Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Race Report: 2015 Marin Ultra Challenge 50k

2015 marked the fourth edition of Inside Trail Racing's Marin Ultra Challenge. Runners tackled courses ranging from 25k to 50 miles covering the most beautiful trails in the Marin Headlands. I ran the 50k. In years past I have chosen to run Way Too Cool 50k as my winter race. The MUC course offers more vertical and views, making it a better tune up for upcoming races like Miwok 100k and Western States 100.

I used a couple of volunteer credits to gain entry; Tim and Tonya Stahler put on top notch events and it is always a pleasure to work with them. I spent a Saturday helping out at the Lake Chabot Trail Runs in February to earn my keep. 

After American Canyon 25k I had taken some extra rest to mitigate some tightness in my right knee. I regained my composure via strength training and hill climbing. A final workout on the Wednesday before the race had my confidence high. One of my goals for this year is to experiment with my pacing. Thus far in my trail running career, I have managed to complete my races comfortably. I have been conservative and slowed down whenever I was faced with discomfort. I decided to go out strong and hold on, trying to best my average Headlands-area 50k pace of 12:30/mile. That meant a 6.5 hour finish.

Race morning was warm and muggy. Twirly and I made our way across the Bay, arriving at Fort Baker with about a half an hour until race time. I got squared away with my bib and wandered around seeing who I knew as we waited for the 6 am race start. Due to some technical difficulties we started about ten minutes late. Not a big deal. We all had a long day ahead of us.

 Most of the 50k course

I felt strong from the start, and enjoyed talking with some friends as we climbed to the single track. I got a decent spot in the conga line: not too fast and not too slow. San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge made for worthy distractions from the torch lit trail. Switchbacks above and below glowed with hundreds of bobbing LED lights. Sights like that make early morning race starts worthwhile.

I crested the two mile, 750 foot climb feeling great. No niggles and my energy levels were high. A front runner was already hurling in the bushes on the side of Coastal Trail. A little early for that, I thought. He must have really hammered the ascent! I felt confident from the previous training cycle, and I clicked off a few sub-9 minute miles on the dark descent into Rodeo Valley. By the time I reached Rodeo Lagoon, the sun had risen. I could tell I had gone out too fast. Not because I felt worn out, but because runners in singlets surrounded me!

I hit the climb to Wolf Ridge hard, just like I had been in training. Near the top, Kara Teklinski called out my name. She was out cheering on racers. Hearing my name snapped me out of my focused determination. I reeled a little bit, trying to regain my senses and shake off the fog. I had eaten a Clif Shot (the new baby food variety, not the traditional sugar bomb), but I definitely burned a match on that climb. I kept my momentum up through the ridge and on to Old Springs Trail, my favorite descent into Tennessee Valley.

Cruising Pirates Cove, photo by Nate Dunn
I refilled my bottle with Tailwind, dropped my light and I was back on the trail. I kept it easy along the valley floor, eating some MAP and Pocket Fuel. I climbed strong again up Coastal to Pirates Cove. Once there, I found myself racing to keep my spot. Nate Dunn hunkered on the side of the trail with his dog Rosie, snapping pictures. 

Sun kissed Cove, Nate Dunn
I hammered the descent into Muir Beach. The trail there is not technical, per se, but it is rather steep. By the time I saw Twirly at the aid station I was feeling a little spent. Just over a half marathon and about 2000' of climbing in about 2.5 hours left me with little in the tank. If I could keep up the pace I was looking at a sub 6 hour finish. Twirly asked how I was, and "tired" was all I could say. I swapped out Clif Energy Food packets and refilled my bottle for the 7.5 mile loop of Redwood Creek, Miwok and Dias Ridge trails.

Redwood Creek is deceptive. The bouncing footbridges and skinny single track winding through toe-catching grasses make the otherwise runnable trail tricky. About halfway to Miwok, my legs began to scream. I had asked too much of them. They felt like they were full of molten lead. I ate more MAP and soldiered on. My fueling strategy of Tailwind plus Clif Energy Food was working well; I suffered no GI issues. The sticks were running low on muscle glycogen though, and my momentum was flagging when I hit Miwok Trail and began climbing.

I'd never gone up this stretch of Miwok, only run down it in the 2013 Tamalpa Headlands 50k. The runnable grade surprised me. I ran/walked the climb, keeping my heart rate at a reasonable level. I could have run more, but I could feel the wheels coming off. Having only a few 15-16 mile runs this year, I felt my stamina dissipating. Quite a few runners passed me before I topped the hill.

I hit the wall right around mile 18, just before another favorite descent: Dias Ridge into Muir Beach. I picked my way down the climb, gingerly protecting my leaden legs. A fleeting impulse to drop from the race crossed my mind. Then I asked myself what my reasons would be. My legs hurt? Duh. 20 miles ought to hurt. Especially after hammering the first half marathon. Was I injured? Nope. The pain was symmetrical and my gait, while slow, was even. I would have to keep grinding.

Upon my return to Twirly and the Muir Beach aid station, I had shifted into training run mode. I did not want to aggravate any niggles, and I felt horrible. I spent a few extra minutes drinking and eating before I set out for the climb up Middle Green Gulch, the biggest climb of the 50k course. Another runnable grade, I did my best to shuffle until it was over.

Cresting the climb, the course jumped over Coyote Ridge and followed the Miwok Cut-off Trail. I encountered a four way junction with blue ribbons flagging one of the directions. Unfortunately, the other two options had no orange course markings. I knew which way Tennessee Valley was, but without course markings I felt lost. I went the way I thought the course would go, and caught a glipmse of the runner I had been following, confirming I was still on the popular route. Not sure what happened at that intersection. Hopefully those not familiar with the area were able to negotiate the course.

Running down Miwok into Tennessee Valley is tough. Steep, rutted and dotted with hikers, I continued with caution. I was fighting off the apathy and just trying to stay on track for a 6.5 hour finish. Twirly helped me swap out my bottle for one I had pre-filled with raspberry (caffeinated) Tailwind for the final ~8k. I gorged on watermelon and orange slices as a fellow runner was telling the volunteers that he was planning on stopping at 31 miles. Someone would have to give him a ride the final half mile to the finish, because he had only come to run 50k! I assured him the extra mileage was just to ensure his Garmin registered 50k. I left before the volunteers stopped laughing. One more climb up Marincello and steady cruising to the final descent.

A few more runners passed me in the final miles. Once by a man who must have been over 70. He wasn't running in the race, and he kept a steady jog all the way up the trail. I hope to be running that well at his age. My legs were in bad shape. My right leg especially. Cramping hamstring and soleus muscles meant my gait was becoming more and more imbalanced. I walked a few times and tried to stretch it out before the 1.5 mile descent to the finish line, which looked impossibly far away from the ridge line. San Francisco Bay was full of sailboats, and the day was gorgeous, making it difficult to focus on the trail at my feet.

I continued my shuffle long enough to finish in 6:33. I was amazed that I was able to hit my goal despite blowing up. My pace in the last ten miles averaged over 15:00/mile! So kids, that is how you positive split a race and still hit your goal. The lessons I take away from this race are helpful. Despite feeling spectacular in those first ten miles, I was still going out too fast. I let my heart rate creep up into the anaerobic zone too often and for too long. I hope to execute my pacing better at American River 50 mile in three weeks.

Happy to be done! Photo by Nate Dunn

As always, Tim, Tonya and the Inside Trail Racing volunteers put on a spectacular event. Fort Baker is a gorgeous location for a finish line festival. The views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco compete with acres and acres of green grass. Bob Shebest won the 50k (after setting the 50 mile course record in 2014), and Paul Terranova won the 50 miler. The inaugural 25k had some of Marin's speediest contesting for the win (Galen Burrell took the honor). Some drama arose when local favorite Dylan Bowman collapsed on the course with a mile to go. He required medical assistance for heat stroke or dehydration. Word has it he thought he was running in the North Face Endurance Challenge when asked. Another oddity from the day were the two Tom Turkeys harassing runners in Tennessee Valley. I heard blood was drawn! Twirly and I lounged around and cheered in the 50k runners. We saw Paul win the 50 mile before retiring to my favorite restaurant in Sausalito (fish.) for lunch.

Gorgeous day on the Bay

I've never blown up in a race like that. While it was the most uncomfortable I have ever been in a race (including WS100) I realize that it wasn't as bad as I imagined. With more real estate I may have even been able to come out the other side. I understand how I ended up where I was, and I think I can apply that in future races. Learning exactly how conservative I need to be while still pushing for my best possible pace is something I hope to dial in before June. I have plenty of practice on the horizon. For now I rest and ramp back up to AR50.

FYI, Scott Dunlap took some great pictures of the course. Check them out here.

Here are the deets from Strava:

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