Saturday, September 21, 2013

Coastal 50k Trail Run

Since this was a point-to-point race, that meant we had to take a shuttle from the finish to the start.  And that meant you had to show up by 6:30.  And since the finish was an hour away, that meant I had to wake up pretty early.

I kept a sharp eye on the weather the day before.  Was supposed to rain today.  Last I saw, there was a 10% chance of rain at gun time, but that jumped to a 50% chance around 10:00.
"That's not too bad," I thought.  "So that means it most likely won't rain at all until halfway through the race, and even then, it's only a 50/50 chance."  Still, that meant that there were at least two hours that I'd have a 50/50 chance of rain, so I basically counted on running in the rain at some point, and running in soggy clothes and a wet trail even more.  That might constitute a change of wardrobe.

The night before the race, I agonized over what to wear.  I was strongly considering triathlon clothes, or at least a triathlon jersey, since they're designed to be wet.  I eventually decided on my lightest running shirt and shorts, even though it would be cool and wet out, just because I figured they'd be good at shedding moisture.  I switched back to synthetic socks from wool ones.  I'd originally used the synthetic socks since they're the lightest ones I have, but switched to the wool ones since they compress my arch better, add a touch more padding, and barely weigh any more.  But this time, I went with the ones that I thought would be best when completely soaked.

The shoes, though, I agonized over those.  I've just gotten new ones, which are just a touch heavier and more cushy than my old ones, which still have a race or two left in them, if I really want.  The old ones probably wouldn't absorb so much water, making them much lighter, but I decided on the new ones, if only because I thought they'd get better traction on wet trails.

It was still dark when I arrived at Rodeo Beach.  I climbed onto the bus only about two minutes before it left.  The young woman on my right stayed silent the entire 45-minute ride, but the middle-aged guy behind me talked boisterously the entire time, raising to a shout here and there.  Sure, he was in a good mood and trying to get everyone to join him, but it was a little too early in the morning for that, at least for me.  Something in between would've been ideal; an engaging, but reserved conversation.

I barely even drive, and ride in someone else's car even less often.  Riding on a bus can make me queasy.  And when it's 45 minutes over the hills, up-and-down, left-and-right, fast-and-slow, that just doesn't go too well.  About 30 minutes into the ride, I would've rather been running over the hills.  I was very thankful to get off the bus and onto solid ground in the fresh air.  I walked to the beach and watched the waves for a few minutes.

It was still chilly outside, so I waited until the last minute to ditch my warm-ups and put them in a drop bag.  I took a last look at the elevation profile.  Not only did it look different than the one on the website, but the distances to the summits were different too.  And aid stations were the same though.  I'd basically have to ignore everything written on my left hand.

This race was kind of unique in that it is the only race Coastal Trail Runs puts on that is only one distance.  Big Basin is kinda close, just marathon and 50k, but this one is a 50k only.  All 92 people in attendance were going for the long haul.  Normally, there will only be 40-50 people doing the 50k at any given race.  This was twice as many.  And there was no one there just trying to make it through a 10k.  Serious runners, all of us, or at least very determined ones.

After we had all lined up, just before the gun, it started raining.  Already.  This might not be an easy day.  A short description of the route, since there was only one.  3-2-1, go.  Right away, a few guys got in front of me.  No worries, it's a long race.  I stayed with them, for the most part.

The first three miles of the race are all uphill, and by far, it's the biggest hill of the race.  It honestly didn't seem too bad though; a few staircase sections, but no part of it felt like a tough grind-it-out.  I wound up passing people until I was in second place, and within view of first.  Difficult running though, since the trail was muddy and very technical.  Tons of roots and rocks, all of them slippery.  And the course was in full tree cover.  I laughed to myself.  To think that I'd gotten a new running shirt for warm weather and sunshine, mostly for this race and Diablo.  Instead, Diablo got postponed to a weekend I can't go, and this race turns out to be cool, overcast, and raining.

Though I was doing pretty well all through the first section, the ladder caught me off-guard.  Yes, a ladder.  Haven't seen that one before.

After the first three miles, the course more or less flattened out and got a little less technical.  Was finally able to really get in a groove.  Was still feeling great when I arrived at the first aid station, almost six miles in, even though I'd only climbed and held even until then.  Just downed one quick sports drink and kept moving.  The rain had let up to barely a sprinkle, and the trail was now well-packed dirt, almost entirely dry.  Great running surface.

The guy behind me in red, who had already demonstrated his descending ability on a short downhill a while back, absolutely obliterated me as the course plunged.  Could hardly believe how fast he was moving.  A few mountain bikers just barely passed us.
"Holy crap, you guys are flying!"
"Well, it's downhill."
"Are you professional runners?"
I had to laugh at that one.  "No."
The guy out in front though, I haven't seen him for a while.  It's possible he's sponsored, which means he gets a whopping few pairs of shoes per year.  A $200 value in exchange for training something like 500 hours.  What a deal!

I hadn't seen the guy behind me in quite a while, and I assumed that the guy in front just wouldn't be caught.  At this point, I figured it was a race for second place between me and Red Descent.  Sure, he was ahead of me now, but I just figured he'd wear down and I'd take him on an uphill late in the race, what tends to be my forte.

I arrived at the second aid station and downed a mouthful of food and a little sports drink.  While I did, the guy in third, a white shirt with a hydration pack, passed me.  Didn't stop at the aid station at all.  Sure, he has water on him, but I hoped that the lack of food might come back to haunt him later.  Then again, anyone doing this well 11 miles into a race generally knows what they're doing.

The rain had lightened up to barely a sprinkle, but not long after leaving the aid station, it picked up to a heavy shower.  I kept looking up the hill at the white shirt.  He showed no signs of weakness.  Dammit.  He wasn't going to be easy to catch.

The stretch of trail between Muir Beach and Tennessee Valley has become a favorite lately.  Couldn't fully enjoy it this time, though.  Not only was visibility limited, but you couldn't look to your right, out towards the gorgeous coastline.  The wind was coming in strong from there, driving the rain sideways, making me keep my head down and to the left.  The hill coming away from the shoreline had barely registered on the elevation profile, but it did a number on me.  A long staircase, followed by a long, steep uphill.  I figured that of the three people ahead of me, at least one walked this section.  If I was going to make up anything on them, now was the time.

I still had my sense of direction, and coming away from the ocean, something didn't seem right.  I thought I was supposed to head east, but I kept heading north.  For a LONG time.  To the point that I thought I might be doubling back on a section of trail I'd already done.  Or maybe Coastal Trail Runs failed to take down old ribbons, and I was following an old course?  They couldn't be that sloppy, though, they never have been before.  Every time I found a hiker, which were few and far between, I asked if they'd seen other runners with numbers on them.  Every single one said yes.

One particular intersection managed to puzzle me though, and I stayed put for about 30 seconds while I debated which way to go, or turning around.  A nearby sign said that if I followed the ribbons, I'd be heading towards Muir Beach and away from Tennessee Valley.  I'd just come from Muir Beach, and the next aid station was supposed to be Tennessee Valley.  Was I going the wrong way?  Then I looked at the mileage, and then at my watch.  I was supposed to still have almost three miles to Tennessee Valley, and if I went the way the sign said, it would be only one.  Now it makes more sense.  I'm just taking the long way.

Still, I gave 30 seconds away.  I probably wouldn't win or lose by 30 seconds, but then again, the San Francisco 100 Miler came down to eight seconds.  You never know.

I kept telling myself that even though I was in fourth now, I'd make that up.  Sooner or later, someone would get tired, and I'd pass them going up a hill.  But then again, I was on a hill now, and they were still ahead of me.  They'd only get farther ahead as we go down this hill.  And the race starts and ends at sea level; for every uphill that I have a chance of gaining on them, there's a downhill where they'll get away from me.  I tried not to worry about it.  Just run your race.

I made it to Tennessee Valley just as the rain kicked up to a strong shower again.  Seriously, Coastal Trail Runs is in love with Tennessee Valley!  This was the tenth time I've been at an aid station in the same spot, in less than a year.
"What do you need?"
"Pink drink!"  I grabbed one of the small cups and gulped it down.  As I was refilling it, "Can you believe this crap?"
"I know!"
"And I bet this is someone's first trail run.  I hope they don't hate it after this."
They informed me that a few people were running their first 50k.  That's not so much what I was worried about; If you've run a trail marathon, you can picture that a trail 50k is the same, but longer.  But if you'd never done a trail run before and this was your first, you might think that getting off pavement is always this bad.

I left the aid station and headed up the long, grueling hill out of Tennessee Valley for what seemed like the 80,000th time.  Luckily, the wind was behind me at this point.  The rain backed off to a light sprinkle again, and I looked to my left.  A clear view of Sausalito.  Maybe the rain was about done!  I kept plugging up the hill, until the trail curved a bit.  I looked ahead, then to the right, where the wind was coming from.  Darker skies.  No, it's probably not done.

The rain picked up steam again just about as I started down the hill.  I felt tight, in my thighs and especially my lower back.  It was like I couldn't get things going right.  I passed a certain curve with a tree nearby and flashes of the San Francisco 50-Miler came back to me, most notably being challenged going the other way.  I looked around.  Aside from the rain, the weather was very comparable.  Overcast, same temperature, clouds covering the tops of the hills.  Major difference was that I was all wet and so was the trail.

Heading down the hill, I saw another runner coming up.  He had long sleeves and a visor, and looked very strong coming up a hill like that.
"What race is this?"
"It's a 50k!"
"Go get it, man!"
I don't know why, but his very simple comment lit a fire in me.  I hadn't transitioned to a downhill gait yet, and I was still just plodding along, not using the downhill to my advantage.  I changed my cadence and stride and instantly opened it up.  I was moving a lot faster now, like I should have been all along.  I was running like a man.

The downhill bottomed out and I ran on flat ground.  At some point, I came to a split in the trail.  It was obvious which way to go right now, but it also looked like we'd be coming back to this point, going the other way.  I made the turn, and about a quarter mile later, found the quick turn-off to the aid station.  It had stopped raining.

The aid station's canopy tent was a sad, crumpled mess.  The table was out in the open, with nothing on it.  Approaching, it seemed like no one was there.  Suddenly, a volunteer practically materialized near a car.
"What do you need?"
I was taken aback by both the despondent scene and the sudden appearance of a human, seemingly from nowhere.  "Uh, pink drink, I guess."
She rushed over to the cooler, but I got there at about the same time and poured one for myself.
"I have stuff in the car!" she chimed, gesturing towards the car about 10 meters behind her.  Both the front and rear passenger's side doors were open.  I took a couple steps towards them and saw all the usual snacks laid out on the seats.
"Ohhhh, I see what you're doing."
"Yeah, I figured I'd get everything covered by something before it came down again."
I looked to the south.  It seemed to be lighter than the clouds to the north.  Since the wind was coming from there, I had high hopes.  The rain was just barely a light sprinkle again.  Maybe this was the tail end of it.  I grabbed an orange slice and headed out.

There were still over 10 miles to go, but I preferred to think that there were only two hills to go.  As it turned out, I was to turn a different way than I expected when leaving the aid station.  The ground stayed flat for a while, and slowly headed upwards, eventually turning into a full-fledged climb.

I felt like there was a small rock under the ball of my right foot.  I stopped and took off my shoe, knowing that I was risking having more grit stick to my wet socks as I tried to scrape something out.  Couldn't find anything.  I looked at the bottom of my foot.  Nothing there either.  Curiously, I'd worn a hole in the toe of the sock.  That's weird; these socks weren't showing any wear before.  I put the shoe back on and it felt exactly the same.  Oh, now I remember this feeling.  I'm getting a blister.

I knew we were headed for the windy singletrack ridge that I'd now done many times before.  No matter what the weather's been, there's always a strong wind up there, usually a cold one.  Reaching the point where I would turn onto it, I was happy to know that I was done climbing, but I braced myself for the wind.  I was about to be wet and cold.

Luckily, the rain backed off again, so I wasn't being pelted by stinging shards of liquid coming from the side.  Still, the wind was strong enough to push me off the trail if I didn't account for it.  I made an effort to lean into it and kept moving.  A couple times, I've been at this point and felt ridiculously fleet of foot, effortlessly bounding through this stretch of trail.  Not this time.  I wasn't on a death march, but this wasn't my best moment either.

I found a split in the trail and headed down.  This was the part of the course that was nothing but an out-and-back to the Golden Gate Bridge.  Suddenly, the heavens opened up in a downpour.  I was soaking wet already, and had been for hours, so I wasn't sure I even cared anymore.  Every time I thought the rain was almost, over, it would come back just as hard as ever.  By now, it was easier to give up hope.  I slogged down the hill and started seeing the guys ahead of me pass, coming back up the other way.  Each one was only about a minute apart.  Considering I was neck-and-neck with two of them for about ten miles, I somehow thought I wasn't that far behind.  Then I kept going down.  And down.  And down.

The trail spat me out onto pavement, and I went down some more.  It got to the point that I wasn't sure I was still on the course.  The Golden Gate Bridge, far below me not so long ago, now towered above me, and I was still going.  Did I miss a turn?  Did I just not see the canopy tent?  Where is that aid station?  I heard a shout and a whistle behind me.  I stopped in my tracks and turned around.  Had the aid station spotted me down the hill?  Was that them, telling me to come back up?  I stared at the hill  behind me and couldn't see anything.  Finally, I saw it: on the top of the hill, a guy waving his arms.  There were about six other runners on the ridge, clumped together.  He made a gesture like I should turn around.

The guys ahead of me were only three strong, and they weren't clumped together.  And I had huge doubts that there was a group of six people that close behind me.  He probably thought I was one of the guys in his running club, and I just got lost.  I started down the hill again.  Just to double-check, I asked the next cyclist I saw if he'd seen a canopy tent.  He said yes.

I finally made it to the aid station, well under the bridge (I did wind up running under the entire thing), and on a platform only about four meters raised from the water.  They really do make you run all the way down.  I figured I might as well jump in the ocean to make it official.  I looked at my watch.  Based on when I saw the guy in 3rd place, I was 15 minutes behind.  I'd have to gain almost three minutes per mile to catch him.  Basically impossible.

15 minutes...15 minutes...How on Earth were three guys that far ahead of me?!?  I've been beaten before, but usually by small margins, and usually by just one guy.  On one of the few occasions I got beat, it was by an Olympian, and only by five minutes.  Today, there were three teams as many people beating me, and all by at least three times as much.  Sure, I wasn't having my best day, but I wasn't having a horrible day either.  These guys were just that good, I guess.

I took my time at the aid station, knowing fourth place was all but assured.  Joked around with the volunteers a little bit.  Had some peanut m&m's.  More and more, I find myself trying to convince myself that peanut m&m's count as trail mix.  They don't.  But I eat them and tell myself they are.

I headed back up the hill in a slow jog.  The rain had not abated.  I kept telling myself that this was the last hill, and I might as well keep moving and get it done.  I finally realized that a hill this tough 27 miles into a race should really be killing me, but today, it wasn't.  I think I might not have truly pushed myself, since the conditions made it such that if you really tried to dig in and run hard, you just slipped.  So I had been holding back all day.  I wonder how those guys out front did it.

Mile 27 still kinda gets to me.  That's the point at which I finally realize that I've already run more than a marathon, and I'm still going.  At that point, I generally wonder what the hell I'm doing.  Isn't a marathon enough?!?

Not far from the top, I saw the next guy behind me coming down.  I looked at my watch.  At least 15 minutes.  So barring total disaster, there was no way to move up or down even one spot.  I kept up my methodical march up the hill.  Upon finally cresting it, I smiled.  I knew these trails.  From here on out, just four miles to the end, and it's all downhill and flat.  And the downhill is one of those perfect long, steady declines that makes running easy without making you have to work for your speed, or worse, hit the brakes.  Had this been the Golden Gate course, there would still be one tough, but short hill to go, but this one cut that out.  Two miles of downhill, two miles of flat.  That I can do.

In a good mood, I made it to the last aid station.  Same as the one I'd been at nine miles earlier.  Only 1.5 miles to go, all flat.  The rain had backed off to a sprinkle again.  Everything seemed to be getting better.  I didn't really need anything, but since I wasn't going to move up or down in the standings no matter what I do, why not slow down and enjoy it?  I hung out a little bit and ate snacks I didn't need, mostly because I was already thinking about recovery.  I was a little bullish on peanut m&m's again.  With my wet fingers, the colors rubbed off and dyed my hands.
"We got paper towels, if you wanna wipe that off..."
"You're acting like I give a crap."
She laughed.  "Yeah, I guess it's that kinda day, and that point in the race, huh?"

Leaving the aid station for the finish, I found that spot where much earlier, I figured we'd be running through again.  Finally, it dawned on me: I haven't run this distance, or anything even close to it, in a long time.  My last 50k was five weeks ago, and it didn't go very well.  I haven't even had a long training run since then.  In fact, I haven't even been running as much as normal; I've been biking more.  Kind of a strange thought.  I wonder if that made me better or worse.

I very happily found the road that leads to the finish, knowing there was only about a mile to go.  Just held on to my normal pace and finished it.  All three of the guys in front of me had finished this race, a very challenging course and in tough conditions, in under four hours.  Holy smokes.  I was modestly 24 minutes behind third place.  It had finally stopped raining entirely, and stayed that way.  Of course.  NOW it stops raining...

I had intended to head home soon, but didn't for whatever reason.  I dunno why.  As enticing as a warm shower, soft dry clothes, and a big comfy couch sounded, I hung out at the finish area for almost two hours.  I guess I just really like the folks at these races.  And the snacks at the finish area sure don't hurt.  It's really hard to leave anywhere that has all the food you want.

Overall, I'd say I'm happy with how I did.  I feel like I could've done better, but not 24 minutes better.  No amount of effort I could've summoned would've changed my result.  And considering the conditions, as well as the challenge of this course, it was a decent result.  A no-walk 50k on a day like this is pretty good all by itself.  And compared to the last 50k I did, which had about the same amount of climbing and much better conditions, but ended in disaster, this could be called a huge success.

Next week, the Berlin Marathon, followed by 10 days of biking through Bavaria during Oktoberfest.  Prosit!