There’s a first time for everything, especially a 50k

Thursday, August 29, 2013

                Holy hell that was fun. The Headlands 50k this past Saturday was my first ultra. Any distance beyond the marathon is considered an ultra, but 50k is considerably shorter than the 50 mile, 100k, and 100 mile races that people run. Still, 50k is an ultra, and I had a blast in my first foray into that world.

                I signed up for Headlands way back in February, figuring that it would be a fun way to close out the summer of racing and that it would force me to start training hard for cross country season later in the year. Last year, I ran out of gas in October and didn’t end the season the way I wanted, so I was planning on using this race to postpone my fall racing in an effort to come into form later and keep it all the way through club nationals in December. Another reason I chose this race was the fact that I know the trails it uses. I figured that even if it went horribly, I’d at least be in familiar territory and the course is so beautiful that I could concentrate on that it I was hurting during the race.

As for the race itself, I went in with relatively low expectations. Since it was going to be the longest I’d ever raced, or even run, I figured that having concrete time goals might not be the best idea. A lot can go wrong in 31 miles, especially when 7300ft of climbing is involved. So I wanted to concentrate on fueling properly and trying to stay relaxed for as long as I could. Still, I looked up the course record and set that as an outside goal to go after if everything seemed to be going well.

                In the week leading up to the race, I ran less, ate a lot, and hydrated a lot. As my good friend Liz puts it, I got squishy. Osmo’s pre-race hydration product worked before the Angel Island race and I used it again the night before and the morning of Headlands. I think that made a big difference for me, as I never really felt out of sorts in terms of how much fluid I was drinking. I ran with a handheld bottle for the first time as well, and that was nice to have in some of the stretches between aid stations later in the race, particularly on the last 2 climbs up Dipsea and Steep Ravine.


Coming into the 14.7 mile aid station

                The race started out in Santos Meadow, with a couple of miles of relatively flat running before a series of 3 climbs out of Muir Beach into Pirates Cove, over into Tennessee Valley, and then over to Rodeo Beach. Within a mile, I had a pretty big lead over the next pack of runners. I was either doing something incredibly stupid, setting myself up for a big implosion later, or it would work out the way I hoped it would. But not much I could do about it, as I was still well within my comfort zone and tried to remain there as long as I could. I worked over the 3 climbs with relative ease, hit the first aid station at the base of Miwok, and got back into Tennessee Valley without much trouble. Working my way over to Highway 1 was where I began to work a bit. Once I crested the top of Miwok trail and got onto the fire road leading down to the highway, I began to push. I knew this was a long stretch of the course where I could make up some time and since I was feeling good, I wanted to run it hard. Looking back, I had pretty much committed to going after the course record at this point. I came through the aid station at Highway 1 (mile 14.7) still feeling strong and tore down Miwok to Redwood Creek. The volunteers were super supportive and their cheering definitely helped me move over the small climb to Diaz Ridge before dropping back onto Miwok.

Coming off of Redwood Trail and crossing Muir Woods road onto Deer Park, there were some more volunteers. As before, their cheering was a welcome boost. While I was mentally prepared for the climb up to Cardiac, but I wasn’t sure how my legs would respond. I’ve actually never run the stretch of Deer Park from Muir Woods road to Dipsea, as I’m always running the Dipsea trail via Dynamite, so I settled into a rhythm and started plugging away. A couple of minutes in, I saw someone taking photos and he said some nice words of encouragement and then I bumped into another friend where Deer Park meets Dipsea. It was nice to have some people to talk with/smile at on the way up, as it served to break up the grinding uphill that takes you up to Cardiac. At halfway rock, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my legs were actually feeling rather good. I was able to speed up a bit on the upper part of the climb, and hit the bottom of the last kicker (Cardiac itself) feeling all right.

The last steep bit up to Cardiac was where I really started to feel fatigued. I was able to keep running, but I crested the climb pretty spent. A friend would confide to me at the finish that I looked pretty weathered at the top. I saw a couple of friends but managed to completely miss a few others, probably due to being a bit out of sorts. My quads were the most tired and it took a lot of effort to pick up the pace heading up Old Mine to Pantoll. The top of Matt Davis was similar in that I was fighting the whole way to keep up my pace. I was checking my watch and realized that the distance it showed was significantly behind where the aid station was (watch showed 18.5 miles while the aid station was 19.7 miles), which provided a little pick me up, as I had more time to play with than I had originally thought. Still, I was a little worried about how I would feel on the final climb, but figured there wasn’t much I could do about it at that point. Thankfully, once Matt Davis turned down to the beach in earnest, my legs seemed to find some life and I was able to descend fairly well. I had a couple of run-ins with clueless hikers, one of whom did not appreciate being passed brusquely, but that’s one of the disadvantages of being in the front of a race and I just kept moving past them as best I could.


Just before the final climb starts in earnest.

I came into the Stinson Beach aid station feeling decidedly better than I had at the top of Cardiac, but I was still fairly tired and had spent much of the descent realizing that I was crushing my quads, which would be needed on the climb back to Pantoll. I took a gel, refilled my water bottle and headed up the Moors. The climb was rough to say the least. I’m so familiar with the Moors that they passed without much issue, but never having run up Steep Ravine worried me a bit. I soon found myself hiking up the sets of stairs I encountered and struggling to start back up running between them. It took a lot of willpower to keep running up that trail and when I hit the switchbacks at the top, I was ecstatic. Passing people going the other way on Old Mine provided a good boost, as everyone was supportive and I tried to give them words of encouragement as well. My watch showed that I was well under the course record and I knew that it was all downhill from there. All I had to do was hang on and not fall.

But before I knew it, right hamstring started to feel tighter and tighter and I could tell it was going to cramp if I didn’t do something about it immediately. I stretched it out for a few seconds and continued on gingerly, as it felt that lengthening my stride aggravated it more. I was immediately reminded of stories of friends who were cramping so badly in longer races that they couldn’t walk more than a few steps before cramping up again. I thought about what I would do if that happened to me and I just couldn’t imagine getting so far into this race, with the record in sight, and coming up short. Thankfully, it began to loosen a bit and after making another quick stop at the Cardiac aid station for water, I continued down Coastal. Someone yelled that I was 9 minutes ahead of the course record at that point, and I had actually come through in the exact time that I decided I wanted when I was last at Cardiac, so I was really pleased with my position. Again, I’m sure I missed some people I knew at the aid station, but at that point, I had tunnel vision for the finish line and definitely wasn’t too talkative. On the way down Coastal, I was very thankful for all of the times I’d run it in a fatigued state after running a time trial up from Muir Woods. Being so familiar with the course so close to the finish was invaluable because at that point I was tired to the point where concentrating on the trail was hard. I kept reminding myself to pick my feet up. I made it down Coastal and for some reason had it in my head that Heather Cutoff was only half a mile or so down to the meadow, so when the volunteer at the top said “1.3 miles to go,” I almost cursed out loud. Nothing I could do about it though, so I just put it out of my mind and focused on navigating the switchbacks. Oh man the switchbacks… they’re bad enough when you feel fine because they steal all of your momentum, forcing you to brake and re-accelerate. But when you’re in mile 31 of a 31 mile race, they’re torture. My quads were totally shot at this point and each stop and restart was very painful. The finish line kept me going, and I finally made it to the bottom of the trail and crossed the line in 3:41:49, about 7 minutes faster than the previous course record. I immediately fell to the ground and stayed there for 10-15 minutes. I don’t think I’ve ever been that wiped out before.


For once happy to be on my butt on the ground.

The race director came over and offered his congratulations, as did many others, and I still feel bad because I was relatively unresponsive. Hopefully they realized why and weren’t offended. After a while, I stood up, walked slowly to my car, changed, downed some Osmo post-race product with cinnamon (it’s like protein horchata!), and made my way to the pizza oven and beer coolers. I spent the next couple hours eating, talking with other runners, and watching finishers cross the line in 1’s and 2’s.

As with the Cranmore recap, I’ll discuss (briefly, since this is getting a bit long) some of the things I learned, in no particular order. And please note that these are only observations from one race. They may be completely reversed next time I attempt an ultra.

1. No matter how well the race might go overall, there will be one, and usually several, points of extreme discomfort. It’s how you deal with those moments (or minutes or miles) that will have the biggest impact on your race.

                2. Don’t run an ultra if you don’t like being uncomfortable for an extended period of time.

3. Unlike in shorter races, fueling can break you. It usually won’t make you, but it certainly can bite you harder than you thought possible. Next time, I’ll be taking some salt along with my gels.

4. Ultra racing is a solitary endeavor. All runners know the solitude that comes with the early morning or late night training runs, but usually there are people to run with during a race. As I saw finishers coming in one by one, I realized that I had just spent the better part of 4 hours running hard totally by myself. Running solo during a competition is very new to me, as there are always people around me in xc or track or road races. Not so much in an ultra, where even when people might have spent 20 miles running with a group, that group inevitably breaks up later in the race and you end up running the last (and usually most painful part) of it solo. It takes a lot of mental toughness to do this time and time again.

5. I want to run this distance again, and maybe longer. 3 years ago I didn’t believe in marathons. Only time will tell where I end up.

On a final note, thank you to the race directors and volunteers. You all did a tremendous job of making this race go incredibly smoothly. The course was marked brilliantly and the aid stations were responsive, fast, and gracious. I fear the bar has been set to high for any ultras I may run in the future. And congrats to everyone who was out there running on Saturday!

About afvarner

Runner. Donuts. Sneakerhead. Not necessarily in that order. Nike Trail Elite. Picky Bars. Gu. Vicory Sportdesign.
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4 Responses to There’s a first time for everything, especially a 50k

  1. Karen says:

    Great writeup! I’m so glad you had a good time, and I think your lessons will probably hold up pretty well except maybe the solitude one – I’ve definitely found buddies in races and stuck with them for 35 of 40 miles… not always, but sometimes. Also, it’s a slippery slope to 100 miles… just sayin’ 😉

  2. stacy says:

    Hmmm.. Alex.. it’s not salt, it’s the fact that you are using gels! We’ve gotta talk!

    • afvarner says:

      Yeah I figured the gels had something to do with it but I didn’t want to change anything up without trying it in training. Glucose tablets are coming soon!

  3. Rich says:

    Great writeup Alex, and congrats on the record and victory! How you managed to navigate that course that quickly is truly incredible. Well done. And welcome to ultra running!

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