September 9, 2017
For the past several months, Alan has been talking to me about running his first 50 mile race. The plan HAD been to do Avalon 50M in January, as this was the event where we got to know each other better (seemingly, it’s the event where I actually remember the people I meet). However, he tells me that it’s not a good idea if he does Avalon because his wife’s due date is within 10 days of that event, and while he could probably manage being away on a run during that time, being an hour boat ride away is probably not the best idea.
I went through the options of events I have done that occur in the summer, fall, and winter time (semi-local), and other than Twin Peaks (not a great first timer event), there are not a lot of options… but I do remember having run the Headlands 50M in 2011. (Go ahead, look up the post – I finished, but didn’t have the best time doing so.)
I take a look at their information; I know they are under different management than when I ran the event. In fact, the lame race director actually died and the company was sold. One of the great disadvantages of this race (for me, at least) was that as I finished in the dark, the ribbon was hard to see (in the fog) and I was totally by myself. A possible advantage to running the race now is that there are two longer distances available (75 and 100 miles) which means there will be others still running the course when I struggle in.
I suggest to Alan this might be a good first 50 miler – not the easiest, but scenic and logistically easy to run… and if he decides to run it, I will run it “with” him.
On Friday, his wife drops him off at my place at some ungodly hour so that we can drive up to the Bay Area and miss most of the traffic at both ends. When we hit some traffic coming into Livermore, we use the Express Lanes (not realizing that you need a transponder to avoid a ticket – and later I get a transponder to avoid that fine). Unlike our last ultra in the Bay Area (last month), my folks are in town so he can spend some QT with my entire family (except Riva who is not visiting). It’s the usual of resting before a hellacious day.
Saturday morning we take the exciting drive up to the Headlands. The fastest way to go is via the Golden Gate Bridge, which means you go across the (new) Bay Bridge, through San Francisco (the 101 is on city streets there) and a bunch of turns. I always hate this drive by myself, but it’s slightly better with a navigator. Once you get to the other side of the Golden Gate (not particularly scenic at 4AM), you queue up for the one-way tunnel drive which pops us out into the short foggy coastal drive down to Rodeo Beach.
The area where I had parked in the past for Miwok and this event in 2011 is blocked off for volunteers and race staging, but they direct us to park along the side of the road and we are about a half mile down from the start.
Fortunately, because we are so early, we have the time to walk over, pick up our bibs (and applicable giveaways – I opted out of everything, but I still get a cool drop bag with compartments), and drop it all back in the car. It’s a little on the chilly side but manageable.
I spot a number of people I know that are running various distances – Megan Cheng, Ed “The Jester” Ettinghausen, Dean Karnazes, running the 100 miler; Martin Sengo doing the 75 miler, and Ken Michal in the 50 with us.
As the race gets underway, I try and keep Alan in my sights, but honestly, I have to run my own race. My semi-goal is to be at or close to my 14:43 time of 2011 (or if I apply the “age-grade” formula here, I need to beat 15:20 or so to do an equivalent). I know that Alan should be considerably faster than that; hence why we would not run together.
The way the course is run is that we do 25 mile loops. When the first loop is completed, then we run the loop in reverse. (Note: It’s not a true loop, but the direction you run on a certain stretch of trail is determined by the loop direction.) This certainly means that we will encounter a number of runners coming towards us and passing us at any given moment.
This first section is 4.1 miles long and will also be the last 4.1 miles of the race (and was also the last few miles of Miwok in 2009 and 2010). For the most part, it’s a long uphill slog, including a whole bunch of uneven stairs (a bit wet) which are a total dream in the dark, let me tell you. At the top, it’s a traverse along the coast and then eventually down a (horse) switchback that ends at Tennessee Valley.
We will hit the Tennessee Valley aid station 4 times, so that is where my drop bag is located. I generally do not need anything in my drop bag, but I have my small TRH duffel with a spare tube of Nuun, spare batteries for my headlamp, and a tube of glow sticks (from Dollar Tree) that I intend on breaking open in my final stretch to entertain myself in the dark.
I come through in 57:45, which is a tad faster than briskly walking. Hooray!
The next stretch goes from Tennessee Valley to Muir Beach. There is a length lightly downhill paved section towards the coast again, and then a number of annoying climbs to a double-track trail and a number of short wooden bridges. I know this leads to the section that I fear most, which is hundreds of uneven downhill stairs that are apt to be slippery.
Fortunately, I am mostly by myself (meaning, I don’t have people bounding by me and making me lose my concentration), though once I get to the bottom and begin the gentle climb out, a lady passes me and mentions that she’s seen me at some other ultras. The joke is always, “Gosh you remember me?” since I know it is because I am so tall.
She says, “Well, you are the Usain Bolt of Ultrarunning.” A strange (but apt) sobriquet.
Once I get around a number of the curves hugging the shoreline, there is a bit of a descent on a wide fire road heading down into Muir Beach. This is a double-up section, so I do get some encouragement from Meg near her turn-off at the top and from Alan somewhere nearer the bottom.
They have done some construction since the last time I was here. Now there is a nice (but a bit slippery) metal bridge traversing the marshy area. In my last Miwok, we had to detour around this quite a bit.
I have been cautious on this section, especially because the stairs and the severe downhills have been tough on my knees, but I carry on through in just over an hour (at 15:52 pace).
Now I turn around, recross the bridge, and head back up the hills. Not as much cross traffic (as I am towards the back) but the people around me are somewhat surprised at my technique of climbing the hills which is diagonal climbing. It takes pressure off my knees and is mildly entertaining to me (I don’t listen to music so I have weird ways of keeping my mind occupied.). There is also a trick to timing it just right so you can get around upcoming people.
This next section is another 4 miles back to Tennessee Valley but in a slightly different manner, along Coyote Ridge and not along the coast. I kinda hate this section because it’s hard to visualize where you are heading, but once you complete the ridiculous climbing away from the coast, there is quite a bit of downhill to get back to the Valley (which is not to say I am maintaining a faster pace).
From Tennessee Valley, the course now heads out in a third different direction (first one inbound from the start, second one inbound from Muir Beach, third one outbound to the Golden Gate). This is the second longest stretch of the course (been doing about 4 mile stretches for the first 3) at 5.9 miles and definitely has the most up-and-down of the sections.
It’s a long, long climb out of Tennessee Valley, but at the top, the view is pretty rewarding. It’s not too foggy this year to see the Golden Gate Bridge, but it is still foggy and breezy. The course is slightly confusing here, but I am good at following ribbons. Because of the fog, it is more humid here and the trail is muddier.
However, to me, muddier means softer.
When I emerge from the foggy wooded section, it’s back to single-track and gusty winds. In a couple of sections, I hold my hat in my hand so that it doesn’t blow off. I am almost walking on this downhill section and there are now runners sprinting by me on the uphills (to be expected). I look for the familiar faces (feel like I should have seen Meg Cheng by now – she was running so well).
Probably midway down, I encounter Alan coming back up. He tells me he hates this section because it is so rocky and he has to continually tilt his Luna sandals to keep the pebbles out (don’t suppose gaiters would work?).
When I get to the bottom, it’s now the paved road down, down, down to the water UNDER the Golden Gate Bridge. I hate this section because you give up the hill entirely, and then you have to climb back out (and we will be back here again soon – yuck).
I thought the aid station would be at the bottom of the hill, but we have to turn and run alongside the water for a quarter mile or so. The aroma of marijuana smoke is pretty strong here – gag. I pick up a couple of orange slices and make the turnaround. Because of the downhill, I dropped my pace from 17:30 to 16:15 per mile, but know I will probably lose all that in a quick minute here.
Now for the longest stretch, 7.1 miles (feels like an eternity). It starts with the reverse road climb, then the switchbacks on rocky dirt in the wind, back through the muddy wood, and then a turn onto the road heading back down to Rodeo Beach.
Once I am back on the fire-road, it’s a spot-fast-folks section, as they have finished their first loop and are heading in the reverse direction now. First, I spot Dean Karnazes. We talked for a quick second at the start and he vaguely remembers me from Santa Barbara 100 (I worked, he ran). This is a MUCH easier course (the 100, I mean) by the way.
Next, I see Ed Ettinghausen. I’ve known him for at least a decade so when he passes me, he gives me the ol’ toot on the railroad whistle (I’m struggling carrying two water bottles – I wouldn’t be carrying a large wooden whistle with me – I can cheer people on just as well with my voicebox.). Great to see him.
Still looking for Meg. Feel like at this point, maybe she dropped out. (Later, I find she was throwing up and had a touch of the flu, so maybe it was for the best… but I tend to run better when I am a little sick because I manage my expectations better.)
Quite a bit later, I spot Alan coming up the road. I’ll time it, but I’m probably a good hour behind him at this point. If he maintains a good pace, I’ll probably finish 2-3 hours behind him (hope he’s easily entertained!).
The fire road pops out on Conzelman (the road we drove in on) and crosses it to a small trail paralleling the cars for about a mile. My feet really hurt at this point. I am almost considering quitting, BUT I know that I could slowly slog on for another 7 hours (Yes, that sounds crazy, but I have 33 hours to finish (or, 26 and change at this point), and while I am hoping not to take 33 hours, my need to finish is strong enough to keep on.).
I come through the start/finish line, grab some vittles and head back out. There are still some people behind me coming in (some to finish the marathon (who ran an additional 1.2 mile loop at the start)). I overhear one guy say that he is going to stop and not do another loop. I halfheartedly yell at him to continue since we still have so much time.
When I get back to the trail section, I spot Eldrith Gosney. We “ran” together at Miwok 2009 (and she creamed me). She is in her 70s and an ultra legend. We chat really briefly (neither of us need to stop for too long). I suggest that we are the weird “E”s (Eldrith and Emmett) and I flash her the “E” sign with my fingers.
So now up the dreaded hill. Since I am now doing every section in reverse, I can compare times (probably a bad idea). The sections aren’t identical (since down is up and vice versa) and I am now between 5 and 25 miles more tired than when I did the section earlier.
I continue my zigzag up the hill and try to maintain an even pace. Still shooting for 14:43 or at least sub-15:00 but my feet are really hurting.
At the top, back into the muddy forest, a little less foggy at this hour, and then back into the wind and technical trail.
Alan is almost off this section by the time we connect, meaning he is closer to 90 minutes ahead of me now. Guess I won’t be catching up. I don’t spot folks like Ed or Dean at this point because they have already turned off on the trail to Tennessee Valley.
When I get down to the paved section, that feels the absolute worst on my feet. The best bet to get down the hill quickly is skipping or galloping. Think about it, you cover a longer distance and it’s slightly less pounding.
When I get to the aid station, I have to sidle around a fire truck. Someone had some issues and they called the paramedics. By some miracle, I got through this section in 2:03:53 (only 4 minutes slower). Now, although I still have the climb out, the distance between aid stations is only going to get shorter. I got the two 7.1 mile stretches done.
The climb out is horrible and I am only gratified by the fact that there are still folks behind me (not many) and I am mostly around the same people I have seen all day (a gal here, and a couple there), though I am worried about the probability of some of them finishing… because they are entered in the 75 or 100 miler and while we are still on pace for a finish, the reality is that once it gets dark, the speed will drop considerably, the body will get even more tired, and the chances will fall precipitously.
Just after I turn out of the forested area and back onto the fire road that will take me back to Tennessee Valley, I spot someone not in a number, a volunteer that I think I saw at the last aid station. She is looking for a particular runner – I think it is the wife of one of the couples I have been trading leads with all day. The hard part is I don’t think we exchanged names, but I do remember some of the numbers.
Anyway, the second weirdest moment on an ultra for me (first was probably discussing hemorrhoids with Gordy Ainsleigh at Way Too Cool 50K) was the volunteer saying that she wanted to find the runner to give her medication for her UTI. Seriously, too much information, there.
More zigzagging down the steep hill into Tennessee Valley. No 4-5 minute slower on this section, no-sir-ee Bob. 13 minutes slower (basically 2 minutes PER mile slower). I, too, am facing the dark dilemma.
At Tennessee Valley, I spot a few of my friends. Martin Sengo is here, but heading out to finish his second loop and presumably start his third and final loop. Good to see another tall-ish guy. I also see my friend Errol “Rocket” Jones. We never seem to meet when both of us are running – it’s always one or the other. One of these days, I want to do his Quad Dipsea race, but I have to know my Thanksgiving plans several months in advance.
Less than a half marathon to go, but another dreaded climb out of Tennessee Valley and off to Muir Beach. Because this section is so even (meaning an equal measure of up and down, I actually ran it only 30 seconds slower than the first time out (I wonder if that means that there was actually more downhill than up!). Another two traverses of the full metal bridge.
Now the fun climb out, back along the ridge, downhill, and up the slippery wood stairs, back along the coast. I am pretty much by myself most of the way here, with occasional reverse direction passes from 75 or 100 milers.
It is starting to get dusky and I am hoping to get back into Tennessee Valley before it gets dark, especially because I left my headlamp in my drop bag for a number of loops so I didn’t have to carry it with me. It is almost dark when I slog into the aid station at a 24 minute per mile pace (lost 34 minutes off my first time through).
Before I take off, the one thing I am wondering is when the drop bags will be returned to the start. Wondering if they will do the deal with some coming back earlier and the rest tomorrow afternoon, but they say that all of them are not coming back until tomorrow.
I make the decision that I will carry my bag back with me (so we don’t have to wait or come back tomorrow). It’s a small duffel so I am able to strap it across my back in a way that isn’t uncomfortable (and as I mentioned earlier, there is some glow sticks, some Nuun, and some batteries inside – it probably weighs less than my car keys).
When I begin heading out on trail, they are only just putting out glow sticks and I am not even sure what direction to go (and I know this area) but someone orienteers me in the direction of the barn. Think they dropped the ball and forgot to put markers out BEFORE dark, as they are putting them up now.
I know there’s a turn to head up the horse switchbacks, but I can’t see yellow ribbon in the dark unless I see the ribbon in the exact reflection point. This results in me missing the turn and wandering back and forth until some 75/100 milers come in from the correct direction so I can head back out that way.
I’m feeling the nightmare from 6 years ago when I couldn’t find the blue ribbon (and no glow sticks), but am gratified at least that some people will be coming at me and it won’t be me by myself for the last 90 minutes to 2 hours.
For the most part, there aren’t any options for turns. Just slow going in the dark (even with a headlamp, which only illuminates the 20 yards ahead of you). Every so often, a runner or a large group of runners (probably from the Night Sweats Marathon which started a little while ago. Mostly ladies who cheer me on. Nice!
There is a certain point when I have a vague idea where I am, even in the dark and you start to hear the voices of the finish line but you can’t just bound down the hill, you have to follow the course in correct manner (unless like 6 years ago, you can’t find any course and just guess your way down the hill). Every turn is a hunt for the yellow ribbon and glow stick. If it is a turn, it’s always hidden. Probably they marked it in the daylight, not thinking of how it appears at night so it was a little hairy at times.
I did eventually get to the stone stairs (slippery and tough in the dark) and then a wooden railing from which I could see the lights of the finish line, and then finally through the gate back onto Conzelman Road for a short period before turning up through the parking lot and across the finishline in 15:10:14 (not under 15 hours or 14:43, but age-grade faster).
Alan finished under 12:00, which in the old days was a Western States Qualifier (11:53), so he has been making new friends for the past 3 hours (and freaking out his wife because the cell phone is in my car).
I get some food and unstrap my drop bag (throw my water bottles in there). I pull out my glow sticks (which I never got around to) and hand them out to anyone hanging at the finish that is interested – which is a lot of people. At this point I could probably hand out large pieces of coal and the people there would get excited (because we are off our feet).
A few of the people who finished near me, but are in the 75 or 100 are weighing their options. A 75er can still finish, but does she want to go struggle around in the dark all night? And someone in the 100 probably isn’t going to finish unless the sun suddenly rose in the next hour. I think we convinced a few people to call it a day at 50 miles (which is a pretty pretty good accomplishment).
For me, it’s my 23rd completed 50 miler (can’t believe I’m coming upon 25 finishes) and for Alan, a very respectable first 50 miler on not the easiest of courses (I have three faster times and they were a lot flatter and less technical).
If I can figure out the feet thing (better padded shoes? better feet?), I would be interested in returning and trying the 75 miler. Don’t think I could do the 100. I guess we will see what 2018 holds (and if Mrs. Sheppard can handle 3 kids while Alan runs 100 miles or if Alan can push 3 kids 100 trail miles in a stroller).