I don’t always pay good money to run 50 miles. But when I do it is in Marin and it is awesome. My average speed on this one was was 5.8659 mph, which for me was pretty fast.
My target average speed with overnight gear on the JMT is about 3mph. I’ve actually hiked/run every step of the JMT more times (5 or 6, I’ve kind of lost count) than I’ve paid to run an ultramarathon race (exactly 3). I’ve actually never run an official Marathon – that would be too conventional I guess.
My first Ultra was the Skyline to Sea 50K in 2010, which I finished in about 5:42 despite massive leg cramps that forced me to walk much of the last 5-10 miles. (This works out to about 5.44 MPH). I had no idea what I was doing – I went out hard and fast, bombed the downhills, and hiked the uphills so my knees wouldn’t blow up. I think my longest run before that was about 16 miles. I learned about salt tablets at about mile 25 from a passing woman who was nice enough to share a couple with me. At that point I could barely walk -my hamstrings and quads were so locked up, bending my knees was not really an option. A lot of people (maybe 50? I’m not sure) passed me in the last 5 miles, which was all easy downhill. This was frustrating, but my exuberant start still placed me at a respectable 71st out of 191. It’s kind of crazy to think how well I could have done had I not blown up in the last few miles. It’s also crazy to note that Leor won the 50K with a time of 3:25, beating the fastest Marathoner by about 13 minutes!
Fast forward to 5 years later, with a bit more experience and a dime-bag of salt tabs in my well-used, salt-stained hydration vest, I signed up for the North Face 50 Mile race in Marin. It’s close to home so I was able to train on the course and I talked my wife Amy into running the 50k on the same day. That worked out well since she was motivated to train with me, but my race started 2 hours before hers so I still had to drive over there alone for the 5am start – she likes her sleep. I ran most of the course solo a few months beforehand, carried too much water and got a bit lost but managed to do 50 miles and 10k feet of gain in around 11 hours, so I was hoping to get under 10 hours on race day.
As it turned out, conditions were pretty much ideal, with very little mud on the course, and I ran a smart, fairly conservative race. I started with the 2nd wave, a bit above my pay grade considering the caliber of runners that sign up for this race. The first mile or so is a gentle uphill on the road, but soon turns into one of many long uphill grinds that add up to 10k feet of gain over the 50 mile course. I stuck to my plan and hiked that first long hill, but I hiked it FAST. Anywhere it got a bit less steep I’d run. My goal was to conserve energy and demoralize those who were running up the whole thing as they were barely going faster than me.
One guy who was trying to pass me on the second big hill, as I was power-hiking and he was running (at nearly the same speed!), said something like, “You must be a big hiker”. “You have no idea…”, I thought. Then it flattened out a bit and I left him behind.
A little while later, as I was cruising down into Muir Beach, the sun rose and I turned off the headlamps. I was feeling good so I ran some of the less-steep sections up the Heather Cutoff. It was fun to not let people pass me on the uphills, and then pass other people on the downhills and flats. A few miles before the turnaround point I started seeing the elite, sponsored runners heading back the other way. I passed a few more runners on the way to the turnaround. Halfway there, still feeling good – lots left in the tank.
At each aid station I was in and out, grab a couple gels and a cup of coke, fill up my bottle with pink water and GO. Efficiency, relentless forward progress. After a summer of speed hiking alone in the mountains, aid stations stocked with encouraging volunteers and food and premixed electrolyte drink were a nice luxury.
I got back to the Cardiac aid station and forgot to fill my bottle. There was a long downhill coming up and I was psyched but distracted. A few switchbacks later I was passing a bunch of 50K runners and soon enough there was Amy, 16 miles into her 50K. She was doing well, we said hello and I kept charging down the hill. I picked up a random pacer who just happened to be running this section on his own, and let him clear a path for me. We glided our way down miles of the best singletrack in the world, at a fast but sustainable pace, and he eventually peeled off onto another trail. As I neared the Old Inn Aid station I started to cramp up and had to walk a bit. I lost a few minutes and one guy passed me. I managed to bounce back once I rehydrated, and I pushed hard for Muir Beach and then up the seemingly endless Coyote Ridge.
Coming back down to Tennessee Valley, my legs came alive again. I’ve always loved the downhills and this was no exception. I was passing other runners like they were standing still, and eventually caught up to a small but fast woman who was doing the same. I settled in behind her, letting her set the pace, impressed at her downhill speed. I may have said “You are CRUSHING IT!” at one point…and she was. I later learned her name – Kristin Neland – but at the time I just thought of her as that woman who was crushing it in style.
Eventually I passed her, and cruised into Tennessee Valley. Hiking up the long Marincello hill to the Alta Aid station, I passed a couple guys, and eventually started hearing footsteps. Kristin was on my tail now, with a pacer. I could hear them whispering, trying to sneak up on me. I didn’t look back.
I kept hiking fast, and they kept gaining ground, little by little. I ran a bit whenever it flattened out, to open up a gap. Then it would get steeper, I’d revert to hiking, and they’d start to catch up. They were relentless. Finally I let them pass me near the top of the hill, just before the aid station. They had been trying so hard for so long, I figured I’d let them have the lead just long enough to blow by them again and demoralize them on the last downhill.
I was out of the aid station right behind them and passed them almost immediately. I was flying down this last long hill, passing so many people I lost count. There was a marathon and a 50 K distance going on as well, and all the courses used this same trail for the last few miles, so there were lots of runners on this section.
I was watching the time and knew I had a chance to get in under 9 hours, so I went all out. My average time on the last 5 miles was 8:09 per mile, with a 6:22 split for mile 48. I got to the flats at the bottom and struggled to keep up the pace after 3 miles of downhill at my 5k pace. One guy passed me but I thought he was doing the marathon or 50k and he looked like he was in high school so I let him go.
The last mile or so had some uphill and my legs were done. With no one right behind me I decided to walk a bit and save some energy for the finish. Kristin and her pacer were closing the gap though. I let them get close enough that I could hear them breathing, and I started running. The short walking recovery had worked – I accelerated through the last half mile, opened the gap again, sprinting to the finish. They finished about 25 seconds behind me.
Once we had all recovered a bit, I gave Kristin a spontaneous hug and thanked her for pushing me – she finished 5th in her age group and 25th female overall. She seriously crushed it, with legs about half as long as mine. Her husband and their two little kids were there at the finish line too, I think they ran the last 100 yards or so with her. It must be tough to train for a 50 mile race with young kids at home, but she pulled it off.
An hour or so later, Amy finished her 50K and we ate a massive chicken dinner and talked about the race. She did great on her first 50K in spite of injuring her knee while training which set her back a few weeks. We checked the results and my official time was 8:57:03, 118th overall (out of 481), 25th in my age group. Not too bad for my first 50 mile race, although I kind of cheated and did a few 50 mile days on my own here and there.
My next race is the Miwok 100K in May, how hard could an extra 12 miles really be?