For the first time in my life, I was running marathons on consecutive weekends. Not sure if that was a good idea. But I figured if I was ever gonna do it, it might as well involve a beautiful trail run, and less elevation gain than normal. Canyon Meadow happens to be one of the flattest in the Coastal Trail Runs series, but in this context, flat is a relative term. 3,070 feet of climbing is still nothing to sneeze at.
Like most of the Coastal Trail Runs, the marathon was a double loop - a half-marathon loop, run twice. This elevation profile for the course showed essentially just one hill (per loop, of course), which started off incredibly steep, but didn't look too bad after that. Alright, so just a strong initial effort, then cruise the rest of the way. Sounded do-able.
The course record stood at 3:27. Just about the exact time I ran the Golden Gate Trail Marathon a couple months ago, only this course has 1,800 feet less climbing. I figured I had a good chance to break a course record for the third time in a row.
I think that morning was the coldest we've had to deal with pre-race, not necessarily in terms of air temperature, but because we didn't have the benefit of direct sunlight until after the race was underway (this was the first one since Daylight Savings Time). Sunlight on your skin makes a huge difference. I bundled up a little more than usual in the morning and was still shivering in between stretches. Like always, waited till the last minute to ditch my warm-ups. When folks saw me lining up in just a singlet, I got a few stares. I knew I'd be the one laughing once they were sweating bullets halfway through the race.
Took off eagerly up the first hill, happy to get moving and get my body working hard just to warm it up. I noticed up ahead an orange shirt, then grey, then blue. That's who I'll have to pass at some point in order to win, at least if they're running the marathon like me. I realized that maybe I should make a better effort to line up at the front, not only so I don't have to chase down people that start ahead of me, but also to look at all the front-runners' bibs and know who's running what race.
I quickly separated myself from the masses on the first hill. Tough, but not the toughest I've ever done. I'm guessing a lot of people walked it, and I can hardly blame them. 0.4 miles into the race, the course turned into rolling hills, inclines, and declines, more up than down. The sun came out. I was already warm enough.
I could no longer see the orange shirt. Grey was still pretty far up ahead, but visible and within striking distance. Blue started slowing down, just seemed like he couldn't hold on to his strong early pace. As I passed him, I could hear him gasping already, only about 10 minutes in. He was probably running a shorter distance. He also looked like he might be in high school. Grey was still going strong, but between him and myself was another guy in a green shirt. After about another mile, I slowly caught up with him. He looked pretty young too, college-aged, or maybe even high school.
"Great pace!" he said as I ran alongside him. Sometimes I think it's odd when people congratulate me for being barely as good as they are.
"We're both doing pretty good up here!" After a few more breaths, I asked "What are you running today?"
"Five miles. You?"
"Holy crap. Like this?" I smiled.
I concluded that Grey and Orange were probably also running the five mile route, considering their ridiculously fast start and the fact that they looked young too. I'm guessing it was something like a high school cross-country team came out to do the five-mile loop together as training for an 8K. If that's the case, good on them for taking on an unusual challenge!
Green Shirt was still close behind me when the long and short loops split. We wished each other good luck and I took off up a series of inclines that led to the main summit of the course. I was pacing up the hill pretty strong, holding down about a 7:30 mile, which would be a good time regardless of the terrain. Though I was fairly confident that Orange Shirt was also doing the five-mile loop, he was the only one still unaccounted-for (I saw Grey take the short loop split ahead of me), and I wanted to know if I was in first or second. At one point, I saw a jogger coming the other way on the trail and called out,
"Hey, have you seen an orange shirt going this way?" With my bib on, it was probably obvious that I was in a race.
She hesitated slightly, then said, "You know, I haven't noticed."
Only a quarter-mile later was a parking lot. I hoped she hadn't just started jogging, which could mean that Orange was actually ahead of me and passed the parking lot before she got started. But I remembered that she had a jacket tied around her waist, so if she's started from that parking lot, she probably would've just left the jacket in the car.
4.5 miles in, I made it to the first aid station. As I approached, it looked like I woke up the volunteers to activity. I only bothered taking a cup of Clif Shot, but confirmed with the volunteers that I was in first. Good news, to be sure. I no longer needed to worry about catching anyone, but should now just focus on running my race the best I can. Which, in this kind of race, is really the best strategy anyway.
Shortly after the aid station was a fairly short but very steep hill. Last little challenge before you earn a crapton of downhill. It was right as I crested the hill that I finally started noticing how lonely this race had been, and how lonely it would continue to be. Aside from running with the guys doing the 5-mile route at the very beginning, I hadn't run with, passed, or been passed by anyone. And since it was out in front, it was likely to stay that way. A different kind of race, for sure. Almost felt like a normal training run, the kind of run that's on my own terms, but supported, competitive, and awesomely scenic.
As I started heading down the hill, I kept my head up a little more often and started enjoying my surroundings to a greater degree. Nice, quiet woods, nothing but tall, noble eucalyptus and redwood trees, and stunning vistas of the hills when the trail hugged the side of a ledge. Lots of twists and turns and intersections with other trails, always very well-marked (seriously, these race organizers rock). More than once, I took a turn thinking "But I wanna go see that area too!" I was just plain happy to be there. When I originally decided I'd try a trail run, this was the experience I was essentially fantasizing about.
Right around mile 10, you have to deal with a hill that has a lot of false summits. It keeps giving you short dips on the way up, and you're also slowly coming around a corner, so it's hard to see very far in front of you. Finally, at one point it gets significantly steep before a tight switchback, and as you approach, it looks like the slope on the other side will absolutely break you. But it's a visual trick somehow, because as soon as you make the turn at the switchback, you see that the slope isn't bad at all and it flattens out after about 10 meters. It was a convincing enough illusion that I was actually fooled the second time around, too.
The second aid station doesn't come until mile 10.5, after you're nearly halfway through. From there, it's about 1.5 miles of rolling gentle inclines and declines through more redwoods at the bottom of a canyon, then a 180-degree turn and a flat, fast, paved mile back the other way to the finish. Well, the halfway point, if you're running the marathon. Running back to the start/finish, I kept my eyes on the slope where I knew the trail was. Only about 20 seconds after the turnaround, I saw a runner on the trail. So someone was close behind me. Of course, I had no way of knowing if he was doing the half, the 30K, the marathon, or the 50K. So there was only a 25% chance that I was in direct competition with him.
At the start/finish, a few of the volunteers gave me something of an incredulous look.
"First loop? But you're the first one here!" I hadn't really thought if it that way until this point, but apparently I beat all the half-marathon runners at their own game. I downed some peanut butter, drank some more Clif Shot, and took off up the steep hill again.
Halfway up the ridiculous slope that makes up the first 0.4 miles, I realized that the jog I was forcing myself to maintain was not much faster than a power walk, and yet my legs were starting to ache. I switched to walking, barely slowed down, and instantly felt relief. Good move. It would cost me 10-20 seconds, maybe even more, but there are still 12.5 miles to go. Having happy legs for another 90 minutes would be much more important.
This time around, the inclines leading up to the summit were a much bigger challenge. The first time around, I barely noticed, but this time, I was fighting it. One of the telltale signs that you're having a tough time is you keep looking at your watch. After about 3 miles up the hill, I didn't even see where he came from, it seemed like some guy in a red shirt just materialized about 50 meters in front of me, holding almost my exact same pace. Honestly, I couldn't even figure out what just happened. I figured he wasn't in the race, since I'd been in front the whole time, I would've noticed if he'd passed me. But just to be safe, and because I have a competitive side, I figured I should pass him. As I did, I blatantly looked over at the front of his shirt. No bib. I'm safe.
We silently ran together for almost a mile and eventually passed another jogger. She didn't have a bib on either, but seemed to be aware that there was a race going on. She congratulated us and asked if we were winning, to which Red Shirt replied "I'm just going for a run!" He eventually got away from me on another incline, right before I reached aid station 1 for the second time.
"We were placing bets on when you'd show up!" I looked up at them with wide eyes as I did my best to swallow a gel in one gulp. "One of us thought 10:00, another thought 10:05. It's 10:08, so you're basically right on pace. Good job!"
By now, I'd gotten the sticky lemon/lime-flavored mess down my throat and could speak again. "Thanks!" I took another cup of Clif Shot and headed out again.
This time, I walked up about a third of the tough slope after the aid station. Like the hill right after the halfway point, I could've run up the thing, but it would take more out of me than it would be worth.
Pretty much put it in cruise control from there on out. I know I could've tried pushing the tempo, but 18 miles into a marathon, it's best to go for effortless, not fast. My speed increased a little, but only to what had been average for the whole race to that point. On the fastest part of the course, you'd expect your pace to be faster, but after more than two hours of running, I'd say it's OK if you come out even. I started making a more conscious effort to hug the insides of curves. On a fire road, that doesn't make that much of a difference, maybe half a second per curve. But when there's a curve every 50 meters or so, that can add up to something like 5-10 seconds per mile, and in a long enough race, that adds up to a couple minutes.
One of the harder things about getting tired in a trail run is that you can't take full advantage of the downhills anymore. The declines are great, and you can jog down the steeper hills easily enough, but you can no longer run through them at full speed like you could with fresh legs.
**SLIGHTLY GROSS ALERT**
Around mile 20, I felt like I had to pee. I debated stopping, thinking that I could hold it 'till the end, and why lose 20-30 seconds? But then I figured you run better when you're more comfortable, and when you're not being distracted by some nagging thing like having to pee. Besides, I'm out in the woods, I can just step to the side and go real quick. So I did. What came out probably could've just barely filled a shot glass, and it came out orange. I'm either getting more electrolytes than I need, or I'm way dehydrated. Probably the former, because if I were that dehydrated, I probably wouldn't've had the urge to pee at all.
**GROSS PART OVER**
Sometime after mile 20 was when I started lapping people still doing the half-marathon, or maybe their first loop of a full. Most were good about hopping out of the way when we were on singletrack, with the exception of one, who had ear buds in. I'm totally OK with headphones while running most of the time, but maybe it's not as good of an idea on singletrack, when there's no room to pass.
Arrived at the final aid station, still feeling pretty good. They saw my marathon bib and somehow thought I was still on my first loop, despite the pace I was holding.
"Only 2.3 miles until your next aid station!"
"That's the finish line though, right?"
"Oh, this is his second loop?"
This time, due to reasons stated two paragraphs above, I took two cups of water only. Enough electrolytes for now.
The last 2.5 miles were tough, but not killer. I knew I was slowing down a little and basically just let that happen. I probably could've run a little faster, but somehow didn't see the point. Crossed the finish line in 3:12, a good marathon time even on a flat, paved course. Had I been seven minutes faster, I could've qualified for Boston on a trail marathon.
By now, it was a warm, sunny day. I swear, we get perfect weather for these things every time. Hung out in the finish area for a while, had some snacks, collected my coaster, talked it up with other runners. One of the greater delights of a marathon is watching people try to walk immediately after finishing; it's like watching tryouts for a zombie movie.
Met a few other Googlers in the process, one of which had apparently been reading my race reports that I post on the running group there. Also met a pair of college students, 22 and 24 years old, who were running their first marathon. And they came in third and fourth. Holy smokes. The idea of picking a trail marathon for your first is gutsy enough, but to also do that well....wow. I had nothing but admiration for those two young men. As I walked back to the car, I saw one of them still running. I asked what on Earth he was doing, and he explained that his GPS watch thought the course was a half-mile short, so he wanted to make up the difference or he wouldn't feel like he "earned" a marathon. I think the 3,070 feet of climbing makes up for the difference tenfold, but you have to appreciate this guy's attitude. Here's to you, nursing student whose name I forgot.
Went back to my friend Athan's house, helped him pack, and had a few well-deserved beers that afternoon. It wasn't the most challenging course (of course, that is extremely relative), but I felt like I dominated it and had a great race. And there are a lot of people that can't run a 3:12 on a PR-type course, so I'm very proud of having done that in an event that's designed for anything but speed.
Next up, the Grizzly Peak Trail Marathon, in two weeks.