Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Race Report: 2013 Stinson Beach 50k

Matt Davis Trail, photo by Justin Watt

My breath forcefully left my body as I crashed to the ground on the Matt Davis Trail. My right elbow/shoulder and both knees took the brunt of the impact. It happened so quickly that I was already rolling to my feet and trying to conserve my momentum when I realized I had fallen. I looked quickly up the trail to see if anyone saw me go down; no one. Brushing the mud from my hands, I thankfully recognized that I had, yet again, managed to fall on soft ground. That makes me 4 for 4 for avoiding rocks, trees and roots when falling while trail running.

I was at mile 13 of the Stinson Beach 50k in Mount Tamalpais State Park. The race consists of a 25 kilometer loop, repeated, and I was nearing the completion of my first lap. Surrounded by 25k racers pushing hard to the finish, I was having fun keeping up with some and passing others as I flew down the single track, switching back and forth, descending rapidly into Stinson Beach. Technical downhill is my forte, and aside from that one mis-step, I was having a blast.

Organized by Pacific Coast Trail Runs, the event is pretty low-key. They offer four distances: 12k, 25k, 37k and 50k. I chose the race for its course, as it shares a few trails with The North Face Endurance Championship 50 Mile event, my "A" race for the fall.

Steep Ravine Trail
I was in great shape going into the race. My training had gone very well in the preceding weeks, and I had a strategy of keeping it easy for the first 20 miles, and then hammering it home for the final 20k. Everything was going according to plan, until I hit the ground. From the start, I let runners pass me by as I power hiked steadily up the Dipsea Trail towards Steep Ravine. I kept my heart rate reasonably near my aerobic threshold (~140) as I climbed. I had finished this section in just under an hour in the Tamalpa Headlands 50k a couple months prior, but I wanted to cut some time off that, as an even split in North Face would require the same climb at around 37 minutes. I made it to Pan Toll Ranger Station in 45 minutes, and was happy with the compromise.

Cardiac Aid Station

Coastal Trail heading towards Heather Cut-off, Mt. Diablo left horizon

After yo-yoing with a woman  from San Mateo named Allison on the climb, I passed her as I cruised through the first aid station at Cardiac Hill and onto the Coastal Trail towards Muir Beach, the Heather Cut-off Trail and its twenty switchbacks. A body check yielded no niggles, good energy, and now that I was running downhill, my heart rate settled in an aerobic zone. Allison caught up to me, and we ran together for the descent, talking about races and training. It was nice to have a distraction, and someone to help me keep my pace easy. The thick fog of the marine layer hugged the coast, making for an ethereal visage common in the Headlands.

Coastal Trail disappearing into the marine layer; the edge of the world.
After descending the Cut-off, we ran across Santos Meadows and picked up the Redwood Creek Trail. A mild uphill for the next two miles put the damper on our conversation as I steadily plugged away, crossing the bouncy wooden bridges of Frank Valley. I wished Allison well as I ran through the Deer Park Aid Station, and set to power hiking the 1500' climb up Deer Park Trail and back to the Cardiac Aid Station via the Dipsea Trail.
Gaining Cardiac Hill, the fifth place woman caught and passed me, and for the next 5 miles, I would oscillate with the 4th and 5th place women. They gapped me a little after we passed the Pan Toll Ranger Station for the second time, but as soon as the technical descent began, I passed them along with a handful of 25k runners.

Then I hit the ground, and ran the final mile and half of the loop in a mild state of shock. I did not feel any pain from the fall, but I could tell that my energy was low, and hammering the descent had taken its toll on my quads.
I met Twirly in Stinson Beach and swapped out my hydration pack. I had pre-filled my two Nathan packs with Tailwind Sports Drink. I usually require one of these every two hours, but I had stretched the first one to three hours, and I could tell that I was beginning to bonk. I cleaned up the mud and blood from my limbs, and set out for the second loop. I was going to have to pound calories if I wanted to survive the Matt Davis Trail descent the second time around, and so resigned myself to keeping my pace mellow to conserve energy and eat.
So much for a finishing kick.
After the 4th and 5th place women passed me on the ascent of Steep Ravine, I ran alone for about ten miles. I kept pounding calories and ginger chews in an effort to avoid any GI issues, but the energy gels combined with drinking the Tailwind too fast soon had me slowing down to ease my gut. I wasn't feeling like I was rebounding, but knew I had to keep after it or risk having to walk it in.

Shortly before I arrived at the Deer Park Aid Station, I entertained dropping for the first time in my running career. Crossing Muir Woods Road was a point of no return. Once I proceeded, the only way back to Stinson Beach was over Cardiac Hill. I wasn't really in pain, just had low energy. My mind needed sugar and I was becoming apathetic. Once I acknowledged these facts, it was obvious that my only choice was to soldier on, keep eating, and save my strength for the second descent of Matt Davis Trail so that I didn't hurt myself. I ate a little at the aid station before the final climb.
Allison caught up to me at the base of Cardiac Hill. We compared notes: I was bonking, and she was simply out of shape. She promptly dropped me on the steep final climb, and left the aid station while I was still eating. With afternoon temperatures rising, I got ice cubes for my water bottle and some more for my hat, and slogged through Pan Toll for the fourth and final time. The spectators in the parking lot were awesome. Words of encouragement were plentiful and welcome as I crested the course and began the final descent, determined to keep the rubber side down this time.
While I was moving quite a bit slower than the first lap, I was finally feeling better, and once I got into a smooth running rhythm, I began enjoying myself again. The faster I ran the sooner I would be done, and I had to focus on the trail instead of fantasizing about finishing.

Matt Davis Trail above Stinson Beach
The nice aspect to a multiple loop course is that the second time around one has a better understanding of distance and landmarks. By the time I dropped into the switch-backs I could see Allison ahead, picking her way through the gnarly descent. I caught and passed her about halfway down, and she encouraged me to finish strong.
I posted a time of 6:47:09, easily my slowest 50k to date. The first 25k lap took me 3:03, and the second lap took 3:44, so I apparently have some work to do on my negative split approach! My nutrition schedule needs some tweaking, and my ribs are bruised from the fall, but I still consider the race to be a success; I finished and learned some lessons.
The course volunteers were encouraging and helpful, and the course was gorgeous. A big hat-tip to John and Maureen Brooks and all the PCTR volunteers who made it happen. A lot of hard work went into the event, and I for one appreciate their efforts.


  1. Enjoyed your race report, Ken. The pictures were awesome. I haven't made it over to the Bay Area since I started running... It is time...

    Isn't it funny how fast we bounce back up and look around to see if anybody saw us fall? After my fall this weekend, I was surprised how much it drained me even though I was just scraped up.

    Stay on your training and I'm sure TNFEC 50 will be an amazing run for you.

    All the best!!!

  2. I think my fall was because I was already drained, but I definitely felt low energy afterwards. As long as I can get the fueling pace down, north face should be a lot of fun. My motivation for sub 11 is faltering, but it is still my primary goal.

    See you on the trails, when you get down here!