I’m (not) an Ultra Trail Runner, After All

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On December 6, 2014, I ran my first ultra marathon, the North Face Endurance Challenge 50K, San Francisco. Though, to be completely honest, I didn’t consider a 50K much of an ultra back then — it’s not a 50-miler or a 100+? We’ll get back to this later.

(If you’re looking for turn-by-turn directions or a detailed description of the course, by the way, you won’t find it here. I lined up at the start completely unfamiliar with the hilly route. But I do have lots of pictures to show you.)

Also, a flooded footbridge on the course caused a last-minute change that tacked an extra almost-mile to the 31. The North Face Endurance Challenge Tough Mudder 51.5K, is what it ended up being — and this is how I ran it.

On race-day morning, I showed up at the start feeling unprepared and a wee bit nervous. I didn’t train properly for this race, focusing on running only for about eight weeks and my longest runs clocking up to 2 hours on a trail, and 14 miles on a flat paved road — also in 2 hours. Still, I was excited and expecting a long day of running in the beautiful green Marin Headlands.My friend Tiffany and I met at the start and had a good laugh at our completely matching, yet unplanned, race outfits:

This provided comic relief throughout the day, for which I am grateful.

I was seeded in the wave right before Tiffany, based on who knows what impossibly optimistic finish time I provided at registration. So I started a few minutes ahead of her and immediately got a question from a passing runner: “Hey, where’s your race twin?” Not to worry, she’d catch up to me later – and just at the right time, too!

The first climb came right around mile 2, and it was steep enough that we had to walk. Great, I thought. Not even two miles in, and I’m already walking. Just a hint of the tough (mudder) times we would all be having that day.Runners lining up the trail as far back as the eye can see. Always a thing of beauty. Some 25 minutes into the race, we entered an enchanted forest: An enchanted forest that gave us our first taste of the many a mud to come:So much mud, it was like a thing with a mind of its own. And it was saying, I will swallow you whole, you sad little humans, I am the boss of you and you are not the boss of me!At 8:06, the sun came out. (I know this because iPhone has a time stamp for each photo. Super helpful for cases where amnesia kicks in to obscure painful muddy experiences.)See the tiny dots on the side of this hill? Runners climbing.Walking, actually. Then running again.About 10 miles and two hours into the race (yes, two hours to cover 10 miles!), views of the ocean materialized. And we were climbing, yet again.But, the views were stunning.

And ten minutes later, mercifully, a downhill.A downhill swathed in mud of such epic slippery proportions, that all we could do was walk, elbows to the side, hoping we don’t slip and slide down the hill and plunge into the abyss.And the next minute – because things weren’t interesting enough already? – stairs:I remember telling one of the guys around, What a waste of a descend. Under normal, mud-free conditions, we would’ve all charged down and make up some time for all that crawling up. Still, the vistas were gorgeous.

The next climb I’ve got documented came around an hour later. I’m sure that’s not really the case, though. We were probably going up and down and up and down over this hour, and my memory blocked it. What I do remember is the toughest part of the nearly five-mile 1,300 feet (?) climb to Cardiac: a single-track trail of a muddy mushy-gushy mess of constant switch backs that looked like this.Four hours 20 minutes into the race, still climbing… but now in these beautiful, elven woods:And somewhere on the way, Tiffany caught up! She was thoroughly enjoying the slushy mud and told me to “just embrace” it. Right. Ugh.

We talked and walked, and trotted from time to time, until we arrived at the peak completely exhausted but in good spirits. Shoe situation:. And still race twins, of course:

Tiffany’s main man David snapped this pic of us, my race-day favorite. I had just announced to everyone, at the top of my lungs, that I’ve never in my life been happier to see an aid station. Tiffany was still talking about embracing the mud? Whatever. We were delusional and low on sugar.

I addressed the sugar situation, pronto, by drinking four cups of divinely carbonated Coke. I had eaten a Picky Bar on the slow trek up, and had been drinking one Nuun tablet dissolved in 6 oz water at each aid station. (I had 7 Nuun tabs during this race, and ate four Hammer gels.) A kind volunteer refilled my hydration pack too, 1.5 liters of water gone over the first four hours of the race.

After several minutes there, I started feeling cold and decided there’s no use in hanging around much longer. So I charged down and ran the entire 5 miles, sloshing right into the mud and thoroughly embracing it. Amused myself by thinking up movie sequel titles. There was the Western with a touch of horror called There Will be Mud, and this holiday season favorite, Mud Actually.

Except once I hit the bottom and had to run one of the few flat stretches of road on the course, it quickly became apparent that I can only shuffle. Then another climb came, and I was walking again. The miles went very slowly then. I remember looking at my Garmin unbelievingly, How can this still be mile 24?!!?! Telling a guy who walked beside me on the course that, Dude, if only I had signed up for CIM instead, I’d be so done with it by now! Then I hit mile 26.2 – the marathon mark – and realized I have another six miles to go, and came as close to a complete mental breakdown as I’ve ever been to my entire life. If I had seen a familiar face or called my family at that point, I would have for sure cried and asked to be picked up and driven home. Good thing cell coverage was spotty or non-existent the entire course. I did get a tiny little “bar” at the one-to-last aid station, enough to post the picture above on Facebook, with the following:

I am not doing this ever never ever NEVER again. 5 miles to go.. — feeling tired.

That’s how strongly I felt about it at the time. Because we were climbing again, and in 15 freakin’ minutes I had only covered a half mile, and there were 5.5 – not 5 – miles to go, and three of them were up and it seemed like that up would never, ever end. But the views were still pretty good.Now, focus on the space between the two mountain tops – I said focus on the space, no really, the space… Oh, I give up. You can see San Francisco there. That’s what I meant by the views were good!

Once we reached the last aid station, we only had 2.8 miles of downhill to go. It was painful, but like one gal told me out there, At least we’ll run to the Finish!

And so that’s what I did, until I finally crossed that line at 2:06 pm. Seven hours six minutes to run 32 miles, with 5,888 ft elevation change and a gazillion tons of mud.And now I know why any distance longer than 26.2 deserves to be labeled an “ultra.” Because trust me, once you get past that 26.2 mark, something mental happens that will make or break you. I’m still here, and – I like to think – I was made and not broken. But I stand by what I said that day, too: Never again. There are many challenges to take up in life and I’m glad I made this one of them. But for now, I’ll be sticking to the good ol’ 26.2, 70.3 and, one day, 140.6. How’s that for a plan?

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