It's over! My first 100k is in the bag. I finished the 2015 Miwok 100k in 10 hrs and 12 minutes, good enough for 9th overall and 2nd place in my age group to a 23 year old crusher who took the overall win. The pace was much faster than the previous ultras I've done, all hundred milers. I spent this winter doing a bunch of ski mountaineering races, trudging up ski resorts and whipping my skinny skis down double black diamonds I had no business skiing on what's basically my first season. All of those winter miles paid off with a huge boost in pace. Here's the story. (And here's the Strava if you want to skip the narrative.)
Jenna and I flew in a couple of days before the race and set up camp in Mill Valley, across the mountains from the start line. As usual, I lost my ability to focus on anything but food and the race. Preparation for this race felt different.
I wanted to make this race a fast race, but I didn't know enough about the distance to decisively pick a pace. I think you have to consciously decide to become a faster runner. All spring my heart rate had been dropping on my regular loops, but I'd been keeping my old paces and not pushing too fast, like my new fitness was a lie. Well, no better time than a race to get over that and test out the new legs.
I decided I'd try to break 10 hours. I figured I could hold 10 minute miles for the first few hours, and if this was too much I'd calibrate during the race. And I'd be at sea level! Piece of cake.
For reference, the fastest 50 mile split I've ever done was a speedy 10:40 at Leadville last year. 40 minutes faster for 62 miles? I was scared of hubris, of going out hard and burning up 15 miles in. On the other hand I'd found a coach this year and spent the entire winter and spring training harder than I have in years.
The race started at 5am on Saturday. I woke up at 1:45, stretched, showered, crammed down 800 calories of bagel, peanut butter, yogurt and coffee. I dressed, Aquaphor-ed my whole body against inevitable chafage (a habit from the Texas Water Safari days) and laid in bed staring at the ceiling until it was time to go. Jenna drove us over the mountains blaring "hide away". That song would be stuck in my head for the next 12 hours.
We parked at an art gallery across from the finish line and went inside to check in. I left my jacket with Jenna and jogged the first quarter mile of the course, checking out the bottleneck entrance to the Dipsea trail where everyone behind the leaders clogs the trail and are forced to walk.
We lined up. I was warm from the bodies pressing in around me. I heard a muffled countdown from the organizer ahead; she yelled "ONE!", and then we were off. I pushed hard, arcing out right around the group, about twenty places back but past the mob and in a good spot. I ran up the stairs, watching my heart rate climb in the excitement and breathing it down. That first mile always coaxes you to run, as if those early miles can do anything but hurt you. I guess you can bank time, but it's such an art, setting the tone with twelve hours of yawning unknown beyond.
My headlamp was terribly dim, so I latched on to a group of fast old men and a young guy in thin shoes and a button-down shirt, Anton Krupicka style. The fog was cold, and the stairs up the Dipsea trail were dripping. I almost face planted a couple of times, feeling good but sloppy at the fast climbing pace.
I couldn't believe we were running these stairs. My breathing was in control, and my heart rate was 163, five beats below my aerobic threshold, so I figured I'd trust that over my perception of the pace and hold. The footing was sketchy in the fog. I tried holding the headlamp in my hand. No luck. We topped out the stairs to a shivering group of aid station volunteers and a proud, kilted giant holding a roaring set of bagpipes. Winding along the ridge, I stuck to the shoulder of a runner with a strong headlamp. He let me pass, but as I pulled in front his sun of a headlamp washed mine out fully. I chased a huge black goblin shadow of myself for maybe a minute before dropping back as we hit the first descent.
We started passing runners. The old man, Mark Richtman, disappeared behind me. I wouldn't see him again until he blew past me at mile 45 yelling "Less than 20 to go!" Such an optimist.
I caught another guy dressed all in blue, hammering down the rutted road from Cardiac. He tripped, almost took a header and recovered, so I hung back with him to stay safe. We were alone, and I felt fantastic. I'd settled into the strong pace and was confident now that I could hold it for at least a few hours. Not worth thinking beyond that. The sun was pushing dim light through the fog and I could see without my light, just barely.
"What's your name?" asked the runner. I told him and asked his. His name was Jean, and he turned out to be a legend. This was his 9th Miwok. (Here's Jean's trip report.)
"Any time goal for you today?" I asked, trying to get a bead on our pace. He thought about it, said no - he was running a 100k the next weekend and had completed a 50 miler a couple of weekends ago, so he was "just trying to finish". I smelled bullshit. We were going too fast for that.
Finally the bottom of the hill, the road and 1 mile to the aid station. Jean pulled away. I yelled good luck and didn't see him again until the turnaround at mile 50. He ended up finishing 4th overall.
Muir Beach (Mile 8)
The course passed the Pelican Inn, where I'd married Jenna a couple of months before. The aid station was 8 miles in, but my new GPS watch, the Garmin Fenix 3, read 6.8 miles. Hmm. 1.2 miles short. This meant I was going quite a bit faster than I thought. I got in and out of the aid station fast, not letting anyone past me, and pushed into the fog to the next big climb.
I jogged the beginning, picking off people slowly. I saw a couple of young guys ahead way up the hill. One was shirtless with massive blonde dreads - clearly a Timmy Olson impersonator. How old were they? Already I was letting myself hope for a solid age group placing. I didn't want to catch them yet. Go slow early in the race. I held back, but we were doing just shy of 10 minute miles on the climb and I was maybe 200 feet back of their group of three at the top of the ridge. I cruised the descents, pushing a little to test out the Hokas I was wearing, and caught one of the three. Too early! Relax, talk a little, just relax until the bottom of the hill.
Time was stretching, now. The keyframes were spreading apart. Every race is full of vivid snapshots linked by a hazy sense of progress through distance and time. I know I was singing to myself, some pop song over and over, and checking my heart rate on the watch every minute. I could see the ocean winking through fog banks, and could tell we were dropping. Jenna, my wife, was waiting for me at Tennessee valley, at the half marathon point. Soon I could see cars, another vivid memory, and then the aid station brought me back into the moment.
Tennessee Valley (Mile 13.8)
I hit the station at two hours, 20 minutes ahead of the splits I'd planned for Jenna. I didn't see her and started to refill my bottle from a volunteer's pitcher, but she found me and ran out with food and new soft flasks. My beautiful wife! Such a charge, seeing her standing in the parking lot with those sacks of sugar.
I hustled out without slowing down. Tim Olson was ahead in the fog. only the slowest of that group of three was in sight, and I passed him on the climb. Fuck. I'd been dropped! I couldn't see the trio anywhere. (I realized much later that I must have passed them at the aid station. I was chasing phantoms.) I forced a gel down and focused on running up the long hill. The next aid station was a dramatic lookout over the Golden Gate Bridge. I'd run this part of the course before, which removes a big psychic burden.
Near the top of the first big climb I saw two runners coming toward me that I was sure I recognized. Did this segment have an out and back? And how were they SO far ahead? They were chatting!
"Little backtracking, boys?" I said.
"Yeah, man. Nice work!" This is a problem with ultra running. If you say confusing shit, spectators and racers alike will just assume you're out of your mind and say nice things to you.
I passed another group in full ultra gear coming toward me. I was stunned. They must be 45 minutes ahead, and on this surprise course diversion. I only sorted it out after pushing hard to catch a heavy guy with an inefficient stride - how is he ahead? - and asking him, "hey, do you know if we have to come back this way?"
"Are you part of a group?" he asked, and I knew. These were popular trails, and it seemed that everyone running in the bay area that morning had decided to gear up like they were running an ultra. Relieved and confused about my pace I pushed on.
Bridge View (Mile 18.6)
I could see the bridge now and floated up the trail, tranced out, muttering times, looking at my heart rate. The aid station surprised me again - my watch was 2.2 miles slow by now. Thank the volunteers, refill bottles, grab watermelon and go. I had vivid memories of podcasts I'd listened to on this stretch of trail back in 2013, training for the Leadville 100, my first ultra. (The Enormocast's interview of Alex Honnold, early Radiolab episodes... the inner music was loud.)
Glasses on against the wind. Pushing on the downhill to keep the heart rate up. Road stretch, then on to the first hill climb Jenna ever ran with me in 2013. The race had become an unexpected tour of personal moments, memories tied up with sections of trail. Some trails soak up stories that are invisible to those who only walk.
I saw another runner a couple of hundred feet ahead of me and executed a slow, slow pass over the next twenty minutes. As I was doing this, Ron Gutierrez passed me. Slow time was in strong effect.
We hit the ridge and started passing outbound runners, saying "good job" and waving to everyone. Trail runners are such studs, so happy to make room in narrow sections. As Jean said in his trip report, these guys are all in their own world of pain, but still lovely about letting us go fast.
Finally we topped out, split off from the crowd, then bombed down to T-Valley and the marathon checkpoint, 26.2 miles. Looking at my watch I thought I might be able to hit 3:45 for a mid-ultra marathon PR. Actually, let's just call it a marathon PR, as I've only marathoned in the context of Ultras and Ironman.
Bottom of the hill, walk past the horses - a DQ penalty was waiting if I ran, and I considered race walking through before giving that stupid idea up - then on to the aid station, another bottle refill, watermelon and out. The aid station was empty, another sign that we were going fast. I'd see Jenna at the next mark.
Coastal Trail to Muir Beach (Mile 30.3)
The next 5 miles hold some of the beautiful trails on the course. You drop down a dirt road toward the ocean through huge dripping trees washed by fog, massive scrubby hills rising up on either side of the valley. A mile before the water the trail splits right and it's a hike up a steep fire road to the flat summit and a view of California coast out of the postcards. I walked some of this. The hills in this stretch could kill the legs, and I tried to be mindful if the 35 miles left in the race.
Next comes the Coastal Trail, a thin strip of singletrack cut into steep cliff walls looming over the Pacific. You dive down rocks, dirt and steep stairs to Pirate's Cove, then climb all the way back up to a stunning view of Muir Beach a thousand feet below. This whole region is so empty, except for the cluster of tents in the parking lot that shouted Aid Station. Be present! Enjoy the day! Walk the hills! My mind searched for some mantra it could pulse out for the next six hours, some touchstone that would make time pass more quickly.
I looked at my watch and thought that I might be able to hit 4:30 at Muir, the halfway point. Holy shit. With the inevitable slowdown on the 2nd half that would make it possible to go sub 10 hours. I felt excited and a little sick. I was going far faster than I had last year Leadville. I was feeling great, but it's hard to believe that the feeling isn't a mirage, and that a bonk just has to be close.
I crossed the bridge to Muir and again noticed just how empty the aid station was. I was in 9th or 10th at this point, still ahead of the crowds. I thought I saw Jenna and started staring and waving at a girl on a picnic table. She looked alarmed - I realized this was not my wife and shut it down. Whoops. I looked around and yelled her name. Nothing. I was maybe 1.5 hours ahead of the splits I'd prepared, and she hadn't caught up. Again, that sick, scared excitement.
Bottle refill, chips and tortilla rolls with ham and mustard and I was on my way. 4 miles to my second ascent of Cardiac.
Muir -> Cardiac (Mile 35.5)
I let myself believe that Jenna might be at the road. It helps pass time to have something to look forward to. Instead a big man dressed as a pirate waited at the turn, sending me down the road with a yell. "You're in 12th!"
After a few miles of road I hit the trailhead and settled in to singletrack for the Cardiac climb. Compared to the first trip on this stretch I'd slowed a little, but was still moving fast. I was tired, but my legs were strong, still able to push when I asked. I crossed the raod again and started up the hill to Cardiac. Slow time set in. I passed two runners, fear flaring, hoping that they wouldn't get inspired and try to race me. My heart rate jumped to the mid 160s. This was maybe the second to last huge climb, though, and I let myself push it.
The sun was out now and I was thirsty. I guzzled water, trying to time it to hit the next aid station at empty. I'd been forgetting to empty my trash and had a huge bulge of gel wrappers in my vest pocket.
Off to my left, suddenly, sound erupted - this urgent, sexual gasping. Was some dude getting drilled in the bushes? Was I hallucinating weird fuck sounds? I kept moving away from it, but a couple of minutes later, there it was again. The sound followed me up the hill. I didn't feel that out of it... finally the trees thinned to my left and I could see another runner grunting up the Dipsea to my left, giving it his all. Fuck that trail, my man!
I passed another runner in the sun near the top. He looked bad. I took this as a reminder of what could easily happen to me if I didn't eat. Everyone up here at the front wanted it bad.
I saw a photographer on the side of the trail firing burst shots and knew that the aid station was close. I smiled, then looked ahead, trying to project seriousness. I was chipping away at the task at hand. What was I supposed to look like?
Cardiac aid station. More water, thank god. Salt pills. More chips, PBJ.
Cardiac -> Bolinas Ridge (Mile 42.5)
The next section rolls through more beautiful redwoods. I was happy to be out of the sun. I wanted to walk, but I did NOT want to get caught. I kept looking back - I'd seen another runner hit the aid station as I was leaving. Just let me keep this place!!
Things turned rough when I hit the sun. I could see Ron far ahead of me. I drank and pushed through the thick grass as the trail slanted over sideways. Behind me I could see Ray Sanchez. Every time I looked back at him I'd veer off into the grass. I cut it out and looked ahead, eating up the hot miles like soggy mouthfuls of potato chips.
I know this section was hard because it's already fading from memory. I "let" Ray pass on the next road crossing and tried to stay with him, but he looked great and I kept my slowing pace. Soon we were in the redwoods again. The PB&J I'd forced down started working and I was able to move. Yes! I saw aid station signs and more photographers, and slammed my head on a branch right before this picture:
Ginger ale, water and I was out and moving with more chips and a PB&J. "You've got miles of rollers, then a mile and a half down to the next aid station," reported the aid station captain. Thank you sir!
Bolinas -> Randall (Mile 49.2)
Rollers was right - Big, muddy rollers under the gorgeous redwoods. I walked the steep uphills, feeling secure in my spot, bolstered by a few choice lookbacks. After three miles of complacent running I heard footsteps behind me. Shit. It was the old guy, Mark Richtman, sixty years old and fit as hell. He motored by me, yelling "less than 20 miles to go!" This seemed less optimistic than our 17 remaining miles warranted.
He was gone, and fast. So fast that I spent a while wondering if maybe, just maybe, he'd jumped in a car, driven up, hidden in the woods and waited for me. Once I showed up, he must have jumped out of the woods, passed me with a yell, motored ahead and popped back into the woods toward his car. This fast pass was his way of justifying the cheat later, when he ran into the finish line after driving back down the coast. "I DID run it! Ask #31!" Later I saw him far ahead and gave up on the fantasy... but it passed the time!
Finally, the turn to the downhill bomb to Randall at Mile 49.2 where I'd catch Jenna and Aaron. Before the race I'd planned on hitting this station in under 9 hours at the fastest. I was pushing a sub 8 hour time now.
Randall -> Bolinas (Mile 55.9)
The down went fast. It was mentally easy to fire my way downhill without rollers. I was counting the runners coming up, trying to guess their ages, hoping that enough would be old that I might be looking at an age group podium finish. Anything to avoid thinking about my legs. Finally I could see cars. Jenna and Aaron stood up from the field just coming into view and ran toward me with bottles. Aaron's son Noah was running around, so happy. He filled up a fresh water bottle for me as I fumbled around with my food. Finally set, Jenna and I took off.
I was in 10th place! Top ten in an ultra that other people had heard of before. This filled me with a surge of energy. I'd hit the aid station at 7:48, obscenely faster than the similar point in Wasatch or Lead. I tried to talk to Jenna, but everything came out in a slurry monotone. I grunted my way forward as she talked happily. We topped the ridge, walking and running. The next runner was about four minutes back.
The rest of the course blurred by. Nothing changed; we passed hundreds of runners inbound to the 50 mile point, every one of whom yelled encouragement. I returned it as best I could, muttering "thanks" and "nice", eventually falling back on the little two finger lift that has to suffice when the pain's on full. We passed Bolinas aid station again at mile 56 and moved out under the sun onto the long stretch of Bolinas Ridge.
Bolinas -> Finish (Mile 62)
This section was surreal. So many runners jumped out of our way, helping me keep speed even as they pushed cutoffs. I asked a woman where the turnoff was, my brain so happy when she said "half a mile!", knowing that hope was poison. (You never ask runners about distance left during an ultra. The answer is invariably wrong and precise.)
"You see that?" whispered Jenna, and I looked up. Her competitive fire was stoked. In the distance was a runner in the same direction as me - Ray Sanchez, the runner who'd passed me on this stretch on the way out. I got excited in spite of the pain. The hunt was on. I was hunting a man. The most dangerous game. We caught up slowly. (Everything felt slow now.)
A few hundred feet behind Ray, an old man stepped off the trail and said, "That runner up there is asking about the next aid station! Doesn't he know there ain't no next aid station?" When we caught Ray Sanchez he asked me the same question. I laughed, then saw that he was serious.
"3.6 to go to the end, man!" I said.
"of today!" and we pushed on. We were desperate, and I had the sick fear that the information I'd given him would push him back toward clarity and let him pass me again. But of course I also wanted him to push. Such are the childish, raw emotions of racing.
Finally, far more than a half mile from where the woman had deceived me, the turn down to Stinson Beach where the finish line waited. The volunteer at the turn yelled, "1.6 to go!"
Without noticing the transition, I'd limbered up. My stride lengthened and my feet felt strong, and we were flying down the trail to Stinson. This was the first trail run I'd done in the bay area back in 2012, a whole year before I decided to take this whole running thing more seriously. More memories, exciting and frightening. This was the trail where Oscar blew his vertebra apart with a bad fall.
I could see the curve of Stinson's beach now, far below. The switchbacks were linked by slick stairs, but we pushed it, jumping down, running the connections, checking the watch, Jenna right on my ass. I've dropped my pacer at the end of every ultra I've done, but I couldn't shake Jenna.
Coming into the last half mile of endless descent, I saw a big guy on the trail looking up at us. It was Dave! He jumped up and yelled, "I'm here for you, Sammy boy!", turned away and started his sprint down to the road.
The last half mile of Miwok felt like a video game. I was running hard after Dave, who was bounding around like Donkey Kong as the temple, yes, the jungle temple, fell apart around us. I'd move up, almost clip Dave's feet on the stairs and he'd sprint ahead, electrified. You're never allowed to actually catch DK in the video games. Dave was holding his phone up over his shoulder to get video as we bounded.
We could hear the road. The end was so close! Aaron and Noah appeared around the corner and started running with us through the last couple switchbacks, the straightaway to the road, and finally I could see the line. I opened the legs up for a strong push to the finish. Boom. Done. I hugged Tia, the race organizer. It was over.
The Miwok was stunning. My first 100k was such an unexpected journey through memories, from my early trail runs in the Bay to a couple passes by our wedding spot. Almost every part of the course forced some nostalgia on me. Running these trails was a beautiful, surprising way to reminisce.
I ran faster than I'd wanted to admit was possible. I couldn't come up with a reason that I shouldn't have been able to break 10 hours, other than fear and uncertainty. It seemed so audacious to make the jump. To decide to go fast. You have to consciously decide to do that on these long runs; to allow yourself to trim those few seconds off per mile that add up to huge time gains over dozens of miles.
My recovery's going well. I got through the race with no injuries, and I've been surfing a tremendous energy wave even as I sleep through these recovery days. (Jean Pommier, by comparison, is running another 100k this weekend. Jesus.)
My next race is the Vermont 100 in July. I know now that I can go fast, which is scary and exciting. Sub 19 hours? Holy shit. What the hell, maybe 18. 18 hours is totally possible. Holy SHIT!
The psychic pressure that comes with these races is lifted for now, but of course the reprieve never lasts for long. Until next time.