Revisiting Hard: Headlands Hundred 2013-09-14

Headlands was my first hundred mile run a year before in 2012, and would be my fifth a year later. I came into the weekend excited to relive the course and to see how much better I could do avoiding my rookie mistakes. I also ran it expecting too much improvement, and worrying too much about my target time instead of the adventure I had set myself on – a journeyman mistake.

At the seven A.M. starting line, things looked pretty different from last year. The race sold out weeks in advance, and there were hundreds of runners milling about for three different distances. Last year the run had been canceled and reinstated at the last minute, leading to a more anemic attendance but intimate feel. I showed up with time to spare for once and had a few minutes to catch up with co-RD Maureen Brooks, and Alex Mares who had finished a few minutes behind me last year. I bumped into at least five runners from Run-de-Vous, only a month before.

Foreshadowing is a hell of a thing. In the first four miles, I passed a couple of runners in the fifty mile race. One of them said to the other, “Don’t worry about the people ahead of us now. We’ll mop them up later on.” I thought, “I know this can be a hard course, but I hope I don’t liquefy.”

Six miles in I was taking it slow up a hill and chatting with another runner about scuba diving. When I introduced myself, the runner who was passing us at that moment said it was my blog that had inspired him to sign up for the full hundred miles. I felt proud and inspired in turn, but twenty-nine hours later when I saw him staring at the ground waiting for a ride back to the start from the mile eighty-eight/ninety-six aid station, I wasn’t sure how to feel.

As I cruised along the meandering uphill trail out of Pirate’s Cove to the north, I couldn’t help keeping an eye out for whales while trying to mind my footing. The scenery there is always enough of a hazard to begin with.

Bombing down the steep and rutty fire road into Muir Beach at mile eight, I was treated to the unusual view of an empty Muir Beach thanks to park renovations. I always seem to like that trail better on the way down.

After climbing up and along Coyote Ridge, winding down Miwok back into Tennessee Valley, and slogging up the Marincello trail, the course hits a six mile out-and-back section of mostly single track that starts out overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge on the SCA trail ridge and turns around at the base of the bridge on the Sausalito shore. Long story short, it’s scenic as fuck, but stepping aside for other runners can be tricky along the cliffside switchbacks, especially early in the race when all the fifty-milers and marathoners are still sharing the course.

By the time I made it down under the bridge the first time at mile eighteen, my lower back and left glute were bothering me. I needed to stop a few times to crack my SI joint (under the tailbone) and stretch out my hamstrings. I was delighted to find the issue gone by mile forty. Either the problem fixed itself, I stopped feeling it, or I stopped feeling it until it fixed itself.

Coming down Bobcat Trail to the road at mile twenty-three, I was surprised to pass Tony Dunnigan, a faster runner I’d met trying to get myself killed in the woods at night. He was limping, and blood was pouring out of his knee – he’d taken a fall (“power-kneeling”) and ground enough gravel into the skin that he couldn’t bend it, even though he was otherwise fine. It was a good reminder to me that no matter how much experience I might gain running, with so many thousands of steps the occasional fall is inevitable. In fact, I’d spaced out and tripped on the sidewalk near my house only a week before, myself.

The Rodeo Beach mile 25/50/75 aid station, which doubles as the start and finish line, is the most dangerous place on the course. Here is where you check in, fill your bottles, and reverse direction for each subsequent lap, but also where you quit, limp over to your car, and drive home instead of running through the night. I’m always certain to make my stops here as short as possible.

Heading back out, it wasn’t long before I approached the bridge again. The weather was completely clear, giving me a perfect down on the north end of San Francisco and a bay filled with boats for America’s Cup. I have a few criticisms of the event and its effects on the city, but I wouldn’t complain about the view.

The clear weather also meant that although the day wasn’t egregiously hot, there was no relief from the sun. The Headlands are often a damp, foggy experience at any time of year, but even as the evening began aid stations were shoveling ice into our bottles and packs.

You’d think I’d know this course by now, but apparently I didn’t know it well enough to spot a well-marked turn at mile forty-eight. You’d think I’d know better by now, but I ran a full mile downhill before accepting my mistake and turning around. Fortunately I was feeling good and moving well at the time, but with this died my intermediate goal of finishing fifty miles before dark. I turned my headlamp on for the first time as I was descending to Rodeo Beach.

For much of the night, however, the sky was clear and the moon bright enough that I wouldn’t need it, at least when hiking uphill. At one point, when climbing up Coyote Ridge at mile fifty-nine, the reflection of the moon off the Pacific was so bright I thought my shadow must have been thrown by the headlamp of someone catching up behind me. It also stayed warm enough that I wouldn’t need a jacket until just before dawn, a complete difference from last year’s shivering in the dense fog banks on the SCA trail ridge.

By the time the sun rose again it seemed as though I might still have a shot at my ultimate goal of thirty hour finish, even after getting in my bonus miles, but my quads were starting to stiffen up, making it hard to lift my legs when hiking up hill or even jogging on the rare stretches of flat trail. I was still able to make up a lot of time flying down longer descents, but my attitude was getting worse. For the first time, I was thinking, a hundred miler was more suck than it was rewarding for me. I guess I’d already forgotten about the first twenty miles, and miles forty through sixty, and I’d already made my mind up about the rest of the race. This is where a good pacer might have done me some good.

I was right about one thing, though: there was more suck to come. A few aid stations in a row didn’t have quite what I wanted, and I used this as an excuse to under eat. By mile ninety-four, when the new day had started to heat up, my stomach was fed up with water and gel chews. Finally, I stood by the side of the trail high above Pirate’s Cove and forced myself to vomit.

I didn’t feel good enough to start eating again, but I felt good enough to run the rest of the way into Tennessee Valley at mile ninety-six. I collapsed in a camp chair, and unexpected tears of relief filled my eyes. I’d made it here, so I knew I could make it the rest of the way. For the first time all day, I felt like I remembered why I ran these things. A volunteer named Marissa came to my rescue straight away with cup after cup of broth. Fifteen minutes later I was back on my feet and stumbling toward the last big climb up to Wolf Ridge. I’d already left thirty hours behind, but I’d still be able to finish.

One very long mile up the trail, two runners who weren’t in the race passed me coming down to Tennessee Valley. The second of the two, Alisa, offered to run with me to the finish, an impromptu pacer. I’d never really run with a pacer before, even for three miles, but I’d take any help I could get. She ran off to tell her friend before turning around to catch up.

In the meantime, I noticed my left hand was puffed up to the point that I couldn’t see my knuckles. Some people see this kind of swelling routinely in ultramarathons, but it was new to me, and I know that it can be a sign of overhydration, hyponatremia, or most dangerously of both. I knocked back the last three salt pills in my pack, and went the rest of the way with only a few sips of water. I doubted I was in any serious danger, but I was spooked nonetheless.

I had more trouble beginning the descent to Rodeo Beach than I remember from last year. From the top of the winding road at Wolf Ridge, it looks so close, but impossibly far below – indeed, the last mile and a half drops almost 900 feet to the finish line in a mix of smooth running and washed out high-stepping stairs. For the final half-mile descent, however, I was suddenly off and running. The pain started to wash out of my legs as tears filled my eyes, not just from the familiar joy of finishing but something else this time. There was a great sense of relief as well. This hadn’t been my hardest or even my most painful run, but in crossing the finish line I felt as though I’d put closure to a very real struggle with my own mortality.

I finished the 2013 Headlands Hundred in thirty-one hours and forty-one minutes, well behind the thirty hour goal I’d held too firmly in mind, but almost an hour faster than the year before. After swallowing a few cups of electrolyte drink and some salty potato chips, I crawled into my car for a nap. I was sorry to miss some of the last finishers coming over the line, but sometimes consciousness is simply overrated.

I learned a lot from my first running of Headlands Hundred, all of which has helped me in the four other hundred milers I’ve run since. I thought I’d learned a lot that would help me run it a second time, but I let myself forget the most important lesson: Headlands Hundred is a hard goddam race.

Now at least HURT 2014 oughtta be easy, right?

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