Every race experience is unique in its highs and lows, its pre-race anxiety and the post-race review, recollection, emotions and stock-taking. No matter how rough my race goes, there is always a point towards the final miles when the awareness of that day’s uniqueness takes hold. It’s like a sense of pre-nostalgia over what can never be repeated. Even if I were to go back and participate in that event again, it would always be a different race in innumerable ways- the people, the conditions, the thoughts and feelings of the mind and body. Those last miles typically fill me with joy and allow me to finish strong and happy most of the time, maybe all of the time.

So it was that TNF SF went from becoming a near-first DNF to another treasured memory of a full day out on the trails. It’s not easy to reconcile my non-competitive and competitive sides and this race was a test. Yes, I love winning and doing well, on the other hand, I run for fun and don’t want to suffer for it. Honestly, I want the easy wins! And even if I had prepared for it, TNF SF would never be an easy race to come out on top of- it’s full of hungry runners who eat mountains for breakfast and have a lot on the line in terms of sponsorships and more.

Still, I wanted to close out the year in style, and this was one the rare races that had been on my 2014 calendar before it was even 2014! I had registered for the 2013 race but decided to defer my entry to this year so I could the sub-freezing CIM that weekend instead. Back then, I wasn’t even thinking of being competitive, I just wanted to run this spectacular course, and I guess I didn’t know too much about all the other races in the area- I’d heard of North Face and Miwok and the various Dipsea races but that was about it.

So I made my plans to spend a week out west and, when I found out that the Quad Dipsea was a week before TNF SF, so I signed up for that too because YOLO. Of course, the Quad wrecked my quads and compromised my immune system, but nothing a little massage and lot of sleep couldn’t fix, right? I was back from the dead by Thursday and looking forward to Saturday as long as it didn’t rain. Because I’m a weather wimp.

On Friday evening I headed up to Mill Valley to stay with friends who work on the event production team. With an event of this scale (races from 5K to 50 miles over two days) and huge amount of rain (including another little downpour on Friday night into Saturday morning), there will always last minute emergencies, so dinner and bedtime got pushed back a little later than originally planned. Still, I was glad to get a peek “behind the scenes” and appreciate the huge efforts the organizer went through to keep a full 50-mile race and ensure that the course was safe, clear of hazards, and well marked.

I took my usual pre-race Benadryl on Friday night and for once, it didn’t work! My mind stayed awake for some time as 11pm approached, and then I drifted in and out of consciousness until I heard the others getting ready to leave around 2am. I dozed on and off for another 20 minutes or so before getting up and putting together an ad hoc breakfast: Starbucks instant vanilla latte (the only critical breakfast item I remembered to bring) mixed with some of the coffee from the hotel room, 2 fun-size Snickers bars (the hotel’s version of pillow chocolates), and a couple of slices of focaccia from last night’s bread basket. Then I got dressed, opting to wear a shirt because Suzie had looked at me funny when I mentioned maybe not wearing one, plus arm sleeves. I went down to catch the last shuttle to the start, which I thought would leave at 3:45 but was not actually going until 4:10. There were three of us with a big old school bus to ourselves- one chill guy who’d done the race a few times (including the year of the rain, 2012) and a woman who looked poised to run fast (she did).

On the ride out

Quiet bus on the ride out

At the start area, the ground was very wet but the rain had stopped and it wasn’t cold at all. I dropped of my finish gear and drop bag on some tables inside a big tent—a nice touch so that our things wouldn’t get wet. I didn’t see anyone I knew so I after a couple of trips to the portapotties I went and stood near the start with the real elites. I was standing next to Kami Semick and Anna Frost, who was not running, was there hanging out and looking adorable. Shortly after 5, wave 1 got the call to go into the corrals and I tried to find a spot in the middle to back, but surrounded by enough people to keep me warm while we waited. Here is a start line video from iRunFar.com. I don’t see myself.

The start was fast, downhill and on an asphalt road, which never feels too comfortable with my shoes designed for mud. I wanted to run by feel so I had turned off the sound and vibration alerts on my watch and set the display to show the time of day, and planned to occasionally check my pace but not focus on it too much. I checked in that first mile or so and saw low 7:00s. Too fast! Next we headed uphill on a wide dirt road and I hung with some ladies for a while until I had to let them go. It was going to be a long day.

Annotated revised TNF SF course map from iRunFar.com

Annotated revised TNF SF course map from iRunFar.com

Due to a bridge being washed out by the rain, a later chunk of the course was cut and replaced by a second loop around the first section. This was a roughly 5-mile loop with about 800 feet of uphill over 2.5 miles, followed by about the same downhill. I started taking walking breaks early on the uphills, as folks from waves 2 and 3 and so on started passing. There was plenty of space on the gravel roads and wide trails in the early miles of the course, so all of the passing didn’t stress me out too much as I wasn’t in anyone’s way. Early in the second loop, I was happy to see a running friend from NYC looking really strong in her first 50-mile race. She went ahead and I hoped not to see her again.

I dont enjoy night running as much as I look like I do

I don’t enjoy night running anywhere nearly as much as it looks like I do

The full moon was out and the sky was clear, so we had some good nighttime views. However, I don’t like running in the dark, and my headlamp is not very powerful, but because I don’t like running at night I don’t want to invest in a better headlamp, so it’s a vicious cycle. My eyes were tired and so was the rest of me as I looked at my watch waiting for sunrise. 6:26? Nothing. 6:38? C’mon light! Close to 7, by the end of the second loop, the sky had brightened, and I was hoping we would be able to leave our headlamps at the new aid station at the end of the loop, instead of the original headlamp drop spot that was now later in the course. No such luck, I had to keep what was now just a heavy sweatband on my head for another three miles to the Tennessee Valley aid station.

The hours before sunrise had been very humid with some fog on the second loop, and I was uncomfortably soaked in my chilly sweat. And still tired in the foggy daylight as we headed up another long hill on the Miwok Trail and then down into Tennessee Valley. I’ve been telling myself too often that I must be mentally tired by now from all the races this year, so that’s how I am. Physically, I’m under-recovered, under-trained for this course, and full of aches and niggles and occasional shooting pains in the hips and back and knees. And again this week, my stomach was off, forcing up little pukes here and there along the way. Mine is not ever the race-ending kind of vomit, the type of Gl upheaval that makes it impossible to keep anything down and weakens a runner to the core. Rather, it’s an annoyingly gross and bleh kind of feeling that allows me to keep some gels and liquids coming in (though probably not enough) with an occasional mouthful coming back up. I keep Pepto and Tums or Rolaids on hand but I’m not sure that they help much. Well, at least I didn’t have to poop.

This is around when I was really struggling. Photo: Nate Dunn

This is around when I was really struggling. Photo: Nate Dunn

So for some time in this early-middle stretch, around miles 14-20, I went back and forth questioning whether I really wanted to finish if it meant 10 or 12 or 14 hours and boring kind of slog. My heart wasn’t in it at this point. I could stop and go back and enjoy something hot. Twenty miles was still a good training run that deserved a proper square meal at the end, right? I see myself later, justifying my reasons for quitting, knowing there doesn’t have to be a reason, knowing it doesn’t really matter to anyone but me.

But it’s not my style, I remind myself. I’ll DNF someday when some or all of my body quits on me and there’s no choice involved. Or maybe I’ll DNF because I just don’t feel like it, say today. Back and forth, this self-talk: Stop signing up for all the things, 50 miles is not a hundred or 24 but it’s still a commitment that you have to respect, you take these things too lightly…

Still, I can’t quell my curiosity about the course. I want to see it. All of it. And this is it, my last race of the year. I don’t really want to go out whimpy, do I? And it could be a nice day out, my last in the Bay Area for a while, so I want to experience it to the max. And I remember how fortunate and grateful I am to have the ability to be here in a beautiful place doing what I usually love when I’m not so damn tired. Where else would I really rather be and what would I rather be doing? Every race has its emotional lows. They pass. I know this.

Looking way too happy on the outside

Why do I look so freaking happy? Swear I’m dying inside

So I take it aid station to aid station, as my friend the great master Otto Lam has taught. After Muir Beach (mile 18) came what I had noted on my pace band as a “giant climb” of about 1500 feet in 5 miles to Cardiac aid station. I took it easy since I had no idea what this would look like. What it looked like, to start, was a long series of narrow switchbacks, which had turned into little streams with all the rain. I walked and walked with one foot on either side of the streams, still able to keep my feet dry. After the switchbacks the trail opened up on top of the hill as we took the more gradual and occasionally runnable Coast View Trail, and we saw a few leaders of the 50K race heading back already.

From Cardiac at mile 23 it was already practically the the halfway point, I told myself, and I decided to continue to the next aid station at McKennan Gulch, where my friend Harald might be working. I figured it would be nice to see a familiar face and I could delay my decision to quit until some further discussion.

Winner Sage Canaday right before I saw him on the way back to Cardiac aid station. Photo: iRunFar.com/Byron Powell

Winner Sage Canaday right before I saw him on the way back to Cardiac. Photo: iRunFar.com/Byron Powell

From Cardiac we went into the woods, and here came the front runners on their way to their second pass through Cardiac! Sage Canaday in first, about 13 miles ahead of me at this point, followed by Dakota Jones less than a minute behind. It’s always invigorating to see the people out front looking strong, so this section passed quickly. Then we had a long and gradual uphill out-and-back on the Coastal Trail on the way to McKennan Gulch that was all out in the open and looked like it would be even better downhill on the way back. The rule in trail running is that out-going runners are required to yield to the runners coming back, and here the trail was very narrow, so there was a lot of stop and go on the way up. Now I was actually looking forward to coming back, running downhill, and having everyone get out of my way!

Off the trail and onto a stretch of road to McKennan, I knew I had turned it around. The sun was now shining, we were running on top of the ocean and well past the halfway mark with a big downhill coming up. At the aid station (mile 28) I saw Harald up on a hilltop using his radio, we waved to each other from a distance, and I felt good to go on my way. I’d marked the next 5-mile stretch down to Stinson Beach as the “giant downhill” and indeed it was. The first portion of the out and back was as much fun as I expected, as most every runner coming up yielded, and I made sure to thank each one, the gratitude just oozing out of me. Here I saw the guy from the bus in the morning and my NYC running buddy on her first 50-miler, who I must have passed during an aid station break. Then we headed into the woods, still going down, with some of the steps that I love, though the rain had clearly taken a toll over the last week. Okay, as much as I love downhill, after 3 miles straight a break would be nice. But there was none, and that was still cool.

At the Stinson Beach aid station, I braced myself for what was up ahead. 2.7 miles on the Dipsea trail back to the Cardiac aid station, the same section that had been my hell twice over a week ago. First, some steps and gradual hills with the spectacular lookback views of the beach that magically erase the pain, and then a short section of runnable trail, followed by the killer stairs of the Steep Ravine. But wait! On the trail, the first bridge on the right that led to those stairs was roped off with a “wrong way” sign. What?! We stayed on the left side of the creek for a bit and took a different bridge further on, with different stairs that were a bit gentler and broken up with some flats and more moderate inclines (plus a ladder to climb!). Unfortunately, this meant we also skipped the redwoods section of the Dipsea and the ocean-facing ridgeline en route to Cardiac, and instead we stayed on a still-pretty wooded trail, heading back to Cardiac the way we’d seen Canaday and Jones hours ago. Well.. okay, phew, that wasn’t so bad. Only two more climbs to go, according to my notes, and neither would be as big.

But first, the “giant climb” in reverse, back to Muir Beach, part of the re-routing of the course. Now, with only 15 miles and a few hours to go, let’s do this! But first I needed to re-up my supplies at Cardiac, where I’d sent my drop bag. I must have had a brain fart when I only brought a sandwich-sized Ziploc for my drop-bag, but luckily Suzie had a spare shopper she loaned me. However, it was small and black and undistinctive, so it took some time for the volunteers to locate it. I did my best to suppress my impatience while they searched the field of mostly small black drop bags to find it, knowing they were doing their best and it was my fault anyways. I’m usually much better at this. Once found, I was offered a folding chair. “Here, have a seat,” the volunteer said sweetly. I looked at it with secret disdain. “I don’t need a seat for a 50 miler!” I thought to myself. So I put the bag on it instead. Seriously, unless I’m using a toilet or changing shoes, I have to be on my feet at least 12 hours before thinking about a sit break.

The way back to Muir Beach was now pretty muddy from all the 50K and 50-mile runners that had gone through, yet my mud shoes continued to work their magic, allowing me to run through everything with confidence. By now, with only a few hours to go, I could handle wet feet, so I ran straight through the streams and mud in the middle of the switchback section.

The first of the final two climbs was hard hard hard, with 1000 feet up over two miles, I was so hungry now, but still estimated about two hours til the finish with nearly 10 miles to go. I ate some crystallized ginger and played music for distraction. The next downhill was wonderful, with some nice shallow steps along the way. I came into the aid station strong and starving, gobbling on saltines and taking some to go.

I can say Im somewhat genuinely happy now

With less than 10 miles to go, I can say I’m somewhat genuinely enjoying myself here

The aid stations were closer together towards the end. Just three miles and one more climb to the last aid at Alta, and then it was less than three miles downhill to the finish. Well, except for that last stretch of road we started out on. Now it was time for the pre-nostalgia as we revisited those final miles of the first loop that we’d covered twice in the morning.  I let myself race a little, and being kind of obnoxious, every time I passed someone I glanced sideways at their bib to check the color– Only the orange-red 50-milers count!

 

The home stretch. Dude in blue is gonna pass me back soon

The home stretch. Dude in blue is gonna pass me back soon

I was planning to walk some of that last uphill stretch, but then a 50-mile guy who I’d just passed zipped by me, one volunteer said “half a mile to go” and another said, “just 5 minutes” and I was like, okay, let’s try to do this in 5. Still, that uphill hurt. I paused to walk for a second and looked back over my shoulder to see another 50-mile woman and her pacer catching up. Oh nooooo! Yup, so I killed myself sprinting uphill to the finish of a 50-mile like it was a 5K, knowing full well that this woman had already “won” based on chip time since she had started in a later wave–  she wouldn’t  have had a pacer if she had been in wave 1. And she still passed me like 5 feet before the finish line! Still, I’m glad it went down like that- it was the most fun and crazy way to end this very long run.

Finally

Grrrr, an eye of the tiger finish

Ah, to be done! My watch had died on the final climb, and I saw the finish clock said it was 3:13pm. Later I went to the results tent and saw that my time was actually 10:09, since we had started a little after 5am. I was 4th in my AG but only the 34th woman, with winner Magdalena Boulet about three hours ahead. I was happy to make the top 5 of my AG as that was one of my little goals. Later still, I saw that my time was very much in line with the realistic calculations I’d done in my notebook that put me at the finish between 10:00 and 10:15. As opposed to the fantasy projections of 8:00-8:30 that could only become a reality with some actual training for this.

I moaned and groaned a lot after the race, probably more because I was sleepy-tired. I moaned for the half hour or so it took me to wipe all the mud off and get discreetly changed in corner of the gear drop tent, and while I wandered around vaguely looking for the people I knew, and as I scarfed down the way-too-healthy post-race meal of chicken breast, spaghetti with veggies, and salad greens. I finally found my friends, and two of us headed back to the city on school bus full of November Project people who had run the marathon relay and hence still had tons of energy to jump and sing and be jolly. One of them shared his beer and another gave me a neat elevation tattoo designed for the original 50-mile course. For next time. Then it was bus and MUNI back to my place, shower, packing, and a properly indulgent Mexican meal before passing out.

Party bus on the ride back

Party bus on the ride back

Two days later, I don’t know how it’s possible that I don’t hurt anywhere nearly as much as after the Quad Dipsea. TNF had a similar amount of elevation gain and loss, but was about 80% longer in miles and took about 60% longer in time, with downhill stretches that went on for up to five miles. The cold came back, which is to be expected after spending 10 hours running in my chilled sweat. Weirdly, I’ve been most sore in the crooks of my elbows, both sides, even though my handheld was in my right hand 99% of the time. I felt tightness in there during the race and would try to stretch my arms out every now and then, but it’s not something I’ve ever experienced before. Maybe wearing cold and wet arm sleeves all day had something to do with it? Once again, I miraculously managed not to fall on the trails during the whole race! I did lose my balance in the mud once, when a puddle I stepped into was much deeper than I expected, but I still avoided a full face- or butt-plant. Despite all the mud and sogginess, I am also blister-free thanks to the same footcare combo that I used at Quad Dipsea: Salomon Fellraisers, Smartwool toe socks, and Trailtoes anti-friction lubricant.

As always, I’m happy to have finished, to have spent a beautiful week in one of my favorite places and to have a chance to catch up with lots of friends along the way. Though I still feel just a little teeny-tiny bit fraudulent about starting among the elite trail runners. Many, though not all, of the top runners would make the call to save their efforts and drop on a bad day, and some did, which probably put me at the DFL end of the wave 1 runners. But really, I have little to save myself for and I wanted to get my money’s worth and experience the full course.

I’m now looking forward to a period of winding down and reflection as the year comes to an end, and one key question I have to ask myself is whether to continue signing up for these trail and mountain races or whether to stick to racing on roads. As much as I loved the TNF course and would like to run the original, unmodified course and race well on it, I also know that going much faster than I did last weekend could result in some spills and tumble and risks of serious injuries. Living in NYC, I simply don’t train on trails and mountains enough to become very good at racing them, and I don’t like going into races feeling that underprepared.  (And I’m lazy about using the treadmill or stair machine to simulate hills). 2015 Is still wide open, with only one single race committed to my calendar. Like moving into an empty new home, it’s a fresh feeling that won’t last more than a few weeks max. Before I can fly again, it’s time to dream!