I ran the Leona Divide 50k race yesterday with about 500 other trail running fanatics. Unfortunately my race ended around mile 21 when I chose to drop. It was a tough race and thoughts and emotions are still swirling but wanted to put things down in writing although I’m sure my thoughts and judgments will change over the next few days and weeks.
The Leona Divide 50k was part of long term plan to attempt and finish my first ultra this year. In December I started training for my first attempt, the Sean O’Brien 50k but then I figured I should attempt a trail marathon so I switched my registration to the marathon. That race had its challenges but I was able to persevere with a lot of help from trail running friends.
What better way to train for a 50k ultra than to do a tough marathon?
After SOB, my training for the two months leading up to Leona Divide was spotty. Work was crazy busy and it was tough to schedule time to run. I got in a few good runs but only got into double digit miles one time in that period. Because of the time factor I did more gym workouts and focused on my core strength.
The one double digit mile training run was at the Leona Divide course. I got the lay of the land and was able to see what might give me trouble. I only ran one “arm” of the Pacific Crest Trail that makes up a good chunk of the race. The other “arm” looked like it was easier than the one I did. I was somewhat wrong. More on this later.
I set the alarm for 3am but woke up at 1:50am and also at 2:15am. I decided to just get up extra early and took a warm shower to warm up my legs some. I got to the Start/Finish line an hour early and went into the Green Valley Community Club to figure out where to leave my drop bag. This is the first time I’ve used a drop bag so the process was new.
I got in line to use the rest rooms but it looked like there were only two bathrooms and there was a major line. After a while of waiting I decided to turn on my headlamp and search for a nice tree to water. As I started watering, someone came up near me and also did some watering as he chatted. There were plenty of trees to water but I guess he was being chatty.
More folks started showing up and I looked around to see if I could spot some of my Trail and Ultra Running (TAUR) group friends. Earlier that week I noticed that Billy Yang, trailrunning filmmaker, had tweeted asking if anyone else was doing the Leona Divide. I tweeted that I was and that I was anxiously awaiting his full film on the Lake Sonoma 50 race. He said I should say “Hi” at the race so I did so when I spotted him near the registration line. I told him this was my first ultra and he wished me luck. Billy has created some awesome films including “Western Time,” available on Youtube. Check him out at https://www.youtube.com/user/BillyYangFilms/videos
I spotted some buddies from previous races who dress up in InkBurn mariachi running kits and also Adriana Zapata who I ran with during part of the Sean O’Brien Marathon (she was doing the SOB 50k that day). I finally ran into Michael Everest Dominguez and we wished each other luck. One of my training runs was at Wildwood Canyon Park after Michael had invited me to join him. It was cool running/hiking with him and his family that day.
Start time was approaching so folks started getting ready at the start line. I heard one person make some announcements but couldn’t hear much from where I was. I turned and found myself right next to Crista Scott who is a part of the TAUR group and also an awesome blogger. Check out her blog at: http://misscristascott.blogspot.com/. I said Hi and another TAUR friend was with her as well, Todd Kaplan. We hadn’t met in person so this was another one of those fun moments when online and real world meet.
One the race started we made our way up Spunky Canyon Rd. for one mile for an elevation gain of 280 feet. I knew that if I tried to run this part the whole way that I might get another visit from GrumpyCalf. Two weeks before the race I made the rookie mistake of doing a hard training run with new shoes – Hokas. The Hokas felt fine until I surged up a hill a mile into the run and then my calf was zapped. I don’t blame the shoe but I did take them back a few days later.
The first mile wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be then we hit Spunky Edison Rd. up for about 2 miles. During this time most of the field has already spread apart and I was solidly a part of the back of the pack. This part of the road took us up another 270 feet. I felt fine and did mostly run/walk until we got to the first aid station. I barely stopped and headed on to the Pacific Crest Trail.
Elevation gain started cranking up from mile 4 to 5, taking us to the top of the first big climb, netting us an extra 300 feet of elevation gain. As we wound our way up to the top, there were a couple of turns where you could see the sun shine around the corner. It was a beautiful site and I wanted to take a photo but didn’t want to break my momentum. This climb was gradual and I had done this on my training run so I knew what to expect. Getting to that first ridge was pretty nice. One runner was there snapping photos. “We’re at the top,” I said. “That’s why I’m taking photos!” she beamed.
Once leaving the ridge, it’s a fairly steep descent. It was still early in the race so I took it easy on the downhill. Right at mile 5.7 or so the first of the 50k runners was already heading back up the mountain. I stepped aside and was careful to watch as other speedy runners trickled up the mountain. Miles 6 and 7 sunk down close to 900 feet. It would be a breeze going downhill but I knew that I’d have to climb that beast eventually.
Around mile 8 the descent went sideways and mixed in some small climbs until it took us to the Bouquet Canyon Rd at the end of mile 9. I spent minimal time there then shot off to take a nature break then made my way up the beast.
My strategy for climbing this steep soul-sucking side of the mountain was to make sure I had my music playing in one earpod then to just keep taking short steps up the mountain. During training I only went down halfway so I wouldn’t have to go all the way back up. But not halvsies this time. The climb was tough and around mile 11 I started getting a little dizzy and I was starting to stumble around some. These are the kinds of symptoms I get at the end of tough half marathons or 25k’s. It was far too early to ignore them at this point. I kept putting one foot in front of the other and briefly chatted with people on the way up until they saw that my pace was too slow and they made their way up ahead.
I craved the top of the mountain and just as I was reaching it, there was a photographer and I made a tiny effort to run and smile. Steps after running past the photog I stopped to enjoy the top but got light headed again. Even that little jog on the final incline had affected me.
I made my way downhill and decided to power walk for a while. That big climb had taken a lot out of me.
I knew that the next part of the course was mostly downhill with some rolling and had already thought about calling it a day at aid station #3, which is also aid station 1 and 5 since course is a kind of “T.” A few more people passed me on the downhills and around mile 13 I noticed another runner. I briefly looked back and told her to go ahead if she was trying to pass. “Oh, no, you’re going at a good pace for me,” she said. I thought that was a little odd since I was slogging along and only occasionally running. We chatted as we continued and I told her that I wasn’t feeling all that great but Lizette said that she’d keep running with me.
Running with other people is energizing and it helps to pass the miles. When we got to aid station #3 I still didn’t feel great but I was pretty much ready to continue on. I asked one of the volunteers what the next 7.5 miles looked like and he said “They’re rolling. Which is short for ‘you fuckin liar.'” I could tell from the look in his eyes that he was scanning me over to see if I was in shape to continue and that he was telling me that it would not be an easy 7.5 miles to the next aid station at the end of the “T.”
Another volunteer checked on me as I filled my hydration pack and asked if I had taken salt tablets then she touched my shirt which had no wetness to it and just a big ring of sweat. I always sweat buckets and usually look like I just made it through a car wash past mile 3 but this time I was bone dry. “You should take more tablets when you get to the top,” she said. I remember looking at the course elevation diagram and the climbs looked way smaller than what I had just done so I wondered what she meant by “the top.”
I have some advantages and disadvantages when it comes to trailrunning. One of my strengths is that I believe in doing specific training. I do research, I train on the course and I try to learn from those experiences to help me troubleshoot on race days. I was familiar with most of the first 15 miles but the next segment from Spunky Edison to San Fran Rd. was a mystery. After the first two miles we started looking from hope from the folks who were already running back towards us. We hoped that someone would tell us that there were gradual climbs but as we went on the looks on the faces of folks who approached us looked more and more worn down. As we got closer we kept hearing “the aid station is 2 miles up” and then they’d follow with “and it’s not an easy 2 miles.” This happened several times and shortly after that we’d turn a corner and there would be another huge climb in front of us.
We ran into Michael and he was making great time. He stopped to chat with us and wasn’t too happy with the sandy, slanted, narrow single track but he was only about 5 miles from the finish line and went on to get a great time.
I continued chatting with Lizette who power hiked behind me the whole time on the narrow path. Some of the miles clicked away nicely but then another climb hit and I wasn’t feeling any better.
By around mile 18 my spirits were pretty low. I was still feeling like crap although there was nothing in particular that ached and I didn’t feel super hot. The ground was sandy and I had forgotten to wear sunglasses so the trail glare was getting to me. But I just didn’t feel right. I was sick of eating GU gels and didn’t feel like eating. I knew that was not a good thing but didn’t want to get sick from eating something I didn’t feel like eating. Around mile 19 we turned another corner and there was another big climb. I told Lizette that I wasn’t sure if I’d make it out of the next aid station.
We finally made it to the final mile before the aid station where there was a big decent and Lizette was ready to run and asked if I was. She answered for me, “I’m sure you’re like, ‘Hell no.'” and I confirmed that. She took off down the hill.
San Francisquito aid station (mile 21+)
As I got to the aid station a volunteer asked “What can I get you?” and my instant response was “A chair.” She scooted over and pulled up a chair for me and she and other got me some Coke and water. I told her I wasn’t too very well and she asked if it was my legs or my nutrition. I told her that I had stopped eating. She asked if I wanted anything and suggested boiled potato. I said yes and she got some for me in a cup. I had a drop bag there and the volunteer was kind enough to bring it to me. I fished out some coconut water and took some large gulps of the warm liquid.
Lizette was over getting water then took off back up to finish the last 10+ miles of the race. I wished her well. She finished the race and recovered by doing a half marathon today.
I had already decided to call it a day and overheard one volunteer tell another volunteer that he was going to drive a runner back to the start/finish line because he had already been at their little medical tent for a while and he was seriously dehydrated. I told the volunteer that I was dropping and she told the driver and we arranged to all go back together. The driver, Carlos, had his car across the street so I watched for cars then made my way over. At that point my stomach started to turn and I knew what would come next. I made my way up an embankment under some shade where several people were watching the aid station levity and runners. Folks were dressed up as super heroes including some awesome Wonder Women who would have taken more of my visual attention had I not been feeling so low.
So I headed up the embankment, away from the spectators and projectile vomited about 5 times. Carlos, who was dressed as the Hulk, patted me on the back but I knew I had another good heave left. I’ve read tons of books and stories and articles on trail runners who spew their guts out on the trails and it always ends up the same. Afterwards they say “I feel much better!” That’s exactly what happened. I had already dropped and was ready to speed back to the start/finish line and I had just upchucked so the thought of continuing with the race hadn’t crossed my mind yet.
One of the kind spectators on the embankment got me a cold water and then I realized that I had left my hydration pack (with my keys and wallet in it) on the back of the aid station chair. I carefully crossed the road then made my way back. Carlos was helping the dehydrated runner and his friend get into the back of the car and he handed me a large empty garbage bag. “No offense but if you have to spew again please use this.” I told him that if I had to honk that I’d certainly use the bag. As we drove off I sipped on water and he said, “You know, as soon as you finished throwing up you look much better.” I told him, “Yup, I feel like a million bucks now. Ok, not quite a million.”
We made it to the aid station and I helped Carlos to the medical tent with the other runner then I grabbed some cups of water and made my way home. I tried to tweet or Facebook that I had DNF’d in case my friends in the race wondered what had happened but I didn’t have cell service.
The morning after
After a lot of great supportive comments on social media from friends and family, I got up at the crack of dawn to work. My work sponsored a couple of dozen members to run the Aut2run 10k and 5k in Camarillo to support autism awareness. I figured that I’d be a wreck the day after an ultra I was on photo and booth detail and didn’t plan to run. The race sold out and we didn’t have any extra slots so I didn’t end up racing even though I could have had a nice shakeout run.
As I waited for runners to come in from the race, I ran through the Leona Divide race and started to feel that I should have continued. Some of my other trail runner buds had gone through much more adversity out on the course and were able to gut it out and I had stopped short of my goal. The main reason I decided to drop was that after feeling lightheaded and stumbling that I had done, I might only make it out 2 miles then I’d have to have someone come out and get me. That’s not the way I wanted my day to end so I pulled the plug.
Part of taking on these challenges is finding out how one deals with circumstances. I don’t know how I’ll react the next time I’m in a similar situation but I’ll have this race as an experience to help me figure it out. A big thank you to all my friends and family and to all the amazing trailrunners and awesome volunteers out there. Things didn’t pan out the way I wanted but I’m not sorry at all for giving it a try. And I’m totally giving this race another shot next year. I’ll be ready for it.