I first saw images of The North Face 50 mile championship race held in the Marin Headlands of San Francisco a few years ago. My jaw literally hit the floor watching a video of the race. Single track cut into grass hillsides off the Pacific Ocean, glimpses of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge, not to mention a packed field of elites, made this race an absolute ‘must do’. This course offered some of the finest trails in the US and I wanted in.
I put it onto my 2013 calendar as my closing race. It was to be my C race for the year after Boston (=B), Western States (A) and UROC (=B). Am I even allowed to have such a thing? Well, my rules, so I guess so. My training for it was far from specific since UROC 100K. I had run 4 marathons in 8 weeks. Two as pacer and two for myself but relatively little trails (does the Central Park bridle path count?) or elevation runs.
Excuses over, I was excited to be a part of this race. I’m not sure if the prize purse increased this year ($10K for the winner of both male and female races) but the elites flocked onto the entry list in the last few weeks of the build up and not just from the US. Ryan Sandes was coming in from Cape Town, Emilie Forseberg from Norway and her pacer was a guy called Kilian Jornet. The US elites included Rob Krar, arguably the ultra runner of the year (URY) even prior to this, Max King, Dakota Jones, Mike Wardian, Mike Wolfe, Dylan Bowman etc etc. It was easier to say who wasn’t running it.
It dawned on me how lucky I am as an amateur, to get to have these amazing race experiences with the best of the best from across the world. It’s the equivalent of the weekend golfer teeing it up with Woods, or rallying with Federer. But with trail running, the difference is, it’s the real deal. Of course, these guys who I have the utmost respect for, make fewer headlines than professionals in main stream sports, but running is my sport and I love everything about it. It is an honor and more importantly darn fun to be able to race with them.
After a few hiccups pre-race that included forgetting to pick up the rental car, forgetting to bring music and no batteries for the headlamp (at least I had my insulin), I made it to the start area in the dark and cold conditions at 4:30am (thanks Joe and Fick for driving me so early!). I met up with Joe Del Conte, a fellow NYC ultra runner pre-race and we shared the same excuses that this was to be a fun race, with a firm emphasis on fun. My blood glucose was a touch above my target at 225. I had a now watered down Gatorade in my handheld, a few gels and was set, ready to explore what this course was all about.
We left the now very familiar red bubble North Face arch just after 5am. The course started flat which then wrapped to the right and downhill across a road and over a footbridge onto Rodeo Valley Trail. The pace was way faster than I needed to go but I figured I would run what I could, the climbs throughout would slow me down anyway.
I climbed the first hill to the top of Bobcat alongside Joe as sunrise began to break. The view ahead and behind of the string of headlamps was breathtaking. It took me back to the sight at Turquoise Lake in the opening miles of Leadville. The climb was longer and harder than what I had studied on paper; probably not a great omen for the next 47 odd miles.
We descended down a wide and rocky fire road which was way too fun. I knew this descent would be repeated at the end of the race so tried my best to remember certain memorable spots or turns which may or may not help hours later. The only issue was, I was doing this observant task in the dark.
Along a flat section, we ran through the first aid; no need for anything much here. A quick gulp of water and I kept going. Along this road allowed more time to pound out some good speedy miles. So far, so good with my planned sub-9 hour goal.
At the next aid station (Tennessee Valley), I had climbed and descended a similar hill, this time rapidly down on switchbacks. I met up with Tiffany, Joe and Fick, did a blood test which was important (79), refueled my bottle and gels and gone. I hadn’t processed the idea until now that it was still too dark to hand off my headlamp to them. As I had no drop bags, I would be hanging onto this beauty until mile 28!
The third climb would bring about the best reward thus far. Once up on top, we were greeted to some brave souls swaying in the wind, pointing us over the ridge line and down a single track. This was the start of Pirate’s Cove.
Single track sweeping along the coastline. The ocean waves were breaking on the beach and smashing into a solitary rock which gave the postcard view the final touch of aesthetic beauty. Yes, this course was living up to its reputation alright and now it was daylight, I would not miss anything else. It was a gem of a trail. The fun descent meant only one thing and that was back up and over the north side of the cove. I re-caught Joe who had not stopped at Tennessee Valley. We ran side by side down a fire road. A runner ahead was less than impressed walking down to the aid. I stopped myself offering him a gel when I recognized it was Karl Meltzer. A gel wasn’t going to make his day any better. He was about to drop and I saved myself getting yelled at for trying to help.
The aid station at Muir Beach was an important time to stock up. The biggest climb of the race was ahead. I ran across a farm field which just seemed so strange like I was back in XC days. Those trusty ribbons pitched in the soil ahead reassured me this was correct. The ribbons lead us towards a hillside and the start of coastal trail. I looked up to see dozens of runners hiking switchbacks above me. I looked above them and saw even more runners!
I was prepared to hike all the ups today but because there were so many switchbacks, the grade never seemed to become an excuse to slow the pace down to hike mode. I enjoyed the back and forth twists and the ability to keep running for the most part. Note to self, don’t study the course profile so much! I was now running solo, Joe took the climb easier than me.
The climb was pretty relentless. It was 1,500 feet of up. I ran what I could but now 15 or so miles in, my body wanted to rest a bit more on these uphill sections. Perhaps the year of racing was catching up with my legs. Ironically, I was moving ever closer to Cardiac. The aid station name, not my physical condition. Through the aid, the terrain changed dramatically; weaving between trees and hopping over roots in a shelter of greenery. It was a nice change of environment. This was the fringe of the Muir Woods.
Although my surroundings were different, the elevation gain continued. I left the woods to find a marshal directing me right where the trail splits, pointing almost unknowingly towards five guys who all appeared to have on neon yellow tops. I waited to let them pass and realized it was the lead pack coming back from the out and back of McKennan Gulch.
Dylan Bowman, Mike Wolfe and others bombed passed in silence and made the turn down the hill. I think I was just blown away by how deadly silent they all were like assassins yet not trying to kill others, each other. The pace was a different league.
I marched onward and upwards along Coastal Trail single track around ‘wrecked car’ – a landmark of the trail which is exactly as it is named. The story of how the car got to lay somewhere so remote from back in the 1940’s apparently remains a mystery. This section was a not a great spot for an out and back being single track and all but I did get to see almost every elite runner I know over the next ten minutes from Ryan Sandes to The North Face favorite, Mike Wardian.
It made for some interesting exchanges. Some would just bomb straight past as I dove into the hillside (lead runner gets right of way) and others would give me a “good job” shout which felt wrong as they were ahead of me but that’s just what we say this side of the pond. The views of the Pacific high above Stinson Beach were just fantastic. The single track headed north to the furthest point north on the course. I was greeted at the aid with an offer of some hot broth. It wasn’t in my plans but it was windy and cold up top on the exposed hill at almost 2,000 feet so I gladly accepted. I stayed for a refill while small talking with the volunteer about the day and other random ultra stories.
But as more runners came into the aid, I knew it was time to get going south again. I caught up to and then passed the women’s UTMB champion Rory Bosio. I had no doubt she was having a bad day or was just burnt out from the year and didn’t dare ask her for clarification of my theories. I think she may have even dropped at the next aid. When I ran back the way I had come and saw who was coming towards me, I knew this race was definitely an end of season affair for most; Dakota Jones was about 4 miles back from me. I almost took a double take to make sure it was him. I found out later that he was running with the flu and taking it easy. Who runs 50 miles easy with the flu?! Check his humorous encounter of the race out; http://www.irunfar.com/2013/12/the-mid-packers.html.
I descended fast down part of the famous Dipsea Trail to Stinson Beach aid station where Tiffany, Fick and Joe were waiting for me. I put on a brave face to say everything was going well although in reality I was hurting pretty bad. First things first, I made them take my headlamp off me! My blood was good but not safe enough at 83. Tiffany said do you want me to jump in later for the last few miles. I jumped at this offer. I was without doubt no threat to the $10K winner’s purse and decided this would be a fitting end to the year. Tiffany has been with me every step of every race, none more so than through the night at Western States. Her enjoyment on the trails is forever growing so it feels great for me to see her have such fun out on them too sharing these races and places with me.
I left Stinson Beach and immediately had an uphill through the moors of Dipsea. I suffered all the way up that hill to Cardiac aid just as I had coming the other direction earlier. But now, 50K in, I was rethinking my 9 hour time goal. I was walking runnable stuff, my body was just trashed. The reality of being overly aggressive in the first half now spoke to me loud and clear. When a group approached from behind in relaxed conversational mode and took me down with me ease, I knew I had to start digging deeper to get the wheels back on.
I knew the game though. Bad patches happen. You are meant to suffer out here at some time or another. 50 miles is 50 miles. But when my suffering dragged on and on and more runners passed, I knew this was not a normal bad patch. For this race, I was not monitoring my glucose every minute. I was going off feel and my occasional blood tests when crew could reach me. What was actually happening was, I was heading south geographically and physically speaking too. I popped a Clif Shot gel and then another immediately after. 48 grams of simple carbohydrates to fuel the system back up.
Within a few minutes, I was moving better again. Run the downs, hike the ups, repeat. On a sharp right turn downhill, a couple of Dads watched with their boys. “Alright! Changing diabetes. I have diabetes!” shouted a Dad lifting his shirt to enthusiastically show me his pump insert. I gave him the thumbs up and continued along the trail.
This small interaction with another diabetic that I will never see ever again kick started my race both physically and mentally. That reminder that wearing the Team Novo Nordisk shirt across the country all year long touches people and shows them what is possible is a very powerful tool. It’s the ultimate win-win for both the spectator and the runner.
I reached Cardiac aid, refueled smartly and got going. My head was back in the game but my legs were still like lead, screaming for a walking break. I knew better though. The scenery changed again, I was immersed in big redwoods descending through the Muir Woods. Single track switchbacks winding steeply downwards and crossing over large trunks as bridges was another major highlight of the course, even with wrecked legs. To get to run on some of the famed Dipsea steps was just plain awesome.
I was behind on time and this next leg between aid stops was short and gradually down or flat all the way back to Muir Beach. I locked my brain into a fixation that I had to run this whole section, even if it killed me. I could reward myself with some walking later on but not here.
At Muir, the aid station was packed. It was a merging point for 50M, 50K and marathoners all coming and going different directions. I changed my focus from running to orienteering through here. All I cared about was making sure i followed orange ribbons, not red, blue or any other color out here.
I hiked up Coastal Trail along with the 50K’ers. Grinding out miles now. It was nice to have more runners around albeit ion a different race. There were a couple of guys around me from the 50M though that we ended up playing the cartoon car race game where the lead continually goes back and forth. Ultimately, we were helping each other push ourselves without talking much about it.
The climb had many false summits. My GPS was in no way accurate and I had long given up guessing the mileage I was at. The pain throughout my body spread but the views to my right of the Pacific took the edge off no doubt. I continued to fight for position with my competitors although way back from the front. This race was not about placing or even time anymore, just about giving it everything I had until the end.
Tiffany was all smiles waiting for me at mile 44, ready to go. Glucose 102 called for some fuel which I digested on the last hike up of the day. We spoke about her college friend Peter Hogg who was not only well ahead but actually finished. He had run a great race and competed against and beaten the likes of Mike Wardian and David Riddle out there. I was looking forward to meeting him later at dinner.
At the crest of the hill (Alta aid), I knew it was all plain sailing now. We were now back at the mile 3 section of the course and about to repeat the very first descent done in the dark hours ago.
I glanced my watch and realized a 9:15 finish time was possible. It was not the sub-9 goal but it was a hell of a lot better than the 10 hour mark I had feared may come into play when things weren’t going so pretty after Stinson beach.
Down the jeep road we went. I wasted no energy now. This was a new race. A 5K race starting now. The Golden Gate arch peaked over the headlands to my left. I had almost forgotten where I was running for the last few hours. This location was so close to San Francisco but yet so tucked away. I could see the draw of the city to the athletic yet also driven career types.
I knew 9/minute miles would do the trick. This was UROC heading down Vail Mountain all over again. I hammered the hills and Tiffany ran alongside. She worried I would go too fast for her but I assured her, I was not going to finish without her. This race was merely another excuse to be outside, travel somewhere new and experience the great trails of the west coast. My training did not quantify this as a race and therefor my time be it sub-9, sub-10 or now on the verge of 9:15 was all irrelevant numbers in the grand scheme of things.
We crossed the road which I knew marked the final mile. The sweeping left hill took the pace off my plan and we power hiked as my exhaustion kicked in one more time. I felt the 9:15 was gone as the hill seemed to never end but then I saw a glimpse of people in a field on the horizon. We ran hard again on the flat, turned right and through the arch together. My time? 9:15 and change. Not spectacular but an honest and great run. I was happy. Isn’t that ultimately the goal of anything we do in our lives?
I saw the winner, Rob Krar limping in my direction immediately after and grabbed a few words with him. If there is a more humble ultra guy out of the elites on the scene right now, I don’t know who it is. He is a great inspiration and great guy too.
I hobbled my stiff legs over to a tent hoping to get warm. A circle of chairs surrounded a heater with a couple spare. I sunk into one, did what all diabetics should do first, a blood test (113) and then changed into warm clothes while making new friends and recapping what we just experienced.
We met up with our friends, Joe and Fick, grabbed some food and a beer, mingled with some of the other elites like Kilian Jornet, Rickey Gates and Anna Frost from the Salomon team and then headed back into the city to celebrate this race and all the others before it from 2013. What’s not to love about this crazy world of ultrarunning?