A taste of the trail

  • 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

another sprint.

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

ascent.

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

hysterically.

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.

Audrey on Wellbarn Rd

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