Monthly Archives: April 2012

Muir Woods Trail Marathon

April 14, 2012 (Envirosports)

Unforgettable.  Bounce around a trail marathon in Muir Woods, win a Chicken handbag  – then  stagger into the sea at Stinson.


I sneaked this marathon in. It  was close to home, in a beautiful place. Hard to resist even though I did the Grizzly Peak trail marathon last weekend. AND it worked well to have  dead taper this week (virtually no running)  as it was Spring Break for the kids. 

So I arrived at Stinson at  8am, feeling a little more  nervous than usual – knowing I might just fizzle and not be able to complete the thing.  I have done two marathons a week apart before  – but only a trail marathon followed by a road race,  not two trails. Part of me was genuinely interested to see what my body would do a scientific experiment possibly involving cruelty to an animal, namely me.  I set out to have a go but  promised I would call it quits if I  started hallucinating or crawling. Initially I relieved the tension by telling as many people as possible (some of them trying to get away from me,  just walking their dogs on the beach) that I had run a marathon last week so that I could be remembered for the bravery of my start rather than the saddness of my decline later…” Did you hear a girl fell asleep at mile 11″?..but was soon seduced by the friendly atmosphere and was glad I had come. I compared my morning’s caffeine consumption with some other runners (my  quadruple shot latte won) and was just joking  it might not be enough when I came upon a stash of energy drinks. I drank one of them too. Delicious! I was committed now. If I didn’t  do at least some kind of significant run I would not sleep or stop talking for days!

Runners start arriving to pick up racing bibs

I very much admire this running company Envirosports. In my mind the chief organiser Dave and his team strike a perfect balance between keeping things relaxed, fun, welcoming and supportive to first timers and those who intend to take it slow or are unsure how they will fare – and yet exude a sense of being professional, competitive and serious enough to attract some good runners and urge them to do their best. They are also mean enough to plot race courses that are lung poppingly challenging – and they enjoy laughing about it before they send you off to experience it!!  It is also a caring organisation. These guys have excellent aid stations and medical support. They start races late if there is a queue for the rest rooms and they take the trouble to introduce runners to each other if they spot a connection …like an Irish accent. You don’t feel alone very long if you arrive to  race with these guys as a solo runner.

Dave kicked off the event with his usual  lively talk and  – as is traditional for him – drew people from the crowd, made them stand on a picnic table while he told their story (this time it was a couple celebrating their wedding anniversary with their 40th race together) and then thanked them for coming along to lead us in ‘The Star Spangled Banner’. What is funny is that it  horrifies people for a minute but they always make a stab at it and of course as soon as they start the crowd joins in. Dave also works the crowd into a frenzy of excitement by showing the rubber chickens and chicken handbags given to first men and women respectively in each race distance. The crowd of c 300 runners then moves en masse down to the beach for the start. Everyone is happy and relaxed, strangers chatting to each other – lovely atmosphere.

Muir Woods Trail Marathon start ( I am front left and so full of caffeine I can't blink)

We had a funny start. Running uphill on sand is hard and I pushed hard to get it over with quickly and to ensure I would be one of the front runners as it is not long before the race hits single track and you don’t want to be caught behind slower people. I found myself right behind the leading man only to discover he didn’t know where to go  – and it is a little confusing at the very start – so I used up a lot of precious lung capacity shouting directions at him and laughing because he was a directionless ball of energy  running around like a headless chicken. Once I got him  across the parking lot and over a little bridge onto the main road he flew away, the rest was  as always a very clearly marked trail.

The race itself is mentally relaxing as you are nearly always on a long stretch with no turn offs to worry about. Physically  – not so relaxing. The first section, aptly named Steep Ravine is ludicrously pretty but indeed steeeeeeeeeeeeeep and even features the much loved ladder pictured here. Dave informs us that a local woman is able to run up it hands free. I was virtually breath free scrambling up it but used definately used two hands!

Ladder on Steep Ravine

As I got to the  Pantoll Rangers station at the top of Steep Ravine there were just four men ahead of me. I passed a party of 15 rather jovial hikers, some not in the first flush of youth, starting their descent of the ravine. I felt a little bad for them. I hoped their party spirit would survive standing aside for the  295 runners I could see in their near future.

My future on the contrary was positively rosy as Pantoll  signals the start of a glorious and prolonged swoop downhill for c3 miles on the Dipsea trail to meet  the Muir Woods road. A good time to take in fuel like an energy gel as what goes down must go up. Once on the flat, marathoners wind uphill on a four mile out and back. The lower sections are lush forest, in places extremely muddy and generously endowed with horse poo. As you progress to the top the vegetation becomes exposed hillside grass. It was a happy moment turning back from the aid station at the top of it,  good not onlyto be going downhill but also to be plunging back to the  deep dark forest. This turn around  also gives you a chance to see how many runners are ahead of you and to assess how fresh the meat is creeping up behind and threatening to shatter your dreams of chicken handbag ownership. There was just one lady maybe a  quarter of a mile behind me – this was a fun and smiley looking Michelle who was to be the  second lady and we were to keep those places for the duration.

On the way down I ate another gel as I knew the hideousness that is the steep crawl up the infamous  Heather Cut Off lay ahead. So up the Heather Cut Off I went, starting to pass an increasing number of half marathoners and was  – as often – struck and charmed by the sincere generosity of spirit that leads so very many people to cheer you on as you do so. This is very Californian and very lovely. The odd person doesn’t want to be overtaken or doesn’t understand that is what is supposed to happen and makes the mistake of speeding up ahead of you, running beyond what is right for them then inevitably  flings themselves to one side in a dead stop – and you know you have messed up the hill for them.  Although I hate to admit I think I would probably have a  natural tendancies towards the second. Marathoners know they have to deal with  The Heather Cut Off twice as they loop around it a second time. So the best you can do is pull your hat down, think of the few steps ahead of you rather that the entire slope, get yourself into a good breathing rythmn (I favor the beat of ‘Ompa pa Ompa pa’ breathing  out on the Oms and in on the pa pas) and start looking out for little features to look forward to and check off the next time around. Two little mushrooms, a particular flower, a picnic table, people to recall in a particular place and wonder where they have got to when you return but they have gone, a tree shaded bit etc. The second tree shaded section is  celebration time as you are near the top.

Reaching the aid station you gaze lovingly at the ‘to finish’ sign the half marthoners are heading for on the left and instead turn right, tank up with fluids and sail down that long Dipsea trail back to the Muir Woods road again- and again stuff in a gel pack in preparation for Heather. The first time you cross this road it is empty, by this time it is lined with cars as people are literally queuing for miles along this road and walking back to the main entrance to Muir Woods. Dave always tells people they will know when they are near the ‘offical’ entrance to Muir Woods as they will start to see people in forest in high heels. I laughed to myself as I crossed the road just before a party of three ladies in high heels. Doubtless they were horrified by my appearance  – but I hoped my feet would be more comfortable than theirs  that night.

So back up Heather you trot. She is just as nasty as she was before and now you are more tired. One huge consolation though, the wind had got up and there was a wonderful cooling breeze. Enjoying this I promised myself I would continue the cooling process by running into the ocean I could see way down below if I survived the entire race. Reaching the top of Heather and heading back down Dipsea to home should be a great feeling. It IS  preferable to being on Heather but I just regretted that my body wasn’t feeling more comfortable so I could enjoy it more, but my side and calves were cramping and it was hard to do much else apart from will it to be over..and soon it was.

Self, chicken and absolutely delightful second lady Michelle Lorch

I was surprised to learn after I was second place in the marathon overall, I’m not sure where I overtook the other lead men, possibly at the Cardiac aid station at the top of Heather. The first man was in no danger of my doing so. He had been in possession of  his rubber chicken and wine for a good 20 mins before I arrived, his time 3.55 …which is pretty nippy. My time was 4.14.59 and I was delighted with that. I had intended to run it not race it and if I had pushed it any further I may well have hit a wall at some point. I had kept it comfortable and manageable for myself. More importantly, I was chicken rich. I had promised my friend Lucy (who keeps chickens in Ireland) that I would send her the bag if ever I won another. So she will be in the post on Monday.

As promised I ran straight down to the beach and plunged into the sea.

Thank you Enviropsorts!

PS –   delighted to report the chicken bag ‘Betty’ has now arrived in Ireland and is looking pretty perky.  Lucy sent this photo :0)

Betty basks in Irish sunshine


Grizzly Peak Marathon

Oops. Performance more grizzly than peak. Saturday 7th April 2012, Tilden Park, Berkeley

Melanie, Myself and Melanie's poorly ankle

Coastal Trail’s Grizzly Peak marathon shirts are awesome. They have a bear going grrr on them. I’ve always wanted one and it was an adventure earning it. This is a gorgeous course. It is challenging with 5,700 ft elevation in the marathon but the route is brilliantly designed to help you get there and back  alive. With a complexity of twists and turns and opportunities to play chicken (road crossings), the route ‘rollercoasters’  more than I expected from the elevation maps and mixes types of terrain so you are never bored, never slogging away at an unforgiving and endless mountainside, but mentally occupied and  keen to see what is over a crest or around the corner. Above all the views are  unbeatable from dramatic panoramas of San Francisco/The Golden Gate bridge and Marin to stunningly pretty hillside and beautiful deep dark glorious forest. When you get to the half way point your head is full of highlights to look forward to on your second loop –  the finest praise you can give a  repeating course.

Good news

Before this year’s race the female course record was 5 hrs 20 . We needed someone to to strike a blow for womankind by reducing the disparity between this and the mens record of 4hrs 10 . And  hurrah for Maria Monks who smashed it down to  4 hrs 35. (Congrats also to speedy Chris Randall who moved our disparity goal posts setting a new male record at 3hrs 52). Second, third and forth ladies, myself, Lisa Hughey and Melanie Mecham also gave it a little dent with our times of 4hrs 42,  5hrs o1 and 5hrs 12  respectively.

Bad news

I did not do anything to improve the fairer sex’s reputation for navigation.  With not entirely uncharacteristic lousy luck (or as the race organizer Wendell would prefer me to phrase it sheer  incompetence once again)  I missed one liiiiiiittle super critical turn and helped myself to a spot of extra mileage and uppy bits. (See details of my race below-  including advice on how not to run this marathon)

Top Ten observations

Ah - how refreshing

1) Ladies often enjoy the sight of a queue for the gents and not for the ladies at these events. An hour before the start it was so here  – but the pressure on the facilities for the both sexes was too great as we neared start time. There were a  few distressed people still in line as the runners passed the toilets at the start of the race.  Be prepared to cut your losses and find a natural solution ladies.
2) This course is tough but beautiful and do-able.  Don’t be scared of the elevation or the long run times. There isn’t an inch of it you won’t enjoy thinking back to. Right up until the point when I messed up I was having a lovely time.

3)  Wear shoes with good grip and tie them tight. Think  – will this  part company from me in thick mud? Don’t waste too much time picking a dry path  through mud at the beginning. You are going in eventually.

4) The course IS very well marked  – and doing so is a tough old job. However, I was not alone in messing up and the two danger spots appear to be around the aid station on the marathon return – just before it and just after it. Before it, you complete a glorious downhill to reach road and a parking bay. Ahead you see an uphill  fire road. Don’t go up it. Your view may be obscured by parked cars/hikers milling around but you should see a fluttering of pink ribbon urging you to round the corner on the road to find the aid station. Then as you travel uphill after the aid station expect a sharp left, taking you off the main trail and onto singletrack. You may be distracted if there are a lot of runners coming downhill on your left or if you are an air head like me. NB: Although you have just passed a sign saying ‘Marathon Return’ don’t expect all the signs facing you on the return to say ‘return’.

5) Messing up is ok.

6) Don’t let messing up spoil your run.

7)  The shirt has a growly bear on it and is awesome.

8) There isn’t a physical turn around feature like a cone at the start/finish line. Don’t waste time staggering around asking people where it is, just run away.

9) There are at least 26.01 miles of this route I followed flawlessly

10) I want to do it again.

Learn now not to run this marathon. 

So I messed up at the second of the ‘danger spots’ mentioned above’. However, my cautionary tale involves more than just missing a turn. Read and weep/laugh/learn. So you pass an aid station bearing the joyous sign ‘marathon return’. Soon after there is a sharp left …I shot by this and proceeded up a challenging climb.  The race is effectively a circle with some  parts of the return sharing the outbound trail and others deviating from it  – so  it wasn’t a red flag that this was new ground. However, you should really look out for the confirmation pink ribbon which just says …yup you are on the correct path. I often do look out for these ..and rejoice when I see them …but I guess I let a lot of trail go without worrying about it because my mind was occupied with the climb. Also,although I am often running alone, here there was at least one runner coming up behind me. (rule # 1 never follow me. rule # 2 never assume anyone else knows what they are doing). Then I came to a fork in the path with coastal trail markings in both directions. mmmmmm. Effectively I had come to Gillespie Road. By sheer fluke I had come to a point where the trail I was on met a trail the actual route used both out and back – and I recognised it from the outbound trip. Just then  two runners arrived coming downhill on the left fork. (These were the lead marathon/ultra men – overachievers who could both run fast AND follow directions)

It is a great idea to turn on to Lupine trail after the Big Springs aid station


Now for some truly rotten luck. 

Looking back I guess when I  posed the question ‘marathon return?’ they thought I was asking if that is what they were doing. ‘Yes’ they said this was marathon return and ‘yes’…to them an entirely separate point, thinking they were speaking to someone who was  still crawling up the hill outbound on the marathon…yes we should now head up this hill. Let’s add a cherry to the cupcake now and have man who had been behind me catch up and  – with the best intentions – completely erroneously  recall there was an extra out and back bit on the marathon return so off we went up the hill in search of it. I thought it odd I hadn’t notice it on the map. If only I had realized at this point we  could have turned around and headed straight back downhill to the Big Springs aid station relatively quickly. Instead I traveled up Gillespie Rd, over Vollmer Peak and was half way down Lupine when it became clear there was no extra out and back. And oh dear here were all the  people that had been behind me in the marathon coming in the opposite direction. The man behind me vanished, he must have realized and turned around with them or jumped off the peak in horror at our mistake – but I pushed on to return to that aid station to be sure I knew what I was doing still. The nice lady calmed me down and sent me back for another go at finding my way back to the start.


Here’s the thing.Right up to the point where I messed up I was having a lovely time. And by the end I was having fun again.

It was a little sad when I realised the enormity of my mistake. Off my head went on a moaning and gnashing of teeth exercise (much along the lines of the bear on the race shirt) until my body joined in and started to fall apart too – my calves kept flashing those horrid little spasms threatening to cramp, my back was aching. It is amazing how the mental and physical work together (or besiege each other) in long distance running – especially when you are running alone. After a while the  car insurance phrase ‘accident forgiveness’ popped into my mind. I  stood still for a minute, literally slapped myself on the head and just thought I am going to be happy with where I am now.  I’m here to have fun, enjoy the run.  Also just appreciate this mistake is a long cut not a shortcut. Like many runners I have done the latter before (we all do it unintentionally of course) and have always said nothing is worse, so this is better. I must have looked nuts.

Then things brightened, I met two greyhounds who were so cute I stopped and patted them (awesome doggies always gives me a boost) and I happened to run by a couple of the nicest runners ever. The first, the wonderful Jim McCaffrey, was running bare chested with sweaty long hair streaming down his back. He was saying ‘hello, good morning, what a lovely day’ to everyone and greeted me warmly as I approached. He was infectiously buoyant. Later I told  his partner he put me in mind of  Jesus of Nazareth . She  said he is always the same  :0).

The wonderful Jim McCaffrey

Hoover - first dog

A little later I came across ‘Mr Moonlight’  (Chris Jones who was running with a shirt on about a moonlight race). He was such fun and so clearly appreciating just living in the moment he also lifted my spirits. I loved the rest of the run then and very much enjoyed the last few miles scampering downhill, sploshing in mud and keeping my eyes peeled for what was for many people the single most beautiful sight of the day….the toilets. Once you see them you are home.

After the race Mr Moonlight  produced his dog Hoover who hoovered up a few snacks and posed for this photo as ‘first dog’ wearing my medal. As I write this Chris is running a half marathon. Not a man for tapering!

What will surprise people who know me is  I was not the most  accident prone person on the day. To my knowledge one person was bitten by a dog, Ms Carrie Martin appeared to have broken two fingers…ahhh they looked nasty, and – very much in a style I can relate to – Ms Melanie Mecham waited until she was at the half way turning around point,  maximizing the size of her audience and selecting the only truly flat and completely safe surface on the course to  twist her ankle. Melanie also had a bit of a slipsies on the navigation. Despite her injury she headed back out again to make up her mileage. We are pictured in the first photo together above, kindred spirits.

Thank you Coastal Trails!

With Mr Moonlight at the finish