Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Race Report: 2013 Steep Ravine Trail Marathon

The stars aligned last week, and I found myself signing up for the 2013 Steep Ravine Marathon only five days before the event. A planned long run/scout of the course of my upcoming 50K dissolved due to logistics, and my friend Torrey suggested I join him in Stinson Beach to run the marathon as an organized training run. I am comfortable using organized races as tune-up races, but I do not have a lot of experience training in a race. I was curious how I would feel without a taper that week, and if I could dial back my effort amongst a full field of runners. 

Twirly drove us across the Bay Sunday morning, and we got to Stinson Beach with about 45 minutes to kill before the half marathon/marathon start. The weather was clear and cool, with a gentle breeze coming off the Pacific Ocean. The grassy park at the finish area was soft mud underfoot, like workable clay, and I wondered how wet the trail would be as I zipped up my gaitors and assembled my gear. I packed a couple Vespas, two Roctane Gu's and two ViFuel gels, along with S!Caps, Sportlegs, Nuun and Ibuprofen. My nerves settled, replaced by a mellow adrenaline rush. I got one more kiss from Twirly and joined the assembled runners on Arenal Avenue, in front of the Parkside Cafe. Wendell, Coastal Trail Runs Race Director, gave runner instructions through his trusty bullhorn. Nervous laughter rippled through the crowd as he warned we would be cursing his name as we ascended the stairs out of Steep Ravine.

Without much fanfare, Wendell counted us down, and we were off, headed towards the Dipsea trail head.

Steep Ravine steps
The course follows the Dipsea trail from Stinson Beach to the top of Cardiac Hill, where an aid station greets the runners and serves as a junction, of sorts, for the various distances offered, from the seven miler to the 50K. The crowd stretched out as we climbed the 1400 feet to the aid station, hiking the stairs single file and running some of the smoother terrain. Torrey quickly gained ground on me and began passing other runners when he could. The leaders of one of the other race distances came bounding down the steps, forcing our freight train to derail every so often, but we stayed on track and did our best to alert those behind us whenever a runner would appear. As we gained the ridge above Steep Ravine, I joked with some runners around me about taking the infamous 'Swoop' shortcut on the return trip. I did not get as many laughs as I had hoped, just a lot of huffing and puffing.

A gorgeous morning in the Headlands
Warm sunshine and vistas of the California coast and San Francisco Bay awaited once we cleared the forest, and the trail became really runnable. Runners had spread out, and the opposing traffic became lighter as we neared Cardiac. There was quite a congregation at the aid station. I was feeling great, and ready to attack the descent through Muir Woods, so I kept on trucking.

Cardiac aid station

With fresh legs and my Hoka One One's, I bombed down Cardiac Hill. I passed quite a few runners picking their way down the technical trail, and carried my momentum onto the smooth sections below. I opened my stride, and clicked off three good tempo miles as the course left the Dipsea Trail and followed a fire road towards Muir Beach and the Deer Park aid station. I saw the leaders of the marathon coming up the hill along this stretch, and recognized some faces from the Footfeathers clinics I have attended. It was good to see people charging the hill. I took a little vicarious punishment from them, as my coach had counseled me to keep it mellow on the climbs, and I intended to do just that.

Looking over Muir Woods towards the Tiburon Peninsula and Mt. Diablo

Coming into Deer Park, photo courtesy of Amanda Silber
At the Deer Park aid station, the course crossed Muir Woods Road and sent us on an out-and-back along the road, winding through the floor of Frank Valley. This section of trail was single track, winding through tall grass. The large half marathon field coming back towards me on this stretch made for some interesting crossings on the narrow trail, which occasionally crossed Redwood Creek on wooden bridges. A couple of the bridges would flex like a trampoline as I ran across them, and whenever there was someone coming the other way, the resonance of the bridge would get out of sync with my stride. I could see someone blowing out a knee or even getting bucked off the bridge as I negotiated them.  Torrey came running back towards me, looking strong about a half mile in front of me. The turnaround was tight, as I arrived in the middle of a pack of four or five runners. We shuffled around each other trying to cross the turnaround mark before heading back the way we came, six and a half miles back to Stinson Beach.
I cruised back through the Deer Park aid station without stopping, as I was still well stocked with water and fuel. The Vespa had gotten me to the turnaround, and I had a Roctane there. I took an S!Cap every hour, and a dose of Sportlegs every two hours. I kept a steady, mellow pace as I hiked up through Muir Woods towards the Dipsea trail, even managing to pass a few 50K'ers along the way.

Dipsea mile marker
I rejoined the Dipsea trail and picked out a few landmarks along the way, such as halfway rock. As I ran through the section called "the rain forest", I was passed by a sprightly old fellow who sprang up the trail. His feet barely touched the ground, it seemed. I watched him pull away on the rocky, root-strewn trail and made a mental note to try and ensure I can run like that in twenty years.
The rain forest

Feeling no pain
My second trip through the Cardiac aid station was almost as fast as the first. I crested the hill and saw Mrs. CK, whom I enlisted to snap a pic of me before I began the long descent back into Steep Ravine and Stinson Beach. I was really happy with how strong I felt as I charged down the hill. The stretch of Dipsea trail between Cardiac and the floor of Steep Ravine is one of my favorite in all of the Marin Headlands. Smooth single track takes you from exposed, sunny chaparral to moist, mossy, fern-lined switchbacks and steps. In mid-summer, the steps can be slick with dew or rain, but on this day they were dry, and I used a trick learned from my coach to descend the technical staircase. I skipped my way down, passing more 50K'ers, some of whom remarked on my technique.

Two miles to go to the beach

"I just skip 'em" I said, to which one replied, "yeah, I'd like to skip them altogether!"

Your first view of Stinson Beach as the trail exits Steep Ravine
Soon, I was at the floor of Steep Ravine, with only "Insult Hill" between me and my first look at Stinson Beach. Most of the runners around me were doing the half marathon, which meant they were on their home stretch. I did my best to keep pace with them on the rolling terrain as we re-entered civilization. Once again, Torrey came running towards me, this time about three quarters of a mile in front.

I cruised into the finishing area with so much momentum, I almost ran into the finishers chute. Race officials managed to get my attention and direct me to the aid station, where Twirly was waiting, ringing a cowbell and cheering. I dropped off my sunglasses, as I had not needed them much, and took a Vespa along with a quarter of a PB&J sandwich. I checked my water bladder and realized I had not been drinking enough, so I drank some electrolyte. I got another kiss for good luck, and set out to do the entire course all over again. I had run the first half in 2:30, and told Twirly I was shooting for a 2:45 second lap. I'll never forget the looks on the faces of the half marathoners coming down the trail towards me as I hiked up the hill. To be honest, I was having a hard time believing I had to do it all over again myself!

Visibility was stupendous from the Ocean to Oakland
I hiked more of the climb the second time, but still managed to pick off a runner here and there. The runners coming down the hill were mostly half marathoners, and I encouraged them all to finish strong as I grunted up to the more runnable section.

I cruised into Cardiac for the third time, and stopped briefly for some Coke before bombing down the hill again. Once I cleared the aid station, I had two or three miles of solo running. I still felt good, but tired, and was glad that my ankles were holding up to the downhill running. As I neared the Deer Creek aid station, the overall leader of the marathon, Penny MacPhail, comes running up the hill towards me. She later told me that she had run with a side stitch for the entire race. She must have wanted to get it over with quickly, as she shaved 3 minutes off the previous course record, which she had set the year before!

I was still running alone on the out-and-back, kind of spacing out, when all of a sudden I was on the ground. The narrow single track was a worn groove in the grassy valley, and I had hooked a toe on a clump of grass or something. As soon as I hit the ground, my right calf cramped, and I sprang to my feet. I took an extra S!Cap and regained my stride, hoping it would loosen up, which it did over the next mile or so. My hands were caked with mud, and my arm was bleeding, but I wasn't hurt, and still had my legs, so I kept charging the little single track to the turnaround, seeing Torrey once again. It seemed he still had just about three quarters of a mile on me, and I showed off my bloodied arm as we exchanged high-fives mid-trail. I finally ran out of water as I ate my second Roctane Gu about a quarter mile from the Deer Creek aid station, and stopped there to have my bladder filled and get some more electrolyte.

The aid station volunteers offered to clean up my arm, but I told them I wanted to keep the blood for the post race photo opportunity, which they appreciated. I grabbed another PB&J square, thanked the volunteers and began the hike back up to Cardiac.

The half marathoners and 25K'ers were mostly finished, so the opposing traffic were either marathoners, or running the 50K. We encouraged each other and shared our discomfort as we passed each other, and I made decent time, albeit a bit slower than the first lap. Once again, I did not run as much of the runnable terrain, wanting to keep it mellow and save what I had left for the big descent to the finish.

At Cardiac the fourth and final time, I lingered. I had a few cups of electrolyte, a graham cracker PB&J square, a couple pieces of banana, and some pretzels dipped in peanut butter. I could have stayed there eating for another fifteen minutes, but I could smell the barn, and it was almost all downhill from there!

Obligatory self portrait

Running my favorite stretch again, I yo-yo'd with a couple of 50K runners. My energy level was awesome, and I took the steps fast. I felt like a kid on the playground, and almost got a little sentimental about it being almost over! Fortunately, Insult Hill took care of that problem, interrupting my gleeful descent with just enough of a reality check to get me focused on finishing strong. I cruised back into Stinson Beach at a sub-seven minute pace, and placed 7th overall, 3rd in my age group. My time of 5:25:43 was only 8 minutes off my time through 26.2 at Bizz Johnson, and this course came with 6500' of climbing, so I think I am showing some improvement! I love this stuff.

I have got to stop my watch! Finishing photo be damned.

Bloodied but still feeling strong!

I cannot say enough good things about Coastal Trail Runs. They put on the Bizz Johnson 50K, which was my ultra debut last year, and this race continued their tradition of stellar organization. The volunteers were extremely supportive, the aid stations were well stocked, the course well-marked, and the weather was awesome. I would have preferred to run the original course, as it had a lollipop loop instead of the long out-and-back, but the course changed paid off in that the runners interacted and supported each other much more than we would have otherwise. I got to see Torrey three times, which probably won't happen in two weeks at the American Canyon 50K. He's way too fast for me!

All in all it was a great run; I paced myself well, my fueling strategy worked well and kept me going. Hell, I even got my first fall out of the way! I feel really prepared for my 50K in two weeks, and I'm excited to see what I can do on that course.

And now, the details:


  1. Thanks coach! While my training might be harder, the racing is getting easier ;)