This is one of a handful of race/run reports that I wrote before I started this blog.
This past weekend, I ran the Coyote Cohort Backbone Ultramarathon, a 68-mile trail run in the Santa Monica Mountains in California with ~14,000 ft. of climbing. It was brutal at times, but also amazing at times, as I’m gathering that many ultramarathons are, and overall an extremely well organized, staffed, and executed event.
I raced the North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Miler in San Francisco (Marin) in December as my first ultramarathon race. Afterwards, I was set on not wasting the fitness and base that I had built up that I feel like sometimes happens with drawn out recovery times that are easy to get sucked into. So instead, I plotted out a week of almost no mileage, and began to easily ramp up mileage into hitting full steam in the 2nd week of January. This somewhat worked out, but a drawn out stomach illness killed almost a whole week of what should have been epic vacation training during Christmas time, but I made up for it with 5 days running in the not-so-snow-covered Yosemite over new years.
Upon returning to the real world after the holidays, my plan was pretty simple: get a long run on Saturdays. Back-to-back the run with a decent run on Sundays, tempo Monday, hill repeats Wednesday, and fill in the rest as necessary. This all worked pretty well, but traveling and skiing got in the way of weekend training a lot, and when there’s only really 8 weeks of training, 3 or 4 off weekends means that runs got moved around and the back-to-backs suffered. I felt OK about this, however, because I was still coasting on fitness from the 50, my weekly mileage was still above 50, and my weekly vert was at least in the thousands of feet.
I’d like to say that I topped out with a 35 mile run, but it was kind of a failed run with about 15 miles of death marching. Still haven’t figured out why it went bad. I did the same run minus 5 miles about 2 months ago and smoked it, so I guess it was some combo of nutrition, poor recovery from skiing, and heat. Quads were shot and my body just didn’t want to move...terrible run! This was 3 weeks out from the race. Already at that point I was feeling a little burnt out on running in general: motivation wasn’t there, runs were a chore. So when I had this terrible run, I took the next 2 days off completely and plotted how to get 1 last good set of runs in 2 weeks out from the race. Then the weather report came out that Mammoth Mountain was about to get dumped on, and in the same day, my friend called and asked if I wanted to go, so I took it as a sign: ditch the running and go get some POW! I ran Tuesday/Wednesday that week for a total of 24 miles (6 and 18) and then took off on Thursday afternoon for the mountains. Epic snow and ski session, and my I felt like my mind was back in the game for...more skiing. The next weekend was 6 days off Thursday thru Tuesday for a long planned ski vacation. I got 12 miles in that week. When I returned from this vacation, I immediately hopped on a plane to a conference in Alabama on a red-eye, and returned on the day before the race...I was pretty exhausted! I did not put on my running shoes until race day.
So the title says Race/Game/Run Report. The run is billed as a fun run/game: you can earn ‘bonus’ points and/or ‘boner’ points for doing cool/stupid stuff during the run. I don’t know what you have to do be get ‘boner’ points (probably being a jerk) but from what I gathered, ‘bonus’ points come from entertaining aid station volunteers or doing other cool, interesting, or noteworthy things. These points are then converted into time subtraction or addition onto your actual run time. So it’s kind of like a race with some twists.
The race has a 2-wave start. The first wave was at 6am, the second wave was a 9am. I was in the second wave, so I showed up at the finish at 7am where I would get my number, packet, and a large hardcover book (P.D. James’ “A Certain Justice”), which I learned that I was supposed to carry with me, ostensibly to read to the aid station volunteers while they filled up water, etc. That was new, but I was in for all the fun and games, so it went into the vest along with the 5 gels, 5 sleeves of Clif Bloks, 3 bags of calorie drink, 25 salt caps, 2 water bottles and 2-liter camelbak reservoir. I planned the nutrition to get me to mile 25, where my first drop bag would be located. Like the 50-miler, I had planned on about 400 cal/hour between all these goodies and whatever I decided looked good at the aid stations. At 7:45, they bussed us down to the start.
After a brief message and some kind words, they sent us off immediately up a big climb. During the last 6-months, I had run the 68 miles of this race in its entirety in a series of out-and-back runs, so I was at least familiar with the course, and knew not to get ahead of myself. At 9am, it was already in the 60s and heating up quickly.
The race features 3 major climbs all of which occur in the first 30 miles, and 3 major descents, 2 of which occur in the first 30 miles. Combined with the knowledge that it would be potentially in the 90s during the day and my strategy was to keep my pace conservative until the 3 climbs were over and then assess my status.
The first climb was uneventful. I actually got passed by all but maybe 3 or 4 of the 20-ish person starting group (the first starting group had maybe 120 people?) immediately, but I was feeling OK with my strategy so I tried to just motor on. I ended up in a group of 4 people, the other 3 of which were all serious ultramarathoners. They were swapping stories about Ultra Mont-Blanc and other races while I hung on in the rear. Eventually I met them all by name and ran with them until about mile 12 when we separated at the first aid station.
At that point, I filled up water/calorie drink, ate some watermelon, and cruised off towards the next climb (the section of trail that the dreadful 35-miler occured on). By this time, it was heating up a bit, and the climb started to seem like it was going to be brutal. My stomach wasn’t too happy about the gel bloks, and water didn’t seem to be helping. About half a mile in, however, I crossed a ridge and all of a sudden there was a breeze. My heart rate dropped by about 15 BPM almost immediately and I felt immensely better. The rest of the climb was conservative and went well. I got to the top and the next aid by 1pm, pretty close to my target pace of 5mph.
I was offered a shot of Jameson in celebration of St. Patty’s Day in the station, but I politely declined; my stomach probably would have not had any of that business. I was super pumped up from the aid station and the friendly volunteers and cold drink, so I took off up the trail towards the turnoff to the next descent.
This descent is burly. I’ve run in a few times and it never gets easier. It’s technical in a lot of sections, steep, and relentless; about 2300 ft. down over 6 miles with a slight rise in the middle. I made sure to take it conservatively, but even at a slow jog or hike, the heat was like a blow dryer. I’ve watched ‘Running on the Sun’ and I know they use the exact phrase ‘blow dryer’ to describe running in 130 degree heat, so I felt like a whiny bitch thinking that 90 degrees was hot, but nonetheless, it was freaking hot and I was baking. Luckily, there’s some shade on the trail at times, so there was some relief. I made it to the bottom of the major climb portion and passed the first few people of the day. The heat was taking its toll on other runners too.
At the bottom of the hill at mile 25 is an aid station with drop bags. I filled up Heed and water with ice, ate some food and snagged my headlamp from the drop bag. I read a bit to the aid station volunteers and then took off for the crux climb of the course. This climb is steep and often exposed, and is all shitty, wide-open fire trail and occurs right in the hottest section of the day. Right at the bottom of the last descent, I was caught up to my another runner from my wave (who I would later learn is an excellent descender and overall ultramarathon badass, from her UltraSignup profile) and we started the climb together. We ended up climbing the whole thing together and I found out that she had lost her voice from being sick and she was hacking and coughing...probably why she was hanging with me and not smoking the course, haha. I was feeling pretty bad at this point. My stomach was not happy, but I was forcing calories into it, the temperature was hot, and there were 40+ miles to go, so I had both the physical and mental game working against me. Just about the only thing going for me is that I was dumping ice water on myself and my heart rate was staying low.
At the top of this climb is some rolling steep hills into the next aid. Only maybe 5 miles from the last aid. And they had popsicles and quesadillas! I didn’t have a dilla, but a damn sure ate a popsicle and it was delicious! Additionally, they were bumping some grungy reggae from the stereo. Awesome. When I got filled up and snagged some M&Ms and a PayDay bar, I was out the door with my buddy from the climb. Most of the course is single or double track with some shorter fire-road sections in between. Here, the single track re-started, and it gets fun! Winding, not too steep in either direction, down through valleys, over ridges, with trees, bushes, shrubs, next to creek beds, up canyon walls...all just great trail running. Combine that with the cooling temps and I started to feel a little better! It was still light out, maybe 5pm, and I was starting to enjoy myself, but was still pretty wary of what lay ahead: 38 more miles. I took a silly fall on a butter-smooth single track by catching my toe on an almost non-existent rock, but the injuries were a scrape of the hand and knee...not a big deal. The next aid came and was water-only, so I filled up and running badass lady and I took off. More excellent single track went along into the dusk and then dark and my legs started to feel better and better. The next aid was 6 miles up and we made it there with no major issues. A couple of my buddies were waiting about half a mile out and ran in with us. They had a chair set up and were ready with Red Bull and calorie drink. I tried to snack on a burrito at the aid station, but it was a little heavy for me, so I passed it off to my buddy and got back on the trail for more epic single track, this time in the dark.
The lights of the city/late dusk highlighted the mountain ridges and the full moon was rising in the sky...it was amazing. The single track climbed steadily up to a fire road that would connect us to the next single track section. Overall a really nice climb because it wasn’t brutally steep as it had been earlier. On the fire road, I saw ahead what I thought was the headlamps of 2 conferring runners. But they blinked out, and then blinked back on a few feet away and I knew immediately what it was: a mountain lion! I kept my lamp on it (about 50 yards away I would guess) and it ran up the near-cliff wall of the fire trail and I watched it’s bushy tail disappear into the bushes. I kept looking up and seeing it’s eyes gleaming back at me, until they stopped appearing anymore as we moved on. Just in case, I picked up fist-sized rock, not that it would do much good against a big cat, but it felt nice to have anyway. I continued to check back over my shoulder and even walked backwards with my buddy guiding me for some way, just to be sure it wasn’t stalking us, but it didn’t want to come hang out with us as much as we didn’t want to hang out with it, so all was good in the nighttime trail running world.
The next 5 miles were a mile of fire trail and 4 miles of single track which was, again, really gorgeous trail. My running buddy was starting to feel pretty bad from being sick, and suggested that I go on, but I told her I’d run into the next aid with her. She’s tough as nails and wasn’t going to quit, but she wanted me to run my best race. I believe the words I used to describe her to her face were ‘Stone Cold Badass’. She’s definitely an inspiration to get out there and smash trail!
The next aid station I got a great surprise. A few more of my buddies unexpectedly came out to cheer! They surprised me on the trail before the aid station and then ran in with me and hung out while I resupplied. It’s such a mental boost to have an unexpected pleasant occurrence! They aren’t much for running, but their support and good vibes was amazing! This aid station was at mile 51, and I was surprised how good my legs felt! My pace was much slower than the last 50-miler I raced, so that’s probably why, but I was calculating how hard I could hammer for the rest of the race anyway. There was 1 steep and short climb left, and one slightly longer but not very steep one.
I said peace out to my buddies and the woman who I had been running with and mashed up towards the climb. It’s really not that long, but it felt shitty. I was running solo now, which lead me to question whether or not I had been getting a mental boost from my running buddy. I decided that it was just the hill talking and didn’t think about it again. At the top of the climb, I stretched briefly to relieve some of the tension in my hamstrings and calves, which had, except for a few brief twangs, felt unbelievably good all day. I then headed off down the trail which soon levels off into slight ups and downs along the ridge until the final larger descent which is about 5 miles of descending and 2400 ft. down. I had passed 2 people since the last aid station who looked OK, but sounded grumpy when I talked to them. I think they were feeling the heat from earlier. I hit the descent, which I have been down maybe 3 or 4 times in training, and started cruising. The game plan was to hike anything steep and run anything else. When I said that my ‘legs felt good’ in the aid station, I meant it, but it was a relative term. They felt pretty fresh and did not hurt, but they were definitely still beat up. Trying to run the steeps, even though there was ‘only’ 15 miles left to go, wasn’t going to happen. I must have been doing something OK, because I started passing a lot of people from the 6am wave. I said hi to everyone, and a lot of people responded in a pretty chipper manner, but some were beat down and not happy. I was never really sure what to say other than, ‘hang in there, dude!’ I’ve been that smoked before and it’s not fun.
The descent consisted of 2 parts: the Chamberlain Trail and the Blue Canyon trail. The Chamberlain Trail comes down to a ridge, and the Blue Canyon trail leaves the ridge and dips into a valley towards the aid station. Chamberlain Rock is this split rock on the trail, and I had heard that new runners of the race are supposed to climb through the crack and be ‘rebirthed’ without our sins. I know that sounds like it has religious overtones, but they call it ‘Butt Rock’ and how the ‘Butt will cleanse your sins’, so I’m not so sure they have any kind of motivation other than being kooky and fun. Either way, I took of the vest, climbed through with minimal damage and then finished the Chamberlain trail. By the time I got to the bottom of Blue Canyon, however, the inside of my right knee had started to hurt, almost like a pulled muscle. I was super worried that here, 10 miles from the finish, that I was gonna have to walk it in. After about a minute of walking though, I gave up on that stupid idea and started running again. The pain went away and didn’t return and I cruised into the aid station at a respectable clip.
This is the last aid station, about 8 miles from the finish, and it’s in the bottom of a valley, so while everywhere else had been a nice 60-65 degrees, it was down in the high 40s or 50s here. I was soaked in sweat in lycra shorts and a running shirt. By the time I had filled my water and eaten some potato and salt, I was freezing. I took off fast, too fast, in order to try and warm up. The valley is a nice false-flat downhill, and I was pushing hard to stop chattering from the cold. I knew it was only about 2 miles or less to the trailhead to climb up the hill and out of the cold air. This hurt, and I paid for it. By the time I started climbing, my legs were very unhappy with me. The climb is 2 miles or so, but only about 700 ft. up and I did the whole thing by full moon light! This was a small victory, because I felt cashed and knew it was gonna be a sufferfest because of that 2 mile push through the valley. The singletrack climb finished and dumps out onto a rolling fire road that traverses the ridge to the final single track descent of just under 3 miles. I met a lady at the top of the climb and we hiked together for a while, but when the fire road turned downhill and I tried to run, she actually did run and I got left. The legs felt like they had gas left in them, but the pain made it tough to string together long sections of running. I finally ran/walked my way to about a mile to go, and ran the rest in to feel like I finished strong. It was 3:20am.
After the race, I sat down in a chair and had a cup of ice water. I put on a jacket and pants and put my head in my hands for maybe 10 minutes before my running buddy came cruising in! She looked pretty good, but I bet she was glad to be done.
I went over to another chair by a fire pit and fell asleep for 2 hours. When I woke up at 5:30 I was cold and ready to get in my sleeping bag, which was a solid quarter mile away in my car. Ugh. I got up to walk and 2 dudes, Willy and Pete, helped me get myself together. When I got too dizzy to walk, I sat on the ground and Pete got me a pancake. I instantly felt better and we walked the rest of the way to the car, which Willy had offered to move a little closer to the park gate. I slept for another 2 hours and drove home...pretty much slept on and off the whole day...what a day!
I was really pissed off at myself for running so hard in the valley at the end. It wrecked me and I finished feeling awful. If I could go back, I would have snagged a shell and/or arm warmers from my crew at the mile 51 aid station and been able to handle the cold. This would have helped me immensely and maybe I wouldn’t have hammered so hard.
Otherwise, I feel like I executed close to perfectly. I kept it conservative in the heat and I’m glad I did. I hiked when I needed and ran when I could and was really happy with how I felt towards the end of the race, minus the last 5 miles or so. What I need to work on is my climbing. I’ve been working on it hard, but I live in the flats, and there’s just no substitute for getting out into the mountains every day. Moving is on my to-do list, pending real life agreeing with it.
My GPS watch died about the time that I started running on the final mile or so, which was lame because the Garmin 310XT claims a 20 hour battery life, so it should have had at least an hour left on it...bummed but oh well.
As I said before, I was shooting for 400 cal/hour. It’s a lot. My stomach was pissed off at me a lot, but surprisingly, I think the Gel Bloks were the culprit on this day. Once I switched to gels only I felt
great less bad. If I hadn’t been traveling the day before, I may have tried to make some bean and rice burritos or something to change it up, but overall, I think the gels will be in the plan for the future.
I took a SaltStick cap just about every 30 min. This was necessary. I drank 8 2-liter camelbaks, and about 14-16 water bottles of either water or water with calorie drink/heed. I don’t know exactly how many bottles because one of the bottles (CamelBak podium chill insulated bottle) was an almost dedicated dousing bottle during the hot portions of the day.
I had bits and pieces of aid-station fare: watermelon, orange slice, pretzel, potato, M&M, etc. but most of my calories were either Gu or Hammer Gel. The Hammer Gel was race provided, and I have to say that I may try it out some more. I really enjoyed it and it sat well in my stomach, even though the packet opening system was a failure and often resulted in almost gagging on the stem of the bag trying to get purchase with my teeth to squeeze the gel out!
I think that’s it. Lemme know if you have questions, comments, thoughts about my training/racing strategies. I’m always interested to hear what other runners have to say!