The Impulsive Ultra: Breaking the trail marathon seal

As we boarded the shuttle bus that would take us from the finish to the starting line, my stomach flipped and my mind couldn’t possibly sit still. It was 6:30am and we were headed to the start of a point-to-point ultra marathon in the Marin HeadlandsAre we actually doing this?! What will it feel like? Will we really finish? How far in was that marathon short-cut? 90*, for real San Francisco?! WTF. 

I’ve never been drawn to any distance beyond the marathon. I never envy those who toe the line for the 50k option on the trails when I’m in for the 25k that day, and certainly wasn’t browsing the web for any 50km options for us to test out this fall. In fact, many people have heard me say “Nope, no way!” in response to the “Would you ever…” question, before it’s even fully asked.

But then…this just sort of, popped up. The timing made sense, and we thought it would probably be a great training run for the type of ultra we DID decide to try, of the DIY-flavor. The course description held a tab on my browser for a week or two before we finally clicked “register”, and even then it didn’t seem like a big decision. We’ll just, try it out? See what happens? Beg one of the six aid stations to rescue us if needed?! We mentioned it to a few people, and life went on. More trail running, more hiking, more mid-week easy runs – the usual.

“You’re more ready than you think you are,” he says.
“I hope you’re right.”

I won’t say that we weren’t trained for this, because for the past 2 months we’ve done almost nothing on the weekends except run on trails or go hiking. But we both wanted to approach this Zion adventure with less pressure, more fun. We’re not trying to hit paces on a track, aren’t doing hill repeats (unless you count casual walking around San Francisco, which I DO) and if one weekend we get a 20-mile run in, and the next we go hike one of our favorite trails for 3 hours, so be it. On the days in between, life goes on normally.

Back to that nauseating bus ride, where for 30 minutes the reality of what was about to go down finally sunk in. But then the scenery was distracting and all I could think about was this sunrise. (And the fact that if we’re watching the sunrise, that probably means this race is starting way too late…)

Coastal Zoom 50k Sunrise | dietitian on the run Coastal Zoom 50k Starting Line | Stinson Beach, CA

8:00am Start at Stinson Beach.

The goods: they had aid stations planted every 5 miles, which made it really easy to only think in those 5-mile increments. It was advised that runners carry at least 20oz of hydration, anyway, which of course we did (OSMO, always). I also had our newest on-the-go-fuel love, Skratch Lab chews, stashed in every pocket, along with my tried-and-true Clif Shot Bloks.

Most of these aid stations were trail heads, or beach access points, so public bathrooms were also available. HUGE win.

I had taken screenshots of the course elevation chart (total 6130′ elevation gain) so that I could check in on what was coming up next (my phone was on airplane mode).

The not-so-goods: this is what that chart looked like…

Coastal Zoom 50k Elevation Chart

San Francisco was under a heat advisory, with highs around 90*.  Only about 15% of the course had any sort of tree cover. Otherwise, we were exposed with views of the Pacific Ocean to the right, and occasional sneak-peaks of the San Francisco skyline directly ahead.

And, GO! 

The first 5k wasn’t as terrible as expected; that steep ~1800 ft climb on the chart felt less aggressive and went by pretty quickly. Suddenly I was running across a parking lot, heading toward the downward slope, and some gal ran by with a cheery “10% done!” and I was like, sweet!

The 5-mile “Cardiac” aid station marked the point at which we transitioned from lovely tree-covered trails, to this:

Coastal Zoom 5 mile mark | 50k race report It didn’t seem too bad yet; I grabbed a few orange slices at the aid station, chomped on my Skratch chews, kept drinking my OSMO, and on we go…

The next aid station, Mile 10 at Muir Beach, approached relatively quickly! I was putting a dent into my expected pace for the day, which made me pretty happy. Since this wasn’t a “race” for us, and everything is an experiment at this point, I grabbed the 1/4 PB&J sandwich bite, a few peanut M&Ms, and washed it down with OSMO. Then, we started to climb again.

That PB&J instantly piped up like “Oh, you think this is FUN, eh? You just wait…” and I was like dude, I feel you. The incline was steep, and the sun felt hot, so I took it easy up that hill. The elevation chart felt deceptive here; we were running right along the coast, with the ocean a steep drop below us to the right, and we would go down for a little while, followed by a LONG steep climb back up. Everyone began looking a little defeated. One person took a seat off to the side of the trail for a quick breather, and I thought there’s no way I’d get back up.

Finally it leveled out and we started back down towards the Tennessee Valley aid station. My ego did a little dance, knowing we were almost “half-way”, and it felt pretty confident that another 15+ would be doable. Somewhere, mid-ego-jig, something happened the resulted in me sliding across the trail, scraping my left side, in shock. I don’t think I stubbed my toe? I must have tripped, but I don’t know when or how. All I know is that one second I had a nice, open, downhill stride, and the next I was like OH DAMN, This is gonna hurt. I popped up and tried to wipe the dirt off and ignore the blood, but knew the only thing to do is keep going – the faster I get to the next aid station, the faster I can wash it out.

Coastal zoom 50k Trail | Race Recap

Mile 15: Tennessee Valley – I went to the water jug, opened the hatch, and let it gush down my left shin. The volunteer had no help to offer, aside from “Yeah, we have a first aid kit but there’s not much in there” – so, that. I grabbed a paper towel and did what I could, but it didn’t hurt too badly to run on it – added some water and more OSMO powder to the Camelbak, munched on a few watermelon slices, and kept on moving.

There was another LONG slow climb, during which a conversation ensued between a woman who was struggling (like all of us) and a man who mentioned he had run this course before. “This is the last big climb – it gets easier from here!”, he says. We rest assured, trust his memory, and keep yo-yo-ing each other until we reach the next stop. Once the incline peaked, you could open the stride a bit and descend with what could be considered “speed” at this point, but really I was just thinking Mile 20 – mile 20 – mile 20 (i.e. food, shade, chair – food, shade, chair!)

Mile 20: Rodeo Valley – By this point it’s well past noon and I’m wondering what the hell we were thinking. I’m wondering what, if any, food might taste good. I wonder if they have ice hiding anywhere that I can dunk my head in. I try to do some math – how long will another 11 miles take? Do I have it in me?

Fun fact: this aid station is only about 3 miles from the Finish line, but as you leave you head out in the opposite direction. Cruelty.

Can you guess what’s next?! I barely had the energy to try and run the brief flat section between mile 20 and the start of our next hill. I saw it coming, wanted to cry from the sight of it, and abruptly slowed back down to a walk. That would be one of many mini-meltdowns between me, myself, and the remaining distance. My phone had stopped working, so I couldn’t check in on the elevation chart to see if the last 9 miles were manageable after we got up this (see: downhill or flat-ish). That may have been the last straw – the uncertainty started to defeat me.

One guy passed me on the way down with his bib on: I asked if he was okay, and he said “Yep – fine. This just isn’t my day.” He didn’t look familiar so he must’ve been far ahead of me. (Seed: planted.)

The Golden Gate bridge loomed up ahead; I finally reached the top of the ridge. The last time I ran this it was so foggy that we couldn’t see the iconic bridge – only a few hundred meters away, and now clear in the blue skies. There’s a very short section that sits under some shade; I stopped and did more math. I paused there for at least a minute, wondering what it meant to turn back.

This isn’t a goal race, it was just a test. Your finishing time doesn’t matter to anyone, this doesn’t have to be your 50K. Two more hours of this if you keep going, one more if you turn around. Will your legs even function for two more hours? 

I took off my bib. Back we go…

Mile 22.78 – turn around, and walk it in. (I tried to run back down that hill, but my shin felt pretty bruised and exposed at this point, so that wasn’t happening.)

Mile 27: Back at the Finish line, I handed over my bib and said “I didn’t do the whole thing”, processed my very first DNF, saw the bewildered look on his face (as he had just run over the finish line 10 minutes earlier), and immediately sat down.

I could do nothing but walk those last four miles, wondering if I had made the right call but not having enough energy to weigh the alternatives or really care. I wasn’t sad that I “only” skipped 4 miles, because as it would turn out those were 4 tough miles (down under the Golden Gate bridge, and then a climb back up and over the ridge – yeah, no way). I was a little annoyed that I didn’t just make the more logical decision to do the marathon option, which would have meant I did “finish” – so maybe the DNF and I would meet another day. I eventually laid down on the pavement to calm my nausea and dizziness, and thanks to him I downed a can of soda (the real, pure-sugar stuff), which would eventually make me feel half-human.

We walked back to the car, he told me all about his race and I told him how impressed I was that he did it! We drove back into the city, and that was that.

——-

The trails have filled running-knowledge holes I didn’t know existed. I do know that the road marathon will teach you how to run fast, and keep running fast when you’re tired. It’s exhausting AF, don’t get me wrong, but it’s something I’ve done over and over again to the tune of two BQs but many more goals left unaccomplished. I do know that I’ve pushed physical and mental limits, unadulterated exhaustion, and I know how rewarding that is even when failure becomes part of the story. I know that I’ve run long enough that I trust the sport to be there for me, and for me to understand its language.

I do Not know how to comprehensively train for an ultra-marathon. I do not know how to fuel properly for 6+ hours, let alone in the heat. I do not know what the body and mind need to make it mile 31 quite yet. I don’t know how to build enough strength to run up almost all the hills, but strategically select the ones that deserve a walk. But I know I’m willing to keep trying to figure it out. I do know how refreshing it is to set pace aside and let the legs fly however they can on that day, on any given mountain. I do know that the body can and will do things we ask of it, if we play nicely. I know that I’m not done flirting with the trails, and I know that they’re always there to tempt me.

Comments

  1. September 28, 2015

    No shame in turning around. Heat depletes your energy stores quickly. Did you have salt pills? They are ahhhhhhmazing for heat. I am so proud that you got out on those trails running smart! Its far better to not force a finish because you can get injured or despise any future races. We all DNF and learn from those experiences. I love your race recaps! Keep on hitting the trails for long increments and get those hill workouts in.

  2. September 30, 2015

    Well dang, it sounds like a tough race. DNFing would be tough, but a fall and hot weather on that kind of a race can be brutal mentally and physically. I have no doubt you’ll conquer the next ultra.

  3. November 4, 2015

    The heat is a killer. The only thing to do is go slower, and sometimes you just can’t slow down enough. One thing I love about East Coast ultras is that there’s lots of shade. Humidity can be a big factor, but you’re rarely exposed.

    I hope you give it another try! The zen on trail is powerful stuff completely different from road running.

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