Wednesday, 18 November 2009


Disco stu is back from his running tour of the west coast and by jeeves what a Tour!! The destination (to recap) was the Muir Beach 50km trail run in the Marin Headlands. Just a stones throw away from San Francisco.

Coach Ken and Disco Stu at the start of Muir Beach

From the moment my plane approached San Francisco airport and I could see the Marin headlands looming large in the background I instantly knew this would be something special. The course promised over 7,000 ft of elevation gain, which is not something you find on the grand union canal. To be honest I had no real concept what this type of elevation gain meant in reality, but I would soon find out!!

The day before the race one would normally rest and stay off your feet so as to conserve maximum energy for what was to come, but I was in San Francisco and wasn't going to waste a second resting. To lighten the load I hired a bike which would at least save my feet from the pounding they would take from a day’s sight -seeing. My leisurely bike ride turned into an epic 18 miler starting at Fisherman’s Wharf on the North Easterly tip of San Francisco, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and finishing in Tiburon on the opposite side of the Bay.

Golden Gate Bridge with Marin Headlands behind

From Tiburon I caught a ferry back across the Bay to Fisherman’s Wharf. Quite a ride and the perfect warm up for tomorrow.

I woke early on race day to find a place to eat for breakfast to get my fill of carbs and fat which would hopefully see me through the day. I found a classic looking American diner just down the road from my hotel (the type you see in every American movie). After much hesitation about what to eat I opted for the ‘Elvis Scrambled’, which won over the oatmeal. It was hardly a contest to be fair. All washed down with 3 cups of coffee and an OJ. I was done... yum yum.

Mel's diner and the 'Elvis scrambled'

Coach Ken and Mrs Coach Ken (Karen) picked me up from my hotel at 7am and we headed north across the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Marin headlands. Despite the previous 2 days of unbroken sunshine it appeared that things had turned as the famous fog loomed large over the city covering much of the Bay and the headlands.

The race would attract around 400 runners competing across 4 different distances; 11km, 17km, 33km, and 50km. 56 runners started the 50km which consisted of two loops (the 33km and 17km) to make up the distance. This of course meant that you were running with others who were going a much shorter distance. Get caught up in their battles and you may pay dearly later on.

Ok so on with the race... Whilst I was telling myself that I would take it easy at the start, quite frankly I always say that and it never happens. The race started with little fanfare and we immediately started up the first ascent.

Straight UP from the very start

I fell into a comfortable pace quickly which edged me slowly through the field, and I found myself running with many others doing the 33km (not the 50km!).

long line of runners stretching back along coastal near the start

Pacing this race would be completely dictated by the terrain, so it was a case of go easy on the ups, and bomb down the descents in a controlled free-wheeling motion with minimal breaking. This served two purposes; making up time lost from the ascents and minimising stress on the feet and knees caused by unnecessary breaking, and it worked well. I was keeping an average pace of 10 minute miles in the first half of the race, which was intentionally slowed at opportune moments to take a few photos of the stunning surroundings. The Marin headlands are truly breathtaking and I felt lucky to be running in such a race. At many points throughout the course you would be greeted with wonderful panoramic views of both the San Francisco Bay pictured here, city skyline and the pure blue Pacific Ocean which stretched for as far as the eye could see.

San Francisco Bay

Pacific Ocean from hill 88

Such drama made the miles fly by with little thought to how far or how fast I was going.

The aid stations on the course were like nothing I have ever seen before. In my first 30m ultra in England the choice was orange squash, and a custard cream (perhaps even a jelly baby if you were really lucky!). They do it differently over here with the aid stations more resembling Zack’s 10th birthday party with treats galore! Here they had on offer, cola, energy drinks, energy bars, jelly, pretzels, potatoes dipped in salt, bananas, jelly babies, sweets, and pumpkin pie! Honestly, I’m surprised American runners can even move on the trails with all that lot to scoff! As hard as it was I resisted all these delights on the first loop as I flew through each aid station not even stopping in case the temptation was too great.

Back out on course the miles continued to stack up and before long I was nearing the end of the first loop, but not before reaching ‘Fox’ which was a long steep and arduous ascent with many false summits. Once at the top though there was a fast 1 mile decent down ‘Coastal’ which returned to the start/finish area and the end of the first loop. 33km in the bag and time to get my camelback refilled for the second loop. I also grabbed a cap and sun glasses which provided a welcome relief from the sun strong rays.

Of course straight away I had to turn around and go back UP Coastal, and this is where it started to get difficult for the first time in the race. I was 21 miles into the race and so this was classic ‘hitting the wall’ territory but the views continued to impress.

The long climbs up Coastal and ‘Pirates Cove’ didn’t help matters and even the downhill sections were now starting to feel more difficult as my legs got a pounding from the harder fireroad surfaces. However I knew that this was just my body (actually my brain) trying to get me to stop and/or walk. I continued to push abet at a slower pace than the first loop as my average pace dropped. Miles 21-25 were without doubt the toughest miles I’ve experienced in any race to date. But I was half expecting this given the tough terrain so it didn’t come as a complete surprise. I thought that if I could just get through these tough miles then I would find a second wind.

At the bottom of Marincello fireroad I hit an aid station and this was perfect timing as this time I was ready to refuel. The pumpkin pie was especially good! They also stocked plenty of ice which I put under my cap to keep me cool. That helped a lot and pushed me onwards towards the summit at the top of ‘Bobcat’ (the highest point on the course at 1,029ft). What helped my cause further towards the summit is that I now found myself being chased by another runner. So with this new impetus I found new life in my legs.

Once I finally reached the top of Bobcat I was rewarded with a wonderful 2 mile descent down ‘Miwok’ and ‘Old Springs’ where I was once again able to let the break off and free wheel down the mountain side to the bottom and onto the Tennessee Valley Road. This put some distance between myself and the runner behind and I didn’t see them again. From here the finish was getting close but first I would have to tackle the ‘Fox’ for the second time. This time though I had a better idea of what to expect so I mixed it up and used a run/walk strategy to push myself up the mountain side. Before long I had reached the summit as pictured here.

I made it! Up at the top of the 'Fox'

I thoroughly enjoyed the final descent down Coastal Road to the finish line running the final mile in 6:46. I crossing the finish line in 5 hours 41 minutes coming in 11th place. Not bad for an Englishman running his first ultra abroad on some crazy terrain.

Coach Ken, Jim Vernon, Greg and Edie (all from the Endurables), and Disco Stu

A big thanks to Coach Ken ( and Mrs Coach Ken for their hospitality during my stay! I will be back for certain to run again!! Perhaps the Headlands Hundred!

What next? Well training now begins in earnest for the Devon 100 on April 24th. This race has provided a great base upon which to build, and has given me added confidence that I might not only complete my first 100m race, but even enjoy it in the process! Yeah right ;-)

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Muir Beach route fly over

Want to see what I have let myself in for next weekend...? Then check out this amazing route fly over of the Muir Beach trail run done by the Run Scout. This shows the 33km course. The 50km is made up of this course plus, another half run again! 33km looks challenging enough!! gulp...

Chiltern League XC race report

Well this was certainly different to my last few races I've competed in... namely that it was the shortest off road race I've ever done! I was representing my running club Leighton Buzzard Athletics Club in this 9km Chiltern League cross country race alongside 15 or so other LBAC runners.

The course was a 3km loop which you did 3 times to make up the 9km distance. The only plan in my mind was to run my own race and not get to carried away at the start and run way faster than I could sustain (i've learnt well from my coach the 'Mad Dog'). After a 15 minute delay to the mens race we were off. As expected the front pack stormed off with me fighting for space behind, as elbows flew around to get position. I quickly settled as I watched the leading pack disappear through the trees (probably running about 5:30 min/mile pace) something I'm definitely not capable of over such a distance. 6:30 m/m was my target average pace for this race and I was going to do everything I could to sustain it to the finish line, and perhaps even duck under 35 minutes. Of course nothing was certain.

In the first lap after the pack had settled I was passed by a few runners but nothing that worried me too much. I told myself that I would be seeing them again if I could stick to the plan and keep something back for later when others would undoubtedly tire. And so it was that the miles flew by, and I stuck to my race plan, as the miles ticked my... My splits for the first 5 miles were 6:30, 6:27, 6:31, 6:24, 6:31. Mad Dog would be proud of that! In the second lap I started to pass other runners as I had predicted. This always feels good and gives you the motivation to keeping going and pick off the next person. The last lap was going to be tough as I hung onto my avg 6:30 pace, and continued to pick off other runners one by one. My breathing was hard and fast but I controlled it and kept in rhythm and my stride long so as not to slow down.

And soon enough I was nearing the finish line and gave it one last push in the final 400m to past a few more ahead of me and surge across the line. Looking down at my watch amazingly I managed to finish 3 seconds within my 35minute target time! My average pace was 6:26, over a distance of 5.44m. I was well happy with that!

I've just checked the Chiltern League website and the results are also in! Cross Country running is not so much about the individual, as it is about representing your running club and doing your very best for the team. And Leighton Buzzard Athletics Club came 1st in our Division!!! what a result!! well done LBAC!

My individual finising position was 31st pace out of 115 in Division 2 category, and 137th place out of 317 finishers overall. Not bad for a long distance runner ;-)