06 May Race Report: 2013 Leona Divide 50 Miler
Hello, my name is Ethan Newberry and I am an Ultra Runner.
Hot DAMN, I’ve been waiting to say those words for awhile now! After running (we’ll just call it “moving”) this race, I feel comfortable saying them and damn it feels good to get it out there. The Leona Divide 50 Miler was my very first 50 miler race, my first run longer than 32 miles, and it gave me a taste of what some of you seasoned ultra runners deal with when you put your bodies through these crazy tests of endurance. Yes, I’ve run a couple of 50k trail races, but man, compared to what the Leona Divide 50 miler did to me, they pale in comparison (and they were TOUGH!). Grab a cup of coffee, a mimosa or perhaps a black IPA and sit back. This one will be a long read (WITH A VIDEO AT THE END!) that will hopefully take less time to read than I took to race. Also, I will be posting a separate gear blog outlining everything I wore/ate during the race so keep an eye out for that. Ok, here we go!
First of all, I cannot tell you how much more respect I have for ultra runners. I mean, I’ve always respected the big guns, the Krupricka’s and Jornet’s who eat CRs and FKTs for breakfast on the weekends. Hell, every race I’ve ever run I’ve been blown away by the talent that seems to rocket over the same course sometimes twice as fast. But, man, that respect flows down to EVERY HUMAN WHO HAS RAN 50 MILES OR MORE. You are 100% badass.
I am a green horn in this sport and I’m very aware that I’m new and lack a lot of experience. I can’t help but feel like a road-marathon-turned-trail-runner, Ultramarathon-Man-Reading, Born-To-Run-minimal-footwear-lesson-spouting schmuck trying to join up with the badass trail hounds who’ve been at it for years. I’m the first guy to admit that when I show up to a race I feel a little out of place amongst so many veterans and pros – you know, like a ginger amongst non-gingers. There’s no doubt that ultras have had a huge surge in recent years and my goal has always been to never “follow trends”. I started running trails to escape the horrible street-running of Los Angeles, to find respite amongst the trees, shrubs and singletrack. Man, I remember buying my first pair of “trail runners” (aka hiking boots that flex) when I was a teenager and would summit Little Si every weekend. However, now after 2013 Leona, I feel like I tallied off a pretty good notch in my Ultra belt; a notch that may very well get me a few nods from those who ran that day.
Based on how much I was crushed by the 50k races I’ve ran, I had a feeling 50 miles would wreck me and push me to my limit, both physically and mentally, but I had no idea on how many levels. There is a vast difference between 50k and 50m – not just 19 miles (and I can only imagine how much bigger gap there is between 50m and 100m!!) and they both require their own set of preperations. Since I ran The North Face 50k in December, I’ve known I would eventually run a 50 miler. Come 2013, I knew I wanted it to be Leona for a couple of reasons: I had heard Keira Henninger puts on amazing races that have all the SoCal ultra runners buzzing; It was in late April so I had a few months to really train for it; and finally, it was a qualifier for the Western States 100 (sub 11hr). Now, I need to preface that last part by saying Western States 100 is like a 10 year plan for me. Yes, it’s been a dream of mine for many years to run that course, but will realistically take many MORE years to make it through the lottery system, hoards of registrants, and qualifications. I’m in no rush.
For training, I used the Ray Miller 50k in February and LA Marathon in March as the big trainers for this race. I’d supplement the weeks between with hefty mileage weekends and thorough base building through the week. I really just wanted to have some good mileage under my belt for the confidence in knowing my body could take it. As it stands, the longest single run I ran pre-Leona was Ray Miller (32m) and the biggest weekend was a 26.2 fun-run on a Saturday with my buddy Colin followed by a grueling and snowy summit attempt of Mount Baldy on Sunday. Here’s the video from that weekend:
With a few weeks off due to sickness and injury (damn HIP FLEXOR INJURY!!), my confidence for Leona was wavering to say the least. Sure I had logged a couple 60-70 mile weeks in the months leading up, but those felt so far behind me and I never felt like I dominated them. Now, approaching race week, I started keeping a keen eye on the weather as well. The race takes place in Lake Hughes, California which is high desert country (LD50 jumps between 3000 & 5100ft). Years past have recorded moderate temperatures ranging from 50˚F-75˚F. But, oh boy, this year wasn’t looking so good. Temperatures were expected to climb well past 90˚F and a lot of the course is fully exposed. I should tell you now that The Ginger doesn’t do well in heat. I hate it and having had exercise-induced heat stroke a number of times, it scares me. If I were to take a month and acclimate, I can deal with it fine, but the weeks leading up to the race were mild SoCal warm. Nothing hot. this was going to be similar to an ice-cold ginger polar bear being thrown on top of a steam-powered locomotive engine full of hot lava in hell fire. Fuck my face.
The week of the race, I started to put all of my plans together. I went outside in the middle of the day as the temperatures were rising to do some last minute heat-hiking in hopes of acclimatizing. I started to organize nutrition and hydration scenarios – worst and best case. I also came to the conclusion that I pack a LOT for little trips. I probably had enough nutrition for two 100 mile races. I’m used to doing things a certain way for marathons and training runs of a certain distance, but having never taken my body beyond 32 miles, there’s this whole 18 miles of unkown. Will my body reject solid food? Will I like the taste of anything? Do I need more GUs or liquid fuel? Will I be able to absorb my water or salt pills? Will I throw up like everyone says I will? WILL I DIE?!
Come Friday, the day before the race, I met up with my buddies Billy Yang and David Daley for some carb-tastic dinner grub and the hour-long drive up to Palmdale where the three of us would stay the night – in one bed, spooning*. Billy was running the 50 miler as well and Dave was rocking the 50k (having just annihilated the Connemarathon 39 miler in Ireland 2 weeks prior. Beast.). What I thought was going to be a peaceful night of pre-race sleep slowly turned into a long, shitty-pillow-tossing-and-turning night of zero sleep for all three of us. I’m pretty sure we were awake well before my 3:45am alarm based off how quickly we all jumped out of bed to get ready.
As I do with every race, I methodically put together my gear, my drop bag and used the quiet moments to myself to gather my thoughts. While I always get a little anxious before races, I was particularly so for this one – as anyone that knows me can attest. My mind wouldn’t stop worrying about the heat, my training, my nutrition, my hydration, the unknown. It was all about to happen and there was nothing I could at this point but ride the wave and trust my knowledge, training and luck to get me through to the finish. The three of us gathered our things and made our way to Lake Hughes to snag our bibs, stash our gels and run our ass off.
* – No actual spooning occurred. Sorry ladies.
As the three of us started our walk towards the start line, I caught a glimpse of my girlfriend, Mile Long Legs, and good buddy, Andrew (who shot most of the photos in this blog), walking towards us. They had left LA at butt-o-clock to get to the start in time to see us all off, so I excitedly greeted them (one with a kiss, the other with a firm handshake – I’ll let you decide who gets what) and continued on towards the now very busy startline. Once there I also ran into my good buddy, Eric, and other ultra friend, Guillaume, who were running the 50k and 50m respectively. Before we could finish our greetings and pre-race photos, Jimmy Dean Freeman‘s golden voice rang across the throng of racers. “It’s going to be a mother fucking hot day”, he said without hesitation. Gulp.
And in a flash, we were off. The first few miles are relatively runnable uphill miles that took us up fire roads and gifted us with some spectacular sunrise vistas. The first few miles were where I really began to pound into my head, “Do NOT go fast. Do NOT forget to eat and drink. Do NOT fuck up.” I wanted to make sure I took this race as easy as possible, not just to finish strong, but to make sure my body didn’t destroy itself in the intense heat I knew was inevitably hours away. Before I knew it, I began to enjoy the trails and the views. I didn’t care what was going on around me or what was going to happen 40 miles ahead. I was FINALLY able to just take the race in one mile at a time. I really grasped the idea that there was nothing I could do but stay on track and move forward.
By mile 10, I was really excited and embracing the challenge ahead. This is also where we jump onto our first stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail – a long, beautiful snake of singletrack that runs from Canada to Mexico. We got to enjoy miles and miles of it. In fact, it seemed some people were SO hypnotised by it’s splendor that at mile 12.5, many missed a turn to continue on the trail as it deviated off some singletrack to the right. Luckily, my acute ginger-sense noticed the flags and flour-arrows so I yelled up to some of them who relayed the message further up the chain of trail blazers. You’re welcome, people. I just saved your LIVES!
I was beginning to feel like my nutrition and hydration were dialed in. I was taking in about 100-130 calories every 30 minutes, sipping water to thirst, and popping 2-3 endurolytes per hour. Pretty comparable to my typical race plan. I usually always under-eat due to nerves, but I was in it to win it this day. Hell, I was a MACHINE. A machine that was delighted by the gorgeous zig-zagging singletrack that sunk its way into aid station 3 (mile 16.2). That is until I stormed around a corner and was instantly greeted by two young female runners who – without ANY shame – were squatting and relieving their bowels immediately trailside for all to see. FOR ALL TO SEE. EVERYTHING. CANNOT UNSEE. Seriously, it was as if one had rotated her body purposefully so that absolutely everything I shouldn’t be seeing was seen all at once in one glance.
(side note: to anybody who can pee pee and poo poo in the open in front of hundreds of complete strangers at race starts or along the course: I commend you. Not because you have enough confidence in your body to let it all hang out without a care in the world, but because you can focus all of your attention on your own ‘nethers’ to get the job that needs gettin’ done done. Seriously, bravo. Also, gross).
As I continued to try and block out the pooping butt visual, I could hear the hootin’ and hollerin’ of aid station #3. This was the first aid station that our crew could access and would also double as aid station #9 (42.5) on the way back to the finish. I instantly caught eyes with Mile Long Legs, smiled and gave her the ‘thumbs-up, all-clear’ sign. I could tell she was relieved. As I had been running in and out of the shaded canyons all morning, the temperature hadn’t gone past mid-70s by my guess. But the moment I got into aid station #3, I knew what I was in for. It wasn’t even 9am and it was hot. Like REALLY hot. I filled one of my bottles with ice water and wrapped ice into my bandana around my neck and threw some cubes under my hat for good measure. Thank goodness I did.
The climb out of AS#3 was brutal. Not just the shear climb (1400+ ft in 2.5 miles), but the amount of pure sun exposure. It was intense and the first moment of doubt I’d had yet since starting the race. I figured that if this was the beginning of the last 2/3rds of the race, I was doomed. Regardless, I continued to power on and just focus on getting to the next aid station at the top of the climb (which was also the 50k turnaround point). During this climb I started to see some of the fast 50k guys and gals rush down from their turnaround, including the one-and-only David! He was FLYING!
By the time I rolled into AS#4, I was fried. My body was feeling the heat and I needed to cool down immediately. Thankfully this aid station had ice, and lots of it. Pouring it down my back, arms and neck brought me back to reality almost immediately. I had planned on this aid station being my self check-in point for this race. If I was really feeling like shit, I would turn around and run the 50k. If I was feeling 50% or better, i was going through to AS#6 (the furthest point in the 50m course and the last point to pull out). Seeing as I was probably 80% all said and done, I pushed on.
The next section was just as exposed as the previous, but felt like I was on another planet. The trail ran across the top of the mountains, through sand and arid desert with spectacular views of the valley to the north. This was also the section I met up with Paul Akiyama. Paul was a talkative older gentleman that immediately told me he was the oldest guy running the race at 69 years old. I was immediately impressed by how bad-ass this guy was, flying his way through heat and high-desert altitude like it was nothing, not giving a fuck about his age. After a few miles leap-frogging back and forth with Paul, I knew one thing: I wanted to be this guy when I was 69. He’d run big ultras since ’93 including Leadville and the Grand Slam (Vermont 100, Leadville 100, Western States 100, Wasatch Front 100). One year, the dude ran eight 100 milers. EIGHT. And here I am just trying to push through a 50 miler. By the time we’d reached the next aid station, I had lost Paul a little ways back as he took a walk break. Rather than wait for him at the AS, I joked he’d catch back up and pass me at some point being the bad-ass runner he was.
Note: The stretch from AS#4 to AS#5 is also where I was passed by the to-be-winner of the men’s 50 mile race. Dude ran it in 5:53-and change. That’s a new course record. Unbelievably fast. I’m slow.
Let’s let this also be the moment where you can refill whatever delicious beverage you’ve been enjoying while skimming this short novel because I’m about to get personal. I hadn’t peed since mile 17. I was now approaching the 30 mile turnaround point and the only liquid I was able to squeeze out was dark brown and fear inducing. I was on top of my water, I was popping endurolytes and staying up with nutrition but nothing wanted to come out. Even looking back over some photos of me running through AS#3, it looks like I had a little Buddha belly – perhaps I was retaining all my liquid? Additionally, Mile Long Legs recently told me a story of a friend who was running an ultra in heat and had to be pulled out because one of his kidneys failed. Awesome. Were my KIDNEYS FAILING?! I had no idea, but I knew that I had to do whatever I could to make sure I fixed the problem IMMEDIATELY.
My course of action was to run from AS#5 to AS#6 taking in water only. No salt pills or solid food (other than what I had just consumed at AS#5). Smart decision? Probably not, especially at mile 24 of a 50 mile race. But I went with it. I left AS#5 pretty worried about the next few hours and what sort of challenges they would bring. Physically, I was pretty solid at this point (other than my KIDNEY DYING), mentally, I was getting fatigued from all the calculating and planning. Luckily from AS#5 to AS#6 I was able to turn it off and enjoy the trails.
The steeply canted singletrack snaked in and out of rocky cliff-side canyons littered with tall pine trees, allowing the perfect amount of shade to cool us all off. The narrow trail had a few precarious spots, especially for passing the runners on their return trip to the turnaround. Just as I was approaching the steep and exposed fireroad of mile 27.5, I passed my friend Mandi (who had won the woman’s Ray Miller 50k) on her return trip. This was also her first 50miler and by the look of things, she was KILLING IT! Soon after, as I was heading down the daunting 2.5 mile fireroad towards what seemed like the pit of hell, I passed Billy on his way back up. While I was struggling, he looked fresh and new! Dude was rocking the climb back up. We yelled a few inspirational cheers to each other and got back to business. A half mile further down I passed a runner on his way back up who had recognized me as the Ginger Runner during the first mile. His name is Jawn and I feared he was the last person I would see before the turn around that I somewhat knew. He asked how I was holding up to which I replied immediately and ungracefully, “I’m peeing almost brown. I don’t know what’s up.” He looked a little shocked that I would be so forthcoming, but he swapped some quick advice back about hydrating immediately. I assured him I’d do my best and we departed almost as quickly as we had arrived. Aid station #6 was just ahead.
AS#6 saved my ass. As soon as I rolled in I was bombarded by attentive volunteers taking my bottles, my backpack, and my handkerchief to be refilled and re-iced. Then one of them ushered me to what I will lovingly refer to as the Magic Shower of Gold and Happy. It was a hose with ice cold water set up like a misting shower and provided INSTANT relief from the heat. As I stood under the mist for what felt like 20 minutes, I took in the sights around me. There were dozens of runners heaped in chairs and on the ground, just annihilated from the heat and exhaustion of the day. It was a pretty big mess of broken spirits. Over the next few hours, this would prove to be one of my biggest obstacles – trusting MY body, MY mind and not letting the psychology of those around me interfere.
After I had cooled my body considerably in the Magic Shower of Gold and Happy, grabbed a few boiled potatoes and potato chips, I started my trek back up the steep 2.5 mile fireroad to the Pacific Crest Trail. And guess who had caught up and joined me? Paul. Dude was a beast. We swapped some more stories and helped push each other on. He told me his goal was to finish sub-11 hours, but I refused to look at my watch to get a sense of where we were time-wise for fear I was going to be WAY off goal. I used Paul as my watch from here on out. If I could keep up or in front of him, I’d be solid for my silver goal of sub-11 (my gold goal was sub-10, silver goal was sub-11, and bronze goal was finishing). Trust the dude that has run more than 40 ultras to get you to the finish.
Before I knew it, I was feeling AWESOME and picking up the pace a little bit. Once back on the PCT, I felt comfortable with the familiar terrain and knew it was mostly downhill from here on out. Before I had reached AS#7, I glanced at my watch and noticed I had passed the 32 mile mark. I had officially run the furthest I’d ever run – and was STILL PUSHING! This is also where my hip flexor injury flared back up again. Between miles 33 and 35, I was a mess of stopping to stretch the injury and lightly running in serious pain. But once in and out of AS#7, I had forgotten about the pain and was determined to push on.
I forget a lot of what went on for the next 8 miles or so. I do remember stopping for long breaks at the aid stations, but never sitting down. I remember forcing my brain to be strong and not let the visuals of quitting runners get into my mind. They were everywhere. I remember getting ahead of Paul at some point and being excited that I might get my silver goal. I remember it being FUCKING HOT. I remember AS#8 volunteers warning me that the next two sections were going to destroy me. I remember thinking that just because I felt ok now, didn’t mean I’ll feel ok in 30 minutes. I remember wanting to quit. I remember my body being overtaken by pain. Then I remember finally peeing a shade of yellow. I cannot tell you what a relief and adrenaline-pumping moment this was. My whole game changed. No matter what, I was finishing this damn thing.
As I rolled into AS#9 – the second to last aid station and the last time I’d see my crew – I caught eye of Mile Long Legs standing and waiting. I’m pretty sure I was a whimpering mess by the time we embraced. As I hobbled my way over to the food tables to ice up and refuel, I got details as to David and Billy – who apparently were both having awesome days. David with a top 10 finish in the 50k and Billy having just passed through this same aid station about an hour and a half earlier. It took some time to refill everything here because it was obvious this aid station was a mess. Not only were their drunk spectators, but each volunteer was dealing with 2-3 runners each. This aid station had become a make-shift quitting zone. Runners would continue on up into the final 8 hot exposed miles, overheat, cramp or hit an impossible wall, turn around, and hike back into this AS in hopes of getting medical treatment. It was a runner triage center. Props to the volunteers for pushing through what must have been a crazy day.
I dawdled. I took my time. I didn’t want to leave the comforts of familiar faces or cold ice. I didn’t want to venture up another mountain the way I was feeling. But I did. I reluctantly said my goodbyes and pushed out onto the last climb. The death march.
Within moments of being back out on the trail, I was passed by no less than 5 runners all headed back to the aid station to DNF. They did not look good at all. I offered all of them assistance, but none of them took me up on it. Their faces are unforgettable. The mile-long stare, the spacey replies and zombie-like steps. I didn’t, I COULDN’T be one of these. I trudged on and passed many runners. I joined a group of 4-5 runners huddled around an older gentleman who had sat down on the trail from cramps. Everyone was trying to figure out what to do so I told them, “You go 1.5 miles ahead and there’s aid, you go 2 miles back and there’s aid. I can give you anything you need from my pack right now”. He shrugged it all off, was in good spirits, just absolutely spent. After hanging for a few minutes with everyone huddled around him, I decided to keep pushing. I only had 1.5 miles until the final aid station. So I ignored the pain, I ignored the nausea, I ignored my heart rate monitor which was now telling me my HR was jumping from 140 to 70 and back again, I ignored the desire to quit, I ignored everything except what was right in front of me and powered ahead.
Before I knew it, I was emerging off the singletrack and onto a fireroad with the final aid station. I quickly went to refill all of my ice, only to find out that they were out of it. Not just out of ice, but out of almost EVERYTHING. Listen, I know I was taking forever to finish, I know you guys had been out here all day, but man, what’s a Ginger got to do to get some ice 3 miles from the finish? After high-fiving the last cheering volunteer, I had about 1 mile of uphill left, followed by 2 miles downhill.
I trudged on. It was slow going. I was alone. My body had no clue what was going on. I was hungry but full at the same time. I was exhausted but pumped. I was excited but lethargic. And in a blur, I started the final descent into Lake Hughes.
I barely remember finishing. I know I jumped over the finishline and high-fived the metal “finish” bar above, but that’s about it. I was instantly swarmed by friends and family who had all come out to support me on a grueling day in the high desert an hour outside of LA. Keira gently laid my finishers medal around my neck and I made my way to a picnic table to sit down. Billy was there, David was there, Eric was there, my mom and dad were there, my sister and brother-in-law were there with their dog, my buddy Andrew was there and my girlfriend, the rock that pushed me through the day, was there. As I sat down, surrounded by a flurry of cheers and congratulations, pats on the back and plates of food being shoved in front of me, I cried. Not just tears of joy, but full-on sobs of exhaustion. I honestly could not believe that after 11 hours and 9 minutes (missed my silver goal and qualifying for WS100 by THAT MUCH!) I was now sitting down and done running 50 miles. Every moment of pain and suffering that I had felt throughout the day was behind me. I was now a fucking Ultra Runner.
As I sat and thought about what I’d accomplished, it didn’t really sink in that I had ran 50 miles. I just felt like I suffered and endured for far too many hours in uncomfortable conditions and I couldn’t determine why. This was also the first race where immediately upon finishing I blurted out, “NEVER AGAIN” and really meant it. However, now some days later, that’s already changing. I remember this being a shitty hard day, but I also now realize the accomplishment and I want to feel it again. I want to know it wasn’t a fluke. I have two more 50 milers this year, and who knows, maybe something longer – but I’ll be honest, that just sounds RIDICULOUS.
Hey, remember Paul? Well, when I finished I was convinced I had passed him and he was still out on the course. False. It must have been around the 42.5 mile aid station that he passed me because I have come to learn that he did indeed finish sub-11hr, just like he planned the whole time. Bad ass mother fucker, that one. Lesson learned: Don’t just trust but always stick with the guy that has run 40 ultras in all conditions.
So, while the race part of my story might be over, the night surely was not. By the time I got home, I had a hard time getting out of the car. I have never felt hip flexor pain quite this severe. It was as if someone was taking a 6 inch blade and slowly pushing it in and out of my left hip flexor/groin area. Just excruciating It got worse as the night went on, practically immobilizing me. Not only that, but when I steadied myself down into an ice bath, my body started shivering so uncontrollably, Mile Long Legs had to come and hold my hand to keep me settled and breathing. All my muscles started contracting and made it difficult to breathe properly. For the rest of the night my body was on fire, most likely due to severe heat stroke. I had to use ice packs and cold wash cloths to try and keep my body temp down. My body was in shock and there was nothing I could do but not panic and hope it got better. Needless to say I barely slept at all that night. By the next morning, my body felt a bit cooler, but the sunburn and blisters had started to make themselves apparent on my shoulders and back. No amount of sunscreen could keep that sun out apparently.
I was a mess. But I knew I would heal. Now one week later, my hip flexor has calmed down, my body has started to get back to normal, and I’ve even thrown down a couple of recovery runs. I also want to take this moment to thank each and every one of you. Your words of encouragement – even if we’ve never met – pushed me through to the end. Social media is a strange thing where I can share my experiences and love of this sport with all of you and you can share it right back. Seriously, this victory is one of many shared by all of us. Everyday I hear about someone running their first 5k, or losing 51lbs, or trying on their first pair of good running shoes. These are all victories and they all helped push me through to the finishline. If I could do this, imagine what YOU could do!
Leona Divide feels almost like a distant memory. Even as I was writing this blog, I felt like I was recalling an old experience riddled with details from years ago. But perhaps its just my mind’s way of coping with what I put it through. Maybe it wants me to never put it through anything like Leona again. Or maybe by making Leona seem distant, my mind is telling me it’s time to gear up and do it again. While I juggle the conundrum, I’ll continue to sit here and sip on my own black IPA as I try to relive one of the most difficult and rewarding days of my life. I trained, I raced, and now it’s time for celebration. Cheers!