Finished!! I ran my first ultramarathon race this past Saturday, completing the Tamalpa 50K in 6:54 and getting in under my goal of 7 hours. All 29 of my Team In Training team mates completed their ultra as well AND we raised a whopping $86,000 in the process. Not too shabby at all for this little band of rugged runners.
The race began at 8 a.m. and the weather was foggy and chilly and remained that way the entire day. There were under 200 runners total and I really liked the small feel of the race. I was chilly standing at the start line but 30 seconds into the race I had already forgotten about the cold. It was time to run.
The beginning – Coastal Trail
The first two miles were relatively flat as we approached the Coastal Trail, but after that is was pure climbing for the next couple of miles. I noticed that I wasn’t as quick on the up hill power hikes and I think it’s because my feet slide around in my shoes too much. I don’t wear socks but may need to. Anyway, socks would be the least of my worries in a couple of hours. I made sure to hydrate early and often and eat my GU gels every 45 minutes.
Two hours in – The Miwok Trail
At the two hour mark I looked at my watch and I had done 10 miles, and the 12 minutes a mile pace was a great pace for me. In my training runs I’ve been at 13+ minutes a mile. I hit the first aid station and saw a few teammates and our coach Mama Lisa. Several teammates ran the Skyline 50K two weeks prior and had come out to support us. I always got a boost seeing their familiar faces at the aid stations. I refilled my water, ate a GU and continued on. I didn’t want to spend more time than needed at the aid station. I had a race to run!
The next climb was the Miwok Trail which is one of my favorite trails anywhere. It has a steady one mile climb at the beginning before descending down a series of switchbacks to Tennessee Valley where I reached aid staiton #2. There was a great support crew there as several of my teammates were there. I had set up a drop bag which I tore open, grabbed a couple of GUs and Bonk Bars and shoved them in my singlet pockets before moving on.
The Miwok trail continued with a steady and steeper climb this time before descending down a series of switchbacks that led into the first covered portion of the trail. The Tamalpa 50K is a beautiful course where the first half is completely open as you run along the coast before you enter the covered sections which comprise the remainder of the course. At three hours I was at 15 miles and still hitting the 12 minute pace. I felt good but little did I know things were going to take a turn for the worse, big time.
Three+ hours in – Dipsea
Dipsea (noun) – 1) A steep trail that leads from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach. 2) The course of the oldest trail race in the U.S. and second oldest race after the Boston Marathon. 3) Where my race took on a very different complexion and I began wondering how I would ever finish.
If you drew a teepee you would have also drawn the elevation profile of the Dipsea. It is 2+ miles of a steep climb that can drain your will if you let it. Knowing I should conserve my energy for the flatter and downhill portions of the race, I decided I would walk up most of the Dipsea. With one step I felt my right calf tigthen. That was weird, I thought. A few minutes later, my left quad did the same, then my right quad. Soon enough, my entire leg muscles began cramping and I was taking barely more than half steps. In seven months of training this had never happened and I was not sure what to do. I went through my mental checklist: GUs, Bonk Bars, water, electrolytes. I had done it all. I could not figure it out. I drank more water thinking I was dehydrated. That didn’t help. In fact it turns out that probably stoked the fire more.
With hands on quads, taking baby steps I slowly worked my way up the Dipsea trail. My watch said I was on a 50+ minute pace. So much for a great finishing time. I stopped caring about that as I wasn’t sure how I would complete the remaining 14 miles with two cramped legs. I’ve read several race recaps of ultra and endurance athletes where they completely hit a wall and somehow managed to bounce back. I knew I had hit a wall, my legs had hit the wall and I was not sure how they would get better if I still needed them to run over a half marathon.
The Blue Angel
And that’s when a blue angel appeared.
I call her the blue angel because she was wearing a blue shirt and she appeared from seemingly nowhere and saved my race. As she was coming up behind me on the trail she asks “How are you doing?” I tell her I’m cramping up big time and she gets herself right in front of me and says “Stop right now. You need salt big time.”
Salt! That was it! I had 20 salt tablets on me but hadn’t even thought of them. For high intensity workouts they suggest taking 3 per hour. I had taken 2 in over 3 hours. She gives me a couple of salt tablets from her backpack and I take them. She continues on her race while I continue my slow upward trudging pace and hold out hope that the salt works.
The salt kicks in
20 minutes later I was walking with full strides again. The salt had absolutely worked. I was still hesitant to push myself too hard because I could feel that a cramp session wasn’t too far away. But from then on I began taking a salt tablet every 15 minutes. It was time to get back in this race! The final portion of the Dipsea ascent is a cruel joke called Cardiac Hill. You are searching for foot holds among massive tree roots while battling the steepest ascent of the race. Luckily it does come to an end and when it does you come out into a wide opening and every runner’s favorite place, an aid station! I took my time at this one. Two hours earlier I had been in a rush to get in and get out, spilling water as I hurried to fill my water bottle and get back on my way. Now I was taking my time, handing my bottle to a very helpful volunteer, perusing the offerings and deciding on a quarter of a pbj sandwich and a few GU to replenish my onboard stash.
With my legs beneath me again, I began the four mile downhill ran the four miles down the Matt Damon (aka Matt Davis) trail to Stinson Beach. I wasn’t moving nearly as quick as I was a few hours earlier and was passed by a few runners but I couldn’t have cared less. I was just happy to be moving again! As I emerged out of the trail and onto the road where the aid station was, I got a huge surge of energy from seeing my teammates and my good friends Chad, Bonnie, Thad and Melita and their children hanging out waiting for me to pass through. I hung out for a minute or two and after some serious high fives and f*** yeahs!, I knew I had enough to climb up Steep Ravine, a 4 mile trail and the final climb of the race.
I completed Steep Ravine but not without more cramping at the end. The uphills were what were killing my quads and again I just kept taking in salt tablets to help. The good news was that on the flats and downhills I felt fine and once I was done with Steep Ravine, I reached the last aid station at the 6:10 mark. With 3.8 miles to go I knew I could still get in under the 7:00 mark with a steady 12 minute pace. The 3.8 miles was solely flat or downhill. Given everything that had happened during the race I would be pumped to get in under 7. I filled up my water, stuffed a handful of potato chips into my mouth and then got on my way. I was on the Coastal Trail again and the fog was thicker and the wind stronger than when we started that morning. After a couple of miles, I reached the final 1.3 miles of the race, a series of switchbacks snaking their way down the side of a mountain, dropping me off to where I started almost 7 hours ago. As I approached the end I heard friends and teammates cheering me on and the very distinguishable sound of our team’s cow bells ringing. And it got even louder as I ran the final 50 meters to cross the finish line with Chad and Thad running alongside me up until the end. And for a grand finale I attempted a hopscotch as I approached and crossed the finish line, but with how tired my legs were it came out looking like I cramped right at the end. I guess I need to work on that more.
Being out in the woods and trails and in nature for several hours and being alone with your thoughts and facing challenges along the way and fighting through them because you know the people you’re raising money for are fighting much tougher battles every day is an unparalleled experience. Can’t wait to do another long race like this soon!