I was nervous about this race.
I’m not usually nervous about trail races. I just show up and enjoy the relaxed vibe, hanging out with fellow dirt addicts and looking forward to feeling nature all around me.
Not this time. This time the excitement over the epic trails ahead was peppered with doubts.
This time I was stressed out for days, biting my nails with apprehension about the upcoming challenge. What had we gotten ourselves into?
Perhaps it was because my left hip has been bugging me for weeks. It loosens up sometimes, but tightens up again without warning. I’ve been keeping Rolio handy and rolling daily.
Perhaps it was because this race touted an estimated 10,500’ of elevation gain, its constantly mountainous course making a mockery of the other two 50 milers we’ve run. And those were hard!
Perhaps it was because my last month of training looked like this. Between working out of town and long days while in town, not to mention organizing things for an upcoming race, my mileage has been absolutely abysmal. Even counting this race, that’s SIX DAYS of running, 3 of which were races. At least they were mostly on trail.
Perhaps it was because I had come down with the flu right after Double Dipsea and didn’t feel 100% over it yet. I had to fight to keep my lunch down the day before the race.
It was probably a nice combination of all factors. But what are you gonna do? Not try? Psssh! Plans were in motion and the race was going to be run.
At least the first part…
DW and I rented a room in San Francisco the night before and after the race to avoid a 2 hour drive before a 6am start. We got up race morning not having slept too well and pulled ourselves together for the race ahead. The task before us loomed and for some reason neither of us could really summon that buzz, that race morning electricity that makes you eager to get out there. After we arrived and got our race packets, we agreed that if after the first 8 mile jaunt (after which we’d pass the car) we didn’t feel up to continuing, we’d call it a day and find something more enjoyable to do. After all, this is supposed to be fun, right?
An announcer spoke for a minute about how excited they were to unveil this new course and how they had made it as brutal as humanly possible. It sounded as if it was going to fully live up to its name: “Marin Ultra Challenge”. I must confess, this is where I first felt a stab of adrenaline.
I thought, “This is why we’re here, dammit, to test how far we can go on a relentless course. Hills, give us all you got. We’ll give all we’ve got. Let’s see how they match up.”
We were off. The first 8 miles were more or less in a fog, literally. It was a big loop that climbed a small mountain and came back down to pass by the start for our odyssey toward Stinson Beach and back.
The air was moist and I couldn’t fully catch my breath. It was a fight to resist pushing up those hills, but we had a loooong way to go.
By the time we got back to the starting area, I felt ok. Not great, but holding steady. DW felt the same, so we pressed on. As long as neither of us got worse, we’d be ok.
The experience of these trails is never disappointing. Every time we return to the Marin Headlands I realize that I’ve forgotten how incredible it is. I focused on that fact as we wound our way around ridges, over summits, down gullies, across bridges, and through dense patches of redwoods.
To be honest, I was occasionally getting strange waves of dizziness and felt pretty weak and achy. I kind of felt like hell. DW told me that if I got worse we’d step out, but I replied that I was still plugging along and if I waited a while it might pass. I’ve found while running ultras that unless something is torn or broken, pretty much everything will pass if you wait long enough. You just have to ride out the lows and trust in the eventual upswing.
You have to endure. You have to endure relentlessly.
By mile 22 or so we reached Cardiac, part of the Dipsea course. The friendly fellow there kindly scooped some ice into my pack and I grabbed some nourishment from his glorious buffet, looking forward to the dense forest that would enclose the route down to Stinson Beach.
What a difference that ice made! Once I started drinking cold liquid and lowering my core temp, I felt like a new man. There were lots of fun technical downhills to tackle and the shade was keeping it nice and cool. By the time we snaked our way through Stinson I was psyched up for the climb to come, the biggest of the day.
Holy crap, what a climb! Last week we’d run Double Dipsea and climbed Mt Tam via switchbacks and steps. This time we were led around to the backside of the Mt and followed a singletrack path straight up! And I mean pretty much a straight line directly to the top, a two mile climb at nearly 45% grade.
When we finally reached the top we got to follow some rolling ridges until coming back through Cardiac at mile 32. I got some more life-giving ice and chews and DW grabbed some finger sandwiches. We strolled down the hill munching on a nice lunch on the go. I mused that miles 20-26 are always hard for me in 50’s, but the grass always gets greener on the other side of 30. I get to a state of comfy exhaustion, which sounds weird, but I can ride that state for some time. I don’t numb out, but it’s like my body stops trying to get me to stop by telling me I hurt. I know the pain is there, but I can choose to ignore it and trust that this body will keep on truckin’.
My recollection of the next few miles is not exactly crystal clear. I remember a lot of spectacular views and alternating murderous climbs and speedier downhills. I remember feeling lucky to be out there and fortunate to have someone great to share these things with. I was living purely in the moment and perceiving things in an intensely immersive way.
The fog had rolled back in and it created a somewhat surreal atmosphere.
By mile 44, the extreme downhill into Tenessee Valley, the miles were accumulating on my body. I had to adjust the strategy to more immediate goals like “Run to that tree? Ok.”
The stretch to the end was familiar because it was the way we had headed out that morning. It was a big climb, but the fog had rolled back in and we were never able to see the whole thing. In retrospect that helped, since we could easily break it up into sections. After that many miles and that much climbing, it’s really helpfully mentally to tackle small distances, then regroup and focus on the next.
The last descent was just great. It was land our feet had tread many times, and because it wound its way down into Rodeo Cove, everyone at the finish could see us half a mile out. They were cheering! The RD was yelling into his megaphone and volunteers were whooping and clapping. This was almost 13 hours into the race and they were cheering like mad for every single runner approaching! Incredible.
I don’t know how, but in that final stretch every ache disappeared, a surge of energy flowed through us and we all out sprinted across the finish line!
It’s now three days later and I’ve almost wrapped my head around it. It always take a couple days to get back on a normal sleep schedule and walking gait after a 50M, and it’s hard to believe we made it through this particular one. It was a completely different beast than anything we’d taken on before and we made it to the end with smiles.
This race was an incredible experience and lit a fire in mah belly for 100M training!
Cheers to crazy goals and finding out what you’re made of!!!
Run happy and healthy, friends.