You know, we never really find out what happened after Cinderella wound up in a relationship. How did she get along with the Prince? And I'm here to tell you: Cinderella be a harsh mistress.
Going in to this thing, my main motivation was last time, and improving on that. I basically figured that not getting lost would be the difference. That and I think I'm just in better shape now. When I first ran Cinderella, I had only been doing trail running for about three months, and by now, that number has more than doubled. And a weak core had been my biggest problem last time. I've been doing lots of core strengthening exercises for the last month or so, and they've been getting much easier, so I figured I'd corrected a major weakness.
I stayed at Athan's place in Berkeley on Saturday (thanks for the spare key!). Allowed me to keep from having to wake up so early. I still got there a little later than I wanted, and had to park on the road nearby. Not too far away though, I guess.
Before the race, I bumped into Maxime, the guy that finished second at San Lorenzo River, and a very good trail marathon runner (and the guy that shared the only beer with me!). I asked if he'd break four hours today. He laughed and said no way. But I wasn't so sure. He broke four hours in that one, and it has about the same amount of climbing (at least, officially). I thought he had a good chance.
"You'll probably be done with your 50k before I'm done with my marathon!"
"Ahhhhh!!!" I waved dismissively at him. Really, I didn't see that happening. I thought he had a realistic shot at four hours, and if I finished a 50k in exactly four hours on a much easier course last week, that simply wasn't happening today.
As we lined up, I found myself next to the guy that finished second in the 50k at Crystal Springs last week.
"Got any competition today?" he asked.
I had no idea. "I guess I'll find out!"
"I saw you had a great training run this week!"
Eh, kinda. 11.5 miles, all flat and all paved, at a 6:05 pace isn't that great. I was actually aiming for 6:00 and couldn't do it. But I thanked him anyway.
Lined up and ready to rock, I smelled something funny. It turned out there was a sewer grate right on the start line. It was unpleasant. Once we noticed what it was, the crowd shifted noticeably to the left. Wendell went through his routine of explaining the course markings. For whatever reason, I still like listening to it, I guess just because I like his casual approach, light sense of humor, and he usually says something out of left field. And even the corny jokes he says every time still get a smile out of me.
With only a few seconds before the gun, the second-place Crystal Springs guy wished me luck. Sort of.
"Enjoy, Tex!" he chimed.
I smiled, and heading up the first hill, my smile gradually turned into a laugh. Yeah, it's a cheesy moniker, but any good Texan takes it as a compliment any time someone references your status as a Texan. I overflowed with pride.
The course starts off with a tough climb in the first half-mile, followed by a steady incline for the next two miles. It didn't take long before I separated myself. Made it to the first aid station in no time and headed down the hill. Only one person was close to me. I found the turnoff that I missed once last time and headed down a ridiculously steep, technical trail. Upon reaching the bottom, I was now entering the first of many challenging parts of the course.
While this course has a famously long, steep, difficult hill at the end, I think it's the middle miles on each loop that really take a toll on you. There are some parts that are at least as steep as anything else on the course, and there is no part that is flat. Even in the downhill sections, which seem rare (even though this section is a net downhill), it feels like you're working hard. The half-marathoner behind me passed me on a steep, tricky downhill, and I passed him a mile or so later on one of the more challenging climbs. I probably never got too far away from him.
Leaving the middle miles, I was still feeling alright, ready to take on the big one. After one last steep, technical descent, the kind that gives you no reward for your climbing, the course flattened out for almost a mile before the aid station. I made it pretty quick, but still got caught by the half-marathoner behind me. We set out to take the big uphill together. It was already warm out. I was surprised how well he was holding up wearing a long-sleeved shirt, and a black one at that.
Honestly, it felt great to take on the toughest challenge with a partner, whose name I finally learned was Alex (he won the half-marathon, by the way). That didn't last long though; about a quarter of a mile up the hill (which lasts about three miles), I managed to get away from him on one of the steeper sections. One of the few pleasant things about the hill is that the steep sections get a little more spaced out as you go. I was still beat to crap by the end, and it didn't help that this is one of the more exposed parts of the course, baking you in the sun. I was sweating like crazy.
There is no absolute top of this hill, it breaks into rollers, with some parts just as tough as any other on the hill, and gradually has more downs than ups. Once you reach the aid station though, it's almost all down from there. I got there and ran into some familiar volunteers, including Lukas. He's never been a volunteer before, but I bumped into him at Horseshoe Lake (he won the 50k), and later saw him at the San Francisco Endurance Challenge, where he won the 100-miler. He recognized me instantly and saw my bib number.
"50k? You can't do that! That's my event!"
"Actually, last I heard, your event was walk 25 miles at a time and puke your guts out."
He laughed hysterically, then quickly composed himself, "Yeah, yeah...that happened."
"I heard you won by-"
"Did you have to sprint to the end to win?"
"I had no idea anyone was there! I just walked across!"
"Penny didn't look back and go 'Hey, there's someone there, maybe jog the last 100 meters,'?"
"Naw, she just kept saying 'No one's there; you're doing fine.'"
I was finally done taking in snacks and water. "I'd smack her for that. See you later!"
The course had changed a little bit; instead of going straight down a very steep, technical descent, it now wound around a little more on the way down, adding 500 meters to each loop. I had to do this section three times. That sort of played to my advantage, only the extra part actually had a little bit of uphill involved. That didn't sit well with me. Still, I ran in the last part decently well. As I approached the finish, a few 5-milers and 10k-ers were still finishing. At least five times, I heard "Hey, go over there!" accompanied by pointing at the timing sensor.
"I'm not finishing!" I kept telling them. Somehow, I thought that saying "I've only done the first loop of a 50k," would sound too much like "I'm eight miles ahead of you!" or "I'm literally twice as fast as you!"
I was the first long distance-er to the start/finish, ahead of anyone running the half, 30k, marathon, or 50k. 1:45. That was actually slower than last time, even though I didn't get lost! But I think I felt a little better. Maybe I was just pacing better, not killing myself in the tougher parts. I headed back up the first hill again.
After the initial tough part, during the following two miles of incline, I mostly felt great! Even though I was consistently running uphill, it didn't even feel hard. I wondered if I just hadn't used my "normal" running muscles in a while, or even the ones for inclines. For the longest time, it had been either climbing hard or descending fast. I was in my element, gaining ground without having to dig too deep. I arrived at the first aid station (same as the last one before the start/finish area). All the same volunteers were still there. A lot of long-distance-ers were there, about to finish their first loop.
"You only got about five ahead of you now," one volunteer said with a straight face, in a deadpan tone. Obviously a joke; I was in front, and when you're in front, you know.
"They must be really skinny, because I don't even see them when they passed!"
With all the half-marathoners only doing one loop, and everyone else behind me, this would be a very lonely part of the course. Or it would've been, if there weren't a ton of hikers, many of them with dogs. Hard to blame them, this area was beautiful, peaceful, serene, quiet, scenic, exactly the kind of place you'd want to escape to on the weekend. And tough enough to give you a challenge, even if you're just hiking for an hour or so. I delivered my trademark chipper "Good morning!" to all the humans I saw, and if I encountered a dog separately, usually greeted them with "Hey, buddy!" All of them were friendly and well-trained.
Blazed back down the hill again, and headed deep into the woods once more, ready to take on some tough miles. Hit the bottom and braced myself. I wound up never walking in this section (I did in the very steepest parts last time around). That made me feel pretty good. This time was going better. And as I approached the end of the deep woods part, I tried to think about how bad I felt last time. I definitely felt a little better, most notably my core. It was getting tired, but wasn't gone. I kept expecting a downhill, then the flat section leading up to the aid station. It never seemed to come, but as the miles ticked away, I knew I was getting closer and closer to finishing up the toughest parts of the course. Once I got to mile 24, the top of the big hill, all the worst would be over. And I kept getting closer and closer, without getting completely pooped. Sounded good, even if I was slowing down.
I reached the bottom of the hill and did the easy mile to the aid station. I knew it was about to get ugly. Only one volunteer was there. I stuck around a little bit and chatted with him, mostly because I didn't want to head up that hill just yet.
"You're way ahead, aren't you?"
"I think. I don't know. When you're ahead, there's no good way of knowing."
I finally headed out. Time to do this thing.
A miracle had happened. Clouds were in front of the sun. Not thick ones; only a thin veil, the kind that allows you to still see shadows, but only just barely. Had that not happened, I don't know what would've happened to me on that hill. My stomach had been unhappy for miles, and it would be too long before I got back to the start/finish. With no shame, I moved barely off the trail, only behind one tree, and took a crap in the woods. Then I kept going. I had to walk some of the steeper parts this time, but less than I did back in May. I took that as a good sign. As I approached the top, I kept thinking I had to stop and pee. I didn't really. I was just looking for an excuse to stop.
I was elated when I made it to the aid station, not so much because I wanted food or water, but because I knew it was mostly downhill from there. At least for now. There were seven miles to go, and only one hill. A hill I felt good on last time. The worst was over. Right?
One of the volunteers told me that last time I passed through this aid station, the nearest 50k-er was 5-10 minutes back. If that was still true, they would have to gain about a minute per mile on me. But the way things were going, I knew that might happen...
I trotted down the last two miles, not feeling my best. But it was almost all downhill. Almost. In the flat-to-incline last half-mile, I actually stopped once or twice and put my hands on my knees. Then I got it together and ran again. C'mon, don't be a wimp. This isn't even the hard part. Finish.
I arrived at the start/finish, still ahead of the marathon and 50k pack. Just under four hours, again, slower than last time, despite not getting lost. I finally realized that the extra 500 meters on each loop was almost exactly making up for the extra distance. So I was nearly on the same pace, just a little slower, but feeling a little better than the absolute misery I was in last time. Probably the best position I could hope for.
As I passed through the meadow, I kept looking over to the right, where people were eating food and drinking beer. I felt like crap.
"Don't look over there, Rob!" A volunteer rushed over to the aid station. "Don't look! Keep going!"
I took an unusually long stop at the aid station. The volunteer did nothing but encourage me, though I don't know if it worked. I trudged off for the last hill, unsure of how much I had left in me.
One thing worth noting: this was the first 50k where I reached the marathon distance and still had a significant hill to climb.
I was almost glad the hill was steep because now I had an excuse to walk, even though I didn't use that excuse either time before. I wasn't even power walking up, just walking. The steep part leveled off into a gentle incline. I walked for another 30 seconds or so, hoping to get my legs to regain something before I started running. Starting up again wasn't easy, but I found my legs soon, and even though I was slow and hurting, I was able to keep going.
For a while.
It was only about a mile up the hill before I was gone. Done. My core had no strength left whatsoever. I think my legs had just a little more (they weren't doing well either), and my heart and lungs, maybe just barely a little more. But my abs and lower back were done for today. Even a pathetic slow jog wasn't happening. I slowed to a walk; not a power walk, a walk. Every so often, I tried starting up again, telling myself that for every mile I walk, I'm going to give 10 minutes to the guy behind me. But it never lasted long. I wondered to myself how I managed to keep going in the 50-miler. I didn't feel this bad 30 miles into that race, and it supposedly has more climbing, too. What was going on today?
A few 30k runners, 13 miles behind me, started passing me. Most of them asked if I wanted some of their water. Though I refused, I finally developed an appreciation for those that carry something with them on the course.
I got passed with about 3.5 miles to go. He looked strong. I might've been able to chase him for a while, but not for long. I let him go, and even encouraged him. Today just wasn't my day, and I wasn't earning a win. Someone else deserved it.
My watch finally beeped. I had done another mile. In 21:53. It's official: that is slower than walking speed! I felt like a failure. I kept walking.
A full hour after I left the start/finish area, I finally made it to the aid station. I immediately plopped into a canvas chair. A volunteer repeatedly brought me water and oranges. These guys rock. I may have been dehydrated, so I made it a point to drink more than I normally would. I stayed there a while, and felt better when I finally stood up.
I finally moved out of the area, leaving with a marathon runner. He walked and talked with me for a little while. Turned out he was only that far back because he stopped to help out a guy who took an incredible fall and lost skin to the point that bone was exposed (but thankfully not broken). He walked with the guy and helped him to the next aid station, where they called an ambulance. After telling me the story, he trotted off. I waited for a downhill.
Now heading down the last hill, I gathered what strength I still had and resumed a slow trot. A few stronger 50k-ers passed me. I encouraged all of them. As one passed, I felt a tap on my behind. Huh?!?
I have to mention, I never played football (I was a band kid!), and in soccer, no one really does that. I think this may have been my very first sports butt-pat.
With effort, I navigated the steeper parts of the last descent and finally found myself on the last half-mile of fire road before the finish. It's such a tease; you're so close, and you have to run up one last incline before you finish. I kept up my slow jog in the flat sections, and upon reaching an incline, pushed through it. Hey, not bad! It felt like I was waking up something I hadn't used in a long time. Only a couple steps later, I realized why. Yeah, that's not happening. I didn't slow to a walk; I stopped entirely and put my hands on my knees. A few deep breaths later, I started walking again.
With only a quarter-mile to go, I finally took up a slow jog again and managed to hang on to it, even through the uphill inclines. As I approached the finish, a few people hanging out in the park applauded, and I shot them a weird look, raising one corner of my mouth. This was not applause-worthy.
"And he's still smiling!" one of them said. Haha, no. That's a look of incredulity, not joy. I am far from happy. Except maybe glad that it's done.
Across the finish line, I took in some water and laid down on a bench. Only a little later, another 50k-er came through and laid down on the other side. I looked over,
"Right there with ya, buddy."
A volunteer laughed. He groaned.
I spent a solid two hours there, making sure I felt OK before I got in the car to drive home. Cake, s'mores, chicken, sausage, and beer. And a conversation with a guy from the Yukon. He has run a marathon in -40 degree weather. He said this race was harder. I felt a little better.
Without a doubt, this was the worst race I've ever run. I've been less prepared, and there have been days where more things out of my control went wrong. And I've done courses that were technically harder. But today, wow. It just wasn't happening. It's astonishing to think that with 3.5 miles to go, I was still winning, and I wound up placing fifth, 45 minutes behind the winner. I crashed that hard. I didn't hit the wall, I was thrown into it by a catapult.
There were a few parts where I'm sure I could've dug deep and found a way to keep moving, but once I knew a win was out of the question, and a respectable time probably wasn't happening either, I saw no point. Especially considering I have another race in less than a week, and a team is depending on me in that one. I would hate to let them down because I killed myself for no reason today.
After doing so well in three consecutive races, one of which was much tougher than this, I'm still struggling to figure out what made this one so different. I ate about the same. I tapered the same, if not a little extra. And this race, while a little tough, wasn't necessarily anything special. What happened? After getting my behind kicked by this course twice now, I'm inclined to think that it might have more climbing than advertised, especially in those middle miles in the woods. I think the steep downhills just mean that you never get any easy miles. And maybe The Second Gauntlet is starting to wear me down.
But more than anything, this course is my nemesis. I came in wanting to show it who's boss, and I got put in my place. For now, I can't decide if I should come back again next year to give it another try, or if I should accept it and move on. But who knows what'll be brewing by next May. Time will tell.
In only five days, I have another race. I think I'm taking tomorrow off.