View in Mammoth overlooking many lakes.

Mammoth Trail Fest 50k


We arrived in Mammoth 5 days before the race after spending a few days in Yosemite Valley, which is around 4,000 feet in elevation. We did a number of hikes in Yosemite to higher altitude and put quite a few miles and vertical gain on our legs the weekend before the race. I was a bit nervous about this mileage, but to me hiking miles are easier on the bones and muscles than running miles, so even though we had a lot of time on our feet, we weren’t too tired or sore. All the hiking actually served me well in the race, since most of it ended up being a glorified hike…

The adjustment to the higher altitude was okay. I drank a ton of water daily – probably double what I usually drink at sea level – and I only ever had a slight headache for one evening. The craziest thing was that drinking out of a waterbottle for what used to be a normal length of time holding my breath or even turning over in bed in the middle of the night would leave me breathless! I went for two runs in the days leading up to the race, both times feeling absolutely gassed going 1-3 minutes per mile slower than I would have at sea level for the same rate of perceived exertion. Thin mountain air is humbling!

My boyfriend kicked off the racing festivities with the 26k, which took place the day prior to my 50k. It was a steep 26k, with over 3,000 feet of elevation gain to get to the top of Mammoth Mountain at 11,053 feet. But he is good at climbing, and he’s faster than he thinks he is, so I estimated he’d be at the finish around 3 hours after starting… it took him nearly 4 hours! Afterwards he told me he was nauseous for the entire race and survived off 1 Gu (plus our exceptional carbo loading over the previous days). I was impressed with his stamina, but we both weren’t sure why he experienced the nausea since he never had before and didn’t do anything differently than other races or training runs. In the end, we chalked it up to the altitude and accidental over-exertion.

Race Day

It was my turn the next day, and I was very nervous. With the constant reminders that breathing up here was so hard, the warning voice echoing in my head from my mom that I was going to develop pulmonary edema, and the dull background worry that I was going to break a bone (I’d broken my foot during the Marin Ultra in March and definitely still had phantom pains), it was hard to remember why I was doing this. But the scenery would be beautiful, I’d paid a fair amount to register, I had nothing else to do that day, and an older local had told me the important thing was to finish, so I lined up at the start at 8am with all the other really insane (but also regular?) people.

There was a great group countdown, and we were off! At a very slow jog. There was a nice steady climb through trees for the first 3 or so miles, which was a great warm up (it was a bit chilly at around 40 degrees and I was wearing shorts). I found someone about my pace shuffling up the hill and followed them, making sure my breathing didn’t get too heavy (I didn’t wear a watch so didn’t have my heartrate – was honestly afraid to see it throughout). It was really dusty since the mountains here are very sandy, and I definitely inhaled an unhealthy amount of dust. When we got to the top, there was a nice downhill to the aid station, which was very fun (I passed people, which turned out to be a recurring theme), but also filled me with more dust. Also the people using poles were a menace… no offense if you use poles.

At this point, I reached the first aid station. There were a few locals out supporting and two cute little girls who I made sure to wave to. Then we headed up a really steep hill (probably 20% grade or more?) where a ton of people passed me because I got so out of breath I had to stop several times. I tried to focus on being in my own race, hydrating with the calorie-filled Skratch in my hydration pouch, and relaxing into the air and dirt around me. Eventually I got to the top and there was a long downhill, which was a bit rocky to let it all go but fun all the same, and I passed some people back. By the next aid station, I was pretty tired and definitely felt that I would have put in a solid day’s work if I’d stopped there. My throat had a tickle that made me keep coughing, and I think it was mostly due to the dust. I really had to pee, so that happened, and it also let me catch my breath a bit, so that thought of “wow I’m at the lowest elevation point in the race and already feel awful” tempered itself. Otherwise, things were pretty uneventful and the mass of racers was thinning out, which also meant less dust was being kicked up. A steep hike up a ski trail, during which I had to take more breathers, thinned us out even more. I found myself with a couple guys dressed in black with poles, who seemed to know what they were doing, and a woman wearing Hoka Speedgoats that she said she didn’t really like (I wasn’t sure why she was wearing them then…). We were a solid group for a few miles on and off. Once, when I was relatively alone and observing a (really cute) chipmunk scurrying along a log, I tripped and flew forward, somehow managing to get some rock rash (is that a thing?) on my left thigh and both knees and on both my hands. The only thing really bleeding was the left knee, and it stopped pretty quickly, but I was all prepared to take off my shirt and use it like a tourniquet if need be… it was still a while to the next aid station and my puny bandaids wouldn’t have helped (will probably bring tape and gauze next time). I did get really anxious at this point given it was only about 10 miles in and I’d already been clumsy enough to trip. But with no choice, I carried on, climbing up to a terrific view of mountains and lakes at Panorama Dome and descending past abandoned wooden structures that supposedly had been there since the Gold Mining era. It was also around this time that I started getting really nauseated. It was a weird stomach nausea that didn’t align with the GI symptoms I usually have of overexertion, so I wasn’t sure of the cause and thought maybe it would be fleeting, so I thought of what my boyfriend had been through the day before and plunged on. I passed an aid station, where I filled with some water to dilute my quite concentrated Skratch. I passed by a little pond that I’d nicknamed “Little Pond” while we’d hiked there earlier in the week. I passed by quite a few dried up lakes and quite a few more large, still, and blue lakes. I observed the huge Jeffrey pinecones strewn on the sides of the trail, like they were pointing me forward, urging me on. I didn’t see any wildlife. It was quiet. There was a slight downhill and I tried to do airplane arms but quickly reverted to hands on hips walking. I was pretty alone. I reflected how lonely it could have felt, but there were so many people (and pinecones) I was sharing the path with that day. I looked for some heart-shaped rocks, and I found one! It gave me a boost to think of David and Megan Roche and their funny podcast. If I’m going to be honest though, those were mostly fleeting thoughts.

This was the “runnable” portion of the race—quite flat and not technical. But at this point my nausea was so bad that I was walking with my hands on my hips, fingers wrapped around my waist, basically bent over, disappointed that I couldn’t put to use my relatively fresh-feeling legs to enjoy a run through the Inyo National Forest. Some people passed me and told me to breathe deeply in my nose, but that didn’t help. I really did try. Finally I got to the aid station before the big climb up Mammoth Mountain around mile 16 and sat down, hoping the nausea would pass. A really nice aid station volunteer came over to me, since I’d sat down a few hundred feet before the aid station tent, and asked me if I was ok. She encouraged me to go into the shade of the tent and offered me a throw-up bag. In the moment, it was really nice to just feel cared for after some of the lonely feelings from earlier. I met someone who had to pull out of the race because of a twisted ankle, and I met her Golden Retriever who also gave me a boost. I put on some sunscreen. After a few minutes, it was clear to me the nausea wasn’t getting any worse or any better and the smartest thing to do would be to force-hydrate myself before starting the ascent to 11k feet… after all, my goal was to finish, not to have to call 911 from the mountain. The aid station volunteer seemed ok with me doing that since I didn’t have any other altitude sickness symptoms. I was so so thankful to this volunteer that trusted me to be safe and encouraged me onwards (this was a theme for the aid station volunteers, by the way)! I’d battle through (embrace eventually?) this nausea for the full remaining 20 miles of the race and all the way until midday the following day.

Amazingly, from this point forward in the race, no one passed me. In fact, I probably passed about 40 people between mile 16 and the finish. The 2,500-foot ascent up Dragon’s Back trail took us through rock-littered meadows and pine tree forest to exposed narrow rocky trail where I had to use my hands to help me up. I thought of Courtney Dauwalter’s saying “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” I savored the feeling of warm rocks on my hands, took in the views of the seven modest lakes below me, with the largest, Mono Lake, glittering in the midday sun, appearing still in the valley below. My nausea had receded to a constant mid-level annoyance at this point, and I tried to take full-body inspections often since I knew I was dehydrated and ascending. But no headache or dizziness and good-feeling legs on every inventory gave me encouragement. I passed quite a few people and said “I bet you’ll see me later,” since I expected they would pass me back. I met someone from the Boston Area and we briefly talked about Harvard Square. After a final few steep, loose pumice switchbacks of trail, I’d summitted! At the top, though people had advertised fresh blueberry pancakes at the aid station, which I didn’t try but am sure were fabulous, views of the Eastern Sierras and Yosemite, ornamented with staunch snow-capped mountaintops were the best gift. There was some music playing and I danced into the aid station. I didn’t take anything, but I forced down a Gu Roctane as I started the long descent to the next aid station, where my boyfriend was waiting for me.

I felt so at home on the downhills even though they made my stomach so unhappy. I wasn’t too afraid that I’d throw up since it hadn’t happened yet, so I tried to meditate away from the nauseous state of mind (you know, by noticing it but not giving it attention), and tried to just flow down the hill. I heard the liquid in my stomach (why hadn’t it passed through the pyloric sphincter yet?) sloshing at every step and pretended it was really just my half-filled bladder in my backpack making noise. I passed a bunch of people on this downhill, including the woman with the Hokas who’d passed me many miles earlier. She commented I was making my move, but it didn’t feel like that to me, I just enjoyed the downhills and it helped that they seemed to be my current competitive advantage (I used to be so slow at them but have been working on it). I said “I’m sure I’ll pay for it later,” also knowing I was in a huge energy deficit and expecting a bonk soon but not really caring at the moment since I was having fun.

When I got to the next aid station, I was told the next climb was 2.5 miles long and then I would have 7.5 miles of flat and downhill to get to the finish. I was a bit surprised because based on my Strava distance I only had about 8 total miles left to reach 50k, but… that’s not how trail races work. The next part was super steep, around 700 feet elevation gain, on a sun-exposed dirt road with gondola wires crisscrossing over our heads. It was tough mentally, and I ended up turning on some music (a real variety including Tiny Dancer, Traitor, El Mismo Sol, and L.S.D.), which I reserve for these sorts of mental situations when I need to dial in for a bit. I was also keenly aware that the people I’d passed on the previous downhill were stronger uphill hikers than I was, so I did my fair share of glances over my shoulder during this section. I figured if I made it to the top first, I would seal the deal on the downhill (as long as I didn’t bonk). Only one person, who was wearing sandals (!) passed me on this uphill, but I quickly passed him back on the downhill that followed.

The final descent was interminable. I turned off the music and tried to flow. Some of the sections were quite rocky and steep so I was glad (and impressed!) that my legs still felt alright. There were great views of a marbled mountain across the valley, pearly white in the afternoon sun. I tried to feel as solid as it looked. Every time I passed someone, I said “nice work” or “you’re awesome” or “one step at a time,” and if they looked to be struggling I asked if they needed any water or Gu. I took another little tumble while passing someone with poles, more afraid of their poles than the rocks around us.

Yes I had made my move on that downhill 6 miles ago, and unlike during my recent Ironman 70.3 I wasn’t going to give it up. Competitive juices kicked in – this is partly why I do races (aside from the support to do long distances), and I was racing! Someone with a yellow hat passed me with about a mile to go. They weren’t going that much faster than me so I thought I could catch them if I really went for it in the last half mile, but I wasn’t sure at that time how much distance was left. But then I saw the village, where the finish was, and kicked into gear! There was one last really puny hill and a few stairs before going over a bridge to run through the village to the finish, and I passed back the guy who’d passed me a mile earlier. Boy that felt good. Even better was letting it all go at the finish, being so out of breath, and slowing the last few meters because I’d pushed myself that much. And also because I wanted the finish line hug from the famed Tim Tollefson, an ultrarunner who was the last American man to podium at UTMB and who had organized this whole event!

I sat down on a rock at the finish line to watch the people I’d recently passed finish (we were all within about 5 minutes of each other!). I met someone who was waiting for her daughter to finish, and I reassured her that she would make it and that the trail racing community was very supportive out on the course.

Post Race

Trail running brings me deep into nature in a way an Ironman (at least a road-based one) never could. And I often think about the precariousness of the wilderness I’m so privileged to run on with wildfires becoming more common. I was so thankful the forest wasn’t burned down and the air quality was good in Mammoth, though a week prior it had been unhealthy due to the Mosquito fire burning near Lake Tahoe a hundred miles north. Appropriately, the Mammoth Trail Fest had organized a panel for the evening of my race. I heard from trail runners and advocates from Footprints Running and National Public Lands about caring for the environment that we use and making its access equitable to all, things I always think about but never seem to know how to take actionable steps to do (aside from the relatively mainstream recycling and composting stuff). I liked that they told us to be curious, learn about the places we run on, volunteer with trail maintenance, and have more conversations about equity in trail access with friends. 

P.S. Results-wise, this race wasn’t my best, but it was a total win in my book! If you’re interested: total time of 8:29:18 (Strava put me just about at 15 minute miles, including stops), 35/82 female, 7/12 in 20-29 age group, and 134/250 overall. That pace is 3 minutes per mile slower than my 50 mile pace during the Marin Ultra (comparable elevation profile, at sea level).

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