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Sean O’Brien 50/50 race report



How I figured out I am awesome at ultrarunning.

I wanted to wait to write this until pictures from the event were up, but they aren’t yet, and I’m going to start to be in danger of forgetting stuff, so here we go.  You can check out video of the 50-miler here:

I’m not in it, but it shows you the trails I was on.  If pictures are posted later, I’ll do a photo-blog.

Anyway, February 1st I ran my first ultramarathon- a 50 kilometer trail race in California.  The race ran on Backbone Trail (BBT), which is a 60-mile long path of awesomeness that runs along the Santa Monica Mountains, from Will Rogers State Park in the Pacific Palisades to Point Mugu State Park.

The course was a brutal out and back. starting in Malibu Creek State Park, that involved 6000+feet of climbing over 32.5 miles (a true 50k is 31 miles, but trail race distances are estimates, because you are constrained by where an aid station or turnaround can go, and really, what’s a mile here and there between friends?).  It was designed to be a premier race – a competitive ultra that brought the top runners out to play.  I wondered a lot in the weeks leading up to it just what the hell I thought I was doing.


I decided to start veering into ultra-running after my fall marathon, in part because I have an opportunity to run the 90km-long Comrades Marathon in South Africa this June.  Having never run beyond 26.2 miles, I knew I needed to start upping the distance, and this seemed like a great way to do it.  I went through a training plan that was not unlike a marathon plan, but there were a few differences

1) I cut out tempo and interval runs.  I did no speed work after November. 

2) I went up to 60 miles per week by January (marathon plan has me topping out at 54).  My mid-distance runs went from 10-12 miles to 12-15 miles long.

3) I ran at least 60% of my miles on trails. This meant they were slower.  This also meant hills. Lots of hills.  The hills were the reason I could get away with axing all speed-work (Intervals, after all, are just hills without the elevation change).

4) Back to back long runs.  For a marathon, I would maybe run 4 or 5 miles the day before a 20 mile run. For this, I would run 10, 12, even 15 miles before a long run. 

5) I ate while running. Solid food.  Red Vines.  PB&J. 

All in all, this felt easier than marathon training, even though I dedicated more time to it.  Not worrying about pace can be very freeing. 

As far as strength training goes, I played things loose.  I did an arm day every week, and tried to do sets of bodyweight squats, planks, and lunges every day.  I did not stick to this as well as I should have. I don’t have an excuse for not sticking to it.  It didn’t kill me, but I will have to work on it more in my next round of training. 


Eating like a pregnant person?

Eating like a pregnant person.

2700/day.  Shoveling whatever food I could find into my mouth.  120g protein per day.  350+ grams of carbs daily for race week. Maintained weight.  Legs at 12.4% body fat (one thing the impedance body fat scale is good for – measuring the fat in my legs).  You could bounce several rolls of quarters off my ass. 


I went out and got re-fitted for trail shoes.  As I had suspected, I fit into the Brooks Pure Grit.  They worked so much better than my New Balance Minimus’.  I was able to like, go down hills without busting ass.  I had my trusty Nathan Hydration Pack (2L), in which I also carried body glide, 2 tangerine Power Gels, and a supply of Red Vines.  I also packed a drop bag with a change of socks, a different pair of shoes, a new shirt, some salt tabs, gel refills, blister kit, and anything else I could think of that I might need.  All I ended up needing from it was the gel refills, and I could have done without (the course had Gu, and I would rather use something I know I am used to, but in a pinch Gu would have been fine).


My big question leading up to the starting line was: Am I training, or am I racing? I decided to go out there and run my own race.  Don’t kill myself if I feel bad, don’t be afraid to do something awesome if I feel good.  I know I am a talented runner, but the thing I was lacking was experience.  I decided to go out conservatively, and see what I saw along the way.  I would re-asses at the turnaround point. 

So, I got up at 5am, ate a banana and toast with peanut butter.  I went out and stopped at the ATM for parking cash, and swung by Starbucks for my pre-race coffee. 

I arrived at the starting line around 6:15.  The 50-milers had already taken off.  I got my bib, and attached it to my shirt.  A quick bathroom stop, and it was 6:45 already, nearly time to start.  I lined up and hardly had any time at all to think about what I was about to do.  It was ~50 degrees at the start, and everyone else was complaining about it, but I knew it would be perfect.  The first and last 3 miles of the race were on a stretch of trail that I had already run (the Malibu Creek 22k).  I knew what it was like on a hot day (it was like being roasted alive), so I was happy for the cool temperatures. 

At 6:55, the race director started announcing rules and information to us.  All of a sudden, we were counting down.  Then we were off. I really didn’t have time to get nervous. 

The first few miles were a blur. I was toward the front of the pack, and happy with the 9:30ish pace we kept up the first round of single-track switchbacks.  I hit a downhill (that would be a dreaded uphill 5 and a half hours later) and let fly.  I didn’t care right then about conserving anything. I was high on the joy of running.  We crossed a stream and hit the backbone connector, which was a looooong 1500ft, 2 mile climb up.  I jumped to the side and let some runners pass me, then started walking. 

Walking is hard for my super-competitive brain to handle.  But I did ok.  I let a few women by me, fully aware that I would catch them on the downhill.  They were wasting energy, and I wasn’t.  I found some friends and we chatted while walking.  One guy said “hey, I know you, you worked at Wrigley!” (the USC Wrigley Science Campus on Catalina Island). It kept those miles light and cheerful.  Sure enough, I got to the ridge, and saw that the pack of women wasn’t that far ahead of me, and now I was still on fresh legs.  I started reeling them in, one by one.  I got to the first aid station, 7 miles in, in really good shape, after scrambling over some rocky paths. I took one gel, some watermelon, and some baked potatoes dipped in sea salt.  Ok, and I gave in and tried Coke while running.  Sweet nectar of the gods!!!! I see why everyone likes it.  From here I am converted and drink coke at the other aid stations. 

 From here, we would descend on BBT.  Descend I did.  Like a mountain goat on speed, I was off.  I may have even stuck my arms out and ‘airplaned’ around some corners, out of sheer joy.  I started leap-frogging with a girl who was running the marathon.  I was walking all the ups and screaming down the descents.  We laughed and exchanged words every time we passed each other.  I put her down for good a few miles before the marathon turnaround (and second aid station). 

I came into the aid station, declined my drop bag, and took two salt tabs and another potato.  Due to the cold and high winds, my fingers were swelling pretty badly, but nothing that would impact my performance.  I had to make it 3 more miles to the turnaround.  From here, I started counting women coming back the other way, to get an idea of how I was doing.  No women were coming.  1 mile.  2 miles.  Then a pack of about 7 passed me about half a mile to the turn around.  HOLY SHIT!! I realize I am in the top 10.  In my first race.  They aren’t that far ahead of me, and I have been conserving energy like woah.  My brain starts churning out paces and strategies and I have to calm myself down.  I say that I still have 16 miles to go, and these women all have what I don’t – experience.  Still. Damn. I am in it. 

The uphill to the turnaround is about the longest mile of my life.  Remember, a 50k is only supposed to be 31 miles.  15.5 is what I am looking for.  Well, that passes. No turnaround.  16 passes.  No turn around.  16.1…16.2…SWEET HOLY JESUS WHERE IS THE TURN AROUND???  There it is, 16.35.  I refill my hydration pack, down a gel, and am back on my way.  The volunteers tell me I look good.  Whatever, I look like a human salt lick. 

I feel really good halfway through. No aches, no pains. I wanted to make it halfway in 3 hours.  I made 15.5, and 16 in three hours, but was slightly over for halfway.  No biggie.  Now all I had to do was run home.  

I run back down into the mile 18 aid station. This time I take my drop bag and get my extra gels out. More coke. More watermelon. More potatoes.  The volunteers unzip my pack, load me up, and take my trash.  One tells me how good I look. I laugh.  She jokes that I should toss my hair.  I say I would, but I would just hit her with salt and sweat.  I trudge out of the aid station and back up to the single track of BBT. 

From here, I just methodically make my way back up. One foot in front of the other.  I never feel like I am not going to make it. I don’t hurt (much).  Ok, my glutes start hurting.  I am still walking the ups and destroying the downs.  I pass some women. I don’t know if they are running the marathon or 50k, so I just keep the hammer down.  The mechanics of walking start to hurt more than the mechanics of running, so I shrug and run.  I make some friends.  Max.  Ethan.  Ethan has a go-pro.  I hope he is ok with much of his race footage featuring me on his heels.  I hit the last aid station, and the volunteers descend on me like a pit crew at a Nascar race.  I am unzipped, re-watered, handed food and gels.  I stop and chat with them. They look confused.  Only later do I realize that they are giving me awesome attention because I am in podium contention.  They didn’t expect me to dick around talking to them.

I make it back of the exposed rock scrambles, and hit the downhill I have been waiting for.  I am ready for it, and I light it up.  I look at my watch, which is registering a 6:30 or lower pace.  This is fucking awesome.  I see a woman ahead of me, walking. 

***psychology of races time***

Its time to be a little bit of a dick.  She isn’t hurt, she’s walking. She’s exhausted, but she’s also probably a competitor.  If I shuffle by her, she might give chase.  She might see weakness and pull another level out of her tired body.  However, if I blast by her with a smile on my face?  If I wave ‘hi’ and say “good job!” cheerfully as I pass?  She isn’t coming after me.  If I do those things, she will know she can’t keep up.  If I put someone down with 3 miles left in a race, I’m going to make sure they stay down. 


I do this to her and another woman.  I don’t look back. 

They see me: not tired and not worried about them. 


I blast down the hill and come back to the river crossing.  It is now higher, and I have to splash through it, and run the last mile and a half with wet feet. Whatever.  This takes some of my momentum away.  I am trying to keep running.  Just to that tree.  Just to that boulder.  Just get to that hill and then we walk anyway. 

I get to the top of the hill, and chance a look back. None of the women came after me.   I know that all I have is a half mile left.  All downhill.  It’s pure joy.  I pass Max for good (sorry Max), and sprint across the line with a huge smile on my face.  It is not the arm-flailing, tired, lets-just-get-this-done last gasp of a marathon, it is power and joy and endorphins.  There is a crowd of people waiting across the finish line.  They cheer as I finish.  The race director tells me to hold on.  I came in 5th, I placed. I get a a trophy (it’s a mug!).  I exclaim: “You’re shittin’ me!!”  Everyone laughs.  The  girl I was leapfrogging with earlier comes up and gives me a hug.  She came in 3rd in the marathon. She tells me my downhill stride is crazy cool to watch and that she hopes she sees me at more races.  I have my picture taken a lot. 

I excuse myself to go handle my emotions.


5th Female overall.  3rd in my age group.  25th overall finisher, in a time of 6:05:33. 

6100ft of elevation gain. 

4 powergels; 6 cups of coke; 4 salt tabs; two handfuls of kettlechips; 3 slices of watermelon; 2 red vines; 5 chocolate covered pretzels; and 5 red potatoes dipped in sea salt consumed. 

One badass experience. 

Post Race

I haven’t quite processed everything from this race yet.  I am struck dumb sometimes by the realization of what I did.  I placed, in my very first ultramarathon, on a very tough, super competitive course.  I ran conservatively.  I dicked around at aid stations (25 minutes at aid stations, in fact. If I had cut that in half, I would have come in 3rd).  It didn’t even hurt that much.  Sure, there was glute and hip soreness, but it didn’t last very long.  I drink tea out of my trophymug, and feel very happy. 

This week I walked 11 miles, and ran 11 (I will do a 9 mile run Sunday to take it up to 20 miles for the week). 

What’s Next?

Ragnar Del Sol as part of an ultra-relay team.  February 21-22nd.  I have had my recovery week, now I will go back up to 35 miles, and start putting in some two-a-days for distance relay prep. I am running anchor, and I don’t have that many miles (27.7 total).  After that, I will get into the meat of my Comrades training, which will include longer back-to-back efforts.    


7 votes + -


ILiftHeavyAcrylics wrote 64 months ago:
What can I say? You're a badass.
Cranquistador wrote 64 months ago:
3dogsrunning wrote 64 months ago:

Loved your descriptions.
3dogsrunning wrote 64 months ago:

Loved your descriptions.
Otterluv wrote 64 months ago:
Holy fuck, that was awesome Vicky. Absolutely awesome.
sjohnny wrote 64 months ago:
You're a fucking monster. I had a big dumb smile on my face while reading this.
fleetzz wrote 64 months ago:
Great job! Next year come in first, just don't laze around at the aid stations!
EvgeniZyntx wrote 64 months ago:
On the way to be monster. Check that, monster already. You go.
EvgeniZyntx wrote 64 months ago:
And such an awesome read. Read it again.
AllonsYtotheTardis wrote 64 months ago:
This was really cool to read! What an experience!
Anonymous wrote 57 months ago:
Great report! Trying to decide whether to try the Sean O'Brien or the Bandit Ultra as my first 50K next year. Your race recaps bust me up. Very vivid and no b.s. BTW, I think we both did the XTERRA Malibu Creek trail race this year. I spent a good amount of time hopping from shade to shade on Bulldog Road.
jesse_luna wrote 53 months ago:
Hi, you mentioned the guy with the GoPro, Ethan. He did a great video on the SOB50K race and I think you are in part of it, at the starting line.

BTW, I left the comment above but forgot to log into the site. I'm running the SOB Marathon this Feb. Should be fun! -Jesse

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