Mill Valley strikes again.
This land is our land. Just look at the picture above and you’ll understand why I return to California’s Marin Headlands year after year for this race.
The Headlands have cast a spell on trail runners, which is clearly why the Bay Area is an incubator for stellar trail runners. This race marked my 3rd time back to SF for the Endurance Challenge Series. In 2013, I showed up for the marathon ailing from a Vibram-induced stress fracture in my middle toe. In 2014, I returned for the 50K with my Denver crew ready to rock-and-roll on a mud drenched course.
I felt extremely prepared and confident for this years race. I had actually been “training” as the books say… since my last big effort was the Stinger 50-Miler back in September. I felt great training with faster, speed work once a week as my body and mind became stronger and better prepared for high turnover efforts.
In fact, since running the Stinger 50-Miler, I’ve raced two half marathons, a 5K, and a 10K. These distances all stoked my love for speed and red-lining it to the finish. I knew red-lining wouldn’t be the case during the 50K on Saturday, but I believe strength and focus persevere over any distance.
Leading up to the race, I read the book “The Mindful Athlete” by George Mumford. It is less about sports psychology and more about reaching your full potential (in-the-zone) of performance through breathing, patience, and being present. There were many takeaways that I channeled while preparing for and during my race – give it a read if you’re curious!
Alright, the last bit of preparation was my habitual course recon:
It may look like a bunch of scribble, but it is my key to sustaining a focused and even-keeled race. Any ultra race can be broken down into manageable intervals thanks to the placement of aid stations. Instead of running 31.1-miles. I run 3.8-miles, then 4-miles, then… you get the point.
This was the first time that I ever assigned goal times to each segment. Normally, I run on feel, but since obtaining a GPS watch (thx Julia/Phil), I’ve crossed over to the dark side becoming a Watch Watcher!! Anyway, I made sure to memorize the number of climbs, as well, and picked an ambitious pace of 7:45/mi to reach my goal of 3:59:59 for the 50K.
As expected, there was a quick pace set from the start. I’m doing a better job throttling back my early effort, and letting the rabbits head out fast, only to be reeled in later in the race. Looking back though, I could have been even more patient, as it is evident in the speed of my first climb that I was eager to start the reeling.
I felt cool, calm, and collected through the first two aid stations. I was meeting my time expectations at each check point and eating a gel every 30-minutes. I was excited to attack Cardiac — the longest climb of the day — mostly because I realized that my checkpoint times didn’t exactly account for vertical gain AKA climbing AKA uphill is not at easy as flat.
I put the pedal to the metal as smooth and focused as one possibly could. Having time goals at checkpoints along the course gave me challenges within the race. For the time being, I was only thinking about the next 5.2-mile stretch, or 40-minutes up Caridac.
I crested Cardiac and made it through the aid station exactly at 40-minutes. Check the game plan, check the Strava, I was on-point! Next up, however, was the only course segment that I had never seen before… The Muir Woods.
The Muir Woods took my breath away.
The Woods is lush & wooded: An enchanted kingdom, with thick trees towering above and glimpses of sunlight highlighting patches of fairy dust. Yeah, true story. The magic of the Muir Woods put some vigor back into my step. Finally, we were coasting: up, down, around, ducking under limbs, bounding over rocks… climbing up stairs. No, stairs, no.
This 6-mile stretch through the Muir Woods, along the Dipsea Trail, was the longest segment of the race. What started as enchantment, quickly turned into quite a physical and mental challenge. There were far more ups and downs than I desired, and a handful of stair-laden trails to “assist” climbing up the steep slopes. It was during this stretch that I managed to pass a few people, and also saw and extra 15-minutes vanish from my watch.
As I finally reached the Old Dominion aid station, I thought: Oh well, this is racing. I had moved up to third place, and honestly your pace means nothing when it’s you against the trail. I churned forward knowing that there was flat trail ahead, and the sloggiest of sloggy fire road climbs lie over yonder.
The return trek from Muir Beach to Tennessee Valley to Alta aid stations encompass three gradually awful dirt road climbs. I knew they were coming, I knew I could handle them, I just hoped that I wouldn’t lose steam. Sitting in third position in the final third of the race, I never thought that I would get caught.
Usually in ultra races, the field thins out and gaps the longer the race goes on. I had glanced behind me once during the sea-side climb up from Muir Beach at mile-23 and saw a bright yellow shirt a few minutes behind me. Looking back, I wish that sight had struck some fear into me and jump-started my competitiveness. But, 3+ hours into a race, your mind can casually chose to ignore certain cues.
It was on the first of two climbs to the Tennessee Valley aid station that the footsteps overtook me. Much to my surprise, the overtaker extended his fist and engaged me in a fist pump of encouragement. I was flattered and encouraged by his camaraderie. I’d later learn that Jose was from Sao Paulo, Brazil and runs competitively for The North Face. While, I don’t enjoy being passed late in races, there was very little I could do as I didn’t have a higher gear to shift to.
When we hit the final 3-miles of downhill, I tried my best to use gravity and go-go-gadget legs to catch up with Jose, but he was building his lead and running as strong as heck.
When then descent leveled out and I hit some flat trail, I was pretty impressed to still be clocking around 6:3o/mile. I had a boost of confidence, proud that this late in the race I still had some of myself to give… and I was gonna give it.
I began to pass some relay folks, including the ever-familiar shirts of November Project tribemates from across the nation. As I crested the final climb up the finishing road, I spied a glittery elf-man named, Manzur. This was my cue to sprint, as Manzur was standing at the furthest spot where spectators can still signal to their marathon relay teammates at the finish.
I used this cue to smile, relax my shoulders, and scream my way in through the finish line:
Never before have I rejoiced so much at the end of a race… nor put my arms up in the air like I won (DOH!), but worse things could have happened…
I felt relieved and proud of my accomplishment. I executed my race plan to the best of my ability. I stayed focused/present/mindful throughout the race, and despite the 15-minutes lost to the Dipsea Trail, I maintained all the other splits that I was gunning for. Final time was 4:16:19, about 3.5-minutes behind Jose, and good for 4th Place overall.
Until next time, Mill Valley.