I’ve waited a long while — probably too long — for this post, but better late than never, so here goes. Training was going well and on-plan for the Quad Rock 50-miler in May 2018, until the week before the first 30-mile training run in March (and biggest little peak before the full pre-race one), I got pneumonia.
Didn’t realize it was pneumonia yet, though — had a terrible cough, felt a racket in the lungs when I ran, and was so tired, all the time. So I took that weekend off, missing both weekend long runs (but wanting to get out ahead of what I hoped was just a Little Trouble before it became a Big Trouble), cut my mileage in half the following week, and again had to take the weekend off. (Both weekends I did so, I slept 12-15 hours each day, which should have been a clue something was off.) Had a visiting scholar commitment in Washington the day after my second “hibernation weekend” — I could do only about half of my duties, woke every 10 minutes all night each night with a cough and chills. The day after I returned, my partner took me to the doctor, where I got the pneumonia diagnosis, three antibiotics (and a shot in the bottom), many words as to how I would have been headed for the hospital if I had waited another couple days, and the mandate to not run (or work — my first time off for illness since 2010!) for 2 weeks. Well, there went March.
In hindsight, the best time to get pneumonia and require a multi-week break from running must be when you’re training for your longest distance yet, because, even though you’re greatly diminished, even being able to do 50% of what you could do pre-illness is much more, if that’s 50% of 50-miler training, than, say, a 5K or even half-marathon. Two weeks back, and I was able to run an 16-18 mile social run at 10,000′, but with less than 6 weeks before race day, I knew running QR50 would lead to abnormally great fatigue, if not lasting depletion and/or injury. So, I transferred my registration to a favorite race later that year (Black Squirrel Trail Half-Marathon) and worked as a finish line timer for QR50, which was an awesome experience in its own way.
A number of folks running Quad Rock 25 or 50 had run the Golden Gate Dirty 30 (50K), which had several merits: (1) it’s just west of Golden, so under 2 hours from home; (2) it’s early June, so more time to recover and train for less distance; (3) it’s a punchy, technical course with over 7250′ elevation gain and 7250′ loss; (4) it’s technically an ultra, but also like a marathon-plus-a-bit, so I wouldn’t have to jump back into those back-to-back weekends; (5) for whatever it’s worth, Outside Magazine rated the Dirty 30 as one of the nation’s 7 best beginner-friendly ultras, and (6) Gnar Runners, who put on Quad Rock, Black Squirrel, and other always-awesome races, would be hosting an aid station, so familiar faces! I registered.
I followed a trusted marathon/50K plan, building to a few runs in the 20-25 mile range, then tapered for 2ish weeks. It’s strange how the world turns upside down when you prepare to taper, and then more so once you actually do. Suddenly, I feel less prepared, I have all these worrisome tirednesses, and so on. So my weekend tapering of 20-13-10-race became, instead, more like 24-15-12-race, with the 15 and 12 runs on fairly taxing terrain, in the increasingly hot summer, so not as restful as they could/should have been.
The Dirty 30, for the first time, started runners in 3 “waves,” each an hour apart. Wave #1, at 6:00am, was for folks looking to finish in 9-11 hours; #2 at 7:00am for 7-9 hour finishers; #3 at 8:00am for those elite 4.5-6.5 hour finishers. I started at 7am.
Because of the location, folks had to either carpool or take shuttle buses to the start. My love and I were at the start area by 5:45am, which was a long time to wait in the chilly alpine air for my wave. Breakfast started feeling like a long time ago — back at 4:30am or so — so I had a Honey Stinger stroopwafel and water as I waited. Then we were off!
I had marked out a pace chart for a range of expected times to reach each aid station, going with the thought that, finishing just inside the top 30% as I have done for marathon-distance races, I’d be a 7-8 hour finisher, doing 12-15 minute miles, with 0-2 minutes in each of the 5 aid stations. Reached Aid #1 (5mi in) slightly ahead of schedule (about 1 minute/mile quicker than predicted), didn’t stop, but made an effort to slow down a bit; took a minor tumble coming off a plank bridge just before mile 6 and slightly turned my ankle but nothing serious, reached Aid #2 (12mi in) within my expected range, again didn’t stop because my water bottles were just over half full each… and ran out of water during the next 5 mile stretch, which heated up now that the sun was out and was much steeper, technical, and exposed than I had predicted, for some reason, with a fair distance of scrambling more-or-less straight up rocks, scrambling over the top, and, again, having to use both hands to scramble down. A lot of work without cool, refreshing water, and my pace slowed to about 18 minutes/mile during this section.
At Aid #3 (17mi in), my partner was there, waiting for me, which was an awesome boost — a greater boost than I ever predicted. What a joy it was to stand there for a few minutes, chatting with him, drinking and refilling and drinking some more, enjoying watermelon and shade, and powering up for what was still to come. Spent about 7-10 minutes there, then off again. Starting to feel tired, but the race was only half done.
Much more climbing and tricky descending to reach Aid #4 (25mi in, 16 minutes/mile for this stretch), which turned out to be 8 miles from #3 instead of the 7 stated online. It’s funny how one mile makes such a difference — and little inaccuracies throughout took more of my mental energy than they should have. For example, during the next section of the course, the infamous trudge up the steep, exposed, never-ending, rocky (can you tell how free-flowing it was?) ascent of Windy Peak, I kept alive the image from the website and my race t-shirt, got the night before, of Aid #5 at the top of Windy Peak. I could taste that cup of ginger ale I’d ask for, those cool bubbles, the joy I’d feel while drinking and surveying the legendary view.
When I finally summitted Windy Peak (21-22 minutes/mile), there was no Aid #5 at the top. Aid #5 was 1.5mi away, back down the exact route up Windy Peak we had come (so all those adjectives again), and up a few “minor bumps” which, at the time, reduced me to walking each time with their 12-18% grade, where I did get that cup of ginger ale after 19 minutes/mile. Then 2.6 miles to the finish, and I’m proud to say that after over 30 miles of running, over 7000′ in elevation gain, and over 8 hours of rugged trail work/fun, I powered through the last 2.6 miles with my fastest pace stretch yet — 11 minutes/mile — to finish in 8:42. First time I’d arrived at a finish line with the award ceremony already underway (just for 10 minutes, but still…), and first time I’d finished below the 50th percentile in a race, but it was my first ultra, and as such, it was such a learning experience — in ways I realized in the moment, and more ways I’m just lately realizing.
Whew. What didn’t I learn? Key insights in a few key areas:
(1) TAPERING: After dutifully following a trusted plan, I started to add more mileage and condense the taper time right at the end, just so I’d “be prepared.” I need to not do that. I need to trust the plan and always err, especially in those final 1-3 weeks, on the side of underpreparing, so I arrive at race day with that happy extra bounce. I also need to not fret about little aches and tirednesses that pop up during the taper, as they always go away, and to be diligent about drinking a lot of water during the entire pre-race week.
(2) PACING: A 50K is not a half-marathon. (No kidding, right?) Looking back, I set out from the start at more of a half-marathon pace, and I was starting to feel rather tired at Aid #3, 17 miles in. Getting into these longer distances, I need to follow my marathon rule of not letting myself get out of breath or feel my heart pound for the first half of the race, so I can get more into tempo-run effort during the 3rd quarter and put on the speed in the final quarter — or, at the very least, avoid anything resembling a dejected slog. Trekking poles were a great help to many runners on the course, especially for the steep and rocky sections, so I might want to consider that for the future, on a limited basis.
(3) HYDRATING: New rule for races — if my bottles are below half-full or even close to half-full when I’m passing by an aid station, I’ll stop to fill up. Much better to carry a few extra ounces than to get dehydrated with hours still to go (or even one hour left, really). I was passing fluid each hour until I ran out, then didn’t for over 3 hours, even after I had taken in 2-3 bottles’ worth, a definite sign of dehydration, so, especially as I think of 50-milers, I need to stay on top of that, and this new rule will help me ensure I do so.
(4) FUELING: For the first 4-5 hours, I followed my trusty plan of one 100-calorie fuel item per hour, alternating between Gu gels and these awesome Trader Joe’s Fruit Discs (3 flavors, and you get 8 discs for $4), supplementing with watermelon at Aid #3 and #4. By the end, though, I was HUNGRY, and my last gel took about 45 minutes to get down (but I loved its gingerade flavor). So my practiced strategy for 5-6 hour runs might not be the best for 8-9 hour runs. I’ll practice with sandwiches and more real food options on 20+ mile (but especially 25+ mile) training runs this summer, because while 100cal/hour works very well for me up to 6 hours, it might not be sustainable much past that. I also learned ginger was a great stomach settler and something I craved, so I’ll always have a spare gingerade goo and maybe some ginger mints in case the tumbly starts to turn.
(5) MENTAL: I’d like to think my mind is strong, I am calm and resilient, I am not prone to stress or worry, and I have solid determination to carry me through anything, but an ultra sure does test a fellow, even “just” a 50K ultra. I worried much more than reasonable about that potentially turned ankle at mile 6, about falling behind in my little pace chart, about the unexpected scrambling, about my lack of water, about starting out too fast, about continued dehydration, about how Windy Peak was never going to end, about the inevitable nausea from running high on a hot day, and so on. Also, being my first race where there were starting waves, it was very strange how, during the whole race, I’d get passed by runners zooming fast and easy, then there were so many slower runners up ahead of me, so I couldn’t use fellow runners to judge pace as I often do. I am proud that I never stayed longer than 10 minutes at an aid station, typically more like 1-4 minutes, and only once did I stop on-course, just to take in an awesome view headed up Windy Peak, even when there were runners flopped down and resting, or just leaning on trees and gasping, in every microscopic patch of shade. Overall, the troubles that seemed SO BIG during the race seemed much smaller after, so I need to relax. If I know the course thoroughly, great! If not, just take what comes. And regardless, don’t fret if the mileage and aid station placement varies from published information, or if I run behind schedule, or if I just need to walk for a good long while. If I keep moving, I’ll get there.
Would I do it again? Yes. There are concrete ways I could have a much better experience my second time around. I’d love the chance to test myself again on this same course. And in retrospect, I’m glad I did the Dirty 30 instead of the Quad Rock 50 — racing is different from training, even if you train hard, and especially if you almost always train alone, so the first race of the season is always a learning experience. If I do QR50 in 2019, I want to do a practice race earlier that year — maybe Salida Marathon or even just Horsetooth Half Marathon. This race was humbling (bottom 40% instead of top 30%?! arg.), but inspiring. The views were incredible. The runners were supportive. Aid stations were well-stocked. And the offered spectator/crew shuttle to Aid #3, which made it possible to see my love there, made the whole day for me.
So, biggest challenge yet by far, but glad I did it and looking forward to the future.
Next race: Black Squirrel Trail Half-Marathon, 08 September 2018, Lory State Park.