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. 🙂