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May 10, 2011

An Architect in Moccasins: Miwok 100K Race Report

“Do you still believe in all the things that you stood by before –
Are you out there on the front lines, or at home keeping score?
Do you care to be the layer of the bricks that seal your fate?
Or would you rather be the architect of what we might create?”
- Rise Against, “Architects” (video after post)

The first time I came to Miwok, I was building up to my maiden 100-mile race, and hadn’t quite fully wrapped my head around the huge numbers involved beyond the realm of the 50-milers I was familiar with. I believed that getting to 100 miles was possible, but aside from that, I didn't have any tangible experience to base that confidence upon.

It was only during that initial 100K that I got my first taste of what the 100-miler might have in store – in both good ways and bad. So with another 100-miler on my schedule this summer, one of my top priorities was to make it to Miwok again, to see if I still had that same belief in myself, and to hopefully get a glimpse of what kind of experience I might be able to create later this year.

With a few more races under my belt now – and for another reason I’ll describe shortly - I’m a different runner than I was the first time here. As it turns out, Miwok was a little different as well; this year’s course included some new trails and a couple of route changes, but still packed about 10,000’ of climbing into some of the most scenic trails in Northern California. The day promised a lot of great things to see – and with that, we’ll start the report.

(As usual, click any of these photos to enlarge ...)

You’ll be forgiven for thinking this is the start line: a bunch of people standing around, chatting the time away, making nervous jokes to take their mind off the situation at hand. Unfortunately, when I took this photo, the race was more than 5 minutes old; after a scramble across the sand of Rodeo Beach, the route immediately narrows to a single-track climb where people in back of the crowd are forced to stop in their tracks for at least a few more minutes before slowly proceeding up the hill. Since it’s the first half-mile of a 62-mile race, and since none of the people in the group around me were exactly charging for a podium finish, nobody really seemed to mind the brief delay.

Once you make it up the first trail, you hit a paved road where you can look back at the start area behind you …

… which is a lot more attractive than the long grind up Conzelman Road ahead.

The reward for climbing up Conzelman is pretty sweet: a killer vantage point of the Golden Gate Bridge emerging from the morning fog.

After seeing the bridge, the trail winds its way gently downhill again …

… until you reach a “Wait – weren’t we just here?” moment in returning to the Rodeo Beach aid station at mile 7. The good news is that you don’t have to wait five minutes to cross the beach a second time. The bad news is, you have to cross the beach a second time.

Leaving Rodeo Beach (for good this time), this year’s route generally took us in reverse through the final section of the traditional race. In my previous Miwok report, I griped about having to go down this large stone staircase at mile 61; this year, we went up them instead. Don’t be shocked when I say this … but it turns out that up is harder.

Climbing the first ridge gives you a glimpse of Tennessee Valley, and you get to enjoy another long downhill to the aid station there. By this point of the race, your legs and mind may as well get used to the pattern: long grinding uphills, followed by long steady downhills – because that’s pretty much what you spend the day doing out here.

After Tennessee Valley comes the longest section of the race without aid; an 8.9-mile up and down stretch including wide ridgeline fire roads …

… and twisty-turny singletrack …

… and some sweet forest trails with foliage overhead and wildflowers underfoot. Believe it or not, you haven’t even reached the prettiest sections of the course yet.

That starts shortly after leaving the Pan Toll aid station at mile 20, where you see the first of two landscapes that Miwok is famous for: plush shady trails meandering through giant redwood forests.

Ahh, the Dipsea Trail … such great memories.

Here’s the second landscape that defines Miwok: grassy single-track on the high slopes of Marin County, with a beautiful seascape in the distance below. You can’t gaze at the sea for too long, however …

… because long portions of this section include what locals call “half-track” trail, which because of its narrowness and slope has been known to roll more than a few ankles over the years.

Each time I’ve done Miwok, the hardest section mentally is the long out and back from the Bolinas Ridge aid station at mile 27 to the turnaround point of the course at mile 34. Fortunately, I didn’t have any thoughts of quitting the race here – because as this sign (click to enlarge photo) outside the aid station says, I would have ended up with a wrinkled soul. Nobody needs that.

The forest somehow vanishes about 500’ from the Randall Trail turnaround point, which at Miwok signals the bonus good news that you’ve actually done more than half the distance. For some reason, that knowledge is always very reassuring.

Remember how I mentioned I was a different runner now? That wasn’t just because I’m a couple of years older and have a few more races on my resume. I was also doing the race in Soft Star RunAmocs, for which I’ve made no secret of my affection over the past year. This spring I had an idea to spread the love a little more publicly than my little hole-in-the-Internet-wall, and the elves at Soft Star were completely on board, sending me a race shirt and setting me up with fresh mocs shortly before race day.

Knowing that this is probably the closest I’ll ever come to actually being a sponsored runner, I figured I’d start calling myself Team Soft Star, since “that crazy guy in the moccasins” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. At Miwok, I was the poster boy for RunAmocs – and honestly, I had a ton of discussions about them on the trail. For the most part, the ultrarunning community has been incredibly curious and open-minded about the whole minimalist thing, and my reception at Miwok was wonderful, for two primary reasons:

1) More than virtually anyone else, ultrarunners can certainly identify with hearing people tell them that something they want to do is crazy, impossible, or potentially harmful – and then going ahead and doing it anyway. Also …

2) Recall that I started at the very back of the pack, which means that I passed a lot of people throughout the day. I imagine that it’s hard to question whether something is effective when the guy doing it is pulling away from you.

So there you have it: Team Soft Star, coming to a trail near you someday. Meanwhile, back at the race …

Even though you’ve turned the corner towards home, returning from Randall Trail is still a fairly significant challenge, as you climb two solid miles through the redwoods before finishing the “more up than down” roller coaster route back to Bolinas Ridge at mile 41.

While the out and back is the toughest mental section for me, the mostly uphill 6-mile return through the half-track and single-track toward Pan Toll was without a doubt the toughest physical section. The incline is just steep enough to grind you down, but just gentle enough that you feel guilty for walking it. This is where I struggled the most, and where I ultimately resorted to gameplay with the two runners in this picture.

They passed me while I was taking a photo, and I made a concerted effort to catch back up and settle in behind them. The girl was running the whole race, but the guy was her pacer, so he had fresh legs and great energy and kept a steady pace while engaging her in conversation the whole way. I asked if I could tag along, and mentally latched onto them like the caboose of a train; my only goal through the whole section was to stay close enough for them to pull me. This was a significant turning point for me; if I had fallen back, the race very likely could have turned ugly, but by making the extra effort to stay close, I made it through my roughest patch of the course without slowing down at all. For that, I was grateful, and I made sure to thank them both afterward.

Leaving the Pan Toll aid station at mile 48, you’re welcomed with a 2-mile downhill stretch …

… followed by a pretty section of flat single track on your way to Muir Beach. This was one of the only level sections on the course, with a nice smooth trail, and when I passed through the wind began swirling at my back, with cloud cover briefly gaining the upper hand over the sun. It was like the ultra gods were smiling on me …

… and when I got to Muir Beach at mile 54, the aid station people were cheering for me. I mean … how much better can an ultra get?

Since the course had changed this year, Miwok’s homestretch featured a gauntlet of major climbs, beginning with this one right after the aid station …

… where you start with a nice view of Muir Beach below, and then head higher up the hill …

… to get your first view of Pirates Cove, one of the prettiest sections of coastline in Marin County. It’s best to keep your gaze fixed on the shore, though …

… because if it drifts inland a bit, you might feel a stomach punch sensation after seeing the climb out of Pirates Cove that awaits you another mile or two ahead.

The good part of the Pirates Cove climb is that every now and then you can look over your shoulder and enjoy the view below …

… because keeping your eyes fixed uphill might get discouraging.

Once you’ve finally climbed out of Pirates Cove, you’ve got less than 10K left to go – and when you see the mile 58 Tennessee Valley aid station down below, you can begin to smell the barn.

I mean that literally, because Tennessee Valley has a lot of barns. And horses. Horses that smell. It’s also home to some wild critters …

… such as this kitty who didn’t seem too bothered by a moccasin-clad runner trudging up behind him. Then again, I can’t imagine why he would be.

Predictably, there’s another long climb out of Tennessee Valley …

… followed by another long descent to sea level. On the original course, once you reach sea level here, you’re done – but this year the finish wasn’t at Rodeo Beach – it was at the local YMCA …

… which was up and over these hills in the Point Bonita area. I generally love exploring new trails – but when I’m looking for the finish line after running 60 miles and all the new trails seem to lead uphill, my enthusiasm tends to wane just a little bit.

The reward for your final climb is one last view of the Golden Gate …

… and a downward sloping road to Point Bonita just ahead.

Considering that this is a world-famous race, the finish line at Miwok is quite unpretentious: there’s a clock, a line drawn on the ground, and a few people standing around clapping. I crossed the line 11 hours and 35 minutes after starting, giving me a nearly 15-minute improvement over the previous time I was here, which felt pretty nice …

… but not nearly as nice as the hot showers that were available after the race. Before showering, though, I had to take a couple more pictures …

… like this one of Team Soft Star at the finish line. I won’t claim that it was easy to run this course in moccasins – but I can definitely say that my feet didn’t hurt any more than the rest of me. I had some soreness through my ankles and on the bottom of my feet, but it was generally the same kind of muscle soreness that you get after any super-long workout.

What I didn’t have were blisters or any major hot spots, and my Drymax socks did a perfect job of protecting me from dust and grit coming through the perforated leather. (I’m not talented enough to be on Team Drymax, though – they have plenty of real ultrarunners onboard.) The mocs were more than up to the task of getting me through 62 miles of hilly, occasionally rocky and technical terrain – I couldn’t really ask for more.

I’ll have a follow-up post or two in the near future about where the whole RunAmoc thing goes from here. In some ways, it ties back into the same notion I started this report with: testing the limits of what’s possible, and gradually converting belief into tangible accomplishment one mile at a time. I hadn’t officially wrapped my head around the idea of doing 100 miles in moccasins prior to this race, but Miwok clearly gave me the confidence to at least consider it. Between now and July, perhaps it’s time for me to be an architect who dreams of something remarkable that I just might be able to create in the mountains above Lake Tahoe.

“We still believe in all the things that we stood by before –
And after everything we've seen here maybe even more.”

Rise Against, "Architects" (click to play; lyrics advisory):

*See other race reports under tab at top of page

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Jenny Davidson 5/11/11, 5:02 AM  


These pictures are gorgeous - really makes me want to do more trail running. Logistical obstacles currently block me from it, but I gotta make it happen!

David 5/11/11, 5:05 AM  

Excellent race report and I love the pictures. I'm doing my first ultra in June (Highlands Sky 40 miler in West Virginia), and am considering bringing a pocket camera to document the experience for my dedicated fans (i.e. wife and 2 kids).

I might have to check out the RunAmocs as I'm having troubles finding a replacement for my Vibram KSO's to fit my pontoon-like feet.

Gretchen 5/11/11, 5:54 AM  

Nice job out there, kid! You did awesome!

I did not know it was called half-track, but that makes perfect sense. That part was a little rough for sure.

Cynthia 5/11/11, 6:00 AM  

Great report and awesome pictures. You've inspired me to run with a camera and document my trail exploits. I attempted it for the first time this weekend during the NY North Face Challenge, but I need a little more practice. I did get a good shot of my little brother passing me up though (and yes, I was proud).

Thank you for your reports and pictures. They are great motivation for getting out there.

Michael Shane Helton 5/11/11, 6:51 AM  

Gratz Donald! I bought a pair of Runamocs for my wife, who has Hobbit feet (7EEEE) so cannot ever find shoes. She is loving them so far.

See you at the Tahoe 100.

olga 5/11/11, 7:09 AM  

Mde me wanna come back for this one, although I hate being part of lotteries these days:) Great finish time!

JimDog 5/11/11, 9:01 AM  

Great race report! Soft Star should definitely sponsor you for real! You are a great spokesperson for them :-)

Dan 5/11/11, 9:59 AM  

As always, an inspiring race report with fantastic pictures. Your stories flow so well that one would almost think your "real job" must involve some sort of writing. :)

I remember those blasted stone steps on the way up from the beach to Wolf Ridge. In last year's Headlands 50M we had to go up *and down* not once but twice. Thank goodness they've changed
the course this year to cut the misery in half!

Morgan hill

Anne 5/11/11, 1:47 PM  

Such a beautiful setting for a 100k, no wonder it's so popular with the ultra crowd. You took some amazing photos too. I appreciate it.

Darrell 5/11/11, 7:58 PM  

Donald, I really appreciate the photos and to think you took them all while posting a faster time than before.

Tricia 5/13/11, 10:30 AM  

Excellent race Team Soft Star!! Thanks for the awesome report and pictures - you make us feel as if we were sitting on your shoulder (as opposed to your feet :-))

Jens 5/19/11, 1:53 AM  

Awesome Pictures, this remebers me what I miss the most since I moved into a bigger city :(
It's time for a nice trail-run again!
Thank you for your report

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