Here’s the quick version in case you’re reading this at a stop light or something dangerous like that. I got it done and finished my first ultra, the Leona Divide 50k!
Ok, here’s the long version.
I did something that I did at the very beginning of my fitness journey and I chose to actually follow a training plan. I chose the Relentless Forward Progress 50k plan and stuck to the approaches and philosophies espoused in that book. I did this because I can easily get overwhelmed with all the different training theories and approaches and I wanted to simplify things this time.
The plan calls for a peak of 50 miles but I pretty much knew that would be difficult to attain since I’m pretty limited on how long I can get out on weekends for very long runs. In fact, that’s the one area where I fell down on, I didn’t do the amount of long long run that I should have done according to the plan. But the consistent miles and tough long runs that I did really helped build my strength and I had more and more good runs. Feel free to follow me on Strava if you’re on there and you can see a huge difference between my previous training and the miles that I put in the last three months.
As much as I think I can gut out a tough race no matter what, I didn’t want a repeat of last year’s Leona Divide crash and burn. More training would be the solution.
There are a few beautiful moments in one’s life when things just seem to be humming along and we are in synch with our environment. The Leona Divide 50k race day was one of those rare instances where everything seemed to click. Just like we have good hair days or an I-fit-in-my-skinny-jeans-days, this day just worked from the start.
I woke up at 2:59:10am, right before my 3am alarm. I had planned to be out the door at 4am and was able to eat breakfast, get ready, feed the doggies and head off right on time. I had already packed up my drop bag and set aside my post race gear and had my day’s gear at the ready.
I figured that I’d need to get to the race 45 minutes before the race to find parking, try out the port-o-john and chat with friends before the race. I had seen at early big pickup that the latrines were really there unlike last year when they showed up minutes before race start or I would have shown up an extra 15 minutes early to take a nice hike in the wood to water some trees.
I ran into Alan and Laurence who were going for the 50 miler and with Aleni who is another Pasadena High School Bulldog grad. I also ran into Lizette who was my running buddy for a good number of miles at last year’s Leona before I crashed and burned at mile 21. I had fun taking photos and meeting people I knew from Instagram or Facebook but hadn’t met IRL (in real life). Everyone was a lot taller than their avatars.
It was pretty crowded at the start line so I wasn’t able to get around as much as I wanted but was feeling pretty social. I wasn’t as intimidated as I was last year because this year I had no expectations except to keep on moving.
I was lined up towards the front of the pack when race director Keira Henninger started making race announcements and I heard her say that we were doing a “silent start” since it was 6am and there were homes very close to the starting line. I moved to the back to avoid getting trampled by or blocking the speedsters.
The first part of the course is a run up the steep road for about a mile then another climb onto Spunky Edison Road. I felt good and did a run-walk during that portion. My hill repeats up Hospital Hill in Santa Paula really helped there. My theme for the day was to run within myself. I tried not to allow other runners to impact my running. But, occasionally I’d see someone slow down and I tried not to equate their slowing down with my slowing down so I pushed a little bit when I saw that I was being drawn into their pace.
At mile 2.8 we hit the Spunky Edison Road aid station and I topped off my water and added a little bit to my electrolyte bottle. I took a cookie and a banana and was gone. The next portion of the course goes onto the Pacific Crest Trail heads up to a mountain peak. I was power hiking and enjoying the crisp morning air. As I approached the peak there were several runners ahead of me and you could see the sun coming up just beneath their feet. It was a beautiful sight and it was good to get to the top.
Once you hit the peak you can bomb down most of the way to the Bouquet Canyon aid station. However, I actually wanted to have my quads intact so I took a measured pace and didn’t try to hammer this portion. I was around mile 5.4 when I saw the first 50k runner zoom back up the hill. I made my way down the mountain and before I got to the aid station made sure that I had taken a GU and had finished up my most of my water. I was feeling good and the windy conditions that had worried me were a nice cooling headwind on the way down.
Last year I made the mistake of spending a super short amount of time at the Bouquet aid station and I paid for it on the climb. This time I filled the two bottles again, poured water over my head and made sure my shirt was wet so that I didn’t overheat on the long climb. I took some salt/electrolyte pills and hit the port-o-john. I grabbed a pb&j square and other little goodies and started eating them then it was time to head back.
It was time for the long climb. Shortly after getting back on the trail I ran into Lizette and her running buddy (I didn’t realize that I was following her friend Claire on Instagram), who were heading down to the aid station. For the 50k race you get to see everyone somewhere along that long descent or climb since it’s an out and back portion. I tried to be focus on keeping a steady rhythm on the climb to keep moving forward and not get caught up in who was where too much.
This is basically a very long climb and I just took it one step at a time. I had done the climb during a training run with Raul Engle and that helped me enjoy my time there so I didn’t fear it. Last year this is where I first started feeling dizzy and nauseous. This year I was solid gold. I checked my heart rate but my watch didn’t read it then I realized that I must have forgot to set it. One of the things I learned on the training run is that when I get fatigued on a big climb I feel like a sense of pressure on my mid section. This could be partially from the altitude but is usually from some dehydration as well. Since I had already messed up my bid to capture my HR data I took off the HR strap and that was a lot more comfortable.
As I made my way to the peak at mile 13 the wind started up and this time it was a good tailwind and it helped push me up the final part of the hill. I spread my arms apart as I power hiked and tried to catch more of the wind in my “sails.” Once I hit the top I took off down the mountain. If I had reserved my quads on the previous descent this time I would have some fun and hammer down the hill. This was my fastest mile split of the race. When I got to the bottom of the mountain I went to a power hike to recover and went into the aid station at an easy pace.
Did someone say bunny? This was my second trip into the Spunky Edison aid station and someone was dressed as the Energizer bunny and was banging on his drum. I was feeling pretty good still so I didn’t think it was a hallucination or anything. I filled up both water bottles, once again added in electrolytes into one of the bottle then got into the rice balls. Yummy. They don’t really taste like anything but they are the perfect consistency, size and shape to provide some good carb energy. I doused my head and upper body with water then added ice to my hat and to my Dirtbag Runners “bandito” wrap that was now around my neck. I started off using the bandito around my neck when the race started then when it warmed up I wrapped it around my wrist to help with left over snot rocket residue. Then, at high noon the bandito turned into a great ice holder. After the race one of the great volunteers saw me and said I was a human ice machine with all the ice I packed on.
Last year this section of the course did me in. I stopped eating, stopped drinking and my energy waned. This year I kept up with taking GU, Sports Beans and other sweet sport goodies. I drank water when I took a GU and drank the electrolyte water other times. I tried to avoid falling into a nutrition and water deficit. This was my key learning point from last year’s race and from the Ray Miller race las October. Keep up with food and water and that will keep you moving. The ice in my hat was amazing. At first it froze my brain but after a couple of minutes I didn’t notice the coldness. The cold water would fall onto my shirt and keep that moist. The ice in the bandito kept a key pressure point cool which cooled my whole body some.
During this run out to the San Francisquito aid station I saw Jesse Haynes, Jorge Pacheco and other amazing runners zoom by as part of the 50 mile race. As I got closer to the aid station I also saw a lot of the other 50k runners since it’s an out and back as well. I ran into Kim Teshima Newberry and told her that she looked strong and she got a 50k PR by an hour and a half that day.
From there, I just kept moving forward even when I mistakenly thought we were at the last turn in the mountain before we hit the big descent down to the aid station. Finally, it was the last turn and this time I ran most of the descent.
Going into the aid station I was a machine. This year there would be no projectile vomiting and no drive back to the starting line with a guy in a Hulk outfit (although he was a good guy). This time a volunteer offered me a chair and I sat for 2 seconds then jumped up and had one volunteer get my drop bag and another fill my two water bottles. Within a few minutes I had more ice in my hat and bandito, grabbed some more nibbles and was doused with water. Besides some GUs, one thing I really wanted to have in my drop bag was a big water bottle that I could use to load with water then pour on my head. This worked great and I thanked all the great volunteers and was ready to head back out.
Miles 22- 29
The climb out of the San Fran aid station is brutal. This was my slowest mile split. I didn’t curse too much but I certainly didn’t feel like pushing too hard here when I still had another 6.5 miles of hiking. At this mileage I was now beyond my longest run since last year. I didn’t know how my training would hold up I had decided that I would be conservative and power hike the whole way back to Spunky Edison for the last time. There is a good descent on the way back and even though I saw another 50ker not too far away I chose not to get crazy and try to catch up, at this point.
My GPS watch battery had died around mile 21 so I had been re-charging it coming out of the last aid station. I got it charged up again (good thing I had Strava working on my phone as my primary GPS device) and tried to figure out how far I was from the marathon point. Up to this day my longest race was the Sean O’Brien marathon where I finished in a whopping 9 hours 47 minutes. It is a beast of run with lot of vertical. One of my strategies for this race was to not look at time goals since I was more focused on completion. In the past, when I set a time goal and miss it I get super bummed and my whole race falls into a big pity party.
With the GPS watch starting at zero I was doing mental math so that I didn’t keep having to check my phone to see which mile I was at. Then finally I passed the magic marathon mark where I became an ultra distance runner. Shortly after that I saw another 50 miler approaching and recognized Alison Chavez I think from previous races and also from learning about some of her story and fight against cancer. As she ran past me I connected her with the message on her trucker hat – “Fuck Cancer” and I started getting very emotional. I thought about her great courage and strength to be able to recover from cancer and go back to crushing ultras and also thought about my mom and how she lived with cancer for 6 years even when the doctors told her she only had 6 months. I also thought about how my mother was my motivation to reach out and do things that maybe a Latino from El Sereno wasn’t supposed to do like go to college, teach and then do graduate school. My mom sacrificed so much for her family growing up and for our family and never made it past 4th grade.
With a couple of miles to the aid station I knew that I would make it, that today was the day. I had run out of water a couple of miles going into the last aid station and once again was low and there is no water source on these segments of the course. I knew I was getting close and still was in sight of some other 50k runners with whom I had been leapfrogging all day. Then I heard that beautiful sound of the Energizer bunny doing his thing on the drums and I knew the aid station was around the next bend.
When I got to the aid station the bunny had put down and walked away from his drums and then shuffled back to beat on them to welcome my arrival. The only thing that I had missed at aid stations was adding ice to my water bottles. Duh. I loaded up one bottle, doused my head again and took down another rice ball. I had run out of water with a couple of miles going into the aid station so I was for the first time a bit on the shaky side. I knew that with water and some grub I would bounce back. But as I left I saw another 50k runner in a Wonder Woman skirt (I didn’t get her name) and she was kind of looking over her shoulder as if she was waiting for someone, or maybe me? I knew I had to recover for a while so I did not follow her pace as she finally turned around to run. Yeah, I wasn’t going to blow it there and chase after her before I recovered. After the little descent there is another fun (read, not fun) climb. I pretended this was one of my many climbs up the Ray Miller Trail in Malibu then down to Sycamore Canyon then the final tiring climb back.
I just put my head down and kept moving forward. I had taken down some cola at the aid station and walked off with a cup of the luscious but room temp liquid. That’s when I had the best idea know to human kind and I tipped my hat up and let a couple of ice cubes clink into the cup. Then I remembered that I had also finally added ice to my water bottle and took a long delicious pull.
Once I finished the final climb it seemed easier to run down to the street. I had recovered and now was thinking about whether I would have to race to keep people from passing me on this last descent. A group of 50 milers caught up to me but I didn’t feel they were my “competition” so I didn’t zoom off right away. We also kind shuffled down off Spunky Edison and onto Spunky Canyon Road for the final 1.5 miles. I felt good and picked up the pace then I felt great and all of a sudden in my head I was at the track doing speed intervals then I thought I saw a 50k runner down the hill. I started to hammer and passed the 50 mile runners and pressed further until I was near my car and tapped it as I went by and zoomed into for the finish. I am now officially and ultra runner!
The big clock read 10 hours and 3 minutes but I haven’t seen the official results yet. This is only around 16 minutes longer than my Sean O’Brien marathon time.
After the race I felt great and grabbed some minestrone soup and crackers then found a nice spot to chill. I ran into a lot of friends including Adriana Zapata and Raul Engle and enjoyed the next hour or so chatting and meeting some of the people that I had run with throughout the day and more people that I had met via Instagram and other social media sites.
I was curious about some folks who had not finished but it was time to hit the road so I went off back up the road to my car and cheered on the 50 mile and 50k racers who were coming in as I made my way up. When I got to my car I saw that Alan was just up the road so I changed out of my shirt and was going to walk up to go chat with him when Lizette and Claire zoomed by on the way to the finish line. I took some photos and cheered them on. I chatted more with Alan, remembered to go back for my drop bag then I headed off for the drive home.
Yeah, consistent training helps. If you drastically under train for a race and don’t have a solid base then a tough race will be a suckfest. If you put in the work then you can test your limits and build from there. I was surprised that I was able to feel that good for the entire race. I could have run a lot more of the race and reduced that time a good bit. I guess I’ll just have to see how things work at the next race or at the Leona Divide next year.
Big shoutout to all the race volunteers throughout the day and leading up to another great Keira Henninger event!