Sunday, March 21, 2010

Oriflamme 50K--My first ultramarathon

I've been itching to try ultrarunning for awhile now. Maybe it was after running my first marathon and wishing it had been longer. Or not wanting to cross the finish line of my first Ironman (Arizona, April '08) because I wasn't ready for the experience to come to an end. But I've had this building feeling in my blood like I'm destined for ultrarunning. Like it's in my blood. Maybe it's a calling but the idea of running insurmountable distances in remote areas excites me so much that I get goosebumps.

Yesterday, I finished my first ultramarathon, the Oriflamme 50K. It was the inaugural year for this race so I guess it was a first for both of us. Volunteers and other athletes teased me after getting my race number when I checked in, lucky 13.

--The beginning of the race at the Sunrise Trailhead, 6,000 feet on top of Mt. Laguna.

A small, intimate group of us lined up at the "start line", the wooden fence post at the start of the Sunrise Trailhead. A volunteer counted down the final ten seconds from a stopwatch and shouted, "Go!" I loved the down-to-earth, grassroots, no-frills atmosphere. Very relaxing.

We headed down a gentle, rolling singletrack trail along the famous Pacific Crest Trail. I was reminded of David Horton, the ultrarunner who broke the world record from running the entire PCT (yes, the entire thing--64 days), all the way from Mexico to Canada. I was literally following in his footsteps. I don't know where I got the idea to try running distances beyond marathons through mountains and deserts but I owe some of my motivation to people like him.

We took off jogging in single file. I tried to be patient and seeded myself in the middle of the pack. It was going to be a long day; I was in no hurry. This wasn't a race for me. It was to be an experience, a test to see if I could finish an ultramarathon, and hopefully, somewhat fun. I had no expectations. I hadn't prepared or trained for this at all. I had signed up months ago on a whim. At this point, signing up for crazy-hard races has become some sort of an addiction, akin to a gambling problem. Is there an association you can call for that? A support group? Therapy? Realizing that this ultra was only 7 weeks out from Ironman Utah, I had decided about a month ago not to do it since St. George is an A race. Oriflamme? Not an A race. A "just for fun" race that happened to fall on, yes, a recovery week. At some point this week, I decided, what the hey, I'm going to do it! I just couldn't resist. Oriflamme Canyon was calling me.

Here I was, attempting to run 31 miles, at altitude (6,000 feet), no less. The race course was on difficult trails, dropping from the top of Mt. Laguna into the Anza-Borrego desert and back UP again. But spring had come early, and I had always wanted to see the flowers blooming in the desert. It would be an ideal year for it! What better way to experience desert flowers in March than a 31-run through the desert? I expected obscenely spectacular sights, sounds, and smells from Mother Nature. I wasn't to be disappointed.

I carefully danced over rocks and deep trenches along the narrow, winding singletrack trail the first several miles, picking my way over large boulders and loose shale. The last thing I wanted was an injury this close to my Ironman. Other more competitive athletes breezed by, and I squeezed to the right to let them go. I watched them in amazement as they sprinted down the trail. They were flying. I couldn't figure out how they skated effortlessly over the treacherous trail. The torrential rains of late had dug deep gullies into the center of the trail, leaving only narrow banks to tiptoe on the sides. I waddled down the trail like a duck, trying to figure out how to run sideways. I wished I had Spiderman-like webbed feet that allowed me to defy gravity.

Finally, the trail widened and opened up to the Mason Valley Truck Trail, and I breathed a sigh of relief as another burst of runners I had been clogging rushed by. A bunch of runners trailing behind me makes me nervous. I just wanted to run solo, find my rhythm, and fall into my zone. Unfortunately, despite the luxurious width of the trail, the terrain was covered in rocks, shale, and sandstone. I picked my way carefully and quickly as I dropped down into Oriflamme Canyon, descending 2,000 feet over the next 3 miles. I zig-zagged across the trail to diminish the harshness of the drop. My knees cried out in pain, and my right IT band twinged and throbbed from my hip to my ankle. Hmm. Mile 6 and already IT band problems? Not a good omen. I pushed the thought out of my head.

I took a misstep on the rocks three times, and gasped in horror as my right ankle rolled to the ground. Thankfully, I have very flexible ankles. I hopped a few steps and continued running. No harm done. I breathed a sigh of relief. A fellow athlete further down the the trail had not fared so well. He had snapped his ankle and was hobbling the next miles to the closest aid station on one foot. I asked if he needed help.
"Are you okay?"
"No, I snapped my ankle." I looked in horror at the purple swollen balloon that had once been his left ankle. He continued hobbling, his face contorted into a solemn, stoic grimace.
"Do you need help." Silence. Not a good sign. "Seriously, dude. Do you need help?" I asked again.
"Nah, thanks."
"Um, are you sure? You don't look so good."
"No, I'm fine."
"You are?"
"A ton of other runners have loaded me up with ibuprofen."
"Okay, I'll make sure to notify the guys at the next aid station. I think it's about 2 miles away."
"K. Thanks. It could be worse, right?"
It could? Really? I shuddered. Well, I guess the guy could be dead. Realizing that wasn't the right thing to say and that more than a few awkward moments had passed, I hesitated and replied, "Um, I guess." There was nothing more for me to do after that than to keep running, and carefully.

--spectaculor view of the surrounding mountains as I descend into Oriflamme Canyon on the Mason Valley Truck Trail (about mile 8). Still morning shadows!

I finally made it to the first aid station. Man, I was starving! I had eaten a bar and some Cliff Blocks but hadn't realized how hard I'd been working. I couldn't believe the spread of food: oranges, bananas, PB&Js, Red Vines, and thin mints (yea for Girl Scout cookies!). I ate a little of everything, grabbing a handful of salt tabs and Red Vines, my mouth stuffed, as I jogged off down the trail.

I was now running in sand. And there were cacti. The temperatures rose sharply, and I began to sweat uncomfortably. This must be the desert they spoke of, I thought. My stomach turned and twisted a bit. I found a bush to take care of business (of course, I had my period; lots of fun, especially the pack-it-in/pack-it-out policy).

--sandy trail in Mason Valley; not so easy to run through

--cool cactus; I love the different formations they make!

--another cool cactus!

Feeling much relieved, I started to marvel in the sights from the desert floor. I was in a valley, surrounded by mountains on all side. I creek gurgled alongside. Water? In the desert? It was like an oasis. I had expected a barren desert floor. But, instead, the sandy terrain was densely peppered with blooming vegetation. Purple flowers nestled inside of bursting yellow blooms exploded throughout the desert floor like fireworks. The air was thin and still. The only sound I heard was a soft busy buzzing of hard-working insects flying from flower to flower. A confused green beetle alit on my blue shorts momentarily before I brushed him away. The gentle aroma of lilacs and lavender delicately clung to a quiet breeze.

--Gurgling creek running through the desert across the trail.

--gorgeous view of spring desert vegetation and blooms.

--The spring "meadow" in the desert. Clusters of yellow flowers everywhere.

I reached the 2nd aid station, still smiling, still in good spirits. The volunteers were ultrarunners taking a day off. As soon as they heard it was my first ultra, they were all smiles and friendly advice:
"You need to eat more."
"You need to drink more."
"You're doing great, sweetie!"
"Keep up the good work."
"Your pace is great."
"You REALLY need to drink more."
"You're not drinking enough."
"Really, you need to drink more."
"Are you getting enough to drink?"
"Don't forget the salt!"
And my favorite: "Your Camelback bladder is in upside-down." DOH! This great volunteer took my Camelback, unpacked it, righted the bladder, re-loaded everything it, and filled it for me. Wow! Now, that's service!

--still smiles after the 2nd aid station (mile 13)

--running towards the turn-around into Box Canyon

I continued trudging through the sand, making my way into Box Canyon. Walls of rock rose up on three sides of me. A delightful chilled breeze whistled through the canyon, instantly cooling me off. Ah, nature's air conditioning. Unfortunately, the constant downhill combined with perpetual sand had done a number on my IT band. After 13 miles of going down a mountain, rocks, and sand, the entire right side of my leg was on fire, as if I was getting electrocuted with every step. I knew walking or changing my stride would only make it worse. To compound matters, my stomach had begun to churn, right on schedule, like clockwork. Ah, stomach, I've been expecting you. Other runners who had already reached the turn-around and were now making their way home breezed by in the other direction. I tried hopelessly not to let their amazing speed and progress deflate my spirits and amplify my pain even more. Spectators cheered me on and volunteers snapped pictures. I coaxed my searing legs and churning stomach into a shuffling jog.

As soon as the flurry of runners dissipated and all was quiet again, it was easier for me to deal with my pain. I shuffled to a walk to ponder my options for a minute. The nice thing about an ultra is that it's perfectly okay to walk. My stomach contorted and twisted, and I frantically looked for a bush. The bushes in the desert are not the most conducive for GI emergencies. First, there aren't many bushes to begin with, and what few do exist are sparse and somewhat transparent, making them a poor choice for privacy. To make matters worse, most desert bushes have spines, thorns, or some other type of piercing spike along their branches. Desperate, I made do with what was there. I continued walking down the trail. My stomach continued to lurch. Really? Still? C'mon! I popped an Immodium, checked my watch, and waited 5 minutes. The spasms in my gut were slowly sedated and my stomach was silenced. I gingerly continued trotting through the sand.

Somehow, I made it to the turn-around, and was overjoyed to see a familiar face. My friend (and awesome acunpuncturist), Jen, was there handing out delicious purple grapes. Momentarily, I felt like Aphrodite on Mt. Olympus. I selected a smiling zebra sticker and affixed it to my bib on my shorts, proudly stating that I had reached the turn-around. Heading back, I couldn't believe that I was now officially over halfway done.

Despite the burning in my leg, I knew it could be much worse. My stomach had been silenced from a screaming wail to a quiet whimper. However, my IT band was so inflamed, I began fantasizing about amputation. Knowing the risks of ibuprofen to GI upset, I was hesitant to take any. I had been expecting Pain. Like an old friend, I could always count on Pain to drop by for a visit during an endurance event. Hopefully, Pain would not overstay her welcome. Ah, there you are. Can't say I'm happy to see you but you are right on time, aren't you? Anything I can get for you? You didn't bring your sister, Suffering, did you? I asked hesitantly, peering nervously behind Pain's path. Unfortunately, Suffering usually always is trotting right behind Pain, although she is not a welcome guest. Finally, I couldn't resist any longer. I popped two Ibuprofen and waved goodbye to Pain & Suffering, wishing them well on their way, still shuffling down the trail. They assured me they would pay a visit again soon. I hoped that would be the extent of the low point I had been expecting.

As I waited for the ibuprofen to work, I began snapping pictures to block out the pain. For a few brief minutes, my focus was shifted from pain to odd desert formations. I noticed strange piles of rock statues, odd plant formations, and naturally carved rivets in large boulders, giving each big rock a face and personality. There was still pain but because my focus had shifted, I was no longer suffering.

--Blocking out the pain as I make my way out of Box Canyon

--A "yucca teepee" I discovered along the trail.

--Grimacing at mile 18 but still making forward progress.

I braved a smile for my friend, Greg, snapping pictures of me at mile 18. Unfortunately, I think it was more of a grimace. "It's starting to hurt some now," I lied. I'm in so much pain I would rather cut my leg off and hop the rest of the way back, would have been more honest. At the aid station, I wasn't hungry but was afraid I wasn't getting enough electrolytes. I warily eyed the boiled potatoes, cold, quartered, and still wearing skins. I dipped one in salt, popped it in my mouth, chewed, swallowed, and chased it with a cup of Coke. Not so bad. I tried another. Hmmm. Delicious. After a 3rd, I trotted down the trail.

A cool breeze tickled my back. The caffeine in the coke, calories, Immodium, and Ibuprofen all hit me at the same time. I started to feel good. Really good. Ah, Endorphins. There you are! You can stay as loooong as you like! Endorphins decided to set up shack and party inside my brain. My legs went wonderfully numb, my stomach was quiet, and I was fully energized. I started charging down the trail, through the sand, and a grin began to spread across my face. I drank in the mountains, the cacti, the flowers. Oddly shaped spiked cacti, shooting stalks from succulents, and long, thin rocks dotted the desert floor, like an eclectic handful of spectators staring in wide-eyed wonder at this goofy girl running through their living room. Each boulder, each cactus, each bush had its own personality like a misty spirit, hovering transparently above. The desert was alive. And thousands and thousands of years old. I noticed subtle creaks from shifting rocks and gentle whistling from the wind. Suddenly, an enormous jack-rabbit, complete with huge, catapault-spring legs and gigantic, funnel ears, bounded across the trail, only a few feet in front of me.

--awe-inspiring desert/mountain view.

Still feeling good after passing the 3rd aid station, I started climbing back up towards the top of Mt. Laguna. I was pleasantly surprised by my good spirits and fresh legs after 20 miles. I settled into a steady rhythm, slowly jogging up the rocky trail. I had been expecting to walk the next 5 miles, prepared for extreme fatigue and a sharp ascent into altitude. However, I found it was easier to run than walk. I went with it, absolutely delighted. After a few miles, the grade increased sharply, and I settled into a quick walk, snapping pictures as I ascended. I began to pass the occassional straggler. A few of us walked together for a bit, chatting as we toiled up the mountain. He spotted a large rock and pulled over, "This rock is telling me to sit on it for awhile. I'm going to enjoy the view." And he pulled off all smiles. I waved and continued on. Up the trail a bit, I coaxed and encouraged a grimacing runner, hunched over and stopped by a boulder at the side of the trail. He had a strained look plastered across his face I knew all too well.

--the rocky trail back up the mountain (actually, this part wasn't too bad).

--gorgeous red flowers (like a burst of red stars).

--giant bush with very fragrant white flowers and LOTS of busy bees!

Unfortunately, my stomach had started churning again and I had some, um, female issues to
attend to. Finding a bush as I climbed the trail up the mountain was quite the challenge. Finally, I discovered one and climbed my way into luxurious and secluded privacy to take care of business. I popped another Immodium, re-emerged, and surprised all the weary runners as I passed them again.
"I thought you were ahead of me!" Rock-Sitter Guy exclaimed.
"Bathroom break," I replied. I wonder if I momentarily frightened some of the runners I re-passed. Maybe they thought they were so tired they were having deja vu. I can only hope I contributed to their wonderful feelings of delirium. My leg started burning with fire again. I popped 2 more Ibuprofen. A delightful feeling of numbness spread throughout my lower body again and feelings of euphoria began to build.

After the urging of several volunteers, I had been drinking like a madwoman. Eating like one too. Unfortunately, at mile 22, I ran out of water. The next aid station wouldn't appear until mile 29. Because I had no water, I would be unable to take salt tabs without the wrath of a furious stomach and churning acid. And it would be risky to even pop a Cliff Block without water (although I found I was able to get done about 3 without issues). My Garmin 405 flashed "Low Battery". My iPod beeped "Low Battery". How is it that these pieces of equipment were already dying, and I felt fine. Actually, I felt great!

I snapped tons of pictures, now in a state of delightful delerium, trying to capture the moment, not even sure what I was photographing. I had no water so I didn't have to worry about drinking. I couldn't eat without water. There was nothing I could do. No sense in worrying. I was suddenly relieved. I felt fine and had been freed of all distractions. Finally. I could simply focus on running. I was rocked into a state of deep meditation by the gentle lullaby of my feet. My mind floated out of my body and hovered above me. I felt no pain. I began to expand throughout the desert and mountains, until I felt connected to the rocks around me, the dirt beneath my feet, the cold breeze like a gentle helping hand pushing against my back. It was if I had given up my sense of self to melt with the earth. Now the forces of the universe were pushing me effortlessly along the trail. I was no longer running. I was floating. I no longer worried about tripping on the rocks littering the ground. My feet simply danced around them. I easily leaped over trenches and gullies.

--view of the desert below from the top...and snow-capped mountains in the distance.

--looking back at the trail where I had just been from the top. Wow. That's a long way!

When I reached the top of the Mason Valley Truck Trail and turned back onto the singletrack of the PCT, I had no problem running on the banks of the trail despite the deep eroded ditch traversing the center. My feet leaped and skipped back and forth. Two steps to the right, two steps to the left. Back and forth, over and over. This was fun! I was beginning to pass people now, lots of athletes hunched over, reduced to a painful trudge. I encouraged them as I passed.
"You're doing great!...You can do it!...Keep it up!"
Most of them stared vacantly ahead. Some were startled and jumped as I gleefully jerked them out of their reverie. Some glared at me. One even cursed at me. I understood. I knew what it was like to be hurting and get cheered on by a passing competitor. Not fun. It was okay. I wished them well and hoped they had a safe journey to the finish. I reached the final aid station and gleefully chugged an entire bottle of water down as the volunteers refilled my pack. I popped some salt tabs and caffeinated Cliff Blocks. I would be an unstoppable force now! I couldn't believe there were only three miles to go.

--A ghostly field of skelton bushes at the top of the mountain along the PCT.

As I bounded over another creek, I felt a sudden gush of hot liquid burst on my first toe, and a sharp stinging quickly followed. Every time I ran downhill or hit a rock, excruciating pain stabbed through my toe as if a nail was being hammered into it. It's just a blister, just a blister. It will pass. It will pass, I told myself. Amazingly, in just a few minutes, it did. My foot went numb and I continued running, my runner's high perpetuated. Knowing my first ultramarathon journey was all too quickly coming to an end, I drank in the ecstasy. A sudden feeling of intense euphoria spread through me like warm honey, and a giant smile spread from ear to ear. Laughter burst out of me, making me jump slightly. Who was that maniac laughing? Oh, it's me. I had a sudden epiphany that I was at that precise moment exactly in the world where I wanted to be. There was nothing else I would rather be doing. I began running faster and faster and faster. My pace was faster than it had been at the start. I was flying. I felt like I could keep it up all day.

--zipping towards the finish.

--coming towards the finish with a big smile on my face.

The finish line appeared out of nowhere. That's it? It's the end already? I wasn't ready to be done! I flew across the finish line with a smile from ear-to-ear. I was completely blown away by how purifying and energizing my first ultra experience had been.

--I survived but my feet didn't fare so well. I think I'm going to lose my first toenail!


Mike said...

Inspiring! ... I want to do an Ultra!

Sylvie said...

What an amazing experience. Very inspiring.
Next step, 50 miles? :)

Chris and Amy said...

Wow! I love how descriptive your posts are. It's like I'm right there with you. I just started back on the trails and am in love with every aspect. Thanks for sharing, Amy

Diana said...

Congrats on the first Ultra Rachel...what a great report. You sure have the shit lady luck of Aunt Flo always visiting you for your big events!
Enjoy the high and the rest!!

hstryk said...

Great race report! You continue to inspire me. Reading this made me even more determined to heal and get back to training when I'm ready. Keep it up! I hope to get to your distances someday.

Ann (bunnygirl) said...

What a great run and an amazing experience! I love desert runs and you've certainly done this one justice.

Leah said...

Great post! Sounds like an amazing experience.

Krista said...

Excellent race report - makes me wish I was not slumped in a cubicle but outside with sun on my face and sweat on my skin. Thank you!

Laura said...

Congrats - you are amazing!!

teacherwoman said...

What an amazing experience. Great recap! You did awesome!

Christi said...

Great race report! I could feel every high and low with you! Congratulations on a wonderful race! You are inspiring!

SM said...

Nice Job! congrats on finishing!

Backpacker said...

Shit, now I want to do an ultramarathon. That one, actually. Thanks a lot.

Unknown said...

Wow, sounds like a spiritual experience towards the end! Very cool. When you write about it that way, an ultra doesn't sound so bad. Just finished reading Born to Run, so the whole long distance trail running experience keeps nagging at me. Have you thought about doing the Avalon 50 on Catalina Island?

Unknown said...

Good job Rachel. It is always fun to read about your journey! I am so proud of you!

RoadBunner said...


That ankle guy made me shudder. The number one reason I don't do more trail runs is that I roll my left ankle so easily :(

I am also sad that someone cursed at you for your encouragement! I mean, I know what it means to hate it when people are cheering but you meant well.

It sounds like you are going to do tons more of these in the future!

Alinda said...

You're awesome!

scottcarmack said...

What a great run! And what a fantastic recap in your posting. Congratulations on your ultra accomplishment.

Aimee said...

That has to be the greatest race report I have ever read! Wow! Congrats on completing your first ultra! You are awesome!!!

Grey Beard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Grey Beard said...

Great pics Rachael! I took an ice bath WHILE reading your post! :-O I like the laid back attitude at the start. That's the confidence great athletes do everything with. Kudos!

Unknown said...

wow, is all i can say

Wandering James, said...

Inspirational description of the challenge, some wonderful writing, great refletions and a fnatastic read. Love it!
I'm willing to donate my big toe to you just to ensure you keep telling us your stories :-)
Thanks for the inspiration Rachel. you are amazing!!!
From Brisbane, Australia (where we have GREAT deserts)

Sherry said...

Rachel, out of all of the race reports that I've read over the past few days... this one takes the cake! Like you said, this was not just a race, this was an experience! As with all of your race reports, I felt like I was right there with you the entire time. I don't know girl, you made running an ultra in that beautiful desert of yours sound extremely appealing. An amazing accomplishment. Way to go!

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Unknown said...

Did a google search on Oriflamme and found your blog entry. Very nice writeup. You have me convinced to sign up and run this in 2011.
And congrats on the ultra!

Unknown said...

I like the laid back attitude at the start. That's the confidence great athletes do everything with. Kudos! gogusestetigi