M i l e 0 . The headlamps of runners seem to be dancing in the cool, pitch-black morning. It’s 6 a.m. and there’s nervous tension, camaraderie between strangers. I fist-bump fellow runner Ann and wish her luck. I kiss K, my ride to the start who is also my love. Off we go. Easy up the single-track. We walk in the dark, up the steep hills. Ann is right behind me and she compliments me — for starting slowly, for not losing myself and my energy in those first adrenaline-fueled miles. Not this time.
M i l e 3 . I know this creek, but I have never passed it. There’s a road bridge a few hundred meters away! Whatever, they want us to cross though knee-deep, not-warm water. I worry for a moment: about cold, soaking feet and socks and shoes for the next 47 miles. Then I decide worrying is pointless. Onward.
M i l e 7 . Warmed up and excited I arrive at the first aid station. It was gorgeous getting here, on trails and fire roads I know so well, deep in the Santa Monica mountains. The rising sun blew my fellow runners and me away. It’s beginning to feel like a perfect day. I quickly eat some banana, the stomach feels surprisingly calm. K hands me a fresh water bottle. Another kiss. I am off again, into the wild.
M i l e 15 . A glance at my watch, a missed tree root, and down I go at a decent downhill speed. I roll, curse, jump up, check for any serious damage, wipe some blood off my knee. And… moving on!
M i l e 22 . How come I feel so good after what’s almost a marathon with huge climbs? I don’t wait for the answer and fly down the fire road toward the Bonsal Aid station, where my Trailrunners Club-mates and K will be waiting. But first I see my friend Matt and his friend Kristine on the narrow trail. This makes me happy. She is injured but he jumps on the trail. We run and chat. Matt’s a good guy, which I already knew, but he proves it, patiently waiting while I refuel and kiss K yet again. Then Matt runs another mile with me, nicely distracting me as a huge uphill section stretches out in front of us.
M i l e 26 . I know these trails very well. Still, this climbing is slow! If I don’t keep drinking, if I don’t keep thinking happy thoughts, I risk the all too familiar slide into self-defeating thinking. Instead I focus on the next aid station and the cup of coke I know will be there. Passing runners as we push uphill cheers me up; the coke at the station is even better than imagined. I also wolf down a piece of potato dunked in salt, some banana, and a piece of a PB&J sandwich. It fills me, but as I run my stomach protests. Oh no.
M i l e 32 . This is new terrain: I am wandering into the great unknown; I have never in my life run this far. The 50Ks I ran back in 2010/2011 felt short and easy. I realize my race really begins here, in the final 20 miles. Hey, there’s K. She has parked, walked up the trail and now she runs with me. Perfect timing. My GI issues were distracting and I was allowing some self-doubt. K forces me to focus, to talk, to smile. She gives me my new blue shell as it is now raining and misting and generally pretty miserable up here on the mountain. When she heads back to car I get yet another kiss. A runner behind me yells out: you should marry that girl, man. He has seen her caring for me. I tell him: you’re right, and I will.
M i l e 40 . Will my toe need to be amputated? The pain is excruciating, sending an increasingly fast moving series of SOS messages to my brain. I walk, drink, take some Aleve. The good news: I don’t feel my tight calves, burning quads or hunger pangs — just that toe. I imagine a bloody mess and decide not to take off the shoe and look. I imagine it would be the end of this adventure. Yay denial.
M i l e 47 . Where’s that creek? I know it’s around here. Turns out I missed a well-marked turn after a long, steep downhill. I had run down the last huge mountain. After many miles in the 11-minute, 15-minute, even 18-minute range, it felt exquisite to go down at a sweet 6:20 pace. That’s when I knew my training paid off: downhill running can be tough, even dangerous when you are not ready for it, which is the reason I saw so many runners walk down gently and smartly. My descent on slippery, rocky terrain must have worn me out mentally, though, missing that turn. A kind fellow runner calls out, I follow, we cross the water. Now it’s one final push the last hill they call ‘the chihuahua’: small but mean, with a real bite. Come on, move! I channel my late grandfather Opa and tell myself to toughen up, lummel. Lazy fool, I think it meant — in the most loving of ways.
M i l e 50 . One more sweet downhill on the slippery switchbacks of Malibu Creek Park. I can hear K before I see her. She is proud, she says. I can’t speak. I swallow hard and run through the finish. Years of injury and frustration have ended right here, in this rain, on this quiet road, back at the spot where the headlamps danced around me this morning. That’s a wrap: fifty miles, fifty joyful miles, leading me home.
UPDATE (by request): the toe was absolutely fine. Not even a blister or damaged nail. I have no idea what caused that blistering pain late in the race. Can the mind imagine such pain? Why would it? Feedback welcome.