I have no idea how March has already come and gone – it’s been a whirlwind 2019 so far with lots of work activity, an upcoming move and massive career shift, and of course, ultra season is in full swing!
All of this is also a long-winded way of saying that I am woefully late in posting my first race report of the season, from the Marin Ultra Challenge 50K, held on March 9 in the gorgeous and iconic Marin Headlands, just north of San Francisco.
The Marin Headlands is part of a larger system of protected land that comprise the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), which was established by Congress in 1972 with the progressive and forward-thinking aim of offering an urban population the opportunity to experience and enjoy diverse protected plant and animal life normally found only in larger national parks. (It is fairly normal, for instance, to see coyotes like the one featured above casually sauntering along the roadways in the headlands, uncaring of the passing traffic or excited pointing and exclamations of visitors. It is, after all, their territory). All-in-all, the headlands is a gorgeous area characterized by rolling foothills and mountains with sweeping vistas of San Francisco, the Bay, and the Pacific. Not surprisingly, its miles of undulating trails are also incredibly popular with trail runners and mountain bikers.
For runners, the trails are as tough as they are beautiful, all steep ups and downs, with virtually no flat sections.
Lining up at the start, thinking about all the steep terrain, I knew this was going to be a tough race.
They counted us down, and blew the horn to send us off.
It started to pour.
Not surprisingly, we started off with a climb – about 2 miles straight uphill. I started off alongside the inspiring rockstar Katie Arnold, a professional ultrarunner and author who won the competitive and tough Leadville 100 miler in Colorado last year.
We stayed together for only a little while before Katie took off – I didn’t see her the rest of the race.
From miles 2 -10-ish, I remember little except a series of up-up-ouch-up followed by steepfastdownhills. Because of the rain and cold, I wasn’t sweating that much, and so I opted to not stop at the first aid station, waiting until the next aid station at Tennessee Valley before grabbing a gel and some sports drink. From there, we got a bit of respite from the climbs as we headed to Muir Beach, before hitting another wall straight up at mile 14. Here, we did a quick out and back, before returning back to Muir Beach around mile 20.
At this point I made the mistake of taking a quick nature break at the aid station.
Apparently at this time 2 women passed me (unbeknownst to me at the time).
I spent less then 2 minutes at the aid station before heading back out – and up! – another steep climb. I was admittedly getting tired by this point – my hands and legs were numb, and I was feeling like I was on the verge of bonking (i.e., running completely out of energy). At this point, Ashley Hall – a badass runner from Reno, NV – caught up with me on the climb. We chatted for a bit, and it was nice to share some miles with a friendly face. Nevertheless, as the climbs continued, I could feel myself starting to fade. I waved her on.
From mile 24 on, it was just a slow grind, with me trying to gut it out as much as possible and maintain my position. There was one last, final climb before the finish that was the steepest of the day and just mean. Remarkably, I caught one woman who had passed me, and I continued on; when I got to the top, I saw that I was gaining on another woman! I let it out on the downhill mile into the finish, trying to make up as much ground as I could. I was closing on her, but simply ran out of room…
I ended up finishing 4th in 5:00:55, less than 20 seconds behind 3rd.
In spite of missing out on the podium, I could not be disappointed with the results: on what has been my hilliest 50K by far, I managed to PR by 20 minutes.
Plus, Roger was there with me, cheering me in, and even took me out to a massive, greasy diner breakfast at a local dive afterwards.
I looked at the project timelines laid out on my computer screen, and silently sweared.
It was just over a month until my next big race, the Kodiak 50 miler in Big Bear Lake, CA. The race would be on August 18, a Saturday – and, looking at my project timelines, just after a marathon (pun intended) round of back-to-back cross-country work travel. Specifically, I needed to be in Chicago from August 8 – 14 (yes, over the weekend), and then fly to NYC for work from August 14 – 17, and then fly from NYC to L.A. on Friday, August 17 – the day before the race.
Considering the schedule, I was wondering if I should just scrap the race; as every athlete and coach will tell you, flying cross-country the day before a big race – and after a round of long work days – is notan ideal strategy to optimize performance. Nevertheless, I had been looking forward to the race, my training had been going really well, I wanted to represent the Alliance for International Reforestation, and I knew in my heart that with the support of my superstar husband, Roger, and my awesome coach, that I could do it.
So I decided to do it. While I’ll write about the demands of juggling a high volume training schedule with a demanding career as a healthcare consultant elsewhere, suffice to say that the travel was intense, the work days long (often 16+ hours when on the road), the taper runs early (I was usually on the treadmill at 4am), and I missed not being able to go home for a couple of weekends in a row. To add to the mix, I’d also had minimal opportunities for altitude training – something that was definitely an X factor for the Kodiak 50 Miler – a race that started at 7,000 feet elevation – and went up from there.
All of this was on my mind when I flew in from NYC to L.A. the Friday before the race. Roger met me at the airport – after he himself had driven down from the Bay Area. After what was already a long leg of travel, we drove another 3 hours to Big Bear Lake, a small, beautiful town in the San Bernardino mountains in southern California.
After packet pickup and an early dinner, Roger and I headed to bed, to try to get as much rest as we could before the 4am start…
…which wasn’t much rest, as we had to be up at 2am to have breakfast, coffee, and get ready to head over to the start line.
It was a surprisingly brisk morning for summer in southern California. I was still tired from the travel and minimal sleep, but tried to focus at the start line on the race director’s instructions, which included calling out aid stations and water stops (I think he said the top of Sugarloaf Mountain?). Before I knew it, the countdown started and we were off!
The first ~7 miles took us on an out-and back route up a climb in the dark, to the timing mat at a turnaround point, and back down where we crossed the start line, before taking a sharp left onto the Pacific Crest Trail. I remember thinking that it seemed like we were going out a bit fast on that initial climb. As this was at altitude, with really no altitude training under my belt I wanted to focus on being conservative. I backed off my pace, and came into the first aid station at mile 7 a little over an hour into the race. Roger met me there, and said that I was the first woman through – which was a bit surprising. I tried not to make too much of it at that point; after all, this was a long race, and anything could have happened over the next ~43 miles.
The next 12 miles were rolling, with some ups and downs – but nothing too steep or challenging. I focused on maintaining a steady pace, and fueling with gels and sports drink. Around 6am, the sun started to come over the hills, and I enjoyed a gorgeous sunrise as the landscape began to change from muted blues and purples to bright pinks and yellows.
Through these miles, I also focused on being conservative with my pace, as one of the hardest parts of the race – the climb up Sugarloaf Mountain (yeah – that big bump you see in the course profile above) was coming up.
I met Roger again at the aid station just before Sugarloaf at mile 19, and he shared that I was still in the lead – although I had no idea by how much. I wanted to push on the climb, but also not blow up – as I was still less than halfway through the race.
The climb to the top was about 6.4 miles, with over 3,000 feet of elevation gain to top out just above 10,000 feet. In other words, it was steep. It was also very rocky. With some (read: A CRAP TON) of shale thrown in for fun. As the sun was rising higher, it was also starting to get hot – already close to 90 degrees by mid-morning.
Heading up the climb, the combination of the steep gradient, technical terrain, and altitude meant that many of the front runners were opting for a combination of slow running and power hiking. I was grateful for the chance to power hike, as it allowed me to appreciate the scenery and views just a bit more – which were stunning as we neared the summit.
About 2 miles from the summit, we passed a water drop – not an official aid station, per se, but a drop of over 100 gallons of water that was essentially self-serve. I didn’t know how much of a lead I had, and I thought I’d remembered hearing there was water at the top (?) so figured I’d refill there.
Once we finally neared the summit, I saw the frontrunners for the men’s field coming down, and cheered them on. As I got to the turnaround, however, I was dismayed – I was nearly out of water, but saw no water – I had misheard the directions at the start of the race, and missed the only water drop on the mountain nearly 2 miles back.
At this point, I was concerned – I knew being dehydrated this early in the race could be disastrous for race performance. I tried not to let this get the best of me and stay calm, but I knew I needed to get back down the mountain to the water drop as soon as possible.
This thought helped to spur my pace on down the mountain, but it wasn’t long before I again felt a mild sense of panic arise – as I saw two women wearing similar colored numbers not far behind me! about 10 minutes later, they both caught me, and I was shocked – I thought I’d had more of a lead?!
I made it down to the water drop, quickly refilled my bottles, and continued down to the aid station at the base of the mountain, where I again met Roger. I was so disheartened. “I think I lost the lead,” I lamented, out of breath.
Roger shook his head. “No,” he assured me. “No. You still have a solid lead. Those were the 50K runners – they started way after you, from a different point on course.”
I sighed in relief and nodded. But I also didn’t want to get too comfortable. This was a race, after all. I packed some extra gels and ice (it was near 100 degrees by that point), and left the aid station quickly to tackle the final 20 miles.
After Sugarloaf, the course was (wonderfully) flattish for the next 5 miles or so, until we turned and climbed about 4 miles up to Skyline, before making a long, near 6 mile descent on Radford Road to the valley below. At each aid station, I got tentative assessments on my lead – at one point it was 15 minutes, at another point 30 minutes. I just focused on staying steady.
By the time we reached the descent into the valley, it was high noon, and the sun was beating down on the exposed fireroad as we made our way down into the valley. This was probably the toughest part of the race, as our legs were already tired, the descent was long and steep, and I knew that the final climb of the day was going to be one of the toughest.
And it was. Tough. So tough. What took us 6 miles to descend would only take us 2 miles to go back up, meaning that it was steep. Extra steep – over 30% in some places. It was also exposed. And sandy. I had to laugh climbing up in some places – what a brutal trick to play on racers in the final miles!
On the way up, I ended up passing some of the men who had passed me earlier. The climb was getting the best of a lot of strong runners. I did my best to voice my encouragement to them, returning the cheers they had shared with me when I’d seen them earlier on the course.
At long last, I got to the top. The aid station volunteers welcomed me in – really, allthe volunteers were wonderful! – and after downing a can of Mountain Dew, I set off for the final few miles.
The run into town was a bit of a blur. All I remember thinking (or feeling, rather), as overly sentimental as it sounds, was gratitude. Gratitude for the opportunity to do this race. For feeling healthy. For my amazing husband. And for the great trail running community who comes together to celebrate and host amazing events like this, that allow us to appreciate our sport, each other, and enjoy and share our appreciation of nature and the great outdoors at the same time.
The announcer called me in as the 50 mile champ as I crossed the finish line. There was a huge crowd of people there, with Roger front and center. I of course gave him a huge, sweaty hug (he didn’t seem to mind). The full route is posted here (yes it ended up being slightly longer than 50 miles..!).
It was, all in all, an unforgettable experience for my first 50 miler. A huge thanks to the Race Director and organizers, and of course the volunteers and city of Big Bear Lake, for hosting such an amazing event. And huge thanks to my coach David Roche, who, like me, just laughed when I told him about my travel schedule and supported me through it all. Most of all, thanks to my amazing husband, Roger Montes, who is my hero and with whom I share all the best adventures. We both run for the Alliance for International Reforestation, and all our race performances are dedicated to them and the work they do to protect nature and the outdoors for the enjoyment and appreciation of all.