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Old West 50K: On Cactus, Friends and Rib Pain

As I sit here post-race, my legs propped up on a stool and a cold kombucha doing little to aid in reducing lactic acid build-up in my body, I can’t help but be slightly terrified at the prospect of running Zion 100-mile in three weeks. It will my first hundred. Part of the reason for my terror is because of the way my body currently feels (i.e., fatigued, stiff) and part of it is because 31 miles is not even a third of the way to 100 miles. But, I have three weeks to think (or not think) on that.

Today’s race was a blast! I originally signed up after realizing that I needed one last long run in preparation for Zion. Running with others, whether in a race or not, sounded more fun by this point in my training cycle than running solo, so I opted to try Old West 50K.

Nick and I awoke at 3:55 a.m. to drive the two hours out to Anza Borrego from Coronado. The drive passed quickly. I dozed as Nick drove. After we checked in at Stagecoach Trails, we grabbed some hot tea from the breakfast provided and I sorted out my gear. I didn’t have much of a plan for the race, except to try to PR. My first 50K at Born to Run in Santa Barbara, CA is still my fastest at 4:39:xx. Knowing that Old West is a relatively flat course, I hoped that I might be able to break my personal record. We would see…


Sunrise over Anza Borrego.


Getting ready for the race.


And we’re off! I’m in red.

We started the race just as the sun rose. The first few miles wove up through the desert, narrowing from a sandy wash to single track fringed with cholla, agave and barrel cactus. I watched the first pack of all-male runners take the front and figured I would settle in at a quick but comfortable pace. I didn’t realize that there were roughly ten runners immediately behind me at first, but I lead the way up through the first (and only, really) substantial climb before we started descending. Once we began, however, the rib pain started…for the past two to three years, I’ve been dealing with sharp pain in my ribs/underneath my oblique muscles that occur only when I run at tempo speeds and/or downhill. I’ve been to chiropractors, massage therapists, Western family-doctors and Eastern health practitioners but have been unable to figure out what  causes the stabbing pain nor how to alleviate it (besides not running). I have a feeling the pain is related to my idiopathic scoliosis, but if anyone has any ideas or can relate, please let me know!

From mile 5-8, I shuffled to the first aid station and tried to breathe out the rib pain to no avail. Luckily, I knew that it generally sorts itself out while going uphill. For the next eight miles, I was able to pick up my speed and catch the group of runners who had passed me during my rib pain. I ran into the lead woman, Sydney, who I had met at the Whoo’s in El Moro 50K last spring. We chatted about past races and our colleges and enjoyed each other’s company before the woman in third suddenly passed us. Knowing that I likely wouldn’t catch her again unless I tried to keep up now, I parted from Sydney and followed the now leading woman, Kathy. Again, I was able to strike up conversation with Kathy and learned that she ran the race last year and had the course record! She seemed excited about the race and had said she’d had a great time last year, as well. We ran together until the next aid station, at mile 16, where I saw Nick. He had been taking lots of photos of the flowering cactus and runners on course and I was excited to see him. After a quick refill for my water bladder, I was off. I knew that there was a slight uphill part ahead and, since Kathy had divulged that she disliked uphills and downhills, I knew that this was my chance to gain a bit of a lead. Miles 16-23 went by slowly and more than once I stopped to see if I had missed something as I could see no one ahead or behind me. Finally we rounded the mountainside and I could spot the aid station of sparkling cars a few miles ahead.

Cholla, cholla and more cholla.

Cholla, cholla and more cholla.


Coming into the race, I broke rule #1 of racing: never wear something for the first time on race day. However, I had bought my first pair of Altra shoes the day before with my REI dividends and was excited to try them out. I loved the shoes but by the halfway mark my feet were sore and tired. Nick kindly grabbed my extra, old pair of New Balances from the car and I swapped them at the third aid station. In my rush, I failed to refill my water bladder again and so by mile 24, a mile out from the aid station, I ran out of water. For much of the race, I had been listening to music but it suddenly felt too hot for even ear plugs. I briefly considered power-hiking up the grade, but thought that I might be caught if I slowed down. Once I reached the water station at mile 26, a volunteer doused me in ice-cold water and I chugged five cups of water before heading out. I didn’t feel much better, but the faster I hurried, the sooner I would be finished.


Kathy and I running along the sandy wash leaving mile 16

Kathy and I running along the sandy wash leaving mile 16

At mile 28, I saw Nick waiting for me at the final aid station. “I’m going straight through!” I shouted, still convinced that Kathy or Sydney were right behind me. A runner in a red shirt had been ahead of me for much of the race, but I had gained on him in the last mile as I hurried downhill. With a mile-and-a-half to go, I picked up the speed and passed three more runners. As the finish line came into sight, I was still convinced that I would be passed so I sprinted hard, the sign reading 4:40:29 as I crossed the Jubilation Line!

Sprinting to the finish!

Sprinting to the finish!

Jubilation Line

Jubilation Line

Ultimately, I was roughly forty-seconds off of my PR but I took first place woman and course record! Better yet, it was so nice to see Sydney again and spend some time chatting with Kathy post-race, too. Friends on course beat anonymous competition any day.

Old West 50K (and 30K) is a spectacular race. RD Larry and Matt and all of the volunteers were friendly and supportive and I’m thankful for everyone that spent the hot day helping runners.

Post-race photo with RD Larry

Post-race photo with RD Larry

Thank you to everyone out on the course who gave me a smile, thumb’s up, or high five! I hope I was able to return your wonderful boost of morale with a big smile.

Most importantly, thank you to Nick for all of his support–I can’t imagine a better best friend, coach, birding-partner, cook and support crew.

I look forward to returning next year (thanks to my first-female entry to 2017’s race!) but for now, it’s time to rest, recover and focus on Zion…

*All photos by Nick Hollon 🙂 


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