A couple of months ago, when we started planning a spring break trip to California to visit some family and friends, I did what I usually do and stopped by Ultrasignup, looking for races in the area. This never really seems to work for me--I will rarely find a race that matches up with my travel plans--but to my surprise one popped up. The Canyon Meadow Trail Races, in Redwood Regional Park in Oakland, would be held the day after we arrived in San Francisco, a mere 30 miles from where we were staying the night before. Jodi took a bit of convincing; I had to make the argument that if I raced a 50K on the first day of our trip, I'd be comfortable taking the rest of the week off. Logistically there were some problems with cars and rides and such. But I was able to make it work and found myself at the start Sunday morning among a small ultra field mixed in with competitors running the 5-mile, half-marathon, 30K, and marathon options as well.
I'm not sure why it felt so important for me to run this race. Certainly in the grand scheme of things it didn't matter much. (I guess none of it does, really.) I hadn't been targeting the race at all; it was very much a last-minute idea, or as last-minute as I get with this sort of thing. I like running and racing in new places, which was part of it. The timing worked out well with my vacation, and I was able to rationalize taking a dietary break for the week afterwards. (It can be hard to stick with the diet on vacation.) But mostly I think I was just excited to be in a race that I had a chance to win. I've had what I consider a strong start to the year at Bandera and Caumsett, and a good six-month stretch reaching back to Water Gap. But I didn't go into any of those races thinking I had any chance at a victory. Sometimes it's just fun to try and run up at the front of a race, and I think I just really wanted that opportunity.
I knew going in, though, that I wasn't at my best. As successful as 2016 has been thus far, it's come with a bit of a price. Two high-level ultra efforts in eight weeks had taken their toll, particularly Caumsett, where the stress of pounding pavement at a high intensity for three and a half hours had left my legs trashed. Laura was running the day after Caumsett, but even ten days later I wasn't feeling right, and though my soreness was gone by the time we got to California, I reached the starting line still without having had a run since then with any pep in the legs. I knew I'd be in contention, but in terms of performance, I really didn't know what my body could offer.
I started off in the lead group of runners attacking the first climb, which comprises the first mile or so of the race and gains about 400' elevation. I ran the majority of the climb at a very easy pace, walking only a few spots here and there. It was a little tough to tell exactly who was in which race. Our bib numbers identified which race we were running, but with bibs on the front, I wasn't sure who among the 10-12 people in front of me was in the 50K or the shorter distances. I was pretty sure I was leading the 50K, based mostly on what I perceived of everyone's effort around me and the fact that nobody seemed to be carrying a bottle or pack as I might expect for a trail 50K. (Though I wasn't carrying anything either, at least not on the first lap, so who knew how reliable that was.) After the first couple of miles, the path leveled off, and I fell into an easy rhythm with a half-marathoner. I decided not to worry about where I stood in the field. I could only take what my body would give me on this day. If it was enough to compete up front, great; I'd figure that out soon enough. But early on I had to run my own race. I ran as easily as I could manage, just trying to cover ground with minimal effort, enjoy the surroundings, and see where the chips fell.
The miles passed easily enough. We reached the first aid station at 4.7 miles in just over 39 minutes, taking a quick drink and moving on. Most of the climbing for the first lap was behind us; the course rolled gently, on a mix of dirt roads and West Coast single track, which is basically doubletrack with a few rocks and roots here and there. The park was very pretty, though felt like the downtown city park it basically is; we were never terribly far from a road or parking area. But the redwoods, while not particularly dense, were pretty, and there were a couple of breathtaking views to keep us interested.
I was content to maintain a fairly easy effort level through AS2, at about 10.8 miles, where one of the volunteers confirmed I was leading the 50K. About a half-mile later we reached the start/finish area, except to complete the loop we ran past the finish line for a two-mile out-and-back paved section, where I was able to see for myself where I stood. In front of me were all half-marathoners and a single marathoner, the women's leader, about two minutes ahead of me. I made the turn and started checking my gaps to the next 50K runners: about two minutes to second place, who looked to be struggling; another minute back to third place, looking solid; and then about a 13-minute gap to fourth. A podium spot seemed assured, but the win was still very much up in the air. I finished the first lap in 1:43, right in line for my pre-race goal of a 3:30 marathon split, and took in my first calories of the day. I had planned on grabbing my iPod for lap 2 but decided with only a small gap over second and third I should stay focused and alert, and instead resolved only to grab my Orange Mud handheld. Unfortunately when I got to my drop bag I realized I had left the water bottle back in the car. This caused a bit of panic, but I realized there wasn't much I could do now except hydrate at the aid stations and hope for the best, and I headed out for lap 2.
The second lap proved fairly uneventful. I was running solo, except on the rare occasions when I'd lap a slower marathoner. But I was almost never alone. The park had filled up with all manner of hikers and joggers, all of whom seemed to have dogs, all of which seemed to be off-leash; I spent a great deal of time dodging curious puppies whose oblivious owners had stopped dead in the middle of the trail for a chat with someone they knew. I tried to keep the miles effortless, but this was becoming nearly impossible; though the terrain was not overly difficult, I was finally feeling the full effects of the past few months. Joe had warned me, in the lead-up to Bandera, that by trying to stretch my peak out to Caumsett, I was "riding the ragged edge of fitness." I reflected now that by chasing this win I was really pushing my luck. I didn't fear getting injured, but past the twenty-mile mark I knew I was both physically and mentally going to the well. It wasn't particularly uncomfortable. I just knew that there really wasn't any reserve left.
My pace had slowed significantly, closer to 8:30s now, but I saw approaching the turnaround that I had even pulled back a minute or so to the marathon leader (Anna Zielaski, who set a very strong womens' CR of 3:32 and won the marathon by nearly 30 minutes). After making the turn and seeing that my lead was growing, I started to relax. Second place was now about 12 minutes back, and I knew that as long as I simply kept moving forward, I was likely to hang on.
The final five mile stretch was an out-and-back over the first section of the main loop, which meant running the opening climb for the third time. Though by this point "running" was a stretch; I simply hiked most of the climb and jogged the flat sections on top. It was quite a slog. Surprisingly, in the closing miles, my legs (despite feeling like Jell-O) were not the worst part of me; I had almost no strength in my core. Particularly on the downhills, I felt incredibly fatigued in my back, glutes, and abs, to the point that I was favoring my entire core on the way down. I was surprised because I've been very diligent over the past six months in adhering to my core regimen. This regimen clearly needs a bit of a boost, and I'll be consulting with Joe and Elizabeth when we return to New York to do some fine-tuning in that respect.
Otherwise the closing stages were an nondescript slog. I jogged home for the win in an unremarkable 4:22. I had few goals for the day otherwise, so I guess we can chalk that one up in the "win" column, so to speak. At least I felt as though I'd earned my dietary vacation. My pilgrimage to the Russian River and Bear Republic breweries later in the week were gloriously guilt-free. Much thanks to Wendell, Leng, and the rest of the crew at Coastal Trail Runs for a really first-class event. And love to the sponsors as always.