Stay the Pace
The mantra of the morning was: Stay the Pace. I collaborated on race prep with Dan Nally, alter ego: Denali. A fellow Coloradan and accomplished road & trail racer, Denali and I shared the trails on a handful of fall training runs and were both looking to clock 7-hours in the 50-Mile trail race in San Francisco. Denali is a strong, patient, and confident runner and was a welcome addition to my training routine, as I am apt to run and race alone.
Keeping up with Denali in the race would be a challenge, but I was confident I could hang given my breakthrough training period, familiarity with the trails of the Marin Headlands, and readiness to let my competitive juices flow.
Without giving away too much of Denali’s Strava recon, we both planned to go out conservatively through the Cardiac hill climb (19.6) – conserving energy for the grueling climbs in the second half of the course. We let the front pack race off from the start and kept a mellow pace through the first few rollers. This also proved to be a good way to stay safe through the early head-lamp stage of the race. Two-hours of running before sunrise can be problematic for a large-footed trail runner, like myself.
We did a swell job keeping our pace and stuck together through 15-miles, or so. I was feeling pretty fresh, so I pushed the downhill into Muir Beach (14.3) and separated a bit from Denali. My one checkpoint time goal of the day was to hit the McKennan Gulch aid station (24.4) at about 3h15m. I considered this the midway point and knew it could set me up for a 3h45m second half to reach my 7-hour goal time. Our recon proved that most racers in the top-20 from the previous year positive split by about a half-hour.
I was ecstatic after the Cardiac climb, which appeared to be the easiest and most enjoyable climb of the day. From Cardiac, I gave a hoot to Eric Shranz of Ultrarunner Podcast and skipped along the Pantoll trail. This was my first taste of new trail in the Marin Headlands, having run the 50K in previous years and the marathon in 2013. The sun had risen just enough to glow through the tall trees and highlight lush, green patches of moss along the path. I was beaming.
Onward, I marched along the Coastal trail and toward McKennan Gulch. There was a bit of a hiccup as me and two other racers skeptically found ourselves on pavement. A brief scare in which all three of us came to a halt and yelped to the oblivious Drone pilots, delusionally pleading if we were going the right way or not!?!?! I’d never heard about this stretch of pavement on the course, but quickly caught glimpse of an orange marker ahead and reclaimed my stride along West Ridgecrest Boulevard toward McKennan Gulch.
I hit McKennan (24.4) at 3h20m, feeling calm, nourished, and excited to start “picking off” competitors who hadn’t conserved as I had. I was living on the edge, about 83% confident in my strategy at this point. When I peeled away from Denali at mile 15, I instantly let my enthusiasm and excitement take over and feared that it would overshadow the conservative nature in which we started the race. Regardless, I charged forward, enjoying the two-way traffic on the Coastal trail. It’s rejuvenating to say “hi” to people during a trail race… and it’s especially invigorating when you are in noticeably better-spirits than others. Sorry mid-packers 😉
Churn & Go
After the descent into Stinson Beach (29.4), I started meeting with the demons of ultrarunning present. This segment covers the Dipsea trail and includes a roller coaster of stairs. My fueling and hydration had been spot on thus far. Prior to the race, I had packed the waistband of my North Face Long Haul Shorts with 14-gels and carried a 24oz bottle. My gel selection included Honey Stinger Gold, Untapped Pure Maple Syrup packets, and a few Clif Shot Energy gels. I thought the variety would serve me well, however I quickly realized that slurping more than 2 packets of straight up honey and/or maple syrup, you will quickly develop a disdain for sugary syrups.
It was during this stretch of miles 30-40 when I felt some sloshing around in my stomach. It was no coincidence that this is the longest segment between aid stations and the longest stretch of “alone time” to let them demons seep in. I hit a few minor low points of stomach uncertainty. I was fueling well on the uphills, but as I leveled off and ran the downhills, my stomach sloshed and bulged and lactic-whatever-tickled my throat.
This is when the power of a positive mindset set me up for success. Just as I reminded myself that every uphill has a downhill, I reinforced the mantra: This too shall pass. I knew that the stomach discomfort was being exacerbated in my head, so I started smiling and thinking of positive words to characterize running joy. Believe it or not, this worked, and the discomfort passed. As I reached Old Inn Aid Station (38.0), I got the reboot I needed and excitedly anticipated the familiar terrain and finish line just 12-miles ahead.
Yes, the Coyote Ridge climb out of Muir Beach (40.8) is awful, but my least favorite climb in the Headlands is the stretch along the Marincello/Bobcat trails. This is just a 3-mile stretch (43.8-43.7) of exposed dirt road and is the last climb of the race. At least on Coyote Ridge there is full license to walk… ahem power hike, up and up and up. Meanwhile, the grade of Marincello is just low enough that you don’t want to fully run, but it’s not steep enough to justify hiking. I had the pleasure of sharing some of this trail with NP_NYC legend, Paul Leak. Even though it was just a mile or so that he ran with me from Tennessee Valley (43.8) it was an immense distraction from the road ahead. Thanks Paul!
The final aid station of the day is Alta (46.7). I usually get scolded for asking for a full bottle fill-up here. The kind-hearted volunteers encourage me to carry less liquid/weight and charge downhill to the finish. I’d been nailing my aid station pass-throughs all day long: I never touched (or even looked at) any of the tables for food! My waistband of gels provided all the sustenance I needed. I filled my bottle with tailwind three times during the first 30-miles, then at each subsequent Aid Station (5 more times!!). I was so pleased to have Tailwind along the whole course. I can’t imagine doing an ultra race without it!
So at Alta Aid Station, I switched it up and yelled for a fill-up of water. I didn’t know it at the time, but having water in my bottle for the final 3-miles would be the greatest decision of my day! The fresh, cold water tasted like, well you know, Rocky Mountain Spring Water. It was beyond refreshing! I sprayed water in my mouth, on my face, over my head. I was in heaven.
Girl on Fire
At this point, I had passed the 7-hour mark, but I was running strong and had been told on countless occasions in the final 18-miles that my wife was crushing the 50K race… and she may not be too far ahead of me! I had hoped to meet up with Julia in the final miles of the race, as it would mean that both of us were right on our goal times. I daydreamed of catching up with her in the last mile and running across the finish line hand-in-hand just like Killian and Jason in the 2016 HR100. Welp, I never caught her, she was on FIRE. She finished 2-minutes ahead of me, exactly on her goal time! Julia and General Molly picked me up for the customary “final 100 meters” group run to the finish line. I came through at 7:17 – happy, exhausted, and proud!
The major takeaway from this race is that I saw what it looks like to RACE an ultra. Along the out-and-back of the Coastal Trail, I saw David Laney’s legs steamrolling toward me. Laney is 6-feet tall and his bare, white legs looked to be about 10-feet long striding through the single-track. He stormed by me, knees high, exhausting breath, and with immense focus on the race. I have never felt/looked/exhausted myself like that during a trail race, but having that visual ingrained in my head will serve me in the future.
Many racers look to the trails as a break from intensity common with road running. One look at the effort, stamina, and grit of Zach Miller’s victory captured by Run Steep Get High tells you that the front of the pack has a a much different mentality about the future of trail competition.
The doors are wide open for me. With each training cycle, long run, and race, I learn so much about the sport of running, the tactics of racing, and the benefits of consistency. I’m excited for where this sport is taking me and will continue to enjoy ever step of the journey. Never Stop Improving.
29th OA, 27th Men, 7h17m
Sneaks: Nike Wildhorse 3