By Francesco M. Sunseri
Ok so the Sean O’Brien 50k… I mean, 50 Mile… Wait, I can explain. This race was first discussed as I was getting my haircut. My barber and friend, Jonah Passmore, was fresh off his PCT through-hike and was explaining his plan to run Sean O’Brian 50k. I was intrigued but, in that moment, I was simply stoked for Jonah to get back into running-shape. Fast-forward a few weeks and I am talking to my friend Daley, apparently he is doing it also. Ok, I got the memo, Crestline and Lake Arrowhead are about to show out. So I signed up.
I figured a 50k with my buddies a month after my first 50 Mile Race at Lookout Mountain in Georgia was totally doable. My season was technically over after Lookout, so it would be fun to just do it with friends. Then Alex calls me, “I’m looking for a race in January, are you doing anything?”
Well, as a matter of fact, I am! So I suggest he signs up for the 50k. He agrees. He calls a few days later explaining how he signed up for the 100k. What the fuck, Alex? How did you confuse that?
“I didn’t, I just wanted to finish a 100k race.”
Ok… fair enough.
Coincidentally, when I was traveling back from my inaugural 50 mile race, my guy Alex calls again. He’s explaining how he switched to the 50 miler and how it was also a good idea that I switched to the 50 miler. I’m sitting here on my way back from Lookout, where I suffered a gnarly sprained ankle, and this guy somehow convinces me to run the 50 mile. My ankle would be fine in a month, surely.
So I switched to the 50 mile, 1 week passes, no running as planned. 2 weeks pass, I try to run. Not great, terrible in fact. Fuck. Ok, so bike it is! The next few weeks were literally biking and strength training, no running. I did that for 2 weeks thinking my ankle would magically heal. I put 30 miles on it 2 weeks before race day to test it out, it seemed to be less painful and I could still run… ok maybe we can do this.
A factor not considered: not a single training run since the last 50 mile, did I run anything steep. Elevation gain during those 4 weeks was non-existent. I 100% underestimated this aspect for race day and damn did it cost me.
So race day is upon us. The rains from the past month had subsided and it was set to be a perfect day. Nice chilly start to get us going up the first climb, which if you did it fast enough you were rewarded with a glorious sunrise as you flowed above the Santa Monica Mountains. I was intent on going out strong, taking a count, then easing into my pace for the day. I was primed, ready, and happy. I was stoked to be out here, to push myself and see what the fuck I’m actually made of. We found out.
So we approach the start line headlamp ablaze, get the speech, I hear none of it, fist bump Alex and away we go. Our plan was to stick together for as long as we could. There was a creek crossing at Mile 2 and we were the first suckers across. The rope as our guide, we walked across the knee-deep stream talking shit as we went. That is where I last remember seeing Alex.
We hit the climb and I rolled up and fast. The lead pack of guys was together for about 20-25 miles. I was in the 4th place position the entire race, nothing new to be running alone for HOURS only passing people in other races and seeing faces at aid stations… Par for the course.
The race was going well, I was moving efficiently and keeping my desired pace. Going out strong didn’t hurt me, it built a buffer I’d come to need the last 5 miles. What hurt me was this nagging ankle that came early and strong. It started on the climbs, I expected this. The pain during training on climbs wasn’t too bad, and it was really the only time it hurt.
But the descents… what the hell is this? Running downhill fast, something I didn’t do in the previous month, was excruciating. The front of my ankle felt like it was being stabbed through repeatedly, as in, with every downhill step. As I do, I leaned into this pain, focused on it intensely to get to know it and play. But come mile 31, that game was clearly being won and it wasn’t by me. I could not beat this thing into submission. As a result, gait change had my IT band on fire and my knee in knots. This was unraveling pretty quickly.
Horribly painful ankle aside, I was running a good race. I was fueling exactly as I planned, I was walking sections I planned to walk and running ones I planned to run. At mile 31 I was within striking distance of 3rd place and had a lot of climbing left to gap him. Unfortunately, coming out of the aid station, going downhill, I was wrecked by the mile 36 climb.
My pace slowed, but I kept the legs moving as best I could. I realized at that moment, my ability to handle pain was reaching its limit and I was stuck in this pace. Any faster and I risked catching a toe and falling. My body could not go faster no matter what my legs wanted to do. I expected it to hurt but this was insane. Every step downhill. Every. Damn. Step.
I considered dropping out of the race at the mile-36 bag-drop. I thought about it for about 15-20 seconds. The conversation went something like this:
“Ok a DNF wouldn’t be bad, this is probably damaging something further.”
“What would you tell yourself tomorrow morning?”
“That I’m a bitch.”
“Do we need another regret?”
“Let’s go, Mother Fucker!”
Aside from the fact an extra dose of therapy may be needed, I took a few moments to take in the scenery, I mean I figured while I’m here miserable I can surely enjoy some aspect of this race. The landscape was breathtaking, with trails upon trails, connecting ridge, peak and valley. I was plotting downhill wincing in pain, but dammit the beauty around me was helping me smile through it.
A brief aside from my painful experience: aid stations. I swear I need to change my strategy and enjoy these things more. KH Races put out amazing aid stations. Unfortunately, I have a one-track mind at aid station, gels, and Tailwind, sometimes broth. But holy moly the snacks I saw. One of these days I’ll run a race and enjoy the entire race experience… one day. I digress…
As I was making my way out of the final aid station, I had a decent climb ahead of me. I was in no rush for the last 5 or so miles of downhill, so I took my time up the hill, not thinking about who was behind me. I was in 4th place and didn’t see a green bib in forever, I was good.
Making my way up the hill, I came across a man walking up ahead of me. I slowed to chat with him for a bit, listening to him talk about his DNF and hike back. He hurt his ankle too. I feel you bro. So we approach the top of the hill, he wishes me a good run. I look back to wish him the same and son of a bitch… a green bib. This dude looks fresh hiking up the hill. Shit. So I start the descent and here he comes, passing me with ease. Ok.. ok… what do we do now? Fuck, I don’t want to race right now, fuck!
So I keep him in my sights as we approach another climb. He hits the hill and slows to a walk. Ok.. maybe his legs are beat up, he can’t climb for shit and I’m still strong in that department. So I pass him again, then another downhill, he passes. I’m going to run out of hills and the last stretch he’ll eat me up. I need to do something. In that moment, I went dark.
The human body is truly an incredible thing. Above all odds and previous attempts, I moved my legs as fast as I could, then made them move faster. I spread out my arms and started to fly. I passed him, I sped up. We came to a hill, I didn’t slow down, I kept grinding. I snatched that mother fuckers soul, put it in my pocket, and dared him to come get it.
I didn’t slow down until I crossed the finish line. I started this race knowing full well it was going to hurt, that I may re-injure myself and DNF. I came out today to run my best race and I will be damned if I fall to fifth in the last 5 miles. I came in at 15 minutes ahead of him. He took a wrong turn at some point and realized I was gone. He pushed me, I am grateful to that man for making me dig deeper. He lit a fire, unfortunately he didn’t realize the volatility of the fuel.
This race was spectacular. I finished, got to hug my friend at the finish line, ran in with Alex as he finished his first 50, and held him in my arms as he cried. Fuck. Now I’m crying. This sport is so special and every time I get to toe the line with this amazing community is a fucking blessing. Watching the ones you love achieve these great feats, seeing then cry with joy, seeing them overcome, seeing them smile when you achieve your goals… it is beautiful.
The finish line was electric, locals and runners alike cheering in each runner. There was a massage station set up for runners that finished and needed some attention, but I would never put another human through the horror of touching me after 50-miles…The food was amazing, with chili and sandwiches, coke, water, more snacks, it was everywhere. The volunteers were so great! All in all, this was a fantastic experience and KH Races put on a great event. Go check out the KH Races, there is something year round and all distances for everyone to enjoy.
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