31 miles is a long way to run, no matter how you slice it. But as my first ultra marathon, I was really lucky that everything about this run went right. Big Basin 50K, also known as the Skyline to Sea 50K – this was the run that made me dream of trail running. Single track trails through redwood groves, dew covered ferns, oak groves, monster technical descents, creek crossings and a run towards the sea. I had been obsessing over the route, aid-stations, weather, food, hydration, what to pack, etc. over the last couple of weeks that my wife thought I had PRS. Yeah, that would be Pre Race Stress. Here’s my cheat sheet of the elevation profile, with aid stations and distances marked over them.
Not exactly to scale, but was my way of breaking down the 31 miles of the Big Basin 50K into smaller manageable segments. Yeah, yeah, old school, blah, blah. Whatever works to get you through the 31 miles, right? The Big Basin 50K has about 3,190 ft elevation gain and a 5,790 ft elevation loss. Also known as the quad-killer.
Big Basin 50K
First on the lucky list was the weather. Compared to the day before it had cooled down by 10°F and was in the high 60’s to low 70’s with overcast. Couldn’t have ask for a better day. For the gear and food, I erred on the side of comfort instead of going light since it was my first 50K. I had Sandwiches, Clif Shots, Succeed! Caps and Onigiri packed into my SJ Ultra Vest. I carpooled to the starting line with fellow runners Monica and Adila which meant I could get an extra hour of sleep! Monica was also the one that inspired me to register for this race. Got there around 8:15 for the bib pickup and the mood was generally up beat and got to see some familiar faces.
I figured I could make time on the first 6.5 mile mostly downhill run to Waterman Gap. We left at 9am sharp and I took off keeping a good pace and stayed with the leading pack. The single track trails and the shaded fire trails weren’t too technical and I could just let go and flow with the gravity. We had to cross Hwy 9 a few times and I got to the first aid station around 50 minutes, but didn’t bother to stop. The cool weather meant that I wasn’t sweating as much. I figured I’ll make it to China Grade before the snacking started in earnest. The 4.6 mile climb was amazing. The fog had moved in making the trails a little damp with a cool mist in the air. The ferns glistened with the moisture and the trail was soft. I reached the top of China Grade at 1:45. About 11 miles done, 19 to go. There was a small nagging tightness on my right calf, but I was feeling chirpy otherwise. Tore into my ½ Almond Butter & Jelly sandwich and started on the pretty technical 4.6 mile descent.
Lots of rocks, roots, stumps and had to watch my footfall carefully. Amazing sweeping vistas too, though didn’t linger too much to take it all in. About half way I saw a runner stretching out his calves and he had a bloody nose. Looked like a crash and burn. Three times before the next aid station, I caught my right ankle rolling on something and a sharp pain from the partially torn ligament reminding me to be more careful.
When I got to Gazos Creek, I chucked my SJ Ultra Vest and just grabbed a water bottle and a Clif Shot to head up the 4.6 mile loop. From what I had read, this was pretty exposed and I wanted to carry as little weight as possible for the last big climb. And it paid off, though the weather continued to amaze me. When I got back to the aid station after the loop, the place was buzzing with runners, both marathoners and the ultra runners all stocking up for the home stretch. I was roughly 20 miles in and I had done it in less than 3:30. Perfect time for my Onigiri. I had made this last night with sushi rice, miso and wrapped them with a sheet of Nori and it was the most delicious thing I’ve ever had on a run, especially right around the wall. The Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei are known to use this and I read about it in Scott Jurek’s book Eat and Run. Hey, I have no shame in running on the shoulders of giants. At this point, I figured that even if I took it easy I would make a sub 6-hour run, which was kinda what I was shooting for.
Restocked with water and wolfing down on my Onigiri, I left the Gazos Creek aid station for a short climb and the final descent. I remembered this stretch from last summer when I ran a 10-mile loop to Berry Creek Falls and back. Once I hit Berry Creek Falls, the descent got a whole lot technical. Lots of steep steps, rocks, boulders and still more roots and stumps. Worked my way down, remembering to breathe and enjoying the cool breeze until the trail started hugging the Waddell creek taking us down to the sea. Passed a few marathoners along the way (including Monica) and this was the longest 8.6 miles I’ve ran. Every runner I passed by was wondering where the *#$? the aid station was. Ran into what seemed like an aid station, but turned out to be a couple of backpackers. Kept inching with a little walk, a little run to the next tree ahead until I reached the Twin Redwoods aid station at 5:10. Surprisingly I was still feeling pretty good and strong.
With 1.6 miles to go, I figured I had a fair chance now of getting to the finish line before 5:30. I took off from the aid station and started up the little climb and paused half way through the trail to soak up the view of the ocean. I could hear the bells, the horns and the cheering at the finish line and knew that I was almost there. As I came down the last hill, I saw my wife and my younger son. I waved at them happily and then looked at my watch. It was 5:28 and I sprinted towards the finish line crossing at 5:29! I finished 16th in my age group and 52nd overall. But hey, who’s counting. This was a huge personal milestone for me, having run my first ultra just 18 months after I started to run.
We hung out at the finish line for a while, drinking beer, making new friends and chatting up with other runners. Monica and Adila both made it to the finish line shortly after with big smiles. Got to meet Les Waddell, 60 years young and maker of the Barefoot Training Sandals. I think it was just the two of us that ran the whole way in sandals. His daughter Alexis was the 2nd female finisher. We celebrated the run with an awesome dinner with all three families at Davenport before heading back home. I woke up the next day still in one piece, but my quads and calves were completely trashed and sore. I suppose the 5,790 ft descent does that to you. That’s one area I could use a lot more improvement.
What was your first ultramarathon? How would you describe that experience?