Thursday, August 14, 2008

Headlands Hundred

It Takes a Village or
How to Run 100 Miles Over Trail in Less Time Than it Takes to Paint a House.

Well, I was finally ready to do this thing. I thought about training for it last year but wisely decided to wait for my first 100 mile trail ultra attempt. I crammed a lot more training and ultras in the 12 months leading up to this race. I was optimistic. My time had been spent wisely in short fast runs, long slow runs, races and hiking. How could I not be ready? As the days ticked off closer and closer to the big event, I had no butterflies. I enjoyed the planning, the travel, the get together with crew members and the strategy sessions. Before I knew it the last long run was done, the last short run was completed and we were standing in front of a woefully dumpy motel waiting for my pacer, Russ, to arrive. The picture on the Internet didn't look this bad...but, at least it was clean. We did a crew tour of the aid station locations, had a pasta dinner, went window shopping in Mill Valley, did foot taping and then went to bed.

My crew consisted of my sister Karen, new to the ultra scene herself but already deep into it's passion and her running buddy Leslie who had introduced us all to my pacer Russ when she bumped into him while finishing her first 50K. Completing the entourage was my husband, Rodney who has always been my greatest supporter. Even though he likes to describe my ultra running with adjectives like "crazy" and "fringe" he never disses my accomplishments. He's my biggest fan.

Finishing was my big goal. Finishing faster than DFL would be fine, but I'd be glad just to finish. Period. I had decided on this race because it was the best compromise of the various aspects of a 100 miler that I thought would allow me to finish. I wanted a course that 1) wasn't at elevation, 2) wasn't in really hot or humid weather and 3) didn't have repeating loops. Two out of three was good enough, so there I was in my red shorts listening to race director Wendell give out last minute instructions in the cool, fog shrouded parking lot.

My strategy was to run conservatively right out of the box. If I was anything, I was slow but steady. I was banking on steady to get me through. I really didn't want to experience the last 20 mile death march I've frequently read about. I wanted to be running as much and as well at the end as I was at the beginning.

The course meanders around the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco so close to the city that you can see the Golden Gate Bridge from some of the vistas. Between each aid station the route goes up and over a series of hills, some multiple, some single, some gradual and some very steep. But regardless, once you leave any aid station you know you'll be traveling UP for a while and before you get to the next one you'll be going DOWN again. Overall there was 17,700 feet of elevation gain and loss for the 100.5 mile course.

Since the weather was cool and foggy the hills were shrouded and a lot of the trail route was obscured from view. Maybe what you can't see isn't such a bad thing. Although the spectacular views were missing at this point, so was the sense of dread that can develop when the trail can be viewed stretching up, up, up and far, far away. It's funny how if you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, you eventually get there. The cool temperatures were a God send to me. I was hoping to avoid a lot of heat for which I am not well trained.

After the starting signal the mass of runners hit the road and took off over a foot bridge onto the beach for a short crawl to the first trail and we stretched into a long train of running machine that threaded up the trail up off into the fog as far as visibility would allow. I picked a conservative pace that allowed me to breathe comfortably. I walked when it got steep, and ran when it wasn't and I followed the train of runners ahead of me. Soon we found ourselves on a road that wound higher up the hillside and I made sure to cut the tangents where ever possible. I didn't want to add a single foot of mileage to my run if I didn't have to.

After 37 minutes I finally hit the trail again and we kept going up mostly, occasionally down a bit. Eventually the train pulled me up and over what appeared to be a ridge. To the right I could hear traffic noises but all I could see was fog. Eventually we crossed what must have been a small pass between the hills because the wind kicked up pretty hard and it was quite chilling. Quickly we started heading down again and after a long gentle and pleasant trail run winding down, down, down we popped out at the first aid station. We had climbed and dropped just over 1000 feet. And look, there was RD, Sarah who always seems to know every one's name. She manages to give individualized attention to every runner and her attentions always made me feel special. Months before the race she solicited on an ultra running forum for suggestions about aid station foods and based on my suggestion she actually went out of her way to confirm for me that she would have my beloved Frito chips there! She's a gem.

As was to be repeated over and over throughout the day, night and next day my crew immediately spotted me, cheered me in and then went to work. They grabbed my water bottle and switched it out for a fresh one. They fed me, refilled my food bag and in less than 2 minutes I was on my way again up the requisite climb out of the aid station.

The next section towards Tennessee Valley was steeper up and down but a shorter 500 foot climb and I actually hit the aid station while my crew was still getting stuff out of the car. And there was Sarah again, greeting me. I stopped by the aid station table for food and then got fresh water bottles from my startled crew. I was still feeling great and enjoying the cool foggy trail. There's not much I find more enjoyable than a pleasant, slow jog along a pretty trail away from traffic and alone with my thoughts. Again, within a few minutes I was back on the trail.

I continued to run conservatively, maintaining good posture and form when power hiking the steep parts and running with a smile on my face when the trail was runnable. Eventually we hit the famed section of steep trail leading down to the Pirates Cove stairs. This is a very technical section that's difficult to run down. I actually looked forward to completing this section again in the uphill direction the next 4 times. The trail was still shrouded in fog but before long we were on a long gradual downhill that dumped us off at the Muir Beach aid station back down at sea level. Again we had climbed and dropped about another 1000 feet. Karen and Leslie were there again waiting for me and checking on my condition. So far I was still feeling pretty good and was eager to get to the next and biggest climb of the day (1400 feet in 5 miles).

I left them and I could tell the day was starting to heat up as the fog cleared. I might have been well off to add my ice hat as well as my ice to my bandanna but the bandanna was a great benefit to my cooling anyway. I did remember to take an extra hand-held bottle. Oh well, making adjustments to my pace for the temperature I meandered up the initially gradual trail to the steep hiking route up to Pantoll aid station.

This was indeed a steep climbing section but I enjoyed how we wound in and out of small forested areas. I passed a few hikers. I tried to stay in the shaded areas as much as possible. Before I knew it, I was dropping down a short steep trail into the Pantoll aid station where my crew had a chair, complete with sun umbrella, set up and waiting for me. I got a good dosing of water on my head, more ice in my bandanna and a change into my ice hat. As it warmed up I wasn't feeling as hungry and I tried to each a chicken sandwich but it felt so dry in my mouth I could hardly swallow it. I was drinking well and concentrated on staying hydrated. I didn't feel much in the way of exhaustion. I felt like I was managing my pace well and was looking forward to the next section of much less elevation change and even though the run was on an exposed ridge that promised to be hot, there was a nice breeze and now that the fog was gone there was a beautiful view of the hills and the blue Pacific Ocean down below.

I was kept much cooler by the ice I carried with me on my head and around my neck. As I made my way along the ridge I started to encounter runners returning from this out and back section and as usual, everyone was encouraging and pleasant. "Nice job!" "Strong work!" At one point we passed a very old rusted car that appeared to have crashed here upside down from some far away drop-off many long years ago. The trail actually detoured around the heap so we got a good look. I didn't see any exposed, weathered bones, but I'll admit I did look.

An hour and forty minutes after I left Pantoll I came into the Bolinas Ridge aid station through a wall of soap bubbles being blown across the trail by two crazy, hollering women. Wait, that's my crew! Well, they sure seemed to be having a great time playing to the crowd. I wondered when they would be breaking out the banjos and grass skirts. It felt good to sit down and take the time to cool off in the shade. I got another dosing of water on my head and fresh ice in my hat and bandanna. I tried to eat some more but a cold Coke went down the best. Ah yes, I remember now how good a cold Coke feels on a hot run! Let's keep those coming! More food to-go and back out on the trail I went. It was getting hotter but I just slowed down a bit and didn't let myself get too over worked. My heart rate wasn't soaring and the return only took me 10 minutes longer than before.

Back at Pantoll I detoured to the bathroom. How convenient that every time I needed one, there it was waiting for me! Also waiting for me was my crew. I don't know how anyone could miss they were wearing neon pink felt top hats and ties! And somehow they had collected 3 bulldogs under the shade of the sun umbrellas. We all sat together, the dogs and I, sweating in our respective fashion as I got replenished. At 3:30 pm I was an hour ahead of the cut off, the first time I would be able to gauge my pace for adequate progress. I had a buffer but I was aware that if something went wrong it could get uncomfortably close. But, so far so good and my conservative strategy seemed to be treating me well and I was still having fun!

This next section would be markedly more downhill than up, dropping almost 1500 feet and I was looking forward to it and the cooling off of the day. Now that the fog was long gone I could see the trail and occasionally spotted runners winding up and down and around trails way off into the distance. It's always amazed me at how far away distances look when you can see them stretched out before you. I mostly run in the forest and I can only see up to the next curve in the trail. On these hills where there is only low vegetation, the trail stretches like a never ending ribbon. "It must take hours to get way over there!" I'd tell myself, but actually it's never really that bad. 15 minutes later I'm looking back and see way off in the distance where I just was. I think that running these sections in the fog or the dark are a lot easier for me because the time just passes and the anticipation of where I see I need to be headed is eliminated.

Regardless, the trail was essentially headed downhill and once I got the the bottom I still felt good, even though my toes were feeling a bit pinched in my shoes on the switch backs. Right before I hit a short section of road back to the aid station I saw a man throwing a ball for his German Shepard in a park I traversed. "Is there some kind of race going on?" he inquired. You can guess the rest of the conversation, complete with jaw drop.

Back to Muir Beach aid station and the crew took back my ice hat and returned my visor. I could eat more and keep that cola coming! The pink-hatted ladies got me my fresh water bottle and 3 minutes later I was climbing back out and up and over the next set of hills toward Tennessee Valley. This route takes me up the Pirates cove stairs and I was happy. I have a good technique for stair climbing that I find actually rests my legs so I finished the climb feeling good. The return to Tennessee Valley only took me 10 minutes longer than when I came out that way in the morning.

Things were starting to look familiar on the trail. I recalled the trail surface, where it was wide fire road, where it was single track. I didn't always remember the route exactly because the last time I came through these parts is was so foggy. I was grateful for the trail markings but sometimes there seemed to be long gaps between flagging but I could usually see someone off in the distance to indicate that I was still on the right route and I only occasionally worried I was off course somehow.

After a quick stop in Tennessee Valley I was off onto the last stretch of unknown trail. After the next four miles I would have covered 50 miles and all of the trail sections that would make up the next two loops of the race. There is a certain advantage to knowing what to expect. There can also be some disadvantage depending on how you feel about it. So far all the ups and downs of the day were, in my mind, doable. But I realized that as time wore on, I might find them more and more of a challenge. Oh well, "let's just concentrate on the task at hand and worry about the next section when we get to it and not before" I told myself. This final 4 miles to the Start/Finish area was, as I dubbed it, "diabolical." The ups were more so – the kind of steep that requires me to walk sideways to keep from hyper-flexing my ankles. This seems...challenging to put at this part of the course right before we get to the 50 mile, 75 mile and 100 mile mark. Hmmm....I wonder how this will play out later? And look, I can see way over there where I have to go next. It sure looks longer than 4 miles.

I eventually stopped the unhelpful chatter in my head and just concentrated on hiking. I crested a hill and the trail markings indicated that luckily I dive off the crest to the left and after several miles of steep trail downward I was on some stairs, then through an old historic battery or two then down more paved switch backs and I could see the aid station tent in the near distance.

My toes were really starting to bother me a lot on the downhills. They were getting sore but didn't feel blistered. It started to feel like a struggle to go downhill, especially when it got really steep. But, no time to linger on that, right before I got to the parking lot I hear Russ, my pacer for later that night, hooting and hollering at me as I crossed the halfway mark. The whole crew was there including Rodney. 50 miles to go and I was now one hour and 25 minutes ahead of the cut off.

It was still light out and it was here that I would get to start running with my sister as pacer for a while and I was looking forward to the company. I hoped that she wouldn't be too tired from her long day of crewing. I stuffed my face with a "slim fast" type drink and a few bites of chili and then I saw it...cake. It was the best piece of white cake I'd ever eaten. I really wanted to eat the pizza but didn't have room and was fast losing the stomach for it. I had a slice hopefully stuffed into a plastic baggie then Karen and I took off up the beach and to the trail.

My stomach wasn't feeling very good and this slowed me down. My legs still felt great but thank goodness Karen was with me to help distract me from my ever increasing foot soreness and overall touchy stomach. Regardless, we powered up the hills and I followed dutifully as she led me along the proper route. She kept up a steady stream of conversation, filling me in on what happened throughout the day and in general was upbeat and perky. Eventually we had to turn on our headlamps and the going got slower.

It's probably not a profound observation that it's harder to see in the dark but the degree to which headlamps and flashlights illuminate the trail just isn't the same as regular sunlight, I don't care how bright they are. It's harder to find your way down technical trail. You can't plan a line of sight and it's difficult to judge if the rocks are solidly embedded or just rubble on top of the trail. I suppose that the slower going in the night helped me to conserve for the return of daylight and the many hours I would still have to run later. But, I ran less than the first time I did this section and it took me about an hour longer! Good thing I was already ahead of the cut off. I hoped that I would be able to keep ahead.

When we got to the next aid station I was ready to refuel, but much to my dismay the pizza never did sound like as good of an idea as I had originally hoped and I discarded it with only 2 bites missing. That's when I discovered the power of bananas. Coke and bananas became my staple and I was starting to feel better. Not long after heading back out on the trail we heard a pack of coyotes howling to call each other together for the nightly hunt. It could have seemed eerie but I didn't automatically assume they were gunning to come eat me. Maybe I should have because I'm sure I smelled like I was half dead and would be easy pickings!

It seemed like in no time we were up and over then next hill and ended up back at the Tennessee Valley aid station where I was to pick up my next pacer, Russ. It was also time to check on my feet and change shoes. We opened up and dressed a blister and put on the fresh shoes. The first steps after that reminded me that I had a fresh blister but after about 100 yards it quit hurting and Russ and I trotted off into the night toward the next big climb. My toes were still pretty unhappy, though.

It was starting to cool off and get foggy again. The glow sticks were easy to spot and now that I couldn't see the trail in front of me I didn't have any problem just putting one foot in front of the other. We carried on a nice conversation as we went and I marveled, more often than necessary, that I was now running farther than I ever had before. We didn't run into any killer baboons and I filled Russ in on our "encounter" with the coyotes. The baboon thing was a running joke in the group since Karen had tried to convince us the night before that there really was a movie about killer baboons. Not only did the Internet confirm she was right, it also confirmed that the movie was based on a true story. Yikes! One time we each stopped to "water the bushes" and lost track of each other in the dark. Good thing we didn't get attacked by killer baboons while we were separated!

Having a handler to talk to and share the trail with is such a wonderful experience. Time passes so much more quickly and it was hard to get into deep dark places in my mind when I was busy cutting up about something stupid, like killer baboons. Russ always seemed to have the knack of knowing how much to talk, when to stop, what topics to bring up and when to laugh at my jokes. His presence helped calm my fears that I might get lost out in the dark alone and waste a lot of time that I couldn't afford to waste. And besides, it's just nice not to have to be out in the dark...alone. We could just relax and enjoy running with the stars above.

75 minutes after we left Tennessee Valley we arrived at Muir beach and into the hands of the aid station volunteers who were so awesome that they had fresh strawberries waiting for us! We had given our crew permission to skip this aid station so they could get some rest. The aid station volunteers let me sit on a soft upholstered bench removed from their van and wrapped me in a sleeping bag so I wouldn't get cold while I ate some soup. After a few minutes of respite we moved on and back to the climb out of the aid station and soon enough we were at the Pirates Cove stairs.

Go ahead an shoot me, but I like the stairs. And it was fun to give Russ the tour of the course and tell him what to expect next. After the stairs we headed back into the fog and it got harder and harder to see through the glare my head lamp made reflecting off the fog. Finally I pulled it off my head lamp and held it in my hand. Eventually the fog lifted and we could see again. Then I noticed that there were lots of stars above again and when we looked behind us all we could see was a blanket of fog below. We had actually gone up the hill high enough to pop out on top of the fog! And we saw a shooting star! In the dark it's harder to sense the pitch of the hill so running or walking by feel in the dark was only a big challenge on the rocky, downhill technical sections.

There was a big section of this right as we headed back down into the fog layer. I remembered that there was a newly constructed switchback detour coming up and right after that the trail was flat and pleasant as it ran through a eucalyptus forest for the last half mile before the Tennessee Valley aid station. Of course, just as I finished hopping gingerly over the last difficult section and had soft firm trail under my feet I tripped on nothing and landed on my face in the dirt. Once the shock wore off it felt pretty good to be laying there and briefly I contemplated just staying right where I was for a while. But, cut-offs being immutable as they are, I thought better of it and with a hand up from my trusty pacer, Russ, I was on my feet again. We headed back down the trail none the worse for falling other than me being a lot dirtier and with a scraped knee.

Back at the aid station we refueled with more Coke and bananas and I braced Russ for what I knew was the "diabolical" nature of the final 4 miles back to the start/finish area. Funny thing though, with Russ by my side sharing the trail we soon found ourselves at the top far quicker that I thought we would and next thing I knew we were running through the creepy dark bunkers towards the start/finish. We even covered this section a few minutes faster than I had done alone the last time around. Despite my sore toes we trotted briskly into the aid station and clocked in at 3:55 am, 2 hours and 25 minutes ahead of the cut off. 75 miles down, 25 to go.

Maybe it was here I ate the cake or the pizza? I really can't remember now. The loop nature of the course lends itself to fuzzy recollections, especially in the wee hours of the morning. I was glad I had Russ there to keep me on the right track. Luckily at the time I wasn't feeling particularly sleepy. Karen and Leslie were still in great form, wide awake and encouraging as always. They never seemed to get tired! I downed some more Coke to ensure my continued alertness and we were headed out towards the beach for the last time.

Once again this 8.6 mile section proved to be a difficult patch for me. We headed up the road and I kept having trouble confirming the proper route. Even though I had been in this area several times before, I just didn't really remember which way we should go when the trail markings became confusing. Eventually we hit a three way intersection and neither of us was sure which way to go. Russ told me to wait behind and took off to check out one route. I walked briefly in the other direction to confirm it didn't really go anywhere and then sat down to rest. Thankfully Russ was willing to run recon on that one. Too bad we still didn't know what to do when he got back! Oh well, lets go this way and I pointed to what seemed the most likely route and eventually we saw a glow stick in the distance. High Five! Luckily we were back on track, after not having been off track at all, and soon we were on trail and climbing.

My stomach just didn't like this section again. I noticed that my heart rate was pretty fast and it suddenly occurred to me that it might be all the caffeine I'd consumed by drinking the Coke all day and night. I rarely use caffeine "in real life" as it tends to cause me palpitations and generally makes me feel crappy. Well this was something I could fix and I was optimistic that, given a little more time I would feel better just as soon as the caffeine wore off. Soon the hint of dawn began to appear in the East and we could start to see some runners way ahead of us up the trail. I didn't feel as horrible as I have at some shorter ultras but I certainly wasn't feeling my usual self and with each step my feet grew more and more sore. I was really trudging, now grateful I had so much time on the cut off. My toes were killing me and I reduced my speed with every step but even that didn't feel better. Step ouch, step ouch, step OUCH!

It was then that Russ, the most wonderful pacer in the world, made a shocking and totally unexpected suggestion. "Why don't we try running for 30 seconds?" Well, that sounded like novel idea and I was willing to try it. After the second step my feet miraculously quit hurting and the running was invigorating and the more I ran the better I felt! I saw the runners ahead of us and we were closing the gap. I ran a bit harder and even though it was uphill this was much easier on my battered toes than walking and I felt like I was dropping all the evil humors that had hobbled me those last few miles. We easily trotted past the other runners, bid them a good morning and shortly were headed back down the trail and into the dawn. The headlamps went off and the nighttime monsters withered in the daylight.

As we approached the next aid station my stomach told me I could eat again. We began to discuss what sort of breakfast foods would taste really good. I decided pancakes would really hit the spot. Just then we saw Karen ahead waiting for us to take the last turn to the aid station and she shouted up to us "What can I get you?" "Pancakes!!" we replied. "Blueberry or raspberry?" she asked. OMG. Where there really blueberry pancakes? Alas, turns out, no. Just bananas and the usual fare. But it was good enough for us and I was only a little disappointed. My stomach probably was happier with the bananas and Fritos anyway. Besides, the runners we had just passed were coming into the aid station and we needed to keep ahead of them! I don't think the supposed competition was really more than a contrived motivation factor to keep us moving but we spun all sorts of imagined rivalry that mandated we keep as far ahead of this pair as possible.

We powered up and out to the Tennessee Valley again. Up, up, up, then as we're starting down we get to an ambiguous turn. I know I've been here, what, twice before (?) but that didn't jog my memory. I felt helpless to decide which was the right way to go. Luckily the best pacer in the world told me to wait there while he ran up ahead to confirm that the big hill wasn't the direction we had to go. We finally found some runners coming towards us and they helped us confirm the correct route. Hurry, hurry, the "rivals" might catch us! We cruised into the Tennessee Valley aid station again and they had pancakes!

Well, now we were at 87 miles and it was time to get back up and over the next hill to Muir Beach. We climbed again and then fairly sprinted down to Muir Beach and Russ could see the trail and views in the day light for the first time. I could taste the strawberries already and soon enough there we were, stuffing our faces, single digit miles left until the end of the run. They gave me a place to sit for a few minutes and filled our bottles for us. We saw the "rivals" coming into the aid station and that was out que to split!

We left and retraced our steps back up the hills towards the Pirates Cove steps. Eventually there we were at the bottom of them and sooner still, up at the top. Now that we were less than 10 miles from the finish there didn't seem to be any reason to conserve energy so I cautiously started pushing harder. Once we got to the top of this section we had the tough technical downhill section that my toes hated so much. I found out that if I strided out longer and ran harder the alteration in my step hurt a lot less. So despite the nearly 95 miles on my legs I was running faster.

We started to do ultra math and calculated not whether I would make the final cut off, but what time I might be able to finish. It looked possible I could break 29 hours! Really? Really! Holy crap lets get moving! We leaped over a snake stretched out across the trail and it didn't occur to me until after we were over it that it could have been a rattle snake. Luckily, not. Now that we could see the technical trails they were much easier to traverse and then there we were at "blood alley," the site of my previous fall. No fall this time and knowing we were within earshot of the aid station we cruised towards it as we calculated our strategy. No standing around. Grab something quick and keep moving. We need to stay ahead of the"rivals" and try to break 29 hours!

The crew looked at us suspiciously, like we may have actually become insane after all those hours on the trail. Shouldn't we be looking bedraggled? Hell no! – out of the way, we have 4 measly miles to cover and we'll see you at the finish! Hope you can get there in time not to miss us!

The uphill section this third time seemed shorter still and I nearly cried tears of joy when I saw the left hand turn that indicated we were heading down to the aid station. No reason now hold a thing back, so we tore down the trail with as much energy as I could muster. I actually didn't feel like it was a strain. I don't know why, but it honestly felt like the pleasant end to short run at home.

One of the fun aspects of this course is how long you can see the finish before you get to it. Maybe that's disheartening to some but for me it was joyful. It gave me the time to reflect on the whole of this event and I felt a deep sense of satisfaction. I wasn't crawling in half dead, I wasn't behind the cut off, I had a new best friend at my side and a nurturing crew awaiting our arrival. I wanted to soak it all in and not forget to appreciate the experience, every good and bad moment, every ache and pain as well as legs feeling fresh. I could hardly believe that this odyssey would soon be over and I plowed ahead to meet it's ending with ever increasing energy.

After we dropped off the switchback road and onto the parking area the final cones directed us to the finish line. Just as I could see the timing clock turn to 28:40:00 I grabbed Russ' hand and together we crossed over from a state of joyous striving to joyfully accomplished. There was nothing left to do now but give and receive hugs and share the love of family and friends who were once new, now old.

Some purists feel that the experience of finishing a 100 miler is more nobly done without help - no crew, no pacer and even no drop bags. I can appreciate the sense of self satisfaction that must come from such an accomplishment and to those who prefer this for themselves, I applaud them. However, in the grand scheme of things, our community of ultra runners, their friends and families may be small but we're an involved and supportive group. There are always some "co-dependent enablers" (as Rodney likes to put it) who relish the opportunity to help out and share the experience. Sure, I could try to do this all alone, but then, why? Although this may be considered an individual accomplishment, it is far from an solo endeavor. Without the help I received from everyone, from the RDs to the many volunteers, my crew and pacer, Russ, I would never have had the opportunity to experience the satisfaction of running 100 miles. But it's more than that. I have been enveloped in the arms of this wonderful community, been hugged and hugged back.

My endless thanks again to Karen, Leslie, Rodney and Russ as well as to Sarah, Wendell and the many volunteers and fans who made this fringe, crazy and altogether satisfying event possible for me.

Detailed photos of entire trail - Thanks "runnign4fun"!