At the start of an ultramarathon a wide range of emotions can be found on the faces in the crowd; some seem nervous, others giddy with excitement, while a few have precision focus. I think I was feeling a mix of all three, surrounded by friends, my elementary school PE teacher, a woman my Mom was in Lamaze class with 30 years ago, family and other competitors. It felt a bit like home (the start was only a few miles from where I grew up in Mill Valley), albeit on a bit of a different playing field than usual for me.
A cyclist at heart, the sport of running is not necessarily new to me, but spending months focused on training for an event like the Headlands 50k is. For a long time, I considered the idea of running for more than a hour quite ludicrous, but as I slowly built my mileage over the last few months of dedicated ultramarathon training, 90 minutes, than 2 hours, than three and finally a nearly four hour run, I felt adequately prepared.
For all races, this past Saturday's included, I set lofty expectations. In my mind, nearly touching the A standard for the North Face 50 wasn't completely out of the question and the 4:30 B standard should have been no problem at all. In fact, I felt if everything went right I could push through those last unknown five miles while leaning on experience from other endurance exploits - namely a few 100 mile mountain bike races, 10+ hour road adventures and the only triathlon I've ever completed, the Gaviota OCR in which I kayaked for a few hours, ran 13 miles at high tide on the beach and another 13 up to the 3,997-foot peak hovering over Santa Barbara - I dreamed I could score a top 5 placing in my first ultra...
The race started fast right from the gun, Nike Trail runner Alex Varner, rabbitPROKris Brown, eventual winner Chikara Omine and a few others separated themselves in less than a mile. I looked down at my watch and saw I ran a 6:45 first mile, which was more than fast enough to start. A group of six went up the trail that I knew I didn't want to touch. I thought those were the guys who have run ultras before, as fit as I feel, they just have experience that I don't have yet. So, I sat back.
A group of three of us formed behind the front six and we all ran the same pace up and down the steep coastal hills for the next three miles. I was breathing easy, thinking clearly and super comfortable. Already in what my cyclist mind calls a "selection", sitting in the top ten. Precisely where I wanted to be.
But that was short lived.
Missing a vital right turn off Tennessee Valley Trail (a bombing SUPER foggy fire road descent) onto the Coastal Trail single track at around mile 4.4, sent me into panic.
Lesson number 1: study the course turn by turn and pay special attention in low visibility conditions like we faced along the coast in the first hour of racing.
I had analyzed the elevation profile to death and figured I'd been on all these trails before so why study them further in depth? Well, I had never linked them all together in this loop, an oversight that would end up costing me.
Not long after missing the turn, I spotted a green rabbit through the fog on the back of Kris, running solo and not with his group of six that had disappeared into the fog on the Coastal Trail (fire road section!) just a few miles earlier. Weird.
Then he stopped.
"I think we missed a turn," he said as my group got close to him.
"Crap (or some iteration thereof)," everyone shouted.
We quickly turned around with Kris, but for some reason more doubt creeped into me.
Lesson number two: don't ever doubt yourself.
Kris is a seasoned, trail and ultra running pro, with wins in his last five ultras and a 2nd place in last week's Trans Rockies stage race. I had no idea who those two other guys were or what their backgrounds were. But, in that moment, I thought I wasn't good enough to run with Kris and for some reason felt safer running with the two guys who I could tell were running my pace. I also doubted his trail instincts.
We let Kris head back in the right direction (he ended up adding 7 minutes to his overall race time which likely cost him the win), while I turned around and ran the wrong direction down Tennessee Valley until our group of three questioned ourselves again.
I asked a hiker, "Do you know what trail we're on?" She fumbled or mumbled a response as we kept moving on, but with increasingly more doubt creeping in. One of the guys admitted he'd done the race before, but still didn't know which way. Great.
We stopped, yes, again. As we turned around dumfounded, two more guys were running at us.
We can't be wrong, right?
Wrong. After more time spent briefly debating and looking at trail signs I stopped thinking and I just ran fast, backwards. Swallowing my pride and trying to breath. I knew I was pumped up and I knew we were less than 30 minutes into the race.
There goes my conservative start out the window. After finding the correct trail, I proceeded to run my fastest mile of the day, 6:01, followed by a 6:33 as I started to slowly pick off the twenty or so people who passed me during my near eleven minute wrong turn debacle.
The one thing I did right was start to eat and drink. I knew I was working hard partly because I was a bit mad at myself for making such a rookie mistake so early, when things were going so well.
But I was also working hard because I'm a competitor at heart. I never quit, never give up. I knew it was a long race and that I could work back slowly into the field. I just worked back too hard, too quickly.
The next seven miles were a blur of relative speed probably from the adrenaline rush of feeling the need to chase down runners. I felt strong on the climb from the Rodeo Beach aid station passing ones and twos for nearly an hour.
At mile 13 I would run my last six minute mile after finally catching up to Caroline Boller, the female winner and 11th place finisher (For comparison's sake, Kris ran six minute miles all the way to very end of the race.).
I went on to cruise past former Santa Barbara resident Daniel Scarberry bombing down the Miwok Trail, followed shortly thereafter by Mill Valley resident and ultra running personality Chris Mocko wearing full tights, sweatshirt and headband (there's your real A standard) and giving me a encouraging high-five all while apologizing for the heat.
After the Highway 1 water only aid station I would move into 12th, to the shout of a passerby runner girl (editor's note: turns out it was RADrabbitKrissi Polentz!), "Go rabbit go!" about two hours and ten minutes into the race; that's where I would ultimately finish. I had burned the majority of my matches and the race wasn't even half-way done. I knew at this point I was going to suffer and have to dig really deep just to finish.
Climbing Deer Park, Hogsback as it's known in the Dipsea, in the brutal heat and trying to ration my third bottle of Skratch Labs hyper put me in a big hole. I had to stop for a couple minutes at the Cardiac aid station to make it down the hill to Stinson.
Caroline and I traded places at Cardiac because she ran right through; I would not see her again until the celebratory finish line pizza and beers.
The next 45 minutes were filled with painful step after step. Everything hurt and nothing was comfortable. I was absolutely dragging, running slower than my slowest days on what should be fun, fast terrain. I dreaded every corner. My power was depleted. It was the low point of my race.
In hindsight, I'm lucky I didn't slip, fall and hurt myself. Matt Davis trail was full of more hikers than we saw all day, endless switchbacks, roots, rocks and obstacles to avoid. It was complete misery, but in the back of my mind I knew I just had to get to Stinson to see my crew, David and my Dad. They would have my last hyper bottle and words of encouragement to push me up the last climb.
Believe it or not, the descent down Matt Davis trail was slower than my climb up to Cardiac just minutes before. That's how much pain I was in. It was the lowest of lows and so difficult to fight, but beyond worth it in the end.
Following a long stint at the Stinson Beach aid station, I found a second wind climbing the familiar Dipsea trail (in a different direction). I knew my good friend Kate was right behind me because I saw her Santa Barbara Mountain Racing yellow top from around a bend. That lit a fire beneath me that would eventually help me pass one more runner while climbing up Steep Ravine, just before the ladder and actually made the sixth and final, seemingly daunting climb of the day not so bad as that nightmarish descent down to Stinson on the adjacent ridge.
All day, I utilized my untested power hiking skills with great success. Saving energy and moving at a good clip. My hiking skills and knowing when to use them may have been the most impressive skill I exhibited all day (boding well for future, longer ultras perhaps?).
A brief banana grab and hit of cola at the final aid station of Cardiac saw me catching Kate before she made a wrong turn and getting the chance to run with her for the first time all day. We chatted briefly, but ultimately agreed we were in too much pain. So we just ran.
I knew the finish was in sight. My legs felt decent, but ready to be done. Much better than an hour or so before on the daunting Davis downhill.
I thought about what could have been, what I learned, the people I encountered on the trails over the course of five hours; racing, running, hiking, crewing, volunteering and everything in between. I was involved with hundreds of words of encouragement exchanged over the course of the day between so many different people. Dozens of random, passerby trail high-fives. People I knew and others I didn't. Some that I was looking forward to seeing and many that surprised me just at the right moment to keep me going forward. It was so moving, the flood of emotions was so raw at one point four hours in, by myself in a forest of giant redwoods, that it brought me to tears. And by releasing that energy from deep within, I actually began to run faster and feel better. Almost as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders and I was seeing everything for exactly how it was.
Needless to say, this wasn't just a race, or my first ultramarathon. This was something different, an experience that although a thousand words may be trying to describe right here, truly isn't explainable.
When I take a step back, breathe deeply and look at the moments in life where I feel most fulfilled, I tend to look no further than experiences with the common thread of movement. Progression, towards an idea or goal - something I want to attain in life. However you want to define it, it's your prerogative, but during these moments of movement I'm always going somewhere, forward. Stagnation of any kind eats away at my happiness no matter what it is I choose to pursue.
Embracing the low points for what they show me about my determination to reach a goal is vital to that eventual success.
I can always control the positive vibrations, and wow, were there many this past Saturday, and with enough practice the negative splits will come too.
See you next year Headlands 50k, we've got some unfinished business.