I have been blogging about preparing for this race for quite a while now. I haven’t talked much about it in detail on the blog, other than I had decided to do another 50K with some new training partners. You see, a while ago, Stonegate Girl mentioned to me that she wanted to do a 50k. She has never done a marathon but she did not care. She is strong. She is determined. She wanted to hit the trails. Burning Girl and I agreed to join Stonegate on this adventure as long as we stuck together. Burning Girl had one ultra under belt (ahem, the North Face 50K – a very difficult race that she had done solo) and I had my plethora of races mostly all local and in my own backyard. I was ready. I wanted to venture a little bit out of my comfort zone and try a race that required just a little bit more.
Burning Girl picked the race. The Mt. Tam 50k put on by Inside Trail Racing. I agreed without really looking into the race. I signed up as soon as sign ups were open without thinking twice. I mean, running in the bay area has been a dream and this race cost me $65!? What ultra costs only $65? I signed up and then I looked at some of the race stats but I didn’t look at the elevation map. Hmmmmm…..I should have, right?
Look at those bumps! I knew the race had about 6,800 feet of elevation gain but it never occurred to me how that elevation would play out over the course of 30 miles. In my naive brain, I assumed just a long gradual climb up Mt. Tam, which quite honestly, I knew nothing about.
Well those bumps in the above photo we nicknamed “the boobs” and referred to them as such throughout the race. For example, Stonegate Girl “Hey, what boob are we on?” Burning Girl: “I think we are at the base of number two boob.” Hey, whatever passes the time and makes us laugh right?
Regardless, I knew nothing about the course other than our map showed that it was sort of in the shape of a clover. I was okay with that. Then, a few days before the race, all participants received THE most confusing email EVER about the race. I should note, that at this event, they had a 10k, a half marathon, a 30K and the 50K all happening at the same time. Here is the blurb we received about the course markings or ribbons that we are supposed to follow during the race:
Let’s read that again, shall we? “50K – Yellow Out to Pink Out to Red/White Checkered Extension to Pink Return to Yellow Return.” Did you get that? Also, my second favorite part is the section that reads: “There will also be blue ribbons on the course. If you run past a blue ribbon you are going the wrong way!” That quickly prompted a chant by us girls throughout the race, “Blue is Bad. Blue is Bad.” Every time we ran by a blue ribbon, we’d say “blue is bad” and if any other runners were near by, they’d laugh.
However, if you compare the course marking description with the course map above, it DOES start to make a little bit of sense. Still, we ran with a copy of the map in our packs JUST in case and as it turns out, they came in handy.
On Friday, Stonegate Girl and Burning Girl picked me up at work and we left for Mill Valley. Stonegate has this amazing friend, who I am going to call ‘Mill Valley’ because she is as beautiful and as amazing as that little town. Mill Valley offered to let us stay at her house before and after the race. She has BEDS! Do you how amazing it is to sleep in a nice warm bed in someone’s home before a race? It eased all the tension and nerves that I had I about my pre-race routine.
Packet Pickup was at the San Francisco Running Company store in Mill Valley and it was really neat going there. I’ve heard and seen so many things on Facebook about this store and the runs they lead, and it was kind of neat actually getting to visit it in person. Scott Jurek had only been there a few days before!
However we were antsy and ready for Saturday. We were tired of this waiting and were ready to get this race started. The night before, the girls got some pizza and brought it home while I brought some of my food with me. As of late, my “go-to” pre long run meal has been plain steamed quinoa with some tempeh bacon that I have been addicted to making lately. For some reason, this meal has been siting fairly well with me for most long runs.
Saturday morning came soon enough and we loaded the car and headed to the beach. We wanted to get there with enough time to use the bathrooms and just relax and take it all in. Oddly, the race didn’t start until 8:30 am which is really a late start for an ultra. It was cold but not as cold as I had expected. I knew that during the race we might reach 70 degrees and I naively dressed in a t-shirt instead of a tank top. That may be my one regret on this race.
So, here is the point where I am going to give you a heads up that this is going to be a super long race report (wait, isn’t it already too long?) but I promise to provide a TON of photos. I went a little nuts on this run and rightly so as you will see. Truly an amazing course with remarkable terrain that varies from desert like situations to rain forest. Truly spectacular. So, grab some tea and settle in or bookmark this page to return to later.
We arrived at the start finish area and hit the bathrooms. We stayed warm in the car for quite a while just assessing all the people around us trying figure out who was running what race (remember, there were 4 different races happening).
Finally it was time to get out of the car, get dressed, put together our packs and head to the starting area where the race director was giving us some last-minute instruction about the course markings (remember, Blue is Bad). The 50k and 30k runners would start together and the rest of the race would start later at 9 am.
In all, there were only 91 runners doing the 50K and there were 107 running doing the 30K distance. Overall, probably one of the smallest races I have done in a while.
One, two, three go! We were off and it was a conga line from the start. They had us
squeeze run under the Start/Finish arch and onto the street and up towards the trail except it wasn’t a trail at all, it was a flight of stairs ….
This is not what my cold legs wanted. In hind sight, a warm up run to stretch the legs might have been needed in this race. Starting a race up hill is never easy. Starting a race on a flight of stairs? Forget about it.
I will warn you, a lot of my photos from the beginning of the race are going to be blurry but I am going to include them anyway so you can see exactly what the terrain looked like. In actuality, the trail itself seemed blurry to me as I was running. My eyes were tearing up and it was just over cast and very muggy to start.
I knew the first aid-station was 3.7 miles into the race and I knew it was where we would see Mill Valley and her amazing friend Ironman April. Normally the first aid-station comes and goes but I realized quickly that this was not an ordinary race at all and it wasn’t long before I was counting the minutes until we saw that aid-station.
But first, we had 3.7 mile of insane trails to conquer… all of it uphill … with a few obstacles thrown in for good measure.
The ground was soggy and very slippery. If you stepped on a root, you slipped. If you stepped on a rock, you slipped. If you stepped on some mud, you slipped. You just couldn’t win on this section of the course. It made me wish that I had changed my shoes to my newer models before the race. Awe well, too late now!
I knew this race had stairs and I knew that within the first three miles, we’d hit a ladder. Yes, I said ladder.
As soon as I saw it I smiled. HOW FLIPPING COOL IS THAT!!?? Despite feeling a little bit tired still, I was in trail heaven.
Since we were running with the 30K runners the first 3 miles were pretty congested. It wasn’t too bad and it helped distract me up some grueling climbs to listen to some of the conversations happening around me. I needed it as my lungs were not adjusting. I couldn’t fathom why because it wasn’t like we were in Tahoe at massive elevation. I just couldn’t catch my breath or get my lungs ready and my legs were feeling like the blood wasn’t reaching them. It messed with my head a little bit but I know a 50K is a long race and that things can change in a moment’s notice. I knew that I would turn a corner eventually and that perhaps I needed more fuel than I thought on this 3.7 mile stretch.
We finally made it to the aid-station and were super excited to see Mill Valley and Ironman April hooting and hollering for us!
I really wanted to check out the fuel here at the aid-station but I felt like we were rushed. Normally fueling only 4 miles into a race is not usually needed but after a climb like we had just tackled, it definitely was … but we got caught up in taking photos instead.
The next thing that I know, Burning Girl and Stonegate are taking off down the trail. I tried to eat a few of my plantain chips along the way but they really were not hitting the spot. I realized I probably needed a salt and I took one which really did seem to help a bit. The girls had said that they were not going to do aid-station fuel and only stick with what they brought but when they took one look at the aid-table and all it had to offer … they looked like two kids in a candy store! I believe Nutter Butters is what Burning Girl zeroed in on. Every race I find there is one item on the table that is your saving grace. Something that your body is craving AND needing during extreme measures. I had this happen to me on this race (despite a lot of inner turmoil).
At one point we came to a group of about 3 or 4 guys standing around looking a park map. They asked us which way to go. To the left of us were orange ribbons and to the right of us were pink ribbons with some stripes. Burning Girl says “We go left. I am almost positive.” And so we all started off in that direction. A few feet into our run I say, “We are at orange already?” and then Burning Girl stops in her tracks and pulls out her map. Nope. We had to go right. We yelled to the men we had sent off running telling them we had to go the other way. I said, “Man, they finally stop and ask for directions and look what happens!” One of the guys really liked that.
We had about 6 miles until the next aid-station and I was battling some low energy despite having finally started my fueling. I just kept thinking to myself, “there has to be some flat sections. We can’t go up up up and then down down down all the time!” There were some flat sections, but very very few of them.
When we reached the aid-station at mile 9 I reached for some potatoes and salt. I told the girls I wanted a minute here. I wanted to scan the table and see what I wanted. I had also accidentally dropped ALL my salt tabs on the trail a few miles back. I had reached for my salt tube while running and all of a sudden it was raining salt tabs every where. Ooops. So while at this aid-station, I quickly refilled my bottle and grabbed some solid food.
Then I grabbed a cup. I thought that I had grabbed water but it wasn’t. When I looked, I had this electric greenish yellow drink in my little dixie cup. Mountain Dew. Crap. I stared at that cup for what seemed like forever battling my brain. Over and over my head kept saying “don’t do it, don’t drink it” but my body just kept bringing the cup closer to my mouth. I am anti soda. I am probably one of the most vocal anti-soda people around but I understand WHY they are at ultra races. They serve a purpose with their sugar, easily digestible big doses of calories and of course the caffeine. Mind you, I haven’t had caffeine in a very long time … so this was going to be interesting.
I downed the cup before we left and my hand reached onto the table and grabbed two watermelon Jolly Ranchers (what the?!). Another thing I rarely eat but something told me to grab them. So I did.
Within minutes I had a new-found energy and enthusiasm. I had motivation. My legs had pep to them. I had finally found my lungs. As much as I hated to admit it, that darn Mountain Dew saved my race.
Just in time too because we had to start climbing more stairs … ah the stairs. There were a lot of them in this race.
Soon we were coming out of the “forest” and more into the open exposed cliff side of the race and would start experiencing the heat of the day with little to no coverage.
I was in heaven. I would let the girls run and I would just stop and take the occasional photo. For a brief bit, we were dumped back into a forest area and saw the most amazing tree houses. We couldn’t figure out what they were but they looked so cool!
I think we were all in pretty good spirits at this point. Burning Girl was leading the way most of the time. We were eager to get off the pink ribbons course and find the checkered ribbon part of the course.
Our next aid-station was huge. It was huge because it was basically the half way point of our race and it was at Muir Beach. I was excited to get there because I have never been and so far, this race had so many surprises. I also found that on the massive up hill climbs, that Jolly Rancher that I had tucked in my pocket, saved me. I would just slowly eat that while I climbed and it kept my mind off the hill, gave me some sugar and made smell super pretty!
This course changed all the time! I never knew what to expect just around the corner from us. Which was really neat for me. I enjoy not knowing what is ahead sometimes.
We were clearly on our way to the ocean at one point. The dirt turned a bit sandy and we were on the open trails finally heading DOWN and not up for once. Making our way to ocean.
At one point, I stopped and looked ahead of me. You can’t tell through the camera lens but the beautiful blue ocean was right ahead of us.
I called to the girls that I wanted to stop and try to get the photo and they made me finally stop and pose for one.
I must have taken a ton of photos on this stretch of trail which wasn’t very easy because mountain bikers were flying down at us. We probably passed 15 to 20 mountain bikers on this section of the trail. Most of it was down hill.
It was about here that Burning Girl turned on her jets and took off. She loves down hills and down hills love her. I like them but I also know we had another half of the race to go and I know how my IT band and knees would react later if I pounded them now. As it turns out, they reacted regardless but not as bad as it could have been.
My calves were screaming at me from all the up hill climbing we had previously done so I was taking it easy. At one point I caught up to Stonegate Girl because a group of mountain bikers had us pinned to the side of the trail while they passed, she mentioned that her legs were bugging her too. I told her to let Burning Girl go and to take it easy as I was in the same boat.
By the time we reached the bottom of the hill we had to cross a street and run ourselves into a beach area that was definitely populated with a lot of tourists. The mile 15 aid-station was out near the parking lot and main restrooms to Muir Beach.
It was on this stretch that Stonegate got quiet. It was a essentially flat fire road but in the sun. She was saying her stomach was not feeling right and she thought she might dump her water and put Tailwind electrolyte drink into her hydration pack. I decided I would take advantage of the real restrooms and went and stood in line after I shoved a banana down my throat to try to combat the crampy feeling my calves had at that moment.
By the time I had gotten out of the bathroom, Stonegate was nowhere to be found. Uh-oh I thought but Burning Girl was there and said that she needed to move. She was having stomach issues. I grabbed a Mountain Dew (yes, again) downed it and took off running. I felt pretty amazing and I didn’t want to start feeling poor again. I wanted to stay on top and ahead of the calorie game even if it meant drinking soda. I also grabbed two more watermelon Jolly Ranchers.
It was on this fire road out of the park area that Burning Girl turns to me and says, “I may need to borrow some water.” I am like, “Sure, of course I have some. Did you not fill up at the aid-station?” She said she forgot and realized just now that she had no water. Then, the universe opened and she spotted a horse trough … with a hose.
My stomach was churning watching her fill her bladder up at a random hose next to a horse trough but, you do what you have to do and as it turns out, this hose was a miracle hose. The water was COLDER than what was at the aid-station and it would later save one of us while on the trail.
We headed out but Stonegate wasn’t moving. She just kept saying she wasn’t right. Her stomach was not cooperating. Burning Girl offered that maybe she try to throw up to feel better.
Eventually she did and she did feel a bit better. The problem however, is she had just gotten rid of all the calories and water she had just consumed right before we were going to climb one brutal hot and sunny climb back up the mountain.
She was moving but not very quickly. A lot of this section of the trail was not very runnable as it was an up hill switch back climb. Combined with the hot sun and Stonegate’s already low energy … my heart was breaking for her.
The Tailwind electrolyte drink in her pack was warm at this point and of course nothing we had on us for fuel sounded remotely good to her. The only thing she wanted was Burning Girl’s hose water.
So that’s what she had. I was able to get a salt into her at least too but this was going to be a brutal 6+ miles to the next aid-station. We essentially walked from mile 15 to mile 21 with a few sections of running. A lot of it was up hill mind you, so we probably would have hiked quite a bit anyway but really, Burning Girl and I were worried about Stonegate. We just didn’t want her to stop. She would ask to sit every once in a while and we’d let her have a few moments but ultimately, we had to keep her moving. She still had some color in her face but she couldn’t get any fuel into her system.
Finally we reached the aid-station. The aid-station at mile 21 is the same aid-station as mile 3.7 (and also mile 27) so Mill Valley and Ironman April were there waiting for us. We jumped into action. We told them about Stonegate so they grabbed a chair. I tried to force her to drink a coke (she has the same soda battles as I do) and she could barely even hold the cup to her mouth to drink it so I fed her a sip.
She was surrounded by a lot of people at this point all trying to figure out what she needed and trying to decide if she could make the next loop of the course which was 6.7 miles. I told her we could hike that easily if she wanted (although in my head I was worried even that was a stretch). Finally, I looked at my watch and saw that it was 2:10 in the afternoon. This aid-station cut off was 2:30 pm. Stonegate did not look like she was turning a corner. She went from having some color in her cheeks to white face and white lips the moment she sat down, shivering.
She called it. She told us to go on without her and that she was done. Burning Girl and I paused, both saddened by the news but we knew it was probably the best decision. Only she knows her body and what it is capable of handling.
In hind sight, it was the best decision ever as that 6.7 loop was a DOOZY!! We had heard through the grapevine that it was taking runners 2.5 to 3 hours to complete earlier in the day, especially when it was super hot out.
Burning Girl and I took off down the trail finally following the orange ribbons (yea!). As we left someone called out “Hey, just remember it’s a lot of vertical coming back!” Oh great. For the first two or three miles we talked about Stonegate and how worried we were and how she had looked. We realized very quickly that it would have been really tough for her to hike these miles. The terrain was not super easy. We did however find something that could have helped her move a little faster!
I would say we were booking it on this section of the trail. We wanted to get ahead of the cut off by a decent margin and we wanted to get back to Stonegate. When I look back at my Garmin stats, we weren’t running all that fast (sorry Burning Girl!). It just felt like we were I guess.
We talked a lot on this loop and Burning Girl made me stop and get in another photo. We were still having a good time. My right knee/IT band was starting to scream at me and I knew we had another 4 mile stretch down hill later so around mile 22, I took some Advil. I don’t generally like to take that stuff at all but I knew we had some gnarly downhills later and I wanted to be ready.
This orange ribbon loop had lots of twists and turns. There were huge trees down on the trail that we had to climb under almost on our hands and knees. It was slippery and very technical in some sections and then out of no where we’d have these soft pine needle covered trails that felt so glorious to run on. I kept running more and more and hiking less.
I also realized that I hadn’t really fueled at all on this loop but it was ok. I tried to get out a Jolly Rancher but it didn’t work (it was all melty and stuck – gross).
Soon it was time to hike back up to the aid-station. We were at mile 27 and I could smell the barn. We had done that 6.7 mile loop in an hour and forty minutes! I was stoked and in the zone to finish this race. But first, it was time to reunite with Stonegate!
She was alive and she had color in her face! A nice guy at the aid-station was able to force her to drink the coke and gave her a bowl of every single thing at the aid-station and told her to try every single thing and when she found something she liked to stop and eat that (wise advice, taking note here). Potato Chips. That was the winner of the day! That guy was a savior.
I grabbed one cup of Mountain Dew and that was all. That’s all that I needed to get me 3.7 miles to that finish line. Even more exciting was the fact that Stonegate Girl wanted to join us. Even though she had dropped, she wanted to finish the race with us.
I took the lead (I wanted to be at that finish line!). However we were soon hit with the all familiar sight of stairs … lots of them, all on our way down.
Down down down. Pound. Pound. Pound. It was here that I was so grateful for the Advil that I had taken earlier. While my knee felt stiff, the jabbing pain was not as debilitating as it had been before (whew!).
Soon I saw the ocean coming towards us. The miles were ticking off on my Garmin and I was just getting more and more excited to be done. They threw in two little climbs near the end. The first I walked and the second was almost like a dune on the beach and there was a guy racer hiking it. I just zeroed in on that hill and him and I took off running. I had so much pep in my legs (damn that Mountain Dew). When I got to the top and turned around, the girls were hiking up the hill and just laughing at me.
Down we went again and I saw another guy on the trail. We passed him. I was just reeling them in as we ran. I felt bad and yelled back an apology to the girls that I was sorry if we were running too much but I just smelled the finish line. We were SO close!
The trail dumped us back out onto the street and we had to run a few yards to the finish. Mill Valley and Ironman April had just arrived in time and were cheering us on as we came into the finish arch!
Done!! I ran the Mt. Tam 50K my first non local race and I felt amazing, inside and out. I was so proud of us.
The finish area of the race was some what of a let down though. Don’t get me wrong, the whole race was fantastic, the volunteers amazing, the course markings were spot on. It is just that normally, ultra events usually consist of 50K, 50 miler and/or 100k races. Since the 50K was the longest distance in this race, and we had struggled a bit, the finish area was almost ready to pack it up. We were way ahead of the 8.5 hour or 5 pm cut off, but clearly with so few runners in the race, we were finishing in the back of the pack which is fine, our goal was to finish with smiles on our faces and we did.
It really was an amazingly well put on race. For such a low entry fee, we received an amazing course with tons of well stocked aid-stations and at the finish, we received a shirt, a cool medal (with a Star Wars theme to it) and pint glass! Pretty sweet.
As much as I wanted to dip my legs in the ocean for my first ever ocean ice bath, everyone seemed more inclined to get warm clothes on and head back to Mill Valley’s for dinner.
Once home, we showered and rehashed the race a bit. Burning Girl had to take off for a work thing and we made a dinner decision. I was starved. I had not eaten I realized, since mile 21. Sure I had that Mountain Dew at mile 27 but nothing solid until we got to the restaurant. I devoured my food in one gulp.
Overall, I would say we were slightly under trained for this race. Not a lot, but we could have used much steeper hills to run on or I should have run the stairs at work. Body wise, I feel fine. No major aches and pains. I can walk. I can take the stairs. I feel great. My stomach is off a day or so later and I think that is probably the soda coming back to bite me BUT I stand by my decision. Without those easily digestable liquid calories, I probably would have struggled.
In my mind, I eat very healthy before, during and after all of my training runs. So if during a race my body is craving something else, I am going to go with it. I am not going to carry soda with me to my races because I truly believe that what saves you will be, and can be, different at every race. For Burning Girl, it was Nutter Butters. For me, it was Mountain Dew and Jolly Ranchers (and bananas – I don’t normally eat those during a race either).
This past weekend was surreal. While I truly missed having my family at the finish, it was for the best. We were out there for 7 hours and 45 minutes. Yes, it took THAT long to complete this race. It would have been a long day for everyone. Vans was manning the fort and kids at home nicely. I was not worried at all.
I also got to sleep in a bed, by myself, without little feet waking me up for a solid night of sleep. I woke up and sipped my tea looking out at this amazing view just feeling so grateful for the friendships I have, my amazing family and my body’s ability to take on challenges.
I want to thank a lot of people. Even though I have done a few ultras before, there was a few people who really knew how much this race meant to me and they sent me amazing texts or emails the night before. I read every word and they touched me more than you will know. Thank you as well to my two cohorts during this race. I adore you crazy girls.
Finally, my little family. My amazing supportive husband Vans. I love him more than I can say and I love that he encourages me (sometimes) to do these crazy adventures. I came home to two very happy kids, a super clean house (score!) and a smiling husband. Clearly the topper on my amazing weekend (and he got me dinner and wine too - woot woot)..
Love of course to my Peanut and Squeaker, who I hope some day will understand why mommy goes away and comes home with a slight limp every once in a while. They loved my medal and they love looking at the photos (I have enough of them). I truly am one lucky lady.