Friday morning I set out for my first race since last year the Old Goat 50K. The race takes place in the Cleveland National Forest off of the Ortega Highway that connects Orange County to Riverside County. This area is quite scenic with dense foliage. I trained for this run, and another upcoming, much harder than the 50k (31 miles) I did last year nearly tripling my weekly running milage from 15 miles to 40 miles per week. In turn, I was expecting to improve greatly on my time of 7h 30m. Despite a sore throat and mild cold that snook up a Thursday I was feeling pretty good. My friend Dan met me in San Clemente to hang out for the afternoon and we had a nice lasagna dinner. I went to bed early but had some trouble sleeping, partly due to some squeaky girls in the hall and partly due to my worrying about not getting enough sleep.
Saturday 4:00 a.m.
The alarms, yes plural, went off and I awoke fresh and excited. I actually managed to remember everything I wanted to do before leaving (oatmeal, fill bottles, apply anti-chaffing stick to feet and “sensitive areas”, tape nipples, grab heart rate monitor, and apply sun block liberally). So the morning started off well. I arrived at the campground where the race was to begin and checked in just after 5:30 a.m. There was quite a buzz with all the racers greeting each other and the race director, Baz, hugging everyone. I “accidentally” nudged my way amongst a small group of female runners. They were friends and I joined in on the small talk. I was relaxed and calm as I awaited the race to begin. There was a pre-race meeting explaining the course and the aid stations as we waited for the sun to come up. Finally Baz ordered us to line up and before I knew it we were off. There was about 140 runners that started the race; actually it was two races, the 50k and the 50 mile. We started up the pavement out of the campground and then on single track trail. The first ten miles of the race was downhill and time passed pretty quickly chatting with other runners most notably this girl Michelle who lives in Orange County. I didn’t know anybody in the race so it was nice to have an acquaintance. I made the first aid station in just over two hours. Pretty good pace I thought and I felt fine.
I grabbed some cookies and filled my bottles then headed out
not wanting to linger at the stop. As the saying goes,
however, what goes up must come down; or in this case what
goes down must go back up. Inevitably somebody came
through and made the trail twice as steep as it was on the
way down. I settled in among a group of runners and just
tried to keep my place in line. We power walked the hills
and jogged any flat section even if was only a few steps.
There was a water only aid station half way back up the hill.
The day was expected to unseasonably hot so I forced myself
to keep drinking. When I could I glanced up to enjoy the view and relish the moment a bit but it pretty much took full concentration on the ground to avoid tripping on something. At last I recognized features of the trail that let me know I was close to the campground. We were allowed to keep stores at our cars that we would be passing on our way back to the campground. I grabbed a couple energy gel shots and ate a pack of salt. This may sound strange but salt is excreted in sweat and it is vital to replace it. Salty foods and electrolyte drinks can only replenish so much so I just decided to take a straight shot. As I arrived at the 20 mile aid station I looked at my watch I was at 4:19. Pretty good I though. Not too far off the downhill pace and about two thirds through the race. I didn’t know the elevation gain of the race but I knew the race last year was a tough one for the distance so I assumed this one was going to be easier and so far it was. The temperature was climbing but I still felt really good. Thoughts of crushing my previous time were racing through my head because I assumed the race would continue similar to what it had been thus far. In retrospect, the term assumption being the mother of all f;;;ups comes to mind.
As I refilled water and chowed some M&M’s at the aid station I could tell the temperature was climbing fast. So far the course offered ample shade, let’s just say that trend came to a screeching halt. Exiting the aid I started on fairly flat terrain and started up a long slog up a steep three mile long dirt road with no escape from the sun. This section went on forever. I got passed by a few people but I didn’t want to kill myself and use up all of my waning energy. Feeling a little down by the time I hit the 23 mile aid station, I was reenergized by the volunteers there. With the warm “right on man” greeting and American Woman blaring I though I stumbled on a revival camp instead of an aid station. The Coke on ice further added to the experience because at this point it was nearly psychedelic.
As much as I wanted to stay and hang I marched back on the trail. Moments later I turned around hearing whistles and yells. As I looked back UP the hill I saw fellow runners pointing perpendicular to my current path. I was going the wrong way. Luckily I hadn’t gone too far, if they didn’t see me I would have run for miles in the wrong direction. Getting back on track it took a bit for my legs to get used to not be going down again. This section was steep and I knew every step down would feel like two going back up. I took some more salt and felt pretty good as I caught back up with the people who passed me on the previous section. About 2.5 miles down trail I hit the turn off to what’s called the Horsethief Trail. There was only two miles left to the next aid station. Little did I know there was a mere 2000 ft of elevation included in that two miles. Even though I was forced to what felt like a snail’s pace I just kept my head down and kept moving. I offered unintelligible encouragement to a fellow competitor that passed me on this section only to see him a bit later sitting down due to cramps. It took me about 45 minutes to cover this brutal two miles and as I reached the aid station at the top my stomach was wrenching. I couldn’t eat and drinking wasn’t even close to refreshing. All I was thinking that the only way to finish was to keep moving so that’s what I did.
It was pretty tough to get moving again but I forced myself to start running again. My elapsed time at this point was around 6:20 and I knew I had about six and a half miles to go. It was also at this point I realized that I wasn’t going to beat my previous time from last year, which was a bit of a downer. But this race was unquestionably tougher. The guy with cramps recovered and caught back up with me barely in time to save me from once again taking a wrong turn, and once again I was lucky to only lose a couple hundred yards. I soon saw a small sign saying that I had one mile to go to the last aid station. From that point it was a mere 3 miles downhill to the finish. My legs actually weren’t too bad but whenever I tried to speed up I could feel small twitches like they may cramp up and my stomach started to turn nauseous. So I went as fast as I felt I could. About two days later that aid station that was one mile away finally appeared. It was the same hippy aid station I mentioned before but it seemed the party was dying down a bit. These guys had been sitting in the sun for hours too so I certainly didn’t fault them. I drank some Coke filled up again and headed off.
These last few miles passed pretty quickly. I wasn’t thinking any kind of deep thoughts about what running 33 miles up and down hills meant to me. I was primarily focused on the cold beer Baz said he’d have waiting for us. Even though I didn’t know anyone there I was greeted at the finish line as a friend. As I was bent over trying to catch my breath I looked up to see this adorable little girl about two years old starting at me. She was with her mom, who was smoking hot, and just kept looking at me. I bent down on a knee to be at her level and said hi and held out my hand for a high five. Instead of a high five she just grabbed my hand and held it. It was a pretty sweet moment and somehow all the discomfort I was feeling seconds before largely went away. After a few minutes I actually felt pretty good so I went over and grabbed one of those ice cold beers Baz had promised and relished it as I watched my fellow runners cross the finish line.
I was a bit disappointed at first that I didn’t beat my previous 50k time. However, I realized that one can’t really compare the two races in absolute terms. This one ended up being about 1.5 miles longer and having about 20% more elevation change. Plus the heat made for some progress slow on the hills. On the other hand, the training paid off because my legs were fine and I felt like I could have kept going. Which I will have to next month when I step it up a notch and try my first 50 mile race. I also finished 50 minutes ahead of the 50 mile winner instead of 4 minutes like last years race. In the end though none of that really mattered. Above all I was glad I remained light spirited throughout the race and enjoyed myself not in spite of the pain but because of it. Whenever I started hurting I just smiled because that meant I was pushing myself to my limit, and that’s why I was there.