The final race of my first season of ultra distance running was intense, challenging and competitive alongside some of the best ultra runners in the country and the world surrounding me in the elite wave. It was sure to test me to the brink of my limits. I was feeling a bit tentative regarding the outcome of this race as 5 weeks prior I had run a successful 30 miles of Mountain Masochist in the Blue Ridge Mountains in VA that unfortunately resulted in a popped right hip flexor as I ascended the final leg of Buck Mountain and a DNF (dropout). This incident forced cautious and conservative training leading up to San Francisco. The rest is history, so let me explain briefly on my accounts of the race (and research project) in the beautiful Marin Headlands just north of San Francisco!
The morning started off with an early rise and a carefully calculated breakfast. Calculated is the word I will use this time because the consumption of foods was a bit more detailed and specific, as I was the subject in a scientific case study in hopes of publishing a report on my nutrient analysis (based on ACSM guidelines for endurance athletes) for this 50 mile ultra race. I was collaborating with my former sports nutrition professor at Columbia, Dr. Karen Dolins and Dr. Patrick Davitt at Mercy College in Westchester NY. Each morsel of food was calculated and recorded one day prior, during and after the race. For breakfast, I consumed 2 g/kg of body weight simple carbohydrate 2 hours before the race (pictured below). In addition, I recorded my Urine Specific Gravity to determine my hydration status, and assembled my Polar V800 GPS watch, equipped with the Polar heart rate monitor strapped around my chest and the Polar foot pod laced to my shoe (thanks to Patrick and his new, state of the art exercise physiology labs Mercy College) . After that, I met with Karen, readied my race equipment and drove 10 minutes south to the headlands and the start camp, feeling the excitement and awaiting the “storm” that was about to ensue.
Upon arriving, I found the med tent with Karen and got my pre race weight recorded. This number would eventually be compared to a post race weight to determine liquid status over the course of the day. 20 minutes later, it was time to roll, as the elite wave was called over. I lined up next to Jake Reed from VA and an Adidas Ultra athlete, Brian Tinder. The gun went off, and we began on this beautiful moonlit and starlit morning.
|Modified Course Map|
|Breakfast - Race Morning|
|The Start Line|
From the get go, I knew this was going to be intense and FAST. Since the mud and rains on the west coast had forced TNF to redirect part of the race course 3 times prior to the start, the first 11ish miles were made up of two largish loops, approximately 5.5 miles each. These first two loops set the stage for the rest of the race, as half of the loop consisted of very intense ascents on non technical fire road, and the other half was a descent on the same road, but a tad bit rockier. These NYC legs were going to be challenged like crazy, as there was a total of 10000 ft of ascent and 10000 ft of descent in the 50 miles that were to come. It was going to be a roller coaster along the bay area!
In this first section of the course, I ran guided by both the light from my headlamp and the natural moonlight spewing down upon the dark ocean highlands. The sea mist and dew blanketed the air and filled my lungs as I galloped with the athletes up very fast uphills and even faster downhills, which set the pace. I stuck next to TNF athlete Rob Krar, as I was aware that he liked to run conservatively in the beginning of races. However, I could not predict what would happen next. I had unfortunately already rolled my left ankle, as is the norm for me, which I almost expected but was not happy about. I was disappointed not just because of the shooting pain but also because of the harsh reminiscence of previous occurrences in Mountain Masochist which led to the DNF and hip flexor issues. Bummer!
As we descended towards “Bobcat” for the second time to journey out to “Tennessee Valley” stables, I made sure to glance back towards the racers in the distance and witnessed a beautiful ribbon of light from the hundreds of headlamps encircling the large rocky domes on which we were running, a sight in which I won’t soon forget. Arriving at “Bobcat” was a panicked madhouse, as the athletes poured in, viciously yelling and shoving and attempting to grab nutrition and hydration while holding their positions in the race before running onwards. It was uber competitive, and very exciting!
CLIMBING to CARDIAC
The next section turned a sharp left, upwards and then downwards. At this point, I was still maintaining a good stride, positioned in the top 15-20, but my flexor ALREADY was beginning to feel tender as it did in Virginia. We continued over a footbridge and up, under a still glowing moonlight that illuminated my shadow on the rock wall beside me. As we began to descend again, I decided to take my head lamp off of my head and hold it like a flashlight in my hands as the fog was densely enveloping everything and everyone so that I could only see a couple feet in front of me. I could see the rocky terrain better this way. I made sure to glance up and look around to the Pacific Ocean through the curtain of fog forming a vast sheet of white right before our eyes. After the fog subsided, white clouds hung around the tips of the headlands like crowns, and the sight was out of this world. As I got to the “Tennessee Valley” aid station, Timothy Olsen darted past me on the downhill.
|Fighting through the pain!|
The descent to “Muir Beach” aid station, taking me down the slick stairs and rocky roads, happened simultaneously with the setting of the moon above us. As we rounded the corner over the road and across the grassy field towards the switchbacks that wound up the next “mountain” on our way up to “Cardiac” aid, the sun was now up. This section was the first major test for my hip flexor, as I was currently in good position, around 20th place or so, and feeling pretty good. However, I had about 1500 ft of climbing within the next few miles. Halfway up the switchbacks, my right hip flexor was screaming at me to stop as shooting pains were going through my leg just like in VA because of both the climbs and the pivoting around corners. I knew that I would potentially have to change my mentality during this race. From that moment, I decided to just grind it out and get through the race in a cautious way so as to avoid any more serious injuries. I finally reached the top at “Cardiac” and saw Karen there waiting for me to collect data and hand off some calories. I sat there for a few minutes deciding whether I should drop again, and decided that doing that would be ridiculous. I was ready to see what I was made of and get through this challenge. I realized that fighting through adversity in a race, as well as in life, is very satisfying and teaches you how far you can push yourself. You begin to push your limits. As Jake Reed came through “Cardiac,” he asked what was wrong, I told him, and he said just keep going. And I thought, time to tough it out. Onwards to the turnaround at “Mckennan Gulch!”
MCKENNAN GULCH, STINSON BEACH and CARDIAC #2
The next section was the first that wound through the forests and along the Coastal Trail. It was also the section where my hip flexor became numb, and I was able to run without thinking too much about it. As I continued to grind the ascent along the ridges parallel to the Pacific Ocean, I passed an old overturned car wreck that was left as a relic on the side of the trail, which was a poignant reminder that things could be worse! Some of the leaders came bounding from the opposite direction on this single track section, so I dodged them as I made my way to the road. Upon landing on the road, I turned left and headed a mile up to the “McKennan Gulch” Aid station where I fueled up, mentally recording everything I consumed to be communicated to Karen who was not able to get to this checkpoint. Fueling was on point so far.
On the way back down the Coastal Trail, there was quite a bit more technical descent through some beautiful forests leading to the beach town of Stinson. These descents took me running over little rocky and root infested paths along waterfalls and lush, green ferns and large trees. As this section progressed, I knew I needed some salt and fast as my right calf continued to cramp and spasm along the downhill switchbacks in the forest. I would eventually consume 3 small potato halves dipped in salt. I finally made it to the “Stinson Beach” Aid as the sun began to crawl higher in the sky and the temperature rose. Quite a bit warmer than NYC!
Soon enough I was running along the waterfalls, large ferns and occasional redwoods on the soft path and over some wooden bridges. Unique to this section was a large wooden ladder that scaled the rocky waterfall ledge that had to be climbed. This was a creative change of pace in the latter part of the race. Upon climbing more trail and stair through the woods, I finally made it to “Cardiac” for the second time, and was ready for the mud fest that was about to begin on the way home at mile 36.
THE MUD FEST – Cardiac to the Finish
|Finish - 7 hr 58 min|
As soon as I departed, I instantly began to slosh and slide through the mudlands along the Coastal trails amidst the cool ocean breezes with some of the 50K runners coming right at me (since there were several races going on simultaneously). As I began to descend this trail I soon was slipping uncontrollably with each step, and this would continue all the way until I reached the end of the switchbacks coming down across the grassy field into the road and towards “Muir Beach.” I was beginning to grasp the fact that I was going to be climbing another 1000 ft. in the next 3 miles or so post “Muir Beach” on the way to “Tennessee Valley.” I decided to power hike up the next few large inclines through the soggy, muddy, slick wide trails until I reached the final aid station where there would be 2-3 miles of final descent to the finish line. By now my legs were trashed and I was ready to be done as I approached the 10000 ft marker for climbing on the day, and I began to power through the final miles. As I finished I knew this wasn't the best performance that I was going to have, but taking into consideration the circumstances and the heavy competition at the end of my first year of ultra running, I will take it! I had a blast!
Immediately after finishing, I walked back to the med tent to take the post race weight and post race ketone and urine specific gravity test to decipher how well my body had used carbohydrates for fuel and how hydrated I was. I look forward to hopefully being published in a sports nutrition science journal regarding this case study and look forward to racing for science again in the near future.
NUTRITION and TRAINING going forward
Since I will be taking it easy for the next month both physically and mentally, I will be adjusting my nutrition. Here is what I will do so that I stay healthy and fit:
When training for grueling running events such as this in San Francisco, focusing on simple carbohydrates (cereals, low starch fruits, granola bars, raisins/figs, energy gels, pasta, etc) was a key priority for me as this is easily burned for fuel. During the nutrient study that I participated in conjunction with the race, my 24 hour food log, as well as race day nutrition, can attest to this thinking.
However, now that I am taking about a month almost completely off of training and hard exercise, I am going to be focusing on eating foods that are higher in fiber and essential micro and macronutrients and that are closer to the raw, unprocessed form. Foods such as whole vegetables and fruits, raw tree nuts and peanuts, whole grains with olive oils and very occasional lean meats such as grilled chicken and fish will be on the menu. And I want to highly emphasize the vegetables and fruits, of which I will focus on consuming the most. Colorful, cooked slightly with delicious dips and healthy fats to entertain my taste buds. I will cook more as well. I know this will make my colleagues in the nutrition world very happy!
Training wise, I will simply need to climb more to strengthen this flexor and these legs. Living in NYC, it is hard to find places to consistently stress uphill training, but since I will be moving to Washington DC, I will still have trouble finding climbing! Awesome! Thankfully, I will be closer to the Blue Ridge Mountains and can train there much more. I will definitely be working the uphill, as well as finding new ways to more efficiently carry nutrition through the races without a pack on. I will also be working with Coach Scott Weber to both learn from his training and racing guidance and strategies, work on day to day training with him, and have someone to be accountable for throughout the journey as he helps to guide me. Since I have always had a coach throughout all my athletics, this is something that I enjoy.
Thanks to all the people who supported me throughout this 1st season: Dr. Karen Dolins, Dr. Patrick Davitt, Jeff Ball and supporting staff at The North Face who allowed the study to happen, Dr. Isobel Contento at Teachers College, Columbia University who funded it, and family and close friends who always stand behind me in all my pursuits!