It had already rained for two days.
Steve and I pulled out of the garage at 5:45 a.m., Saturday morning, and I switched on the wind shield wipers. Then I turned them up higher. “This is crazy,” I said, as much to myself as to Steve. I would repeat that phrase several more times before the day was done.
The drive was pretty uneventful until we took the Stinson Beach exit off the 101. Within minutes we were stopped due to a solo car crash (the first of 5 I would see that day!) which took just enough time to clear to put us under a bit of pressure to reach the start in time.
The starting line looked more like a family reunion than a race start. Around 200 runners gathered loosely around three small EZ-ups, with as many trying to take shelter as would fit. Eventually the race director, a big older guy with his gray hair painted green and holding a rubber chicken he claimed was the first place trophy, stood on a picnic table and – without any amplification – addressed the small crowd.
In addition to a brief introduction to Enviro-Sports and a description of the trail (“You’ll head that direction and then you’ll go up, and up, and up…) “Dave” announced that the marathon distance was cancelled due to the danger of extended exposure to the weather and the forecast which called for increasingly intense rain, wind, and thunder and lightning. There was a noticeable groan of disappointment from the crowd which prompted Dave to defend his decision and the importance of safety. The marathoners were invited to run the 25K distance or get a refund. I saw two people leave. The rest stayed. The rain continued to fall. I was anxious to start moving.
We were directed to the beach for a very casual start “OK, Go!” And then we were off, running uphill across the town of Stinson, and almost immediately onto a very crowded singletrack trail that took us 3 miles and 1800 vertical feet up into Muir Woods.
This early part of runs I usually just glide along, try to take in the moment, relax, focus on running slowly (despite the tendency to run hard). The “gliding along” thing wasn’t going to work here, though. Everyone was running and trying to establish position on the narrow trail. I heeded my ultra friends’ advice and “walked with a purpose” up the steeper parts, but in order to keep from getting totally sidelined by more aggressive runners I was forced to run up much of this early climb. The difficulty here was maintaining any sense of rhythm while being pressed from behind one minute and held up by the person directly in front of me the next. The crowd thinned out slightly as we entered the woods. There was a brief section of flat gravel road which provided the chance for me to move past some of those whose heals I was trying hard to avoid. The road followed a creek for a while then we launched into a half hour or so of stair steps and switch backs and little bridges and ducking under fallen trees and jumping over foot-high roots and even climbing a 12 foot ladder up a cliff next to a waterfall. It was gorgeous. It was easily the most beautiful trail I’ve ever seen.
I felt very strong at this point (still in the first 3 mile climb) and passed people occasionally. Passing here took a lot of patience and skill – it felt more like a NASCAR maneuver than a typical “I’m going to run by you” pass because of the timing and grace required.
Steve and I completed the 3 mile climb and crested the hill together. The 7 milers turned left while the 25k-ers (and all the marathoners now settling for the 25k) turned right. We ran up and through what appeared to be an old saw mill parking lot, then out from under the cover of the trees. We were facing the ocean now, but you couldn’t see it because of the thick fog. Runners 20 yards ahead of us were disappearing eerily into it.
The trail made a sharp left and we re-entered the woods and began the long, rolling decent. This was my favorite part of the run. We ran fast, sometimes barely holding on. I felt like a little boy again. With a smile I whispered to myself, “I’m hooked.” I remembered times from my childhood that I hadn’t thought of for 25 or 30 years – memories of adventures in the gulley below our house. The woods were green and thick and reminded me of the Forrest Moon scenes in Return of the Jedi. I thought about how much fun my kids would have in this place and started making plans to bring them here. I was breathing deeply and slowly, staying very relaxed despite the rather quick pace, truly taking it in, loving the moment, appreciating the rich and layered tapestry of my life. And then very suddenly and unexpectedly I was hit by another wave of emotion about the inescapable reality of Isaiah’s fight against leukemia. This happens occasionally at the strangest times: it’s almost like my mind is trying to come to terms with something too big to comprehend in any single moment – even 17 months after first hearing the words, “Your son has leukemia.” And while our daily routine includes several reminders of this reality it somehow gets lost behind the details of just dealing with it and we’re off to work and cleaning the kitchen and life just keeps going. So now I’m running with a big lump in my throat still having a difficult time believing that “this” happened. While cancer doesn’t define our lives, it’s clearly and definitely part of our story, his story, my story. I thought, as I do often, about my life at six and his life at six – so similar in some ways, so very different in others.
“Passing on your left!” snapped my out of my emotional memory trip and a big guy with huge shoes splashed past me.
This was the only part of the race in which I was able to get into any kind of running rhythm. Runners had spread out more by now and the trail was gently rolling downhill. Steve and I commented about the enormously tall trees and the compelling beauty of the place. But as we rounded out toward the ocean again the weather became a major player. Instead of occasional puddles there was now a constant stream of water running down the trail. It became almost impossible to avoid stepping into ankle-deep muddy water. I’m sure my feet were wet already, but they didn’t feel wet. So the first time my right foot submerged I was really frustrated. It threw my balance off – my left shoe felt light and airy and my right shoe was spewing water at every step. My sock was wring-able.
Runners spread out even further as the second big incline began. This was a 1600 foot, 4-mile track – more gradual than the first but seemingly much longer. I hit my lowest point around mile 9 or 10: I was very cold, totally soaked (like I’d just been pushed into a pool), and even hungry (despite having had a good breakfast, two GUs, and two bottles of water already). I was mostly hiking now, wishing I could run to warm up, but aware that I needed to last a bit longer still. I wished I had a mile marker to gauge my progress. I looked at my watch to try to estimate where I was: 2 hours exactly.
The trail leveled out for a bit and I was able to run again. Within minutes I came into an opening where I stopped to figure out which way to continue before a waving flashlight caught my eye. “They have flashlights?! This is crazy!” I was at the mile 11 aid station. I filled up one bottle with Gatoraid, which tasted great, but didn’t grab any food. All I remember seeing was salted pretzels, which sounded gross, though later I would wish I had taken in some salt.
Refreshed by a clearer sense of where I was in the race, I followed more flashlight-waving, raincoat-wearing volunteers across a street and up into a wide open face. The trail was heading downhill now, cut into the side of the mountain with the ocean (which was just a big windy fog bank) on my left. I ran hard wanting to preserve the distance between myself and the others at the aid station. Running near people on this trail made navigating the footing more difficult. But it was difficult still. At one point on this stretch, the trial was washed out from right to left. I hit it with no solid place to land and slid 12 or 15 feet down the hill. Now with mud clear up to my shorts and my right groin threatening to become a real issue, I climbed on all fours back up to the trail and said it again, “This is crazy.”
The final stretch of trail was a series of switchbacks and stair steps. I had caught up to a group of about 10, running single-file, carefully trying to keep their footing. I took my final GU at this point, as it had been at least 45 minutes since my last one. The steep downhill running felt incredibly awkward because the footing was so bad. I felt great energy-wise but my legs were hurting because I was running with quite a bit of tension.
Some of those in front of me were laboring. I was feeling good and “smelling the barn.” Soon we spilled out from the trail onto the street and began the final 1/2 mile of the race. It was pouring at this point, but the first solid footing in over an hour was a welcomed change. Feeling strong I extended my stride and resolved to significantly pick up the pace and finish strong.
That’s when I just totally locked up. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Both legs: arches, calves, hamstrings, and glutes. Locked. I nearly fell. It felt like a pulled hamstring in severity but it was clearly a cramp. In fact, I could see my right calf cramping as I pushed off my left foot. I walked for two or three steps but then had to completely stop and touch my toes and hold it there for literally 15 or 20 seconds. This killed me as I was literally a golf shot from the finish. The pack I was planning to pass left me and probably 10 people I’d passed in the last 5 miles passed me as well. I wondered how ridiculous I must have looked stretching out less than a half a mile from the finish. I managed to trot for another 100 yards before I locked again. I finally struggled across the line at 2:56, feeling pretty frustrated over such an anticlimactic and disappointing finish.
The finish area was very muddy and – because the rain was coming down so hard – mostly deserted. Like most finishers I grabbed a t-shirt (easily the lamest race shirt I’ve received), passed up the pretzels (they must’ve found a deal on pretzels!), snagged two bananas, and started shoving them down.
I looked up just in time to see Steve crossing the line (the finish line was a blue EZ-Up with a little a-frame that said “finish” – no clock, just the race director congratulating people – I thought it was great). Steve was looking strong, as always. We finished 10th and 11th in our age group.
We hustled to the truck and I peeled-off my soaked clothes while my legs continued to cramp. We found shelter, hot drinks, and a great breakfast at a beachfront café. All-in-all, it was a great experience: beautiful trails, memorable morning, and a good sense of accomplishment. This was my longest race to date!
Brief intake report: 3 bottles of fluid: 1 water, 1 water with Nuun (from start to mile 11), 1 Gatorade (from 11 to finish), and 4 GUs, one 15 minutes to start, one after the first 3 mile climb, one around 9, and one around 12.
Big thanks to Jeffrey and Tony for the coaching and inspiration, the morning running crew, the early morning running crew, to Veloyce at Monsters of Massage (I felt great the day after the race – I credit having consumed much more water than usual before, during, and after the race and… The Monster himself), and to Steve for running another race – this one pushed us well-past 50 racing miles, bro!
Thanks for reading!