Well that was fun! Not a super great as a “race” for me but terrific for training and boosting my confidence for TNF SF next week- not to mention the killer scenery, even with fog and some clouds. Since the 28.4-mile Quad Dipsea is technically an ultramarathon, here is an appropriately ultra-long post on how it went today, composed while the experience is still nice and fresh in my head.

After posting last night, I hurried to get my stuff ready and get to sleep, with a little help from Benadryl. It still took me a while to fall asleep as I was feeling all sorts of “taper pains” in my legs and feet, in places that have never hurt before.

My alarm went off at 5:30 and I snoozed it once, I was still so drowsy. Breakfast was instant coffees- a mix of Starbucks vanilla latte and Christmas blend, half a hard pumpkin bagel, some sweet and crunchy currant “twigs” (think Raisin Bran in stick form), and a couple of walnut pieces and dried apples and a dried fig- stuff I picked up at a neighborhood grocery store last night. I didn’t have much appetite and I’m generally not big on breakfast but I love my morning coffee and need to eat a bit to get my digestion moving along. It moved along nicely and then I showered and got ready.

Emi and Peter picked me up a little after 6:30 and we headed over to Mill Valley, a quick drive with no traffic. My stomach didn’t feel great and I still felt sleepy despite the coffee, so when we stopped at a gas station I decided to get a Coke. As I was trying to decide between a can (tastes better) or a bottle (to save some for later), I saw that they had Mexican Coke. Score! Sure, drinking a caffeinated drink less than an hour before a race start might force me to make some pits stops, but it would be worth it.

I picked up my packet and was warmly welcomed for coming all the way from New York (almost all the runners here are from California), then I organized my gear, took 2 Tylenol , two Peptos and a salt pill, peed several times, and got some photos with Emi, who was planning to do some running on other trails nearby and find a couple of spots to cheer me along the course.

With my trail angel before the start. Photo: Emi Yasaka

With my trail angel before the start. Photo: Emi Yasaka

I lined up somewhere towards the front quarter of the field as some announcements were made that I couldn’t hear, except for the part about the only rule being to “have fun.” The start was fast and straight up a short and steep bit of road, then we hit the stairs where I felt Icould hold my own. I don’t mind stairs, or if I ever did I’ve learned to appreciate them, because they are everywhere on the trails in Hong Kong. Some of the early steps were so shallow that even I could take them two at a time.

After the first stretch of stairs came another steep road section, much longer than the first, and everyone around me was still running hard. I hadn’t really digested the fact that “not too cold and some rain likely” actually means “pretty warm with 100% humidity” when running a race uphill. So I was gasping, lungs burning, legs lagging, kind of regretting my decision to add an extra layer on my back with the pack, and pulling down my totally unnecessary arm sleeves. Since it wasn’t raining, the visor came off too. Oh, and I realized that although I’d pressed something on my watch as we crossed the start mat, it wasn’t the start button, so I was about 4 minutes behind on my Garmin.

More stairs, a little more road, and then we got on the trail, up for a little bit to start, where by now loads of people were passing me, men and women. I let them all go and reminded myself that this first out and back should be a recce, and if I felt good I could “race” more in the second half. And I promised myself I didn’t have to run up any of the hills, ever (which curiously makes it possible to run up some of the hills, sometimes).

After climbing about 500 feet in the first mile and change, we headed downhill for about the same for a mile or so, a mix of stairs and smooth trail. Now people were passing me on the downhillls too and I felt a bit shitty. My legs were slow, and I wondered if maybe this “taper” thing just isn’t for me. Pushing in the humidity was messing with my stomach and it felt gross. I realized that with the amount of sweat oozing out of me I should probably take salt pills regularly, but when I went to grab one I realized I only had two left- for another 6 hours or so! Yeah, I was expecting high 50s to feel much cooler. I was soaked by now, and debated whether to shed my shirt at the halfway point, but then my pack might chafe me, so I also thought about leaving my pack and just carrying my water bottle and putting some gels in my pocket.

The welcome downhill stretch was followed by the first of the big climbs, roughly 1000 feet over two miles to the Cardiac aid station. This climb didn’t feel too bad, and since my watch was behind it felt like I got there way sooner than expected. I refilled my bottle, drank a bit of Coke, and raided a jar of S-Caps to re-up my salt supplies.

The next 2.7 miles down to Stinson Beach were almost entirely downhill, a nice relief. There were smooth ridgelines shrouded in cool fog, rainforest sections where it was actually raining, a stretch of gorgeous smooth trail among the big trees, more stairs, and finally the gorgeous approach to the beach, with a wide open section before hitting stairs and wooded trail for the final descent. The aid station was by a road crossing a little ahead of the turn-around point, which was also on a road, and not actually on the beach. I would have liked to touchdown on the sand, though of course not run on it.

I still didn’t feel too good coming down and had a little puke or two on the side of the trail and let quite a few others pass me. I get really stressed out when people are at my back and feel like I could fall any second. When I did feel better, going down the stairs, I occasionally found myself stuck in a train with no safe way to pass. I wondered whether I should stop running trail races with single track. I love being on it, but I can get grumpy about the crowding in the early stages of races and the Chatty Cathys coming up behind me sounding like they’re having so much fun while I am suffering trying to stay upright, dammit. (Of course, if I had someone to talk to it would be awesome until I got distracted and broke my face).

We saw a lot of the race leaders on this stretch, with first male and female way ahead of the others. I tried to count how many women were in front of me, but it wasn’t really possible because there had been an early start option for runners who were concerned about making cutoffs, and it looked like many of those coming back up the steep hill were conserving their energy.

Coming back from the first turnaround, which I hit in 1:30, I had the feeling that I would like to see this again, and so I might as well finish the race (Plus, 90% finished last year, and I don’t want my first DNF to be like that). I took my first picture here, something I rarely do, looking back at the crescent of beach.

The Stinson Beach lookback

The Stinson Beach lookback

Going back up the stairs on the big uphill to Cardiac was hell. It was not only me thinking that. As I got near the top of the stairs, I heard a guy down below let loose a scream of desperate rage. That made me feel better and I managed to run a bit through the redwoods section. I started making weak fartlek bargains—just run up to that next tree, or bush, or whatever marked the end of a gentle part of the incline. I got some music on for the tougher uphill stretches, but I couldn’t listen to much on the downhill portions. It’s too dangerous for me. And there were really no flats on this course, maybe a couple hundred meters here and there.

Happy to be almost halfway there. Photo: Emi Yasaka

Happy to be almost halfway there. Photo: Emi Yasaka

As I refilled and left Cardiac, I saw another woman making her way slowly down the hill, and decided to pass her- though she may have been an early starter for all I knew. I finally started to feel a bit more comfortable on this long downhill. The next uphill was shorter and not as much of a sufferfest as the trip from Stinson to Cardiac, and Emi was there near the top cheering and taking pictures, which gave me a huge boost. The final downhill to the halfway point was glorious. Especially the stairs, where I motored down and passed a lot of dudes. I got to the halfway at 3:05, filled my bottle and headed back up right away. I couldn’t be bothered to fiddle with anything else.

"Run with friends," "Fly high," "Have fun," they say.

“Run with friends,” “Fly high,” “Have fun,” they say.

The next 7 miles back out to Stinson beach was the leg I felt best on. I stayed steady on the upstairs and first uphill, cruised the first downhill and steps down, and again didn’t suffer too much on the way to Cardiac, continually bargaining with myself to run up the less steep portions. I passed a few people and not too many passed me. On the way down to Stinson, I began to pass quite a few women who had probably been way ahead of me earlier, maybe five or so altogether. One of them gave me a really hard time about passing her, I caught up to her in the redwoods, called out, “on your left” and thought I heard her say something scoldy like, “you can’t pass me now.” Hmm… So I hung on her tail, until the path widened a bit and she shouted at me to “Go now! Go now!” But she wouldn’t slow down to let me pass either, so I really had to sprint to get by. Oh well, at least it was downhill.

Going for round two. Photo: Emi Yasaka

Going for round two. Photo: Emi Yasaka

Coming back up from Stinson was hell again, this time squared. I had pushed a bit on the final bit down to the turnaround to pass just one more lady, which of course meant running back up the that stretch of road uphill to keep the distance and “look strong” to intimidate the competition. But it totally didn’t work! She caught me again on a gentle incline after the stairs and I never saw her again. My climbing legs started to feel like jelly. By the time I got back to Cardiac and refilled my bottle two of the other ladies who I’d passed had caught up to me, including the one I’d struggled to pass, and they barely stopped for aid before taking off down the hill. I gave chase for a bit but couldn’t hold the speed on this slick, steep, rooty and rocky downhill. I didn’t want to fall today, and was really hoping to avoid a repeat of Pikes Peak, where, among several other spills, I managed to bang my right knee hard while speeding on the very last mile of trail. Apparently in the single and double Dipsea races it’s legal to cut switchbacks and take shortcuts (though not in the Quad). I seriously don’t see how it’s possible to cut the course without killing yourself- all of the areas between switchbacks looked overgrown and many other portions of the course were steep enough as is without trying to find a steeper “shortcut.”

After I let the ladies go, I got into a nice groove coming down, and reminded myself once more that the final uphill stretch was not as bad as the big hill from Stinson to Cardiac. The worst had passed, just one mile or so up to go, and then I could let it rip down to the finish. I passed a new woman who was struggling on the uphill portion, and as we neared the end of the uphill I spotted my trail-passing nemesis once more.  Alright, race on!

I picked it up hard on the downhill road, eased a bit on a short stretch of trail, then got right behind her on the first set of stairs going down, and pushed hard to get ahead of her on the next strip of road before the longer final set of steps. She was gunning to stay ahead of me too but I knew I just needed to get to the stairs first. I did, went down a few steps, and then- slip! At least the steps were shallow and there was a handrail. I pulled up and kept going. A few more steps and slip! “Again?!” I said out loud. This lady must have thought I was being insane to keep going like that because I think she eased off a bit. I kept storming down the steps without any more falls and pulled in at 6:17 and change, 9th woman and 4th in my AG. Number ten came in about 30 seconds behind. The winner, Caren Spore, was also in my AG, has the course record (4:38) and basically wins every time she runs this race. She looked super strong every time I saw her.

dipsea finish emi

Done! Photo: Emi Yasaka

Phew, I was really happy to be done without too much pain. I didn’t have any firm goals but, on a whim, I thought top 10 would be nice (but unlikely given the first half of the race), as would would beating my 6:33 time from the Pikes Peak marathon, which, besides being shorter, also has less elevation gain and faster course record times than the Quad Dipsea. I would have liked a negative split too, but that wasn’t meant to be. However, when I went to check out my placement, the guy at the computer congratulated me for staying consistent with my 3:05 and 3:12 splits. I’m curious to see how others paced when the results are posted. I do feel that I worked harder in the second half than in the first, though part 2 was far more enjoyable for me.

28 miles was my limit today, just as 14 was it for last week. So while I’m still a bit nervous about going out with the “elites” at TNF next week, I’m a lot more hopeful about finishing. TNF has around 9200 feet of elevation gain drops 10,000   in 50 miles, while today was closer to 9300 up and down again in 28. I’ll try to stick with today’s winning strategy of starting slow, letting people pass me in the early miles, and picking it up when I feel good. I’m really not a good hill and trail runner– I live in a flat town and I fall down so much that I’m too scared to go near Bear Mountain or any of the hard trails around New York City– but I love to get out in beautiful surroundings with more forgiving terrain and see what I can do. I suppose I could go it alone on these trails but then I’d have to carry more stuff (mostly water) and I might get lost or freak out at bears and snakes and mountain lions. Participating in trail and mountain races motivates me to push a little more, while also humbling me outside of my natural habitat. It’s a fine balance to stay comfortably within myself while outside of my comfort zone, but when it works like today it feels pretty sweet.

I pretty much wore what was in my outfit photo last night, except I swapped a lightweight Outdoor Research Echo t-shirt for the matchy-matchy Salomon top. Partly because I didn’t want to look too Euro, but also because I was worried that friction from my pack could mess up the fabric .The Salomon Fellraisers worked really well on the terrain today, which was pretty wet, though there wasn’t too much mud. I managed no falls on the trails today, which is almost a miracle! The bottoms of my feet hurt a bit after the race, since they don’t have as much cushion as I’m used to. I dream of someday finding a pair of Hokas with good tread and big lugs for these kinds of conditions. The Smartwool toe socks kept my feet comfy and blister free. They’re not so easy to find, even in stores that sell Smartwool products, so I usually wear Injinjis unless it looks like it’s going to be wet out.

I packed 4 gels, 2 bars, and 2 packs of chewy stuff but didn’t eat very much because my stomach felt so off. I took what I needed whenever I felt my energy levels running low, every 45 minutes to an hour What I ended up consuming: 1 packet of Clif Shot Blocks, 1 packet of Squeezy chews (something I got at a race in Hong Kong), 1 mini-packet of GU Chomps (from the aid station), 1 Salty Caramel GU = 555 calories, plus some Coke, Sprite and ginger ale from the aid stations.

Right after I changed, which took forever since I was slow and soaked, I ate some delicious fresh hot Firetrail Pizza at the finish, from some kind of portable oven they brought out, and downed some GU Brew and half a beer. You have to finish to get your race swag– a Mountain Hardwear tech-t AND an Eddie Bauer zip neck fleece.

Theres a tasty slice of pizza on that glowing plate. Photo: Emi Yasaka

Theres a tasty slice of pizza on that glowing plate. Photo: Emi Yasaka

Thanks to the organizers for such a cool experience. The course was really well marked- I only made a wrong turn once because I was following some hikers going down a hill instead of looking up for the pink ribbons, and there were loads of volunteers stopping traffic at the road crossings and being super supportive.