“Even on a cloudy day
I’ll keep my eyes fixed on the sun.”
-Cage the Elephant, “Shake Me Down” (video after post)
The buildup to a 100-mile run can be a strange process. If you’re anything like me, the main event burns like a bright hot sun on your race calendar, eclipsing everything else in its vicinity.
There’s a physiological aspect to this phenomenon, as each tune-up event builds the strength and stamina that will be needed for the eventual 100-miler. However, there’s a psychological component to the process as well; when a challenge as formidable as Leadville looms on your horizon, it completely dominates your thoughts to an extent that every single training run and practice race is defined solely by the contribution it will make to your success on the big day (and night – and in my case, the following day as well) of the target race.
While it’s perfectly understandable, sometimes I regret carrying this mindset into races with me – because more often than not, the events I’m participating in are fully deserving of their own moment in the sun. In particular, Northern Californians are blessed to have some of the most amazing trails and wonderful races anyone can ask for, and it’s easy to feel like we live in the Mecca of ultrarunning. So when I say that a new NorCal race has the makings of an instant classic, that’s not a statement to take lightly – but last weekend’s Marin Ultra Challenge definitely fits that description.
The race isn’t one to take lightly either - with nearly 11000’ of climbing, many runners considered it more difficult than The North Face 50 in this same region – but the course designed by Hydrapak’s Jim Vernon offers a wonderful combination of new trails and classic Marin County thoroughfares, over terrain that was generally runnable but often simply grueling. I could tell you more … but it’s probably easier if we just get to the report.
We’ll start with a theme that will recur throughout the race: it was a very foggy day. Although the 6AM start time was technically after sunrise, you couldn’t really tell that by looking across the start area at Rodeo Beach.
The course doesn’t start out particularly dramatic, with rolling fire roads and gradual climbs leading to the top of Coastal Trail that overlooks the city from the Golden Gate Rec Area. Unfortunately …
… see the Golden Gate Bridge there? Or Alcatraz off to the left? Or the city skyline in the distance? Us either. I felt bad for a couple of first-time runners I ran close to through this section, knowing the killer views they were missing under the blanket of fog.
After passing the views that weren’t viewable, we rolled back down to the start/finish area where the first aid station awaited us at mile 9.
From there it’s an old standby climb from Rodeo Beach, up Coastal Trail and over Wolf Ridge before descending down into another aid station at Tennessee Valley. There really aren’t many different ways to get from Rodeo to Tennessee, so this route is probably familiar to anyone who’s done other ultras based in one of the two areas.
It wasn’t until leaving Tennessee Valley that the course sprung some new challenges on us, beginning with a gentle climb up the Miwok Trail that darts in and out of eucalyptus groves …
… and eventually leads to the Dias Ridge Trail, a very pretty meandering single track that eventually deposits you at Muir Beach and another aid station at mile 19.
Shortly after leaving Muir Beach, we encountered what must be one of the craziest trails in all of Marin County: the Heather Cutoff. As far as climbs go, its numbers aren’t particularly daunting; what makes it memorable are the multiple zigzagging switchbacks that wander in every conceivable direction on the face of the hill. The trail is somewhat hard to appreciate from the bottom …
… but looking back down from the top you get a better sense of how convoluted the paths can be. Also – see that little patch of blue stuff in the top left corner?
It was the sky! It was nearing midday by this point, and the sun finally burned through the fog just in time for us to get some cool views of Mt Tamalpais as we ran along the ridge line.
Another cool aspect of the race was visible here as well: at a few different locations on the course we passed by photographers taking pictures of the runners. Of course, that in itself isn’t very unusual, and I figured that later in the week I’d receive an e-mail with some blurry thumbnail photos and a solicitation to get the “real photos” if I send in 30 dollars. What I didn’t realize at the time is that Inside Trail Racing recruits their own team of photographers to take photos and post them to the company’s Picasa page. They posted multiple pictures of every runner, which are completely free and easy to download - and that kind of tells you all you need to know about Inside Trail Racing’s love for the trail running community.
As for the photo above: that’s me cresting the ridgeline from the previous photo. I was especially grateful for shots like this, since most of my self-photos from the day kinda sucked.
Meanwhile, back at the race …
Remember the Dipsea Trail from my Miwok 100K report? The one with the beautiful redwoods and steep staircase descents that leads to the town of Stinson Beach? They used that trail here as well. However …
… unlike at Miwok, you don’t actually go to the beach at the Marin Ultra Challenge; instead, you try to gain your composure, and possibly contemplate sitting down for lunch with the cycling club at Stinson Beach Market – because the next part of the course is an absolute killer.
Over the next two miles, you’ll climb nearly 2000’ up the Willow Camp Trail – an uphill slog that seems to go on forever. On the plus side, you finally get to see the beach – on the minus, it’s much too far away to enjoy it.
This climb is virtually the same one that opened this year’s Miwok 100K – but instead of doing it in the dark early morning at the start of the race, we were doing it in the heat of midday with a full marathon already on our legs. Despite my recent familiarity with the climb, this one seemed harder the second time around – and sometimes it’s better to not see what lies ahead of you.
Thankfully, after cresting the climb the course rewards you with 6 miles of flat and downhill terrain, starting with the wide-open Coastal Trail towards Pantoll Campground …
… and shady forests of the Old Mine Trail that lead to a welcome aid station …
… as well as another race photographer! As you can see, I’m not exactly blasting at full throttle here: by this point, my legs had become pretty weary, and I was already in the “one foot in front of the other” mode I shift to towards the end of most ultras – except in this case, I had almost 19 more miles to go.
This was kind of a low point for me, but there wasn’t any particular crisis to speak of – I just generally felt sort of empty. So I munched on some Pop Tarts (yes, really - they're becoming one of my aid station favorites) while walking the initial descent out of the aid station …
… and went super conservatively through the beautiful redwoods of the Ben Johnson Trail. In fact, I was moving so slowly …
… that when I reached the visitor center at Muir Woods National Monument, it was probably hard to distinguish me from the hoards of tourists making their leisurely strolls through the tall trees.
Fortunately, as often happens in ultras, a bit of time and shade was all I needed to perk up again – and by the time we began the long climb up the Fern Creek and Lost Trails within Muir Woods, I found a little more bounce in my step.
At the top, you leave the shade behind on the appropriately named Sun Trail that travels just below Panoramic Highway and connects you to another section of the Dipsea Trail …
… where you give all of that elevation back before crossing Redwood Creek at the bottom of Muir Woods again.
This section of the climb out of Muir Woods is affectionately called “Dynamite” by Dipsea racers; it’s not the “Hey, this is great, we’re having a blast here” meaning of the word … rather, it’s the “This trail will almost certainly blow your legs up” connotation. There’s a difference.
And guess what awaits you after completing the Dipsea climb and the following long descent? Another killer climb, this time away from Muir Beach as you begin the classic route toward Pirates Cove. Also notice that the fog had started to roll back in …
… and by the time I finally made it to Pirate’s Cove, most of the scenery was shrouded away again …
… leaving me with nothing but another steep climb as I made my way back home.
From the top of Pirate’s Cove, it’s a long steady descent into Tennessee Valley, where all the aid station volunteers tried to tell me I looked good.
I suspected they were lying, but couldn’t really confirm it until seeing one of ITR’s Picasa photos after the race. Truthfully, I probably looked like hell – but with less than 5 miles to go, I wasn’t going to let that stop me.
Once I completed the final climb of the day, the fog was back at full strength, just as it had been in the morning. Normally you can see Rodeo Beach in the distance below this sign at the top of Wolf Ridge – today, not so much. I knew it was down there, though …
… and soon enough it materialized in front of me, about 11 and a half hours after I left it.
I’m not running fast race times anymore - more on this in a separate post – but I was happy with my race management on this day. I only hit one really dark patch, and otherwise was able to prevent all sorts of little issues from escalating into major ones. It was something of a pleasant surprise, in that part of me was expecting things to be a whole lot worse (more on that later as well).
Another mild surprise was my footwear for the day; I switched from my customary Soft Star Original RunAmocs to the RunAmoc Dash, which I’m beginning to like more and more for the steep technical terrain that is so prevalent at Northern California ultras.
All in all, I came away very impressed and satisfied with the Marin Ultra Challenge: impressed that Race Director Tim Stahler and Inside Trail Racing managed to put together such an outstanding first-time event, and satisfied that the pieces of my Leadville training might actually be falling into place. And with that bright hot 100-miler looming on the horizon, this cloudy day in Marin was exactly the thing I needed.
Cage the Elephant, “Shake Me Down” (click to play):
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