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'
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 startPacing 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
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.
A big thanks to Coach Ken (runningstupid.net) 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 ;-)