My 2013 race schedule ended with the North Face 50 Mile held in the Marin Headlands and Mt. Tamalpais. I had mixed feelings about signing up for it again. Last year’s waterlogged mud fest was epic and traumatic all at the same time. While it was memorable I didn’t want a repeat. On the other hand, I wanted the North Face 50 Mile experience I was expecting last year but didn’t get. So back into the breach I went.
It’s the day before the race and I’m at packet pickup. I had brought my drop bag for the Cardiac aid station and asked the woman at the race shirt table where I was supposed to leave it.
“I know you!”
The trail running community is pretty small and it’s easy to start recognizing people but she looked completely unfamiliar to me. We played a few rounds of “do you … ?” but there was no common thread.
“People have a certain energy and I remember yours. I’m Kimberly. Chocolate Thunder!” Indeed. She had a personality that could barely be contained inside the room. She helped me with the drop bag and was so kind, enthusiastic and encouraging. I was a rolling ball of stress and nerves. I wanted to do well at this race.
“You are going to do great!” How could I not after that endorsement?
It’s a bit before 5am and the elites are lining up. I’m standing next to the start corral and on the other side of the fencing is a familiar figure, elite runner Dakota Jones. He looked distracted dealing with the layers he was wearing while keeping an eye on the front of the line.
“Have a good race,” I said. I expected a brusque acknowledgement. He was about to start a race with a very competitive field after all and I figured he’d be in full game face mode. (I would later find out he ran the race with the flu.)
He glanced over his shoulder and looked at me. Yup, full game face mode, serious and unsmiling. There was a hint of a “do I know you?” expression on his face and then he did something I completely did not expect. He turned, gave me his complete attention, made full eye contact, grinned and asked if I was also running the race.
“Yes,” I said, “I’m in wave four. I’ll be at the back.” The expression on his face softened and warmed up even more.
“You have a great race too.” My awkward fan girl moment was transformed. We were just two people wishing each other well.
My wave four start gathered waiting for our turn to go. Christine, the race’s volunteer coordinator, jumped into the mosh pit with us and we immediately mobbed her. She must have had a thousand things to take care of so it was great to see her take a moment with us. And then, like that, we were on our way. I usually warm up quickly when I run so the order of the day was layers, lots of layers. I figured I’d be shedding them sooner rather than later.
“I’m not getting warm,” I muttered to Alina. Okay, maybe I won’t be shedding them any time soon.
I got to the top of Alta, running past the supplies for the aid station that would be there later in the day. It looked like the North Face elves had cached it overnight. I’d been running by the light of a headlamp on the climb but on the descent down Rodeo Valley I turned on my handheld and held it at a low angle. My depth perception was much better this way and it allowed me to fly down the trail past a lot of people who were gingerly picking their way through the loose rocks and ruts.
I got to the first aid station, 5 Mile, and grabbed a cup of Coke.
“Leigh-Ann!” I shouted as I blinded her with my headlamp.
“Who is that?”
“Laura!” I gave her a quick hug and off I went. She’d been out here setting up way before I arrived and would be on her feet volunteering longer than I would be running. I was feeling good. Cold but good.
The descent down Old Spring into Tennessee Valley is always fun and today wasn’t any different. I heard my name being called as I entered the aid station. I ran over to Karen and asked her if I couldn’t just go grab breakfast with her at the Dipsea Cafe instead.
My plan when I reached Tennessee Valley Aid at mile 9 was to dump my warm layers and headlamp. Karen was helping me find my drop bag in a sea of drop bags.
“What should I do about my jacket?” I couldn’t make up my mind about such a simple matter.
“Take it with you. You can always put it away in your pack,” she advised. If Karen says take it, I take it.
“Do you need anything special at Stinson?” Really? I think if I’d asked for a pizza she would have found one for me. But I didn’t need anything and off I went.
Tennessee Valley to Muir Beach passed uneventfully although the wet stairs at Pirates Cove made for treacherous footing. I like this section. It’s beautiful and the terrain varies. Getting to Muir Beach meant I had the long four mile grind up Heather Cut-off and Coastal View trail to look forward to. It’s not technical. It’s not even that steep. It’s just long.
When I arrived at the Cardiac Aid, 18 miles in, it was a buzzing hub of activity. I grabbed a cup of Coke. It seemed to be all I was interested in drinking today. I heard my name being called and standing up on a rise was Rebecca. A year ago, at this very same race, she was a piece in a strange puzzle that helped me get through a very rough day. We bumped into each other months later and I didn’t make the connection at first. But when I put two and two together and realized that she was THAT Rebecca, it allowed me to close a circle. And now there she was, jumping up and down waving to me.
What came next is my least favorite part of the course and it’s not a climb. It’s the gently rolling out and back section to McKinnon Gulch Aid. It’s a popular shot in many race photos and videos because it’s got beautiful, expansive views. And I hate it. It’s a slanted, eroded, gopher hole ridden single track on the side of a hill. Getting past people or out of their way is awkward at best because there is nowhere to go. I don’t even like running this section during training when I have it to myself. But you deal with it. Eventually it ends.
At McKinnon Gulch you reach the northern most point of the race and now it’s all about heading back to where you started. Three miles to cover on that ankle breaker of a trail and I’d drop down Matt Davis, which is an ankle breaker of a different sort. This was also the beginning of a pattern I’d find myself repeating with about four or five people all the way to the end. I’d go by them on the downhill or flat and then find myself getting passed on the uphills. Matt Davis is a rough and tumble descent of uneven stairs, roots and rocks. I couldn’t help but remember how awful it was to negotiate when I did Miwok two years ago. I was injured and even the mildest downward slope would send shooting pain through my leg. But this time it was fun and it felt good to know that I was past the half way point of the race.
Jerry, Karen and Sabine
I came into Stinson Beach Aid and found myself chit-chatting with Jerry as he kept me topped off with Coke. I gulped down multiple cups while having a philosophical discussion with him about the existential question that always forms in my head this far in – why am I doing this?
“It’s because you’re good at it,” was his response. I’m not falling for that.
“I hate you, Jerry,” I replied. The banter was fun and I was procrastinating. I knew it was going to be a long 2.8 miles back up to Cardiac and I was delaying the inevitable.
“GET OUT OF THE AID STATION!” Busted.
Karen and Sabine were across the street yelling at me. They were well aware of the grind I had ahead of me and it wasn’t going to get any easier standing there exchanging witty repartee with Jerry.
The climb out of Stinson on the Dipsea back up to Cardiac was dreadful. Every step felt like a struggle. A man and woman were making their way down the stairs as I was laboring up. I came to a dead stop in front of them, hands on knees.
“We’ll get out of your way if you promise to keep moving.” This man seemed to have an inkling of what it was I was doing and just gave me a well deserved kick in the pants.
“How do you do this?” the woman asked me as I passed her.
“I don’t know.”
I finally made it back to Cardiac Aid. I had a strange, uncomfortable stitch in my abdomen and what felt like a small rock digging into the arch of my right foot. It’s time consuming dealing with shoes and feet but it can cause bigger problems later so I sat down and dealt with it. It wasn’t a rock. I was developing a hot spot under my arch. I didn’t know what to do about the stitch.
I was at the 50k point. Still a ways to go but certainly less daunting now that the remaining mileage was in the range of a typical long run.
It took forever to get from Cardiac to Old Inn. The stairs on Lost Trail took their toll on me. My climbing legs were gone. The stitch in my abdomen was really starting to bother me. It wasn’t painful, just annoying and uncomfortable. I had no idea what was going on but it was hindering my ability to move. I had slowed down considerably and I became concerned about missing the cut off at Old Inn. I was essentially on pace at Stinson and now I was bleeding precious minutes all over the trail. There was a lot of “oh, yeah, I still have to do that section” going on as I tracked in my head where I was and where I needed to go. It was if someone kept moving the aid station farther and farther away from me. It was mentally the longest and most arduous section of the race. I came into Old Inn feeling utterly defeated.
I saw Melissa attending to another runner. I went through the motions of preparing to head out but I knew I needed help. I just didn’t know how, what or why. She took one look at me.
I put my head in my hands. I was 36 miles in, tired, cranky and stuck in the middle of a rough patch. She checked me out. Nothing hurt really.
“How am I doing for time?” I asked.
“You can sit here a little bit longer but you really need to get up and keep battling. Get to Muir Beach. You’ll be in single digits then. You can totally make it.”
I knew once I left Old Inn that I had a short, painful hill called Dynamite that I’d have to climb then it was a 3 mile flat section on Redwood Creek back to Muir Beach. With one of Melissa’s cookies in hand and a last sip of Coke I got up and left.
When I got onto Redwood Creek I was able to pull it back together again. I discovered that when I could relax and stay calm the stitch would go away. With that gone I was able to get into a rhythm and run. To my surprise I still seemed to have legs that could run on the flat. It felt great and in some ways even felt easy. I made good time back to Muir Beach and kept motoring until I hit the base of what I call the “Hills of Hell”. I seem to have gotten through my low point and was back on track. I knew I had two more climbs left and as Melissa pointed out, I was in the single digits. I wasn’t going to get anything more out of my legs going uphill than a power hike so that’s what I did, moving with a purpose. The death march I had spiraled into between Cardiac and Old Inn seemed to be behind me.
Rebecca and Melissa
It was about an hour away from sunset and starting to get colder. I was looking forward to putting the warm layers back on that I had left at Tennessee Valley earlier in the day. I got passed by the same people again on the “Hills of Hell” but I flew down Miwok and got into Tennessee Valley ahead of them. I had six more miles left. I knew I’d see them again passing me on the last climb before the finish.
I saw Rebecca get out of a car to greet me as I entered the parking lot. That was a total surprise to see her again. She made sure I crossed the timing mat before I started wandering around looking for my drop bag. It was great to see a familiar face so late in the day. That’s the thing with being at the back of the pack, usually everyone’s long gone by the time you come rolling through. I quickly put on my warm gear, my headlamp and pocketed some spare batteries. I was feeling pretty good relatively speaking and ready to tackle the final climb. I got one last hug from Rebecca and headed out.
And as I expected the people I passed on the Miwok descent caught back up and passed me on Marincello. Could I catch them one final time? I didn’t know but I would have to wait until I got to Alta to find out. As I hiked up Marincello I couldn’t help but think of the same time at last year’s race when Jen appeared out of nowhere to pace me to the finish. I knew that wasn’t going to happen again but it still caught me by surprise to see a woman calling my name heading toward me. It was Melissa.
“I’m going to make it!” I said to her, “I’m feeling so much better than when you saw me at Old Inn.”
We exchanged a joyful hug.
“I’ll see you at the finish line.” She headed back down to Tennessee Valley and I continued up Marincello.
I try not to count things down when I get near the end of a race. Or at least not dwell on them too much. The last climb, the final miles, the last aid station. It just seems to prolong the end but I suppose it’s human nature. Dusk at Tennessee Valley had turned into night by the time I got to Alta. I called out my number to the volunteer.
“Is that Laura?” asked the disembodied voice from the dark.
“Yes, who is that?”
“It’s Angela!” Another friend to help with the final push to the finish. I hadn’t seen her since the New York Marathon when we bumped into each other waiting for a shuttle bus to the start line.
“You have only 2.8 magical miles left.” I took a deep breath and headed down Rodeo Valley chasing the people who passed me. This was my tiny, insignificant race within a race but I wanted to finish it properly for myself.
To my complete surprise I passed them one by one. I thought they were long gone. I knew the turn off to the road was still a ways off or at least it feels like it when you keep looking for it. I kept running as hard as I could. I didn’t want to get reeled in from behind. I finally got to the turn off and am on the road heading toward the waving red lights of two course marshals beckoning me to them.
“Is this where I go?” I couldn’t really tell where the turn was.
“Is that Laura?” Again?
“Yes, who is that?” It’s pitch black and everybody is a human shaped blob with a headlamp at this point.
“It’s Jen.” What? She was here!
“I’m just trying to see how short a distance I can pace you. Next year it will be a hundred yards.”
This woman is awesome in more ways than I can possibly describe. She was supposed to have run the race but opted not to at the last minute. A heartbreaking choice but one that was the wisest decision to make. So instead, here she was, volunteering. It was great to have Jen there no matter what form it took. It just doesn’t feel right when she’s not.
We ran up the road toward the finish. One last tiny hill to climb. I looked behind me for headlamps but didn’t see any. I could see a person ahead of us but I didn’t think I could pass them. The road had flattened out and I could see the finish area.
“I’ll see you again when you cross.” With that Jen split off from me.
The woman ahead of me was now much closer. Close enough to pass. I actually felt bad doing so when the finish line was just around the corner but I would have had to force myself to slow down otherwise.
“Good job,” I said as I moved passed her. The only thing left to do was not trip on the grassy slope to the finish line.
Crossing the finish line is generally considered a good thing. It’s never a given, especially in an ultra. When the person giving you your finisher’s medal is Monica in a tutu it’s even better.
There was crowd of familiar faces and friends gathered around one of the fires as we waited for others to finish. Jen and I were on the lookout for Alina. Time was ticking and as each set of headlamps coming through wasn’t her I started to get worried. We’d gotten word that she’d passed through Alta so it was just a matter of time. Then there she was. We’d all made it.
“I’m such a pussy.” I think Alina was referring to her finishing time. I hope the collective uproar and “you’ve got to be kidding me” reaction she got from anyone within earshot of that comment set her straight on that count.
Alina’s car was half a mile down the road. Jen’s was in the volunteer lot and I had no idea where that was. I don’t think the shuttles were running anymore. Alvin, who had also run the 50 miler and finished ages before I did, offered to give us a ride to where ever we needed to go.
I watched as he bounced around his car, creating space in the back for us to sit and hauling his gear and ours into a roof top carrier. He was an energetic bundle of happiness who saved us from a tedious trudge to our cars.
“How can you move like that after running 50 miles?” I asked in stunned amazement. I could barely walk.
“You’ve just got to learn to relax.”
Okay, if Alvin says to relax, I need to learn how to relax.
This is a race report of sorts in that it’s about me in a race I did. It’s also not about me at all. None of these people were out there on that cold Saturday specifically for me. I’m not that special. I just happened to be on the receiving end of their generosity. Or perhaps it was for the “me” that represents every runner who was on the course that day who was given support and an encouraging word. How do I do this? I still don’t know but having people like this around me sure helps.