Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Miwok 100K 2011

The Miwok 100K in the Marin Headlands of California is considered by many to be the most prestigious 100K trail race in the country. This could be because of the elite field of athletes it attracts, or it could be because of the equally elite scenery along every mile of the course. It could also be a result of the incredibly runnable trails, or the incredibly efficient aid stations. I suspect most would agree that it has something to do with all of these factors. Even with such high expectations, my first Miwok did not disappoint. It was awesome!

Driving out to the coast on Friday, I felt many of the same things that I felt before Way Too Cool. I’d been looking forward to this race all season, but now that it was here I didn’t feel excited about running it. This time though, I knew what the real issue was: nerves. Although I was somewhat familiar with the area, I’d never raced here before, and last year at Waldo was my only previous experience with the 100K distance. I was nervous about my abilities and irritated with myself for not feeling happier about running. As with Cool, I kept trying to remind myself that this was going to be fun, but I just wasn’t having any of it. I’d been exhausted all week, barely getting enough sleep, and a little stressed-out at work. I just felt crabby.

When I arrived to check-in at the hostel, I saw a lot of familiar, smiling faces, and I immediately felt better. Yes, no matter how I ran, this would be fun. Ultrarunning is fun! I had the same feelings seeing friends before the start the following morning. I stood on the beach, took deep, calming breaths, and smiled. It is such a pleasure to be in a beautiful place, doing what you love, surrounded by like-minded individuals. Thank goodness my mindset had improved. Whew!

We set off across the beach into a slightly foggy sunrise – runners, competitors, friends – out for a day of adventure on the California coast.

Climbing up Conzelman Road, I settled into a steady hike along with a pack of talented women, including Jennifer Benna, Carly Koerner and Larissa Polischuk. I had never met any of these gals before, and the friendly and fun conversation really set the right tone for my day. I continued relaxing, let go of my last remaining race anxieties, and enjoyed every step. I let my body dictate the pace and simply followed its wishes.

Climbing into the sunrise behind Jennifer and Carly

After the first aid station at Rodeo Beach, runners climb the Coastal Trail, and I found myself playing leap frog with Paul Sweeny. It suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t know anything about the aid stations or mileage on this course. I confessed to Paul that I hadn’t done my homework, and he told me we had about 3 more miles until Tennessee Valley. Paul has kindly consented to crew for me at Western States, and I was hoping he didn’t think I would forget my homework for that race! I have found though, from past experience, that not having split goals for the aid stations seems to work out best for me. That turned out to be the case at Miwok as well.

After passing through Tennessee Valley, I felt like I had a solid rhythm going. Sometimes I ran alone, sometimes with a few men around. We ran through dense, redwood forests that had a very mystical quality about them. We ran across open hillsides of grass above beautiful ocean views. I came up behind a small group of runners on one of these grassy sections where the singletrack was narrow, slanted and overgrown.

“Do you need to pass?” the first runner immediately offered.

“You know,” I hesitated, “I’m kind of struggling with the footing right now, so I think I’ll hang here.” Avoiding an ankle twist topped my “to-do” list for the day, and we were travelling through prime ankle-twisting territory. “It feels like all we’ve been doing is running downhill,” I added.

“Yeah,” he agreed, “I find the first few miles out of Bolinas on the return trip to be some of the toughest miles of the course.” (We were currently on our way into Bolinas for the first visit.)

I filed that information away for future use. When someone gives you course knowledge like that, you can do one of two things with it – say: ugh, that section’s going to suck and then it does, or say: okay, I’ll have to gear myself up for that section so I can punch through it. Lucky for me, I chose option number two. But that part comes later.

Coming through Bolinas, I saw many of the same cheering friends I had been seeing all day, including Rick, Sean and Nico. It’s so great to have people out there supporting, especially when they’re cheering you by name!

The run along the Bolinas Ridge was quiet and pleasantly shady. Eventually, I saw Dave and Hal on their way back to the finish, bringing along a pack of at least 5 men. I was surprised to see the men’s race still so tight with only a little more than 20 miles to go, and I knew it would be a great one to watch unfold. The women’s race looked a little more settled to me, with Pam, Meghan and Krissy already spread out with at least 3 minutes between each of them.

I knew I was nearing the turnaround at Randall when I suddenly realized I still hadn’t seen any other women after Amy and Helen (4th and 5th). Oh God, I thought, if I’m in 6th place right now I think I might throw up. That would make me way, way too nervous. Fortunately I remembered that Darla had to be somewhere ahead of me, and soon enough I saw her, along with a number of other women. I was tenth woman at the turnaround.

Hiking the mile-and-a-half back up to the ridge felt great, but I also got to see what was going on in the race behind me. Not only were Jennifer, Larissa and Carly still right there, but they were accompanied by Betsy Nye and Clare Abram. I figured with only ten minutes on her, there was no way I could hold off Clare. That woman is what you call a closer. I mentally kissed a top-ten finish goodbye the moment I saw her.

Climbing back up to the Bolinas Ridge after the turnaround

But back up on Bolinas Ridge a funny thing happened – I passed the 9th woman. Now if Clare passed me, I could still finish in the top ten and I felt a little bit hopeful. When I took a mental assessment of my status, another funny thing happened – I realized that I felt great! When I got back to Bolinas aid station there would only be 20 miles to go, and that really didn’t sound far at all.

Cruising along Bolinas Ridge

More friends and cheering awaited at the aid station, and, I have to say, excellent volunteers. Someone always filled my bottles quickly, and I never wasted any time at aid stations. I filled up on PBnJ’s, a few potatoes, and took a few GU’s to go at every station. It all flowed with beautiful precision.

Leaving Bolinas, runners emerge from the forest back into the open, grassy hillsides. This was where that runner had warned me of the tough miles, and I could see what he meant. The trail was deceptively uphill with tricky footing, but not what you’d call a real climb. It definitely required running, not walking, especially when I heard the sounds of a female voice in the distance behind me. I knew it could have just been someone’s pacer, but why take the chance? I felt good, so I just kept running hard.

After passing through Pan Toll, I started trying to figure out what kind of time I could run. My goal for the race had been to run sub-12, and I arrived at this number through comparisons of the Waldo and Miwok courses. Based on times of runners who had completed both courses, Miwok looked to be about 60-90 minutes faster. I also knew that I was in better shape than I had been at Waldo, so I figured a 90 minute improvement would put me at exactly 12 hours.  May as well try to dip under, right? But with 15 miles to go, I still wasn’t sure I would make it because I really didn’t know how many hills were left. If heading out on the course had felt like it was all downhill, the return trip was feeling much the same way. There had to be some big climbs coming up, didn’t there?

Running down to Muir Beach, past the Pelican Inn, a volunteer told me that I looked like I had it in cruise control. I smiled and thanked him; that was exactly how it felt. As I wound past Pirate’s Cove, I found myself intentionally scanning the sides of the trail. This was the section of trail where I lost my wedding ring back in February. I knew I was an idiot for thinking I might see it while flying by in a race, but I couldn’t keep myself from looking. It just would have been so perfect. As I started climbing the steps up out of the cove, I gave the ring one final wish farewell and sighed.

Again, I headed down a big hill, noticing that my quads still felt just fine. The downhills felt good, but I still couldn’t figure out how there were so many of them. If anyone ever tries to tell you that Miwok has something like 10,000 feet of elevation gain, they’re totally wrong. I’m pretty sure it’s almost all downhill.

Coming down into Tennessee Valley, I was surprised to pass Darla. Even more surprising was seeing Suzanna Bon in the distance and noticing that I was gaining on her. Both of these things made me more than a little nervous because I respect both of these women as strong, fast runners. Normally, I would have questioned my stupidity in passing them, but with only 5 miles to go and feeling strong, I couldn’t find any reason to slow down.

The last five miles to the finish were nothing but joy for me. I finally realized that not only was I going to break 12 hours, but I was 7th woman and would actually be pretty close to 11 hours. I was stoked. It wasn’t until I was within 200 yards of the finish that I realized I was comfortably under 11 hours. I spotted a beautiful view of the Golden Gate Bridge framed by my favorite trees and I stopped to take a picture. So, I lost a few seconds to photography. So what? I wanted to enjoy every last second of that race. I crossed the line in 10:43, all smiles, and could not have been happier.

After a hot shower and some freshly grilled sausage and chicken, I stretched out on the grass next to Paul who finished in a strong 10:06. We sat there wrapped in down jackets, me giddy as a little girl, cheering our friends across the line. And that is what I call a perfect day.

I’m incredibly grateful to Tia and everyone else involved in putting on this event. It’s clear why this race is held in such high regard. From the support to the scenery to the company, it was top notch in every way. The trails were well-marked, the food was delicious, and the weather was perfect. (Nice job on the weather!)

Recovery from Miwok has gone surprisingly well and I’ve been enjoying my running this past week. Even though it’s time to look ahead and stay focused on my training, I’ll be looking back at this race for the answers every time I question just why I do this crazy thing.


  1. Amazing views, and a great race report. Cool when you can just trust your body and let it take you.

    Gotta love those overall downhill loop courses, huh?

  2. You wanted to break 12 hrs. Are you nuts? Is that how you set your goals? What happened with competetive girl from the posts before? OK, done yelling:) Ultrarunning IS fun! And I predicted your time and your position much better than you did, so next time why don't you just email me? Awesome strong run, Gretchen!

  3. Amazing job!!! Looks gorgeous.

  4. Nice race! 7th woman and a speedy time! I love the race report and all your pictures too. This really cracked me up: "I'm pretty sure it's all downhill"! I hope this means you plan on coming back to Miwok next year! Miwok is definitely a goal race for me and this just makes me want to run it more.

  5. Turi - Yeah, the downhill loop courses are pretty amazing. Seriously though, all downhill!!

    Olga - Aww, I knew someone would try to call me out on sandbagging. I should have guessed it would be you! :) But really, who would ever set a goal that was a full 2:47 faster than her previous best for the distance? That would have been idiotic. I mean ... right???

    Funderson - Thanks! Definitely gorgeous.

    John - This one will definitely be tough to beat, and I certainly suggest it as a goal race. I think I like the 100K distance!

  6. Great job, Gretchen. Great race report too.

  7. loving living vicariously through you while reading this fabulous race report. Reminds me of words by Kristin Armstrong I read recently that made me smile: "A race ready body is always fun to take for a spin!" you are primed and ready for anything! Congratulations on a stellar performance!

  8. Wow, great pictures and great race! I'm excited for you to be running so well and strong going into WS. Your last couple of posts have gotten me so excited about trail running - even around here. Good luck staying fast and strong!

  9. Sub-11 with pictures!!! Awesome. Nice job and great write up.

  10. YAAAAY!! Great report, Gretchen! I'm so happy for you, what an awesome experience. You kicked butt, and in such fine company. Simply awesome.

  11. Anne - Thank you!

    Sarah - Nice! Although, I picture Kristin Armstrong to have a much more race-ready body than me. ;) I'm feeling pretty good though, and I guess that's the whole sentiment behind that thought. It's certainly a nice thing to enjoy pushing myself.

    Pecwan - Aww, thanks! Trails are great running anywhere I think. Not as fast as roads, but sometimes narrow, twisty singletrack feels brilliantly fast, even if the watch disagrees. Have fun with it!

    Scott - Thanks. I learned from the best. (Ahem!)

    Paige - Yay! :) Thanks for the cheers. I think you just kicked butt in a race yourself. I need to go read your report now!

  12. You really should listen to me more often, you know - especially as your once and future pacer. I knew you were in way faster than 12-hour shape.

    I loved reading your report, and it was interesting to hear your thought process at various points and compare them to my own. Thanks for taking the time to put it together - I know things have been hectic for you.

    Congrats again on a great race, and it was wonderful as usual to see you there. Until next time!

  13. Donald - Yeah ... I guess I have to grant you "I told you so" rights on this one. But I'm glad it worked out that way. You and Olga can get together and plan my Western States goals, but just don't tell me what they are!! I don't need that kind of pressure. ;) Awesome seeing you out there, kid, truly.

  14. Donald, I think it's a great idea, email me soon:)

  15. Wow, Gretchen! Gorgeous photographs and a beautiful breakout run. Very Zen. Very "Kill the Buddha." You capture the spirit of joy so perfectly. Just get out there and run, dammit! Exactly what I needed to read! Congratulations on a great day.

    ...and, ps, if you haven't replaced that wedding band yet I highly recommend the wedding band tattoo. (My husband and I are so hip with our Celtic ring tats....)

  16. Amazing! Great to see everything come together for you. Nice when that happens on race day too. Congrats!

  17. Pam - You know, Andrew has suggested the ring tattoo a few times, but I'm just not into it. I think other people have tats that look great, but I just can't see myself getting one, even for this. Maybe I'm stuffy and old fashioned??? ;)

    Sarah - Thanks, Sarah! It totally came together this day. Thanks for reading!

  18. my favorite part "with only a little more than 20 miles to go". Only an ultra runner would say such a thing. that's "only" farther than I've run since 2008!! Awesome race, pics, everything...congrats...and good to see you briefly at Silver State.

  19. Love reading your race reports, also: very inspiring!

  20. Chris - Well, 20 miles was less than 1/3 of the race! Didn't seem like too much at the time. :)

    Joanne - Thanks for reading!