One sweltering summer evening back in 2016, I limped over the finish line of the Ohlone 50k trail run like a wounded animal. With a gait that could rival a zombie, my folks gave me a look that said, “Glad you’re alive”. The race clocked in at nearly 8 hours, a good two hours longer than my overly optimistic estimate.
Fast forward two months, and I’ve conveniently blocked out the memory of that struggle. I scribble a fresh entry on my bucket list- “Run a 50-Mile Run.”
I’ve always had a thing for activities that make me sweat buckets and question my sanity. At 17, I jetted off to Israel to learn martial arts for half a year. At 19, I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. And last weekend, I tackled the Red Rock 50 Mile Trail Run.
The decision to torture myself with this run was made three months ago, inspired by a summer of blissful hiking on the Colorado Trail. Plus, I needed a way to guilt myself into staying active as I shifted into a more sedentary student life in Santa Barbara. My weeks leading up to the big race involved a lot of hot yoga and mind-numbing runs, culminating in a 100-mile-a-week routine before I dialed things down for the main event.
The race took place in the sprawling Los Padres National Forest, right next to Santa Barbara. The “hills” there reach over 8,000 feet, we shamelessly skirted the peak of Mount Pinos. In total, we’d be climbing around 11,000 feet. When I signed up, the organizers gave us this sparse message: “The 50 Mile course is an out and back format. The course will be advanced and intended for the expert trail runner only. Remote, long sections with little or no support, minimal aid, and minimal markings. There is no map and no course profile.” Naturally, that made me want to do it more.
Now, back to my pre-race antics. I’m a glutton for punishment, so I decided to bike to the trailhead the day before. Two hours of pedaling later, I found myself camping out with fellow runners beneath a starry sky. I devoured a carb-loaded plate of sweet potatoes, fueling up for the impending labor.
At the ungodly hour of 5 am, I woke up. My first task? Downing a chia seed drink mix I had prepared the night before – my secret weapon to prevent any inconvenient poop breaks during the run.
For a while, I lay there, gazing at the stars, while listening to a playlist called “Northern Spirits” – a mix of Norse chanting that made me feel like a Viking about to raid a sleepy British village. By the day’s end however, I would more resemble that village than the Vikings.
At 5:45 am, about 40 of us, wide awake from the adrenaline and wearing dim headlamps, gathered at the start line. We got a brief rundown of the course and were handed orange ribbons with reflective tape – our high-tech navigation tools. Then, at 6:00 am sharp, we set off, our headlamps forming a procession into the predawn darkness.
They call these things “trail runs,” but it’s more like a “trail stroll.” Even the speediest of us started with a leisurely jog that soon transitioned into a brisk walk. Ultra runs are all about keeping a sustainable pace – read, walking. The first few miles disappeared in a blur as the sun crept up over the distant mountain range. Three miles in, we tackled a steep downhill stretch that made one runner behind me grumble, “Getting back up this is gonna be a bitch.”
As we approached the first aid station at mile 6, I cracked a joke with a fellow runner about looking forward to the breakfast buffet. My stomach’s growls confirmed it was no joke. In a race like this, you can burn through upwards of 5,000 calories, so I grabbed as many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and avocado slices as my one free hand could hold, happily snacking for the next half mile.
Now, let me break down my gear for you: a solo water bottle, my trusty sun hat, a beloved thrifted hiking shirt, a pair of battered Nike running shorts I’ve rocked since 2015 (don’t worry, they see the washing machine occasionally), and, of course, my gently used Altra Lone Peak trail runners – vintage, as the eBay listing claimed.
The journey to aid station mile 11 breezed by as I struck up conversations with a few more runners. Our topics ranged from parenting (an area where I’m clueless) to the intricacies of Orthodox Jewry (a topic I could talk about all day). I loaded up on more snacks, reserving the hardcore stuff – caffeine, candy, soda – for when desperation kicked in down the trail.
The sun was fully up by now, but the course remained shaded. I soon found myself joined by a new running buddy, the first person I met who fit in my age category. We joked about the disastrous 30-second deficit I’d have to overcome thanks to a wrong turn, the odds of one of us (maybe both) spraining an ankle on the nastier bits of trail, and even delved into the profound world of emotional granularity. I mused about how tough it would be to maintain our sense of humor on the way back – a prediction that turned out to be correct.
[That is me in the fourth picture on the IG post bellow, second person on the left with the white hat]
My grand plan was initially to conquer the course in a speedy 10 hours. After a few hours on the trail, though, I decided that aiming for a more leisurely 12-hour finish seemed acceptable. By the time I hit the halfway point, my only absolute certainty was that I’d probably make it in before the cutoff at midnight, a 18-hour limit. Chatting with other runners who had tackled this beast before helped me adjust my delusions accordingly.
I waved goodbye to my young running buddy right after we passed Gibraltar Dam, at aid station mile 15.5. As I meandered around the reservoir, I joined forces with a trio of runners who’d unknowingly committed to babysitting me for nearly the rest of the run.
In my pre-race enthusiasm, I’d jotted down the aid station locations on my trusty water bottle. But the combined forces of sweat and friction had rendered my once-legible notes illegible. Either I’d copied the intel down wrong (highly likely) or I was now misremembering my own chicken-scratch notes (less likely). To my surprise, I learned that the next aid station awaited us at mile 25, just a few miles ahead, and it marked the halfway point – 6 miles closer than I’d initially imagined. At this point the idea of running 50 miles seemed vaguely plausible. That feeling didn’t last.
A couple of miles before the next aid station and turnaround point, slightly ahead of my newfound pals, I decided it was high time for a break. I stumbled into a clearing and propped my feet up against an impressive oak tree, hoping it would alleviate the mounting lactic acid buildup. What had begun as a nagging ache in my left leg had blossomed into full-blown, sharp pain over the last 2 miles.
After enduring a stretch of trail without any aid stations, followed by a particularly punishing uphill climb, we finally reached mile 25. For most sane folks, that would be enough of a run for one day, and I’d personally have been perfectly content to call it a day if I were alone. At around the 6-and-a-half-hour mark, it was roughly 12:30 pm, and we ascended an abandoned water tower for a breathtaking view of the coast below. Back at the aid station, I stuffed my face with everything I could lay my hands on. I overheard another runner wondering out loud, “Can you eat too much food?” I confidently told her yes, but my body vetoed my words as I grabbed yet another avocado tuna sandwich, then a tortilla, followed by another handful of chips and pretzels. My break from the food didn’t last long as I began my descent, facing another 9-mile stretch back to the next aid station. In a departure from my usual bias, I popped a prescription-strength NSAID before hitting the trail. The pain radiating from behind my left knee was making it impossible to fully extend my leg, an issue for the miles ahead.
As my three compadres caught up to me, the NSAID and caffeine concoction seemed to be working its magic. I even dared a bit of uphill running, a decision I promptly regretted, as we still had a marathon day ahead of us. En route to the aid station at mile 31, one of my newfound friends regaled us with tales of people doing psychedelics during an ultra marathon. I was intrigued but skeptical about the accuracy of this information. It sounded like a fun way to pass the seemingly endless hours on the trail, but my limited experience with getting high while covering miles (hypothetically, Mom, it’s all hypothetical) told me it could seriously slow you down.
The joy of reaching the mile 31 aid station was amplified when a friendly face offered me hot soup, a grilled cheese sandwich, or even a beer. I eagerly said yes to everything except the beer. With a pocketful of chocolate and energy goo for later, a replenished water supply, and a full belly, I set off for the mile 36 aid station. “Only three more aid stations to go,” I thought, though it seemed like an impossible feat, and I knew I was getting way ahead of myself, entertaining the notion that I was on the home stretch. As expected, the last 14 miles turned out to be the true test.
I held my own on the uphill portions but descending was a challenge. Just before the aid station, we encountered a short stretch of flat paved road, which I sailed through at a brisk pace. The aid volunteers greeted me with concern, asking, “How are you doing?” followed by, “What can we get you?” Thanks to the hearty meal at the previous aid station, my appetite was satisfied. Instead of food, I approached one of their parked vehicles and propped up my legs once more.
The rest of the gang arrived and we decided to take a slightly longer break (a whopping 3 minutes) before the final aid station, a mere 6 miles away. As the sun dipped below the horizon, we switched on our headlights, signaling the approach of 7:30 pm. The struggle to keep pace with my companions intensified. I reached the final aid station ready to ask for more painkillers. Instead, I opted for an energy drink and a shot of Fireball Whisky. The dubious combo failed to jolt my body back into running mode. The next 4 miles dragged on, slow and arduous, as my three fellow runners gradually pulled ahead.
Finally, I encountered the massive uphill section from earlier in the day. I mustered a smile to myself, knowing that this would be the easier part of the remaining miles. I reached the summit at a decent pace but could hardly find the strength to walk down the last 1.5 miles. With an agonizing limp in my step, I pushed forward. My leg is spasming just recollecting the experience. At last, I spotted the lights of the trailhead parking lot below. I ran the final few meters and joyfully crossed the finish line, where the bright red LED letters proclaimed, “14:17,” the total number of hours I had spent on my feet that day.
Surrounded by my fellow runners, huddled around a gas-powered heater, I devoured cup after cup of hot tomato soup and quesadillas. I lingered for a few hours to cheer on the last batch of finishers, basking in the camaraderie and shared stories of the day.
The next morning, I awoke to the same throbbing pain in my left leg. Oddly enough, I found that I could bike with relative ease. After a 1.5-hour journey back home, I promptly collapsed onto my bed for a brief nap, preceded in priority only by a few bowls of cereal.
Upon regaining consciousness, I dug out my trusty bucket list and checked off the entry I had made years ago, to run a 50 miler. As I scrubbed away the grime from the previous day’s adventure in the shower, I pondered what to tackle next. “Live in perfect solitude for a week,” I considered, or perhaps, “Conquer a Big Summit (like Denali).” For now, though, I was content to focus on my recovery.