The cramps feel like phantom hands stabbing my calves and thighs with a screwdriver as if to jimmy a lock. As I try to run Mile 25 of the 31-mile Ohlone 50K, my legs randomly spasm and stiffen as though attached to jumper cables controlled by the bad guy who always inflicts torture in a James Bond flick.
Goddamnitgoddamnitgoddamnit goes through my head as I look over my shoulder and see Red Hat and White Visor coming up fast in the distance, the two women who’ve run about a minute behind me for nearly five hours. They pushed me to run harder than I thought possible while I maintained the lead over two mountain peaks.
I spot them striding down one of the dozens of steep switchbacks of this remote trail, which cuts through grassy hills and oak woodlands in the backcountry between Fremont and Livermore.
I look over my shoulder again and suddenly see a third woman catching up to White Visor, the one in the pink singlet I recognize as Bree Lambert, who finished way ahead of me in a 50-mile race last fall. I’m momentarily captivated by her beautiful, flowing form, her legs stretching out and turning over with an ease that belies the 7000 or so feet we’ve already climbed.
Meanwhile, my skin is prickly, my tongue is parched and my fingers are so swollen that the knuckles can’t bend to make a fist. My hydration pack registers Empty. I didn’t want to spend time at the previous aid stations refilling my pack because I didn’t want those women to catch me, and I didn’t think I’d dehydrate in this relatively mild weather.
And now I am stumbling up the next hill all higgledy-piggledy with loss of muscle control. “Sarah-bral,” as in cerebral palsy, is the nickname the buttheads in junior high gave me, and here I am, Sarah-bral again, a complete spaz.
Goddamnitgoddamnitgoddamnit my fantasy of texting my family at the finish I WON!!!! seems as foolish as the doomsday prediction of the world ending the day before. But I made the commitment to try to maintain the lead when I scrambled through the fierce wind to the summit of Rose Peak, at Mile 19.
My iPod transmits my 13-year-old daughter’s pop tunes, and when I reached the summit, the Glee cast’s cover of Somewhere Over the Rainbow unexpectedly came on in my ears. It sounded hopelessly sentimental yet fitting for the moment, and when I heard the line, “and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true,” I thought, “I’m gonna dare to dream I can win this thing.”
I honestly never expected to be in that position. I lined up at the start thinking, “just run how you feel,” and, “try to break 6 hours.” Unlike other 50Ks where I aim to break 5 hours, this course is so tough that going sub-6 is a big deal. I ran the Ohlone 50K twice before—one year, when the temperatures were in the 90s, and I finished in 6:38; and then, two years ago, when I finished in 5:54. I doubted I could match that earlier time—me, 42, five pounds too heavy, my foot giving me trouble. But if I went five minutes slower than my previous best, then I could still squeak under 6.
I almost didn’t make it to the start. A throbbing in my foot woke me up at 2 a.m. How can this be happening? I wore flip-flops the day before, and the skin on my feet got so dried out and stretched that a fissure on the ball of my right foot actually split open. I thought I had stepped on glass but realized it was just this stupid, unexpected crack that kinda hurt. Dirt must have gotten in there to infect it, because at 2 a.m. it really hurt. I sat on the toilet lid cleaning and bandaging it and fantasized about skipping the race now that I had an excuse. What’s this giant Band-Aid gonna do in my socks? I could sleep in and have the whole day off, nothing planned—imagine the possibilities! I went back to bed and deferred the decision until my 4 a.m. alarm.
Ultimately, I wound up at the event, thanks to a case of FOMO—Fear Of Missing Out. I didn’t want to miss the chance to traverse the Sunol Wilderness and hang out with all those ultrarunning characters afterward.
When I joined the 200 others at the starting line near the base of Fremont’s Mission Peak, I noticed a few notable women missing: Caitlin Smith, the course record holder; and Caren Spore and Beth Vitalis, two other amazing runners who dominate this course. Their absence meant the competition probably wouldn’t be so fierce near the front. But, past winner Suzie Lister was there, and so was Bree, plus these super fit looking women I had never seen or met—the two I later dubbed White Visor and Red Hat. I didn’t know where I’d fit in with them, and at the start I didn’t really care. It was never my intention to race others—I only wanted to race the clock.
This race divides neatly into thirds. The first third goes up and over Mission Peak to the Sunol station. This is the part I’m most familiar with, and the immediate uphill at the start doesn’t faze me. We departed the fire road and ran up a single track obscured by knee-high grass, and then navigated over and around the rock outcroppings near the top of Mission Peak. Thick clouds shrouded the summit, and I ran as hard as I could through the blustery wind mainly to keep warm. I bombed down the rocky backside, managed to keep from falling, and then maintained sub-7-minute miles on the way down toward Sunol. Around here I passed the woman in the white visor. Will I pay for this later? I wondered about the pace, but kept at it.
The middle third, from Sunol to Rose Peak, tames any friskiness. It’s just up and up and up, with many runnable straight-aways between the switchbacks. I ran hard despite both feet flaring up—the one with the cut, and the other one just because it always talks back.
At the aid station at Mile 15, I felt rejuvenated by seeing my old friend and mentor Kitty Moore who was volunteering there, and as we hugged and gabbed, two of the women on my tail ran in to the station. “Get going!” Kitty told me, and so I took off.
Fast forward to the final third part of the course. Embolden by my decision to try my hardest to keep the women’s lead, I ran down Rose Peak doing a pell-mell propeller thing with my arms, which helped me fly by a few guys along the way. I felt fairly confident—cocky, you might say—that I was running unusually well, feeling pretty good, and opening a comfortable distance between myself and the other women.
But this last portion of the course hides physical and mental traps. You think you’re past the hardest part, with the two mountain peaks in the mind’s rear-view mirror, but the course hits back with a series of shorter canyon climbs that dip and spike like a Richter scale recording aftershocks.
I know I’m in trouble when those cramps start to jab at my lower body. I’ve had enough calories in the form of gels and PB&J sandwich bites, but my body chemistry is out of whack, and I don’t have enough water left in my pack to wash down a salt pill. I tell myself I’ll drink at Stewart’s Camp (Mile 23), but that water stop—just a spigot, not a real aid station—comes during a downhill stretch where I don’t see it until the last second, and I’m running so fast that I don’t want to break my stride. I run right past it—and start to regret it a quarter-mile later.
I reach the point on the course when I’m struggling up a switchback and can look back to see the three of them—White Visor, Red Hat and Bree—running close together downhill, looking fresh and fast. I’m toast.
Goddamnit, I’ll have to take off my pack at the aid station around Mile 26, refill it, and get some food and liquid in me. I know they’ll catch me, but I vow, If anyone passes me—woman or man—then they deserve to finish ahead because I’m going to give this everything I have.
I run into the aid station while disentangling my arms from my pack, and as I hand it to one of the saint-like volunteers who are as efficient and helpful as EMTs, I feel my face crumple, my chin quiver, and I actually start crying (which I can’t recall ever doing before in a race). I blubber something like, “I need help. I feel awful.”
A woman volunteer fills my hydration pack halfway, replaces it on my back and jogs with me a few steps while saying words of encouragement. Then, just as I’m getting my act together to run downhill—adjusting the straps, wiping my nose, sucking in a gel—I suddenly hear the pounding, rhythmic steps of a runner approaching fast.
It’s the blond-haired woman in the red hat, and she’s charging through the aid station without slowing down. I feel ambushed, defeated, and I don’t know what to say. But she’s jazzed and jabbering, her energy level and emotional high in inverse proportion to my lows.
“Hey lady, you’re a rock star!” she tells me. “What’s you’re name?”
I’m speechless because I feel like crying again and want to say my name is “Loser,” but I manage to mumble “Sarah.”
She takes off, and I settle into the single track. I can’t dwell on my thoughts or pain because this narrow chute of trail is full of tripping hazards that demand full attention.
The course delivers one last, cruel spike around Mile 27 where my forward motion is so slow, and the ascent is so vertical, that my Garmin’s GPS registers me as standing still. I struggle up, but when the road flattens out and becomes Purgatory, I just can’t get my legs to respond with more than a shuffle.
The woman I think of as White Visor runs up behind me, and I turn to smile as she passes. “Well, I had a good marathon at least,” I say ruefully. And then I add, “You’re doing great. Go catch her.”
The Ohlone 50K’s last couple of miles go straight downhill and shred the quadriceps. Then the course plays its final joke with a slightly uphill but mostly flat stretch that torments the pulverized legs.
I’m feeling much better since rehydrating, and my leg turnover functions well enough that I can swoosh down the downhill like I’m skiing the fall line. When I hit that flat stretch, the woman in the white visor comes back into view. She’s walking, much too far ahead to catch, but I want to close the gap a little. I also know Bree must be right behind me. So I run the whole thing to the very last downhill while letting a sense of satisfaction sink in. Sure, I made careless errors, and I could have studied the course to race with a more strategic plan, but I give myself an A for effort.
It turns out that Red Hat’s name is Keira Henninger, 34, from Southern California, and she won in 5:38:12. White Visor is Chris Purslow, 44, from Flagstaff, Arizona, and she came in second in 5:42:30. And me? I savor cutting 11 minutes off my previous best time to finish in 5:43:28, third woman and 22nd overall.
And I know I have that pack of women to thank for the push.
Many thanks to the volunteers and photographers along the course, especially Chihping Fu, who also posted a video of the frontrunners including yours truly; here’s the link.
For more on this year’s Ohlone 50K, check out these more informative, less wacko posts by some of the top runners:
Leor Pantilat (1st place in 4:31 and course record holder)
Jean Pommier (3rd place finisher in 4:55)
Mark Tanaka (5th place finisher in 5:13)