April 14, 2012 (Envirosports)
Unforgettable. Bounce around a trail marathon in Muir Woods, win a Chicken handbag – then stagger into the sea at Stinson.
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 ..like a scientific experiment ..one 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!
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.
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!
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.
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)