Wednesday, May 7, 2014

2014 Miwok 100k Race Report - Part I

When the alarm sounded at 2am on Saturday, May 3rd, 2014, 3 hours before the Miwok 100k trail race would begin, I took a moment to sit in the dark to consider where I was and what was about to happen. Miwok. The race I had dreamed about since I first stepped off the roads and onto the trails 4 years ago. The race that I had been fortunate to even be selected to run - a race that was already in high demand (participants are selected via lottery) had become even more so due to a wildfire-shortened race in 2013. I sat there in the dark and tried to focus. Whatever happened on the trails that day, whether good or bad, I would savor it and live in the moment. Deep breath. Time to go. I had laid out my gear the night before - team singlet, compression shorts, favorite hat....I went through my normal morning routine, made some coffee, and had a bite to eat. I was dressed in a matter of minutes. My wife (and crew chief for the day) woke soon after and offered some words of encouragement. I was so glad to have her there to keep my nerves steady. Regardless of how I was doing I knew she'd be there to keep me calm and focused. 

It wasn't long before we were heading north from downtown San Francisco in the middle of the night toward the quiet town of Stinson Beach. We arrived early, parked, and checked in. Runners had just begun to roll into town in earnest and the excitement was building. A perfect day had been forecast with clear skies, relatively cool temperatures, and low humidity. The views would be spectacular and everyone was itching to get started.

Some last minute gear preparation.

The room was buzzing as the start of the race drew near.

At the starting line moments before "go-time".

The race organizers called everyone to the starting line as 5am drew near. I had set up at the front of the race, not so much out of a desire to push the pace as it wasn't quite as crowded up there. The "elites" up front exchanged some pleasantries and even a few awkward laughs. It was clear to me that while these runners were superb athletes they were just as nervous as the rest of us. As the race director began to count down from 10 I tried my best to remember this moment. It was time to run Miwok. One more deep breath, and we were off! 

The race jumped almost immediately from a residential street onto a narrow bridge before leading to the first section of the trail. My strategy at the start was to get out in front of the inevitable traffic jam as runners were funneled onto the trail. In this I succeeded - I was with the lead group out of Stinson, over the bridge, and onto the trail relatively quickly. It did not take long, however, for me to realize the flaw in this plan. The trail was narrow single-track and quickly turned into a long, steep climb. I felt that I needed to keep up with the runners in front of me out of courtesy to the ones behind me. As we moved forward and up over a seemingly endless series of switchbacks, my heart rate had jumped up and before long I could feel a little burn in my legs. Up and up we went. At each switchback I expected to feel the course level out - only to be met with another switchback and more climbing. After over a half an hour later, as we were still climbing, all I could do was hope that I was not going to pay for this later. 

Eventually the trail did level off and open up into a wide open grassy hillside that gave us the first chance to catch our breath and have a look around. The sun was just beginning to come up and we could look back over our shoulders on Stinson Beach far below. There was not much time for contemplation however, as the grassy hills before us presented their own set of challenges.

Looking back down at Stinson.....

....and looking ahead down the trail.

I had a tough time figuring out the footing on this stretch. The trail itself was very narrow, less than a foot wide, and was sloped and rutted in many spots making it easy to slip and fall. The grass had also overgrown the trail in several places forcing us to watch closely for ribbons among the weeds to make sure we would say on track. The path would offer a few gentle climbs and descents but nothing particularly severe. Yet I just could not seem to keep myself balanced along the narrow footpath and fell several times. After stumbling and shuffling for around 2 hilly miles, I made my way across these grassy fields toward a treeline of giant firs.

Approaching the forest.

As I approached the treeline the scene changed abruptly. The grasses became ferns and the open sky was hidden behind a dense canopy of fir and redwood trees. The trail opened slightly into a wide fire road and began to level off. As I moved into the forest I was greeted by the songs of a thousand birds coming at me from every direction. It was a beautiful scene, and for someone who lives on a flat prairie, it was like stepping into another world. I slowed my pace to appreciate my surroundings and soon I was cruising into the first aid station of the day called Bolinas Ridge. 6 miles down, around 56 more to go. Bolinas is a small aid station for runners only - no crew or drop bags. I felt great, was energized by the forest surroundings, and was in good shape energy-wise. I dropped off my head lamp, topped off my water bottles and moved on.

The footpath changed quickly from grass to mossy ferns.

Approaching Bolinas Aid Station.

The next several miles allowed me to take in the forest surroundings. The trail itself rolled gently without any particularly technical terrain. It was easy to run and stunningly beautiful. I was in a good rhythm, and somewhat surprisingly, I did not encounter many runners on this stretch of the trail. I was able to enjoy my own thoughts, the sounds of the forest, and relax. Eventually the trail would begin what was at first a gentle descent but soon became a rather steep gradient. I started to cross paths with some other runners now as we began to navigate the descending switchbacks, each footfall now used more for the purposes of braking than forward propulsion. While I enjoy running downhill this was becoming quite a severe slope and I was forced to concentrate lest I turn this descent into a face-first slide to the bottom. After a few minutes of negotiating this hill I was passed by runners going in the other direction. "You mean we have to go back UP this??" I thought, observing the pained looks on my fellow runners who had the misfortune of being ahead of me. All in due time. 

I continued down the trail until the woods opened up to a short open area that consisted of an aid station and the turnaround point. This was the Randall Trail aid station (mile 13) and now it was my turn to climb again. At this aid station I was greeted with a pleasant surprise - my wife Michelle had come to this aid station to meet me! My spirits soared when I heard her call my name. I had not expected to see her until later but having her there gave me a little extra spring in my step as I headed out and back up the hill. 

Leaving the forest, approaching the Randall Trail Aid Station.

Quick water refill at the turnaround checkpoint.

The climb was every bit as challenging as I thought it might be but I made it a point to smile all the way up and not grimace so as to offer some encouragement to the runners who were still on their way "down". It was their turn to feel sorry for me! Their smiles and enthusiasm were contagious and I hoped I could return some of their good vibes to them. I waved, high-fived and offered as many "howdys" as I could on the way back up and not run out of breath. This actually made the climb pass much more quickly than I had anticipated and before long I was back on the smooth path back toward Bolinas Ridge. I was able to knock out a few quick miles on the gentle terrain and make good time back to Bolinas (mile 19.50). I grabbed a snack, chatted with the aid station crew for a few moments, and proceeded out of the forest. 

A section of the forest trail heading back to Bolinas.

After leaving the forest the race puts you back on the grassy hillsides above Stinson again. The good feelings I had from running in the forest quickly disappeared knowing what lay ahead of me. While certainly beautiful and offering stunning views of the Pacific Ocean off in the distance this stretch was the most challenging part of my morning. The second round on the grassy hills did not go much better than the first for me and when the trail would narrow and slant I would inevitably find myself sliding off and stumbling to stay upright. When I felt footsteps behind me I would try to step out of the way of those who wanted to pass, feeling somewhat envious of their superior skill at navigating this stretch. 

Here we go again!
Proceeding over, across, and around the grassy hillsides was a tedious process but I tried to remember the promise I had made to myself to savor the day no matter what it would bring. I was as careful as I could to avoid twisting an ankle (or worse) and keep a positive attitude. This was one of the longer stretches of the race without an aid station. I would have to navigate around 7 miles to get to the next stop - the mountaintop Cardiac aid station. I proceeded from hill to hill, tree to tree, and slowly but surely I was able to get to Cardiac (mile 26.5). I was now pretty hungry and ate several pieces of fruit and a couple sandwich squares. I could feel some fatigue setting in and needed a boost. I paused for a few minutes to take in the spectacular views but soon it was time to move on. The next few miles would be downhill, so I didn't linger too long and soon set off down the hill. 

The view from Cardiac. A picture does not do it justice.

The next descent was relatively mild and uneventful. The trail had changed again to wide dirt and rock fire road and would bring me down to the next aid station at Muir Beach. The trail ended and funneled onto a stretch of road and a row of parked cars, driven by tourists and locals who had come out to enjoy the beach for the day. Unfortunately for me I made the mistake of following a runner who was actually not running our race and ended up on the wrong side of the aid station! After a half a mile or so I realized something was wrong, as I had not seen any ribbons or course markers. I could see the aid station but could not figure out how to get there. I retraced my steps and found the trail again. It was not long before I cruised into the aid station (the right way this time!) and met my wife for a quick bite to eat and a chance to catch my breath. There was a lot of activity at this aid station as a number of tourists and beach goers had gathered to try and figure out what was going on. 

Muir Beach Aid Station

Snack time!

I was now at the halfway point in the race. 31 miles down, 31 to go. I was definitely feeling fatigued but knowing that I only had 50k to go (and seeing Michelle again) kept my spirits up. As I set out from Muir Beach I was blissfully unaware of what lay before me. While the hills on the first half of the course were certainly challenging, it would be the relentless climbs over the second half that really punished me. It would begin almost immediately after leaving Muir Beach with a long steep climb that for me was a solid hike to the top. Try as I might, I could not get any running in and was reduced to a crawl for almost an hour. It was difficult for me to remain in a positive mindset but I continued on. It was 5 miles to the next aid station and I had to keep my focus on that - and try not to worry about the fact that my legs were completely dead and I still had over 30 more miles to go......

Jump to part 2 here....


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