A New Year, A New Adventure
I knew I wanted to start my year off with a good strong race, especially one I had not run before in a place I had not spent a lot of time. I love Sonoma, Folsom, Auburn, the Sierras, and the rest of the Great Golden State, but I have yet to run Marin for a race.
We camp and hike in Point Reyes, and I have gotten in some training miles; also races like The Headlands 50K and Miwok are certainly on my list to one day run. It was time to get out on those trails with a bib.
Enter: The Marin Ultra Challenge 50 Miler
Running in the SF Bay area, and anywhere really in Northern California, can be real hit or miss in March.
Due to the immense amount of rain we have had for the last few months, the usual start was inaccessible and the alternate start was used. Instead of beginning the race at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, the start was moved a few miles to the sands of the Pacific.
Driving in from the East Bay in the early morning hours offered me an incredible view of the Golden Gate Bridge, illuminated in a stoic glow, with a touch of fog enshrouding the base and roadway. I was driving and unable to get a picture, but the image will be forever burned into my brain.
The starting area was well organized and staffed. Race day bib pickup went well and there was ample parking, bathrooms, and extra porta-potties for the crowd. Among the drop bag collection points, there as a one for the start/finish, so you could wear warm clothes till just before the start, then leave them by the finish without having to walk to your car, or coordinate with anyone you may have carpooled with. A really nice touch even with parking being so close.
Golden Rays on the Golden Gate
The sun struggled to shine through the grey morning as we set off through the gate. Up we climbed from the parking lot to the first stretch of trail running the ridge looking down upon it all. We could now see above the grey, and were rewarded with one of the best sunrises I have seen.
As the morning continued, the sun slowly baked off the fog, revealing the textured landscape with sublime subtlety. Each hill and turn in the course gave way to a different gorgeous view of the landscape as the North Bay emerged from its morning blanket, awake and alive with energy. So many people travel to San Francisco to experience the city from within, but I assure you that you can experience it in a completely different way if you just travel over the Golden Gate Bridge.
It was spectacular.
We wove our way around the hills of the headlands, through grey cold mists below to warmth and sun above. The two week reprieve we had on rain gave way to largely dry and navigable trails – with only a few sections of treacherous trails moistened by the oceanic mists – just enough to make it interesting.
Onward through the scenic coastal single track, up and around the hills on wide fire roads. The majority of the early miles are exposed, so the morning fog and shadows cast by the hills are appreciated. Just about the time the atmospheric shelter wears off, you find yourself on the Dipsea steps, racking your quads and enjoying some shade as the water trickles down the slopes around you.
The midday and early afternoon brings you to the steepest climb of the event, which reminds you that no matter how good you are feeling, you’re only halfway there. I hit the 25 mile mark near the top of the climb at exactly 5 hours flat. I was on track for a sub 10 hour finish, if I could keep it together. After the climb, runners are treated to beautiful, clean, smooth single track. Minimal challenge, shade, and a great place to make up time. I went clipping along down the trails, passing hikers, groups, and other runners out enjoying the day.
Unfortunately, I got overzealous. By the time I hit the aid station around mile 30, I didn’t feel as strong. I had put a lot of time in the bank, but at too great a cost. The day was getting warmer, and I had given a little too much, too soon. I tried to recompose, take some calories, some salt, and water. I bathed my head in the fountain behind the aid table. I felt better, but not great.
The beautiful trails of the redwoods were far more arduous than I needed at that moment, but I crawled inside the pain cave and tried to embrace it as best I could. Up and down, over and under. The rocks and roots waiting to catch me. I crossed paths with my friend Samir, out on a run of his own, which was very cool. We spoke for a moment and I was off again, hoping for that sub 10.
By mile 33 I knew it was looking bad. The miles wore on and the heat baked me. The beauty of the Muir redwoods was countered by steep climbs and muddy trails.
From under the canopy of giants, it was back to fire roads and single track. I felt like hell. I stopped to breathe more than I wanted. I hung longer at aid stations drinking ginger ale, kicking myself for not bringing ginger chews.
By mile 38, as I hunched over on the side of the trail, throwing up. I knew the sub 10 hour finish was gone. A 10:30 finish was rapidly escaping and at this point I just wanted to finish.
I struggled with my stomach, running when I could, chewing miner’s lettuce to get some easy fiber in. I drank water, took SaltStick, and pounded ginger ale. The smorgasbord of food at the well stocked aid stations mocked my depleted stomach…but such is life.
At the Muir beach aid station I took refuge in soup and a nice bench. I laid out and put my feet up. I tried to let my stomach settle, as best I could. I watched people I passed earlier on run in, grab a bite and head out. Their stomachs had not betrayed them.
Balancing my ego, drive, and ability has always been my achilles heel. Often, if something goes wrong in a race, it is my stomach shutting down from exertion. I try to manage it as best I can – sometimes it is an accepted risk with the finish line in sight, other times it sneaks up on me when I think everything’s under control.
I lost it out there on the trail that afternoon, but I didn’t stop running after it. After 50 amazing miles, 9k feet of elevation, spectacular views, and gorgeous scenery I ran through the finish at top speed, elated to have completed my first race of 2017.
I will continue to learn, experiment, and perfect my fueling and pacing – that is about all I can do. Train for the next race, prepare for the next set of obstacles. Endurance races are reflections on life, and sometimes you have a handle on it, and sometimes you don’t.
In the end what matters is if you finished or not; perseverance under duress and completion of the task at hand.
No one gives a damn if you have a little puke on your feet.
The aid stations are well stocked and well crewed. Volunteers stand at the ready to fill your bottles and send you on your way. Fruit, foods, candy, potatoes galore.
Wonderful and pristine trails. Watch the weather and be prepared for rain or shine – jackets or sunscreen.
Thank you to all the wonderful volunteers, the RD and staff of ITR. You all put on an amazing event, I look forward to running more.
See you on the trails ahead.
– The Winged Ling