Saturday, January 12, 2013

Training for My First Ultra - My First Trail Marathon

There comes a point in every runner’s life when they must decide to challenge themselves and “up the stakes.” And that is what I decided to do for 2013 when I signed up for my first 50K for March, giving me about 2 ½ months to train for it.

For those of you who may not know my story, I’ve been a runner since about 2005, when I decided to train and run my first marathon. Up to that point I had never even run a race/event before and I had about 3 months to train for it. I vowed I would run or walk it, but I would finish it no matter what and no matter how long it took me. I have never looked back since the day I crossed the finish line of the San Francisco Nike Women’s marathon. I proceeded to run 6 more marathons after that, countless half marathons, 10K’s etc. and even got into obstacle course racing in 2012 because I needed a new challenge.  

At the end of 2012 I needed a new challenge that the road marathon was just not offering to me anymore, so I bit the bullet and decided to sign up for my first ultra. I knew that by signing up for an ultra I would be running trails which I knew would be tougher than training on roads and involved training on hills which are almost non-existent where I live and require about 1 ½ to 2 hours of travel time in order to train or race. But I wanted this. I had run some small trail events earlier in ’06 and ’07 but had gotten away from them when I got heavy into road racing, but I recalled how I felt out on the trails and how it combines two things I love dearly: hiking and running. So I signed up for the lottery for Way Too Cool and I got picked. Now what?!? There are very few trails around where I live and practically no hills even worth mentioning. Travel I must.

My first training for the ultra took me up to Mt. Diablo where I ran 12 miles of hills with an elevation gain of about 2000 ft. The following week, I kicked the training up a notch when my friends asked me if I wanted to run a trail marathon in Woodside amongst the redwoods, ferns and banana slugs. How could I say no to something new and exciting like that? Did I mention the elevation gain was about 3700 ft?


So with my ultra about 2 months away, I signed up for a trail marathon on January 5th at the suggestion of two outstanding friends and ultra-runners; trail rock stars really (you know who you are). A husband and wife team that are just all around AWESOME people and not just because they’re runners.

January 5th I woke at 4 AM after getting about 4 hours of sleep (who can sleep before a marathon?!?) and got ready. Body Glide was slathered everywhere I suspected I might get a blister or chafe, and I dressed in UA long pants, long sleeve UA shirt and waterproof NF running jacket as rain was predicated. It was COLD. Weatherman predicted the lows to be in the mid to low 30’s and the highs to be in the low 50’s. This California girl doesn’t do cold too well and my idea of “fun” is at least 80 degrees. I’m in heaven when it’s in the 90’s. But I digress…

My rock star friends picked me up at 5 am and I scarfed down a piece of toast with peanut butter and some orange juice in the car. My Camelbak was packed with gels, Sport Legs, jelly beans and Shot Blocks. I was nervous and excited all at once. After all, I’d already run 7 marathons to date. This would be my 8th. I know what 26.2 miles feels like. I know what my body feels like at about mile 20. I know how my knees hate me the last 6 miles. I know what my brain begins to do when I hit my wall. I got this. I knew it was going to be tougher than a road marathon, mainly because of the hills and the elevation but running on dirt is also better on the body than running on the blacktop so I was ready for this new challenge. As we neared Huddart Park and King’s Mountain, the beauty of the area engulfed me. My resolve was the same as my first marathon: FINISH NO MATTER WHAT.


One of the coolest things about trail racing is the laid back environment of the start line and the casual attitude of the runners. Typically I have heard that these event are much smaller venues and this run had about 250 runners. Similarly, the welcoming of runners as they got out of their cars and approached the bib pick up was so drastically different from the often stressed culture of the road racing expos. Obviously the trail events are much smaller venues but nevertheless it was a drastic change from what I was used to as runners called out each other’s names and hugging commenced and stories of past trail races ensued. I was grateful I was an outsider this one time so I could always look back and cherish this moment, as I knew that next time it would be my name that would be called out and I would be the one hugging these rock star trail racers. I drank it all in. The smiles, the enthusiasm, the support each runner gave to one another.

Bibs on. Camelbaks checked. Gloves on. Laces tied just the way I like ‘em. Directions about the trail were given. I was listening but did I hear everything? Apparently colored ribbons were tied to trees and bushes along the way. One color for the 50K, another for the marathon, another for the half marathon etc. I had this brief moment of panic where I hoped I would remember the color I was to look out for as there would be no “mile markers” along the way as most road racers are used to. Was it the blue and then the pink or the pink and then the blue? And the polka dot ribbons? What were they for?!? Oh crap… the “gun” went off and we were heading toward the trail head. It was 8:30 am and it was a beautiful day. The three of us stuck together for the first mile or so and then it was just “rock star wife” and I and her “rock star husband” stayed behind to pace us and make sure we made the cutoff by 11:45. He is an experienced trail runner and has done many ultras before, so it felt good knowing he would make sure we made the cutoff. This was not going to be an easy elevation gain and in fact was going to be harder than my ultra.


How can I show in words the absolute beauty of this place? It’s no wonder many trail runners don’t and won’t run road races; the beauty they would have to give up would be an enormous sacrifice. As I settled into a comfortable pace, I was elated to be running my first trail marathon and I took in all the beauty around me. I kept my focus though, as I knew that despite the beauty around me this was NOT going to be easy.

The first 12 miles were a constant climb. I remembered what a fellow runner and good friend had told me days before: “Run the flats and walk the hills.” So I took his advice and did that for the most part, but honestly there were moments where I ran the hills too just because it felt SO GOOD!! The second water station was at mile 12 and we had to be there by 11:45, which was the cutoff time for the marathon. I was at mile 8 around 10:20 when I saw Mr. Sunshine (another awesome trail runner) who told me to hurry as I had a little over an hour to get to the cutoff. I was a little nervous only because I didn’t know the trail and I knew it was ALL UP HILL, and I had no idea how my body would react to the extra push. But I RAN. There was NO WAY I was not going to reach that water station by 11:45. I passed “rock star husband” along the way as he had passed me at some point and he told me that as long as I stayed ahead of him I would make the cutoff. He was making sure his pace stayed consistent.


The closer I got to the water station the tougher the hills became. And the switchbacks never seemed to end!! When I thought I had to be getting close to some FLAT part on the trail, I saw yet another hill and another switchback. And then, there it was: water station  #2 (which would also be water station #3 on the way back), never looked so good. And the buffet! Did I mention the BUFFET?!?

Salty and sweet. Whatever you wanted was there. Even SODA! Yes, SODA! Little white Dixie cups filled with Pepsi (at least I think it was Pepsi). It could have been Coke which is not my favorite but at that point I didn’t care. It was SODA!! I don’t know about you but when I run road marathons there comes a point in the marathon (usually about mile 18 – 20 or so), where I begin craving a nice tall glass of soda. Preferably a Pepsi. And there they were, these little Dixie cups filled with the bubbly goodness of soda. I ate potatoes dipped in salt, potato chips, and Shot Blocks for dessert. Gosh that food was good!! I refilled my Camelback with water and we were off running again. 12 miles down, 14.2 to go. I got this.

There was something about reaching that water station that was somewhat miraculous and beastly all at the same time and now that the toughest part of the trail was behind us, we relaxed a bit. We were no longer pressured by time, and while we did not just take our time, we did not have the pressure of a cutoff time anymore so we were able to relax a little and get into our groove. From mile 12 to 14 we were travelling uphill again. I was feeling really good especially after all the food so I ran and got a really good pace going. We had been consistently taking our gels and Sports Legs the first 12 miles and I was feeling really well. Around mile 17 we came back to the second water station (now #3) and once again took in some fluids and a tiny bit of food.

Now for the downhills. Ha! Who doesn’t love a good downhill? I know I do, and thankfully I had been smart enough to trim every single one of my toenails to guarantee that I didn’t get an “instant pedicure.” LOL… The three of us got into a really nice groove and we ran for quite a bit. Now that the up hills were done for the most part it felt like we were flying!

I cannot say enough good things about the other runners on this trail. Not only did many of them know each other, but even the ones who didn’t were friendly and supportive. No matter the runner’s pace, almost every runner had something positive to say to other runners as they passed or as they were being passed. It was very motivating.

Mile 21, we come up on water station #4 and I was VERY happy to see everyone there. I immediately went looking for the potatoes on that buffet table. I dipped each one in salt again and tasted each carb for the goodness it was. Then I was eating peanut M & M’s and then I was eating Oreos. Oh my gosh! Oreos never tasted so good!! I don’t know how many I ate but I washed them down with soda. I know, gross right? Oreos are meant to ONLY be eaten with MILK but that was BEFORE I became a TRAIL RUNNER. LOL


The last 5 miles were in many ways the hardest. Despite not having to deal with hills, my knees were beginning to ache a little and the tips of my toes were beginning to hurt and I was taking some walking breaks here and there. At about mile 23 or 24 I got a bit dizzy and had to stop and take some more Shot Blocks. The dizziness went away but my knees were still whining. We started to run again and we ran until we saw Mr. Sunshine waiting for us not too far from the finish line. He said something about “so many mile to the finish line,” but all I heard was “FINISH LINE” so I dug down DEEP and found every bit of energy I had left and ran to the finish. I crossed that finish line like I do EVERY race, both hands in the air, fingers in a “V” for victory and smiled for the camera.

My first TRAIL MARATHON was in the books.

My body felt SO GOOD. My core was strong, I wasn’t winded and I still had some energy left. My knees were hurting a bit but I knew that was to be expected considering all the hills. Overall, I had to admit that my body actually felt BETTER after running a trail marathon than it did when I run road marathons. The way I felt at the end of this race is typically how I feel around mile 20 of a road race. I could handle that.

I once again headed to the buffet table. I had lentil soup (YUM) and pumpkin pie and bananas. Then we piled in the car and headed for the nearest restaurant with a bunch of the other runners. Refueling is a MUST.


It was a two hour drive back after we ate and by the time I was dropped off at my house, I was a little stiff getting out of the car. Have you ever seen the YouTube video of runners AFTER they have run a marathon? Ha! Yeah, I looked like one of those people on the video. I was a sight I’m sure as I tried to maintain my dignity as I hobbled to my front door.

What ensued is pretty hilarious because after a hot shower I literally CRASHED. I fell asleep on the couch and that is where I remained until someone woke me up to eat. I managed a few bites and was out again until morning. I remember nothing except a VERY deep sleep. I hurt so good!! By morning, and despite feeling it in my quads, I was ready to go back and do it again. Oh yeah! I proceeded to get online and start looking for another trail run that I could sign up for before the Ultra in March. I found one: Montara Trail run in Pacifica on February 24. Just about two weeks before my Ultra.  Another Trail Marathon. BRING IT!! I’m hooked!



Ryan said...

Awesome work Rachel and what a great accomplishment. I cannot wait to hear about your first Ultra! Keep on inspiring!!

Stacey Runs and Eats said...

Haha. You are hooked! Signed up for another one already?! Sounds like someone else I know....
I think it's great that you aren't swayed by the elevation of the race. You just go for it! It only makes you stronger!
Great report. Congrats again!!

Lia said...

Great job! I was out there too, and I'm in the same Stockton and in training for Way Too Cool.

phatjcm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
phatjcm said...

Congrats Runnerchik! Yes, the buffet!!! now you know why I run trails so much. LOL :-) -Josam

Jamie said...

Congratulations! I enjoy reading your blog.

Jamie said...

Congratulations! I enjoy reading your blog.