(clenched teeth emoji)
So…yikes. This has been quite the hiatus from the blogosphere, and I’ll admit I’m a little overwhelmed at the thought of trying to paraphrase ALL that’s gone on since we last chatted.
In a few words: a lot has happened over the past year, which is entirely related to my internet absence. I can’t make any promises, but I would love to recap this year, my training, and my upcoming goals at some point before 2016 starts. Time will tell, but here’s hoping.
But that’s not why I’m here. I’m here because something crazy happened this past Saturday.
I ran my first ultramarathon!
Most likely, you didn’t even know that I was training for or even considering running an ultra, and with good reason. I’ve been a diligent servant to the roads since I started running, I’m scared of big hills, and I only really started trail running this year. But, all those excuses are part of the long list of things that changed this year.
For the past six-ish months, I’ve found myself entranced by the siren sound of the trails. The running is more enjoyable, more rewarding, and exponentially more scenic. I recover much quicker, and I can feel myself getting fitter and faster. Do I still have big goals for the road? Certainly. But I’m discovering that what I once thought were mutually exclusive identities (being a road runner vs. being a trail runner) are actually quite complimentary to one another. I’m really enjoying it all, which ultimately lead me to the decision to forego a fall marathon for the sake of a new goal: a trail 50k.
I chose the North Face Endurance Challenge Series – California for a number of reasons, but namely because of all the rave reviews I’d heard from my friends who did it last year. Specially Julia, who ran it as her first 50k, could not say enough great things about the experience. Not to mention that there would be a deep November Project field attending, it was uncharted terrain (for me), and at sea level. No brainer all around.
My training for this race was easily the least diligent I’ve ever been while training for an “A” race. I mainly just followed a week-by-week schedule, never really planning ahead anything tied to certain distances or paces. If I’m being honest, for maybe the first time in my running career, I felt a little under-trained going into it; not horribly, but my longest long runs were 18 miles seven weeks out and 24 miles three weeks out.
Regardless, I was really excited going into the race and shockingly relaxed. I kept waiting to get overwhelmed with nerves and incessant butterflies (as per usual), but it never really hit me. I was mostly just amped and ready to spend a day out on the dirt. The lack of pressure to achieve a specific finishing time helped a lot too, not to mention the knowledge that I would be walking and hiking for plenty of it.
Enough already! Onto the race.
My goals (you knew I’d have ’em) were as follows:
- Run with joy
- Be proud of my race
- If things went well, finish under 6 hours
The race took place in the Marin Headlands just north of San Francisco. The course traversed up and down the sweeping vistas along the peninsula, in and out of grassy farm pastures, and all around the Muir Woods. It was an enviable set up no matter what type of runner you are, and I highly recommend a visit to this area if you’re able.
We started at 7 am, which meant the sun was barely creeping into the valley when the gun went off. It was picture perfect conditions: 50-ish degrees, mostly cloudy, and a slight coastal breeze to ward off any glimpses of overheating. It would remain that way the entire day, and none of us could have asked for better weather.
My approach to the miles focused on two key things: maintaining my “coyote pace” (run like you can run forever) and staying mentally present. Remembering presence is not only a good distraction, but it really helps me to not get overwhelmed by how much more is left and to just enjoy the day. Sounds cliche (it is), but it works.
So with these thoughts in mind, we were off on a 31.1 mile journey! Considering the length of this race and the fact that I don’t want to water down its greatness with superfluous detail, I’m going to recap it in sections that stood out to me.
-Journey to Cardiac
Miles 1-8 of the race were a superb “warm up,” and I was entirely exhilarated the whole time. There was a lot of up and down, but nothing that was unmanageable. The rising sun was altering the surroundings by the minute, and I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the scenery and camaraderie. Everyone was amped up and so encouraging of one another. I loved feeling fresh, strong, and ready for a good day.
The longest climb of the day took place between miles 9-13, with 1,300 feet of gain up to the Cardiac aid station, and it was the part of the course I’d been nervous about ever since I saw the elevation profile. I’m not great at sustained climbs, and I knew mentally it would be challenging to be going up for that long.
Turns out, this was one of my absolute favorite parts of the entire race! I focused specially on running a very steady, easy pace up and up the whole time, and I found that not only was I able to keep running, I was also passing people. I felt so good as I traversed up each of the winding switchbacks, and I tried to mentally preach to myself that I was a strong hill climber. Fake it til you make it, right? But it worked really well, and I’d say this was my proudest portion of the race. I made it the entire way up without stopping or walking, full of confidence when I reached the aid station on top (full elevation profile pictured below).
Following Cardiac, we went into the woods for a long, long time. It was a lovely change of scenery as we quite literally dove down into a lush, shaded forest after spending hours atop the hills. I had a very love-hate relationship with this portion of the race. One minute I’d be thinking:
” I love this! My favorite kind of single track! This will definitely be my highlight of the race!”
“Ugh, this is going on foreverrr. More wooden stairs?? When will we start going back already?”
So, some definite highs and lows in the Muir Woods. Specifically, there was one point where I was sure we were approaching mile 20 (my watch was showing the digital clock the whole time), and when the mile buzzed, it displayed “Mile 18.”
But I pressed on, and I joined a little group of five men and women or so for the final 3-ish miles of the woods, which was wildly helpful. The terrain leveled out just enough to offer a big mental reprieve, and I pulled myself out of a low spot between miles 19-21.
Muir Beach to Alta
Miles 22.5-28 were definitely one of the toughest points of the race for me. I was so ready to just bring it home, but the big steep descents that we flew down at the beginning of the race were now ominous climbs, ready to taunt our already exhausted legs. My left IT band was tightening every time I tried to sustain a run uphill too, so I started an alternating pattern of hiking and running. I admitted to myself at this point, too, that I definitely could have afforded myself more hill training.
We were granted a few big downhills along with all the ups in this section, however they were so steep that they didn’t offer much recovery for my already chewed-up legs. In terms of mental games, this section certainly required the most of them. Something I tried to remind myself of when I was overwhelmed with the obstacles, whether it was a climb, a descent, or just the overall time on my feet, was that I’ve hiked mountains for more than twice the amount of time I’d been out there. It might not be “running,” but reminding myself of the other high-intensity, high-vertical endurance endeavors I’ve done was a great confidence booster and calmed me down.
The last 3 miles were almost entirely downhill, and although my legs were certainly not happy with the pounding, it was mentally very helpful to know that it was all down to the finish. And boy was I ready to be DONE. I just kind of let my legs go and catapulted as gracefully as I could down the big hills to the finish. We’d also met up with the course for the marathon relay at this point, so it was nice to have some fresher people around to share the ending with. I got a lot of “Yea NP!” high-fives, which certainly boosted my enthusiasm. I was moving pretty quickly too considering I’d already run almost 30 miles, but I was so close to being done I figured I might as well dish it all out.
The final quarter mile stretch toward the finish line was amazing. There were tons of people lining the way, full of cheers and woops and everything you hope for at the end of a big race. I felt really strong coming in, and full of pride for having just run further than I’d ever run before. Finishing amongst November Project people is truly the greatest way to finish a race, and I felt like a champion running through all their high-fives and screams.
“Finishing her first 50k from Denver, CO…welcome home Robyn Mayer!”
That was a highlight too 🙂
I finished in 5:34:39, which I was incredibly happy with. Strava file tells more of the story.
All in all, I could not have asked for a better first ultramarathon experience. It had it all in terms of playing on my strengths, highlighting my opportunities for growth, and generally showcasing the culture and joys of trail running. Not to mention my fueling was – I’ll just say it – flawless! I wasn’t sure what to expect when it came to how my stomach and energy levels would do, but I’m mighty proud of the result. I never bonked and didn’t even have a glimmer of intestinal distress. I credit this to a superbly plentiful and nutrient-dense dinner the night before, ample hydrating in the days before and during the race, and starting to eat early on. I followed a menu of electrolyte drink, plain salt, PB&Js, and shot blocks the entire time, and it all sat really well. Sorry for the extensive nutrition tangent, but it is a big factor when it comes to super long races and it’s something I was really pleased with last Saturday.
A few days later, I’m still buzzing from the entire experience. My legs are just now beginning to regain some normal functionality, and I’m looking forward to taking some real down time for the next little while.
If you’re still out there reading, thank you! And if you are even considering the idea of running an ultra, I highly recommend it. I ran my first half-marathon in 2010, and at that point I could not even fathom running a full marathon, let alone 31 freaking miles. Even just a year ago, I was scared of and intimidated by trail running. Often times, I still am, but it has completely redefined both my respect and love for the sport. The opportunity for running goals and adventures spans a whole new horizon with trail running, and I’m really excited for all that’s to come.
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