Humbled by the 50K

Sometimes when you’ve run a certain distance a few times, you begin to get sloppy. You start to treat it like it’s no big deal, and you take your training and health for granted. Last weekend, I was humbled. I ran my worst race ever at the Mendocino 50K.

I realize now that I’d grown a little too confident after I successfully raced a 50 miler last fall. It didn’t help that this past New Year’s Eve, I ran up one of the biggest hills in town and felt on top of the world. On New Year’s Day I signed up for a 100K later this summer with 14,000 feet of elevation gain at altitude. I popped iron pills, cut back on alcohol, ran a practice 50K and kept a consistent core routine all to prepare for this race, the Mendocino 50K, which was going to be epic.

But then something happened in early March. I got sick. I cut a long run short because I felt like shit. My runs were sluggish. I didn’t want to run. I was experiencing symptoms of burn out. I took a week off and felt awesome again the next week. “Wow!” I thought, “I did a great job listening to my body to take a break, and now I’m super pumped for this race again!”

But then something else happened. Two weeks before the race, I spilled boiling water on my right thigh and suffered a second degree burn. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t even keep the bandage on my leg, so I sat on my ass during spring break and watched TV and read books. I didn’t stretch, didn’t foam roll, didn’t do core. Physically, I did literally nothing. The next week I returned to work and wore dresses because I couldn’t put pants on, and continued to go home and sit on my ass.

My 50K approached. No longer was I just throwing out my time goal. Now, I wasn’t even sure I was going to run. But the night before the race, my nurse friend took a look at my leg and gave me the green light. With some peer pressure and a fresh application of Neosporin on my fragile new skin, I decided to go for it. I wasn’t prepared. I hadn’t brought a water bottle or the gels and race snacks I knew I needed, I hadn’t charged my watch, and I hadn’t hydrated or eaten particularly well the week prior. But my ego told me I was fine.

After two weeks of doing nothing, I couldn’t believe how stiff I’d become. I couldn’t even jump for the obligatory group jumping photo before the race. I did no stretching, no foam rolling, no warm-up. I did, however, remind myself that I had experience. I’d done this before. It was only 31 miles.

Not a terrible place to feel miserable.

The first 10 miles were enjoyable but a little too fast, and there was an unusual heaviness to my legs. But I was playing tag with a friend and we were enjoying the scenery, walking the hills and not really paying attention to our splits. The first hill was long, and I walked most of it. But I wasn’t worrying yet. I figured my muscles would loosen up after a few miles, and I’d finish when I finished. I was pacing myself.

By the time I reached the mile 15 aid station, my friend was just leaving, never to be seen again. I was on track for a 6:30 50K — not my original time goal, but a decent time considering my condition. I was in good spirits despite the heaviness that I knew was only going to get worse, but I pushed that thought far back into my mind. On the long descent out of the aid station, my friend, who was running her first ultra, passed me. She looked great. I was slogging. Downhill. I started to get nervous.

Mile 19 began a long uphill with a 15% grade and no switchbacks. I lost count of the number of people who passed me climbing up that hill. After multiple false summits, my watch died. I knew an aid station was coming soon, but the negative thoughts began to seep in. I was too tired to still have 12 miles left. What would happen if I walked all the way to the finish? Would anyone still be waiting for me? Would they all have gone back to the house, showered and drinking beer without me? My boyfriend probably wouldn’t even wait for me. We’d end up fighting. But he was running his first ultra, and I hadn’t even wished him good luck at the start. I was a bad girlfriend.

All those tricks to keep negativity away? Nope, I was wallowing in them.

At the mile 21 aid station, my friend who had been injured and pool running for the past 4 months caught up to me. We shuffled together for the next couple of miles, but my leaden legs couldn’t keep up with her. She ran ahead. People who looked like they were barely moving passed me. The last 10 miles paralleled a river that eventually led to the ocean and the finish line. The scenery was dull but somewhere ahead was the last aid station at mile 26. Without a watch, I had no sense of how far I’d run and how far I had to go. With every turn around a corner, I grew more anxious about my ability to finish this race.

Soon I was in tears. I would run a few minutes until my hips tightened too much and then I’d walk it out. The road was endless. At this rate, I’d never finish. It was impossible to walk this far before sunset, I told myself. I’m going to get swept. I’m going to be last. I should be back at the house drinking beer by now! I had written and sealed my ending to this race, and it wasn’t a happy one.

By the time I approached that last aid station, I was choking back tears. My friend was waiting for me and had turned her music on for motivation. The volunteers were in full mosquito net outfits and were in great moods. It was Earth Day after all! Look at all this beauty to celebrate! “Run with joy!” my friend chirped. I looked at them dead in the face and said, “I have no joy.” The volunteers had run Lake Sonoma 50 the previous weekend and were not impressed. Finally, when one of them told me the finish was only 4.3 miles away I was able to rejoice. I could run-walk 4.3 miles!

I charged forward keeping my eyes on the tree line, trying to gauge the distance to the ocean. My friend sang to me as she jogged ahead, and walked to wait for me as I slogged behind her. I was slowly coming out of my pit of self-pity and despair.

Upon finishing, it was still daylight, my friends were still hanging around, my boyfriend was celebrating a fantastic first 50K and was cheering for me. My world hadn’t ended. The race director smiled and validated my pain when I told him that race was freaking hard. I earned my personal worst, which to my surprise was smack dab mid-pack.

My run was miserable, but I survived, and honestly, it was a lesson I think I needed to learn. No training cycle or race is ever guaranteed to go exactly as planned and the only thing experience guarantees is the knowledge that you’ll get through it. And a swift little reminder not to take yourself too seriously.

Have you ever been humbled by a race?

A teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area who loves trail running, backpacking and cycling. Having grown up in the Sierra Nevada foothills, I secretly aspire to run Western States 100 someday. Realizing it might not be as crazy as it sounds (maybe it is), I am currently training for my next ultra.

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7 comments

  1. Wow! A 50k just a few weeks after a major burn injury is quite an amazing accomplishment. Definitely know that overconfident feeling though…and the resulting low mood when you realize it’s not going as swimmingly as you expected.

  2. This post could have been mine regarding my recent marathon build-up…. except for the burn part (ouch!!!). I thought I’d be ok… it was my 27th marathon so I figured bad training, eh, no big deal!!! Was totally humbled on race day lol. I share your sentiments! Great post and reflections 😊

  3. I’m so sorry about your burn and misery, but awesome job pushing through it!! I can’t imagine running 31 trail miles without an injury. 🙂 And yes, I’ve totally been humbled by the half marathon. Agreed on the reminder not to take yourself too seriously!

  4. Yep. That marathon DNF. Way to finish and come out the other side.

    By the way, “I looked at them dead in the face and said, ‘I have no joy'” made me spit out my coffee.