Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Miserably Fantastic: The TNF SF Marathon.

Brutally awesome.  Miserably fantastic.  Inspirationally demoralizing. 

These are all descriptions that come to mind when I look back at this race.  In the days leading up to the event, my prerace jitters came, went, and came back the night before the race.  I was nervous; not because of the distance, I felt confident I was able to complete the 26+ miles, even with the climbing involved.  What made me second guess myself, along with what was probably the same reason for many others, was the weather.

I don't think I have spent more time checking the weather than in the 10 days prior to this race.  As soon as it was realized that there was going to be flooding rains and gusting wind, I started second guessing my abilities.  This was going to me a 26 mile mud run through the Marin Headlands.  I wasn't sure I was prepared for that.  But, alas, I was committed. 

The family and I drove up to Mill Valley the day before the race from Twentynine Palms and checked into our hotel.  I didn't check twitter or facebook all day, because I really didn't want to give myself a reason to turn around if there were reports of how epically bad the trails were.  I'd spent too much time and effort training for this to not do it. 

To my surprise, when we got to the bay area, the weather didn't seem that bad.  There was a light misting rain, but it was in the low 60s.  We checked into our hotel, and then decided to head to The North Face store in SF to do packet pickup.  When we got downtown (and managed to find parking), we walked to the store, and the weather was actually pretty nice, if not windy.  Packet pickup went pretty smooth, even if it was crowded.  Not crowded because so many people were there, more just because there doesn't seem to be much extra space inside that store to support the number of runners that would be stopping in.

After I got my bib and swag, we got some lunch, and bummed around town for a bit, with the intent of hanging out for a few hours, and then going to the pre-race panel that evening.  As it would turn out, waking up at 3 am and driving 8 hours took it out of me, and I was happy to just return to the hotel and relax until dinner, and finally update myself on the trail conditions via social media. 

At the hotel, I checked twitter, only to find that due to trail conditions, the 50 mile and 50k course would be modified, essentially putting all the runners on the marathon course for multiple loops.  TNF also stated that while they had every intention of continuing the races, to be prepared for the NPS to cancel them if the weather and the trail conditions deteriorate.

It was at this point, sitting in the hotel room talking with my wife, that I decided I had to just "embrace the suck" and show up to the race with the intent of finishing, and enjoying it the best I could.  I'm glad that's the choice I made.  After the traditional pre-race meal of pizza and beer, I did my best to get to bed early in preparation for the race the next morning.

We got up around 6 am, and ate a breakfast of oatmeal, a banana, and a red bull.  Then, after double and triple checking to make sure I had everything I needed, and had some dry clothes packed in a bag the wife would keep for after the race, we left the hotel to go catch the shuttle to the start line. 

It was dark, windy, and pouring down rain when we got outside.  This was going to be quite the experience.

Riding the shuttle to the starting line, we saw the 50 mile runners on the trails, about 3 hours into their race.  My first thought, "At least the race is happening."  My second thought, "those guys must be pretty tough to be out there this early in these conditions."

The start line looked rough; not what I expected for a TNFEC finish line festival.  But, given the conditions, I suppose it was probably a good thing they had much set up at all.  What they did have, was places for people to get out of the weather in the form of some moving trucks and school buses, and they had fire pits set up to keep people warm.  Kudos, TNF, those fire pits were money.

The start/finish line

My wife and son toughing it out.

There weren't near as many runners hanging out as I thought there would be, even though the 50 milers and 50k'ers were already on the course.  I expected to see far more marathon distance runners hanging out than there were, but given the weather, I'm not really surprised.  I found out later that more than half of the marathon runners did not start.  I suppose if you were a local runner, it probably wasn't such a hard decision to pass on this one.  I, however, was determined to start, and finish my first marathon here, no matter the race day conditions. 

We toed the starting line, and my heart was racing already.  5...4...3...2...1...and we were off.  I was running my first marathon, and at that moment, I wouldn't have cared if it was blizzard conditions...I was pumped.

The first section of the course, just shy of a mile, was run on the road leading to Fort Barry, before we turned onto the trails.  The rabbits took off, but the largest group of runners was still pretty much hanging together when we turned onto the trail system.  We hit the first climb at around 1.1 miles, and over the course of about 1.2 miles, we climbed ~650 feet.  This is where the field started to spread out.  Some people ran the whole hill, some walked it, I, like many others, did a combination of running and pow' hiking to the top.  The hill had my calves burning, but as soon as I got to the top, a decent of around 1.5 miles had me picking up the pace and I was feeling good. 

First turn onto the trail.

Views through the fog.

Going up the first climb.

I've got to be honest, the first 7 miles or so are kind of blurry in my mind.  I know there was some good climbs and descents, but I was feeling strong, despite the conditions.  I spent most of the time playing leapfrog on the ups and downs with pretty much the same group of people, chatting along the way, and snapping a few photos here and there while keeping a positive attitude. 

I do remember that at mile 7.1 (I marked it on my garmin) was when I took (surprisingly) my only spill.  I guess I stepped a little to heavily on what appeared to be more solid ground, when it gave way.  I don't know how far I slid down the hill, but it was a good bit.  That was easily the softest fall I've ever had while trail running!  I got back up, did the cursory look to see if anyone saw me, and found a 50-miler right behind me. 

"That's probably the fastest way down any of these hills today," he said.  I was inclined to agree with him.

I got back up, continued down hill (albeit more carefully this time), and then was back around to the first climb again, having just completed the first loop.  Some more climbing and descending in the mud, wind, and rain, and at around mile 12 I was rolling into the Tennessee Valley aid station.  I spent a few minutes here, browsing the buffet of candy, soda, fruit, potatoes, water, electrolyte drink, and various other snacks, before deciding on Mountain Dew and bananas.  With that, and my first refill of my water bottle, I was off again, this time setting off down toward Tennessee Beach. 

There was a short section of downhill road here, and that's where I met the fellow trail runner who I would spend the better part of the next 14 miles running with or very close to.  I regret I never got his name, but we chatted for a bit, and he told me this was the first marathon he had run in 17 years, and that he was from Washington state.  I shared my fact that this was my first marathon, and despite the weather, and the several large climbs we had already done, we were both in great spirits. 

Next came the climb out of Tennessee Beach, which was short, but steep.  This was pretty much the first time the weather broke for a bit, and I could actually see the ocean.  I got a picture or two, and a fellow runner snapped a picture of me standing on the climb with the ocean in the background.  Having that rain stop and clouds clear, even if just for a little while, was a huge morale booster.

Climbing out of Tennessee Valley.


Me and Tennessee Beach in the background.

I continued on, again, with pretty much the same group of runners that I had been with since the beginning, and after the climb out of TN beach, we finally hit the single track section of the trail down around Pirates Cove.  That section was amazing.  The views were unlike anything I've seen on the trail before (when we could see them).  Don't get me wrong, some of the downhill sections were pretty damn sketchy, and very slow moving, but having people around to chat with, and just laugh with, made it all easier.

Views from the singletrack section.

Then came Muir Beach. 

The descent into Muir Beach was straight ridiculous.  A little over a half mile descent of 400' after hundreds of other runners had already gone through (50 mi, 50k, and lead marathon group), became the toughest downhill of the day.  The mud was that slick, snotty, sticky stuff that gives you no traction, no matter what shoes you are wearing.  Even a pair of cleats wouldn't have helped here.

Descent into Muir Beach.
Muir Beach

A 50-miler near me, going down to Muir for his second time, just told me "you just have to go with it and hope for the best."  That's exactly what I did.  I didn't fall, but there were some real close calls.  After walking/sliding/running down that hill, I arrived at the Muir Beach aid station, approximately 16 miles in.  I spent probably 5 minutes at that aid station, getting some more Mountain Dew, popping a gel, eating a banana, and a PB&J sandwich (note to self: PB&J is not a good race food for me), and then pushed on.  After a short loop around a road, it was time to head back up.

This was the demoralizing part. 

It was tough enough to try and climb the hill that just took me what seemed like forever to get down.  There was some time spent with hands-on-ground climbing.  When you get to the top of where the descent started before, you turn left, and just keep going up.  The fog had rolled back in, and you couldn't see more than probably 50-60 feet in front of you.  That was what was demoralizing.  There was just no way to know where the climb just kept going up. 

I distinctly remember a runner near me screaming "FUCK! Is this ever going to end!?!"  I felt the same, and while it was a definite kick to my positive attitude, I knew I couldn't stop.  That hill was killer.  Total climb was around 1000' over nearly 2 miles through fog, mud, and rain.  It took me 45 minutes. 

Climbing out of Muir Beach.

Despite having just come through an aid station and eating, I was on the verge of bonking.  I stopped, popped two Gu Roctanes, and continued to hike it out.  My calves were on fire, and my hamstrings were getting tight.  I was longing for a downhill section.  After I hit the top, I got what I asked for.

It was two miles of sloppy downhill, through some really beautiful forest sections back into TN Valley aid station for the last time.  Here, I met back up with my newly found running buddy, and after spending a few minutes at the aid station refueling, I started up the last climb to the Alta aid station, knowing at this point, that I may not run the uphill, but I was sure as hell going to give it my best hiking effort.  The end was close.

Forest section on the way to Alta water stop.

I made a brief stop at the Alta water stop, and then began the last downhill section.  From there, it was pretty much all down into the finish.  I pushed as hard as I could, still managing (despite my muscle fatigue) to push out some sections at near 7:30/mi pace.  I hit the last water stop, and then turned onto the road back to Fort Barry, and the finish line.

As I was on the road, I rounded the curve to where I could hear the music playing, and see the finish line.  That's when the adrenaline hit came.  I ran.  I don't know how fast I was going, but it felt faster than I had run all day.  I turned the corner off the road and ran the last 50 meters across the finish line.

And I was done. 

My legs were burning, my arms were tired, my back was sore, and I didn't really know how I felt.  It was for sure the hardest run I've ever done.  I was wet, muddy, sweaty, cold, fatigued...and proud.  I did it.  I didn't set a time goal for myself publicly, because I just wanted to finish.  I knew the conditions were going to be shit, and I didn't want to say that on a course that hard in that weather I was going to hold myself to a time standard.  But, in my head, in a place where only I knew, I had set a time before I started: 5 hours and 30 minutes was where I wanted to be. 

My finishing time:  5:31.  Perfect.

Worth every minute.

I can thank enough the event staff and volunteers for what they did out there.  I know how hard it was to be in those conditions for the time I was out there, but they were out there on the course, manning aid stations, and helping runners for hours before I got there and hours after.  They were awesome.  They were uplifting to all the runners, and supported all runners equally, no matter their distance.  The North Face puts on an outstanding event, and all things considered, I don't know who could have done it better.  Sure, there were some hiccups due to the weather and last minute course changes, etc., but overall it was an amazing experience. 

Things I learned about myself?  Well, there were several. 

1.  I can run over 26 miles, and still function afterwards. 
2.  Mt. Dew is awesome.
3.  Bananas are awesome. 
4.  Keeping a positive attitude in adverse conditions can make it fun.
5.  I can run 26 miles, and still function afterwards.

So, the question I suppose every runner asks themselves after their first marathon:  Will I run it again?  My answer, no.  I won't be back there next year to run the marathon...but I will see you for the 50 miler.

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