Monday, December 10, 2012

California Streamin'

Last weekend I found myself in San Francisco. Some time earlier in the year I'd signed up for The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile race that was held on December 1st. As someone who likes to share life's more ludicrous moments, I'd brought a couple of friends. Alex, who was also running the race, is a serious runner and casual drinker. Amber, however, is a casual runner and a serious drinker. I thought the two might balance things out.

We arrived in town on the Thursday, two days before the race to allow ourselves ample time to relax and soak up the atmosphere. I was feeling slightly guilty that I'd brought Alex along on this adventure, as one of the main reasons she'd signed up for the race was because of a video I'd shown her of last year's event. Entranced by the beautiful scenery (by which I mean ultrarunning dreamboat Dakota Jones), she'd decided to make this her debut at the 50-mile distance. Earlier, she'd told me that normally when tapering for a race she gives up, amongst other things, caffeine, alcohol and gluten. So as we tucked into our lunchtime sandwiches, accompanied with beer/cider and a side of more bread, it was becoming rapidly clear that things were going to be a little... different this time around. After lunch, we took a stroll to the waterfront to catch a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands that lay beyond - this is where the race was to take place.

Slightly unnerved by the ominous look of the landscape, we made a stop at Safeway on our way back to the hotel to pick up a 12-pack of Blue Moon. A beer will help calm my nerves, I thought. And it did.

Through the magic of social media, I'd heard about a fun event that evening that sounded like it might help us get in the mood. The local Sports Basement was hosting a showing of a documentary about The Dipsea Race. There was also the promise of a Q&A session with some elite female ultrarunners and the hint of free beer. I was sold. We turned up early and were delighted to find a selection of kegs being tapped as well as huge trays of pasta and bread. As I drained my pint I noticed I was starting to feel more relaxed already. Then Amber announced that she wanted help in shopping for new ski gear. I steeled myself and refilled my glass.

That mission accomplished, the film was due to start, and not knowing what we were in for, I felt it safest to top up my drink. First we were treated to a lengthy trailer for "Finding Traction", a film about Nikki Kimball's attempt to break the record for Vermont's 273-mile Long Trail. That made us feel a little inadequate about running a paltry 50 miles, but it was inspirational nonetheless. A short hiatus while technical issues were being resolved afforded an opportunity to get another beer, then the main feature started.

The documentary turned out to be hugely entertaining. The race is a handicap affair, such that an 8-year-old girl and a woman in her 70s were both serious contenders along with the local 25-year-old track star. A combination of clever editing, great action sequences and a focus on the characters involved made this a winner. I won't spoil the ending, because if you ever get a chance to watch this, you should.

As the film finished, we were feeling in pretty high spirits, but then news started filtering through that the course for the race was going to be changed. Both Alex and I had been obsessively checking the weather forecast, several times a day, for the past week. Initially, it had looked like we were going to be blessed with favourable running conditions, but as the day got closer, that changed. The Pacific coast was being battered by a series of winter storms and it looked like the possibility of strong winds and torrential rain on race day was becoming increasingly real. As a result, approximately half of the trails that the race was to have used had been closed. Rumours of reduced elevation and multiple loops were surfacing, but the details of the new course hadn't been finalized. Disquieted by this, I fetched an additional beverage, as well as one for Alex, who although not a beer drinker, felt that such exceptional circumstances demanded exceptional measures.

As we headed home through the blustery streets, it was clear that anxiety levels were still riding high, so we stopped off en route at a local restaurant. Bizarrely, here we bumped into Nicola, one of the handful of people that all three of us knew, who happened to be in town for unrelated reasons. Spooooky. We polished off some delicious garlic mushrooms, some kind of a beet-based salad and a couple of excellent bottles of wine. Somewhat more relaxed, we headed home and retired for the evening.

Unsurprisingly, breakfast the following morning was a delicate affair, and the caffeine-avoidance part of Alex's taper was abandoned as we mainlined coffee in a vain attempt to deal with our hangovers. After a brief detour downtown to pick up our races packets, Alex and I headed north over the Golden Gate bridge, stopping to pick up supplies before heading to the Marin Headlands Hostel. Only a few yards from the start line, this seemed the obvious place to stay the night before the race, which started at 5 am. This turned out to be a Good Thing, as the place was filled with other ultrarunners. They're quite easy to spot. The men: rugged, weatherbeaten types, beards highly likely. The women: really, really hot, until you see their feet. Woaah.

We also met up with Alicia at this point, our VFAC team-mate who was also having her first stab at a 50-mile race. She'd brought some excellent pie which went some way towards compensating for the decidedly average sandwiches we'd brought with us due to a chronic lack of imagination. To help relax (or perhaps to avoid the issue of crashing through alcohol withdrawal), we had a couple of glasses of wine as we perused the revised course.

The choice of wine seemed somehow appropriate.

The race had been shortened slightly to 46.8 miles and consisted of two loops. The maps seemed slightly confusing, but we assumed it'd all make sense on the day. Feeling as relaxed as possible, we, like most of the rest of the hostel, retired at around 9 pm.

Awoken by my 3 am alarm, I was struck by a couple of things. Firstly, I'd had a surprisingly solid night's sleep. Secondly, it didn't sound like the rain outside was that bad. A promising start to the day. After the predictable breakfast of oatmeal, banana and coffee, I set about smearing every square inch of my skin with Vaseline in a vague attempt to avoid any of the inevitable issues that arise from running all day in wet weather. The start of the race was looming rapidly, so we started to assemble outside in the darkness. It was raining lightly, quite breezy, but mild - perhaps 14 °C.

The race has been dubbed the de facto ultrarunning championship for North America, for a couple of related reasons. Firstly, it attracts an exceptionally strong field (see here and here). Secondly, because there's a big cash prize: $10,000 for the first placed man and woman. As a result, the 550 places available easily sell out. To deal with such a large number of runners on relatively narrow trails, runners were released in three waves. The first wave, potentially up to 100-strong, contained the elite athletes. Alicia and I were in the second wave, three minutes later. Three minutes after that was the third wave, where Alex was starting.

L-R: Alex, Alicia and me. Seriously, at what point did this seem like a good idea?

 And then we were off. I deliberately placed myself somewhere in the middle of the pack to avoid starting out too fast. The initial pace was comfortable as we trotted down the road leading to the start of the trails. I chatted for a few minutes with Joe from Alberta who'd run countless ultras before, including several in Vancouver. Pleased with how my body was feeling, I gradually eased towards the front of the wave as we started climbing the Bobcat trail. Although I'd spent hours staring at the elevation profile prior to the race, I really didn't know how the hills would feel. So I was pretty happy when I completed the first climb without resorting to hiking as we turned south to hit the first downhill.

As you can probably tell, this race started in complete darkness. Headlamps are mandatory for obvious reasons. In the initial part of the race when runners were tightly packed and progress was slow because of the climb, this wasn't that much of an issue. Yes, there were a couple of surprise puddles, but otherwise not a problem. However, as we attempted to pick up the pace on the downhill, we suddenly become more aware of the limitations of running in the dark. The trail was slippery and washed out in places, and the blowing rain hindered our headlamps' abilities to illuminate the path. I was fortunate enough to have borrowed an extremely fancy Petzl NAO from local ultrarunning legend Ellie Greenwood. I was hoping I'd be able to absorb her running pheromones from the strap to give me an edge; I'm not sure if it did, but the miniature lighthouse I had strapped to my forehead gave me a distinct advantage as I pulled away from the few other guys I was running alongside. Eventually, the trail flattened out and the surface improved. I was able to click off a couple of fairly quick kilometres before the next climb.

This proved to be a little more challenging and I had to briskly hike parts of it. I was also aware that the rain was picking up, the wind was intensifying and the course was taking a more exposed route closer to the ocean. Not for the first time that day, I questioned what the hell I was doing here. At the top of this climb, the trail branched to the left, changing from a fairly wide fire-road to narrower single track. This marked the start of the next descent and was altogether more fun. At one point, my headlamp picked out a tiny fieldmouse scampering across the trail ahead of me. I almost let out a squeal of excitement before I reminded myself to man the hell up.

Still in darkness, we trotted through the Tennesse Valley aid station, for the first of four times that day. Next we hit the Coastal Trail and started another arduous climb. By this point I could hear the roar of the ocean below but could see nothing. I was soaked through, being battered by wind and having a seriously discussion with myself about what I was doing with my life. Better keep moving. Suddenly there was a moment of confusion as the trail branched ahead, and it wasn't entirely clear which way to go. Then a pair of extremely fast runners blasted past us from the right hand fork and disappeared down the left-hand branch. It seemed that a number of people had taken a wrong turn here and were correcting this. So we set off down the left hand branch. As were gingerly picking our way down the rocky, washed out trail with only a few feet of visibility, more of the elite pack were emerging behind us, eager to make up for their mistake. This wasn't exactly relaxing. Then the trail changed to my new least-favourite terrain. Steep, slick, wooden steps going down into the darkness. Somehow I survived this without breaking my neck, and the trail veered right and started yet another climb. The only good thing I've got to say about this section is that someone got a really cool picture of me:

Photo credit: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images

Still, at least dawn was slowly starting to break, and after a couple of rolling kilometres, we started the next descent towards Muir Beach. The wide road leading down to the beach should have been an easy mile of fast downhill running, but the weather had turned the road surface into a soupy, treacherous mud-fest. I picked my way down as quickly as I could and was relieved to hit more solid ground intact. We passed through another aid station and had a flat mile or so, before looping back to make our way up the mud slide.

As I trudged slowly up the grey, gluey mess, I passed Alicia heading towards me down the hill. Looking almost glamorous in her bright orange running dress, we shouted encouraging noises at each other. Alex was a couple of minutes behind her; we high-fived and carried on. The next section was hard. The climb up the Coyote Ridge trail seemed to last a life-time and was full of false dawns where the trail flattened out... then steeply climbed up again. Also, my stomach was trying to tell me something. Perhaps eating that enormous family-sized bag of chips the night before hadn't been the wisest part of my pre-race prep. Either way, let's just say I was relieved when I finally made it back to the Tennessee Valley aid station.

One more big climb, and we merged back with the trail that we'd been on near the start of the race. At about this time I got passed by a handful of elites who I estimated were maybe an hour ahead of me based on my vague grasp of the course. We then headed back downhill again, and after a short section on the road I approached the finish line! I was... half-way. A cruel consequence of the redesigned course was that everyone had to pass a timing mat adjacent to the finish line, before being sent back out to run a second lap. I tried not to think to much about the warm, dry clothes I had in the car and set out again.

The second loop was, predictably, slower. Sections I'd run entirely in the first loop, I had to power-hike now. And although the weather seemed to be abating, the condition of the trails was deteriorating from the hundreds of pairs of shoes that had trampled them. The descent into Muir Beach was particularly ridiculous, and in a moment of hesitation, I fell into the mud, coating my left side in a thick layer of grey goop and cutting my knee with the kind of wound that looks a lot worse than it actually is. I spent more time in aid stations, remembered to eat real food, and chatted briefly with the amazing volunteers. I was passed by a few people, but I passed a few others. My pacing didn't seem to be drastically off.

The last 15 km (of a total of 75) were the toughest, and the knowledge that the last 5 km were essentially downhill and flat were what kept me going. Finally hitting the last downhill at 70 km, I started to enjoy myself. The trail was a bit of a mess, washed out, slippery, and crowded due to the 50k runners who were now on course. Still, I ran as hard and fast as I could, much to the consternation of those around me. I didn't deliberately knock anyone over into the mud. I finished the downhill, exhilarated, but spent and suddenly realised I still had 3 km to go. Oops. I shamelessly used the slower runners around me to pull me along, shouting out words of encouragement before leaving them behind and latching on to the next one.

The final kilometre was on a slightly uphill stretch of road. Not normally steep enough to be an issue, but after seven-and-a-half hours of running, it sapped the remaining strength I had. Almost delirious I started singing songs from that video to myself, and turning the final corner, the finish line crept into view down a grassy bank.

Shortly after rolling over the line (in 7:37:24), I was met by Amber and Marty, who'd just completed his first ultra, the slightly shortened 50k course. Suddenly hungry, I set a course record in devouring a plate of pasta, chicken, bread and some kind of leaves, before we noticed Alex who'd just crossed the line. Clearly emotional, she'd run a hell of a race, beating a number of the elites, despite accidentally running an extra 3 km due to the confusion caused by the new course. She'd put in the kind of gutsy, determined performance that will no doubt lead to a very accomplished ultra-running career... if that's what she chooses to pursue.

After a lengthy spell in the shower, and then the bath, we met up again that evening back in San Francisco to celebrate with wine, burgers, fries, cake and more wine. The sense of achievement was palpable, and only intensified by the conditions we'd had to endure. We knew we'd welcome the inevitable soreness we'd feel over the next few days as a reminder of what we'd had to put ourselves through to cross that finish line.

Lots of people to thank - the amazing volunteers who were endlessly good-humoured despite being out there well before dawn in shocking conditions. Amber, for indulging our runner-neediness and being completely unflappable post-race when were probably not making a whole lot of sense. Ellie, for putting up with constant questioning about the race and equipment loans. My training buddies at VFAC and Pacific Road Runners for getting me out there when staying in bed on a Sunday morning seemed a whole lot more inviting. And you, dear reader, for putting up with this self-indulgent drivel! Happy trails!

Links for geeks: - my run at Garmin Connect. - my run at Strava