As you should expect by now, a race of epic distance is going to inspire a post of epic length. I thought of breaking this into parts, but decided to plow through the entire 4500-word report in one steady push – in that regard, it’s not unlike the ultra I just completed.
Given the length, I’ll spare you any further intro and just get right to my report from the Headlands 100. Take it in doses, or all at once – it’s your choice. It’s time for me to get some rest.
Part 1: Leaving the Shore
"The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore."
- Vincent Van Gogh
Rodeo Beach, Saturday morning, August 9th. They say the ocean is unchanging, but I’ve always found a certain reflective quality to it, as if it mirrors my thoughts or emotions at any particular time. When I took this picture, it seemed full of hope and possibility – and more than a little danger.
Race directors Wendell and Sarah making pre-race announcements. Sarah’s not only a RD, she’s a blog commenter! She dropped by here before the race to wish me well, and again to congratulate me afterwards. She also managed to somehow be at every single aid station I passed through – in fact, I started to see her at so many points on the course that I wondered if she might have a twin. The girl's a human whirlwind - it’s no wonder PCTR races are always so successful.
There’s a popular theory among art historians concerning my favorite artist, Vincent Van Gogh: namely, that the painter’s many self-portraits reflect a steady progression of mental anguish across the years of his life. While his early portraits depict a well-groomed, confident craftsman, his image in later portraits gradually becomes more disheveled, reflecting an emotional urgency and weariness that would eventually drive him to madness.
The reason I bring all this up is that I think I look pretty cool and collected in this first self-portrait on the start line (even though my friend Richard, who entered the 50-mile race, is looking at me like I’m an idiot). But 100 miles has a way of changing a person – so keep this Van Gogh theory in mind as we go along.
For the first few hours of the race, most of the scenery was some variation of what you see above: very dense fog, with no view beyond your immediate vicinity. Since there wasn’t really anything picturesque to gaze upon, I occupied myself by looking around at some of the other runners.
That’s about the time that this guy passed me, looking like a human art palette. His name is Troy, and he has all kinds of ink that I spent at least a couple of miles inquiring about. I also spent those miles trying to think of a casual way to tell him that I have a blog and like to post a lot of pictures on the Internet. Luckily, he was cool with it – he even pulled off the trail to pose for me.
We ran together through this section that was one of the prettiest on the course – only we couldn’t see any of it because of the fog. You can’t really tell in the photo, but the wind was blowing like crazy through here, as well. San Francisco is one of the only places I know of that can be both windy and foggy at the same time. As we continued along, the fog also lent a hint of mystery to the proceedings.
For example, on every major climb, there was absolutely no way of knowing how high the hill would take you. We would reach what appeared to be the highest curve, only to look around the bend and see the trail still rising into the mist. This seemed to happen about a dozen times on this climb from Rodeo Valley at mile 9.
On the descent to the Tennessee Valley (TV) aid station at mile 12, I’m still looking pretty happy, don’t you think? I’d make several passes through TV during the day and night, and it would be the scene of two crucial turning points later in the race - but on this first visit, I just filled my bottles and continued on my way.
Leaving Tennessee Valley, I was running very conservatively, and many of the 50-mile runners were just starting to hit their cruising speed; as a result, I was getting passed by a ton of people. However, there were occasionally a few hikers like this on the trail, whom I was eventually able to reel in and pass. I really liked dropping the hikers - it made me feel tough.
This steep stairway is at the base of the descent to Pirate's Cove, which has quickly earned a reputation as the signature climb of the Headlands 100. By the end of the race, 100-mile runners would have to climb up this hill three times.
This is my “We have to climb this thing three times?” face. If you look closely, you’ll see the first marks of the Van Gogh effect taking shape.
After another short climb, we had our first view of Muir Beach, which was the location of another aid station. Approaching the station, I saw what was becoming a very familiar sight on the course …
It was Olga, taking pictures. She was crewing for her boyfriend, and she had been snapping photos at every road crossing and aid station since the beginning of the race. She was good for a smile and a laugh every single time I saw her, and frequently gave me quick advice or recommendations that turned out to be exactly what I needed.
Hey, the sun is coming out! It only took about 22 miles or so. Welcome to the race, Mister Sun.
Can you follow the trail here? The first 50-mile loop features a long out and back section on this narrow section that locals affectionately call the “half-track” – meaning it’s about half as wide as a single track in long stretches. Sometimes the only way I could spot the trail was by seeing a returning runner approaching from the opposite direction.
Guess who was at the Bolinas Ridge (mile 29) aid station! By the time I got there, Olga was working the crowd like Eddie Murphy. I also noticed that she was wearing less clothing each time I saw her, and there was a rumor going around that she’d be flashing people during the night. All of a sudden, the evening couldn’t arrive fast enough.
She also took this picture of me adjusting my gaiters, as the Van Gogh effect grows more and more apparent. Although I still felt OK, I was definitely looking a bit frazzled – and judging by the lady’s face behind me, I was apparently starting to smell pretty badly as well.
On the return trip to Pantoll (mile 35), the sun was out in full force, and we enjoyed beautiful views like this one. However, we had to be careful …
Because we were still on the half-track, with steep drops down the hillside awaiting anyone who lost his footing. It’s definitely a “good news/bad news” scenario.
At the Pantoll station, I found my friend Richard getting a massage from Olga. He looks pretty satisfied in this picture, doesn’t he? Unfortunately, his day was starting to unravel – by the next aid station, cramps and muscle spasms would force him out of the race. In hindsight, this picture might be the highlight of his day.
This would have been a nice picture of Olga and me, if I didn’t have such a large head.
From Pantoll to Muir Beach (mile 40) the course descends about 20 crazy switchbacks on the Heather Cutoff trail. This is just a small portion of them; there’s another cool picture on the Headlands website. Although they beat up my legs, this was definitely one of the funnest parts of the course.
Leaving Muir Beach, we get to enjoy this little warm-up hill …
Before tackling the return climb from Pirate’s Cove at mile 42. It was somewhere along this stretch that I realized that this course is no joke; the hills just keep on coming, each one seemingly tougher than the one before.
At the top of the climb, we finally glimpsed some city views that were lost in the morning fog – views that would get even better on the second lap around.
Returning to Tennessee Valley (mile 46), Pamela was working the aid station, and as is her custom, she went out of her way to lie to me about how good I looked. I didn’t have time to explain the Van Gogh effect just then, but I could definitely feel it coming over me. The sunglasses come in handy to mask it a bit, though.
Tennessee Valley is only 4 miles from the start/finish area, but you have to go over a giant climb to get there. Once you reach the top of Wolf Ridge, you finally catch a glimpse of your destination, which still seems more than 4 miles away.
The descent to Rodeo Beach is very similar to the Miwok 100K course, including this steep staircase of various surfaces (wood and rock) and irregular step heights. When I came down this staircase to finish Miwok, it seemed like a cruel way to end an ultra – I couldn’t imagine anything more difficult.
That was before I realized the Headlands course made us go down these stairs three times: at miles 49, 74, and 99. The lesson, of course: there’s always something more difficult. So I stand corrected.
Rodeo Beach, Saturday evening, August 9th. The sun was out, it was a beautiful day, and it felt like there was a party going on. Unfortunately, I was only halfway done.
This all-star group of pacers was awaiting their runners, whom they would join from the 50-mile point. I took my time leaving the station, just so I could soak in some of the atmosphere.
I also took a picture with Rick, because I didn’t think I’d see him again during the race. As you’ll see later, I was completely wrong.
Leaving the start area for the first of two 25-mile loops, I was finally able to see the views that were missed early in the morning.
This was taken from the spot where I complained about the fog and wind about 20 pictures ago. It was still totally windy through this section, but it didn’t bother me nearly as much as before.
In some ways, however, seeing the course can be somewhat distressing. This is a view of the climb from Rodeo Valley that was hidden in fog earlier. Let’s just say it’s not the most encouraging sight to see while approaching from the adjacent hillside.
A pleasant surprise awaited me at my next stop at Tennessee Valley (mile 62): Pamela had waited an hour past her volunteer shift to see me come through once more. This is where I had stashed my evening gear, so I spent a few extra minutes listening to her well-wishes and encouragement for the night ahead. It was a relatively small gesture, but it sure felt nice to have a friendly sendoff into the unknown. I really needed it, because …
Shortly after leaving TV, the shadows grew long on the hillsides as the sun started to fade, and I understood that my race had only just begun. I also knew that this was the moment I had been anticipating for over six months.
Prior to this race, whenever somebody asked me what concerned me the most, I replied that it was all about the night. Throughout my months of training, the night of race weekend remained the biggest X-factor in the whole process. After all, I knew what it was like to run all day long. I knew what it was like to run in the heat, and on killer climbs, and with nausea and blisters and dead legs. The only thing I hadn’t done was run continuously from evening to morning.
But now, as I ascended the climb out of Tennessee Valley and watched the last sliver of sunlight dip into the ocean, I knew that finally, the unknown was about to become known. So after 13 hours and 40 minutes of running, I flipped on my headlamp, and continued into the darkness.
Part 2: The Richly Colored Night
"I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day."
- Vincent Van Gogh
As you would expect from a trip into the unknown, the night was full of surprises. Fortunately, most of them were pleasant ones.
The first thing to that caught me off guard was how warm I felt after the sun went down. The previous night, as I drove through San Francisco with my windshield wipers sweeping away the fog, then stepped outside to the windy chill of the city, I was convinced that conditions on race evening would be downright bone-chilling. However, after reaching the summit of the first dark climb, I took off the windbreaker I had donned at Tennessee Valley, because I felt like I was overheating.
It stayed tied around my waist for the remainder of the night.
By the time I reached Muir Beach (mile 66), darkness had completely fallen, and the aid stations had switched into night mode, offering warm food and lots of caffeine. However, this station had one thing that set it apart from all the others: fresh strawberries!
Needless to say, I spent a few minutes gobbling all of the strawberries and Coke I could stomach (I know that sounds odd, but trust me – the combination worked like rocket fuel). I also paused for a picture before hitting the trail with another handful of berries for the upcoming climb:
By this point, the Van Gogh effect was in full force - but with a belly full of strawberries, I didn’t even care.
The next major surprise the night offered was a full display of constellations in the sky above. Running along the coast, far removed from any signs of civilization, the night was pitch black - but the fog had yet to roll in, so the starry night was as clear as could be. Ursa Major, Polaris, Cassiopeia - it seemed like I could reach out and touch the entire northern triangle shimmering brightly overhead. I thought of the old mariners who navigated by the stars, and envisioned that these lights were illuminated tonight to guide me safely home as well.
The mariner analogy seemed especially fitting, since I had returned to Pirate’s Cove again, to face the climb a second time. For the record, the stairs were just as difficult in the dark.
I made it up the hill – and as the night wore on, the surprises just kept on coming. The best one of all was awaiting me at Tennessee Valley.
It was Rick! The runner he was going to pace ended up dropping from the race, so he ran over 11 miles to this aid station with another runner friend of his, who he had parted ways with at Tennessee Valley.
So I was more than 71 miles into the race and looking for some kind of boost, and he was all geared up for a long run and looking for someone to accompany. It took us about 2 seconds to decide to run together.
The welcome addition of an unanticipated pacer did wonders for my spirit as we made the last grueling climb to the start/finish area that also served as the mile 75 aid station. We stayed just long enough to check in at the split table, down a cup of chicken noodle soup (my rocket fuel #2 for the night, right behind strawberries and Coke), and to take one more picture:
Ladies and gentlemen, the Van Gogh effect! God, I look like a train wreck. But you know what? I felt fantastic. My body was holding up well, and I had a newfound companion to help me through the toughest stretch of the course. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that I was going to make it through this race.
However, in my weary mental state, there were a couple of things about Rick that I hadn’t quite realized: 1) He’s an experienced and talented ultrarunner, and 2) He had resolved to help me finish the race as strongly as possible. If I had known either of these things, I might not have felt quite so fantastic.
Up to this point, I hadn’t paid any attention to my overall place or projected finishing time – but as Rick and I crossed Rodeo Beach (the third time for me), we realized that I was on pace for finishing under 23 hours, and began strategizing about the best way to accomplish that goal.
Rick’s suggestion – which made perfect sense, even if I didn’t want to hear it – was to push the pace on the paved, relatively flat sections of miles 75-77, where it would be easiest to make up some time compared to my previous 25-mile loop. So that’s exactly what we did – and that’s when we found our next surprise.
Once the city lights disappeared over our shoulders, we could make out the headlamps of a couple of runners on the trail in the distance ahead of us. Since I hadn’t seen any other runners on my entire previous 25-mile loop, I knew I must be drawing closer to them than I had ever been. Suddenly, we had a game on our hands.
The whole situation reminded me of playing flashlight tag when I was a kid: dashing around bushes and down dark pathways, alertly watching for flickers of light that revealed someone else’s location, while being cautious to conceal your own position in the process. Rick was in full game mode too, even suggesting that we dim our lights and breathe quietly as we approached the first runner from behind, so we could take him by surprise and pass more easily.
As it turns out, nothing at this point of the race came easy – but on the 8-mile stretch to Rodeo Valley (mile 84), I managed to pass two runners, and the guy at the aid station told us that I was in 6th place.
In all honesty, that might have been the worst thing I could have heard – because from that point on, I was completely paranoid about getting passed by anybody. At the top of every climb, and at every bend in the trail, I was glancing over my shoulder to see if there were any traces of light behind me to indicate somebody reeling me in.
We ended up passing one more runner at Tennessee Valley (mile 87), and held onto 5th place for dear life on the steep climbs to Muir Beach, and back up Pirate’s Cove. Somewhere through this stretch, the game stopped feeling like flashlight tag, and felt more like a stalker movie, as the guy we had passed for 5th simply wouldn’t fade into the distance.
In fact, he was close enough behind us to pass me while I was making a pit stop in the bushes at the top of the Pirate’s Cove climb. When I returned to the course, neither Rick nor I said anything, but I knew we each had the exact same thought: Game On.
I don’t think I’ve ever run downhill in the dark as fast as I ran the remaining 2 miles to Tennessee Valley (mile 96), but somehow we were able to regain 5th place and put a small cushion between us and our relentless pursuer. This is when having the benefit of Rick’s experience paid off the most.
As we were approaching the station, he whispered a strategy that seemed a bit risky to me, but made perfect sense: we were going to blow through the final aid station. I wouldn’t fill up water bottles or take in food, but stop only as long as it took to slam down a Coke and keep moving up the trail. Rick would grab my drop bag with the visor and glasses I wanted to wear to the finish (instead of driving back for them after the race).
Like I said, it made perfect sense – I just didn’t know if I could do it. But we stuck to the plan, and I reached for a cup thinking God, I hope this Coke is strong, and we continued up the last killer climb before the finish.
We jogged as much of this stretch as possible, but by this point, I was a dead man running: my legs were wobbling, I was hyperventilating, and my body felt like it was made of lead. Even worse, every time I looked over my shoulder, I saw the faint glow of a headlamp – close enough to be seen, but too far away to estimate the distance.
After what seemed like an eternity, we crested Wolf Ridge, which left us with only downhill miles to reach the finish. Unfortunately, I had no idea what the mileage was, or what pace I was running – I just looked at my watch at saw that I had 24 minutes to break 23 hours.
I didn’t know if that would be enough time, and I didn’t know how close the guy behind me was, and I didn’t know if I could run another step at the pace we were maintaining down the hill. (Basically, I was experiencing full-throttle, ear-slicing paranoia. I’m just glad nobody was there to take my picture.) That’s when I found the final surprise of the night.
Near the top of the hill, we passed a couple of guys who were cheering the runners towards home – and as we did, one of them called my name. It started the following exchange:
Richard: Donald? Is that you?
Richard: Yeah – how …
Me: Richard I’m trying to break 23 hours and hold my position and there’s a guy who’s been chasing me for three hours and he’s not slowing down and my legs are dead and I can barely breathe and this hill is killing me and I just want this to be over right the eff NOW!
(And then, after a brief pause)
Me: So … what are you doing here anyway? It's good to see you.
I later learned that Richard woke up at 4:00 AM to arrive at the course at 4:30 in hopes of seeing me come through the finish line. Keep in mind, this is after he dropped out of the 50-mile race because he could barely walk. Now he was here, two miles up the trail, waiting in the dark for an hour for me to arrive, just to share the moment.
I mean … if I were the one who got hurt, you can bet that I would have spent the next 4AM sleeping it off, or too depressed to worry about how anybody else was doing. Luckily, not everyone is as self-centered as me.
Richard was even able to accompany us down the final hill, and took the “looking over our shoulders” responsibility away from Rick and me, so we could just focus on making it down those final gruesome stairs, and through the last agonizing, seemingly endless mile of the course.
Finally, 22 hours and 55 minutes after the start, I crossed the finish line. My 100-mile race was over. (I also managed to hold onto fifth place, and ran the last 25-mile loop 5 minutes faster than the previous 25. Clearly, Rick’s strategy worked to perfection.) I didn’t go more than 3 steps beyond the finish line before I stopped dead in my tracks, gave Rick a well-deserved hug, and shook Richard’s hand, still marveling at how he showed up precisely when I needed it the most.
That’s when one of the volunteers and I had this exchange:
Her: Nice job! Can I get you anything? What do you want?
Me: Um … nope. Nothing. I don’t want anything.
Part 3: A Series of Small Things
"Great things are not done by impulse, but a series of small things brought together."
-Vincent Van Gogh
It was true in the physical sense as well as the spiritual one: there wasn’t a single thing I wanted anymore. After I crossed that line, I was completely happy, and completely satisfied – and nothing I could have asked for would have made the moment any better.
However, I immediately understood that the moment wasn’t mine alone. Yes, I had just put together the best race I could have dreamed of, but it was only with the aid of many others that I was able to accomplish it. If I hadn’t had the support and encouragement of friends along the course to keep me in good spirits during the day, and if I hadn’t stumbled into the best pacer imaginable who just happened to be looking for a runner in the middle of the night, there’s no way I would have finished as fast as I did, or enjoyed the experience nearly as much.
Finishing the 100-miler wasn’t simply one enormous event; rather, it was a series of small events that came together and built upon each other to become something wonderful. Something artistic. Something beautiful.
Rodeo Beach, Sunday morning, August 10th. It was the same beach I gazed upon the previous morning, yet somehow, it looked different now. 24 hours later, hope had become joy; possibility had become promise; danger had become empowering.
Then again, the ocean is supposed to be constant – I guess that means I’m the one that’s changed. Perhaps you can even see it on my face.