Lake Hodges Trail Fest 50k Race Report

Photo: Shez Photography

Photo: Shez Photography

You never know who’s going to show up on race day, but I had a feeling going into this race it might be me verses the boys. Frankly, this prospect appealed to me almost as much as having some stiff female competition out there. Just in case there were some speedy ladies in the crowd though, and after two weeks of relatively subdued running, resting and cross training post-Whoo’s in El Moro, it felt tremendous to rip off the start line.

I dialed it back a bit after the first mile, in lead woman position, trying to play it smart while keeping a solid effort. I wasn’t convinced that the guys accustomed to being near the front of the pack were going to be entirely happy about me being ahead of them and the possibility of getting ‘chicked.’ Predictably, within a few miles, some guys passed me. At paces in the mid-6:00s range, I figured I might be seeing some of them again (which I did).

When we hit a flat (but sandy) stretch, around mile 9, I could really start to unfurl my wings. It felt utterly amazing. I relish racing on these flatter sections and instantly found my happy place.

Glancing behind, hoping for company, I saw a runner a short distance back and recognized James Walsh, third place finisher from October 12’s Whoo’s in El Moro. We hadn’t connected at that race, but his race report was featured on UltraRunnerPodcast Daily News (as was mine), so I knew who he was. I’m not sure if I actually beckoned or only thought about it, but he pulled up alongside me. Since we each seemed to be cranking along to our own tunes we just ran like that for a few minutes, matching each other stride for stride. Eventually I dropped an earbud and introduced myself.

It’s a rarity that I ever get to run with anyone else. I train alone out of necessity, but even in races it seems no one wants the company — perhaps they’re running at a different pace, or maybe (guys) just don’t want to get chicked so they blow past me or whatever. It wasn’t true back when I was slower, and I really miss the company. James was executing a well-planned negative split pacing strategy that day, starting behind me but ultimately winning the race about 20 minutes ahead of me. For the next few miles though, we locked step and it was a real treat. A short while later, we came across an aid station before the Raptor Ridge climb and James politely sped off. I stopped to get some water and thought I might catch up but he was nowhere in sight. Dang, I gotta work on my hills!

Going in to the race, I’d looked at the results from previous years and studied the course profile, concluding that sub-4 hours should be doable. On the day, I hit the halfway point right on target at slightly under the two hour mark. However, this was after struggling a little the previous few miles, which left scant room for error for the way back. At the second turnaround, about mile 19, I started to smell the barn and perked up considerably. Encouragement from the rest of the 50k runners still on their way in definitely helped too (thanks all!).

By mile 27 my rhythm began to falter once more and my splits varied. One hard mile followed by a slower one, then hard again, etc. I fought the good fight, dug in and got to work. In the end, I came in slightly over the 4 hour mark (4:02:08), but was consoled greatly by the fact that I smashed the previous female course record and beat all but three of the men.Lake Hodges winner shotLale Hodges Family Shot

 

 

 

Whoo’s in El Moro 50k Race Report

Sunset on the beach, the night before the race.

Sunset on the beach, the night before the race.

Something strange and wonderful happened on the trails in Crystal Cove State Park on Sunday. It’s just not the kind of thing you can take for granted in running or racing and when it happens it feels like being sprinkled with pixie dust.

It was never going to be a gentle run. With everyone at the front racing for a piece of the $6000 total prize purse, the race got off to a predictably blazing start. Competitors included 2014 USA 50k Trail Champion and 2:18 marathoner Tim Tollefson, Hoka One One athlete Chris Price, Jesse Haynes, Igor Campos, Nike Trail Elite runner Sally MacRae and Patagonia athlete Keira Henninger —  and these were just a few of the names and faces I recognized. When a female competitor set a 6:40 opening pace, I checked in with my body and thought, yikes, ok, I can probably hold this effort for 50k but holy crap this is gonna hurt. She put up a good fight for the next few miles, and we swapped spots a few times. I think I finally shook her for good after dropping a 6:10 at mile 8. It wasn’t exactly my usual sit-and-wait approach, but I gotta admit, I kinda liked it. It’s ‘only’ a 50k after all and I was determined to hold on for the duration no matter how much it hurt.

Once in a comfortable lead, I wasn’t about to slow down and get caught. RD Molly Kassouf mentioned at the start that the course has been modified. I was told by a fellow runner who had run the race before that this translated to more miles, more vert to make it closer to a true 50k distance. I was a little thrown by this because I had calculated a goal pace based on previous course results. Pretty soon, I stopped bothering to look at my splits and just focused on the effort level.

In the course of the run, we passed one junction four times, a spot sheparded by Tour des Geants runner-up and Barkley Marathons winner Nickademus Hollon. He looked like a fairly normal chap but considering his achievements in the world’s toughest footraces, I figured might just have a screw or two loose. (Not really — we chatted briefly at the finish and he seems like an incredibly nice guy). Anyway, as a result of the course changes there was ample opportunity to figure out where I stood in the women’s race. At both the first turnaround (about mile 13) and the second (around mile 17) I realized I was reasonably far ahead of the rest of the ladies field. I wasn’t about to let up the pace, but at least I was reassured that there was some cushion in case I needed it.

If having a race go so well is like being sprinkled with pixie dust, I will say the experience isn’t exactly the stuff fairy dreams are made of. Nope, it’s the kind where you’re racing on the verge of vomiting for each of 50 kilometers and your muscles scream desperately and repeatedly at you to stop. Disney would not approve. On one level I’m aware that my body is feeling distress, but at the same time I’m disconnected. For all I care, it might as well be happening to someone else.

From time to time, negative thoughts flicker across my mind like subtitles. ‘This is hard! You really should slow down!’ they implore. I mentally fish them out and stick them in a box, while hitting the euphoria-filled override button. I’m WINNING, I tell myself, on repeat, ad infintium. (Turns out it’s pretty easy to talk yourself out of a dark corner when you’re in first place). Outwardly it shows, as I’m constantly grinning from ear to ear, which I hope doesn’t make me look too much like a maniacal Cheshire cat.

Because I'm happy... (Photo credit: Billy Yang)

Because I’m happy… (Photo credit: Billy Yang)

We hear it all the time: distance running is such a mental game. I guess I always thought, yeah, but you gotta be fit too! And it’s true that, for me, fitness has to come first. I’m no Rob Krar; I don’t relish the pain cave. It’s definitely not somewhere I’m anxious to go. Still, the more experience I gain in racing, I’m starting to buy in to the notion that I can be suffering, my body can be breaking down and miserable, but as long as I keep it fed and watered and address immediate-attention issues like cramping while blasting my consciousness with positivity, I can still run fast despite the hurt.

The course itself is extremely runnable, mostly on wide fireroads, albeit peppered with some good climbs and steep descents to keep it interesting (Molly puts the vertical gain at about 5700ft, though my Garmin registered a little less). The race is a perfect mix of being quite competitive while still low key. In the end, I won by a 25 minute margin – not bad for a 50k. I also managed to come in 8th overall. I wish I could have stayed and hung out for longer, but I’d already been away from my family for most of the weekend and wanted to celebrate my first ultra win (and $1600 payday!) with the ones who have not only tolerated me, but believed in me and supported me from back when there was almost nothing to indicate that any of it was warranted. I look forward to getting to know some more of the area’s ultra-racing regulars over time (starting perhaps at TNF in Dec?). On Sunday, though, I needed to celebrate at home.

And, still smiling (Photo: Billy Yang)

And, still smiling (Photo: Billy Yang)

Yucking it up with my new friend, Gus.

Yucking it up with my new friend, Gus.