They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, so I’m going to let them to do most of the talking.
Leading into the race, I was definitely feeling strong. By way of example, on the day before the race, my husband and I ran a short shakeout jog. Well, I thought it was a jog, but Robert informed me I was darn near close to dropping him. For two weeks it had been the same thing, I would think I was going slow, but would look down at my watch and realize I was going faster than anticipated.
It’s not always that way. I had gone into April’s Lake Sonoma feeling less peppy, a little heavy from all the vert and miles. My body hadn’t quite caught up yet. This time around, I had run less vert (about 12-15,000 vertical feet over 85-90 miles in peak weeks, as opposed to 18-20,000 over 95-100 miles for Lake Sonoma training), but had a couple of strong 50k races under my belt, coming six weeks and eight weeks out from the race. The races were key fitness builders, and I was excited to feel that it was all coming together at the right time for TNF.
Going into the race, we were staying at my parent’s house in Napa (over an hour’s drive from the race), so it was going to be an early rise to make the 5am start. As usual, I didn’t sleep well anyway, and was up by 12:45am, so by the time the race started it’s safe to say I was fully awake.
The anticipation and buzz at the start of this race, of any race really, is special. While there were many faces I recognized, there are few that I actually know, since I’m still new to the scene. Being somewhat awkward in social situations with new-to-me people anyway, I never quite know how to bridge this gap without either sounding like a fan or being self-promotional. Do I say “Hello, my name is Caroline Boller. You don’t know who I am because I always come in behind you in races. But hi! — and hey, I’m actually a halfways decent runner” or later simply “Congratulations on your race!” — each of which would surely be followed with a stilted silence. Yep, still working on that one. Luckily, my friend Julia Stamps-Mallon was there, and we chatted until it was time to join the bustling crowd at the start.
The race plan was to stay in the back half of the women’s top ten for the first half of the race, then start to move up. With so many strong racers, I wasn’t sure how this would work in practice, but I stuck to the plan and felt completely comfortable through the early miles.
At around mile 24-25, on the way into Pantoll Ranger Station, I spotted Bryon Powell of iRunFar, still feeling light on my feet and entirely positive mentally. He joked around with me, asking what I looked so happy about, and I responded something like “What, I’m having a great time out here!” and this is the pic of that moment:
All morning, I had been leapfrogging with my friend and storied track rock-star Julia Stamps-Mallon, running her 50-mile debut, with her stronger on the climbs, and me catching up on the descents. Other than that, I had a vague idea where I was in the women’s field, but wasn’t too focused on it. It was around this time that I came upon Nike Trail Elite runner Alicia Shay. We enjoyed some waterfalls cascading from above to the runoff down below, leaving shallow but surging water crossings — a spectacular sight that left me elated to be running in such a stunningly beautiful place. As we came into the turnaround at McKennon Gulch Aid Station, I started counting each woman runner ahead of me. I followed Alicia’s lead into McKennon, but with a quick turnaround was out of the Aid Station before her.
I soon came across and passed YiOu Wang, who was struggling to pick her way down from the top of Matt Davis trail as it descends into Stinson Beach (she later dropped due to injury). In contrast, this sometimes technical descent was the kind of terrain that I absolutely love, and I skipped down it gleefully — steps, rocks, roots, the lot — catching up once more to Julia and, as it turns out, passing her for good this time around as I ducked under a fallen tree. At Stinson (mile 33), my husband Robert was waiting for me, making for a swift transition and a welcome sight as I steeled myself for the grind up Steep Ravine’s many steps — and even a ladder! I kept waiting for Julia to catch me on this section, which was strong motivation to just keep pushing, but when I finally emerged from the forest and continued the climb to Cardiac AS, I couldn’t catch sight of her.
This section called for some real work. You DO NOT want to mess with this person right here (looking ahead to the upcoming ascent):
When I arrived at Cardiac, it was practically a busy metropolis of activity — with swarms of marathon, 50k and 50 milers taking advantage of a brief recovery after their inbound climb. The course coming out of Cardiac the second time was one of many course changes in store for the day due to trail and weather conditions, so I wasn’t confident I knew where I was going. Someone called out to me “nice long descent from here” but for some reason I kept thinking I might be going the wrong way. Sure there were confidence ribbons, but we’d already come up Cardiac so they would be there regardless of whether we also needed to descend. I spent about two minutes stopping, asking folks if they knew whether I was going the right way, even running back up Cardiac for a bit in something of a panic. Finally reassured by someone official-looking (he had a clipboard) that indeed I was heading in the right direction, I continued the descent. This section had been a stream of water on the way up, but by this point, with many other runners on the course, it was a sloppy, goopy, super slick mess on the way back. There was a lot of course congestion here, but almost everyone was totally respectful and moved aside as I practically surfed the muddy surface, probably splattering many with wads of the stuff as I passed (I’m so sorry if this was you!). The added technicality of the river of slime truly didn’t bother me. I felt capable and strong, bombing down regardless of the conditions. In a child-like, puddle-jumping way, they were elements of pure fun.
Coming in to Tennessee Valley for the second time (mile 45), I saw Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. I knew I was in fifth and could see 4th place Anne-Marie Madden just a few seconds up ahead. I had caught her fairly quickly — too quickly as it turns out. Anne-Marie later told me she’d been experiencing stomach issues, but a quick stop at the AS and a cup of Coke later and she was good to go. We were neck and neck out of the AS, but she soon powered up Marioncello and was gone before I could even muster the energy to put up a fight. This was a little demoralizing, but I was determined to push on, clinging to the faint hope that the climb would tire her out and I could catch her on the final descent down Alta. It didn’t happen. This is something I’ve got to work on: my mental readiness to go to the mat and pull every last fiber of my being into a final push to beat out the next competitor at the end of a 50 mile race. I’m pretty sure if the race had been for a podium spot, I would have given it everything without even pausing to think.
Despite this, coming in to the finish line was amazing. The cheering crowds (thank you!!!), the sense of accomplishment, the knowledge that this was by far my best 50 mile race to date, all accumulated into this:
And the next day I got to celebrate becoming a Masters athlete.
To sum up my feelings about this race, to be sure it contains much to feel good about. Fifth place in a race that many, including Runner’s World, categorize as the default 50 mile national championships. Less than four minutes off the fourth place finisher. An over thirty minute 50 mile PR. I didn’t blow up, and instead ran steady from gun to finish, working my way up from the back half of the top ten, and — aside from a couple of tough climbs — feeling good all day. Moreover, this caps off my first year of running ultras, and only my second full year of running, period.
At the same time, there’s much to work on and I know in my heart that my best performances are still to come. I’m grateful for this body that continually surprises me with how much it can take and how quickly it can improve. I’m appreciative of supportive friends and family who allow me to take on this great adventure into the unknown. And, if you’re reading this, I’m thankful for you, too, for taking this journey with me. See you in 2015!