2018 Marin Ultra Challenge 50

Sixth place!  Wow.  I ran the Marin Ultra Challenge 50-mile race on Saturday March 10, 2018 and finished sixth place overall, third in the ultra-competitive 40-49 age group.  It was a great day: perfect weather, no nutrition problems, good pace management, and only one small silly mistake.  SIXTH!

(Awesome photo by Chris Cleary on Crowdpic)

The weather was perfect, which was a surprise.  A week before the race the forecasts were calling for an inch of rain, two days later it was half an inch, and Friday morning it was still looking like rain in the afternoon.  Running for 9 hours is kinda fun.  Running for 9 hours in the rain just sucks – hypothermia, chafe, wet feet, blisters, mud, slips, falls, there is just nothing good about rain.  Friday at noon I clicked “refresh” and all the forecasts were saying no rain.  Whew.

The weather we got on Saturday was better than just dry, it was 48-58 degrees, totally overcast, with huge cooling fog-banks obscuring everything.  There were long stretches where I’d be running by myself, surrounded by a white puffy cloud, totally alone except for the trail.  Kinda awesome.  I don’t think the weather could have been any better.  I ran the first six hours with gloves and a short sleeve shirt, and took the gloves off for the last two hours.  It sounds funny to be celebrating not seeing blue sky or sun, but perfect running weather isn’t perfect BBQ weather.  No sunscreen, not too much sweat, no heatstroke, no shivers, no wet shoes, no blisters, no chafe, no slips or falls.

(Carbo-loading lunch, photo by me)

My pre-race prep went perfectly: good taper, good carbo loading, and no niggles or last-minute injuries.  I had a week-long business trip to Barcelona two weeks before the race, but managed to get a ton of sleep when I was back in California was jetlag-free by Thursday.  I knew that was going to be important.  Plus I managed to dodge the latest round of colds and sniffles while I was gone.  My poor wife deserves a medal for dealing with the sick kids while I was away and for helping me get a solid 8 hours each night (with one night cut short for a work project).

Race morning was good, I was there at 5:10AM and got good parking a 5-minute walk from start/finish.  It looked like the parking filled up fast and it was nice to be close.  I got my race bib, hit the bathroom, and meditated in the warm car for 15 minutes before things got underway.  I didn’t leave a drop bag for either of the two aid stations, but the drop station at start/finish was awesome: I left my fleece right there and someone even put up a tent over the tarp to keep the sprinkles of rain off the pile of stuff!

(Photo by me)

We were off at 6:05AM and immediately started climbing.  Now the MUC50 course is really beautiful – the website refers to the course as “delivering ample hills and sweeping descents”, being “physically demanding” and “exceptionally beautiful”, with “a range of terrain, from exposed fire-roads with incredible coastal and inland views to tight, technical single-track with redwood canopies”.  All of that is right, except they gloss over the nine brutal climbs and nine brutal descents.

In fact there really isn’t much flat stuff on the whole course.  Unlike the Lake Sonoma 50, which has short sections of trail that are either going up or down for a total elevation gain of 10500′, the MUC50 has long sections of trail that are either going up or down for a total elevation gain of 11000′.  Each of the nine ups/downs has its own personality.

Hill #1: “Hill 88”, starting at mile 0

Hill 88, the first climb, was steep and easy, but with fresh legs and four hundred other 50k and 50mi runners alongside you, that doesn’t really mean anything.  I started with a headlamp (and forgot to pick it up at the finish line, grrr) and probably didn’t need it, but there were some rocky sections that the light gave me confidence for.  I ran most of it, pushing my HR over plan and probably going too fast.  It’s tough to slow down and conserve when everyone else around you is hammering!

(pic from Justin Brandt)

I met up with and ran with Justin Brandt, a Ukiah/Windsor local who I ran with at the start of the Lake Sonoma 50 as well.  Justin was looking for an 8:45 finish and wanted to run together.  He joked he was running with a weighted vest and I think we freaked out someone who was running nearby.  Hahah.  The descent was steep and I stretched my legs out, running 7:54 and 7:34 miles down, but some of it was too steep to run comfortably.  Tough hill but early in the race it was easy.

Hill #2, starting at mile 4

The second hill, I don’t know what it’s called but it goes southeast towards the 101 and gives great views of the golden gate bridge, wasn’t very steep.  It’s eminently runnable and quite enjoyable with the nice views, even if there was tons of cloud and fog cover.

(Pic by Chasqui Runner on Crowdpics)

(Photo by Chasqui Runner on Crowdpic)

The down on Marincello and Tennessee Valley was steep but because it’s still only mile 10 & 11 it wasn’t painful and I ran it fast: 6:54 amd 7:38 on the way down.  Easy-peasy.  I wasn’t passing many people and I felt good about that, gotta take it easy and save something for later.

(Photo by Chasqui Runner on Crowdpic)

Hill #3, starting at mile 11.5

I went past two folks at the second aid station and Justin stopped to chat with someone.  I thought for sure I’d see him later and I think I heard him on Cardiac.  This third hill, on the way to Muir Beach, was the smallest of the bunch.  It has some steep parts and was a little wet.  I walked some of the ups and ran the downs, going past a couple of folks on the way down.  Still too early to push.

Hill #4: Cardiac Hill, starting at mile 15.5

Cardiac Hill, a mile after Muir Beach, was a little steeper than the second hill but still runnable.  The trail switched back and forth across a steep face and while there’s a lot of turning back and forth, the slope remains steady.  The steep slope sometimes gave a sight of someone above or below me, but it was hard to gauge if they were a minute behind or ten minutes back.

It was quite draining to have three solid miles of the same hard-but-runnable slope with no break.  I caught a bunch more on the way uphill and another one or two at the aid station at the top.  I wasn’t going fast enough to make it a cardiac event, but I can see where the name comes from!

The first mile down the hill is too steep to run and was a quad hurter for sure, but there were some fun fast runnable parts.  The Dipsea steps down were starting to hurt.

Hill #5: Willow Camp, starting at mile 22

The climb to Willow Camp up from Stinson Beach is horribly steep.  It starts in Stinson Beach itself on the paved roads.  I walked into the aid station and said “this is steep”, they laughed because they knew what was coming and I didn’t.  It’s two miles of calf- and quad-crushing up.  My HR started to fall below my max because I was limiting out on muscle, not heart, which is unusual.  I power walked and passed three guys looking pretty miserable.  Unbelievably tough hill.

(Photo by Chasqui Runner on Crowdpics)

But it’s totally worth it because the following six miles are the best most gentle downhill miles in the whole race!  Sure, there are some steep down bits, and sure, your legs are now 25 miles into the race and a little shot, and yeah, you’re hurting from that huge climb, but overall this was heaven.  I caught a couple of guys on the downhill and another one or two at the aid station.

What’s funny, in retrospect, was that my speed on this gradually-sloping downhill was actually slower than some of the steeper downhills and even flat sections in the miles that followed.  Maybe it wasn’t as easy as I remembered, or maybe the sharp painful horrible uphill made it seem especially wonderful.  Either way, I really enjoyed this section (even if it wasn’t super fast).

Hill #6: Deer Park, starting at mile 31.5

The sixth climb up Deer Park is maybe tied with Hill 88 (the first climb) for the title of “second-steepest”, but at only a mile and a half long it wasn’t too bad.  I was trying not to push too much here, but it’s hard to keep the competitive spirit at bay and I passed another one or two on the way up.

The way down is the Dipsea trail and as you can imagine it’s pretty steep.  I let loose and was running 7:20-ish pace down, not bad for 33 miles in, but again maybe not so smart for saving my legs for the finish.  I passed another guy at the aid station at the bottom and hustled along the short asphalt section to make the pass stick.

Hill #7: Dias Ridge, starting at mile 35.5

Ok, my legs were starting to hurt.  This hill was annoyingly shallow enough to run, which was really hard.  I focused on swinging my elbows and moving my legs accordingly.  I found myself hoping for a slightly steeper grade that would let me walk without giving up time.  I kept my eyes forward but for the first time in the race was starting to think/worry about someone coming up from behind.  Oh man 15 more miles to go.

I saw two guys running together up ahead and set my tractor beam on them.  I wondered if they were running together as friends or were a racer and a pacer.  Was it going to be a two-fer pass?  I put my headphones in and turned up the music.  11 miles left.  Hammertime.

The down was quick and so was the flat section through Muir Beach and the second-last aid station.  I caught and passed Ian Grettenberger (who eventually finished four minutes behind me) here – I think he was maybe the guy with the pacer.  We went through something like a hobby farm and then started heading back uphill.

Hill #8: Coyote Ridge, starting at mile 41

The two and a quarter miles of uphill to Coyote Ridge were hard and slow.  The bottom part was runnable but my legs didn’t want to.  It was a mental battle for sure.  I knew Ian was right behind me and there was another guy up ahead that I was pulling closer.  The music was helping a lot.

When I caught up with and got a good look at Ron Gutierrez I couldn’t tell if he was disabled, maybe a runner with Palsy or something similar.  He was running quickly, but was bent over sideways above the waist so much that his shoulders were at a 45-degree angle with the ground.  When we met later at the finish he told me he had a huge side cramp, nothing he’d ever experienced before, and the only way he could move forward was to bend over as I’d seen him.  Oh man I can’t imagine how much it must have hurt.

I caught up to him and went to pass.  He moved ahead and I fell back.  I tried again, but no dice.  He was strong on the uphill!  I caught him in a steep section when power walking, but he went past when the trail was runnable again.  Ok Mr. Leany, no problem, I’ll just save up a little gas and shoot by you in a few minutes.

A mile later we were still going up and he was still ahead.  I had tried four or five times to get by and he was hanging in there, swerving around the trail, leaning over almost comically.  Ok, new plan, I’ll smoke you on the downhill and drop Ian – who had remained stubbornly a minute behind – at the same time.

We crested the top and I was off.  Zoom.  I ran a bunch of that first downhill mile at a sub-7-minute pace.  Oh man I was grooving.  Grooving so much I ran off the marked trail.

I didn’t know I was off-course for a quarter mile.  Running downhill at top speed.  I got to a T-junction and realized there was no tape.  I turned and looked uphill.  No tape.  No tape on either path.  I switched my watch onto “back to start” navigation mode and it said the start was roughly to the right.  I turned right and kicked it up a notch.

I’m so unbelievably lucky, because a quarter mile later (a quarter mile that was uphill and extra mileage) I merged back onto the trail, right in front of Ian, a minute or two behind Ron “Mr. Leany” Gutierrez.  I’ll tell you though, at the time I didn’t realize how lucky I was, I was pissed I had to pass Ron again!

I caught and passed him on the downhill, taking out my earphones to tell him I went off-course.  He knew.  He’d been shouting at me at the top of his lungs to come back.  Was the music worth it?  Yeah, I guess so.

I went through the aid station fast, refilling tailwind and grabbing two gus, but Ian was faster.  He didn’t stop.  I saw him coming.  The clouds were clearing and I could see the last hill.  It looked impossibly tall (it’s like the second-shortest climb of all!).

Hill #9: Hill 88, starting at mile 45

My legs were now screaming and I was pushing hard.  My heartrate wouldn’t go past 158bpm.  There was no one ahead but some straggler 50k runners walking.  I put in a 10:46 and then a 10:19 mile on what I thought was steep terrain and pulled a small gap on Ian.  Then I hit the real steep stuff and posted an 11:24.  Sounds slow, but it felt like I was flying.

Word to the wise: this finish has some ups that exist only to punish you.  I mean, I guess whatever is at mile 48 of a 50-mile race is going to seem pretty horrible, but the sharp steep stuff on Hill 88 was really kinda painful.

(Photo by Chris Cleary on Crowdpic)

Over the top and I was running quick downhill again, something around 7:00-7:20 pace, quads flaring with pain with each step.  Whatever, as long as I don’t fall over it’s all good.  I flew down the hill and finished to horn honking and shouts and yells.

I was staring in disbelief when they told me I had finished sixth when Daniel Kono, who I think I passed at mile 33.5 coming up to the Deer Park summit and hadn’t seen since, came blazing in.  I was expecting Ian, I hadn’t seen Daniel coming at all.  He ran something like a 5:30 last mile and was only a minute and a half behind me!  That’s why you push all the way to the end.


(Photo by Pattimont348 on Crowdpic)

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One Response to 2018 Marin Ultra Challenge 50

  1. Jay Alexander says:

    Belated congratulations Will! What a great achievement.

    — Jay A.

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