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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!”
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!
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.”
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!