Monday, May 28, 2012

Miwok 100K Race Report - 2012

If you asked me what my best performance was in 2011, I would immediately respond with the Miwok 100K. It was one of those rare days where everything seems to go right. My pacing had been perfect, I felt strong all day, and I finished faster than I thought I could. I knew, then, that a return to the same race would be very unlikely to produce a similar result. But as it turned out, Miwok 2012 wasn’t the same race at all.

The most significant change was the increased elevation gain of about 2,000 feet. This included an equal increase in descent. Rumors also had the course at about a mile longer than in previous years – not really significant on its own, but enough to knock back your finish time a bit. The most obvious changes were the relocation of the start/finish area to Stinson Beach and the 5:00 A.M. start time which would have us running in the dark for the first hour.

For my part, I also planned to approach this race differently than last year. My primary motivation for signing up for it was to get in a 100K training run for Hardrock. With that in mind, I executed what has been my typical spring race plan this year by skipping the taper and getting in plenty of miles in the days leading up to the race.

Moonglow over the ocean

Race morning found me cruising down an empty Highway 1 at 4:00 A.M, light from the supermoon reflecting off the ocean. I arrived in time to briefly greet a few friends at the start before we all donned our headlamps and took off through the streets of the tiny, oceanfront town.

With Jen before the start

The morning was warm enough to start in my tank top – no long sleeves required. The first thing I noticed was how light and free I felt. The pockets of my tank top were empty. Oh crap! I forgot all my food! Ten seconds into the race, and already I was in a panic. I had a Mojo bar and a stash of chews and waffles for my pockets, but they’d all been forgotten in the backseat of my cluttered Subaru. I sighed. It would have to be aid station GU’s for my pockets, then.

The first climb began even before we’d left town, and it was a steep one. I made the hike behind Sarah Lavender Smith while we chatted and laughed about our apparent look-alike status. Here’s a photo of us after the race:

What do you think? Ultrarunning doppelgangers? I know – it’s mostly just the pigtails.

We soon left the paved road for some singletrack switchbacks that climbed into the night. I hiked steadily upward, the moon reflecting its iridescent glow to my left, and headlamps strung out like Christmas lights on the switchbacks of the hillside below. Not a bad way to start a race, really.

The sky had barely lightened before the climb abated, and we hit the unforgiving half track across the treeless hills of the Marin Headlands. Running downhill on a slanted, narrow trail, still in need of a headlamp, was the first of many unique challenges offered by the new course. I feel lucky to have survived without a fall or ankle twist.

By the time we left the open hillsides for the redwoods of the Bolinas Ridge, the sun was up, and we dropped our lights at the Bolinas aid station. Having the very runnable trail of the Bolinas ridge at mile 6 definitely lent itself to running fast early, and this is not my favorite way to run a race. Neither do I like to start thinking competitively before the second half, but the turnaround at mile 12 was the only opportunity to see where I stood in the women’s field (11th).

I tried to force myself to relax and ignore the competition, so when Scott Mills, who was running next to me, offered to take a picture, I accepted.

Enjoying the Bolinas Ridge

Once in a while the trees gave way to views like this:

After passing through the Bolinas aid station once more, we were back on the narrow trail of the open, grassy hillsides. This time, with no headlamp required.

Leaving the Bolinas Ridge. (Photo by Brett Rivers)

Returning to Stinson for an aid station visit, we dropped down via a treacherous Matt Davis Trail. This trail was new to me, and it was my first real clue as to how much more challenging this year’s course was. Matt Davis is a study in contrasts. It is heartbreakingly beautiful – enchanted forest beautiful – with tiny blue flowers thickly carpeting the forest floor, huge redwoods, moss covered trees hanging low, a cascading creek, and lush ferns filling in the only spaces without flowers. It was also insanely difficult to run.

The steep descent was primarily made via huge stone steps, although occasionally a step was made from a wooden beam which had the added pleasure of being covered with a slick, wet moss. Trekking poles would have been nice.

In my head I kept hearing Boromir’s voice from The Fellowship of the Rings asking, “What is this new devilry?” Okay, so I was a little melodramatic. I was tired. But I didn’t want my downhill to come at such costs! I focused on soaking up the surrounding beauty, but at the same time I wondered, would I trade in all this beauty for a section of trail that was more runnable? I hated to admit it, but I think maybe, kinda, sorta, the answer might have been yes. Just a little bit.

Looking back at Stinson from the Dipsea Trail

By the time I’d climbed from Stinson up over the Dipsea Trail and back down to the Muir Beach aid station, I still felt pretty good, but I could see the damage in terms of just how much slower my finishing time would be compared to last year. I hated to focus too much on performance goals, but I felt pretty bummed. I hadn’t exactly been running easy.

As I climbed up away from the beach, the day’s warmth began seeping into my skin. It was an incredibly beautiful day, and the scene below of people relaxing on the sand and frolicking in the surf looked far more appealing than the idea of running another 30 miles.  I wonder if some nice person down there would share a corner of their towel with me, I thought. Definitely. And the idea gained momentum. I bet they would even share a soda from their cooler. Or a beer! I won’t kid you: I was tempted. But then I remembered that I’m not as young and cute as I used to be, and maybe those invitations aren’t as easy to come by these days. I decided I didn’t need to find out and continued uphill away from the beach.

The temptations of Muir Beach

On the long climb out of Tennessee Valley, I caught up with another runner named Steve. He was enthusiastic, and made for an awesome running partner. We chatted about racing and life, and the miles came easy. By the time we reached the traverse with a stunning view of the city framed by the Golden Gate Bridge, we were clipping along at a nice pace. I knew if I could just stick with Steve, I’d have a great race.

City View

I passed a few more women while in Steve’s company, and left the Rodeo Valley aid station just ahead of him. We made a left onto some singletrack that was so narrow and overgrown that I had to slow down so I wouldn’t trip over the waist-high grasses. I also noticed that mixed among the grasses and flowers was no small amount of poison oak. There was no avoiding it.

Really? Did we have to run through this section? I’m sure the course could have been routed around this half-mile! I’d already had two bouts of poison oak this spring, and I didn’t fancy another go-round. My students think I have some kind of a disease, what with all the red bumps and scratching.

A steep downhill ensued, and with my unsteady legs, I had to let Steve take the lead. This was apparently a mistake, as he gapped me quickly.

“Don’t leave me, Steve!” I wanted to yell at his receding form. The farther away he got, the more depressed I became. That was nothing, however, to the torture provided by the latest Miwok devilry: the siren song of Rodeo Beach.

The heat of the day had reached its zenith, as had the temptation of the Pacific Ocean waves crashing on the sand. The course took us directly across the beach, and I stared, mesmerized, by the surfers, and bikini girls, and little kids building sand castles. They stared back, and I knew exactly what they were thinking: “What the hell are you doing??” I wondered the same thing myself.

Rodeo Beach: You can see the trail running close to the lagoon and up into the hills above the red roofs.

 With the finish line only 15 miles away, however, I turned from the prospect of a cold ocean swim, put my head down, and plodded forward through the sand. I could swim at Stinson Beach.

I’m quite familiar with the climb out of Rodeo Beach, and this made it a fairly comfortable ascent for me. I started to smell the finish line, and I basked in the incredible ocean views as I climbed. The previous weekend I had run the Big Sur Marathon, which is renowned for its scenic beauty. It's a well-deserved reputation, but honestly, it can't hold a candle to a race like Miwok. Trail runs offer an intimacy with the terrain that a road run could never touch.

By the time I reached Tenessee Valley again though, I felt mentally done. It was hot, I was tired, and I had 12 miles still to run. It sounds like nothing now, but at the time it felt monstrous. Luckily, Tim Fitzpatrick was hanging around the aid station, and his support and enthusiasm was enough to at least get my legs moving back down the road again.
Above Pirate's Cove (Photo by Glenn Tachiyama)

I broke it down: One more aid station, two big climbs, two big descents. That’s all. Totally doable.

I knew the finish would be down the steep Dipsea Trail, and I was dreading it. I managed a solid pace on the climb, but my legs were jelly on the way back down. Since my finish time would be slow anyway, I allowed myself to go easy heading back down toward Stinson. All I wanted at this point was to avoid a tragic fall before crossing the line. 

When I saw the Dipsea marker that said “Mile 7,” I began to get pissed. Isn’t the freaking Dipsea 7 miles?? Where the hell is the finish line?

I finally burst from the forest directly onto the beachfront park and crossed the line in 11:49, wide-eyed, a bit shell-shocked, and incredibly relieved to be done.

I collapsed onto the grass next to the awesome Benna family. Jen immediately began sympathizing with me about the difficulty of the course while J.B. ran off to get me an ice cold Coke. Oh running friends, how I love you!

Based on my finishing time, I had a very comparable race to last year’s. By most accounts, the front of the pack finished about 1:15 slower than in 2011. I finished 1:06 slower. I finished 7th woman – exactly the same as last year. The race also capped off a 110 mile week of running – basically unheard of for me. It seems silly, then, that I was thrilled with 2011’s performance but disappointed by this one. I’m well aware that it’s simply a difference in expectations: I’d been hoping to improve upon my time. Clearly that was a naive desire, but there was no way to know that going in.

This version of Miwok turned out to be a much better training run for Hardrock than previous renditions of the course. It also turned out to be another experience that was so tough, it made me question how capable I am of crossing that finish line in Silverton. Honestly, I don’t think having these doubts is a bad thing. The questioning is part of the preparing, and if I felt totally confident I could finish that race in July, it wouldn’t hold nearly the same draw for me.

Post-race with Helen and Larissa

With Donald

After downing a second Coke, I wandered out to the beach for the promised Pacific Ocean swim. I spent the next several hours cheering for friends, both old and new, and passing out finishline hugs. Not a bad way to end a race, really.

Thanks to Tia and all the volunteers for this year's amazing version of this NorCal calssic!

Photo by Glenn Tachiyama


  1. Wow! You were running near where I work, so I know all of those trails! My friends were crewing and pacing another friend who was running that race. Sounds like fun! Hope to see you this summer! Love Willow

    1. Oh, I so wanted to come to your May Day gathering this day, Willow! I had planned on stopping by after the race, but I was just too beat. Next time I plan to skip the race and just head straight to the ranch for music and ice cream making. (Not kidding.)

  2. Beautiful report, Gretchen. Wonderfully honest. I know those voices well, those temptations, those little beach-going demons that pop up from time to time. Excellent finish! 7th woman at Miwok is godlike. These are the runs that make you strong. You're going to kick some healthy ass at Hardrock....

  3. Gretchen, you ran so well--especially on legs that had accumulated so many miles in the prior week! I'm truly impressed. Great to see you out there, and thanks for sharing this report. You wove in wonderful details and phrases. BTW I completely agree with what you wrote about the Big Sur marathon (which I've run a few times) -- sure, it's fun and pretty, but it can't hold a candle to the trail along Pirates Cove!
    take care,

  4. When I saw the results on Monday, I was wondering what was going on. I haven't been following West running scene wand had no clue of the changes, so I just shook my head: when I finished in 11:07, I was 13th. I believe Helen was 3rd in about same time. Made me wonder, till the reports began trickling in. Actually it makes me want to run it again! But I am masochistic, even if these days I have no business running race with elevation changes over 3,000 feet:) Gretchen, I love how you felt ready to give up yet never did. I think that's what makes a real runner a racer - an honest admission that you WANT to give up, but you don't! I mean, what with that bs: "I ran freely and smiled the whole way"? Work harder! Loved it. Great training for HR, indeed. You will cross the line in Silverton, I have no doubt in my mind. Not a single one.

  5. When you said that the course was harder than last year, my first thought was, "Oh, Hardrock training!" I have a feeling that, though super gnarly, this race, this amount of discomfort, at this time relative to that July weekend, is pretty much perfect training. Yay for gutting this one out and I can't wait to see you shine in Silverton!

  6. You looked great out there! That course beat people up both physically and mentally! Who expects heat in the Headlands? And some of us twisted our ankles a ton of times! I think you'll do great at Hardrock! I look forward to hearing all about it!

  7. Another great report and another great result! I think a significant amount of trepidation about Hardrock is just good, healthy respect. Exciting countdown!

  8. Most excellent, Gretchen! The poison oak gives me great pause when considering this race...I hate itchies!!

    I agree with Meghan, perfect Hardrock training!

  9. Thanks for all the support, everyone. You guys are awesome!

    And Paige, you will have to do a lot of considering then if you want to run races in California. The damn PO is everywhere! Well, stick to the Sierra, and you'll be safe. :)

  10. Do you always smile so big or is that just for the camera? Your appreciation for life really shows in those photos. Congratulations on another strong performance despite those hills and heat.

  11. Outstanding report, Chica. There's no doubt this was one of those days that will propel you through the wall at Hardrock. And thanks for not telling everyone that you had to wait around almost two hours to take your picture with me!

  12. Incredible!!! Congratulations!

  13. Hi Gretch- just saw this (late catching up on the blog readings). Gosh, it was super memorable wasn't it. I had no idea you were running with all those miles on your tough legs. Goodness, you are going to shine at Hardrock for sure. Stay healthy and all this training is going to serve you well. See you soon I hope!

  14. That's a serious deposit in the Hardrock bank...setting yourself up for a great race! Gorgeous pictures!