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Learning to Walk: Miwok 100K Race Report

Posted May 09 2012 10:59pm
"Getting good at starting over every time that I return -
I'm learning to walk again -
I believe I've waited long enough -
Where do I begin?"
- Foo Fighters, "Walk" (video after post)

One of the reasons I look forward to racing season so much when building up to a 100-miler is that it's very hard to simulate the feeling of timelessness in routine training.   

Virtually every other training run I do is governed by time - or, more accurately, the lack thereof.  I'm constantly racing the clock to start my work day, or to get back to family activities or chores waiting for me at home.   And even though I can wake up crazy early and knock out 50K before sitting down to my desk, I don't always seek out the toughest routes for fear that the miles will put me too far behind schedule.  It's not until I do races of 50 miles or more that I really, fully dedicate myself to the trail, without regard for how many hours it will take me.

Consequently, it's not until I'm in these races that I get to practice my walking.  Whether it's going up a relentless climb, struggling to cope with extreme heat, or simply shuffling my way through the inevitable low spots, long ultras give me an opportunity to learn to walk again.  While that may sound strange to some, it's actually an important skill to develop in preparation for 100-milers.  Because nobody runs a whole 100 - and if you want to be successful, you had better be good at walking.

This year's Miwok 100K proved to be even more helpful than usual in teaching me how to walk again.  The course was a almost a complete reboot from previous versions, with a different start and finish area, steeper and more technical hills, and 20% more climbing than last year's already daunting 10,000' of vertical.  Oh, and it was another unseasonably warm day in Marin County - all of which made for the "epicer" challenge I mentioned in last weekend's post.

Across the board, race times were 1 to 2 hours slower than previous editions.  Race winner Dave Mackey took more than 70 minutes longer than in 2011.  Runners who normally broke 10 hours were happy with sub-12s.  And when I got to the halfway point of the race and realized I was on pace to go nearly 2 hours slower than last year , that's when I gave up concerning myself with time, and fully embraced the notion that this was a perfect day for walking.  

But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit - so let's get to the race report, starting back at the beginning ...

... which was unlike any in Miwok history.  In addition to being in the town of Stinson Beach (instead of the customary Rodeo Beach), it was 45 minutes earlier than usual - and the 5AM start ensured that we'd be running in the dark for more than an hour.

Darkness might actually have been a blessing, because the course climbs 1800' in less than 2 miles; if we had actually seen it, the hill might have been completely demoralizing.  Instead, we kept rising into the dark, with only a stream of headlamps in front and behind - that, and a supermoon overhead to give the trail a serene glow.

By daybreak we found ourselves on Miwok's infamous "half-track" Coastal trail, where the side slope and narrowness make this stretch a notorious ankle-twister.  Between the killer climb and the perilous descent, Miwok was swinging a big hammer before we even reached the first aid station.

This stretch along Bolinas Ridge was a bit surreal, in that it typically occurs during miles 26 to 40.  This year it was miles 7 to 20 ...

... and at the Randall Trail aid station, instead of having 28 miles to go, we had 48.  Go ahead and add psychological punishment to the list of challenges at this year's race.

On the long climb away from Randall, I started what would become a recurring theme: catching up to scores of runners who had blown me away on the previous downhill.  I wasn't pushing particularly hard, just walking and jogging in baby steps, but under the circumstances, it was enough to make up a lot of ground.   

Eventually we made our way back across the half-track, this time in the sunlight ...

... where we got our first great views of the coastline, such as this one toward Point Reyes that was shrouded in darkness the first time through.

The descent to Stinson Beach featured another new route: the absolutely beautiful and absolutely treacherous Matt Davis Trail.   If the low branches didn't take you out ...

... the rocky footing, irregular steps, or twisty switchbacks probably would.  The most common description I heard of this trail afterward was an obstacle course, but I considered it more like parkour - complete with the occasional rolling on the ground.

After giving back all the elevation we gained in the dark, the Matt Davis Trail eventually dropped us back down to Stinson Beach ...

... where we immediately faced a 1400' climb up the first few miles of the Dipsea Trail.

Bay Area trail runners know this legendary trail for two things: a historic race , and a crazy amount of stairs.  I'm very familiar with the trail, so I knew what I was in for ...

And when I asked some hikers to take my picture, they probably figured I was just enjoying the scenery.  What they didn't realize is that I was looking for any excuse to catch my breath for a few minutes ...

... before continuing the long slog of railroad tie stairs through the steep ravine.

The Dipsea also passes through one of the most beautiful redwood groves you'll ever see, which is almost enough to take your mind off the fact you're still climbing.  Almost.

Of course, as soon as we gained all that elevation, we gave it right back again on a long descent back to sea level ...

... and the mile 33 aid station at Muir Beach.  Honestly, the climb and descent to get here were my worst section of the race: the day was getting warm, I was starting to feel the miles on my legs, and the finish was still too distant to even contemplate.  Not to mention, a ton of runners passed me on the long downhill to the beach.  Fortunately, this was where I had my previously described epiphany about savoring the full day out on the trails, which motivated me to keep plugging along ...

... although the sight of beachgoers frolicking in the surf as I labored in the heat was just one more slap from a course that had been doling out punishment all day.

Once upon a time , I made the climb from Muir Beach three times in 24 hours, so I was familiar with this long grind that opened the second half of the race.  Unfortunately, that didn't make the current situation any easier ...

... but the first glimpses of the city in the distance from the top of the hill helped make it worth the effort.

Following yet another long descent (to Tennessee Valley) and climb back up to another summit, the city views became more breathtaking ...

 ... and the trail that rolled along the ridgeline was relatively gentle for a change, which was a welcome relief on the farthest outbound stretch of the course.

This doesn't have anything to do with my race report, but I have to tell you how cool it is that there's a ridge named after me in the Marin Headlands.  Truly, it's an honor.  I'll be remembered for generations in this part of the world.  I couldn't ask for a better tribute.

(Meanwhile, back at the race ... )

I rather appreciated this sign, made by the Coastside Running Club who manned the Rodeo Valley aid station.  It says, "Pain is temporary.  Quitting lasts forever."  - which seemed like a nice little reminder at mile 43.

By the way, what's better than an aid station at the turnaround point of a killer ultra on a hot day? ...

An aid station at a killer ultra on a hot day with POPSICLES!  In a related story, I fell completely in love with the Coastside Running Club ...

... and at that moment, I was one very happy ultrarunner.  But then a strange thing happened ...

These buildings are the Marin Youth Hostel - which in itself isn't so unusual.  The strange part is that I wasn't supposed to be here; somewhere in my post-popsicle delirium, I managed to miss a turn and go off course with a couple of other runners.  We backtracked about a half mile, and I ended up going down another wrong road by myself, which led me past these buildings.  I eventually found my way back onto the course markings ...

... but it wasn't until I arrived at Rodeo Beach with this guy (who I had yo-yo'd with almost all day) before I realized we hadn't taken the same route to get there.  

(Incidentally, after the race I tried to disqualify myself for re-entering the course at a different point than I left it, but the RD graciously declined my recommendation.  She figured I probably ran more than the original distance to end up where I did - and in the understatement of the day told me, "Besides, it's not like you were in the top three."   I'm pretty sure that last part was meant to reassure me.  Either way, I was grateful for her ruling.)

If the sight of Muir Beach earlier in the day was a slap, the sights and sounds of Rodeo Beach at mile 45 in the hot mid-afternoon felt closer to a stomach punch - especially when yet another long climb awaited us.

One highlight of this section was that there were a ton of hikers enjoying a beautiful Marin County afternoon, and most of them were clued into the fact that there was some sort of race going on.  Some people clapped, others asked how far we were going ... and when I passed by, nearly all of them whispered some variety of Did you see what that guy's wearing on his feet?  It was a nice psychological boost just as we were making our return back to the finish area - and from that point on, I was in great spirits the whole rest of the way.  

After another brutal climb, Rodeo Beach faded into the distance below, and another long descent led us to the Tennessee Valley aid station at mile 51 ...

 ... where signs leading to the aid station were a little more pointed - but even more appreciated than the earlier ones.

Stop me if you've heard this already - but after the aid station we made another long climb.  This time, it was to the top of Pirate's Cove ...

... which is one of my favorite sections of the Marin County coastline.  In fact, I pretended that I wanted my picture taken here because I love the view so much ...

... when I was actually just buying some time before the very steep, technical downhill that leads to the shore.  Between the tricky footing in my RunAmocs and the fact that I was still reeling people in on every climb, I reached a point where I was looking forward to the uphills far more than the descents.  Ultras can do strange things to your head sometimes.  

The climb out of Pirates Cove isn't too extreme, and before you know it you're glancing over your shoulder for a final glimpse of the coast to the south ...

... and then turning forward to see the Muir Beach aid station in front of you to the north.  From here, there were only 8 miles left in the race, and I was still keeping a remarkably steady pace; all that was left was to grind it out to the finish.

This is Willie.  He bombed past me at roughly mile 31, but not before stopping to chat for a few minutes.  He introduced himself by saying, "I'm a big fan of the blog!" and was also wearing minimalist shoes ( Merrell Road Gloves ); needless to say, we hit it off right away.  All of which made me feel bad to pass him back at mile 55 - or sort of bad, at least.  I'm pretty sure I felt a little bit bad.  For some reason, that part is fuzzy now.

(But for the record, this was his first 100K, and he toughed it out and finished even after things unraveled on him on a brutal day.  Kudos, Willie.)   

The final stretch of the new Miowk course is primarily on the Dipsea Trail, in the same direction as the namesake event.  Dipsea veterans know that the course is 7.3 miles long and ends at Stinson Beach, so when you see rock markers like this from the Dipsea Race, you know exactly how far you have to go.

On our way back, the same sun that spilled through these redwoods on us from the east now split the trees from the west on our return.  Which is really just my roundabout way of saying it had been a very long day.

But all that remained was one last swoop down the Dipsea stairs ...

... before a glimpse across "The Moors" (as this section of the Dipsea Trail is called) brought Stinson Beach back into view, and the finish line called us home.

I finally arrived there 13 and a half hours after I left, which was nearly two full hours longer than this race has taken me in years past.  Despite that - or maybe because of it - this year's Miwok just might rate as my favorite one ever.  I managed the race well, never had a major crisis aside from mild depression going up Dipsea the first time, and re-taught myself the power of completely losing yourself in the moment, regardless of how much time you spend there.  I feel like I'm finding my place in the realm of 100-milers again - now all I have to do is keep growing stronger between now and August .

"I think I found my place -
Can't you feel it growing stronger, little conquerors?"
 - Foo Fighters, "Walk" (Live on Letterman video - click to play):

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