FireTrails 50 Mile Ultra Marathon Race Report

This is long race report, buckle in if you want to know all of the dirty details of my FireTrails 50 Mile Ultra.

If you would prefer to jump around to different parts of the report you can use this list (please note, these boke, I'm getting to fixing them :) )

  • Days before the race
  • Pre-race
  • Fueling strategy
  • First 25 miles
  • Second 25 miles
  • Post-race thoughts
  • Gratitudes

Days Before My 50 Mile Race

I was ready. My body and mind were as trained as they could be and I felt confident in my preparation. Long ago, I set a few goals and I felt confident I could attain a few of them given how training had gone.

My goals included finishing, running somewhere in the ballpark of 9 minute miles as often as I could and “winning.” My primary focus was on finishing. My next focus was on competing for the win however I could.

I need to be clear when I talk about competing for a win. I like to have a personal focus on winning a race. I don’t care if the odds of me actually winning are 1 in 10 million, I’m still going to tell myself, if you execute on A, B, C and D you can win. I like to put myself into a mindset of focusing on all the little processes that one needs to manage in order to win.

I do not care if a world champion toes the line. If I execute, I can win. I’m not saying I will win. I'm saying I can win.

I felt this way the week of the race. I can win.

Race Week is Never Perfect

My race week was not ideal. I had a lot of day-job stress going on. Lots of projects to keep up with. I also spent the two days before the race sitting around at a tech conference. That, by the way, included so much awesome learning. I love me a good conference.

I was also on week 3 battling a sinus cold. While that was 95% gone the last little bit was still sticking with me.

Nothing insurmountable but a few things to work with during final preparations.

So I stayed hydrated and loose through the week and the conference.

In the three days before racing I cut out virtually all vegetables. I started increasing my salt and moved my diet almost exclusively to chicken, rice, granola bars, bananas and pretzels. My diet is typically 60-70% veggies so this is always a slightly uncomfortable transition entering a race but I know what I need to do to clear my system of anything and eat as simple as possible before racing.

Glycogen stores were full. Hydration was topped off. Rest was had. It was time to race.

50 Mile Pre-race

In the 2 days before the race I packed and repacked my entire kit a few times. The night before the race I did a walk through withChrista to triple check everything. While I need a fair amount of stuff for an ultra it pales in comparison to the absurd amount of gear needed for a triathlon. One or two bags is easy to get ready for 50 miles.

Race Morning

I got up about 2 hours and 45 minutes before my race start and immediately ate two granola bars, a banana and drank a bunch of water with Emergen-C. I had a clif bar in the ready but this felt sufficient for breakfast.

Over a decade of racing triathlon, I have tested out any number of breakfast strategies and none of them ever seemed to work better than another for me. I eventually ended up sticking with something like this, super simple and very easy to travel with.

Some of my previous strategies included sweet potatoes, oatmeal, Ensure drinks, pasta, rice, clif bars, and some other random stuff I don’t remember. Granola bars and a good ol naner get the job done for me now.

So I eat breakfast, filled my bladder for my run vest and waited for the time to drive to arrived.

At the Race Site

Pre race picture
Look at that smile...

After a short 20ish minute drive to the race site, Christa and I hung out for 40ish minutes. I did a super short dynamic warm-up and toed the line to race 50 miles.

How I felt? Solid. Ready to go. I can win.

Now let’s step back a moment and talk about my overall fueling strategy for the race before I dive into the actual race.

50 Mile Fueling Strategy

I’ve spent the last few months in my build up to this race working through two different fueling strategies. At first I was focusing on only using SiS gels and water. This was an easy fueling method during self supported 4+ hour training runs with only water spigots sprinkled throughout my run routes.

I would start my long training runs with fist fulls of gels stuffed in my run vest and take off with 3 or 4 x 20oz (1L) bottles. I would keep two bottle in the front of my pack in the chest pockets and stuff two bottles in a kangaroo pouch in the back of my vest. I’d rotate the bottles through and have enough fluids for longer stretches with no access to new water.

This drinking strategy worked well except on hot days. I’d run out on the longer stretches toward the end of the run and suffer a bit more.

The gels worked like a charm. I never ran into any issues with piles of SiS gels entering my belly.

Clearly this strategy was working…

So I had to change it. (If you’ve ever read a blog of mine or know me personally you know I don't let things rest. I like to dig and needle. I thought, there has to be an even more efficient way to do this.)

I was carrying A LOT of gels. SiS gels are typically 89 cals per gels. I was typically consuming 300-350cals per hour. That’s 3-4 gels per hour over 4+ hours = 16-20 gels. That’s a lot of gels. I wanted to lighten that load.

I started by subbing in Skratch labs mix into two of my 20oz bottles. I still carried water in the two other bottles and SiS gels rounded out the rest of my calories. This also seemed to work well for me in training.

So I tweaked it more. Carrying those gels and 4 bottles still seemed like a lot. Maybe I could use a bladder with mix instead and put a bunch more calories in that. I have a 3 liter bladder, that’s 3 bottles. But this time, because I ran out of Skratch mix, I tried using Tailwind. This still seemed to work. I say seemed because my energy seemed a little off at times on my longer runs during the use of this strategy. I attributed that ‘off-ness’ to training stress and overall fatigue.

I entered the FireTrails 50 mile ultra race with the goal of using a 3L badder with 600 cals of Tailwind. I would drink that over the first 4 hours that it took me to get to the 25 mile mark. While drinking that I would consume another 6 SiS gels over the first four hours.

This brings me to just under 1,200 calories for 4 hours or 300 cals per hour. I would supplement more calories from anything at any aid stations. I also had 2 x 20oz soft bottles with me for water when I wanted to start carrying that along.

Race fuel, go!

FireTrails 50 Mile Ultra: The First 25 Miles

FireTrails 50 mile ultra race start
Race start!

We started in the dark at 6 AM and proceeded to do a whole bunch of climbing in the first 30-40 minutes. I started the race near the front and sat in an OK spot for that first bit of climbing. In hindsight, I was too close to the front of the race at the start.

The only person who had any business running the speed he did over the first 3-5 miles was the fella who eventually won the race and set a new course record (and the course was a touch harder this year than previous years). No one in the top-10 starting the race had any business running as fast as we were to get things started. I’ll admit I was caught up a bit.

I realized pace was a bit hot this early in the race and let a few people pass me on a switchback within the first 3 miles. Even then, I should have slowed things down more. I needed to exercise more patience at the beginning.

Like with any endurance race a ton of people go out too fast. This 50 miler was no different. I’m not saying I was being stupid with myearly pace but it would have served me better to be more conservative over the first hour. This would end of being a moot point anyway.

Something Was Wrong

My early pacing became moot because within the first 30 minutes I knew something was wrong. I was having shooting pains into my left glute. It was worse on downhills. This was something I started to feel in the week before the race. Here it was again.

This glute pain was so alarming the week of the race that I scheduled an emergency visit to my PT the day before the race for him to help me out. When I left his office Friday afternoon we thought we had everything rectified. We were wrong.

Sparing you all of the digging we did to figure out what was wrong, it turns out the bottom of my foot was locked up badly. We spent a lot of time focusing on my hips and knees and didn’t realize the foot issue was underlying it all.

When a fully functioning foot plants on the ground, the bottom of the foot acts like a rocker helping the body transition from weight bearing on the mid foot to the forefoot before you toe off. Essentially the ball of my foot was locking up. And due to an ankle tweak, I was planting on my foot all wrong.

The combo meant I was planting on the wayyy outside of my foot and each time I did that I was basically running on something that would not create any movement. There was no rocker effect.

That issue traveled directly up my body and right into my glute. It hurt. A lot.

Feeling this issue within the first 30 minutes, I was hoping I could basically bash my way through the issue. At the time, I didn’t know what was wrong but I could feel the inflammation starting on the ball of my foot. I was hoping to hurt it enough to make it numb. A super-smart strategy I know. I had too much invested in this race, I wanted to find a way to see it through.

Endurance racing is all about problem solving.

Problem solving I would do.

So here I am, running with my hobbled stride but still feeling solid otherwise. I rolled through the first few aid stations with pain but otherwise all systems were in check.

Lake Chabot Aid Station

Nick entering Lake Chabot Marina Aid Station
Lake Chabot Aid Station

I finally saw Christa around mile 12. This was the first time I’d stop at an aid station to start supplementing with water. This 12 mile point is right smack in the middle of the only substantial part of the course on pavement.

We spent 5ish miles out and back running a paved path aroundLake Chabot. It’s a nice path with plenty of people out enjoying their day. The paved running didn’t make things hurt more but it also didn’t make any pain go away.

During this section of the course I started, what became, a 6ish mile stretch of running with another guy. We didn’t talk much but it was nice to have someone to follow as I got deeper into the hurt locker with my left leg and glute pain.

Maybe 4 miles after my first contact with Christa, I was fortunate enough to see her again at the Grass Valley aid station. She was all smiles and cheers. At this point I was in 5th place and running with 4th. 2nd and 3rd were only a few minutes up the road. 1st place was in his own race at this point.

Grass Valley Aid Station

On the move around Lake Chabot
On the move around Lake Chabot

This is the point in the race when nutrition started seeming off. I was eating and drinking as planned. All my timing was the same as in training. Yet I kept having this feeling of bloat. I felt weirdly full. I wasn’t alarmed but I felt like something was up.

Within 2 miles of leaving the Grass Valley aid station, after a very flat sections, we start a decent climb. It’s not steep but it is over a mile of grinding uphill. This is when I started having a lot of energy level issues. My left glute hated me. I wasn’t able to plant my foot well enough to get the power I needed up the hills and my energy felt really, really flat. After this point, I would not have an aid station until the turn around. I had to endure.

I did endure. And I kept slowing down. I let 4th place go and began running on my own. And by running I mean walking. I just couldn’t get my glute to fire anymore. My power could only come from my quads and a bit from my right glute. I wasn’t to mile 25 yet and I knew I was beginning to overload my quads much too early in this race.

Skyline Aid Station

With a half mile until the the Skyline aid station, and my half way point in the race, I met up with someone running the 100k race. The last ½ mile up to this aid station is decently steep so we each had a walking buddy. While I can not remember this guys name, he is 1 of the 3 reasons I stayed in this race.  

I was getting concerned about really hurting myself and was heavily considering a drop at the halfway point. This lovely gentleman talked about also feeling pretty crappy but knowing his next wind was coming up at this 100k turn around because he knew his family would be there waiting for him.

I knew Christa was waiting for me at this aid station. I didn’t want to let her down. Seeing Christa was reason #2 that I did not drop.

At the skyline aid station, Christa did the dirty work of refilling my 3L bladder while I drank a bunch of water and munched on some crunched up chips. This was my first solid food of the day. Even though I felt weirdly full, I thought something solid might be good to pep me up. It was at this point that I also started taking caffeinated gels. That had to make an energy impact for me, right?

Wrong.

FireTrails 50 Mile Ultra: The Second 25 Miles

Leaving Grass Valley aid station
Leaving Grass Valley aid station

While I did decide to carry on. And it was so nice to see Christa. As soon as I left the Skyline aid station I started feeling worse. Not puke-worse, just low energy, very emotional worse. The chips did not help. The caffeine in the gel was nowhere to be seen.

I spiraled. Down. Down…. Down.

If you watch my 12 minute Youtube video on this race, this is the part with the crying. I was in tremendous pain, I was having trouble doing any real running, a few people in the 50 mile race passed me and I had ZERO energy.

Not a lot was going for me other than standing upright and putting one foot in front of the other.

Big Bear Aid Station - Heading to the finish

Upon approaching the Big Bear aid station, after a few depressing miles, I made the decision to stop drinking from my bladder and stop eating gels. This fuel was not working.

I got to Big Bear and promptly drank 20oz of Coke. I then mixed a 50/50 split of Coke and water in one bottle and water in the other. This would be my new strategy until I saw Christa a few miles later.

It worked.

I mentally kicked myself for not trying it earlier. While caffeine certainly perks me up most of the time I don’t have the reaction to it that most people do. I can drink coffee and still go right to bed. I’m stimulated, but not that much. Simple sugar is more my thang.

My gels were not cutting it on the simple sugar front so I needed to go to a different type of simple and Coke started doing the trick.

For the remainder of the race I had 1 gel at the top of each hour and continually consumed Coke and water. This was probably a bit over 4 hours of likely only 200-250 cals per hour. This was a low calorie strategy. It worked.

Grass Valley Aid Station - Heading to the finish

My next aid station was Grass Valley again. I was greeted by my wonderful wife once again. I immediately had her strip out the bladder from my pack to lose all that weight. I got more coke and water and I was off.

Over the next few miles, before I made it back to Lake Chabot, I started to pick up steam again. I never felt particularly positive, but I stopped feeling crummy. I also beat my foot into submission enough that I had a decent, yet heavily altered, run stride that was allowing me to tick off 10-11 minute miles. Much faster than the 15-18 minute miles I was managing a few aid stations ago.

Chabot Aid Station - heading to the finish

Lake Chabot Marina the second time around
Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch... :)

Approaching the Lake Chabot aid station I was getting to see Christa for the last time before I tackled the last 12 miles until the finish. She said I almost beat her there and I was looking fresh again. Truth be told, I wasn’t running fast but I was feeling better than any point in the race since the first mile.

It only took me 38 miles to get warmed up…

Leaving the Lake Chabot aid station I felt like I could make up some ground. I was still executing with all my being and felt good about finishing. I rolled through the next few sets of hills with no real trouble. Just moving slower than I would have liked but that was just the reality of where I was at that place in time.

I was moving as fast as my body would allow.

Enter the last 6 miles of the race. These involve basically 3 miles straight up and 3 miles winding down. Up is completely exposed with loose sandy dirt. Down is completely covered with slippery leaves and plenty of roots and rocks. Delightful!

I’ll tell you, that uphill was the most difficult uphill I’ve encounter so far in my racing life. It was so brutal and so awesome all at the same time. My quads were so blown at this point in the race that I had to do teeny tiny steps on many parts of the uphill.

I even stopped for brief moments every few minutes because my quads, right at my knees, where tweaking so hard. Each step felt like my quads might burst through my skin. Each. Step.

The Last 2.5 Miles to the Finish

Downhill to the finish of the Firetrails 50 mile ultra
Downhill to the finish

Slowly but surely I made it to the top of the hill/mountain/incline thing. After a quick flat section and the last aid station of the day, I had 2.5 miles of downhill to go. Cue muscles spasms and multiple calf Charlie-horse cramps.

I expected my legs to suck at this point. I expected to be suffering. I expected this to be rough. I had not expected how badly I had to modify my gait for the last 48 miles and how much that would effect this last downhill.

This was some bite your lip til in bleeds type pain. My quad ripples a cramp on one step then the calf tweaks out on the next step.

An attempt to stretch my right calf would mean the quad would cramp. Then I’d enjoy the feeling on the other side. It was slow and painful but it was happening. I couldn’t have been more happy to be in such pain.

I was going to finish the race.

Life Context

Taking a HUGE step back for a moment here. I’ve experienced some real traumatic, life changing pain over the last few years. Dealing with infarctions that left me wondering if I could take my next breath has taught me a lot more about pain management than I ever thought possible.

During this race, I went through periods of decently extreme pain. A lot of the pain was emotional pain too. I was very hurt but everything was amplified by what this race meant to me and my recovery from pulmonary embolisms (PE). It’s only been 21 months since I’d been in the hospital on a morphine drip. This race symbolized me finally moving on from that hospital visit. I’d be damned if anything was going to stop me no matter how injured I made myself and no matter how much I cried about it.

Back to those last 2 miles. Ouchie.

At one point, maybe 300 feet from the finish I was lucky enough to kick my first tree root of the day, eat some dirt, and go into a full on leg spasm. That sucked. I yelled about it a bunch, got up mid spasm and fucking finished the race.

Dick Collins Firetrails 50 mile trail race finish
FireTrails 50 mile finish

Dammit it felt good to finish.

Post Race Thoughts

  1. I finished. And I won the race I could run. I didn’t stop and at every turn I kept moving forward and worked to problem solve. I didn’t figure things out as quickly as I would have liked but in the end I solved enough problems to get me to the finish line.
  2. I got overly emotional during this race. It wasn’t necessary but I clearly needed to work through some stuff still. I did and I feel much better for it.
  3. My foot cost me at least an hour on my overall finish time. I have a lot more to give to a distance like this when I’m completely healthy.
  4. While I plan to continue racing with a pack on, I’m eliminating carrying a bladder in race situations. Well, unless that sucker is filled with coke. I don’t like the weight and I’d prefer to be more nimble when changing my nutrition strategy. With that thing strapped to my back I feel like I need to use it even if it’s not working.
  5. Training is going back to Skratch Lab mix and SiS gels. And adding coke. This was the last fueling mix that always kept my energy up. I’m going back to it.
  6. I had zero chafing or blisters during this 9 hour race. My gear is on point. I’ll talk about that more in a future post.
  7. While I felt physically prepared for this race, I want to do a few more long runs in prep for the next 50. I also need more opportunities to work through fueling.

Gratitudes

Thank you Christa for always seeing me through these challenges. You make my life possible. I love you.

Thank you to my family and friends who supported me before, during and after this race. You’re all so wonderful.

Thank you to the aid station volunteers, course marshals, race officials, RD and random peeps cheering me on. You made the day so much more enjoyable even when I felt terrible. Hopefully I said enough thank you's on the course

Finally, thank you to all the other runners on the course. The amount of high fives and “good jobs” I got running past or by another running was so amazing. The dude who kept me going at mile 25. The dude I walked into the Grass Valley aid station with the second time. The two women running the marathon who were beyond impressed I made it to mile 35. Everyone on course. You rock.

The end.

Today is a good day.

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By

Nick Brodnicki

March 13, 2021