The quest for personal running glory and medal acquisition continues.
My last long race was the San Francisco Marathon last July, which I finished in a tad over three and a half hours. In the weeks after, I debated on whether or not I wanted to push for an ungodly Boston Marathon qualifier in 2016, which meant I’d have to shave off close to thirty minutes off my fastest race time.
Eff that. I don’t enjoy road races that much.
I do enjoy trails though. The idea of running races in the great outdoors beyond 26-mile distances doesn’t seem that ridiculous, does it? I had already done three 50 kilometer (31 mile) races in 2015 and thought, so hey, why not push it a little further? My friends are doing 100s now, so maybe I can shoot for 50 and build up some tolerance.
Back in December my coach, Planks, put together a training schedule, complete with her infectious sunny disposition that suggests “You can do this!” All I need is a race or two to get me properly prepped. My criteria was straightforward (and yes, a spreadsheet was involved): it had to be a 50 kilometer, hilly, trail race taking place in February within an hour of Oakland. Most importantly, though, it could not be a Brazen organized run — nothing against their extremely well organized races and killer volunteer crew — their finisher medals are not the prettiest and are quite gigantic.
I probably should have added “no repeat loops” to my criteria, but more on that later. As it was, the Montara Mountain Trail Run 50k in Pacifica seemed to fit the bill.
Races are the quickest way to learn from your mistakes. For a couple years, every race I’d done featured some classic pre-race faux-pas. At some point I’ve done all of the following:
- drank too much water
- ate too much breakfast
- ate the wrong breakfast
- ate breakfast too early
- ate the wrong dinner
- didn’t get enough sleep
- signed up for this race four months ago
I’m convinced I have this figured out after years of pre-race failure and do the opposite of everything on the above. I leave Oakland around 6:30 Saturday morning and arrive at San Pedro Park in Pacifica a tad after 7. I briefly consider how ridiculous it is that I’m driving 30 miles to go run another 30 miles, but ok.
Morning races that start after sunrise are the thing of kings. There was just enough sun to make it comfortable to walk around with race-appropriate wear, instead of performing the mental clothes math one does before a race. For example:
“I’m soooo cold! It’ll be alright if I wear this cotton hoody during the race, right? I won’t be uncomfortable at all!”
Nope, you’ll be miserable in about 4 miles.
The bib pick-up area is rife with runners wearing their Saturday best. Everyone’s doing their competitive athletic gear size-up — some people just look so gosh darn good in athletic attire! I’ve assessed my 50k competition (most people are running a more reasonable half-marathon distance), and lumped them into three categories:
Category A: No gear other than some nondescript athletic attire. They’re going to rely primarily on aid station nutrition, and they are likely going to kill at this race.
Category B: Wears a hydration vest and light Salomon-branded racing attire. Decidedly middle of the pack (my people).
Category C: Fully decked out hiking gear. They might as well be wearing a backpack (and some are). This is their first ultramarathon. It’s unclear how they’re going to be feeling 50 kilometers from now.
The race director tells us that there’s bag of rubber bands at the summit of the tallest peak on the course, letting them know how many times we’ve summited, and I immediately think that there’s nothing to stop longer distance competitors from taking two and being done with it. I fail to hear the cheesy joke the race director makes along the same line of thought.
Start Line to North Peak and Back
The first bit is a seven-mile out and back from North Peak. Hanging back is my best strategy here, as I note that the half-marathon runners are ready to take-off like greased lightning. The start is fairly close to sea level but the trail immediately goes vertical; it’s about 1,900 feet of elevation gain over the next three miles (I do a quick Pythagorean calc in my head for the fun of it before figuring out that the distance diff is negligible). About a mile-and-a-half in, I reach a more exposed part of the trail and glance above at switchbacks full of runners climbing towards the peak, which seems impossibly far away. I briefly realize that I’m going to be repeating this in about two hours. What have I done?
Thankfully, the view of the Pacific Ocean is quite beautiful along the trail, and most of it continues to overlook the coast, which makes for a great distraction. The last bit of trail to the peak is quite wide and semi-paved; it hints at the swarm of casual hikers that this place will be full of in an hour or two. I reach the peak and find the aforementioned bag of rubber bands. Nearly all of them are half the size of my wrist, so wearing any of them are guaranteed to amputate my hand. I pocket six of them and decide to figure this out later.
The path back down to the aid station is easy, but given my paranoia of race day injuries, I hold back my urge to sprint down lest any number of the freak injuries I’ve had in years past end my race early. I make my way back to the start line and the aid station that I'll be stopping at three more times during the course of this race.
Valley View to Hazelnut Trail Loop I
As I’m feeling good, I make my aid station stop brief and start the six-ish mile loop that makes up the end of the half marathon course (which I’ll have to do twice plus a bit more). “Outside and chill” is the order of the day as I jog up the first hill of this loop, and draft two other runners for a good hour. Logically I understand that at my current speed this makes no difference, but I convince myself that it does. Long distance running is really about mental trickery.
The jog up the second hill threatens to turn into a fast hike, as the switchbacks go up a thousand feet for a couple of miles. I find this to be the most boring part of the race course, as the hill I’m climbing blocks my view of the summit to the south, and weeds and brush block my view of the valley and the coast to the north. Nothing but shaded trails for what appears an eternity. I’m still with my drafting crew and we make half-hearted jokes about this infinite loop trail.
North Peak and Back Redux
Second time up the North Peak turns out to be quite enjoyable. The first section of trail is more or less empty, as the half-marathoners are on their way to celebratory breakfasts. The solitude of the trail is quite nice, and since I’m not screaming at myself to up my pace, I’m having a good time. Like sheep, I start counting the much faster runners as they pass me coming back from the summit, most of them not too far ahead of me. After I reach the peak and take a couple of obligatory mediocre pictures, I notice I’m passing other runners, which I haven’t done much of in past races at this stage. Coming back down, I voice words of encouragement to the runners still behind me. I simultaneously feel guilty and proud as this boosts my confidence, but hey, I’m sure the runners in front of me were thinking the same thing.
I’m still a reluctant to sprint down these hilly sections; my trepidation will not leave me be! Since I’m not gunning for a personal record, I allow my paranoia to drive me cautiously down this hill.
Valley View to Hazelnut Trail Loop II
No comment. I have to do the same trail loop I finished earlier that’s a tad on the boring side all over again. Let’s just skip ahead like I wish I could have done while I was running this...
Hazelnut Trail Loop to Finish
Oh G-D-it, I have to do a portion of Loop Boring a third time? I decide that I’m going to just power hike the two-ish miles of never-ending blind switchbacks (let me stress that there really isn't much to look at up there) before jamming the last bit of downhill to the finish.
Physically, my body feels just as good as it did when I started six hours ago, and there’s plenty more in the tank by the time I cross the finish line.
I finished 12th place out of 29 ultramarathon runners, sandwiched by two others who finished first in their age groups. Turns out the 30-39 groups are where it’s at when it comes to running ultras.
As usual, when I run longer distance races, I often question why I do them… in the act of doing them. And, as usual, the experience was good overall, but it didn’t feel life-changing in the process. It’s in the little moments after I finish that remind me why I run; the moments where my emotions overcome me more than I expect them to. Today’s race was no different in that regard.
Ed’s review: 3 stars. Mostly for the course as the race itself was run very well (A++ to Coastal Trail Runs)
View my performance stats on Strava
- Hoka One One Challenger ATR Men’s 9.5
- injinji Run Lightweight Coolmax No-Show Toe Sock Medium
- CW-X Pro Short Men’s Small
- Smartwool NTS Mid 250 Zip T Top Men’s Small
- Suunto Ambit3 Peak
- Apple iPhone 6