Monday, December 20, 2010

Rodeo Beach 50K

I wasn't a runner.

My first foot race was part of a spring triathlon called the Homer Sea to Ski, in 2006. I put in a just-shy-of-30-minutes 5K, crushed the mountain bike climb and then proceeded to stagger around on cross-country-skis for a 45-minute 5K ski. My next race was the Veterans Day 8K in 2007, when I came in at 43:26 after a 7-year-old boy breezed by me in the final mile. If I am honest with myself, I really didn't run any of the 4 miles of the Mount Roberts Tram Run in 2008 or 2009. I knew I liked hiking but had more than one hiking companion tell me I "walk kind of funny." I knew I was strong on climbs but clumsy everywhere else. As I stumbled my way down Thunder Mountain in Juneau earlier this year, one friend finally told me, only half jokingly, that "you know, some people just aren't good on their feet. Maybe you should stick to wheels."

I wasn't a runner, but I don't like to be told what I can and can't do.

This spring, during my short-lived tenure in Anchorage, I decided to aspire to be a mountain runner. I trained briefly, maxing out my heart rate up 40-degree slopes and slumping back down them, physically spent after a mile. In Montana I met runners who helped me realize that I should aim where my strengths lie — endurance. After my big summer bike race (TransRockies), I began to dabble in run base building. Very soon after my training began, I kicked a rock into my foot and had to stay off it for two weeks. Then came the ill-advised (but extremely well-motivated) 50-mile pacing effort at the Bear 100, which I finished with something similar to plantar faciitis. After a few more weeks of no running, I completed another bike race (25 Hours of Frog Hollow) and during my first training run back, sprained my ankle. Different variations of "Hurty Foot" continued to crop up until about three weeks ago, when I became painfully aware that I was going to have to complete the December 18 50K I had signed up for as a still-almost-complete non-runner. I got some advice and coaching from Beat, did a few training runs in the snow and Seattle rain, and hoped for the best.

The Rodeo Beach 50K is a trail run in the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco. It was to be my first ultra-marathon — and, who am I kidding, my first foot race over 8 kilometers long. My goal was run it at my endurance pace, which is what I'd consider my "hold forever" pace, and try to finish under the nine-hour cutoff without contracting Hurty Foot yet again. It was a bold goal, and the conditions did not cut me any slack. Thick fog and light rain greeted us at the race start. The forecast called for temperatures in the low 50s and heavy rain — tough love for California. Only 57 people showed up to run the 50K, quite a few less than had originally signed up for the race. Of course the only people who would show up to race on a cold, rainy day in December where all "real runners" — thin and tan Californians with sinewy legs and tiny hydration packs. I felt the person holding the proverbial knife at a gun fight, waiting to be laughed at. But then again, racing wouldn't be nearly as fun for me if I wasn't always in completely over my head.

I got tangled up in the mid-pack and went out too hard at the beginning. The course climbs 1,000 feet in the first three kilometers, so the pack's fast-hike uphill felt like the perfect pace for me. Beat, having decided to stick with me rather than run his own race, followed behind and warned me about bonking after I announced my heart rate had bounced to 186. But I felt great. Even though I know I can't sustain that kind of heart rate all that long, I do know I could climb and climb and climb almost indefinitely if ever given the opportunity. Of course, that doesn't mean I can run.

And, inevitably, the downhills came with a vengeance. I handled the first couple OK and even put in an eight-minute mile at one point, but the mud became deeper and more slippery, and my confidence began to erode alongside the deteriorating conditions. I started to tense up and slowed to a walk, but the tension wouldn't let up. On the big descent into Tennessee Valley, I was gripped by a sudden, sharp cramp in my right side. It wasn't a side-stitch, it was more akin to a stress cramp, a single abdominal muscle below my ribs that tightened with such strain that I could scarcely breathe.

I tried a lot of different things. I took salt tablets and drank more water. I ate some gummy snacks. Beat theorized it cropped up because I went out too hard, but the cramp didn't seem at all effected by my breathing. In fact, the lower my heart rate, the worse it felt, as long as I kept running. Pretty soon I was walking a good portion of the downhills, or gingerly jogging at a slower rate of speed than my climbs. If I tried to run, the sharp pain would rip into my side like a large knife.

Meanwhile, fog masked Headlands, obstructing the views and casting an eerie tint over the lush green ground cover and occasional yellow flowers. I couldn't help but be a little frustrated. I knew I felt strong and energetic otherwise, but that cramp was really irking me, because I couldn't get at it to rub it away with my hands, and it wouldn't ever completely leave me alone. It lingered as low-level pain on the hard climbs, and became somewhat debilitating pain on the descents. Beat tried to help me by rubbing my side and reasoning through it — after all, it was just a cramp, not an injury. If I could push through that pain, maybe I stood a chance of coming out the other side. I knew he was probably right, but I struggled, because it constricted my breathing so much when it flared up that I felt like I wasn't getting any air. I also still don't feel much confidence on my feet, so I had the added stress of finding the right footing on top of the cramp that was probably caused by stress. Other runners started passing us. They made comments about the steep climbs. "Are you kidding?" I said. "The climbing is the easy part."

During the second loop into Tennessee Valley, I had finally had it. "Screw this cramp!" I snarled under my breath and increased my stride down the muddy trail. Beat followed close behind and shouted a few encouraging words as I wrestled through the pain, with inhibitions faded just enough to allow myself to gasp and gulp and groan like a dying animal. I can't say the cramp exactly went away, but I made enough noise that Beat insisted I take a few Advil pills at the aid station at the bottom of the hill. We started up the last long climb and low-level dull pain began to dissolve. My energy spiked again and I could feel a new resolve seeping into my admittedly sore legs. Rain fell harder and I finally began to come out of my funk. Twenty-six miles in, already an official marathon even without the steep climbs and mud and narrow trails, and I was finally starting to feel like a runner.

The last five miles were a breeze, literally. I realize there are ups and downs in any endurance effort, and many ups and downs in truly long one, but I felt like I had surmounted a major hump — the "sophomore slump" that creeps into many of my larger efforts, like the fourth lap of a 24-hour race. I got through it and finally felt like I could go forever, at least in theory. I looked at my watch and did a bit of math, and realized that we actually stood a chance of finishing in less than 7 hours. I increased my speed to comfortable 10-minute miles and coasted into the finish in 6 hours, 58 minutes, feeling strong and wondering how possible it would be for me to do another 50K right there.

Which is how I actually like to finish endurance events. I like to find that stride; I don't necessarily like to leave it all out on the trail. But I do appreciate challenges and the battle to overcome them. In that way, the Rodeo Beach 50K was the perfect first ultramarathon, and despite the strange cramping issue, it went considerably better than I thought it would. I'm still not really a runner, but I can't wait to tackle the next one with actual experience in my arsenal.

Garmin stats here.
Race results here.