OTHTC High Desert 50K race report

“Every step is a blessing”

I signed up months ago for the OTHTC High Desert 50K, which takes place in the Mojave Desert outside of Ridgecrest, CA.  I didn’t tell too many people of my plans, simply because I didn’t feel like “jinxing” myself.  It seems like every time I’ve signed up for a race, or told people about my race plans, that I’ve gotten injured.  Call me superstitious, but I didn’t want to risk anything this time.  I just wanted to train and to stay healthy, mentally and physically, leading up to the event.

Training was going well for the past several months.  I had about 2 solid, consistent months of over 50 miles/week.  Doesn’t sound like that much, but you have to take into account that my long runs are almost always on tough trails; it’s not like I run these distances on flat roads.  I had already completed the 50K distance once in training, when I paced my friend Deborah at the Javelina Jundred over Halloween weekend (she finished in about 27 hours, by the way.  Great job!).  So, I knew the distance was hardly going to be a problem.  For me, the challenge always seems to be getting to the starting line.

Finish line of the JJ100, Deborah and I

And wouldn’t you know it – about four weeks out from the race, “life” started happening.  My mother was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance after passing out in the garage, right before I was supposed to leave for JJ100 with my friends.  She was very, very ill, and obviously, I’ve been incredibly worried about her.  Also, my beloved pet cat, Pooky, fell ill as well.  He lost about half of his body weight and no longer could keep any food down.  Right before Thanksgiving, we received the news from his vet that he has lymphoma of the small intestine.  It’s a fatal condition – we can treat it for a while with chemotherapy (which we’ve chosen to do, simply because there aren’t any real side effects for cats, unlike people), but eventually the medication will stop working.  This has been completely heart-breaking for me; anyone who knows me well knows what an animal person I am!  I’m incredibly attached to my cat – I’ve had him for almost twelve years, which is basically my entire adult life, and we’ve been through a lot of changes together.  I still have a hard time even talking about his condition without starting to cry.  To add insult to injury, my truck broke down yet again, necessitating the purchase of a new vehicle, one we can’t really afford at the moment because, like the rest of the country, we’re suffering from financial difficulties due to this lovely omnipresent economic downturn.

my beloved kitty cat, Pooky

In short, the past month or so has been complete insanity.

About the same time that all of these things started happening, I began to notice an achy feeling in my right hip.  It didn’t really feel painful, just tight.  I tried everything you could possibly think of to heal this – acupuncture, massage, taking anti-inflammatories, hot baths with Epsom salts, taking over a WEEK off from training – and NOTHING helped.  I firmly believe that the mind and body are linked; any stress that is unresolved in your daily life somehow makes it into your physical body in some way, often through illness or injury.  So, I wasn’t surprised that “something” weird happened with my running.

For the two weeks before the race, I barely trained at all.  Just a few miles here and there, interspersed with light weight training and cross-training on the elliptical at the gym.  I even took a full week off over the Thanksgiving holiday, but even without any exercise, the ache in my hip persisted.

The Wednesday of race week, I went for a short, 10K run.  When I completed the run, my hip hurt badly.  I was so achy and sore the next day that I had a bit of an emotional breakdown.  “Why does this keep happening to me?  Why is it that as soon as I get my mileage back up that I get hurt, and always right before a race that means a lot to me?”  My poor husband had to listen to me bemoaning this issues over the phone – I swear, one day they’re going to make the guy a saint for putting up with my drama.  I’m admittedly not an easy person to live with!

I was in serious doubts that I would be able to run my planned race.  However, I decided that I would at least go to Ridgecrest for the weekend; I had pre-paid for my hotel room and race registration so I didn’t want to completely waste money.  It’s a beautiful area out in the desert, and if I couldn’t run, I would just head up to the Lone Pine area, have a nice meal, and maybe do a little light hiking in the Alabama Hills if the weather cooperated.  I certainly needed the time away from everything, some quality time alone.

I had a lovely drive up the 395 to Ridgecrest on Saturday, listening to my favorite music in my new SUV (just LOVE Loretta Lynn!).  After checking into the hotel, I headed over to race headquarters to pick up my race number.  I didn’t know anyone running the race, so I just waited in line quietly, not really being social.  When I got to the front of the line, a man was helped point people to an available helper who would give us our race numbers and race goodie bags.  The man looked really familiar.  Where did I know him from?

He said to me, “Where are you from?”  I replied I was from San Diego, and he questioningly said, “Steph?”  Immediately, I knew who this was…I replied, “Jay?”  Big hugs followed.

I met Jay at my very FIRST ultra several years ago – the Montana de Oro 50K in Los Osos.  It’s an incredibly challenging course, with very technical terrain and a lot of elevation gain/loss over steep, decomposing granite trail.  On my second trip up Valencia Peak, I was completely fried and broke down.  Jay was right behind me; he helped motivate me up to the top of the peak where we both choked down and dry heaved on our Clif gels.  There’s no better bonding experience than nearly puking at the top of a mountain with a complete stranger.  We ended up finishing the race together – dead last (or DFL in ultra language!) in 8:50.  I never would have finished the race without his motivation.  Ultrarunning is such a mental sport, and there’s no substitute for experience to help you make it through tough patches.  I was such a rookie that I didn’t realize that EVERYONE feels like hell at a certain point – Jay helped me push through that.  So when I ran into him again at race check-in, I took it as a sign to run the next day.  I committed myself then that I would run the full 50K distance.

On race morning, I woke up a little before 4 am, ate my breakfast and drank a little bit of the dreadful hotel room decaf.  I headed out to the start around 6.  It was freezing cold!  The weather at the race start was only 27 degrees, according to the Weather Channel in my hotel room.  Brrr!  To add insult to injury, high winds were expected – a precursor to the first winter storm of the season which was supposed to hit that night, with snowfall down to the 1000 foot elevation point (the race was mainly run over 3000 feet of elevation).  During the race, we experience 15-25 mph sustained winds, with gusts over 40 mph.  It was enough at time, during a headwind, where I seriously felt like I was going to get blown over.

I started the race conservatively, trying to stick to about a 12 minute per mile pace.  Yes, that sounds slow, but over the course of an ultra that’s run completely off-road, it’s actually not, especially if you are able to hold that pace consistently.  And consistent was my plan.  It’s a challenge at the start of these events, particularly at a relatively short event like a 50K.  People take off like rabbits at the start, like at a 10K or something!  Starting at a 12 minute pace meant that I was basically at the very back of the pack.  You just can’t let yourself get discouraged by something like that.

Things felt easy for the first hour or so, until around the 6 mile mark when my hip started to ache.  At that point, I did something that I never do – kids, don’t try this at home!  I popped an Advil.  Generally, this isn’t a good idea during an endurance event because it can lead to stomach bleeding, but for me, I knew I wasn’t going to make it through if I didn’t take something.  Also, at that point, the course started up a long, steady incline.  I was glad my friend Jill had advised me to practice actually running gradual ascents.  Everyone else around me was walking at this point, while I stuck to my even, but slow, pace.

Things were pretty uneventful during this time.  I kept up my steady running, stopped for aid when needed (which I didn’t need often because I wore a hydration pack), ate and drank regularly…and started to pass a LOT of people who were obviously suffering after starting out too fast.  I did meet some interesting people along the way, including Shannon Farrar-Griefer, who owns the Moeben sleeve company.  She took a great picture of me on the trail!

mile 20 or so...

The winds really picked up about 20 miles into the race.  The steady headwind, along with the continuous incline on the trail, started getting a little bit discouraging, but I knew there was a nice long descent coming up once we would hit 26-27 miles.  At about 21 miles, I caught up with a woman with whom I’d been leap-frogging for a while.  She started a conversation with me about how much the weather sucked.  (It did, but what could you do?)  Apparently, she’d trained really hard for the race, and had even hired Karl Meltzer to coach her – for those of you who don’t know the name, he’s a very famous ultrarunner with a lot of wins to his credit; he specializes in tough, technical mountain terrain.  One of the things I love about ultrarunning is meeting interesting people on the trail, but the conversation got a little bit weird when the woman started saying things like “I’m doing so badly today, I’m just not good at this.”  Of course, she didn’t quite realize what she was saying, being so wrapped up in her own discomfort and frustration at the moment, so I wasn’t offended.  I just said, “Hey, if you’re not doing well, what does that make me?”  Then, I told her, “You know, my story is this: just about six months ago, my doctor told me that I’d probably never run again because of a bad injury.  And here I am today!  Every step to me right now is a blessing.  I’m just grateful to be out here today.”  I think that story changed her perspective a bit.  I took off down the trail.

At the 26 mile aid station, I ran into my old friend Jay again, where he was volunteering.  He gave me a hug despite my stinky condition and told me I was looking good.  He asked how I was feeling, and I said that I was hurting but that I could deal with it.  I scarfed down some potato chips and downed a cup of Coke – for a girl that doesn’t do caffeine, that stuff is like rocket fuel during a race.  I was wired for hours afterward!

At that point, the race goes down an extended descent through some truly beautiful terrain.  You can see the snow-capped Sierras in the distance, while running through a desert lunar landscape.  Gorgeous!  Finally, I could see the college gym where the finish line was located and picked up my pace.  No more walking breaks for me!

I finished the race in 6:22, a PR for me by nearly an hour and a half.  My best 50K time up until this point was 7:45, but that was on a really tough course.  Comparatively, the HD50K is on a pretty easy course!  But hey, I’ll take a PR when I can get one…

My finishing stats: 145 out of 226 finishers, 34 out of 73 women.  Not bad.  I’m typically last or near last…not anymore!

My finisher's medal - first ultra finish in over a year. More to come...

3 responses

8 12 2009
jeri ginsburg

whoooooo hooooooo way to GO!!!! I am impressed and so happy for you. It feels so good to know ‘you’re back’ after your bodys tested you and tricked you for a while 🙂

8 12 2009
Jill Childers

Go Steph!!!!!! Not only are you back, you are back super strong and a much faster runner!!!!!!!!! Congratulations on your PR and 6:22 finish, that is a very respectable finish time for that race and with those weather conditions. Lova ya!Jilly

31 08 2014
John woods

Nice report I am training for this right now working on running up hills slow.

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