There's no way to understate this: the HURT 100 is hard. I ran it well, and up to a certain point I think I ran it smart, and it's still only due to the help of the amazing race volunteers and fellow runners that I was able to make it through to the end. If it had been a hotter year, I might not even be able to say that much, and most of us who started the race this year couldn't.
I came in knowing it would be hard, and I was neither disappointed nor underestimating the task. That wasn't exactly the same as being prepared for how hard it would be. No matter how much I'd read, how many videos and photos of the course I'd looked at, the true relentlessness of the run wouldn't sink in until I'd run at least one full lap.
It was also one of the most intense experiences of my life, maybe least of all physically. People who talk about ultrarunning being a mental sport but haven't run HURT might just be repeating filtered wisdom from someone who has. Esthetically, it was beautiful and haunting and unforgettable. Emotionally, it was deep and raw and tough and sweet, and I've cried less over break-ups than I did over finishing successfully.
In brief, the HURT 100 is run on five loops of a 20-mile course which climbs Honolulu's Mt. Tantalus three times on each loop. If you're familiar with Honolulu, Tantalus is due north of Waikiki, and you may have been there as a tourist to see Manoa Falls or Round Top Drive (both on course). If not, just know that Tantalus is steep as hell and covered in dense Hawaiian rainforest. In total, there's just a few feet shy of 5,000 feet of vertical climbing per loop. This means the average grade on the course is close to 10%.
That's not what makes it hard.
A couple days before the race, I went out for a preview with Ken "Running Stupid" Michal and co. We hiked and ran the shortest of the three legs of each loop, from Paradise Park through Pauoa Flats to Nu`uana-Pali Drive. Even though Ken, like me, was only in town for race week from the Bay Area, he was able to give me a lot of good tips. This year would be Ken's fourth attempt at finishing the full hundred miles, so there might not have been a better source of info on what could go wrong at HURT and how to persevere.
Each of three legs of the course finishes a 12 to 1600 foot climb at Pauoa Flats, a roughly quarter-mile section of trail that flips open the dictionary to the word "gnarly" and asks, "Are you sure you really wanted that? Because I can keep going." True, there are a few spots where the ground isn't literally coated in Banyan roots. Yep. There are a few.
That's not what makes it hard.
By the time we made it to Nu`uanu (the end of the second leg) I had a better understanding of what I'd be up against, and of all that Ken had pushed through over the past three years' runs, but still no true grasp of the weekend ahead.
I showed up on race morning rested and excited. The run starts at 6am, which in January means more than an hour of darkness still lay ahead. I waited at the back of the pack, which would help force me to take it slow up the first climb, a steep hill just around the corner from the starting line called Hogsback. When we topped out at Round Top Drive (just before Pauoa Flats), I took advantage of my better downhill running speed to pass more than a dozen people, landing solidly in the middle of the pack by the first aid station.
On the climb back up, almost half of those people would pass me again, since I tend to be a slower uphill runner. This didn't matter much to me, since I would overtake them at the Flats or coming down the other side by the time we got to the other station. In some cases, we would leapfrog each other this way predictably for as much as 80 miles. The majority of the trail is technical, requiring close attention to your footing if not the copious roots, slick rocks, and dangerous drop offs, with occasional scrambles or two-foot high step ups. This hits everyone in their weak spot, whether it's ascending or descending or just staying upright.
No, that's not what makes it hard either, but we're getting closer.
I caught up with Ken at the top of a steep scramble (coming up to Bien's Bench) after the second aid station. I was a little worried that I was going out too fast on the first loop, but my pace felt comfortable there, so I took his encouragement to pass instead of running with him for a while. I'd be seeing plenty more of him, anyway. On our way up we met another repeat attempter Jennifer-Anne on her way down, already, as she put it "puking out." She'd get back to the start and spend the rest of the weekend volunteering. Some of it in a giant cockroach costume.
I finished my first loop in 5:15, refilled my bottles and turned around for another climb up Hogsback. Now in the daylight, without the big crowd at the back and the excitement of the early going, I could learn to hate this hill. Between the heat of the day and the encroaching fatigue, I still felt generally good but my ascents were already getting much slower. All told, the second loop would take me about 75 minutes longer. With 40 miles done and the night about to begin, I was starting to worry that if my time kept dropping off, in the end I would to.
This is precisely what makes HURT so hard.
No other mountain hundred I know of has such aggressive cutoff times tuned precisely to chase down mid-packers like myself. I have no doubt that Hardrock is a tougher course, considering it climbs an additional 8,000 feet and summits the odd 14,000 foot peak for a lark, but with 48 hours to finish most runners never need hurry just to meet the time limit unless something goes wrong. HURT, however, has a 36 hour time limit, with hard cutoffs throughout the last loop starting at 29 hours in.
This means that even if you make all the cutoffs with time to spare, you never really get a chance to stop worrying about them. You can't rest for longer than you absolutely need to. You can't slow down, zone out, and coast along one of the few relatively easy section of trail. You have to stay focused on running your best for as long as 36 hours .
Although I didn’t get to enjoy as much scenery, the nighttime portion of HURT might have been my favorite. Things cooled off enough on the third loop to offset most of my encroaching fatigue, and the rainforest has its own kind of beauty by headlamp. I’ll never forget the sound of wind picking up in the giant bamboo groves high above Manoa Falls. My third loop took 7:43, or again about 75 minutes longer than the previous loop.
On loop four, I deployed my Caffeine Strategem. I’d stopped drinking coffee a month before, and quit caffeine altogether a week after that. I cracked a 24-Hour Energy and mixed it into one of my bottles of electrolyte drink, and sipped it on my way up Hogsback. By Pauoa Flats I was flying over the roots and crooning along with my iPod at top volume (my apologies to any delicate eardrums I may have passed on the way). I refilled that bottle with Coke at the bottom. All told, I moved up 15 places and ran my fourth loop ten minutes faster than my third.
Early on loop five, though, the wheels came off. I took it slow up Hogsback as the second day of the race began to heat up. By the second half of the first leg’s climb, I was feeling a little queasy, but I took some ginger and tried to push through it. I let another runner and his pacer push me to run the rest of the climb faster than I usually would have, and just before the top I pulled over and insisted they run on. I tried to force myself to vomit but nothing would come up. Well, that was dumb.
With four miles left to the first aid station of the loop, I was dehydrated. I had some water in my pack’s hydration bladder, but for whatever reason it wasn’t tasting good to me and I could only get small sips in irregularly. Neither electrolyte drink nor Coke was at all palatable, and I did my best to force as many sips of water as I could, and maintained my pace for the rest of the leg, finishing with a good downhill run into the Paradise Park aid station.
Where I asked for water, and collapsed on the pavement.
The HURT volunteers jumped to my aid and saved my run. I was given cup after cup of cool water (the first of which I couldn’t keep down). A cold towel was placed on my head. Someone sat with me and rubbed my back and shoulders while someone else got me a cup of cold vegetable soup and refilled my pack. After maybe ten minutes when I was ready to try moving on, two of them walked up the road to the trailhead with me. I was still unsteady for another mile or so, but I absolutely owe my finish to them.
Shortly thereafter, a runner coming into the aid station who had already timed out and was just completing her 67-mile “fun run” handed off her trekking poles to me. I don’t know what difference they made for my overall time since I’m not used to running with them and they interfere with my fast downhill style, but they were great for that uphill section while I was still shaky after letting myself get so low. I owe another big thanks to #55.
The next leg was by far the slowest of the race for me, at barely over two miles an hour. It was the only time I dropped more than a couple places. At the final aid station, I was fairly sure I’d make it as long as I kept pushing, but I had an eye on my watch climbing back out again and was just as worried about the few runners left behind me. At one point, ten minutes after leaving the station where the cutoff would be coming up in twenty, I remember bellowing up the trail, “Ken! You’d better be up there and you’d better be running hard!” Not two minutes later he and his pacer came running down past me, looking as determined as I’ve ever seen anyone.
After I met Franco Soriano sitting on a rock, timed out a mile above the last checkpoint, I cried thinking about how hard he’d fought and how close he’d come. Many runners quit at mile 67 if they think the cutoffs will be too close. Franco made them chase him down.
Shannon MacGregor caught up with me on the steepest part of the last climb, and we pushed each other along. He ran on ahead to Pauoa Flats, where I limped in thinking I was alone and stopped to stretch. I stretched one quad, and screamed. I stretched the other, and screamed. I leaned against a root to stretch each calf, and screamed twice.
From thirty feet down the trail, I heard, “Fuck!” It was Shannon, sitting on some roots. “My blister just popped!”
We pushed each other along a little bit more, to the end of the last extra bit of climbing up to Manoa Cliff, and Shannon ran on down ahead. I didn’t have the legs for it yet. I packed up my poles, and shuffled along for most of the descent, until the last mile, and suddenly I was off. It seems to happen to me for the last mile of every run – I just smell the finish and remember how to run. I tore down the last bit of trail, over the bridges, and into the Nature Center right behind Shannon. There was still a big crowd hanging around to cheer for me as I reached the finish sign, which I touched, kissed, hugged, and sobbed over.
We wouldn’t want it to be easy, indeed.
I guess I passed Patrick Castello on my way in, and he finished another minute behind me. I never saw him.
Eight minutes later, Ken crossed the bridge and rounded the corner into the Nature Center. I have never seen an ultrarunning crowd go wild like it did for him as he successfully completed his fourth attempt at the HURT 100 with fifteen minutes to spare.
What makes HURT so hard is not just the distance, the terrain, the course, the footing, and the heat, but the fact that it’s meant to be nothing less than the hardest challenge it could be. What makes HURT possible to run is not just the dedication and the passion of each runner, but of the entire network of HURT runners and volunteers, all 300+ of them.
Mahalo. `Aole makou e ho`ohikiwale kela.
: I know this may sound like a lot of other trails, but let me put it another way: there are actually brief sections where the trail itself goes over roots. The footing includes no dirt, rock, gravel, or artificial walkway, just a mass of gnarly uneven toe-stubbing fascia manglers.
: Of course, if you're a faster runner you have to spend the whole run worrying about running your best while focusing on your footing. Unless there was one I didn't hear about, this may have been the HURT 100's first year without a broken bone.
I'm writing on the plane to Honolulu. In five days, I'll be running my second hundred miler, the HURT 100. This one has a reputation. It's been a long, fun, and sometimes ill-advised journey to get here.
I don't know what it was exactly that possessed me to sign up for this race. I'd recently completed my first fifty miler, and I was pretty sure I wanted to try a longer distance someday, when I saw an email announcing that sign-ups would be open soon. Maybe that timing was enough. Deciding to take on the HURT 100 was bad enough, but deciding to take in on as my first?
People often roll their eyes when I mention it's a hard hundred miler, as though running a hundred miles is already such an impossible feat, there couldn't possibly be much delineation. Among ultrarunners, though, HURT has a reputation, and not just because of its cutesy intimidating name. It never stops climbing or descending, and by the time you're done you'll have climbed 25,000 feet. It's in the Hawaiian rainforest, which means tricky terrain full of roots, rocks, river crossings, and endless mud, not to mention heat and humidity. If all that weren't bad enough, the time limit is set tight at 36 hours. I've talked to people who have squeezed in finishes close to 48 hour cut off at Hardrock 100 in the high San Juans of Colorado, bagging 14,000 footers and struggling for air as they go, but timed out at HURT. One of them repeatedly on both counts.
So it sounded hard, sure, but it sounded amazing. The rainforest would be beautiful, and my favorite kind of running has always been on gnarly technical trails. I'd just have to get better at climbing. Endlessly.
Sign-ups opened at the end of July, and I surprised myself by forgetting to hover nervously before clicking "Submit."
When they ran the lottery two weeks later, I only landed a spot on the waitlist anyway. Worst of all, I was #28 on the list. Judging by the last two years' waitlists, I was just on the cusp - I'd probably get in, but I might not, and I had about four months of uncertain traning to slog through until I'd know for sure.
I lasted about three weeks. I didn't stop training, but I found another race. Last year's (2012) Headlands Hundred has been cancelled, then out of the blue reinstated under new management. It was only a week away, but I signed up and got my gear together.
Okay, sure, I was probably undertrained and hadn't really tapered, but I figured whenever I ran my first hundred miler, it would be hard, it would be impossible to fully prepare myself for, and to some degree it would just have to suck. I was right on those counts, and fortunately it was also amazing. I learned a lot from Headlands that I don't think I'd have any hope of getting through HURT without. Like that you need more than a week to prepare for a hundred miler.
Headlands left me with a little bit of ankle pain that I took too long to get diagnosed. Specifically, I waited until after Firetrails 50 a month later. Rather, I waited until after a few weeks of recovery from Firetrails 50. Oops. No damage done, but I might have missed out on some good training time.
Finally, in December, I moved off the waitlist to the entry pool. I ramped up my hill training, and started using the steam room or heading out for long runs with extra layers of fleece. Even in California, heat training takes work in the winter.
I joined a few other HURT runners and like minded fools for a forty mile nighttime training run in the mountains the weekend before Christmas. It all had a bit of a Tolkien feel as the eight of us set out into the woods at dusk. Two would turn back before it was (okay, got) too late. One would be separated from his companions and become horribly lost. Of course, I was that one.
At a certain junction where the trail apparently crossed the road, I was just a little bit behind another runner. I thought I saw his headlamp bounce off down the logging road which went down the hill off the road to the right instead of crossing. Something about it didn't look right to me, but I couldn't find where the trail was supposed to go, and I was pretty far ahead of the pack behind me, so off I went instead of waiting. Oops.
The problem with logging roads at night is that they are in fact a maze of twisty passages all alike. That there were no trail markings on any of the intersections was my second sign that I'd gone wrong. That I hit a dead-end at the stream with no crossing that didn't involve a twenty foot drop was about my fourth. That I tried to backtrack to the road and ended up in someone's backyard was actually pretty funny, but when I ran back down the road to where I'd gone wrong I still couldn't see how I went right. So I went back down the logging road. Like a boss.
Eventually I figured out that if I gave up on finding the trail and ran along that road, I'd find the main park entrance, which also happened to be our next major landmark on the trail. I lucked out and managed to pick up the trail from the road sooner than that, only two miles up, but all told my foray in logging added six miles to the run and I no longer had any hope of catching up with the group.
We'd had a lot of rain that weekend, so the stream crossings were high. The majority had footbridges or were still small enough to feel quite safe, until I got to one about five miles from the end of the trail where the bridge was out. I didn't know the area well enough to trust that I'd be able to backtrack and use another trail to get out (as half the group did), and backtracking all the way to where I could thumb a ride or otherwise find help could have meant risking hypothermia. Instead, I pulled out a perfect example of don't try this at home, and crossed hip-deep white water solo at 4:00 am five miles from the trailhead.
The first step was cold, but protected and still. The second step was into rushing water that wanted to suck me down stream, so I plunged my foot all the way in until I could wedge it into the rocks below. From there I could grab a boulder that was just submerged, and leverage my way up onto an exposed rock for steps three and four. Step five was onto a mossy boulder on the far shore, but I only had a one-inch ledge. I grabbed the top of the boulder at my full armspan with my fingertips, grateful for some rusty rock climbing experience, and, fatigued from forty miles of night running but terrified of falling backwards, hoisted myself over the top.
Five more miles of easy running, some urgent I'm-okays from the stupid smartphone and a nap in the back seat, and I was starting to feel better about my chances of getting through this HURT thing.
All I've gotta do is run smart. That shouldn't be so hard, right?
The day after Thanksgiving, while many of countrymen apparently were lining up to fight over consumer electronics, I took advantage of the extra day off work to wake up at 4:30 AM and drive straight to Yosemite National Park. My plan was to run that day, camp that night, run the next day, and then drive home. Depending on how much time I had on Friday, I would either go for a long but gentle run on Friday followed by a short but steep run on Saturday, or vice versa. Yosemite had a few tricks up its sleeve for me, and things did not work out exactly as planned, but for such a loosely planned solo trip I have no real complaints.
I made it to Hodgdon Meadows inside the park boundaries and had my camp setup by around 9 AM, but with one key element missing that would come back to haunt me later: no firewood. I figured I'd either swing down through the valley for dinner or stop at the Crane Flat gas station after my run to pick some up since gather wood at such a heavily used campground is a bit of a fool's errand. Judging by the temperature at that hour, it was going to be a chilly evening, and I was definitely going to want a fire to sit by before crawling into my tent.
The good news was that with such an early, I'd be able to get my long run in that day. The route I had picked out would take me from the Foresta trailhead on Big Oak Flat Road up and over the sub-alpine shoulder of the north valley wall to the summit of El Capitán ten miles out, where I would have my lunch and turn around.
I started my day heading up switchbacks at 5,000 feet, through scrubland that was burned out twenty years back, with views of the eastern side of Yosemite Valley and the snowy mountains beyond. A couple miles later I was weaving through dense pine with a couple of trick stream crossings. cruising along but struggling a bit with the thinner air.
At four miles I came to the only major junction on my map. The trails here were clearly marked, both on paper and in the real world. I took the right branch, which was marked El Capitán. Unfortunately, there was another turn off to the left which I never saw (even on the way back, when I knew to look out for it) and the more obvious path I stuck to is not marked on any of the four maps I looked at that day, so I didn't know to watch out for a second junction. By the time I realized I was headed toward the base of El Cap rather than the summit, I was worried about how long it would have taken to backtrack and finish out the run rather than continuing on and turning back at a good halfway point.
I had hoped to run on the North Rim Trail, but instead found myself descending 2,000 feet on Old Big Oak Flat Road, once the main route into the valley. As it has been so thoroughly abandoned, it looks as though the park service is trying to encourage reclamation of some the upper sections of the paved road. For me, this meant jumping and climbing over downed logs and whole trees for more than a mile, which look as though they will be left to mulch.
The reason Old Big Oak Flat Road can't be used anymore is that most of a half-mile section was completely buried in rockfall in 1945. This doesn't make for good hiking, let alone running, and seems like a good invitation for a permanent road closure. This is probably why they don't bother putting it on any of recreational maps, which is why I wasn't watching out for my turn off to the North Rim Trail.
Even with all the downed trees and the growing suspicion that something wasn't right, I had a great time cruising down the busted old road until I hit the wide, exposed, somewhat unnavigable and slightly terrifying talus field. I've been rock climbing and boulder hopping before, but this wasn't clearly stable. There were occasional ducks to mark the general direction across the slope, but they were very hard to pick out in the monochromatic jumble. When I finally emerged from the rockfall, I popped out about sixty feet uphill from the road.
On the way back I tried a different tactic, sticking with the road and ignoring the markers, which seemed to get me through with far less boulder hopping. However, it quickly became clear that I must have skipped the biggest section of scrambling by emerging into the woods below the road. After scrambling up a steep embankment, it seemed I was off by at least 100 vertical feet.
After all the unexpected climbing, both on my feet and all fours, the last leg of the run was harder and slower than I'd hoped for, and I finished the last two miles in the moonlight. I quickly changed into warmer clothes and headed back in the direction of my campsite, stopping only at the Crane Flat gas station. They were closed - there would be no firewood for me.
I was uninjured. I felt accomplished, but also exhausted. Yosemite and I had fought each other to a draw. Did I really need another day of this?
By the time I got back to my campsite it was 6:30pm, dark, and getting cold fast. I quickly broke camp, packed up the car, took some caffeine and drove back to Oakland. This might not have been the best decision at that moment, but at least I knew where all my turns would be.
On Saturday September 15th, 2012, I finished my first hundred mile run. I can summarize the experience for you in three words: it was hard. I never expected it to be easy, but I was blown away by how much of it actually was easy for me, and by how many unfamiliar and unexpected ways it was just so difficult.
The Headlands Hundred was a last-minute sign-up for me. It wasn't until the Monday before the race I was sure I'd be able to take the following Monday (the day after I would finish) off work and that I wouldn't be interfering with outside plans. I'd been training pretty hard for the last few months, both for the Dick Collins Firetrails 50 and my waitlisted entry to the HURT 100 next January, and I'd finished strong at the Marin Ultra Challenge fifty miler in June, but a last minute sign-up to a hundred miler is no joke. I had five days to get my shit together, which meant no time to even think about picking up help in the form of a pacer or a crew. It was just me, a drop bag, a brand new pair of shoes, and the world's best aid station volunteers.
Headlands is not the hardest hundred-mile course out there, but it's probably on the harder side, and a number of people commented on how ambitious (or worse) I was to make it my first. The trails are mostly non-technical fire roads, but they can get nasty in their own way with plenty of loose rocks, ruts, and some severe camber. The four-lap course makes planning easy, but passing through the Rodeo Beach start/finish area at the halfway and three-quarter mark is a severe psychological challenge. The Bay Area weather was characteristically mild this year, but the nighttime fog was thick, cold, and made headlamps almost useless at times (think high beams). Toughest of all, the total vertical gain of over 20,000 feet is distributed almost evenly across five climbing sections per lap, with only about two miles of flat running.
I started out trying hard not to worry about making time or passing anyone, and focused on keeping a slow and steady pace. I did a better job of this than on any previous race or even training run, with my guideline being not to ever let myself feel like I was working. I finished the first twenty-five mile lap in 5:40, which was a bit faster than I'd hoped for, and the second after about another seven hours, which put me about fifteen minutes behind June's (steeper and poorly paced) fifty miler. This was when most people picked up their pacer (or their first of two), and was almost exactly when the sun finished setting.
I'd heard plenty about how much nighttime slows you down on hundred milers, and I'd done some recent nighttime trail runs that I thought would help me prepare, but I was shocked by how quickly it made such a huge difference. The first problem was that I could no longer make up much time on the downhills, since my speed was limited not by downhill running skill but by the range of my lights, which was only compounded by the fog. I was able to overcome some of the visibility issues with my backup handheld flashlight, but by about mile sixty I started feeling pain in the front of my right ankle on descents unless I was very careful about maintaining a forward posture, which is hard to do when you're going slowly and carefully.
What I was least prepared for was how tired I got, and how quickly. I'm normally more of a night person, but being out there in the wilderness with few electric lights quickly put me on a different rhythm, never mind that I'd been awake since five A.M. and running since seven. At every aid station I came to, the first thing I asked for was caffeine. Then I checked my water.
Nonetheless, I was amazed at how well it was all going and how easy it all felt, right up until it wasn't. I can pinpoint fairly well when this run became the hardest thing I've ever done: somewhere between mile 62 and mile 63, climbing up the Marincello Trail for the second time. It was after one A.M., it was dark, it was foggy, it was getting cold as I neared the ridge, and I felt like I was falling asleep on my feet along what always feels like an endless rise. For the first time, I was moving slowly enough that I started to worry about making the cutoff times.
A few miles out from the start/finish area, I heard a wild cheer go up when the winner came in. Julie Fingar came in after 21 hours 20 minutes, setting a new women's course record and proving that she's following in the legendary Ann Trason's footsteps not only as a race director but as a woman who can take the overall crown. I literally only saw her out there in flashes.
I made it to Rodeo Beach for mile 75 with 75 minutes to spare, poetically, but that certainly wasn't enough time to set my mind at ease. I just had to hope that when the sun came up I'd be able to pick things up a little. To make heading back out on my fourth lap that much harder, the second place finisher and first-place man Karl Schnaitter came across the line as I was changing my flashlight batteries.
Sunrise did very little for me. It was on the first big climb after daybreak that I hit the lowest point of the race, and seriously considered turning back. I had no caffeine left on me, and Rodeo Beach was still a little closer than the next aid station at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Finally, I figured out how to set a five minute alarm on my stopwatch, and curled up in the ditch at the side of Bobcat Trail. It didn't make all the difference, but it made enough to get me through the rest of the climb.
That was the only sleep I got, but the rest of the course felt pretty much the same. Each of the four remaining climbs just got harder and slower, with more pauses while I leaned over on my knees to recoup. About halfway through the lap - mile 87 or so - was when the weird, tough, and somehow good emotional stuff started to come.
I've been through these rolling endorphin surges on some of my hardest runs before, but this time I started figuring out a little bit about how to use them to my advantage. When I started to grind to a halt during the climbs, I would visualize some detail about finishing, and sometimes - not reliably - I would find myself bowled over in a surge of emotion. Sometimes I would start cackling, sometimes sobbing, but it was almost uncontrollable and it was just incredibly good. Best of all, it made my legs feel like new and gave me enough energy to get through a good chunk of steep hiking.
Coming out of the last aid station at Tennessee Valley at mile 96, I had about 90 minutes left on the clock, and only one more climb to go. At this point there was no reason to doubt I could do it, but I was just moving so slowly, and nodding off so often, and the trail was so much longer than I remembered... At one point I picked up a stick from the side of the trail and beat the crap out of my quads and calves for a minute as I walked along.
Finally I found myself back on Wolf Ridge, and I knew I was home free. All the exhaustion and even the pain in my ankle melted away and I started really running, faster than I had at any time in the last 98 miles. As I made my way past Fort Cronkhite to where I could see the finish line tent, I started hurtling down toward the beach below. I ran like my life depended on it, and I ran with tears of joy streaming down my cheeks.
I finished in 32:34:01, twenty-six minutes ahead of the final cutoff of thirty-three hours. I placed sixteenth out of seventeen finishers. I was sad to see Nadia Costa miss the official finish by only eight minutes - she impressed me immensely by making up a lot of time on her last lap after technically missing the cutoff at mile 75 - and inspired by Alex Mares, who just kept hiking after his knee gave out at mile 40 to come in with nine minutes to spare. There were twenty-seven starters in this year's hundred mile run.
Although I did it alone, I owe an immense debt of gratitude to the new operators of PCTR who scrambled to put this event on so well, and even more so to the sleepless volunteers they rounded up. To whomever went out and marked the trails with glowsticks to counter the fog, I owe you a debt of gratitude and the drink of your choice. I'm also very thankful to the encouragement I got from the group at Run 365, from Lauri who was out there crewing Julie Fingar, and from my indescribably awesome partner Robynne. I'm not entirely sure where I got the overconfidence to do a stupid thing like this, but I'm sure you all helped.
 If I end up doing HURT, some would say that one is in contention. Sure, it sounds tough, but then there's always Hardrock. And we don't even talk about the Barkley Marathons in polite company.
 Now that I know how rough those late, exhausted hours can be, I see the value of a pacer. Everyone running past me with their own made me think of that old Simpsons episode where Bart sells his soul and everyone else gets to play with theirs, but poor Bart has to row his own boat in circles alone.
I'd been looking forward to this year's Headlands 50, with some trepidation, as a good choice for my first 50 miler. It was a steep course, sure, but I'd run a few events on those trails before, and a September event gave me plenty of time to train for it.
Then I found out that, with the unfortunate demise of Pacific Coast Trail Runs, the Headlands 50 would not be happening this year after all, and I started looking around for another event to take its place. The Dick Collins Firetrails 50 is a classic, and it uses many of the same East Bay trails I train on every weekend, but waiting until October seemed like putting things off just a little bit too long. Everything else I could was either booked up long ago (*cough*Tahoe*cough*) or too far away to commit to without adding vacation planning into the mix. Then I found out about this brand new event, the Marin Ultra Challenge.
So what if it was only two weeks away?
Only two weeks before signing up, I'd set a 50K PR running at Canyon Meadow. I might have been running fewer miles than I should have since then, but I felt like I was in the best running shape of my life. Why wait? The only problem was having to sign up and immediately go straight into both nervous anticipation and my taper period.
As tradition would have it, I was struck with a nasty cold less than a week before the race. If nothing else, this had the benefit of making sure I got enough rest, but it didn't look good for a little while there. On Thursday, I wouldn't have been able to run. On Friday, I might have gone for it, but it would have been a shit show. When I made it out to the starting line on Saturday morning, I felt great.
I'm used to running at events where the distances range from 5K or 5 miles - occasionally as long as a half marathon - at a minimum per entrant up through a full marathon or 50K. It was delightful knowing that none of the participants planned to run less than 50K that day.
For the first time in four months or so, I even got there before the race began. This gave me time to get my bib, pin it on properly, check my drop bag in, change my mind about bringing my windbreaker twice (I left it behind in the end, for which I was glad), and hear a course walkthrough from course designer Jim Vernon. Basically, if you could think of a scenic trail in western Marin County below the very top of Mt. Tam, we'd be running it.
We started with a deceptively easy nine mile warmup loop around the Headlands and back to the starting line. We climbed the normally picturesque SCA trail, from which countless postcards of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco skyline have been shot, in a bank of morning fog so thick you couldn't see anything but the trail either side, the drop-off or the hill climbing above us.
"How about that view?" I heard one runner comment to another, just ahead of me.
"It's perfect," I called ahead to them. "Some days there's nothing in the world but running."
I ran alongside Andrew Guitarte for a little while, and we talked about hill running. He does a lot of running on Mount Diablo, and prefers to work on downhill speed, which I think is also my biggest strength. "When it's late in the day and the sweeps are coming up behind you, that's where you can make up your time." As we came to the first real downhill section, I pulled ahead, but undoubtedly let myself cut loose too much. My split timing for mile six was 7:30, and while it felt great and easy, I'd be surprised if it didn't take its toll later on.
After crossing back over the starting line, we began the first steep climb of the course, up the Coastal Trail to the old World War II gun emplacements. From there it was over and down to Tennessee Valley, then back up and around the long way to Muir Beach, crossing over into Mount Tamalpais State Park where we picked up the Dipsea Trail around mile 23 and cruised over to Stinson Beach. Shortly before the Stinson Aid station, I set what would have been a new marathon PR for myself in 5:27, making me worry again about my pacing.
Miles 28 through 30 were spent on the Willow Camp Trail, also known as Hell. There were plenty of tough hills on this course, but this one in particular climbs 1800 feet in under two miles. It wasn't just brutal, it wasn't just brutal after I'd run a full marathon, it destroyed me for the three other climbs that would come later, dropping my average climbing pace to just over two miles per hour.
A little bit past the top of Willow Camp, more than seven hours into the run, I got hit by a couple intense surges of endorphins. The first one came on when I pictured myself walking away from the finish line that evening, and I almost burst into uncontrollable tears of joy.
Shortly after that I began the fun, fast, technical and tourist-clogged descent of the Ben Johnson Trail into Muir Woods. When I reached the bottom and saw the beautiful Redwood Creek running through the park, I was hit by another intense endorphin flood.
One of the steepest climbs of the course, but not at all one of the tallest, was shortly after the second to last aid station above Muir Beach around mile 42. This was certainly my slowest section, and those endorphin surges were hitting me frequently and hard. It was a strange and incredibly intense experience. It didn't feel very much like running. It felt a lot like drugs.
Somewhere around mile 47, I could smell the finish line, and it was amazing the way my legs just started to work again. Once I crested the top of the last hill and running down toward Rodeo Beach, I really felt like I was flying.
A woman whose name I didn't catch, and who is much faster than I am, was coming up behind me. She'd passed me around mile 10, and I'd heard that I'd passed her again at mile thirty-something when she went off course. She started to sprint in to overtake me to the finish line, but I didn't know she was there until she passed me. I dropped my racebelt, tucked in, and did my best, but it was hopeless. She came in at least five seconds ahead of me.
So there I had it: my first 50 miler in twelve hours, twenty-six minutes, and change. My undying gratitude to Inside Trail Racing and their legion of enthusiastic volunteers for an amazing event and an accomplishment I will always be proud of.
On Sunday August 8th, after sleeping in and lounging about the house until noon, I decided to take on my first ultra-distance trail run.
I'd run one marathon back in April, the beautiful Skyline to the Sea, but taken on only two twenty-mile plus runs since then. Immediately following SttS, I'd also begun the process of completely rebuilding my running style with a forefoot strike, trying to be kinder to my knees. I started my running career less than a year ago altogether.
How did I do? Horribly, and wonderfully. My time was terrible, and I wouldn't have made the final cut-off at many 50K events. Nonetheless, I got out and there and did it all by my lonesome, just curious to see if I could, and the day was beautiful, and nothing hurt too badly by the time I was done.
How did I do it? If you're looking for advice on how to run ultra-distances well, you've come to the wrong place, but if, like me, you care more about distance than speed or grace, read on. Please note that I am not a particularly experienced runner, I am not a fitness or nutrition expert, and I am only discussing what worked well and what I think I could have worked better for me.
1. Run a Marathon First
This might sound obvious, or even patronizing, but it's got nothing to do with how you increase your mileage. If you can run 23 miles, you can probably handle 31, and adding another three to your prior trials won't tell you a whole hell of a lot. The simple fact of the matter is that both 26.2 miles and 50 kilometers are completely arbitrary distances, but they're both major milestones in running culture (even if it's only trail runners who seem to care so much about 50Ks). Don't rob yourself of the chance to celebrate both.
2. Slow Down
Don't just pace yourself, slow way the hell down. It was easy to congratulate myself on running mile two at my overall target pace, but mile two was uphill. The same went for mile three, and some of mile four. What was I thinking, exactly?
I should have been walking every hill. If I'm going less than about fifteen miles in a day, I like to try to run everything, but this was the time to be as conservative as possible, keeping every spare erg in reserve. If you have anything left on the way back, great, those hills will still be there. Otherwise, you should only be running them if you're training to be competitive at this distance, and if so, turn back now; there's nothing in this blog post for you.
This is also where a GPS or pedo-watch comes in handy. If you're down in the single digits for minutes per mile when you aren't going downhill, you're setting yourself up for a world of hurt. That is, an extra world of hurt on top of the one you volunteered for.
3. Start Fresh
Make sure that marathon wasn't three days ago. It's also nice to sleep in, but I'm a lazy bastard, and you'll note that I finished up in the dark.
4. Don't Bore Yourself
This is especially important once you get a handle on point two, slowing down, and considering how long you're likely to be out there. You don't need to scale Pike's Peak this time out, but if you like running hills, run some hills.
I'm sure I could have run 50Km months earlier in my running career if I'd tried going around the block 60 or 70 times instead of traversing the ridges and gullies of Lake Chabot and Redwood Regional Park, assuming I didn't pass out from the dreariness, but the only part I would have enjoyed would have been stopping when I was done.
5.Bring Extra Fuel
If you normally go through x liters of water and y ounces of energy goop per z miles, throw that formula away. Feed yourself based on time, not mileage, bring about half again as much as you predict you'll need, and make sure dehydration won't be a factor at all. I used a 1.5 liter hydration pack, but I had ten miles before the first water fountain. Don't forget electrolytes, whether they come in the form of salt capsules or a sports drink mix; you'll sweat out more minerals than you might have thought humans could carry, even externally, and failing to replace them is not just unpleasant but, in rare cases, fatal.
Bring along a little variety, too. I mostly suck down packets of caffeinated slime every hour, myself, but at about three hours in I started throwing some arbitrarily flavored protein chews into the mix. It was nice to get a bite or two (but no more) of solid food into that roiling void of a stomach.
6. Bring a Headlamp
This is less of a concern if you're one of those bright-'n'-early weirdos, but you might be out there a lot longer than you expect. Even if you're not, a lightweight light source is a comforting thing to have on you when the shadows start to get long, and if things go really wrong, it could be a life saver. Be sure to test that it works and has fresh batteries before starting out, and store so that it won't get doused or switched on accidentally.
If you are out past sunset, get the headlamp ready, but I suggest not actually using it until you're fully uncomfortable running without it. There might come a time when you're forced to rely on your night vision out on the trail, so it's not a terrible idea to get a bit of practice. Be careful, though, and remember how much easier it is to misjudge things when you're fatigued.
7. Bring Shoes
For most runners, this probably seems obvious, but I'm mostly talking to the barefooters out there. If you haven't run close to this distance unshod before, bring something with with a sole, and I'm not talking about the Five Fingers. If you mostly run in toe shoes, you might consider a lightweight backup pair.
I run on my toes and the balls of my feet, and after about twenty miles, I needed to change things up a lot of the time in order to keep moving forward. Sometimes this just meant walking (and towards the end, sometimes walking was faster even on the flats), but sometimes this meant heel strikes. Even though I don't normally run that way these days, it helped to take some pressure off my calves when they needed it most.
8. Pick Up All Your Damn Trash
Or I will find you and hurt you.
9. Run 25K, Then Turn Around
This is the real secret to running your first 50K.
It might sound like a joke, but charting a straight out and back course is the easiest way to keep yourself on target for a new, daunting distance, especially when you're not running in a group. Running in loops makes it too easy to stop early, and running a complicated course makes it too tempting to cut mileage on the way back. On the other hand, if you're struggling before you even get to the turn-around, it's a clear sign that you should consider heading back early after all. There's always next weekend.
10. Enjoy the Hell Out of It
With any luck, you're doing this because you love trail running, not because you've got some macho chip on your shoulder. Don't forget to take in everything the trail has to offer you; if it were only about running, a treadmill would be easier.
After some number of hours, you will have run more than a marathon, farther than most runners will ever even try to make it in a day, and you won't be done yet. If the thought of passing that point doesn't make you smile, you're going to need to find something pretty powerful to keep you going out there.
It's worth taking a moment to note how privileged you are in terms of health and leisure time to have had the chance to make it out here. Don't be afraid to talk to people about what you've accomplished - their reactions will be diverse, fascinating, and universally encouraging - but do try not to brag. It's surprisingly easy to cross the line from inspiring people to making them feel bad about themselves.
Most of all, remember, you're not just a marathoner, you're an ultramarathoner now. Hell the fuck yeah.
Heading down a narrow switchback through the tall brown grass this evening meant suddenly and utterly commanding the attention of a beautiful blacktail buck. Oddly enough, my first wish was for a camera, and not for any other sort of point-and-shoot. Sport hunters may always confound me; I'm pretty much OK with that.
The meadow around the bend was so thick with fauns and doe that I gave up my run and crept along on tip-toe for a good half mile. Jogging back uphill along the park's most out of the way paved road, I spotted another young six point buck, maybe ten feet out into the brush, who watched me warily as he grazed and guarded two smaller family members. It wasn't until I'd been standing still and watching silently for a few good minutes that I noticed the two older males, big and gorgeous creatures, seated in the tall grass, absolutely still. None of us moved until another group of humans came up from behind me, making a racket. As the last of the deer turned tail, I bolted uphill too, along the road instead of following them into their copse. I'd been just fine with my previous pace of zero per, but the run had to end sometime.
On the other end of the scale, something clicked on a short downhill section about a mile later, and I found a new top speed at 13 mph (albeit unsustained, to say the least), but I did so while feeling stable and without stressing my knees. A common mantra in trail running is to go for "LSD" (because we're all, apparently, easily amused hippies) - Long, Steady Distance - and I won't claim to know of anything better when it comes to building up pure endurance, but even without interval drills and fartleks, there can be great joy in the extremes.
Trail running, at its best, is hardly all about the speed, but we do come out here for the trail, and we come out here to run, after all.
Five years ago, I underwent knee surgery that kept me on crutches for three months.
Three years ago, I quit smoking, a steady thirteen-year habit that had sometimes burned through as many as three packs a day.
A year and a half ago, I was effectively housebound with daily headaches.
Six months ago, after a lay-off, I took up running the trails of Lake Chabot near my house. I would charge through a two mile loop, spend the next two days hacking up my lungs, then head back for more on day three.
Yesterday, I ran a marathon.
The Skyline to the Sea Trail Run was a wonderful, if ambitious, choice for my first run of this length. The course was absolutely gorgeous, winding down from the crest of the Santa Cruz mountains through Castle Rock State Park and Big Basin Redwoods State Park to finish just off Highway 1 along the Pacific coast north of Santa Cruz. Sometimes the only thing that kept exhaustion from overtaking me was looking down the embankment, through the redwoods, to the rushing, sunlit, jade river below.
Trail runs are harder than road runs in general, as hiking trails mean paying careful attention, navigating obstacles, mud, and stream crossings, working with steeper grades, and limiting your speed. Thanks to recent storms, this time we were dealing with washed out paths and downed trees, including a hundred year-old plus redwood that had fallen with its roots dead across the trail. I haven't run very much on pavement, but every time I do I'm surprised by the contrast: despite being harder on my body in the long run, it's deceptively easy, and five miles can feel like what I'm used to from three.
In spite of being a downhill course, there were 2200 feet of climbing involved (the Boston Marathon's infamous Heartbreak Hill, for comparison, rises all of 88 feet). And while being able to go with gravity so much might have improved my overall time, by about the fifteen-mile mark it had pretty well trashed my quads, the frontal thigh muscles needed for every kind of stride a runner takes. I had no illusions or intentions of being able to run every step, as I had in my previous races, and walked the steepest hills from early on.
The last five miles or so weren't pretty, but then, I hadn't really expected them to be. Even though the course had flattened out considerably by this point, I was spending more and more time walking.
It's common on these runs to hear, as you're being passed, "Good job," or other words of encouragement. This becomes increasingly true as the day wears on, you continue to slow down, and the bulk of those passing you are the ultramarathoners who have run an extra five mile loop. It seems to be commonly recognized that the newer you are at long distance running, the worse your time, the sloppier your form, the harder you're working to finish and the bigger the accomplishment when you do. True, the winner of the 50Km (a marathon is about 42Km) might have set a new course record in just over half the time it took me to run my marathon, but for him it was probably closer to the experience of a great workout. He already knew he could do it, the only question was probably quite how fast. That's impressive as hell, but it's got to be a different kind of challenge altogether.
Somewhere around mile 22 I drifted to the side of a flat, easy trail to catch my breath and stretch my thighs for a few seconds. As I stopped, the woman who passed me said, smiling earnestly, "You're awesome." At that moment I could only smile back, but I can't remember giving such a heartfelt smile to a stranger. It helped.
Not much farther down the path, I realized I'd run farther than I ever had before, and that I was going to finish a marathon. Tears came to my eyes. I pulled off my sunglasses to wipe them away, but couldn't find anything that wouldn't just make them sting with sweat and trail dirt. I jogged on, amazed that I could still manage better than five miles an hour between my walking breaks.
When I heard the cheers from the finish line around the bend, I just picked up and ran. I have no idea how fast, for how long, or how much of a train wreck it looked like.
I crossed the finish line in 5 hours and 56 minutes.
Most of all, I crossed the finish line.
I don't know what's next for me as a runner. One day after an experience like that, I won't lie and say I'm raring to live through it all again, let alone to train for longer distances or faster times. I know now that I can run 26 mountain miles, however, more than I've ever even hiked (save a four-day backpacking trip), and no matter how arbitrary the marathon length might be, that's a hell of a thing.
Oh, and I know one other thing: I'm taking next weekend off from running, thank you very much.
Yesterday wasn't my longest run to date, although it was by a wide margin my longest race. Nor was it my best placement or time per mile, but all things considered that was certainly to be expected. It was, however, easily my steepest long run to date, a bit of a personal victory in pacing myself, and a cheese-grater shaped object lesson in avoiding overconfidence on the steepest of downhill sections.
For those not intimately familiar with the Bay Area, the Marin Headlands are those rugged, coastal hills you see in postcards of the Golden Gate bridge that point away from the city. When it comes to the sorts of sights one might shove into a postcard, it's a dense sort of place indeed, marking as it does the nexus of the Golden Gate itself, the Pacific coast, and the southern approach to Mount Tamalpais, all within view of San Francisco, Sausalito, and Tiburon. If you want a gorgeous, gentle stroll through some world-famous scenery, you can easily find that here.
That wasn't what the race planners had in mind for us. The elevation profile looks more like a worrisome seismograph reading than a day's jogging. We started into it at the same time as the 50K ultra-marathoners, who would follow the same course before looping back in for an additional half-marathon. In one big crowd, we climbed 800 feet in about a mile and a quarter, with some sections steep enough for actual stairs.
One of my goals on every run is to run every step, unless stopped by a crowd, footwear issues, navigation issues, first aid, emptying my bladder, or refilling my water bottle. I'm told by more experience trail and ultra-runners that when it comes to steeper hills, except for those at the front of the pack, this is surprising, possibly insane, and generally counter to accepted strategy. Nonetheless, I think of every run as a training run, and cresting a hill with an average 13% grade over more than a mile without giving up and walking feels like almost as much of a victory as crossing a finish line sometimes, even if it slows me down overall. I'm extremely proud to say that I accomplished this goal on the Pirate's Cove run.
After cresting that first series of hills, things leveled off only briefly. If you take another look at the elevation profile for the course, you can see the trail almost appear to drop straight off leading up to the 3.0Km mark. I started down this section a bit conservatively -- my major goal for the day was to improve my pacing, after all -- but after a hundred yards or so, I just felt so good, so graceful... I had found the form I needed to just fly down the grade without hammering my knees, and I was handling the terrain with no issues at all.
Until just before things started to level off, that is, and my right foot must have caught on something, most likely a hay-filled erosion stop laid across the trail. I remember thinking, "Guess I'm going too fast to roll with it," which was probably more constructive than a simple, "Oh fuck" but carried most of the same information. I got my forearms up and landed first on knees and elbows, but had enough momentum that I immediately flattened out. Still, I managed to quickly skitter off to the right edge of the trail to avoid potentially tripping up any of the runners I'd just passed.
For a couple hundred yards, I jogged very slowly, checking myself out, making sure first and foremost my joints were operating normally. My right knee was slightly banged up, but apparently dead on the patella and seemingly only cosmetically. It took me another couple minutes before I got to my left elbow, which had been hidden by the rainbreaker I'd worn through the heavy morning fog. Separating joint and jacket let loose a little splash of blood. I stopped to clean up with the handkerchief I carry due to my allergies, and another runner kindly took some time out of her race to provide me antibacterial cream and bandaids.
Two miles later, I cleaned up with alcohol wipes and traded up for a gauze dressing at the first aid station (doubling today as a first-aid station). On the way, I also discovered a nasty case of trail rash covering maybe eight square inches of my chest, but it wasn't anything that would need immediate attention. Most importantly, my knees and ankles were doing fine, and I felt good to finish the remaining 14 and a half miles of the course.
The middle miles of a run are always hard to talk about. It's not that they were uneventful (although relative to the start of this particular course, most of my runs are uneventful), it's that they do not seem like a sequence of events. They are meditation. They are footfalls, hills, ocean, wild raptors, and the bashful intrusion of a friendly competitor calling out, "On your left," or sometimes pulling up alongside to chat for half a mile. They are the intersection of post-workout endorphins and an endless workout.
At the third and final aid station, with six kilometers to go, I felt amazing. I felt good. I'd run fifteen miles of rugged hills, both the ups and the downs, climbing and falling hard, and I'd kept my pace well enough that I still felt like I was running, not just struggling to keep my feet from settling where they landed with each stride. After what I judged to be about a third of the remaining distance, I picked up the pace a bit more. As the trail leveled off, I fought to keep the pace up. A certain mixture of scenery and architecture told me I was just around the corner from the finish line, and joyfully, I shifted into the highest gear I still had--
And of course, I was wrong. There was still almost a mile to go.
But still, I made it across that finish line in 4:19:03, 81st of 91 runners, at 13:47 per mile. It's hard to say what my time or my pace would have come out to if I hadn't taken that fall, even assuming fifteen minutes lost to self-check and first aid. Surprisingly, it's sometimes harder still to remember how that's not even remotely the point. I'll be damned if I didn't run that thing, run it hard, and run it well, and until the day I'm in it for the competition (which I expect will never come), there isn't much that numbers can add to that.
When you take up trail running, there are days when you just go out and run a few miles, maybe in a local park you already know pretty well, and there are days when you go out and push yourself to new limits, be it in terms of distance, time, or terrain. Time here is distinct from speed and only related to distance the same way it is to terrain; trail runners often try to run for longer without emphasizing distance. Yesterday I pushed myself by all three metrics.
I’d done a full loop around Lake Chabot one week before, for a total of about 8.8 miles. This time, I thought I’d go in the other direction, with a detour up to the ridge for a nice view across the Bay. The first two miles were a nice, easy warm up, mostly on a paved path thick with joggers, fishers, and dog-walkers, before I hit the longest steep uphill segment of my running career to date, climbing almost 500 feet in under a mile. I was glad to have recently read a good article on running steep hills, and impressed by how much of a difference a little advice really made.
When I hit the park’s biggest campground, I realized I’d made a wrong turn, so I stopped to study a map and suck down an energy gel (not recommended under most other circumstances). I made another wrong turn only a few yards away, and when I found myself all the way back down at the shoreline I decided, masochistically enough, to turn around and ascend the 300 feet back up to the trail I wanted. This kind of mistake is much harder to avoid than at hiking speed, especially when bounding downhill like a bisected gazelle.
Although this was hard, it wasn’t yet enough to wear me out entirely, and it brought me to my favorite part of the loop around the lake, a narrow trail that winds through a lush, dense eucalyptus grove, far from the roads, parking lots, and marina. By the time I was literally out of the woods and back to easier terrain, but not yet back to the paved track, my legs were halfway done for, hamstrings refusing to lift the lower bits as high as they should when without the advantage of downhill momentum. As rough as they had it, though, the rest of me felt just about fantastic, or at worst pleasantly sore. I could breathe easily and move freely.
Just down the embankment from the trail, fifteen feet away and hip-high, was a tree branch. As I approached, a flurry of motion blossomed into the distinctive plumage of a red tail hawk seeking a safer perch.
It was about there that I came upon a sign telling me I had 3.3 miles to go. By my estimate, I’d covered just about seven. I had no trouble with the rest, even if I was a little more slow and awkward than usual. In my one-man race, there would be no DNFs.
I got back to the car, after more than ten miles of running, under a light sprinkling of rain. I said to myself, out loud: “I am the only person in the world who just did that.” I mean, sure, there were many who could have, but only one who was actually me, and that would be the one who did. Maybe that sounds silly, but after a run like that, goddam, it seemed like something.