Last summer, I asked permission from Mrs. Golden Trails to run a 50 miler. She responded simply: “Yeah, I think you’re ready.” I wasn’t physically ready, but with close to twenty 50k’s in the books (racing and training runs), I had learned enough about how my body responds to racing, training, heavy mileage, etc. It seemed relatively safe to move up one level.
Since then, all my training and racing had had a singular focus: December 4th. Leading up to the race it became clear that this could be the greatest ultra-field ever assembled vying for $30k in prize money. The many languages spoken and logos on people’s jerseys at the starting line indicated that this was going to be a barn burner. I felt out of my league.
Start to Tennessee Valley (8.9 miles)
Mrs. Golden Trails, who would crew me for the day, dropped me off near the start about 10 minutes before the 5 a.m. As I huddled under a heat lamp (great idea for a race!), I looked around and thought “Dang, people look fit!”. There were lots of faces I recognized. Not from other local races, but from magazine covers and ultra-sites like www.irunfar.com (fantastic coverage). I felt out of my league, and here I was about to embark on my longest running journey ever.
At 5:07, the gun went off and we were on our way. I settled somewhere in the middle of pack. As we headed up the first hill, there was a beautiful string of lights ahead of and behind us. 300 ultrarunners with headlamps will do that. Everyone was commenting on how beautiful a scene it was. It really was a spectacular sight.
I was focused on not running too hard, which is difficult to do when it’s dark and the legs are fresh (hills don’t seem as big). However, I knew what was ahead and kept my pace in check. About a mile from Tennessee Valley aid station, you could start hearing a constant roar and lots of cowbells. However, nothing prepared me for the raucous crowd that would great us there (crews, just like the runners, were still all relatively close together). It was hard not to feel like a rock star! This was also the final reminder: this is a big time race.
Tennessee Valley – Bootjack (18.9)
I have been fortunate enough to explore trails in places like Alaska, Chile, Switzerland, Colorado and many others, but the Pirates Cove section of the Coastal Trail is by far my favorite. This was maybe my 50th time running it, but its beauty blows me away every time. What a privilege and joy to run here!
After a quick stop in Muir Beach, it was time to climb up to Bootjack aid station near the top of Mt. Tam. It’s a long and arduous climb that starts with countless switchbacks on the Heather Cut-Off trail. In total, it’s 4.5 miles of uphill. It’s easy to blow up here because it never gets too steep so that you have to walk. I put a special focus on this section in my training and ran up at a comfortable, steady pace. As planned, I got to Bootjack feeling great.
Bootjack to Stinson Beach (28.3)
This section includes an out-and-back on Bolinas Ridge. Truth be told, I don’t like this section very much. Yeah, it’s ridiculously beautiful, but no matter how often you run it, it’s always harder than you remember it. This time though, I had the great pleasure of watching some of the greatest runners in the world. I missed Geoff Roes and eventual winner Miguel Heras but got to see pretty much everyone else. The speed and tenacity with which these super-athletes were running was breathtaking. I was in awe.
At this point, I started to notice a very positive trend. Since the initial shuffle of the first 5 miles, I had not been passed. I was, however, slowly picking off runners one at a time. My pacing strategy seemed to be working. At least for now.
Matt Davis is one of my favorite trails to run down, but I cruised as much as possible in order to not destroy my quads. A foreign Salomon-sponsored runner (Team Salomon was very well represented at this race and included both the male and female winners) asked: [insert French accent] “What is this little village we are in?” – “Stinson Beach” I answered wondering why I was up there running with a Euro elite.
Stinson Beach – Bootjack (31.7)
Stinson Beach also meant that I was meeting my pacer, Mark Tanaka. We actually hadn’t run that much together but know each other well from the blogosphere and a number of online chess matches (dirty secret: many ultra-runners are nerds). His experience would prove invaluable the rest of the day. Going back up to Bootjack was a grind, and I was focused on not blowing up.
It took quite some time to get back up the mountain. Finally, back at Bootjack I was rewarded with not only seeing Mrs. Golden Trails (she met me after every section described here) but also one of my very best friends. It’s amazing how that can boost your spirits.
Bootjack to Tennessee Valley (45.4)
Re-energized I was flying down the section of technical leading us down to Muir Woods. In preparing for this race, this section to Old Inn aid was the only one I had not previously run. Unfortunately, I made the assumption that this was all downhill. Not so! There is good-sized uphill involved that was a bit annoying. Needless to say, it took a little longer to get to Old Inn than expected.
Soon after, there is a 2.5 mile stretch of basically flat single track (Redwood Trail). This section was essentially a slip-and-slide as we shared it with the concurrent marathon and 50k races.
(At this point, I want to thank all the 50k and marathon racers who stepped aside for all of us 50 milers passing them. The timing worked out so that the front of the 50 mile field was passing the back/mid-pack of the marathon/50k fields. It was hard to say thank you every time, but I tried. Mark, the amazing pacer, did lots of encouraging to others.)
As I was headed to Muir Beach, I was in a zone. One foot in front of the other. That’s all that mattered to me. Can’t remember the last time I was so singularly focused.
Muir Beach is another key point in the race. You’re about 40 miles in and the steepest, and perhaps most relentless, climb is about to hit. To my surprise, I was still power-hiking strong. The trend of my passing runners while not getting passed continued, which was very encouraging.
There is a beautiful downhill to Tennessee Valley aid, but it turned out to be the most painful part of the race. At some point earlier in the race, I had knocked loose a toenail. That hadn’t been too bad, but somehow that nail decided to move into a, let’s say, very unnatural position. Ouch!
Tennessee Valley aid was the perfect distraction. With a high-five and a new bottle, I was ready to take on the final section.
Tennessee Valley – Finish
According to the map, it’s 4.6 miles to the finish from TV. I highly doubt that figure, but who cares. (it turns out that it’s actually more like 6 mile…this race is 51.2 miles long). I said two words to Mark: “9 hours”. As I crested Marincello after 20 long minutes, Team Salomon runner Kasia Zajac, Poland’s trail running champion, kept creeping closer (here is a pre-race interview with her on irunfar – she’s big time like that). Mark asked whether I cared, but I said simply “must run my own race.” It was hard enough to put one foot in front of the other, I wasn’t about to start racing somebody for umpteenth place.
Between the top of Marincello and the final aid station is one downhill and one uphill, neither of which major. Kasia passed me on the downhill and then, somehow, I passed her on the uphill. We were both done. After final aid it’s all downhill and flat. Everything hurt. My knees, my quads, my shoulders…I can’t even remember. But I pushed as hard as I could. I wanted sub-9 hours.
Kasia passed me again and I reached out my hand as simultaneous sign of ‘defeat’ and admiration. She hesitantly accepted and was on her way to a 100 yard or so lead. It was around this time that I realized that sub-9 was out of the question.
But you know what? This was my last race of the season, everything I had trained for. Nothing was awaiting me but a couch. I pushed like I never have before. My breaths were so loud, they startled others (50k/marathon runners) as I passed them. No question, this was the hardest I have ever run in my life. It felt like a freakin’ movie scene. Except there was no music, no trophy or anything like that. It probably looked/sounded pretty ridiculous. In 9:03 (39th overall), I crossed the finish and collapsed onto my knees.
And with that an epic season culminated in a 50 mile journey that probably couldn’t have gone any better. I am very proud of how hard I worked for this. I’m not a natural, let alone talented, runner*. None of this comes easy, but I do love being out on trails and thereby continue to improve. It’s a wonderful hobby.
Thank you to all the volunteers who made this race possible. Also, my thanks go out to all my friends who cheered me on at the race as well as from afar. I have nothing but gratitude for the my pacer, Mark Tanaka, who always knew just the right thing to say and was not just pacing but coaching me as well. Thank you, Mark. Finally, my thanks to Mrs. Golden Trails, who not only crewed perfectly but also puts up with this time consuming hobby of mine. I love you, Honey.
*(my first consecutive mile was in college, my first road marathon was a 4:30, my first 50k a 6:12…both on very easy courses)