And … we’re back!

First in age group for Horseshoe Lake 50k. #ComebackKid

My mom always told me to frame questions not as binary, Yes-No decisions, but as multiple-choice, A-B-C decisions. That is to say, there’s always more than just two outcomes for success. I’ve applied that to racing. Before I start a race, I set several time goals and give them each a letter grade. If I hit any of them, I still consider it a successful race.

Yesterday was my first 50k since my injury, and I was so excited to be back. I set these goals:

  • A: Finish in 6 hours (super stretch goal!)
  • B: Finish in 6:30
  • C: Finish at all!
  • F: Drop out. =(

Therefore, as long as I didn’t drop out, I was a winner.

The race started at 8am in a park just off of Skyline, in Palo Alto. The race was called Horseshoe Lake 50k. In my mind, in envisioned a scenic ramble along a lake for several miles. The reality was we saw the lake quite briefly, then disappeared into the forests. As background: the race was an out-and-back half-marathon twice, and then a 5-mile out-and-back at the end.

The first 6.5 miles were wonderful – we were running through stunning forests as the sun was coming up, her rays filtering through gentle mist and branches to create stunning sun rays in the forest. I was ecstatic. Spending time in this sort of natural beauty is why I run trails.

After the first half-marathon, I fell into step with a woman who, I learned, had run nine 100-mile races. She introduced me to her friend (a Googler!), who had not only cycled 20-ish miles uphill to get to the start of today’s 50k, but proceeded to tell me about the 200 and 300k races he had run in the Swiss Alps. He’s planning to run (yes, run!) the 1000-mile Iditarod. In summary, I was in the presence of running greatness, and listening to their stories made the miles slip by.

Runners think about time in two ways. The first is clock-time – how much real time has elapsed in this race? The second is mental time – how much time do I *feel* has elapsed? How much time do I have left ont his course, and does it feel like not very much, or an insurmountable number of hours? At the aid station at mile 19, I was still feeling great. I had been running for four hours, and I felt like I hadn’t been out there for long at all. The next 12 miles were going to fly by. I downed a full-calorie Coke (a real treat; I usually only drink those on trail races), and took off to finish the marathon portion of the race.

Just after the aid station, a woman behind me caught up to me. She was struggling, and said she wanted to stick with me for a while “because it seems like you’ve got a good attitude, and I could use some cheering up.” I was flattered, and ran with her for the next five miles, just chatting about running. During this race, I found myself to be very social – it was like my “talking about running” muscle had atrophied over the last several months, since I hadn’t been running trail ultras, where the racers are very chatty. I had forgotten how fun it is to talk to people who are the same brand of crazy.

Around mile 24, I started getting edgy/anxious/confused. At one point, I slipped and fell on the dirt trail. I took stock of the situation, and realized the anxiety was probably due to the caffeine. I usually don’t consume caffeine, but on this race I had two gels with caffeine and the Coke. For some reason, in my mind, the solution was to eat another caffeine gel. So I did that and kept running.

I was somewhere between 5th and 6th place for women at this point. I knew I wasn’t going to place in top-3, which was okay, because that wasn’t one of my letter-grade goals for this race. I knew I would place in my age group, but I wasn’t sure just where.

Just before we started the last five mile out-and-back, a younger-looking woman passed me. I would yo-yo with her for a bit, but wouldn’t solidly overtake her again during the race. I was sure she was in my age group, so I gave up on the idea of a first-place age-group finish.

The last five miles weren’t unbearable, but I didn’t feel like I was flying, either. I was still happy to be out on the trail. It was clear I wasn’t going to hit the ambitious 6:00 goal, although there was still potential for 6:30.

Paradoxically, as I got closer to the finish line, I purposely started slowing down. I was going to finish somewhere in the 6:38 range, but I really, really didn’t want this race to end. I was really enjoying being out in nature, on trails, running … it felt like life made sense again. This is where I’m meant to be.

I usually start preparing for a 50k about a week before the race. I start tapering by working in some easier runs and some shorter cycle rides. On Thursday, I start chugging water to over-saturate my body with liquid, and on Friday, I eat pretty much whatever I want, focusing on carbs. This race was the first time in months I had been through this ritual, and it felt great. My life had structure again. I knew how to make decisions during the day, because I was optimizing for a very specific outcome.

I didn’t want that structure, that process, to end. So I took the last two miles very slowly and easily. At that point, the rankings were pretty much set, and the end of the race meant, well, no more structure for at least a few weeks while I recovered.

I came in at 6:36, and gave myself a “B.” Not bad for a comeback race.

My friend Sherry and I headed back to our cars – we were going to find a Chipotle for post-race celebrations. Sherry came in 2nd, and 1st for her age group – she finished in a speedy 6:20.

Just before we left, I realized I left a jacket at the finish line, so I swung by to pick it up. I took a quick look at the official results. I was the last one on the list (there were still a lot of runners out there, and the list was constantly updating), and I saw, next to my name, “1 20-29.” I came in first for my age group. That woman ahead of me was apparently one age-group up!

All in all, this was a great race for me. No knee pain, beautiful scenery, great weather, excellent conversations, lunch with good friends afterwards, winning awards, and, most importantly, I enjoyed the race the whole time.

Ultramarathons are notorious for their ability to really, really mess with your psychology during the race. For no apparent reason, one moment you’ll be riding high, and the next, everything will look hopeless. The next six miles will seem like the hardest six miles you’ve ever run. Then, a mile later, everything looks rosy again.

On this race, I didn’t experience those swings at all (even despite 4 yellow jacket stings). I was just so happy to be back on the trails. Even though it’s going to be difficult, I’m going to take the next few days to carefully and purposefully recover – no more injuries, please! I’ve got another 50k in November, and I want to be ready.

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