2012 has been a year of firsts for me. I ran my first ultra-marathon. I ran my first 50 miler. I dealt with my first running injury. I fell head over heals in love with trail running.
And now, I have my first big DNF.
This is not the race report I want to be writing at all, but it’s the one that happened. Sometimes (most of the time?) things don’t go exactly according to plan. You have to adapt, you have to weigh your options and you really have to figure out what is important to you. Like my good friend Page’s dad always says, “It’s not what happens, it’s how you handle it” and I hope I continue to look back on this day being happy and proud with how I handled my circumstances.
After dealing with an IT Band injury in April and May after my first 50 miler, I came back with a vengeance and had an incredible training cycle for The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler. I never had a problem with my IT Band through the entire training cycle and was religious about rolling, stretching, ART and icing. I was determined to keep that injury away.
The weather forecast leading up to race weekend was getting worse by the day, with flood warnings and a ton of rain and wind in the Bay Area. I knew what I was getting in to, but was relaxed and ready to deal what the day decided to bring. Thursday night the race directors announced that the course was going to be changed. The new route was posted early Friday afternoon, the day before the race.
The revised course
As you can see, the whole north section of the course (which is California State Park land) was cut off because the park service decided the weather was going to be too severe. The North Face staff turned around and created a new course overnight, using the still accessible Golden Gate National Recreation Area trails that I ran on a ton during training. It was going to be a loopy course (2 “loops” of a 23.4 mile semi-figure eight loop, totaling a shorter than 50, 46.8 miles) that covered the same trails a few times. But the important part was the race was still on!
I was pretty bummed out because I had really been looking forward to the original course. I was looking forward to not retracing steps, to the ridiculous climbs and to the beautiful sections I had yet to run on. Although I was really bummed, I made sure to keep a positive attitude and was happy the race was still happening. I just wanted to run and this is just part of the adventure of ultra-running right!?
After getting to bed pretty early and having a solid night of 6 hours of sleep, the alarm went off at 3am and Page and I got up to get ready and head to the very early 5am race start. We got to the start area, parked and took a shuttle up to the actual start line. It was raining a little bit and windy, but I was hopeful the forecast would be right and the rain wouldn’t be bad as the morning progressed.
Page and I huddled in the gear check trucks with the other runners to keep warm and soon enough it was time to head to the start. I ran into some old friends and made some new ones standing there waiting, it was so fun! There were 3 waves and we watched each one go off until it was my turn. I gave Page a quick hug and told her I would see her in 9 miles! And I headed off into the dark wet morning.
Since the race started at 5am, headlamps were required on the dark trails. I felt good the moment I started running. I was really happy with what I had decided to wear and looking forward to the day ahead. We hit the first hill pretty quick and I was really happy to be on such familiar trails since it was so dark. I was running well, but made sure to take an occasional walk break as I climbed the hills so I was sure to save some hill climbing energy for later in the race.
We hadn’t been running for long at all when the rain started coming down harder and the wind picked up. Once I got to the top of the first up Bobcat, it was really coming down, making it really hard to see even with a headlamp. It was foggy, spitting rain and super windy. Not even three miles in to a 47 mile day and I was already soaked. I found my way through the extremely dark Alta trail and onto Rodeo Valley which would be the first of 4 planned trips down. This isn’t my favorite trail to run on in the daylight when it’s dry, so it was a little difficult for me in the wet and dark, but I made it unscathed.
The 5.9 mile aid station was soon after and I couldn’t believe it was already 6 miles! I had turned off the lap notifications on my Garmin like I did at AR50 and was always pleasantly surprised when I checked where I was. I had been eating Shot Bloks since the start and took my first salt cap here, but I decided to wait until the next aid station to take any other food.
I wound up Miwok, still in the dark, making sure to take conserving walk breaks here as well. Then I made my way down the very wet Old Springs trail heading into Tennessee Valley Aid Station where Page would be! I was very excited to see her for the first time and really happy the sun was about to come up. I was in really good spirits here, feeling great about the day and really strong in my running. I took some potatoes for the first time, told Page I was feeling great (and very wet!) and headed on my way.
As I ran down the road to the Coastal Fire Trail, I realized it was light enough now to turn off my headlamp which made me happy. We climbed up the steep trail and the wind and rain were pounding pretty hard now. Once at the top, we headed down Pirate’s Cove trail. This is probably the most technical trail of the race and it was made more difficult with the slippery mud and puddles. After a couple miles you get spit out onto the Coastal Fire Road that is an out and back to Muir Beach this day. I have done this hill a number of times and it’s never easy, but it’s extremely difficult in the mud. I made my way down successfully without too much slipping and sliding into the Muir Beach aid station. I took some more potatoes, grabbed a cup of Pepsi and continued on my way. We ran a short loop and then started the climb out of Muir Beach which is an extremely difficult task in the mud. It wasn’t impossible (yet) and I made my way up and out with really high spirits. I was having a lot of fun!
I was really excited running back to Tennessee Valley Aid station again. The miles were ticking by and I was so excited to see Page. The one good thing about the course change was Page got to stay in the same spot the whole race and see me 4 times! I filled up my pack here with water, grabbed some more fuel, used the bathroom and talked with Page for a minute. I was wet, muddy, getting a little tired, but mostly happy knowing I would get to have Jojo running with me soon. My energy level felt great, I was fueling perfectly, and my legs felt strong. I was starting to get some really tight hip flexors from all the rain and mud, and my feet and right leg were starting to talk to me a little bit. I recognized what I was feeling at that moment, but hoped it would pass or at least not get worse.
I ran strong up Marincello, a long hill I practiced so often in training. As excited as I was to get to Jojo, I made sure to pace myself, imagining what it would be like running up it at mile 44 later in the day. I wanted to feel strong at that point and kept reminding myself of that.
I made it to the top and had to go down Rodeo Valley for the second time. It was already getting really sloppy (the 50kers had also gone through it at this point) and I was having a hard time running down it. My tight hip feeling started moving its way down my right leg and into my knee/IT Band. It wasn’t "painful" yet but it was tight and I was definitely paying attention.
I made a friend running into the start/finish area completing my first lap and had fun talking with him for a bit. I also saw my friend Laurie volunteering and tackled her with a hug on the way in. I was just so happy at this moment. I ran into the aid station and saw Jojo right there giving her a big wet hug. I grabbed some more potatoes and Pepsi and we were on our way!
I told her about my day so far. I told her about the weather and everything I had eaten. I was so proud of my fueling and happy with how things were going and I was talking a ton. We made our way up Bobcat for my second time, keeping it pretty conservative. I noticed my right leg getting tighter at this point, but I just kept pushing forward. We headed down Rodeo Valley for my 3rd time and the weather got really bad in this section. It was horribly windy and the rain was just spitting everywhere. The trail was getting so sloppy from all the runners multiple trips down. I was trying to keep myself together, but I was in a low point and just listened to Jojo’s amazing story telling. I started to pay more attention to my leg and it was beginning to make me nervous. I still had 20 miles to go and it was only getting worse.
I made it through that low point and laughed it off, then we climbed up Miwok. I was slowing down a bit but still wanted to run and would pick spots I was going to run to. We made it up and then had to head down Old Springs for my second time and this is where I started to fall apart. I told Jojo that if I was being honest my IT band was not feeling that great. It was tight and started to be painful and these slippery muddy downhill sections were not making it feel any better. I was getting frustrated and nervous that all my hard work was going to go to waste and I definitely had a breakdown. She talked me through it as we wound down to see Page at the aid station.
Running into the aid station each time was the best. Page is seriously THE BEST, she would be standing there screaming her heart out, holding her umbrella, shivering, completely soaked, holding all my stuff, while trying not to put added stress on her injured ankle. I cannot ever thank her enough for all that she did this day.
I told her what was going on, let out a few tears and then regrouped. I put on a new shirt, gloves and arm warmers, and also changed shoes hoping dry, more cushiony shoes would help. I left with hopeful spirit as we headed out to the really tough parts.
We took our time getting up Coastal and then really took it easy down Pirate’s Cove. It was so messy at this point and I felt like every step was risking a big aggravation from my right leg.
When we made it through the tough parts, I pushed it a bit to run where I could. I wanted nothing more to be running at this point. I was able to get a bit of running in and then we were back to the slip and slide down to Muir Beach, but now it was now a million times worse than before. It was so slippery from all the runners and it was purely a muddy survival fest getting up and down that hill. I did slip and got covered in mud on my whole side and all over my hands. I was definitely laughing about it, but was also getting a tiny bit frustrated. We finally made it down to the aid station and my leg was getting tighter by the minute. I took more fuel, washed off my hands from all the mud and headed back up.
There were many times that I slipped and had my hands in the mud to keep me from face planting. It was like quicksand! It was very slow, but we did finally make it out. Once at the top I kept wanting to run and every time I would try my leg was just so tight. It just wasn’t worth it to me at all to run and risk making my IT band worse. I was thinking a lot about those 2 months I had to take off of running this year, how I promised myself I would never knowingly put myself in that position again, and I really, really struggled with what to do.
Jojo was amazing throughout all of this. As I pouted and cried and vented to her, she made me laugh, danced, sang me songs and kept me moving forward. Going down Miwok, my spirit just got so defeated and it wasn’t fun anymore. I wasn’t going to run and risk injury, and I didn’t want to keep going in this mess. I was so sad that it was coming to this, but when faced with a finish line or an injury, it was a no brainer for me. I had nothing to prove out there, this was supposed to be a celebration of the last 18 weeks. I thought about Christmas and my birthday and how I would feel if I couldn’t run on those days that I love to run. I thought about why I do this in the first place and I thought about one line of my most favorite running quote.
“Run often and run long, but never outrun your joy of running." – Julie Isphording
We made it back to Page and I stood there for a few minutes and talked it out with them. I talked about what I had left, where we had to go and what I was risking. I knew in my heart I shouldn’t keep going and so that’s when I decided.
After 41 miles, that was it, my race was over.
I said bye to Jojo and thanked her for everything. I got some warm clothes on and hopped in the car. I just wanted to get out of there. We made our way back to my car, met up with Jessica (who had an amazing first 50k in those conditions!) and the three of us went back to my house for a slumber party. I was so grateful to have them with me so we could rehash everything that happened that day. We talked, ate, drank and laughed, and got ourselves ready for another rainy morning, this time cheering on our friends at CIM.
So it wasn’t my day. I could sit here and question if I made the right choice. I could wonder what would have happened if it would have been different conditions. I could wonder what would have happened if I would have kept going. But that’s not what happened, I made a choice and I am sticking by it, no regrets.
It’s really hard and humbling when things like this happen. I trained so hard, I never had any IT band pain and then it shows up like this on the big day. I don’t think there is anything I could have done differently and I know I wouldn’t have changed this training cycle at all, it was my favorite 18 weeks of running yet.
If I have learned anything this year, I have learned that I truly run for one simple reason… because I love it. I train hard because I love to run, and I run races because I love to train hard. Thinking about not running just wasn’t worth the risk of the finish line for me. Not this day, and not ever. My long term health in running, will always be more important than any finish line or medal.
I cannot thank the volunteers or race staff enough for making this weekend’s race a successful one despite the awful conditions. The volunteers were amazing and the race staff was incredible getting everything figured out and communicated in such short notice. This was a top notch event that I will definitely be coming back to.