John Muir Trail

John Muir Trail

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Race Report: Marin Ultra Challenge 50-Miler

Run Hard or Run Home?

The Backstory

A little over a month ago I ran the Sean O'Brien 100k and got into the Wasatch Front 100 in the same weekend.  Other than those two races, I had nothing on the books, and hadn't planned to run anything in March.

Meanwhile, my girlfriend is training for the Leona Divide 50 miler, and was looking to run a 50k race as a training run to test out nutrition, pacing, and equipment.  She found the Marin Ultra Challenge 50k in Marin County and asked if I'd want to come race if she ran it as a training run.  The area is beautiful and the trails are fun, so I hopped on board to run the 50-mile distance while she ran the 50k.  The 50-mile is not an easy course, with 11,100 feet of claimed total ascent, and I was excited to see what it had in store for me.

My recovery from SOB had been pretty lackadaisical, but my core was doing OK and the legs felt strong, so I figured I could hammer out a 50 miler to gage what kind of progress I had made since I last raced in the area at the 2013 North Face Endurance Challenge 50-miler.

I had been watching the weather reports during the week leading up to the race, and the last that I checked, they read about 75 degrees and sunny at the hottest portion of the day.  I didn't check the weather for the 3 or so days leading up to the race, so I really didn't know what to expect on race day and planned for 75 degrees.  The RD sent out a couple pre-race emails, and both said to prepare for heat, which is fine, so I showed up on the starting line in a singlet and shorts with 2 water bottles, ready to go.

My nutrition plan was the same as SOB: drink 200 cal/hr of Tailwind and supplement with gels and chips as necessary.  1 bottle in my vest would have the calorie drink, and the other would have plain water for cooling and drinking.  Possibly relevant to the report is that I had just had my lip operated on that week and so I had some stitches to deal with and was on antibiotics to prevent infection.  Does that stuff affect heart rate?

 The Race

The race is a low key setup: a field with parking, some tables/tents for race business and aid, and a blow-up starting arch.  This was nice, because it was easy to get ready at the car and be right there at the starting line.  The aforementioned field is located at Marin's Fort Baker, which sits almost directly beneath the North End of the Golden Gate Bridge, and provided for some stellar views of the lit-up bridge in the early morning darkness of the start.  A great way to begin the day!

View from the starting area.  Photo Courtesy of Crista Scott.

The horn went off about 10 minutes after 6am and we took off into the darkness via a paved road for the first half mile or so.  I opted to go out hard because, though I did not know this first portion of the course, I guessed that we would be in single-track soon and did not want to get caught in a conga-line for the first miles of the race.  I silo-ed myself into my headlamp beam and blazed past most of the pack to situate myself in the top 20 or 30 runners.  Both the 50-mile and 50k runners started at the same time, so I really had no idea who ahead of me would be hammering for 30 miles or 50, so I tried to settle myself into a nice spot where I could climb at my own pace and also not block anyone out who wanted to hammer.

The after a few paved curves of climbing, the course took a hard left onto some wood-beam stairs on single track and the trail portion began.  The trail was winding and well maintained...a great start for the run, but as I glanced down when the first mile ticked off, I noticed that my heart rate was already through the roof! "178??? Damn, that's way to high...I don't feel like I'm climbing that hard!" I thought to myself, but I quickly reminded myself that I was probably propped up on starting line adrenaline and that I should obey the heart rate monitor.

After trying, unsuccessfully, to dial the heart rate back into what I would consider a more manageable range (150-160 is where I normally climb at), I decided that today was a good day to die and that I'd run at this effort level until I blew up.  I settled in somewhere in the 160s and went for it.

A cursory study of the race profile showed 9 major climbs, though I think 8.5 would be more accurate.  I find the best way for me to check off progress on race courses is to know how many major climbs/descents I have to tackle.  The first climb out of Fort Baker into the headlands was #1, and sent the runners over a saddle, and down a double-track to Rodeo Valley, out towards Rodeo Beach, and on to the 2nd climb. 
The Marin Ultra Challenge 50-Miler Elevation Profile (Image Courtesy of
Hill 88, as it's called is a bit steep with a mix of single track, stairs, and road.  I settled into climbing, and made it up and down towards Tennessee Valley in no time.  I remembered the descent into Tennessee Valley leaving me beaten up during the Endurance Challenge, but this time I came into the aid station feeling really solid, if not a little wary of my high heart rate.
Looking South from the climb up Hill 88.  Photo Courtesy of Crista Scott.
I was stoked to hear the the race was serving Tailwind at the aid stations, so I pulled up and started filling Tailwind into my bottles, but after taking 1 swig and not being able to taste any flavor, I figured the aid station crew hadn't mixed a high enough concentration, so I resorted to my backup plan of ziplocs of Tailwind in my drop bags.  This worked out fine, but it took a while and I dropped a few positions in the process of filling my bottles and dumping my headlamp into the drop bag.  As I ran out of the station, I could see a guy I know, Ian, up ahead of me, and I thought I might try to catch up to him without destroying myself, but my body wasn't having it and I maintained my already high heart rate heading into the 3rd 'climb' (the 0.5 of the 8.5 climbs).
The trail snakes along some rugged Nor Cal coastline.  Photo Courtesy of Crista Scott.
Due to not paying attention to the course distances between aid, I filled 2 bottles at Tennessee Valley and 4 miles later, I ran into Muir Beach and blew right through the aid station with plenty of water and Tailwind to spare.  This aid station funnels the runners up a small valley and into the first of 2 relatively large climbs on the course.  The Cardiac Hill climb is not steep, and is rather runnable, but I found myself in a constant state of worry that I was going to blow up and kept reining myself in.  The views from this climb are also spectacular.  Behind the runners are the rolling hills of the headlands that we had just traversed, beyond which is the coastal side of San Francisco. 

Green rolling hills and the Golden Gate Bridge peeking out! Photo Courtesy of Crista Scott.
To the left, the meadows roll down the hills, over the highway, and into the ocean, and to the right the valleys extend off into Marin and turn from sage meadow to green forest.  Ahead, the trail climbs through both meadow and forest to reach the aid station.  At the aid station, I filled bottles, grabbed extra Tailwind for the Stinson Beach aid station and headed off down the famous Dipsea Trail.

The Dipsea Trail is steep and fun, winding through tall redwoods down to the ocean.  My legs were starting to feel the fatigue a bit (Shit! 20 miles in?? Already??) and I continued to second-guess my race strategy.  I had no choice but to continue running on, so after the fun descent, I was deposited onto the streets of Stinson Beach, where I ran through and up to the aid station at the bottom of the Willow Camp climb.  Here, I ran into a runner I've met a few times, Chris, who is a fast dude himself and we talked for a bit as I filled up, and then I started off up the climb.  Always good to see local runners staffing the aid stations!

Willow Camp is a burly climb.  It's mostly steep, with a lot of it heading straight up the hill, and it's almost 1800 vertical feet, which is solid for a coastal run!  I was hiking hard and lamenting to myself about my high heart rate, but it seemed like my body was handling it, so I even wondered if maybe my heart rate monitor was malfunctioning.  Either way, some time later, I ended up at the top of the climb, stiff and tired.  I started cranking along the flattish single track (the out-and-back portion of TNFEC for those who know that race) back towards Pantoll and the Cardiac aid station.  Surprisingly, I felt pretty good.  It was heating up, but I wasn't too beat up yet, and the ocean was providing some respite with a cool breeze.  The section of trail from the top of Willow Camp to Cardiac Hill is my favorite on the's not steep, it's very runnable and the views are fantastic!

At Pantoll, the road official had brought out some water and an ice bath with a sponge, so I filled up half a bottle of my now-empty bottles and doused myself in ice water for the last mile until Cardiac.  The last mile was more great single track and I got into Cardiac feeling ready to fill up and keep running well.

The descent that followed is super fun.  The smooth-packed single track trail snakes down through a forested valley of trees down to a creek at the along the valley floor.  I blazed by boyscouts and hikers who kindly accommodated their faster moving trail counterparts by stepping to one side or the other when I would call out a greeting.  During this section, apparently the course had been vandalized and there were no ribbons for a quite some time.  I was a bit worried, but there weren't any turnoffs, so I continued plugging down the hill.  Towards the bottom, hikers began to tell us that we were on the right track, and that others had said to pass the word along...phew!  The striped turn ribbons at the bottom confirmed this and my mind was able to relax.  During this descent, and following climb, I met a fellow runner, Dan, who I would end up running with on and off for the rest of the race.  He was pretty much the only other runner that I saw for the rest of the day!

The Ocean View climb is also single track with some stairs, mostly smooth and runnable terrain winding up and across the hill before it gently turns to flat, and then down into Muir Woods.  My legs were feeling more and more beat up, but I found that my hiking was still strong, and a strong hike/run combo on the hills seemed to be keeping me at a solid pace.  Some chips and Tailwind at Muir Woods really helped me feel solid, and the aid station captain actually filled one of my ziplocs with Tailwind powder so that I could dose my own bottle at the Muir Beach aid station.

Normally, Muir Beach is 2.6 miles from there and along pretty much all flat trail.  Unfortunately, due to my inadequate study of the course map, I did not realized at first that we do not follow the same trail as the TNFEC, and instead head up onto Dias Ridge.  At the turn marker and sign that read 'Dias Ridge', I realized my mistake, and made the mental readjustment to start climbing again.  This section of trail is super rad as well, and highly runnable for someone who is not in the middle of a slow-motion legsplosion, but for me, I was reduced to a run/hike again.  Luckily, Dan was behind me by not much, and every few switchbacks I would see him running and this helped me to stay motivated to turn up the pace a bit.  He passed me when I stopped to stretch my ever tightening hammies and I chased him all the way into Muir Beach, and then up climb number 8.

At this point, the heat of the day was in full swing, and my PMR trucker hat was soaked through, creating a delightful sauna on my head, which I did not appreciate.  However, I appreciated the shade on my face that the brim generated, so I put up with it.

Climb 8 was an unfamiliar climb to me, but it was also a nice and winding single track that was completely exposed to the sun, so I did my best to keep hydrating and drinking Tailwind.  My singlet was soaked through and sticking to me and I was sweating like crazy, but somehow I wasn't feeling too bad just yet!  I caught Dan at the top of the climb and we started the descent together, talking about course marking and successfully navigating an unmarked turn to the descent into Tennessee Valley.  I remember this descent well from TNFEC: my knees hurt, my legs hurt, my feet hurt...I was toasted.  This time, however, I was feeling stiff and tired, but I still had some gas in the tank!  Unfortunately, I also had something else in the tank, and the downhill pounding seemed to loosen it up, so I slowed a bit to make it to the aid station intact.

After a delightful bio break in an outhouse at the aid station, I realized that I had a throbbing headache and was pretty dehydrated.  'No matter,' I thought, 'I only have 6 miles to go'.  So I filled up on Tailwind, downed some Coke and Mountain Dew, took an ice sponge shower and ran out to tackle the last climb.

Climb #9, or as it is officially known, Marincello, is a smooth and gradually climbing fire trail.  I was able to hike/run again, but was feeling more and more beat up and haggard and my legs were unhappy with motion.  The sun was beating down, and though I tried to wear my hat backwards to get some breeze through the mesh, the sun continued to force me to turn it around to shade my face.  Definitely ready to be done running.

The top of the climb yields to a short fire road descent, another short fire road climb, and then the winding single track and pavement descent to the finish.

I could see Dan ahead of me by a decent amount, but the thought of trying to hammer for another 4 miles to catch him and pass him for an inconsequential placing increase left me unmotivated to bury myself to pip him at the finish line. I decided to just run hard and see what happened.

Over the next 4 miles, I reeled him in a bit, but ended up over a minute behind him, making me wish I had time to take that last pre-race dump instead of wasting the time at Tennessee Valley, but that's life.  The final miles were tough, as I suppose they should be while running hard for 9-ish hours, but after cruising into the finish and sitting down, I realized that I didn't feel all that bad, and I wasn't going to die of heat exhaustion.

I was stoked to see that the girlfriend had finished her 50k in 1 piece and had actually executed it really well.  It was her 1st mountain 50k, and with 7100 vertical feet of total ascent, it was a good one!
Stoked to be done and enjoying the sunshine in Marin!  Photo Courtesy of Crista Scott.
The clock read 9:26 and change when I ran through.  I had originally thought that I could break 9 hours here, after having split 9:03 at the 50 mile mark at the SOB 100k, but the heat had other plans, so a sub-9 performance was relegated to another, cooler and/or more fit day.  Still, it was a 50-mile PR by 50 minutes in some challenging conditions on a challenging course.  I'll take that any day.  Now it's beer time.
The benefits of racing in the North Bay...a trip to Russian River Brewing the day before the race to pick up some post race hydration supplies!  Photo Courtesy of Crista Scott.