Golden Gate Trail 50k
After a series of misadventures involving two cars that wouldn't start, I made it to the start line less than 30 seconds before the gun, without stretching. I had wanted to at least try to use the bathroom, but it wasn't urgent, and I saw that there was a line at least 15 minutes long. I could probably just hold it until the first aid station.
As memory served, the first hill on this course is a doozy. Learning from past mistakes, I walked up the staircase this time. And when I say "staircase," I don't mean like on hiking trails when you see a log and a dropoff every three meters. I mean this was a bonafide man-made staircase, steeper than one you'd see in a house. Managed to jog up the rest of the hill. It was incredibly foggy at the top, to the point that I kept my head down because I couldn't see more than about three meters in front of me anyway. For now, the fog was keeping us in the shade, but I hoped the fog would lift at some point, because this course has awesome views. All the same, running through foggy hills makes the world seem slightly magical.
Trotted down to the first aid station, where the 30k and 50k courses split off. Thought about the toilet, but still felt pretty good, so I thought I'd wait until after the loop and took off. This hill...holy crap. Steep, and went on a loooong time. I was glad it came early, because taking it on late in the race wouldn't go so well. Afterwards, I was rewarded with some of the best scenery of the entire course, though it was partially obscured by clouds and fog. Seemed like there were a lot of non-racing runners on these trails this morning.
When I got back to the aid station 5.6 miles later, there were a ton of people there and a line had formed for the toilet. "You mean there's a line for this one too?!?" They turned and nodded defeatedly. Took in some water and peanut butter and headed up yet another hill.
With the exception of out-and-back courses, this was the most crowded section of a trail run I've ever seen. Mostly half-marathoners I guess, most wearing hydration packs, almost all walking. I had done literally twice the mileage to that point. The half-marathons only cost something like $40, and I can see how going for a great hike, having it all planned for you, getting snacks along the way, a meal at the end, and even a beer or two, would be worth the money and a good way to spend a Sunday morning. It's still strange to me, but I just accepted that they're in a completely different race than I am. Sometimes you have to recognize that not everyone does things the same way you do.
I made my way up the hill, 2.5 miles long, trying not to burn myself out less than halfway through the race. Still, I didn't want to fall too far behind either. I was out in front of the 50k crowd, but when you are, you never know by how much. Tried to give a word of encouragement to folks I passed, especially if they said something to me.
Crested the hill and entered a eucalyptus forest. The wind was pushing the fog into the trees, which were collecting the moisture and dripping onto the forest floor. It was like it was sprinkling, and the trail had turned to mud. I laughed and turned to the guy next to me, "Bet you didn't know this was a mud run, huh?"
Upon leaving the eucalyptus forest, the trail turns to narrow singletrack for the first time. I LOVE running on singletrack, but hate getting stuck behind people. Guess what happened? Only about half moved to the side. I honestly don't like announcing "on your left," because in situations like that, it sounds too much to me like "GET OUT OF MY WAY!!!" I just jogged easy behind people, hoping they'd take the hint. When they didn't, I ran up the slope next to them, bounded over shrubs and rocks, and came back down on the trail. It was like doing tricks on a half-pipe. Kinda fun, actually! But I still shouldn't have to do it.
I finally used the bathroom at aid station #3, but with little success. Bummer. Waste of a minute, I guess. Fueled up and headed out for the last 4.5 miles of the first loop, almost all downhill.
Going into the race, I had this fantasy that I'd finish the 50k before the first marathon finisher. I also had the (more realistic) goal of finishing in under 4:00. As I crossed the start/finish line and headed out for my second loop, 13 miles to go, I looked at my watch. 2:22. I'd have to run a half-marathon in 1:38, or in other words, at a faster pace than I'd been running so far. Yeah, that's not happening. And that means I'm probably not going to succeed in that ridiculous idea of beating all the marathoners. But I could certainly still win the 50k. And as a plus, this loop would only have three major hills as opposed to five. And it's shorter!
Managed to get up the first hill only walking the staircase again, but this time I could tell it was taking a toll on me. Coming down the backside, I was having trouble running "my" way. Still moving at a decent clip, but things felt different; in general, I felt weak. But now there were only two hills to go, and the worst one was over. I left the aid station and headed up the long hill with hope and trepidation.
Again, strategy was the same: short, quick steps, even rhythm, keep moving. Definitely slower this time, but I was still proud of getting up the hill without issue (or walking). Upon entering the eucalyptus forest, I noticed something: I really wasn't running my normal way. I was almost jogging. I sped up for a little bit and noticed that took significant effort. There were still seven miles to go. That might not be the best idea.
By now, the wind had picked up and became a factor that you had to account for. Coming around a corner the wrong way, or even just descending along a ridge, you had to aim a little to the right to stay on course and hold your footing. On the ridge, the wind was rushing over the top, blowing the fog against you hard enough that it stuck and got you wet. I was beginning to feel cold. I started looking forward to descending more and getting between the cracks of the hills, out of the wind.
Showed up at the final aid station, happy to see it. Wasn't feeling my best.
"How're you doin'?"
"I'm beat to shit."
"Well, you don't look it!"
I bet I did, but that was nice of them to say. Took in a lot more than I normally would. And considering there were only 4.5 miles left, probably more than would be effective in time. As I stood there chewing, another runner approached. His bib started with a 5. Competition. By the time I could swallow, he left.
I headed down the hill, thinking I could probably catch him. Every time the trail switched back or you could see ahead a ways, I kept looking for his bright orange shirt. Couldn't see it. Couldn't see it. Couldn't see it. He was clearly far ahead of me, too far to catch up. Which I should've expected, considering he caught up to me after a downhill section, he would probably continue running faster than me on another downhill section. I started wondering if there was anything I could've done differently to make up for the one or two minutes that were costing me now. Less time at aid stations. Not stopping for the bathroom. Having enough time to stretch before the race. Not gaining those four pounds. Hell, not wearing myself out push-starting two cars that morning! But after a while, I realized it wasn't worth worrying about.
Closed out the last few miles of the race, a little slow by my standards, but not that bad. Finished in 4:13, slower than I wanted, but still better than the old course record by 27 minutes. The winner beat me by five minutes. He had passed me with only 4.5 miles to go. That meant he was beating me by a over a minute per mile (an eternity), and was running each of those miles in 5:30. Downhill or not, doing that with 27 miles and 6,320 feet of climbing behind you is impressive! All those things I'd wondered about as the cause of my demise; the bathroom break, the lack of stretching, all seemed moot now. I just got licked.
For my first ultra-marathon, I'm pleased. A second-place finish, better than the old course record, and a halfway-decent finish. I never fully slammed into the wall, but I was standing right in front and tapping on it. And this was a challenging course, even by Coastal Trail Run standards. Next time I'll probably do better. Onward!