess)

Finally out of the woods! That's my

Finally out of the woods! (Photo credit: Jess)

The trail shot us out into a small clearing, where Jess, Kate, Jen K., and Cat and her boys were all cheering for me. I had no idea what time it was, but I had the feeling that I was going to make the cut-off. I ran to the end of the trail but failed to see the finish arch, so I sort of stopped for a few seconds while people pointed to the finish line. When I saw 7:57 on the clock, I was so happy! I officially finished in 7:57:46, good for 103rd out of 106 finishers. I jogged across the finish line and into the arms of the GR, where we hugged for what seemed like 5 whole minutes. I was officially an ultramarathoner!

YES!!!! (Photo credit: Kate)

YES!!!! (Photo credit: Kate)

Post-race
I must have said, “Oh my god” a million times after I was finished. I was in complete shock that I had been out there for almost 8 hours and was finally done, and that I had made the cut-off after so many ups and downs. After someone handed me a medal, the 50K finisher coaster, and a race shirt, I sat down to soak it all in. Cat brought me a whole plate of food, which was really sweet of her, but I didn’t have the appetite for any of it.

I was in a daze for quite a while, not sure what I wanted to do or eat. I saw the older lady from the morning, the one who told me there was plenty of time to turn things around, and she exclaimed, “You made it!” I replied quietly, with a smile, “I did.”

With my #1 pacer, support crew, and coach.

With my #1 pacer and support crew.

#teamcrazycatladiesFOREVER

#teamcrazycatladiesFOREVER

We eventually made our way to the car via the Coastal shuttle, which was parked almost 2 miles away on Highway 1. On our way home, we stopped at Taqueria la Mordida in Half Moon Bay for a quick dinner. It had been a really long, dramatic, and tiring day. I was overwhelmed with emotions ranging from joy (finishing the race) to sadness (saying goodbye to Jess and Kate). Needless to say, it was definitely memorable!

As this post is already too long, so I’ll save the race logistics/info, post-race analysis, and training thoughts for another post. Thanks for reading!

Update: here are the race logistics/info.

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Posted in Big Basin 50K, Race Recap, Trail running

Big Basin 50K: Race Week!!!

After months of training – snot, sweat, and yes, even a few tears – my first ultramarathon is just days away. Eek! (That was an excited “Eek”, not a nervous one.) Training hasn’t been perfect, but I feel great heading into Sunday. After 2+ weeks of taper, my legs are finally feeling something besides tired and achey. It’s like, “Woah! My legs aren’t sore. Is that normal??”

So yeah, I’m feeling calm and positive for the time being. I’ve made most of the major logistical decisions: what to wear, what to eat for breakfast, what time to leave the house, what to eat during the race, etc. I’ve even already prepared my post-race snack: a big bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. Why Cool Ranch Doritos? Well, for one thing, they are one of my guilty pleasures, and they’ll taste great with beer and/or soda at the finish. Two, I’ve been seriously craving salty, fatty starch (chips, french fries) after my long runs. I think it’s because I pretty much only eat sweet things while running, like Gu or Bloks, and then I feel the need to get that perma-sweet taste out of my mouth. So, really it was down to Cool Ranch Doritos or Cheetos, but since I had some Cheetos as recently as this past Saturday, I went with the Doritos. Oh, plus, the Gypsy Runner doesn’t like Cool Ranch Doritos, so I knew they would be safe from his snacking ways. Muah-ha-ha-ha.

One thing I’m super excited about is being able to share this experience with some of my favorite people. Kate and Jess are running the 50K as well, though we haven’t decided whether we’re all running together or not (I think it will just depend on how the day goes, how we feel, etc.) My Twitter friend Jen is also running the 50K. We were supposed to run at Big Basin last year (she signed up for the 50K, and I registered for the marathon), but we both DNS’d due to hip injuries. Whomp whomp! It will be great to finally meet her in person and avenge our DNS’es! Cathryn and her boys will be at various points of the course to cheer us on, which will be so nice to break up the monotony. Last and definitely not least, I got permission from the race director for the Gypsy Runner to run a 4.5 mile loop with me from ~miles 15.5-20! I’m very excited about this because I’ll have the GR’s company during one of the most challenging parts of the course (770′ gain/loss in just 4.5 miles!). It’s also great that I’ll get to see him for more than 5 seconds while I run through an aid station, which is what I do normally. Let’s face it – spectating any race can be quite boring, but probably even more so at a trail race. Anyway, I’m super excited to share the experience of my first ultra with him — hopefully, I won’t be too cranky. ;)

There are only a few things left to finalize: driving directions, post-race food, and most importantly, race strategy. I’ll follow conventional wisdom and make my main goal simply to finish the race within the cut-off of 8 hours. (They don’t call it conventional wisdom for nothing.) I also want to run happy, choose joy, take it all in, and all of that hippy-dippy stuff. Of course, there’s also a part of me that can’t help but consider a time goal. For one thing, I have to think about pace so that I can tell the GR when to expect me. Additionally, it’s fun to add a dash of challenge to the task. I’m approaching it with the mentality of, “Well, if I’m feeling GOOD, then let’s aim for X time.” I’ll keep those numbers to myself for now…

To help with pacing and race visualization, I printed out the elevation chart and noted all of the aid stations, with the distances in miles between them (they’re in km on the graph and on the race website – so confusing!), as well as elevation gain and loss. I saw this on someone else’s race report and thought it was a great idea. The chart, along with the 10 or so race reports I’ve read, have helped me visualize the trails and hopefully be better prepared for the challenges ahead.

#nerdalert

#nerdalert

Big Basin 50K, I’m coming for you!

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Posted in Big Basin 50K
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