A humbling distance: Headlands 50K race report

Photo by Richard Bolt

Photo by Richard Bolt

I feel like I’ve got marathoning down. I know how to train for it, pace myself, and fuel properly. And barring any weather disasters, I can usually come pretty close to the goal I set for myself. Ultras, as I’m quickly learning, are a whole other beast. The 50K is a humbling distance. Just five miles longer than a marathon, but with that five miles comes the unexpected. So many things can go wrong out on those trails that it’s hard to prepare for all worst case scenarios.

I chose the Tamalpa Headlands 50K as my first attempt at that distance. It’s in my backyard, making travel logistics a non-issue. And more importantly, I could train on the course. Looking at past year’s winning times, I felt I had a pretty good shot at placing in this one. And then I realized it was the USATF 50K National Championships and there was some big prize money on the line. Okay so the field would probably be stacked and top 10 would be cool, but I tried to set my expectations low so I wouldn’t be disappointed come race day.

I trained hard. Really hard. I put in some big mileage and did lots of strength training. I performed well in my tune-up races, surprising myself with how easily the speed came. I felt ready for this race. But I was nervous. How would I stack up against these elite girls with big name sponsors? I was afraid I’d be totally out of my league. I spent the week leading up to the race doubting myself and coming up with Plan Bs (“if this doesn’t go well maybe I can hop into X race instead…”). Then I stumbled across this blog post from the CEO of Oiselle, urging women to run like there is NO plan B. The letter was geared towards post-collegiate women, but it was just what I needed to hear. If I gave myself an out, I would probably take it. So I went into this race with no backup plan. I would run my heart out and see what happened.

IMG_0950It was one of those perfect running weather mornings. The fog was thick, but it wasn’t too cold. I was nervous and excited, ready to get this thing started. The elites blew out of the gate at a blistering pace. The first two miles were the flattest of the race, heading from Santos Meadow to Muir Beach before starting the big climbs. I tried to stay relaxed. I knew what was ahead and it wasn’t easy. My goal was to make it to mile 17 feeling good, ready to start racing up the Dipsea from Muir Woods.

The climb out of Muir Beach on Coastal, Pirates Cove, and even Wolf Ridge felt easier than they ever had on my training runs. I hiked when I knew I should, chatted with some friendly faces, and tried to keep my effort level on the lower side. I felt good! Coming into Rodeo Beach was a little tricky due to the fog. It was so thick and visibility was so low that I almost missed a turn. Luckily I could see the ghostly shape of another runner ahead and followed him, eventually seeing some pink ribbons assuring me I was going the right way. I cruised into the first aid station, 8 miles into the race, and saw Jack waiting for me in his neon green shirt. I swapped bottles with him on the run, and kept going onto the Miwok climb.

I was still feeling good and passed a couple girls on the 1.5 mile climb up Miwok. I was tired at the top but pushed on, knowing I had a nice, long descent into Tennessee Valley to recover on. The Roctane in my water bottle had been going down pretty easy, but I wasn’t taking in enough. After 11 miles I had only taken in two GUs. They weren’t sitting well, causing my stomach to cramp after each one. I had flashbacks to Boston and did not want to repeat that scenario so I kept forcing in the liquid calories. There was a big cheering section at the TV aid station. I grabbed some Coke and topped off my water bottle. Someone told me I was fourth female by their count, and I immediately disregarded their count as way off, thinking for sure I was at least 10 women back.

IMG_0961The course crossed through the parking lot and headed up Miwok. This section always kicked my butt in training but the Coke and the thought that I may actually be in fourth gave me a nice boost. I powered up the steep climb, focusing on getting to Miwok Cutoff where Pon was volunteering as a course marshall. He was waiting in his bright orange jacket, bundled up against the heavy misting fog. “You’re in fourth!” he yelled, and told me the lead ladies were a good 15 minutes ahead. No way I’d be catching them, but if I could hold onto fourth place… Wow!

The worst was yet to come, so I tried to conserve some energy on Miwok. My legs were tired. I walked some of the gentler hills that I could usually run. The winding downhill on Miwok Shortcut to Redwood Creek is one of my favorites, and I was by myself almost the whole time. At the bottom of the hill the course crosses the road onto Deer Park Fireroad. I was trying to psych myself up. This was going to be hard. My goal was to get to this point feeling good, but that is not how things played out. I was gassed. Maybe I didn’t take in enough fuel. So I started drinking more, tried another GU, more stomach cramping, more drinking. I hiked a lot. Some girl came out of nowhere, flying up the trail and put me into fifth. I was feeling shitty enough that I didn’t really care. It was about survival. Just make it to Cardiac where Pon would be waiting. I started getting dizzy and nauseous, all I wanted to do was sit. This was the worst I had ever felt during a race. I began questioning many of my life choices. Why couldn’t I just be a normal person who enjoys casual half marathons?? 

Coming into Cardiac was a huge relief. I felt awful and wanted to stop, but Pon wouldn’t let me. Two cups of Coke went down the hatch as Pon walked me to Old Mine trail. “Just keep moving. Whatever you do, don’t stop.” His ultra experience was so valuable. “Once you sit, the body decides it’s over.” Okay body, just move. I still felt dizzy, but actually felt worse when I walked. If only my legs weren’t so full of cement! Crossing through Pantoll onto Matt Davis was unpleasant. This is one of my favorite trails, weaving through the trees on that beautiful singletrack. But I was walking where I’ve run a hundred times before. What was wrong with me?

And then I puked. Three times.

I remember thinking one time that if I ever puked during a race, it would be over. There’s no way I could continue after that! But you know what? I felt so much better. I rinsed my mouth out and laughed at the ridiculousness of it all. I felt slightly better navigating my way down the technical trail. I took the stairs slow because my feet were barely lifting off the ground and the last thing I needed was to end up on my ass. It was a slog. I tried to drink a lot on Matt Davis, replacing what I had projectile vomited out, but my stomach just got sloshy and I felt nauseous again. I finally made it to the Stinson Beach aid station to see Jack waiting for me again. I didn’t expect him there so it was a nice surprise. My friend’s boyfriend, who I’ve only met a few times, was also volunteering at the aid station. He came up to me asking me what I needed, but in my delirious state I heard, “What’s your name?” “I’m Angela,” I replied. “I know who you are! What do you NEED?” Oh, right. Umm, Coke please!

There's no place I'd rather be.

There’s no place I’d rather be.

Jack could tell I was hurting and did his best to pep me up, reminding me that there’s no place I’d rather be. Except there were many places I’d rather be at that moment. Like my bed. He walked with me to the Dipsea trail head. “Doesn’t she look great?!” he asked the volunteer. “She looks fucking great!!” he said, answering his own question. I laughed. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard Jack swear. He sent me off with a smile on my face while I kept muttering “there’s no place I’d rather be.”

Just one more hill to go. One more long, grinding, ass kicking hill. I walked many sections I could usually run. Before I started the climb up Steep Ravine I saw a woman back in the distance. I knew she was going to pass me. And again I didn’t really care. I was back in survival mode. I convinced myself that sixth place was good enough. I could be happy with that. The push up Steep Ravine was really, really hard. I was still feeling a little pukey so I resorted to swishing the Roctane in my mouth and spitting it out. I knew if I took in any more liquid it would all come out again. There was a huge group of young kids out hiking on Steep Ravine, and I ran into them as they were all coming down the very steep, slick stone stairs. It made things slow down, but I was perfectly fine with that. Give me any excuse to stop and rest for a second and I’d take it. At some point the woman passed me and gained a pretty good lead. She was moving really well and I didn’t think I’d see her again.

Finally reaching the top of Steep Ravine, a weight lifted off my shoulders. Holy shit I’m almost done! Literally all downhill from here. I felt like someone lit a fire under my ass. I ran to Cardiac to see Pon one last time, grabbed Coke, and switched out bottles again. “She’s just 1 minute ahead, get moving!” That’s all I needed to hear. Out of nowhere I starting dropping 6:30 mile pace. Here was that second wind I was looking for. I kept the woman and her pacer in sight and slowly started to gain on them. If I didn’t catch them before Heather Cutoff I knew I would have to settle for sixth place. I ran as hard as I could, ready to fight for this. I passed her about a half mile before Heather Cutoff, and I heard her pacer say “Come on, let’s pick it up!”

There’s nothing like running scared. I kept picturing Molly Huddle’s finish line loss, and reminded myself that I must run THROUGH the finish. Just hold on, move a little faster. I kept glancing back up the Heather Cutoff switchbacks, looking for her right behind me. That 1.3 miles downhill was the longest part of the race. I could hear the announcer and the cheers. I could see the finish line. It was so close. But I couldn’t slow down, not yet. The bottom of the switchbacks led into a sprint through the meadow to the finish line.

I was fifth female. At the National Championships! Unbelievable. Jack was there to greet me with a big sweaty hug. I was so happy and exhausted, wanting nothing more than to lay down in the grass. So I did.

IMG_1010

This race was harder than the 50 miler, harder than bonking in the hurricane of Boston this year. Feeling that awful during a race sucks really bad. But knowing you have the grit to keep going is powerful. A lot of fast women dropped at Cardiac. Sure, I wanted to stop and rest in a bad way, but the thought of quitting never entered my mind. I never gave myself the option. So I had to finish. I knew it would hurt but we don’t race because it will be easy.

Top women!

Top women!

These things are a team effort. I couldn’t do it without the support from my partner, Pon, who supplies constant encouragement and wisdom, and puts up with my antics. Jack is the most enthusiastic friend and crew a girl could ask for. Seeing his smiling face brings a smile to mine. My coach, Emily Harrison (who took second!!), prepared me so well for this one. And the volunteers make this thing happen. Without them there would be no race. Thank you all so much!

IMG_5726Tamalpa Headlands 50K by the numbers:
Strava data
Official time- 5:12:24
5th Female, 46th overall
Fuel: GU Roctane and Coca Cola
Shoes: Nike Terra Kiger 2
Handheld: Nathan Speeddraw Plus Insulated      

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