“The arena is empty except for one man,
Still driving and striving as fast as he can -
The sun has gone down and the moon has come up,
And long ago somebody left with the cup –
But he's driving and striving and hugging the turns,
And thinking of someone for whom he still burns -
-Cake, “The Distance” (video after post)
In last year's race calendar post, I made a specific point of saying that I didn’t like doing 50K races. Between financial considerations, family commitments, and the fact that I can typically do 30-mile training runs on my own, I tend to be selective about which races I enter – and when the grand design is to make it through 100 miles this summer, I need to reach beyond my 50K comfort zone at every opportunity possible.
Unfortunately, there aren’t exactly a plethora of 50-mile or 100K races to choose from – even in Northern California – and my favorite of all time, the Diablo 50, disappeared from the race calendar a couple of years ago due to park permit problems. For the few races that remain, the timing doesn’t always work out, which kind of left me scrambling to find an early-season 50-mile tuneup.
This brings us to the Woodside 50K, which was ideally situated on the calendar and was geographically convenient, and which is hosted by Pacific Coast Trail Runs, the best trail race organization in California if not the whole country. The only way it didn’t seem to work out was the distance … until I took a close look at the course map.
In addition to the 50K, there were 35K, 17K, and 10K options to choose from, all of which would be clearly marked on race day. The courses traversed a couple of different parks so there wasn’t excessive repetition of the same trails. And some simple math told me that the 50K plus 35K would equal … well, how about that? A little more than 52 miles, with over 7500’ of climbing.
At that point, the plan was hatched – but just to make sure everything was kosher from the event’s standpoint, I sent race director Sarah Spelt an e-mail asking if she’d have any objection to me running two different courses, and offered to sign away any liability or pay a higher race fee under those circumstances. Not only did she not have a problem with it, but she didn’t charge me anything extra, said I was welcome to help myself to aid station support as long as they were still open, and (along with Woodside's resident trail rat Scott Dunlap) helped me work out the logistics for how to best take advantage of the course support while also having periodic access to my car. And then she told me to have fun.
In a related story, Sarah’s one of the coolest RDs you’ll ever meet. And I was practically getting two races for the price of one. How could I let that kind of opportunity pass me by?
(Incidentally, if you’re interested, here’s my wife’s three-word synopsis of the whole little OCD-fueled scheme I’ve just described: “You’re an idiot.”)
So my intention was to arrive early and run the last 4.5-mile leg of the 35K course, then do the 50K, and then double back through the entire 35K course until I reached my car at the point where I started. Therefore, instead of parking at the start/finish area, my day started here:
The Kings Mountain aid station that runners passed through twice for both the 50K and the 35K. In other words, I’d be there 4 times, which came in handy to stash fluid bottles and energy gels in case I missed the aid station cutoffs the second time around. And by not using the main lot at the start area, I also saved myself five bucks in parking fees. Who’s the idiot now? (Wait … nevermind. Don’t answer that.)
You’ll also notice that it was raining, which would prove to be a theme for the day. Running in the rain isn’t exactly my favorite thing to do, but I can usually work up the courage when there’s no other option - so I only spent a few minutes second-guessing my brilliant plan before heading off into the wet darkness.
Worse than the rain was the muddy trail conditions that resulted from two solid weeks of heavy rainfall throughout Northern California. Back home in Monterey County, multiple roads were closed due to landslides, and rivers were approaching flood stage – but thankfully, the only impact on these Bay Area trails was a healthy dose of mud, as I’ll describe in a minute.
Another complication of the morning rain was an increased degree of difficulty for my photographic exploits. Anytime I wanted to take a picture, here’s what I had to do: take off my waterproof glove, pull my jacket up over my waist pack, unzip a pocket on the pack, take my camera out of the Ziploc baggie keeping it dry, then try to protect the lens from getting rained on before reversing the whole process. And as you can see, it didn’t always work too well. Consequently, most of the course pictures in this report are actually from my second tour of the course, when the rain had thinned to a light drizzle and I wasn’t as concerned about wasting time at the side of the trail.
A little under an hour after leaving my car, I reached the start area of the 50K, and joined the other brave souls reluctantly crouched at the starting line.
Most of the first 10K is spent climbing – a total of about 2000’ – but it’s fairly gradual, either on wide fire roads …
… or pretty single track, until we reached the first aid station (and my parking spot) at King’s Mountain, still under a constant downpour.
Leaving King’s Mountain, the course traverses the Skyline Trail which connects Huddart and Wunderlich Parks. It’s a beautiful stretch of single track, which I tried my best to enjoy when I wasn’t slipping and sliding in the mud.
Speaking of that, here’s a question: How do you prefer your mud?
Do you like it thick, goopy and shoe-sucking? …
Or shallow and slick and slimy? …
Or completely submerged at various unpredictable depths? Whatever your answer, the Woodside course had plenty of varieties to keep you happy. You know how Eskimos have several different words for snow? I’m thinking the native peoples of this area probably had different descriptions of mud, since various types all present slightly different challenges to navigate. Or maybe they were smart enough to just stay home in their caves on rainy days like this.
There was also a fair amount of debris on the trail from high winds that accompanied our recent storms. Fortunately, it wasn’t very windy on race day, so the fallen branches were simply a neat temporary addition to the trail, rather than a threat to our safety from above.
By the time we bottomed out in Wunderlich Park after a roughly 1500’ descent, the rain had slowed to a drizzle, and I was able to take my first real-time photo of the race. I also skipped the Ziploc portion of my camera routine, and just tucked it into my waist pocket and under my jacket. It’s amazing, the small things we celebrate sometimes.
Shortly after making the turn to start the return trip home, there was a period of about 30 seconds when I thought the sun might finally make an appearance for the day. Unfortunately, this was about as close as it ever got. However …
… the rain stopped long enough for me to actually take a timer photo, which I figured I had better do, since I might not get another chance. So there you go.
You know who really deserved a medal? The folks working the aid stations all day long, such as this lonely guy at the Bear Gulch outpost. At least when you’re running, you’re generating some body heat and you’ve got a task to keep you mentally focused; the volunteers are just standing out in the cold and rain for several hours or more, trying to unscrew and refill water bottles with gloves on, and listening to runners ask them why the CLIF Bloks are soggy (Yes, I overheard that). My gratitude to volunteers grows more with every passing race.
I don’t know if it was the strange light of the rain and fog or the result of 2 weeks of nonstop rainfall, but the colors of the trail on the return trip were truly eye-popping.
The deep reds and greens combined with the wonderfully gentle (click to enlarge the above photo to see the long, meandering switchbacks) single track made the return stretch from Bear Gulch to Kings Mountain probably my favorite part of the course …
… only to be topped by the breathtaking single track of Huddart Park a bit later.
By this point, we were less than 5 miles from the 50K finish, and the course sloped almost entirely downhill. I felt good enough to run hard, but I consciously tried to restrain myself a bit, knowing I still had another 18 miles or so to go afterward. Needless to say, it was extremely hard to dial back my effort …
… especially when I got passed by this guy less than one mile from the finish line. Grrr.
I came through the finish area with a time of just over 6 hours; between the muddy conditions and my plan to run extra miles, I wasn’t expecting to go super fast here, but … sheesh. That looks pretty bad for me. Fortunately, it didn’t occur to me until later that my official time will be on Google forever. I think I’m going to tell people I was sick that day.
From past experience, I knew enough to not hang around the finish line too long, so it was probably less than two minutes before I left the shelter and started making the journey back to my car and beyond.
My second trip through Huddart was completely serene; the same trails and streams I had shared with 50 other people at the beginning of the day were now mine alone. The steady rainfall of morning had faded to an intermittent drizzle, and I had nothing else to do but crank out some beautiful bonus miles.
At this point I was basically on my own for nutrition; I knew the Kings Mountain aid station would close at 4PM, but I wasn’t certain if I could cover the 6 uphill miles to get there in enough time. As a backup plan, I started hitting the GU Roctanes pretty hard, which turned out to be a great decision in light of what was coming.
Here’s the main reason I was so bent on doing 50 miles instead of 50K: during these tune-up races for my 100-miler, I think it’s important to struggle for a while. You have to go through stretches where you question what you’re doing, wonder if you have enough strength and willpower to finish the job, and start to suffer some physical pains that you know you have to carry for several more hours.
For whatever reason, 50Ks don’t always give me that feeling – but doing 50 miles or more inflicts those periods of struggle and suffering on me every single time. And that, even more than the physical training, is where I draw the most benefit from these build-up races. I said a while back that I was looking for strength in pain – and this long uphill climb after more than 36 miles was where I first started to find it. All of a sudden, the miles began to get very tough.
One more thing: I enjoy mud as much as the next guy; I like stomping around in it and I don’t mind when my legs and clothes get all dirty after biking or running in it. But there’s mud, and then there’s 40 miles of mud – which is a whole different thing. Beyond a certain point, I just wasn’t feeling the mud love anymore.
(In case you're wondering about the shoes: they're from Soft Star, and they're prototypes. And I think that's all I want to say for now - but there's definitely more to come later.)
Here’s the King’s Mountain aid station at mile 40, and that’s my beige car parked in the background. At this point, the rain had started again, and I was looking at another 12 miles that included the muddiest, sloppiest portions of the course. Or I could have just called it a big mileage day, climbed in my car and gone home. I know I was looking for a mental challenge out here, but at this juncture I came very close to overmatching myself.
The volunteer there helped lift my spirits; his name was Leonard, and he had enough CLIF drink left in the tank to top off my bottles, and even gave me a leftover potato to munch on. We talked for a couple of minutes, and to his credit, he didn’t think the idea of me running extra miles was crazy at all. I briefly thought about asking him to call my wife and tell her so, but he seemed in a hurry to break down the rest of the station and get out of the rain. So he went his way, and I went mine – and the arena was completely empty.
Once I left him, I was facing the out-and-back stretch of the Skyline trail that was roughly 6 miles to the 35K turnaround point at Bear Gulch. The trail was just as beautiful as the first time through …
… but there was also a sort of darkness to the whole area, as the temperature was getting cold again, and the minimal light that had filtered in through the trees at midday was long since swallowed up in the tall canopy.
Perhaps the hardest part of this stretch is that it was a total honor system situation, since I had the trail entirely to myself. I knew that every cold, muddy step I took away from my car was adding another one that I’d have to make on the way back; I knew that my pace was slowing down to the point where I was looking at a few more hours on an increasingly dark early evening; and I knew that if I just turned around early, there was no way anybody would know. The thought of doing precisely that was WAY more tempting than I thought it would be.
That’s the significance of this Bear Gulch photo, where I finally reached the turnaround point.
I’d like to say I caught a second wind over the 6-mile return trip to the car, but those miles weren’t a whole lot faster than the ones that preceded them. I did a lot of walking and wanting the whole thing to just be done with, and trying to remember things what it was like to be warm and have dry feet.
At long last, I returned to the King’s Mountain aid station, which was now simply Kings Mountain Road. I hadn’t noticed it during the final stretch of trail, but somewhere along the way from Bear Gulch to here it had stopped raining – which meant it was picture time again!
This is me trying to put on a happy face after nearly 12 hours of slogging through the mud. Looks can be deceiving, though …
… because this is the first take I attempted, when my leg muscles seized up on me just from taking a couple of backward steps after pressing the timer button. You could say I was a little bit sore.
Fittingly, about 2 minutes after this photo was taken, the skies opened up and it began to rain again. By this point it seemed like an appropriate way to end the whole adventure as it had started, and for the first time all day, I didn’t mind the downpour. I was already in the warmth and comfort of my car, and I had managed to go the distance.
Cake, "The Distance" (click to play):
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