This past Saturday, I did something that many people would likely call absolutely insane. I did my first ultramarathon.
The East Bay Skyline trail is a trail in California that starts in Richmond and goes through several regional parks to Castro Valley. As the name suggest, for the most part, it follows the ridgeline of the East Bay hills. It is a perfect 50K that connects the Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, Tilden Nature Area, Tilden Regional Park, Siesta Valley, Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve, Redwood Regional Park, and Anthony Chabot Regional Park.
I left my friend Luke with my car at the Wildcat Canyon trailhead and started the journey at around 6:45 in the morning. The first miles flew by, even with the steep climbs that mark the beginning of the trail in the north. When I hit Nimitz Way, the only paved part of the trail, my legs felt good, probably too good. Without realizing, I dropped into 9:30-minute mile pace. I slowed down the moment I noticed it, but for the next miles, until I hit Inspiration Point, I was running below my planned pace.
Then, the hills of Tilden together with the growing heat slowed me down. My body doesn’t deal well with heat, no matter how much training I do. Halfway up Seaview Trail, I started to get the first feverish chills – this is how my body reacts to heat. I get those chills like if I had a fever – I’m hot, at the same time, I’m freezing and shaking and it feels exactly like that time I had 104-degree fevers and my parents had to take me to the hospital.
I hit the highest point of the run, and it gave me the most beautiful views of the Bay Bridge, San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin Headlands and Mount Tamalpais.
Soon, I met up with Luke again, got another refill on water, devoured some more of the cherry-plums or whatever fruit they were that he brought, got scolded for not drinking enough between Inspiration Point and Seaview trailhead and headed off on what was going to become the stretch of my breaking point – a little early, if you ask me.
I ran down the trail, unintentionally chased down a coyote (who was not happy that this human was following him, and that he had to get off the trail), crossed highway 24 going through a tunnel deep below me, and soon hit the half-marathon mark. Those miles were enjoyable, the single-trail snaking through the trees and offering a lot of shade. But then I hit Sibley Volcanic Regional Park, and the climb that followed broke my streak of feeling-quite-well miles.
It was only mile 14, but my lungs started to feel like if I was a lifetime smoker who just tried to run up Mt Everest. Suddenly, I could barely shuffle my feet, and I dropped down to some 30-minute mile pace. I drank more water trying to help my body feel better, knowing there was a water fountain on the top of the hill. When I finally made it to the top, I found out that the water in the fountain was shut off.
There was one steep descent and ascent ahead of me, so I started conserving water again, and dropped into the canyon of Huckleberry Botanic Regional Reserve. Going downhill, it felt much steeper than I remembered it, and I couldn’t run it at all. I picked up my pace for barely half a mile near the bottom of the canyon, and then promptly returned to my crawling pace when climbing back out of it. Climbing over a fallen tree, I got a first proper cramp – in my hip – and I felt my morale slipping. That was too early, I barely hit the halfway point.
A runner I met towards the end of the climb called out to me: “You’re doing awesome, keep going! I would tell you you’re almost there but…”
“Yeah, I’m not.”
We smiled at each other, making fun of the fact that most runners hate the “you’re almost there” encouragment. It felt a little better for a little while. By then, I was so behind my planned arrival to the next meeting point with Luke that he tried to call me. I don’t know what happened, but I was barely able to understand what he was asking, and putting together an answer seemed like an impossible task.
I was honestly surprised it went south so fast. I knew I could do 24 miles somewhat comfortably with not much nutrition. That day, I was eating religiously, hydrating possibly better than ever, and the wheels were falling apart since mile 14.
When I finally reached Skyline Gate trailhead and Luke, I was ready to quit. 17 miles in and I felt like I couldn’t make another step. I collapsed on the ground like a sack of potatoes, and instead of letting myself whine out loud (I have been whining in my head for the past two hours), I took to devouring the last of the fruit and drinking as much as I could. Luke was joining me from there on, and I hoped that it would help a little.
We headed out and I tried to push down as much nutrition as I could in the for of a shake. It tasted absolutely disgusting. Trying to get it down was harder than moving, and that’s saying something. But I managed and we kept going. I was still able to run on smooth flats and not-so-steep downhills, but that ability was going to leave me soon, too.
Luke slowed me down, saying that the hardest part of the entire thing was going to come, and I was grateful for him making me walk, not run. That’s how we got across Redwood Regional Park – just walking. I was much slower at that point than I planned, but I couldn’t care about it – I was just glad I was still moving forward, even if it was slow.
I started to crave lemon sorbet, and those cravings stayed with me for the next 13 miles. Kudos to Luke for putting up with me talking about it for hours on end.
Nearing Big Bear, we separated – Luke ran towards the valley to get more water while i kept going on the route. I managed something distinctly resembling running here an there, but mostly i just kept to walking.
I hit Big Bear, then MacDonald Trail – and on the uphill on MacDonald, in the hottest part of the day, a total low came. It was the lowest of lows I’ve ever experienced. I prayed for Luke to catch up with me soon, I wanted nothing but lay down on the trail and cry. Well, I wasn’t able to produce any tears – my body needed all the water elsewhere – but I made myself eat an apple-pie flavoured bar. It tasted like dirt. But gagging on the food distracted me from my mental and physical distress, and by the time I pushed it down, I reached the top of the hill.
I started the gentle downhill, thinking about how awesome it would feel to run this on fresh legs and fresh mind. I tried running parts of if but those spurts of optimism never lasted longer than a minute or two. I was back in uncharted territory, having never run these trails.
Luke caught up to me halfway down the trail, whooping, “Yay! Keep going!” and informed me that I had actually gotten farther ahead than he expected me to.
I hit the marathon mark.
“Well, from now on, every step I take is the farthest I’ve ever gone,” I said.
From then on, I don’t have much recollection of what happened. I know I fell into two more slumps. When this happened, I couldn’t talk. I was in a really dark place, wanting nothing but just stop existing. Luke pushed some food into me, telling me that the last thing I wanted was to bonk, but I couldn’t imagine things getting much worse than they already felt. He tried encouraging me, telling me that I was moving at the same pace as 10 miles ago, which was great. I don’t think I could process that information, it just kinda bumped against me and fell on the ground.
I remember the moment I got out of my final slump. It was when the trail suddenly revealed a road, and Luke was checking where on the map we were, when I recognized that road.
“I know this place!” I said.
“Really?” He was sceptical since I told him I’d never run these trails before. I don’t know, maybe he thought I was starting to lose it.
“Yeah! I had an aid station here!”
It was true, only a few months ago, I was working an aid station there, for the Lake Chabot 50K and 30K put on by InsideTrail.
I remembered all the strong, brave, and amazing people who always come through all my aid stations, and I remembered how much I loved the trail running community. I realized that I’d run on 3 different courses of 3 different races put on by InsideTrail – the Berkeley Adventure, Oakland Hills, and Lake Chabot – and that was something awesome.
I told all this to Luke. I was ecstatic for a few moments. We started the last descent. I started singing. It was probably awfully out of tune, and I didn’t know the words, but at that point, I didn’t really have full control over my actions.
Soon, we saw a golf course at the bottom of the hill. Then we reached the bottom of the hill.
Luke pointed out the sign there. This was the end of the trail. This was the finish line. I couldn’t believe it. Like, literally, it made no sense. How could I have reached it on my own two legs? It felt as if I was watching myself in a movie. I was totally disconnected from reality. Might be the pain, might be the fact that getting across 50 kilometers in one go on my own feet was absolutely surreal.
And I didn’t want to believe that I still had to keep walking to reach the road where we would have service and where Luke could call an Uber to come pick us up.
Altogether, from the moment I started running in the morning to the moment I could finally stop moving and just wait for a car to pick me up, it was a little over 33 miles. It took me much longer than I anticipated, and much longer than I hoped, but in the end, the only thing that mattered was that I made it.
This thing absolutely broke me. There were moments when I had nothing left in me, seemingly not even the will to live. But I guess there must have been something – something I couldn’t see until I fell apart. This thing broke me, but allowed me to rebuild myself, a little wilder, a little stronger, a little more myself. This thing broke me, and I have yet to revover fully, but only moments after I finished, I knew I was going to do it all over again. I knew that there was so much I gained by losing myself so completely, and I knew that there is so much more to learn.
I know that I’ll keep going, no matter how hard it gets.