My girlfriend and I drove three hours up the Californian coast to Stinson Beach. We slept in the car Friday night. A cop knocked on the window in the middle of the night and my sleepy response was, “Can you please wait for us to wake up?” He gave us a warning and wished me luck on my race. In the morning, it was freezing! I was late to the start of the race in the parking lot at the beach. All I heard at the pre-race talk was, “-so it’s just that section that’s confusing. Besides that, you’ll be fine.”
The race director said something funny during the first timer's trail racing talk: Alright, running and walking. Only the very elite runners run all of the course. The fact is: you run the flats and downhills. And you run the hills...until it gets stupid.”
Around thirty of us gathered in the road. He counted down from 10 to 1. “Go.” We started shuffling off, trying not to step on each other’s heels. The others had hydration packs, sunglasses, hats, and many accessories. I had my winter camelbak.
We ran up, across the road, through sandy trails. The golden meadows swayed in front of a blanket of fog over the Pacific. We chugged up through a rocky and root-laden trail that followed a mountain creek through redwood groves. We cornered around switchbacks. The trail was narrow and I needed patience to pass others. There was poison oak everywhere. Horse poop was blocking the trail. The mountain was steep. We crossed bridges across the creek. I tried to keep up with those around me in the first group. When we switched trails near 2500 feet, I realized my mistake. I went out too fast and brash. My legs were toast. And I had finished only one of four climbs up Mt. Tam. The course was a figure eight loop that we ran twice. The forest gave way to sweeping views of the ocean and San Francisco Bay. At the aid station atop the mountain, there was the most helpful volunteer I’ve known. She said, “Let me take your jacket around your waist. We’ll keep it here for you.” And after my return climbs up the mountain, without me saying a word, she sprayed my hot face with water. Telepathic, I tell you.
Across the mountain and down the other side. Grassy hills, steep switchbacks. The trail descended until we were near the beach again. I ran through a flat field, the only flat place on the course. More forest, dark and lush. A rickety bridge that almost bounced me off. Then I began walking up the steep hills and stairs. My legs felt drained and numb. My spirits dropped. Why am I running the same course twice? I’d rather hike with my girlfriend today. I worried that I might drop out. That I might be disappointed with myself. My brain swirled, frightened by the emptiness of defeat. The fears and doubts consumed me. I decided to ignore them, figuring I’d run until I couldn’t anymore, and then I would drop out. But I wouldn’t let myself worry about it and only make it worse. I kept walking up the hills. The leg cramps began: first my quads, then my calves, then both.
After cresting Mt. Tam again, I crossed the parking lot and waited for a volunteer to let me cross the busy Park road. After a downhill delight, I barked a short whoop! to keep my spirits high. The narrow switchbacks down to the beach were full of hikers. I yelled, “On your left.” or “Passing.” or “Runner!” Most understood and kindly moved to the side of the trail. When I passed a group of older ladies, I tripped slightly and they shrieked in surprise and fright. I laughed. Tripping doesn’t scare me anymore, not after so many crashes on a skateboard, bike, roller skates, and scooter. At the Stinson beach aid station, as I sadly contemplated quitting my first race ever, I overheard that only a handful of 50K runners had passed by so far. My spirits were raised! Maybe I wasn’t so bad at this after all. Despite wanting to quit, I pressed on. As I started up the trail, I was confronted with a parade of monsters led by a pair of hippies. A Halloween party. They blocked the entire trail. “Passing. Runner, Move!” All commands fell on deaf ears. I waited until the ugly crowd passed. On the slow ascent through the forest, I finally resolved to take the race step by step, knowing each step brought me closer to the finish line. Every step is accomplishing the race. That idea led me to a song, based off of Every Breath You Take, by The Police:
Every step you take, every move you make, every fear you shake, every doubt you break, I’ll be helping you.
I also used the mantra from my last race, a 100 mile run last March. I synchronized my words, breath, and stride, saying, “Be here, be now.” Despite feeling more tired and walking more hills, I started feeling better and better. I crested the mountain again, saw the ocean far beneath me, and started singing, “I want to fly like an eagle, into the sea, fly like an eagle, let my spirit carry me!”
By this time my legs and sides were cramping most every step. I told a guy running ahead of me and he said a good treatment was taking an S cap (salt pill) to restore the electrolytes. Except, he said, don’t swallow it. Bite into it, and let it dissolve through your mouth. The salt will get into your system faster and you should feel it in 5 minutes. I was hungry for healing, so I did as he said, and bit into it. Yuck! It did lessen the cramps. The guy and I ran together the rest of the race. His name was Jim, he was from Murphy’s, CA where the Gold Rush started. He took my mind off worrying about not finishing. Another blessing in this race. The last time up the mountain, I walked so much. I let go of finishing in six hours. I just wanted to finish. “Be here, be now.” Finally, at the aid station atop the mountain, I grabbed some orange slices and chocolate coffee beans and shuffled off towards a sweet descent.
I hit traffic. It was the afternoon now, and the trails were full of hikers. Every minute, I was yelling ahead to hikers to let me pass. One group of ladies, on hearing me say, “Passing on your left,” moved to their left. On the right side of the trail was loose dirt and the steep side of the mountain. I fell into the dirt. The ladies winced and shrieked. I said, “I’m fine.” and tried to hop out. I fell again. Luckily I got to my feet the third time and ran off laughing. I was too happy to be embarrassed. The fast technical downhills are my favorite and I relished the sweet thrill of it all. I had done what I had thought was impossible. I crossed the finish line. Like the book title from endurance master Marshall Ulrich, I had been running on empty. My Love came running towards me and we hugged. Following another suggestion from Jim, we cooled off in the icy ocean to wash off the poison oak oils.
I'm so grateful to carry this passion for running over the past ten years. I've traveled to beautiful places and met wonderful people. I'm grateful for the help of my parents and friends and loved ones. I'll go wherever my feet take me.