With a 5,400 foot elevation gain and an equal descent, starting altitude of 3,185 feet going up to nearly 6,000, 80+ degree weather and a gnarly technical, exposed terrain all combined forces to teach me a true lesson in ultra running. See how positive that spin was? I was originally going to run the Crystal Springs Trail Run 50K in Woodside (see my routes on Huddart Park and Wunderlich Park), but couldn’t make that one because of a soccer injury. I happened to see this one popup in the news and decided to register for the headwaters ultra 50K.
Headwaters Ultra 50K
The week preceding the race, I went through my usual obsession of studying the route map, distances between the aid station and mentally mapping the elevation gains into similar distanced-trails that I’ve run before. This was my first run that allowed drop bags and so that was a new experience too. In the Big Basin 50K, I ended up carrying too much so decided to go a little light. I only had my Nathan 22oz handheld with me and my plan was to restock at the aid stations. My wife and I checked into a cabin at Lake Siskiyou the night before and got there in time to see the amazing Mt. Shasta in twilight.
Walked over to the starting line (we stayed at the cabin there) in the morning, picked up my bib and chatted up with the runners. After a very casual intro and a count down by Gerad Dean, we took off at 8am. After running along the north shore of the lake for a little while, we started the climb up into the mountains. For a while everything seemed normal, until I hit the first patch of what looked like dried creek bed with loose rocks everywhere, something that I would become intimately familiar over the next 20 something miles.
Reached Rainbow Ridge aid station in 58 minutes and made the 1st tactical mistake. Didn’t top off the water even though someone asked me. I only had one Clif Shot on me and by the time I climbed up to the 2nd aid station at 2:25ish, I was hungry, thirsty and my calves were cramping up. Wolfed down the Onigiri that I made the night before, grabbed two more Clif Shots from my drop bag and bolted down the nasty middle part. Navigating the treacherous terrain in my Luna Sandals took tons of concentration and it never let up. I walked most of the climb up to North Fork aid station, keeping the cramps at bay and got there at 4:00 hours. 18 miles done. More Clif Shots, lots of water, and walked up the longest 1 mile to the top of the route.
This 5 mile loop back to the same aid station was almost completely exposed. By now, I was mostly walking the flat parts, cramping on even the slightest uphill, constantly dunking water on my face to keep cool and longing for the shade. Reached the North Fork aid station again at 5:20 hours and I still had 8 miles to go. Supposedly all downhill, but not the kind of cruising downhill that I am used to. One last Onigiri from my drop bag, couple of Clif Shots and started working my way down. The volunteers at the last aid station cheered me on, restocked and sent me scurrying down. After, what seemed like a long time, saw a sign to the finish line. Best. Sign. Ever.
I crossed the finish line at 6:46 and 7th in my age group. Much slower than I thought I was going to finish, but given that it was my second 50K and the altitude, heat and terrain kicked my butt, I suppose I did okay. I now realize how spoiled I was running the Big Basin 50K through shaded redwood groves, coastal fog and a beautiful rolling hills with soft trails. My main learning? Focus on comfort in these ultras and if you have drop bags, load them up with more food and drinks than you think you need. Also noticed that I completely ran out of water between aid stations. Dehydration caused by the altitude was something that I didn’t account for. Lastly those gnarly creek-bed trails were a killer. Other than the first and last 3 miles, I felt like I never could recover on the run and had to be on high alert the whole time.
All said and done, I’m pretty stoked that I registered and ran the headwaters ultra 50K and will definitely be back there next year (hopefully a little more prepared and with a little more experience running 50K’s). Gerad Dean did an amazing job as race director in this inaugural race and I loved the support of all the volunteers. Thank you! Oh and about the Onigiri, I made it with sushi rice, organic miso concentrate, pickled radish all wrapped up in Nori goodness. A welcome change from the gels and salt pills while on a run.
Did you run the headwaters ultra? What was your experience?