Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Sometimes it does get easier as you go

The night before the Golden Gate 50K, Beat came down with a fever. He was bummed because he had to miss out on the long run, and I was disappointed because these local trail races are more fun with him — even if we don't run together, there's still all the enjoyment of post-race afterglow, eating burned lentil soup and watermelon, sharing trail stories with other runners, and indulging in creaky laziness for the rest of the evening. Ah, post-50K veg-out. Is there anything better? 

Still, as usual, I didn't want to miss out on the pre-post-race fun. As I drove toward San Francisco in the morning darkness, a dam in the sky burst and torrents of rain followed. Even with wipers at full velocity, the view through windshield was a violent blur. Wind rattled the car and the city streets were eerily empty, even for a Sunday morning. I picked up Steve at a deserted bus stop. We crossed the bridge into Marin while discussing our parking and bib-pickup strategy to avoid standing forlornly in the deluge. 

This course looping around Golden Gate Recreation Area was my first-ever ultramarathon, in December 2010. The first two miles from Rodeo Beach follow a segment of the Coastal Trail that I haven't visited since, and jogging up a muddy stream with other hooded runners made me feel warm with nostalgia. "Aww, there's the old bunkers. Aww, I remember this view. Aww, I wasn't even a runner back then. Ha, I had no idea what I was in for."

We climbed Wolf Ridge into a wind tunnel, watching breakers explode out of the sea hundreds of feet below. Despite warm Rodeo Beach nostalgia, I was not feeling well, with a hollow pit in my stomach and wobbly legs. I considered whether I was developing Beat's fever, and ate some fruit snacks. Nothing seemed to boost my flagging energy. Oh well, it's going to be one of those days. I now know this feeling all too well; December 2010 was a long time ago.

(Waterlogged photos. You know that thing where your camera lens gets wet, and all of your clothing is too wet to do anything about it?) Heading out of Tennessee Valley, I started chatting with folks and followed a group of about eight runners in the wrong direction along the Pirate's Cove loop. I even wavered at the trail intersection for several seconds, analyzing course markings, arguing with a guy about it, and still deciding his inclination was the right one. (I'm terrible at reading color-coded ribbons. Give me a GPS track or even a map, and I will make better decisions than I do on ribbon-marked courses that I perhaps have even run several times.) I realized the mistake out about a mile and a half down the trail when fast runners started coming the other way, but figured since we were still running all of the same 5.6 miles of trail — only in reverse — and since we weren't in contention to win the race, it wasn't a big deal.

However, two of the women I was with became quite upset about it, and I spent most of those miles explaining why I thought our direction was the more difficult direction anyway, describing the trail ahead, and conceding the embarrassing admission that even though I studied the course map minutes before the race started, and knew these Marin Headlands trails well, I still went the wrong way. Whatever steam any of us had for the first five miles of the race sputtered out altogether in this section. We just hiked through the tepid deluge and assured other runners that we were wrong and they were right. Only after we returned to the aid station and started on the return loop — in the right direction — did it come up in conversation that the women I was running with were from Canada.

"Oh, you're Leslie's friend!" I exclaimed to Iris. "I thought you looked familiar!" Leslie is a mutual friend in Banff, and Iris and I actually spent much of last spring's Woodside Ramble 50K running together. Iris travels down from Canada once or twice a year for a warm-weather double-header, and had run a 50K in Auburn the day prior. Funny that it took us more than an hour to realize we already knew each other. We continued up Marincello Trail at a conversational pace.

Once we had cleared the crowds, I also pulled out my trekking poles, which I brought to contend with muddy descents. I love trekking poles. You know how, when you're running, there's always that lingering sensation that you're about to tip over? No? Is it just me? Well, trekking poles are my secret weapon against perceived imbalance. With stabilizers in each hand, I get a confidence boost that actually does a lot to improve my performance. I would probably use them for most of my long runs. However, I do wish I possessed better running skills, skills that don't require crutches ... and I do feel self-consciouses about the general consensus among American trail runners that once you pull out the walking sticks, you are a hiker, get out of the way slow-poke. (Note: I am a proud hiker.) For these conditions, poles seemed like a particularly good idea.

I reached the 30K point at Rodeo Beach with 4:05 on the clock. The wind was still blowing at gale force, but the rain had diminished to sprinkles and there were even hints of blue sky and sunlight to the south. Even though I had still only eaten a few Shot Bloks here and there, I was starting to feel more energetic and found new resolve. Golden Gate wasn't the easiest 50K race, with its 6,700 feet of steep climbs, muddy trails, and show-stopping wind — but I really should try to pull it off in under seven hours.

Plunging poles into mud, I propelled myself back up Wolf Ridge and down into Tennessee Valley. The aid station had since blown away, so volunteers set up a small feed station in the hatchback of one of their cars. Climbing up Marincello, I caught up to Steve, who had rolled his ankle and was limping slightly. I offered him my trekking poles but he turned them down. Although I would have gladly given them up, to be honest, I would have missed them. At this point I was feeling fresh and energetic, and credited the poles. They completed me. I powered up the trail, picking off runners one by one.

Views of the city opened up across the San Francisco Bay. I surged down the rocky trail, running an 8:xx-minute-mile pace while plunging my crutches into the mud. One of the runners I passed caught back up to me at the last aid station while I was nibbling on Shot Bloks. "That was something!" he exclaimed. "You looked like you were skiing!"

I passed about a dozen runners in the final eight miles, and most said something about my trekking poles. Contouring the ridge above Bonita Cove, the curving trail occasionally veered into wind gusts so strong that they'd stop me in my tracks, braced against a wall of air. I always had to realign myself before I could move forward again, gasping to draw oxygen into my lungs. The wind wasn't going to give an inch of respite, but it was gratifying to feel so great at the end of a long run — especially when I felt so lousy for 18 miles. Many people would give up on a bad run long before that point. I might have as well had I not committed to the 50K. You think, "I'm tired and I'm only going to become more tired if I keep running." But sometimes ... you don't. Sometimes, it really does continue to get easier as you go.

I held up my poles for the final two miles on pavement and did my best sprint to the finish, arriving in 6:33. This means I wrapped up the last difficult 20K in under two and a half hours. For doubting whether I'd even finish under seven hours at the 30K point, it felt like a decent comeback.

It's a good reminder, too, about the rewards of pushing through obstructions. Great experiences await on the other side of the wall.


  1. I love that feeling! A few years ago, I ran a 50K the week after a marathon and thought I'd be totally wrecked, but that fatigue I had at the beginning never got worse and I dropped an hour from my PR time. I couldn't believe it! I'm starting to love muddy races, there's a raw beauty to it all.

  2. Some of my best finishes have been followed by really crappy starts. Sometimes its just the thing to keep you pushing too hard early on.

    Thanks for the offer of the poles, but I would have felt guilty had I taken them especially since I stared right at mine that morning and opted to leave them behind. You gotta deal with the choices you make for yourself.

    Congrats on a great race!

  3. Love these pics.

    I need me some new poles. What are these? - Mac

    1. The most popular pole among trail runners — Black Diamond Ultradistance carbon Z-poles.


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