- This was printed in May of 2014 in The Madera Tribune, a newspaper in Madera, California. This was the 53rd installment of my weekly column, Mind Over Miles.
Day One of pre-training for the inaugural San Joaquin River Trail 50-mile ultramarathon
began with a one-mile 1,000-foot climbing challenge on Sunday. It wasn’t pretty.
Using Strava, a website/app that tracks athletic activity using GPS and compares athletes’
times on “segments,” SJRT race director Nate Moore posed a challenge: The man and
woman who can run the fastest time on the Wellbarn Road Climb segment (it’s actually
1.1-miles and 1,034 feet of elevation gain) by Sept. 1 will win free race entries.
Madera runner Audrey Crow and I decided to give it a try, although our official training
for the Nov. 15 race won’t begin until mid-July.
We carpooled up to the dead-end gate on Wellbarn Road in Auberry. A beautiful sunrise
and 55-degree temps greeted us on the trail about 5:40 a.m.
Heading down the dirt and gravel road at a 10-minute pace, we chatted about the usual:
family, our running group and Audrey’s recent recovery from a painful shin splint. At 1.7
miles, we arrived at the little dirt road that veers off to the left in a sharp incline.
“This is it,” I told Audrey. “The segment starts a little bit up this road. I don’t know
exactly where it ends but it seemed to be a clearing at the top when I looked at the map.”
“Okay Gazelle,” she replied. “I’ll follow you.”
I started the segment as fast as I could, knowing the hill was going to slow me down once
it got steep. How quickly that moment came! After 30 or so yards of semi-flat ground, I
was staring up at the tallest hill — no, mountain — I’d ever seen.
I embraced the challenge and with quick, choppy strides began to ascend the beast. My
hydration belt, with bottles of water and an electrolyte beverage, was bouncing on my
hips. I didn’t think twice about it; I ripped it off and tossed it into the shoulder of the trail.
About a half-mile later, as I rounded corner after corner only to find that the trail
continued to go up, up and higher up, did I semi-regret my decision to ditch the agua.
“You have got to be kidding me! Why are we doing this?” I yelled aloud. Audrey, who I
could spot below me as I rounded the switchbacks, didn’t hear me.
My calves were on fire. They were not getting a break; there was no flat or even kind-of-
flat piece of land. Even walking did nothing to help the burning sensation of the micro-
tears in my muscles. But I couldn’t stop. I was racing against the time of the fastest
woman to have hit the trail yet — Trace B., an amazing ultrarunner and beautiful person,
inside and out.
On instinct I turned around and ran up the hill backwards. It was just enough to give my
burning calves a reprieve. Once I turned around again, after about 15 yards, I felt like I
had fresh legs and took off at a sprint.
Of course, after another 20 yards I realized my legs were not fresh at all. I slowed to a
walk and then again turned around to jog backwards up the hill. I flipped around again,
saw that the trail was slightly — only slightly — less steep up ahead, and took off in
I continued this sprint, walk, run backward pattern all the way up that mountain. I knew I
looked like an idiot and wished that I had a film crew to record my utterly ridiculous
Eventually I saw a closed cattle gate up ahead and decided that it must mark the end of
the segment. If the climb hadn’t been so brutal, I would’ve done the smart thing and
continued past the gate to ensure I completed the entire segment. But stupidly, and out of
exhaustion, I stopped at the gate and waited for Audrey to catch up so we could descend
the mountain together.
(When I got home and uploaded my workout to Strava, sure enough, we hadn’t gone far
enough. We aren’t on the segment leader board but at least it was a good training run.)
I jogged a bit ahead as we chatted on the descent, until I heard a skid and a mini rockslide
behind me. I turned around to find Audrey on the ground, one hand up in the air, laughing
I did what any good friend would do and offered to take a photo of her with her phone.
Then I helped her up. You’re not a real trail runner until you eat it on a training run.