The race started a little later than usual, and wasn't too terribly far from where I live. It was even kind of exciting to drive through Woodside, seeing a few areas I bike through semi-frequently. Then I remembered what kind of hills they are, the kind that force me into my lowest gear and still stand on the pedals - and keep that up for an hour. This could get intense.
The start line was up a hill from the parking area. Once I got there, I joked with the race director that he should add 30-40 feet of climbing to each route just for that. There was still a lot of time before the race started. My left achilles tendon was already bothering me. Remembering what happened in training this week, I broke from my normal routine and actually did a warm-up jog, then a very long stretching session. I was still wearing pants and a jacket when I did my warm-up. I normally hate wearing much at all when I run (most of my training is done shirtless). I forgot how weird it feels to have so much on your body when you move like that. I don't like it. It makes me uncomfortable. And it makes me glad I don't live somewhere so cold that it's necessary.
I looked around as more people started arriving. It didn't look like there were many people running the 50k, and of those, almost all of them had a hydration pack. I liked my odds; I have never been beaten by someone wearing one of those (or anyone carrying anything, for that matter). It seemed like there were less people at this race. I wasn't sure why; it's a beautiful area and the course looked interesting. I guess it's just because it's not close enough to the bigger cities like San Francisco and Oakland. But I think the races on the peninsula have been some of the best of the bunch. Give me more of these!
As we lined up at the start and Wendell (the race director) started explaining the course markings, he noticed me and announced, "Lead us out, Rob!" I smiled and shrugged. He grinned back.
The course started with a downhill, and right away, about five guys took off hard. At least half of them were running the marathon. I just let them have it. Anyone can run fast on the downhills, but it takes a good runner to hold steady on the uphills. That's where you separate the men from the boys. When the course flattened out at the bottom, I almost immediately passed one of them. For the next half-mile, as the course slowly trended upwards, I started picking off the rest one by one, until I was running side-by-side with two other guys, both doing the marathon.
I talked with both of them for a little while, until the one in the orange shirt fell off pace, leaving just me and the white shirt heading up the hill together. His name was Oliver. Unlike most of the runners here, he was wearing a pair of lighter shoes, which looked like they may not even be trail shoes. We just got to talking, about college, how we got into running, what distance we normally do, what got us into trails, where we're from, what our normal training runs are like, injuries we'd had before, and where we preferred to do our training. All while going up the toughest hill of the course. Every now and then, he'd ask a question, and I'd have to wait a breath or two before I answered, but that never seemed to happen to him. At about mile 5, only half a mile before the hill finally subsided, there was a brief pause in the conversation. And just like that, he was gone.
Guess I won't be seeing him again! Glad I was running the 50k, because if I was running the marathon, I wouldn't have a chance.
A little less than half a mile after the hill topped out, I found myself at the first aid station, right on the side of a road, immediately before crossing it. I looked around and realized that this was probably the race that I accidentally stumbled upon last January while I was riding my bike. I just saw people running in and out of the woods, and a canopy tent nearby, and had to ask what was going on. Somehow I managed to remember the words "Coastal Trail Runs" long enough to get home and Google it, and looking at their calendar, I was immediately intrigued. Had I not had that chance meeting with a trail run that one day, I may have never gotten into it.
I was entering a section of the course I knew I'd absolutely love: lots of tree cover, singletrack trail, and short rolling hills. For the most part, I was able to just carry my momentum through the uphill parts, never felt like I was really climbing, save for one or two of the very toughest spots. Probably the worst part was a patch of mud, and only about 15 seconds later, a down tree surrounded by a patch of very loose dirt. Not wanting to risk rolling my already-weak ankle, I just walked through.
It was only now that my tendon started speaking up. I think I had put some stress on it during the uphill, but now that I was on flatter ground, giving it a fuller range of motion, it had a stronger voice to complain with. It wasn't killing me, barely even made me want to change my gait. I kept running. It slowly got better.
About halfway through this section of the course, I suddenly saw Oliver again, coming back at me.
"I think I got lost!"
"Yeah, I haven't seen one of those ribbons in a while!"
I remembered that Wendell said he didn't mark this section of the course so diligently, since there were essentially no turns.
"Nah, I think we're on the right track!"
"Oh, OK!" He turned around, and just like that, he was gone for good again. He probably covered close to an extra mile by backtracking, but was still completely dominating the race.
Being lost crossed my mind anyway, I supposed it was possible, and if we were, we could potentially go a long way before we realized it. It was enough to make me start getting nervous. Then I remembered that Wendell had mentioned we just stay on Skyline Trail. Every now and then, I could hear a car nearby. Skyline Boulevard, the same road I bike on frequently. Yeah, we're in the right place.
Soon enough, I arrived at the second aid station, downed a few essentials, and took off for the long loop reserved especially for the 50k. Eight miles, with no aid stations, essentially four miles of down, then four miles of up. About a quarter mile after I left the aid station, I realized that I should've probably had a little more water to get me through this longer stretch. Oh well, too late to turn around now.
I gotta say, those first four miles felt great. But it also made me nervous. If the downhill goes on this long and is this easy, then the uphill...? I got a small taste at one point when the trail curved up briefly at some random point. For whatever reason, it was hard to get through that little blip. If that was hard, then the long hill will be...I tried not to think about it for now.
Soon enough, the trail bottomed out and I knew it was time to start climbing. Almost immediately, the trail put me into a section of shorter, less filled-out trees, exposing me to direct sunlight for the first time of the race.
"You gotta be kidding me," I thought. "Of all the times to put us in sunlight and make us hot, you picked now?!?" Luckily, the trail was back in the shade maybe half a mile later.
After the first mile elapsed, I still felt pretty good! In fact, I was even a little surprised when I looked at my watch and saw that a mile had already gone by. Not so bad! If the next three are like this, it won't be as bad as I thought. But I knew it was going to get worse, maybe a lot worse, before it got better.
Halfway up, the trail arrived back at the point where the smaller marathon loop splits off from the longer 50k loop. There were plenty of colored ribbons, but no clear sign saying "back" or "return." Normally with these guys, you'd see that. I stopped and looked around. Do we just go back the way we came, or do we close the loop with the marathon part? For some reason, I thought we didn't do any out-and-back on this loop. But the marathon turn didn't have any orange ribbons. Just to be sure, I jogged up the marathon trail until I got around the first curve to see if I saw any orange. Nope. Went back down and headed back the way I came. As I started back up the hill, I realized that if we were supposed to go the marathon way, then there would be no section of the marathon route that isn't shared by the 50k, and I remembered seeing at least one part on the map where the marathon was on its own. OK, good, this is the right way. Still, I wasted at least a minute figuring it out, if not closer to two.
Suddenly, the hill felt a LOT harder. I looked out to my left and could see hilltops below me, even though I was only halfway up the hill. Did that mean I was closer to the top than I think? Then I looked upwards, above the trail directly in front of me. It looked like a wall of Earth, 20 stories high. I knew the trail was on top of the ridge. I would still have to climb that. Holy crap...
Something about mile 17 is where my GPS watch likes to call it quits. It happened at Wildwood. It started skipping at Big Basin. And today, once again, I got to mile 17 and my watch decided that was about enough for today. Great. Now I won't be able to tell how far up the hill I am. I just kept my eye on the time and figured with about two miles to go, plan for 20 minutes of climbing.
I kept plugging and slowly dulled to a trudge. This was not at all easy. If I'm not mistaken, the two long hills in this race, about four miles long each, are the longest sustained uphills I've run in any trail race (Mt. Diablo will change that a month from now). Not the steepest, and probably not the highest either, but running four miles of nothing but uphill is exhausting. In the last mile, every time I turned a corner, I kept hoping to see the top of a hill, or something that reminded me that I was almost done. That never seemed to happen. The trail never got too steep, so it was almost like I had to keep moving at a solid pace. My whole lower body started to ache, even felt like my bones were complaining. I just needed to make my feet hit the ground a different way for once.
Was overjoyed to finally be done with that hill and make it back to the aid station. Just to double-check, I asked the volunteer,
"That was supposed to be a lollipop loop, right?"
"Yep! Only 10 miles to go!"
About 2/3 of those 20 miles were easy rollers, and the last 1/3 was all downhill. Almost all the climbing was done. I still had two "peaks" marked on my hands (I write down the mileage of all peaks and aid stations on my hands before a race), one of which was so insignificant I almost left it off. Mostly I put it there to signal that it's all downhill after that. Shouldn't be too bad from here on out! And besides, I probably had a big lead by now. I looked at my watch. Finishing in under 4:00 might be possible! I took off from the aid station, trying to settle in to a good clip.
The rolling hills section definitely took more effort this time around, but sure had me feeling better than the long uphill I'd just climbed. A couple miles in, I was moving right along, back in a happy place.
Yeouch!!! A bee stung me, right in the back of the neck! I smacked the hell out of that punk before he had a chance to fly away. ARG!!! My neck started to hurt like crazy. Nothing to do but keep moving though. Damn, less than a week after the bee sting on my leg stopped bothering me, and now I have one on my neck.
I kept looking at the time on my watch. I wasn't sure the exact mileage between the last aid station and the finish. It seemed like it was taking longer than it should to get to the aid station though. 4:00 may or may not happen. I finally arrived, knowing it was almost all downhill from there.
"You know how many miles to the finish?" I asked between gulps of water.
"4.6. You're doin' great."
"Thanks!" I finished up and hurried off. Then I looked at my watch. 32 minutes. I'd have to hold about a 7:00 mile on average. Not so bad when it's all downhill, but I reminded myself that there was a half-mile-long uphill thrown right in the middle. 7:00 is very do-able for the downhill parts, but now exhausted, that might still take effort. And the uphill might cost me too much time. Nothing left to do but go for it, though.
Only about 20 seconds after leaving the aid station, my watch unexpectedly beeped. It was working again! Of course, it thought I had only done about another 1.5 miles, bringing my total to 18.5, when I had really done about 26 by now. Still, I was happy about it, because it could at least tell me how fast I'm running each mile to the end, now that time is really gonna matter. I took off down the hill, trying to fully run though it and earn some time to play with. When it chirped to tell me a mile had gone by, it announced that I had run it in about nine minutes. Yeah, no. I'm going faster than that. The distance feature, though it was "working" again, was still useless. I just kept my eye on the clock.
Found the uphill and cautiously took it on. Since it was only half a mile or so, it shouldn't take longer than five minutes. It started off slow, but I hesitated to charge up it full-speed. I didn't want to wear myself out before it got really hard. But after 2-3 minutes, or halfway through the hill, I realized it probably wasn't getting harder than this. Wasn't really a hill, more of an incline. I picked up the pace again. And only a couple minutes later, it was done. There's no feeling quite like the one when you know you just finished the last hill of a race.
I looked at my watch again. Nine minutes to go. I didn't think I was very close to the finish area, probably more than a mile. Still worth a shot. Got back up to speed and just ran down the hill, trying to make it happen. Maybe if I hadn't wasted that minute back when I wasn't sure about a turn, this wouldn't be such a close call. It would suck if that were what it came down to.
In so many ways, the last mile of this race reminded me of my finish at Wildwood. Looking through the trees for any sign of a finish line, other runners, or even just flat ground. Coming around every corner hoping to see something. Getting more and more desperate as each minute ticks away. And fortunately for me, seeing the finish just in time and realizing you're going to do it.
The course actually led through a playground at the very end, which I ran through at a full sprint, probably with a wild look on my face. I'm almost certain that I frightened a few children. But I looked up and still saw a number 3 on the far left of the clock. Crossed the finish line smiling. Then I sat down.
Oliver, despite adding perhaps as much as an extra mile, finished the marathon in 3:07. I have only beaten that time on two trail marathons, and neither one had nearly as much climbing as this one did, nor did I ever get lost or backtrack. Damn. And he's only 20! Look out for this guy...
I congratulated Oliver on his dominating performance, and as usual, just hung out for an hour or so. They must've had some leftovers after the San Francisco Endurance Run last week, because they were grilling chicken, sausage, and burgers again. I very happily helped myself to a leg and a sausage (boy can that sound wrong). And a beer, of course. It's been said many times before, but worth repeating, I love that these guys know what we really want after a race.
As I sat there munching, the race director asked me, "What'd you think of the course?"
I mustered a smile, "How much time you got?" He smiled back. "Really though, it's basically two long, tough hills, and the rest is great, even kinda easy. But lots of fun! And beautiful! No scenic views really, but I just absolutely love running through the woods."
"Yeah, this is our most covered race."
"...I dunno, Big Basin? Wildwood?"
"Yeah, I guess those two as well. But you didn't do the 50k at Big Basin, and their loop gets you into that short scrub stuff, mostly exposed. But you're right, the marathon course at Big Basin is almost all covered."
I found out a little later that it was his birthday this past week. I wished him a happy birthday, then took off. Spent the rest of the weekend visiting my friend one last time before he moves back to Texas for a few months.
3/5 of the way through the Second Gauntlet, and I'm 3-for-3 in wins. I get eight days to recover before the next one, and following that, it's a team relay. Would be incredible to make it 5-for-5, including a team win. One can always hope. And better yet, one can always keep working hard.