57 miles, two races, one after the other. After sidelining my racing schedule at the onset of 2019, when the unplanned opportunity presented itself to run two races back to back, I smiled and welcomed the challenge. I get swept up in the fantasy that each year I must organize what those in my trail running cohort name a, “race schedule.” I get swept up in the organized chaos of feeling like I need to plan and perfect my training cycles like I see so many athletes of my sport do. But perhaps it’s a case of imposter syndrome, me feeling as though only professional athletes are granted this religiosity in their regiments that I feel silly voicing my tenacious race schedule. The merriment of optimized sleep, proper recovery and peak performance when crumbled together will yield a performance only to be desired and so often unattained.
What happens though when you don’t achieve the goal at the end of each block? All the planning, early nights and forfeited weekend plans are made to feel deflating. When the unplanned opportunity presented itself to run two races back to back, I smiled and welcomed the challenge.
On Saturday the 23rd of March, I toed the line at Greg Lanctot’s impromptu Coyote Lake Resevoir 50k. Originally set to cover 31 miles through San Jose’s trails, inclement weather forced a change of plans and shift in attitude. The new course was comprised of 2.5 clockwise loops around a gorgeous mountainside in Gilroy, CA. Each loop was approximately twelve miles, with the last loop cut in half to cross over the hill and down to the finish. Trail ultras are a spectacle. Small and intimate while at the same time enormous and solitary. The distance itself can feel inundating, but the support from volunteers and Greg (the RD) make for an atmosphere I am hard pressed to find at road races. Local trail ultras feel like what I imagine it is to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. They’re a bit edgy and uncomfortable, everyone does it differently, and weather you’re a seasoned pro or a hilariously naive newcomer (as I once and still consider myself to be), you make your way through the distance and the adventure is nothing shy of spectacular. There isn’t a sign every mile ticking the miles down from 31 to zero, rather you rely on the buzz from your watch and the gels in your pocket to get you from point A to point B with enough energy in your legs to summit whatever the course throws at you.
In preparation for the race(s) I kept repeating over in and over in my head that I was competing to have fun. I was proud of my tender legs for carrying me through a rapid fire race training block and made sure that I indulged my body in copious amounts of water and a lavish amount of sleep. I’m talking four to five 32oz bottles of water a day, and opting for afternoon running in an effort to get more zz’s. If there is one tip I can impart on a runner looking to ease themselves into a distance unbeknownst to their quad muscles, I recommend doing every thing possible before hand to ensure a positive race experience. It’ll soften the blow to the inevitable stress that is to come. This means fueling enough, sleeping enough, repeating enough positive mantras and I would go so far as to even recommend downloading a kick ass playlist. Don’t take yourself too seriously in the process, remember why you signed up in the first place and help yourself to a gosh darn serving of seconds at dinner. Your body will thank you at the finish line.
It had been a couple of years since I raced a road marathon and I will readily admit, I now understand why. After the comfort of a cozy community of goonish ultra-runners (as evidenced by the dude blowing a gnarly snot-rocket in the photo behind me), the stark juxtaposition of seemingly over-serious road marathons was a tad off putting. And I don’t mean this in the sense that every road runner is loud, flamboyant in gear, and takes themselves too seriously. I’m not saying that at all. The road marathon is a tremendous event because it shocks every type of runner into achieving the seemingly impossible. It’s what I remember as the gateway drug into longer distances and I couldn’t be more appreciative for its presence. 26.2 miles is an insanely challenging and difficult distance to undertake and I commend every brave soul willing to toe the line. But with that comes what feels like masses of people hurling themselves into an unknown space that exudes a loud energy and a boastful nature. I felt claustrophobic meandering the 26 miles of paved road through my home city, my quads aching from the obtrusive pounding and I couldn’t help myself feeling as though all I wanted was the respite of a soft trail.
Dress for success.
A race requires physical training. It also requires thoughtful preparation around what you’re putting on your body as well as what you’re putting in it. For the 50k, I wore my most comfortable baggy champion black shorts and a soft cotton tank from Outdoor Voices. I like loose clothing, and while chafing can become a somewhat issue, enough lube seems to do the trick. I’m obsessed with my Salomon pack, and just recently purchased a pair of ultra sense rides for my shoe of choice. The trail race was more the style of a tough mudder, and while I’m positive I would have run nearly 45 minutes faster had it not been for the absolutely trudgery that was the mud-bath of the trails, my shoes held up exceptionally well! At trail races you’ll see the gamut of odd styling — this is sort of what makes them so much to fun too. My best advice is to wear what is most comfortable. It shouldn’t be anything you haven’t tested on a long training run and you won’t run faster if it sparkles.
My fueling strategy for the 50k race was haphazard. For shorter races, one GU energy gel every thirty minutes work perfectly. What doesn’t work as well is forgetting the correct nozzle to your soft flask and only realizing it five minutes before the start of the race. Luckily, the looped course proved to be forgiving enough that I could make it to each aid station without horribly depleting my hydration levels. Colder weather also played a pivotal role in being able to run without a bottle. Let this be a reminder to triple check your gear before leaving the house! For the road marathon, I opted for one energy chew every ten minutes, and water at every other aid station. Due to the fatigue from the cumulative days, my stomach flipped and I couldn’t take in as much energy as I would have liked. So at mile 18 I downed a bag of potato chips and felt my spirits rekindled! Intra race fuel is complicated and while I wish I had mine down to a perfect science, I don’t. My best advice is to test out various fueling strategies on various runs and see what sticks. Hopefully something will (eventually).
Find your good luck charm — for me, it’s either my hair in French braids or my disgustingly salt stained CAL baseball cap, and wear it with pride. It most likely won’t do anything for your time, but it’ll make you feel happy and that’s what counts.
Calories are crucially important. Saturday and Sunday night, our priority each evening was making sure we had enough food on our plates to replenish the day’s activities. That means adding olive oil to grains, an extra serving of dinner, and always dessert. Anything you can do to add quality nutrients to bulk up your meals and incorporating snacks whenever possible is a great way to top off energy stores when you’re looking to put in an inordinate amount of miles! This doesn’t just pertain to post-race meals. Trust me when I say that if you eat enough, your body will recover faster and you’ll feel stronger for it. I’ve only recently come to figure this out (unfortunately) and I can give pizza this credit. The evening of our 50k, after nourishing my body with an enormous bowl of rice, chicken, veggies and a side of chocolate milk for lunch (after a huge exertion I very honestly crave more vegetables than I care to admit), we opted for an extra large pizza from a local shop in Berkeley. Eating three and a half slices, and a few homemade ginger snap cookies for dessert, I woke up the morning of the marathon feeling fresher than I anticipated. And it was incredible! When you nourish your body….damn….the things you can do. And pizza counts! Burgers and fries and a side of ice cream counts! Quinoa, kale, tofu and a fresh baguette counts! Listen to precisely it is that your body is craving, it’s asking for that for a reason. Honor it. After a race, I’m not always as hungry — and that’s ok! Once my stomach settles I feel like I crave vegetables, foods with nutrients. And like clockwork, a few hours later I crave carbs. I’m still learning how to re-feed myself strictly according to my hunger, but knowing that pizza is miraculous seems to help. And it tastes good too.
What's the point?
Why race back to back? It was a challenge. Running 31 miles through (deep) mud was challenging. Turning around and running 26.2 miles on pavement was challenging. What I learned through both was how rewarding it is to face discomfort squarely in the eyes and push through it. The marathon wrecked my legs. There were miles when I truly didn’t want to keep going and I kept harping back to the untimely demise of my previous 100 mile attempts. Embracing the difficulty and trusting your body is a feat I’m still learning to master, and signing up for adventures like this one helped a lot. When my stomach felt uneasy or my legs had difficulty turning over I told myself to take a deep, slow breath and simply keep going.
I was reminded how much I love trail races — how much I love the community and how much I love the intimacy of them. I was also reminded that I’m not a huge fan of road races, but that they have their place in important running bucket lists. I was reminded of how rad my boyfriend is for undertaking this craziness with me, and I was reminded of truly how strong our bodies are. It’s pretty neat to accomplish a goal you set for yourself and it serves as a brilliant reminder that there isn’t much we can’t achieve when we put our minds and bodies to work.
Winning a race also feels pretty great too 🙂