Sean O’Brien 50 Mile Race Report

Sunrise on the Sean O'Brien Course: Photo courtesy of Dominic Grossman

Sunrise on the Sean O’Brien Course: Photo courtesy of Dominic Grossman

Does anyone ever really feel that they are ready to run fifty miles for the first time? To race it?

Step One to tackling the great unknown: prepare as much as possible. This will always be in some respects lacking. How does one prepare for the unfathomable anyway?  I took solace in the fact that many others before me have done it, mortals to the last. Given ultrarunning’s recent rocket-fuelled popularity boom, is the distance even — dare I say it — commonplace?

Step Two: continue each small act of preparation until the goal itself is just an extension of these acts, each on its own, apparently normal, logical and familiar.

So it was. Before I know it, the day before the race has arrived. Pack bag. Drive to hotel. Try not to freak out when the lobby is chock full of ultrarunning’s top competitors. Try not to question what on earth I am doing there amongst them, signed up for the same freakin’ race. Avoid them, because that’s what I do in intimidating social situations and most especially with those whose faces I recognize from magazines and running websites. Lay out race clothes, set wake up call for 4:15am, attempt, all night — foolishly — to sleep. Small steps towards the unfathomable.

Then, without fanfare, it’s time to go. Driving the short distance to the start, Florence and the Machine shout at me to “Raise It Up!”  Here I am, a rabbit-hearted girl, frozen in the lights… I must become a lion-hearted girl, ready for a fight. Raise it up, raise it up!

Almost time to begin. I stand there in the dark at the start, full of anticipation. It has come to this moment and here I am. In front of me are elites Meghan Aborgast and Cassie Scallon. The horn sounds and they are gone.

I start the race so conservatively that it’s laughable. Here it is, my biggest and highest-profile race yet, and I’m going minutes per mile slower than I would ever consider moving on a training day on even the toughest of trails. My logic is that on a training day I don’t run 50 miles.

As the sunrise comes I settle into a rhythm on the undulating terrain. I wait for the mountains and I know they are coming. I start chatting to my fellow runners, all men, and I am surprised to find that I am running with experienced ultra runners who are also sub three hour road marathoners. Could I be going too fast, I wonder?  I check in with my body. My body sings back to me: all day, I can do this all day.

The hills come, and as expected, they are steep and long. With over 11,000ft of vertical ascent on the course, this is no baby ultra. The most vertical I have ever done on one run was 6,300ft, in December, on the North Face Endurance Challenge SF’s 50k course — I thought that was tough!  At the same time, the more I progress in this sport, the better I become on the climbs. They don’t scare me any more. Still, when others around me walk, I walk, which makes for a lot more walking than I expected to be doing. I never walk climbs in training. Never. With more experience on my legs I won’t do it in 50 mile races either.

The rewards of all the ascents are stunning, ocean meets sky, craggy green mountains for as far as the eye can see. This is LA?  I had no idea.

At around mile 19, I see Bryon Powell from, who is covering the race for his website. He looks at me and makes a note. My mind starts whirling. Why is he still there?  The men passed through long ago. He must be keeping track of the women’s field, and my guess is that he’s only interested in the top ten. Could I be in the top ten?  Unbelievably, it seemed I was, but I had no idea where. Within a few minutes I pass two more women, a huge confidence booster since it’s at the start of a tough and several miles-long climb. I glance behind as the miles go by. They are nowhere in sight.

By the time I come back into Kanan Road Aid Station, at mile 36.3, I know the majority of the climbing is over and I still feel fantastic. A man rushes up to me. “I need to know who you are!!” he exclaims excitedly. “Who are you? Where are you from? I need a picture!”  He dashes up the trail as I leave the AS and nabs a pic while I chomp on gel blocks, balance newly filled water bottles, attempt to answer his questions and keep running all at the same time. He must be from, I think (he was). He yells after me as I pass, “You’re in 6th place!  Fourteen minutes back.”  Astounded, I practically float along the trail, thinking, this race isn’t over yet and I have energy aplenty to burn.

Soon I pass a couple of hikers with a map out, looking lost. Since I was new to the trail I turn up the hill and keep running, knowing I can’t help them. About ten minutes later I realize I haven’t seen a course marker in some time. Panic. PINK!  PINK! Gimme a pink ribbon!  Please. Nothing. Blood pounding in my head. The crushing realization: off course. I’m horrified, momentarily destroyed. No!  I think, it’s not fair!!

Stop. Stay calm. You can do this all day, remember? All day. A  little detour is all it is. I find the course marker another ten minutes (and much vertical) later, and I’m temporarily energised, flying down the trail feeling strong and determined. The mind is a tricky thing however, and doubt soon creeps in. Twenty minutes?!  I bet I lost two spots!  To my retrospective deep disappointment, those two thoughts are about all I can focus on for the next seven or eight miles. All of a sudden, my body feels devastatingly tired and my mind defeated. I try to push the thoughts aside. This is a mental game, Caroline, be stronger. You can do this. But the devil on my shoulder is winning. Instead of focusing on the path ahead, I keep looking behind, waiting to be passed. The rabbit-hearted girl is back.

A little before the creek crossing, perhaps two or so miles from the finish, I turn around to see a woman directly at my back — someone I had passed earlier. A moment of hesitation, but then: NO!  Adrenaline kicks in and never stops. I surge forward, back in the race, fierce once more. In my mind, I am snarling. I finish strong, fast, and ahead. When she crosses the finish line, we shake hands, hug, laugh — people once again.  That small ‘win’ ends the race on a high and I am grateful for it.

Bryon Powell introduces himself and tells me I came in eighth. Top ten was beyond anything I could have expected, but I was still frustrated at the thought that going off course had cost me dearly. I tell Bryon it’s my first 50 mile race and he remarks, “One hell of a debut!”  Thank you, Bryon, that meant a lot. Mental pit of despair, erased. It is a good day once again.

P.S.  In the interest of full disclosure, I now question whether I ever was in sixth place. I can’t figure it out. Maybe it was all a mistake and I was in eighth all along?  It doesn’t matter much at this point, but thought I should mention that as I piece the day back together I’m not sure anymore.

P.P.S. To all who saved me along the way, thank you. Kevin K., Craig B., my sweet Asian friend who listened to my moaning at the lowest point and whose name I can’t recall because I was so deeply self-absorbed at the time, thank you. I said it during the race but I’ll say it again: I’m glad you’re here. You helped me keep moving and you lifted me up, but more than that you kept me company. It was a privilege to run with you.

Photo credit: Alcantar Photo

Photo credit: Alcantar Photo

Photo courtesy of Keira Henninger

Photo courtesy of Keira Henninger

6 thoughts on “Sean O’Brien 50 Mile Race Report

  1. hi Caroline I’m glad to see you’re getting back into the swing of things being in Southern California.I miss you terribly and can’t wait to see you this summer hopefully. Love bonnie

  2. Your web page is fabulous! I am so proud to know a famous, and even more becoming super famous ultra runner! ..Your first page Pic. I can see my mountains, and where I live and hike far off in the background, so I feel connected…Badwater is coming up! I love Death Valley! I have spent many miles traversing there (on the back seat of a Harley Davidson motorcycle) And in so doing, spent time watching and aiding ultra runners run in Death Valley….As I am not an ultra runner, but… I love to run up mountain trails for fun. Get going Caroline! Badwater 135 mi is your future! Lv, Ya. Mrs. W….

  3. This is so inspiring Caroline! I hope you will write a post about how you manage to make the time for ultra training in addition to working and mom-ing… I’m mystefied! I can barely manage work plus short runs 🙂
    If you ever do runs for charity, let me know as I have plenty of ideas!! Especially if you want to support mothers–i’m involved in several nonprofits.

    • Hi Maura! I was working three days a week until we moved to Temecula in January. Right now, I’m enjoying a short break before looking for something down here. On days I worked, it was an early start that allowed me to get my training in. Now I have much more flexibility with the kids in school until mid-afternoon. The volume of training (i.e. mileage) for ultrarunners is actually about the same as for any serious runner, it’s just that the terrain and the way the milage is broken down differs.

      Nice to hear from you and best of luck with your running endeavors!

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