Sean O’Brien 50K 2018

The Monday before the race, I was still registered for the Sean O’Brien 50 Mile. I knew it was in my best interest to dip my body down to the 50K distance but the ego kept talking to me!

Oh just go for the 50 miles.

You know you want to. 

You’re trained. Well, somewhat.

But those last couple of cutoffs were deterring me from going ahead with the 50 miler. That final cutoff time particularly scared me.

Ego: Do the thing that scares you. 

Umm, I don’t think the ego remembers the 50K race all that much because it’s pretty darn scary as it is. Once I casted that ego aside, I made the switch officially to the 50K, and it was one of the smartest decisions I made in a long while.

Race morning was cold. 36 degrees cold which might’ve been a little colder than the start of the Fred Lebow Manhattan Half that I ran last month. However, the temps on this day were expected to get much higher.

When I made my way to the start line I felt ready. My body felt ready for 32+ miles. Prior to leaving to NYC, I had my last long back-to-back trail runs of 16 and 20 miles, respectively. Plus, I left January with 133 miles and 18,000 ft of elevation gain. I know I did some work to get ready for this race especially over the last several months.

A couple of miles in we came up to the creek where I needed to decide if I wanted to plow through the water or maneuver my way across the rocks. That’s if water was actually present. It was.

This is the one part of this area that gives me a little anxiety simply because I’ve heard enough stories of people unintentionally falling in. The upside to that was, it was early in the morning and this could possibly keep me cool for the rest of the day (doubtful), and the downside was, it was still fairly cold and I didn’t prepare for hypothermia early in the race. Plus, all my Rungoo could get washed off and helloooo blister city.

Luckily, Keira the race director is one smart lady and harnessed a bungee cord that we could grip onto to cross over the rocks or use as support if you wanted to plow through the water. While everyone took advantage of it to spare wet and soggy shoes and socks, it created a bottleneck effect. I didn’t care. I kinda already gave up the quest to go after the win. As we were all crossing, some guy came barreling through the water with a snarky remark to all of us, “Your feet are gonna dry in an hour!” Thanks for the support and encouragement dude! Hopefully he didn’t get too many blisters.

When I started up the single track Backbone Trail, I got comfortable knowing it was mostly going to be all uphill for the next 5 hours. Oops. I mean 5 miles.

Because I knew it would be a warm day I started to hydrate early and often. I remember reading this article one time that said something like, don’t eat or drink on uphills. Well, when all you’re given is uphill, you don’t really have a choice. I continued to take sips of water every few minutes.

Corral Canyon Aid Station

By the time I reached the first aid station at Corral Canyon (mile 7), I ditched my arm sleeves that became impromptu gloves because my hands were colder than my arms and put them inside my pack. I also filled up my bladder with water and refilled my bottle with CarboPro.

4.5 miles to the next aid station and an area of rocky downhill single track.

About 9 miles in, as a bike rider was passing me, he pointed to the ground and yelled out, “Phone!” I looked down to my right and turns out he wasn’t just yelling out random small technological devices. There was indeed a phone on the side of the trail. Great. What do I do now?

I could’ve just left the phone there and went on my merry way, but I decided to pick it up and add it to the already 20 other things I carried on me. Make room arm sleeves. You’ve got company!

As I started to move again, I thought about what I was going to do with this phone. It had money and a license in the case. Neither of which I inspected. Oh great, not only did I have a phone but somebody’s drivers license! But this could be for a runner who has no idea their phone is missing, or for a hiker who has no idea their phone is missing.

When I reached the next aid station at Latigo, I thought about leaving the phone with one of the volunteers. Here, you deal with this. Not that I didn’t think any of them were trustworthy, but I know I would’ve spent the rest of the race wondering what happened to the phone, and if I should’ve just held onto it and handed it over to Keira to see if it belonged to a runner. As much I didn’t need any additional weight, I decided to keep the phone with me.

When I stopped at the Latigo aid station, I heard a guy tell another runner, “Yeah nobody really ever stops here since it’s 2 miles to the next aid station.”

2 miles?! Yesss! I used the porta potty here and went on my merry way.

The terrain between the Corral, Latigo, and Kanan aid stations, was fairly rocky and technical. I should say much more rocky and technical than I remember my first time at Sean O’Brien. I honestly don’t remember it being that rocky! Of course, I haven’t been here in 4 years and there has been rain and wind and mud that could’ve brought more rocks into that area. Or maybe I blocked that part of the trail out of my memory.

The thing is I don’t run well on rocky technical areas. In fact, I really don’t run much at all because the fear of blowing out my ankles grips me too much. And this wasn’t an area with easy access to reach anybody. I tried to run when I could but I just couldn’t get a good rhythm going. So I surrendered and mostly hiked that portion.

When I arrived at Kanan which was about 13-ish miles, I refilled my bottle and pack with ice and grabbed me a cup of Coca-Cola. As I stood there sipping it, I noticed this gentleman bent over spreading avocado on a tortilla wrap.

I dipped down to look under his cap and said, “Dave? Is that you?”

Dave springs up from his avocado. “Hey!”

Now normally I try to stay away from solid food from the stations because well, my tummy tends to be a delicate little flower when it comes to it and I was doing fine with my liquids, but these wraps looked so good! I couldn’t resist.

I figured the next section had some rocky spots that would force me to go even slower so I could enjoy hiking with my avocado wrap. It was divine. That is, the avocado wrap, not the rocky spots.

Where did all these climbs come from? Ohhh, the last time I did this section which was on New Year’s Day, it was pitch black dark and I never saw them coming! Man, I wish it was pitch black dark again.

With the exception of a few exposed warm sunny areas, this section had some nice shady covering. That’s what I enjoyed most here because I knew when I left this area, there would hardly be any covering at all.

At this point, I started to see many runners from all the distances – minus the marathon since they turned around back at Kanan where I picked up my avocado – coming my way. Once I saw the young woman I was running with earlier (before getting to Latigo and once again at Kanan), I knew I’d be close to the turn around. But I didn’t see her.

When I reached the 50K turnaround I made note of the mileage on my watch. 16.3 miles. I was also looking for the water bottles we were told would be there. No water. Welp. My water needs will need to wait another 2.5 to 2.8 miles.

As I made my way back, I had some nice downhill sections. I overheard the volunteer at the turnaround tell another runner, “going back is much faster.” Hmm, I was flying at times. Or at least semi-gliding.

Because I knew what mileage was at the turnaround, I could let other runners know how close they were to turning around. Usually when someone asks, I have absolutely no clue and feel bad after I told them “oh it’s about half a mile” when in actuality it’s probably more like 3 miles due to the fact I have no sense of distance. And then those people were left cursing my name for the duration of the race. That girl is a HORRIBLE person!

So when I ran into Luisa at mile 17 I could let her know “you’re about three-quarters of a mile to the turnaround” after she asked me, and I didn’t have to feel bad for being enormously wrong about it.

Or when I ran into Tam, who I’m recently more familiar with via Instagram, and know she’s not that far off either.

Smiles with Tam.

After I got through this section, I reached the Kanan aid station and Dave was still there. Unfortunately, all the avocado wraps were all gone. Not that I wanted another one. Okay I probably would’ve taken another one. And now that I think about it, this avocado wrap reminded me of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich I had at my first SOB!

Anyways, Dave and I chatted for a few minutes after I refilled water, ice, and sipped on some Coca-Cola again. At this point, I was starting to get tired. I mean, getting tired is expected, but I was beginning to feel more aware of how tired I was. In fact, back at mile 18 I started to feel a low in the race, not knowing how low I was about to go.

When I left Kanan, I was about 19-something miles in and looking for the escalator to get me up the steep rocky section. It was nowhere to be found.

There were 2 miles to Latigo. It was in this section I started to feel a little nauseous. I kept sipping water trying to figure out where this was coming from. The entire race up to this point I actually felt really good.

Was it the Coca-Cola? Was it the tasty avocado wrap? Was it the watermelon pieces? Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, I ate a couple of pieces of watermelon at Kanan. Or was I simply not drinking enough water or taking in enough salt? I thought I was.

I reached Latigo again and asked if they had ginger ale. Luckily, they found a small bottle. Just. For. Me. Oh alright, it wasn’t.

“Do you have a cup?”

“Oh yes I do.” I almost forgot about my cup! This was a cupless race and we needed to bring our own cup. I honestly don’t mind because it cuts down on waste.

I stood there sipping my ginger ale and looked over to the mileage sign. 20 Miles. My brain immediately said, I don’t think that’s right.

I also looked over and saw a couple of chairs. I was so tempted to sit down but I refrained. For one, these may not have been chairs for sweaty dirty runners and I didn’t want to sweat up someone’s lovely chair. And then the volunteer asked the sweaty dirty guy who just came rolling in if he wanted to sit down because he looked as if he really needed a moment to sit down. He sat down.

I was going to continue standing there to finish my ginger ale and then it suddenly dawned on me, THIS IS MY OWN CUP DAMMIT! I DON’T HAVE TO STAND HERE AND WAIT TO FINISH MY GINGER ALE SO I CAN THROW MY CUP AWAY! IT’S MY OWN CUP. I’M TAKING IT WITH ME!!!

Cheers!

So off I went. Slowly.

Here is when the wheels fell off.

Soon after leaving the aid station, I finished my ginger ale, and the nausea returned. When I flew to New York I packed some ginger candy in my carry-on because I tend to get nauseous when turbulence is really bad. I’ve never had this candy before prior to this trip, but I heard it would be helpful so I bought some. Side note: I actually didn’t need it when I flew into Newark but I did on my return because there was bad turbulence.

Anyways, as I was tossing everything but the kitchen sink into my hydration pack, I decided to add a few pieces of this ginger candy and it was at this moment I decided to suck on a piece.

Unfortunately, I hit a stretch that was particularly steep, and particularly hot, and at this point, I was tired and nauseous. I didn’t feel good. And I was hitting 30-minute miles. Yes. 30 minutes to go a mile. I was so slow it looked as if I was just standing there.

In fact, at one point, I did just stand there for a moment and assess where I was.

How much would it cost to get airlifted out of here?

Hmm, I heard it costs somewhere around $5,000. Do I have an extra five-grand lying around?

Turns out, I didn’t. Maybe I should’ve checked to see exactly how much money was in that phone case. Oh I’m kidding. So the only way out of that portion is to keep moving.

Welcome to the death march portion of the race! And the most difficult portion of the race for me thus far.

That section between Latigo to Corral on the return was just brutal for me.

All I did was try to keep focusing on getting to Corral Canyon, which is the last aid station before the finish. But it was still 3 to 3.5 miles away. An eternity with the pace I was having. But my stomach wouldn’t settle down. I kept trying to take sips of water but I didn’t want to drink anything even though deep down I know it’d help.

During this time, some guy who was running along the course checking on runners and offering support, came upon me and asked me how I was doing.

“I’m tired.”

“Well that’s understandable. You should feel tired.”

He helped take my mind off how I was actually feeling: sick.

I took in my second ginger candy and every time I did, the nausea went away long enough for me to take advantage of some runnable sections.

There was nothing more in the world that I wanted in this moment then to be done with this section. I got pretty low here and started to talk to myself: I’m retiring from ultras after this year. I’m not built for these races. I’m horrible at them. I suck. This is awful. Thank you sweet baby Jesus, for granting me some good sense to drop down to the 50K!

One thing that kept me going was the fact that once I reached Corral, I’d only have 7 miles to the finish line, and it’s mostly downhill.

But there was still plenty of uphill to be had before reaching Corral. However, when I started to hear the rumblings of the aid station, it was a marvelous sound.

When I reached Corral for the final time, I immediately got spritzed with water, and then I got doused with it. It felt so glorious because it was so hot! I don’t believe it got into the 100s but it was definitely in the 80s and some parts, most likely in the 90s.

A gentleman came up to me and asked me what I needed and I asked if they had ginger ale. They did. As he went over to get some, I saw that he grabbed a reuseable cup.

“Oh, I have my own cup.” A few seconds later, I had my cup filled with ice cold ginger ale.

As I stood there under the shaded tent, I decided to eat a couple of small pieces of watermelon and then afterwards thought, hmm maybe the watermelon did me in and made me nauseous.

I think I was simply dehydrated. Even though I continued to take sips of water early and often, it wasn’t enough, and the heat was more than I thought it was going to be and eventually caught up with me. And badly.

Another runner at the aid station told me the sun will be going down soon. I knew this. I was already well aware of this and the fact I didn’t bring a headlamp with me because I honestly felt going into this race I wasn’t going to need it. But that’s how these races go, you never know what could happen. You can have horrible training and churn out a perfect race, and then you can have impeccable training and your race turns into a shitstorm.

Before leaving Corral, I talked to fellow ultrarunner Jennifer and went over to say hi to UltraMama, Nancy. I filled up with a little more ginger ale and headed out with my own cup to finish this race.

Once I finished the ginger ale, I put my cup away and the nausea returned. I felt awful and there was more uphill to be had. In fact, another slow death march up the rock formations.

As I was making my way up the trail, I came across another runner.

“How you doing?”

“Hurting,” he replied.

I couldn’t tell if he was in the 100K or 50 Mile but it didn’t matter. He wasn’t alone. There were many people struggling with their issues this day, including me. This is a tough race, and tough courses in each of the distances no matter if you do the marathon or 100K, or 50 Mile, or 50K.

Once I left Corral I started to hear something very faint, like music of some sort. I ignored it. I heard it again. I turned around and nobody was there. There it was again. Maybe this hurting guy had some music playing. Again! Maybe it was a runner or hiker somewhere in the distance. It kept following me. Even when nobody was around I could hear something. Am I going crazy? Or hallucinating? What is that noise? And then, I reached my hands behind me and lifted up my hydration pack. THE PHONE!!!

The ringer kept going off because someone was calling! Who is calling? I don’t know. Could’ve been the person who owns the phone, or it could be that person’s worried friends and family wondering why they haven’t heard from them in 9 hours.

I didn’t answer and if I did, I probably would’ve said something along the lines of, “Sorry I can’t talk because I’m in the midst of a race and I’d really like to finish before it’s pitch black dark and the mountain lions come out to gnaw on my tired dehydrated body and I’m pretty sure I’m losing a few toenails as we speak but it probably doesn’t really matter since the mountains will probably get me first. Someone will have to call you back later. Thanks!”

But that would’ve expended too much energy and I was in no mood to talk.

In fact, somewhere around mile 31 I could feel my eyes well up with tears and I couldn’t stop them. Where was this crying stemming from? Disappointment? Pain? Tiredness? Maybe it’s because all this late downhill is both a blessing and a curse because my legs and feet were being pounded. Maybe the tears were from all of it and I needed to surrender and release them all.

But that’s how these ultras are. Like life, there are struggles and challenges and you have to work your way through them. Not finishing this race wasn’t an option, unless I was severely sick or injured, but that wasn’t the case. My body wasn’t in a state of shutting down. I could keep going, and I did.

I had plenty of time to finish this race and my only hinderance was trying to beat the sun because time wasn’t on my side at this point. But at least I wasn’t fighting time cutoffs like I would have been doing had I stayed in the 50 Mile race. I may have already DNF’d at this point if that was the case.

It’s when you’re in breakdown mode is when you have to find your strength and fight your way out. So, I reminded myself that this is simply a race, and my first ultra in 10 months, and one race of hopefully many this year. And with that, the tears stopped as quickly as they started.

It’s almost a training run for what’s ahead, and if things don’t go badly, how will I ever learn? Not that I’m asking for things to turn sour. But it’s during races like these when I figure out what I need to focus on and work on to improve as a runner, and ultrarunner at that. You learn more from the races that don’t go your way, then you do from the ones that are perfect.

When I reached the creek, I couldn’t decide whether to plow through the water or use the cord to maneuver across the rocks. Déjà vu. Because the sun was going down, I decided to use the cord to cross over the rocks because it’s getting chilly and I didn’t bring an extra set of shoes. In this case, there would be no way my shoes would’ve dried in an hour.

Now all that awaited me was the Spur Trail, also known as, the “little angry chihuahua” section (at least I call it the little angry chihuahua, some people just call it angry, or little, or maybe just chihuahua) and it’s about a mile to the finish.

I still didn’t feel well, but when I reached the top of the “chihuahua” it was all downhill and I was going run it no matter how I felt.

I ran and didn’t stop. I turned the corner and saw my family waiting for me. By the time I reached the finish line, it was dark, but not enough where I needed a headlamp. Thank goodness.

I received my awesome medal from a wonderful volunteer and then I quickly realized I didn’t beat my first SOB time which disappointed me. For a moment.

Right then, my friend Mitch came over and congratulated me and it was such a wonderful pleasant surprise! It truly was. Thank you Mitch!

My family came over and I needed those hugs, and then I found Keira to give her the phone.

I needed to sit for a bit so my stomach can settle down before getting in the car. As I was sitting there I saw some guy come up to Keira and she pointed over to me. Uh oh. What did I do now?

This cute young guy (even in the dark I could tell he was cute and young) approached me and asked if I was the one who had the phone. Turns out Ian was volunteering at Latigo and while he was running there, he fell and his phone bounced out of his bag. So had I decided to drop off the phone at Latigo like I was considering, it’s possible he could’ve been the person I dropped it off to! Now that would’ve been something! Maybe I should’ve inspected the photo on the drivers license.

Now you might ask, how in the world did he know that I’d be there at that moment? Well, after his volunteering shift, he went home and was able to track his phone via Google.

“So, you knew where I was, and the phone was, along the course?”

“Yeah. In fact I just got here 30 seconds before you arrived.” Oh great. He knows my splits.

Okay I would’ve freaked out not knowing where my phone was, but this guy was cool as a cucumber because he knew his phone was making its way back to the finish line. Slowly. Oh so slowly. I’m just glad the phone got back to it’s rightful owner.

Now, I said I was disappointed in my time, at first, but then I assessed again what I was dealing with. And my disappointment quickly turned into feeling proud of what I was able to fight through and finish. It was definitely quite a day out on the trails.

After 33.3 miles and 6,711 feet of elevation again and similar loss, this Sean O’Brien 50K was officially in the books. Yeah, I’ll be back and I won’t wait 4 years to return.

Thanks for reading!

Thank you to Keira Henninger, and all her fantastic volunteers, and aid stations for their amazing support and encouragement! And thank you to my family, and to Dave and Mitch, and to Nancy for the hug at the final Corral aid station, and to trail friends who experienced this day with me, and everyone who told me “good job or nice work” along the course, and to the bike rider for pointing out the phone, and to the guy who ran with me as I struggled between Latigo and Corral, and to Ian for tracking his phone on Google and who may have been the person calling and giving me music those last few miles.

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4 Comments

  1. Great job on the finish! Your Latigo to Corral experience was similar to my SOB marathon last year. Those are some long tough miles. I had to work this year so only had time to volunteer doing early morning parking.

    1. Thanks Jesse! That stretch probably wouldn’t be so bad if we didn’t have several miles on our legs already. Now we know for next year, right? 😉

  2. You are amazing runner & writer
    I did the 50K couple years ago & I could feel you in all the miles & hills
    Great job & congratulations again

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