There was a split second upon waking at 3:00 AM Saturday morning when the fleeting notion flashed through my thoughts that I might not be able to race today…
But having trained so hard this past year, not to mention the amount of vitamin C and precautionary herbs and medicine I took last week to not get sick (everyone around me had something) my ego wouldn’t let me stay in bed.
After all, the very idea of endurance sports is having to overcome more than a few obstacles; so waking up with a little tickle in the back of my throat and an encroaching sinus headache (as I now write this I’m fully sick with a gnarly cold, also sore as all hell from the waist down) and with an impending two week hiatus from training (read: I’m still running, but with no focused or scheduled workouts like tempo runs or hills, etc.) I figured I’d go for it, maybe blow up in fantastic fashion, whatever.
Only a fractured bone or torn ligament could keep me from running, and it would have to be somewhere in the lower half of my body (I’d probably still try to give it a go with a broken scapula).
First off, in terms of race organization, The North Face’s staff at the check-in tent was top notch; they got my drop bags tagged and stashed, got me all ready to go inside of 3 minutes. I located a Porta-Potty (there were about 50 lined up only 25 yards from the Start/Finish line, that’s awesome), took care of some business and made it to my start wave just in time (I missed the Elite Wave 1 and Wave 2 starts). But when nature calls it’s best to answer.
I felt really good early on, in fact; I felt great until about mile 20 or so- right on that damn exposed single-track out-and-back section between Pantoll & McKinnon Gulch aid station. The constant starting and stopping (we were instructed to yield to the runners coming back from the aid station) plus the insane headwind made me absolutely miserable. Adding into the equation both the icy patches all over this section of trail AND that damn hip pain that seems to show up later in races for me (usually around mile 25-27) and I was now re-evaluating my goal of a sub-9 hour finish.
It was really cool to see some of the elite field at this point- I missed that first lead pack of fast dudes: Rob Krar, Cameron Clayton, Chris Vargo, Jorge Maravilla, Max King, Adam Campbell, Dylan Bowman, Rickey Gates, Dave Mackey, et. al. but started seeing a few familiar faces like Emelie Forsberg, Joelle Vaught, Anna Frost and Rory Bosio (who I found out dropped from the race at some point). I also missed the first pack of elite women: Michelle Yates, Megan Kimmel and Cassie Scallon.
I also saw Dakota Jones about 3 minutes out from the aid station, looking pretty haggard. Here was the guy I thought was going to win it all having a really tough day (I learned later he had the flu but still toughed it out, finishing in 9:40). I’ve heard some of the top runners say that the true heroes of the race are the folks out there for 13 or 14 hours, finishing towards the back, trying to stay ahead of the cut-offs; that takes some serious guts to stick it out like that. Dakota, who’s used to finishing in the top 10 of almost every race he enters, had a performance that was truly inspiring.
My attitude was probably going south at this point in the race because I was getting low on calories so I loaded up on salty potatoes at the aid’s buffet table and was able to catch up to the 4 or 5 runners (on that next big downhill to Stinson Beach) that passed me as I lingered at McKinnon Gulch. Then I picked up my pacer, Jimmy, who was in high spirits and attempted to lift mine.
That climb up to Cardiac AS was probably the worst I felt all race. That was unbelievable. As I hit the aid station (and my drop bag) I was able to get some substantial calories in me in the form of Vitargo as well as shed my jacket. The drop into Muir Woods was pretty uneventful, I picked up some steam as we descended but didn’t truly feel better until the climb out of the canyon on Lost Trail. For some reason that long uphill of power hiking got me back in the game and I was able to run really well (with a lot of complaining) until the Old Inn AS at mile 36.
Then that little climb up from the creek that runs behind the Muir Woods parking lot tore me up. I rolled my ankle on the descent (minor roll, mind you) and was able to somewhat hammer it down to Redwood Creek. That flat section was welcomed, but the best I could manage at this point was a shuffle somewhere between 10 and 11 minute mile pace.
Muir Beach AS came and went, ate some Shot Bloks and some potato chips there, got some electrolytes and began the climb up Coastal Trail and then Coyote Ridge. I was able to do that “run a minute, walk two minutes” thing all the way up that climb until Miwok, where it became at first a mellow, then a steep downhill all the way to Tennessee Valley AS.
This was the second worst I felt all race- I had this sharp stabbing pain right behind the ball of my left foot that hurt with every stride. Never had that happen before, but that reduced me to that 10-minute shuffle. We happened upon some overly chatty guy with IT band issues that was all, “mind if I death march with you until the aid station?” No dice, bruh- If I can walk I can run, and you just gave me the motivation to run the F away from you.
Tennessee Valley, mile 44; more quality calories waiting for me in my drop bag, a couple little cups of Mountain Dew (caffeine has a nice effect this late in the race) and some salty potatoes and we were off. I was able to get a nice run going up the Marincello Trail, which for the uninitiated is a long, mellow uphill. Switching from quads to calves right now was the best thing ever. We walked a minute with some marathon runners, they were pretty funny. On to Bobcat Trail, then Alta- I was running again. Oh, it hurt like hell, but I was moving well once again.
On to the Alta AS, mile 46.9- I could smell the finish. Two more cups of Mountain Dew, then a long downhill on the Rodeo Valley Trail and it’s all over. I looked over at Jimmy and said, “let’s go catch that guy in the yellow” and after we passed him like he was standing still, we went into “hunt” mode. This is when I try to pick up as much carnage as I can on the way to the finish, I imagine myself as a tidal wave destroying everything in its path.
We were moving at about 7-min pace, passing about 10, 15, maybe 20 runners right here- I couldn’t tell if they were 50-milers, 50k or marathon runners, but I smelled blood and it was on. I looked over at Jimmy, stifling tears from the immense pain I was in and with as much as I could muster asked his permission to put my headphones on. Music would kill the pain.
Once we got to the bottom and hit the road crossing I looked back and saw a runner with an orange bib, denoting he was a 50-miler. Oh, hell no I thought. I turned it on again up that little paved section. It’s less than a mile now and if I can just hold this meager 8:45 pace then this guy isn’t gonna get me.
Once we were in the clear, I gave Jimmy a high five (or a fist bump? I was dazed, yo) and crossed the finish line to a smattering of cheers. As a medal was placed around my neck, I looked around and saw all the people eating, drinking, laughing. Most had medals around their necks, too.
9:41:22 / 101st place (81st men, 19th men’s 35-39) / 11:38 per mile
All in all, it was a really great race, having to overcome the cold, wind and ice. I made some mistakes with nutrition, probably could’ve wore tights, an extra pair of gloves would’ve been nice, etc. but in these type of long trail races the ability to endure is what it’s all about.
And to be reminded once again that what’s going on outside has little to no bearing on what’s going on inside.