Falling Down in the Land of Heads (Pirate’s Cove 30Km, 3/20/10)

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.

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