On Saturday I ran my first ultra marathon!!! The Avalon Benefit 50K and 50 Mile race was an INCREDIBLE race and I highly recommend it for your first ultramarathon.
Why I Decided to Run a 50K
I have run 10 marathons, qualified for the Boston marathon AND done an Ironman. So when I thought about what I could do to celebrate turning 40 that would push me to a new level, an ultra marathon was a pretty obvious choice. I always said “one day” I’d do an ultra – and what better time to do one than to celebrate a milestone birthday!?
I went back and forth between the 50K and the 50 miler, because at the time I thought the 50K wasn’t QUITE a big enough challenge compared to a marathon. Spoiler alert: I am very happy with my choice to do the 50K as my first ultramarathon.
A big reason I chose the 50K is because my running buddy Jen told me she’d do the 50K with me. My husband Mike already greed to do either distance with me, but I knew he wouldn’t actually run or train WITH me.
Shortly after that decision was made, I convinced several more of my training buddies from my running club, the Seaside Striders to do the race too. One by one, more and more people signed up. In the end, including our friend Brian’s son who joined, 9 of us showed up to Catalina island to run our first ultra marathon! All of us had done a marathon but NONE of us had gone further.
One of my favorite things in life is to inspire others to push themselves to new limits, (which is why I’m a coach). Another of my favorite things is socializing and traveling with friends. And last, I LOVE pushing myself to do hard things. So basically this weekend in Catalina was on the top of my favorite things ever and the best way I could have imagined celebrating my 40th birthday.
Training for the 50K
Training for a 50K isn’t all that different in VOLUME than training for a marathon, but there are some key differences: more trails, long runs based on time (and a lot of time on your feet) and walking/hiking is OK!
My training for the 50K started over the summer with base building and hiking. Mike and I trained to hike Rim 2 Rim 2 Rim of the Grand Canyon (in 2 days) in September and in retrospect, that training and hiking really boosted my confidence.
After the Grand Canyon, I went into a short half marathon training cycle for Revel Big Bear. In retrospect, this was a mistake because the race was really hard on my body (Its a downhill course and I was going for a PR) but I only had 7 weeks til the 50K afterward, so I rushed my recovery.
Prior to the half, my longest runs were 16 miles on roads. After the half, I ran 4 big trail runs in consecutive weeks: a 16 miler (technical trails) at Black Mountain, the 5 Peaks Challenge at Mission Trails (19.5 miles, 4,700 feet of climbing), 22 miles over Raptor Ridge, and then 6 days later 26.5 miles around the Lusardi Loop. In retrospect, I did not give myself enough recovery time and during the final long run, 3 weeks out from the race, my shin started to ache. It got worse and worse and the day after it was swollen and red and painful.
I immediately stopped running, went to a PT, did dry needling, and did ALL The recovery tactics. Over this time it was also Christmas, my 40th birthday and New Years. In those 3 final weeks I only ran 26 miles TOTAL. I was also able get in a few spins on my MYX bike and finished 4 Weeks for Every Body, the strength program I was doing. But going into this race, I was not feeling my fittest. But I kept reminding myself of all the hard work I had already done. I knew my fitness couldn’t decline THAT much in 3 weeks.
But then, 4 days out from the race, on Tuesday night Mike and i both came down a nasty stomach bug. We literally threw up everything in our bodies, but 12 hours later we felt a lot better. By 24 hours, I was 90% recovered. But still worried about the kids getting it and what that would mean for my mom babysitting! In the end, we got lucky and only Rowan got a mild version and the others didn’t get sick!
Pre-50K: Travel to Catalina Island
The city of Avalon is on a small island off of LA/Orange County called Catalina Island. It is a tiny little tourist town that is reached via ferry (1.5 hours from Dana Point or 1 hour from Long Beach). Within 1 hour of arriving we’d walked most of the town. Mike and I chose to stay in the same hotel room that we stayed for HIS 40th birthday – an oceanfront room that also had views of the finish line!
I made the mistake of having a latte at 11:30 AM on the day before the race and although I took a melatonin and turned the lights off before 9 PM, I could not fall asleep. I tossed and turned, my mind thinking about everything and not letting me sleep, until after 1 AM. It was really frustrating. I usually don’t have a hard time sleeping before a big race.
My alarm went off at 4:30 AM, meaning I got less than 4 hours of sleep. The race started right outside of our door at 6 AM but I wanted plenty of time to drink my coffee and eat and let my food digest so I could use the bathroom. Luckily everything went well in the morning and I felt really good heading to the start line at 5:50 AM. We met up with the group quickly (There’s not many people running the race so it’s easy to find your people) , snapped a photo and off we went exactly at 6 AM!
Ok FINALLY we’re on to the actual race recap. ha!
Avalon 50K Course
The Avalon Benefit 50k course (Map My Run Link to the Avalon 50K course here) is considered a “runable” course because the trails aren’t all that technical and there is a decent but not insane amount of climbing. It has a total of 4,500 feet but it’s mostly made up of 2 large climbs – a steeper one at the beginning, and a longer one from miles 20-29.
There was almost no flat ground the entire race – we were always going up or down. The race is a mix of pavement (beginning miles and final miles mostly) and wide, dirt packed fire roads. There are no narrow, technical trails at all. The main surprise on the course was that there was about 2-3 miles of pavement toward the mid/end of the first half that we didn’t expect!
Also: the course map indicates the race is 33.5 miles but no one could really confirm how far it was (50k is 31.1 miles but in trail running they just round up or down apparently and to Type A road runners haha)
Avalon Benefit 50K Race Recap
The first mile of the course heads through town with a gradual incline. The second mile starts to get steeper and based the map, I thought we’d have to walk this mile but we ended up running the entire thing. It was dark but enough people had headlamps and lights that we were fine running in the dark. As we started mile 3, we started to really climb on a winding fire road, and the sun started to come up. At one point I looked over and could see the headlamps of the runners behind us spiraling through the trail and the sun starting to set and it looked awesome.
That was just the beginning, as we climbed the next 2 miles, we saw the most spectacular sunrise. I knew this would be a highlight of the day and it was one of them. 6 of us were still together at this point and we were chatting and taking photos and videos and having the best time. I was also surprised that we were running more than I expected. Based on the map I figured we’d hike these miles but we were able to run the flatter sections and then hike the steep ones. At mile 5, we were averaging about 13 minute miles overall and I was surprised because we’d climbed almost 2,000 feet!
Around mile 6, we saw a stray port-o-potty and it was PERFECTLY placed. 4 of us stopped to take turns going and we used this time to apply sunscreen and move snacks, etc. We had agreed ahead of time that we were NOT in a rush. We would give each other time and not stress. We skipped the first aid station since we all had plenty of water and food and kept going.
The next few miles were rolling hills along the ridge, with beautiful views. We kept our eyes out for foxes (There were signs saying they may be out there) and Bison (which live on Catalina island because they were brought over for a film in the 1920s – fun fact!,) but sadly we never saw any wildlife!
At this point I was so happy that my shin wasn’t hurting. My legs felt ok, but really around mile 9 they started to feel the effort all the climbing. I really tried to focus on how far we’d come instead of how far we had to go but of course it wasn’t easy to think ‘omg I have 24 miles left to run.’
Megan and Brian kept running ahead and I felt a bit of pressure to keep up. I really wanted to run with people and I knew Megan did too but she tends to hike/run faster than us (as she did on all our training runs) so I wasn’t sure she would actually stay with us. I didn’t care if she went ahead but I knew she was conflicted. But at the same time, they were constantly running ahead of us so we weren’t talking or anything. When we met up with them at the aid station at the Catalina Airport around mile 13, she said she felt like she needed to go ahead and I told her to! Luckily Brian was up for keeping pace with Megan so they took off and we didn’t see them again til the finish.
What I Ate During My First 50K
Eating early and often is super important for an ultra marathon. And with ultra marathons, since pace is slower and you have more time on the course, you actually want to eat some REAL food, not just gels and liquids like when racing shorter distances. The below photo shows what I packed in my hydration vest.
There were several aid stations on the Avalon 50K course, which promised to have electrolytes, water and basic snacks. There were only 4 bathrooms on the course.
The first aid station was pretty sparse but all I needed was water. I refilled my back bladder and my front bladder and mixed in 2 more scoops of Tailwind that I had pre-rationed in a baggie. The woman refilling my water was super friendly and told us that the aid station was already out of a lot of food (the 50 miler starts an hour before the 50K so almost all of them had come through already) and I worried a bit about Mike since he wasn’t carrying a hydration vest with as much food as me.
My goal for fueling was to eat at least every 30 minutes and aim for 200-300 calories per hour. I rationed this out as 2-3 snacks per hour. In the end, I didn’t end up following any kind of system, I just really tried to eat as much as I could. As with all my training runs, I didn’t end up taking in many gels (only 3 total, 2 Spring Energy and 1 Huma) and had more solid foods and drank all the tailwind.
I did eat oranges and pretzels and a few gummy bears at an aid station. At most aid stations, I also completely removed my hydration vest. I found that the thing that hurt the MOST on my body was actually my back, specifically my upper back. (next time I won’t carry so much food and water!) I also had to remove the pack to refill my water.
There was one aid station sponsored by a local restaurant that had beer, shots, tacos and other foods including boiled potatoes. I had a potato but missed the salt (apparently it was next to it) so it wasn’t all that good! When we finished, we learned that my friend Megan and Brian drank a beer!!!
The Low Moments
Right after the taco aid station, around mile 23, I hit a big low. Jen and Jacqualynn hadn’t stopped as long as us and Miranda started to run and went ahead of me. Suddenly running felt VERY hard. I just wanted to walk. I started to feel really discouraged and wondered how i’d ever run 10 more miles. Luckily, I know that I tend to have a low moment about 2/3 into the race. I made a goal to catch up to at least one of my friends and luckily it seemed like Jen was waiting for me, walking more than running. This part of the course has a long hill, but it’s a “runnable” hill. This is the WORST kind of hill in my opinion! Because you feel like you should be running but you also need to walk. At this point, I knew I needed Energize (mixed with Tailwind Mike and I called this “Rocket Fuel” on our Rim 2 Rim hike), so I poured my energize packet into my small front bladder.
Once I got to Jen, she gave me a pep talk. She was listening to Taylor Swift out loud (no one was around us), and the music helped. I got out my potato chips, which I had been saving. Jen encouraged me to run for ONE minute. I did. Then we walked and did it again. The potato chips tasted amazing. Within 10 minutes or so, I started to get my mojo back and started running longer than the 1 minute. Soon after, Jen stsarted to not feel so good.
Most of the people around us were also run-walking at this point so we were interacting with them as we leap frogged one another. We were all commiserating and encouraging each other. It was welcome distraction. Several people wished me a happy birthday (I had a sash that my friend Sarah gave me at my 40th birthday party pinned to my hydration vest) which also gave me a boost.
Once we realized that we were almost to 26.2 miles, a marathon, we got a boost of energy. I told Jen we needed to celebrate when we reached it. We ran until we got there and then got pumped up! Then we did it again when her watch hit 26.2 (hers was about 1/4 mile behind mine). The hills started to get more steep now, which was actually nice because I could justify hiking.
At the next aid station, Miranda and Jacqualynn were there waiting for us! This gave me an even bigger boost and I started to feel MUCH better. We kept climbing – a mix of hiking and running and walking. I just focused on getting from aid station to aid station and it was helpful to be together. I started to actually feel BETTER.
Just before the final aid station, we climbed a SUPER steep hill. At the top of this hill, all of our legs really felt heavy – it was like doing a bunch of lunges at the end of a 28 mile run. Awesome! By this point we were doing walk/run intervals and just trying to make forward progress and stay positive.
We were SO happy when we reached the final aid station. The only thing I took here was a little sip of cola. According to the map, we had only 4 miles to go. Although ALL of our watches said different distances, we know it would NOT be 33.5 miles – mine showed it would be closer to 32.5. Another win: we thought it may take us closer to 8 hours based on how our training runs went and the poor taper/injury but we now realized we’d finish under 7:30! YAY!
Soon after the aid station, we turned off onto a paved road that went DOWN DOWN DOWN. My legs were still feeling that final hill and once we started running down, my body begged to walk. I even asked the girls if we could walk intervals, and everyone said they’d rather just run. I sucked it up.
In that moment, I had to decide if I would change my mindset to one of “I don’t want to do this” to “I AM DOING THIS.” I even said out lout ” I CAN, I WILL, I AM!!!” After the mental shift, I felt so much better. Although it was uncomfortable running down hill on pavement at the end, it was also motivating that we were running FASTER than we had the entire race – 10 minute miles! The hill seemed to last a LONG time but we talked about TV shows and other light things and it made it a lot more bearable.
When we rounded the corner and could see the beautiful Avalon Harbor , I got tears in my eyes thinking about finishing and how meaningful it was to me to inspire 8 other people to do the race too. We could HEAR the cheers from the finish line and see it just down the hill. It was surreal and exciting!!!
We picked up the pace as we wound downhill past homes, hotels and spectators. Once we got on to the main street, I was beaming and crying.
We finished together, 4 of us side by side, holding hands, while all our friends and husbands watched and cheered for us. It was an incredible moment!!!!!
Official Finish Time for My First 50K : 7:11:15. 26th place out of 75 in my age group
Afterward, everyone kept saying how good and fresh we looked and we honestly felt that way! I can’t explain it , but I totally could have run MORE. There’s something to be said for running a manageable pace on trails – you can go for a long time….maybe this means a 50 miler is in my future!?
Mike finished ahead of me (and had time to shower – just as he predicted leading into the race) and was on a high as well – he even said he wants to come back next year!
The celebrations continued in the new beer garden on the island and the high of accomplishment lasted for days!!!
PS if you’re looking for the splits for the avalon 50K, here are mine (I love seeing these and could never find any online because apparently trail runners aren’t as type A as road runners and care about that stuff. LOL!