In the spring of 2014, I decided to take up running again as a way to get back in shape. I say “again,” as I had been a road runner in the years after college when living in NYC and DC, and I had regularly competed in races from 5k to 10 miles. Upon moving to San Francisco in 2000, I gave up running for skiing and mountain biking. After my wife and I had our first kid in ‘05, I had considerably less time for those pursuits and for keeping in shape. (This may sound familiar to you if you are a parent.) Fast forward to 2014 and I was a good 30 lbs overweight, so I started running in Golden Gate Park. That summer I spent a lot of time running on the trails in and around Tahoe Donner, and I found that I greatly preferred running on dirt over asphalt, as well as the beauty and serenity of mountain running.
I ran my first trail race, the Big Blue 5k in Incline Village, in August, which re-kindled my interest in racing. After running the Save Mt Diablo Trail Adventure 5k in October, I decided that I was ready to step up to the 10k distance at The North Face Endurance Challenge in December. I trained frequently in the Marin Headlands that fall, which served to further stoke my interest in trail running.
As you may know, in previous years TNF finishers had the option of having the distance of their event screen printed on their race shirts. I picked up my shirt after the event and stuffed it in my bag. It was only after I got home that I realized I mistakenly received one that had “13.1 miles” instead of “10k” printed on it. I took that as a sign that in 2015 I should run the half marathon distance at TNF. I thought that was a good challenge considering the farthest I had ever run was 10 miles, and I started 2015 with that goal in mind. A funny thing happened along the way however; I joined Donner Party Mountain Runners.
I was looking for a Truckee-area trail running club online last February and happened upon the DPMR site. I was impressed by the exploits of the members that were described in great detail online. This was clearly a group of runners who enjoyed being outdoors as much, if not much more, than I did. However, it also struck me as an assembly of people who all seemed to run what I considered absurdly long and pain-inducing distances (50k? 50 miles? 100 miles? What right minded person even thinks about doing that?) that I had no interest in nor aptitude for tackling.
I emailed firstname.lastname@example.org seeking 411 about the club. “I’m interested in joining but want to know if you have non-ultra distance athletes as members. I run a lot of trail 10Ks and and hoping to complete my first trail half-marathon by year end. Clearly I’m not an ultra distance runner, but I do love trail running and am wondering if you have group runs for runners of my ability and interest level and members who are of the same general profile as me.”
A fellow named Peter Fain replied and, to the best of my recollection, his response was that more of the club’s members tended to be ultra runners, and that DPMR puts a lot of energy there because most of the board members are as well. Well, I thought to myself, this is likely a stretch for me but at least I know what I’m getting myself into and I know going in that I’ll be one of the few members who are not running crazyass distances. (Nota bene, I exhumed Peter’s email when composing this report and see that he actually said “…more of our members are not ultra runners, we just put a lot of energy there because most of the board are.”)
I had been logging a fair amount of miles in the Headlands last spring as I was stepping up my race distance from 10k to 15k. Last June I decided to test myself and signed up for the DPMR roller coaster half marathon group run in Kings Beach. I distinctly recall having a back-of-the-pack conversation with Diana Schlaff that morning about the trepidation I had felt about joining DPMR, as I was not, nor did I ever see myself becoming, an ultra runner. Nevertheless I had an absolute blast that day with her as we ran the Power Lines, got lost, and generally had a grand old time. We clocked in at around four hours, and I thought to myself that perhaps I could handle the half-marathon at TNF.
Instead of racing a half-marathon last summer, I somehow made the decision to enter the Sierra Crest 30k in early August. Seemed like a good call – after all, I had run much of the course, and how much harder could 18 miles be than 13, right? Turns out it was a helluva lot more difficult given the vertical. However, I survived and finished and began to think that maybe I could run the 50k distance at TNF.
I will pause here to note that this was the first instance of my becoming a person who aspired to run what I had, but a few short months before, considered to be a crazyass distance. I thank DPMR for this, as it was the great enjoyment that I derived from the camaraderie of the group and the inspiration and encouragement that I felt from its members that led me to think that maybe I could tackle a 50k.
Fast forward to December 6, when I found myself at the start of the 50k at Rodeo Beach on a raw and damp morning. I was feeling under trained, as I had come down with a cold about three weeks before the race that sidelined me for about a week. I was encouraged to be with fellow unafraid runners Dan Borenstein, Stan Beraznik, Lesley Dellamonica and Diana Schlaff at the start. Dan and Stan took off in one of the early waves while Lesley, Diana and I started in one of the latter. I had done a lot of training on the southern sections of the course, those nearest Tennessee Valley, and knew them well. I was feeling confident about my ability to finish although I knew that I would be challenged by the course and my ability to spend what I was anticipating to be six and a half to seven hours on my feet.
The longest distance I had run in training was 21 miles, which accounted for 4,050 vertical feet over 5 hours. I knew that another 10 miles and 2,000 feet was no small add-on, but I thought it was manageable. Diana, Leslie and I ran together at the outset and tackled the first climb up Miwok. It was a very different experience to run in a field of 500 racers as opposed to the solitary nature of my training runs. The group energy was strong and palpable as so many runners began their day on some of the finest and most storied trails Marin County has to offer.
At the top of the ridge we met up with DPMR member Kane Cullimore. The miles ticked by quickly as we descended down Old Springs and into Tennessee Valley. The climb out of Tennessee Valley up the Coastal Fire Road was long and slow going, but I was looking forward to the descent into, and climb out of, Pirates Cove, one of my favorite sections of the course, as it is steep and challenging.
After arriving at the Muir Beach aid station there was a short flat section that led to the Heather Cutoff. I had only run this section once, three weeks before during the Mt. Tam 30k, and it’s fair to describe it as being akin to running up the down escalator for four miles. It is comprised of many switchbacks that lead racers up an exposed ridge to the Coastal Trail. This suited Kane very well, and he motored up the ascent and was quickly out of sight.
The climbing continues as you head northwest towards the Cardiac aid station. The views of Stinson Beach and Bolinas are usually stunning on a clear day. A word about the weather conditions: As mentioned, it was a chilly and raw day, which isn’t all that abnormal for a December Headlands morning. Usually, the sun will break through by mid-morning, and the temperature can jump significantly. However, the fog would not burn off on this day. The temperature remained around 50 degrees, and I wasn’t able to really warm up, even after a couple hours on the course. I regretted not packing gloves and a light jacket and will certainly make sure they are among my mandatory carry items for future fall races.
After summiting Cardiac and getting a quick bite at the aid station, Lesley and I headed down the Ben Johnson trail with new energy. Unfortunately, I did not top off my bladder, and I soon ran out of water.
This section is just plain fun, as it is fast and heavily wooded. Runners had to take care with their footing, as there were many slippery roots and bridge crossings. The trail leads down to Muir Woods and, it is a real treat to run through the redwoods of this national monument. Thankfully, it was still early in the morning, so there weren’t too many park visitors to dodge.
It was on the 640 foot climb up to Panoramic Highway that the race started to become work for me. I was now running alone and, while feeling relatively good, also acknowledged for the first time that I still had a long way to go and that it would be no walk in the park. For the first and only time during the race I broke a hard sweat during the climb.
At one point, I passed a group of hikers and was asked “Hey, are you guys doing a triathalon?” to which I replied, “No we’re not doing anything crazy like that. We’re just running 50k.” This was a sure sign that I had crossed over to being one of those people who don’t see 50k as a crazyass distance.
By the time I reached the Muir Woods aid station I was physically tapped. I had started cramping at mile 17, which was new for me as I had previously gone 20+ miles in training with no such issue. It was while refueling and taking a moment to collect myself that I saw and heard about the physical toll that the race was taking on some participants. A woman came flying down the hill into the AS, lost her footing, and wiped out on the ground. The asphalt took a good amount of skin off her knee and shin but luckily for her she was only feet from the two EMTs staffing the aid station. A runner recounted seeing a woman take a nasty face plant on the course that resulted in her spitting out a mouthful of blood and teeth. (Turns out it was Caroline Boller, who DNFed.) I set out for the next aid station sobered by what I had just seen and heard, and adjusted my race goals to include finishing with all my teeth intact.
The course then challenges runners with a short but tough climb up the Dipsea trail. I fell in behind two runners, one of whom said, “OK, time to go fast,” to which I said to myself, “I thought I was going fast.”
After crossing Muir Woods Road, runners have a relatively long and flat section along Rodeo Creek leading back to Muir Beach. It was on this part of the course that I slowed considerably and walked at times due to quad cramps and general fatigue. I wondered how Lesley was doing when she appeared from behind me, moving at a brisk pace. She asked how I was feeling, and I told her that I was battling cramps and feeling spent. She was upbeat and encouraging and provided me with a much needed, if momentary, boost. I tried to keep pace with Lesley but soon gave out, and she disappeared down the trail.
I continued along and arrived at the Muir Beach aid station knowing that only two climbs remained. The marathoners were coming in from the other direction, so there was good energy at the AS, and we all shared many high fives.
The climb out of Muir Beach on the Coastal Trail was one that I had made with ease many times, but it certainly seemed longer and more difficult on this day. The trail was now crowded with runners competing at the 50 mile, 50k, and marathon distances. Some of the 50 milers still looked fresh at mile 40, while there were those marathoners who, despite being early in their races, were clearly struggling.
I saw Lesley about 5 minutes ahead of me. She was easy to pick out in her yellow DPMR shirt and blue arm warmers. It was on this climb that the sun partially broke through for a few minutes, which was most welcome. As I summited the climb and started down the Fox Trail to Tennessee Valley, I knew that only the Marincello climb remained.
I made a mental note of the moment when my Garmin indicated that I had run 26.2 miles and I thought to myself “I just ran a marathon for the first time.” Energized by the thought, I started picking off runners one by one, but I was still experiencing cramping in my quads and the downhills were not helping.
I passed a 50 miler wearing a SFRC racing team singlet. He was clearly in pain, and by the look on his face, his day hadn’t turned out as he had intended. I recall thinking, “I’m damn sure glad that I’m not attempting to run 50 miles today. THAT would be crazy.”
Upon reaching the TV aid station, I grabbed a few chips and paused for a moment to consider that the upcoming hill was the last big one. The remainder of the course would be a few rollers and then the final downhill. I thought to myself “I’ve been on this hill more times than I can remember and, while it’s tough, it’s runnable, so let’s get after it.”
I was fired up! I was in the home stretch!
I walked the hill.
I just didn’t have it in me to run it. I will say that I race-walked it, and I passed more people than passed me, but my legs were almost done. Upon summiting and getting a view of Rodeo Valley and the ocean, I found new life. I managed to run at a decent pace along Bobcat Trail to Alta and then down the final descent on Rodeo Valley Trail.
The last 200 yards to the finish had a host of people cheering and many of the runners who had finished were backtracking to find friends and teammates. I crossed the line with all my teeth in tact at 6:57:13, which was good for 293rd place overall and 22nd in my age group.
As I look back on the event, there were many lessons learned and a few things I’d do differently. None of them are particularly insightful, so instead of listing them, I’ll just say that if life gives you a challenge in the form of a race shirt printed with the wrong distance, you should embrace it. It might lead you to run longer than you have to-date or to take on a formerly crazyass distance that’s a lot farther.
But you probably already know that, as you are UNAFRAID.