On a summer evening in 2016, I hobbled across the finish line of the Ohlone 50k trail run. My parents beamed at me with equal parts relief and pride as I approached them, a limp in my step. The run took me nearly 8 hours, 2 hours longer than I expected.
Fully recovered two months later, willfully forgetful of my struggle that day, I wrote down a new entry on my bucket list: “Run 50 Miles.”
I have been interested in the long haul for a long time- sweat inducing activities that far exceed my comfort zone. At 17 I moved to Israel to study martial arts for 6 months. When I was 19 I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. Last weekend I fulfilled the aspiration of my 19-year-old self by participating in the Red Rock 50 Mile Trail Run.
I decided to do this run 3 months ago, inspired by a summer spent in euphoria hiking the Colorado Trail. I also wanted to find a way to keep myself motivated to stay active as I transition to a more stationary lifestyle for school in Santa Barbara. My weeks of hot yoga and repetitive runs culminated in a 100 mile a week regimen before tapering off the intensity for the big day.
The run took place in the Los Padres National Forest, adjacent to Santa Barbara. The rolling hills top out at over 8,000 feet, the summit of Mount Pinos, which the course avoids. The collective gain of elevation for the run is almost 11,000 feet. When I signed up the only information provided was, “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.” That only made the prospect more appealing.
A true glutton for punishment I decide to bike to the trailhead the day before. After 2 hours at the pedal and some absurdly long uphill, I camp out with the other runners under a superbly clear night. In my sleeping bag I chow down on a carb-heavy dinner of sweet potatoes, fueling up for tomorrow.
I wake up at 5am. My first order of business is downing a chia seed drink mix I prepared the night before to encourage a bowel movement. The goal is to prevent an inconvenient poop break during the run.
For a while, I stare at the stars while listening to a playlist titled, “Northern Spirits” a mix of Norse chanting that makes me feel like a Viking on the Atlantic preparing to sack an unsuspecting village on the British Isle. More than anything my body will probably resemble the abused village by the end of the day.
At 5:45am the 40 some odd people running the 50-mile distance sleepily coalesce at the start line for a brief course description. Our markers are orange strips of ribbon with reflective tape on each end. We set off promptly at 6:00am, a parade of dim headlamps bobbing into the dark.
Trail run is a misnomer for these types of events. Even the fastest among us sets off at a light jog. Soon we hit the first bits of uphill. Most of us immediately transition to a brisk walk. Ultra runs are all about sustained pace (a.k.a walking). The first couple of miles pass in a blur as the sun rises over the array of mountains in the distance. We will spend the first part of the day going through them and the latter part of the day working our way back. 3 miles in we finish descending a sadistically long and steep bit of downhill. I hear a rumble behind me, “This’s gonna be a bitch to get back over.”
As we approach the first aid station at mile 6 I joke with another runner about looking forward to the breakfast buffet. My grumbling stomach betrays it as no joke. On a run like this, you can expect to burn upwards of 5,000 calories. I grab as many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and avocado slices as I can fit in my one available hand, happily snacking over the next half mile.
My gear setup is sparse: a single water bottle, my worn sun hat, my trademark backpacking shirt (a Goodwill score), a pair of battered Nike running shorts I have been wearing since 2015 (don’t worry I take them off to wash them every once in a while) and of course my trail runners- a second generation pair of Altra Lone Peaks I found on eBay under the heading, “Vintage.”
The distance to aid station mile 11 passes quickly as I meet a few more runners and have trail conversations ranging from parenting (an area I know nothing about) to the pitfalls of Orthodox Jewry (something I know a lot about). I load up on more snacks, determined to save the junk (caffeine, candy, soda) for when I am more desperate.
The sun is out now but the course is mostly shaded. Soon I link up with a new running partner. Finally someone who seems to be at least remotely in my age category. We joke about the devastating 30 second loss I will have to make up because I turned onto the wrong trail, the likelihood of someone (maybe us) spraining an ankle on some of the more treacherously paved bits of trail and on a more serious note the finer parts of a poignant field of therapy known as emotional granularity. I reflect on how hard it will be to maintain this sense of humor on the way back, how right I was.
My plane was to finish the course in 10 hours. After a few hours on trail, I decided 12 hours would be acceptable. By the time I am halfway through the only thing I am sure of is that I would probably make it in before the cutoff (midnight, 18 hours). Speaking with other runners who have done this track before, or have at least done other long-distance runs, helps adjust my expectations.
I part ways with my young runner friend right after the Gibraltar Dam at aid station mile 15.5. On my way up and around the depleted reservoir, I merge with an existing triumvirate of other runners who I end up sticking with for the rest of the run. Before the run, I wrote down where all the aid stations were on my water bottle. The writing was right around the grip of the water bottle and at this point the mix of sweat and friction has rubbed it all out.
Either I copied the information down wrong (likely) or I was not remembering what I wrote down correctly (less likely). I am elated to find out that the next aid station is at mile 25 (in a few miles) and itself the turn around, 6 miles closer then I had imagined. Once again the task of running 50 miles doesn’t seem too foolhardy. The feeling does not last.
A few miles before the next aid station/turn around point, a bit ahead of my new friends, I decide to take a break. I find a clearing and put up my feet on an impressive oak tree, hoping it will help move around some of the lactic acid build up. What started as an ache in my left leg has turned into sharp pain over the last 2 miles.
After the long stretch without any aid and a particularly long stretch of uphill we hit mile 25. This would be enough of a run for most people and I would have personally been content to stop running, but of course, I did not. At about 6:30 hours into the race, the time being about 12:30pm, we climb up a stout water tower for a magnificent view of the coast far below. Back at the aid station I gobble all the grub I can find. I hear another runner voice the concern, “Can I eat too much food?” I tell her, yes, but my body says no as I grab another avocado tuna sandwich, then tortilla, then another handful of chips and pretzels. I break from the food starting my descent and another 9-mile stretch back to the next aid station. Out of character, I took a prescription-strength NSAID before leaving. The pain blossoming from behind my left knee is preventing me from fully extending my leg, a huge hindrance for the miles to come.
By the time my three friends catch up to me both the NSAID and the caffeine seem to be kicking in. I venture a little uphill run which I am promptly reminded is pretty stupid as we still have a long day ahead of us. On our way to the aid station at mile 31, one of my new friends describes the practice of getting high during an ultra marathon. I am equal parts intrigued and uncertain of the informations veracity. Hypothetically it seems like a good way to pass the endless hours on trail. But my experience of getting high while trying to cover miles backpacking (mom this is all highly theoretical) is that it slows you way down, even for someone named slug.
The glee at arriving of the mile 31 aid station is enhanced when a friendly face asks if I want hot soup, or a grilled cheese sandwich, or a beer. My answer is an enthusiastic yes but I pass on the beer. Stuffing a handful of chocolate and energy goo in my pocket for later, filling up my water, I start my run to the mile 36 aid station. “Only three more aid stations to go,” the thought seems impossible and I know I am getting ahead of myself thinking I am well on my way to finishing. Predictably the last 14 miles are the hardest.
I have a lot of trouble keeping up with the downhill sections to the second to last aid station. I do fine with the uphill. There is a short segment of the flat paved road right before the aid station I breeze through at a relatively fast run. The aid volunteers greet me with a concerned, “How are you doing?” followed by, ”What can we get you?” Thanks to the abundant food at the previous aid station my appetite is satisfied. Instead, I approach one of their parked vehicles and prop up my legs again.
The rest of the crew rolls in for a bit of a longer break (3 minutes altogether) before the next and final aid station in 6 miles. The sunsets as we head out, turning on our headlights, it is about 7:30pm. The struggle to keep up with them intensifies. I arrive at the final aid station with relief and consider asking for some pain killers. Instead I opt for an energy drink and a shot of Fireball Whisky. The lethal combo is not enough to shock my body back into running. The next 4 miles are slow and low as the three runners finally break far off ahead of me.
The immense uphill section I remember from earlier in the day finally hits and I force a smile to myself, knowing this will be the significantly easier part of the remaining miles. I reach the top at a great pace but can hardly muster the strength to walk down the last 1.5 miles. With an agonizing limp in my step, I force my way forward. My leg is getting spasms just recalling the experience. Finally, I make out the lights of the trailhead parking lot below. I run the last few meters of the race and happily pass through the finish line where the bright red LED letters greet me with the message, “14:17,” the number of hours I spent on my feet that day.
I see the faces of my fellow runners huddled around a gas-powered heater. I devour cup after cup of hot tomato soup and quesadillas, sticking around for a few hours to cheer in the last slew of finishers. The last of my adrenaline slowly wears off while hearing and recounting the many stories of the day.
I wake up the next morning to the same pain in my left leg. Surprisingly enough I can bike with relative ease. After the 1.5 hour trip home I summarily collapse onto my bed for a short nap only preceded in priority by a few bowls of cereal.
Upon waking up I track down my bucket list and fill in that entry I made years ago to run a 50 miler. As I shower off all the grime accumulated from the day before I ponder what I want to check off next, “Live in perfect solitude for a week” I consider, or maybe, “Do A Big Summit (like denali).” For now, I am content to focus on my recovery.