Marin Ultra Challenge 50k

My training in the few months leading up to this race was mostly cross training on the bike, elliptical, and uphill treadmill, with a couple runs a week on flat pavement and no runs over 10 miles. I had no access or time to seek out downhills aside from running up and down stadium steps a few times. I hadn’t even felt like a “trail runner” or even a “runner” recently. I felt quite mis-prepared, but that was part of the challenge. Most intriguing to me are questions like, could my body manage 6,000 feet of elevation gain and 6,000 feet of elevation loss? How early in the race would my quads feel like over-stretched rubber, and how long could I shuffle uphill anyway? Could I trust myself to stop if I felt things getting injured? If the body felt okay, would my aerobic base and durability be at the level they’ve been in the past without recent long runs or rides to get me running through the finish line?

The day before the race, we had the luxury to go to the San Francisco Running Company (SFRC) store at Tam Junction to check in. While we were there, I was lamenting that my current trail shoes had so little cushioning and such a short drop compared to my road running shoes, which I had grown to love (and been doing all my running in). So, I checked out a few pairs of shoes, and after, naturally, spending over an hour debating, was able to buy a new pair of trail shoes that had more cushion and a slightly higher drop than my current ones to minimize any risk of achilles/calf injuries or muscle strains. My plan was to wear these shoes until the 10-mile mark, at which point I could continue with them or decide to change into my old shoes at the aid station.

We got to the race about an hour early to drop off our aid station bags. I filled mine with the pair of old trail shoes and some gels. We got to watch the 50 mile racers start in the dark. Their headlamps bobbed up the first few switchbacks towards the coast in a tough, sinewy, entrancing line. The next hour passed very fast, and before I knew it we were lining up to start!

The first hill, up Hill 88, was SO much longer than I had remembered. But I stuck with the person in front of me, patient to the top, taking in the views along the way. We had a luckily clear morning, in contrast to the foggy one we’d had two years prior, and I could see into the headlands of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area where we had gone biking a few days before, where I had spent so many mornings on my bike when we lived in San Francisco.

The descent down the backside of the hill we’d just climbed was steeper than I’d remembered! I guess that happens when you haven’t ran down a ~real~ hill in more than 8 months. I felt a little bad that I was holding up the people behind me, so I skidded down as gracefully and quickly as possible, keeping to the right to let people pass. The downhill then leveled to a smooth 6-8% grade on Miwok trail. I had missed these smooth long downhills so so much. My quads weren’t too wrecked by the end of this one (it was about a 15-minute descent), and the next climb was my favorite of the whole race. It shared my brother’s name, Julian, and I thought about him during this climb. I met someone who had done an Ironman, but he didn’t seem so keen to talk about it (Ironman doesn’t have the best name in trail running circles because of what their UTMB organization has done to local races), so I passed him and moved on. I filled my water at the top of this climb and noted the time so that I could stick to my 1-gel-every-20-minutes-starting-40-minutes-in plan.

The next bit of trail, the SCA trail, rolled along, giving us sweeping views of Golden Gate Brige, the bay, and the coastline. I felt pretty good and was excited to get to the next aid station, Tennessee Valley, where one of my friends was waiting to cheer. She surprised me by meeting me halfway down the next descent, and we descended the rest together. This section of trail gave great views of the bay, and my eyes traced the inlet where I’d gone to watch a Marin Rowing Association practice the previous day, and then wandered up Mount Tam, which was shrouded in fog above us. I didn’t spend too much time looking around, because let’s be real… I needed to keep my eyes on the trail.

I decided not to change my shoes at the aid station because my feet felt cushioned and comfy. Of course, I jinxed it at that point, as about 2 miles later, on the next descent, my toes started jamming into the front of my shoes somewhat painfully. I thought of the women running the Lululemon Further project, especially Leah Yingling who had developed blisters on her feet on the second day and still had four days to go. My next 15-20 miles were nothing compared to that. We can endure these sorts of things. Should we, though? I’ve been thinking about that a lot during training too. Just because I can do more, can do harder, should I? Sometimes more and harder is not better. Purple toenails wasn’t something that really challenged this question during this race, but I imagine there will be times during races when I’ll have to choose whether continuing is what I should do, even if I could.

Anyway, the next section along Pirate’s Cove was peaceful. There were a few people around me, but I was running pretty alone, listening to the waves crashing not too far beneath me, making sure my shoes didn’t get stuck in mud, sipping water. I descended to the next aid station at Muir Beach (again, steeper than I’d remembered), filled water, took some gels, and kept moving forward. I found myself surprised that my feet were still wanting to run. In fact, the next section was relatively flat, and I enjoyed opening up a bit and letting the flatlander speed/efficiency kick in. I listened to the birds cheer us on, and I touched some of the redwoods as we passed between them, having missed these powerful trees. I caught up to someone in front of me who had thought we missed a turn, but I was pretty sure we were on the right route, so we kept moving and luckily saw a course marker quickly afterwards. He moved back in front of me and led up the next hill. I passed him and a couple other people on the next descent back towards the beach. I had run out of water and I did not want to risk taking another gel without water, so I got a bit behind on fueling at this point in the race.

In and out of the next aid station, I moved on toward the Zen Center, which was the entrance to the second-to-last climb of the race, Middle Green Gulch trail. I thought back to my first time up this trail a few years ago, which was rough. This time though, I pulled out my wire headphones and turned on my eclectic ultra playlist, wanting to channel Courtney. I jammed out on this climb, air playing some drums, and passed quite a few people, in competition mode now. I was also wondering how my boyfriend’s race was going up ahead, since around this point in previous races is when I would pass him…

It started drizzling as I reached the top and descended back down to Tennessee Valley. My glasses were wet and fogging up, which skewed my depth perception and made footing hard, and by the bottom of the hill I was definitely deeper in the pain cave. My friend was at the aid station again to cheer, which was awesome, and I filled with electrolytes then tackled the last 4 miles of the race. I made friends with someone on the last climb. We chatted a bit about training for hilly races in flat places (he was from Sacramento), and then I (ironically?) jogged away on a flatter section. The last bit of the climb was super steep, and there was a point when I stopped, hands on knees for a breather, but I wanted to get out of the cold drizzle, though I also realized it was part of the San Francisco experience I missed in a way, so I kept moving. Down the last wet wooden stairs, the last runnable trail, and into the finish. One person passed me in the last 100 or so meters as I gingerly descended (ok, the quads were hurting), but good for them!

I was a little unstable after the finish line, but quickly felt great and was just so happy and grateful I could do the race and see my friend and boyfriend at the finish line (he won this one!). I would recommend this race and the 50 miler to anyone and hope I will be back! Thank you so much to all the volunteers, Inside Trail, other racers, and SFRC for organizing and executing such a great race!

Despite my initial plan to chill and enjoy the trails and company to avoid any injuries, I fell into my competitive nature when it was clear injuries wouldn’t be a limiter. From the first aid station to the finish, I climbed from 100th place to 58th overall and from 32nd to 16th woman. The only person who passed me in the second half of the race was the person who flew by in the last 100 meters!

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