After a good night’s sleep, I awoke feeling okay. I ate my bagel with peanut butter, took a hot bath, and got dressed. We then headed off to the start which was less than 5 minutes by car. The weather was a little cool but it was expected to warm up a bit so I ran in shorts and a long-sleeve tech t-shirt. The race started at 7:30 and we were off.
The fact that I started pain-free was a small miracle of itself. Three days before the race, I awoke to a nasty ache in the lower left side of my back. Great, I thought: we have to drive about 830 miles over the next two days and I have a bad back. Suffice it to say, Wednesday was quite painful in the car, even though I only drove for an hour or two. (Thank you, Suzanna, for doing the bulk of the driving.) Nothing made the pain go away and quite almost everything I did made it feel worse.
We got to the hotel in Ashland in the late afternoon and I finally found something that took the pain away: a hot bath. Unfortunately, the bath had to end and the bed was a bit too soft. I tossed and turned most of the night. In the morning, after another hot bath, and a quick breakfast and coffee, we took off again. The back was a better for sure but still pretty painful. Again, Suzanna did the bulk of driving, but I was able to contribute more since my back was feeling better.
Once we got to our destination and checked into our B&B, I again took a hot bath and experienced relief while I worried what was in store for me on Saturday. Thursday night’s sleep was definitely better and I awoke with a more positive outlook on Friday.
That morning, I emailed my coach, David Roche, and David suggested that I not race if I was in pain. I agreed and told him I would check in again after a 3-mile shakeout run. Packet pickup was only about a mile away from our B&B at the Stanford Inn, so I suited up and headed out the door uncertain how it would feel. While not quite perfect, I held up pretty well. (Great swag, by the way.) The run back along the beach was fun and I was starting to think that I might make it to the starting line after all.
Race swag, including a tech shirt, mug, hat, racing cup, string bag, and a headlamp. Oh, and a very cool race number too!
Friday night we had a fabulous pre-race dinner at the Stanford Inn’s Ravens restaurant and I did my usual pre-race ritual (lots of gathering way too much gear and food and assembling it before ditching half of it) and then I took another hot bath.
Big River Trail
Sometimes things just work their way out. And man was I pleased Saturday morning to make it to the starting line with only the slightest niggle of back pain. For the first 10 miles we headed due east on the very flat and soft Big River Trail, which winded alongside the, you guessed it, Big River. The plan was to go out nice and easy and I executed that pretty well. After about a mile, I met another runner, Nicolette, who seemed to be running at the same pace and we struck up a conversation for a number of miles. Anytime you can run with someone else, even if it’s for a few miles, is a bonus in an ultra because, for me anyway, unless I am struggling to keep up with the other runner, it helps you to relax and take your mind off the long trail ahead. And that’s exactly what happened, the miles ticked by effortlessly as we chatted about our jobs, loved ones, and recent races.
A little after mile 10, and a brief hug from Suzanna at aid station 2 (who I was pleasantly surprised to see), we turned away from the river onto the Big Tree Trail, and climbed we did for the next two miles. About half way up this climb, I looked back and Nicolette had dropped back behind another group and I never saw her again. I continued up the climb, walking the steeper parts, and made it to the top at about mile 12. The wooded trail leveled off for about a half mile before it dropped most of the elevation we had just climbed. I ran the downhill moderately fast, passing a number of other runners who were more timid on their approach.
At mile 14 we bottomed out and came upon a stream. Not thinking much about it — I guess I assumed we would soon come to a bridge upon which we would cross the stream — I suddenly saw a pair of runners ahead wading across. So after a quick survey of my options (there was only one), I waded on in. And after a few strides I reached the other side with some very wet shoes and socks.
The stream at mile 14
At this point, I realized that my shoes were too loose on my feet, which exacerbated the sloshy feeling, but I decided I would wait until the next aid station at the top of the next hill before adjusting things. At the top the hill, I reached the aid station just shy of mile 17. I sat down in a chair, took off my shoes, removed the debris from them, secured the laces, and I put them back on. As I looked up from the chair, I realized that my drop bag was right in front of me. Nice coincidence. I grabbed the bottle of premixed Tailwinds, and emptied it into my hydration bladder, neglecting to bleed the air out (which I regretted for the remaining miles as I kept thinking the noise from the bladder was someone right behind me). I grabbed a few food items from my drop bag (most which I never ate), adjusted my pack, drank some aid station water and ate some aid station chips, and headed back out.
After another relatively flat mile, I came to a “rogue” aid station run by Healdsburg Running Company where the guy manning it, told me to take a hard left (which was good because the aid station was blocking the straight-ahead option), and head down for 5 miles. The next five miles was indeed all down, and during that stretch I never saw another soul. During one long portion of the down that went for miles, there were drainage dips in the trail every 50 feet or so, sometimes filled with rocks, which made the running difficult since there would be a steep down followed quickly by a steep up, which unfortunately aggravated an old abdominal strain I had on my left side.
Course elevation/gain profile
I bottomed out at mile 23, had to jump across a few small streams and then head up the steepest of the three climbs, ascending about 600 feet over about a mile. While I did encounter a volunteer at the bottom, making sure I was headed the right way, still no other runners. At the top, just before aid station 4, I was happy to encounter a volunteer who was yelling “runner coming; number 100.” Even better, Suzanna was at the aid station asking me what I needed. I just grabbed some water, and we started walking while I finished my cup. I said goodbye with a kiss and headed off down the gravel path a couple of hundred feet before I turned right onto the trail and started down a two-mile descent.
Russian Gulch Waterfall
The next stretch of trail was part of the Pacific Coast Trail. As I descended, I finally encountered and passed a few runners as the trail became the Waterfall Trail, which passed by the Russian Gulch waterfall.
As I got lower, I also encountered numerous hikers. The miles continued to tick off: mile 26, 27, 28. This race was coming together and I was in the moment. The dirt trail morphed into an asphalt and dirt trail and soon I was at the beginning of a parking lot, where I again encountered my sweet wife who informed me that the aid station was just ahead at the end of the parking lot. There was no stopping now, as I continued to cruise along at a good clip.
4.4 Miles to Go?!
Mile 29 ticked off on my watch as I arrived at the last aid station. Only 2 miles to go! Woo-hoo!
But wait, the sign hanging from the aid station table boldly stated 4.4 miles to the finish. Incredulous, I asked the aid station volunteer if that was correct – my watch said I only had 2 miles to go. He confirmed the bad news and intimated that others had complained too and that he suspected that the course was a couple of miles long.
I have to admit that the realization that I had an additional 4+ miles, was like a gut punch and really broke my spirit. Still, I gathered myself up and forged ahead. After the aid station, I had to scramble up a brief but steep and muddy incline before heading under the road onto the coastal trail. Pretty soon, some spectacular views of the coast started to open up.
The miles started to crawl along and I finally came to the infamous rope-assisted descent. Volunteers were there to guide me, as I repelled down some slick rocks for about 40 feet. Around a turn and then I repelled down another section of rope. That was kind of fun but at the bottom, I had to scamper up another steep incline and head up alongside Highway 1. Amazingly, Suzanna was there yet again, having just pulled over to see if she could spot me one more time before the finish. For the second time, Suzanna offered to grab my hydration pack so I wouldn’t have to haul if for the last couple of miles. This time I said yes, and suddenly I was a little lighter and, incidentally, now without a phone.
In a little bit, I turned off Highway 1 onto Lansing Street as we headed into Mendocino and up a slight incline. I walked a stretch on Lansing Street. After another half mile, or perhaps a bit more, I turned into Mendocino Headlands State Park as a runner caught up to me. The path was narrow, no more than 1.5 to 2 feet wide in many places, and the wind picked up. After a couple of minutes, I let the runner pass me and then promptly started to walk as I silently whined to myself about the never-ending race and the wind whined by my ears.
We had walked in this same park on Friday, so I more or less knew what to expect here and for the remainder of the race, but even with that information, the trail through the park seemed to go on forever. At this point I did a lot of walking, intermixed with a little running. Another couple of runners passed me, and I tried to console myself with the fabulous views but they were mostly wasted on me. After what seemed a short eternity, we turned and came to a set of stairs that led down to the beach.
The beach sand was soft and my shoes quickly filled with sand as I proceeded to walk (again). We crossed under Highway 1 and another 2 or 3 runners passed me. Soon we came to an asphalt parking lot and I could now see the finish line. I started to run again, quickly picking up my pace as I passed Suzanna and headed hard into the finish.
Last few feet of the race
The race director shook my hand as I crossed the finish line. Another 50K was completed. My time: 6:49:37. A 50K, as you know, is supposed to be 31 miles long, but my watch said I had run 33.3 miles (and incidentally, never went off course). Now I understand that GPS watches can be wrong, and perhaps mine was wrong, but man, that race seemed long and my finish time, even with a mile or so of walking in that last few miles, seems high for a 31 mile race.
But it was a good race. In fact, most of the race went flawlessly. Yes, I shall declare it was a good race.
Hopefully, every race is a learning experience as much as a racing experience. And Mendocino taught me a few things:
- The Mendocino Coast 50K is a beautiful and moderately easy course as far as 50Ks go (except for the fact that it might be a couple of miles long).
- Going out slow is the key for me to having a good race and not bonking. If we ignore, for now, the last 4 miles, I nailed this race!
- I became too caught up in the miles left as told to me by my Garmin Fenix 5x watch. This was a critical end-of-race mistake and when reality came crashing through at the last aid station, I let it get to me and let myself get “psyched out”.
- Stop looking at your watch! and stay conservative on all “miles to go” estimates!
- Don’t get ahead of yourself and don’t get cocky! Mile 28 (or was it mile 26?) was way too fast. My Garmin says it was 7:32. Even if the split is off by a minute, that mile was way too fast with 4 miles to go. I got ahead of myself and the race, and this combined with the aid station reckoning led to a somewhat less-than-satisfying finish.
- My wife, Suzanna, is awesome.