May 5th, 2018
Stinson Beach, Marin Headlands, California
Rewind to December 6th, 2017, the day of the Miwok lottery draw. I checked the results and found that I had NOT been chosen to run the 2018 Miwok 100k.
I was extremely disappointed because this race was becoming my White Whale.
In 2016, I fell at around mile 34, injuring myself sufficiently to register my first DNF (Did Not Finish). You can read about that race here.
In 2017, I was possibly the fittest, most race-ready I had even been in my life (to that point), but I woke two days before the race with a fever of 103 and had to take my first medical DNS (Did Not Start) after succumbing to the flu. More here.
2018 was going to be my shining moment, retribution…the year I finally conquered this race…but I didn’t get in.
Flash forward to March 13, 2018…when I received an email that read:
Hi there, Miwok Runners!!!
Wait a second…
Turns out I was somehow registered under my Twitter handle. So when I searched the list of folks who were selected in the lottery, I could not find my actual name.
Joke was on me.
Eight weeks out from race day and I learn that I am in fact running 100k on May 5th.
Back to the start:
May 5th, 2018 was set to be a perfect day for running. Temperatures were forecast to range from 50 degrees at the start to a high of around 65 in the mid-afternoon. Skies would be mostly cloudy with a zero percent chance of rain.
You could not order up a better weather for a race.
There were a few stressful moments before the actual start…
- An unexpected road construction detour that got me to race check in at 4:40 instead of my planned 4:15
- Standing in the crowd 20 minutes before the start and realizing that BOTH of my soft flasks were leaking
The first issue caused a slight brain malfunction and I forgot to take in a planned 200 calories 30 minutes before the start. I finally realized this about 20 minutes into the race when my stomach started grumbling.
Also, these two issues combined caused my prerace jitters to last about 45 minutes into the actual race. I’ve never had that happen before. It was a strange sensation…
That being said, I don’t think any of this had any long term effects.
We runners waited at the start until the appointed time. I heard no announcements from the RD, I heard no countdown, and I didn’t hear any signal that the race had begun, but at precisely 5 am we runners began to shuffle off into the darkness.
A few yards after the start line, we were all running.
50 yards later, we were all standing still again.
One of the strange quirks about this race is that it starts with a very short road section and immediately transitions into a steep, gorgeous, stair-lined piece of single track. Trying to cram 357 runners onto this narrow trail means funneling them into a single file conga line that lasts over a mile…nearly three in fact.
This is in many ways a huge benefit. It makes it nearly impossible to go out too fast, unless you put yourself at the very front of the pack from the start. Therefore, I went out slow and saved myself from blowing up early on a long, steep climb.
The first 2.8 miles involve roughly 1400 feet of climbing. Some of which involves stairs. The pack of runners I was in spent most of this climb walking. Things were going along great and I was shocked when I glanced down and saw my watch read 45 minutes…we were not yet at the top.
I have to admit, despite my prerace self pep talk, I was impatient to have some room to run and not have my pace forced on me by the sheer number of runners crammed onto a narrow trail.
Fortunately, immediately after the climb ended, we were treated to a wide, smooth, down-sloping fire road. I used this opportunity to open up my pace a little. This is possibly where I logged my fastest mile of the race which, according to my GPS, was 8:06.
The sun was just coming over the horizon, the entirety of the Bay Area was spread out beneath us, and a gorgeous fog had settled into the low lying canyons below. It was a stunning vista indeed.
But there was much work to be done.
Eight miles in, at the bottom of that first hill, we would roll into the first aid station at Muir Beach. I knew that if I was going to finish this race within the time allowed I was going to have to be smart and efficient at the aid stations. Get everything I need quickly and get back out there.
Eight miles in and I needed to use the porta-potty. Urgently. And I wasn’t alone. So I got in the queue and hoped the folks ahead of me would be quick.
I grabbed what supplies I needed from the aid station, had the wonderful volunteers fill my water bottles, and cruised out of there at a decent pace. The trail was flat for a short while and I made good time here.
Next up was a climb of nearly 1300 feet followed by a steep decent into the second aid station at Tennessee Valley. I took my time, power hiking when the trail got steep (which was most of the time). I took my time on the downhill as well, preserving my quads as much as possible, and made it into the aid station about fifteen minutes ahead of my prerace estimates.
This was my first chance to dip into my drop bag, so I shoved a handful of dark chocolate espresso beans in my mouth, stuffed a bunch of Clif Shot gels in my pack, and grabbed half of a peanut butter & Nutella sandwich.
Next up was a climb I have done a dozen times in various races. Steep & long (big surprise), this was a gain of about 700 feet and, considering the length of this race, I determined the wisest strategy would be to walk the entire thing.
Reaching the top gave us runners another stunning 360 degree view which included downtown San Francisco, the Golden Gate bridge, and Alcatraz off in the distance. This is why I race in Marin so often…just gorgeous.
The race was unfolding in perfect fashion. My nutrition was on point. My hydration plan seemed to be working. My legs felt great. I was power hiking the hills, taking it easy on the steep descents, and pushing the pace when it was relatively flat. I felt strong.
The 5.6 miles between Tennessee Valley and the Bridge View aid station were so familiar to me it almost felt like a training run. This section was a joy! It’s such a mental comfort to really know the trails and not have any surprises.
Once at the aid station, I grabbed a PB&J from the food table while a lovely volunteer filled my water bottles. I rolled out of the aid station ready for the next 7.4 miles, the longest gap between any aid stations on the entire course.
Twenty miles in and I was power hiking another roughly 700 foot climb. I was feeling good, feeling strong. I was sweating profusely…wait, what?
It dawned on me (rather slowly) that the sun had come out in full, the wind had died down to nothing, and I was sweating my way up this hill. I also realized that I had drained one of my water bottles (18 oz) in about 3 miles. It was another 4 miles to the next aid station (Tennessee Valley again) and I was growing a bit concerned about my hydration.
I cruised into Tennessee Valley nearly 30 minutes ahead of schedule. I paused again to have the fabulous volunteers refill my water, I grabbed another peanut butter & Nutella sandwich, more espresso beans, more Clif Shot gel, & a cup of Tailwind.
It felt good to have a marathon distance behind me.
Out there ahead of me was “the climb.” More than 1800 feet up Cardiac. I don’t know if the trail is called Cardiac or if the climb itself is called that, but I do know this. It’s long, it’s very steep and technical in sections.
What I didn’t know was that it was going to take everything I had, it was going to suck away every last store of energy that was in me. It was going to shatter my expectations.
As I left the Tennessee Valley aid station in a cloud of ignorance, well ahead of my estimated pace, this thought crossed my mind:
I can make it to the Cardiac aid station in seven hours. Cardiac is 35.5 miles into this race, more than half way.
I can break 14 hours today.
This would probably be an appropriate time to point out the dangers of spontaneously deciding on a new goal during a race. Less than half way in is not a good time to count those unhatched chickens. It sorta goes without saying that 26 miles is considerably less than the 62.2 it takes to make it to the finish line.
(Hmm…I wonder how that will turn out?)
The climb up Cardiac was an interesting experience. We did switchbacks from earlier in the race in reverse, up instead of down. We hit some really steep sections where it was impossible to run. I ran past the point where, in 2016, my Miwok 100k ended in spectacular fashion.
And, eventually, we made it to the “top.” The Cardiac aid station (Mile 35.5) is not technically the top of the climb, but it sure feels like it. People are cheering. Volunteers are enthusiastically supporting the runners. I believe the Salomon team were crewing this aid station, including Dylan Bowan (pro running stud).
I was feeling pretty good at this point. Very good actually. I had made it to Cardiac in almost exactly seven hours. Covering 35.5 miles in seven hours meant that I could spend seven hours running the last 26.7 miles and break that 14 hour mark.
Just a smidge over a marathon in seven hours. How easy would that be?
My marathon PR is 3:15. My trail marathon PR is 4:24. I ran the first 26 miles of this race in about 5 hours.
Added to that, the last 26.7 miles of the Miwok 100k was the easy part! The steepest, longest climbs were behind me…it was smooth sailing from here on out.
It surely felt like it at the Cardiac aid station. Confidence was high and I only stayed long enough to fill up my water bottles and grab some Tailwind. I cruised up the rest of the climb and hit some gorgeous single track that wove beneath a stand of trees.
And then we hit the Bolinas Ridge.
This is a very narrow single track trail on a ridge (duh) that is totally exposed. Zero shade. Almost no wind at all. The sun was out and the temperatures were hitting the hottest they would all day. It was probably not really all that hot, but I think I got a little behind on my hydration plan and I was definitely a little ahead of my pacing plan.
Around mile 37 things started getting hard. Every little hill seemed unrunable. Every flat section seemed too narrow and technical to run. Every downhill felt too steep. I was struggling to find a rhythm and my pace was suffering.
By the time I rolled into the Bolinas Ridge aid station, I was toast. I was fried. Thankfully, the aid station was in a Redwood Grove and it was cool and shady.
As one of the volunteers was refilling my water bottle this exchange happened:
Her: How are you?
Her: Great smile though!
Me: Well…hang on, your hands are freezing! You should have gloves…
Her: They just get wet.
Me: It’s cold under these trees, but just back there it’s hot. I’m melting.
Her: I could put my cold hands on your neck…would that help?
Yeah. That got weird in a hurry, but at the time, in my altered frame of mind, it was a brilliant idea. And it worked. It cooled me off and also warmed her hands.
Best friends for life, I guess…
And then she said the three words I will never forget: “We have Popsicles.”
I walked out of that aid station balancing a PB&J and the most wonderful orange Popsicle I have ever had in my entire life…and I don’t even like orange Popsicles.
Sadly, my joy was short lived.
I believe at this point I may have been dehydrated enough that it was affecting my performance. I also think I was somewhat under trained for the distance and difficulty of the terrain.
I was feeling slightly dizzy and having trouble catching my breath.
Worst of all, I had misread the distance between aid stations. I thought the sign at Bolinas Ridge said “5.3 miles to next aid.” It was actually 7.0 miles. I have absolutely no idea how I made this mistake, but it was devastating. I could not figure out why it was taking so long to cover 5 little miles and get to that next aid station.
I remember thinking, despite my fatigued mind, “this distance is interminable!”
And my next thought was “Wow! I can’t believe I actually used the word ‘interminable’ correctly just now…”
And the thought right after that was, “is ‘interminable’ even a word?”
Yeah. That nicely sums up where I was mentally.
Physically I was finished.
I was in pure survival mode. Get to the next aid station, get to the next aid station. I have to keep moving forward and get to the next aid station.
I had come to the end of me.
Convinced I couldn’t finish, I was going to haul myself to the Randall Trailhead aid station and drop out. I could not possibly go on after that and I was genuinely concerned that I wouldn’t make it that far.
At one point I began repeating the same words out loud over and over again as I trudged forward up and down the roller coaster hills:
I’m broken…I’m broken…I’m broken…
I must have said it a dozen times without stopping. It was like some weird reverse mantra tumbling from my mouth as I trudged onward, fairly convinced that I would never arrive at the next aid station.
But then a ray of sunshine…a glimmer of hope…a man in the distance directing runners to turn left, to go downhill. The aid station must be so close…
“You’re only 1.6 miles from Randall!” the man announced.
“Oh…well…that’s disappointing,” I heard someone say.
Yeah, that someone was me.
It was over. I was done. Randall was the end of the line and a finish at Miwok would allude me again. I just had to stumble down this hill, hand my race bib over to the aid station captain, and hope they had a bus or I could hitch a ride back to the start line.
Next year, I told myself (even though I’m never, ever, ever running another ultra), I’m gonna come back stronger and better prepared next year. Even though I never want to see the Bolinas Ridge trail again as long as I live, I’m gonna do better next year.
Finally, I stumbled into the aid station…
…and I was saved again by another wonderful human being.
Her: You look great! Strong.
Me: I feel like shit, but thank you.
Her: Aww, and look at that great smile. You SO got this!
Me: I don’t know how I’m gonna keep going, I don’t know how I can climb back up that hill. I’ve honestly never felt like this before…
Her: Just take a minute…you’re so close…it’s only 13 more miles…just a half marathon!
Me: I think it’s actually more like 15 point something.
Other Runner: No. It’s 13. This is mile 49.2.
Me: Really? Okay.
And so I sat down, sorta right in the middle of the aid station. Another wonderful volunteer brought me my drop bag and I ate a peanut butter and Nutella sandwich and some espresso beans and the wonderful woman kept talking to me. I’m not really sure what words she used, but her meaning got through:
You CAN do this.
And so I stood up. And I thanked this wonder woman and I turned around and I started marching back up that hill. I still felt like I was empty inside, like I was probably dangerously close to some sort of physiological breaking point, but I kept marching. I made it back up that 1.6 mile long hill. I found the energy to run a little. I hiked with a purpose when the running was impossible. I still felt dizzy and I was still having moments where I couldn’t catch my breath.
But I kept moving forward.
And I arrived back at the Bolinas Ridge aid station and the woman with the cold hands was still there. This time she did not lay them on my neck and she was, sadly, all out of orange Popsicles, but that was okay. I was going to make it even without those things. I was going to finish. I was going to finally earn that medal, finally finish the Miwok 100k after a DNF and a DNS. I would finally put this White Whale to rest. I was exhausted, but my confidence was high. I WAS going to do this…
And then I was reminded that I would have to go back out onto that horrible ridge trail. Back out into the sunlight after a blissful 14 miles almost entirely under the shade of trees. My spirit melted a little.
But just a little.
I was now standing only 6.3 miles from the finish. There were 55.9 miles behind me. There were no climbs ahead of me. It was four miles of fairly flat single track followed by about 2 miles of steep, technical descent.
I was going to finish. I was going to get this done. But first I had to leave this aid station. I had to get out from under these trees and run under that dreadful sun some more.
“Somebody tell me to get out of here,” I said.
“Go on!” said the woman with cold hands, giving me a gentle shove. “Get out of here! The finish line and a cold beer are waiting!”
So I left.
The last 6.3 miles were a miserable slow-motion slog under what felt like the hottest of blazing summer suns. If there was a breeze, I didn’t feel it. I began to feel disconnected from my body. There was no pain because I was empty of everything. I was no one, I was nothing. I felt like a passenger in my own body.
No, that’s not entirely accurate. I actually felt like the driver of a car, a really crappy car with uncomfortable seats and no air conditioning. The kind of car that wheezes and shudders and won’t go over 20 miles per hour, or in this case, about 3 miles an hour.
It really sucked.
But those 4 miles eventually ended. The downhill began to snake beneath a heavy cover of trees. It was cool and beautiful, I could hear a rushing stream, and I knew the end was surely near.
The car I was stuck in was, unfortunately, just as bad on technical downhill as it was on flat ridge trails. I set no speed records. I was passed by at least seven people. But eventually the trail leveled out. I crossed a short wooden bridge. The dirt beneath my feet turned to pavement and my legs suddenly remembered how to run. All my parts returned to their normally functioning ways and this car fairly flew across the finish line.
I was exhausted, but so very happy. Happy to be done, yes, but also happy for what I had accomplished. I was, as the title of this post says, unaware that the pain cave was that deep. Never had I suffered like this before. Never had I reached a point where I could not see the way out. At mile 42, I was done. Cooked. Empty of everything. How could anyone keep going after that? How could I? It seemed impossible.
But I did it.
With the help of some amazing human beings, some amazing espresso beans, and the gorgeous natural beauty of Marin County, I found a way.
13 hrs 28 mins 01 sec
44th age group
13:01 avg pace