Saturday, April 30, 2011

Berry Creek Falls 50K

It was a reason to go there — Big Basin Redwoods State Park. It's California's oldest state park, established in 1902 and now teeming with coastal redwoods, old-growth conifers, chaparral and oak trees that have been largely left alone for more than a century. It's less than 30 miles from our house on a narrow, winding road, but through the occasional openings along the thickly forested ridgeline, all we could see were green mountains and trees — no buildings, no roads, no logging scars. "Might as well be in Montana," I said, just before we caught a glimpse of the Pacific, deep blue and sparkling in the morning sun.

After a month of recovering his Achilles inflammation, Beat got a go-ahead from his doctor on Friday to "tread slowly" toward running again. I had already expressed interest in running a 50K at a mellow pace as I start to increase my own running mileage. Saturday just happened to be the Berry Creek Falls 50K. We both signed up less than 24 hours before the race start. I used it as an excuse to dress up like a complete trail-running geek, with a GPS watch, Nathan hydration pack and ridiculous-looking but "hurty-foot"- preventing Hoka One One shoes. As the perfect finishing touch to my costume, I recently acquired a hot pink running skirt. Take note — I have never been a girly girl. I was the kind of kid who tried to get away with wearing jeans to church and once did wear jeans to a formal high school dance. I thought it would be fittingly ironic to grow into the kind of adult who wore pink skirts on 31-mile trail runs. Plus, it went so well with my purple shoes.

It was simply an awe-inspiring day; 75 degrees, sunny and not a particle in the sky. When the views did open up we could see clearly across many miles of mountains and ocean. Deep inside the forest, the water ran clear and needles and leaves took on a blazing green hue, sprinkled with flecks of sunlight. The race was small — a few dozen people for the shorter distances, and only seven for the 50K. I was the only woman, which meant I automatically won by default. Or, I remembered, I would still have to finish the race first.

I felt strong. Beat was moving conservatively to be kind to his Achilles. He agreed to drop at the first sign of pain, and I was torn about whether to really try to push my pace or hold back and run with Beat. The course quickly proved to be quite difficult, with incessant steep climbs and descents on root-clogged singletrack. It felt good to run hard up the hills, but I couldn't quite master the footing on the descents. After a few miles, it became apparent that my most comfortable pace essentially matched Beat's, so we ran and hiked together.

The course was hard — a 15K and 10K loop each completed twice, each almost entirely on singletrack (with the exception of about 2.5 miles of steep fireroad on the second loop), and each with 1,500 to 2,000 feet of elevation change apiece. I emphasize the word "change" over "gain" since the descents were often tougher for me than the climbs. It was still a lot of climbing, and I soon started to feel the 75-degree "heat."

In a good indication of overall fitness, I felt strong and had no foot or leg issues for the duration of the race. Beat and I moved steady at our conservative pace, but it was by no means easy. I think we were both holding back more than we wanted to, on some levels, but we were also enjoying the scenery and relishing a long day out in the Big Basin Redwoods. I've spent this past week stressing over my book project, and this long run provided much of what I needed to balance out my mindset. Many times during the run, I'd feel a wash of peace or euphoria and think, even believe, that "this is all I need to be happy." As always, the feeling fades as soon as the run is over, but a good run — or bike ride — really is a beautiful state of bliss where those feelings are emphatically — if temporarily — true. I like it when a run goes long.

I made one tactical error when I arrived at the 25-mile aid station about three minutes before Beat and lost self control on the delicious spread of race snacks. As a cyclist I have a "feast or famine" style of fuel intake, but I am learning during running I have to take my calories in smaller, more frequent doses. I made the mistake of eating three brownies and spent the final 10K wracked with stomach cramps. Although his Achilles wasn't bothering him, Beat was feeling fairly rough too — it has, after all, been nearly a month since he's done any significant running. We mostly hobbled through the last six miles, and it took us nearly two hours to wrap them up.

I'm still pleased with how it went, even if it did take seven hours and 50 minutes. My GPS registered 32 miles and 7,900 feet of elevation change. The elevation reading may be too high by 1,000 feet or so due to thick tree cover, but the ruggedness of the course definitely added another layer of difficulty. It was certainly my most physically difficult 50K yet, of the four I've participated in. And yes, I did win. Since I signed up so late for the race and was the only woman, they didn't have a mug made up, but the friendly race director Wendell promised he'd send one my way.

Really, it was the ideal day out. Races are fun because you meet new people and challenge your limits in ways you likely otherwise wouldn't. But in the end it was just a fun eight-hour romp through the park, with soup and good conversation at the end.