Folsom Lake Ultra Trail (FLUT) 110km: Race Recap
That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me, I laugh. And, then, I collapse onto my back, on a tarp, somewhere outside of Sacramento, California. My body’s thrashed. For the last 40 miles, I’ve been playing this fun game where I try to get from one aid station to the next without running out of water. Here’s how the game works: the hydration pack on my back holds 50oz of fluids. Normally, 50oz is enough to last me 15-20 miles of trail running. But, normally, I’m running in Seattle - where summer temperatures are in the 70s and 80s. Today, I’m running in Folsom Lake, where temperatures have been above 90-100+ degrees for the last 9 hours. So, instead of lasting me 15-20 miles, that 50 oz of water has only been lasting me 5-6 miles.
Here’s the kicker: every aid station I’ve run to today (except for one) has been more than 6 miles away from the previous one. Which means, for the last 9 hours, I’ve been running as fast as I can in 90-100+ degree heat until I run out of water. Then, after I run out of water, I’m hiking as fast as I can to the next aid station, hoping I get there before my body shuts down from severe dehydration or heat exhaustion.
For a little more context on how I’m doing, in the first thirty miles of this race, I drank more than two hundred ounces of fluids (that’s almost two gallons), and I didn’t pee once during that time. My shirt and my shorts and my pack are covered in salt (from my sweat). I’m wearing a long sleeve shirt and a hat with a cape, because from what I understand, that’s the only way to protect my skin from the sun.
When I signed up for this race months ago, this wasn’t how I anticipated the day starting. Back then, I looked at this course profile and saw that there was only 1500 feet of elevation gain in the first 26 miles. I figured the temperatures would be in the 70s or 80s, and that I’d spend the first chunk of the day running a faster-paced trail marathon to keep me somewhere in the top ten, before heading into a 20+ mile section of the course with more substantial climbing - which is where I usually shine. But, today’s race has been anything but fast.
I’ve been in the top ten since the starting gun went off, but the temperatures very quickly forced me to alter my plan from running the first 26 miles fast to focusing on not blowing my race in the first 26 miles. Survive and advance, I kept thinking to myself. Just get to the next aid station. Every time I run out of water, I can feel how hard my heart is beating. I can feel my body urging me to stop, to relax in the shade, to let myself cool down. This race is about grit, I tell myself. And frankly, those are the kinds of races that I feel like I have the best chances in - the ones where conditions aren’t perfect. Where it comes down to how badly you want something - to how well you’re able to deal with adversity. In some ways, that’s why I’m out there - I think that’s why most people are. But, that doesn’t mean I’m not suffering.
How much further can the next aid station be!? I’m checking my GPS watch. It’s showing that I should be there by now. Is my watch off? Is the course measurement off? I can’t believe I’m out of water. Again. When is it going to start cooling off? Three minutes of fast hiking goes by. No sign of the aid station. How much farther can it be? Three more minutes go by. I’m thinking about anything I can to take me out of this place. To take my mind off of how hard my heart is working to pump my thick, dehydrated blood through my body. I can see my veins swelling. I’m thinking about all of the miles I ran to get here. I’m thinking about the last race I ran this summer, where I sprained my ankle early on, and then fought through 45 more miles of racing before pulling out. I thought about the regret I’d felt all summer, playing that day over and over again in my head. Three more minutes go by. I come back to Folsom Lake, to the suffering I’m feeling right now. This is what you wanted, I tell myself. And I’m thinking about an interview I listened to on a flight earlier this summer, with David Goggins and Rich Roll - two badass ultra distance athletes - about how there’s something therapeutic in long-distance endurance events. I’m trying to tap into that now. And then, I see a tent canopy through the trees: I’m at the next aid station.
I’ve got a routine at aid stations today. When I walk in, I start a timer on my watch for 10 minutes. I find a camping chair and I sit down in the shade, passing my hydration pack off to a volunteer to have it filled with water. I take my hat and sunglasses off, and I start wringing out sponges of ice water all over my body. It’s colder than every alpine lake I’ve ever jumped into, and it’s even more satisfying. I’m eating an Otter Pop, and I’m joking with strangers about my devout loyalty to various popsicle brands, and before it feels possible, ten minutes is up.
When my timer goes off, I pause just long enough to hear the two voices that I’ve been hearing all day: my body, which is telling me Please let this be over, and my mind, which is telling me, You can go further than you think you can.
And so, I go. I thank all of the volunteers profusely. I fill my hat up with ice, I slide my hydration pack back on, and I head off down the trail: bound to run out of water again, bound to question all of the decisions I’ve made in my life up to this point again, bound to ride the same roller coast of emotions and physical states I’ve been on all day until I’m done, never knowing if or where my body is going to shut down completely.
I’m laying on a tarp at an aid station in Cool, California. I’m 40 miles into the Folsom Lake Ultra Trail 110km, and as far as I know, I’m still in the top 10. More importantly, I feel like my best miles are ahead of me. With the sun about to set, I won’t have to worry so much about trying to keep my core temperature down. Instead, I can just run.
Still, in the hours to come, I know the game is about to change:
First: If you’re having any sort of physical issue with your body right now, it’s only going to get worse over the next 30 miles. So far, my body feels great. If the other racers are having foot issues now, I know those are only going to get worse. Which means, the runners in front of me are going to slow down (and I’m not).
Second: At night, it’s going to be harder to navigate. People are going to be tired, and tired people make bad decisions. Ipso facto, people are going to get lost. I, on the other hand, am not going to get lost. I’m generally strong at route finding and navigating, and I’m going to be disciplined about paying attention to where I’m going. If a runner ahead of me makes a navigational error, I’m going to close in on them.
Third: The sections ahead are more technical in nature, which means that if you haven’t logged a lot of time on trails, you’re going to expend more energy moving through the course. But, I’ve logged years backpacking, hiking, and trail running. My footwork on trails is generally pretty efficient. Which means, I can generally move faster than others across rocks, roots, and creek crossings.
Finally: Running in the dark is stressful for some, and downright scary for others - especially if you’re not used to it. But, I’ve run more miles than I can count in the dark. I’ve solo backpacked in big mountain ranges by myself, and I’ve run into life-threatening wildlife on my own on more than one occasion. I’m not afraid to be out here at night by myself - I’m excited about it.
This aid station is a particularly significant one for me. It’s where I sent my sole drop bag for the day, which means that I have the opportunity to drop things here that I don’t need (like my sunglasses and my hat). It’s where I can grab anything I need for the remainder of the course, like a headlamp, and a refresh of race nutrition. It’s more than half way into the race. And, maybe most importantly, it’s where I can wipe down my face and put on a fresh pair of socks.
Foot care is arguably the most under-appreciated aspect of trail running. For context, the number one cited reason that people fail to finish (DNF) in ultra distance trail races is because of blisters and other related foot problems. At first glance, that might sound ridiculous - but what can start as a small problem (a blister) can quickly escalate into an altered gait, which can lead to all sorts of bigger problems. To that end, a critical key to success in any ultra-distance trail race is proper footcare both before and during the race.
So, before I put on my new pair of socks, I spend a few minutes assessing my feet. While I’m fortunate to not have any problems related to trench foot (which sounds terrible), I do have a few blisters to take care of. Do you have a first aid kit? I ask one of the aid station volunteers. And together, with my hands shaking, a stranger and I take turns cutting open my feet, draining the fluid that’s built up, disinfecting the area, and wrapping my toes in gauze and tape. Even while I’m in the midst of taping shut the incisions I just made, I can’t help but zoom out for a second and laugh at how ridiculous the situation is. You signed up for this shit, I tell myself. You literally paid for this.
That’s a fair question, really.
One answer would be that I started trail running after I spent a summer backpacking across America’s National Parks. As I became a stronger and stronger hiker, I realized that I could start going farther and farther. What once seemed to me like distances that could only be covered in an overnight trip became doable as a day hike. And, eventually, I opted for trail running to see even more of the natural world around me. Put simply, trail running allowed me to cover more ground.
A different answer would be that I was just curious. That one day, on a work trip in San Francisco, I ran six miles one night after work. And that a few months later, I ran 13.1 miles in my first half marathon. A few months after that, I ran 26.2 miles in my first marathon. And a couple years after that, I ran 50 miles in a day in my first ultramarathon. As I’ve run farther and farther, there’s been this voice inside of me that’s grown louder and louder, that can’t seem to stop asking, How far can you go? And I’ve kept running, trying to figure it out.
While both of those answers are partly true, there’s something deeper that’s driving me. You see, for much of my life, I’ve done the “normal” thing. I went to class. I played sports. I got good grades. I went to college. I got a[n awesome] job. I’m dating a[n amazing] girl. And in some ways, in the 7+ years since I’ve graduated from college, it feels like I’ve time traveled. I love my life, and it’s incredible - but I’ve come to realize that the routines we follow all too often intercept us from the critical importance of living in the present moment. To put it differently…
When you’re forty miles into a trail race, you’re not worried about your unread e-mails. You’re not worried about whether you’re saving enough for retirement, or whether you studied the right thing in college, or whether you’re going to get enough likes to feel validated about whatever silly thing you posted on the internet. You’re too busy being present. You’re feeling the dirt on your skin, the lactic acid in your legs. You’re laughing from your belly with strangers about how good it tastes right now to eat a boiled potato that’s been dipped in salt - about how there’s nowhere else in the world that you’d be drinking chicken noodle soup while eating an Otter Pop. And, maybe even more importantly, when you’re running farther than you ever have before, you’re doing something wonderfully empowering: you’re proving to yourself that you can do more than you ever thought you could.
It was time to go. So, as I’d done all day, I thanked all of the aid station volunteers profusely. I slid on my hydration pack, and I grabbed a few pieces of a quesadilla for the road. I ran off into the woods, howling hooping and hollering into the setting sun, excited to start chasing down the runners ahead of me.
Over the course of the next 8 hours, I’d cover the remaining 30 miles - with the overwhelming majority of those having been run by myself, in the darkness, with nothing but a full moon and my headlamp to light the way. With less than five miles left in the race, just before 3am, I’d finally pass the two of the runners I’d been chasing for hours - running some of my fastest splits of the day in the final four miles, to finish the race in 5th place overall.
Racing at Folsom Lake was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done - both physically and mentally. Of the 49 runners who showed up on the starting line, only 18 finished - and several of the people that weren’t able to finish this race have won races that I dream of winning. The course and the conditions broke me more times than I could have possibly anticipated, but I was blown away at how I was able to bounce back again and again throughout the course of the day. It’s a truly incredible thing to prove to yourself that you can do something you didn’t know you could. It’s really cool.
It’s with that in mind that I’m beyond stoked to start mapping out my 2020 race schedule - to see how much farther and how much faster I can go than even I think I can.