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.
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.