I’ve been running for several years now, and I think I’ve pretty much got the hang of it. I’ve run quite a few races and had such a great racing season in 2011 that I PR’d pretty much everything I ran. I guess you could say I was getting a little confident in my abilities, so what’s a girl to do but reach for new challenges, right? Yes, well, there’s nothing like trying something new to put you back in your place! Case in point: me and trail running, my new best frenemy.
I’ve run a few trail races, but so far only as part of something else – last year’s World’s Toughest Half was trails, I did the run leg of a triathlon relay last year on trails, and of course I “paced” UltraIronHubs on the back half of the American River 50-miler a few months ago. Looking back after the fact, perhaps I should have chosen something a little easier than a 25K (15.5 miles) for my first stand-alone trail race, but then again, I’m pretty sure the whole point of trail running is that it’s not easy!
I trained for this race by running on the roads near my house, which is the equivalent of saying, “I didn’t train for this race even a little, tiny bit.” I actually felt really confident about the distance, if not the “trail” part, and thought I could just will myself through the worst of the hills.
Ah, yes, the hills. I was unprepared for them. In my defense, the race website’s course description really could have benefitted from an elevation profile, or at least a mention of the fact that there’s well over 2,000 feet of climbing in 25K. Instead, it described the twists and turns of the trail and used landmarks that local trail runners who have run the American River 50-miler or the Western States 100-miler would find useful, but the rest of us not so much. I suppose, in a way, that ignorance was bliss because I didn’t know how brutal the course was going to be, but I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s start with race prep!
I did my normal 48 hours of freak-out before the race because that’s just what I do. I checked the weather obsessively and kept hoping those reports of temps in the 100s were going to magically disappear (they didn’t – more on that in a bit). I fretted about the unknowns of the course (which apparently was the whole darn thing!) and attempted to pre-hydrate and do a little carbo-loading. Unsurprisingly, the thing I was most successful at was the carbo-loading.
Race morning dawned at 4 am. I had coffee, got my gear together and we were out the door at more or less the time I expected to be on the road. The race venue was about an hour away, so we planned for drive time and got there plenty early. Yay, port-o-potty time! And photo-op time with the big inflatable (and sort of odd) race frog!
I met quite a few dogs on the trails – there were tons of local runners and walkers out with their pooches – but this one was by far the tiniest. Her name was Isabella and she was smaller than my shoe!
7 am came and we were off! Right on time, very nice. It was a super small race even with two distances (25K and 50K and oh, thank heavens I didn’t sign up for the 50K!), but like all races, there was an instant bottleneck about 100 yards off the starting line. I cracked up because it seriously happens at every single race, no matter how big or how small.
There was another quick bottleneck a quarter mile in, as we turned off the road and onto the trail, but then it opened up nice and wide for our first trip down the hill. Here’s how the course went: The start/finish line was at 1300+ feet of elevation (quick reminder, I live at 45 feet above sea level. Yes, I Googled that just now.) The first three miles, we descended rather speedily down to 600 feet, then turned a corner and climbed that whole 800 feet in just a mile and a half. There was a blissful leveling off for about two miles that I wish I would have appreciated more at the time. We ran right through the finishing chute and headed out in the other direction where we descended again at a more reasonable pace for the next mile and a half, then leveled off again for several miles. Again, I didn’t realize how “easy” that part of the course was until it was over and I was descending another 600 feet in about two miles to the turnaround point. What goes down must come up again, right? The last 5-ish miles were all climbing. Terrible, awful, never-ending climbing back to the finish line.
After passing through the start/finish area, I felt pretty good. Not knowing what sort of descending and climbing awaited me, I spent some time just enjoying the trails and the gorgeous views of the American River. It was starting to get pretty hot at this point – the temperature at the start of the race was already around 70 degrees and if you’ve ever read this blog during the summer months, you know that I am a well-documented heat weenie – but thankfully this part of the course was still somewhat shady.
I took this incredibly blurry picture right after the first turnaround point, when I thought I was much, much closer to the finish than I actually was (and therefore still had a smile on my face). I had just dumped a cupful of ice in my hat, which is why it looks funny. I also dumped a cupful of ice in my shirt, which eventually sort of made me look like I had peed my pants when it melted all down my front and puddled in my shorts.
The second half of the course consisted of two out-and-back sections, which I mistakenly believed from the course description to be about the same distance. Not even close. The first out and back was easy as pie and though hilly, it was pretty level elevation-wise. The second out-and-back portion seemed to go on forever. As I kept descending the hill and was still running “out,” my mood got darker and my feet got slower. It was unbelievably hot and there was almost no shade on the trail anymore.
Approaching the second turnaround point, which was across that lower bridge. I could see that upper bridge for quite awhile before the lower one came into view and I was very worried that I would have to climb all the way up to it! You can see how wide and sort of barren the trail was here – it was like this for miles, all sun all the time.
Ordinarily I wouldn’t wade through muddy water during a run, but it was so blissfully cool I wanted to stay there and splash in it! I suppose I could have gone around the water – many of the other runners did – but the rocks looked too slippery and I figured I’d rather have wet socks than trail rash.
The thing I like about an out-and-back course is that after you’ve turned around, you can still see other runners on the course (plus it kind of helps to see that there are people slower than you). That was hardly the case for this race. The field had really, really spread out by this point and as the miles added up and my delirium mounted, I wondered more than once if I was all alone on the trail.
I held it together pretty well until somewhere around Mile 12, maybe even Mile 13, but then the wheels came completely off my cart. It was just so bloody hot. I lost my stamina, I lost my ability to run, and I pretty much lost my mind. I couldn’t breathe in the oppressive heat and my toes were cramping at every step. My calves were screaming at me on the uphills and my quads complained on the downhills. There were no flats.
I bargained with myself to pick it up to a hustle whenever there was shade, but there was no shade. Thus, there was no hustle. The trail just kept climbing and climbing. I had to stop looking at anything except my feet because the hills were so endless and I couldn’t bear seeing more of them. I wanted to quit. I wanted to sit my ass down on the side of the trail and never move again, but I felt so completely alone out there that I was afraid nobody would ever find me. That was the only thing that kept me moving forward. I tried to cry several times, but I was so dehydrated I couldn’t even produce tears.
When my Garmin chirped at the 15 mile mark, I felt enormous relief – only half a mile to go! I’d been hearing the finish line for some time because of the still air, but couldn’t for the life of me figure out where it actually was. I knew I was getting close, though. I trudged on. Maybe a quarter of a mile later, I saw a man out walking his dog and I must have looked as desperate as I felt because he said to me, “You’re doing great! The ‘half mile to go’ sign is just ahead!” Wha-a-a-a?? I should only have a quarter mile to go!
I trudged on some more. At this point, the trudging was interspersed with full on stopping at the side of the trail to catch my breath and will myself forward. I had gone another quarter of a mile when what to my delirious eyes should appear but UltraIronHubs and Big Boy!!! And they brought a bottle of ice water with them!!! I burst into dry tears at the sight of them.
That’s me with my head down, the picture of dehydrated defeat, before I saw UIH and Big Boy. This photo actually looks pretty shady, but it was well over 90 degrees at this point and there was no relief from the heat.
I gulped down the wonderfully cold water and was still moving forward when UltraIronHubs said, “You’ve got this baby, just a half mile to go!” Are you fucking kidding me???? How do I still have a half mile to go?? Am I actually in hell?? I stopped in my tracks and flat out gave up. I couldn’t possibly take one step further.
I did, of course, but it was hard. The words, “I can’t do this” came out of my mouth more than once. I was cooked. I could barely hold my head up and I could feel my eyes rolling back. I’ve been dehydrated before, but this was baaaaaaaad.
Finally, finally we made it to the last cruel little hill before the finishing chute. I sent UIH and Big Boy on to the end, thinking maybe I could run it in. Little Boy came down the short incline to encourage me, but there was nothing left in the tank for that hill. Walking would have to do.
I vaguely remember thinking that I couldn’t walk across the finish line, so I picked it up to a shuffle for the finishing chute. No sooner did I cross the line, turn off my Garmin and stop moving than my entire lower body seized into a cramp. UltraIronHubs frequently gets cramps after a hard race, but I never have before. OMG, I have so much more sympathy for him now. That HURT!
After my quads and hamstrings unlocked, I found my family and kept drinking water. My wonderful sister, bless her heart, ran out to her car and brought me a chair. I’ve never been so grateful for crappy-ass lawn furniture in my life! I was in serious pain. I drank another bottle of water and tried to choke down some post-race food, but my stomach wanted nothing to do with solids.
My mom, my sister, the kids and UIH hovered over me, asking me what I needed, what they could bring me, what they could do to help. In my mind, I knew I was terribly overheated and dehydrated and would be fine as soon as I could cool down, but forming the words to reassure them was simply beyond my skill set at that point. I’m pretty sure I stared into space a lot. I know I asked them to take off my shoes because my poor toes just wouldn’t stop cramping.
After the second bottle of water, I felt much, much better. Good enough to post my finish on Facebook, so I must have been okay. We gathered our stuff and made our way back home for a much needed shower. When I weighed myself at home later – after three bottles of water, a recovery protein shake and all the Gatorade and water I drank on course, plus post-race grapes and pretzels – I was still four pounds down from my normal weight. That’s a huge, scary water loss.
I spent yesterday afternoon and this morning reflecting on the race and I’ll be honest: I’m pissed. I hate that I crapped out like that. I hate that the score right now is Trails: 1, P: 0. I’ve thought a lot about whether it was the terrain or the heat that took me down, or a combination of the two. I’d like to say it was just the heat, because my legs actually feel pretty good today, but here’s what I know for sure: I will conquer that trail.
Final stats, according to my Garmin: 16.03 miles in 4:15:40 (15:57 pace), 2,185 feet of climbing.
Final official results, from ultrasignup.com: 4:15:34, 104th place out of 145 participants, 31st place AG out of 41.