Golden Gate Trail Marathon
I woke up at 6:15 AM, having spent the night sleeping on my self-inflating pad in my aunt’s walk-in closet. I drove up to San Francisco the day before to spend the night with her just so I wouldn’t have to wake up an extra hour earlier. The two of us had gone out for some great Chinese food, a good pre-race choice (a light meal with a lot of rice), though it may have been good enough that I ate a little too much. When I finished downing my pre-race morning snack - a granola bar, a banana, a handful of trail mix, a dollop of peanut butter, and a bottle of sports drink - I was full. Good thing I had a solid hour-and-a-half to let it settle in.
Made my way across the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Marin Headlands. I’ll admit that just looking at the hills was daunting. There wasn’t enough parking at the start line, so the majority of us had to park about a mile and a half away and take a school bus to the start. I started talking with the guy next to me on the bus. It was his first trail marathon too, though both of us had done marathons before. We started comparing the courses we’d done, and in what conditions, trying to get an idea for what we were up against today. The girl across from me chimed in, “Now I’m getting a little nervous! This is my first half, and listen to you, you’re pros! Done all these marathons before...”
“This is your first half?!?” I expressed with surprise. “I’d probably do a flat one on nice, smooth roads first. Good on you for coming out for this!”
“Yeah, but now I don’t know if I’ll do well. I mean, maybe I’m not prepared, the way you guys are.”
The guy next to me gave legitimate tips on how to run in the hills. I felt like I should say something too, primarily because she was cute (athletic girls with short hair, I’m putty every time). “Uhhh, just run a lot!” I smiled really big. She gave a weak smile back.
Got my bib, pinned it on, stretched, etc. There was a table set up with a map of the course and an elevation profile. The marathon was simply the half marathon, run twice. It would be awfully tempting to finish the first loop and call it quits. Right next to the maps were the course records. For the marathon, the record was 3:33. Um, that’s not that good, I thought to myself. I mean, that’s a good time, but not exactly a great time. Certainly not a course record kind of time. If 3:33 was the best anyone had ever done, well, I was starting to get intimidated.
It’s entertaining to see what people are wearing at the beginning of a race when it’s cold outside. Some people layer a lot. Some people are practically wearing a parka. Some are just wearing their shorts. Arm warmers, leggings, vests, and jackets of all kinds abound. It’s like an athlete-themed Halloween party. My favorite are the guys who are wearing a wool beanie, gloves, and no shirt. I was wearing only a sleeveless shirt and a normal pair of running shorts. Had it been much warmer, I would’ve gone with a lighter singlet. But I kept a jacket and loose pants on until about five minutes before gun time.
Just before the gun, I squeezed into the crowd, already mostly lined up. The 30K and 50K runners had already taken off 15 minutes before. This was now the half-marathon and marathon runners only. Wouldn’t you know it, that cute girl from the bus lined up right behind me. We exchanged a few cheerful/hopeful words of good luck, and just before the gun, she added, “Maybe I’ll see you at the finish, or out on the course somewhere!” She was still wearing earrings.
Like most marathons, from the get-go, I was passing people left and right. Only a couple hundred were starting in my wave, but on a narrow trail, it was frustratingly hard to pass. Maybe I should’ve taken it as a hint - only a couple minutes in, the adrenaline wore off and I noticed that the hill we were climbing was steep. REALLY steep. And not easy to climb. I pressed on anyway, figuring I’d set a strong pace, and I knew the hill was less than two miles long. That’s nothing, right? If I could ditch everyone else on the first hill, maybe I could set myself apart from the pack early on.
Charging up the hill, I noticed a kid. Yes, a kid. An older kid, but a kid. He was wearing ordinary sneakers, not necessarily running shoes, and a plain white T-shirt. He was running at least a half-marathon, and he was holding a great pace, ahead of most of the pack. Granted, we were only a half-mile into the thing, but I was impressed. I ran alongside him for a second.
“How old are you?”
“Damn, man” I gave him a high-five. “You’re awesome. Run hard!”
I ran past him and heard his distinctive breathing right behind me for at least a quarter mile. This kid was tough! As I finally heard his breathing gradually fade out, knowing I was pulling away from him, I hoped he had a great race.
Less than a mile into the race, there was a staircase. No, really. It was a staircase. Not one of those “staircases” you see hiking on a trail, where there’s the occasional log about eight feet apart, but a staircase like you see in a house, made of stone, that would’ve put you on the sixth floor of most buildings. I was the only idiot that decided to charge up the thing at full speed. Yes, I passed a lot of people, but at the top of the stairs, less than a mile into a full marathon, my legs were already going “Are you kidding me?!?”
You know, I thought to myself as I forced my legs to keep moving at the top of the stairs, When I do the second loop, maybe I’ll walk it that time.
At mile 1.2, the slope increased to the point that it might as well have been a second staircase. But with no stairs, and in their place, gravel and loose rocks. I attempted to run up the thing for about 2.3 seconds before I realized that while I might be able to do it, it wouldn’t be worth destroying my legs for the entire rest of the race. 1.2 miles into a marathon, and I was walking. That is absurd. Possibly even more astonishing was the fact that everyone else was walking, too.
Only a couple miles into the marathon, I started passing folks who were doing the 30K or 50K. I was 15 minutes ahead of them after running about two miles. In other words, I was faster than them by about seven minutes per mile. Were they walking the whole thing?
It wasn’t until I started passing people that I noticed how many people were carrying hydration packs, or at least a hip belt with a couple of flasks. It wasn’t exactly hot out (about 45 degrees), and there were aid stations every 4-5 miles. It’s nice to have water whenever you want it, I guess, but not even close to worth the extra 5-10 pounds you’re carrying on your back, especially when you have to lug it up all these hills. I guess for the slower crowd, 4-5 miles means a lot more time, but if they’re not running, then they’re not sweating as hard either. Sometimes I think people have a notion that they need more stuff than they really do.
About three miles in, I was charging down a long, steady downhill - the kind that’s steep enough that it requires virtually no effort, but not so steep that you feel like you have to tap the brakes to maintain control. I only just started noticing the stunning scenery. You could only see hills from this spot, but it was a far cry from about the only other “scenery” I’ve been subjected to during a marathon - glass, concrete, and steel. Give me the hills over a city any day. It was at this point that I got a stitch in my stomach, close to the center, a little to the left, right behind my abs.
WHAT?!? I never get a stitch. But maybe the varying terrain was forcing my core to work harder than normal. It was still very early in the race, and stitches generally don’t just go away - they usually get worse. NOOOO!!!! NOT NOW! I tried my best to just relax my core, especially the left side. After about another mile, it managed to ease away. Good fortune!
4.5 miles in, just past a horse corral, was our first aid station and the spot where the marathon route splits from the 30K and 50K. It was at this point that the trail would get a lot lonelier. I initially turned to skip the aid station, feeling great after the long downhill. I second-guessed myself and turned back around to get a small cup of water, knowing there were another 4.5 miles and two solid hills between me and the next aid station (I wrote down the mileage of each peak on my hand the night before). Glad I did - the next hill was almost as tough as the first. No “holy crap” moments, but long and fairly steep. Around one of the first turns, I saw a figure in red up ahead. Was he running towards me or away? Too small and far away to tell. A few minutes later, I still couldn’t tell. Dammit, the curiosity in me wanted to know, coming or going? Embarrassingly late, I finally deduced that if he hasn’t gotten any bigger after a few minutes, he’s going the same direction, and at about the same speed.
About halfway up the hill, I was passed by a 6’3” guy with long hair and a grey shirt, with legs up to his face. He was barely moving any faster than me. The guy in red was finally a little closer by this time. As the grey-shirted guy passed me, his watch started beeping.
“Your TV dinner’s done?”
“No, I’m late for work. I overslept!”
“Well, you better run!”
He got away from me on the hill, but once we finally reached the first peak and the terrain started rolling, I was able to catch back up to him. The two of us starting talking a little. Seemed like a good guy. Just at the second peak, we finally caught the red shirt, after chasing him for almost three miles. I led the charge down a narrow singletrack trail on the side of a hill, a section that included the best scenery to that point. Breathtaking views of Sausalito, the bay, and the Golden Gate Bridge with the San Francisco skyline in the background. It was a clear, sunny day, with no wind and cool temperatures that were perfect for running. I could hardly be doing anything better at 9 AM on a weekend.
Halfway through the long downhill, I finally pulled away from the other two. The terrain got gnarled and tricky, and I think my short legs were able to scramble over it better than the other two. Made a brief stop at aid station 2, where the other two guys caught up to me, though I took off first. A short-but-steep hill, then more down. This was great. At mile 10.5 though, another short-but-steep uphill, and muddy. I knew this would be a challenge 13 miles later.
Immediately after the muddy hill, we hit asphalt for the first time since the first mile of the race. Felt weird, like stepping on dry land after being on a sailboat for a few days. Just a few more miles of cruising downhill, and I was at the start/finish. Halfway there.
I felt great, thanks to the generous amount of downhill in the last five miles, and running farther didn’t sound so dreadful. I started back up that first hill in high spirits. Less than half a mile later, I was brutally reminded of something: this hill was hard, and a full marathon is not easy.
By the time I hit the staircase, which I walked this time, the grey shirt was just behind me. At the top, I started up slowly, and he just kept motoring up the hill. On the slope a half-mile later, I started trying to power walk up the thing and saw him near the top of the slope, almost ready to start running again. By the time I finished the slope, he was pretty far ahead of me. No worries. I try not to compare myself to other people.
The downhill felt just as great as the first time, and I had a smile on my face when I arrived at the first aid station for the second time. I downed a packet of peanut butter and some more water, then started off towards the hill in high spirits. Just as I was leaving, I thought I heard one of the volunteers calling out to me, and thought I heard the words “Number three.”
“Nothing! Well, uh, you’re a minute and a half behind the guy in front of you.”
“And he’s in first?”
“No, that guy’s WAY out front. You’re in third.”
I had thought that the second loop would be almost completely empty, devoid of other people. Something about the 30K and 50K routes starting 15 minutes off, as well as the difference in distance, I figured that was to separate us so we wouldn’t run into each other. But as soon as I passed rest stop #1 for the second time, I was passing people on a frequent basis. The 30K was a single loop, meaning the folks I was passing were roughly eight miles behind me, despite starting 15 minutes earlier. Almost all of them had hydration packs. All of them were walking.
The hill between miles 4 and 7 was tough the first time, but the second time, it was damn near diabolical. Steeper, longer, more difficult in almost every conceivable way. At least it seemed that way. Somehow I didn’t remember it going on for so long the last time. I kept looking down at my watch, expecting to see it jump up by something like half a mile, and it would only be 0.1 miles higher. I deliberately changed my gait to make climbing easier, mostly by taking smaller steps, knowing it would slow me down but still save my legs in the long run. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally made it to the peak, the most significant of the entire course. It helped to know the landmarks so I knew when I was getting close.
If the downhill made running easier last time, it felt like turning on the afterburners this time. Almost immediately, I was running like those first 19 miles didn’t happen. Just then, the trail made an inconspicuous turn. Having done it once before, I found the right trail with no hesitation, but while approaching it, I saw two walkers up ahead, both with hydration packs on, turning in all directions like they were looking for something.
“Are y’all in the race?”
“Here!” I pointed, then ran.
I looked at my watch again. Wait...I’m at almost 20 miles?!? Really?!? I should be hitting the wall now. I should feel like I’ve been running forever, and these last six miles should be hell. But I didn’t feel like that. I kinda felt like I was in the middle of a normal, slightly long run. A good sign, to be sure. I’ve never felt that good at mile 20 in a marathon.
This time, instead of leading the charge down the hill, I kept getting stuck behind people on the descent. The trail in this section was too narrow to allow safe passing. But you know what? That was alright. The walkers were now jogging on the downhill, and it felt good to run easy for a minute or two. Every so often, there would be a wide spot where I could pass, and I’d just catch up to the next group a minute or two later. One particular section of tricky terrain had me scampering over the scree like a mountain goat. I turned towards the view of the bay, the bridge, and the city. I spread my arms out wide and let my face make a broad grin. This was my turf now. I am in the act of conquering it. I brought my hands down to my sides, bobbed my head a few times, then beat my chest. Ow. That hurts when your heart is racing. I made a note not to do that again.
But that last hill. It’s always that last hill, isn’t it? It wasn’t long. It was only kinda steep. It was still kinda muddy. I tried just pushing through the thing, forcing my way through one last hill. But it didn’t happen that way. Twice, I just couldn’t pull the strength together and walked for a couple steps, then almost immediately started up again. Once at the top, I moved onto the pavement, which didn’t feel as weird this time.
Looking at my watch, I probably had no more than two miles left, with about 20 minutes left to break the course record. I hadn’t passed the guy in the grey shirt though, nor anyone else that was probably running the marathon. I was probably still in third. A chance to break the course record, and yet in third place.
Those last two miles felt great. I was probably running a slower than average pace, but I was perfectly happy with them being effortless, rather than fast. Coming down that last hill, the little beach cove that served as the start/finish area looked so beautiful. As I approached the finish and started passing people walking back to their cars, most of them cheered me on. I wondered if they deduced I was running the marathon, based on my pace and my time, or if they could tell by my bib number. It didn’t really matter. Crossed the finish line smiling in 3:27, beating the course record by six minutes.
There was no one there at the finish line. I grabbed some snacks off a table, then started asking around about finisher’s medals and T-shirts. This is a different kind of marathon, very casually run. I like it though, it felt more personal. Wanted to wait and see the official results, and had to wait for a shuttle back to the start line anyway. So I just hung out for a while. Ate some more snacks. Met the guy who finished first. He obliterated the course record by about 20 minutes. The grey shirt was nowhere to be found. I don’t know why we had three people break the course record the same day, but the perfect conditions might’ve had something to do with it.
Some people were just starting their second lap. I don't know how they do it. Sure, I ran fast, but these people were putting themselves through a loooong day. In a way, they're the real heroes. A few other people had taken nasty falls during the marathon and had bad scrapes on their hands and knees. One guy in particular had both his hands entirely soaked in bright red. Hey, my legs are sore, but at least I’m not bleeding...
The results came out, and wouldn’t you know it, the guy in the grey shirt was in my age division. Broke the course record, but came in third and couldn’t even win my friggin’ age division. I hung out a little longer, enough for the organizers to break out the cooler of beer. I happily took one in, then hopped on a shuttle to my car and headed home.
I honestly had no idea what to expect from this, but I knew there was a good chance that this could be chalked up as “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” And on a technical level, one could make a case for it. But incredibly, I felt about the best after a marathon that I ever have. When I got home, I wound up walking about three miles with my roommate to go out to a dinner I wasn’t even hungry for, and wound up not ordering anything. A walk just sounded nice! Had an easy evening of leftover bison chili, frozen pizza, and a movie. My legs were stiff and sore the next day, but not horribly. If I weren’t so tired that I needed the sleep, I would’ve still woken up early and gone for my normal morning run.
I’m definitely doing another one. I might be hooked.