A few words can sum up my first ultramarathon experience - mistakes, pain, and hard lessons learned. Pretty much in that order.
The day dawned cold - the coldest yet this fall. I woke early in order to get something to eat early enough to allow proper digestion. I snuck around quietly as my wife and her co-worker, visiting from out of town, had fallen asleep on the couch out in the living room. They had to work on a project that required a midnight - 4am shift, so they would not be joining me for the race. I was bummed about that, but completely understood. I wouldn't want to go to a race if I had to work those hours either. After grabbing some breakfast and a little coffee, I hit the road to pick up my brother and head to the race. Only one problem so far, but a problem I ignored: my morning tinkle was pretty dark. Seems I didn't hydrate well enough the day/evening before. No problem, I thought to myself, I'll be alright. It just means I won't have to pull over every 20 minutes like I have had to on some of my longer training runs.
Mike (my bro) and I got to Huddart Park early - the park wasn't open yet but a line of others had already formed. We waited a few minutes until the gates opened then followed the line down to the parking area. After parking, we stayed in my truck to keep warm and started getting our stuff ready. We made a quick trip to the bathroom, did a little stretching, and then headed up to the start area. Within a few minutes we were off.
We started out at a pretty good pace, and soon enough were headed up the long climb to the first aid station. After about a half hour or so I asked Mike if he had had any water. I drank a little, but still wasn't even thinking much about hydration as an issue. The climb wasn't too hard, and we maintained a good, though comfortable pace. It was cold and it felt good to maintain the pace to keep the body temp up. I was sweating a fair amount pretty early on, a clue that I managed overlook.
Huddart Park, in San Mateo County, is a beautiful park. I had never been there before, but living in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I am familiar with the general look and feel - Redwood forest with tall trees and steep hillsides. Lots of little dry creek beds that can turn into raging torrents with a few good winter storms. Soft redwood duff underfoot makes the trails a real pleasure to run on. And the smell - there is nothing quite so pleasing as the earthy, rich, fecund smell of a Redwood forest.
We reached the first aid station (which was also the fourth), at the top of the first long climb, and blew right through it. We both had hydration packs, a little food, and Hammer Endurolytes electrolyte caps so no need to stop yet. On the way up, though, I had some odd feelings in the middle part of my abdomen, almost like a stitch, but across the entire mid section. I chalked it up to "clenching" the muscles, though thought it strange as I had never experienced this before. Again, another clue that I ignored, but turned out to be a precursor of things to come.
Between the first and second aid stations the trail flattened out mostly, with a few rolling sections. We maintained a pretty good pace and both felt good. The trail here ran just below Hwy. 35 - Skyline Blvd. - which runs along a ridge line between the San Francisco Bay area and the Pacific coast. This is another beautiful section of trail, mostly single track. The wind was a bit stronger here and at times really cut through. Good thing we were moving well, or else it would have been quite cold. Cloud cover had moved in up here, so sunlight, even if it could have penetrated the forest canopy, was non-existent.
We made the second aid station (which was also the third) in the top ten, and stopped to refill Mike's water bladder and get some food. We chatted with the volunteers for a few minutes, and a couple other runners passed through. No problem, we weren’t trying to hit any place goal, as this being our first ultramarathon we just wanted to enjoy ourselves and finish. Up to this point I had taken one electrolyte cap and had a little water, along with the food. I was feeling pretty good, though by now I was feeling a little something in a few areas in my legs. Areas I had never felt anything in before. Still, I didn't recognize these as warning signs.
The trail out of the second aid station was mostly downhill until the midpoint of the race, where there was a loop and then followed the same trail back to the second (now third) then fourth (initially the first) aid station. We were now in Wunderlich Park, and it has the same terrain as Huddart. It was here that I started to have issues that I would recognize as dehydration - an elevated heart rate on uphill sections that I shouldn't have struggled with. I had to slow down and walk. Still, I didn't drink enough water. I took an electrolyte cap, and had some water, but not enough. This would prove to be a big mistake that I would pay for big time later.
So we walked, and here and there ran. After a while, I told Mike to go ahead. He insisted on keeping together, and I appreciated that. But a little while later I insisted he go on ahead, as I was holding him back. I assured him I would be fine, and would be able to finish. Or, if I experienced a complete meltdown, would make the decision to drop. He went ahead.
It wasn't long before the trail started to flatten out again, and I was able to start a good shuffle/slow run. I ended up catching up to him at the next aid station as he stopped to get water and some food.
By this time I was having issues in my calves, thighs, neck, shoulders, mid-abdomen, and lower back. My lower back was quite painful, and upon reaching the third aid station I sat on the ground to stretch it some. Immediately my left calf cramped badly. Uh oh, not only was I dehydrated (I had only taken one leak so far, which is unheard of for me), my electrolytes were way off. I quickly got out an electrolyte capsule and took it, then got up, moved around, and had a couple pieces of potato with salt to help further remedy that situation. Unfortunately, I didn't hang around long and force myself to re-hydrate too.
After walking so much I was cold, and being in a fair amount of pain, I just wanted to get to the finish so I could get some warm clothes on and rest. The thought of dropping out had crossed my mind a few times, but I figured I could make it back faster if I continued on and finished. I told myself to just push through the pain and cold - you can do it!
Continuing on, my thoughts were pretty much focused on three things: pain, cold, and finish line. On the way to the final aid station I encountered a few other runners. As is typical of trail runners, we exchanged a few words of encouragement for each other. I love the trail/ultra running community for this. It is such a wonderful thing to know that others will support, encourage, and show genuine concern for you during a race.
I continued to alternate between walking (mostly) and shuffling – if it remotely resembled an uphill I was walking. I tried to drink water, and continued to take an electrolyte cap every so often. The water wasn't going down easy, as my stomach just wasn't feeling all that good and I didn't want to really push it and puke, as I felt that may exacerbate the dehydration issue. Another error in judgment.
I finally reached the last aid station and just pushed through. I did have to stop though, just after, to give myself a bit of a rest and try to stretch my back a little, which was still in a lot of pain.
The final stretch from the last aid station to the finish was mostly downhill, which under normal circumstances I would have blasted down. Not this time. Between my screaming back and my vastus medialis muscles (the muscles just above the knees on the front inside of the thigh), I just couldn't move faster than a shuffle at best, and was forced to walk a fair amount. Occasionally, I had to stop to rest. If I could have rolled myself down the rest of the way, I would have. Anything but walking/running seemed better at that point.
A few fellow runners stopped to check that I was alright and didn't need serious assistance – one even offered me his last vitamin “I” (Ibuprofen). I was again heartened by their courtesy and concern for a fellow runner. We all did a bit of yo-yo on the way down, as they were not in the best condition either, and we continually encouraged each other and checked in to make sure things were not deteriorating too much.
After what seemed an interminably long time, I finally heard the sounds of the assembled people at the finish line. I had made it. I crossed the finish to cheers, and fell to the ground happy to be done. I picked myself up as Mike came over, and we gave each hearty congratulations and a big hug. He had some struggles of his own, with his left knee giving him a fair amount of grief towards the end, but finished in 5:33:58! Incredible! I finished in 6:01:50.
We had done it - persevered through pain and other challenges to finish, and we were both happy and proud to have done so. It was a good day.
I quickly went down to my car to get some warm clothes, water and some Hammer Recoverite mix, to help with the recovery process (I have used this previously after long runs, and really feel it helps significantly with recovery). I hobbled back up to the finish area (of course, there had to be a little hill to climb from the parking area to the finish area!) to get a little food, though wasn’t very hungry. Mike and I talked with Sarah (of Pacific Coast Trail Runs) and a few other people for a little while, all of whom congratulated us on completing our first ultra. PCTR gives out a nice coaster for those who finish their first ultramarathon, so we picked those up along with the race t-shirts. I paid a little extra to get the Patagonia Capilene 1 race t-shirt, as they are really comfortable and make a great running shirt.
I learned some important lessons during this run. Some lessons that I obviously learned the hard, painful way. First of which was – I need to pay better attention to hydration. I thought I had a pretty good handle on how I need to hydrate, and have never experienced the issues I did during this race. The clues that I ignored were plain to see, but in my concern about stopping too often to pee, and overconfidence in my knowledge of my needs, I overlooked the other side of the issue - dehydration and the adverse effects that has on ones' body and performance. I also need to pay more attention to my electrolyte needs. This was my longest run ever, and while I have taken electrolyte capsules during many of my longer training runs (20 - 23 miles), I had never experienced cramping and didn't recognize many of the early symptoms.
I had hoped to finish in the low 5 hour range, and even thought that if I had a good day - maybe finish in under 5 hours. Obviously, the mistakes I made put those goals way out of reach. But I am wiser, and now have a much better understanding of what I need and how my body works. This knowledge will help me to be a better and smarter runner in the future - as long as I pay better attention and put into practice what I have learned (no guarantees there, but I can hope, can’t I???). I also learned that I can do the distance, and can push myself pretty far. Though I am no stranger to pushing myself, it has been some time since I had to deal with this level of adversity.
I feel I left a lot of time out on that course, and if I can take the knowledge gained through the pain and struggles of my first ultra into my next, I know I can improve.
My thanks and appreciation go out to: Sarah and Wendell of PCTR for all the work they did to put on this race - I had a great time even though I hurt like never before; the volunteers who offered encouragement and advice, and themselves persevered through wind and cold, always with a smile; and the many fellow runners who encouraged me, and offered assistance and showed concern for my well being. Thank you all for making this such a memorable experience.
Upon returning home, I expected to have to call my wife to come help me out of my truck and inside the house. But when I got home, my back wasn't sore, and I was able to get out of my car and my legs actually felt pretty good! By evening, most of the pain was gone, and only a little residual soreness was left - truly a sign that my problems were due to dehydration and an imbalance of electrolytes. And the next day (Sunday), I actually felt well enough that I could have gone for a run, if I hadn't put myself under a self-imposed moratorium on running for a few weeks in December to allow for recovery of some long-nagging issues.