When: February 19, 2011
Where: Rodeo Beach, Marin Headlands, Sausalito, CA
It is cold and wet. Using a bullhorn, RD Wendell is calling runners to the starting line. I am standing a few feet back. I look to my left, out to the water. A large cargo ship sits surprisingly close to shore. It never ceases to amaze me how enormous they are. Further in the distance, the Golden Gate Bridge.
It is cold and wet. Minutes ago, I sat in my car with the heater blasting, cringing while Mother Nature dumped buckets of rain to the earth. Rain mixed with hail. Briefly, the thought of dropping crossed my mind, but that’s the coward’s way out. Regardless of where it happens or in what weather, I have to run 31 miles today.
I turn my attention back to Wendell and wait for instructions for the 50k runners. The anxious excitement in the air is palpable. People chatting with one another, laughing, waiting for the time to start. I am not smiling or laughing. I’m not unhappy, I just know what lies ahead. It’s going to be tough, especially in this weather. I can’t help thinking to myself, a short way up the hill in front of us, most of you won’t be laughing anymore.
There is a young woman a few feet in front of me, dressed in shorts and a light jacket. She is shaking and covered in goose bumps. I don’t know which race she’s running, but she has that fast look about her. I want to get moving so I can hopefully warm up. It’s cold.
As Wendell gives instructions to each group of runners - half marathon, 30k, full marathon, 50k - he asks for a show of hands as to who is running which race. Out of 356 registrants (did that many show up?) - including the 5 mile race - there are only 13 of us signed up to run the 50k. We will be following the 30k course first - the orange ribbons, then the half marathon distance course - the pink ribbons - twice. A total elevation gain of 6,320' - 42% single track, 44% fire roads, 14% asphalt.
Dark rain clouds hang above us, threatening. I have watched the weather report for the past three days. It has gone from partially cloudy to a 60% chance of rain. That 60% has turned to 100%.
10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 - We start at exactly 8:00 a.m. The laughter and chatting continues as everyone takes off in a rustle of running clothes, shoes, and gear. In a little over 2 miles, we will climb over 800 feet, merely a blip on the total elevation gain to come, at least for the 50k runners. It crosses my mind again that most of these people may not have any idea what they’re up against. I refuse to get caught up in the excitement, to go out too fast. It’s going to be a long day, and this course demands respect. Conservation of energy is going to be key to finishing.
Up, up, up the hill, then the first set of stairs. I’ve been moving for almost 20 minutes and haven’t run but a few steps. Finally, I reach the top - that is, the top of the first of many climbs - and run through the artillery battery which has sat atop this hill since at least WWII. I will pass through here again later. Out the back side of the battery, past a couple of bunkers, then the “goat climb” I remember from two years ago when I ran the Pirate’s Cove 30k through Pacific Coast Trail Runs. A steep stretch covered in sharp-edged rocks ranging from walnut size to larger than a softball. They’ve become slippery with the rain and shift under foot. Two women climbing behind me have stopped their jovial banter and are struggling with the climb. One woman seems to be breathing down my neck, and I ask her if she’d like to pass.
No, she says, I don’t want to go any faster than you are.
She is taking large, sort of lunging steps. Take small steps, I tell her. Believe it or not, it makes it easier. Really small steps.
I turn my attention back to climbing and soon leave them behind. I don’t see them again and do not know if they finished.
The rain has started once again, a slight drizzle that, throughout the day, will shift between the drizzle to a steady rain - mostly a steady rain - and will never stop. It’s cold.
Finally, downhill! A downhill marked by wide steps which, I suppose, are meant to accommodate the horseback riders. There is a guy behind me and a woman a short piece ahead of me. We hit bottom, make our way through the horse stables, then finally the first aid station, Tennessee Valley Aid Station, at Mile 4.1. It took me about an hour to run this first section.
Three women are standing around the table refueling. I’ve brought with me chocolate donuts, a Moon Pie, and a couple of Mojo bars, but my goal is to eat as much as I can from the stations to better prepare for my upcoming 50 miler. Unlike last year’s AR50, I won’t have crew at Leona Divide and will have to rely solely on aid station foods to get me through. Now is the time to work on what will and won’t settle with my touchy stomach. Lately, PBJ has been going down well, so I grab a couple of quarters, a hand full of M&Ms, thank the workers and set off down the road.
The road is flooded and I try to run in the shallow sections or through the grass on the side. I pass a man walking and fussing with his waist pack, and from this point on, with the exception of being lapped later in the race by the fast marathoners and passed Blue Shirt Guy, I will be running by myself.
I’ve been wondering who will be my accompanying vocalist today, and suddenly she’s there - Paula Cole. “Postcards from East Oceanside,” more specifically “Bethlehem.”
“Quarry miners, fishermen, in my town of Bethlehem.
“Fish at seven, church at ten . . .”
Wait - “fish at seven?” Those aren’t the words. She backs up and gives it another try:
“Picket fences, church at ten, no star above my Bethlehem.” That’s better. The stanzas repeat themselves over and over in my head.
I turn right and begin another climb. I specifically left my Garmin at home with the intent of running by feel, so I have no idea how long the climbs are, but it doesn’t matter. Climbing is what this course is all about.
“Now I'm only 16 and I think I have an ulcer
I'm hiding my sex behind a dirty sweatshirt.”
The rain. Water is dripping off the bill of my cap. My gloves are soaked. My hands are cold. I pull my fingers out of their individual sections and tuck them into my palms in an attempt to warm them.
There’s a runner up ahead coming toward me. His bib number starts with a 3, which means he’s running the 30k. Is there a turnaround ahead of me? I don’t think so. It’s a loop, isn’t it? He doesn’t look injured, so I have no idea why he’s turned around. We nod as we pass one another, and I continue my climb. Opening zippers has become a challenge as my thumbs don’t want to work, forcing me to stop briefly to struggle with the pockets on my running vest and my jacket so I can get some food and a salt pill.
A short while later, I turn around to see if there is anybody behind me and I see a guy in a blue shirt. Blue Shirt Guy. He’s a distance behind me, and with all the twists and turns, up and downs, most of the time I can’t see him.
The views of the Pacific Ocean and headlands are absolutely stunning, but with the dreariness and nonstop rain, I couldn’t care less. The runoff has created crevasses which, combined with the mud and rocks, has made it difficult to run down hill and I have to watch every step lest I land wrong.
Up, down, up, down, twist, turn, up, down, and suddenly there they are - the infamous Pirate’s Cove steps. Two years ago, I thought they were going to be the death of me. This year, I’m still not excited about climbing them, but I know I’ll make it. As I climb step after muddy, slippery step, I think about my friend, Kate, who ran her first 100-miler out here. How the hell did she do it? I’ve always had great respect for her running ability, but this definitely cinches it.
I stop to catch my breath and suddenly Blue Shirt guy is behind me. As he passes me, he comments out of breath, This course is beautiful, but this climbing is a torture.
Yep, I say out loud. To myself, And it ain’t even close to being over.
There is yet another steep climb in front of us that is strewn with shifting rocks. More slipping and stumbling. Miniature creeks running through the crevasses as the rain continues. At the top, I pass Blue Shirt Guy and never see him again. I’m able to cruise at a good pace on the flats and downs, it’s the climbing that takes it out of me.
This section takes me a long time, and an hour and a half after leaving it, I finally make my way back into Tennessee Valley Aid Station, Mile 9.7, grab some food and begin what I know to be a little over a mile’s worth of climbing. This is the pink ribbon section, the marathon section, the one I will have to run twice. I am, however, able to incorporate my 20/20 run/walk for a portion, and in what feels like a relatively short period of time, I see the grove of eucalyptus trees at the top. I remember them from before. They mean a decent stretch of runnable, albeit technical, single track trail. My mom hated the smell of eucalyptus trees.
“Trying to be class president and get straight A's, well,
Who gives a shit about that anyway?
I want to be a dog or a lump of clay.”
At least Paula’s getting most of the stanzas right - for now.
The unrelenting rain. I try to avoid the worst of the puddles. My feet are soaked through, but they’re the warmest part of my body right now, unless I step in a puddle.
My hands are so damn cold. I can’t even feel my thumbs. Can you get frostbite when there’s no snow? I fumble with the zipper on my jacket pocket, trying to get to my salt pills and inhaler. The cold leaves me struggling with my asthma, but I’m used to that.
Off the single track onto a fire road, rivers of water running on the sides of the road, down the middle of the road. Water flings from the ends of my gloves with each swing of my arms. So much for my waterproof jacket. I am soaked clear through.
Cross a road. I can see the next aid station. I traverse two large muddy, shoe sucking sections and wonder how my friend, Karen, is doing at muddy Hagg Lake up in Oregon. The photographer is at the aid station and, unbeknownst to me, he takes a couple of pictures of me as I grab some more food, stuff potato and banana pieces in a sandwich baggy, shove a handful of M&Ms in my mouth, again thank the gentleman working in the cold and wet, and take off for the 4.5 miles to the start/finish and the beginning of the last 13 miles. As I walk away, I wring the water from my gloves yet again.
I like this next section. Most of it is downhill with only one nasty, muddy, rocky approximately .25 mile climb about a mile down the trail/fire road. While climbing, I take the opportunity to shove more food in my mouth. I’m tired and am getting to that point where I don’t want to eat, but I know I have to. Chew, chew, chew the potato, sip some fluid to help swallow it down. Chew, chew, chew a chocolate donut, sip fluid to get it down. I'm tired of hearing the water running.
At the top I find myself on a paved road, and even though it has a slight rise to it, I am very happy to find that I am able to run. Although my mind and body are tired, I can feel there is still strength in my legs. I am passed by two marathoners, one is a guy, and one is a young lady who ends up being second female for the marathon distance. They will have completed 26.2 miles faster than it has taken me to finish 18 miles, but in my defense, five of my 18 miles were much harder than almost all of their 26.2.
Down the road, down about 10 or so slippery wood steps, across a wood bridge, then about a mile to the start/finish, running along the side of the road. Again I am passed by a young woman marathoner. She smiles at me and looks like she only just began running. Me, I feel like a drowned rat, and I’m sure I look like one, as well.
As I enter the start/finish area, I veer off to the left to the aid station table where a young person immediately asks me what I need. Coke? Yes, Coke would be great. They also have watermelon. I love watermelon when I’m running. The young person hands me the Coke and I ask that it be poured into a cup since I won’t drink the whole can. Not much gives you a boost like Coke, and I am very happy to have it. I shove a couple of PBJ squares in my mouth, followed by a handful of M&Ms, a big thank you to the workers, and I head toward my car to re-up on chocolate donuts and Mojo bars and to get my dry gloves.
I’m tired, I’m soaking, dripping wet, and I’m cold. I shouldn't feel this beat up after only 18 miles. It sure would be nice to reach over, turn on the car and heater, and crash in the back seat. Instead, I shove food in my pockets and start moving through the parking lot. As I pull on my dry gloves, the rain gets steady again. The dry gloves feel really good, but they won’t stay dry for long.
I can’t help myself: Shit. I say it out loud as I make my back to where I started four hours earlier.
Perky marathon runner smiles at me, Good job!
I appreciate her saying that, but I just don’t have the gumption to give more than a grunted thanks in return.
13 miles left.
I begin the interminable climb up the road, then those first stairs for the last time. The stairs. They are slippery miniature waterfalls creating unavoidable mud puddles. I stop and look behind me. Far off in the distance is the Bridge. A mile (or more?) below me is my car. There is nobody in front of me, there is nobody behind me. I know I am the last. I suck it up and continue climbing.
Through the artillery battery, the climb up “goat hill,” which seems even more slippery this second time around. After scrambling to the top, I wring the rain out of my once dry gloves, shove some food in my mouth, and continue on. There will be more technical trail ahead, but right now I am fighting the nasty negative voices that have begun to drown out Paula.
This is ridiculous. This rain. This interminable rain! It and the cold have sucked all the life out of me. My hands hurt, they're so cold. I want to quit, but I hear Trent from RunningAhead in my head: The only way to finish is to not stop. The only way to finish is to not stop. To stop would make me a coward, a disappointment, so I continue to move and finally make my way back down into Tennessee Valley for the last time. As I arrive, the worker, whose name I find out later is Gavin, emerges from his car. His warm car.
Can I get you anything?
May I sit down?
I hold my head in my hand, trying to pull myself together. Cgerber from RunningAhead in my head: Have you been timed out? (No) Are you in danger of causing permanent damage? (. . . unfortunately, no)
It’s tough out there today, he says.
Yeah. This is the most brutal 50k I’ve ever run.
Would you like some caffeine?
Do you have Coke?
He tries to hand me a can out of the ice chest.
Can you please open it for me? My fingers aren’t working.
He pours some in a cup and I have to take it with the palms of my hands since I can barely make my fingers bend.
A lot of people have dropped today.
Am I the last person through here?
There’s one older gentleman who just left, he’s doing the marathon, he says.
I just can’t get warm, I say.
It’s hard, I know. Trying to raise my spirits, he tells me he was recently sick with the flu the week before a 24 hr run, but he had already paid for it and was gonna run it regardless.
I understand where he's going with this. I grab another PBJ square. I’m training for a 50-miler at the end of April, I say.
I’ve never run that. But you finish this and you’ll be in a great place mentally to finish that race. All you have to do is power walk this and you’ll be fine.
His calm, matter of factness is exactly what I need.
I blow out a big breath. Pity party’s over, I say. I finish my Coke, grab a mouthful of M&Ms, and take off. Thank you very much, I say as I leave. I appreciate your help. And I do. I appreciate all the aid station workers. This would be almost impossible without their support.
As I begin this climb for the last time, I have a renewed feeling of energy in my legs. I try a 20/20 walk/run combo, but find I can move at a much more forceful pace by power walking. Paula has changed songs - “Saturn Girl”:
“In my heart, in my head
Oh, Saturn Girl has always bled
No you're not, from this world
I shove her to the background in my brain and begin counting my steps over the top of her voice. For some reason, counting has always helped to keep me moving forward.
56, 57, 58 . . .
“In my heart, in my head
Oh, Saturn Girl has always bled
No you're not, from this world
I pass the older guy working hard to finish the marathon. We exchange brief pleasantries, but I’m not slowing down. My legs are actually working decently right now and I’m not stopping for anyone or anything.
98, 99, 100 . . . 1, 2, 3
Keep counting. Keep singing in my head. Pump those arms. Move those legs.
98, 99, 300 . . .
How many steps will it take for me to get to the top of this monster?
99, 800, 1, 2, 3
“The six-pack of beer, the locker room jeers
I don’t wanna be me/, don’t wanna be here”
She’s singing “Bethlehem” again.
And then the eucalyptus grove again. This time I say screw it and run right through every single puddle. I don’t care how deep they are. I just want this run to be done. Soon I hit the last aid station and there’s my aid station angel from Tennessee Valley.
Are you following me? I ask. Surprisingly, I'm in a good mood. He chuckles, yeah.
I’m just so happy to be here because I know it’s almost over. A moist PBJ, a mouth full of damp M&Ms, a wring of the gloves, a big thank you the workers, and I head out one last time. I look at my watch. It’s 3:00 p.m. exactly. There are 4.5 miles left. I realize if I haul ass as fast as possible through this downhill section, I have a chance of finishing this race in under 8 hours. My legs are re-energized. The only time I walk is when I have to climb that last .25 mile muddy, slippery mess up to the road. Once to the road, I push as hard as I can. Down and around, then the last flight of stairs. They’re slippery and steeply awkward. I can’t count on my legs to not give out, so with each step down, I’m flailing my arms up at my sides, trying to keep balance.
Once at the bottom, I take off and push as hard as I can. Cars pass me on the road. I don’t know if they’re runners who have finished or visitors just out for a rainy day at Rodeo Beach. I don’t care. I ignore them, intent on one thing - finishing this miserable run. I make my way down the side of the road, getting closer to turning toward the finish line, picking up speed with the realization that I will finish in under 8 hours. As I make the turn, I see the time clock and begin running as hard as I can. I can finish in less than 7:45! Push it, Les! Push it! Run! Run! And with every ounce of energy I have left, I cross the finish line. Time - 7:44:03.
The finish line worker presents me with a big smile, a heartfelt congratulations, and a custom coaster that the ultramarathoners receive. I thank her and walk toward the little tent that is the aid station. They have a portable heater set up, but I only want to sit down. I look at the coaster and, as I am apt to do, tear up thinking about what I have just accomplished. This course, the weather - they tried to beat me, but I beat them.