Noble Canyon 50K+ race report

The alarm went off, screaming in my ear at 2:45 am on Saturday morning.  This was quite painful, especially when considering I had only gone to bed about three hours earlier.  It was a good portent of things to come for race day…painful things!

I signed up for the Noble Canyon 50K+ a few weeks ago once my coach finally approved my participation in another ultra.  We wanted to make sure that I was “recovered” from my 75 mile effort (and DNF) at Burning River in August.  Mentally, a strong ultra finish was just what I needed.  I haven’t wanted to do 50K’s recently, mainly because they’re just too FAST.  The distance is relatively “short” in terms of ultra standards, and it always seems to attract hordes of marathon cross-over type runners who just leave me in their dust.  You can always tell these types because they actually RUN up all of the hills.  Oh – and any race with more than twenty people running seems a little bit “big” to me.  I had wanted to do the San Francisco One Day in late October, but Coachie nixed this idea early on.  Nope – it was a 50K for me.  Luckily Noble Canyon was happening on September 27, and it’s a painful course (remember the painful comment above?) so I was able to be convinced to run it.

I knew early on that this one would be a toughie.  I ran most of the course, at least the canyon trail portion, on a 20-mile training run three weeks prior.  It wasn’t a good day.  The weather forecast called for 109 degree temps in the area.  I was on some gnarly prescription med’s for my stomach issues; it turns out that I never had IBS – it was an intestinal parasite (that I lovingly named “Fred”) that needed to be eradicated with radioactive butt parasite killer pills.  The side effects from the medication were just awful.  We’re talking mega-vertigo, dry mouth, oral thrush, stomach cramps, etc.  I was really pleasant company that day on the trail.  Nothing like a bad case of swooning and cotton mouth to make you new trail buddies.  I ran out of water about three miles from the end and my friends ended up running back UP the trail to give me a bottle of water before I completely succumbed to dehydration.  I thought, “Oh God, please don’t let the race be like this.”

Luckily, I wrapped up the course of medication about a week before the race and “Fred” hasn’t seemed to make an appearance yet, so everything seemed to be a “go.”  I was probably a little bit more excited than normal before a race because my husband was going to be in town for the weekend (check out my last main page blog if you want to read about that whole situation!) and he’d be waiting for me at the finish line.  Now that’s a major motivator.

I got up early as I said before.  I had a lovely breakfast of Gorilla Banana Waffles (no gorillas included!  I just have a thing for kids’ cereals and waffles because the boxes are so funny!) with maple syrup, soy vegan sausage, and a soy decaf latte while watching one of my favorite episodes of the Golden Girls.  John Martinez, RD for the PCT 50, kindly gave me a ride out to the race site, picking me up a couple of minutes before 4 am.  Thanks, John!  We were out to the site before 5 am.  It was great getting there early, as there were no port-a-pot lines yet.  (I still haven’t quite gotten over the fear of “Fred.”)

I had a great time watching the runners arrive.  Since this is the first local race I’ve run, it was really fun to meet up with my trail running friends in the area.  We picked up our race bibs and goodie bags, which I have to say had some great swag!  I loved the socks with the Bad Rats logo.  It was definitely cold out since we were up at elevation and very close to the desert, so I stayed with my running buddies Jill, Jeri, and Madonna in Jill’s car (Bob) with the heat running until right before the mandatory pre-race briefing.  Jeri was about to run her first ultra, and she was really nervous.  I tried to give her some motivational talk to help calm the nerves; I remember how nervous I was before my first 50K!  (It turns out that she didn’t need to be nervous, as she finished in under 6:30.)  I wasn’t too nervous myself, only a little bit concerned because I hadn’t yet gone to the bathroom.  “Oh well,” I said to myself.  “Fred is dead, so I just don’t have to go.”

We lined up for the start at five minutes before 7 am.  My friends all stayed in the middle while I moved to the very back of the group since I planned to start slow.  OK, so I planned to do the whole thing slow.  As Scott Mills, the RD, gave the start and we all started to move, I felt a familiar feeling in the tummy.  Arrrrrgh!

People were flying down the road like it was the start of a 10K or half-marathon.  I was limited to a very slow shuffle while squeezing butt-cheeks together, waiting for a place to go to the bathroom as I didn’t think it was good form to go in someone’s front yard.  When we reached the Noble Canyon trailhead, I saw an outhouse and made a mad dash.  I spent a few minutes of quality time in the pit toilet and felt MUCH better afterward.  Then I headed back onto the trail, only to discover I was dead last.

I started power-hiking up the first ascent of the trail.  Best to power-hike this trail, I knew, as the course website says that there was a total of OVER 10K feet of elevation gain/loss.  (Tough course.)  I immediately started passing people, many of whom were still attempting to run up the technical incline and were panting hard.  Not good only two miles into the run.  I’m definitely relatively strong at power-hiking the ups, and I set a very steady pace.  Some people weren’t too congenial – I tried to talk to everyone as I went by, offering encouragement and often saying “you’ll pass me on the way back down, don’t worry” if they looked ticked off.

The first aid station came after a lovely downhill grade and my legs felt light and springy. At the station, I gobbled down a couple of handfuls of Pringles, which tasted amazing for some reason.  I kept myself constantly hydrated with the Vitalyte from my pack, moving steadily and relentlessly forward up the incessant incline to Sunrise Highway and the second manned aid station at Penny Pines.  This stretch was relatively uneventful.  Even the gnats that normally madly swarm around the area by the wooded areas weren’t that bad.  I think I only inhaled three.

The Penny Pines aid station was great!  The volunteers were so nice and helpful.  They filled my pack for me, added more of my Vitalyte powder, and fed me.  The only thing they didn’t do upon my request was turn on the air-conditioning.  Can’t imagine why not!  It was starting to get pretty hot out.  As I headed out of the aid station, I grabbed a handful of potatoes and salt after inhaling a bunch of orange slices.  I tried to run out of the station while eating the potatoes, only to accidentally have a big chunk go down my windpipe.  I started choking and kind of did a make-shift Heimlich maneuver on myself.  Potato junk came flying out!  The guy helping stop traffic for runners at the Sunrise Highway crossing looked at me with great concern.  “Really, buddy, I’m OK,” I tried to communicate telepathically while coughing up my guts, “it’s just a little bit of potato chunkage residue.”  It took another couple of miles for the coughing to stop!

The next section of trail was probably the most beautiful and was the highest in elevation (close to 6000 ft.).  This portion was all on the Pacific Crest Trail, my favorite training spot in the San Diego mountains.  There were a couple miles of rolling and rocky terrain with amazing vistas of the mountains and Anza-Borrego desert thousands of feet below.  I had to stop to take a few pictures (and it wasn’t because I was tired and needed a break, thank you very much!).  Then, the PCT headed up the side of one of the mountains, near to the Mount Laguna observatory.  This section was HOT and completely exposed.  No shade at all.  There was a relentless incline, and I was again reduced to my power-hiking pace.  I passed a group of men partway up the mountain.  When I turned around, I joked, “Anyone ready for a downhill yet?” and I was treated to three faces giving me the stink-eye.  So much for being friendly.

View from the PCT!

View from the PCT!

The next aid station at Sunrise Highway came quickly after an extended downhill, which felt great!  I discovered that I hadn’t been drinking nearly enough and the volunteers sternly reprimanded me.  I deserved it!  I ate a bunch of watermelon and grapes and more Pringles (yum!) and headed back onto the Big Laguna Trail after crossing the road.

The Big Laguna Trail was great after the exposed portions of the PCT.  It’s a rolling trail with quite a bit of shade, lovely vistas of meadows and lakes, and some random cows.  There were a lot of mountain bikers out on this portion of trail, along with a group of day hikers that spontaneously broke into enthusiastic cheering when I ran by.  I had no idea I had a fan club.  The hikers mooed at the cows too; it was pretty hilarious to hear the cows moo back, and I busted up laughing.  I ran, I hiked, I walked…I kept moving forward.  On that stretch, I played leap frog with a nice guy named Jim who was just getting back into ultras.  He said he had DNF’d last year at NC, so I told him that we had plenty of time on the cutoff and that he would definitely make it.  I think my positive attitude started driving him nuts at a certain point, so anytime I would get close, he’d run faster to avoid conversation.  Doing these events puts me in a great mood, but I need to make sure in the future that I don’t make enemies because of my endorphin-induced perkiness.

leaving Penny Pines and heading down the Noble Canyon trail

leaving Penny Pines and heading down the Noble Canyon trail

I made it back to the Penny Pines aid station at just over 21 miles.  At this point, I was incredibly stoked to have a big downhill ahead of me, and I intended to coast as much as I could down the Noble Canyon trail.  I took off with a bunch of watermelon, potatoes, and Pringles in a very happy tummy, shuffling down the trail as my quads were starting to feel a bit fatigued.  About a mile later, I heard a familiar voice behind me.  It was Mindy, a new running buddy that I had met at a training run on Mount Woodson back in July!  The poor girl had been having some GI issues, and I was able to personally empathize, having been through a lot of that in the past (due to my old friend “Fred”).  We ran together for probably around four or five miles, until I started having a bit of a bad patch.  I was just starting to get fed up with the technical, rocky downhill.  I’ve just not been able to master downhill running – instead of making up time on the downs, I tend to gain it!  I have a lot of friends who say I just need more practice, which is probably true…but I’ve been practicing this for years and while I’ve improved, it’s still not my forte.

I told Mindy to head off without me as she was feeling much better.  I shouted “rock star!” at her as she ran off into the distance.  Now all alone on the trail, I had a few “ugh” moments.  Everyone has down points in an ultra, and 27-28 miles was that for me in this race.  The gnats started getting really irritating, I was hungry, I wanted to just be DONE, and I was over the heat.

When I got to the final aid station, about four miles from the finish, I had the volunteers pour ice water over my head and it felt like absolute heaven!  What a gift!  Thank God for the volunteers – they were absolutely fantastic at this race.  Once I was cooled off and my fluids were topped off, I felt ready to tackle the last climb of the race.  I looked at my GPS and saw that I was in range to break eight hours on the course, which was my goal.

The last climb sucked.  I kept getting passed by mountain bikers who didn’t quite seem to have a lot of manners; they never gave you a heads-up that they were coming.  Instead you just had to get the hell out of the way before getting plowed over and ending up with tire tracks on your butt.  That was pretty damn annoying, especially since I was mainly walking at this point and I was reduced to a relatively slow shuffle.

But, eventually, there was the end to the trail!  Yes!  Now it was only about a mile to the finish – and I needed to run about a twelve minute pace to break that eight hour goal.  Every step started to feel labored as I tried to push the pace up the slight uphill of the final road section.  I kept thinking about seeing my husband there at the finish line…and drinking a cold ginger ale and a smoothie.

At long last, I rounded the final corner.  I could hear the cheers from the finish line in the distance as a couple of people crossed the line.  And there it finally was!  I crossed the line in 8:01, kissed the bad rat mascot, and was immediately hugged by a bunch of members of my trail running family.  Jill, Madonna, Mindy and Marie were all there with smiles and congratulations.  I thanked them all for staying to see the caboose of the group finish and gave my husband a big hug…the best part of the day!

kissing the rat

Kissing the rat at the finish line!

Even though I didn’t break eight hours, I’m proud of my effort.  I checked the temperatures later in the day, and sure enough, it was well over 90 degrees at the hottest part of the day when I was on exposed trail.  Ouch!  This is a tough course – not an “easy” 50K by any stretch.  I can tell that even though I’m still slow, I’ve improved a great deal.  I have no residual soreness and was able to tackle my four mile recovery run the day after with no issues.

Next on the calendar: OTHTC High Desert 50K in December.  Then one or two spring 50 milers and perhaps the R2R2R crossing of the Grand Canyon…all gearing up for the San Diego 100 in June!  I’m on my way!

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4 responses

1 10 2008
Jilly C.

GREAT race report Steph and a HUGE congratulations again! For you non ultrarunners out there (perhaps Steph’s music friends), this girl has come a long way since I’ve only known her since May. She is getting stronger and better all the time and is not a caboose, more than 20 finished after she did!!

1 10 2008
Jennifer

I loved your report! You got a couple of really great shots there too! You had a great race! I didn’t realize how hot it was…I’m glad I didn’t know at the time, hahaha. I’m sorry I missed your finish…I was in the throes of childcare mania and all I could think of was getting back home to make sure all was well. Got to see Jill come in looking all fresh and comfortable…crazy woman! and Jeri too! her knees looked worse than mine!

That road to the trail was much easier when we started than when we finished…that was the longest mile of my life! The only advantage I had to this being my first, was that I didn’t really know any better, hahaha. And I giggled at the 50k being like a fast shorter distance! That’s sorta what I tell people…50ks are to ultra runners what a 5k is to a marathoner unless you’re a newbie like me and then it’s just HARD! 🙂

Hey, I’m hoping to do the High Desert 50k too! Maybe we’ll hook up between now and then with Jill, Jeri and the rest, for a few training runs.

Congrats again on a great day!

8 10 2008
Deborah

I have to say great race!!! I enoyed your blog… I am so glad I did the race as well and I have to agree with you that it wasn’t an easy 50K. I am glad I did it and hope the next one isn’t as rough. Thanks again for your encouragement while climbing at the incline and I am glad I met you on the course… Let’s get together soon for some trail runs.

Happy Training!

8 10 2008
Deborah

I forgot to mention… I was almost the caboose!!! 🙂 Only 5 people behind me!!! 🙂

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