At 3:55am, I woke up to Dan’s alarm in a panic. Mine, set for 3:45am, didn’t go off. Pre-race alarm drama again?! I jumped out of bed and started getting ready to leave our place by 4:15 to pick up the rest of the crew. I got dressed in the same outfit I wore for WFL, chosen with a hint of superstition. I filled my bottles, two with Tailwind, two with plain water, and toasted a bagel to top with PBJ. And I went to brush my teeth and between the fluster of the morning and thinking about what was ahead, I got lightheaded. I crouched down in the bathroom, hiding from Dan, feeling a little faint. Not a good start.
We stopped at the Pace-Bells to pick up three anxious-looking runners and got on the road to Golden Gate Canyon. As much as Mike Bell tried, there was not much conversing. I sat in the front seat, choking down my bagel with sips of Tailwind and running through all the things that could go terribly wrong in my mind. We arrived at the visitors center around 4:50am to get a pass and had no trouble parking in the lot at Red Barn.
I spent the two hours to kill before the race going to the bathroom (four times, urgently), trying to finish my breakfast (not successfully), and debating whether or not I should even start the race. As I wrote about in my last post, a tornado of negative thoughts was swirling. Looking back now, I know that it was nerves but in the moment, I was sure that something was actually wrong with me and if I ran, I would either throw up or pass out or pull a muscle or die. I was a huge buzzkill to be around. Starbuck was running about like an excited puppy dog and Troy came up to chat and I pretty much just ignored everyone. Great.
Eventually, I told myself “just give yourself a chance” enough times that I was able to start the race. I said to Dan that I might not finish and he said I’m the only one in charge of me. He loves me no matter what. I have nothing to prove. And then we walked to the start with our friends and I smiled and laughed for the first time that morning.
I couldn’t have cared less about where I was on the starting line, as long as I was by my friends. The gun went off and okay, I’m doing this, here we go! Until we came to a dead stop .1 mile into the race in a traffic jam to get onto single track. But I didn’t care! I was running with MB and Meaghan and I said that maybe I’d have one of those ultra days I’ve read about when you hang out at the aid stations and tell stories with your fellow racers the whole way and it’s all just a big party. In the first half mile, I was already exclaiming, ‘wow this is so beautiful, look at this.’ The three of us stuck near each other for the first few miles, but if MB or Meg went ahead, I didn’t push to stay with them. I knew I had to do my own thing. Just before the descent into the first aid station, MB was right ahead of me and we ran down together before I met back up with Meg at AS1. I refilled my already empty bottle (Go me! This was part of the plan.) with more Tailwind, but didn’t grab any food. I had two packs of Clif Shot Bloks in my handheld and shortly after the first aid, I opened the first pack and had two.
Start to Aid Station 1: 4.8 miles; ~57 minutes
The plan for the race (that I made before my only objective became just to start), was to break it up by aid stations. I met my goal. I got to AS1. New goal: get to AS2. I even had the mileage for each stop marked in Sharpie on my arm. I let Meg go ahead of me and just kept moseying along, hiking sooner than I felt like I needed. When I got to our dream team of spectators, Starbuck and Kevin, at mile 7ish, I realized that I was actually having a good time! I was excited to see them. I knew that I’d see them again at AS2, so I just kept on with my one objective: get to the next aid station. Oh, and look up once in awhile too. It was gorgeous out. At the second aid station, I refilled my empty bottle with plain water, drank a cup of ginger ale, and had like 2 chips. Eating chips sounds good during a race, but I have trouble grabbing enough to get any actual calorie benefits from them.
Aid Station 1 to Aid Station 2: 7.1 miles; ~1:23
The climb out of this aid station is HARD. It’s steep and rocky and as soon as I thought we were done and would go back to nice, forgiving single track, there were more rocks. Even on the downhills, you couldn’t recover because of the footing. This section also took concentration; in my head, I was repeating “follow the little pink flags” to the tune of Follow the Yellow Brick Road. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone during this and could share some of the route-finding work with a new friend that joined me for a handful of miles. I thought that because this section was only about 5 miles before the next stop at 17.2, it would go by quickly, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. I kept remembering what the RD, Megan, said over and over in pre-race communications: take it easy until Aid 3. That’s when the race really begins. I also knew that AS3 would be the place to drop if necessary and that if I left that station, I was finishing the race. As I was finally approaching AS3, I saw Starbuck and I was excited and then I saw Meg leaving and that got me even more excited. I stopped there and refilled my bottle with water, drank a cup of coke, and ate one measly pickle. I had been consistently eating my Shot Bloks so I wasn’t too concerned about getting food at the stops. I left feeling rejuvenated. The race starts now and I’m doing it!
Aid Station 2 to Aid Station 3: 5.3 miles; ~1:14
I left the aid station and could see Meg up in the distance. I wasn’t in too much of a hurry to get to her, though, because this section was deceptively hard! It was fairly runnable, but steep enough that I needed to hike but not steep enough that hiking really felt good. Within about a mile from leaving AS3, I noticed that my bottle felt really light. It was all wet on the outside but I thought that was just from the volunteer (bless her) spilling some as she poured. I unscrewed the lid and to my horror, I saw that my bottle was only about 1/4 of the way full. Somehow, it must have all leaked/sloshed out. PANIC. Before the race, I spent a lot of time debating if a 16oz handheld would provide me with enough fluids. I decided that I would be much more comfortable using a handheld rather than wearing a vest but the key would be to completely drain my bottle between each aid station so that I could refill it entirely every time. I was now in the longest section of the day, with 7 miles until my next available aid, and had only a few ounces of water. I was immediately thirsty and my mouth got dry. Despite that, my legs felt okay at this point and I ended up passing Meg who I hoped would come with me but she was in a bit of a rough patch. As I went along, I couldn’t think about anything but water. I wanted to eat more Shot Bloks but didn’t want to without fluid. With 5 miles to go until the next aid station, I was eyeing up every runner’s water, hoping that they would just magically offer me some. I even told a few what had happened, but no offer. I was starting to feel sick to my stomach from lack of fueling. A little after mile 20, when I knew that my race would be over without water, I passed a course marshal sent from heaven and saw a giant stainless steel water bottle sitting on the ground. I asked him if there was any way he could spare me some because of the leaking and he opened up his cooler and handed me an ice cold plastic bottle of water. I could have kissed him. Almost immediately after, I passed a sign that said “Hot, exposed, climb. Are you hydrating?” Yes, yes I am! Thank you for asking! I spent the next couple miles shoving Shot Bloks down my throat and drinking as much as I could without chugging it to prevent sloshing. By the time I was approaching AS4, I actually felt GOOD. I ran into that aid station feeling like I was really in the race. An A+ volunteer from Rocky Mountain Runners ran up to me and asked what she could refill. I gave her both bottles, one for Tailwind and one for water. As clumsy as it was carrying both of them, I was afraid to get rid of this new life source. While she was filling, I grabbed a Popsicle from a kid and a couple more chips. I left feeling like a superstar, albeit with too many things in my hands.
Aid Station 3 to Aid Station 4: 7.4 miles; ~1:37
The negative thoughts taking up space in my brain before the race start were now a distant memory, replaced with affirmations of how much I love trail racing and of my strength. Similar to ESCSCA 50k, I felt better as the race went on. I still didn’t really care about beating people, but I was starting to get curious about where I was in relation to other women. I was running pretty strong at this point, but mostly alone, so I was excited to get to the point when our course crossed paths with the 12 milers. This could only mean one thing: the much anticipated Windy Peak climb was approaching. Holy crap, this climb is so hard. Two miles and 1,000 feet of gain starting at mile 26 of the race. It’s cruel, but it’s what we’re here for. We were now in two-way traffic with runners coming down from the summit, all with a look of relief on their face which I interpreted as smug in my misery during the climb. I finally got to the top, waited in a short line to get my bib marked and scanned, and then sweet relief I get to go downhill! I passed Meg who was crushing the hill and yelling at me. I got on some single track downhill which felt like the smoothest, most buttery trails ever compared to what we had traversed earlier in the race. And then I got to the final aid station of the day, marking the start of the home stretch. I was still holding onto the plastic water bottle in addition to my handheld and both were half full so I didn’t stop. Get me home!
Aid Station 4 to Aid Station 5: 5 miles; ~1:10
I saw Starbuck and Kevin one last time and threw them my plastic bottle. I was cruising but pretty ready to be done at this point, and then we hit what I think is maybe the hardest climb of the entire day. From mile 29.9 to 30.7, it’s like you’re scaling Everest. Of course, not really, but it feels so hard after you’ve just exhausted yourself on Windy Peak. I immediately went into hiking mode, which was actually more like strolling mode, barely moving. But at mile 30.8, I knew there was only downhill to go so I rolled along. Within the last mile, it started drizzling and I started crying just a little, but this time they were happy tears.
Aid Station 5 to Finish: 2.1 miles; ~25 minutes
Official results: 6:43; 14th woman; 77th overall.
Before the day even ended, I was already talking about wanting to do this race again next year. It’s organized beautifully and racers are treated like rockstars. The volunteers can’t be beat. The course is marked impeccably well, considering the terrain. It is so challenging, but not in a way that tears you down. The party afterwards is everything you picture the trail running scene to be.
I am so proud of this finish because I had to work through a lot of crap in my head to get there. But now I’m dreaming about how I can improve my time and place next year. For one, I think that if I go in specifically trained for this race, I’ll perform a lot better (duh). This course suits me really well because I don’t prefer flat trail running. As soon as I got tired of running downhill, I’d get to hike uphill and as soon as I got tired of that, we were going back down. From the start, I ran pretty conservatively because I was so worried about my stomach and my lack of endurance. At the end, my legs were definitely tired, but I feel like I had a little bit left in me. Next year, I want to empty the tank.