Little Bites, Big Cookie

When I registered for the 2016 North Face 50 miler, I had already registered for the Miwok 100k. So the 50 miler would be my secondary (and slightly shorter) goal race for 2016.

When the Miwok dream ended at 50k with a broken collarbone and a separated shoulder, North Face became not only the primary goal race of the year, but something of a comeback as well.

No pressure.

My first ever DNF (did not finish) at Miwok inspired me to rethink my approach to training for ultras. I decided to try back-to-back long training runs on the weekends, instead of a single Saturday long run. (You can read more about that here.)

When the taper started and the days turned into hours, I felt ready…mostly.

Kinda.

Yeah…ready.

Everything was cool and even keel until I finished packing my gear the night before the race. Then my heart decided to go into overdrive.

This was really happening.

Several minutes of deep breaths and fond memories of running this race in 2014 & 2015 helped calm things down. After a little bit of sleep, I quite literally hopped out of bed at 2am when my alarm started chiming.

I grabbed my bags and breakfast and headed out to the car. Thirty minutes later I was pulling into Larkspur Landing where I would catch a shuttle bus to the start. The morning was going by in a blur and before long a voice was announcing that we had five minutes until the first wave set out.

Now, I’m not sure how they decide wave placement, but I was put in wave two out of seven. I moved to the back of this small group and then we were off. These things always seem so sudden.

The weather was cold, the morning was dark, and I was purposefully not considering the fact that there were fifty miles of rugged terrain ahead of me. In my mind, all that mattered was the first climb.

Throughout the day, I made a point of thinking of the race in tiny little bites. Run to the next steep hill, walk until the top of this hill, run into the next aid station, etc.

When we reached the base of the first climb, I slowed my pace but continued to run with purpose. As the trail grew steeper, I periodically dropped into a hike. Once we bagged the first hill and headed down, I settled into a comfortable downhill pace wherein I was passed by what felt like every other runner in the entire field.

“Stay patient,” I told myself. “Downhill is not your strength. Run YOUR race, not theirs.”

In what seemed like a very short time, we reached the Wildcat aid station at mile six. I buzzed right through, too early to stop. Time to focus on the next climb. A combination of slow running and purposeful hiking got me to that peak feeling good. I took the steep descent into Tennessee Valley at a pace I knew would do no long term damage. Only a couple people passed me on this descent.

I entered the Tennessee Valley aid station (9.8 miles) in 1:45:32.

I grabbed an almond butter sandwich from my drop bag and slugged back a cup of Tailwind. I walked out of the aid station eating my sandwich and enjoying the changing colors of the hills as the sun started to rise in earnest. Once the sandwich was consumed, I resumed running. A short section of paved road led to a trail that grew progressively steeper and steeper. I was still feeling good.

Another good climb and descent brought us into the Muir Beach aid station. I was 14.3 miles in and I had been on the course for 2:34:43.

I had a friendly volunteer (aren’t they all?) fill my hydro pack, I took another slug of Tailwind, chatted for a second with another volunteer, and then headed out. The next bite, one of my favorite sections of the race, was the switchbacks!

I have a feeling that most people dread these switchbacks, but I LOVE them. I think people have predetermined that switchbacks equal super steep trail, but these are easily runable. The first two years I did this race, everyone around me dropped to a walk at this point. This year, everyone around me was running! Perhaps because I was in wave two?

It was great! I felt energized and was able to run most of the way to the Cardiac aid station. I dropped to a  walk for the last steep section of trail into Cardiac and it struck me that this was where I DNF’d back in May.

I chose not to linger on this thought and instead went in search of my second drop bag: a little bit of coffee, and some dark chocolate espresso beans!

I decided to take a short break at Cardiac. I ate a sandwich, drank some water, some Tailwind, more water, and chatted with another super friendly volunteer (such amazing people!). I left the aid station feeling strong.

The next bite of trail was relatively flat, curvy, fairly technical, single track. This section is a real joy to run and I was cruising along when I saw a woman holding a sign that read:

Marathon? Great job!
50k? You rock!
50 mile?
What is wrong with you?!?!?!?! 

I read the sign as I passed and then shouted back, “What’s wrong with me? Good question. Maybe I’ll figure that out over the next 20 miles!” She responded with, “Okay, I’ll see you there!”

I love interacting with people on the course. It gives me a surge of energy, the pain fades a little, and my focus seems to sharpen. There aren’t a ton of people cheering along this course, but the ones who are have just the right amount of crazy.

Soon after that, I found myself on the out and back section. This is the only place on the course where runners are going both directions. It also happens to be the narrowest single track of the entire race. Outgoing runners step off the trail to yield to the faster incoming runners.

Thankfully, there seemed to be less traffic this year. Perhaps another perk of being in wave two?

This section went by pretty quickly and I sailed into McKennan Gulch aid station. I got a refill on my pack and a cup of Tailwind and headed back out.

After navigating the out and back again, I arrived at the steep downhill that would take me to the Stinson Beach aid station. I was passed a few times on the way down, but I reminded myself to run my own race. I was only halfway home and I didn’t want to trash my legs trying to gain time on the downhill.

About 1/4 mile before the next aid station, a random 20-something called out to me, “You win the Cat Stevens Award!”

Like I said, some of these folks are weird.

What brain power I had left at this point was solely focused on my aid station strategy: do I need water? Food? Tailwind? Soup? M&Ms? Nothing? So I was unable to make heads or tails of his strange comment.

“What?” was all I could manage.

“You win the award for guy who most looks like Cat Stevens.”

For some reason, I was mildly offended. Again, I didn’t have any spare brain power to spend untangling this riddle so I simply said, “That’s dumb,” and turned my mind back to my race.

I eased into the Stinson Beach aid station prepared to take a short break just as a volunteer announced that it was only 2.9 miles to the next aid station, back up at Cardiac. Wow! Only 2.9 miles! Cool!

I glanced down at my watch expecting it to read that roughly 6 hrs 30 mins had passed since I started. It read 6:09. Wow! Only 6:09! I was ahead of my estimate!

For some reason, being ahead made me want to hurry on my way instead of taking that time to pause and assess. I rushed through the aid station taking only enough time to drink a cup of Tailwind and thank all the volunteers.

Immediately after Stinson Beach, the trail goes up and up and up and then up some more. Taking a short break might have been the smarter move, but I survived the climb by telling myself that I could take a break back up at Cardiac. The climb was tough, really tough, but I did survive.

Pulling into Cardiac for the second time, I stopped and ate and chatted, trying to lift my own spirits. At this point I was starting to suffer. Going uphill was getting progressively more difficult and going downhill just plain hurt.

I left the Cardiac aid station with mixed feelings. I knew the next bite was Muir Woods, one of my favorite places on the planet, filled with old growth coastal redwoods and a mysterious, ancient feeling. I also knew that it was a long downhill section. Beautiful, yes, but my eyes would be glued to the trail for safety reasons AND my legs were feeling the effects of a ton of downhill.

At several points going down, I wanted to drop into a walk because the discomfort level was getting so high. “Just make it to the next aid station,” I told myself, “then you can rest a little.” It worked again. I started running and made it to the Old Inn aid station.

Another runner, who I had seen and spoken with several times along the way was also taking a short break. We nodded a greeting to each other as I came into the aid station.

“Only twelve more miles,” he said.

“Really?” I said, and I was genuinely surprised. I had been so focused on splitting the race into tiny bite sized sections that I had completely blocked out the actual cumulative mileage. Only twelve to go! I finished my Tailwind and took off down the trail with a renewed sense of purpose.

The next bite was a mostly flat section that wound back to the Muir Beach aid station. Even though it was mostly flat, this section was really tough for me. My energy level was flagging again and the thought of eating another bar was becoming unpleasant. I dropped into a walk, which was frustrating because the terrain was fairly screaming “RUN!”

It was time for another bargain with myself.

“Run this section and you can have a little rest at the next aid station,” I told myself. And I began to run again.

I ran into Muir Beach, mile 40.8, after 8 hours, 19 minutes. It was the perfect aid station stop:

  • Use porta-potty? Check.
  • Fill hydro pack? Check.
  • Drink Tailwind? Check.
  • Chat with volunteers? Check.
  • Thank volunteers? Check.

I walked out of the aid station, forcing down some solid calories and turning my thoughts to the climb ahead. It’s long and steep and mentally challenging.

On the plus side, I get cell service about half way up. Every year I call home at this point for a little familial support.

What a boost to talk to my wife and both boys! I won’t say I sped up or felt a suddenly burst of energy, but when I told them I was on my way to another finish it cemented the idea in my head. Nothing now would stop me. Not pain, not exhaustion. Nothing.

I finished the climb and then cruised down a VERY steep section, ignoring the pain, and buzzed into Tennessee Valley for the last pass at my drop bag. I grabbed a bar, a GU, and some espresso beans.

NOTHING was going to stop me now. Only a 10k left to go.

A short while later, I cruised into the Alta aid station, mile 46.9, at 9:52!

I was well ahead of last year’s pace and a personal best seemed a foregone conclusion. All that remained was a long, steep descent followed by a quick flat section coming home.

This time I opened up the throttle on the descent a little bit. So close to the finish I could afford a little speed. When I hit the flat section, I pushed the pace a little more. As the finish line grew closer, I opened the throttle wide and flew the last half mile as fast as I could manage, crossing the finish line with my arms open wide!

Months of training. Early mornings. Late nights. Hundreds of dirty miles and it all paid off!

A 50 mile finish!

Some final numbers:

  • Total time: 10 hrs 17 mins 43 secs
  • Overall Place: 233 out of 538
  • Gender Place: 174 out of 385
  • M45-49: 21 out of 57

Run on, Sisters and Brothers!

#trailrunning #runwild #ECSCA #50miler

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