Race Report – The Canyons 50k Trail Race

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Segment 0 – Oakland to Auburn

Everything is laid out the night before. Alarm at 3 AM, dress, grab everything and on the road by 3:25. Eat breakfast in the car. Everything goes down well, stomach is peaceful enough. Mostly drive the hour and forty minutes in silence. Parking is easy.
I see other runners without drop bags and talk myself out of dropping a bag to be there waiting at the finish line. This was a mistake. Next time, totally doing a drop bag. It wasn’t essential but it would have been nice to have. Check in, get bib, t-shirt, timing chip. One last porta potty stop. It’s 6 AM and it’s time to go. Not a lot of first timers in the crowd but I’m standing next to one and we high five being in the “My First Ultra” club.

That thing in my eyes is a whole lot of apprehension.

Segment 1 – Auburn to Mammoth Bar – 0 – 7.3 Miles

I did not start too fast. Set out at a sustainable pace and watched the field run and then walk up a hill away from me. It was going to be a long day and I didn’t mean to spend myself on the first half mile. I was less than a mile in, just before Robie Point, when two runners passed me. One of the two runners who passed me looked the typical ultra-runner, technical gear head to toe. The other was an old man with a big, white beard who looked to be made out of leather. As they came by, I overheard the ultra looking runner said “….Gordy?” At an opportune moment I nudged him and asked “Is that Gordy Gordy?” He said, with a huge smile “Yes! It is!”

The Western States Endurance Run is one of the most prestigious 100 mile runs in the world. It was begun in 1977 after several human only competitors had the idea to run the Tevis Cup – a 100 mile endurance ride (with horses). One of those humans, and the most famous, was Gordy Ainsleigh.

And so I ran most of the first three miles of my first ultra with Gordy Ainsleigh.

The weather was gorgeous. It had rained the day before. Waterfalls were running, there was fog hanging in the canyons, the sky was perfectly blue and clear. The country was the most beautiful I had ever seen. We passed the confluence of the American River and I cried at how gorgeous it was.

I was moving well, cruising along at my own pace. In the first section I caught people who had run out faster than I did. Almost everything was runnable and I kept it moving. Right before the first aid station there was a very technical down hill (that means roots and rocks and basically running down a stream bed) that was very muddy. It was so slippery that the safest way to get down it was as fast as possible – I believe the kids these days call it “full send.” The 25k racers were busy passing me as we all called out to each other about how crazy it was and how fun.

I came in to Mammoth Bar Aid Station feeling great. I took my time refilling my water and fuel and walked out.

Segment 2 – Mammoth Bar to Drivers Flat – 7.3 – 15.3 Miles

Out of Drivers Flat we came to the first big, brutal climb of the day. I got after it and started power hiking. My hill training absolutely proved out on this section. I spent most of my training finding the steepest hills I could and then going and up and down them repeatedly. Hitting a sustained climb of grades greater than 14% was something I was used to. After 2.5 miles things leveled out a bit and it was mostly runnable.

Every inch of this course was lovely. We were up on a Ridge above the American River, making our way through forest and meadow. The wildflowers were out in force as well. The day was starting to warm up and I started to manage my heat with regular water on my head and the back of the neck. Nutrition and hydration were going to plan, everything was feeling strong and on track.

About this time in the race I linked up with three other runners, Annette, Keith and Norma. We were all moving at roughly the same pace and we stayed together through most of the next ten miles. It was wonderful to have people to talk to. We took turns at the front making the pace, sitting in the middle, and at the back of the group letting someone else set the pace. The time and miles with this group flew by.

I came into Drivers Flat Aid Station feeling good. My legs hurt for sure and my stomach felt good. I checked on how much water I had been drinking and I was on track to stay hydrated. Grabbed more gels and some actual food and set out for the next segment. As I left another runner called out to me “You’re gonna have the most amazing first ultra today!”

I replied “You’re fucking A right!”

Segment 3 – Drivers Flat to Cal 2 – 15.3 – 24.6 (25.6 per my watch) Miles

Out of Drivers Flat was a two mile downhill. This caused the first agony of the day. My right IT band had gotten so much stronger through training. Two years ago I would run out of leg within two hours and less than eight miles. On this day it held on for more than four hours and 16 miles. I was struggling to keep running down the steeper pitches of the descent when Norma caught up to me. I was able to pace off of her and stay strong in my technical downhill form to get down to the river at a decent pace.

From there we had miles next to the river and started to have stream crossings. My combination of shoes, socks, and anti-blister treatment worked a charm. I was able to cool my feet in the streams and not get blisters even with soaked shoes. Our little group picked up another runner named Jersey and cruised the next few miles.

To get to the third aid station there was a steep descent and then a long climb. The top of the descent was the last I would see Annette and Keith for the rest of the day. I had to stop a few times going down. I eventually figured out that if I took a very wide stance going downhill I could recruit my hamstrings and quads and not impact my IT band as much. It wasn’t fast but it was better than stopping and crying out from the pain every few steps.

This was when I started worrying about the time cut off. The published cut off for the 50k was 10 hours. At the top of the last hard descent I was ahead of schedule by 26 minutes. I was going down the hills even slower than I was going up them and I was burning that time cushion. I knew I could finish the distance, the question was starting to be, could I finish in time?

I started the climb to Cal 2 Aid Station. Someone had called out that the aid station was at mile 24. I was getting hot and the climb was long and I watched mile 24 go by with no sign of aid. The tears started. I had fallen behind Jersey on the downhill and I passed him during the climb. Mile 25 passed and still no aid. I was going down into a mental hole. I took in extra calories and the last of my water and came into Cal 2 sobbing.

The aid station staffers were wonderful at every stop. At Cal 2 they filled my hydration pack, gave me cold electrolyte to drink, filled my sports bra with ice, and reassured me. I wasn’t the first athlete they had seen in tears and when I said “I’m just really tired” they understood. They cheered when I moved on to the last segment of the course.

Segment 4 – Cal 2 to Foresthill – 24.6 to 32.8 (25.6 – 34.3 per my watch) Miles

There wasn’t much running to be had after this point in the race. Shortly after Cal 2 was a very steep climb. I passed Jersey again (he passed me in the aid station) and he said his legs were totally shot. After the trail leveled out I wanted to run. I ran for a bit and then my legs were done. It was better to power walk and not have to stop than try to run and have to stop. I told myself “Gentle and Steady.” I knew I could finish and I could still make the time cut off if I kept moving. I was ginger on the downhills and steady on the uphills. When there was a runnable section I ran for twenty steps and then walked thirty or forty, then ran 20.

My 26 minutes of cushion had dwindled to 6 when I reached the base of the final climb – 1400 feet over 3.1 miles, climbing all the way to the finish line. I stayed steady in my effort and kept pushing up the hill. I knew I could make the cutoff if I kept up my pace.

I was crying on and off. At 8 hours I reached a place where I started praying for grace for everyone who had ever wronged me. I recited the names of people I knew had faith in me, ending with myself. I let everything that did not serve fall away. Resentment, fear, anger, sadness – if it did not propel me forward it was left behind.

‚ÄúThis is not a time to be dismayed. This is punk rock time. This is what Joe Strummer trained you for.”

If there is one answer I could give to “Why do you run?” it is “To know myself.” I know that I am disciplined and consistent. I know that I can apply myself and follow a plan, not dogmatically, as a guide to achievement. I can listen and recalibrate and execute. I keep going. Through despair and grief and loss and pain. This was not the first day that I was full of emotions bursting out of my chest and looked down and my legs were going about their business.

If there is one answer I could give to “Why do you train?” it is “To know that I get to choose the kind of person that I am going to be.” On the final climb, pushing to make the time cut off, at 9 hours, 25 minutes, 2 miles from the finish, I saw another running sit down and then collapse back across the trail. He was conscious but delirious and could barely get out his name. I stayed with him, got him to drink electrolytes, and tried to get him to eat something. He would get up and walk a few yards and then sit down again. A couple of runners passed us and I asked each of them to send back help as soon as they could. He told me to leave him to sleep and I told him there was absolutely no way that was happening.

After 25 minutes, Jersey reached us and offered to stay with Braden – the downed runner – while I went on. I took him up on the offer and started back up the trail. My body had cooled down. The time cut off that had been driving me was gone. I walked the rest of the way, slow and steady. It hurt a lot. It wasn’t that I wanted to quit, it was that I wanted so badly to be done and I physcially couldn’t get there any faster.

I was watching the race get packed away in front of me. A truck full of cones drove away from me. A person pulling the course markings off the road was just in front of me. All I could think was “Please don’t leave me, I’m so close.” The finishing chute was still up. The timing mat was still in place and I walked in to an official finish time of 10:39:52.

If there is one answer I could give to “Why do you race?” it is “To be in community with people who understand me.” The finish line volunteers greeted my tears with congratulations. Telling me I was an ultrarunner now. They hugged me and made sure I got a picture with the finish arch. They laughed with understanding when I broke down sobbing (even harder) and said I was “…just tired” and made sure I got a cold Coke and a chair. Race staff thanked me for staying with Braden. Norma was in the recovery area and by the time I saw her I was already feeling better. We hugged and congratulated each other on what a day it had been – hard and beautiful and fun. We agreed that running together had worked out so well and been the best part of the race.

As I was letting it sink in, getting some calories in and worrying about making the shuttle back to my car, I asked after Braden. The finish line staff told me that he was walking in with the two runners who had been with him. I got to watch him finish, smiling, unhurt and under his own power. A very nice capper to the day was riding the shuttle back to the parking lot with Jersey and Braden, rehashing the day.

After the finish –

I read once “We don’t read romance novels to know the what, we do it for the how.” This was a discovery of how I would complete the distance. For all that a cloud of amorphous apprehension loomed in the back of my mind at times (it actually hovers over the back of my right shoulder), I never doubted that I would finish. Not once did I think of dropping out. After helping Braden the only question of continuing was at what pace.

Any tears or low feelings cleared quickly after I finished. I was smiling and laughing in minutes. I easily walked half a mile from the shuttle drop off to my car. I spent the evening at a birthday party with people who, when they found out what I had done with my day said “That’s gangster!”

I chose this goal years ago when I told my coach “I think I have the mind for ultras.” It feels so good to be correct. The positive effect on my mental health of this achievement cannot be understated. Years ago I told someone “It’s impossible to hate yourself for a least a month after you finish a marathon” and this sense of myself as someone deserving and worthy is holding strong. I think this one will last longer than a month.

I was already thinking about doing another ultra on the bus back to my car. 10/10 will ultra again.

-FH

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