My First 50-mile Ultramarathon: The San Diego 50

Last Saturday I ran my first 50-mile ultramarathon: The San Diego 50. I had committed to running this race last September, and I’m so glad I did … because it changed me for the better.

Race morning

My alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. and after a relatively decent night’s sleep, I rolled out of bed, had my obligatory cup of coffee and tried to wrap my head around what I was about to do. Then I ate some breakfast (bagel & eggs) and started getting ready for race day. By 4:30 a.m., me and John – one of the guys I had trained with – were on our way out to Escondido. We met Carlos – another guy I trained with – at mile 10, where he dropped off his car, and then it was off to the start.

It was still dark when we pulled into the San Pasqual Valley Trailhead parking lot. The lot was full of runners staying warm in their cars, so we did the same until it was time to head to the start. After a brief speech from race director Paul Jesse, roughly 150 of us headed off onto the trail for what was sure to be a long, long day.

25-mile out and back course, 5,588 feet of climbing
25-mile out and back course, 5,588 feet of climbing
Runners at the start
Runners at the start

 Start to Raptor Ridge 1 (0.0 – 5.7)

The start was cold, probably somewhere in the 30s. The first part of the course was predominantly flat, which allowed for runners to easily “find their pace” and settle in. For me, that was towards the back of the pack. Part of my race strategy – since this was my first race at this distance – was to walk the uphills and conserve as much energy as I could.

Once I hit the base of Raptor Ridge, I walked it up, and then ran it down on the other side, straight through the first aid station. All things considered, I was feeling great.

Raptor Ridge 1 to Sunset 1 (5.7 – 10)

Things started to warm up a bit, as the sun started to make its appearance for the day. This stretch was pretty flat, so I just settled into my pace and enjoyed the miles. At about 8:30 I rolled into Sunset 1, where C was waiting. I ditched my fleece, thanked her for coming out (she spent all day cheering on runners from all the aid stations – what a trooper!), ate some oranges and bananas, downed some electrolytes and headed back out.

Sunset 1 to Del Dios Park 1 (10 – 15)

This is where running the whole trail “out” on a training run really paid off. Because of that, I was actually looking forward to this section of the course. The relatively flat, smooth trail overlooks Lake Hodges and the views are breathtaking. However, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, as I quickly realized I was running out of water and was only 2 miles into this stretch – I was so excited that I had forgot to fill my Nathan hydration pack at either of the previous aid stations. Whoops.

My favorite stretch of the trail (Miles 10 – 15)
My favorite stretch of the trail (Miles 10 – 15)

 Del Dios Park 1 – Bing Crosby 1 (15 – 20.25)

By now it was getting pretty warm; luckily these miles provided a slow, steady decline, right into the next aid station. During this stretch, I ran into a lady named Jerry who was also running her first 50-miler. We chatted about how our races were going, why we were running, etc. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that the runners and volunteers – and the trail running community in general – are some of the nicest, down-to-earth people I’ve ever met. I felt privileged to be a part of it. Before I knew it Jerry and I were rolling into Bing Crosby 1.

Bing Crosby 1 – Turnaround (20.25 – 25)

As I left Bing Crosby 1 and headed out to the turn around, I could tell the heat was really starting to get to me. Though I’d been taking in electrolytes every hour and eating 3 Cliff Blok Shots every 30 minutes, as well as eating at every aid station and drinking as much water as I could handle, I could tell that it wasn’t enough. I simply wasn’t getting enough calories, which made for a very, very, tough next 8-10 miles.

I slowed dramatically and ultimately ended up walking a lot of this section. Once I hit the top of the switchbacks and started the descent on the other side I ran into Carlos, who was on his way back and looking strong. It was great to see someone you’d trained with killing it – and it gave me just the push I needed to keep moving forward.

As I approached the turnaround, I ran into my other training partner, John, who was also on his way back. We chatted for a minute and then both went our separate ways, leaving me feeling completely re-energized.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s the turnaround!
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s the turnaround!

Turnaround – Bing Crosby 2 (25 – 29.75)

After leaving the turnaround, I settled in mentally for what I knew would be one of the toughest parts of the course (for me). While I’m not sure what it is, that stretch from Bing Crosby 1 to the turnaround (and back) is mentally crushing for me. It had been in all our training runs, too. However, KNOWING this going into race day helped substantially.

Once I got to Bing Crosby 2, I changed socks, sat down and ate a bagel with some peanut butter. Unfortunately, I think it was too little, too late.

Coming into Bing Crosby 2
Coming into Bing Crosby 2

Bing Crosby 2 – Del Dios Park 2 (29.75 – 35)

KABOOM! I’ve heard a lot of people talk about “blowing up” during a race. Well, this stretch is where I spontaneously combusted. I walked almost all of it. Looking back on it, this was due to a combination of things: the heat, nowhere near enough calories and probably not enough electrolytes, either. At the time I was bummed that I had to walk the majority of this stretch, but after a few days to reflect on it, I’m glad it happened. I was able to pinpoint what went wrong, experience a true “blow up” and, most importantly, keep pushing forward.

Beautiful trail leading into Del Dios aid station
Beautiful trail leading into Del Dios aid station

Del Dios Park 2 – Sunset 2 (35 – 40)

Hallelujah, he has risen! After taking some time to “put myself back together” at Del Dios 2, I felt much better. These were some of my strongest miles since the start and It. Felt. Great! It didn’t hurt that this was my favorite section of the course, either. As the afternoon was winding down (it was about 4), it made for some beautiful views of the lake, and allowed me to really get in my head and reflect on so many things. It may sound a bit strange, but it was a very profound 5 miles for me.

Sunset 2 – Raptor Ridge 2 (40 – 44.3)

As the sun began its descent, I took off from Sunset 2. Christina could tell I looked a lot better, but was still banged up from the fact that I’d been running for 10 ½ hours. By this point, there was NO ONE else around, just me, my thoughts and the few miles ahead that lead to Raptor Ridge 2. I arrived there with 10 minutes to spare (they were beginning to pack up). It was a little before 6 p.m. I had 90 minutes to get back to the start, something that sounds a lot easier in theory, than after 44.3 miles. The sun was now gone and it was dark. I put on my headlamp, and headed out to start the ascent of Raptor Ridge.

My headlamp sure came in handy on Raptor Ridge
My headlamp sure came in handy on Raptor Ridge

Raptor Ridge 2 – Finish (44.3 – 50)

Climbing Raptor Ridge by the light of my headlamp was surreal. It was at that moment that I really knew I’d found something new that I loved (trail running). Though the last 5 miles were incredibly, incredibly long, I didn’t mind. I was in my own world, and I loved it. However, before I knew it, I heard a few faint cheers coming from the finish line. I couldn’t believe it – I was almost there!

Finish

I crossed the finish in 12 hours and 47 minutes, helping me hit my “C” goal (I had set 3 goals for the day: A) < 11 hours, B) < 12 hours & C) to finish). As I watched my A & B goals go up in flames, I knew I still had a shot at my C goal – and I got it.

50-mile ultramarathon finisher
50-mile ultramarathon finisher  

Carlos had an incredibly strong finish and John got in just a few minutes before me. I was incredibly proud of all of us – and thankful that I had the opportunity to train and run with such great guys in the months leading up to the race.

To say that this recap does this experience justice would be incorrect. This is just all I can remember. For most of the day, I was in my head like never before – and I loved it. I was tested both physically and mentally and came out a better person because of it. This experience was so much more than just a run.

I’ve taken the last few days off, but now it’s time to get busy and focus on hitting my “A” goal (<11 hours) at the PCT 50-miler in May.

-G

38 thoughts on “My First 50-mile Ultramarathon: The San Diego 50

  1. Nice job. I think the first time you run a distance you haven’t raced before is always going to be a learning experience. You can’t simulate race day in training, no way. Good luck with PCT.

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    1. Thanks, man! After Saturday’s race I’d definitely agree with you. I think the best you can do is study the course, show up on race day and hope for the best. Do you have anything coming up?

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  2. Nice job and way to stick with it and finial it strong. Nutrition (water and fuel ) is the number one reason the races to well or don’t . I’m glad you learned some valuable lessons and now you can perfect the knowledge you gained. It’s a weird thing; I felt hungry when I had enough calories , I’ve felt thirsty when I had enough water , and I’ve felt depleted when I knew I shouldn’t be . It’s all about that perfect balance for your body type. I know now how many calories , water and electrolyte pills I need to finish Ultras. Sometimes eating and drinking too much has the same effects of eating or drinking to little… It’s all about that perfect balance.

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    1. Thanks! You nailed it – the biggest thing I was able to take away from this was knowledge, specifically about fueling. I’m looking forward to taking this knowledge and applying to future races for stronger finishes!

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  3. Congratulations! Amazing job! I have my first 50-miler in April, and it’s good for me to read other experiences! I’ll do what I can to be ready – but it all changes on race day!

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    1. Thanks, Laura! From following your blog it looks like you’ve put in great work so far — if you keep it up, I’m sure you’ll have a strong run come race day! 🙂 Looking forward to following the rest of the training!

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  4. Congrats!! That is so awesome! I am running my first Ultra at the Prairie Spirit 50 in Kansas at the end of March and I’m very excited but very nervous. Your blog has helped paint a picture of what it will be like to dig deep when the going gets real tough! Thanks for sharing! Good luck to you on your next race!!

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    1. Thank you! It was a lot of fun! I just looked at the PS 50 and that looks like a blast, too! We look forward to following the rest of the training and reading that recap of when you cross that finish line! 🙂

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  5. Congrats on your finish! I’m still not ready for a 50 miler, but will be running a 50k in April. I know that there will be tough spots. I guess if it were easy everyone would be doing it, right?!

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  6. This is a little late, but you should still be feeling pretty proud of yourself. It’s probably just finally sunk in that YOU RAN 50 MILES!! It’s an awesome accomplishment and I’m sure you’re thinking about when you can do it again. Bravo!

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      1. My next race is a road marathon in Treviso, Italy. Depending on how scenic it is, I may take my sweet old time and take pictures along the way. After that, there’s a 50M in April I’d like to do.

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  7. I’ve never tackled a distance like this so I really enjoyed and appreciated reading the detailed recap of your experience! It sounds like a true test of body and mind. Incredibly impressive, congratulations!!

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