May 26, 2014

Born To Run 50K Recap - My First Ultra!

I finally did it - I finished my first Ultra marathon! After a half-hearted, failed attempt at a 51K a few years ago, I am so proud to have crossed the Born To Run 50K Finish feeling strong and smiling all the way to the end.

Biggest Lesson Learned: Follow a training plan intended for Ultras
The training plan was tough. Really tough at times. I used the 50-mile/week plan laid out in Byron Powell's Relentless Forward Progress. There is also a 70-mile/week plan for 50K training but since my marathon training programs have typically maxed out at about 45 miles/week, a max of 50 miles/week sounded about right for me. There were back-to-back long run weekends that I wasn't sure I'd get through but I stayed faithful and confident that I would....and I did. I wasn't perfect. I cut a couple of miles off a few long runs here and there. I raced a marathon and PR'd when the book specifically told me not to the weekend of the 26 mile training run. Not perfect by any means.

I think the biggest difference in my success this time around versus the DNF a few years ago had to do with mental toughness and the resolve to finish. For my last attempt, I just used a basic marathon training plan where my last long run was a hilly 26 miles in the heat. I was barely putting in consistent 35-40 mile weeks and only had 4 or 5 runs longer than 18 miles in the 2 months leading up to the race. The 51K started at midnight, at elevation (4500 ft) and the first 13 miles was like one long hill. I'd had very little sleep during the day, didn't eat right and just felt like crap in general for 20 miles before calling it quits. This time around, I used a genuine Ultra training schedule. One that had me running eight 18-26 milers usually followed the next day by a medium-to-long run of 5-14 miles. I realize now that I needed those big weekends to develop the mental strength it takes to run an Ultra. My biggest weekend was 20 miles Sat + 14 miles Sun. I had no idea I would ever be the type of runner who could handle that - but I did it. A couple of weeks later I ran a tough 24 miles in 20+ mph winds and could hardly walk afterwards. I doubted I would be able to get through the 5 miles I was scheduled for the next day but instead of questioning my ability to do it, I woke up the next day, put on my shoes and hit the TM - putting faith in my training and in the plan itself - and I finished it with relative ease. With each of these big weekends behind me, I was in awe of my ability to get through them. I believed it and felt proud, but at the same time, I didn't know who I was... almost like having an out of body experience every week. How is it possible that I am doing this? But I had faith in the plan and thus in my ability to get through each workout, and it worked.

Tapering and Pre-Race Hoopla: Believe in Yourself
I hate tapering. I hate is so much that I've blogged incessantly about how much I hate it. I can't stop eating, I feel tired and lazy and anxious and cranky. To add to the challenge of the taper for the 50K, we were in a heat wave the week leading into the race. 100F+ degrees on Wednesday & Thursday. A week before the race, race day temps were predicted to be in the mid-to-high 90's. I panicked. Why even try? I'm not going to be able to run farther than I've ever run before in that kind of heat. Quit before you start - avoid the DNF. Even though these thoughts were short-lived, I still had them and it scared me that my brain would even go there. I spent the week drinking lots of water, reviewing my training journal and reminding myself that I was a stronger runner now than I ever have been in my life - mentally and physically. Dismiss the doubt. Trust the training plan. The schedule had me down for a 31 mile run on Saturday so that meant I could do it! It had been right all along. This weekend would be no different! Just slow down, walk more, drink more water, have some ice... You're going to be just fine... no, more than fine! Get ready to impress yourself again!

I'd been having a little aching in my R heel for a few weeks before the race but I wasn't focused on it or worried. I mean, when you're training longer and harder than you ever have, it's reasonable to expect a few body parts to complain here and there without it having a negative impact on your training or
overall health. That was true until the Wednesday before the race. I ran an easy 3 in my Hoka Bondi's that day. I bought these Hoka's about 6 weeks ago thinking they might be a nice recovery shoe to use once a week or so with all these high miles I was putting in. They have exactly the same heel drop (4mm) and weight (9oz) as my usual trainers (Pearl Izumi M3) so it didn't seem like that much of a stretch to introduce the Bondi's. As it turns out, the extra cushioning in the Bondi's was in fact too much of a stretch (no pun intended!) for my R Achilles tendon. After only 40 miles in the Bondi's, a short 3 mile run in those shoes just 3 days before the Ultra pushed it over the edge. I was in so much pain the next day, I couldn't walk without a limp. I remember stepping out of bed that Thursday, sick to stomach as soon as my R foot hit the floor and a jolt of pain shot up through my Achilles. I iced, wore KT tape and compression socks all day and all night Thursday and Friday. By Friday night, it was still sore but my gait was no longer compromised. My heel was still swollen, but not as bad as it had been on Thursday. "You've just got to get through one more run and then you take all the recovery time you need", I pleaded with myself. Lesson learned: don't fix what ain't broke and don't change up your shoes in the middle of a heavy training cycle. DUH!

Race Day Eve
The Born To Run Ultra is a good old-fashioned, hippy-ish running event on a private working cattle ranch in Los Olivos, CA (just outside Solvang, north of Santa Barbara). No frills, no muss, no fuss. You come for the run, not for PRs or bling. There is no course map. The course itself is a figure-8. Each loop in the "8" is 10 miles and you pass through Main Camp at the end of each loop (so every 10 miles you're coming through camp).  The elevation gain for the entire figure-8 was estimated to be about 2200ft. Nothing extreme by any means. I'd just run the Bandit 30K in February that had about 4500ft of ascent work and had been keeping up with some medium distance hill work since then. I was not worried about hills at all. Lots of people camped overnight, some for several nights. Camping and sleeping on the ground the night before a 31 mile run did not sound like a good idea for me personally so we opted for a real bed and 15 minute drive to the Start ("Main Camp") on race morning.  Hubby and I stayed at the historic Pea Soup Anderson's Inn in nearby Buellton.

General shenanigans at Pea Soup Anderson's restaurant 
We arrived Friday afternoon, picked up my bib and shirt, paid our camp dues for the weekend, and hung around the Main Camp area for about half an hour, just getting a feel for everything.

Shot of Main Camp from the Pink Loop (aka Loops 1 & 3 for me).
Everyone we ran into was super friendly. Although I felt like an outsider, we were certainly not treated that way. There was supposed to be a trail debriefing a 1pm but by 1:20 there were no signs of a debriefing about to take place, so we hopped back in the car and checked into the hotel. We needed to be back at Main Camp no later than 5am on Saturday.

Back at the hotel, I had a hard time sleeping. I was excited and nervous. By about 10pm, I just wanted to get started already! I tossed and turned...wondering how the run was going to go. It's been a long time since I ran 'further than I've ever run before'. What would I be like at mile 28, mile 29, mile 30, mile 31..... Tick tock tick tock. Damn I wish it was time to leave already!

After about 4 hours of what resembled sleep, I pop out of bed just before 4, have a quick shower, a small cup of coffee, a couple of mini homemade gluten-free pumpkin oat muffins and we're off for Camp! Hubby dropped me off and would be back in a few hours so he could sleep a little more and check out of the hotel. I'd see him again at Mile 20.

Camp was already buzzing with runners and smelled just like I remember mornings camping with my parents as a kid. The air was even a bit chilly! I made my way up the road towards the Start. The main stage was lit up. Runners were starting to congregate. The Race Director gets up on stage about every 10-15 minutes starting at 5:15, warning everyone that they need to be up and dressed like a distance runner by 5:45. Race time was 6am sharp!


Almost go-time!

We hear a few last minute instructions and reminders, including the fact that we needed to track our own loops. No one else was going to know which loop we were on so don't ask! We also raised our right had and recited the following oath: "If I get hurt, lost or die....It's my own damm fault!". Fair enough! And with that, we were off!

In Mile 1.
For the first couple of miles, my heel was really aching. On parts of the trail where the path was uneven, I could feel the unsteadiness stressing and stretching my Achilles. "If I have to deal with this for 31 miles, it's going to be a long freakin' day" I thought. I know how to solve that problem - put it out of your head completely and you won't have to deal with it at all! I dealt with severe IT pain halfway through my first full marathon in 2010 and was able to dismiss that pain for last 13 miles. I've been in this position before....I can manage it!

We came up on the first aid station about 2 miles into the run. I wasn't expecting one until mile 5 based on the race instructions. Bonus! I didn't need anything at that point so I continued on. My heel was warmed up now and the road was more like a flat fire road so it was easier to not think about the soreness and just focus on my surroundings and the run itself. The air is still cool and we even hit a little fog in a valley near mile 4:

Walking the steeper/longer hills early in the race. Save your legs for later!

By mile 5, I had pee....badly. But there was no aid station (with a porta potty) at mile 5 like I was expecting....so I used a tree instead. :-) I really had no sense of where we were which was kind of fun in a way. There were some long rolling hills but they didn't feel hard. I was keeping a slow pace and making sure I wasn't breathing hard. After a couple of steeper hills in Miles 5 & 6, we end up on the main gravel road that leads into Main Camp but we're going in the opposite direction. At Mile 7, we come up on the 2nd aid station. The sun is starting to come out and it's already feeling hot. I'd heard some water sloshing in my tummy earlier and backed off on drinking water. I stopped briefly to fill up the 20-oz handheld bottle I was running with. One of the volunteers is drilling holes in coconuts and giving out fresh coconut water and the "meat" to anyone who wants it. I'm not a fan of coconut but I do grab some dried fruit. There is also a huge spread of every kind of fuel and electrolyte-supplement a runner could ask for. Good to know since I'd be back here around Mile 27!!

We also passed this station around Mile 12.5 on the Yellow Loop.

There is a very long climb coming out of this aid station on the Pink Loop. Almost everyone I can remember is walking up the hill. I notice some runners coming back down the route and I realize here that the Yellow loop (Loop 2) must double-back here out of camp. After a nice long descent, we're back at Main Camp. "Just 1 loop to go and hubby will be here - and then I'll only have 1 more loop to do!"


We're directed by volunteers to pass through the timing gate on the other side of Camp (at our original Start) and loop back through Main Camp to hit the Yellow Loop. There are lots of people at their cars and campsites along the route here. Clapping, cheering..it's awesome and encouraging. I wasn't sure how I'd feel about the loops and coming through the ultimate Finish area like this, but I liked it!

I make my way back through Camp to the start of the Yellow Loop. Another steep climb awaits in Mile 10. Some of my patience for walking the hills is weaning and now that my Achilles isn't distracting me, I run more of the hills in this loop (initially).



It doesn't take long before I notice that the Yellow loop is much more challenging than the Pink loop. And it's getting freaking hot... but it is beautiful out here. We have a couple of long steep climbs that weave in and out of shade but some of the trail is very exposed to the sun and you just can't escape the heat. We even get a little single-track work in this loop and the views from the peak are fabulous:







After this single-track section, we traverse a steep descent and I realize we have somehow dropped down onto the Pink loop and we're coming up on the first aid station we passed at Mile 2.5. Oh good - there's a porta-potty there and in addition to needing water again, I need to pee! (I guess there's no need to question whether I was hydrated for this race!). I stop for several minutes here. I need salt and carbs. I grab some boiled potatoes and dunk them in salt. It tastes soooo goooood.  I also grab a small square of a quartered peanut butter & jelly sandwich. With an empty bladder and a happy tummy, I set off in the opposite direction from when I'd left this area on the Pink Loop. It looked like a very long, sloping ascent in front of me. It was A LOT longer than I could have imagined. I wondered when it would end. I ran as much as I could and walked when I felt like I was breathing too hard. I remember a young woman passing me, looking so strong as she trotted up the sloping road. "Great job!" she said as passed. We were all encouraging each other at this point. Every person I passed or that passed me gave a shout or some signal of support. It was tough. There was a photographer at the end the climb. I joked with him that he needed a sign that said "You made it!". He laughed and said something about how he didn't know how we were all making it up there. :-)  I look at my Garmin see I'm almost at mile 18. Only 2 miles to go to get back to Main Camp where Hubby would be waiting. Then I'd "only" have to get through the now-familiar Pink Loop and I'd be in the Home Stretch! We again double-back on the Pink Loop and take the familiar-looking long descent back into Main Camp.  As I come around the corner, I go into high alert and instantly start looking for our car. Hubby is RIGHT at the start of the line of cars and supporters. Woo hoo!!!
This is such a landmark moment - one I've been waiting all morning for. He has fuel, water and Gatorade for me. I hang here for a few minutes telling him how much harder that Yellow Loop was. I let him know I'm feeling good but it's hot and this Pink Loop is probably going to take me more than 2 hours to finish. He reminds me not to rush - to enjoy every minute. RIGHT!  I sip some Gatorade, he zips a Lara Bar into my fuel belt for me and I'm off for my last loop. There are already a few sections I'm recalling from the early morning on this loop that I'm not looking forward to - but I AM looking forward to finishing!

Running towards that first aid station we had come up on at Mile 2.5 was my next landmark. I was focusing on small segments at this point. Just get to the aid station. Then you think about getting to the next aid station at Mile 7. Then you'll only have about 4 miles to go! The hilly sections felt much different this time through. And at some points, it felt like a completely different course. What a difference 20 miles and the hot sun can make! I stopped at the aid station, had a little more food, filled my bottle with ice and water, threw a handful of ice down my sports bra and headed towards the next aid station.

Damn it was hot. I started struggling physically and mentally. Miles 21-24 were really really tough. I walked a lot. Then my Achilles started yapping at me. I pass a couple of runners, then a few pass me. Some of us are see-sawing with each up the long sloping sections as we "run when we can, walk when we have to". But we are all encouraging and checking in on each other.


I tried to relax as much as I could, reminding myself that it was normal for me to struggle mentally until about  mile 24. Once I made it out onto the main road again, I knew I was close to that aid station that would signal my final approach into Main Camp was about to begin.....but that also meant a monster hill awaited me too. I took my time at that aid station. I was so hungry it was almost hard not to eat more...but I didn't want to have a tummy ache for that last 4 miles either! This time, when I climbed that big hill, I got my camera out and took a pic of both the ascent and a selfie:







Just as I'm starting to fret and obsess about my time and how much further I had to go, my Garmin dies from a low battery. I don't let it bother me. In fact, I take it as a sign I'm not supposed to be thinking about that right now. I've been on the descent part of the course twice now since both the Pink and Yellow loops merge as we come in Main Camp. I know that I just need to make it to the top of this climb and I'll be heading down to Camp, Hubby and the Finish!

The total ascent work for the 50K was about 1,000ft more than expected
Possibly due to anticipation of the Finish, I got a 3rd wind in descent to camp. I walked for almost 0.75 miles out of the aid station and my legs were ready to run now. I picked up the pace around mile 28 and didn't stop until I saw hubby again in Main Camp. I still had about 1.5 miles to go. "Husband!" I called out as a I rounded the corner. I couldn't believe how good I was feeling. I stopped just for a second to say "I think I'm just going to keep going".  There was a 50K turnaround flag on the Pink Loop about 0.5 mile from the timing gate outside of Main Camp that I was anxious to get to! We agree to meet at the Finish and I'm off for that flag! I have butterflies in my stomach as a I round a corner and finally see it:



Only 0.6-ish to go!!!
I took one more walk break after circling the flag, just to be sure I would be able to run all the way into Camp and through the timing gate one last time. I feel emotional and tear up but the shock of finishing is almost too much to actually cry.

I pass by a few cars and campsites. They know based on the direction I'm headed in that I'm just about to Finish. More cheers and words of encouragement from other runners and spectators. Where is that damned finish line?!? Then I see it....the timing gate and hubby waiting for me. Holy shit. I did it....I'm doing it....this is IT!!!!! There's a volunteer with a cowbell cheering me into the timing gate so I don't pass it.  YAY!!!  I'm DONE!!!


The amulet around my neck is the homemade Finishers "medal"!



This is one of my favorite race experiences of all time and although the timing won't work out for me in 2015, I'm planning on coming back in 2016! Who knows...maybe I'll be ready for the 100K?!




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