Lake Sonoma 50

Warning: this is a long one…

Prologue

There’s been a lot going on in my life since I last wrote anything (I got a NASA Fellowship to fund the rest of my graduate research! I got married! I have worked almost ceaselessly on writing up my research for publication! I took over a new research project and it’s been a new circle of hell trying to get it to work!) and part of me feels weird suddenly jumping back into writing with almost a year since my last post. And of course there’s everything going on in the wider world that is so much bigger and scarier and also so deeply more beautiful (like that black hole picture?!) than anything in my little life. But I feel the need to share this experience because it was significant for me and if nothing else, I want to add to what information is out there about this glorious beast that is the Lake Sonoma 50.

Two years ago I started delving into this world of trail and ultra running (often called Mountain Ultra Trail running/racing, or just MUT), and my growing obsession led me to volunteer at whatever races I could get to. One of which was the Lake Sonoma 50. I volunteered at Wulfow water stop in 2017 and 2018. In 2017, I was so excited by the prospect of seeing the elite runners fly by, that I almost didn’t realize that there would be hundreds of “normal” people running too. The array of humanity that came through the aid station was not something I’d expected. From the elite (I think it was Alissa St. Laurent) who sat quietly for awhile before slowly moving onto the next aid station where she’d drop, to the mid-pack couple who were competing with each other (he’d been through a few minutes before her, she came into the aid station shouting at the AS captain, “How far up is he, dammit?!”) to the very back of the pack who were shuffling through, some laughing and joking, some looking completely miserable, all hoping to make the 4:45 PM cutoff at the next aid station.

By the time I volunteered in 2018, I had suffered through the Mt. Diablo 50k, gone through injury after injury, and had just passed my qualifying exam. It was the same array of runners, some I recognized, most of whom I didn’t. Towards the end of the day, Greg Lanctot, the AS captain and an amazing race director in his own right (PCTR), asked if I was going to volunteer with them next year. And I said “I want to run it next year!” It seemed almost ridiculous to say it out loud- who was I to declare that I could run this very difficult race, after having barely finished my only 50k to date? After being injured on and off for months? But I didn’t have time to regret saying it, because everyone’s reaction was immediately supportive and full of practical advice about the race, and the conversation turned to Lake Sonoma anecdotes and I felt…excited.

So come December, I threw my name into the LS50 lottery. On December 17th, my watch buzzed and I looked down to see an email notification from Ultrasignup; I was registered. I’d gotten in. And was immediately filled with that same excitement and a strong amount of dread. It was real. I had to do this.

I wasn’t unprepared at that point. I’d had a pretty decent training block up to the Mt. Tam 50k in November, although never actually got to run it after the heavy Camp Fire smoke blanketed the Bay Area and it was cancelled. (I can’t mention the Camp Fire without at least sharing this link to donate…there’s still so much rebuilding to do.) I had already signed up for the Salmon Falls 50k on February 23rd (there is a race report to come for that…eventually) and an added bonus of the Eldrith 36k on February 2nd (which would become my first DNF, or Did Not Finish, and yes, I do also intend to write about that…). I revised my training plan and then immediately had to change it after sustaining an Achilles injury while running in Arizona around Christmas. I was still able to get in a lot of long, slow miles out on the trail, with some shorter, faster (for me, anyway) runs during the week with my speedy lab mates, plus a lot of running up and down stairs in the Chemistry building. So while I wasn’t getting up to 60 miles a week like I’d initially wanted, I felt strong and ready….until 3 weeks from the race, after the Knickerbocker Canyon 35k, when something popped in my ankle and sent pain shooting up my leg. Unsure of what to do, I emailed Sarah Lavender Smith, a very accomplished ultra runner whose book I’d read many times. She basically told me I had to take it easy until the race, no more major training, but that many people have been successful at ultras after taking a longer-than-intended taper.

So I’d barely run at all in the three weeks leading up the race, instead trying to bike a lot and focus on staying healthy. Which worked, I guess, because by the day before the race my ankle was happy and I was pretty sure it would be okay.

Marcus and I (and our pups) stayed at an AirBnB in Occidental, around 50 minutes from the race start (I reserved it late, oh well). With race start at 6:30 AM on Saturday, I thought leaving at 5 would be plenty of time. But when we got there, there was a huge line of cars looking for parking along the side of the road, and we finally parked way up the hill from where the actual race start was. It was 6:11 when I got out of the car, grabbed my hydration pack and drop bags, told Marcus to meet me there, and raced down the hill. I guess it was a good warm up? I dropped off my bags, got my bib pinned on, and was in the line for the port-o-potties by 6:23. Marcus and the pups caught up to me while I was waiting. I distracted myself by giving Chena and Mikey some last minute cuddles. By the time I got out of the bathroom, there was about a minute to race start. I kissed Marcus, he wished me luck, and then we were off, down the road.

Chapter 1: The first 25

In my head, I’d divided the race into thirds. I didn’t think the first 25 miles would feel much harder than most of my long runs, so that was the first third. Then the second half, mileage wise, I split at mile 38, at Warm Springs aid station. The course is an out-and-back on many rolling hills, with a total of over 10,500 ft of ascent.

The first 2.4 miles were on pavement, starting by going back up the hill I’d just run down. I positioned myself towards the back of the pack, knowing that if I had any chance of getting through the day, I would need to start slow. I realized half way up the hill that I’d forgotten to start my watch. I was a little frazzled. But the views were beautiful and the sun was just peaking up over the hills. My left knee started complaining a bit on one of the steep paved descents, but soon enough we were on trails and I felt better. I chatted with the people around me, all way more experienced ultrarunners, and enjoyed the easy pace and gentle single track.

But by mile 8, the conversations had petered out and the voices in my head were getting louder. I tried to focus on breathing, on the beautiful rays of sun peaking through the trees, on putting one foot in front of the other, on being grateful to be out there at all. But the overwhelming feeling of having bitten off more than I could chew was getting to be too much. At some point, I turned a corner and realized I’d caught up to Ken Michal, maker of the Running Stupid podcast and a pillar of the Bay Area MUT scene. He’s run hundreds of races and I had just happened to be volunteering at a race he’d won: the Davis 2 Day, back in 2017 (the course was a 2 mile loop around a park in Davis, and the goal was to see how many laps each competitor could do over 48 hours). I’d seen him at some other races since then but had always felt weird about saying hi, sure he wouldn’t remember me or wouldn’t care about talking to me (even though I knew that he was a super nice guy). But finally, there I was right behind him, with a panic attack threatening. So I sucked it up and introduced myself as we crossed through a creek, mentioning that I’d gotten to see him win the Davis 2 Day.

And WOW, am I glad I said something. He was so friendly and so excited to reminisce about that race. After a bit he asked if I’d run LS50 before, and I said no, that it was my first 50. “Great,” he said. “Tell me what your plan is.”

A bit taken aback, I replied, “Keep putting one foot in front of the other until I get to the finish?”

“And how are you going to do that?”

“Um…as sustainably fast as I can?”

He laughed loudly. “No no no, that’s a terrible idea.”

“Okay, as sustainably slow as I can?”

“Better. Now tell me your plan for nutrition and hydration.”

It went on like this for a little while, while I explained in detail all of my plans. (If anyone is interested, I’ll share exactly what I did and how it worked at the end.) He gave me confidence in my preparation and my training, and said I was welcome to stick with him if I wanted to. I hung right behind him into the Warm Springs Aid Station at mile 11.6.

Ken left the aid station before I did, and I ended up running some of the next few miles alone. This section included a stretch through the redwoods and it was here where I started feeling the peace I usually find out on the trail. The panic was gone. I caught up to Ken and some others again, and we all leap-frogged each other until Wulfow at mile 16. This is where I’d volunteered the past two years, and it felt awesome to see it from the other side. I chatted with Greg Lanctot for just a minute (apparently his uncle has gone missing in the East Bay area?! Yikes.) and then kept moving. I knew I’d make it to the turn-around point before the cut-off at 1:15, but I didn’t want to cut it close. I kept glancing at the average pace on my watch. I knew I need to stay below 16 min/mile to be ahead of the cutoff, and I was around 14:30 then, but knew the big hills were yet to come.

The two-ish miles between Wulfow and Madrone aid station were pretty runnable, and also the only part of the course I’d ever explored (I’d gone on a short run after volunteering in 2018). I forced myself to run slow and keep my heart rate low, trying to just breathe in the course and the wide open views of the lake. I had started seeing the elite runners heading back to the start a little before Wulfow, and it was so fun to cheer them on and spectate the race this way. Even though they all looked super focused and were working hard, most of them still had a smile (sometimes more of a grimace but the good vibes were there) or something positive to say back.

I got into Madrone still feeling pretty good, although it was certainly warming up. I was real sick of gels at this point so enthusiastically chowed down on a slice of cheese quesadilla they had there. It tasted amazing, but I immediately realized that it might have been dumb to mix the heavy cheese with the impending heat and exposed climb. I’m not sure if it was the poor food choice that led to the next few miles of bleh, but I started feeling off as I climbed the big hill out of the aid station. Not terrible, just a noticeable difference from the joy I’d felt a little while ago.

The stretch from Madrone to the turn around at No Name aid station felt like the longest in the race for me. The hills are long and exposed, and I was being visited by all the ghosts of injuries past. The back of my left knee, the front of my left knee, the inside of my right knee, and especially my left Achilles were all taking turns popping and groaning. Hell, even my shoulder, injured after I fell on it two years ago, started to ache and cramp a little. After getting to the top of the hill past Madrone, the course wound all the way back down to the lake, right on the water. I made myself smile and enjoy this vantage point. But then we started up again, and up, and up, with lots of false summits and I was remembering the elevation profile and it just didn’t seem to match how much longer my watch said there was to the turn around. I kept feeling worse as I ran and hiked, every muscle complaining. I tried to keep smiling to combat this, and encouraged every single runner I saw, both those I passed and those who were already past the turn around, running towards me. Almost everyone had words of encouragement in return, and this constant back and forth helped pulled me along.

The turn around is not a straight out and back, it’s a mile long loop or so, and damn, but it felt good to reach that point. The course left the fire road I’d been on since Madrone, and turned back onto a single track trail with a sign that read “Turn Around, 3/4 mile”. Whew. I started to pick up the pace and rapidly felt more popping in my left ankle. Oy vey. I stopped and shook it out, then continued on with my much slower default ultra-shuffle (think running, but with every bit of pep vacuumed away). I saw some folks I’d run with in the beginning leaving the aid station as I was coming in, which helped lift my spirits a bit. Focused and determined to get out of there as quickly as possible, I grabbed my drop bag, plopped down on the grass, and started changing my shoes. Of course this took awhile because I forgot to put on the gaiters before the shoes, and had to take the shoes off again to pull on the gaiters. I debated changing my shorts, decided not to, stuffed more Honey Stinger gels and PayDay bars into the pockets of my hydration vest, then refilled my soft flasks, grabbed some cookies and potato chips, and high-tailed it out of there. I think it was 12:50 something when I left, about 25 minutes ahead of the cutoff there. Not ideal, but I still had a little bit of a buffer.

Chapter 2: Pickles to the rescue

Physically, I felt much better after sitting for a minute. My legs felt a little tired, but the major complaints had quieted. Or they were just getting over-powered by the complaints in my head. While I’d been sitting and changing my shoes, I’d seen multiple people come into the aid station and declare that they were dropping. And then all the volunteers would say nice, supportive things and offer them a ride back to the start, if they didn’t have friends and family already there. It seemed so easy, to just be done. To be happy with 25 miles, a solid long run, and then leave and move on with your life. That temptation was so delicious and I could not shake it from my mind.

At some point during this inner turmoil, I got back down to the lake edge and saw a few people just ahead of me. At first, I matched their pace from behind, but realized after a minute that they were going a lot slower than I wanted to go. So I passed one, and then another. I saw another guy in front of me, and passed him too at the start of the next climb.

This became a trend. Unintentionally, I began to catch and pass everyone I saw in front of me. Some of them I’d run with on the way out, and we’d exchange encouragement as I went by. Others just kind of grunted as I’d say “Nice work, passing on your left.” Now, this was absolutely not because I was going faster. I was just steady. I just kept moving, and kept passing people who’d succumbed to the heat and the climbs. It helped my mental state a lot, and I began to forget about that tasty tasty DNF.

Coming back down the hill into Madrone, things started to hurt again. My left knee got angry, my ankle popped, my quads started screaming. Just no good. I stopped to walk and popped two ibuprofen. I’d told myself originally I didn’t want to take any until after mile 38, but here I was at mile 30 feeling like everything was falling apart. (I don’t recommend taking ibuprofen during strenuous exercise because it can have some nasty effects on your kidneys, but a small amount had helped me a lot before when old injuries acted up during long runs, and I’d never had adverse effects. I wouldn’t push it, though.) I also sucked down one of the Honey Stinger gels with caffeine, which I hadn’t had since my coffee at 4:15 AM. I shuffled down the flatter part of the hill into the aid station and was immediately greeted by the same volunteer who’d helped me there last time.

“Okay, give me your soft flasks, what do you want in them, Roctane? Gotcha. I’ll do that, you eat whatever you want, then meet me over there and I’ll soak your neck in ice water.” It was amazing. All of it. I grabbed some pickles from the table, she handed me my soft flasks back, then squeegeed ice water onto my neck and head. I squeaked a bit, and the volunteers laughed, then cheered.

And it was like magic. I ran out of there feeling like a new woman. Some combination of the cold water, the salt, the ibuprofen, the caffeine; it worked. My head was completely back in the game. The only time I stopped between there and Wulfow was when a rattlesnake crossed the trail a few feet ahead of me. I’m so grateful it decided to loudly warn me it was about to cross!

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Just before Wulfow at mile 32. Thanks Facchino Photography for the awesome shot.

There’s a short climb coming into Wulfow from this direction, and I knew the cheer from the tent at the top would be “Run! Come on, no one walks this!” (Almost everyone walks it after the front runners, of course.) At the last little section, I did run, though, and was able to bound up it easily. Justin, one of the volunteers, asked how I was feeling. I took a moment to assess and then replied, “Good. Almost too good.”

“Well, I guess you better pick up the pace then! 18 miles left.”

I ran out of there feeling even more energized, comfortably running (or, you know, fast shuffling) the flats and downhills, and hiking the uphills strongly. I knew I had two hours before the cutoff at Warm Springs, so I didn’t have to rush, just had to keep moving. The sun had gotten lower and the temperature was slowly dropping. The winding single-track felt comfortable, and I kept visualizing the finish line, knowing I could get there. The trail finally left the open fields and I was back in the woods, enjoying the cold creek crossings and the gorgeous redwoods.

One of the tips I’d utilized from Sarah Lavender Smith’s book was to leave a treat in a drop bag at a later aid station. In my Warm Springs drop bag, I’d put some dark chocolate with creamy espresso filling and a small bag of my favorite cereal. Coming into the aid station, I made a beeline for my bag, grabbed out the Cracklin’ Oat Bran, and tossed a handful into my mouth, smiling like an idiot.

Part 3: Waiting for the demons

Everything I’d heard about Lake Sonoma had made me believe that these last twelve miles would seem impossibly hard, really embodying the race slogan “Relentless”. So every time I had started getting overly emotional about anything, I’d tell myself to save it for the last twelve, where I could use that emotion to keep pushing on. In my first 50k, all my demons caught up to me after mile 24 as I limped the rest of the way on a busted knee. Leaving Warm Springs, I was preparing myself for the shit to hit the fan like that again, either mentally or physically. I was waiting for the hills to seem unconquerable, for my legs to give up.

I continued on, though, perpetually amazed that I hadn’t yet become a sacrifice to the trail gods. I did almost sacrifice something else, though. While crossing a creek around mile 40, I took off my hat to soak it in a small waterfall, forgetting that my sunglasses were on it. In slow motion, I saw them tumble into the foam at the bottom and disappear. One of the only race rules is “No Littering,” and I couldn’t believe I was going to unintentionally trash my sunglasses along the course. After feeling around in the water for a while, I announced to the universe, “Fine. I give up,” hoping it would take the cue and reveal them. And it actually worked! As I stepped out of the creek, I saw my sunglasses a little further down on the bank, totally intact and without a scratch.

This last section actually ended up being the most enjoyable of the entire race for me. I knew, even if I had to hike it in, I could finish under the 14 hour cutoff, and I think this kept the demons at bay. My mental struggles earlier had emerged because a finish didn’t seem attainable, and now, even with miles to go, it did. The late afternoon sun through the trees reminded me of summertime in the woods where I grew up. I continued to pass people. My legs, while tired, still felt strong, especially hiking uphill. And I was just so damn happy to be there.

It was 6:30 when I got into the Island View aid station at mile 45.5. As I was running down the hill, Ken Michal was leaving the aid station. I kind of shouted at him about how much his advice earlier had helped. I found myself behind him again right after I refilled my soft flasks and grabbed some pickles and potato chips. I briefly considered sticking with him into the finish, but my legs wanted to go faster. I let him know I was passing.

“Yeah, go get it! First 50!” he yelled.

The last three miles of the course were new to me, since we’d avoided this section of the trail by starting the race on the road. It was around when I got onto this section that my left knee started complaining a little louder, so I finally decided it was time for some music. I’d told myself at the start of the race that I could put on music if I needed it after the 50k mark, as another treat to look forward to. But it wasn’t until those last three miles that I wanted anything but the sounds of the woods. I pulled out my earbud and was granted the instant relief of hearing a song that had been in and out of my head all day, Brandi Carlile’s “Caroline.” From there the playlist rolled into Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas, Green Day (got caught singing and air-drumming along to “Jesus of Suburbia” when I came around a bend and saw two runners in front of me), The Lumineers, The Interrupters, Indigo Girls…just the perfect soundtrack to end the day with, and I mentally cruised through these last few miles despite my quads and knees starting to threaten mutiny.

With about half a mile to go, the trail turned into a giant mud pit. It was clear that hundreds of people had already trampled their way through, and any dry ground on the edges had long since eroded. I carefully stepped my way through until the very end, when what had seemed like a solid section crumbled beneath me and my right leg sank up to my knee. Swearing loudly, I crawled to the edge to grab a tree branch, and used the leverage to slowly squelch my foot out of the mud without losing my shoe.

I continued on, now looking like a swamp monster, and a volunteer just around a bend from the mud directed me towards the finish. It is a slightly awkward section right there. I came up to a road and could see the finish chute just a hundred feet or so away. But the actual course goes onto another trail across the road, up a short hill, and then wraps around to finish. By the time I got to the road, I could hear Mikey barking. I turned the music off and stowed the earbud, then “ran hard.” There was a log in front of the actual finish chute, and in my head I flew over it like a hurdle. Marcus and the pups were waiting just past the log, all very excited to see me. Chena jumped on me as I ran over, so Marcus handed me her leash. Chena and I ran down the chute together and were just ten feet from the actual finish when she suddenly pulled hard to the right to go sniff a tree. Oh well, almost a movie-worthy finish!

LS50finish

Blurry, but the only finish line photo I have. Marcus still managed to get this while hanging onto two very excited pups.

Skip Brand, the race director, gave me a big hug when I finally pulled Chena away from the tree. (This was his first year directing the race, after taking it over from Tropical John Medinger, and he did a phenomenal job.) Marcus and Mikey caught up to us and I found a lovely log to sit on. Then there was amazing, unlimited wood-fired pizza, beer, and an absurdly awesome swag bag. The sun had just set, and I finished 36 minutes under the cutoff. I had passed 48 people after the turn around, and no one had passed me.

But all of those are just details, the icing on top. I pushed myself into scary unknown territory, expecting it to be a fight to the finish. But instead, those last twenty miles were where I felt most comfortable, most myself. I was alone in the woods on a beautiful day, loving the strength in my legs and the air in my lungs. The pain just added another element to it, made everything seem clearer and more immediate.

The hurt really set in later that night, though. Climbing the two short steps into the AirBnB was harder than the whole last 12 miles of the race. I was thirsty and hungry but my stomach didn’t want anything to do with food or water. It took a long time to just be able to stand up in the shower without feeling dizzy. But there was a part of my mind that was still at mile 45, running through the woods, and I was content.

Epilogue: More Details and Many Thanks

If all you wanted was the story of the race, stop reading now. (And thanks for getting this far!) This part is mostly for my own record-keeping or anyone interested in the nitty gritty of what I ate, drank, and wore, as well as some specific notes about race details.

But before getting there, I need to acknowledge some amazing people. My family, who followed the action on ultralive.net and sent a deluge of congratulatory texts and emails. Fellow members of the Crabtree lab, who have yet to complain about the quality of the “sink showers” I take after running to work. The Chem Trails Outdoors Club (let’s actually make those damn t-shirts, guys). Sarah Lavender Smith, who helped a total stranger and ultrarunning nobody get to this start AND finish line in one piece. Ken Michal, for sharing miles and invaluable wisdom during the race. To everyone who helped make LS50 happen, especially the volunteers. And of course, my amazing husband (it stills feels cool to call him that!), Marcus.

Gear

I wore the Hoka One One Torrents for the first 25 miles, and then switched to the Topo Ultraventure at mile 25. I’ve had minor issues with both shoes but generally really like them. They have good traction and are pretty lightweight, but the Torrent is more responsive and the Ultraventure more cushioned. This combo kept my feet almost blister free, and I really appreciated the extra cushion in the second half. I wore Injinji lightweight crew socks with the Torrents, and Wrightsocks lightweight crew with the Ultraventure. I also wore Topo gaiters that clip onto the Ultraventure. (No gaiters with the Torrent. I regretted this after the first creek crossing when my shoes filled with sand and pebbles. Should have known better.)

For clothing, I wore basic Old Navy running shorts, an Under Armour shirt (I found both of these at a thrift store, along with most of my running clothes), and an Adidas climalite sports bra. I had a buff on my neck for soaking and one on my wrist for wiping sweat and my constantly runny nose.  On my head was a Boco cap, and the almost-lost-forever sunglasses were Goodr. All of this worked great except the shorts, which caused some inner thigh chafing. I periodically applied Body Glide, but I think I waited just a little too long to reapply at one point, and then it was too late. But it wasn’t very noticeable.

My hydration pack is an Ultimate Direction AK Mountain Vest 3.0. Technically a men’s pack, it fit me better than the women’s packs, I think because I have broad shoulders. I used two Nathan 500 mL soft flasks in front and a 1.5 L Camelbak reservoir. Ultimate Direction does have their own brand of both soft flasks and reservoirs, but I’ve had better luck with Nathan and Camelbak for longevity and ease of use.

My watch is a Garmin Forerunner 630. The battery lasted the whole time, with about 10% left at the end. I set it to normal GPS and turned off the mile pace alerts. The earbud I used for music is marketed as a bluetooth headset. It’s a single, tiny earbud that was $10 and is waterproof. I found it on Amazon and it’s awesome for running. Music quality isn’t fantastic but for the price and convenience, it’s hard to beat.

Nutrition and Hydration

I think part of the reason I felt so good at the end of the race is that I nailed my nutrition. I set a 30 minute alarm on my watch and was really good about eating between 80-100 calories every half hour. This was usually in the form of gels (either Gu or Honey Stinger) or fun-size PayDay bars. On top of that, I filled my 500 mL soft flasks with the Gu Roctane drink they had at aid stations. It was the Summit Tea flavor, which is my favorite because it’s not sweet, so I never get sick of it. I used my 1.5 L reservoir for plain water, and took frequent small sips of both the Roctane and the water. All together, I think I ended up taking in 200-300 calories every hour the whole race, maybe a little more when I grabbed the quesadillas and potato chips at the aid stations. I do wish I’d taken more food options earlier in the race, since I got really sick of gels after 5 hours or so.

From the turn around point to the finish, I was sucking on cough drops almost anytime I wasn’t eating. I always finish long runs with my throat feeling dry and a little miserable, and these helped alleviate that.

Race Notes

I am so happy that this was my first 50 miler. The race course is gorgeous and never boring, and it was extremely well organized. The trail markings were very consistent, and every intersection had extra signage. Even as a back of the pack runner, the support and encouragement made me feel like a rock star. The only thing I wish was better communicated was the parking situation at the start/finish. I recommend getting there super early to be able to park closer than we did.

Something I didn’t realize until the next day was that they don’t hand out medals. I love this- I always feel like medals are kind of a waste; they’re cool for about an hour and then hide in a drawer. I’d much rather get a delicious meal and a pair of socks.

I would love to run this again, and will definitely be back to volunteer, too.

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The Qualifying Exam

For context: The qualifying exam (QE) is a three-hour oral exam with a committee of five professors that we take in the chemistry PhD program. It’s usually taken in the second year, but I took it as a third-year student because my research was delayed due to lab construction. Because of the importance placed on this exam, we don’t go through a thesis defense when we finish our PhD. My exam was on March 19th.

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It’s exactly ten days after my QE.

The build up to it was over a year long. I watched my peers go through the freak-out phase, the figure-it-out phase, the get-it-done phase, then at long last the glorious free-of-this-shit phase. And as I watched I got more anxious, knowing that I couldn’t reach that endpoint for another year.

I started studying this fall. I didn’t fully know how to do it, though. I made a list of everything that I thought was important to my project that I didn’t know. It was a long list. Kyle, my advisor, scheduled a QE practice during a group meeting in mid-November, and I tried to knock everything off the list before then. But that same week, I gave two lectures in the graduate quantum mechanics course that I was TAing, and I felt like I had to prioritize those. So I didn’t finish the list and I shot myself in the foot by not doing so.

I left that first practice feeling shell-shocked and mortified, having demonstrated to my group and my boss how little I knew. But I met with Kyle right after, and he said that he actually thought it had gone okay. I had forgotten a few things but overall, I had shown that I knew the details of my project well. It made me feel…better, I guess, although no less terrified.

I still felt unorganized. I knew some people read through notes and books from every chemistry class they’d ever taken, but I felt reasonably confident in my basic chemistry knowledge from tutoring and TAing. I didn’t want to waste my time, but I also didn’t want my committee to pick holes through my knowledge that I didn’t know were there.

Starting in early January while doing research with a collaborator at Harvard, I went back to that list I’d made and really worked through it. I initially divided my time between general topics based on different areas I didn’t know enough about, and gave myself a week with each topic. That…sort of worked, for at least the first few weeks. I definitely started feeling more confident about the most important topics.

Two of my committee members had taught classes I’d taken, and then later I’d TAed for both those classes. I went over notes and important concepts from each, at least to the degree that I could answer questions that were connected to my research.

I also just ran through what I would say, constantly. I almost always had a dialogue going in my head of what questions I thought would come up and how I would answer them. While I think this did end up being helpful in the exam, it also might have been a contributing factor to the anxiety and imposter syndrome that rarely left me alone, especially in the month leading up to my QE.

I’ve always held myself to high standards, and from the beginning, that has made grad school difficult. I’m not great at remembering concepts, unless they fit directly into my project or something else that I think about a lot. It always seemed to take me longer to do homework than my classmates, and I never did well on written exams. In high school and sometimes in college, I felt smart. Almost never has that happened in grad school. Everything has been new, and challenging. Don’t get me wrong, I love the challenge, I love physical chemistry, and I love pushing myself to really get something that I didn’t before. I had a couple eureka moments while I was studying when all of a sudden something just clicked and it felt amazing.

But honestly, what stands out more in my mind are the moments when I hit rock bottom. I was TAing for my advisor last quarter, and he always has his TAs “preview” the exams. While taking the second midterm, I completely choked. Things looked vaguely familiar but my brain could not process anything. I couldn’t figure out what the questions were asking. All I could think was “How the fuck do you think you’re smart enough to take a qualifying exam if you can’t answer these easy questions?” Which is the perfect mantra if you want to end up having a panic attack in a bathroom stall while you’re supposed to be finishing an exam.

Why all these low moments? I asked myself that a lot before the QE, and the answer was usually angry and full of expletives. The take-away was that I did not think I was good enough to pass the exam. I was terrified that my committee would see immediately that I don’t actually know anything that I should. I know, I think, exactly where this imposter syndrome comes from. There were two academically traumatic events in college; one handled well, the other handled by, you guessed it, having a panic attack in a bathroom stall. And in front of my dorm. And in my bed. I don’t know if my anxiety has fostered the imposter syndrome or the other way around, but they’re both there, either lurking or beating my brain into a bloody pulp.

So to fight my doubts, I studied more. I did QE practices. I could have been more organized, but I covered everything that I wanted to. And my QE got closer, and the feeling of driving straight towards a cliff increased. My QE was on a Monday, and the weekend before was…it’s hard to fully explain. I was studying because that was calming me more than not studying. I was going back through things that I wanted to review, I was going over some new stuff that I’d realized late in the game might be relevant, I was just reading and thinking and trying to enjoy it. And then putting my head down every few minutes while my stomach lurched and my heart raced and I tried hard to just breathe and not pass out.

The night before my QE, I actually slept well. I am amazed by this in hindsight, because I think it was the only night between January and my QE that I didn’t wake up sweating from a terrible stress dream that involved some kind of mortification and punishment for a terrible QE performance. But the morning of, I was just muted and somewhat grateful. I was just ready to be done. Pass or fail, it would be easier. (A fail means you get a chance to re-take it.) I went out for a run with Chena and had to stop to walk a lot when the stomach cramps got to be too much. I felt like I was going to puke. It was like the first few miles of a race, except I couldn’t get through it by just continuing to put one foot in front of the other. I had to perform. I slowly finished my run, got back home, tried and failed to eat, and then took a long, hot shower.

Maya drove me to school and we chatted about gossip and plans for the weekend, just whatever. Just not the QE. The clock slowly clicked closer to 2. I got to school, printed copies of my QE report for my committee, and started setting up the room. I was just trying to breathe, and that focus helped. I was actually feeling okay. Confident might have been a stretch but I was trying very hard to convince myself of a degree of confidence. I just had to get through 3 hours.

The exam itself is hard to write about because I don’t feel like it went well. I passed, and I am very grateful to have this task off my back, but I am not happy with my performance. I misunderstood questions, I didn’t stand strong when questioned about details that I knew…I started off by answering the very first question terribly, leading the committee down a deep rabbit hole. They were asking about things that I knew, but in the moment I was not able to process their questions. It sucked, frankly, and threw me off my game. I got through a fair amount of my presentation, but they didn’t ask the questions that I thought they would. I didn’t get to talk about my side project, which I actually felt very confident about, but the first half of the exam ran long and before I even got to that part, they had sent me out of the room for a break.

Waiting in the hall, I was pissed. I finally realized what they were asking about initially and I knew exactly how to answer. Zach, my lab mate, came by and I explained what had happened. He sympathized, and even sprinted down to our office to get me ibuprofen (because with the stress, I was dealing with the worst period I’ve ever had in my life and without consistent ibuprofen, the cramps were so bad that walking was almost impossible, sorry/not sorry if that’s TMI).

I went back into the exam room for the second half, and they all just went down the line and asked one or two questions. I don’t remember now which questions came at this point versus earlier, but I remember this weird feeling that I had gotten out of hell and then had been tricked back into it; I’d spent a few minutes chatting with Zach, and now I was back with more demons to face. But the questions fed into each other and before I knew it, they’d sent me out into the hall again so they could deliberate.

And deliberate.

I just stood there, numb and telling myself over and over that it didn’t matter what they said. The hard part was over. The months of hating myself, the sleepless nights, they were over.

My committee came out of the room after 15 minutes and said congratulations. They all shook my hand and then left. I went in, alone, shut the door, and cried for a minute. No tears. Just sobs- I didn’t have any control, they just ripped out.

I cleaned up the room, told my friends, labmates, family. I was happy. Right?

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to go back and try again. I’d passed. I was done, I could move on with my PhD. But even now, ten days later, I’m mad about how I did. I came off looking like an idiot when I knew more than I let on. I let the committee think I was unsure of myself when I wasn’t. I just didn’t want to show my backbone. I was afraid of them and afraid of being wrong.

I couldn’t sleep that night. My mouth felt dry, my head was spinning, I kept rethinking my committee’s questions. I slept worse than most nights leading up to the QE.

The next day, biking to school, my hearing got fuzzy and vision went a bit dark. I pulled over.

This kept happening. For two days after, every time my heart rate would go up, I would need to sit down. Which sucks, because all I wanted to do was run. But my body, my brain…I was so shaken. I was having trouble stringing together sentences properly. I wanted to exercise and do lab work but I just…couldn’t.

****

Even writing about it made me angry and jittery. I’m just now picking this back up, now well over a month after my QE.

I’m not over it, but I’m happier now that I’ve been able to move on with my life. I’ve been doing a lot of lab work, reading the literature purely for enjoyment, TAing an intro to quantum class and getting undergrads excited about physical chemistry (well, I’m trying, but having fun doing it). I’ve been running a decent amount and raced a half marathon last weekend. But the feeling that I could have done better lingers. The shakiness from the days after the QE has come back a few times, leaving my heart in my throat.

I so badly wanted to prove myself, wanted to rise to my own absurdly high expectations that were constantly at war with my imposter syndrome, that my body was ready to revolt. Why I put that pressure on myself is complicated and frustrating, but I think I could have lessened it by changing my preparation a bit. (Seeing a mental health provider wouldn’t have been a bad idea, either.) For anyone else going through an exam like this, here’s what I’d do differently:

  • Start practicing the intro around 6 months before. This is where you deliver the motivation and background for your project. Present this to other people, and let them ask questions, but also make sure you have a solid 10 minute intro dialed in early on.
  • Have a study group. The times I spent studying with others were very productive and more fun than being stuck in my own head.
  • Also around 6 months before, come up with a study schedule for yourself and for your group and STICK TO IT. You won’t know exactly when your QE will be, but at least plan out which topics to cover over the first 3 months of studying. You don’t have to study constantly, but an hour a night or a few longer sessions a week will definitely help with confidence levels.
  • Prioritize understanding your project. Practice writing and speaking about what you’re doing beyond just the intro, make this part of your weekly study time. You’re much more likely to get a not-pass if you don’t know your project well than if you don’t know something unrelated.
  • Just like the long run when prepping for a race, QE practices are vital. They don’t have to be every week, but I highly recommend starting early and with diverse groups of people. I wish I’d had more practices in front of people outside of my lab. Scheduling 2 or 3 “dress rehearsal” practices in the month before the QE is great, but consistent, more casual practices starting maybe 4 months before will leave you much more prepared.
  • You don’t know something? Ask. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out things on my own when asking someone else would have been a much better use of my time. Solving your own problems is great, but at some point your time isn’t worth it.

Above all, remember that you’re not alone. I obviously struggled a lot, but talking to my peers helped. My hope is that by sharing this, I can help others going through this or through similar academic hurdles. If you’re reading this and need someone to talk to, please reach out. Even if it’s a phone call mid-panic attack in a bathroom stall- I’m here for you.

Of space and spectra

My goal when I started this blog was to post once a month. My first post was in June and today is August 1st…so I guess I’m a bit overdue. I’ve been putting this off because I was struggling to single out just one topic to write about, since the last month and a half included a thrilling conference in Illinois, lots of time spent in upstate New York and Vermont with family and friends, and many days of long drives to get back to California.

Travel is exhausting and inspiring and I could certainly dedicate this post almost exclusively to comically-captioned photos of the trip or profound thoughts that bubbled up while driving through breathtaking landscapes. And perhaps I will another time. But instead of writing about the trip, I want to share why I was SO freaking excited to get back to Davis. It all comes down to microwaves and this one little molecule called acetonitrile.

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A vacuum chamber, a lot of very expensive electronics, and me trying to figure out what the hell I broke this time. Photo credit: Kyle Crabtree

I work in an astrochemistry lab at UC Davis, and we use something called microwave spectroscopy to study chemical reactions that we think (hope) happen deep in outer space (which is called the Interstellar Medium in astronomy-speak). I’ll get back to the space stuff in a sec, because first I need to go on a happy little nerd rant about spectroscopy because it’s freaking awesome. Also the reason I decided to go to grad school in the first place.

Spectroscopy is one of the only tools we have to probe the nature of molecules. We can learn their geometry, energy, determine how they react with each other- all by hitting these molecules with some kind of electromagnetic radiation (like visible light, x-rays, microwaves, etc). This radiation contains varying amounts of energy- x-rays and gamma rays have a TON of energy, microwaves and radio waves have very little. When this energy hits a molecule, the molecule can absorb it and become higher in energy itself. We call this “excitation.” An excited molecule can then release energy, and “relax” back to it’s original state (or at least a state lower in energy). A spectrometer takes advantage of this to either measure changes in the intensity of radiation due to absorption, or to measure the energy that the molecules release when they relax. If it sounds complicated, it is. But also incredibly beautiful; we’re looking at the fingerprints of the tiny, tiny fragments that make up everything we know. They’re telling us their secrets.

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The electromagnetic spectrum. By Inductiveload, NASA [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Common

My lab was brand new when I joined; our actual lab room wasn’t even done being renovated. Over the last two years, we’ve assembled an (almost finished) instrument from scratch. This instrument will be used to study chemical reactions that occur in a vacuum chamber at very low temperatures and pressures. We can monitor the reactions that happen by blasting microwaves into the vacuum chamber. Molecules in the chamber absorb the microwave radiation and then emit it back a little later. What’s really cool is that different molecules absorb and emit different energies. This means that when we measure the energy released by all of the molecules in the chamber at the same time, we’ll see lots of different signals that correspond to all the different molecules. When we see these signals change over time, it means the types of molecules in the vacuum chamber are changing, which means chemical reactions are happening!

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Circa March 2016, in the room that later became our office, while our lab was still under construction. These are all the components of the microwave spectrometer, laid out like this for some initial testing.

And this is probably the point where you’re starting to go, “Okay…but why do you care about chemistry that happens in space? Why should I care?” Time for happy nerd rant part 2:

I chose to study astrochemistry because we exist thanks to chemistry that happened in space. Our planet was lucky enough to be formed in a region of space where the molecules needed for life, or at least the precursors to those molecules, were abundant. The molecules likely traveled to Earth on meteors during the youth of our Solar System, when the planet was constantly getting bombarded. I’m not an expert on what happened after that- no one really knows exactly how the ingredients came together to form the first living organism- but I’m working hard to become an expert on what might have happened before those prebiotic molecules crash-landed on our planet, which could also help us find life elsewhere in the universe.

If we learn enough about chemical reactions that are happening in space to build models of how all these reactions are related to each other, we can use those models to make predictions about where prebiotic molecules are most likely to be formed. It’s a messy and complex business, but a solid chemical model would be a HUGE boost in the origin of life puzzle. Good models can be used to find regions in space that harbor biologically relevant molecules. These models exist already, but they’re missing a lot of crucial information and their accuracy is questionable; we want to make them better and more useful. If you were paying attention to the news about a month ago, you probably heard about all those 10 new potentially hospitable planets that NASA found. Maybe someday, we’ll be able to use astrochemical modelling in order to narrow down which planets are in regions of space that have a wealth of life’s building blocks, thus focusing our search for extraterrestrial life to the places where it’s most likely to be.

But way before our lab can make any kind of contribution to this great mystery, we have to finish putting our first instrument together. Which gets back to why I was so damn excited to get back to work after four weeks away. For the last year and a half, I’ve been assembling and troubleshooting this microwave spectrometer. (A lot of the troubleshooting was due to components that I might have broken accidentally, but they’ve all been relatively easy to fix…) My goal had been to have it finished and working before we left for a conference on June 18th in Illinois (there’s a big difference between saying “still working on the spectrometer” and “it works! We’ve done things!”). I had to meet my lab mates at 3:30 AM on June 18th to go to the airport; at 10:30 PM on June 17th, I was still working in lab. There were two last circuits that I’d built that hadn’t worked, and I’d finally tinkered with them enough to get the correct signals out. That was the last thing standing between not having a working spectrometer and having a working one, but there was no way I could do a final test by myself very late at night. I didn’t even know how to get any kind of sample into the vacuum chamber. I had run out of time, and while I was pleased that I’d gotten the circuits to work, I was also disappointed.

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One of my circuits, somewhat precariously connected for testing around 10 PM.

After a week at the conference (the International Symposium on Molecular Spectroscopy, where I gave my first talk!) my advisor and most of my labmates returned to Davis, while Marcus and I went east. I loved being reunited with family and friends for a few weeks, but I had to fight the urge to constantly message everyone in the lab. “Have you figured out how to get our samples into the vacuum chamber yet? Are my circuits still working? Did everything melt because I accidentally left something turned on while we were gone?” Luckily, everything I’d built was working, but they still ran into some issues that delayed them from starting any actual tests. Several days before I was due back in lab, midway through the drive along the northern border of the country, they finally had everything ready. The first molecule we wanted to put in the vacuum chamber was acetone, mostly just because it’s been studied a lot and we already had some in the lab. Acetone is what’s in nail polish remover. It smells terrible, but it’s great for cleaning stuff, and almost every chemistry lab has some. So my advisor, Kyle, and labmate, Zach, pumped some into the vacuum chamber and turned on the spectrometer.

And saw…nothing. They were hoping to see a couple of signals picked up by our detector, formed when the acetone molecules released energy after being hit with the powerful microwave blast. It turns out that acetone actually releases tons of signals, but all with really low intensity. If that’s confusing, a visible light analogy is having a light bulb release light made up of lots of different colors, which have different energies, but very dimly, so it’s hard to see any light at all, much less distinct colors. Okay, it’d just look like white light to us anyway, but a more sensitive detector than the human eye could make them out. In order to see the signals in our spectrometer,  a molecule was needed that emits signals at just a few different energies but with a much higher intensity. (If you have one really bright green light, it’s pretty easy to tell that it’s green.) To find something, Zach started hunting around to see what they could borrow from another lab (acetone was literally the only chemical we had). Another spectroscopy lab down the hall had acetonitrile, which would fit the bill perfectly according to other studies that had been done on it.

On Thursday, July 13th, Zach and Kyle finished getting everything set up but didn’t have time to actually run any tests. Which worked out fabulously for me, because when I got back on the 14th, I was able to waltz into lab, turn on the spectrometer that I’d built, and within several hours see definitive proof that it did what it was supposed to do. There was a beautiful signal from acetonitrile, exactly where we’d expected it to be.

So naturally, we did what all good scientists do and went to the bar.

There’s still a lot more work to do before our entire instrument is up and running. There’s a fancy pulsed nozzle that Zach is making, which is how our sample molecules will get into the vacuum chamber. Zhongxing, the other grad student, is setting up a massive excimer laser that will trigger the chemical reactions we want to study. We’re getting closer, though, and within the year we hope to be able to characterize chemical reactions under space-like conditions, and start contributing to astrochemical models. And who knows, maybe someday something we’ve worked on will help point the direction to life on another planet.

If you’d like to know more about any of the science I’ve talked about here, please let me know. There are hundreds of resources and I’d be happy to point you to some good ones. If you want to follow our lab’s progress, we’re also currently building our website! There’s hardly anything there right now, but keep checking back because more content is being added every week.

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You read this far? Have a cute dog picture from the road trip. 

 

 

Mt Diablo Trail Run 50K

It was 7:29 AM at the Mitchell Canyon Visitor Center at Mt Diablo State Park. The temperature was around 60 degrees and the sun was still hidden behind the mountain. I gave Marcus a quick squeeze goodbye as the 50Kers did a slow shuffle into formation at the start line. I was just barely beginning to mentally prepare myself when the race director called out, “Who’s doing this as their first 50K?”

I waved, and he started motioning me forward.

“Go! Yeah, you, come on, GO!”

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I sputtered for half a second and then start running. I got maybe 50 feet before almost missing the first turn, then backing up a few feet and starting the first hill of the day.

I don’t know if it’s a tradition to give the ultra-virgin a head start, but I got one and therefore, was in first place for at least 20 seconds. Which would have been a little more fun if I’d had a chance to take a deep breath, start my watch, and shake out my legs once more, but instead I felt like a fox trying to not trip while a pack of hounds was counting down behind me.

The anxiety made its way to my stomach and the first hints of nausea were setting in by the time the front packers passed me. I latched onto the group that came through behind them, determined to not end up in the back. I was keeping up but my heart was racing and I felt like I might have a fever. It must have just been the anxiety, but it made those first few miles kind of miserable. I knew (hoped) it would all pass once I calmed down and got into the flow of the journey, but during that half hour or so, all I wanted to do was pull over on the side and throw up.

The nausea eventually passed, and after that the first miles are a bit of a blur. There seemed to be a pretty even amount of up and down, although both featured lots of loose rock and dirt and several trails that didn’t seem like they’d seen foot traffic in months. There was enough that was runnable that my fears of not reaching the 3.5 hour cutoff at mile 11.6 were swayed. “That’s 18 minute pace! That’s like a slow walk,” I reminded myself several times. I ran into the aid station around mile 5, filled my bottle with electrolyte mix and then took off again. The problem with that was that we’d run down pretty far to get into the aid station, and now we had to actually climb the entire mountain. The first few miles weren’t terrible, mostly switchbacks, but the climbs got steeper. And steeper. I was keeping up with another guy for a while and we talked about other races (North Face is over rated, Hardrock is awesome but it’s impossible to get in), but eventually I needed a break and he kept going. It was around this time that I started to feel doubts creeping in. That cutoff was starting to loom closer and closer. The hills were really cool, though, and allowed me to perpetuate my Lord of the Rings adventure fantasy, but they seemed to never end. I finally came up onto a fire road and got a little downhill running in to make up time, which made me feel a little better about the 29 minute mile I’d just put in.

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By the time I came out into the parking lot at the top of the mountain (which seemed just a little wrong), I had 23 minutes before the cutoff. I booked it up the stairs of the beacon, grabbed the railing, breathed in the view for half a second, then took off and started running pretty hard.

Or it felt hard, anyway, but my watch wouldn’t budge from a 12 minute. I knew I had about 2 miles but I’d started my watch late after the surprise head start, so I wasn’t sure how far it actually was. As the reality of being forced to do the 28K instead was sinking in, a runner flew by me, yelling “Gotta make the cutoff!” I guess I’d just needed a little competition because I immediately sped up and stayed within 10 feet or so, watching where he put his feet. Eventually we came out into a campsite and raced by families enjoying the late morning sunshine.

That beautiful blue tent was suddenly in view, and as I ran in a girl with a cowbell in front yelled “Yeah! Girl power!” Which of course put a massive smile on my face. It was 10:55, five minutes ahead of the cutoff. The distance was a little less than I’d thought but if I hadn’t been pushed by the other runner it would have been a much narrower gap and a much more stressful time getting in and out. As it was, I had enough time to refill my reservoir with ice water and soak my head, both of which I was very happy about. I had been getting pretty low on fluids and had started to drink less, so I had half a bottle of Gu Brew before filling it again and taking off.

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The next 6-mile stretch was mostly downhill and flat, so I made good time. We ran down the other side of the mountain, now out in open fields instead of forest. The views of the rolling hills made me feel more at home; I’d done most of my long runs at a park in Vacaville with a very similar landscape. About 3 miles in, the leaders started to pass me going to other way. The first man sounded almost despairing when he said “This is a hard first 50K,” as he passed. I wasn’t sure how to reply to that…yeah, yeah it really is, guy who is 6 miles ahead of me already. There was a man and a woman slowly getting closer behind me, and I was irrationally worried that they were actually the sweeps (although it wouldn’t have made sense to send the sweeps out that way anyway, since it was an out and back) and that if they caught up to me, I would have to drop at the next aid station. I don’t know if this very strong fear was because I was low on calories or maybe just the heat getting to me, but it certainly helped push me along. There was another hill around mile 17, and I think this is where I started to realize how very slow I was getting on the climbs. It really wasn’t that big of a hill, maybe 500 feet, but it felt gross.

At the next aid station I collapsed against the front bumper of a truck and started slowly eating the half a PB&J I’d grabbed. It was a little stale but I was so, so happy to be sitting and eating that it tasted amazing. The man and woman behind me came in (not sweeps, just other runners you moron) and both exclaimed loudly that this was HARD. Made me feel better about struggling up that hill, but didn’t give me a ton of confidence for the rest of the course. I grabbed some more gels, a salt pill, refilled on Gu Bru (brew? Bru?) and started to leave before realizing that bag of Ritz Bitz looked freaking fabulous. 14 miles left. That wasn’t that much, I could do that in no time!

Sure, until I got back to that lovely downhill I’d run down before. Except the funny thing about downhills from the other direction is that they’re actually uphills. I’d known going down that coming back would not be fun, but I hadn’t realized that it would also be 10 degrees warmer (no real idea, felt like 30 degrees warmer but was probably 5) and the sun would be out in full force. The hill started brutally steep. I put my head down and tried to tell myself to not focus on the time, to just put one foot in front of the other. That worked for a bit and I made slow progress, huffing and puffing but still moving, until I looked at the time and saw that it was 2:20. I’d told Marcus I might be at the finish by 2:30 if my day went really well. Considering I was at mile 22, it was not going as well as I’d hoped. I think that point was where I started to fight off serious doubts about finishing by the 5:00 cut off. I was trying to run the paces I’d need through my head but the numbers were hard to grab onto and maybe I was feeling a little dizzy?

The Ritz Bitz helped a lot and I kept pushing, eventually passing a guy in front of me. (Yeah, he’d taken a break and was sitting down, but I still technically passed him.) I turned a corner as I was nearing top and saw the competition who’d pushed me to the cutoff, lounging in the first shady area in miles. “Feels great!” he called. We ended up hiking most of the way into the next aid station together (he told me he was doing another 50K the next day! He wasn’t the first either, another guy had told me the same thing. CRAZY.), until right at the top when I decided to run and he held back.

This is where the slow, stealthy ache in my left knee begin, but it felt like something that just a little stretching and some ice would take care of. I made it into the last aid station a little after 3:00, and sat down with ice on my knee and the comfort of knowing I had just under 2 hours until cutoff and only 5.5 miles left, mostly downhill. The volunteers were cheery and provided great moral support, ginger ale, and Cheetos. As I was asking about the rest of the course, one woman asked, “Are you sure you’ll be able to make it the rest of the way on that knee?” I kind of waved off the question and said something about hobbling down in an hour and a half if need be (so, so naïve).

I’m not sure how far it was from the aid station to the first downhill, but as soon as I hit it I realized that there was no freaking way I was going to be able to run down the mountain. The area around my kneecap felt like it was on fire. I’m pretty good at sucking it up and dealing with pain, but this was so bad that I was swearing under my breath with every step. The flats were much more manageable but it still hurt to run, and I realized that the smart decision was to turn around and hike back up to the aid station for a ride back down to the finish.

But that would have been the smart decision, and at mile 24.5 my brain wasn’t particularly rational. I knew the smart decision, and I knew that I wouldn’t make it. I hate backtracking, and I’d gone more than 75%. I wanted to finish, but more than that, I didn’t want to limp back into the aid station, feeling the pain of defeat and the sympathy of the volunteers. This is a moment I’ve reflected on a lot since it happened, because my reason for pushing on just seems so petty now. I allowed myself to potentially wreck my knee to save face. If this hadn’t been my first 50K, if people hadn’t made such a big deal out of it being my first, hadn’t ensured me that I could and would finish, I doubt I would have felt such a stupid drive to prove myself. I’m not in any way implying that the support and encouragement I received was a bad thing- just that I should know better.

I think another part of it was that so much of my training was actually spent recovering from injuries. I was so freaking sick of skipping runs or being stuck using an exercise machine because of various minor issues (wearing the wrong inserts in my shoes which caused lots of foot and ankle pain, pain in the tendons behind my knee (which actually turned out to be from biking with my seat too high), skipping a long run after badly rolling my foot three (three!) feet from the trailhead…). I had debated not doing this race at all, but I’d had a few stellar, pain free runs in the two weeks prior and I decided to go for it.  Even though my weekly mileage had never gotten above 35, my longest training run, meant to be 24 miles, was 18, and my strength training regimen had petered out to almost nothing.

There were lots of reasons I shouldn’t have showed up at the start line, just like there were lots of reasons that I should have turned around when I realized how badly my knee hurt. Actually, it’s not unlike showing up very underprepared for grad school and not quitting after bombing my first exam. I’m stubborn, and I did NOT want to explain to my family that I couldn’t handle grad school.

Those last five miles were so much harder than the rest of the race. It didn’t take long for me to start cursing myself for not going back to the aid station, or to realize that the 5:00 cutoff was out of reach.  I tried to still find joy in being on the mountain, to appreciate the strange and beautiful landscape, but I was an emotional wreck and my knee was screaming with every step. With two and half miles left, I stopped and sat in the middle of the trail and swung my left leg uphill, trying to elevate it. I pulled out my phone, hoping there was service. There was a bar of 3G, and I texted Marcus while crying a little bit and pausing often to wipe snot off my face. “The cutoff isn’t happening. Knee hurts. Hobbling down. 2.5 miles left.” I felt really bad for making him wait at the finish for so long with Chena and Mikey (our dogs), and I started to beat myself up for doing this crazy selfish thing and spending so much of my time and energy preparing for it.

As I was sitting there, a guy who had been behind me for a while finally passed by. He asked if I was cramping up, and I shook my head. “Just my knee.” He empathized, saying his calves were cramping and that this trail down was the worst way off the mountain. After he was out of sight, I checked my phone and saw a new text from Marcus.

“Cutoff or no, you’ve done good.”

I started to sob, but this also gave me the oomph that I needed to pick myself up and continue down the trail. He’d said exactly what I needed to hear.

The sweep eventually caught up with me, and we ended up walking last mile or so together. He pointed out that coming down the mountain with a messed up knee is seriously tough, which really helped my bruised ego. We chatted a bit about the San Diego 100, which he was doing the next weekend. (Hopefully it went really well!) With maybe a quarter mile to go, he suddenly screamed and jumped back, very narrowly missing a rattlesnake in the middle of the fire road! I took several large steps back, but the snake only had eyes for him. He slowly walked away, stepping off the road into the grass, trying not to aggravate it. I picked up a rock in case I needed to distract it, but he successfully crept past and we were able to move on, now extremely paranoid about every stick.

When we were about 50 feet out from the finish, I decided to muster up what I had left and run through the arch. The cowbells and cheering started as soon as I was in view (seeing me meant everyone could go home!). Even though I was almost 45 minutes past the cutoff, I was handed a medal and a coaster by two smiling girls and got a big hug from Greg, the RD, who had encouraged me to sign up for this in the first place when I’d met him his wife, Jennifer, volunteering at the Lake Sonoma 50 in April.

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Then there was Marcus and the pups and a very comfy camp chair and apparently I’d even won second place in my age group and Greg came over and put a medal around my neck and people were congratulating me and several said that this was the hardest 50K in California and then I was taking my shoes off and eating some watermelon and life was a completely different state than it had been just an hour ago, crouched on the mountain and crying.

One week later, my left knee is mostly better- I’ve been wearing a knee brace but I can now walk down stairs with almost no pain sans brace. I think I damaged the cartilage under my knee cap, but nothing permanent or overly concerning. My toes were pretty numb for a few days after, and they feel kind of funny still as the nerves are coming back to life. I only ended up with one major blister on the inside of my heel, and it’s faded into callous. Not even my muscles are sore anymore.

I’m trying to plan my next race and training cycle but I have also thoroughly enjoyed this rest week. It was nice to let research and teaching completely take over my brain, without an impending race on the horizon. This is the first time in almost a year that I’m not signed up for anything. I’m going to go for my first run back tomorrow. I have no idea how long it will be or how fast I’ll go (slow, probably very, very slow). It’ll just be me and the dogs and no training plan or pace goals. Just like it used to be, before running and then trail running became an obsession.

This spring I jumped from training for a fast road half in February to a trail 25K in March to trail marathon training, which only became 50K training when the marathon got cancelled in early May. Going into my next 50K, I’m going to focus a lot more on a slow, steady build up, probably 16 weeks, with a solid strength training plan. I’m going to stick to my weekly yoga class. And I’m going to pay much closer attention to aches and pains instead of running through them in denial until they’re such a problem that I can barely run. Hopefully this will prevent future blow outs. In other aspects of the race, I do think I was well prepared. Listening to almost every Ultrarunner Podcast produced in the last year and obsessively reading every article definitely helped me know what to bring, eat, and drink, and the aid stations were so well stocked that I could have gotten away with bringing almost nothing.

For anyone reading this thinking, “Aw hell, I want to go through many hours of a quad-and-knee-busting emotional roller coaster on Mt. Diablo!” then definitely check this race out next year. Pacific Coast Trail Runs puts it on, and Greg and Jennifer, plus their team of grade-A volunteers and the wonderful other runners, made this an excellent first ultra. I know they’re working hard to improve it for next year, too.

Even though it was wickedly difficult, I can’t say I have a single regret. The pain of the last descent forced me to reckon with demons that have always plagued me, but have never been brought to light. I doubt that I’ll ever stop being stupid and stubborn, but I hope I can make the smart decision next time without holding it against myself. That stubbornness did earn me the title of ultrarunner, though, and I’m really freaking proud of that.

TLDR; I climbed some hills, hurt my knee, cried a lot. Stoked to go back for more.

These pictures were all from the PCTR Facebook page. I’m not sure who actually took them but it wasn’t me! Many thanks to whoever did.