What? 3x 25-mile loop in alternating directions on the headlands trails When? Start time: 7am
Ready! Set! Walk!
That's what an ultra start is like. Get all excited, then tear out of the start area at walk/shuffle pace.
Goal was to match my training run times of 5.5 hrs for the first lap.
The course start immediately went uphill. Good morning! So we all walked and talked. It was like a Sunday stroll. Everyone just walking and talking their way up the first climb.
My friend JJ joined me. He was only doing the marathon race (1 lap), so he had to start with a separate 1-mile outback section. But he caught me at the first aid station less than 4 miles in.
We then ran together for the rest of the lap. So special that he came out to join me considering he lost a life-long friend only a week earlier. We talked, he told stories. He's also the best Running JukeboxTM ever. JJ ran and sang over more than half of the course; running theme songs, word association themes, anything that came to mind. It was fantastic having him out on the course with me. His company made my day. Thanks JJ!
I wasn't feeling particularly good for the first 2 hours, thinking my super taper of only 8 total run miles during the week was in error. My thinking was to save the legs and energy for the event, and if I lost fitness or gained weight then that's ok. Better undertrained then overtrained. My energy was great but my legs were heavy. Then my left IT band started to stiffen and my shins flashed hints of cramping. Shin cramps on a hilly run are deadly. I immediately increased my liquid and salt intake, for the rest of the day, and those issues generally stayed at bay. After 4 hrs I was starting to feel stronger. I kept the pace very easy, and pushed the walking parts a bit.
My nutrition strategy was to eat mostly solids on the course. Ideally salted potatoes, gorp, bananas, whatever the aid stations stocked. I carried bars and gels just in case, which I used because the stations only had gelatin blocks and no gels. This year I noticed that my tolerance for gels had declined a lot; they seem to cause stomach distress. So solids would be key. The other issue I had was that I ran out of my goto drink powder, Skratch, and had just enough for 2 bottles. So I'd have to rely on their gatorade, which was fine. As long as they had Coke on the course I'd be good - that stuff is liquid gold! So water, gatorade, coke, and sometimes ginger ale was what got me thru for liquids. I found that watermelon and most especially QUESADILLAS worked brilliantly.
The course trail got a little tight with so many runners on the single track sections, but no biggie. Not like I was being slowed down by yielding, cuz I couldn't get any slower. There would later be far fewer runners out there to really pose traffic issues.
The weather was cool, 50-60 deg, foggy and overcast all day and night. Really good for running, as I tend not to do so well in the heat. The wind got really strong on a few of the ridges, especially at night...like gale force-ish...seriously...but that was only at one very short spot near Hawk Hill above the Golden Gate Bridge. I ran with arm coolers (white sleeves) which were more like arm warmers for the cools sections out there. And I had a thin windbreaker jacket for the "huricane" sections. I was comfy the whole day and night.
JJ and I finished the first loop in 5.5 hrs, with him singing the entire last 2 hours. I even joined in. It was really fun; singing, cracking up and staying loose.
The Foggy Bridge and I. JJ got himself in this pic too. Were you pointing at me?
Second loop (reverse direction)
With JJ done, I'd be going solo the rest of the way...except for all the other runners out there.
My goal was to finish lap 2 in about 6hrs, with a larger goal of doing the first 50 miles (2 laps) in 12 hours or under.
I wasn't sure how much of this loop I'd actually run, vs walk. Hills were walked, of course. There are lots and lots of hills on this course. In fact each loop has >5,000 feet of climbing. Yet I managed to run all of the "runnable" sections, keeping good stride and pace on the walking climbs. Although, my runs were more like jogs. I did a bunch of walk training this summer and it totally helped me improve. I used to be a really slow raceday walker, often getting passed by walkers that had business passing me, but now I'm starting to do the ha-you-blew-up-and-now-walk-slow-while-i-walk-right-past-you. Even heard one old-timer say as I walked past that he wished he had long legs too. And, no, I don't plan on buying a speed-walker suit and aero helmet. ;-)
I also noticed however that I subconsciously ran downhill slowly too. I'm typically a fast descender - gravity helps us heavier runners - but I think I was worried about punishing my quads too much so I chopped my downhill stride. Many runners would pass me going down and then I'd pass them going up. Lots of leap frogging during the day and night...but in the end my strategy would prove correct (for me).
The 75-milers wore numbers in the 6xx, and I noticed maybe only 1 other 6xx number in front of me by 20 minutes. (Later realized he was wearing 8xx, for 100 milers.) I didn't care so much about my placing until a volunteer time-checker at an aid station at 35 miles told me only one other 6xx number was ahead of me. Hmmmm. The sensational thought of possibly contending for first place in my longest run ever was immediately dashed when at mile 38 I saw the leader...running towards me! He was already 6 miles into his 3rd lap...oh maybe 3 or 4 hours ahead of me! Young guy, looked totally fresh. He should have been doing the full 100, sandbagger. ;-) I heard he shattered the course record. (Now confirmed, 23 year old, beat me to 75 by over 6 hours. Dang.) I knew the rest of the 75ers were behind me, so I put thoughts of placing back in a hole and simply focused on my goals.
There was a section in Lap 2 near mile 45 where we had to climb out of Pirates Cove. That really-really sucked. I was thanking all the run dieties that I only had to go that direction once. The 100-milers would have to hit it twice, like at mile 90...ohh that would suck...for them. But my pace was still feeling strong, my energy was so-so as I neared the end of lap 2. I passed one 100-miler descending a long hill with a tailwind. He didn't look so good. I commented that I was enjoying the downhill tailwind until I realized we'd have to flip it and climb back with a headwind. I'd see that guy later.
The last mile back to the Start/Finish area, and the end of lap 2 was a technical descent so I went slow. And I was getting hungrier. I had been daydreaming of pizza for 3 hrs, and hoping they'd at least have veggie soup, which they did.
Clocked lap 2 at 6:05. Right on track. I wanted to start my last lap at 7pm, 12 hours into the race, and when I looked at my watch to start lap 3 it was exactly 7pm, like 7:00:15. I tried to get thru the aid stations quickly: refill liquids, grab a face-full of food, happy remarks to everyone, and get back out on the trail. No loitering. The volunteers were all very helpful and friendly. Many thanks for them - especially later!
Third loop (finale)
It would be night soon, and the fog made sure it'd be dark. I threw my headlamp into my hydration vest, which I'd been wearing all day. I also changed into a fresh shirt and pair of sox.
I had planned to walk all of the last lap, figuring an avg-to-strong walk pace of 4mph would get my thru the loop in 8hrs and to my goal time of 20 hrs. But I still felt really good, for having run 50 miles in the hills, so I adjusted my lap 3 plan to eat a bunch at the Start/Finish area and then walk the first hour to digest my "dinner", and then push a "run" if I had it. But then I thought again about my placing, how I didn't want to lose it, and how I actually felt really good, so within 20 minutes of eating I channeled my Forrest Gump and turned on the Ole Shuffl-a-tor...a run pace which honestly was only a little faster than a strong walk.
Three miles into lap 3 and it was time for the headlamp. I was geared up, fed, and moving relatively well.
At six miles into lap 3 I was finding it harder to see the night trail. At first I thought it was the white-out fog, but nope. I had put new batteries in it that morning and decided to leave my spare batteries and extra flash light in my "drop bag" back at the Finish area - "I don't need the extra weight, right?". Bad move.
My light was dimming and giving me the "low battery" blink. If I lose my light, on a dark cliffside trail, at night, in the fog, with nobody else near me, I would be in serious trouble. The view was fading, and narrowing, like navigating thru a keyhole. I didn't want to stumble over a trail rock and land at the bottom of a ravine, or worse: 200 feet below in the Pacific Ocean. There was one runner ahead of me with a really strong light, and I started to catch him. He slowed to tell me something, after which I told him of my situation and asked if I could piggyback behind him and use his light. He was game. He was the same guy I passed earlier who looked awful, but now was moving well, and graciously offered to share his light. Thank God! He totally saved me. Since it was dark and the trail was technical there would be no running to the next aid station. I was hoping someone there would have spare batteries. Unfortunately I was not successful, as even the local police there had no spares. My new friend, Ben, would help me 5 miles farther to the next aid station. Again, mostly walking, mostly uphill. We had the same pace going and his goal was to finish his 3rd (of 4) laps in the same time I wanted to finish. The 100-milers were allowed pacers after 50 miles, but us 75-milers were not. Ben didn't have a pacer, and neither did I, until then!
At the next stop the first volunteer I ran into had spare batteries, the size I needed. Yayyy, my new best friend! But Ben and I stayed together for the rest of the lap. He was so helpful. Often asking if I was ok. We talked at times, shared stories, traded running recipes. He said his arm warmers are tubesocks with finger holes cut out. Ultra runners are total Cutters. I liked his style. Sometimes we just quietly walked/shuffled down the trail, enjoying the night and nature - silently suffering together. We spotted coyotes and rabbits, tiny field mice, salamanders/newts, and very large spiders. There were times when he would hit a "bad patch" where he felt really tired, and I would press the walk to keep us moving. And there were times when I felt tired and he would keep us rolling.
11 miles away from the finish I kicked a rock on the dark trail and it really tweaked my knee. There was another runner with us at that time so I told them to push on while I stopped to work it out. I was worried, but the pain subsided and I was able to resume, catching back up to them in no time. But I was hurting now. Sure my quads were tired, but my energy was hanging in there, and now any thoughts of actually running were dashed with my knee pain. So Ben and I kept walking. With 10 miles to go we still had 2.5 hrs, and I was convinced we could walk most of it, and then power shuffle the rest to make our time. He was less enthused since he had 25 more miles to go after that.
Still, my racer brain wanted to run the rest, ignoring pain and tiredness. That's actually a good trait, but my knee was singing loader and I was limping more. I was also doing pretty good 70-miler-at-1am runner math. If I walked the rest I could meet my goal, and if it got close then I'd switch back to racer guy. But I felt compelled to pace with Ben the rest of the way to keep him moving, in a team-worky-thank-you kind of way, since he saved my skin out there, and really helped me soldier on. With 3 miles to go it was all downhill. Ben shuffled a bit with me, off and on, and I certainly pushed the walk pace, hoping he would not blow-up.
We finished, with 10 minutes to spare. 19:50:30 hrs, 2:50am. Two volunteers clapped at the finish, after I crossed and said "...and the crowd goes crazy". We all laughed. Ben collected stuff, got fed, turned and departed on his own for lap 4. Wow. In awe. Thank you Ben, you were a huge help! Hope to see you on the trail again.
The race director got out of his sleeping bag and informed me I finished in 2nd place, and 1st in my age group! The finisher in front of me actually was a DNF from the 100. Even though there were like 10 entrants for the 75 miler, it was still kinda fun to hear. And I got a nice 2nd place coaster. :-)
I was dying for a beer, and another quesadilla.
It was a great event. The terrain is challenging and I know that on clear days it is very scenic. The volunteers were great, and the fellow runners were awesome. I hit all of my goals for a first run at that distance - I know things can go wrong out there - so I couldn't be happier. Not sure I need to go all 100 now, but I'm glad to be a fellow Cutter.