Here’s the deal: I ran a huge race, the same huge race as last year, and it didn’t go exactly as I’d hoped. But, that’s okay! I still finished, I still ran a PR on the course, and I still had a great time with my friends. Dang…spoilers!
While the results may not have felt like the grand finale to my year as I’d hoped, I probably learned more from this race than I would have on a unicorn day. In the weeks afterward, I’ve wallowed a little, but mainly I’ve reflected a lot on this past year and withdrawn the key snippets of takeaways that I hope will carry on through 2017.
So while the title of this blog states “race recap,” this post – certainly my last of 2016 – is also a reflection on what was undoubtedly my biggest year of running yet.
The best part of this 50k wasn’t the race at all, but rather the training that went into it. I had so much fun, I ran with people – namely Julia – more often than not, and I felt fit. Following a summer or 14er hiking and consistent mileage, both my endurance and speed felt in tip-top shape. I was recovering quickly too, which meant that I could pack on mileage week-after-week while seemingly still making progress and not burning out.
25 miles on Saturday, then winning a cross-country race on Sunday!?
That was until…the end of training. Two weeks out from the race, kind of all at once, everything caught up to me in a not-so-subtle fashion. My left hip and hamstring started to feel irritated and sore; not painful, but just…lazy? I really hoped it was early-onset taper craziness, but I kind of knew it was potentially problematic. Anyway, I was still able to run and the feeling would ebb and flow, so I just focused on tapering and hoping for the best. I really, really wanted to have a good race – and I felt so ready for it!
So in the days leading up, I was willing myself to get psyched. I ran very little, I slept a lot and I went through all the motions as I normally would. But in the back of my head, I just felt a little overcooked. I was worried about my hip, certainly, but I was also having trouble garnering my usual pre-race focus and energy. I just couldn’t find my hype, simply, which I don’t think has ever happened to me.
But like I said, I wanted a great race and I wanted to be mentally strong, so I hoped for the best and kept up with standard protocol.
Adam and I stayed with friends on the Marin side of the Golden Gate Bridge which worked out perfectly. We had a nice relaxed night before the race, ate a substantial and nutrient-dense dinner, and went to bed around 9 pm.
I slept like a rock. From 9:00pm to 4:30am I didn’t move. It was great in the moment, but in hindsight, this was probably a warning sign of my blasé mental state going into the race. I have never, I repeat never, slept well before a big race – let alone any race? I normally don’t sleep well before 5ks, so this instance was a bit shocking. Also shocking – I had no pre-race bathroom success. What!? Again, not something that ever fails me, but my PRP was nowhere to be found. Luckily I knew there would be more opportunities and worst case – this was a trail race. There would be natural bathrooms literally everywhere!
We drove to the shuttle very easily and arrived at the race start with a little under an hour to go.
Julia and I had planned to run the race together which I was really excited about. It was relieving to think of sharing the effort with someone else, plus we each have our own respective strengths in races – helping one another only made sense after all our training together.
I was admittedly worried though about how my bum booty and less-than-stellar attitude would impact our race plan. Before we even started, I was prepared to tell Julia early on to run on without me, because I didn’t want to hold her back in any way. PSA: while this is certainly polite, it’s not exactly the best pre-race mentality to have.
Regardless, the show had to go on. We all lined up, I gave Adam a pre-race hug and kiss good luck, and Julia and I situated ourselves near the front of the pack. I was nervous, mostly for how my hip would do, but also excited to spend a beautiful day on some beautiful trails!
The plan was to not go out too fast (first mile is downhill) and focus on keeping ourselves reigned in for the first half. There are six big climbs in this race, two of which (nearly 2,000 feet of vert. total) are within the first 9 miles. We were prepped for this, and even though we were probably able to run the whole time right out of the gate, we decided to start hiking early in the second climb. I was proud of this decision, and even though my hip felt fine and my energy was super high, my legs just felt kind of…beat.
I realized this around mile 5, and it was a bit frightening. After two weeks of tapering and tons of rest, I should have felt peppy and fresh. Not the case whatsoever, and this early into a 50k I certainly did not want my legs to feel as tired as they did. I hesitantly expressed this concern to Julia, and she said she was feeling the exact same way. Okay, I thought, maybe if we’re both not feeling great, it’s just a taper fog that will gradually wear off. Julia said during this point that we’d make up for our physical woes with our brains, and I wholly believed it: we were well trained mentally as well!
Along with the two big climbs in this section, there were steep declines as well. We held back on these too and tried to just cruise. I felt okay – warming up a little bit – but generally just cloudy. I was willing my body to recognize that it was running a race – an A race, in fact – and to get it together! Luckily nothing hurt and our pace felt fine, so I just tried to keep trucking.
Miles 10-14 are the longest climb of the day up Cardiac Hill. I loved this climb last year as it’s easily the most runnable climb of the race and you get to traverse back and forth on awesome switch backs. We had joined a great conga line of runners that were all moving in a similar pace, and we all chatted and steadily made our way up and up.
This was the point that I knew in the back of my head that Julia and I were going in opposite directions physically and mentally. I’ve run with her enough to know when her energy is picking up and she’s feeling strong, and without her even saying anything I could tell running behind her that she was gaining momentum on Cardiac. Yours truly, on the other hand, was starting to struggle. The running was manageable, but I knew that the fatigue I felt early on wasn’t going to let up; in fact it was increasing, and it was on Cardiac that my lazy glute started to feel especially tired. Basically, it felt like I was getting no help from my left hip and hamstring, and while I’ve never had a muscle-firing issue, I imagine this was what it felt like. The only reason I didn’t stop to hike during this climb was because we were in a long line of people, and I wanted to stay with Julia for the time being.
Alas, we made it to the top where there’s an awesome aid station. A lot of people hit the bathrooms and pulled over for a big food refuel, but Julia and I quickly had our bottles refilled (Tailwind!), grabbed a few things, and were off. We were about to plummet into the Muir Woods which was the most technical section of the day, and it was a good opportunity to put a little distance between the big group we were with.
Just as I suspected, Julia was totally reinvigorated following the Cardiac climb. I think she made a comment about her new found energy, but at this point I was just trying to keep up on the root-filled and rocky descent we were on. It definitely felt good to be going downhill, and I was trying to rethink my way into actively competing in this race. I thought that the Muir Woods could be the catalyst for what would be an exceptional rest of the race…right? Well, just as that thought came about and we were trapezing deep into the woods, the outside of my left foot hit a rock and my ankle rolled right over it. Gah! Not good.
My ankle bounced back up without any issue, but I wasn’t sure how dire of a situation it was. I gingerly kept hopping on it but pulled over to let the runners behind me pass. The guy directly behind me who saw it happen shouted a friendly, “Just run ‘er out, run ‘er out!” as he went by, which made me smile. I could tell nothing was too bad so I got back on the trail and kept moving. At this point though, Julia and I had been separated by the people who passed me. Not to mention while I was cautiously trying to assess my ankle situation, Julia was doing what she does best – tactfully bombing down the descent. I admitted to myself that our races were officially going to be split, and although I was sad, it was probably the best thing that I could have done for myself and for her.
My ankle felt okay, but my pinky toe was on fire. For about five minutes of running, I thought it could possibly be broken, or badly sprained, but the pain started to subside gradually so I resolved to just pay attention to it and hope for the best. Since I was alone now, I decided to truly assess how bad my less-than-stellar physical condition was: my left hip was fast asleep, my left IT band was getting super talkative, my right foot was tingly and numb (?), and my left pinky toe was on red alert. It wasn’t ideal given my fitness going into the race, but so long as nothing got worse or painful, all in all I was going to be fine. And the primary saving grace…my energy was super high! I felt awake and alert, which gave me some confidence that not all of my physical strength was depleted.
On and on through the woods we went. I was happy to be running my own race and to be able to tend to the needs I had that day, namely hiking more than expected and taking it easy on the downhills. This isn’t exactly what I’d pictured, but it kept me composed and in-the-moment. I thought about Adam a lot (as I always do when we’re running the same race) and hoped he was having fun out there. I focused on getting to mile 20, since this is where I knew we’d be out of the woods and headed back toward the start line.
I wasn’t especially thrilled with my running during the Muir Woods portion of the race, but once we started to make our way out, I was happy that my body hadn’t seemed to have broken down much more. Things were still tight and fatigued, but I was hanging on. I had been fearful that I might have to DNF (something I’ve never had to do) once I realized it wasn’t going to be my day early on, but as the miles continued to tick off, I became more resolute that I could make it.
I ran into the mile 20 aid station anxious for some full-sugar Coke and a deep IT band stretch. As I stretched out, I got a pat on the back from NP founder Brogan, whom I was surprised I’d caught up to. After a minute or so, I darted back out in anticipation of the long flat section to come, followed by the hardest climb of the day.
I remember enjoying the flat-ish section from miles 20-23 last year, but this year it just seemed to go on forever. Strangely, my legs and bum booty felt better when I was either going up or down. This flat stretch just felt like never-ending work without much production, and I was actually excited to get to the steep uphill. I did hear a familiar, “Yea, Birdie!” as superstar 50-miler Dan passed me around this point, and it was so nice and encouraging to see another familiar face.
Miles 23-31.8 (Finish)
The only flat section of the course finally changed into the intimidating fire roads I’ve remembered clearly ever since I faced them last year. They aren’t even close to runnable (for me at least) which I was somewhat grateful for in the sense that I could put my head down and focus on a strong and steady power hike. With each stride I tried to stretch out my tired legs too, which really helped especially with my super-tight IT band.
Up and up I went, cheering on the marathoners as they came bombing down and also looking out for NP Denver leader, Woody. He was running his first marathon and I knew it would be an energy boost to see him. There were small portions of this ascent that you could try and jog, but generally the whole thing was a power hike, and along the way I realized I was actually feeling…recovered? My energy had felt good all day for the most part, but as I hiked and extended my stride, I started to feel a little more relaxed and pumped up.
I saw Woody close to the top of the climb, got a big hug from him, and a switch flipped in my brain. I was ready to finish this thing and run strong! In my head I thought, “Took ya long enough, huh?” but all at once my brain and body found their symbiosis.
I bombed down the next descent. I was so, so happy to be going downhill, and I grinned the entire way down. I finally felt like myself and I was on a mission to not let a bad day get the best of me. I thought of Julia up ahead of me and just knew she was crushing it, which made me proud and determined to show some strength. I came up to the mile 26 aid station which was electric! So many people were cheering, including friends from Denver, and I smiled from ear-to-ear. I grabbed more Coke, filled my bottle with water, and set out for the final chapter of a long day.
Photo by: Nina Pantz
I plugged along well enough on the next ascent (the last one of the day), mostly implementing a hike-run combo. I’d run for a few minutes, hike for a minute, so on and so on. This section is tough because you’re so close to the finish yet the uphill goes on longer than you’d expect, but I was prepared for it after last year and still riding the high from my new-found enthusiasm.
I reached the final aid station and by-passed it entirely. My energy was solid and I was ready to put this thing to bed. The final miles of this race are steep downhill, which I thoroughly enjoyed last year, and no matter how my trashed legs may have felt – I was going to get the most out of them.
Down I went, and it was wonderful! I was passing a ton of people both going out and coming back and everyone was cheering and smiling. I felt more alert and determined than I had all day, and without any knowledge or care of my finishing time or place, I was intent on putting in a solid final effort. I ran my fastest mile of the day (7:07 pace) for mile 30, in fact, which I’m really proud of since I’m not normally very aggressive on descents.
It was a *tad* disconcerting when I realized that the course was a little longer than last year as I approached the final mile, but regardless…I was nearly there! I trucked along the best I could up the final road stretch, and up ahead I saw familiar faces cheering me in. I took the sharp turn toward the finish line, looked up with a big smile, and exhaled deeply as I crossed. Holy shit…done!
Official time: 5:31:02
I regrouped and re-hydrated immediately upon finishing, and proceeded to spend the next couple of hours cheering in friends at the finish line. It was magical and a solid reminder that running is infinitely better with a team around you.
I will be the first to admit that I love to perform well when I’m surrounded by my peers. I love to run fast, I love to race hard, and I’m highly motivated by the thought of succeeding on a big stage. I’ve always been fiercely competitive, which can be both an asset and a liability, and I assumed that I’d experience that kind of competitive takeover at some point during this race – regardless of how good or bad I felt. But that never really happened, and for maybe the first time in my running career, I ran a race content just to finish and to not quit.
I’m both proud and not proud of this. Immediately following the race, I was super down on myself. I felt like I hadn’t even showed up and that I’d given myself an out before I even started. And honestly, both of these things aren’t untrue. I’d never experienced this kind of mental surrender before, and I hated the way it felt.
But the fact is, quite simply, when I showed up to run this race, I was over-trained and mentally wiped. I’d run all year – without really coming up for air – and I’d run lots of miles week after week. Not to mention I’d run a lot of races, including three big PRs, and I never really let my body or brain chill afterwards. Like I said in the beginning of this post, I was having so much fun with my training that I never really considered that I could be overdoing it. I’ve certainly overdone it in the past, but there were so many more warning signs then, so I never really thought that I’d reached a tipping point. I am normally so cognizant of prioritizing rest in my training, so I was disappointed that I had to relearn that lesson the hard way.
However, given my mental and physical state when I showed up, I am proud of how I ran this race. I finished with my head held high on a day where I very easily could have beaten myself up the entire time. It was a great reminder that sometimes accepting what the day has to offer is the greater accomplishment than the time we hope to run.
Also, if you had asked me before the race how I would have felt chasing Julia from mile 15 on, I would have told you it would have defeated me. Not because I wanted to be the one in the lead, but because I would have known that we weren’t going to have a magical hand-holding moment at the finish line. However, knowing that she was paving the way was actually unbelievably comforting and motivating. I realized as I trudged along in my own race, that if only one of us was going to have a good day – I absolutely wanted it to be her. I’ve had a ton of good races this year, along with generally a long and healthy year of running. Julia’s training was top-notch for ECSCA, and after several months earlier this year of being sidelined with an injury, she deserved to have a killer breakthrough race. Do I still want us to have that unicorn hand-hold finish line moment? Of course! But there’s time for that, and it just means we’ll need to keep honing our training and our racing.
So after all that, what’s the lesson learned? Well, I’ve primarily understood that there is a very fine line between the perfect amount of training and too much training. This was the first time I was over-trained without a horrible injury or complete mental burnout, and unfortunately I didn’t recognize it until it was a little too late. Fortunately, this race and the months of training beforehand have nestled me right into a super restful offseason, and I’ve had a good time reflecting on what to do and not do in the year coming up.
And frankly, I can’t wait for next year! Despite tipping the scale a bit, my training this year was the most consistent it’s ever been – and I’m excited to see how I can take the lessons gleaned from it in the months to come. Maybe I’ll even write about my plans and goals for 2017 – who knows!
Thank you for making it this far, if you have, and thank you to my running family who has made this sport infinitely better for me.
Strava activity: 31.8 miles, 6,249 feet of climbing
Race results: 5:31:02, 63/515 overall, 17/218 females, 7/41 age group
Fastest mile: 7:07 (mile 30)
Slowest mile: 16:25 (mile 24)
Fuel during race: Tailwind (3-4 bottles), 1/2 pack of Shot Blocks, 3 (?) cups of Coke, two handfuls of pretzels