My First 50 Miler!
The day before the race:
I got up, went to the best pancake house in town. The Dipsea Café and waited patiently for the San Francisco Running Company across the street to open up. This store is the coolest running store and I love everything in it! The best part is it’s the place to situate yourself during The Northface challenge weekend to see all the famous ultra runners. Sure enough, moments after I walked through the door so did Sally McRae. I have watched her documentary and followed her online. She is an amazing athlete and after meeting her in person, I can say she is super sincere and so friendly. What did we talk about? Shoes of course!
As I ate lunch at another café, Sage Canaday walked by me, but my reaction was just a tad slow, he was already out the door. As I headed back to my car, I spotted the LA runner (Billy) who hangs out with Ethan Newberry and Chris Vargo. He was really great to chat with. He gave me some last minute tips, and reminded me I was running in a very stacked field of female elite runners.
I then was on my way to meet Michele A.K.A. the Pink Hat Runner of Instagram fame. The short background story about Michele is that a year ago in Big Sur, we chatted in a Starbucks the day after I ran the Marathon. Fast forward a few months or so and I got this instagram message asking me if I remembered talking to her in Big Sur, which of course I totally did! Then I started coaching her and over a season we really bonded online. She came to crew for me this past weekend. This is a girl who is online is an amazing person and offline even more spectacular. She is beautiful, funny, selfless, supportive; simply amazing! Every minute I felt like I was a burden and she kept saying “What are you supposed to do?” My answer “I came here to run” she would answer “then do that!”
I did everything right the night before prepping for the next day. I filled up my bladder, my water bottles, packed my nutrition, packed an emergency PB&J, packed a change of clothes, checked my list and I was ready. I even was so smart, I went to Starbucks before I went to sleep and got an Americano so that in the am I could simply warm it up. I wasn’t settling for brew coffee on my biggest race day!
As anyone named Michelle or Michele would understand this. Michelle’s tend to forget small little insignificant matters such as where are we going to meet at 4:30 am in the dark? With no cell service, I only knew to look for a pink hat (of course). 4:35 – starting to make back up plans for my backpack. 4:40 – She’ll find me. 4:45 – panic is setting in. 4:50 – I see the pink hat! We made a game day decision, since the organizers changed the course slightly due to a washed out bridge, meaning I would have access to a fully stocked aid station twice before I headed to Tennesee Valley (the first time I would see Michele on course). So I decided to fly light and let my legs have a bit of break and I would pick up my pack at Tennessee Valley. Someone this weekend said, Ultrarunning is more about problem solving than running and after reflecting on this thought, I have to agree with him. Lesson 1. You learn to make gut decisions and go with the flow.
Finally the pink hat is found!
I gathered with the rest of the runners at the start line. It was humid at 5am and this was slightly concerning for me. I didn’t need arm warmers, a jacket or a hat. I was wearing next to nothing and I was still too warm. I looked to my right and started the normal running banter with the boy next to me. Matt was from Orange County.
Matt from the O.C. (non photo without watermark coming soon!)
The race is about to start in 5 minutes and I decided to tell him how I secretly love the TV show The O.C. It’s my sinful pleasure. Awkward. He wanted to run a sub 8 hour 50 miler. I said I’m going for 7:30. Yes I was still very much confident that this was very doable. How a girl started the season suffering from performance anxiety to having the balls to think she could “easily” pull out a 7:30 50 miler in Marin County is beyond me. I would say this has everything to do with my amazing coach. He never ever said I couldn’t. If I asked him now, I know we both would agree on a flatter course I could easily pull off a 7:30 50 miler. Neither him nor I had any idea what I was really going to be up against. Lesson 2. Don’t ever think you can’t do something no matter how big or small it is.
Photo Credit: Mike Bell the Botanist
I won’t do a blow by blow or a play by play. Here is the gist. The moon was full, the sky was gorgeous running in the dark with lights crisscrossing across the landscape was a very memorable experience. The race started straight up a switchback that went on for many km’s then it went straight down, due to the course changes, we had to do that loop twice. By loop two my legs didn’t seem to want to warm up. I didn’t’ feel “fresh” and this was concerning. I did some deep breathing, tried to go to a steady state and started to assess seriously the situation. I was only maybe 10 miles into the race and all I could think about was “I peaked too early in my season” That was the thought that stayed with me for another 10 miles. I started retracing my training back the last 4 weeks and realized what this not “fresh” feeling was most definitely the affects of peaking too early. Lesson 3. Be prepared to turn the volume down on your confidence meter. So I did and I told myself I would be okay if I didn’t’ podium. (I’m just telling you guys the honest truth, it sounds like I’m full of myself, but seriously, I was completely jacked on confidence pills)
The sun was just coming up, the fog was still heavy and Tennessee Valley was just ahead. Michele the amazing crew of one, took my headlamp, gave me my hydration pack, relayed the Facebook message to me and sent me off back into the hills.
On one woman crew ready to take care of me!
My legs started to feel a bit better and I felt like I was finding my groove. Then the humidity really set in, the sun came full up and I wanted my Honeymaxx. Total. Hydration pack. Failure. I can’t blame the Jenny Pack. I can’t even blame the bladder I was using. I was swearing, shaking my pack upside down, totally frustrated. My mind was now racing. I’m going to de-hydrate, I’m carrying weight I don’t need to carry, I NEED my HONEYMAXX!! Remember the problem solving mentioned earlier? I stopped, re-grouped and put my pack back on and nicely asked to sip off other people’s bottles until I could sort out this issue. By the next Aid station, I was already starving. I took as much as I could stuff in my face. Potatoes, bananas, oranges, blocks and by accident loads of mountain dew instead of what I thought was Lemon Clif shot. The pack was still not resolved.
Off for more hills!
Once we passed Cardiac station we really got into the gnarly trail stuff. The Dipsea trail, was beautiful that words could never describe, but now I was thinking about my pack, and my quads that were feeling pretty cooked. At this point I had only completed the equivalent of one marathon. I still had basically one more to run! I was most worried about de-hydration and I couldn’t remember if I had taken the health insurance option on my plane ticket or not. I started to panic about the hospital bill that was going to show up in my mailbox after I ended up on an IV drip. Then I heard running water, and then I saw running water. A waterfall! You can guess that I got down on my hands and knees and just started drinking from the creek. Problem solved. If I could find a waterfall every couple of km’s I would not end up in a hospital and go bankrupt. I was pretty sure at this point I was a genius. Lesson 4. If you leave the country to do a big race, make sure you have health insurance coverage.
So gorgeous! Photo Credit: Mike Bell the Botanist
Next aid station came and I got to see Michele again. I think I was a little cranky. All I remember saying was “total hydration pack failure, take this thing, I’m going to run the rest of the way without it.” I took my gels and bloks, pigged out at the aid station and again off into the mountains. By this time I had my Ipod on. With my legs starting to cramp, I needed a distraction to keep my mind from focusing on the negative. It worked! I used all the songs I trained with and it immediately lifted my spirits and my pace! With my bra full of nutrition, my plan was to drink any creek water I came across and pig out at all aid stations. Then this guy came up behind me and asked if I was okay. I replied, “I’m good, but I could use a sip of water.” He asked if I was cramping. I said “a little but not too much.” Then he pulled out a bag of white pills and poured a bunch into my hand. He told me to take 4 at a time, gave me his water bottle and gave me his bib number so at the next aid station, if necessary, I could go to his drop bag and get more.
My on course drug dealer.
Without a second thought, I downed the salt pills, washed them down with his weird electrolyte powered water and carried on. Aid station number who the hell knows, I demoed the table. Like a Tazmanian devil, I drank probably 5 cups of coke, water, soup and oranges. I just couldn’t get enough food in my face. A little bit ahead I ran into the pill guy again. I asked “Hey do you have anymore of those pills.” He pulled out a fresh bag full of white pills. I said “Dude, having a trail drug dealer on the course is awesome.” We all had a good laugh at that. The rest of the race, he kept me topped up with salt tabs. Lesson 5. Before you begin a race with a hydration pack, check the valve and make sure it will spew out water before you end like me. (What I think happened is that an air bubble got stuck in the tube creating an air lock)
Amazing running! Photo Credit: Kent Keeler
Enter the Redwood forest. This was part of the course I was most looking forward to. Then I got to that part and yes it was gorgeous but it was also ridiculously hard. So picture this. You have just run over a marathon and now you have to climb up and down stairs, climb over fallen trees, cross full flowing waterfalls and even climb up a ladder! This went on for the entire redwood forest section.
Trail Porn Photo Credit: Mike Bell the Botanist
It was hard not to have your breath taken away with the beauty of it all, but then you came to a rock wall you had to hands and feet climb up. This was actually the most fun part of the course, but also really started to crush the quads. I should mention that up to this point I still hadn’t looked at my watch once! I became so terrified to see how long I’d been running, what pace I was doing, and the distance I had run. I was running completely on feeling and effort. Place wise I was always between 7th and 9th so I was happy with my position. By this time I was making quite a few friends and we just kept each other in good spirits. Lesson 6. Remember pain is temporary and positive thinking can do wonders to alleviate it.
Once we got out of the forest section, we had hit the switch back trails that had been turned into a running mudslide. While in the forest it had rained and turned everything to a complete mud fest. The mud was sticky and at times felt like quick sand. 7. Running downhill at around 40 miles become harder than running uphill.
The end is near. I was digging deeper than I’ve ever had to dig. I had 5 miles to go and I wasn’t sure where I was going to get the energy, power or desire to finish this. I never went to dark places, but I just started to forget how to stay motivated. Humour, especially sarcasm came in handy. The guys and I started cracking really lame sarcastic jokes. The jokes totally sucked, but it was all we needed to just push to the crest of that final hill.
Cresting that hill was the best thing, I’ve ever seen. It was a 2 mile descent and like I said running downhill was now way more painful than running uphill. This is where I just focused on my breathing. I would only let my mind focus on each breath in and out. For 2 miles I just breathed comfortably. I completely disengaged my brain from my legs and the pain. I glanced at my watch not to see the distance but the pace, feeling like I was running a 10 min /km, but in fact I was running a 4:45/km. How I was able to get under 5min / km at this point in the race was a miracle. Then I saw the finish line. I went for it. I grinded up the small incline then turned onto the grass and flew to the finish. It was OVER! I crossed the finish line as 9th woman (even though my results says I was 12th). Michele was at the finish line, grabbed me and hugged me so hard, and I just kept yelling. I did it! I ran a F**cking Ultra! We couldn’t stop laughing. Lesson 8. Make sure you have a full arsenal of mental tools to go to when things get rough.
Very cold but muddy ICE BATHS
I headed straight for the Ice baths. Michele helped me get my shoes and socks off and I jumped in the muddy disgusting water. I could care less. The ice-cold water felt so good! I changed into warm dry clothes and then saw my on course drug dealer. We got a photo together and I thanked him immensely for being so awesome. I forgot to bring an extra pair of shoes, so I wandered around in bare feet and totally muddy. I started to talk to some other runners who enquired about my pack issue. After telling them what I did, a weird look came across their face. They had told me about the possibility of Giardia in the water sources, that maybe drinking from creek water wasn’t so good. “what is going to happen if I get Giardia?” They all told me, I would be okay, it would take about a week to set it and then I would be sick for a week straight. Lesson 9. Repeat lesson 5 so you don’t have to contract some weird water parasite. Let’s cross our fingers I will be fine. At least I’ve been warned.
Finally, Michele was off and I was sad to see her go. As she left, Matt, remember matt from Orange County.
Matt from the O.C.
He popped out from a crowd of runners and we started to chat. He was kind of on his own and now so was I. He had to wait for a friend to finish. I was just about to leave but decided I would hang out and keep this kid company. He had a really cool story about how he started running. I was impressed. He is truly inspiring. As our interaction continued, I realized we were being filmed. Who the hell was this Matt guy from The O.C. Turns out he is in the middle of creating a youtube documentary and I got to have a small bit part in it. This day just kept getting better.
The whole 50 Milers.
All through this race I kept flipping through the last year. Thinking back to the growth, the training, the lessons, the tears and all the laughing. My memories bubbled to the top of my friends who made me the best version of myself, the family that supports me through all the crazy things I decide to do and the amazing running online and offline community that continues to be the strongest community I’ve been a part of. I kept asking myself “Michelle, did you find what you were looking for? Is the experiment complete?” I didn’t have an answer. As I entered the last 20 miles of the race, I tried to find a place in side myself that felt complete. To be honest, I was frustrated. I was hoping for this big dramatic epiphany and then to end this chapter of my book. Instead, I felt like more data was needed for this experiment. The only answer I have is, I know exactly the person I want to be. I impressed myself with my will to hold my ground, dig deep to achieve my goal and at no point was quitting an option. The experiment wasn’t’ just about running however. It was about how to balance a healthy relationship with my community of friends, supporters and family. There were two special people I met this past weekend that shared a lot of personal stuff with me, and together the three of us discussed life inside and outside of running. Matt from the O.C. and Mike the Botanist made me realize that this past year was just one layer of the onion. I am just scratching the surface of who and what I am. I have no idea what is next. I don’t even want to think about that for the next week. I want to bask in the glow of officially being initiated into the Ultra world. Everything that went right and wrong this weekend came down to this lesson. Just when you think you have it all figured out. You made a plan. Life will decide to make a mess of that. There is always a curveball, an obstacle or a problem to solve. How you personally decide to deal with those kinks is what defines you. Who will you decide to be?
The Sally McRae
Sally McCrae said something in the running store to her little girl when she was trying to pull something off a shelf. “Kenzie, let’s make good choices”. That stayed with me all weekend. Lesson 10. Running doesn’t solve problems. It’s the right choices I make in life that solve problems. It sounds simple and it took me a year to get this far. I ran a 50-mile race to find answers. Instead I found amazing friends and the answers I’m looking for are within these friendships.
It’s the people you get to meet!