This year my running suffered from the distraction of the San Francisco Randonneurs brevet series, first the 200 km at the end of January, then the 300 km at the end of February. Each of these rides took its toll, costing me at around 3 weeks total of quality run training in addition to the days spent riding instead of running in preparation. With my ramp up last year a "just in time" for the 50 km at Woodside, as tempting as it was, I was going to have to forego the 50 km distance this time and pick instead the 35 km course. I used to think you could prepare for runs by riding, but at least for me, I've got to prepare for runs by running.
But Inside Trail Racing changed the course. At the Woodside Ramble, the previous course, 50 km was the obvious quality distance: it was the only route to include the excellent loop into and back out of Wunderlich Park. The half-marathon was also solid, running up out of Huddart a bit along Skyline Ridge, then back down Huddart. But the 35 km was a bit of a mutant with an out-and-back along Skyline Ridge appended to the half-marathon route. It's the sort of route you probably wouldn't have done on your own.
This year was much different. The 35 km had all three of the major climbs of the 50 km route: up Huddart, then two climbs in Purissima Creek Redwoods. The 50 km added the Skyline Ridge out-and-back, which is extremely nice, but unlike last year there wasn't any feeling of missing out by doing the 35 km. And this made the 35 km this year a much harder course: 3 major climbs instead of one (a first climb of 460 meters, a two-part second climb of 400 meters followed by 125 meters, then a third climb of "only" 280 meters) plus a few shorter climbs and some rollers. Since last year's course was almost constantly up and down, even with the Ridge section, squeezing in more climbing meant only one thing: steep!
I'd initially assumed the change in course was due to conflicts with equestrians last year. But at the starting line someone said Pacific Coast Trails had a race this year which went through Wunderlich,. So it was still available, it seems. But another possibility presented itself: this is simply a better course. More climbing for the 35 km, less shared out-and-back between the 35 and 50 km (there's a section of out-and-back in Purissima Creek on the Crossover route, but it's shorter than the Skyline Ridge out-and-back), and the superior views provided by the western slope of the ridge (in addition to the superior "epic" factor of crossing the ridge). The course really is spectacular.
The only downer was instead of crossing relatively low-traffic King's Mountain Road (which the 50 km still had to cross), this year's 35 km route included two crossings of twisty Skyline Boulevard, Hwy 35, infamous for high speed car and motorcycle traffic and violent crashes. But this was dealt with nicely by the promoter with a combination of volunteers and a CHP officer to help make sure it was clear as runners approached. Note this is in striking contast to the incident at Paris-Roubaix, the same day, where runners were brought into "conflict" with a TGV at a level crossing (nobody was hurt). The ASO could take a hint from Inside Trail.
Inside Trail Racing is my trail race promoter of first choice right now: they really do a fantastic job. The most important is navigational: they use at least twice as many ribbons on the route as other local promoters from my experience. The usual practice is a few ribbons warning of turns, then a few after a corner confirming that you're on the right trail, then not much until the next point of navigational ambiguity. Inside takes it far further: in addition to the corner markings, at particularly tricky intersections augmented with signs and/or chalk or flour, they put blue "off-trail" ribbons along wrong directions, and then along straight sections of trail they place course markers every 200 meters or so. The result is that every time I find my navigational paranoia asking whether I'd missed a turn (almost impossible to do) I'd see a marker around the next corner. I've had several emotionally scarring wrong-turn incidents in my racing history with other promoters and none of them would have occurred with Inside Trail: I'd have seen a blue ribbon almost immediately. I've never taken a wrong turn, or even been confused by more than a few brief seconds, on one of their races.
Another win with Inside is their rest stops. Some trail runs focus on Costco crap like M&M's or pretzels. Some runners like this; that's fine. But with Inside I have no problem getting what I like to use on trails: food designed for the purpose: sports drink, water, Clif Bloks (cheweables), optionally uncaffeinated gels, and Coca Cola for the end game (okay -- Coke isn't "designed for the purpose" but it's effective). Additionally they always have volunteers to fill my bottle while I drink from cups or perhaps grab some fruit or cups of liquid. It's super-efficient and zero-worry.
But on top of these advantages they also have some of the best long courses. It's easy to take a few loops and create multiple lap options to extend race distances to 30 km and 50 km, but I find it far preferable that courses cover greater distances, avoiding retracing trail segments. The Woodside Crossover is a great example of this. They did a half-marathon course completely within Huddart: do two laps of that, add in a 4.5 km out-and-back, and call it 50 km? No -- they extended the course over the hill into Purissima Creek. Big win: more epicness.
Go! (Cara Coburn photo)
Anyway, back to the race: the 35 km and 50 km started together. As I stood on the start line I looked around and noted everyone there looked fit: lean and ready to go. This was so much different than any recreational bike ride I've done where even on a double century you see guys who have a bit of a denominator problem (W/kg).
Along with the new course we had a new start location. The previous start included a sprint across the meadow to a hole shot to a single-track descent before the climbing began. This made positioning really important. In particular you didn't want to be too far back or you'd get caught in slow traffic on the descent but you also didn't want to be too far forward or you'd get swept away with the leaders, burning matches not wanting to slow down for fear of getting in the way. Fortunately this course lacked this sort of bottleneck so self-selected runner sorting was less critical. Nevertheless I placed myself with around 10 runners ahead of me and this worked out well.
Off we went and indeed the start was mellower than in years past. I let a group get away and filed myself in with some other runners well matched to my speed with minimal passing. My start position had been good.
The first climb up Huddart is really sublime: running up past switchbacks on the soft trail (optimized for the influential equestrian community) through the redwoods. The climbing goes on and on but with relatively gentle grades and cool temperatures I really was in no rush for it to stop. After around 8 km, however, it did: first I heard the car traffic on Skyline, then soon after I saw the tent marking Aid Station 1. As I approached, I took a drink from my bottle and then loosened the cap. One climb of 3 was in the bag.
Here I made a bit of a mistake. Instead of handing my bottle off to a volunteer to fill it while I drank from cups, I filled the bottle myself, using Tailwind, a maltodextrin-and-electrolyte drink sposoring Inside Trail events. I then grabbed a few Clif Bloks for my belt pouch and one vanilla gel for immediate consumption. Then I was off.
The issue here was that while I was now topped off on water it's hard to drink at replacement level while running the trail and in any case I lacked adequate carrying capacity to make it between aid stations this way. I really needed to drink at the rest stops in addition to filling my bottle. It was early, it was cool, and I felt under no distress despite the 460 meter opening climb, but there was still 27 km to go, still my longest run of the year remaining, and I really needed to think for the long-term. I wouldn't make this mistake again during the run, and I vowed to compensate by drinking extra next stop. The challenge was there was a long descent followed by a long climb before that stop.
The bottle I've been using is a prototype, a bit smaller than a standard bottle and that size was nice for running. I was carrying my water on my Nathan belt, and when the bottle was full it tended to bounce a bit, but once it was down to around 70% full it was more stable. Larger bottles get more cumbersome. The capacity was fine as long as I drank at the stops, something I'd neglected to do here.
Out of the rest stop I ate my gel (checking first it didn't have any caffeine: I save caffeine for end game). It was fine but gel requires some water and it didn't make sense to be drinking right out of the stop, but I took a small drink.
Crossing Skyline Boulevard went smoothly. There were several volunteers as well as a CHP. I'm not sure what they would have done had someone come whipping along the road on a Ninja making an attempt at qualification for the "100 club", but nothing in life is perfectly safe. I got across the road without issue.
The next course segment was the descent to within spitting distance of the trail head at Purrissima Creek Road. I've biked this in the opposite direction several times, always on a road bike. It's challenging on a road bike as there's some steep sections where traction is a bit dicey, especially recently as they laid rather coarse gravel near the top. Here I was running downhill, though. This isn't my sort of thing: power descents with gravel-covered hardpack. Several runners came pounding down the trail past me, gliding down the hill at impressive speed. I could only shake my head and focus on my own run: it was early in the race and what I absolutely didn't want to do was to trash my legs on the extended trajectories of downhill running. The key on downhills, in addition to throwing yourself at the mercy of your balance, is efficiency. I try to think about aborting my fall without braking my speed. But I'm not sure how successful I am at this. Here's the one point in the race where I regretted I hadn't replaced my vintage circa 2009 New Balance 790 trail shoes: I was feeling small rocks through my soles, and I lacked confidence in the traction of the well worn treads. I'd tried to get new shoes before the race but had had problems with brick-and-morter stores within my access radius, so had succumbed to the tempation of Amazon, but too late (in any case, Backcountry.com delivered the wrong shoes on my Amazon order, but that's a digression). I'd have new shoes for my next race.
There's not much I could do about time lost going down so I just focused on running a good race from the bottom onward. We didn't actually exit the trail to the road intersection but rather took a sharp right onto another trail. I'd not been here before and was immediately struck by how nice it was.
The most notable difference between the trails in Purrissima Creek and those in Huddart is the steepness: repeatedly I reached sections which were steep enough that I was better off walking than trying to run. People talk about whether a trail is "runnable": I think the opposite. Is is walkable? If I can walk it that's more efficient than if I can run it, even if walking is slightly slower (which it often isn't), since running takes so much more of a toll. The key is not to walk as if it's a fun day hike, but rather to maximize stride length and cadence while pushing on my thighs with my hands to aid in propulsion. If I'm walking and breathing hard it means my aerobic system is doing its job and if it feels like I should be working harder it's simply a testiment to the reduced impact of walking. As soon as the trail would level out below my walking threshild I'd switch to a running stride, even if it was for just a few steps: don't let walking-inertia kick in, even for a second. Looking back on my Strava data later this worked well, as I had a very good split time here.
Somewhere along here I saw a Clif Bloks wrapper on the ground. Without slowing much I reached down and grabbed it: I hate it when trail racers leave a trail of litter in their wake, so I try to "leave the trail cleaner than I found it". But to my pleasant surprise it was full of four Bloks. I stuffed it in my pocket. It was one less thing to worry about at the rest stop.
After considerable climbing I came to the turn-off for the out-and-back section This portion took us up to Skyline Boulevard where the 2nd rest stop was. My water was running low so I pulled my map out from my belt pouch and checked the apparent distance. As I'd recalled we still had quite a way to go before the stop. The water issue was enhanced by the fact that sections of the trail here were exposed to the sun, which would substantilly increase my rate of sweat.
Not long after starting this out-and-back section I encountered what appeared to be the leaders returning. Impressive. I was surprised to see the lead woman not too far behind the leaders. It was Caitlin Smith, who used to virtually dominate local trail races back around 2009 when I was just starting. She was obviously as fast as ever. She'd go on to finish a very close 2nd in the 35 km race.
As I ran up the wider, initial portion of this segment a runner behind me called for me to get to the side: a ranger vehicle was approaching from behind. Indeed it was huge: a full size pickup truck. I wondered why the rangers felt it necessary to drive such a large vehicle on the trail. The truck passed without incident but had additional runners been descending while it did so it could have created an issue.
The route funneled through an access-control gate (no equestians, no cyclists) onto a very nice single track section. There were a surprising number of hikers here, likely accessing the trail from the Skyline side. No surprise: the views were fantastic. I felt bad for them, though -- they had come out for hike in isolated redwood forests and instead were faced with a near-constant stream of bidirectional running traffic. It just occurred to me that one thing Coastal Trail Runs does, for example, is to put signs up notifying of an "ultra-marathin trail race" on the route. This can go both ways, however, as notifying equestrians, who may be hostile to running events, that there's a race there may lead to vandalism.
A ran out of water a few km short of the rest stop but since the climbing abated somewhat, and the sun exposure was reduced with the shift to singletrack, I was fine. I handed my bottle off for more Tailwind, drank 1, 2, then 3 cups of water (volunteer said it was Mountain Dew but it certainly didn't taste like it to me). Then my bottle was full and closed and I was ready to go.
Back down the trail, I faced the upward traffic of the majority of runners who were behind me. This was a bit of a hassle, and I don't like appearing rude expecting hikers to get out of my way (although I do expect them to get out of my way). So I tried to be almost over-the-top friendly to everyone I passed. To one hiker I said "a lot of people on the trail today!" "No kidding," he responded. I was relieved when I finally arrived back at the junction marking the end of this out-and-back section.
Next came perhaps the nicest trail running of the route: a gorgeous single-track spection with fantastic views. At one point I came upon a man sitting on a bench on the side of the trail, looking westward. I really wanted to stop and admire the view with him. Of course I didn't: this was a race. I was reminded of the speech at the beginning of an Envirosports Half Marathon I did in Huddart Park in 2009, my second trail race ever, where we were told if we stopped to admire the view we should report the time to have it deducted. No such policy with Inside Trail Racing, though!
The single track bliss came to an abrupt end when it dumped me out onto Purrisima Creek Trail again. This was the base of the third and final of the "major" climbs of the course: 290 vertical meters, much of it exposed, portions walkable.
At the beginning of this leg I'd actually anticipated I might be able to skip the final rest stop for the downhill run to the finish. But as I worked my way up this climb I realized I was going to be close to empty, and I certainly didn't want to run the final 8 km without water, even if it was mostly downhill (with the nice little bonus climb toward the finish). So I rehearsed what I would do at the rest stop: 1. water in the bottle, 2. electrolyte pills (3-4), a half a paper cup of Coke. Rehearsal is key. I absolutely cannot think on my feet at rest stops, especially this late in the game, and mistakes could be very costly.
I felt for sure I was going to get overtaken on Purrissima Creek trail. It was a slow grind. I felt like I was running out of gas quickly. Towards the top the surface became moderate-sized gravel, terrible for road bikes, but a challenge also for my worn-out shoes, which skidded way more than I liked (skidding comes directly from forward progress). But I knew this route from cycling, and knew when I was approaching the finish of the climb. Even if I was trudging the steep stuff, I was still running fine on the flattish portions, and I once again crossed Skyline without problem, aided by the excellent volunteers and CHP officer.
At the rest stop I handed over my now empty bottle (cap already partially unscrewed) asked for "electrolyte" and was pointed to cups of NUUN. "No -- pills!" I said in slight panic, my time-efficiency at the stop seriously dinged, and was pointed to cups filled with 2 capsules each. I dropped the contents of two of these into my hand so they could be reused and popped them into my mouth. I then asked for the Coke and was pointed to a large number of filled cups. I searched for a relatively lightly filled one and quickly drank it. My bottle was now full and I was gone, thanking the volunteers profusely in compensation for my brusquness.
This was it, the end gap. This is where I was supposed to sprint home.
Despite my enthusiam my departure from the rest stop was almost comical: no sprinting happening at first: my legs just weren't going to move that quickly. But second-by-second I felt a bit better, and within 30 seconds I was legitimately running down the trail. Huddart Park provides truly fantastic downhill running, cutting down the switchbacks on the soft trail. I was starting to enjoy myself despite the fatigue. It would have been tragic to miss out on running this fun descent.
Last year I wasn't passed on this section and I hoped to repeat that today. A runner was going slowly ahead of me, wearing a yellow number indicating the 50 km race. He obviously wasn't in that race. As I passed I asked him what field he was in and he said 30k. I think seeing my green number may have perked him up because soon he was back on my heels and blew right by. I decided I wasn't going to count that as being passed.
Further down I passed a small kid running with who must have been his father. I was able to get past them without much trouble.
On the "bonus climb" approaching the finish I passed a few half-marathoners, but that was it. On the climb I somehow got some rocks in my right shoe and the foot legitimately hurt every few strides when the rock happened to fall into a point of contact. I decided to ignore it: it was just pain and there was no reason it should slow me. The climb passed eventually and it was downhill again. I hit 35 km on my TomTom and there was no sign of the race finish, making me question my decision to not remove those troublesome rocks, but I was feeling okay so just kept on pushing. The finish appeared fairly suddenly and I was able to sprint across the line.
Cara was there, cheering me on, which was very nice. Soon after finishing the adrenaline & caffeine mixture which had been fueling my descent vaporized, and I was left not wanting to do much more than sit on a log and stair at the space between my shoes. A few minutes after my finish I saw Bjorn, a runner I'd helped pace at the North Face Endurance Challenge a few years ago, finish. But I really needed to move. Cara perked me up, got me to drink and eat a bit, and gave me $10 for a quick session at the post-race massage table (always a good idea). I gradually transitioned from feeling as if I was going to completely shut down to feeling human again.
My finish: 3:45, 13th overall out of 56 and 2nd in my age group, 6:49 after the age group winner. For the 2nd race in a row I barely missed my top 20% goal (12th was 39 seconds ahead, which would have put me at 20% of the 55 other runners ahead) but I had to be pleased with this: harder courses tend to make for harder placings since the threshold level of fitness for finishing is higher. And while I wish I had been faster on that initial descent, my goal coming in was to run everything which should have been run and finish relatively strongly. That goal was accomplished. I felt much better about my race than I had about the Marin Ultra Challenge 25 km lst month.
So what's next? I'd decided if I felt good here I'd think about the Ohlone 50 km in May. That's a classic regional trail race, an epic point-to-point and deviation from my usual promoters (Coastal Trail Races, Pacific Coast Trail Races, and Inside Trail Racing). It's a lot of climbing in big extended doses. But I think if I recover reasonably quickly from Woodside I should be able to do it, so I signed up. This 35 km race was an excellent stepping stone to 50 km, a bit closer to target than a more typical 30 km race.