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.