Big Basin 50K Week 11: Canyon Meadows Trail Marathon Race Recap

I signed up for the Canyon Meadows Trail Marathon with these thoughts in mind:

  • I have to run long anyway, I might as well do a supported run.
  • 26.2 miles is just 5 miles shy of the full 50K, so it’s pretty much the equivalent of doing a 20-miler for a marathon.
  • Coastal Trail Races organizes both Canyon Meadows and Big Basin, so I can test out the various food offerings at the aid stations.
  • I was supposed to run my first trail marathon last year, but DNS’d due to a hip/glute injury. It felt right to reach this milestone before tackling my first 50K.
  • Being in Redwood Regional Park in Oakland, I was very familiar with the course. It’s also close to home and therefore logistically easy.

What I didn’t know at the time of registration is that I would come down with a terrible head cold. About 3 days before the race, I seriously considered downgrading to the 30K or half marathon. I didn’t want to stress my body too much while it was still getting over this cold. Fortunately, in the 2 days leading up to the race, I got dramatically better — my rate of Kleenex use dropped from about 10 per hour to 1 per hour. 🙂 So, even though I hadn’t run more than 26 miles total in the 2 weeks leading up to the race, I decided to go for the full marathon. I had a good ~22 mile training run under my belt from 2 weeks ago, and it helped that the cut-off times were extremely generous: 8 hours 45 minutes for marathon runners and 9 hours for the 50K. I could briskly walk a good portion of the race and still finish in time. Adding to my confidence was that Jess agreed to join me from mile 3.5 to 16.5. Having her company would prove invaluable.

Other than the fact that parking at was a bit crazy in the morning, everything went relatively smoothly pre-race. The marathon course consisted of two 13.1 mile loops, each with about 1500′ elevation gain/loss. A majority of that elevation gain is in the first mile and continues to build until about mile 5.5. As the crowd of half marathoners, 30K runners, marathoners, and 50K runners worked its way up the first big incline, from Canyon Meadow up to East Ridge, I couldn’t help but notice that it was already very warm despite the relatively early hour of 8:00 a.m. I kept an eye on my heart rate (HR) to make sure I wasn’t overexerting myself; it was going to be a long day as it was, and if I went out too fast, it would be an even longer one. Looking around, I saw several runners wearing long sleeve shirts and full length capris and shook my head in judgement, wondering what the heck they were thinking as we hiked up the exposed trail.Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 8.08.46 PM

Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 8.09.21 PMThe first few miles were relatively uneventful. I looked forward to meeting Jess at Skyline Gate (mile 3.5). My HR had been climbing steadily and after 3-4 miles, it was nearly impossible to bring it back down, even with extended walk breaks. Despite taking a decongestant, my nose was running faster than I was (ha!), which made breathing pretty difficult. I kept asking for short walk breaks (which I started to refer to as red light/green light), to which Jess patiently obliged and insisted that I stop apologizing when asking to walk. Even though I knew I was out on the course with a cold, I couldn’t help but feel like I should be doing better — more like my healthy, normal self. I couldn’t believe that I was already walking so much and I was upset that my breathing and HR were seemingly out of control. In retrospect, I realized that my ego was wounded by my “lackluster” performance thus far, and instead of just coming to terms with it, I continued to fight these feelings for the next 10 miles or so.

Luckily, instead of taking a downward spiral into a self-defeating, self-destructive mode, I had Jess with me. We talked as we ran/walked, which kept me from my dark thoughts. I kept on top of my nutrition, eating 100 calories every 30 minutes. I drank regularly from my hydration vest, though I probably should’ve been drinking even more given how hot it was getting. We rounded West Ridge and took a detour on a couple of new-to-me trails, Graham and Dunn, that were gorgeous. Being shaded and downhill, this part of the course was definitely way nicer than the first few miles.

Beautiful views from Graham/Dunn trails.

Beautiful views from Graham/Dunn trails.

There was another extended downhill section of single track on Toyon, after which we climbed up Golden Spike and ran into A, a friend of Jess’s, who was feeling dehydrated. She hadn’t realized that there would be such a long stretch (6.2 miles) between the first and second aid stations… which brings me to this point: when running a trail race, ALWAYS check the elevation profile, weather, and aid station spacing. It’s not a bad idea to carry your own water either. Luckily for A, we were less than a mile from the next aid station and I believe that she finished her half marathon just fine.

The second toughest part of this course (the toughest being the first 2-3 miles) is the out and back on Bridle and Stream. First, it’s mentally defeating as you run away from the start/finish area. Second, Bridle is full of steep rollers and seems to go on forever, even though it’s just a mile. To add to the psychological pain, Bridle runs parallel to Stream, a flat, paved trail just below and within sight. As we made our way along Bridle, I confessed to Jess that I was feeling as fatigued as I usually do at mile 20, even though we were only at mile 11. She asked me if I wanted to stop after one loop. I seriously considered it, but reasoned that I could take it super easy and still finish the marathon.

Me and JT finishing up the first loop. (Photo courtesy of Coastal Trail Runs)

Jess and I finishing up the first loop. (Photo courtesy of Coastal Trail Runs)

At about the 3 hour mark, we ran past the start/finish, completing the first loop. I grabbed some watermelon and boiled potatoes from the aid station and Jess and I began the second loop. The next 3.5 miles were agonizing. I had a very difficult time getting up the hill, asking to stop on several occasions to catch my breath. I started to feel dizzy and everything seemed too bright, even with my sunglasses on. I had been on top of fueling, but perhaps I hadn’t drank enough water? I haven’t looked at my Garmin stats (which are messed up anyway, for various reasons), but I’m pretty sure that it took us ~25 minutes to cover that first mile. During this time, I reconsidered my decision to keep going. Am I pushing myself too hard? Should I stop? What am I doing? And as I mentioned above, my ego got involved in this conversation and had me wondering if I was really OK with walking the rest of the way. I decided that I would at least go with Jess back to Skyline Gate and then decide what to do from there.

Once we got up the first big hill, we continued to do a lot of walking interspersed with some very slow jogging. We eventually made it back to Skyline, where I crossed a mental hurdle to keep going. I “only” had 9.5 miles left, I couldn’t stop now. But part of me still felt ashamed for going so slowly…it was totally irrational. As I said goodbye to Jess, I started to tear up – making it the first time I’ve ever cried during a race or a run. I knew I was nearing my mental and physical limit, and it was scary. Seeing me in my off-kilter state, Jess decided to help me refill my hydration pack and walk with me for another half mile or so, probably just to make sure I was OK. As we walked along, I felt much better and thanked Jess as she turned around to head back to her car. I was gonna make it! Even if it took me another 3 hours…

There weren’t a lot of marathon and 50K runners on the course, so it was pretty lonely after Jess left. Despite that, I never needed to plug in a podcast or distract myself; I was able to focus on the mile at hand. My first goal was to make it to the next aid station, where I ate a couple more salted, boiled potatoes, drank a small cup of Coke, and took an electrolyte tab, just for good measure. The next 6 miles actually went by fairly smoothly. Yes, I was still moving along at a glacial pace (15:00-18:00/mile), but at least I wasn’t dizzy anymore. I also figured out how to blow snot rockets, which helped tremendously (and made me feel like a bad-ass). I was able to enter the happy head space, where I started feeling grateful instead of miserable and negative. In this section, I passed 4 other runners, which made me realize that despite the rough day I was having, there’s probably someone else having an even rougher day.

Views like this helped to keep my mind right.

Scenery like this helped to keep my mind right.

I made it to the 2nd to last aid station and was pumped to be only 2+ miles from the finish, which meant that I would finish in under 7 hours. (Yes, my pride was still rearing its annoying head even at this late stage of the race.) I didn’t start celebrating yet: I still had to battle with Bridle Trail for about a mile. I cursed my way up every hill that I encountered, which had the effect of making me laugh at myself. I ran/walked the final stretch on Stream and finally crossed the finish line at 6:48:20 (15:35/mile). It may have been a 48 minute positive split for the 2nd lap, but I was just so relieved to be done, splits be damned.

But wait, there’s more! As I was sipping on a post-race, ice cold can of Coke, I saw that I had been selected in the random drawing. Coastal always does a random drawing to reward a select number of runners for just showing up. This was the first Coastal race (out of many that I’ve done) that I’ve actually been chosen! Out of the numerous prizes, which included socks, hats, and t-shirts, I chose a Salomon bandana/headband because I can always use an extra headband. Thanks, Coastal! Then, this morning, I checked the official results and saw that I came in 2nd in my age group! Granted there were only 2 of us, but I’ll take it. 🙂

The Canyon Meadows Trail Marathon will definitely go down as one of the hardest, longest, and most productive training runs in my running history. Knowing that I pushed my limits and managed to complete the course gives me the mental fortitude to tackle my first 50K in just 5 weeks time. I can only hope that running a 50K healthy and with clear sinuses will be on par (or easier) than what I experienced at Canyon Meadows!

I did it! Post-race, delirious selfie.

I did it! Post-race, delirious selfie.

About the race:

  • Organizers: Coastal Trail Runs
  • Location: Redwood Regional Park, Oakland
  • Cost: $60 for the marathon up until 2 weeks before the race, $65 up to race day. There were 4 other distances: 5 mile, half marathon, 30K, and 50K.
  • Course: 3068′ elevation gain/loss on a mix of single track and fire roads, with exposed and shaded areas. Marathoners run the half marathon loop twice. Extremely well marked!
  • Parking: Parking is available inside the park for $5. Arriving at 7:30 a.m. for an 8:00 a.m. start meant that I was one of the last people to actually park inside the gate. There is free parking out on the main road, which is about a half mile walk.
  • Aid stations: 3 for the 13.1 mile loop, spaced irregularly at mile 4.7, 10.9, and 13.1 (start/finish). Each was fully stocked with the usual trail racing goodies, everything from peanut M&Ms to PB&J sandwiches to potato chips. They also had water, sports drink, Coke, and Sprite.
  • Bathrooms: 3 flushing toilets at the start, and a few others within a short walking distance. There are outhouses at Skyline Gate (mile 3.5), at Redwood Bowl (mile 6-ish?), and along Stream Trail (mile 12).
  • Swag: Technical tee, which I skipped to save $5 on registration. All finishers received the same medal, while the 50K finishers received a special coaster.
  • Post-race food and drinks: In addition to the aid station fare, there were sodas and beer in the cooler, along with some hot dogs and hamburgers.
  • Advice for anyone considering this race: this course is tougher than it looks (i.e., as far as the elevation profile goes). Having to climb up from Canyon Meadows twice was a killer, and 50K runners have to ascend 3 times! I would definitely bring your own water as there’s a long stretch without aid.

Howdy! My name is Jen and I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I like to eat, run, and blog, but not usually at the same time.

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Posted in Big Basin 50K, Race Recap, Trail running
13 comments on “Big Basin 50K Week 11: Canyon Meadows Trail Marathon Race Recap
  1. jess says:

    Great job!! It was really tough out there – not just the elevation, but the unexpected heat, and you coming back from a cold! You did great, and I’m glad I was out there to share the miles with you. =)

    • Jen says:

      I feel like I can’t thank you enough for being out there. You were a “trail angel” – so cheesy, but true. 🙂

  2. bt says:

    Super impressive! Well done.

  3. Angela says:

    YEAH! Well done! After this I bet the 50K will be a piece of cake!!

    • Jen says:

      Thanks! I wanted to write that exact phrase (about the 50K being a piece of cake), but I didn’t want to jinx myself. Hope it’s true though!

  4. Jan says:

    Holy smokes! So impressive you can do a race like that just for training! 🙂

  5. Dan says:

    It always sucks when you’ve put in a ton of time and effort into a race just to come down with illness so close to the starting line. Though I don’t think anyone would have faulted you for dropping down to a shorter distance, it’s infinitely more badass to run a trail marathon while not back at 100%. So for that daring act of raw athleticism, congrats!

    It looks like you at least had a beautiful course to keep you company once Jess was no longer your running buddy. And I know the feeling of keeping a glacial pace on races like this — those moments where you somehow have to convince yourself that you’re still moving forward aren’t always the easiest, but at least you’re always pulling the finish line closer.

    5 weeks out — stay healthy!

    • Jen says:

      Thanks, Dan! “Daring act of raw athleticism” or just plain stupid? Haha. It looks like my cold is completely gone, so I’ll side with the former conclusion. 😉

  6. […] I’m also feeling less motivated at work and at home. Another possible factor is that, by completing a trail marathon last week while I was sick (i.e., accomplishing a big task while feeling like absolute crap), I feel ready […]

  7. Mike says:

    Nice job! Limits, shlimits… talk about gutting it out. And to think we do this for fun. This is the type of experience non-runners look at and say, “SEE? Tell me again why you do this to yourself?”

    Angela pretty well echoed my thoughts… after a morning like yours, Big Basin should be a (fast) walk in the park. In both of the 50Ks I’ve run, I’ve been surprised by how anticlimactic it felt to reach the 26.2-mile mark and keep going (though the fact I was badly overheating in both cases may have contributed to my nonchalance). Assuming full breathing capacity and depending on how fast you want to run it, you should be in good shape come July 26. Plus, with a net elevation loss of 2,500ft, Big Basin’s got nothing on Redwood Regional. Speaking of which, the CM elevation profile is one of my favorites and makes me pine (pun intended) for my next trail race… what a brutal course.

    Almost to taper time!

    • Jen says:

      Thanks, Mike. Your first comment is on-point — I’ve had several people ask me, “Wait, you were sick and you decided to run a trail marathon?? Why??” I’m glad I didn’t get sick again, because those same people would have shaken their heads at me, with an “I told you so” attitude.

      I really hope getting to 26.2 miles is anti-climatic, which seems better than hitting some sort of physical or psychological wall. Thanks for the encouragement!

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