Since joining the Salty team last spring, I have been training for my first 50-mile race, the Dick Collins Firetrails 50, using Krissy Moehl’s Running Your First Ultra training plan. I had just completed Boston-to-Big Sur, and knew I had the foundation for a strong training cycle. During summer vacation, I armed myself with a new book, Trail Runner’s Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area and adopted an adventurer’s mindset. That, combined with mild weather and strength-building trips to the mountains, provided ideal training conditions.
However, as with all training cycles, it wasn’t perfect. I struggled with my hill workouts, I neglected my core, and vacations prevented me from hitting all of my miles. But, I knew I prepared as best as I could, and upon reaching my final taper, my left knee and hip screamed at me that I was done, and it was time to get the show on the road.
During my taper, I read up on all the things I was supposed to do to mentally prepare: visualize your finish, be grateful that you made it to the start ready to venture into the unknown, reflect upon and trust your training, and smile. And smile I did. I set my goal time for somewhere between 11 to 12 hours (having never run one of these before).
At 6:30am Saturday morning, an anticlimactic horn blew, and I, choked with nervous tears, trotted off into the darkness with 171 other runners. I smiled that after six months of training, through an anxiety riddled taper, and after burning my hand with scalding hot water from the hotel room’s defunct coffee maker, I made it to the start line. I smiled at the idea that I had nowhere else to be that day; I’d spend my entire Saturday on these trails. I made it here, and I might as well relax and enjoy the rest of the ride.
Before I break down the highs & lows of each section of the race, I will tell you that I smiled as I crossed the finish line, too. I’ve never smiled so much in a race before. It wasn’t a perfect day, but it was pretty darn close. I’d like to think that I have the right temperament for ultras: I’m patient, mindful and calm. While some people can’t last seconds alone in their own heads, there isn’t anything I love more than to spend an entire day outdoors, away from noise and chaos, enjoying nature, pushing my physical limits. I’m pretty sure that with this race, I have officially drunk the ultra Kool-Aid, I found my niche, I’m all in.
Start to Bort Meadows (0-7.9 miles)
The race began along a smooth paved bike path that circled Lake Chabot, and I settled into an easy “all-day-pace”. With such a small field, it was hard to know if I was in the front, middle or back of the pack. I knew it was far too early to assume my place against the other runners, and my mantra was just to smile and relax, relax, relax.
The IT band pain in my hip simmered a little, but after the first few miles it seemed to settle itself out and disappear for the rest of the race. We approached our first climb, and as a reminder to chill out and reserve energy for later, everyone began to hike as we marveled at the sun rising over the lake. Once atop the first hill, we enjoyed a nice long gentle descent to the first aid station.
Bort Meadows to Big Bear (Miles 7.9-10.5)
The aid stations were super close to each other in this race, which was great for first-timers like me. I’m glad I wore my vest, but I loaded up on potatoes, pb & j sandwiches and Gu Brew at each of the aid station. Running alone, I have a tendency to not eat enough. Ample aid stations were critical to my success as they reminded me to eat and drink and kept hunger and dehydration at bay.
The trail continued to climb to the next ridgeline and, as frustrating as it was to hold back, I know my strength is consistency in pacing, so I kept hiking, banking energy for later. This climb was followed by about a mile-long fun descent to the Big Bear aid station. Some dudes flew by me on the descent, but I held back, knowing they’d pay for it later.
Big Bear to Skyline Gate (Miles 10.5-15)
Once out of Big Bear we found our first single track and I stepped into a conga line, again, not too concerned about the pace. Apparently, I was following too closely because the people in front of me stepped aside for me to pass. A friend had advised me to stay in the back of the pack where people would be chatting and singing, but I didn’t want to. I trained for this. This was my A race and I wanted to do the best I could.
I focused on maintaining my comfortable all-day-pace and didn’t worry too much about the number of people I was passing. By now, it was mid-morning, the sky was clear, and the heat of the day began to settle in. Beautiful redwoods led up a fireroad to the next aid station where I was welcomed with a celebrity sighting: Magdalena Boulet and some sprightly running buddies were hanging around, looking as though they had just completed an easy morning run.
Skyline Gate to Sibley Volcanic Preserve (Miles 15-18.4)
The next section ducked back down into covered woods and single track. My legs still felt fresh as I meandered along the winding soft trail. I smiled at the fact that 20 miles was still “early”, but feeling great, I couldn’t help but begin to wonder if I could go for top 10 women. I reminded myself that my goal was to finish, and anything else was icing on the cake. The fairytale woods soon ended, and we approached a nasty ascent that made even power hiking difficult.
Sibley Volcanic Preserve to Steam Trains (Miles 18.4-21.7)
I found out later that I was in around 60th place at Skyline Gate, and moved up to 34th by the time I crossed the chip mat just seven miles later at Steam Trains. A good climb to Steam Trains in the hot sun (reaching the mid-80s) seemed to be slowing a lot of people down, but my body must have remembered this summer’s heat training because, while I was warm, I was hydrated and felt acclimated.
Steam Trains to Quarry turnaround (Miles 21.7-23.9)
The climb up to Steam Trains prepared me for a loooong descent to the turnaround. The leaders were now passing in the opposite direction. One man told me I was 10th woman, another told me I was 5th. I thought I had counted seven, but the volunteers at the turnaround told me I was 5th. I wasn’t sure anyone was right, so I got through the aid station as quickly as I could and began the march uphill. At the highest point of the entire course, we were offered incredible vistas of the entire bay area, including Marin, San Francisco and Oakland.
Quarry to Steam Trains (Miles 23.9-26.1)
Past the turnaround, the pack had thinned and I was no longer passing people. The trail was an open, exposed fireroad that climbed uphill for a couple miles. Cheering on the incoming runners was a good distraction, but I couldn’t help but think about the hills I knew lay ahead of me. It was time for a pep talk I had prepared for myself: I hiked the Sierra High Route this summer. I hiked 10 hours a day over mountain passes without a trail, carrying a 30 pound backpack at high altitude. I cried during the High Route, I doubted myself on the High Route, but I finished the High Route. If I could do that, I sure as hell could do this. I had trained my legs and my brain to keep moving forward, so push forward I did.
Steam Trains to Sibley Volcanic Preserve (Miles 26.1-29.4)
Still in a bit of a funk, this was a short, lonely section where the little bumps in the trail started to feel more like hills. But it was quick, and I made it to the Sibley aid station to fill up on watermelon and Ginger Ale – yum!
Sibley Volcanic Preserve to Skyline Gate (Miles 29.4-32.8)
As my mileage crossed into unchartered territory, I did a quick body scan. Guess what? I smiled! I was running mileage I had never run before, and I felt okay. From the turnaround to Skyline, my splits slowed substantially, as I felt like there was more elevation gain in this direction, and my right knee was not pleased with the steep hill that was just as difficult to go down as it was to go up. Thankfully, I had run this section before during a training run, so I knew what was ahead. I knew that once I got through this section, I would enjoy a nice long shaded descent back into the Redwoods. At Skyline Gate, my boyfriend told me I was the 7th woman, and a group of three had just left the aid station.
Skyline Gate to Big Bear (Miles 32.8-37.3)
Glorious gentle downhill, a ladybug swarm in which many a ladybug landed on my arms, and shade revived my spirits. How can you not enjoy single track in a Redwood forest? By now, I was keeping company and playing tag with two men, one of whom I led slightly off course for a quick minute, until we caught up with a woman and her pacer (both wearing skirts!) just before the Big Bear aid station.
Big Bear to Bort Meadows (Miles 37.3-39.9)
Leaving Big Bear, we began the last major climb of the course, and exhaustion had definitely settled into my legs by now. A trail angel offered packs of ice as the sun beat down on us, and I shoved the ice down my bra, under my cap, and chomped on a few pieces too. A woman, seemingly coming out of nowhere, caught up with me on the uphill, proceeded to puke on the side of the trail, and then disappear into the distance. She ended up taking 3rd place (badass). After a mile descent, and upon arriving at Bort Meadows, I caught up with another woman whom I recognized from early on. She was sitting in a chair by her husband’s car looking a little defeated. I was certain I was in 6th place at that point.
Bort Meadows to Clyde Woolridge (Miles 39.9-43.4)
The majority of the climbing over, running steadily along a flat, soft dirt road, I did another systems check and realized my body felt great. This was bizarre! I was at mile 40, far into unknown territory, and I was fine. Upon arriving at the final aid station, I found out that my watch was short a mile, and was told that I was in 4th place and could probably catch 3rd, as she had just left and was suffering a bit. What? Seriously? Before race day, I would have said top 10 was wishful thinking. I smiled and laughed that I could actually be in 4th place, let alone place in the top three. I happily trotted along.
Clyde Woolridge to Finish (Miles 43.4-50)
The mental game had to begin at some point. It turns out that while preparing for the race, I had mistakenly read the course map wrong, and the trail was taking me toward the opposite side of the lake than I thought we were supposed to be on. Although I was following the flags, I began to doubt myself and pause to look around for other runners. Adding to my anxiety, my watch died at mile 44. Not only was I unsure if I took the right turn, but I didn’t know my mileage either.
Confusion allowed my exhaustion to take over, and I began to alternate between walking and running instead of what should have been a strong push to the finish along enjoyable single track. There was, however, one very cool distraction that reminded me to smile during my suffering: as I happened to venture through a brief opening in the trees, I heard a loud noise and looked up to see the Blue Angels flying in formation overhead in celebration of Fleet Week here in the Bay Area.
By mile 47, the two men behind me had caught up again, and a volunteer at the top of a steep descent confirmed that I was in fact going the right way. The trail led to the lakeshore, and I could see the path to the finish on the other side of the lake, but it was so. Far. Away. One of the men took off with a strong kick and finished a minute ahead of me. The other man’s legs cramped up at about a mile to go, and I’m unsure what happened to him. Without a watch, I didn’t know exactly where the finish was.
Finally, I turned a corner and was pleasantly surprised to see it straight ahead, kicked in my last reserves, put a giant smile on my face, and hyperventilated and cried as I crossed the finish. Turned out the woman at the last aid station lied about my place, possibly to ignite a little fire under my belt, and I finished 6th woman and 27th overall in a time of 10:12:23, well under my goal. Icing on the cake.
Have you raced 50 miles? What was your first time like?