A friend told me about how she'd planned on Skyline to the Sea, but couldn't go. Maybe I'd like to try it, she suggested. Skyline to the Sea is a rare thing in trail runs: a point-to-point race. Point A to point B. It doesn't get any more fundamental than that. I had to try it.
There's two routes: the more popular "50 km" course includes an added loop up and down a hillside. The simpler route is claimed to be a marathon: slightly longer than the 26 miles + 385 yards which defines that distance. For some reason I felt a hilly trail marathon would be easier than a road marathon. A trail, I reasoned, breaks things up, uses different muscles, and reduces the pressure of maintaining a target pace.
Preparation wasn't great. My issue was I'd raced two long trail races in the past two months: the Coastal Trail Runs Rodeo Beach 18-miler (with distance run at the end to make up for a short-cut I inadvertantly took) and the Pacific Coast Trail Runs 30 km race at Pirates Cove. Trail runners tend to do races as training by backing off on the pace, focusing on building endurance without digging themselves into a hole. I wasn't worried about holes: I ran each of these races to get the best results I could. Take what you can get was my philosophy. And I was pleased with how I did at the first race (until the wrong turn) and at Pirates Cove: decent results; an age-group ribbon.
A result was I spent a lot of time recovering from these runs. Two weeks from Rodeo Beach. Two weeks (although with a lot of cycling in there) at Pirates, as well. This was time I could have spent working more on endurance.
Leading to Skyline to the Sea I had a decent block of work. Runs of 11.2, 12.3, 9.5, and 10.0 on alternate days over a 7-day period. Then on a trip to visit family in New Jersey 2.5, 5.6 (with a 7 mile hike after), and 6.8 miles on consecutive days. The promising thing was I felt better as this block progressed. These runs gave me some confidence. The issue was none of my runs, on their own, had really prepared me for the considerable jump from 30 km to 43, the marathon distnce.
The long day of trains and plane from New Jersey to San Francisco left me depleted, however. Allergies left me tired in the five days between my trip and the race. I didn't do much during this time: a few short bike rides and, the day before the race, an easy 1.5 mile run. I'd done what I could and I had to rely on the stimulus of competition to get me through the big day.
Pacing was going to be really important. The run starts, we were told, with some single-track on which it would be difficult to pass. I wanted to be positioned in the the third row: the top 20 but not the top 10 runners. I didn't want to go off and try to match the pace of Leor Pantalat or Scott Dunlap. But on the other hand I didn't want to get stuck in slow-climbing traffic on the "rollers" which characterized the opening kilometers of the race.
But at least from my position, concerns about the "pack" were relatively unjustified. Things strung out quickly. I felt as if I were running comfortably, somewhat briskly but without strain. On the climbs I shuffle-steeped, avoiding the inefficiencies of a full run. On the descents, I did the best I could with my short stride. Stay loose, stay comfortable. I lost time on the descents relative to those around me, but seemed to gain it back on the climbs.
After cross-crossing Highway 9 a few times, I arrived at the 10.5 km aid station at Waterman Gap in 55 minutes. This was ahead of my 10 minute per mile target, but then there was serious climbing to come, so I expected to be ahead of pace by this point. I decided to save the Coke option for later to avoid burning out on it, drinking some Clif carbohydrate solution and water, refilling my now empty bottle which I carried on a belt (I also had caffeinated Powerbar GelBlasts, which I'd occasionally eat), ate a few Clif Bloks, and set off for the climbing I knew followed ... climbing I looked forward to.
The climb wasn't bad, but despite this, as I reached the top I was fatiguing. Not good. Still close to 30 km remaining, a distance I had only run on trails twice this year, and I was already tired. Of course I'd been tired all week, so lasting 13 km before fatiguing was an improvement. But 29 km is a long way to go, especially over challenging terrain. I decided I needed to really throttle back from what I'd already thought was a sustainable pace. Take it one hour at a time, thinking about turning the throttle back up after three hours.
And this helped. To my relief, the second hour passed fairly well. The next aid station, near China Grade Road, I drank some Coke and water, took a few more Clif Bloks, and again was back on the trail fairly quickly. And from here it was a relatively short, albeit hilly stretch to the third aid station, near park headquarters.
Along the way I managed to take one slightly wrong turn: I was running along China Grade road, which seemed wrong. I asked some passing hikers, and they directed me back onto the trail which paralleled the road. I was quickly back on track. This probably saved me a few seconds (fewer than 10) versus the trail: deja-vu from my accidental short-cut at Rodeo Beach. But I wasn't about to backtrack at this point.
Onward. I eventually reached the next stop at the Park Headquarters. I was starting to feel depleted again. My Power Shots were mostly gone, and I'd started dipping into my supply of Enduralytes. I was drinking well, I felt, but now more than two hours in, I felt like I was fading a bit again. So at this station I stopped for a bit, ate some orange slices in addition to drinking Coke and water, then set out again.
Soon after I took another wrong turn: finding myself this time at the parking lot at the Park Headquarters. I backtracked and got back on the route, which was flooded and thus had skipped my attention, deciding this was karmic accounting for my earlier mistake: payback of those few seconds gained with interest.
What followed was the most challenging part of the course. The path climbed over rocks, went up and down steep slopes, and generally made itself difficult. Normally all good stuff, but I found myself no longer power walking, but more like trudging up climbs, and carefully stepping over obsticles to reduce fatigue-causing impacts.
Hour three arrived as I was passing a hiking group from Team in Training. I asked what they were training for and two responded: one for the Grand Canyon and the other for a different hike. They were inspiring, but not enough to convince me to pick up my pace as I'd planned to do at this time. I decided to wait for the fire road and reevalute.
The fire road, the fire road! Just make it to the fire road which marked the final 10 km, I told myself. If I could make it to the fire road, everything would be good.
I managed to pass the waterfall which is the highlight of the Skyline to the Sea trail without noticing it. I was too focused on continuing my progress to the fire road and, from there, the finish. One step at a time. I was running okay on the flatter parts, walking on the climbs and descents. It seemed to go on and on and on.
A runner passed: one of several in this segment. I mentioned to him that surely the fire road was soon. He cautiously agreed.
And we were right. The trail opened up and volunteers pointed the direction home. "5.8 miles", one said, to the finish. I asked how far it was to the aid station. I'd forgotten from my study of the course match back up on Skyline. He didn't know.
I started to run, but my motivation to do so, my willingness to suppress the pain, wavered, hovering at the critical threshold, and then snapped. I simply had to walk. Just for a bit, I told myself. I'd walk until I'd recovered a bit, then slowly run it in.
But my exeriments in running all failed. Each time, I simply wasn't able to refind that rhythm to get me through the pain. It became clear this was turning into a little death march. Just keep moving, I told myself. Keep walking.
I was passed repeatedly here. Many on the 50 km route, some marathoners. Caitlin Smith, the 50 km women's winner and third overall, had passed me well before the fire road, happily telling me I looked good. But by this point, on the fire road, I dreaded these wishes. I just wanted to fade into the background. I hoped those passing would assume I was a day hiker. Too many did not.
I asked hikers and cyclists (which are allowed on the fire road section) how far it was to the aid station. Nobody knew. Nobody seemed to have seen it.
Finally a numberless, oncoming runner told me the aid station was just ahead. This perked me up: finally, relief. I was there soon enough. A volunteer cheerfully told me it was only 1.5 miles to the finish, but there was no way I wasn't going to stop and recover a bit. 1.5 miles can be a long way. So I ate pretzels, drank some carbohydrate solution, and even ate half a frosted Pop-Tart. I'd hoped the Pop-Tart would revive me, but it only made me wish I'd eaten Clif Bloks instead: the Pop-Tart was too sweet, too pasty. I wondered if I'd dropped it if it would decompose.
There was nowhere to sit at the aid station, which was a good thing: it got me back on the trail sooner. I really wanted to run it home from here, but again I was unable. So I walked: head down and fairly miserable. When I reached the finish (18th / 54), I felt no sense of accomplishment, no victory, just relief.
I found Juliana, who had given me a ride to the start and was here to support Bjorn, her friend. She was really positive, helping to raise my spirits a bit. The important thing, she said, was that I'd finished, and this was a good benchmark for the next time I did it. Next time.... usually at the end of a hard event I don't like thinking about a next time. But there was no doubt in my mind there would be a next time. I had to return: return and get it right.
As I lay on the ground, munching PowerBlox (whey protein + sugar), I overheard a woman say this was the hardest marathon course she'd ever run. That helped a bit.
So what did I need to get right? First, start a bit more conservatively. But really my problem was just lack of fitness: lack of the specific adaptations which allow cardiovascular endurance to be applied to running. I got 80% there: I just needed that extra 25% which would have had me succumb past the finish line rather than 5 miles before it. A month of solid training and I certainly would have had it. Not that I could have run more given the date of this run: you've got to follow what your body lets you do. But next time I'll have more preparation.
Three days later, I'm surprised how well I've recovered. No real workouts yet, although I can run up stairs and rode my bike to and from the train commuting to work. I'm ready to start doing some training rides again. Easy spins, nothing hard, but it's good to know I didn't dig myself into too deep a hole at Skyline to the Sea.