The North Face Endurance Challenge: my first fifty mile race. My first ultra. I went through a week of feeling like a ball of stress and anxiety. Drop bags were laid out by Tuesday. Crew and pacer strategy planned out Wednesday. Race outfit decided on by Thursday. The best carb-loady chicken pho from Turtle Tower on Friday. I’ve been obsessing over this for almost 5 months, and race day was finally here. I haven’t had this kind of nervousness before a race in quite a while. It felt good, in a strange way, to be taking on a new challenge. I had no idea how my body would handle anything past 30 miles. My longest training run on the trails, after all, was only 24 miles. I tell my clients all the time to trust in their training, but man, it is hard sometimes.
I popped out of bed at 3:30am wide awake. It’s pouring outside. Shit. Coffee (maybe too much), bagel with sunflower seed butter, water. Let’s hit the road! Pon and I picked up Jesse and headed to the Golden Gate Bridge. Still pouring. Sidenote: the radio plays really awful music at this hour. We made it to the Headlands and the rain finally stops. Drop bags dropped off, porta potties visited, pre-race photos taken, Angela’s nerves calmed down. 5:02am: It’s go time. I take off with the second wave after watching the elites fly out the gate at a blistering pace. “It’s 50 miles! Slow down!”
The first two loops are up Bobcat and back down Rodeo Valley. The first loop felt awful. Pace was okay, but my right foot hurt and my left calf hurt. And my headlamp kept sliding down my face and bonking me in the nose the entire 2 mile downhill. But running under that full moon was just about the most magical thing I’ve ever done. Second loop I started to feel better. The foot pain faded, and by mile 10 the calf pain was gone. Thank goodness, because that would have made for a very long race. It was also at this point I realized I was already 10 miles in and hadn’t taken in any Gu. Whoops. I rolled into the mile 14 Tennessee Valley aid station to find Jack, my crew of one, waiting patiently for me in his neon green shirt. Tailwind resupplied, rice crispy bar eaten. And I’m off again!
Pirates Cove is without a doubt one of the most beautiful trails in the Headlands, but it is also one of the most technical. Rocks, slippery stairs, steep downhill, the possibility of falling off a cliff into the ocean… but that view! It was at the next aid station, Muir Beach, where I discovered the magic rocket fuel that is Coca Cola. Oh. My. God. I flew out of there and up Heather Cutoff, which was essentially a very long river crossing. Coastal View always kicks my ass, but I know Cardiac is on the other side (more Coke!!!) and then a lovely little downhill to Pantoll and then my favorite trail in the world: Coastal. More course changes dumped us out on the road about 2 miles before the McKennan aid station. My knees started aching almost instantly. Get me back on that beautiful dirt! Aid station turn around, more Coke!!!, more road. My legs felt really flat on that section so I was super happy to be back on Coastal. I flew down to Matt Davis, which was a tough section. It’s a steep downhill with many wooden stairs and technical parts. I was able to stay upright, but the knees did not appreciate all those stairs.
I finally arrived at Stinson Beach where I see Jack and Pon, ready to pace me. Sally McCrae was also at the aid station, and I was way more excited than I should have been about pulling ahead of her. I feel like a jerk about it now, but when you pass a pro, someone you admire, it’s a nice little boost to the ego. I peeled off my sopping wet Pure Grits and changed into my Fresh Foams. It felt like I was running on clouds, until I splashed through the first mud puddle and they filled up with water. The course was rerouted up Steep Ravine, which is just So. Hard. This was the only point in the race where I really started to feel bad. Thank goodness Pon was there. He reminded me to take in calories and fluid, which I did, and that took care of the bonk-y, lightheaded, I-might-vomit feeling I was having. Finally made it back to Cardiac. More Coke!!!! My drop bag was nowhere to be found, and apparently nobody had any Body Glide, so I just had to deal with the gaping wound that was forming under my sports bra.
The next section, down Coastal View and the Heather Cutoff switchbacks, was my favorite part of the race. Splashing through the mud and rivers while bombing downhill made me feel like a little kid. It reminded me why I love running. I must have been beaming like a maniac. Muir Beach aid station. Coke!!!!!!! And then the hill I had been dreading. The climb out of Muir Beach wasn’t as muddy as I had anticipated, but it’s not like I could have run it anyway thanks to an average grade of 11%. Next came an uneventful, quiet section on Miwok. For a while I didn’t see any other 50 mile runners and did a pretty good job convincing myself I had taken a wrong turn, despite all the orange course markers everywhere. I finally saw another person with an orange bib and reassured myself that I wasn’t miles off track. I got a little bored over here and tried to pull out my iPod to listen to my masterfully crafted playlist (lots of T.Swift and Drake, if you must know) but my headphones were all tangled, and I just couldn’t be bothered. Back in the vest with them. I began singing to myself instead, and the song that popped into my head was “Flawless.” Yeah, I don’t know. I woke up like this!
Last aid station at Tennessee Valley, mile 46. Jack was there for a Tailwind refill and some words of encouragement about Marincello (“You OWN this hill!”). I danced out of the aid station and up the hill I had run up so many times in training. I had this glorious vision of flying up the hill with a second wind, passing people left and right. But I walked. A lot. Should have had more Coke. 1.5 miles later I’m at the top going through the mud pit of Alta for the third time. It was all downhill from here. The Rodeo Valley trail is a fairly gentle 2.5 mile descent into the valley. Great way to end a run, but this was the only point in the race where I started to hurt physically. My feet were throbbing. To the point where I almost thought I was doing damage. I had to pull back and couldn’t take the downhill as hard as I wanted, but once the trail leveled out I was able to pick up speed again.
My watch ticked off 50 miles. FIFTY MILES. Time: 8 hours and 55 minutes. Bam, goal achieved. Then some girl with a flag yells out “just one more mile!” Wait, what? It was actually another 1.5 miles to the finish, but who’s counting? I crossed Bunker Road and head up the last tiny hill that would not even feel like a hill on a normal day. I spotted Pon and Andy walking up the road, they cheer, and this gives me that last burst of energy I had been looking for. I fly around the corner and see Jen waiting at the fence, screaming my name. I cross the finish line in 9:05 and tear up. I just ran 50 miles. I felt like I could do anything at that moment.
This was one of those races where everything went perfect. No injuries, no stomach troubles, great weather, the best support team. The running gods were looking out for me that day. This race rivals Boston ‘14 as my favorite race experience ever. And I get it now, why people are crazy enough to run 50 or 100 miles. It’s the community, the other runners who inspire and encourage, all the little “great job”s and “you got this” muttered to each other along the way. You don’t find that in road races. In a marathon you run your heart out and lay it all on the line, but it’s a solo trip. After this race, after running for 9 hours, I felt like a different person. I had gone through a journey and come out the other side with a thousand new friends, feeling stronger, more confident, more in love than ever with running. And I can’t wait to do it all again.
20th female overall
4th in age group