I am often asked how or why I run the distances I do. These ultras I undertake are by no means standard fare for the average person’s fitness goals. Out there for hours and hours in varying conditions, the longer ultras are a test of willpower and mental stamina more than strength or speed. Sure, any marathoner can gut out a 50k, and with some technical trail work they may even be fast. But little of that matters 10-12-14 hours plus on the trail. Speed will only get you so far.
I am by no means fast on trail. I am careful, calculated. I don’t bomb descents, technical terrain slows me more than many others. I can power hike up a steep incline with the best of them, and hit a good clip on runnable terrain. But what carries me through isn’t my blazing fast splits, it is the simple determination not to quit. I know when I go into a race, I will keep moving forward in all circumstances until I either miss a cutoff, or am in so much pain that I physically cannot continue at the pace required to stay ahead of cutoffs. There is no escape hatch for me, no giving up. I am all in.
This post examines how I run an ultra. I give all the gritty details: what I ate and drank, how I paced, how I passed the time, how I managed the terrain, how I pushed through lows. I am not alone in how I handle these challenges, every ultra-runner does. We each have our own style, our own tricks that work for us. And we are each an experiment of one, as I have heard it called, constantly trying new things and analyzing the results to see how to improve over time. For a while now I have written a “race report” like this after every ultra I do, putting in writing the wins and the struggles from each race. Writing out the race helps me process the lessons learned, but also gives me somewhere to look back and see how far I’ve come, to pull confidence from the times I overcame and pushed through in all circumstances. Usually, I just share this with my coach, my husband, or a few close ultra-running friends. I guess I thought that no one from the “real” world would care to read of the exploits of an average ultra-runner.
Yet recently, I have had people ask me about the hows and whys, I thought maybe this post could be intriguing to some. So if you would like to hear the exploits of my latest adventure, please read on! If you find the details boring, that’s ok too…
I’ll write something more interesting soon.
(As a side note, I tried to explain trail running lingo where appropriate. But if you have questions, please ask!)
I went into the Tinajas 100k on March 3rd, unsure about my training and my mileage, but determined to be smart, pace appropriately, have fun, and learn a lot. I wasn’t really nervous. I knew there was nothing more I could do training wise. I did the most I could while trying to rehab my Achilles, which were still bothering me from the Yeti 100 Mile. My mileage was lower than I have ever had it be going into an ultra. Both my back to back long runs and my single long run efforts were shorter in time and distance than I have previously reached. But my weekly mileage was reasonable given the increase in hiking and weighted vest fast walking that I had incorporated this training cycle. My elevation training was actually on point, as I found hiking vertical didn’t bother me as much as running flats, and I had actively sought out inclines whenever I could. I knew my Achilles were strong from the daily eccentric heel drop routine that I had incorporated in December. And the core and hip strength work I had been doing near daily meant I felt stronger than I have ever felt when hitting my higher mileage weeks. I had also focused the last several months on running by heartrate (HR) almost exclusively. At first it was a way to keep myself in check as I recovered from Yeti, but I found that I liked just switching my watch to HR and letting pace fall where it may. I found that as my body adapted, my HR for easy runs got lower at the same pace, and that when I kept my HR low my Achilles didn’t bother me as much.
I knew going into Tinajas that I would need to keep my effort easy if I hoped to cover the distance smartly. So I decided that I would leave HR on my Garmin for the race. This would most likely drain the battery faster than putting the watch in UltraTrac mode, but I wanted to be able to monitor my effort for the first 50k so that I didn’t go to fast, and then if the watch died in the second half I would be so tired I wouldn’t be pushing the pace anyway.
Tinajas is an unsupported trail race put on by Tejas Trails in the beautiful Colorado Bend State Park. Unsupported meant that I needed to plan what I would eat and drink and space it between my drop bags and the aid stations (AS) where my crew could access me. The race itself would only provide water and ice, no food or volunteers at the aid stations. I talked a lot with a runner who had completed the race the year before to learn about water crossings and where to stash dry shoes and socks. My coach knows that I understand my fuel needs by now, and he pretty much let me plan my drop bags and aid station needs on my own.
I would have 2 crew during the race. Fiona (Fi) would crew me from the start, navigating to aid stations during the day and pacing me 20 miles at night. Cathy would join her in the afternoon on Saturday, continue to crew both Fi and I through Fiona’s 20 night miles, and then would pace me the last 7 miles to the finish. My crew was very experienced, having crewed and paced me at previous races. I knew I could depend on them, and I knew I had packed and planned for every contingency I could imagine. I came into race week enjoying taper, excited about the race, not the least bit nervous. I had done all I could and what would happen would happen.
Fiona and I drove down Friday afternoon in time to get my bib and place my drop bags at the aid stations before the race briefing at 6. After the briefing, we went into Lampasas to settle into our hotel and get dinner. I spent the evening rolling and taping my calves, and was in bed watching TV by 10:30. Although it took me a little while to get to sleep, I was easily asleep before midnight and got a full 5.5 hours of sleep before my alarm on Saturday. I woke up feeling good and ready to play on the trail.
I tried a new breakfast for this race of refrigerator oatmeal (oatmeal, applesauce, cinnamon, Nutzo Power Fuel nut butter, and water in a mason jar). It worked quite well paired with some of the cold brew that I had brought for later in the race. I topped off with a bottle of 3Fuel (a carb, protein, and fat drink made for endurance athletes) mixed with some extra BCAAs (branch chain amino acids) 30 minutes before I started running. When we headed downstairs to the hotel lobby, we found that the staff had started the breakfast bar early for the runners, so we grabbed a few egg and cheese burritos to stash in the cooler for later.
The solo 100k runners were the last to start the race. Due to a course miscalculation, the race director (RD) had added a short out and back section the day before, to get the mileage dialed in just right. In order to avoid traffic jams, he had the 50k and relay 100k runners start at 7:30, while the solo 100k runners started at 7:45. This meant there were only about 25 or so runners milling around the start line when I arrived. A few last-minute reminders from the RD and we were off.
The one mile out and back was on perfectly flat dirt road. I focused on my HR and had to keep pulling myself back as others took off at the start. In under 11 minutes I was back at the Start crossing the timing mat and headed back out, this time for the actual course. After the half mile of flat again, we turned onto the trail which rose off to the right and immediately plunged into trees and rocks. A large part of the first 3 miles was runnable, but it was broken up with 9 river crossings and numerous scrambles that broke your stride and slowed you down. I kept it easy, letting others pass me, until I fell behind a young man named Brandon who seemed to be going a pace I could lock into. We ran the last 1.5 miles or more together, chatting until we came into the Lemon Ridge Aid Station (AS), where he got out faster. I took the time at Lemon Ridge to change socks (both my Injinji liners and my compression socks) and shoes. My feet were soaked from the water crossings, and I knew that the rest of the course was supposed to be dry, so I felt it was worth the time to start completely fresh. Fi managed to meet me at this AS, so she helped me restock and I headed out pretty quickly.
The next section of trail was still fairly runnable, with some more rocky sections. I kept my watch on HR and just tried to run comfortably. It was during this section that I met Michael. He was keeping a steady, easy pace of running and hiking that fit well with my plans. We started chatting and stayed together for the next 10+ miles. We hit the Windmill AS between mile 8 and 9 together, where I introduced him to Fi and downed one of the egg burritos. We didn’t linger, and after refilling water, were back on the trail in no time. We kept a steady pace through the next very runnable dirt road section coming into Gorman Falls AS at mile 13ish. Michael had fallen into a run/walk that kept my HR low, but I was starting to pull ahead on the running segments. He was slowing. We came into Gorman Falls AS with me slightly ahead, but by the time I refilled my Nuun bottle and took some 3Fuel, he was ready to head out with me. We stayed together for maybe another half mile, but I kept looking back and seeing him drop farther behind. Eventually I decided I needed to run my own race. I waited until Michael was close enough to tell him I was going to go on and I’d see him later, and then I headed out truly on my own. I did see Michael several more times during the next 8 miles as we navigated the most technical sections of the course. I came into each of the points of interest (Colorado River overlook and Gorman Falls scramble) slightly ahead, but he was right behind me. I was ahead, but within eyesight of him coming into the Tinaja AS, one of two aid stations inaccessible to crew over the next 10 miles. He helped remind me to sign the book with my bib number (we had to sign in at every aid station and point of interest to prove we didn’t cut the course). He caught up to me again on one of the steeper rocky downhills (I’m still not a good downhiller in technical terrain). But I soon lost him on the climbs. By the time we reached the Conference Center AS around mile 21, where I paused a little longer to eat a few cookies, I was well ahead. I saw him for the last time as he came into the aid station while I ran out, and then I didn’t see him again for the rest of the race, even on the out and back sections. I know he must have slowed if I didn’t see him there.
The section from Tinaja AS to Conference Center AS is where I struggled the most mentally. It was getting warmer, I had been running for over 6 hours, it was the most technical section so far, and I hadn’t seen my crew since mile 13. And yet, I kept strong by thinking it’s ok to be feeling this way, it’s just a low and the low is justified given how long I’ve been running, the terrain, the heat, and the loneliness. That I just needed to keep moving and get to see Fi. That the next time I came through this area I would have someone with me. That this low would pass. Instead of bringing me down, I was able to work through it, accept it, and move on. It was a huge breakthrough for me!
Moving beyond Conference Center AS the trail opened up to some very runnable dirt single track along the Colorado River. It was beautiful along the river, with cliffs rising above us on one side. We could see fishermen and houses along the opposite bank. We crossed over the narrow rock jutting over Gorman Cave and then followed the single track to a sharp right turn up the climb to Cedar Chopper AS. The climb was not terribly steep, but consistent. It wasn’t as technical as the section we had just been through before Conference Center, but there were definitely rocks. After levelling out a few times, only to climb some more, this out and back section of the trail finally levelled off into a non-technical loop around the top of the hill, with the Cedar Chopper AS at mile 24ish about half way around the loop.
By the time I reached Cedar Chopper, I was fighting a mild headache. The day had stayed mostly overcast and humid. By no means hot, the low clouds were feeling warm as the sun peeked out briefly in the early afternoon. The humidity made it feel like a heavy blanket. I had been drinking water from my pack and refilling my front bottle with Nuun at every aid station, plus subbing in Base Salt. But by the time I reached Cedar Chopper, I think I was a little dehydrated. Fi made sure I took 3fuel and an Oral IV for hydration. She had a turkey sandwich for me to go. I signed in, knelt briefly to roll my calves a little, and then headed out, munching on the turkey and cheese. I would see Fi again at the Start/Finish where she would have grilled cheese and pickle soup.
The journey down from Cedar Chopper was much easier than up. Not as technical as the previous descents, I made better time, although some more confident runners still passed me. Once down from Cedar Chopper, we were dumped back on a dirt road where I was able to pass some of the runners who had passed me on the descent with an easy paced run/walk. I would run counting to 100 and then walk counting to 20 or 30 and repeat. It kept me engaged and gave me bite sized chunks of running to focus on. In the last couple of miles, we turned back up another rocky hill to Lemon Ridge. A 50k runner fell in behind me on the climb but seemed to like my pace and never tried to pass. I was feeling better as the sun had gone back behind the clouds and it was cooling slightly. We came into Lemon Ridge together, where I barely stopped to sign the book. Past Lemon Ridge AS we entered a short out and back section again before branching to the left on the last few miles into the Start/Finish. This last section was more technical and rocky again, with more descending, and the 50k runner passed me for good. I was tripping a lot more by now, and it frustrated me. This is when the cussing out rocks began, and I am sorry to stay it stayed around until the end. Finally, after several steep descents filled with rocks, I made it to the dirt road that led us back to the Start/Finish and 32 miles.
At the Start/Finish, it took me a little while to find Fi and Cathy at the car. They had the camp stove set up and were heating my pickle soup (it’s so good!) and cooking grilled cheese. I downed a fresh grilled cheese and sipped some soup while cussing about rocks. I told them my right foot had a hot spot under the toes, but I didn’t want to deal with it until Lemon Ridge AS, as I knew I was about to head back out through the 9 river crossings again. I also said I didn’t want to take my trekking poles until Gorman Falls AS, that I didn’t think the trail warranted them until we hit the tougher climbs and more technical sections. After we refilled my water and Nuun, I headed out.
I jogged the half mile back up to where the trail turned toward the creek crossings. The scrambles were slower this time, and for some reason the creek seemed higher. I am not sure if it was, or if I just chose my crossings more poorly. At one crossing I stepped wrong and sunk my entire right shoe and ankle into mud, with water almost to my knee. But nothing was too treacherous and I took it slowly. It was beginning to mist now, but the ground was still fairly dry. I had to hike more than run, even on the runnable sections, because my pinky toe on my right foot was killing me with every toe off. I knew I had to take care of it at Lemon Ridge AS and not put it off any longer. As I finished the last segment before Lemon Ridge, light was starting to dim, and I was glad I wouldn’t have much longer to the aid station as I had left the Start/Finish without my headlamp.
My stop at Lemon Ridge took even longer this time than the first loop. I changed into dry shoes and socks again, but we also took the time for Cathy to drain and bandage my blistered right pinky toe. I took my headlamp and a long sleeve, downed some 3fuel, and then Fi and I headed out for the trail. We made it to Windmill AS after dark, where we found Cathy waiting. I had another grilled cheese and some water. But in the dark I forgot that I was supposed to grab my jacket out of my drop bag and carry it with me. Since I saw Cathy at the aid station (which I hadn’t planned on), I didn’t think to go over to my drop bag. It was warm, and we headed out trying to make good time over the runnable dirt roads between Windmill AS and Gorman Falls AS. It was only days later that I remembered I was supposed to grab the jacket at Windmill and take it with me, giving it to my crew at Gorman Falls AS if I didn’t need it, as I was planning to leave my drop bags at the end of the race. Oh well, it was just a jacket.
Fi and I made decent time to Gorman Falls AS in the dark. I was still feeling pretty good, tired, but nothing out of the ordinary. I was able to hold a good run/walk pattern and we kept some miles at 15 minutes or less as we passed a few runners. The dirt trails were starting to saturate with the mist that had become increasingly heavy since Lemon Ridge, and at times the mud would build up on our shoes and then kick off. But usually it just made the ground tacky and our shoes didn’t become too heavy.
Coming into Gorman Falls AS, Cathy noticed my hands were significantly swollen. They had been swelling for a while, and now I could barely clench my fists. We decided I should cut back on Nuun and only drink to thirst, as I was probably overhydrating now in the cooler temperatures of night. I still hadn’t used my long sleeve, but I traded it in for my rain coat as it had been misting for hours. At times through the night the mist would be thick enough to almost look like fog. Since I was still quite warm, I tied the coat around my waist in case it started raining in earnest. I also picked up my trekking poles to use for the rest of the race (around 17 miles). I had some 3fuel and soup and stashed some snacks for the crew inaccessible 11 miles ahead of us. We took a little longer at Gorman Falls AS than we wanted to due to the confusion over an injured runner. One runner was telling us that there was an injured runner at the Conference Center AS up ahead. We couldn’t figure out what he wanted us to do about it as we were hours away from that Aid Station by foot. As we started to leave, a car came through asking us to move cones so they could get an ambulance up the fire road. Cathy shooed us on, saying she would take care of the cones. Halfway up the trail I remembered I wanted to trade my watch with Cathy so that I could have a fresh battery, as the hours of tracking HR had drained my watch to nearly nothing. We headed back, made the switch with the watches, and then finally got on our way.
It was as we headed out of Gorman Falls AS that I finally let myself calculate what pace I needed to keep to finish the race. I had a little under 17 miles, and over 10 hours to do it in. I knew I could finish if I just kept moving forward. Heading out from the Aid Station I knew we faced the most technical portion of the course, lots of rocks both loose and fixed, flat “tombstones” that were becoming slick with mist and mud, more climbing and descents, and the slippery smooth rock slide down to Gorman Falls. As we got closer and closer to Gorman Falls, I let my anxiety about the slippery rock descent play with my head. The trail seemed to stretch further and further, like the falls would never come. I should have stayed more focused in the moment, but I let my anxiety about making it down the rock run away with me for a while. In the end, the falls were not as bad as I had built them up in my head. The rock was slicker than during the day, but not overly so. I was moving slower, and holding the rope that ran along the rock kept me grounded. I made it down and up without incident.
We moved past the falls, and the Tinaja AS. I barely stopped at Tinaja other than to sit briefly. I wasn’t hungry and had slowed my drinking significantly so I didn’t need to reload. I noticed at Tinaja that my hands were much better, nearly normal size, which seemed to confirm that I was overhydrated earlier in the evening. I continued to drink by thirst through the rest of the race, and only take Nuun sparingly. My hands never swelled again. I ate only half of Fi’s energy bar at Tinaja since I wasn’t hungry, and we moved on to the technical trails to Conference Center.
The trails to Conference Center AS were even slower than the first loop. Less than a half mile out of Tinaja AS I felt my right Achilles hurting. The slipping and sliding over mist-slicked rocks and uneven footing seemed to have finally caught up with me. The Achilles combined with the technical climbing and descents through the hilliest part of the course slowed me to what was at times just under a 30 minute pace. And about halfway to the Conference Center I found that my half an energy bar had worn off. I was starving. But I insisted I could wait to the aid station as I thought we were close. The trail seemed to stretch on and on, and with each turn that didn’t lead to the aid station, I grew more and more angry. Fi just let me vent, but I know she probably wanted to knock me upside the head and tell me to just eat one of the cookies I had in my pack. She could tell when I felt good because I would make conversation, but when I fell down the rabbit hole I would either get quiet, or start cussing everything in sight. Fi has paced me enough that she knows this by now though. Finally we reached the Conference Center, where we took a little longer to sit and eat.
I knew that after the Conference Center AS we had relatively flat, dirt single track until the climb to Cedar Chopper. My good spirits returned and we even ran a bit along the river as we made our way to the climb. I found I could run the flats without aggravating the Achilles, it was the slippery rocks that were bothering it. When we reached the climb, it didn’t seem as bad in the dark as it hard earlier in the day, maybe because we were moving so much slower. We made it up and around to Cedar Chopper AS, where I sat while Fi went to find Cathy at the car (she was napping until we arrived). It took Fi and Cathy longer than I expected, but I relished the ability to sit for a while. However, the wind was picking up outside the tent and the ever-present mist had turned into actual rain drops. I didn’t want to stay around too long if a storm was brewing. Another runner was in the aid station debating if he should continue. He had been throwing up bile and only covered 5 miles in 4 hours. I believe he decided to drop, but I am not sure. Fi and Cathy returned to the aid station tent with a grilled cheese for me and Cathy outfitted to run. I changed out my headlamp for a fresh one (my waist lamp had died hours ago and I didn’t want to trust my first headlamp to last much longer. As a side note, I need to get a better waist lamp). We headed out with me still eating the grilled cheese. I was anxious to get going and keep ahead of the storm.
Coming down from Cedar Chopper was slippery, as it was sprinkling. But the rain never progressed beyond that. By the time we reached the flat trail at the bottom the rain had tapered off to mist again, as it would stay for pretty much the rest of the run. We climbed slowly up to Lemon Ridge AS for the final time. My stomach turned in the miles between Cedar Chopper and Lemon Ridge and I had to make a few pit stops along the side of the trail. A mile out from Lemon Ridge I was out of wipes, and just trying to make it to the aid station before I had to stop again. We made it to the aid station, where I grabbed some more wipes and opted not to eat. I knew I only had 3 miles left. If it had been a 100 miler, I would have forced myself to take in some calories. But I knew I could make 3 miles. I had been well-fueled all day, eating 3 grilled cheese, a turkey sandwich, an egg burrito, numerous sweet potato cookies and gingersnaps, half a pouch of bacon jerky, half an energy bar, a gel, at least 1 honey stinger waffle, half a thermos of pickle soup, several cups of cold brew, 4-5 bottles of 3 fuel, and probably more that I don’t even remember. I had taken in and kept down more calories than any other ultra I have run. So I let myself trust my protesting gut and not eat anything for this last 3 mile push. My stomach settled, and I didn’t have any more pit stops.
The 3 miles to the Start/Finish with Cathy were my slowest yet. I think I averaged 30 minutes per mile. It was rocky again, and the heavier sprinkles from earlier returned at times. The path was slick and starting to get muddy. Not terrible mud that would build on your shoes, but enough that you had limited traction on rocks. My Achilles on both legs were complaining now, and I was walking very gingerly trying to avoid aggravating them any more than necessary. I knew there was a steeper descent before we levelled out to the final half mile, and every time we went downhill, I thought we were almost there. Cathy kept counting down the tenths of the mile, telling me we were not there yet. But I hoped against hope that she was wrong. She was always right.
Somewhere in the haze of the last two miles we saw our only wildlife for the night, a huge jackrabbit, standing on its hind legs and looking right at us. In our headlamps the rabbit appeared white with glowing red eyes. He stared us down and the ran toward us before veering into the woods. I made the comment it must be Bunnicula, and Cathy laughed, catching my reference to a book from our youth. Finally, we reached the flat trail again. I thought about running, but I knew it wouldn’t make that much of a difference. At this point I could walk almost as fast as I could run on the flat ground, and my Achilles were not happy. So we power-walked to the lights of the finish line, which glittered through the trees looking deceptively near. Finally we could hear voices and clapping and see the timing clock. It didn’t register with me then, but it must have said 5:30ish as I passed.
I stopped and stood just past the timing mat. They told me I had won 2nd female, and I was shocked. I knew it had taken me over 21 hours on the trail, much longer than I had hoped after my first loop before my Achilles started to hurt. But it seems while I may not have been fast, I didn’t stop, and that was what mattered that day. There were numerous DNF’s, and because I kept going while others turned in their timing chip, I came in second woman across the finish line, 5 hours after first place.
We sat for awhile in the tent with Brad, the RD. Then about 6 am we headed back to Lampasas for food and bed. Breakfast was being served when we arrived at the hotel, and we were famished. So we ate, showered, and then crashed for 3.5 hours before we had to check out of the room and head home. My feet had started to swell, as they usually do after that many hours on the trail, but I found I actually felt really good. Good enough to drive the 4 hours home.
I learned a lot from this experience. I fueled with more solid fuels than ever before, using 3fuel as more of a supplement rather than my main calorie source. This seemed to work well, as I took in more calories during the run and have not been famished in the days following the race. I also paced much better. Watching my HR in the early miles kept me honest and focused on the long effort. This meant I was running and running easily much later into the race than usual for me. I could have run longer than I did if my Achilles and ankles had not finally succumbed to the slick rock. My legs still felt strong. I also took the time to connect with other runners during the first portion of the race. I have the habit of zoning out into my own world if I don’t know anyone around me. I don’t make small talk. But connecting with runners and running with new friends helped the early miles breeze by, and it gave me someone to cheer for as I saw them in Aid Stations. I kept my mind out of dark holes better, at least until the deepest of night. I pulled myself out of a few lows by reminding myself things would get better, and by giving myself a carrot to keep moving toward. I also conquered the most technical ultra that I have undertaken to date. This race was so much more technical than Bryce, the previous king of this title. Bryce was sand, elevation and altitude, Tinajas was constant rocks which became increasingly slippery through the night. But I survived and finished well ahead of the cut off that was given. Although I will need to improve my ability to cover rocky terrain to have hopes at a less generous cutoff. I also need to find shoes better suited to slick rock. I had been warned that Speedcross, while good at most things, do not work well on wet rock. But I took the chance given they are my favorite shoe and I did not have the time to really break in the pair of Sense Ride’s that I had picked up a week before the race. I need to spend some more time working with the Sense Ride and exploring other shoes. Less slipping may have kept the Achilles happier. All in all, I truly had fun the first 50k, and survived the second. I am so happy I had the opportunity to run this race, and that I had these women to share it with. It really was an awesome girls weekend, in our sick and twisted kind of way!