On February 3, just a short time ago, I lined up at 5am with hundreds of other lost, shivering souls to take on the infamous Sean O’Brien 100k – a trail race that traverses the rugged Santa Monica mountains of Southern California. With over 13,000 ft of elevation over a mix of rocky singletrack and long fire roads, I knew it was going to be a tough first attempt at a race of this distance. Moreover, this year’s event was going to be especially competitive – as the SOB 100k is only one of five Golden Ticket races for a coveted Western States entry. At the start line, counting down the seconds before the horn blared, I did my best to remind myself to stay calm, enjoy the experience, and find some semblance of comfort in the knowledge that I’d put in a solid block of training to build up to this.
Everything after the start was a bit of a blur, with a few standout moments (both epically beautiful and epically catastrophic). I’ll do my best to recount:
- Miles 0 – 6: A steep uphill climb in the pitch black. For over an hour, my world was reduced to the tiny illuminated patch of trail lit by my headlamp. Then, an amazing moment shortly after cresting the top of the climb, when the sun also rose above the mountains and lit the entire world pink. The view was amazing, and I ran along in stunned silence, scarcely believing I was fortunate enough to be doing this. At this point, I was running around 12th place in the women’s field.
- Miles 7 – 17: A rocky singletrack rollercoaster along the Backbone trail. Lots of steep ups and downs, with lots of technical footwork. Another epic moment on a fun downhill section when Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ came over my playlist, and everything was perfect. I passed a couple of women, and was running around 10th place.
- Miles 18 – 22: Loooooong fire road downhill, from the mountains to the beach. Had fun settling into my stride, and enjoying ocean views the entire way. Continued to pass some people on the downhill, and tried to ignore the nagging thought in the back of my mind that I soon was going to have to come alllllllllll the way back up this mountain.
- Miles 23 – 31. OUCH. The uphill, back from the beach to the top of the mountain. This was up very steep singletrack that wound its way through Zuma Canyon. At this point of the day, it was mid-morning and the sun was starting to beat down. There were lots of cramping, dehydrated, overheated runners that I passed along the way.
- Mile 31: The catastrophic moment. Just after cresting the climb, I settled in for what I was (hoping) would be a nice downhill reprieve. I was feeling good, and again started passing people on the downhill. On one section of off-camber trail, I made a move to pass someone and hopped to the left side of the trail – and felt my left knee give a little. I tried to shrug it off, but in the back of my mind I knew that it didn’t feel right.
- Mile 31 – 40: Spent the next 10 miles trying to shake off the knee pain, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to run. The downhills were especially excruciating. By mile 38, I was reduced to walking. One by one, I counted all the people I had passed earlier pass me again. By mile 40, I noticed swelling in my left knee. I made the heartbreaking decision to drop.
- Mile 40 – 42: This was a struggle to make my way to the next aid station, where my family would be able to meet me. Upon arriving, I met with the medic who checked out my knee and informed me that unless I wanted to do long-term damage, I should go ahead and stop. My race was done.
While I ultimately failed to achieve my race goal, in many ways I consider this first 100k attempt a success. I felt great throughout – strong and steady on the climbs, and smooth on the downhills – testament to the training and long miles that built up to the race. The heat was another wild card, but this was something that Roger and I had prepared for: we packed a cooling towel, sun sleeves, and we had planned that I’d fill my cap with ice at every aid station. It worked: while the heat was getting the best of many people, I felt good throughout. Apart from my knee, if you had asked me at mile 42 if I could run the last 20 miles, the answer would have been an enthusiastic and whole-hearted YES.
With that said, injuries are a part of this beautiful, fun, and challenging sport. So is the need to make tough decisions with your long-term health in mind. While it was heartbreaking to drop from a race where I had been running in the top-10 for most of it, I also knew it was the right decision to make. Now, just a couple of short weeks after, I’m happy to report feeling well-recovered, and ready to tackle the next adventure.
One final note: Being able to do these events would be impossible without the amazing support of a crew and the volunteers who make these events happen. So first off, a HUGE THANKS to my amazing husband for his endless support and encouragement – from the time I told him I made the crazy decision to register, through to picking me up at mile 42, his support was unwavering. Thanks, too, to my dad and his wife who came out to cheer me on along the course! 8 hours is a looooong time to spectate and cheer – whew! – but their smiles were infectious and kept me going strong. Of course, a huge shoutout to the volunteers, who were also out there all day, attending to – and anticipating – all runners’ needs, even when we were unaware of them. You guys are amazing. Finally, a huge THANK YOU to the Alliance for International Reforestation – our sister organization – who Roger and I are representing this year in our races. We received a lot of interest about AIR on the race course, and really – being able to raise awareness of the incredible work this organization does – is the important thing. Thanks for reading.