The Marin Headlands provided for a gorgeous course, with four big climbs and one little climb at the end, along with miscellaneous rollers liberally sprinkled between the major bumps.
On Tue I had gotten stung by a bee while riding to work through Palo Alto. My face swelled up within an hour, but I got it under control with ice. When I awoke on Wed, however, the swelling was back in force, and Wed and Thu the allergic reaction left me fatigued. I felt a bit better on Friday, still a bit tired but not 100%. My lip was still puffy when I awoke early on Saturday, but otherwise I felt much better. I'd not run at all in a week and a half, but at least I'd gotten in some decent cycling through that Tuesday commute.
In April I'd done 26 km and 27 km training runs on many of the same trails used in the race, then on July 5 I did a strong 29 km run there. With the improved hydration and calorie intake available on a supported race, I felt I would be able to put in a good effort. The goal was to run every one of the climbs at tempo, and come into the finish fast but tired.
Starting (Cara Coburn)
So after overenthusiastically jumping the "gun" by a half-second (whoops!) I was second into the start of the first climb, following a guy in a red sleevless shirt who was just flying. He disappeared out of sight and I settled into run-walking my own pace up the hill. I was then passed by a woman who I tried to follow for awhile, but finally let go as she was going too quickly for what I thought I could hold for 30 km. I decided then to not worry too much about who was around me but run my own pace.
First climb (Cara Coburn)
One constant goal is to improve my speed on downhills. Sometimes on trails there's a forbidden speed gap: you can descend at a speed which allows for stopping or go fast enough it's more of a controlled fall. In between is the forbidden zone where you're braking to limit your speed, and that braking exceeds the available traction. I have a hard time crossing this gap: I like having the out available of being able to stop if necessary. The good runners seem to be unafraid of falling occasionally, and are willing to take that risk of committing to running past the speed gap. Once that commitment is made the only way to slow gracefully is to reach the end of the steep grade. So for short downhills, those where I know I won't get into trouble, I try to let gravity take me a bit further than I'm comfortable.
I seemed to be doing okay with this, not getting passed on the downhills. I reached the first checkpoint at Tennessee Valley stables in good position. The runners ahead, none of whom had water, blew through this stop. I had a bottle in my Nathan belt, which I was drinking while I ran, but stopped long enough to drink two cups of Hammer carbohydrate solution, which Coastal mixes nicely dilute. Even though it was foggy and cool I wanted to stay on top of my hydration. I then fumbled grabbing three Clif Blok carbohydrate chews, eating one and storing the remaining two in my belt pouch.
All of this allowed the runners I'd been chasing to increase their gap, but I was no longer worried about them. However, I worried a bit more when soon after the stop, on the flat Tennessee Valley trail, a group of around six guys ran past me as if they were doing a 10k. I slotted in with them, wanting to take advantage of the draft, figuring if I'd been faster on the first climb I'd be faster on the next.
Soon enough we turned onto the Fox Trail. I'd not been here before: it falls between the Coastal Trail which goes by Pirates Cove to the west and, to the east, the Miwok trail. Coastal-Miwok provides a fantastic loop, so I'd never felt compelled to take the relatively broad Fox trail. I'd asked about it at the start, however, and had been told it got steep toward the end. So as the climb began I settled into a sustainable pace, even as others in the group surged ahead, saving something for when it steepened.
And sure enough as the climb progressed the runners towards the front slowed, and I regained ground on then. As we reached the top of the climb where Fox merged with the Coastal Fire Road, I was with a group of two with two more further up the trail. We then began the descent towards the turnoff to the single-track Coastal Trail, the highlight of the course.
I was pleased I was able to descend with these two guys over some of the steeper sections of the fire road. With the coastal fog, we didn't see anything of the water to the left, but the valley to the right was clear enough well below our height. Eventually I saw some ribbons to the left with a sign: what did that say? But the runners I was following kept going, so I figured it was just a minor trail I hadn't noticed before. In retrospect, I can barely believe I'm writing this: I've been on these trails many times. But I have such an inferiority complex about my navigational abilities that I always assume without question that others who appear more confident are correct. So I followed the other two.
The descent got steeper and less familiar. Muir Beach was getting awfully close ahead, the view clearing as we descended. We'd missed the turn.
"This is the wrong way", I said.... "when's the last time you saw a ribbon?"
"Back there", one of the two responded, "but this is the right way: we're following those guys up ahead."
Lemming line... It's tempting when you commit to a course of action to stick to it, long after it becomes obvious it was a mistake. So even at this point I took a few more strides, a few more precious meters of altitude squandered, before stopping. I stopped.
A runner was approaching from behind. Despite overwhelming evidence, I still needed to check. "The Pirates Cove trail is back up the hill, right?" I asked. She confirmed.
So back up the hill I went. All of the early pushing of my pace was now flushed down the proverbial toilet. Those tenths of a second saved following optimal trajectories through corners were tossed away as I'd just given away ten minutes or more in a massive exhibition of neural flatulence.
As I ran, I was amused to see more runners with numbers pinned on their shirts or shorts descending. "Wrong way!" I shouted as I climbed. Yet once again in my surrealistic haze I started to doubt if I was making a mistake. It was as if my existing trail knowledge was all a strange dream.
Anton near Pirates Cove in 2010
But there it was ahead: the turn-off to Pirates Cove, marked with a striped ribbon. The marking wasn't super obvious: a single ribbon on what is a tricky corner. Maybe Wendell could have invested a few more here. But navigation is part of the trail running game, after all.
Even though I saw a runner in the distance, one who had obviously been behind me earlier, I decided to not let this snafu take me down. This, after all, is a trail unmatched in its beauty: a dream-like run along the rugged Pacific Coast. I'd specifically trained here to improve my speed on the undulating, twisting route, and it had worked. I felt like I had this thing nailed, and made great progress even up the steep trail which extends above the strength-sapping stairs which rise above the Cove. That section had kicked my butt more than once.
The trail gave way to fire road, and I ran at a good pace on the steep descent to Tennessee Valley.
The Tennessee Valley trail is a relative low point in several ways on this run. It's low in altitude, but being flat and broad with a very gradual uphill slope, it is slow going without much scenery for distraction, and there's enough cyclists and hikers to require dodging. Here the two guys I'd followed off the course repassed me. They complemented me on my speed on the single track, but here they were clearly that little bit faster.
Then the rest stop... a volunteer filled my bottle. The weight weenie in me tends to over-analyze these moment. I knew I didn't need the full bottle to reach the next rest stop, but then if filling it would allow me to skip refilling it later, perhaps that compensate for the increased time taken to carry the bottle up the Marincello trail. In retrospect I probably should have also factored in the increased fatigue from carrying it up the Marincello trail, and stopped half-way... But either way I wanted to err on the side of too much water. The plan was to down a quick cup of Coke, and two of water, at the stop, but not spend any time refilling.
We merged here with runners doing other courses: the half-marathon and the full marathon (on their first of two laps). They'd started a bit later but since we had run the Pirates Cove loop runners here with me were slower. This was nice, as passing people on the climb gave me the opportunity to share greetings with other runners, and, I have to admit, helped my confidence. From my own race I don't think I was passing anyone. This wasn't a great sign, I decided, but I still felt I was running well.
At the summit we merged with Bobcat trail. I ran a briefly with a 50 km runner (sharing the same course to this point). He said he could run our pace all day. I told him I was getting tired... I wasn't slow at this point, but I was getting a bit worried with there still plenty of running left to go.
Alta Trail, which follows Bobcat, is up-and-down single track along the ridge separating the Headlands from Sausalito and Highway 101. Normally this is stunning, but here the wind-blown fog condensed into actual rain, and the trail in spots was even muddy. If I were hiking I would have frozen wearing only my tights and my event "technical" T-shirt, but under these circumstances I was fine.
For part of this way I found myself running next to the woman who'd passed me on that first climb. I wondered how she'd gotten behind me, especially given my wrong turn (try not to think about that, I told myself!) Again she slipped past me. I also ran with some people who seemed to be on the marathon/half marathon course. I should have been passing them, but was content running at their speed. I was becoming increasingly invested in my plan to drink a Coke at the final stop. I was banking on that caffeine + corn syrup boost.
The aid station approached. I checked my bottle: 1/3 left, which should be enough, so returned it to my belt and shouted "Coke!" as I reached the table. "We don't have any Coke" the happy volunteer responded.
My world froze.
No Coke? But I always drink Coke at the last stop. Invariability it gives me a much-needed kick to crank up the pace over the final kilometers. I considered abandoning right there. But instead, I went for two water cups and a quick Clif Blok. I declined a third water cup, thanked the volunteers, and began my descent.
Flash back to last year. This descent nearly took me down. My legs were in pain the whole way as I hobbled down the long, gradual way. Steeper and I would have been forced to take short steps and it would have been fine. Flat and the impact is less so I would have been fine. But gradual descents are the worst.
This year was better, but not by much. First my left leg, then my right let me know they'd rather be supine, thank you. But of course I continued on, trying my best to distribute the load to the less sore bits. My shoes, which normally feel cushy, felt ridiculously thin.
I reached the turn-off to the Coastal Trail climb to Conzelman. This has been burned into my memory from having missed it during a race last year. I saw runners ahead of me make the turn. I followed.
The climb, albeit short, was a relief. I knew I was going slower than I had any climb to this point, but I was still "running", and that was good. I feared the top, however: Conzelman Road would mark the return of gradual descending, and far worse than the Coastal Trail descent, on asphalt instead of hard dirt.
Before descending Conzelman climbed gradually as it passed the military installations along the coast. This alone was painful, and I knew the descent would be worse. I managed to trot onward, trying to ignore the growing pain in my legs.
Over the top, and I was relieved to see the pavement disappear. Road construction here was unfinished, and instead of pavement I had soft dirt to cushion my footfalls. Trotting continued, and the discomfort was bearable.
Field Road arrived and with it a return to pavement. Here's where I cracked. Once entering the pavement, my trot turned into more of a shuffle, but when the pain in my legs was joined by a sharp stitch on my right side, I stopped and bent over, defeated. I started to walk, slowly, focusing on my breathing.
"Are you okay?" a woman asked as she passed, "I can get help!"
"Not really, but if I walk, I'll make it to the finish. The finish is close," I responded, fully engrossed in my own misery.
"I'll wait for you at the finish!" she replied, and continued.
I walked a few seconds more, then as the grade leveled, decided to try running a bit. And that worked: slowly, barely running, but clearly better than walking.
We briefly entered the Rodeo Lagoon trail before turning off to the right to descend the staircase to Bunker Road.
Ouch... this hurt, as I took the steps slowly, one at a time. Then I heard behind me two women talking: "It's funny how my left leg feels unstable". I laughed and shouted back to them: "you, too?" That was exactly how I felt as I took each step, one by one.
I reached the road and this was the final stretch to the finish. No sprint for me, but I was able to run at a shuffle pace, and even caught the woman who'd said she was going to wait for me. I thanked her for the inspiration.
Cara was at the turn to the final meters before the finish... she's said she might leave after completing her hike, but she'd waited, and that made me happy. I turned the corner, ran to the finish line, and I was done... completely. I collapsed onto the ground and lay there, not wanting to move.
Finish (Cara Coburn)
Cara told me my time was 3:08, not much off my 3 hour target (official time was 3:08:30). I was amazed by this, as the wrong turn alone had clearly cost me more than 8 minutes, and my collapse toward the finish had been rather dramatic. When results were posted, I was 18th overall, not too bad at all, although I'd been hoping for a top 10.
But running's more about the feeling than it is about the hard numbers. That feeling of having delivered the best possible effort, to overcome discomfort and arrive at the finish strongly but with nothing more to give, is intoxicating. Here I'd failed in reaching that goal. Of course the extra distance from missing that corner didn't help: the extra km get tacked onto the end of a race, not the middle, and there was a very high rate of interest paid on that extra bit of running. Still, I finished, and placed fairly well. It just left me wishing I could try it all again: not go into the race is a partially weakened state, and not trust people to know the way just because of neurotic navigational inferiority complex. It's ironic that of the four Coastal Trail Runs I've done, on the three on courses I've "known", I've taken wrong turns (in two cases following people), while on the one on a course I didn't know, I navigated without error.
The run left me feeling totally wasted. My muscles sore, my energy spent. Here it is Tuesday, three days later, and I'm finally feeling a bit better. At least I can start walking from seated without a limp. Maybe I'll ride my bike to work tomorrow.