San Francisco 50-Mile Endurance Run
As I was pinning my bib to my shorts, a thought occurred to me:
"What the hell am I doing?"
I had never run this distance before. Not even close. The longest race I’d ever done was a 50k, only a few weeks prior, and it did a number on me. This would be 19 miles longer than that. And compared to a marathon, my "usual" distance, but still very long and challenging, this was essentially twice as long. A comparison would be trying to run a marathon after never running more than 15 miles, and with a typical long run of 13 miles, done only every other week (by the time you run a marathon, your weekly long run should be about 20 miles). I felt like I was wholly unprepared. And I had no strategy whatsoever, no idea what to do in a race like this. Still grasping for ideas, I struck up conversations with other runners, some of which I'd seen at other races.
"Oh, it's not so bad," Lucas insisted, "Once you get to a certain level of pain, you don't notice any more. And you can just kind of deal with it, it plateaus; at some point it can't get any worse." I couldn't tell if that sounded good or bad.
"Definitely start out slow, but the way you handle marathons, well.." Chris paused, "what time are you shooting for, anyway?"
"I have no idea what I'm doing."
The best time I was hoping for was nine hours. Nine. I would be either running or too exhausted to run for nine friggin' hours. There were over 10,000 feet of elevation to climb (and descend), the equivalent of running from sea level to Denver - and back down - twice. Again, what the hell am I doing?!?
10,000 feet, mind you, is about the same amount of climbing as you'll find in the Leadville 100, widely considered one of the hardest ultra-distance races in existence. It takes place in Leadville, CO, and the course is 100 miles (as the name implies). But if it has about the same amount of climbing as this race, that means that mile-for-mile, this race has twice the climbing found at Leadville. I've said it many times before, but I'll put California's hills up against Colorado's mountains any day of the week. They may start at lower elevation out here, but they don't mess around.
Fortunately, I didn't have too much time to think about it. Lined up with a smaller crowd than usual, only about 70 people, and took off early on a foggy morning. Only half a mile up the first hill, Lucas called,
"See ya, Rob! Think this is the last time I'm gonna see you!"
"Bullshit!" I answered back. "About two miles after marathon distance, my legs are gonna say, 'Hey, what the hell is going on? We should be done and drinking a beer by now!'"
I wanted to take it easy, and was trying to, but at some point, it was almost harder to run slower. I train almost exclusively for the marathon distance, and running slower than that feel unnatural to me, to the point that it's actually harder. This course had a lot in common with the Golden Gate Trail Run, which I had now done twice, making me familiar with the trails. I walked up the big staircase early on, but thankfully the trail didn't do the second might-as-well-be-a-staircase section. Instead, it split off to the right and headed downhill earlier.
Four miles in, I was at the first aid station, already in first place.
"Look at you!" a volunteer said, one that knows me well by now. "You're not carrying anything!"
"Nahh, I hate carrying anything."
"Yeah, you're always so light and speedy! Can I get you anything?"
Since this was a longer race, I made it a point to eat and drink a little more than I normally would. The shorter a race is, the more you can stretch out the amount of energy your body naturally stores. In a 10k, you shouldn't need anything. In a half marathon, maybe one gel, but if you drink a lot of sports drink, that could be enough. In a marathon, a little more. But in this race? If you don't keep eating, you're going to run out of energy. Your body can only store enough energy to get you through (for most people) roughly 20 miles, which is why mile 20 is often known as "hitting the wall"; it's where a lot of people go into caloric depletion, completely devoid of any remaining chemical energy. This race was more than twice as long as 20 miles. Replacing calories would be essential.
Headed out on the next leg of trail. What I had just done, I would only need to do about 12 more times. And I'd already done one of the steepest hills of the course. That has to count for something, right?
The section between the first and second aid station, without a doubt, was my favorite part of the course. It certainly wasn't easy, but was a singletrack trail on the edge of a steep hill that plunges into the Pacific Ocean. How do you beat that? Well, maybe if it was a clear day, allowing us to see more (it was still foggy on the tops of hills). But the outstanding views seemed to give me a natural high that made the running a little easier.
Aid station 2 involved a significant out-and-back. Heading to it, you descend a steep hill. Wonderful, now I just get to climb out of this. Scarfed some food and headed out. I was no more than a minute ahead of second place. Managed to plod my way back up the hill and keep going.
Here and there, I found myself on a steep descent, the kind that forces you to hit the brakes and trot down carefully, rather than running through it. In normal situations, I already don't like those, since not only does it take more energy than running on flat ground, but I feel like I'm not getting a return on all the climbing I did to earn it. But today, it was even worse: since the second lap would come back the other way, a downhill that steep meant I had to climb up it later. That was going to be hell.
Soon enough, I arrived at aid station 3, the same location as the first one, and where I had left my drop bag. I finally grabbed a little something out of it and took off up the hill again. Having done the Golden Gate Trail Run twice before, this was the fifth time I was heading up this steady, exceedingly long hill.
Maybe half a mile in, I saw someone that looked familiar ahead of me.
"Stacie?" She had earphones in. She didn't turn around. When I got even with her, she turned her head and her face brightened.
"HEY!!! Are you in the ultra race?"
"I think you left a shirt at my place! It's all black, with nothing on it."
"Oh yeah, I know that one! Hey, I'm gonna keep running."
Stacie is a friend of mine that I met at another Coastal Trail Run. We both did the San Francisco Marathon, and I stayed at her place in San Francisco the night before. Apparently I left a shirt behind, one of my favorites in fact, and somehow hadn't noticed yet. It occurred to me that it was a black shirt, and here I was, wearing an all-black running kit, including the shoes. I laughed to myself. I wonder if you could guess what my favorite color is?
Luckily, today's course split off from the uphill a little early, keeping us from doing the entire thing. Headed downhill for what seemed like a long time, until the trail flattened out for a mile or so. Chugged into the fourth aid station, still in first and still feeling pretty good. Downed a little more food and headed out. It was only 3.5 miles to the next aid station, but this would be the first aid station on top of a hill. Most of the miles would be climbing.
The first mile, though, was still almost entirely flat. Normally, this would be the point in the race where I would try to make up some time, but in this kind of race, there was really no point. I just focused on moving. Soon enough, another big hill, fortunately the last major one of the first loop. Upon cresting the top, we were back on a familiar trail, the section of the Golden Gate Trail Run that slowly descends on the side of a hill on narrow singletrack, a trail that's a blast to run. There was a lot of fog, a lot of moisture, and a lot of wind. I started feeling cold.
Felt pretty good when I hit aid station 5 at mile 20. There were five miles to go, longer than any stretch between aid stations, but they were almost entirely downhill. I'd done this exact section of trail many times before. Not only was it downhill, but it was the kind that's a nice, steady decline most of the way, easy to run effortlessly and at speed. I took some time at the aid station and joked around with them a little bit. Particularly jovial folks at this one. I left looking forward to seeing them again in an hour and a half.
As I charged through the long downhill, a few mountain bikers passed me. About half of them commented on how fast I was moving, "You're flying man!" and "You're killin' it!" I dunno, I didn't feel like I was running that fast, and it's downhill, what do you expect? Maybe they'd seen how far back the next guy was, and I'd opened up a big lead. I hoped so.
I finally reached the start/finish line. 25 miles in. Lap one. Such an odd feeling. It was demoralizing to think I was already tired and only halfway done. But then I thought to myself, I know a lot of people that can't run this far, about a marathon. And of those that can, some of them couldn't over this kind of terrain. And of those, I'm guessing very few could do it in 3:25. I was still nervous about the second half, and if I did that well on the first half, maybe that meant I hadn't saved enough for later. But it also made me feel like I could do anything, and that was a good thought.
When I got to the halfway point, the clock read 2:25.
"OK, I know that's wrong." I pointed at the clock.
"Oh yeah!" Wendell, the race director, walked over. "Almost all our races start at 8:00, and I had it set for that. This one started at 7:00. So just add an hour." He fiddled with something on the back, and the correct time displayed.
"I was gonna say, 'Man, that's my fastest marathon ever!!!'"
The volunteers laughed, "Yeah, if you'd been that fast, I'd be worried about your second half!"
I started off on the second loop, counter-clockwise this time. This race did "washing-machine loops," first clockwise, then counter-clockwise (and if you're doing the 100-mile, then you turn around and do clockwise again, then counter-clockwise again). I like that, since it makes you see the course in a different way, even though it makes the race a virtual out-and-back.
Heading out from the start/finish/halfway point, I knew that this should technically be the hardest section between aid stations; not only was it the longest, but going this direction, it was almost entirely uphill. I set my mind on its "patience" setting (which isn't very strong) and concentrated on working my way up the hill. It wasn't until almost a mile had passed that I saw the second place runner. That would mean I'm almost two miles ahead. Nice! Of course, I'm very good at this distance; it's essentially like running a marathon. There was a good chance I was going up against some ultrarunning veterans, guys that know their way around a race like this. The second half would probably belong to them. So while I may have a solid lead now, it could easily be fleeting. And I had no idea how my body would react after 30 miles or so.
I kept seeing more and more runners as I went, and with each one, it became more difficult to deliver my chipper "Good morning!" Arriving at the first aid station again perked me up a little, though. There were "only" 20 miles to go, and while there were several hills in between, I was on top of one of them now. From here to the end should overall be downhill. Maybe that meant something.
Between mouthfuls of increasingly-hard-to-chew snack food, I asked the volunteers,
"So, uh, weathering and erosion should make the hills flatter by now, right?"
They laughed, "Yeah, I think you're right!"
"And tectonic shift, that should make the course a little shorter?"
"Oh yeah, easily. You'll be done before you know it."
"Great!" I headed out again.
It was only 3.5 miles to the next aid station, and mostly downhill, but it seemed like it took forever to get there. Coming down the long hill, I kept looking across the valley for a canopy tent and could never see one. Then the trail flattened out again and went on for at least a mile before I finally saw the turn-off. I guess I should've remembered that from last time, but I didn't. It just seemed like a long time, somehow.
I was still passing people, 2/3 of the way into the race. I was literally twice as far along as they were. Goodness gracious, that's hard to imagine. If they were doing the 50-miler, they would easily be out here past dark. And the 100-miler? I didn't even want to think about how long that would take. Longer than I would put up with, for sure. And this was in the early going. They would probably slow down. I dunno how people like that keep going.
It was still before noon when I got to the aid station, about 11:40. Going into this thing, I would’ve been happy with finishing in nine hours. It was starting to look like eight was possible! And I only had 16.3 miles to go. I took off from the aid station, in a good mood and doing some math in my head. If I could manage an average of 5 mph from here on out, that would do it. Of course, I had only walked once to this point, and I fully expected that to start happening at some point. But overall, I felt like I was in a great position.
Then I caught myself. Only 16.3 miles? Only three hours, 20 minutes? What the hell?!? Those are hardly good things, that would mean I've got over half a marathon to go, and three hours is a LOT of time to keep running. It was only then that I fully realized that this kind of race merely has a loose grip on what would normally be called sanity.
As I made my way up the long, steady hill that would take me to the next aid station, I felt warm. The thought of ditching my shirt crossed my mind. The sun hadn't come out yet; there was still a thick cloud bank over the tops of the hills. But I felt warm, and that's what really matters. I kept staring up at the fog line, trying to figure out if it was starting to lift. I sure hoped so. Reaching the cloud bank had been my benchmark to that point that I had done some serious climbing. It seemed like it was taking longer and longer to get to that point, and more effort too. I told myself that it was higher now. Better than thinking that I'm weaker.
Heading up the hill, I could see a ridge in the distance with an electrical tower on top. "That must be the summit," I thought. "I can't see anything over that, and there's a tower on top. They usually put those on the tops of hills. In fact, I bet the trail shoots a gap that's lower than that and heads back down." I kept running. And running. And running, uphill all the way. Eventually, I found myself even with the tower. It was at that point that I could see the second hill behind it. My heart dropped. Nothing to do but keep running, though.
My calves were burning, my achilles tendon was aching, and my arches weren't happy by the time I crested the hill. Heading back down the hill to Tennessee Valley, I thought about the five times I'd already climbed up this godforsaken hill, and for once, I was running down it. A satisfied smile spread across my face. That's right hill, I'm in charge now.
The wind kicked up again as I headed down. I immediately got cold. I still hadn't walked since the staircase in the first mile. Yeah, not a bad idea to keep the shirt on.
Arrived back at Tennessee Valley, the aid station we would pass four times, and where I had left my drop bag. By now, I wasn't feeling too good.
"I still have almost a half-marathon to go!" I whined to the volunteers.
"No, you only have three aid stations to go!"
"As I recall, with a major hill in between each one."
"Ahhh, speed bumps! You're doing great!"
Even if it doesn't always work, the volunteers with these folks are outstanding at trying to find a way to lift your spirits. I took a little extra time at this aid station and headed for Muir Beach. It was getting hard to start back up again after an aid station. My legs were stiff. My back ached. My ankles hurt. My feet were sore. My head felt funny.
"Shut up, body!" I told myself, "You'll run 12 more miles and like it!"
It's with a small amount of pride that I mention I was about 40 miles in before I finally started walking (aside from that first staircase). Just a steep hill where running up would do more harm than good. Walked for probably less than a minute, then picked right back up, even when the trail was still heading uphill. It felt like the distance between aid stations kept getting farther and farther away; I would get to a point and guess that I'd done at least two miles, but then when I thought about all the landmarks I'd seen the first time around and hadn't come across yet, I knew I still had a long way to go. And the last mile before each aid station, even though it was always downhill, just seemed to take forever.
Coming down the steep hill to Muir Beach, I stopped in my tracks for a second. My feet hurt. My legs ached. My head didn't feel itself. My forearms, pinkies, and ring fingers were tingling, on both arms and hands. But ahead of me was a quiet, pristine beach with perfect, gentle waves breaking on regular intervals, and beautiful but modest houses dotting a hill above a eucalyptus forest. I live out here. And I'm on a trail run out here. The weather is damn near ideal. I've run 41 miles! Is there some reason I should be unhappy right now?
I continued down the hill and made my way to the aid station. First thing I did, I asked, "What time is it? Like time of day?"
A kid looked at his watch. "1:07." I had almost two hours to log eight miles if I wanted to finish in under eight hours.
"That's good!" I started eating everything I could get my hands on. My back no longer wanted to keep me upright. I kept leaning on the table.
"Uhhh, do you want to sit down?"
"No! I'll never get back up!"
"Anything you need?"
I took my time at this aid station too. After a while, I came to the conclusion that I didn't need to eat any more, or anything else, and I was just stalling to keep myself from running again. I said my thank-yous and headed out again. By now, I had to force my legs back up to a jog, but once they got going, they felt better.
Right where the trail turns back into a loop, I saw the second-place runner. I felt like a mile had passed, but I reminded myself how slow everything was moving to that point. It was probably less. Chances are 3/4 of a mile had passed, and he was now about 1.5 miles back. With seven miles to go, I would normally write that off as a win at that point. But this race was different, merely walking up one hill that he didn't could make up for that entire lead. And I felt like crap. And this guy could easily be a veteran, just waiting for me to slow down. He looked strong when I saw him, almost like he was in a good mood. I probably looked like crap.
Back on my favorite part of the course, my mood brightened, but only slightly. It certainly wasn't easy. And when it finally turned up and inland to get over the hill? Holy crap. I walked again. I started getting mad at the trail itself. What the hell was the point of going up and over these hills just go back down again, and back up later? There HAD to be another way through. Right? Why are we doing this? I started to feel like the trail was designed specifically to torment me. Personally.
As I tried power-walking up the hill, I saw a hiker ahead. I wanted to catch him. When I did, I figured I'd ask him, "Please tell me Tennessee Valley is close by! Please tell me this is the last hill before then! Please tell me it's all a long, steady decline from there on out!" I never caught him, even though I was walking about as fast as I could. I had the idea that even when I had to walk, if I could walk quickly, that could be a difference-maker.
I finally got over the hill and headed down. Luckily, it was the last hill before the aid station, and the downhill was a near-ideal slope. But upon reaching the bottom, it was probably at least a mile of very frustrating flat before I finally arrived. I tried to pee for about the fourth time. For whatever reason, I kept feeling like I had to, and never did.
At the aid station, I couldn't tell if I felt better or worse than I did last time around. Probably worse, but the thought that I was very close to finishing put me in high spirits, or at least about as high as they were gonna get. And maybe Lucas was right about reaching a level of discomfort, then plateau-ing. For once, I sat down as I ate and drank. I think that wound up paying off later. Even though my achilles tendon was barking at me here and there, I felt no need to change shoes. It didn't seem like an issue of cushion and impact, but simply overuse and fatigue. I kept telling myself, "One last hill." I took in slightly less at this last aid station, knowing that if I ate any more, it probably wouldn't take effect by the time I finished anyway.
I was feeling good heading up the last hill! Long and steady, but I was holding strong! I was even trailing another non-racing runner most of the way, slowly making up ground until I finally passed her. If I'm passing people after 46 miles, I'm doing great! But then I thought about the second-place guy. Sure, I'm doing great, but he wouldn't be out here at all if he wasn't a good runner himself, much less would he be this close to me. I kept at it. I considered pushing harder. After all, this is the last hill, save myself for what? And then I thought, oh yeah, I have three races in the next three consecutive weekends. And there's also the whole don't-get-injured thing. Maybe it's best to just stick to what I know I can do.
I looked to my right. Huge hills. I knew that the finish line was just on the other side of them. I couldn't remember if the trail went over or around (probably something in between), but they looked like they were still at least a mile away, even as the crow flies. This still wasn't going to be easy. The trail curved around and finally started hugging the big hill, now turning back to singletrack. I came around a corner and saw it shoot upwards.
"Are you kidding me?!?"
I couldn't believe the trail did that crap. Haven't I suffered enough? I walked again.
It was a feeling of elation when I finally made it over the ridge and saw the beach, and more importantly, the finish line below. There were no more hills to climb. This was it. Just a nice, long trot down the hill and I'm done. I was still in the lead. I worried that second place wasn't far behind. I'm not known for being the best at downhills, and my legs were obviously tired. If second place happened to be close behind me and good at descending, he could win the whole thing right here. I made it a point not to take it easy. I didn't consider it necessary to plow down the hill at full speed, wrecking my knees and risking a hard fall, but I didn't want to ease back either. Let's finish this thing.
As I descended the final hill and looked out over the Pacific Ocean, I wish I could say something meaningful about the deep, reflective thoughts going through my head, about how I thought about how far I'd come, the obstacles I'd faced, the challenge I had stared down. And of course, I could certainly make something up. But that's not how it happened. About the only thoughts going through my head at that point involved getting down the damn hill and finishing the friggin' race. Then laying down or something.
I kept looking over my shoulder, up the hill, to see if I could see a figure in red coming down the hill after me. Never did. When I finally reached the point that there were only a couple switchbacks left, I heard cheering arise from the parking lot. This was it! I finally hit bottom at the end of the hill and slow-jogged across the parking lot, arms outstreched. Final time was 7:45, over an hour better than I expected! And a first-place finish, which I hadn't expected at all.
15 minutes later, second place came through. He jogged easy across the finish line, kept walking, grabbed his belt buckle, and smiled. "Thanks guys!" Then he left.
What?!? It was like nothing had happened!
"Oh, that's Dan," the race director explained, "he does 100-mile runs consistently. This was a training run for him."
So he could've whupped my behind, only he basically didn't feel like it. Thanks, I guess!
There were a handful of hipsters at the finish line, grilling corn on the cob.
"What was your favorite part of the race?" they asked.
"This!" I answered, sitting on a bench, shoveling food in my mouth. They laughed. "No, really, I'd say the oceanside trail between Tennessee Valley and Muir Beach. Wasn't easy, but beautiful, and really fun. At least the first time." They nodded.
Normally, Coastal Trail Runs has an impressive spread of snacks at the finish line. Trail mix. Clif bars. Brownie bites. Cinnamon rolls. M&Ms. Peanut butter cups. Goldfish. Pretzels. At least two kinds of fresh fruit. Just about anything you could want after a long race. Oh, and beer. This time, on top of all that, they were grilling chicken, sausage, and hamburgers. NICE. I took in two pieces of chicken and a sausage, which had a pleasing spicy kick. I love that these guys know what we really want after a race.
I wound up hanging out at the finish area for at least two hours. When you're that exhausted, it's hard to move at all. Moving away from a spot with a lot of free food makes it even harder. When I walked to my car, I noticed I was limping slightly.
I am nothing but happy about my result. Even though the second half took about an hour longer than the first, I feel like I hung in there better than I should have, and had a much better time than expected. Sometimes I don't even manage 50 training miles in a week. A lot of people don't do that in a month, and I bet that a disappointingly large portion of the American population doesn't even manage to run or walk 50 miles in year. I did it in less than a day. And winning my first 50-miler, when marathon is my distance? That's like someone who's very good at half-marathons taking on a marathon with almost no extra preparation, and winning on their first try. Not normal, and pretty awesome. But I think I'm going back to marathons and 50ks for now.
But I definitely need to find a belt that takes a belt buckle. I guess I'm going shopping next weekend. I hate shopping...