Redefining Hard: Headlands Hundred 2012

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[1], 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[2] (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[3]. 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[4]. 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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] The Headlands course follows “washing machine loops,” sending you back out in the opposite direction each time, apparently for ease of high-fiving.

[4] The course may be tough, but it’s nothing if not scenic. And tough.