Rebecca Murillo Finds Confidence in Uncertainty
In an abridged newsletter interview published on February 12th, I chatted with Rebecca Murillo, a sports marketing coordinator at GU Energy Labs and winner the 50K at this year's Sean O'Brien. We discussed her background in the sport, how she approaches the mental aspect of ultramarathons, and how she recovered from burnout to rediscover the running community. The full the interview is below.
BC: Congratulations on the win at Sean O'Brien! I have always been impressed by the relaxed and flexible mindset that you take before an ultra. It seems to pay real performance dividends. Can you talk through that a little bit? How do you approach the mental game of an ultramarathon? What is your mentality on a race day?
RM: When I started running, I was overly competitive... I was a bad sport. Throughout high school and college, I would get mad and huffy after races if I didn't run as fast as I wanted. I remember finishing high school races, and my mom would be at the finish. I would be so upset after a bad race that I would just walk past her without speaking: "I don't want to talk right now!" That was so dumb; it's not worth it.
Once I started running marathons, and was training for them on my own, I recognized that this was a new distance and my main goal was to see what my body could do and was capable of at race day.
BC: So the novelty of the distance made you reassesses your orientation to a race?
RM: Yeah. I've never assumed my body can make it that far of a distance. So that always gives me more precaution, and this was especially the case at Sean O'Brien. This was my 6th 50K, but every race is a different challenge. Ultras are not like a road marathon, which is generally the same from race-to-race. Marathons are generally flat and you are hitting benchmark times along the way. I don't respond well to that type of racing. I like races where it is a challenge to just finish.
BC: You mean, when the course itself is a challenge?
RM: Definitely: when the issues are not pacing and being super dialed in but rather overcoming the literal terrain and distance. My parents came out to Sean O'Brien, and before the race they asked, "What time will you be done?" I told them, "You know what? It could be as early as before 2pm and as late as 3pm. I'm not really sure."
In a trail race, I always start at the pace I want to hold for the race, and then I immediately take it down two notches. You get real excited for that first couple minutes and then you settle in.
For Sean O'Brien I didn't know any of the other women in the race. So I took my goal for the day to be in the top 3 women. But I never want to get so caught up in the finishing order that I don't enjoy the experience. I make sure to take in the views and remember to eat. I like to remind myself to at look around and smile. In an ultra, you usually get to be in a new and beautiful place, which I really love.
In Sean O'Brien one of those moments occurred when we got up the first climb and approached this rock face. I wasn't quite scrambling, but there was a lot of exposed rock. I thought that was really fun, like a little playground in the middle of our course.
BC: How did the race play out? Given your flexible pacing and the heat, what place where you at the opening of the race.
RM: I started off at the front, and tacked onto two other women in front of me at what seemed like a reasonable pace. We hit the biggest climb of the day. I always break a race up in chunks from aid station to aid station. So we hit that climb and lost the first woman. I thought, "Woah, she's so fit. She must train on this hill all the time." I did more shorter climbs in training, so I just hoped that the back half of the race would go better with its would short, rolling climbs. I kept the second woman in my sights and eventually moved past her on the rock-face section.
At the out-and-back turn around, I measured how much time it took to reach the point where the women's leader passed us heading back to the finish. She was four minutes ahead of me. But there was nothing in me saying, "I'm gonna fight real hard to get first." I just internalized that I would hit the climbs well and keep passing people in a steady way. At the last aid station, she was in sight and I caught her by mile 26. And then I stretched the gap on the downhill.
It still got uncomfortable on the last uphill. Everything was tingling with the heat. I started weaving across the trail and the last mile and half just took forever. And the course was long by a mile and half, so that whole section I was thinking, "This is awful. Technically, I've already run a 50K!"
BC: So how did you get here? What were your origins in the sport? You grew up in southern California and there is a deep running prep scene there. How did you get into the sport?
RM: I started playing soccer when I was six. There is a hypercompetitive soccer scene in SoCal. My sister was on one of these really successful power squads, so we were traveling all over for them. While my soccer was secondary to her soccer, we were both going to summer camps, six hours a day, playing soccer. You come with your gallon Igloo water bottle.
I didn't start actually running until middle school. My mom ran cross country in college. I grew up with her going on runs in the morning. In high school, I ran track as a freshman, but mostly focused on soccer until my junior year. The distance track coach convinced me to run cross country to get in shape for soccer.
My high school cross country program was intense. There 60-70 kids. The lowest weekly mileage for kids was at least 35. We did a lot of crazy hill workouts in the heat. I think I lost thirty pounds that first season. I got faster pretty quickly. So I started taking track more seriously. My first mile race I ran about a 5:30, and that success reinforced my participation. From there it took off. By my senior year, we were running sixty miles a week.
BC: That's a lot at age 16 or 17.
RM: Yeah, I was doing 14-mile midweek long runs. We did 24 x 400 meter workouts at 75-80 seconds. And of course, everyone burns out with that.
I walked onto Santa Clara for cross country. I managed to develop asthma and anemia at the same time. So that was the height of my being a huffy, mental runner about racing. I would do really well at workouts and then performed really poorly at races.
BC: Do you think this all came out of that hypercompetitive SoCal culture?
RM: Oh yeah. When you're on a team with 60 people, you are racing all the time. My coach would give each pace group a Garmin watch, and we would have to stay at a goal pace for 90 minutes and there couldn't be more than 5 minutes of stoppage time.
BC: Frak me. Did this yield any good results?
RM: I mean, we went to States. But everyone burned out. You see it all across the SoCal, you see girls win competitive races in high school, then go to college and nothing comes of them.
BC: It is so hard to come out of a big pond. The depth is such that you can be talented, but relative to the extreme competition you are a still minnow. My sense is it can be tough to have an opportunity to grow as an athlete in California. If you are a late bloomer, you will never know because you've been relegated as a loser from the start.
RM: Everybody on our varsity team was running times that would get them to state championships in most other states. That was frustrating.
BC: So you stepped away from it college.
RM: I recognized I was not going to be a professional runner. I wanted to take more classes and study abroad. With running for Santa Clara, those were not options. After I stepped away from it, I probably took four months of any sort of training.
Eventually I found an upcoming marathon. Preparing for it by myself was a really fun process. I think I dropped all those high team expectations that were so toxic. For the marathon, I thought, "If I just finish this, it will be the best day ever." And that was really helpful and changed my mentality to the sport.
BC: I think that's really interesting that you use uncertainty as a source of lowering the stakes. I think a lot people would think, "Oh God! I have no f**king clue what I'm doing. Agh!"
RM: I know. I also realized that I had been racing all of my workouts against my teammates. So I figured out that there was no way I could possibly race after just trying to survive everyday.
BC: So all your benchmarks were external... and dependent on the talent of others around you.
RM: Yeah. But when you train by yourself, you constantly ask, "How do I feel? How do I feel doing this workout. Is this an appropriate pace for me?"
BC: So you have been running for a while now in this different mold and mindset. But you've definitely reinserted yourself into a community of runners. You are part of the scene. How have you managed reconciling the social stuff with keeping your expectations productive?
RM: It's been interesting. I trained for marathons by myself until two years ago. I think this spring will be two years since I started coming to Breakfast Club and Salomon Run Club.
BC: I think at the end of 2016, Brian Gillis and I were chatting on arun about the year in review. And we both agreed that biggest discovery of 2016 was Rebecca Murillo. We thought that was a win for everybody. Everyone holds you in high esteem!
RM: Haha! Up until a couple years ago I was working three or four jobs, so I couldn't train with people. After getting out of a relationship where my running was resented, I wanted to run with others, meet new friends, do some fun things. So I started going to the Salomon Run Club in Redwood Park and the Breakfast Club.
I rediscovered the social aspect of running in a much healthier way. People and friendships became a tool to get faster, instead of just unhealthy competition. Look, most of us will never be professional runners. And I realized that a competitive, agro mindset toward others was not helpful or healthy. So I let it go.
Getting to know other people who have these same struggles has been so nice. That is the heart and soul of community: finding people who experience the same things you do and understand what that means. You can use that shared experience to help each other.
BC: That's really well put. On these group runs there is no goal other than the run itself. These aren't for-profit training groups oriented toward performance at a particular training run. It is oriented around the recognition that we all have a similar set of collected interests and that training will probably be easier and more enjoyable if we do it together.
RM: And everyone gets fitter because you are happier doing it. There are days when I run so much slower than we run at Breakfast Club, but it still feels much harder. And then I go to Breakfast Club and it feels so much easier. You are catching up with people, you aren't overthinking your pace, or getting to much into your own Type-A Runner Brain.
BC: OK, let's finish with a couple quick-split questions. What is your favorite trail in the East Bay.
RM: Oh, French Trail... especially going westbound. I like going out on West Ridge, then dropping down and coming back toward Skyline Gate on French. I love it. There is all this "Jesus Light" that happens at certain times of day, you know, those streams of light that break through the trees. None of the climbs are too big; it's a redwood roller coaster.
BC: Let's say you've got a moderately hard run, not a race, but a run where you want to wear something reliable. What shoe do you pull out?
BC: If you could only race one set distance for the rest of your life, what distance would you race?
RM: I really love the fifty miler.
BC: Wait, you've only raced one.
RM: Yeah, I really liked it. It felt like an adventure where I got to eat pizza during the journey.
BC: Alright, last one: what's your go-to prerace dinner meal?
RM: I love steak and sweet potatoes. And I usually have a beer. I really like Cellarmaker IPAs.