“What are you doing?” I asked Nick as he patted my back on the second loop of the 50K, 3-loop course at the Born to Run Ultramarathons.
“Just brushing down your hackles,” he replied with a laugh.
Three months earlier Nick had traveled down to Urique, Mexico to run the Ultra Caballo Blanco with the Tarahumara and other Mas Locos. I admitted my jealousy of his trip when he returned and I think he read that as a sign that I needed to experience something similar. And so he signed us up (thank you, Luis!) for my first ultramarathon, the Born to Run 50K in Los Olvios, California. I was excited, sure, but also nervous; I had only run half marathons, courses that were too hilly and too hot and too much for someone who had only just learned about the ultra scene a year and a half before. But I would be out in Carbondale, Colorado for three months on an internship and had spare time: why not begin to train?
And so began the training: long runs along the Rio Grande Trail in Carbondale and speed workouts around the track. When Nick came to help me pack up during the last week of my internship, he had me finding my Max. Heart Rate and doing AT Threshold Workouts that left me wondering if others were training like this, too. Would it be enough? Would I conk out after mile 21, at which point I would be in unknown territory? Was I ready for a 50K?
After celebrating Nick’s birthday and my last day of the internship, we packed up my apartment and headed down, through southwestern Colorado, the very northwestern tip of New Mexico and toward Arizona, where we set our eyes on the Grand Canyon.
Nick had run the Grand Canyon twice before, but I hadn’t even seen the Grand Canyon, let alone run the golden gorge. After arriving in Flagstaff and finding ourselves the cheapest motel we could, (throughout the course of the trip we learned the secrets of finding the best places: look for the busiest and noisiest corners in the city,) we laid everything we would need for the following morning’s run on the cigarette-burned bed: our packs, windbreakers, food and water. Nights in Flagstaff had been cold, and so I was more concerned about freezing during our 2:30 wake up and our 4a.m. start.
Turns out, running keeps you relatively warm and the grandeur of seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time as daylight crept upwards through the gorge kept my mind on more important things, like how blessed I was to be running here.
We finished the 42 miles–with the last six miles being hell for me and hell for Nick who had to deal with me– an hour before sunset.
“Well,” Nick said as he took a bite of pizza, “you’ll definitely have something in your back pocket.” We had stopped at the closest restaurant we could find in the Grand Canyon Village before driving back to Flagstaff for the night. My feet had never hurt this much in my life, but beyond the fatigue I felt excited. And Nick was right. If I could run–or, most of the time, hobble–through the Grand Canyon, then I could wrap myself around running my first 50K.
On Friday morning, Nick and I made the 4-hour drive, (which turned into 8 hours after several stops for Chipotle, ice cold sparking water and, of course, fossils!) to Los Olivos, where we arrived at the ranch just before five p.m. After a quick packet pick-up, we pulled into the large clearing where tens of RVs, motorhomes, trailers and vehicles spewed a variety of camping gear and running clothes. The majority of people had gathered underneath a banner of flags brought by campers–I was glad there were other Canadians representing our rugged land. Before we had a chance to settle in, the infamous Beer Mile event started and a rowdy bunch of good-natured runners slammed down their first beers and started running.
The rest of the night was spent meeting Nick’s friends, setting up our camp with the Mas Locos and dancing to Metalachi, an eccentric, obnoxious and very catchy band that combined Classic Rock, Mariachi and lots of Fireball Whiskey into one lively performance. Who needs pre-race fuel (tortilla chips) and lots of rest (dancing to Metalachi until late at night and falling asleep to the happy laughs of tipsy campers)? I fell asleep quickly, exhausted and anxious to begin the race.
Luis Escobar’s voice, loud through the microphone and reverberating throughout the tired campground, woke everyone up before 5 a.m. the next morning. We’d have enough time to throw together our packs, get in line for the port-a-potties and make our way to the start.
Some runners looked focused, as though they knew exactly what they were doing and how fast they were going to go out, while other runners looked half-asleep, unsure of what they had signed themselves up for. Nick can probably verify that I looked somewhere in between, but 6 a.m. rolled around, (after we all raised our hands and agreed that no matter what happened out there, it’d be our “own damn fault!”) and the 2014 Born to Run Ultramarathons began.
The first loop of the 50K went by fast; the soft light of dawn shadowed the slopes and the fog hung low, enveloping the oaks. We had started off near the front, but as mile one turned to two and two turned to three, runners began to pass me. I wasn’t worried, though, as I figured that most runners were in the 10-Mile, not the 50K. This was a whole different race! Or so I thought…
For the most part Nick and I ran alone. On uphill sections I slowly jogged past runners who were walking, but then I’d be passed on the downhills, (finding a balance between these two will be addressed this summer!) It was during one of these downhills that another female runner caught me–and stayed. As with other runners, I would pull away from her as we slogged up a gradual hill, but she’d be quickly back on my heels as the road leveled out or dipped down. Whether or not the push of running aggravates and intensifies certain feelings, I was bothered. Her feet shuffled each time she moved and I couldn’t stop myself from deeming her “The Plodder” in my frustration.
“What are you doing?” I said as The Plodder began to catch up to me on a downhill section. Nick explained that he was “brushing down my hackles.” He would explain that he could feel the tension between the woman and myself. Even though I hadn’t realized it, I had felt real competition.
As we pulled into the last aid station of the loop, The Plodder dodged into the port-a-potty as we continued, (although she would ultimately pass me and finish ahead!). She had looked strong, and though I knew I wouldn’t be ahead of her for much longer, I felt more relaxed now that I couldn’t see anyone ahead of me or behind me. Rather than the pressure of racing, I only had the pressure I could choose to put on myself–time, distance, whatever I was competing against.
The second loop of the Born to Run 50K course, much like the first, wound through the Los Olivos ranch, studded with oak and olive trees. Luis Escobar, the RD, had made it clear that we were to follow the pink ribbons on the first loop, yellow on the second, and pink again on the last, meaning we’d be repeating ten miles of the course. I had started off slow when the race began at 6 a.m. and though I now picked up some speed, the longer flat sessions on the first loop felt endless. Still, Nick was by my side and had promised to run the full thing with me, so I let go (as Nick, coincidentally, began humming Frozen’s “Let It Go” song) of my doubts and focused on how lucky I was to have a pack mule (he carried my water and food!) and my best friend running with me the entire time. This loop, though the longest, was also the most enjoyable; the hilly section that revealed a beautiful vista of the entire ranch, the friendly smiles of other runners–50-Milers and 100Ks running their race on the adjoining loop–and the knowledge that I could worry about catching other runners, (and making sure they couldn’t catch me,) still a loop away.
And then we came through the campground for the second time, the second loop finished. 21 miles in and now was the time to keep that pace in check. I passed a few runners and a few more passed me. The pressure of having runners behind me kept me moving forward, despite my sore feet and even sorer butt. I was more than ready to be coming through the campground for the last time.
And soon enough, we were! I’ve been in larger races (Vancouver Sun Run) where the entire 10K course is run with hundreds of people at your side and the finish line is often so backed up that race officials have to keep urging people to move forward. The Born to Run, however, was barely 600 people, and much, much less than that at the finish line considering almost everyone was running the course. As Nick and I came running into the dusty camp, some in camping chairs and some with beers in hand and some working tirelessly at the aid station yelled out support. Despite my initial dislike of having other runners (outside of Nick) around, it really was great to have that last push at the end. With whatever was left, I mustered my speed and sprinted my way to the finish, in 4:39:59.
As a quick summary, here’s what I loved:
-The entire Born to Run experience. It was awesome to come out of my shell a little and join everyone in dancing to Metalachi and the other bands. Also, I’m so happy to have finally met so many of the friends Nick talks about! Hello Josue, Flint, Margaret, Maria and others!
-I was spoiled having Nick beside me the entire time, be it for support, food and water. He obviously knows what he’s doing and having someone tell me to eat, even when I protested, was probably a big contributer for feeling strong throughout the race.
-Having completed Rim to Rim to Rim three weeks prior. Just knowing that my body was capable of going that far and that long was a real confidence booster.
-The course. What a beautiful part of the world!
-The touching moment when Luis and other runners gave their glowsticks to the Tarahumara and Viva Chihuahua was sung.
-The competition, although I can’t decide if I love it or hate it more…
-Blue corn tortilla chips, my choice of fuel before and after the race.
Thank you to everyone who helped organize and contribute to such an amazing event. I can’t think of a better introduction to the ultra world and look forward to another…