When choosing a marathon to run, considerations often include a scenic course, a fast course, a destination course, or perhaps simply a course in a convenient location. The Chester Marathon mostly fits the last two elements, although you probably won’t see the race listed in any Top 10 Destination Race lists. Still, I would argue that maybe it should be. Why? Because Chester is a picturesque city with a lot of history. It’s a short(ish) train ride from London. Unlike the London Marathon or other nearby bucket list races, it’s easy to get in to and only costs about 50 pounds. Lastly, the race claims it is the best marathon in the world for watching “Wales” (perhaps, a better spoken joke than written). But, the main reason I headed over to the lesser-known city of Chester was to visit my friend Three Bucks who I had met on the PCT in 2016. And what better way to get to know a city than by running through it!
Perhaps running a marathon just two weeks after the Ben Nevis 52k was not the greatest idea. Or, maybe it wouldn’t have been the worst idea, had I recovered and tapered properly. Of course all these shouldas and couldas are so apparent in retrospect. Yes, two weeks is a bit tight, but this race was more about fun and sightseeing than PRs. After Ben Nevis I took maybe 5 days off, while still managing to get in over 50 miles towards the end of the week. The cautious angel on my right shoulder told me to take it “easy” while the daredevil on my left shoulder told me to test out some speed on an 18 mile training run the week after Ben Nevis, several tempo runs along the Thames, and a speed workout with the Ranelagh Harriers the week before the race. Maybe not all bad ideas on their own, but when combined perhaps not the best choices I’ve made. And to top it all off, I still really didn’t have any great information on what kind of pace I could sustain for a road marathon other than what was blatantly obvious; there was no way I could sustain a PR pace, or even anything close to it.
We arrived to Chester the Friday before the marathon and settled into our lovely Airbnb overlooking the River Dee. Despite the beautiful and comfortable room, I would spend the next two nights tossing, turning, and sweating in my bed. Later I would attribute this to PMS (I got my period the morning after the race). The day before the race we spent exploring the wonderful city of Chester. I usually don’t like to tax my legs too much the day before a race, but with only a limited amount of time, this was the day to do it. We walked around the perimeter of the city along the city walls, ate savory waffles and crepes at Crepe Affair, visited the Chester Cathedral, explored Storyhouse (a library, theater, and cinema in one), and topped off the day with sourdough pizza at Urbano 32. Needless to say, I was not going to be super rested going into the race.
I toyed with the idea of just running for “fun”, but then settled on the same plan I had for CIM last year: start at a 7 minute pace and try and sustain it. If you’ve run a marathon or any road race for that matter, you may be able to relate to this feeling at the start of a race. Due to race day adrenaline, race pace (and sub-race pace) feels way too comfortable early on, and consequently you go out too fast. This is a feeling I’ve experienced many a marathon, but not this marathon. After two miles of running at 7 minute pace the thought that so clearly dawned on me was, “There is no way that I can sustain this for 24 more miles!” My legs felt like they were filled with lead. I slowed down to around 7:10-7:15, but even this felt extremely difficult. Perhaps a hard taper after Ben Nevis would have been the wise choice, I thought.
The weather was great. The temperature was cool and the sun was out. It rained a little, but more of a heavy sprinkle that brought out a rainbow later on. I consumed a gel every 30 minutes, grabbing them from my new make-shift “pocket” (my sports bra). Two of the gels were ones that I had bought here, High-5’s. They were fruity, syrupy and felt like superglue on my hands. The aid-stations supplied High-5 gels, water bottles, and some orange electrolyte drink also in bottles. The bottles were easier to drink than cups, but pretty wasteful as I’d have a couple of sips before tossing them in the “rubbish bins”. At some point, I passed by a band playing Oasis’ “Wonderwall” along the side of the course, and I couldn’t help but smile. I felt so lucky to be in England running this race, even if I was not performing my best.
For most of the race I continued this 7:10-7:15ish pace despite the fact that I “secretly” knew that I could not sustain it. I guess I was just waiting for that moment when I couldn’t. That moment was about mile 20 although it didn’t come in the way that I expected it to. The leg/hip pain that I had been having since July suddenly became very painful. My pace slowed down considerably, and I wondered if I had pushed this injury too far.
After every mile, I still couldn’t believe that I was still running. The last couple of miles wound around Grosvenor’s Park, and then spit out along the River Dee. At that point, it was a straight shot to the finish and as usual, my Central Governor told me to “go for it”.
I crossed the finish line with a time of 3:12, 6 minutes slower than my PR at CIM last year. Results can be found here. If nothing else, I got a darn good speed workout from the day, and some serious mental toughness training. It’s funny after all of the distances and races that I’ve done, how the road marathon is still one of the most physically and mentally challenging distances. Of course, the level of challenge can be proportional to the level of training and preparedness. Crossing the finish line, I felt like I had just run a marathon without any training. Of course, that’s not true. It is all my consistent training that allowed me to ride that pain cave wave and get myself to the finish. Still, running a marathon without specific marathon training will result in discomfort (in case you needed the reminder). I actually was pretty surprised to get the time that I did, considering how terrible I felt on the course. In retrospect, I would have done a hard recovery/taper between Ben Nevis and the marathon (probably still would not have PRed, but maybe would have been a little more comfortable). I still would have explored Chester by foot the day before the race (no regrets, there). I regret the time of the month race day landed on (PMS perhaps the worst possible time to do a hard effort), but cannot control that. Sadly, I’ve broken my marathon PR streak (Boston being an anomaly), so once I get this hip sorted, I am motivated to get back out there and go for sub 3. Who’s with me?
The required gear list for the Ben Nevis 52k is the following: waterproof rain jacket, waterproof rain trousers, spare long sleeve midlayer, headlamp, warm hat, warm and waterproof gloves, mountain running shoes (as opposed to trail or road running shoes), sufficient food and fuel, and lastly an emergency bivvy sack. All of this, for a 52k.
So, when Yuch asked me if I would be interested in running this race in Scotland in September, I said, “Sure, why not?” Okay, maybe that’s not exactly how it went. Who can remember these things? It probably went more like – Me: “Is it scary?” Yuch: “No, it’s not scary. In fact, this is probably the easiest out of all the races in the series. You don’t even have to get vetted to get in.” Me: “Okay”.
But, let’s back up a bit. We didn’t travel all the way over here for one race. Earlier this year, Yuch got offered the opportunity to teach abroad at the London School of Economics for the Fall quarter. Of course, it was a no brainer. His schedule would consist of teaching one day a week, and UC Davis would give him a per diem which would cover more than enough for the flat, transportation, and living expenses. In other words, it would be an incredible opportunity to travel in between work days. He asked me to come along. Quit my job and do nothing for three months before starting grad school? That, too, was a no brainer. And so it only made sense to sign up for a few races while in the area. Running the Ben Nevis 52k would be a good excuse to venture over into Scotland, and a good way to tour and experience the Scottish Highlands.
After spending a day in a half in Edinburgh, we rented a car and headed over to Glencoe, a small village just 15 minutes away from the race start in Kinlochleven. The village seemed to be permanently shrouded in fog. I imagined what the mountains would look like on race day. Would they (and me), too, be covered in a layer of mist? Would there even be any views from above? The temperature was warm and moist, but I imagined it to be cold and windy up on the race course. I longed for race day to bring warm, kind weather, but Yuch said “But then you wouldn’t get the full Ben Nevis experience”. I said I was willing to take that chance.
I had no idea what to expect. This was the third running of this race. The first year it was a 100k with the same elevation gain. The second (last) year was a 47k on the “bad weather route” with far less elevation gain, 5400 ft. This would be the first year (if the weather permitted) that the race was held on the normal course – 52k with 4000 meters or 12,500 feet of elevation gain. The year it was a 100k, Mira Rai won the women’s race in 14:24. The year it was the bad weather course, Ragna Dabats won in 4:36. Yuch and I estimated 6-8 hours to finish, and I subsequently packed 1400 calories worth of fuel. There would be one aid station around 19 miles in. One bladder of water should be enough to get me to the aid station, and then another to the finish. For most 50ks, I don’t even finish one full bladder of water.
The weather on race day was, in fact, kind. The previously foggy Glencoe had transformed overnight, and the sky was clear. The forecast was sunny and warm with a high of 70. The good weather route was on!
I started the race out slow, back of the front pack. At the slightest ascent, the runners around me halted to a hike. Trekking poles clicked and clacked around me. I wasn’t really surprised. I had heard of and sort of witnessed this before. I knew these people around me knew better than I. I also hiked (sans trekking poles), but with spurts of running when I couldn’t handle the density of the pack and just how runnable some of these ascents really were. Before I knew it, I was on a nice runnable single track with a bit of dodging here and there.
The first descent was steep, muddy, and slow. Around me runners slipped and slided, because we all know sometimes the fastest way to get down whether it’s in the snow or in the mud, is with a glissade. However, I am a lady, and opted for the “in-control” look and behind which resulted in a slower descent and muddy hands. “This is good Scottish running!” I heard someone behind me say. I looked at my watch and realized I should fuel sometime soon, but the idea of eating with hands covered in mud did not appeal to me. At the first stream, I washed my hands. Soon, I would be able to eat, but first I needed to get through this trackless unstable grassy terrain, really only navigable by the orange course markings and the runners in front of me.
The slip and slide continued. The ground was precarious, fluctuating between a small percentage of solidish ground, and a whole lot of bog. The bog was fun and laughable at first, but quickly grew old with every twist and turn of my ankles. My feet seemed to be sliding all around in my sopping wet Lone Peaks and I wondered if I wore the wrong shoes. With the unstable terrain, the most minimal shoe seemed to be the most desirable. Every step was questionable and sometimes the mud was so deep my foot would sink in up to my knees. For a little while, I followed another guy and was able to learn from his mistakes. At one point, his leg landed thigh high in the mud. “Don’t go here!” he would warn me, but soon the gap between us grew and I was on my own.
The journey to Ben Nevis was unforgettable. The ascent itself was physically difficult, but my legs were strong. With my hands on my knees, I passed a number of runners. It had been a month since Castle Peak, and the last 3 weeks of mileage looked like this: 22, 48, and 50 – fairly light and easy. I knew what was waiting for me at the top. The CMD Arete connects the Carn Mor Dearg summit to Ben Nevis. The pictures of this ridgeline from the race site gave me goosebumps. The goal was just to get it done. However, after the first section, I realized the ridgeline was much lengthier than I had thought.
I was slow. Everyone who I had passed on the ascent was now passing me as I slowly and cautiously scrambled my way along often using my hands for balance. Although the ridgeline looks pretty skimpy from afar, I didn’t necessarily feel in immediate danger. Still, I was extremely stressed out and my back tightened up as a result. Adrenaline propelled me forward. The views were incredible and I tried my best to take pictures when possible. The climb seemed to take forever and each time I got to what I thought was the top, I would see a line of runners ahead of me continuing up. I looked at my watch. This was not going to be a 6-8 hour day.
At the top of Ben Nevis I let out a yelp and exhaled in relief. In my mind, the hardest part of the day was over. The descent from Ben Nevis takes the tourist path, and finally I got to use my running legs to dodge rocks and tourists down to the visitor’s center where I would find the one and only aid station. On the way down, someone told me I was the third female and that the second female was just 3 minutes ahead of me. I was over 5 hours in and had run out of water at this point. While a kind volunteer filled up my bladder with water, I scanned the food options: cheese and meat sandwiches, chocolate cookies, bananas, oranges, potatoes, some kind of cut up peanut butter bar, and cups of a 50/50 blend of Red Bull and water. I thirstily took in a number of orange wedges, but knew this would not sustain me. Although it sort of grossed me out, I decided to go for the diluted Red Bull. It went down easy and tasted pretty good. I had another, and left the aid station with my new Red Bull “wings”.
The fire road out of the aid station was, well, a nice friendly runnable fire road! I asked someone what mile we were at and found out the aid station had been at mile 19. I had been moving roughly 3.5 miles an hour. I felt like I had been out there all day, but it was only 12:30. The fire road transitioned to a nice solid single track in the forest, which transitioned into a more precarious technical single track in the forest, which then opened up to a water crossing with a waterfall, and more ascending.
Somewhere in the forest, I passed who I believed was the second female. Again, I powered up the initial climb, passing fatigued runners (probably the same folks who had passed me earlier on the ridge). But, alas, as we approached the Ring of Steall which presented more scrambling, they all passed me again. “You make it look so easy!” I said to someone who nimbly scurried past me. “That’s exactly what I thought about you on the ascent”, he responded. “We all have our things!” True, I thought. It is interesting to me how we all have different strengths and weaknesses. Scrambling, rock climbing, heights, and descents are not strengths of mine. In fact, they are downright weaknesses.
Although I had thought Ben Nevis would be the hardest part of the race, I actually thought the Ring of Steall was the scariest. Perhaps it had to do with my legs being properly trashed at that point, or the fact that I had run out of water. I wasn’t sure if I had been drinking a lot, or if the volunteer just hadn’t filled my pack up completely full. Whatever the case, I was out, and while I had one bar and a gel left, the thought of consuming them without water did not entice me. Eventually, I took the gel out of desperation. The thought of bonking up there worried me. The thought of becoming clumsy in a place where you didn’t want to become clumsy worried me. Others around me seemed to be out of water, too, and we all shared the same disbelief as we reached false summits and would see more runners up ahead continuing up.
I asked a volunteer at a checkpoint (not an aid station) how much further it was. They told me about 6k, but about 6k later it dawned on me that they were telling me how much further to the summit, not the finish. At the final summit, I again asked another checkpoint volunteer “how much further?” I felt slightly embarrassed that I was continuing to ask this lame question. I mean, here I am running in this beautiful place in a race that I myself signed up for, and I’m asking “Are we there yet?” I felt depleted and desperate. The answer was 6k, but that it was all downhill from here. The fact that it was downhill did not make it easy. The trails were still steep, technical, and then – the return of the bog. My legs were trashed. I was thirsty, but not dehydrated. I considered drinking from streams on the way down, but decided to avert Giardia and wait until the finish. The first view of Loch Leven was comforting. I was almost there!
At 4:54 pm, a volunteer told me I had 2k to go – just a little over a mile. I would not finish in under 10 hours, but at that point, I didn’t care when I finished, just that I finished. I felt like I had been fighting for my life the whole day, and I was ready for it to be over. It was the longest 2k of my life. Perhaps he meant 2 miles? I crossed the finish line in 10:13:12.
I immediately sat down. A volunteer handed me a cup of water and a bottle of something that looked sweet, but turned out to be this really not very satisfying birch water. A man approached me and introduced himself as the race director and wanted to know “How did you find the race?” “Difficult”, I responded and he seemed to like that response. I guess this is what race directors like to hear. He congratulated me on being the second place woman and handed me a print of the course profile and a card that said I had won 250 pounds, my first income since leaving my job!
Only a third of the field finished under the 12 hour cut off – 110 men and 9 women. The first place woman finished in an extraordinarily fast time of 8:05, only 14 minutes behind the first place man. Yuch finished 13th in 9:22, also a very impressive time. I felt slightly ashamed that I finished over 2 hours behind the first place woman. A podcast I had listened to recently remarked that having such big gaps between runners in a race implies a lack of competition that is not “good for the sport”. This comment is interesting to me. Part of me agrees that it would be nice to have more female competition. At the same time, I don’t think I should feel bad that I came in so far behind Superwoman, or any woman! In fact, I feel proud for even putting myself out there on a course in which I knew I would be anxious and completely out of my comfort zone. Clearly, not very many women are willing to do this, which is totally understandable to me.
This race definitely established the limit of what I am comfortable and willing to do in a way that no races thus far have. In fact, when Yuch asked me after how it went, I responded with tears in my eyes, “It was too much”. Physically, I could do it. Emotionally, it was just way too much. While he was happily and joyfully scrambling on the course, I was just trying not to die. However, I will say, to anyone who is interested in running this race. If I can do it, you can do it. For now, I choose to comfortably relax in our flat in Richmond with my Kindle and knitting needles. I look forward to our next race, the Chester Marathon, in two weeks which will take place on a nice, flat, safe, and scramble-free race course.
I was in the bathroom when the countdown began. For some reason I don’t have the urge to go until 10 minutes before the race starts, which is not exactly great timing. “10! 9! 8…”The good news is I’m fast (in the bathroom). Leaving the bathroom, I watched as the pack of runners ran off into the distance, signaling the beginning of the 2019 Castle Peak 100k.
When a friend suggested that I try the Castle Peak 100k last year, I went to the website to see the following warning: “The 1.25 mile Palisades section includes very technical, risky & exposed scrambling. This may not be appropriate for those with a fear of heights.” Based on my experience on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016, my immediate response was that I wouldn’t be able to do the race. I never thought I had a fear of heights until I found myself utterly paralyzed on Forester Pass in the High Sierra and crawling along the Knife’s Edge in Goat Rock’s Wilderness in Washington. Yep. This race was not appropriate for people like me. My friend, Dan, refused to believe my pleas and proceeded to email multiple friends who had done the race asking if they thought someone who had thru-hiked the PCT and won multiple Bay Area races would have a problem in the Palisades, to which they all responded absolutely not. I’m not sure these responses boosted my confidence, but I decided to sign up anyway. I attended the training runs and found that okay, fine – the Palisades weren’t so bad after all – as long as you don’t obsess over looking down and thinking about dying. Even the race wasn’t so bad, as I was too tired to focus my energy on being scared, and adrenaline and my pacer propelled me forward. After winning the race in 2018, I was invited back to run in 2019. Despite my initial hesitation and doubts that I could complete this race, I couldn’t resist doing it a second time. I loved the vibe of the race, the welcoming race directors, and I can honestly say it’s one of the most beautiful courses I’ve ever run. My hope was to PR, if even by minutes. My 2018 race had been mostly seamless, but I knew I had slowed down in the Palisades due to overall fatigue and lack of pressure from females behind. My goal was to PR and finish strong.
I made my way through the bottleneck of runners heading onto the singletrack. Ascending The Animal, I recalled how I had run the entire first 24 miles last year and perhaps that had contributed to my fatigue later in the race. I heard Ian Sharman’s voice on “Science of Ultra” in my head. “If you ask yourself – Will I be able to run this hill at the end of the race, and the answer is no – You should not be running that hill”. I decided to interject some power hiking, even though the first 24 miles is extremely runnable. I shared some miles with Dave and Dan, until Dan passed me heading up to Andromeda, looking effortlessly energetic. I arrived at Johnson Canyon 20 minutes later than last year. Normally, this wouldn’t bother me, and maybe it was a good thing to take it easy for the first third of the race. In my case, I felt terrible. Despite taking it “easy” in the first 24 miles, my legs already felt like they were trashed.
I left Johnson Canyon with this notion that I was behind and needed to make up time. But, there was only so much that my legs could do, so I did my best. I chatted with people along the way. I met a Frenchman who allowed me to recite the only thing I knew in French: the French alphabet, and he approved despite my terrible accent. I ran on and off with a guy from the East Coast who had thru-hiked the AT and chosen to run Castle Peak with his thru-hiking pals over celebrating his girlfriend’s birthday. Yep, this is my tribe. I asked people “How’s it going?” and when the response veered towards anything but positive, I reminded them that this day was not set in stone. Anything can happen in an ultra, and things are constantly changing. An upset stomach will not last forever. Tired legs can be revived. If anything, I was reassuring myself.
As predicted, there was a lot of hiking. But I didn’t mind. The hiking allowed me to take a breath, enjoy the view and wildflowers, and eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. This would be my last piece of solid food for the day, I concluded as I tossed the crust aside and struggled to gather enough saliva to swallow. The day was beginning to get warm, and it was a relief to get up to Basin Peak, the cool breezes that accompanied it, and the view of beautiful Castle Peak in the distance.
A photographer along the ridge commented that “You run all the fun races!” I started to question my decision to run these “fun” races that he spoke of. Upon arrival to the top of Castle Peak, I let out a long celebratory yelp and then took on the task of getting down. I thought about Garret and wondered if he would be bombing down, a far contrast from my tiptoeing. Despite my prudence, I did pass some runners on my way down – all men. There were no women in sight. The last woman I had passed was in Euer Valley, and the lead woman was running strong, miles ahead.
Upon arrival at the Castle Valley aid station, I was surprised to see Dan standing there. “How are you doing?” He asked me. I have no idea how I responded or if I responded, but deep inside I felt anything but strong. He mentioned that he was having stomach problems and took off. I filled up my water, grabbed a strawberry popsicle, and took off myself, but he had long gone. Heading to Hole in the Ground, I began to think about all the advice I had given to my friends who were running Castle Peak for the first time. “Save your legs for Hole in the Ground”, I had advised. Now I wasn’t even sure if I had legs for Hole in the Ground! My legs kept moving and I powered on, completely focused on the ground ahead of me. While this section of the course is very runnable, it’s deceivingly technical. I ran back and forth with Dan, but his fast hiking was far superior to my fast hiking. I longed for the Hole in the Ground aid station with rice balls Yuch had raved about last year, but the aid station had moved. It was now .2 miles up a hill that was off the main course, and there were no rice balls. After inquiring about this course update, I was told the new timing chips required cell phone reception. Hence, the .2 mile slog up the hill.
The road section from Hole in the Ground to Van Norden is painful, as are most road sections in the middle of a trail race. Not sure why this is other than the expectation that you should be going fast on a road and are not. It’s become a ritual to stop at the gas station bathroom on Donner Pass Rd. approaching the Van Norden aid station. Perhaps this is not the most competitive move for someone in a race, but then again maybe I’m not the most competitive person. I dashed into the bathroom, sat down on the toilet and well, I just sat. It was really nice. Then I washed my hands at the sink with soap. Also, very nice. Then I splashed water on my face multiple times. So nice. But life must go on, and my pacer Moriah would be waiting for me and wondering where I was. So, I left my secret pit stop and proceed to head up to Van Norden. During my brief time in the bathroom, someone with a green shirt had passed me. It was Dan! Maybe I had been in the bathroom longer than I thought…
It was 3:40 when I arrived at Van Norden, 20 minutes later than last year. I was surprised to find that I had run the last split around the same pace as last year despite my slower first split. A PR was not in the cards for me, but at least I wasn’t totally bombing this race. Well, not yet, anyway.
Running with Moriah gave me a new energy, but soon my stomach began to hurt. It felt huge and bloated, like a giant balloon full of air. I knew I had to continue taking in fuel, but with each drink of my Gu Roctane Summit Tea, I felt a painful jab to my balloon stomach. To make matters worse, my stomach hurt when I ran, but was fine when I hiked. We encountered perfectly runnable sections that I had to walk, much to my chagrin.
Even though I continued to take in fuel, I felt completely void of energy and utterly wasted. I told Moriah I was proud of my race and that I would continue to try to do my best. I knew the gap between me and the first place woman had widened considerably, but my focus was on staying positive and running the best race I could on that day. I knew if I gave in completely, I would regret it later, so I kept pushing.
Random volunteers seemed to be scattered along the Palisades, and in an emotional moment I hugged a female volunteer on the way up to Mt. Lincoln. The Palisades seemed to go on forever, and after endless rope climbs and steep scrambles, I arrived at Mt. Lincoln. We were greeted by Suzanna Bon who Moriah recognized from PCTR’s Armstrong Redwoods 50k, and we proceeded to take a picture of the three us, once again.
I threw down a Gu Cold Brew Coffee gel and crossed my fingers that my balloon stomach would not burst, and we took off.
I’m not sure if it was the Cold Brew Coffee or the fact that the end was near, but I was moving. I ran hills that I thought I couldn’t run. I guess my Central Governor decided it was safe to push since we were so close to the finish. Thank you, Central Governor, but also damn you, Central Governor! With the oncoming sunset, the air was now a cool temperature and the breeze was cooling on my previously overheated body. After Mt. Judah, it would all be cruising singletrack down to the fire road to Sugarbowl. But, wait – the course ribbons were not going down the singletrack. They were continuing up and up! “Oh man”, I told Moriah as I kept brainlessly moving forward. “We’re going up again”. The RDs had revised the course once again. Perhaps, another cell phone spot?! The descent from the “cell phone spot” was precarious and slow, but soon we rejoined with the buttery singletrack and we were on our way to the finish.
In the end, the RDs made one final course revision which was the finish line. It had moved over just slightly to the right of the chairlift, but my brain seemed to remember finishing to the left. Moriah verbally guided me in the right direction and I crossed the finish line as the second female and 15th overall.
I remember thinking after Never Summer that that was the hardest race I had ever done, but after this year’s Castle Peak, I decided the 2019 Castle Peak was the hardest race I had done. I’m not sure if I will continue to say that about every race that I run, as if I’m suffering from some form of ultra-amnesia. I think what stuck out to me is that throughout the day, I never felt strong. I felt trashed early on and continued to run in this state. My physical training which includes a lot of back to back runs on tired legs allowed me to continue running despite my fatigue. The comradery on the trail helped me stay positive, and knowing my friends were out there experiencing the same trails gave me energy to keep moving. Even when a PR and winning was off the table, I gave it my best so that I could say and know that I did. If I learned anything from this year’s race it is that attitude is paramount, never ever give in/up, races with friends are a ton of fun, and hugs are huge.
The Never Summer mountain range in North Central Colorado is appropriately named. Its highest peaks are cloaked with winter’s remaining snow and its lowest points contain damp meadows with numerous creek crossings and nettlesome mosquitoes. Despite winter’s lingering presence, the mountains are abundant with wildflowers, colorful lichen, and stunning lakes. The Never Summer 100k is held in late July, a time of year when thunderstorms are notorious in the Rocky Mountains. Its highest point is Diamond Peak at 11,800 ft. and the race itself averages at around 10,000 ft. The course is extremely technical, as runners negotiate trails composed entirely of ankle twisting rocks, climb over freshly hail-polished boulders, and stumble blindly through narrow meadow trails replete with hidden holes and booby traps. Mix all these ingredients together in one day, and you have the recipe for the perfect mountain ultra; beautiful, dramatic, wet, and very tough.
Going into the Never Summer 100k, I felt very little confidence that I could run this race competitively. Ever since Armstrong Redwoods 50k in May, my right big toe joint was bothering me – not enough to affect my running, but enough to cause concern as to what 64 miles and who-knows-how-many-hours could do to it. My right bunion was screaming either as a result of being crammed into a narrow soccer shoe once a week or maybe it was in cahoots with the toe. Of more concern was my left hip/leg which out of nowhere one morning decided to give me grief and resulted in an immediate inability to straighten it without pain. I hadn’t been sleeping well in months, was exhausted every day, and barely making it through the work day without feeling the need to curl up in the back of my VW bug and take a nap. The list of tasks I needed to complete to apply for grad school was slowly and heavily piling up in the back of my mind. I began to consider the idea that I might have overtraining syndrome, which is, in my opinion, a fancy word that athletes use for stress. My yin was not in balance with my yang. I was not getting enough recovery for all the training and the going-going-going. I wondered if I should stop running overall, but instead I did the best that I could. I scaled back the going-going-going, and did my best to increase the rest and downtime during my day. I tell you all this not to claim a magical success story following a stressful time, but to frame my state of mind the weeks before the race.
My altitude training consisted of spending four days running in the Mammoth mountains two weeks before the race, and arriving in Colorado the weekend before the race. Two nights were spent in Boulder, four nights in Leadville, one night in Walden, and the night before in Gould. In Leadville, I ran three times – all easyish tapering runs, but runs at altitude nonetheless. The first run was 12 easy flat miles around Turquoise Lake and I was breathing hard. The second run was a short 8 miles along the CDT from a nearby trailhead and a fair amount of climbing. Again, I huffed and puffed, and hiked most of the hills. The last run was a quick five mile jaunt down the Mineral Belt Trail in Leadville. I was still breathing hard. This race was going to be a lot harder than I thought.
Yuch asked me if I was excited about the race and my response was “I’m scared”. I knew I could do the distance, but the altitude would put this huffing and puffing sea level girl at a huge disadvantage. My nagging injuries had not gone away, despite my increase in recovery methods. In Colorado, I napped every day, read my book, knit, foam rolled, cooked, and simply enjoyed not sitting at a desk in an office. I decided my goals for this race would be the following: take lots of pictures, have fun, survive, and finish before dark (ETA – 8:30 pm).
Going into a race with low expectations can have its benefits. But it still doesn’t make it easier to go to the bathroom two hours before you’re used to. However, missing your morning bathroom window for an ultra isn’t the end of the world – there will be plenty of opportunities for that along the way! I started out slowly, as planned. On the first climb up 7 Utes at 11,453 ft., my body was forced to a hike. Thankfully, everyone else seemed to be doing the same thing. I pulled away to use the “lady’s room”, despite feeling the furthest away from lady-like. Much better. I continued climbing, even further back in the pack now. Oh well. There was a long way to go, so there was no sense in thinking about pace and place now.
The second major climb and the highest point of the day was Diamond Peak at 11,852 ft. Instead of switching back up the mountain, pink course flags masochistically led us straight up. I chatted with fellow runners as we bonded over this insane climb which had reduced some of us literally to a crawl.
My method consisted of bursts of scrambling up quickly, stopping to catch my breath and rest, and then scrambling up again. It seemed to be working quite well. I took lots of pictures honoring my promise to myself to document the race. At the top it was beautiful. A group of people greeted us and someone offered to take my picture.
And then, we got to reap the rewards of all the climbing and coast along the ridgeline, the most scenic part of the course.
The descents in Never Summer are extremely technical. Many of the trails/roads are covered completely in rocks, which require unconditional focus and a little bit of pretending like you are walking on hot coals. Stepping too long in one place may result in rocks shifting from beneath you and the likelihood of an ankle roll.
Leaving the Diamond Peak aid station, someone told me I was the second place female. As I mentioned previously, I did not feel competitive going into this race. I had been moving at a snail’s pace, and this snail was taking pictures and taking bathroom breaks. The feedback was encouraging. Perhaps if I continued to run smartly, I could pick it up the last 20 miles or so which were much more “runnable” than the earlier parts of the course. Maybe I could be competitive after all.
The next challenge was the climb up to Kelly Lake, which sort of remains a blur to me. Up to this point, the weather had been great – cool and partly cloudy. Now the clouds seemed to take up more and more of the sky and at some point it started raining. I continued to power on, not feeling the need to put on a rain jacket as the rain was light and it was not very cold. The higher I got, the harder the rain fell, and I finally opted to duck under a tree to apply my rain jacket and put away my phone into the safety of a plastic ziplock (the pictures would sadly, end here). I was soaking wet, but not cold. I encountered snow, but this was no stranger to me. I was used to trekking across large fields of snow, most recently in Mammoth. It started to hail when I encountered the boulders – large rocks that we were apparently supposed to maneuver through. Every now and then there’d be a pink ribbon, reminding me that – yes, the trail does indeed go this way! My pace slowed down considerably as a couple of guys shimmied along past me with no problem. At some point I saw a runner down below moving very quickly and I thought “how is that possible??” When he yelled “It’s a trail!” I realized he actually had found a trail below the rocks while here I was messing around on all fours trying not to kill myself. I got myself down to where I saw him, hopped on the trail, and was out of there without looking back.
Departing Kelly Lake and the alpine territory that came with it, the sun began to emerge as I entered a beautiful grove of Aspens. I still had my rain jacket on as I couldn’t be bothered to remove it. I was now entering some kind of flow state that would continue up until I reached the Clear Lake aid station at mile 39.4. I can’t explain it. It just happened. The sun was out, it was humid, and I knew I should be boiling in this heat-trapping rain jacket, but I was cruising and passing runners, maneuvering trail-less meadows loaded with land mines disguised as gopher holes and rocks. I was dancing, sailing, and flying. It was an amazing feeling, while it lasted.
At the Clear Lake aid station, I finally removed my rain jacket. From here I would have a 4.5 mile round trip out and back. Heading out on this stretch, my superhero powers had completely diminished. I nearly hiked the whole 2.2 miles to Clear Lake, which at the time felt so much more than 2.2 miles! Barely a half mile in, leading woman Sabrina Stanley flew by me. I began to wonder if I would see Yuch, or had he already gone by? My legs had nothing left. But just minutes ago I had been sailing! Finally, I saw Yuch and we stopped on the trail to talk. I was glad to hear his ankle, which he had rolled two weeks prior, seemed to be doing okay. It was nice seeing him and talking to him, but at some point I said “I gotta go!” and took off (as much as someone can take off when they are hiking up a hill). On the way back from Clear Lake, I was made aware of the women who were on my tail, the first being Amber, who I had run and chatted with earlier on in the race. I was happy to see her doing so well. She had mentioned she had run this race a couple years back, not done as well as she wanted, and spent some time “puking”. As uplifting it was to see all the runners behind me on the out and back, it also made me extremely aware of how close some women were. If I were to remain in second place, I would need to keep moving.
The bulk of the climbing was over. Time to pick it up. And then, the clouds filled the sky again and shot big pellets of hail repeatedly on to my bare arms and legs. “AHHHHH!!!” I screamed all the way into Canadian Aid Station at mile 50, to find the volunteers and some runners had taken cover under the tents. Spectators along the trail were huddled under their rain jackets. Time to put on my rain jacket again unless I wanted to be beaten into a hail driven pulp. I left Canadian with only 14 more miles to the finish.
These last 14 miles should have been some of the fastest miles of the race, but instead they ended up being painfully slow. My back was killing me and I would run the rest of the race with my hands placed on my hips. The trail was now a river and rivers are made to swim in, not run in. Prior to this trail river, I had been doing my best to avert water and mud on the trails, but the situation was now completely out of my control. I surrendered completely, and splashed my way ahead gaining wonderful particles of mud and cow dung into my shoes. Bring it on, trail river! But slogging through trail rivers is an exhausting act, and I began to tire and would stop and walk. Run, walk, run, walk, swat mosquito, run, walk.
I arrived at Bockman aid station, only 5.7 miles after Canadian, but it seemed like a mud slogging lifetime. I saw my mom and her friend Karla up ahead and I waved. The aid station volunteer explained to me that it was only 6.2 miles with 1,000 ft. of elevation gain to the next aid station and then 2.2 easy miles to the finish. He filled my pack up with water, but the whole process was happening so slowly that I started to get anxious. For all I knew, I was about to get overtaken by the women behind me, and after all I had gone through, I was not ready to give up second place.
The fire road out of Bockman would have been easy, had I not run over 50 miles already. It gradually went uphill, and was definitely runnable, but I was tired. Every time I stopped to walk, I would think about getting passed and I would start running again. I thought about the aid station volunteer, and wondered if this was the 1,000 ft. of gain he was talking about. If so, it really wasn’t too bad. Soon, I came across a massive hill. Aha, I thought. Silly me. That fire road must have been like 10 ft. of gain because here was the rest of it. At some point I was passed by a runner who delivered a message that the third place woman was behind me (no kidding!), but she may have stopped to walk so I probably didn’t have anything to worry about. I couldn’t tell if the message was supposed to reassure me, or scare the bejeebies out of me. I had been running scared for a while, but now I was really scared. I was certain my meadow slog had cost me and now I would lose everything I had worked for. I ran as fast as I could to the finish, which was somewhat possible due to the flat and downhill nature of the trail, and crossed the finish line at 8:18 pm, with a time of 14 hours and 45 minutes. Crouched over with my hands on my knees, I breathed out sighs of relief. I felt like I needed to explain myself. “I was being chased!” But, the third place woman would not arrive to the finish until 37 minutes later.
At the finish, The Gould Community Center was a welcome sight. I entered to find a roaring fire and wet clothing, shoes, and runners strewn across chairs. I changed into warm clothes in the kitchen and placed myself in front of the fire. Yuch brought me hot soup. My stomach was messed up from all the Roctane and Spring Energy, but I was also really hungry from not having eaten anything in a while. Knowing there was no food back at our little Powderhorn cabin, we took vegetarian burgers and soup to go.
Back at our cabin, we took hot showers and tucked ourselves into our beds. Both of our stomachs were a mess, but we were starving so we mustered up the courage to eat our burgers. They were delicious and nourishing. As I lie in bed, wide-eyed and unable to sleep, I listened to the rain and thought of all the runners who were still out there in the dark, splashing through that trail river.
Two races. 6 days apart. Same basic route. Both handicapped. Two totally different experiences. This is my review of the 2019 Dipsea and Double Dipsea.
The Dipsea can be difficult to get in to, especially if you’re not a local. Applications must be submitted via Snail Mail as soon as they’re available and entries are awarded on a first come first serve basis. This gives priority to locals, but if you’re not local – you can still squirrel your way in with a good sob story, or some good old fashioned bribe money. Once you get in, you must endure the initiation phase of the Dipsea: the Runner section. If you can manage to get top 750, you will then be invited back into the Invitational section which means you can now bypass the complicated entry process, as well as minimize the number of runners you have to pass on the course (the runner section has a later start time). The key is to maintain your invitational status year to year, by placing in the top 450. I ran my first Dipsea in 2015 and placed 719, barely squeaking into the top 750. In the last 4 years, I’ve maintained my invitational status which basically requires running a decent time, placing the Dipsea priority over other races that may be happening around this time, and sometimes hopping off your PCT thru hike to avoid going back to square one again.
To get in to the Double Dipsea, you can register on Brazen Racing’s website as soon as registration opens. Anyone can register – just try and do it soon, as the race tends to sell out quickly. Like the single Dipsea, you can register as a couple or a team. Yuch and I decided to enter as a couple and see if we could get the fastest couple award.
The Dipsea starts in downtown Mill Valley at the Depot and ends at Stinson Beach towards the back parking lot. The official race website claims the race is 7.4 miles long. However, your mileage will depend on the shortcuts you take (or do not take) on race day. The race also includes a couple of fast road sections which are critical places to pick up some time and pick off some runners. Getting to Cardiac is always rewarding as it signals the end of the climbing and the beginning of the descent to Stinson.
The Double Dipsea begins at Stinson Beach, turns around at Old Mill Park, and finishes at Stinson Beach immediately as you enter the first parking lot. The race is approximately 13.7 miles. The high point here is getting to Old Mill Park as you are halfway done. I also found it encouraging to see my halfway split was 1:07. Going into the Double, I thought if I ran a good race, I might run 2:20. Seeing my 1:07 time was helpful because I felt like I had been running smartly, not too fast and not too slow, and now felt confident that a sub 2:20 time was possible.
Both races have a handicapped system where runners are given “headstart” minutes based on their age and gender, in order to equalize the playing field. The Dipsea’s head start table is located here. The Double Dipsea’s head start table is located here. As a 35 year old female, I got an 8 minute head start in the Dipsea this year, and a 19 minute head start in the Double. In the Dipsea, I have to wait until I’m 40 to gain another minute, but then immediately get another minute when I turn 41. In the Double Dipsea, I will gain 4 minutes when I turn 40, but then have to wait until I turn 45 for 4 more. Finally – it “pays” to get old!
There are 3 primary “shortcuts” during the Dipsea – Suicide, Swoop, and the Panoramic shortcuts. These shortcuts will trim off a considerable amount of mileage and time if you can navigate them swiftly and without injuring yourself. My last couple of Dipseas, I have not taken Suicide, and gone for the “safer option” (there’s actually a sign that says Safer Option and a little voice in my head urges me to go for it vs. A Trail Called Suicide). For some reason, I got it into my head that Suicide will slow me down as I’m slower and more prudent on steep downhill than the alternative runnable section. This year, I decided “I’m taking Suicide!” I practiced it in training and it wasn’t as bad as I remembered, so I decided to go for it. I felt out of control as my legs moved underneath me down the hill faster than I could manage. I saw my friend Moriah, who is a downhill speed demon, on my left and I yelled “Moriah! I’m doing it Moriah!” and I couldn’t believe it when I flew/tumbled/magically appeared ahead of her, maybe not so gracefully but sans-face plant is enough grace for me. Suicide and Swoop brought more out-of-control Megan legs to my day with a lot of near ankle rolls on the narrow poison oak lined gullies.
Shortcuts are not allowed in the Double Dipsea. Anyone caught taking shortcuts or skipping any part of the course will be disqualified, which is exactly what happened during the 2019 race. It kind of surprised me, since it seems like a hard thing to “accidentally” do. Suicide is not obvious, Swoop had a sign on it, and the Panoramic Shortcuts are also very obscure. The elimination of the shortcuts may lead you to think less opportunities for poison oak, however I seemed to get more poison oak on the Double than the Single.
The Dipsea is very important to a lot of people. This leads to a more “stressful” anticipation of the race and a lot more competition out there in the field. Many of these runners have been running the Dipsea for many years on end, and are looking to slice seconds off their times. While many people do run it for fun, the Dipsea is a very serious matter! Before the race, you will see some runners warming up along Miller Ave. and Throckmorton so that the initial climb up the Dipsea stairs is not a huge shock to the system. The start waves are very organized with two separate bigger waves for the separate Invitational and Runner section. Within each larger wave, there are then 26 waves that start a minute apart, depending on your age and gender. Your race bib will have your wave on it, your wave will be called out in advance for you to get “in the pit” i.e. next up, and off you go. There is a huge crowd of spectators lined around the start and down Throckmorton to observe this crazy little race that is in its 109th running. During the race, it’s all business. “On your left” will be the most frequently spouted phrase, as every person passed counts on your 7.4 mile journey to Stinson. The top 35 will receive the coveted “black shirt” with their place on it, but this victory is not just your average victory. Getting a black shirt in the Dipsea is very hard to do, so if you get one – you’re pretty darn fast, if you ask me.
The Double Dipsea has a much more relaxed vibe. Once upon a time, this may have been different. The Double Dipsea clearly does not have as much history as the Dipsea having only been run for 50 years vs. 109. 50 years is still a long time. In researching past results, I found that the Double Dipsea used to be a lot more competitive. At some point, it lost this competition and I’m not sure if it has to do with the change from DSE to Brazen Racing or what. The start at Stinson was very different than the start at the Depot. There is only one bigger wave (no separation of invitational vs. runner). There was no pre-start line “pit”, and your wave is not written on your bib ahead of time. The race director casually calls out the wave times, and if you don’t know your wave ahead of time, you will likely miss it. As I stepped up to to the 35-39 year old female group, a man who was late for the previous wave nonchalantly made his way past us – something you would never likely see in the Dipsea! During the race, I passed many people, but did not get passed by many. I kept waiting to get passed by the Alex Varners and the Gus Gibbs’, but no such people seemed to exist in this race, at least not today. As I approached Old Mill Park, I began to see my competition – all the people who had started before me (or who may have passed me already) that were on their way back to Stinson already. On the way back, the pack of runners Old Mill Park-bound thickened on the singletrack paralleling Muir Woods Rd. The amazing thing was that all these runners would shout “Runner!” to the string of runners behind them, and everyone would move to the side, so that I could easily pass by. The communication was incredible. I was so used to fending for myself, I did not expect this. I started to hear people saying my name and cheering me on. At first I thought “Oh did I know that person?” and “Gee, who are these people that know me?” and finally “I must be famous!” Suddenly it dawned on me that my name was written on my bib. I guess I wasn’t famous after all, but I still thought it was pretty cool to have people cheering me on, even if they had no idea who I was. This is not typical in a trail race. During road marathons, I’ve had random spectators say my name by simply looking at my bib, but I was not used to this on the trails. It was awesome, and really cemented the vibe of the Double Dipsea and how I will always remember it. The descent from Cardiac to Stinson was primarily a solo experience in comparison to the Single Dipsea. There were few to pass, and even fewer passing me. It was quiet and meditative, like I was out on a run by myself.
Yuch got black shirt #15, and I got 44th place with a handicapped time of 57:24 and a running time of 1:05:23. While I only PRed by seconds, I placed significantly higher than past years. I felt good about my race, making considerable progress on the descents. So, how come my time does not reflect this?! Perhaps it had to do with how hot it was on race day, already in the 80’s at the start at 8:30 am in the morning. This was the hottest Dipsea thus far (for me), and I think it may have impacted a lot of the times on race day. Or, at least that’s my excuse! Regardless, I’m getting closer to that black shirt.
Yuch and I managed to snag the Fastest Couple award at the Double Dipsea with a combined handicapped time of 3:50:15. Yuch won the race, I got 6th overall, and 3rd female with two super fit 60 year old women placing ahead of me. My chip time was 1:58:05 and my running time was 2:17:05, with my splits being 1:07 and 1:09. I was proud of my fairly even splits and for running the Double faster than I thought I could. The weather was 20-30 degrees cooler than the week prior which made a big difference in how I felt physically out there on the course.
Both of these races are awesome and it’s so hard to compare apples and oranges here. While, the single Dipsea is a much more “serious” affair, it doesn’t have to be. I probably take it more seriously than a lot of people and less seriously than the rest of the people. It seems more stressful than the Double Dipsea because you have less time to do the work and get to the finish line. And as someone who is better at longer than shorter events, it seems more difficult to me. I felt more in control in the Double Dipsea. I never was gasping for air up a climb, clearly because I wasn’t going as fast. But, I just felt like it was easier to pace. My goal during the Double was to run even splits. My goal during the Single is always to run as fast as Meganly possible, which can always be a risky endeavor! Both races can be fairly dangerous with runners passing each other on sometimes very narrow singletrack. The Dipsea has 1500 runners flowing in the same direction, while the Double has about half that amount going in both the same and opposite direction. The trails most subject to injuries are probably the shortcuts in the Dipsea, while on the Double the most densely packed section is the singletrack paralleling Muir Woods Rd. Yuch, being the front runner, collided with another runner who probably wasn’t expecting to see anyone so soon. They both smashed into each other and then onto the ground, resulting in a very costly rib-smashing Double Dipsea victory for Yuch. While both races are fun and different, I found that for me they both are a solo test of how I can run each of these courses. It’s true I’m competing against others, but what really matters to me is my time and how I improve (or do not improve) from year to year on the same course.
So, now that I’ve presented with you with the pros and cons of each race, I welcome you to pick your poison. And if neither of these races sound like your cup of tea, there’s always the Quad Dipsea.
The Armstrong Redwoods 50k is 3 weeks after Lake Sonoma – just enough time to recover and get back out there on the race scene. It’s also the same weekend as the Miwok 100k, which is why Yuch and I haven’t done this race the last couple of years. As much as I love Miwok, I decided to skip it this year and check out some new races and new trails. PCTR’s Armstrong Redwoods 50k is one of Yuch’s favorite races, for a reason that I was not exactly certain of, but was hoping to get to the bottom of.
The current 50k course has about 8,500 ft of elevation gain, making it tougher than the toughest 50k I’ve done to date, the Tamalpa Headlands 50k (and that didn’t go over so well for me). Due to storm damage, the course was adjusted the week before the race. Instead of being one 16.3 mile loop followed by a nearly identical 15.2 mile loop, the race would be a 14.1 mile loop, followed by a nearly identical 11.1 mile loop, followed by a smaller 5.9 mile loop. Similar to the original course, the first loop would include a short out and back section where each runner must grab a bracelet. All three loops would contain the same harrowing climb out from the start/finish line, and end with the same fast downhill to the finish. The re-route also claimed to have 7,656 ft of elevation gain, making it much “easier” than the original course.
Yuch thought I could go for the course record (5:05 by Kimberly O’Donnell in 2014 – the same woman who has the course record for MUC). I thought I could not. I’ve had slower times at Way Too Cool and that course has almost half the climbing as Armstrong! That being said, it’s always nice to have something to aim for. However, I would not be using my watch or creating a pace chart. It’s been a long while since my last 50k, and I had no idea how to pace it other than going by feel.
PCTR reserves campsites for the runners and offers them during registration. Initially we had reserved an AirBnb, but due to the recent flooding in Guerneville, it got cancelled in the months before the race. We emailed Greg and were lucky enough to snag one of the remaining campsites at Bullfrog Campground, just 10 minutes from the race start. The campsites seem to vary in size and quality. The one that we reserved was nice enough, but definitely pretty closely packed with our neighbors on either side. The places to pitch a tent (away from the road) are limited as the campsite begins to gradually slope down at a certain point. However, the campground was nice enough, and I would definitely recommend it as the best and closest option the night before the race.
The week before the race, Yuch got sick. He was pretty bummed and I was pretty bummed because this whole tough-50k-three-weeks-after-Lake-Sonoma thing was his idea! He decided to come anyway, and spectate. A couple days before the race, Moriah signed up, deciding that attending and managing her three kid’s field trips in addition to marking the Miwok course, was just not enough on her plate.
The weather was perfect. The Russian River area can get pretty toasty in the summer, so we were lucky to have a clear day, but only getting into the high 60’s. Yuch dropped me off at the race start, and I asked “Where is everybody?” Yuch commented that he saw the finish line arch, and I remembered how small of a race it was. Last year’s race had 160 runners over 4 distances, but only 16 runners for the 50k. With the 50k being the first to start, I now understood where “everybody” was.
And then we were off. Climbing out of the Vistor’s Center on East Ridge Trail, I began to think “I can’t believe I have to do this three times”; a funny thought for someone who ran in circles around Chrissy Field for 24 hours. When I arrived at the Bullfrog Campground Aid Station, I realized that the out and back to get the bracelet went right by our campsite. Yuch had returned back to camp after dropping me off, but I knew he was meditating inside his tent. As I ran by on my journey to get my bracelet, I refrained from shouting for Yuch, so as not to disturb his meditation session.
East Austin Creek Fire Road down to Gilliam Creek was a lot of fast downhill. I thought about Yuch’s advice before the race: “Take it easy on the uphills, and bomb the downhills”. With uphills being my strength, I tend to pass people in races on the ascents, and get passed on the descents. This would not be the case this time around. Cramming Skratch gingerbread cookie into my mouth, I passed by two men who, in my mind, were going way too slow for this no-brainer-total-freebie downhill. What goes down must go up, and up we went out of the creek, where the same two men passed me on the uphill as I was reduced to a fast hike. The last of the climbing was done (for the first loop) when I arrived at Pool Ridge Aid Station, and it would be a lot of fast downhill to the finish from here on out. Again, I flew by the same two men.
Arriving at the finish line (for the first loop), friend and volunteer Justin Brandt instructed me to “hit” the finish line, and then “hit” the orange loop again. Easy for him to say. Out of the Visitor’s Center I climbed, again. It actually wasn’t as bad as I had initially thought. I think these things can be mentally overwhelming before they’re actually done, but once I accepted what had to be done and just did it, it was what it was – just moving forward. The second loop was harder, since my legs were more fatigued on the climbing, but went by much faster, as it skipped the out and back by the meditating campers. The day was starting to warm up, and I was glad I had packed two bottles of Gu Roctane Summit Tea, so easy and refreshing to drink during a race! Before I knew it, I was back to the finish line, again. I grabbed some more water for my pack, and as much as I wanted to hang around and mingle with the little people, I went out to “hit” the green loop – just 5.9 miles more. I’m not going to lie – there was a lot of hiking, but I ran where I could, and rejoiced as I arrived at the East Ridge/Pool Ridge short-cut. It was all downhill from here. Groundhog’s Day was finally coming to a close.
I finished the race in 5:24. At the finish line, I told Greg I had no idea how that course record was set. He responded that the course was a lot easier in 2014. This made me feel a little better about the race and also about what happened at MUC. It’s becoming clear that these races are constantly evolving and courses can differ from year to year, and given we are not running for money here – I’m fine with that. And despite the difference, Vince Dimassa still got a blazing fast time and a new course record.
Suzanna Bon came in second and Moriah in third. I felt proud to stand on the podium with two strong ladies and fantastic runners. I had heard of Suzanna before…perhaps a podcast or seen her name on race leaderboards, but couldn’t place why I truly recognized her. I later found out that she had the old course record at NYOD as well as one of the fastest times at the Castle Peak 100k. Her mileage at NYOD is what inspired me and ultimately guided me to the course record.
I still am not sure why Yuch loves this race so much. It was pointed out to me that the best part of the race was cut out this year and included some ample creek crossings. Armstrong Redwoods is certainly a beautiful park and the views from the ridge are really nice. The technical ascents and smooth descents make for a fast finish (all three times). And, having the race triple back did mean seeing other runners out there on the course which was fun and encouraging. Would I do it again? Sure, why not!
1. Not all courses (of the same approximate elevation gain) are created equal.
After viewing the first half of the course at the Lake Sonoma Training runs, I speculated that the course was faster than Marin Ultra Challenge. While both races possess an elevation gain of about 10,500 ft, their profiles are quite different with MUC having bigger climbs and descents, and Lake Sonoma having more of an overall consistently rolling profile. Hypothetically, I should be able to run a faster time at Lake Sonoma, I thought. I made a pace chart aiming for an 8 hour finish which comes out to a 9.5 minute mile pace. Based on past finishing times, this time seemed a little fast and perhaps ambitious, but I always like to set my goals high. Plus, I hoped that being surrounded by a lot of fast folks might push me to run faster (Note: the fast folks must be around you for this to actually work). Realistically, I knew I’d be over 8 hours, but less than 8:20. I was curious to see why the race kept referring to the course as “relentless”. It seemed very runnable from what I understood!
Everyone went out fast. I knew that I needed to run my own race and be conservative the first half if I was to have any legs left for the way back. Even at my conservative pace, I felt like I was moving pretty quickly. I went with it. I got to the first aid station at Warm Springs (11.4) around 8:20, 10 minutes earlier than my predicted time. It seemed about right since I’d likely slow down on the big hills towards the midpoint anyway. The first half was very runnable up until those last hills which I power hiked. I arrived at No Name Flat at 10:35, 5 minutes later than my goal time. At this rate, an 8 hour finish would be impossible unless I ran negative splits which seemed unlikely. I adjusted my goals.
I spent very little time at the aid stations, just enough time to grab my bottles from my drop bags and refill on water. The volunteers were fantastic – attentive and efficient. I was in and out in minutes.
The section from No Name Flat to Madrone was hot and exposed. I hiked a lot of those hills, but when I encountered any hills in the shade, I all of a sudden had legs to power up then. After the exposed section and pretty much until the end of the race, my legs felt strong. I ran the runnable sections fast, powered up the easier hills, and power hiked the harder ones. I passed a number of men (not so many women to pass). I felt good about my race. I wasn’t dying, I had a lot of energy, I was taking down fuel like nobody’s business, and my legs were still with me to the end.
I finished the race in a time of 8:42:46, way off my goal time and considerably slower than both times I’ve run MUC. I was proud of my race and feel like I couldn’t have run any faster or smarter than I did that day. There is nothing that I can think of that could have improved my time (other than perhaps just overall better training and cooler weather).
At the same time, my legs don’t feel that fatigued today, so maybe I just didn’t run fast enough! Or maybe my legs are just getting used to this.
2. Pre-race freak out is a real thing whether you are conscious of it or not.
The week before the race, my boss came into work sick. I immediately became hypersensitive, washing and sanitizing my hands consistently throughout the day. The thing about working in an office is, it is extremely difficult to avoid other people’s germs when you’re exchanging paperwork and files, so the most important thing is to just avoid touching your face and washing your hands before eating. I felt like I dodged a bullet when every morning I would wake up feeling fine, but each day at work stressed me out and I started to worry about how much it would suck to run 50 miles with a cold. Towards the end of the week, I started to feel “off”. I couldn’t narrow down any specific symptoms, but my throat felt “buggy”, and I felt feverish at times, feeling colder than usual in my grandma’s sauna of a house, and at other times sweating. The Friday before the race, I felt fatigued and “just not 100%”. Yuch reassured me that it didn’t sound like I had any real symptoms. At the same time, I had convinced him enough that he refused to kiss me.
I considered the idea that this might be psychosomatic. I typically seem to always have some king of nagging injury (whether real or not so real) going into a race, and this was the first time that I didn’t. Perhaps, my brain had decided to make myself dwell on the slightest feeling of not feeling great instead. It wasn’t unreasonable considering I had been around sick people. But, I just didn’t feel terribly invested in this race, so it didn’t seem to add up.
At our campsite, I didn’t feel excited about the race. I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to run it. If I woke up and was sick, I’d have to decide whether or not to run 50 miles feeling under the weather, or to not toe the line at all. That night I took half an Ativan and slept for almost 9 hours. I woke up feeling absolutely fine. Maybe I was fighting something and I successfully fought it, or maybe there was never anything to worry about from the start. Whatever may have happened, there is no doubting that the slightest aches and pains can feel increasingly magnified in the weeks leading up to a race.
3. Liquid fuel is hugely helpful and quite enjoyable on a warm day.
For longer races, I tend to eat solid food towards the beginning of a race, and transition to liquids and Gu. When I saw that the high on race day was going to be 75, I decided to fuel primarily with Gu Roctane, alongside Gu, a Skratch gingerbread cookie, and a Honey Stinger waffle. I put 2 bottles per drop bag, in an insulated freezer pack. My fuel plan was flawless. The drinks were cold when I got to them, hydrating, 200 calories each, and easy to drink. Had I not had them, I know I would have had a difficult time dealing with solid food and consequently getting less calories in. If you suffer from the same difficulties tolerating food while racing, I highly recommend liquid calories, whether it be smoothies, or some kind of high calorie electrolyte drink. Just know that not all electrolyte drinks are great for calories. For example, Skratch and Nuun do not provide sufficient calories to substitute for fuel.
4. Camping the night before the race is the closest accommodations you will find to the race start.
Liberty Glen campground is just 10 minutes from the start, so unless you’re camping at the actual finish line, I dare you to find a closer place than that. Healdsburg is about 30 minutes away and pricey. The drive from Novato is about an hour and a half. Spending less time in the car means a later wake up time (if you can consider 4:30 am “late”), and less energy wasted before the race. Liberty Glen is peaceful, beautiful, and there’s no cell phone reception offering relaxing pre and post-race accommodations. They also have showers. For $30 a night, you can’t beat it. Just make sure and get there early enough to grab one of the nicer sites. While you can make a reservation ahead of time, campsites are first come first serve. We arrived around 3 pm on Friday, and a family had just snagged our favorite site. Nevertheless, we found another great site.
5. Even though it can be hard, do not compare yourself to others (especially when they’re blazing fast!!)
This is a tough one. Sure, we race for a multitude of reasons, but one of the main ones is to compare ourselves to others in the field. As I mentioned before, I felt like I had a solid race and felt proud of my performance, how I felt mentally and physically, and how I finished. Yes, it’s true I slowed down throughout the course of the race, but when looking at even the elite runners, no one runs completely even or negative splits at a trail race (no one that I looked up anyway). Especially when you consider that the morning is dark and cool and later in the day it becomes sunny and warm. I found most of the top runners that I looked at slowed down by about 50-60 seconds per mile, which is not significantly less than how much I slowed down.
As more time passes, I’ve begun to doubt myself for no real reason. After looking at the results, I wonder, who are these women who ran faster than me, and could I have run a better time/a better place? How come my time was so far off of my MUC time? After waking up this morning, my legs didn’t feel like I had just run a race and I wonder, did I even run fast enough? Did I hike more hills that I should have run? Am I not very good at racing? These creeping doubts are really starting to irk me. I know in my heart that I ran the best race that I could yesterday, and I am proud of that. To run 50 miles is hard enough in itself, but to run 50 miles fast is just crazy. I’m comparing myself to some seriously fast women, some of whom train at altitude, some of whom who have Olympic qualifying marathon times, and many who have coaches and get paid to race. I’m comparing myself to myself on another course, a course which is different, took place in cool temperatures, and not nearly as competitive. I’m comparing myself to others and that’s just silly. So, I hope that when I remember Lake Sonoma I will always remember how strong I felt in that last half, how beautiful and uplifting the wildflowers were along the course, how nice it was to see friendly faces at the aid stations, along the trail, and at the finish line, how proud I was to still have running legs to go up and down, how grateful I am to have running legs in general, and how good I felt about myself when I crossed the finish line. Because that is all that really matters. That being said…I still want a do-over. Some day. 🙂
Marin Ultra Challenge, also known as MUC, offers 50 miles of some of the most scenic trails in the Marin Headlands and Mt. Tam. It is almost 11,000 ft of gain making it one of the toughest races in the Bay Area. Of course any 50 mile race on these trails is going to be tough, but MUC has something that the others don’t – the infamous Willow Camp trail, a beast of a trail that gains 1,800 ft of elevation gain in just 1.8 miles, after you’ve just gloriously plummeted down to sea level. March can be a dicey time of year for Spring races. You can usually count on cool temperatures, but as far as weather goes, anything’s possible. That’s all part of the challenge and charm of MUC. If it were easy, would any of us be doing any of this?
I ran MUC for the first time last year. I had run two 50 mile races to date, but neither had been anything to brag about. My first – AR50, I loved, but I in no way raced it. My second was Mt. Hood. I did well enough, but definitely died (see The Ultrarunner’s Dictionary for the definition of “die”) the second half. MUC would be my first really successful 50 miler. I felt I had the upperhand. I live in Marin and run on these trails frequently, but most importantly I am confident on these trails. Confidence is huge for me going into races, both physically but especially mentally. Being able to train on a course beforehand gives me confidence on race day that is critical to my performance. Little did I know that having some fierce competition would also be critical to my performance. For a large majority of the race, I was being chased by the second female, Katie Asmuth. Had Katie not been right behind me, I would not have run as well as I did that day. Last year, I ran MUC in 8:36:40 and was able to snag first place woman.
I guess I forgot to mention that MUC is one of the few races in the area (or just, period) that offers prize money. First place gets $500, second gets $250, and third gets $150. Each podium finisher also receives a pair of La Sportiva trail running shoes. It’s a pretty sweet deal for a local trail race. And running for some extra bucks definitely adds an additional incentive to run faster, especially if you are a poor college student.
This year Yuch and I decided to run MUC again. I’m still a college student (sort of), but I didn’t necessarily care about the money this year. I wanted the course record. The current course record was 8:23, and having run an 8:36 last year, I thought running an 8:20 was doable. It’s true I had a great race last year, but I knew I was stronger and had some miles under my belt. I printed out a pace chart and decided I’d go for 8:20. Having the fastest time on that course would mean a lot to me with the Marin Headlands being one of my favorite places to run.
As race day approached, RD Tim Stahler commented that the weather could be anywhere from “absolutely perfect to downright miserable”. This would turn out to be a fairly good assessment of the weather that day.
At 6:30 am, without a drop in the sky, we took off from Rodeo Beach. My goal? Run a little faster than last year. Without a watch, it would be impossible to know how fast I was going, but I had my little pace chart folded up in my hydration pack and would know if I was “on pace” each time I arrived at an aid station. Actually – I was wearing a watch, I just didn’t turn it on. There are two reasons I wear my Garmin, but do not use it for these longer races. Firstly, my Garmin won’t last long enough for anything longer than a 50k, so there’s no point. Secondly, I find it annoying and disruptive to have my watch monitoring my race. In a road marathon, it is critical for me to know my pace, but on the trails, seeing my pace fluctuate on the ups and downs will only stress me out and likely suck precious energy from me. So, I find it more useful to go by feel, and to keep myself in check with a pace chart with times.
I was slightly ahead of my pace chart. I guess going by feel is not always perfect, but then again, I knew Willow Camp would offset my “perfect” pace chart, too. I was slightly ahead of my pace chart, and slightly behind on my eating. I always try and eat 100 calories every 30 minutes, but eating just didn’t seem desirable or compatible with the whole running thing. I ran with a couple of guys who were running their first 50 miler. I was impressed with their pace and ambition. I couldn’t keep up, and was bummed when they took off. Heading up Coastal to Pirate’s Cove, I met Katie Arnold, the winner of last year’s Leadville 100. I knew beforehand that she would be my biggest competition and I was looking forward to her pushing me towards a PR, even if it meant her leaving me in the dust. Unfortunately, she had dropped down to the 50k distance. Part of me was relieved (because she passed me), but the other part of me was bummed because I was truly looking forward to the competition, seeing how I compared to such a successful and strong runner, and potentially getting a big wake up call. I wasn’t sure I would be able to get the course record or a PR without the competition there.
The rain started. I ran through Muir Beach. I had a drop bag at Cardiac and enough fuel on me to feed two. Heading up to Cardiac through Heather Cutoff and then Coastal, only wearing shorts and a t-shirt, I was soaked from the rain, but not yet cold. I hadn’t wanted to wear my rain jacket until it was absolutely necessary. I felt weak already going up Coastal. Not yet even 20 miles into a 50 miler, this was not a good sign. Maybe I didn’t taper enough, or maybe I’m just not as strong as I thought. At the top of Cardiac, I made my way over to my drop bag. In the minutes it took me to remove my gloves and refill my pack, I got cold very quickly. The rain was really coming down now and up there on Cardiac is no place to be during a storm. I put my jacket on. Another runner at the aid station commented that his current self was cursing his former self for not bringing a rain jacket. In attempt to console him, I offered “ah, you’ll be ok as long as you keep moving”. I couldn’t get my gloves back on and now my hands were freezing and wet. The second place female arrived at Cardiac, and I was out of there – gloveless. Ready or not.
Last year I remember having such a great time running down the Dipsea. This year I felt like I was in “emergency” mode. I was freezing cold and the second place woman was on my tail! I tucked my hands into my rain jacket and shivered. “I am so glad I am not that guy without a rain jacket”, I thought. Eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while in emergency mode flying down the Dipsea is challenging. The trail was slippery, the ground was soaked, and my feet were soaked. Numerous downed trees slowed my pace past the already slow pace of the later technical stages of the Dipsea. I questioned if I could make it the full 50 miles. And then, I emerged from the rain and saw my first view of Stinson Beach and clear skies.
Leaving the Willow Camp aid station, I briefly caught view of the yellow rain jacket of the second place woman. Just. Keep. Moving. I had trained on Willow Camp and felt like we were friends. Maybe not the best of friends, but we had become acquainted enough so that it wasn’t a surprise or scare when we met again. I knew I would be power hiking most of the way, and running when I could, so that is what I did. The key to power hiking is to hike with intention. I never just throw in the towel and “walk”. Power hiking is not walking. My intention (and motivation) was to get to the top of Willow Camp and be done with it, and to reap the benefits with the pleasantly rolling single track back over to Cardiac. How can you not be motivated by that?!
I caught up to one of the guys, Casey, who had passed me early on. Then I caught up to the other guy, Taylor. I was so happy to see them again. I was taking in fuel regularly – a totally random combination of bars, Gu Roctane Summit Tea, cookies, PB & Js – and feeling strong. Taylor and I ran together to Cardiac, where I picked up the-always-positive Moriah, precisely at 11:22 am. Somewhere in Muir Woods we picked up another MUC-er, Ryan. We passed a runner with trekking poles. The rain and wind were now behind us, and it was safe to remove the rain jackets. Running with Moriah, Taylor, and Ryan for this brief period would end up being the most memorable part of my race. I have often heard about the special bond made with other runners during times of suffering, but never quite experienced it myself. Usually I run alone, and so I thought maybe these bonds only happen on podcasts or in the back of the pack. During my time running with these guys, I had so much fun and not once did I think about how I was feeling or if I would be able to make it. I loved that. And so I was sad when I left them at the Deer Park aid station. I didn’t need anything, so Moriah and I just kept moving.
Oh, right. I guess I forgot to mention that at some point during the race I learned that the course had been cut short. Had I paid attention to the Facebook post the day before or Tim’s announcements at the race start, I would have known this. Instead, I learned from one of the other runners during the race that the course had indeed been cut short due to “storm damage”. We would not be ascending up Miwok and descending down Dias to Muir Beach, cutting approximately 2-3 miles from the 50 mile course. The culprit: that darn Redwood creek bridge that was still out. In short, I would not be able to attain either a course record or a personal record. I would be arriving to Muir Beach earlier than planned, and I just hoped Dan was ready for me when I got there.
Dan was early and ready to go, and off we went. All I had to do was get up two(ish) more hills, Middle Green Gulch and Old Springs/Wolf. Middle Green Gulch 40 miles into a race is quite different than Middle Green Gulch on fresh legs. I went for the run/hike with intention. I didn’t feel as motivated knowing that my goals were no longer possibilities, but I still didn’t want Yellow Rain Jacket catching up to me at this point in the race. Old Springs is the most gradual climb of all the Headland’s climbs, and I still couldn’t run the whole way. That is the most pathetic thing about these longer races. On Wolf, I again returned to the run/hike and before I knew it, the welcome sight of glorious Hill 88. It was all downhill from here. The final goal was to make it to the finish without a face plant. That final run down to Rodeo Beach is beautiful and fast. With the rain behind us, the day had shaped up to be a good one. I crossed the finish line with a time of 7:52:22. As Tim had so shrewdly predicted, the day was absolutely perfect with just a dash of downright miserable.
I ended up getting the course record, but I am here to say that I do not feel good about it. I knew I could have gotten 8:20 on that course based on my pace throughout the race. I also know that there are dozens of women who could do that race faster, probably even faster than my not-even-50-miles time! I hope that as MUC continues to get more competitive and the trail running scene continues to grow, some strong woman will be inspired to blow my time out of the water, just as I was inspired to do.
In 2015, shortly after I starting dating Yuch, Yuch’s friend Garret invited us to come run with him for a couple of hours at night during a 24 hour summer solstice race around Chrissy Field in San Francisco. Basically you run around the same 1 mile loop for 24 hours, or as long as you can take it. Afterwards I was intrigued by the style of the race. I had never run longer than maybe 6 hours on the trails. The idea of running around the same loop on pavement for an entire day seemed painfully boring, painfully painful, and somehow… intriguing. For the next couple of years, I would return to this memory and think “I’d like to try that”. It bothered me that other people would have the same reaction, “That sounds terrible!” I wanted to know if it really was as bad as it sounded, and if it was bad, I sort of wanted to know what that might feel like. So, I did what any average ultra runner would do, I decided to see for myself.
Coastal Trail Run’s “New Year’s One Day” race typically takes place on New Year’s Eve and ends on New Year’s Day. Unfortunately, due to the inability to get the permits for New Year’s, the 2019 race actually took place the weekend after New Year’s. Although ringing in the new year by beating myself up was initially part of the draw of NYOD, I still decided it was worth trying. So I signed up to volunteer for a couple of Coastal’s races so I could get a free entry in. For some reason this “free” entry helped me justify the whole running in loops on purpose thing.
If there is one thing that I am pretty consistent at doing in life, it is being prepared. I hate going into things unprepared. Whether it is thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, studying for an anatomy exam, giving a presentation, or running a race, I always massively prepare. I don’t really know why I sign up for these things that kind of freak me out. But, once I begin to train, study, etc. the fear of what lies ahead begins to dissipate. What was once completely overwhelming becomes doable. The unthinkable becomes thinkable. So it sort of surprised me that I didn’t really “train” for this race, in a way that I would another. The bulk of my training came from the earlier part of the year with successes at Marin Ultra Challenge, Miwok 100k, and Castle Peak 100k. Once the school semester and wildfires began, my training went downhill pretty quickly. I managed to squeak in a PR at CIM in December, but I would be relying mostly on a solid “base” for NYOD, minimal to average training the months before, and a 50 mile training run on the trails a couple weeks prior. I guess that was enough.
I did the research. I read blogs on other runner’s experiences at 24 hour races, what they ate and how they scheduled in periodic walk breaks. I emailed Garret who advised me to get some maximum cushioned road shoes to replace my Escalantes, warned me that the night was “Terrible. Terrible. TERRIBLE”, and told me that if I wanted to be successful, I needed to have a goal: Run 100 miles. Beat his record of 106 miles. Win. I intended on doing all three, plus I wanted the women’s record. This may seem ambitious for someone whose longest run is 62 miles on trail, and who had never run for more than 14 hours in a row before. I’m a realistic person. I did the math and 120 miles seemed doable. 120 miles would be my goal.
The forecast predicted rain. This didn’t worry me. Ok, maybe it worried me a little bit. But, I reassured myself. The nice thing about a 24 hour race is, it’s 24 hours. It can’t possibly rain for 24 hours straight, can it?
The forecast predicted 24 hours of rain. 3 days before the race I bought 2 pairs of rain pants online from various outdoor gear websites that ship 2-day. The day before the race, I received Patagonia’s Torrentshell rain pants and Outdoor Research’s Helium rain pants. Outdoor Research won – better fit, lighter weight, less bulk. I packed a rain jacket (also Outdoor Research), various changes of clothes, warm running pants, extra shorts and shirts, brimmed hats, wool hats, extra pairs of Injini socks, and 3 pairs of shoes. I was a little embarrassed at how much I was packing, but I had no idea what might happen out there. I had settled on a nice comfy pair of Altra Torins for this race, but the last thing I wanted was my nice comfy pair of shoes to get soaked and for my feet to get blisters. Just a 10 mile run in the rain from my house has been enough to inspire blisters! So I packed a pair of waterproof Lone Peaks, and several plastic produce bags to put over my socks in the event that all my shoes got soaked through. I packed a portable battery charger for my phone, an iPod, and my AfterShockz headphones, all in Opsak bags. I packed a canvas chair which Garret said was a “must” (even if it’s raining??) and my Chrome Dome umbrella. I packed various bars, gels, a tub of Gatorade, a tub of Gu Summit Tea Roctane, slices of pizza, smoothies, ginger ale, coffee drinks, Trader Joe’s Peppermint Hot Chocolate Mix. For some reason I thought I might be making mochas in my spare time. Did I mention this is my first time doing anything like this?
I stocked up on sleep the week before trying to sleep 8-10 hours every night if possible. I knew I couldn’t “bank” sleep that would be missed, I just wanted to be well rested. I scheduled three friends to come and run with me at various times in the race. Sarah would meet me in the afternoon, Yuch would come at night, and Joe would meet me in the early morning. NYOD does not allow official pacers, but they say it’s ok to have friends come out and run with you every now and then. Having these scheduled dates to look forward to would be hugely helpful in the hours that I battled by myself.
My mom dropped me off the morning of my race. I decided it would be wise not to drive myself for a couple of reasons. Not having an escape vehicle available to me would mean dropping in the middle of the night was not an option. Also, I wasn’t sure I would even be able to drive after all this. Yuch would be there in the morning towards the tail end of the race with his car. I posted the link to the tracking site on Facebook, also an important part of my race “strategy”. Knowing some friends and family may be tracking me always gives me a little more motivation on race day. It’s hard to explain, but it makes me feel like I am not alone and that I am being supported and “watched over”, similar to how I felt with people reading my blog and tracking my GPS when I hiked the PCT.
At 9 am on January 5th, 2019, with a sky full of ominous clouds, decked out in head to toe rain gear, I set off with 47 other runners to run around the lagoon at Chrissy Field, over and over again for the next 24 hours. With a forecast of on and off rain, the plan was to keep my body and feet dry and blister free, to take a 2 minute walk break every 30 minutes, and to eat 100 calories during that walk break. My two gear and food bins were set up under a tree for protection, with my handheld water bottle sitting on top. Every 30 minutes I would grab the bottle, take it around for a loop, take my walk break, eat 100 calories, continue the loop, then drop off the water bottle until 30 minutes later. This worked out well and I was amazed at how quickly 30 minutes would go by.
The rain was erratic. I started the race wearing the waterproof Lone Peaks, wanting to “save” my Torrins for the dry periods. Every time the rain would stop, I would stop at my bins, and change into my preferred Torrins. Then the clouds would burst and the rain would start up again, and I’d again change into the Lone Peaks. I did this about 5 times in in the span of an hour. This was not sustainable. Around 3 pm, when it looked like the sun was coming out and that perhaps we might get a break from the rain, I decided I had had it with the rain gear. I stripped off my rain pants and would run the last 18 hours of the race in shorts and a rain jacket.
Around 3 pm, Sarah joined me for about an hour and a half. Having run by myself for 6 hours it was really uplifting to have her company and I could feel my pace quickening.
As it grew closer to sunset, my friends Paul and Kate showed up. Paul had a new Light Belt prototype for me to try and for him to photograph.
Moriah and Phil showed up with a World Wrapps wrap that I had requested, the Island Teriyaki wrap, aka the best wrap in Marin according to just me. It has sushi rice, tofu, grilled pineapple, stir fry onions, peppers and mushrooms, and macadamia nuts. It is amazing and probably contains about 800-1000 calories total. To this point I had been mainly eating bars and my Gu Roctane drinks. For the next 2-3 hours, half of that wrap would sustain me.
Paul and Kate took off after the sun set to have dinner and watch some game on TV at the place Kate was housesitting. That sounded…cozy. They said they would be back in the morning, and that sounded nice, too. Before leaving, Noel arrived and gave me the scoop on the night time forecast. The night was forecasted to be dry.
At 8 pm, Yuch showed up with some thoughtful gear items, but most importantly several thermoses of coffee. Very sugary coffee. I wasn’t tired yet at 8 pm, but started drinking the coffee anyway. This was probably not a great move, as I would later find out that the coffee consumed when I really needed it in the middle of the night did not have as much of an effect. Yuch left by 10 pm, needing to get some sleep himself, before returning again in the morning. I would not see anyone else until Joe arrived in the morning.
My walk breaks became more frequent. As the hours clicked off and my eyes grew heavier, I began to think I “deserved” more gear stops and walk breaks. I would walk a lap and grab a cup of lentil soup or Cup of Noodles at the aid station. My stomach seemed to agree with both of these things. I seemed to be going to the bathroom very frequently (I suppose better than the alternative), but I soon began very tired of the extra stretch to the Port-a-potties. I was envious of the male runners who could just duck over to the side to pee. At night, I decided I could not waste any more time with the Port-a-Potties and began ducking behind trees and bushes too. I started listening to this podcast called The Teacher’s Pet, an Australian murder mystery. It didn’t really help me because it’s kind of depressing, so soon I changed over to the The Trail Show, a podcast about long distance backpacking. This helped for a little while, until it didn’t, and then I put on some music. I was having a really hard time staying awake and keeping up the pace.
At 3 am, an angel appeared wearing a headlamp and ready to run with me. It was my friend Dan! I couldn’t believe it when I saw him. I had not asked him to show up, and I didn’t even know that he knew I was there! As soon as he began running with me, I woke up immediately. I couldn’t believe what a difference it made just to have someone to talk to. I was awake again. Dan asked if I knew how many miles I had done. I said I didn’t. I hadn’t been keeping track. I was wearing a watch, but only to keep track of the time. He asked if I wanted to know, and I said, I’m not sure. I told him I should have done at least 90 miles by 3 am, and if I were to find out that I had not, that could be very discouraging news. He looked at the tracking board the next time we passed it, and again asked if I wanted to know. I asked him if it was good news, to which he responded “yes”. I gave him the ok, and he told me I had done 90 miles. This was reassuring, but also slightly nerve-wracking. In order to get 120 miles, I would have to average 12 minute miles for the next 6 hours. This may seem easy to you, but when you’re adding in walking, fuel, and bathroom breaks, 12 minute miles are actually quite challenging. A little while later, Dan informed me that the guy in the lead was going to call it quits at 100 miles, putting me in first. It turned out he couldn’t make it to 100 and ended up stopping at 98. I would later find out that his feet were trashed and unable to continue.
Not too long after Dan informed me of my mileage, I passed by the timing mat and heard the RD, Wendell, shout “Congratulations, Megan! 100 miles!” I couldn’t believe I just had run my first 100 miles! But, I was also confused, because it didn’t sync with what Dan had just told me about running 90 miles. It was then that I realized the 90 that Dan had been reporting was my laps – not my mileage. I had run farther than we both had realized. This was very uplifting news and enough so for Dan to feel comfortable leaving me on my own, with Lindsey Stirling on my headphones.
In the morning, Joe showed up to run with me. I asked him to run with me because it seemed convenient; he lives in the Richmond district. It also seemed fitting. Joe coached me when I ran my first marathon with Team in Training in 2008. I was not a runner before I met Joe. Now I had over 100 miles on my legs, and I needed him to distract me with his positivity and silly stories. The sunrise was huge. Knowing my mom, Yuch, Paul, Noel, and Kate would be showing up kept me moving. With the sunrise came the rain. The course record was so within reach that I told myself, “no more walk breaks”. When Yuch showed up he ran a couple laps with me before Wendell told me I had to run the rest of the race by myself. I was too close to the course record, and he didn’t want any controversy.
The previous women’s course record was 117 miles. As I grew closer to 117 miles, Joe would update me from the sidelines. “1 more lap to match the course record, 2 more laps to beat it”. On my last lap, I told Yuch “This is my last lap. I’m done after this”. I crossed the timing mat at 118 miles and stopped. My original goal had been to last 24 hours, but why did I need to continue if I already had the course record? It was then that Wendell informed me that I was averaging 11 minute miles and that I still had time for 2 more laps. I could not believe he was “challenging” me to 2 more laps. I told him “I’m done”, to which he responded “You’re going to regret it if you don’t hit 120”. I wasn’t sure I agreed with him at all, but when my friends began cheering and what sounded like “egging” me on, I went back out there, stunned but moving. With about 6 minutes to spare, I crossed the timing mat, logging 120.2 miles. This time, I was really done. I collapsed into Yuch’s arms in a puddle of relief, and then into my mom’s arms. I had just run continuously for an entire day and completed almost two times the length of my previous longest distance of 62 miles.
As soon as I stopped running, my body began shutting down. I quickly began cooling down and began to dry my soaked body and change into warm clothes. Changing out of wet Injinjis into dry Injinjis is a difficult task for a crew to take on. Next time, I will make sure to pack non-toe socks into my post race clothes bag. The muscles in my right knee began to seize up and walking to the car was difficult. There would be no post-race mingling or congratulations taking place. I couldn’t believe my body had let me run strong for 24 hours, and so quickly make the decision to shut down as soon as I stopped.
I nearly fainted in the car when Yuch stopped by Whole Foods to grab a couple of things, and began honking the horn in order to communicate with the other cars in the parking lot, who only thought I was crazy. I finally opened up the door and began soaking up cool air and came back to life.
Arriving at Yuch’s, I realized I could not walk. My right knee had totally seized up and I couldn’t bend it. I thought it was broken. Yuch reassured me it was probably just muscular, that I would have looked and felt a lot worse had I broken my leg. I couldn’t believe he parked across the street from his apartment. I had no idea how I was going to get across the street and up the stairs to his apartment if I couldn’t even get out of the car. He carried me the whole way, including literally in and out of the bath tub. I have never felt so helpless in my life. I apologized profusely, and vowed to Yuch I would never do anything like this again. Running 24 hours was fine, but the post-race crash scene was too much for me to handle. I worried that I had done some serious damage to my body. Yuch instructed me to stay in the Epsom salt bath as long as possible, and that it would help with my recovery. It felt like torture and I worried that I would faint and drown, which would be a sad ending to my glorious tale. I began taking in Ginger ale, followed by miso soup, and vegetable soup. The urge to faint went away as my blood sugar returned to normalcy. Yuch spent at least an hour massaging my legs as I lay helpless in his bed with sopping wet hair that I couldn’t find the energy to comb out. After the massage I tried to sleep but it was impossible. Any time my right knee moved the slightest or rested against my leg or the bed, I would groan in pain. I am never doing anything like this again, I repeated to myself.
The recovery was pretty fast. By the end of the night I could stand up on my own and was able to moonwalk across Yuch’s apartment floors. By the morning I could walk almost like a normal person. And the following day I walked into work feeling like some kind of comic book character; superhero at night, unassuming paper pusher during the day. Maybe that’s what I like about ultra running and pushing my limits. Maybe it makes me feel special and superhuman in this body that can sometimes feel so small, fearful, and insignificant. Maybe I do want to do that again after all.