Disclaimer: This is REALLY LONG. I didn’t intend for it to be, but once I started typing I couldn’t stop. This is a real, honest look into my head. LOL! If you want to know what I’m thinking when I’m running an ultra, this is it!
This all started when I had a really good 20-mile run two weekends ago. I felt strong and injury-free, and those 20 miles didn’t even make me as sore as I’d expected. I knew I could go — and needed to go — farther the following weekend in preparation for my 24-hour race coming up on Easter weekend, along with Miwok 100K on Mothers Day weekend.
But running 25+ miles on trail by myself and self-supported didn’t sound too appealing. So I looked at the trail marathon that I had almost signed up for last-minute when I found out that I had childcare (it ended up being the wrong weekend so I just ran the 20 miles locally instead).
Montara Mountain trail marathon boasted 5,500′ of elevation gain in Pacifica, near San Francisco. It’s put on by Coastal Trail Runs, which happens to be the organizer of my first-ever half marathon, the ZombieRunner San Francisco half. (Yeah, back then I didn’t know what an elevation profile was, and I hadn’t run a trail before. Rude awakening.)
I had a few friends running the MM marathon that I could carpool with so I felt it was the perfect opportunity. Then I realized that the 50K was only $5 more. Five bucks for an extra five miles and about 1,000′ of gain? Count me in!
I registered with every intention to use it as a training run. I was looking forward to a lot of climbing, breathtaking scenery (selfies!!) and not having to self-support. Plus I planned a side-trip to IKEA with the family!! Perfect weekend 🙂
To get to Pacifica on time for the 7 a.m. packet pickup, we had to leave at 3:45 a.m. Which means I woke up at 3:10 a.m. to get ready and drive to the carpool.
Thankfully the ride was dark and peaceful and I got to sleep for a couple of hours. When we arrived I was excited to see how pretty it was. Then I stepped out of the car.
“It’s COOOLLLLD!!” I wailed.
I shouldn’t have complained. It was actually perfect weather for running. I never overheated and I never felt cold once I actually got moving.
After I picked up my packet and left my drop bag at the one aid station (it’s a loop course) I went to the restroom and met a woman from New York who was running the trail marathon that day. It was her 250th marathon! How badass is this 60-year-old woman?! All I could think was I’m among my people!
The girls and I had trouble finding the start of the race. That was soon explained: the start line was being carried around in the arms of the race director. At 7:50 we followed him about 200 meters from the finish line where he laid down the cones and began explaining the course markings.
Half marathon does an orange loop and a pink loop. Grab a rubber band at the top of Montara Mountain so that he knows you made it to the turnaround point.
Full marathon does orange-pink-orange-pink. Montara Mountain is on the orange loop, so full marathoners will grab two rubber bands total, one on each trip up.
20-mile race is orange-pink-orange. Those runners should also grab two bands.
50K is orange-pink-orange-pink-then pink again but with a yellow shortcut. Two rubber bands.
Then with a “Go!” from the bullhorn, we were off. All of the half marathoners, 20-milers, full marathoners and 50K-ers scrambled down the dirt path onto the trail. Most of the single-track trail was actually wide enough for two people to run side-by-side, except for in certain stretches. There were also areas where it widened large enough for a large truck to fit.
I happened to be in the front of the pack at the start, so that’s where I remained for the first mile of the race, since we were mostly running single-file.
Here is where I should say that this was my first 50K. I had no idea how to run this race. For the one 50-miler I ran, and the two 100Ks, I knew to pace myself. I walked most of the uphills and saved my legs for the long distance. But a 50K… how do you run that? I run a full road marathon as fast as I possibly can. Should I do that with a trail marathon? A 50K is only five miles more, but on a trail that could mean a full hour longer. Do I hold back or just let loose and see what happens?
I flip-flopped the idea in my head but couldn’t decide. The race started off with an unrelenting climb to the top of Montara Mountain. When I got a mile and a half in I looked up to see runners zig-zagging above me along endless switchbacks. Holy shit. This is not going to be easy. I took my phone out of my Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta and snapped a photo. It was blurry so I stopped and took another. They both sucked, so I put my phone away and kept moving.
Then I got passed by one of the girls I rode up with; she was running the marathon.
I can pace with her, I thought.
But then we neared the turnaround point and I got competitive.
As I approached the top of the mountain I could see people already running back down. Plenty of guys flew past me on their way down the hill, but not many ladies.
I reached the top, grabbed the first rubber band my fingers touched, and then tossed it back. It was small and green — wouldn’t fit around my wrist and one of my least-favorite colors. I nudged a few bands around until I uncovered the perfect one: light purple, just big enough for my wrist. With a smile I turned and started my descent.
One by one I passed runners who had been ahead of me. Good job! I said to each one as I flew past. I may suck at climbing, but give me a downhill and I’m all over it.
It was something like a three-and-a-half mile climb up to the top of the mountain and I had been hitting somewhere around 13 minutes a mile. As my watch beeped for every downhill mile I glanced at the screen to see 7:xx. Making up time! I thought.
This is where things went somewhat sour. My new UD Ultra Vesta started bouncing around on me. It was partially because I hadn’t adjusted it to my outfit that day so it was slightly loose to begin with. But it was also because the downhill was so drastic that I’m pretty sure any pack would’ve been jumping around on the wearer. I could feel it rubbing against my collarbone.
This is why I brought a handheld. I thought. Just in case.
I reached the starting line and saw three men pointing this way and that, asking which way to go. I paused for a second, looking at the markings and tape on the ground. Obviously we need to get to the aid station because we’re just over 7 miles, and the aid station is near the finish line, and the finish line is that way, guys, so come on, stop making me doubt myself! I thought.
“We have to go this way! To the aid station!” I yelled. One (smart) guy followed me. The other two dilly-dallied and kept asking hikers and spectators for direction. Sucks for them!
I came into the aid station and immediately unbuckled my pack. Bye, vest. I grabbed my packet of Green Tea Buzz Tailwind out of the Ultra Vesta pocket and shoved the rest of the pack into my bright yellow High Desert Drop Bag. I retrieved my handheld, already full of water, and ran off to begin the pink loop.
High Desert Drop Bags are awesome!! Mine looks like this, except it’s yellow 🙂
As I ran I opened the Tailwind stick. I put way too much muscle into it, apparently, because it ripped halfway down the side, releasing the fine white powder into the wind. I got the lid off my bottle and tried to pour the remaining Tailwind into it. Some of it made it into the bottle, the rest made it all over my hand. I closed the bottle and squeezed the wrapper into the handheld’s zipper pouch. Then I stuck my hand in my mouth to lick off the Tailwind powder. (That shit’s expensive, man! I can’t let it go to waste!)
I ended up with white powder all over my lips. I probably looked like Dave Chappelle in the crackhead episode.
Yup, That’s me ^^
At this point my hand was sticky, my lips were sticky and I looked down to find my tank top, shorts and legs covered with white powder.
Get this crackhead girl off the trail! I thought, and started laughing to myself.
Ah, well. Gotta keep going.
I made it up the first hill of the pink loop, then enjoyed the switchbacks all the way down. I ran across a gravel road to the second hill of the pink loop. Switchback after switchback, up and up and up and up some more. Whenever I passed someone, I again said “good job!”
Then I started thinking about the word “job.”
Is this a job? I wish running were my job. It’s not a job, it’s what I do for fun. Fun. “For every job that must me done, there is an element of fun. Find the fun and *snap* the job’s a game! Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, the medicine go do-own, medicine go down…”
And for the rest of eternity, I shall call Pink Loop Hill #2 “Mary Poppins Hill.”
As I finished the first half marathon of the race I looked at my watch. 2:12. Would I have won the half marathon? I glanced around, looking for women in the finish area. Didn’t see any.
2:12 is a good pace. That’s less than 10 minutes per mile, right? If I ran the 50K in 10 minutes per mile, that would be 310 minutes. That’s 5 hours and 10 minutes. What was the course record for women? 5:20? Can I do that?
Let’s go legs, we’re breaking the course record today!
Hit the aid station again and filled up my handheld with water. There was still enough powder floating in and around the bottle that I figured I’d be fine.
As I left the aid station I thought, For the last 6 miles I’ve been telling myself I’d rinse my sticky hand off when I got to the aid station. And did I do it?
Headed for Orange Loop #2, back up to the top of Montara Mountain. With the half marathoners nowhere in sight, I knew that counting the women ahead of me would give me a better idea of where I was, placement-wise, in the race. Marathoners and 50Kers were still in the running.
As I neared the top of the hill —damn, this is way harder the second time around — I counted the people coming back toward me.
Thirteen. All men.
No women! I’m winning! And I’m breaking the course record today, guys. I’m doing it. Course record holder: Gazelle. Damn straight! Doing this. I’m DOING THIS!
Then a woman came up behind me and passed me going uphill. Shit.
My first question would have been “Which event are you running?” But thankfully, so that I wouldn’t look like so much of a paranoid beezy, she broke the silence.
“Have you run here before?”
“Nope, I’m from Fresno.”
Now’s my opportunity. “Which event are you running?”
“Oh, cool.” Whew! “I’m doing the 50K.”
Small talk as we leapfrogged up the hill. She reached the top first. I poked around for another great rubber band: a dark purple this time, and again, perfect size for my wrist.
Then I chased her down the mountain. She was just as fearless on the downhills as I was, so I never caught up to her. She was the first female to come in for the 20-miler. As she turned into the finish line, I ran straight to the aid station to begin my second Pink Loop. But first: grab another stick of Tailwind and a Gazelle Gear Finite (aka snot rag).
Headed up the (unnamed) Pink Loop Hill #1. I guess I should name it Crackhead Hill. Or maybe Chappelle Hill, since Pink Loop Hill #2 is named after a person, too.
OK, so I headed up Chappelle Hill and tore open my second Tailwind stick. Naked flavor this time. This time around, things went way better. All of the Tailwind made it into the bottle and I didn’t look like a crackhead.
I sucked some down and thought Dang, this Naked flavor really IS good! Mark really knows his shit! (Running buddy had recommended it.)
Again, I sucked on the climbs but made up for it on the downhills. Couldn’t help but smile as men stepped to the side to let me fly by them. Yeah, that’s right, you just got chicked. Haha! … Shit, don’t catch back up to me.
I saw a huge doe licking the dew off of the tall grass in the middle of the meadow that separated Chappelle Hill from Mary Poppins Hill. I really wish I’d had my camera, but my cell phone was in the Ultra Vesta that had done me so wrong. (By this time I could feel the abrasions burning on my collarbone.)
Mary Poppins Hill was uneventful, other than I really enjoyed the scenery. The dirt was packed down from the previous day’s rain, with just a few areas of slick mud. At the end of the Pink Loop was a mile and a half of gentle downhill covered in bark. Huge slabs of pliable bark covered the ground, with several hard, dead branches buried beneath them. It was like a game — step on the wrong piece of bark and a branch would stand up and hit you in the shin. Step on the good bark. Good bark … good bark … good bark … goo- ah! ouch! Bad bark!
I checked my watch as I finished Pink Loop #2. 4:42.
So much for that! I’m not breaking the course record. Who was I kidding? I came up here for a training run and mid-race I just decide I’m going to break the course record. Stupid. That’s not happening, obviously. But I can still win. Winning would be good.
I passed by the finish line and headed straight on toward the aid station.
If I were running the marathon, I’d be done. And my time would be 4:42. Would THAT be a course record? Doubt it. But I’d be the first female. Can I change events, please? I’m tired. No? OK… 5 more miles.
I filled up my water bottle with straight water this time. No more Tailwind. No need. Just 5 miles to go. I ate a small slice of potato. I didn’t notice there was also a bowl of salt to dip it in until it was already in my mouth. Dammit. I can’t double dip… Wait, is anyone watching? … Damn, he’s watching. OK, no salt.
“See? Potatoes! They work!” I heard the guy say to the guy manning the aid station. He must’ve brought the potatoes.
Hey, there are my kiddos! Hi kids!
I waved and my daughter and son came running toward me from the finish area. They brought me flowers they had picked from the trail. Aww my babies!!
“Save them for me, I’m not done yet. I have five more miles.”
Off I go! Damn, that chili smells good. Is that barbecue? What are they barbecuing?
I took the Yellow Shortcut down the gravel road toward Mary Poppins Hill. No more Chapelle Hill. Dang, that was the easier one, too…
Hey look! Deer! Three of them!
No Audrey, I’m not hallucinating this time. There are really three deer right there. They’re just lying in the meadow, chillin.
All I did on Mary Poppins Hill was mental math, trying to calculate my finish time, trying to calculate how many more miles I had of uphill, then how many miles of downhill, recalculating finish time. Calculating how much faster I’d have to run to break the course record. Impossibly fast. That’s not going to happen.
Then counting down the miles.
Three miles left. That’s just a 5K. That means I’ve run 45K today. 5K to go.
OK, 2 miles to go. Only 2 miles. That’s like 16 minutes. 16 minutes left and then I’m done with 50K.
One mile left. Wait. I smell barbecue. Maybe the course is off. I’m not a mile away. I’m gonna end at 30.5 miles. No … 30.3? There’s the finish line! 30.2?! I ran the tangents. It’s the tangents.
Sprint in! Stop my watch! I’m done!
Where can I sit down? Oh, ouch! My legs. My legs are going to fall off. Guys, really, I need to sit down because my legs are … I sit down.
Ow! It still hurts. My legs! What the hell have I done to my legs?
My legs have NEVER felt that tight after a race. Must’ve been the 6,817 feet of climbing.
I collected my gold medal, my coaster, my finisher medal and finally a Styrofoam cup of chili. Mmmmmm….
That was an awesome race.
It was really fun to push myself to compete with each set of participants. I ran the first half marathon as if I were racing the half marathon. Then I ran the second half marathon as if I were racing the full marathon. Playing these mind games forced me to push myself so hard. I threw “pacing” and “take it easy” out the proverbial window. I just went all out, every mile, giving it my all. My all was 5 hours, 35 minutes and 21 seconds. Just 15 minutes off of the women’s course record. I hold the third-fastest female time for the course. Had I run just one minute faster, I’d be the second-fastest female. Damn. Maybe next year!
I highly recommend the race to anyone who loves a good trail. There are distances for every ability (there was even a 10K, but they started after the half, 20, full and 50K). The course is almost impossible to get lost on. It’s brutal but beautiful. The amenities are great. Awesome event put on in an awesome location.
Montara Mountain 50K, I’m coming back for you … and your course record, too!