I ran in my first ultra (first anything-over-17-miles really) this Saturday, the Gold Country 34 Mile. This was my second time running in an UltraRunner.net event and they did a great job. Unfortunately my day ended with a DNF, but I enjoyed the event and am glad I ran it.
The race starts and finishes in Auburn at about 1400′. It drops 800′ over the first 4 miles down to the American River and No Hands Bridge. As a start goes it’s pleasant, but it weighs on your mind knowing that this nice downhill will mean a steady uphill for the final 4 miles of the race. This knowledge definitely came into play later in the race.
After crossing No Hands Bridge and chatting briefly with the helpful aid station worker I began the first of two 13 mile loops. The first obstacle is a brutal 1000′ climb over about a mile, affectionately known to the locals as “K2″. While it’s not quite Himalayan in size it can certainly feel like an epic climb. Knowing I would have not one, but two trips up this monster I just set a steady hiking pace to the top. After a short descent and another climb, albeit only 200′, I made it to the next aid station.
While I definitely felt the climb, the day was young and I was still feeling relatively strong as I left the aid station for a 5.5 mile section of the Olmstead Loop Trail. The sun was up by this point, but the temperature had not yet started to climb and the rolling, exposed grassland trail passed without incident.
Rolling into the next aid station at the town of Cool I hit the half-marathon mark feeling good. I was holding back a bit on the pace, afraid of blowing up early with my inexperience at the distance. I knew the majority of the next section was downhill and wasn’t too concerned about making it back to No Hands Bridge with a reasonable time. I got some ice from the helpful staff and filled up my pack, then hit the trail.
While it’s true that the “majority” of the next trail section was downhill there was still a short but steep climb that started to make me a little nervous about my legs on the second half of the course. I tried not to dwell on it and cruised the long downhill singletrack. I was still enjoying plenty of shade, but could feel the temperature starting to rise as I rolled into No Hands at about 10:15 am.
It’s at this point I should make specific mention of the weather. Northern California late September/early October can be all over the place in terms of weather, but the week preceding the race had seen record setting highs throughout the state. Thankfully the 100 degree weather had eased, but unfortunately the forecast for the race was still 90 degrees. For the first couple hours of the race the low sun had kept the temperature mild, but as the morning wore on it rapidly climbed.
The temperature ramp-up really kicked in as I was fighting my way up K2 for the second time. At this point my legs were also letting me know that, while they appreciated the distance training I’d done, they were not prepared for two laps up a hill this steep. I slogged onward and upward, but by the time I reached the top of the hill I had dropped to the ground and had to sit and recover. Up until this point I’d been in the middle of the pack, but as I sat I watched about a half-dozen other runners huff and puff their way by me. Wanting to use their effort as inspiration I got up and shuffled my way through the next mini-climb and on to the aid station.
Those 3-ish miles had taken quite a toll. Worse than that, they’d taken a long time. I’m pretty sure I was down on my blood sugar levels at this point too. Knowing I still had a lot of miles left, I decided to rest for a little longer at the aid station, eating and drinking and trying to get psyched up. I knew the next 5.5 mile section would be hot and I’d be tired, but if I could just keep moving I thought I’d be up for the task.
The unraveling that began with my second trip up K2 continued. I realized soon after leaving the aid station that I probably wasn’t going to be able to run up even the small hills at this point. I didn’t have any strict time goals, so this was a problem in a “race” sense. It was a problem for the conditions, however. As mentioned, this section of the course was exposed grassland. The occasional oak trees that happened to be near the trail provided scant shade. So…it was full sun, it was hot, and I was slow. This created a bad feedback loop. The slower I went, the more sun-baked I got, the more I had to stop at any little shade patch; rinse, repeat. Soon I was walking even on gentle downhills and starting to seriously think about what it would take to finish the race.
As I ever-so-slowly made my way to Cool (trying not to think about how pleasantly incongruent the name sounded) I considered the final 8 miles that would be ahead of me. I knew the first 4 miles had that rough uphill, but after a recharge at the aid station I knew the downhill could be managed, albeit much slower than my first lap. This would put me back at No Hands Bridge, staring at a 4 mile climb back to the finish. The first 2-ish miles of this would have no shade and all of it would be done in the peak of the day’s heat. I did some realistic math based on my lackluster pace and knew I was looking at another 3+ hours on the trail after I left Cool.
When I finally reached Cool I had come to terms with the fact that being out for another 3 hours was simply not a good idea. The staff at the aid station directed me to a hose, so I immediately doused myself with water and sat down. They were properly encouraging and wanted me to succeed, reminding me about the downhill section ahead. The hose and the shade almost conspired to make me think it might not be that bad, but I did the math again and decided that my day was done. Another runner, out on the trail in spite of a bad cold, had also called it a day at that point so I was able to get a ride back to the start with her. She and her significant other turned out to be more experienced runners so we chatted about the day’s run and I got some good recommendations on other ultras to try. A great end to a rough day.
The obvious lesson here is “train harder”. Specifically, more hill training would have been a huge help. Really I knew this even before starting. I had incorporated some hill training in my long runs but not as much as I would have liked.
The other obvious lesson is heat conditioning. I knew the heat would be rough and was hoping that October would not be quite so warm. In fact, in a cruel twist from Mother Nature the temperature dropped by 10 degrees the next day. So it goes with weather; as a runner I just need to be prepared for anything.
This was my longest stint running and a good chance to evaluate my food and fluid intake. I think I did pretty well on fluid and electrolytes overall. In the past this has felt like more of a problem. I can also say the ice in my water made a big difference. Cold water goes down nicely when the heat is turned up. While I’m happy with fluids, I feel like I didn’t keep up with my nutrition as well as I could have. I got behind a bit in the first half of the race, and once I was slogging up K2 the second time I couldn’t think about calories. I made a good call taking a longer break and working on food at the next aid station, but by that point I was playing catch-up.
The most important lesson to consider is the mental game. I spent a lot of time trying to ascertain whether I was dropping because it was a good decision or whether I was dropping because I was hot and tired and wanted to be done. I definitely think there was some mental “weakness” to the decision, but not enough that I’m beating myself up about it. I’m disappointed that I didn’t finish, but I’m happy with what I did accomplish. So, lessons (hopefully) learned, I’ll take what happened and start preparing for next time.