This was the inaugural year for this event in the spectacularly scenic – and rather hilly (10,000 ft for the 50M; 20,000 for the 100M) – Marin Headlands, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. It was a reasonably small field – with possibly sixty to seventy 50-milers, and maybe twelve or so badass 100-milers (some of which are still out there as I begin writing this the following day – from the pub!).
Race director, Wendell Doman – formerly of Pacific Coast Trail Runs and rescuer of the 2012 Sea to Skyline 50k – definitely pulled out all the stops and made this a fun, friendly and memorable event from start to finish. Everything just exuded quality throughout – from the awesome Salomon race jerseys (seriously, Salomon!!), to the fantastic course markings (the “blue is bad” ribbons at every conceivable junction were a stroke of genius sir!), to the well-stocked and frequent aid stations, and a finish area so packed with good food (Jesse on the grill, and Jenni on the soup kitchen!) and “suitable refreshments” – that kept many of us hanging around for hours afterwards. Add in those unbeatable views of the rugged Pacific coastline, of Sausalito from high up in the hills, and even some little glimpses of the majestic Golden Gate Bridge (bay area fog-permitting!), plus a bit of sunshine (well I definitely got sunburnt!) – and you have a recipe for a perfect day in the outdoors. Which it most definitely was!
Those “Washing Machine” Loops
The course design – two 25 mile loops – initially had me concerned I have to say. When The North Face shortened their own 50-miler in December 2012, due to torrential rain and subsequent National Park restrictions (check out this weather.com slidedeck), they came up with a similar two-loop replacement course. I was already in town when the bad weather hit, so I enthusiastically took it on (many did not even start). However, I decided to bail at the halfway point, with the excuse that it was just too dangerous out there with all that mud and fog – and on such steep descents – with hidden cliff-edges lurking everywhere. That said, I do feel that had it been a single, one-way, 50-mile course, I’d have most likely seen it through – just out of sheer necessity! I mean what choice do you have when you’re 25 miles from where your car is? And this is where my concern lay with Wendell’s course, since loops always introduce that tormenting mental dilemma for me, where a cold beer and a hot shower are within reach and seem irresistibly appealing – especially after twenty-five or so grueling miles. And so it was that this admittedly lame DNF (in case my Mum’s reading – that means “Did Not Finish”) in December ultimately led me to register for this particular race – purely to defeat that nemesis of a course that had been niggling away at me for 8 months! Job done I think.
Anyhoo, where was I? Oh aye, the course design… The loopy layout definitely surpassed my expectations and then some. These were not your standard loops. Oh noooo. This was the first time I’d heard the term “washing machine loops” coined – where you effectively run a loop to the finish line, then repeat – only in reverse. Smart that! The course does actually seem completely different in the other direction – which really spices things up – and I think is something many race directors could learn from. I loved it! So much so I’m going to subject you to this recollection of it…
Loop 1 – Clockwise
As you can see from the course map, you start from Rodeo Beach and immediately head up and along the Coastal Trail (little do you know that this long initial uphill will cause you a world of pain when you come back down it at the end!) – with the Pacific Ocean constantly vying for your attention (and winning! I tripped a few times!) on the left – and then back down to Tennessee Valley and the first aid station. You then get a mile or so of flat, then it’s up, up, up – until you overlook the awesome Pirates Cove. A steep, technical descent (well.. there’s steps – so not that technical really, but who’s writing this – me or you?!) pops you out into a lush green valley – a pleasant change from the dusty dirt trails – then a short traverse takes you along to begin a long series of switchbacks leading back up the other side. This is one of those excellent spots for gauging where the rest of the racers are, as you get a huge window of visibility from one side of the valley to the other. This was handy on the way out – where you could see who was ahead and take comfort from seeing them walking any hills, but terrifying on the way back – where you could look back and see who was chasing you down and looking for signs of weakness in you!
Once you get back up out of the valley, and have the ocean by your side again, you get to open up the legs with a fun and fast downhill into Muir Beach area and some much needed aid (I was blown away when they told me I was only 7.9 miles in at this point!). Load up on salts and bananas here to replenish those hammered quads as best you can. At this point you switch over from orange to pink ribbons for the remainder of the loop. These will guide you back up the hill you just flew down (definitely a walker!) until you eventually reach the crest (or so you think…) and turn inland to leave the orange ribbons behind. Another long and steep hill is instantly placed in front of you, and you begin to feel like you’ve maybe overdone it and might need to walk the remaining 40 miles. Eventually, the gods show a bit of mercy, and present you with a wonderful flowing downhill to Tennessee Valley again – via the awesome Miwok trail (I recall chatting to then 5th place runner about how much we were looking forward to running back up there… not!).
After the aid station, the pink ribbons lead you up a super long ascent – and it almost feels pleasant to engage the glutes after relentlessly hammering the quads on Miwok. Follow the similarly non-flat Bobcat trail onwards to Rodeo Valley and another aid station checkpoint. At this point you can savour that one-third-of-the-way milestone. It contented me to think that – due to the mirrored loop design – the next time I passed this point, I’d only have a third to go. The only immediate challenge in my mind was to just get through that middle third – whatever it chose to throw at me – and get myself back to this point. That’s how my mind chose to look at the situation: I figured I’d be in a much happier mood knowing there was just 13.x miles to go, and so that’s all I cared about – getting there! That’s one of the most liberating and fulfilling things about running crazy races like this – for those many hours on the trail, you have no option but to shut out all extraneous sources of stress, worry or concern, and just focus on getting through those individual, self-imposed, nothing-else-matters challenges. And each one you tick off feels even better than the last – right through to crossing that finish line.
After a couple of oddly flat miles in Rodeo Valley, you then start the hard slog up and down the SCA trail. Watch out for mountain bikers, bobcats, and snakes! I watched a snake slither across the trail just 10 feet ahead of me! I was so physically drained, I didn’t even have the energy to jump out my skin as I would have liked. I spoke to someone at the end and they showed me a picture of a bobcat on their iPhone! (Looked a bit like a fat house cat to me though!). After bottoming out in yet another valley (so many valleys… ), it’s then straight back up (the Coastal trail this time – past the best aid station ever for getting inside info! See later!) to the eventual heights of the southern Headlands – where you get some mighty fine views of the bridge (I really wished I had my smartphone at this point – it was that impressive! And I’ve seen that bridge a bajillion times before). You then get to hurtle down the tarmac roads past the visitor centre and back to Rodeo Beach. It was nice to say hello to the race leaders as they set off on their return – not a hint of discomfort on their faces. Dammit!
Pat yourself on the back, fill your water bottle, and get some tasty eats! That’s you half way! Many confused tourists will stare at you like you’re a maniac (hard to really argue with that at this point), but some will see you have a race number on and give you a cheer and maybe a clap. Oh you wonderful people – if only you knew how much that helped!
Loop 2 – Counter-clockwise
Wendell squeezes a hell of a lot of action, and hills, into those 25 miles. And then you get to do it all over again in reverse. Well not literally – although there were times when I tried running backwards (and even sideways – crab-style) just to give my poor quads some brief respite. There was definitely a lot of walking in the second half – with my split for that half being a full 40 mins slower than the first. That said, I was fortunate to be in 5th at the half way point, with a decent ten minute gap back to 6th, so for me it was really all about just hanging in there. 5th place would have rocked my world – I’m not going to lie – but to my amazement, I was able to gain a couple of spots and finish 3rd overall. It was not without it’s fair share of drama though.
There was definitely a really nervous moment back at Muir Beach – with eight miles to go – and 4th and 5th and 6th all literally entering the aid station as I left (I was guilty of spending A LOT of time at those final aid stations – chatting, and scoffing potatoes and drinking them out of coke – in the hope that maybe my legs might mend themselves soon).
Those last eight miles were far and away the most nerve-wracking eight miles ever, with me looking over my shoulder constantly, and scanning the switchbacks at every vantage point. Despite thinking I could see Rick – the 4th place finisher and pretty much my shadow for the first half of the race (until sadly his hamstring slowed him down) – in the distance every time I looked back, I was actually building up a bigger gap. I made it home nearly twenty minutes before the next runner – so clearly fear and panic are what’s needed in these types of affairs!
The End is Nigh…
I have to take you through the last part of this race. What a fantastic feeling to crest after your last ascent out of Tennessee Valley – via the really unfairly steep Wolf Ridge trail – and to be able to look down and actually see the frothy swells of Rodeo Beach and the finishing festival already underway (the winner came through a cool forty minutes ahead of me!). It seems so close, and you just want to make a beeline for it – and get to that coveted ice-cold IPA – but no. Hell no! That would be way too easy. Instead, as one final act of torment, the course sends you weaving your way round a series of switchbacks – forcing those already fiery quads to take even more downhill abuse. You kind of already knew this would be how it would end, because – well – it’s a mirror image of how you started the race (just 8 hours earlier!). But I think the mind can be forgiven for letting go of this little memory after 50 miles, and instead perhaps romanticizing a gleeful trot (and maybe a roly-poly or two – a bit like this) down to those very welcoming looking tents!
That last mile and a half was seriously nothing but pain, bearable only by the promise of beer! And when you reach the car park, and that cute little ad-hoc finishing chute of baby traffic cones, and get your little moment of applause and cheers, and find yourself grinning wildly as you cross the finish line – you realize once again why you do this to yourself: to endure everything that course can throw at you, and to overcome it. To prove to yourself what’s possible – if you just choose to get out there and bloody well get it done. And – most crucially of course – to get to that precious cold beer! Ohhh yes! And who can really complain at spending the best part of a day scampering around some of the most beautiful stretches of trails in America? Not I.
Thanks Volunteers! For the Heads Up!
Like any top-notch ultra, there was no shortage of goodwill and very welcome comic relief exuding from the many aid and stations along the way. It’s always an amazing sight to come bursting out from the bushes – with no water left, after an hour or so battling with various hilly obstacles – and see the oasis that is the aid station up ahead. Even better when they are staffed by fun and friendly, knowledgeable folks – as was the case on Saturday. I couldn’t help but spend a few minutes at each stop, drinking as much ice cold Coca-Cola and ramming as many potatoes and Goldfish down my neck as possible. Well done volunteers – you truly were the lifeblood of the whole event. And with the looping nature of the course, there was that familiarity of encountering the same faces on your return leg – which was nice!
What’s even nicer is when you’ve leapfrogged a couple of positions and they’re like, “Whoa dude, you are cruising! And 3rd place is only two minutes ahead!”. To which I ask, “How’s 3rd place looking?”. And they tell me, “He’s pretty beat up man. Says he’s crawling up every hill”. Which leads me onto a big lesson I took away from this event: never ever tell aid station crew how you are really feeling! Just tell them you feel awesome – always! As a racer, it was so useful to get the inside scoop on how the race ahead was developing. This was a first for me – being truly competitive like this. As regretful as it is to say this, it really helps motivate that extra push when you know the guy ahead is close by, and – even better – is on a total death march (sorry Luke!). I’ll definitely be asking a lot more questions at aid stations from now on!
The whole situation immediately reminded me of the section in Scott Jurek’s “Eat and Run” book where he talks about how ultra racers who are competing at night time would turn off their headlamps when they saw another runner ahead, just so that they could sneak up behind them undetected then switch on their full beam and blaze past them – leaving them absolutely bewildered and mentally dejected. I tried to be a little more courteous though as I passed my runner – just in case the tables turned later in the race!
Thanks so much to Wendell for putting such a sweet event together, and to all the volunteers – especially the fun couple at Conzelman aid station who gave me the drive to run those hills and snatch that 3rd place. And to Jesse for lending me your hoody whilst I rummaged around in in search of my car keys (note to self: don’t “stash” your keys in the bushes; you’re not fifteen anymore!). And to your lovely wife Jenni for providing the tasty organic soup. What I give no thanks for is the drunken little man who snored like a champion ALL NIGHT in the hostel and kept me awake way longer than I cared to be awake. But still, I came 3rd in a race!!! Wheeeeeeeeee!