Montara Mountain trail run (50K)

Another Sunday. Another 50K to run. On Saturday I went for a hike. I was tired after the hike. And I'm tired when I wake up on Sunday. It's 6am, so I'm also sleepy. My left hamstring is like a barometer, it seems to give me trouble whenever I'm too tired or overtrained and it's giving me clear signals that things aren't peachy today. To top it all I forgot to replenish my supplies, so instead of a Powerade I'm going for the race with a bottle of Cola ;).

Due to all those factors I didn't have my expectations too high. In fact, if it wasn't for the fact that I already paid for the registration, it's quite likely I would have decided not to go. But I did. So I go.

At least the drive goes smoothly, I reach the start and finish the toilet business just in time to run to the start and, without breaking stride, continue running into the race.

Due to all of the above problems I didn't hope for a great finish time. I'd be happy if I made it under 6 hours, so I set my Polar to a 5:45 goal, to have some error margin. Anyway, that would be just to have some sort of a reference point as on trail runs the pace varies so much that a linear target finish time projection is not very useful.

We hit the first long climb and after a while I realize that I'm all pumped up and going too hard at it. It's a tough hill and I'm running it. So do a lot of people around, but hey, they may be running a half-marathon or something. I look at my watch and see, to my horror, that my heart rate reached 173. Nooot cool. At this rate I'm on my way for the first DNF of my life...

Eventually we reach the summit and then it's running downhill for a couple of kilometers. Not exactly recovery as I'm trying to go fast but it is a form of rest, after all this uphill running.

At the end of the descent I'm back to where I started and I just completed the first loop of the course. After a short stop for a drink -- again I'm running without any liquids on me, so I fully depend on CPs for hydration -- and a quick bite of a banana, I'm on my way for the second (different) loop.

The second loop consists of two climbs, a shorter and a longer one. I'm still going strong. After I finish it I'm back at the start for a pit-stop break at the CP. By now I did a half-marathon. Now I just have to repeat both loops and then do the shorter version of the second one for the last 8K (see the map below). Piece of cake. Yeah, right.

And back to the first loop. This time things are not going so smoothly anymore. I'm tired. My hamstring that felt slightly sore in the morning now gives clear signs that it had enough and it threatens me that it will be ready to call it a day anytime now. I certainly go at a much more reasonable pace than at the beginning of the race. What gives me some motivation is that at the time I reach the top I'll be more than halfway through the race and, moreover, a nice, long descent will be awaiting me.

By that point for the most part I'm running alone. Before the turnaround point I start paying to runners that pass on their way back. I'm not sure whether all of them are doing 50K but it seems that I'm around 8th position. The next guy in front of me is real far away though, something like 1.5km, so in the shape I'm in I don't have any hopes of catching up with him. The next person behind me, on the other hand, is a lady with whom we passed each other a couple of times before. She seems to be only around 300 meters behind, maybe less. But I don't intend to let her overtake me again...

I reach the summit and start flying down on the descent, which gives me a chance to regain some energy. I reach the CP and get some much needed fluids and some food. I didn't know that during the race but the first time I did the orange loop in 1:09:30 and the second time in 1:19:44. That's a 15% deterioration; substantial but not alarming.

When I leave, it seems that the lady behind me is gaining on me and is only some 100m behind. But to my great surprise I see someone some 200-300 meters in front of me. So I concentrate on reeling him in. Apparently he's not planning on making it easy for me as on the climb he interleaves running with walking. By that time such foolishness does not even cross my mind and I fully resort to walking. But maybe that's not bad: on the way up trying to catch up with him will push me to go harder and then I hope to overtake him on the way down. However, to my surprise, his running does not help him much and long before the summit I pass him and am on my own again.

I start the second part of the pink loop, the Hazelnut Loop. I'm tired. This is a step incline. And I'm totally on my own. It's hard going. The only thing that gives me some strength is the thought that I only need to finish this loop and then do it again and I'm done. Easier said than done.

Somewhere around the half of the climb I have the impression I hear footsteps behind me. Is it possible that someone is catching up with me? The path is covered with bushes and winding like crazy so I can only see some 20 meters behind. Either I'm going nuts or someone is running behind (I'm walking). I seriously hope that it's a jogger that I saw before and who is not part of the race. But the uncertainty forces me to go harder. I keep on hoping that I can reach the top without being overtaken and then on the way down I'm confident I won't give up my position. I sigh with relief as I manage to do that but shortly afterwards I realize that my lady friend is again within sight; so I wasn't going crazy after all and someone was sneaking up on me.

I fly down and realize that I'm in trouble. By now it's quite hot and my running without a backpack and without any water doesn't seem to be such a great idea anymore. I'll certainly need to stop at the CP, whereas from before I have the impression that she's largely self-sufficient and only stops to refill her bottle.

Indeed I manage to extend my lead a bit on the way down, but, even though I only spend one and a half minute at the CP, she, together with some guy, leaves it shortly before me. For some reason I feel determined to regain my lead. Gladly by now they're also tired so I manage to pass them on the short, flat stretch before the final climb (yellow shortcut on the map). Final climb! Thank God...

While I walk at a brisk pace up the climb at some point I again start hearing footsteps behind me. This time I know it's not my imagination, it's them. I push myself hard, even running a bit every now and then. I curse myself for not having any water on me. But it's the final climb. That gives me some strength. I feel that if only I manage not to let them overtake me on the climb, it'll also not happen on the way down. If only... To my utter surprise before reaching the top I see and pass two other runners. That gives an extra boost to my confidence. What also helps is that this time I know exactly how long the climb is, so in my head I do the final countdown.

Eventually I reach the top. The race is not over yet, but it feels as if it was. Only one final descent. Surely nothing can happen there. Downhill running seems to be my strong suit, so I'm confident I will not let anyone overtake me on this final stretch. My assumption is tested as at some point I see one of the guys that I overtook, mere 30 meters behind me and trying hard to catch up...

Not on my watch. I reach to my last reserves of energy and start flying down. I do this final descent at the same time as at the beginning of the race, although obviously now it feels as if it was much faster. I cross the finish line. Yes!!

The guy who was on my back comes in mere 6 seconds later. And my lady friend 24 seconds after him (as it turns out she's in the 40-49 age group; big, big kudos!). I finished 5th overall and 2nd in my age group. Not bad. What's even better is that I finished in 5:20:21!! I can hardly believe that. Even if I was in perfect form this morning I would never dream of breaking the 5:30:00 barrier, which I'd consider a super ambitious goal. Indeed, my result is a 37:21 improvement over my Coyote Ridge race. Over half an hour!! I just cannot believe it... (One could think that this was an easier course but the organizers calling it one of their most difficult races and the elevation of 2,323m, compared to almost equal 2,408 of Coyote Ridge, seem to indicate otherwise).

What an amazing race! If there's anything that puzzles me it's why I did so well, when I didn't feel too great in the morning?! Probably the answer is more complex than that but there are at least two things that come to my mind. Firstly, mine not feeling too strong might have actually helped -- by not creating pressure and expectations. Secondly, and that's very important, the course was perfect from the mental standpoint. Let me explain what I mean by that. It more or less consisted of 5 loops, each around 10K. I think that's a perfect setup. Each segment was long enough to provide a feeling of substantial progress once finished and, at the same time, short enough not to feel too overwhelming. Finally, almost during the whole race I had some people strategically placed either in front of me, or behind me, and racing them was giving me the much needed motivation to go faster.

Conclusions? Everyone keeps on saying that ultra-running is in huge part a mental game. Well, I certainly still think that the physical part of it is not to be taken lightly and you won't see me throwing my training to the winds, but I start to see that there's something to those claims. Who know, maybe indeed it's all in your head?

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