Race Recap: Mendocino Coast 50k
I don’t give up on things easily, and I hate to admit when something has me beat…so this race recap is really more difficult than it should be. It’s a combination of me admitting I had/have an injury that will keep me from running as well as admitting that, for the first time (so far), I didn’t finish a course in the allotted time. I earned my medal and swag, that much is certain, but I’m not too proud to admit that this course ate me alive…and I’m already raring to go tackle it next year.
Let’s start by returning to the end of Ragnar Atlanta, wherein I had a problem with my lower back and right leg. I *may* have glossed over that problem a bit in the recap, so I’ll step back a few and say that my leg was numb after that race.
Completely, totally numb.
Hip to toe, no topical or muscular sensation whatsoever. It was like being an amputee. It came and went in spurts, the first being while I was attempting to sit on the airplane for my long journey home. It abated for a bit after use of my TENS unit for the sharp, shooting pain that replaced the numbness. It came back after a run on Wednesday wherein my leg refused to answer to my brain and folded nearly every time I tried to put pressure on it.
But I’m an athlete (remember that statement, it comes up again later) and
I had a 50k race on the calendar for Saturday, one I’d entered because it was located in what I consider to be one of the most beautiful places on Earth – Mendocino County. I’d looked forward to this inaugural race for months since signing up in December, anxiously awaiting the giant redwoods, fern-lined trails, ocean, and waterfall views. The elevation map showed nearly 5,000 feet of climbing in the 31 miles, most of it concentrated in the middle 15. In fact, the last 10 miles of the course were relatively flat.
I wasn’t about to miss it.
In retrospect, I should have bowed out given my back and leg issues, but I didn’t. Instead, I headed out of town after work on Friday, making the 4 plus hour drive to the little cabin on the hill I’d rented so many times before. Arriving near 10 meant I had to get right to bed to be fresh for the morning run. As I was near the point of exhaustion, that was not an issue.
My little cabin on the hill. I’ve been coming here for over 10 years.
I awoke at six am the next morning and headed down to the starting line. I stopped to get my customary coffee and pastry breakfast after filling my pack with water and assorted “good” fuel for the race. For some reason, I felt like I was in some sort of time warp and it took much longer than it should’ve – I arrived at the starting line on the beach less than 20 minutes before race time.
I picked up my bib and bag, used the restroom, and before I knew it, the race was about to start. It was a small field of less than 100 runners for this initial go, and it felt intimate in all the best ways. As always, trail runners are cordial folks and we all chatted about our reasons for choosing this particular 50k. Nearly everyone mentioned the beauty of the course as a factor.
Sid, the race director, signaled the start of the race and we began our first leg with a half mile jaunt across the beach. The ocean roared to our left and as we climbed up the first small hill and into the Mendocino Headlands. This part of the run, about two miles, was along the cliff edge in the morning mist. It was beautiful and a perfect way to start the run.
That is, until I stepped down and realized I had absolutely no strength in my right leg. My knee buckled and I was forced to step aside, off of the single track. I never stopped, I just had to slow down and regain my senses.
About then, a little voice in my head told me to turn around and drop out.
A bigger, louder voice said “No way.”
I continued on across the headlands and through the residential area, stopping to remove my jacket as the weather was warming up despite the mist. I always overdress for races and should have figured as much, but that stubborn streak I have is unreasonable.
Soon we were out of the neighborhood and headed into Russian Gulch State Park. I’d studied the map and knew we would head through the park, but I failed to notice how we were going to cross the actual Gulch.
I soon had my answer.
Down into the gulch we ran, crossing the stream at the bottom, until we found a race volunteer manning a rope leading up to the top of the cliff.
Yes, a rope. We hadn’t been warned, but this race featured a “monkey climb” out of Russian Gulch.
Those who know me realize, at this point, that I was in trouble.
I have the upper body strength and agility of a flea.
I patiently waited my turn, having fallen back to the last 20 or so runners when I stopped earlier. I watched some climb with trepidation, and some with ease. I tried to imagine myself doing the same, but truly it did not work out that way.
Picture a T-Rex attempting to climb utilizing only its arms, and you have a picture of what I must’ve looked like on that rope.
It couldn’t have been pretty.
I swung to the side and back again before my Hokas found their footing and I hauled myself up that rope. The only motivating factor in that entire climb was the presence of ten or so people still waiting at the bottom who would either (1) be crushed by my falling body; or (2) laugh hysterically if I failed to get up.
I got up.
Eventually I was on the cliff top and off running once more, enjoying every bit of the beauty I’d expected to see. Ferns, moss-covered redwoods, mist…this was heaven and I was running in it.
Slowly, but I was running.
You see, that weak leg had returned during the climb and I’d nearly fallen, but I compensated and was now paying for it on the trail.
You should’ve stopped, you say.
Coming to the first aid station, I realized I’d at least found a way to deal with the strange weakness. I found that if I focused, I could remind my leg to bend and flex, supporting my weight until my left leg took over.
That was enough for me, and at the first turn up into the redwoods out of the campground, I was determined. I greeted Sid, who was there to direct runners up the hill, and headed off.
I tend to walk most of the steep climbs in my trail runs, and this first ascent fit the “I’ll walk this one” category perfectly.
For the better part of two miles, I walk/jogged the 500 foot climb. I kept my mind on my mission and my leg, feeling it buckle only a time or two. I managed to make it to the first steep descent, nearly gleeful at the prospect of bombing downhill on such an amazing course.
Downhills are my space, as I’m usually surefooted and fast. I thrive on the challenge of downhill running.
But not this time.
I picked up the pace and nearly landed flat on my face. Good ol’ right leg had other ideas.
I picked my way down the hill gingerly, crossing bridges and large trees blocking my path.
There were many such trees in this run, and that was part of the fun. We climbed over and under redwoods that must’ve been hundreds of years old. The trails were not cleared for this run and as they were deep in the park, not many hikers braved the steep ascents and descents. We were essentially running on virgin trails, and it was amazing.
Well, it would have been IF I could’ve actually run.
At mile 7, the trail climbed to a vista overlooking one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve visited. It was an amazing sight just to be there. When last I’d hiked this trail some six years before, the water flow had been minimal. On the day of the race, it was moving with force and I took some time to simply sit and enjoy (and take a picture or two).
The pictures turned out to be an undoing of sorts. I focused on extracting my phone from the plastic baggie I’d put it in, not realizing that I’d emptied out every single salt cap and tablet of ibuprofen I had with me.
All over the ground.
Somewhere on the trail behind me.
After the waterfall, we headed up again, another 550 feet of climbing in 1 ½ miles. I started off with a good bit of steam but soon found myself walking.
I checked my watch and was surprised to see myself still reasonably ahead of the cutoff time. I knew Cyd, the course sweeper, was behind me with at least six other people, so I was good.
The next .9 of a mile included a sharp descent of 600 feet. Once again, I started off running and focusing on my leg but it failed and I nearly went down.
I took myself down to a slow jog and just determined I needed to keep moving.
Aid station #2 was situated near mile 9, and I’m not kidding when I say it was greeted with near-giddy excitement. I grabbed some PB&J, sucked down some water from my pack, and headed out into the forest part of the run.
I was feeling great after refueling and my leg seemed to want to pay attention more than it had, so I was able to remove focus from the simple act of placing my foot on the ground. I looked around, enjoyed the course, and made my way down the hill to mile 10 where the climbing began again.
The next 3 ½ miles were the most difficult part of the race, climbing well over 1,200 feet. It was steep and relentless, and I passed a few runners who didn’t look like they were doing all that well.
One of them, it turns out, dropped out of the race on that ascent. Another dropped prior to that.
It was hard, I tell you.
Up, up, and more up. Around every corner, more up. Aid station #3 was located near the 14.5 mile mark, and it was there that I could grab my drop bag.
Wait a minute. I’d been running late and forgot to put my bag in the drop bin.
Still no ability to get salt tabs which were, by this point desperately needed.
I must interject at this point that the aid stations were exceptionally well-stocked with vegan supplies. I didn’t lack for any type of fuel, it just wasn’t what I train with and I needed my salt tabs.
Potato chips had to do.
The volunteers at this station (as at all stations) were encouraging and told us that we were headed into the most beautiful part of the course. As I’d found it to be impossibly beautiful already, I wasn’t sure how it could improve.
A couple that I’d been running with told me this portion was the “roller coaster” portion and difficult for them because of the ups and downs.
I knew that was my favorite type of course to run so I was excited.
They also warned that it was covered with debris (twigs, bark, etc.) and footing could be tricky.
I was ready, I though.
They took off and a few minutes later, so did I. I passed another runner I’d come to know as we’d passed one another during ascents and descents. I felt great.
Too great, it turns out.
At some point, I was overly-confident that my leg issues were a thing of the past, and I picked up the pace. I looked around at the scenery and the last thing I clearly remember about that portion of the trail was looking down the side of the cliff, pondering how far down it went, and then realizing that I’d meant to put my right foot down but, dammit, I no longer seemed to have a right foot.
I pitched head over heels off the side of the trail, thinking for a moment that I was about to find out exactly how far down it went.
I grabbed for anything I could grab, hit my head and shoulder hard, and jammed my knee into a rock.
That rock was my saving grace, and it stopped my fall.
I scrabbled with my left leg to gain footing on the slick ground and finally found a way to transfer my weight off of the rock/knee combo on my right.
Keep in mind, the only reason I knew I’d hit a rock was because I could see it. I couldn’t feel it.
I slowly drug myself back up to the path and sat for a moment on the side, trying to sort myself out. For a minute I contemplated crawling over to the large, hollowed out redwood tree to my left and having a good cry while waiting for the sweeper. I also contemplated standing back up but my right leg was having none of that.
Minutes ticked by. I stopped my Garmin (I hadn’t lost all my marbles). I collected my wits, used my hands behind my knee, and eventually returned to a standing position.
I was mad at myself and my leg. I didn’t want this race to be over. I was only halfway, and there was only five miles of climbing left. The last ten were flat, remember?
With no sweeper yet in sight, I began to limp my way down the path. A few steps in and my foot began to tingle like pins and needles, and that was all I needed to determine I was going to keep going. Any sensation in my limb meant it was still there and I could still move.
Mile seventeen had another volunteer at the base of the climb (I neglected to mention that there were volunteers at various points along the course encouraging us by playing music. It was awesome) and she told me I was “almost there.”
She lied, but all race fans/cheerleaders tell the same lie. I forgave her immediately.
I walked up the climb toward Eagle’s Roost as I had zero ability to run. Each time I tried my leg would simply refuse.
At 1:45pm, I made it to the next aid station at mile 21.
As I came limping in, the volunteers gave me food and water and, miraculously, an Aleve for the pain. They reminded me that I didn’t have to keep going, I could catch a ride back with them.
I reminded them that I was an athlete and I was going to keep moving.
I’d somehow beat cutoff by over an hour.
The rest of the race is a tale of woe I’ll not go into as it’s a story of walking along a flat fire road near the river, swarming with mosquitos, wondering why I’d not bowed out at mile 21.
I had until 5pm to make it in under the cutoff. Nine hours on that course.
It pains me to admit that, and it pained me to shake Sid’s hand at the end and say I was coming back next year to make it in well under cutoff. He handed me my medal, saying I deserved it for “finishing the damn thing.”
I was conflicted, but truly I’d left everything I had on the course. I’d almost left my life, to be honest.
You’ll notice no pictures for the latter half. I was shaking too hard to take them.
I went back to the cabin, showered, collected myself, and intended to have a good, solitary cry.
I couldn’t even manage that.
The next day, after heading home early, I visited the urgent care to learn that I’d likely pinched a nerve in my back and caused extensive swelling by not allowing it to heal. I was given muscle relaxers and orders not to run for two weeks.
I’m dying, and it’s only been a few days.
So here are my take-aways from the race. This one has so many I had to pick three and leave the rest for a post on injuries and illness that will soon follow this one.
- If you’re injured before a race, don’t run. It may kill your pride to DNS a race, but it will cause less long-term damage than aggravating any injury you may have. I know none of you will listen, but I had to say it.
- Some races just cannot be run at top speed, and some should not. This one was both, and had I been in better shape I believe it would have been not only the hardest but most enjoyable race I’d ever run.
- Small races are worth their weight in gold. The intimacy of the field, the caring nature of the organizers and volunteers, and the private label beer at the end were things I’d never have had in a race with thousands of others.
I will indeed be back next year to conquer the Mendocino Ultra, and I’ll run it healthy. I’ll be ready for that monkey climb and will eat up every single downhill and roller coaster portion of the course. I’ll be in early to celebrate those who struggle like I did this year and I’ll shake their hands to congratulate them on a job well done.
I have to. That’s just how I am.