This year’s Leona Divide was possibly the best race of my life. I say this not because my time was great (it wasn’t—it was 30 minutes longer than my previous 50-mile time, and hours behind the race winners) and not because I felt amazing during the whole race (I didn’t—hello, crash at mile 43.) But something about this race changed the way I think of myself, and my limits, and my abilities, and I finished with a euphoric feeling that has stayed with me these past few weeks. This same feeling is making it really difficult to write a coherent race report, though, so bear with me.
Leona Divide is held in Lake Hughes, near Palmdale—only about an hour’s drive from my front door. Jason & I headed up on Friday afternoon, and after checking into the hotel, we went to the Lake Hughes Community Center for the pre-race pasta dinner and briefing, which turned out to be all pasta and no briefing. However, I’d read the pre-race packet so many times I practically had it memorized, so I don’t know what else the briefing might have said that I couldn’t have quoted back verbatim. During dinner we chatted with two fellow racers, both of whom were new to the 50-mile distance. As terrible as it sounds, it reassured me a little bit—I may have been feeling undertrained, but at least I knew I could finish the distance. Talking to the newbies made me feel like I wasn’t the least prepared person in the room.
The night before a race I’m always a bundle of nerves anyhow, but it was even worse before Leona. The distance was freaking me out, my sporadic training was freaking me out, and I’d had all sort of random aches and pains the week before that I was certain were going to haunt me during the race. Plus I couldn’t decide what to wear—I’d bought new compression socks and new shorts and wasn’t sure if wearing them was a great idea or a terrible idea. (Verdict: great! Who needs to test and break in new gear? Not me.) So after double- and triple-checking my drop bag, I tossed and turned most of the night until the alarm went off at 4am. Stumble out of bed, lube and tape every conceivable body part, choke down toast with pb & banana, fill the pack with ice, and we’re out the door by 4:45.
The community center was PACKED with people. I was throwin’ elbows left and right just to get in line for the bathroom. Apparently this year there were record numbers of runners (300+) and the area definitely seemed suited for about a third that number. The time went quickly, though—between waiting to check in my drop bag, waiting for a bathroom, and pinning my number/filling my water bladder, pretty soon it was time for the 6am start.
The race starts with a few miles of climb, so I lined up near the back since I was planning on walking the big hills and saving my energy. Right at six they blew the horn, and I waved goodbye to Jason until mile 16. Just a few minutes into the race, I ran into my old running friend David. I hadn’t known he was doing the race until Friday night, but it was so fun to see a familiar face! We were able to catch up and take it easy for the first few hours, and we also ran into a few other people David knew. Talking makes the time pass so much faster—I think we stuck together until almost mile 12. He’s speedier than I am, so eventually he pulled away and I was left to make my own friends on the trail. These first miles were slow and steady, and except for a super-powerful, super-chilly wind that would whip around the edge of the mountain and practically blow me off, the weather was amazing and I was feelin’ fine.
You can tell it’s early in the race because we’re still genuinely smiling!
I actually really liked the size of the race. It was small enough so that it didn’t feel packed or crowded (except in the community center!) but large enough that I almost always saw someone else on the trail, even if it was just a bobbing head a mile in front of me. In some races the field gets so spread out you can go for hours without seeing other runners, but I liked feeling less alone. Plus, I ended up having good conversations with maybe four or five new people on the trails, some of which lasted for an hour or more and it was a lot of fun and a great distraction.
After 12 miles we left the wide dirt road we’d been running on and started on some lovely, luscious singletrack. 37+ miles of Leona is singletrack, most of it the Pacific Crest Trail, and it is phenomenally beautiful. Really well-maintained, not too technical, and running through wildflowers, green hills, rocky sections—a little bit of everything. During this point I was chatting with a new friend about Ironman races and running the Grand Canyon, so again, the time just flew. Pretty soon we were dropping quickly, and after a few miles of downhill, we headed into the third aid station, Mile 16.
Running into the AS
This station was only a five-minute drive from the start, so it’s the station where our drop bags were located and where our crew could meet us at miles 16 and 42. My “crew” was there to film me coming in, get my drop bag, and feed me peeled grapes while fanning me with a palm frond. Well, I requested that last one, but didn’t quite get it.
It’s like Where’s Waldo for drop bags. Mine’s the green duffel with brown handles—spot it?
It was fun to see Jason during the middle of a race, but also a little weird! I’ve never had a “crew” and it felt funny to see him for just a minute or two and take off again, but also pointless to hang around chit-chatting when I was supposed to be running a race. So after a little more food and a pep talk, I was off. Up to this point, I was feeling good but a little bit nervous—I had been hoping the first few hours would be effortless and they were a little more effortful than I wanted. I wasn’t tired, but I was pre-tired.
Fortunately, the next section, for maybe the next four miles or so, was mostly uphill, so after I left the aid station I turned my music up and started power-hiking. I was really grateful for those hills, because they gave me my second wind! I needed a walk break and they were the perfect opportunity. After a mile or so, the food & drink at the last aid station kicked in, I was well-rested, and started feeling great. After another few miles, we were breaking out of the trees and seeing some amazing views of the whole Leona valley and Lake Elizabeth (what a lovely name for a lake) and I got a huge boost.
I alternated running with walking the serious uphills until the next aid station—and this is where things started to get REALLY good. The aid stations were amazing! I think a friend said it best when she said they looked like a cross between a race and Burning Man. The themed decorations, costumes, and generally amazing vibe of the stations completely lifted my mood and energized me. How could you not love this:
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Runderland, mile 20/38. I told them I was filming a video so we started a dance party—awesome footage and a great way to stay warm in the wind!
Runderland was the turnaround for the 50k race, but I still had almost 10 miles to go before my own turnaround. The next section was super runnable, and I played leapfrog (not literally) with a few other runners as we took turns passing each other on the downhils and uphills.
There were all these great signs leading up to and away from the next aid station:
And when I got there, I found…
I want to rock and roll all night and party every day!
80’s glam rock aid station! I cannot tell you how fun it is to emerge from the woods to a full-on party, complete with tight pants, bad wigs, and helpful people offering to fill your water pack and stuff you full of food! (Also, this aid station wins second best food award for their freshly sliced pineapple.) The next section of trail was probably my favorite—very narrow, full of shaded patches and flowers and amazing views. My one complaint was that because it was so narrow, I often had to stop running and step off trail to make way for the faster runners heading back to the start—I wasn’t super concerned about my time, but it did happen frequently and got a little tiresome after awhile.
The last 2 miles to the turnaround were down a steep jeep road, which was probably my least favorite section. It was rocky, wide, ugly, and a bear to run down with tired quads—plus I was running down just knowing I was going to have to trudge up it in just a few miles. However, the turnaround aid station more than made up for it…
What, like you’ve never seen a man in a giant pink bunny costume holding a parakeet at an aid station before?
The real winner, though, was the piece of quiche I ate here. Completely random, and I NEVER would have guessed that quiche would sound good in the middle of running 50 miles. But real food sounded amazing, and the quiche was there, and it. tasted. fabulous. It helps that I had a steep uphill to climb right after, so instead of running on a quichhy stomach (totally a word) I was able to let it settle for awhile.
And, get this: once I was running again, back to my 80’s rocker pals, I felt AWESOME. I had a huge burst of energy and it was like my legs were brand new. I don’t know what else it could be, so I’m giving the quiche the credit.
I felt amazing and did some solid running right up until the aid station at mile 42.8. Coming into the aid was a few miles of downhill, and my legs started protesting. Mile 42 is also where I crashed and burned at my last 50, so I was super-conscious of it and decided to take in more calories in the form of Coke. And a brownie. And then another cup of Coke. That, my friends, is not a quiche-worthy follow-up.
There was an extended climb out of mile 42, for about 4-5 miles, and this was the low point of the race. I was tired, things were aching, I was NOT feeling like running uphill, and my stomach was not loving the Coke/brownie combo I slammed in quick succession. I tried to distract myself by filming little video segments, but I kept getting passed by people who apparently had not enjoyed Coke and brownies quite as much as I had, so it was a little demoralizing to be talking to myself while getting passed by a 70-year old who looked as comfy as a mountain goat trotting uphill.
But even this period, this low point, was not actually so low. Sure, I was slow, and sure, my stomach has felt better. But I didn’t descend into the self-pity I sometimes do, or feel frustration or hopelessness like I have in the past. I was still riding high on the second and third winds I’d enjoyed up until this point. I had a totally different attitude that let me see that this tough section was just a small part of a larger picture, and that I was undoubtedly going to finish. One of my running mantras is “It’s not whether you can or you can’t, it’s whether you will or you won’t.” Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that in the midst of a difficult run, but I completely bought it this race. I knew that I could, and I had decided that I WOULD—and that made all the difference.
The final three miles were GREAT. They were all a gentle, wide downhill trail back into town. I could see the town from a few miles off, which is always slightly agonizing—to feel that you’re so much closer than you are. But I was running surprisingly well and feeling strong. I passed 4-5 people during the last few miles, folks who were limping or doing the herky-jerky run I’ve done a few times myself at the end of a race. They looked like they were seriously hurting, and I thanked my lucky stars that I was feeling so well, considering. “Dance with Somebody” by Mando Diao came on, and it proved to be a good motivator, so I cranked up the music, put it on repeat, and blasted out the last 3 miles.
Finishing, of course, felt awesome, but I honestly felt like I could have kept going for quite awhile—at least another 12 miles, which would have been 100k. So was Leona a gateway drug to longer races? Very possibly. I have never ruled out doing 100 miles, but I think the time and training for that kind of race requires total commitment, and a level of intensity that I’m just not ready for yet. But 100k? Yeah, sure. 75 miles? Why not? I do feel different after this race. I was able to pull off a decent run with less-than-optimal preparation, and most importantly, I was in a great place mentally for most of the race.
It also made me think that maybe I’ve been imposing limits on myself unnecessarily—the human body is amazingly adaptable, and can handle most things we throw at it. So maybe I shouldn’t worry so much about doing a huge 2- or 3-week taper, and then recovering for weeks before the next race. Maybe I should just do what makes me happy, and that is to RUN, and figure that my body will sort the rest out. We’re extraordinary machines. We can handle it.
Can you believe he carried me around like this the rest of the weekend? Yeah, me neither
Best support crew, cheerleader, photographer, videographer, and foot massager a girl could ask for
And the fallout? A little sore Saturday night, moderately sore Sunday, walking on the treadmill Monday, back to regular running Tuesday, and a 20-mile race the next Saturday. Not a bad recovery!
Date: Saturday, April 30, 2011
Distance: 50 miles
Elevation gain: 9,000 feet (Garmin measured 11,000)
Garmin time: 10 hrs 5 min
Official time: 10 hrs 38 min (141/231, 12th age group, 30/55 women)
Hey, I made a video recap of this race too! You can view it here.