I turned 30 this past Saturday and what better way to celebrate than run over 30 miles at the Muir Beach 50K with my fellow Endurables. Several of us are training for The North Face 50 Miler in three weeks so this was technically a “practice race” but it felt quite real to me since it was on my birthday and included a killer 7,130 ft of cumulative ascent and an equal amount descent. (Click here for a course flyover by The Run Scout). I also hadn’t run a race since April because I’ve been dealing with various foot and ankle issues this year so it was good to be back on the starting line.
At 8:30am we were off! The hike up Coastal Fire Road into Pirates Cove was a nice warm up and I loved soaking in the energy of a race start again. Unfortunately, I felt pain in my right arch almost immediately but hoped it would go away once I got warmed up. During this time I also overheard two women talk about weekend plans and one said “Going out dancing? That’s what I did in my twenties!” Just what I wanted to hear on my 30th birthday! I did get warmed up after a mile or two but the arch pain never went away. Nevertheless, I managed to get into the Tennessee Valley aid station at a decent 15 minute/mile pace.
The next segment was the longest one at nearly 8 miles and started on Marincello Vehicle Road which I hiked with my girlfriend Edie. Hiking was much easier on my arch since there wasn’t as much force on my foot during push-off or landing. Once we got to the top, I tried to run some of my favorite trails like the SCA Trail but the arch was only getting worse. I stopped multiple times to massage it and try different configurations with my ankle brace and orthodics but any relief was only temporary. At one point on Coastal Trail the pain became so unbearable that I sat down on the side of the trail for a few minutes, took an ibuprofen, massaged my foot, and wondered if I would reach the next aid station much less finish the race. I did eventually reach the Bonita Cove aid station with a combination of walking, limping, and running with an awkward gait. Like my arch, my iPod had also stopped functioning so I didn’t know the time or my pace (and didn’t have any music). I asked the aid station volunteers the time and amazingly I was still on 15 minute pace! That brightened my spirits a bit so I taped my arch and continued on to the next 6 mile segment.
Leaving the aid station, I started walking and running gingerly on my taped arch and uncharacteristically found myself craving the upcoming Hill 88 which I usually dislike. With my arch issue, I only ever felt normal while hiking uphill and started thinking that the 7,130 ft of ascent in this race was actually my saving grace and helped me stay on a 15 minute pace. I hiked up Hill 88 well but the flats and downs were still tentative and hesitant. That’s not really how I wanted to run this race but I managed to stay on 15 minute pace getting back into the Tennessee Valley aid station and was still on track to finish under the 9 hour cutoff.
The next segment was just 3 miles and, after taking a wrong turn for a 5 minute detour, I started hiking up Fox Trail. This was a hard and steep climb so I reached the top a little winded and then cruised down Coastal back to the Muir Beach start/finish area. At this point, I had completed the first 33K in 5:05, still on 15 minute pace. I saw Brett Rivers and congratulated him on finishing First Place Overall with a blazing fast 4:30 (yes, he ran 50K in less time than I ran 33K!) and also consulted our coach Jim Vernon about my arch issues. Jim actually advised me to drop and save myself for the 50 Miler in three weeks. While that would’ve been the prudent thing to do, I just couldn’t let myself get my first DNF on my 30th birthday! Plus, I had kept 15 minute pace despite the issues and figured I could even walk the last 17K in 20 minute pace and still finish under the cutoff. So I continued on, but little did I know how eventful the last 17K would be.
The next 4 mile segment was a repeat of Pirates Cove and I started off with a steady climb but things soon got worse. My arch continued to throb and for the first time I started feeling fatigued. It was around 2pm and the hot sun on the exposed trails was sapping my energy. I passed some British kids out on a hike and they cheered “Good job, you’re almost there!” to which I replied “Not really!” They laughed and my left calf almost cramped. This was definitely a low point. I felt sleepy, I could no longer maintain a good pace on any terrain, and my mind was filled with negative thoughts. What if I don’t finish? What does this mean for the upcoming 50 Miler? Am I going to die? At one point, I was in the trailside porta-potty and wondered what would happen if I just passed out right there. Should I keep the door unlocked so people could find and rescue me? The negative thoughts continued as I walked most of this segment and got into Tennessee Valley in a slow 19 minute pace. The aid station volunteers told me I’d be fine to make the 9 hour cutoff but I wasn’t so sure. Nevertheless, I soldiered on to the 6K loop section.
As I started hiking up Marincello a second time, the negative thoughts continued and I kept wondering whether I would finish and what this meant for the 50 Miler. In the middle of my despondence, I hear foot steps behind me and look back to see a runner totally charging up the hill. I thought to myself “How could this person be behind me?” and turns out Jennifer had started the race an hour late! Now I’m thinking “Great, she is about to pass me even though she started an hour late and now I’m officially dead last.” But rather than pass me, Jennifer slowed down to hike and chat with me. This was a good distraction from all my negativity and she told me a story about starting the Double Dipsea race with terribly painful cramps and literally laying on the side of the trail in fetal position for over 20 minutes trying to relieve the pain and get back up. She eventually got up, ran a good race, and realized that she’s great at running downhills. That story really inspired me and I exclaimed “Downhills are my specialty too!” Right then, we reached the top of the hill at “The Spaceship” and when Jennifer started bombing down Miwok and Old Springs I just went with her! I couldn’t believe what I was doing. After all my low points and negativity, I started running so much faster and more confidently than I had all day. We got back into Tennessee Valley and I was surprised to hear I ran that loop in 13 minute pace, my fastest segment of the race! I thanked her but she had no idea that it was my birthday and she had just given me the best gift ever: the gift of confidence. Jennifer is a personal trainer so maybe motivation comes natural to her. Jennifer, I hope you’re reading this and thanks again!
As I hiked up Fox Trail on the final 3 mile segment, I thought about what had just happened and wondered what had actually changed. My body was still fatigued, my muscles were still sore, my arch was still in pain, the sun was still hot, and the dreaded cutoff was still 9 hours. The only change was mental. By shifting my mindset from self-doubt to self-confidence, I was able to relax and start running “leaning forward” with confidence instead of “leaning back” with hesitation. As I reached the top of the final hill I was beaming and crossed paths with the British kids again. This time they cheered “Now you’re really almost there!” to which I replied “You’re right!” and started on my victory run down to the finish. I was absolutely euphoric and finally soaked in the beautiful scenery of the bright sun setting over the expansive Pacific Ocean right in front of me. The finish line came all too soon but I was happy to see Jim and my fellow Endurables cheering my comeback. I had also run the final segment in about 13 minute pace and completed the 50K race in 8:02 with almost an hour to spare. And I didn’t finish dead last!
Afterwards, I thought about the highs and lows of the race and the unexpected gift of confidence that was given to me. I realized that in the past few months I’ve had my own personal “crisis of confidence” about my running, my company, and other parts of my life. I was worried about turning 30 and unsure my life was where I wanted it to be. But all that self-doubt vaporized on my birthday! I am now ready to enter my 30s leaning forward and lead all parts of my life with confidence. That was the best birthday gift I could’ve received and it all happened out on the trails. Trail running is so much more than just running and that’s why I love this sport so much. I often have great meditative and inspiring experiences out there but every now and then something magical happens. I will always remember this magical day.
Greg is a member of The Endurables trail running club. Feel free to distract him if you are ever on the Marincello Trail together!