After months of carefully tracking my training metrics to ramp my volume up to where I thought it needed to be for the Woodside Ramble 50 km race, my first race over marathon distance, my training had been diverted off-course by 12 days of fatigue after a relatively innocuous tooth extraction. This had left me just a week and a half until the race. So after an test run on a Wednesday, I did a solid 3 days on Thu-Fri-Sat, the last of these a 31.5 km run through the Marin Headlands. This was a very important test for me, as it included 1300 meters of descending (and, less importantly, climbing), and my legs survived running all of it. This was 90% of the descending I'd need to do in the 50k, where I'd have the additional advantage of fresher legs.
But that was it: my last chance for training. Instead of a controlled taper in the last two weeks, I had one week to get my legs into something resembling race shape. I did a series of short runs until Friday, when feeling fat and out of shape, I couldn't resist doing 17 km on my usual lunch run on Steven's Creek trail in MtView. I figured it was only 1/3 the race distance, so I should be able to handle it fine. Then Fri I did 3 separate short runs totaling around 10 km. Then it was Sunday. Nothing could be done about it. The 50 k had arrived.
The course, to very crude approximation, is start in Huddart Park, 5 miles up to Skyline Drive, 5 miles rolling along Skyline Trail, 5 miles down in Wundelich Park. Then basically repeat (with some different trails) in the opposite direction. So the race is divided into 6 natural segments. I planned to take them one by one.
Cara Coburn photo
I lined up around 3rd row from the start in the mixed 35km + 50km field. At go, there was a sprint across a meadow into singletrack, which opens almost immediately with a "bottleneck", a narrow bridge. I had no interest in sprinting from the start, so I lost places, but that was fine. Onto the singletrack, I had to wait a few seconds for congestion at the bridge, then found myself behind a strong-looking woman, who I think was Francesca Conte. My simplification of the course neglected what is a substantial initial descent, aan nd since there's not much room to pass here, there's a considerable social pressure to stick to the runner ahead. I followed Francesca reasonably well, thoigh, and when we took the left at the bottom onto a fire road, she was right in front of me.
After a bit we re-entered single track, on the Chapparel trail, and the climbing began, and I took every opportunity to do a brisk walk rather than run. I tried to imagine I was running on ice, and I didn't want to break the surface. Despite the walk, I had no problem keeping up. Francesca faded back and I found myself 2nd in a line of around 7 runners. The guy in front of me eventually faded, and I passed him, gapping the others. The climbing was never steep, and wasn't even continuous, but I persisted in my fast walk and was keeping these guys behind me.
When we got to Richard's Trail, which is wider, the others caught me then passed. I guess this is where it was "game on" for them. I didn't feel as if I'd faded much, so looked forward to them being out of sight so I'd lose the temptation of following them. I didn't know what distance they were running (the background color on the numbers tells the story, but on runners' chests, they're not obviously observed), and in any case I could only do what I could do, and I was still on the first of my six segments for the race.
Soon enough, they were gone, and I was on my own again. I rehersed what I wanted for the first aid station: refill my bottle, get a drink, top it off, get some food for my pocket, gone. And that's pretty much how it went. I'd started the race with some Enduralytes and some "extra-salt" Clif Blocs in my pocket, a single Low-Key water bottle in my right hand. This worked out fairly well. The bottle was empty before I reached the rest stop, but by drinking a bit at the stop, I could make up the deficit. I saw other runners with elaborate, heavy hydration packs but in my view every gram counts and if in the end it meant that I needed to spend an extra 20 seconds at each rest stop I thought it was worth it.
One out of six done.
The volunteers @ the "Dunlap" aid station said 1.7 miles to the next stop, but I knew better. They were correct, actually, for the half-marathon distance, where there was a turn-around 0.85 miles away. But no half-marathon fun for me this day.
Instead, it was single-track Skyline Trail to the entrance to Wunderlich Park, across Bear Gulch Road. This turned out to be arguably the hardest part of the run, since I tend to think of the run as two big climbs and two big descents, so the Skyline segments get deligated to glue status.
Early here I was caught by a much bigger guy in a white shirt. I asked him what distance he was doing, fairly convinced it was the 35 km, which had a turn-around at the end of this segment. I was surprised when he said 50. "50 km is my distance," he said, "but occassionally I do 50 miles." I asked him about that distance. "If you can run a strong 50 km, 50 miles is no big deal," he responded. Flash back to Lake Chabot 30 km, when someone told me "the way you're running now, 50 km should be no problem." These ultra guys, I think, are highly prone to underestimating the challenge of the distances they take for granted. Maybe it's part of the self-deception process, to allow them to forget the pain and thus sign up for the next orgy in self-abuse.
I eventually found myself with a chatty group, which made the time go by quicker. The topic of discussion was, of course, running. One guy was describing how he'd done the New Years Eve/New Years day 24 hour ultra at Crissey Field in San Francisco, the hardest run he's ever done, he said, because it had no variation in terrain. The woman was saying how she'd signed up for a 12-hour race and her goal there was "just 50 miles". The ultra crowd is pretty amazing: if I was ever tempted to feel smug over running 50 km, that temptation was wiped away here.
The next aid station was an important one, because following it was both the descent and the climb of Wunderlich. This was going to be a stress on my single-bottle approach. Despite this, I wasn't able to drink as much as I probably should have: I had around a 1/4 bottle. I topped it off then and set off onto what for me would be new trails: I'd never before hiked here let alone run.
So off I went. Remarkably quickly I saw Ryan Neely and Jacob Singleton running the opposite way. I couldn't believe it: Rickey Gates course record was 4:02, and here it was just over 2 hours in and the leaders were most of the way done with the the climbing. Ryan would go on to finish in 3:31:15, over 30 minutes faster than Gates' record. I was later told that Gates had treated the race as a "fun run", so the record had been far from his best effort. But that takes nothing away from Ryan's accomplishment.
I was taking it fairly easy on the descent because, quite simply, I was getting tired. This was not a good sign, I felt. with less than half the course covered so far. So I plodded along until Dylan Newell, in third, came by also in the opposite direction. I felt slow, so very slow.
I was spared further misery when the descending route deviated from the climing route, along the Bear Gulch Trail which roughly parallels the private section of the heavily gated Bear Gulch Road. I felt a little thrill at seeing this road, which has long tempted me as a cyclist, it being the steepest, most challenging way up the eastern side of the ridge. But cycling wasn't my principal concern.
My focus was to just reach the 25 km point, half-way, per my Garmin Forerunner 610 watch. Before this occurred, however, the climbing began again, and that diverted my attention away from the distance. On the climb, I focused more on the moment, just sticking to my power-walk approach which has always served me well.
My time to the beginning of that climbing was around 2:45 according to my watch. My goal had been 5:15 to 5:30, so this would require an even split on the second half. This would require everything to go well from here one. It still seemed hard to conceive I'd be able to run the full 50 km, since the first 50 ((25)) km, with all the climbing, had been so challenging. But I thought back to the hard bike rides I've done: Death Ride, Climb to Kaiser, Terrible Two, Death Ride, every single sanctioned race. In evey one at some point it seems like I'm not going to be up to the challenge. And sometimes I'm not, but quite often I exceed expectations. Simple fatigue wasn't going to stop me here, either. What would stop me would be the stabbing pains I'd felt on each of my previous two marathons. I simply needed to hope that my training was sufficient to keep those pains at bay.
As I climbed I heard someone approach from behind. It was Yvon Wang, a Stanford student, who blew by with apparently little effort. So was she going fast, or had I slowed? I didn't think I was climbing more slowly, although obviously I was more fatigued than I'd been on the Huddart Park climb. She went on to finish second among the women, in under 5 hours.
Not long after I heard discussion ahead. It seemed Yvon was engaged in discussion with some people. Then I came upon the source: a line of four equestrians with horses. I moved to the extreme side of the trail to provide plenty of room.
"Please walk!" one of them sternly asked. Given the state of my legs, that was an easy sell. So I walked on by the line, doing my best to not appear threatening to the horse brain. The riders ignored me otherwise, one telling the others they should move the horse to the uphill, rather than downhill side of the trail when making room for hikers. This would be my only encounter with equestrians today, but I'd hear more about them later.
Eventually I reached the stop. I was starting to think more about "just finishing" at this point than shaving seconds, so I took just a little bit more time to drink and eat, the watermelon cubes being a most welcome option here, and I ate a few bite-sized boiled potatoes. Then I refilled my bottle, grabbed some salt capsules (my Enduralyte supply gone) and was off again.
Skyline Drive wasn't any shorter on the return than it had been on the way out, but once again company helped me pass the distance. Not long after reaching the stop, I was overtaken Don Rodrigues, with another not too far behind. The one immediately behind me caught me, and not long after passed me on a downhill. I was a bit faster than him on the climbs, but since there was a lot more descending then climbing left, I made no effort to pass him on any of the short climbs on the rolling trail. Once, I attended to nature rather than be forced to slow behind him. I soon recaught him, though, on the rest of the short climb, figuring he'd open a big gap on the descent.
But his earlier speed must have been post-aid-station enthusiasm, because I was able to keep a fairly close gap on the descent, then on the following climb I was right behind him.
We reached the token mud patch on the course. I'd walked this on the outbound leg. But I did closer to a trot on the way out. It wasn't a problem. He was slightly quicker than I was though. But I closed the gap again
He offered to let me pass, but I wasn't sure that made sense. Eventually, though, he slowed to a stop on a short upward slope. This forced the matter, and I passed him. The runner who had been following the two of us was by this point further behind. Endurance is a key part of the 50 km distance, and my goal of "keep running" was paying off here.
The rest of the rolling 5+ miles to the final stop I ran solo, but having the motivation of knowing someone was behind me helped spark my energy. I rehearsed what I'd do at the last rest stop. Key: a small amount of caffeinated soda. I don't consume caffeine in daily life, so a little goes a long, long way.
The stop, Scott Dunlop's driveway, appeared across Kings Mountain Road. The trail runs along the road for maybe 100 meters, then it's a quick jog across to the stop. As I approached, I heard the unmistakable sounds of the Gladiator soundtrack. Perfect! What was my pain compared to the pain of battling lions in hand-to-hand target in the Collisseum?
There, I was super-pleased to see Dixie cups of soda were already poured. I took one, dumped it into my empty water bottle, added some water, and topped it off with sports drink. This was a mistake: cola + sports drink is a foul combination. But this wasn't a tasting event, it was a race, and I was entering the end game. Rather than pause to drink here, I was close enough to the finish I knew this one bottle would get me through. So I shoved some more tasty watermelon into my mouth, grabbed two salt tablets, and took off down the trail, sipping from my bottle.
I'm not sure if it was the music, the caffeine, or the knowledge I was entering the end-game, but for whatever reason, I felt great. I passed one runner, probably a 35 km-er, at a horse barrier, then was soon at Archery Fire Road, where the trail continues straight across for the return, deviating from the upward path. The first race I did here this had confused me, but I remembered it well this time.
And so I was onto the main descent. This is really an amazing section of trail, switchbacking its way down the hill, crossing bridges, and a nice smooth surface to build speed between the corners. I was running at what I thought was a nice, safe pace, still fearfull I'd get those stabbing pains which would put an end to the fun and games.
But I was being a bit too safe, as I was caught by Ben Bellamy, who was obviously descending faster. I'd been super-pleased in my two trail races this year, that unlike what was common in years past, I'd never been passed on a descent, It appeared my streak was to end here (I didn't count the descents which preceded this one, since pacing had been the dominant consideration to this point).
"You're okay" he said as he caught me. Such trust needs to be earned, so I cranked up the volume a bit, making surprisingly good time on the downward trail. Despite a reckless disregard for the distance so far in my legs, they responded fine, however. No pain.
Finally the trail leveled a bit and widened, and Ben passed. That was fine, I decided: now he can pace me. And I was keeping up with him fairly well. One small scare: I turned my ankle at one point, but recovered. That would have been terrible to come so far then DNF with a sprain. I focused more on form at this point, hoping to avoid the problem again. The descent continued.
Then we hit the first of two significant intermediate climbs on the "descent" from Skyline. First he slowed, then he stopped. This was it -- game on! I went by him and tried to dial up the intensity, knowing I need to put as much of a gap as possible on him before the descending began again.
Suddenly, I was ripped free of my euphoria by a horrible sight. My Garmin Forerunner 610 went from "low battery", the first such message I noticed, to a blank screen. Noooooo! This wasn't my fault! I'd carefully recharged it before the race, then hadn't turn it on until within 20 minutes of the start. Strava or it didn't happen, and now I'd be without GPS the rest of the way, a social media DNF. Not only that, I'd be without distance, so would need to run without a firm estimate of distance remaining. I tried to snap myself out of my self-pity. Just run, I decided. It's all I could have done anyway.
Inside Trail Running does an amazing job of marking the course. They use probably 3 times as many ribbons per unit distance as Wendell uses for Coastal Trail Runs. Not only are turns marked, which is a given, but additionally they mark along the segments between the turns, and put blue ribbons along obvious wrong turns. For a navigationally super-challenged individual like me, it's great. But on this descent I started to get nervous. Suddenly I realized I'd not seen on of the yellow ribbons I'd been following for awhile. Maybe around this turn, I decided, only to find nothing. Then the same for the next turn. Then I came to what appeared to be a side trail and no blue there. I stopped, but then saw a runner approaching from behind, probably Ben again. Did he know the way, or was he just following me like a lemming? No time to think: I just had to keep going and hope for the best.
Several turns later, I came across a yellow ribbon. I was safe. Or was I? I may have accidentally re-entered an upward-only portion of the trail network. But I hadn't; I was fine, and this was later confirmed when I reached a turn, staying on Crystal Springs Trail instead of descending the Chapparel trail we'd taken up the hill, specifically marked as "Yellow: return".
Later, after the race, I heard that some irate equestrians may have removed ribbons from near the end of the course, and even turned a direction sign. Of course I don't know if this is true or not. But the equestrian population feels, I dare say, a certain ownership of the trails in the Woodside area, something to which they perhaps feel privileged with the huge per-capita wealth of residents, and don't welcome the influx of outsiders running or, the horror, bicycling on them. Bicycling is banned on a large fraction of the single track in the area, but of course running is allowed. That doesn't stop the resentment, however.
But back to the race.: this turn marked the start of the second of the two extended climbs on the "descent". Once again, I turned up the intensity, and this took care of any risk of being caught from behind. My legs had no problem with the climbing. When it was done, it was the final descent to the finish.
This arrived sooner than I'd expected. Suddenly, there I was, re-entering the meadow on which we'd begun, from the opposite side. I'd gotten lost here once while trying to outsprint another runner: the route to the finish winds around playground, a picnic area, and a toilet building before the clean line to the finish is exposed. But this time I navigated fine. I crossed the finish in a sprint.
And so it was over.
The finish was great. I got my finisher's medal and ultra-finisher pint glass, both very nice and "technical" T-shirt, all very nice, although I was 7 minutes too slow to score top 3 in age group. No problem: 17th overall, 5:19:15 chip time... all excellent by my standards. 4th was fine.
I hung out, had 3 cups of lentil soup, got a 10-minute massage from the women with the table set-up there (fantastic: she wasn't at all afraid of causing pain), then eventually found a very interesting ride to the Redwood City Caltrain for the northward trip home.