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40 Miles for 40 Years: An Epic Birthday in Joshua Tree

I can still remember how it used to feel when I’d think about running long distances. Not long ago, the idea of running a marathon felt crazy, and anything with the “ultra” designation just seemed ridiculous. Big running events like that were for someone else… perhaps for “real runners”, but certainly not for me.

When I signed up for my first marathon back in 2014, I was pretty nervous. I hadn’t run anywhere near 26.2 miles. That was a big intimidating number. But I trained for it, had a good enough time running it, and shortly after the race, I was left wanting more.

As I passed each running milestone, my perspective changed a bit. What used to feel daunting was now an average post-work run on a Tuesday.

Still, running 40 miles for my 40th birthday felt crazy. Despite having run the 50k distance a few times, stacking another ~7 miles onto that felt scary.

At some point earlier in the year, I mentioned this wacky idea to my partner Jeannine. She was supportive and enthusiastic about it, and the momentum began. Once we started discussing high-level logistics, it was real: I would celebrate my birthday by running my age in miles.

I’m big on accountability, and I find myself effectively committing to goals (and setting plans in motion) by simply mentioning them to people. For better or for worse. Maybe no one else cares if I quit caffeine or stop eating meat for 30 days, but as soon as I tell someone I’m going to do it, it’s do-or-die for me.

Naturally, I’d need to do this birthday run in a beautiful location near and dear to my heart. Yosemite would probably have snow, but Joshua Tree felt like a safe bet.

I googled “joshua tree 50k”, immediately found my buddy Mat’s blog and remembered that he’d organized a group 50k in the park several times, which ran along the California Riding and Hiking Trail. The trail itself ran for about 37 miles (or 60k), and is commonly referred to as the Joshua Tree Traverse. I’d just tack a few extra miles on to get to a nice round birthday 40. Easy money!

In August, I began training, using this 50k training plan from Sage Running. I’d be running more than 50k, but I figured this would give me a solid base to work with.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

I also started to recruit friends and family to come and support me in the desert. We’d make a weekend out of it.

As soon as folks expressed interest, I knew there was no turning back.

Training, as usual, started off fun, but quickly became grueling. Training in winter is tough because of daylight savings time. Come November, this means a lot of long, cold runs in the dark with a flashlight and late dinners.

It was a busy few months with lots of moving around, but I stuck with the training plan and enjoyed some epic routes along the way. Highlights included trails in Olympic NP, Bend (summited South Sister!), Truckee, South Lake Tahoe, Big Sur, and lots of exploration around Santa Cruz:

Before I knew it, it was time to head south to Joshua Tree for the big weekend. I got into town a few days early to lock down an epic group campsite in Sheeps Pass Campground.

Site #1 in Sheeps Pass is very expansive and surrounded by lots of giant rocks. Photos really won’t do it justice. I’ve camped all over the park and this massive campground is the best one I’ve stayed in to date.

Friends and family begin to arrive at Sheeps Pass Campground

The night before the run, folks who weren’t staying in the park drove in from their hotels and we had a big group dinner. It was a pretty mellow evening and I was in bed around 10pm. Like most nights before running events, it was a fairly restless night for me, and I think I got about 4 hours of sleep.

The hardest part of this day might’ve been simply getting out of my warm sleeping bag and stepping into the cold desert air at 4am.

My friend Kevin graciously agreed to drive me to the trailhead at this ungodly hour. I would start my run at Black Rock Campground, which was about 45 minutes from the campground.

Kevin releasing me into the unknown

Getting out of his warm car in the dark was not pleasant, and I had a serious “what the hell am I doing?” moment. Despite my training, and even having run from this trailhead in years past, I still felt like I was stepping into the unknown.

I only trained for a 50k… that’s only like 32 miles, right? What about the other 8 miles?

Was 2.5 liters enough water for my first 20 miles through the desert?

I didn’t train on sand… what’s the elevation here again?

Did I get enough sleep to pull this off?

I was second-guessing myself, and it was not subtle. I felt anxious about the next 8 hours as I fumbled for my flashlight.

I reminded myself that everything was under control. Jeannine was on top of the aid stations and run logistics, and quite a few folks who cared about me were dedicating their entire day to making sure that I finished this thing in one piece.

Reminding myself of my support system helped to put my mind at ease as I settled into a gentle pace, guided by my flashlight. All that I had to do was maintain a 12-minute/mile pace, stay hydrated, eat continuously, and not hurt myself. Pretty simple, right? Certainly less complex than the average workday. And I only needed to stay on top of those things for the first 20 miles, because my friend Zach would be running with me for the second half.

Sunrise hadn’t happened yet, but as the darkness faded, my nervousness was slowly replaced with excitement. As soon as I was able to put the flashlight away, having one less thing to worry about put my mind at ease. I surrendered to the momentum of the day and let my legs do their thing.

By the time the sun came up, I had been running for about an hour and I was in a good groove.

It was pretty cold out, and I was looking forward to removing some layers and ditching the gloves. The moment that I finally stepped into a sliver of direct sunlight was memorable.

Glorious sunlight at mile 11

I felt great once things started to warm up. I was in a solid groove, had some good music on, and was enjoying the changing landscape. The warmth on my skin was energizing, and I got excited about the path ahead of me.

I recalled a conversation between ultramarathoner Zach Bitter and Lex Fridman. Zach talked about big-picture thinking: if you can zoom out of the run at hand and remember all of the time spent preparing for it, you’ll realize that you’re actually almost finished, and any discomfort you’re feeling in that moment is insignificant in the grand scheme of your overall effort. The majority of my effort went into months of discipline and training, and this little 40 miler was the final chapter. The concept resonated with me in that moment… I was so close to being done with this container of work.

A bit after the 11-mile mark, I found myself running along an elevated trail that dipped down quite a bit on both sides and provided stunning views in all directions. I’m sure most trail runners have experienced this sensation where a cool-looking trail section gets you stoked and makes you want to run faster. It took a lot of self-control to maintain my 12-minute mile pace, as this is quite a bit slower than my standard pace.

I knew I’d be seeing friends and family at the first aid station soon, and I started to feel immense gratitude for these people. Lots of folks traveled to come and support me, some even flying across the country and booking hotels and rental cars. Other folks who couldn’t join had sent messages of support. I realized how lucky I was to have such an awesome network of people in my life.

Before I knew it, I was approaching the first aid station (Keys View Rd) at 19 miles. It was almost 9am. My friend Zach would be joining me for the remainder of the run, and some friends that I hadn’t seen in a while were also waiting for me there.

As the aid station came into view, I realized I was just about halfway done with my run. This raised my spirits, and any doubts about whether or not I’d finish this run evaporated.

I felt like a Nascar driver pulling in for a pit stop as I entered the aid station. My hydration pack was swiftly removed and filled with water and snacks. Jeannine was somehow holding cups of oatmeal and coffee while also making sure I had everything else I might need to continue on. It was a blur of excitement, but I think I had a few bites of banana in between hugs and high-fives, and posed for a few photos before hitting the trail with Zach.

Heading out for the second half of my 40 mile birthday run

And just like that, we were off! After 4 hours of solo running, it was awesome to have a friend with me. Zach lives on the other side of the country, and we hadn’t seen one another in a few years, so this was a pretty epic way to catch up with one another.

The landscape was constantly changing, and there was no shortage of cool plant life and rock formations to trip out on and distract from the growing discomfort.

Somewhere around the 5-hour mark, I started to feel uncomfortable. There was no denying the pain. I simply welcomed it to the party.

As I trained for this day, I found myself experimenting with discomfort on my longer runs. I wanted to better understand my relationship with pain to help prepare for the inevitable feelings that’d arise on a 40 miler.

As discomfort started to appear, I’d welcome it. I’d find myself talking to it, like “hey old friend, I was wondering when you’d show up.” Acknowledging the pain, and contemplating where it was showing up in my body and what it felt like, and inviting it to come along for the ride seemed to work a lot better than dismissing it or wishing it’d go away. It’s difficult to quantify the efficacy of this practice, but I can say that pain was not a dominating presence in my training.

When pain arrived around the ~25-mile mark, I mentioned to Zach that I was starting to feel the burn, but our conversation quickly and naturally moved along to the next topic, and the pain stayed in the background. No big deal.

We reached our second aid station right around noon. This was a quick stop. I’m glad that people took photos, because that was no longer a priority for me.

My friend Mary handed me a Red Bull (I never drink Red Bull) and I downed it. I had been running for 7 hours at this point, and I was effectively on autopilot mode. I figured a caffeine boost couldn’t hurt.

This stretch was very difficult to get up from.

We hit the trail once again, and our conversation continued. I was feeling a little irritable and was doing less talking and more listening, but overall I felt good.

At this point in the run, I had little interest in food. Had I been on my own, I’m skeptical that I would’ve kept my nutrition up. Luckily, Zach forced me to eat. He didn’t give me the option, but just said “eat something now” at some interval that he seemed to be monitoring. I didn’t have the strength to argue, and I trusted him, even though it felt like I was shoving food in my mouth every 15 minutes.

The final aid station/”finish line” was on the horizon, but I knew it was a fake out, like a cruel desert mirage. This route only went about 37 miles, and I’d need to run an additional 4 to hit 40. I knew this all along, but when it came down to it, it was harder than I’d anticipated.

I could hear everyone shouting and cheering as we made our way towards that final aid station. I went in for a few quick hugs, but didn’t want to lose my momentum, so I kept things moving along pretty quickly. Jeannine was waiting for me there, and I was so happy to see her. She had been juggling so many logistics leading up to this moment, and was finally able to join us for the final 4 miles of the run, which was a nice change and a welcome distraction for me.

I did not anticipate the trail being sandy (and slightly uphill) from that point on. This subtle change in terrain felt like a major curveball. In retrospect, this was not a big deal, but in the moment it was an unpleasant development. Each step hurt, and having the ground shift under me was not pleasant. I was ready for the run to be over.

Turning around was glorious, as the final 2 miles were downhill. I was in autopilot mode, and as we ran toward the finish line, I was more than ready to stop moving.

Jeannine had set up an epic aid station with a big stack of pizzas, and the vibe was celebratory. My friend Mark handed me a non-alcoholic beer, and after some half-assed stretching, it was time to relax and catch up with friends and family.

I was elated to be done running, but it also occurred to me that another 10 miles would not have been impossible in that moment, if it came down to it.

All of a sudden, I became aware of a monstrous appetite, and I started crushing ‘za. I must’ve had 6 or 7 slices of pizza before we packed things up. Back at the campground, I had a hot dog, 3 sausages (all with buns), a big cup of instant ramen, and several s’mores. I don’t recall feeling full, and I only stopped eating because I was wiped out and ready for bed.

The weekend was coming to an end, and folks had started to head home. This was my last night in the park. I felt so content as I laid down in the tent. I had accomplished my goal and had a lot of fun in the process. I did a great job managing the pain, and I finished my run with fuel in the tank.

We left Joshua Tree National Park the following morning and spent one more night in a hotel in town. In the days that followed, I felt overwhelming gratitude for all of the amazing and supportive people in my life. I never want to take for granted that all of these people dropped everything to travel to the desert and spent their time and money to help me accomplish this crazy goal. There’s no way I could’ve pulled something like this off on my own.

I’ve been to Joshua Tree many times before (primarily while living in LA), but covering such a long distance on foot provided a truly unique and immersive way to experience the park landscape. Trail running is such an engaging activity, and I find that it often forces me to be present. Watching the park shift from dawn to mid-day to late afternoon while feeling closely connected to my surroundings was an experience I won’t soon forget.

In retrospect, running 40 miles for my 40th feels like a celebration of health; a way to “count my blessings” for the physical capability to pull off such a feat. It’s both the culmination of my running career thus far and a barometer for my fitness as I run past the halfway mark of my life.

So what’s next? I haven’t started planning the next run milestone just yet. 50 is a nice round number, and 50 miles for 50 years would be cool, but I also don’t think I want to wait a whole decade for that milestone. Frankly, I feel like I could run it tomorrow if I wanted to. But for now, I’m excited to be done with the training regimen and to enjoy the holiday break in a relaxing way.

Jeannine and I just registered for the Big Sur Marathon next year, so I’ll be back in training soon enough.

Thanks for reading!

2 Comments

  1. Aunt Bev

    I’m so sorry I couldn’t be there to celebrate your epic run for your birthday, but your wonderful blog with photos was the next best thing. Thank.you for sharing with me! I love you.

  2. John Vantine

    Great summary of the Big Day JN, and all that went into preparing for it, An amazing experience, and I am so glad we could join you as well as my first time being in Joshua Tree, Hang Tough, and Run On~

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