I had a lot of self-doubt when I transitioned to trail running primarily following the accidental broken ankle of 2015, and for a long time thereafter. Even once I started doing regular 10+ mile Saturday runs at SFRC I felt like I wasn’t cut out for it. I would get out there week in and week out, and watch as everyone else who put in (what from the outside seemed like) the same work or less get better as I continued to struggle. Every uphill I felt defeated. I wondered why I was still so bad at it. If I wasn’t getting any better, maybe my enthusiasm for the trails just wasn’t enough to “become” a trail runner.
Consistency is King
Fast forward to this year. I have had what I will call my best year yet. I don’t measure it by number of races run or PRs, but by lack of injury and gradual, measurable improvement.
I finally transitioned from the “strengthen for a few weeks until I get bored” mindset to regular strengthening and rolling. I can’t say it was easy, or that I don’t still have to push myself off the couch regularly, but I do my best to get it done. I have also taken a cautious approach to increasing my weekly mileage, especially when it comes to adding in road mileage. I generally follow the 10% rule, and some weeks my goal is to simply maintain the same mileage as the previous week. If I am too tired to strengthen, or miss a run due to scheduling or motivation issues, I don’t beat myself up. I stay dynamic and adjust my training plan on a weekly and sometimes even daily basis. Most of all, I can’t emphasize enough how much listening to my body has been instrumental in setting up a good year.
Oakland Hills 35k
That brings me to the catalyst for this post, my first 20+ mile run: Inside Trail’s Oakland Hills 35k. I had known for a few months that I wanted to do at least a 30k in the fall. When I made it through a 19 mile training run in September and finished feeling like I could keep going, I knew it was time to stop wondering if I was ready and just try.
I had a good understanding of my current fitness going into the race, and thus had an idea of reasonable goals and expectations to set for myself. I made the decision and signed up in a span of 1-3 weeks before the race. I felt fairly calm and confident the 35k distance was achievable. In the couple of days leading up to race day, however, the nerves started building a little more than usual. The self-doubt started creeping back in. I was about to enter unknown distance territory, and that was becoming more realistic. On top of that, as people would ask if I was training for a race, I now had an answer for them. I didn’t talk to many people about doing the race, but I did mention it when asked. I hadn’t vocalized my intention to race since The Broken Arrow Skyrace back in June, and that race had felt like an epic, crushing fail given my focused training leading up to it. So now to share that I had a race coming up felt exciting but vulnerable, and I was subconsciously putting pressure on myself to try and prove something. It was probably part proving to myself that I could do the distance and performance to my current state of fitness, and part trying to feel like this would be a race I should be proud of without comparing it to all the amazing people doing 50k and 100 mile races around me.
As I was putting together a quick mental race strategy the night before the race, I did the best thing I could have done: I checked the list of race entrants. I saw that a few of my speedy, talented friends and local trail runners were doing the 35k, many of whom were also in my age group. Any fantasy I had about age grouping and the pressure of that pipe dream went out the door. I was able to approach the race more calmly again; I could simply do it for myself and no one else. I set my expectations to finish in the 4-5 hour range and enjoy the challenge of the day.
I will try not to go into the race itself in too much detail, but I do want to emphasize the importance of both setting goals and adjusting expectations. I went in with some light goals, and as I began the race I tallied up a few more – probably to distract myself from the cluster that was starting a race of multiple distances on a single track trail with a net downhill start. I prioritized these goals in my head as follows: 1. Finish, 2. Have fun, 3. Hydrate, 4a. Finish under 5 hours, 4b. (stretch goal) Finish around 4.5 hours, and 5. Maintain an average pace in the 11s or less. I achieved all of these goals except for the last, though with my official race pace at 12:01mm it was darn close.
I’d like to briefly outline my race highs and lows, but feel free to skip ahead for the tl;dr lessons learned and what comes next.
- I had a great first half of the race. I mean seriously great and fun. My legs felt fresher than they do on regular long runs, and thanks to rolling hills instead of long climbs, my calves and other muscles barely burned.
- Most of the race was shaded and in the redwoods, but the extra loop (kind of a lollipop-style section) and especially miles 14-15 were out in the quintessentially Californian exposed, dry golden hills.
- The lollipop section in this race was not as disastrous as the one at Broken Arrow, but it was still the hardest part for me mentally. I was mostly alone the back half of the race, which made the rolling, hot hills even harder. I was very happy to walk when I needed to, especially since the guy a few hundred yards in front of me was walking way more than I usually would. (I eventually passed him.)
- Coming out of the last aid station and back towards the shaded trails and the main course, Mile 18 had me goofy elated. I knew at this point that the second-hardest part was over and I would 100% finish the race. I also happened to look at the time and realized I was on track for a 4:30ish race, despite feeling like I had been in the “desert” for ever.
- I hit a second late-race moment of elation after hitting the 20 mile mark, and probably smiled and laughed out loud. This was my first time running 20 miles or more. Ultra dreams here I come.
- As expected, miles 21-22 were the slowest, never-ending uphill race finish. I didn’t have much running left in me, it was all uphill power-hiking and slow shuffling on the flats. But at least I was in the shade, getting closer, and could do some tourist people-watching.
- Squirrels Nut Butter and rabbit crop tops rocked and were the key to comfort.
- I don’t feel as silly now for being so vigilant of where I step going downhill because there was a guy at about 4.25 mi that had broken his ankle and possibly got helicoptered out.
- If you think you can wrap your hairband around one more time, do it. Mine fell out around mile 5, so I’m glad it wasn’t the first time I’ve practiced braiding my hair while being chased. (It did cause a few light ankle rolls though.)
- I have a new appreciation for rolling uphills.
- Not finding a way to seal an unfinished packet of electrolyte powder will cause it to spill everywhere.
With almost 4,600’ of elevation gain and 70+ degree weather, this was not the easiest first 35k I could have chosen, but I’m glad I did. Perseverance is not only what I take away from my training, but also from the race. Performing to my expectations and current fitness is further proof that consistently working at this passion isn’t all for naught. The last third of it was the longest struggle-sesh I’ve experienced. I might not have had any speed left in me, but I finished the race on target. I was euphorically exhausted when all was said and done. At the time, I could foresee being able to go on like that a little bit more for maybe a marathon, but couldn’t imagine doing a 50k. Then again, I definitely realized that I’ve gotten too comfortable in this smart, gradual training mindset. It was time to get a little uncomfortable again.
Now that I know I can do more, it’s time to start pushing myself and not just doing what seems within quick reach. I will maintain my routine consistency and continue to enjoy the process. Additionally, soon I will add the hill repeat and speed workouts that I started doing this spring back into my training. I’d like to work towards a higher weekly mileage as well.
Then comes the scary part, going for 50k. Yup. You heard it here – so hold me to it and help me do it. I have no idea what it’s going to take to get there, because the distance still feels other-worldly to me. Ideally, I’d like to find a fun 50k in later winter or early spring of next year. I am now taking suggestions for which race to do and how the heck I actually increase my training distance to get there.