I was very honored to have assistant-coached this inaugural TNT UltraTEAM 23-week season. I didn’t get to blog about it during the season, but if you’re my Facebook friend, you would have seen the beautiful views and trails we saw week to week. Above was the slideshow I made for our team’s TNT send-off/inspiration dinner the week before Leona, recapping all of our adventures through the Greater LA trails.
I have to tell you, it was one of my most memorable seasons with TNT. From the very first practice, I was in awe of the scenery. Not only that, the progress of our team, from day one to Leona Divide was amazing. As time went on, we went deep into the Santa Monica and SGV Mountains, explored trails I never thought I would be running on. I was one with nature. You know that feeling when you have a window seat on the plane, looking out the window, where everything gets smaller and smaller? The feeling of all your troubles were just really minuscule? The world is out there, and we were experiencing it.
I really can’t believe 23 weeks of ultramarathon training has passed! I still can’t believe I did the race! It didn’t hit me until a week later, so it took some time for me to collect my thoughts. What I’m about to tell you was exactly how it all went down, because it wasn’t at all close to perfect, my first 50 mile ultramarathon.
A bit about the event itself – The 21st Annual Leona Divide was a 50k and 50 mile ultramarathon that took place at Lake Hughes, CA through the Angeles National Forest last Saturday, April 27. The 50k course took you through the same 22 miles as the 50M, then turned around back to the start with a total elevation gain of 4900 feet. The 50M continued to a mile 29 turnaround point then back to complete the 50 with a total elevation gain of 8900 feet. Some highlights included 39.5 miles of PCT (Pacific Crest Trail is a connecting trail from the border of Mexico all the way up to Canada), 10.5 miles of fire roads, and amazing experienced ultra runner volunteers at each of the 10 aid stations.
A few weeks prior to the race, the UltraTEAM did a training weekend at Lake Hughes, to scope out exactly what was in store for us. This was key to help me visualize my raceday. We did 22 miles on Saturday, which was the front part of the course, then 13 on Sunday we did the back part. The weeks following, I organized and set up a Google spreadsheet covering an estimate timeline of the actual race, with time cutoffs, mileage markers, aid stations, and packing lists. I also included my nutritional intake scenarios.
1) Just finish.
2) Since it was my first 50M, my mentality coming into it was that no matter what happens, I needed to give it my all, and if anything, this needed to be a learning experience race.
Arrived in Palmdale the day before the race. Fortunately my job allowed me to work remotely to beat the Friday traffic. Driving up that morning, I could already feel the wrath of the heat in Palmdale. Ugh! After “work”, a bunch of us drove down to the Lake Hughes Community Center where our race packet pickup was. The goodie bag consisted of our race number (with the timing chip pasted behind it), Trail Runner magazine, stickers and Clif Bars. Pretty basic. Also, for $7 the race provided a pre-race pasta dinner that left me satisfied and ready to race!
Woke up around 3am to make the 3:30am hotel lobby departure time. It was important that we got to the Lake Hughes Community Center by 4am to beat the traffic and get a spot in the small parking lot. We left our drop bags in the designated areas, just hung out inside the center to stay warm (it was about 40 degrees outside).
Staying warm. Usual Donny pose in this pic!
We were warned numerous times (emails, at packet pickup) that the day will get HOT. You’ll see in the following video that they announced it as well.
And we were off!
Start to Aid #3
The start was at the end of the parking lot. Off the gates it was uphill, for about 3 miles, then some rollers. This first section was wide enough to handle the bulk of the people, over fire roads. Kept it nice and easy (as easy as an uphill could be).
Uphill from the start! Ugh!
Saw many of my teammates and eventually ran with another teammate Becca. We kept it nice and conversational, and at a comfortable pace. Felt so great by this point – Hydration was ahead, pace was also a little ahead of schedule. Aid #3 (mile 16.4) was also Aid #9 (mile 42.6), and designated as the Team in Training support & cheer. It was still pretty early, like 9:30am, so it was mainly volunteers. I was glad my friend Raul was there to help me with my drop bag and refilling nutrition! Thanks Raul!
Wide fire roads in the beginning.
See? The moon was still out.
Aid 3 to 4
After leaving the aid station, the heat picked up very considerably. As you can see from the elevation chart, it was a 4 mile, 1500 feet ascent. No shade. Something happened there that I’m still a little stumped about. I thought I was ahead of my hydration, but no, my stomach disagreed. My heart rate increased. I could feel my heartbeat pulsating. What was going on? I drank some more. I took it easy and slowed my brisk hike to a very slow walk. I tried to eat, but my appetite and my stomach still weren’t giving in. Mile 18ish, threw up. Not a lot, but enough to get me a little dizzy. Great, there’s 32 more miles ahead of me, and this was happening! Walked more, then at mile 20 or so, threw up a little again. Ugh! At one point though, I remember seeing a beautiful butterfly leading my path and thought of my friend, Mari, and made me happy. Felt like she was watching, cheering me on to continue.
Even this looks HOT
Aid 4 to 6
During training weekend, this part was actually my favorite part of the course. Sweet single track trails, mainly covered, cooler temperatures. I strategized to pick up speed here to make up for the slow uphill. Nope.com. I was still feeling weak, and I tried to eat as much as I could. I had to walk. Something kicked in that you never want to have during a race – doubt. It is the biggest evil. It can spiral down to a point where getting out of it would seem impossible. My average pace was slowly dropping to the red, and I already knew by that point I was cutting it real close to the Aid #6 cutoff, which was 2pm.
What’s even worse? I really really needed to take a SHIT. Yup, that’s right. Imagine trying to run with that feeling! These wide fire roads leading to 6 was unforgiving for having a nature dump. To your left was an edge to the bottom of the mountain, and to the right was the mountain, and hardly any side trails. Crap! (no pun intended) Where do I go?!? Luckily I found an area to hide behind. Ok, let’s go! As I squatted, my left calf CRAMPED UP! W.T.F! Ouch!! Luckily I didn’t fall down into my own “nature dump.” Whew! What a relief! Well, not really. My left calf was still cramping, so I had to walk it off, at an area where I would normally be running – a nice steep descent.
Running to Aid #6
2:10pm. Cutoff for Aid #6 was 2:00. Volunteers were packing up. The much needed misting station turned off. I was such at a daze, I don’t think I was even worried or disappointed that I was about to get cut off to DNF (Did Not Finish) status. I kind of just stood there, then I saw our head coach Arkady, who guided me through the station, trying to talk to someone to allow me to go. There were some doubtful volunteers. I remember some guy, saying, “Sorry man, you’re 10 minutes over.” Raul was also there helping me with nutrition (thanks again!). Arkady and I went over to the Aid Captain, begged her to let me through, as I was slowed by my stomach earlier in the race and felt fine to continue. She gave the OK (woohoo!), but told me I HAVE to get to the next aid station by 3:30pm. I didn’t even calculate how long I would need, but I said in complete confidence. You got it! (Riiiight)
OK, time to go!
Aid 6 to 7
My energy levels were starting to get back to normal because the reality of finishing the race on time kicked in. I was a little more aware, actually pretty pumped. I knew from training weekend I just need to get to the top of this hill, and everything “should” be good from there, or at least the majority of it.
In my head it was all downhill from this peak. So I ran a little bit of it, then came the walking again. Oops! I had a quick hike pace to the top, then I unleashed to aid #7, which was 35.3. Somewhere in between I caught up with another teammate, Elaine, and thankfully we ran quite a bit of it to the next stop.
Aid 7 to 9
We were a little over the 3:30pm time goal for #7, as I believe it was 3:40pm. I was already expecting them to call us off the course, but the volunteers were cheering us on! They said that as long as we were ahead of the sweeper who was 20 minutes behind us, we were ok. Whew! Somewhere between #7 and #8, I had to take another #2. Uh oh, I was out of toilet paper! Luckily Elaine was close enough for me to run and get some supplies. This area was full of nice flat single tracks and rollers. We passed a few people struggling, some sitting to take a breather, some already saying they were done at the next station. It was seriously a hot, tough day. About a mile away from #9, I saw my old IronTEAM coach. What the what? Am I imagining things like Jack’s Dad on LOST?? If you don’t know, from previous IronTEAM practices, Brad seems to always pop up at the most random places during practice or a race to check up on you. Thanks Brad! He said, “You better hurry! 15 minutes to finish 1 mile, can you do that?” Hell yeah I can. I took off and I was so surprised to have this kind of energy at mile 41. Made it to #9 at 5:42pm. BAM!
TNT Cheer Station (Aid #9)
Getting to aid station #9 felt like the finish line already! I was first greeted by my close friend Riz at the path to the station. She was cheering so happily and loudly. Oh, I was pumped!
I then saw another good friend, John, wearing a full purple morphsuit! Hilarious! By the time I got to #9, mile 42.6, there was a huge uproar! I really was overwhelmed! I was such in a daze of excitement, I don’t even remember who was there!
My lovely parents
Goofy Cheer Squad at its best!
I remember my parents stopping me to take numerous pictures, other friends taking pictures, people filling my backpack and bottles, getting things from my drop bag. It was intense! I wanted THAT to be my finish! THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU to all those who came out to support and cheer! You don’t know how much those few minutes of joy did to the rest of my race!
Aid 9 to Finish
After such a high energy rest stop, and less than 8 miles to go, you’d think the rest was a piece of cake, right? Oh, so wrong! The next few miles were uphill, AGAIN. I did try to jog a bit of it and at the not so steep areas, I picked up my pace a bit to catch up with Yvonne. Fortunately, we were getting to the shaded areas to cool down and save our energy for the end. We briskly walked because we already knew we were going to finish. By aid #10, Elaine caught up to us. We kept each other in check, finishing off the last few miles. Elaine is one tough cookie, she led the charge most of the time. (Go Elaine!). About 2ish miles to go, I had to take a nature dump AGAIN. W… T… F! I guess one more for good measure. At the final mile, we saw by best homies in the world, Rommel and Byong! Yessss! I was so glad to see them! The street and community center area was in view! We could see some of the lights! We hear people cheering other people coming in! (Probably Carlos at this point). We were also surprised at what kind of pace we were going at 49.5, but the excitement definitely kicked in! All the pain, gone. Adrenaline kicking in. Heart beating quickly. Volunteers at the bottom of the hill pointing us to the right. We look over, there’s a TNT Tunnel of Love waiting for us! Family, friends, volunteers, finishers – it was AMAZING! I took the caboose of this train with Elaine and Yvonne charging through.
What a finish! In my Vineman Full post, I said, ” Imagine watching the endings of Rudy, Rocky, Friday Night Lights, Karate Kid, Field of Dreams, Remember The Titans… take all that energy, put it in a box, and have Chuck Norris riding a unicorn, hand delivering it to you , with huge explosions and double rainbows in the background, with a Michael Bay movie soundtrack playing in the background.” Now Leona was the sequel to that, but add Optimus Prime narrating everything on top of it, with the Dos Equis Most Interesting Man doing a front flip to give me my medal. EPIC.
That shit was tough (no pun intended)! It was a very challenging day for a lot of people, with temperatures reaching the 90-100s. I heard over 100 people dropped from the race. Many people also switched from 50M distance to 50k. We all knew that coming in though. It was a very well put together race, as all of Keira’s (the race director) races are. Volunteers were superb and helpful. Aid stations well stocked. Courses well marked. Awesome.
What was more important than the race itself was the memorable 23 week journey getting here. It was with TNT Greater LA’s inaugural UltraTEAM. I was so proud to assistant coach and help the team get here. We had over 90% retention rate. We raised almost $90,000 as a team towards cancer research for LLS. We’re saving lives. That day was just icing on the cake. Many people were in my thoughts. This race was personally dedicated to my good friend Marisela, who passed away last year in a cycling accident while training for TNT. It was also dedicated to my friend Carmela, who is currently fighting a tough battle against cancer. Also to all the past TNT honored teammates, survivors, and family members I’ve met through the years, especially Dennis Padua, Laura Maloney, Kyle Garlett, Becky Barron, Rivera family, and Wilno family.
So what’s next?
This definitely opened the doors to many more events. It changed my perception on what’s challenging, on what “seems” impossible. 100 mile ultra? I’ve thought about it. Qualify for Boston? Crossed my mind. Another Ironman? Most likely. More Ultramarathons? For sure. I do have a few races already lined up in the coming months. My first Ragnar Trail Relay, Hood to Coast Relay in Oregon, RNR Denver Marathon, and DC Marine Corps Marathon. So much to do, so little time. I’ll keep you all posted, but I do know this – there’s no stopping anytime soon.