Author Archives: pennymacphail

Cinderella Marathon 12th May 2012

Once upon a time I attempted this Cinderella marathon before. It was not a fairytale ending. I did not go to the ball.

Last time- the cautionary tale:

When two rather plump hikers with a large fluffy dog affably pulled themselves to one side of the forest path to let me pass, they unwittingly concealed a sharp left turn fork in the trail. I  shot up a  horrendously steep section (let’s hear it for the Starflower trail) and continued unaware I was in error until I hit pink  ribbon. The brief moment of joy at the confirmation I was still on track was followed by an awful recognition. This is the top of a long fire road hill. And I am supposed to be going up it later, not down it now. I made the best repairs I could, I tried to retrace my steps but couldn’t be sure which of a cluster of trails I had emerged from so  I ran all the way down the fire road and back up again. As a consolation prize I found my friend David Schoenberg at the bottom and was cheered by his laughter at my misfortune. The really embarrassing thing is that I missed that turn on the second loop of a repeating course. The first time around I had had adult supervision, I was with David. We ran to the finish together and in the race autopsy it was clear that I couldn’t have a  finisher’s medal as I hadn’t done the right course and I was low on overall mileage. But in my mind it counts as a honorary marathon. Garmin information is not completely accurate in deep forest, but the fact that mine reported 11,000 ft of climbing  rather than the expected 5,oooft may hold the clue to why my calf muscles were moving around by themselves that night.

Cinderella II

The  gentleman in grey shorts must have been pleased with these official photos of the start.

So back I came. Hello Cinders …we meet again. Following last weeks’ disastrous late start at the  Western Pacific Marathon in Fremont, I arrived ludicrously early and had time to stroll around sampling the delights of all the different restroom facilities. At the first, the portaloo (full marks, nice and clean) I met my neighbor Johnathon Sonett from San Anselmo who was also doing the marathon. At the second, the permanent toilet at the park (quite beyond belief…people were leaving their cell phones outside encase they dissolved in the fumes) I met Sham and Stephanie. Recuperating from the restrooms, we entertained ourselves making a smiley face out of  Stephanie’s leggings and water bottles (see pic).

Stephanie’s smiley faces

Not only was Stephanie was wearing what I call  ‘creepy feet’ (shoes that look like feet and offer minimal protection), she was actually considering leaving them behind and tackling the half marathon course in completely bare feet. She is a young  mother. Has she not  trodden on enough pieces of lego to know better?  She insisted it could be done. I know she completed the race but couldn’t see a finish photo to check her feet…I wonder.

At the start. ooh I  can see my neighbour John and my hat

My feet were also causing me concern. My shoes offered plenty of  support  – I like as much puff and gel as  possible between myself and mother earth – but they looked kinda freaky. I have strangely wide feet  (circular like an elephant’s), misshapen toes of inappropriate lengths (following three toe surgeries) and a bunion the size of New Jersey.  So I accept that I don’t get to pick shoes  by appearance.  However, my friend Charles from the Marin Running Company in San Anselmo had forced me to sink to new depths when he pulled the cash out of my hand and kicked me out of his shop with the only pair of shoes in the place that I could wear…and they were these Nikes,  completely monotone in a disturbing light  turquoise  –  a  color I have always loathed. Joking aside, Charles always goes to a great deal of trouble not just matching runners to shoes but helping them to make their relationship work with various tricks. This time he had the novel idea of leaving the bottom part of  my right shoe unlaced  – giving New Jersey wiggle room but keeping the ankle secure. It didn’t help with the colour but I have to say I bought these shoes the day before the race and my feet were so comfortable they thought they’d spent race morning in a spa. On that colour though,some runners were helping me in my quest to consider then light blue when it was pointed out that they looked like Cinderella’s glass slippers  – which made me laugh out loud. I wondered now if I would retain both of them for the duration of the run. I have failed to do so before in mud.

With Sham, resplendent in my glass slippers

The race started with lovely news  as Wendell the race organiser and his wife were celebrating the birth of their two week old  son. Then the start sounded and 50k, marathon and half marathon runners streamed into the forest.  It is an interesting start. As ususal on trail, you do need to get to the front if you are a competitve  runner as the path funnels down to single track fairly quickly and you don’t want to be trapped behind people slower than yourself. The immediate trail has some extremely steep sections but it is worth busting  lungs to get over them in a good position  as it soon  flattens out so there is plenty of time to recover your breath. And off you go on a glorious rollercoaster ride in deep redwood forest. Actually very like a fairytale…but definately the Grimms original version with a smattering of violence and suffering in it. During the first mile I was overtaken by a pretty blonde-haired lady in a blue top.  I later found out this was Andrea Warburton. I was pleased to have a lady to run with but she disappeared into the distance and I could see her darting through the trees ahead like a bluebird.  I knew better than to chase her. I have learned from experience to run at my own pace …my plan is to take it beyond comfort into one notch of suffering and keep it there with as little whimpering as possible. Many people are much better on uphill than me and though I have improved by watching the departing heels of ladies like Caren Spore on these very trails and then tried to emulate them in training (to do so properly would require surgical insertion of some form of motor) I know that if  I push myself to stick with  them early in a race  I am in danger of fizzling. Aren’t I Caren lol. I also had to remember I had raced last weekend too  – even more reason to just guard long term energy etc. So I plodded on waiting to hit a comfort level that never quite arrived. It is so beautiful, I wished I wasn’t so tired.

I saw  Bluebird again at the 8 mile aid station. This is where you emerge blinking from the delicious cool forest and face the ‘ant under a microscope’ feel of a three mile crawl uphill on fire road. I passed her at the turn around as she wasn’t carrying water and had to stop to drink etc. but it wasn’t long before she stormed by me on the hill. Shortly after it seemed  like every other runner in California did the same. I had eaten a gel already to prepare for  this hill but really faced a terrible lack of energy. I know the best way for me to  get up this kind of slope  is  little steps inching up on my toes but I found I could only do short bursts of those before resorting  to power-walking with long strides, then  regular walking when I tired of that. The little steps were also causing some mild cramping in my calves so I walked that off every time it twinged. I have had calf cramps later on in races recently but it was a tad grim to have them so soon. I was pleased I  had just invested in a pair of calf supports  in Charles’ shop and hoped they would work. So far they just made me feel very hot.

So Bluebird  was off on the horizon, it was oddly comforting to see her go,  it was clear this was going to be a survival effort not a race for me. I laughed to find myself sort of cheering her’s not a great sign when even you are not rooting for yourself.  But I do like the ladies to perform well.  I forced myself to eat another gel  and chipped away slowly upwards. The vultures were circling in my head.

Once you are at the top of that hill there is some rolling up and down in the forest before you plunge back down to the start area. It is a terrific technical surge down in parts and I thought how wonderful it would feel to be doing that heading to the finish. So half marathoners stop here and marathoners and 50k runners repeat the loop. Until you get there you don’t know which course many runners are doing and I was alarmed to see Bluebird  dart into the finishing tunnel ahead of me. I lumbered passed and headed back up the trail. At this point I felt quite nauseous and dizzy. I genuinely wondered if I should call it a day. I had already eaten three gels now and still wasn’t feeling a foundation of energy. Perhaps my body wouldn’t cope, it certainly didn’t feel good. I decided to slow it down and see if I felt better by the first aid station.  Just then Bluebird  appeared looking all fresh – she was on the marathon but had just stopped at the aid station and had gone down the finish tunnel by mistake. That encouraged me. I  staggered up the steep bits behind her. Another runner (Nathan) came by and the two of them were ahead of me for a long time.  I could see glimpses of them through the trees  – always well ahead but not disappearing so I felt I had some company.

Nathan VanNortwick

Again I ate even more gel and waited for positive effects but it was like they were duds. I was really suffering and oddly my right thumb holding my water bottle had gone totally numb (never had that before) so I continued with a eerie sense that all was not good. I’ve never had a race where I spent so much time thinking about how tired I was, I just couldn’t get my mind on other things. I kept trying to squeeze the thought that 26.2 miles is a heck of a long way out of my head too. Not helpful. After a while I turned a corner and to my surprise came across Bluebird. We were starting the down hill section leading to the aid station and the base of THE hill and I went ahead, it made sense as I know I  tend to go fast downhill but I wasn’t expecting to catch up with her again. We had a friendly exchange, and both groaned about how tired we were feeling. I told her I was ‘on fumes’ and she said she felt the same but I doubted she did and wondered if she might soon stumble over my unconscious carcass and think …wow that girl really was on fumes. I told her she would get me on the hill and she told me I would get her back on the downhill after it. I doubted it. I was thinking of a rescue team removing me from that hill.

I then also passed Nathan on that downhill. As I did so I commented on how wet he was. I asked him if he had stopped for a swim somewhere. Looking back this may have been a little rude (sorry Nathan) as the guy was just sweating a lot, but I was  actually thinking he may have thrown water over himself at an aid station (I have done so myself before, sometimes deliberately, sometimes trying to drink the stuff).  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a  runner so drenched and you will probably need to be a runner on a hot day to understand how much that state is to be admired. My own body was clearly retaining all H2O for critical organs and of course the need to keep my incessantly streaming nose going strong. That thing needs a hose pipe ban!.

I  turned around at the aid station, filled up my water carrier with sports drink, considered eating everything there ..fingers hovering over bits of potato and banana …and rejecting it all (feeling a little rude to the hosts….sorry it all looks lovely its just that I would throw up if I ate any of the things you have so thoughtfully displayed here)  and I just knew gel was the only thing I could keep down. Good news, I’d snagged a raspberry one ….they are quite invigorating! I’ve never eaten so many gels in a race before, I was begining to lose count. (Normally I bring and eat three, I have my own little entertainment going wondering which of the three flavours it will be when I eat them …always secretly hoping for chocolate espresso.) I wondered if my calorie intake might exceed the output.  And I  headed towards the hill.

Now something inside me changed.  In a funny way I felt good about going up this hill on the second loop, because I remembered all too well the horrid feeling of running down it knowing I had gone wrong and was out of the race before. I thought of  David and made a note to email him after the race. He is injured this year as I was last year and I am looking forward to running with him in the fall. I smiled remembering  his horror when he understood where I had gone wrong. It had helped that someone was sorry for me. Gradually the  gels gathered together in my stomach and decided to get the party started. I pulled my hat down, put some music on and thought lets just chip away and see how much I can get done before Nathan and  Bluebird swoop by me.

The heat was absolutely intense by now and it was a tough old climb. It is a sneaky hill as it keeps saying: ‘well done, welcome to my summit….step forward to refresh your drink at the aid station round the corner ……..PSYCH!!!’s a really steep bit  instead..ha ha haaaa’. I was surprised when I had been on the hill for a while that I hadn’t been overtaken. Three thoughts kept me going:

1) How I regretted mentioning Nathan swimming. I kept dreaming of jumping in a pool.

2) I wasn’t sure if I was drinking too much water or if I was dehydrated. I wasn’t thirsty but I kept wanting to drink. I had perhaps drunk too much too quickly as I kept getting flashes of a cold chill.

3) Should I  look back down the hill to see where they are? I was worried that as soon as they passed me I might find it more difficult to keep going as I suspected they would completely disappear out of view, so I was getting myself ready for it mentally. I was also wondering if by any chance they weren’t right on my shoulder  – but I knew that if I looked and saw that for sure it would also be more difficult to keep going. Some of those shady patches looked tempting for a bit of standing still. In the end I promised myself I could look if I got to a particular spot ahead and kept moving the spot when I got to it. I never looked back.

I got to the final aid station and fell on the sports drink. I actually filled the water carrier, ran off, stopped and drank half of it and ran back to fill up again. I was getting significant cold flashes down my arms and back now – I decided it was  just the effect of the sun and I needed to drink more.  I was now worried about the two behind me, I had noticed neither of them had hats or a water carrier and that hill was on fire. Still, they might be just round the corner……go back and save them or nip ahead….mmmm… so I headed off, actaully still not feeling great but so happy to be on the last and mainly downhill stretch.

When I got to the very last part I stopped and turned to look behind me. I thought I might  see  Bluebird and I didn’t want to run in just ahead of her, I thought we could finish together because  she had been a strong lead for most of the race and had really helped to keep me going, but there was no sign of anyone and I ran out of the forest into the clearing where the finishers tunnel lay ahead. An amazing feeling to have done it. I have honestly never been so close to quitting a race, I have never felt so bad and have a recovery late on (normally I feel steadily worse towards the end). How wonderful to challenge yourself  and come through. Nathan came in next, then Andrea and after her Rebecca. A great day for the ladies, we had all broken the female course record (held by Rebecca herself).  Nathan and I weren’t a million miles away from the male one either. It turned out that there was no-one in the marathon ahead of me (it has to be said it was an extremely small field compared to the half marathon runners, and of course many people were doing the longer 50K) but it was cool to find out  I was actually the overall marathon winner. I noticed in the results  there were some amazing older runners in there. How many of the four of  us running today would accomplish that? I felt about 70 yr old at times, one male finisher actually was…and not hanging about either.

With Nathan and his friends at the end. Thank you Jen for the photo!

Andrea, Rebecca and myself. Three ladies in the top four.

Name City

Bib No


Age Group




Penny Macphail San Anselmo CA



1 F 40-49




Nathan Vannortwick Oakland CA



1 M 20-29




Andrea Warburton Lodi CA



1 F 30-39




Rebecca Yi Fremont CA



2 F 30-39



I checked the results to see if my neighbour John had triumphed (he has battled with injury and had to pull out of a marathon recently which is gutting) and he certainly had.  I absolutely love his finishing photo.

John at finish – I love this picture, just says it all

As always in my life, a position of confidence and competence is never long lived…

I was having some trouble breathing and feeling dizzy at the finish and sat down at the Coastal Trails aid station picnic tables, threw my soaking hanky and salt rimmed hat on the bench and held my head down to my knees. There may have been saliva streaming out of my mouth too as I was feeling quite nauseous. Very gradually I became aware that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. There had been a double booking on that picnic area and the Coastal Trails event area was now further down the meadow. I was surrounded by  ladies in their Sunday best who were smoothing linen table clothes out and setting up vases of flowers and fine china for a graduation ceremony.Fortunately one of them (an 80 year old) was a keen runner. She patted my back comfortingly while also firmly lifting me  up,  passing  me my hat with the very ends of the fingernails and pointing out where I should go.

Picnic tables at the start- I was a little slow to understand they were turning into a graduation party when I finished

So I located the actual Coastal Trails recovery area and caught up with some other runners.  Stephen Itano had done the Western Pacific Marathon last week too, and though he stuck at the Marathon he was attempting the 50K  (love it, another person who makes me look normal). Wendell did his little prize ceremony – and I strode away with two medals jangling around my neck  (finishing and overall winner)….a much jollier scene than the year I limped away with  none. As always, I wore all bling (medals) on the drive home and was feeling pretty good about my morning when I decided to slather some Icy Heat balm onto my back as it was aching. At the finish I was alarmed to find my  iphone  capable of  nothing other than displaying an orange temperature alert triangle (it recovered after a while thank goodness). Perhaps a more intelligent person less caught up in the glory of finishing a marathon might have wondered what effect extreme temperature might have on Icy Heat balm. I held the pot between my thighs and unscrewed the lid with one hand while driving away from the park. My intention was then to scoop the thick balm out with my fingers and smear it on my back. What a surprise it was to have liquid Icy Heat slosh out of the jar like water and completely drench my lap…immediately turning solid again on contact with my body. So here we have little Miss Two Medals, breathlessly concentrating on the road,  genitals on fire, covered in glutenous wax. I decided not to stop for coffee on the way home. Thanks for another memorable day Coastal Trails

Sadly these runners turned back into a dog and a horse just inches before they reached the finish


Western Pacific Marathon, 5th May 2012

Featuring PB silliest race start and finish & Northern Irish bumble bee

Fashionably late, Western Pacific Marathon May 5th 2012

The sat.nav. in the car assured me I would get to the race by  7am. Not ideal (I had taken a little detour by mistake ahem) but ok for a 7.30am  start. Then I joined the jam outside the Quarry Recreation Centre. Cars were  backed up in two directions, sloooooooooooowly funneling into the park entrance – and each stopping at a booth to pay for parking. I didn’t know the area well enough to try to park elsewhere and jog to the start as I saw other people do …so I sat there, gazing forlornly at  the giant inflatable start funnel bobbing around on the horizon.

12 mins to start time aahhhh

Most of the cars were full of competent, calm people  – arriving in good time for  the half marathon and other races which started 30 mins later. There was no saving  one frantic little marathon hopeful.  I parked with literally 5 mins to go,  ran to pick up my race bib and chip and lumbered off to the toilets where a sympathetic line of half marathoners took mercy on me and let me go ahead of them. In the background the tannoy reached an excited pitch asking if everyone was ready ‘Yes’ the crowd cheered, ‘No’ I whimpered.  As the race started I still had to tackle the fiddly business of  attaching the timing chip strip to my shoe.  I finally got it done, clambered over bunting to get into the now deserted  race start funnel and careered through it painfully conscious of how comical I must look – a disheveled, panicked idiot. I was  holding my Garmin in my teeth, stuffing the course map down my top, juggling my ipod and  hanky while trying to detangle my headphones ….after a few minutes of running they had snarled into the tightest knot I have ever encountered.

With Chris Jones at finish, just the first of his marathons this weekend

There are two major benefits of starting like this and one drawback. On the plus side you have your own little send off (I received a special little round of cheers) and then you are so  insulated with gratitude to have made it and mortification to have caused a public spectacle you don’t feel the first few miles at all. In this case my mind was also fully occupied with the process of picking away at headphones wires.  I was lucky it was a flat fire road/path race. If it had been a trail on single track I would have been in the soup. On the negative side, the luck of the Irish will always ensure that if I start a race late my chip will not work.

I passed my friend Chris Jones and waved my knotted headphones at him. We had the most typical runners’ conversation in the world. I asked after his ankle injury. He asked after my back. I warned him not to push it to hard and risk damaging that ankle, and he warned me about my back. Then off we went to mess up our ankles and backs  by running a marathon on them. The difference between us is that 5.30am the next morning Chris would be treating his ankle to the OC Marathon. I love it when people make me look normal.

When I caught up to John (red shirt) and Russell (white shirt)  I fell into stride with them and we ran much of the distance to the 13 mile turn around point together. It was funny they were comfortable at the same speed because I was struck by how comically different their running styles were as I approached them. Russell is what I call a Darth Vader runner – they sort of glide along close to the ground hardly lifting their feet while John is one of the bounciest runners I have ever seen, he lifts his heel higher than his knee with every step, often close to hitting his thigh -I guess Russell would need to see a rattle snake to achieve that height. No style is right or wrong of course – each to his own. In the picture here I am catching up to them. In the end this is the order we finished in. John got frisky around mile 17 and breezed so far ahead he was able to wave at us from the other side of lake. Russell got a  second wind around mile 24 and stormed by him to strong finish in 5th place.  (John and I believe he deployed the magical powers of his mesmorizing bright orange shoes.) Our times were 3.19.57, 3.19.29 and 3.19.58 respectively. Kinda sweet.

Mr Bumble Bee

Oi wait for me…

They were great guys and we had a few laughs and adventures on the way. At one point we jogged up behind a man dressed entirely in yellow and black  and considered making bee  buzzing noises as we passed by, but he looked like he was suffering a bit so we just ran up to him and told him we thought he looked like a bumble bee. As soon as he laughed I had my suspicions and when he spoke ‘me stomach’s killin me’ I realised he was from Northern Ireland like myself (from Newcastle, close to my hometown Bangor) We high fived and cheered for Newcastle/Bangor  every time we passed after that.

I had worried I would find this course dull. Flat stuff by a quarry does sound grim. However, the place was really interesting. The quarry was filled with water in some places and marshland in others, the path crossed a few bridges and dipped under more so there was some variety and lots of things to look at – dog walkers, cyclists, squirrels, ducks and other birds. Above all,  the set up of the turn around aid station just stole the show for me. It was at the very end of a long spit of walkway, gorgeous marshland stretched off for miles on either side. The station itself was a burst of color on the horizon and as you ran towards it and the smiling volunteers manning it you couldn’t help feel a little elated. The weather added to the special atmosphere here too. There was no shelter on this stretch and the sun was bright and hot  – but there was the most  glorious cool breeze. The combination just made my skin feel like silk. Truly memorable.

With John at the finish

The marathon return retraced our steps. There were  buoyant exchanges  with inbound and outbound marathoners greeting each other, I looked out for Chris and Mr Bumble Bee and was of course interested to see if there were any females in front of me or sneaking up behind me. There actually weren’t  any ladies ahead or very close to me which takes away the thrill of competition but does allow you to relax and run in your comfort zone -and  considering my back problems that  is what I am supposed to be doing! We  soon reached a bigger field of runners as we met with the half marathoners. It was a welcome mental lift to have lots of people to watch but at times hard to get comfortable in your stride as you have to keep weaving around people.

Let’s hear it for Nakia’s knees

Around mile 21 the half marathoners sail off downhill to the finish and he marathoners are sent as if in disgrace on a punishing little  two mile detour along a straight, seemingly unending and fairly featureless lake side path. I looked at the mile 22 sign beside me and eyed the back of the mile 24 one across the track…I felt on the whole it might be more fun to fast forward the next little section of my life…and indeed these were the toughest two miles for most of us. I was praying to see the people I knew were ahead of me coming back towards the finish …you know you need body count coming back  before it is possible for you to get to the turnaround.  Eventually I saw the leading man, Doug.. yay. He looked very strong, so strong indeed I told him later  I considered tripping him up – but he said he was really suffering at that point. I also saw Nakia Baird who was to come in 4th man at all these little interactions. He certainly deserves an honorable mention as I later found out he has had 4 knee I took a photo of them (see pic). The option of cutting out running has not yet occurred to him! It was so  great to see John and Russell, both looking comfortable and determined, Russell  just getting ready to unleash his last hurrah. I took a sports drink at the mile 23 aid station and attempted to stagger around the turn around cone while consuming it and promptly  threw it into my eye (unless I stop I am just hopeless with those paper cups) so I headed off on the return winking vigorously at the people coming up behind me and trying to preserve my contact lens. I normally carry a spare contact lens in the pocket of my water bottle. When I went to take a sip of water at mile 5 I realised both water and lens were sitting on my car.

The finish was great, the course swoops down and around paths leading by an artificial beach and you can see the colorful finishers’ tunnel and aid area ready to welcome you home. I especially like that the course returns on a different path to the start route. I was really on fumes at this point and my back was very sore, I kept my eyes on John’s red shirt (still bouncing up and down in a lively fashion)  a good  way ahead of me …a friendly back if not face to lead me home like a harbor light. On the final turn John was out of view but I smiled when I heard a little  cheer and announcement as he crossed the line.

Now at this point I  have to admit I started anticipating the slightly childish but very human joy to be had in  finishing a marathon as the first lady. I have been fortunate to have the experience before and they do sometimes make a bit of a fuss of you. So though I knew my family would not be there,  I crossed the line ready to perhaps wave and don an ‘oh it was nothing’  expression while savoring a tender moment of personal pride in response to strangers cheering. And then I  shot through the funnel to complete silence. It was so silent I wondered if I may have taken a wrong turn until a smiling lady greeted me and we started sorting out my medal. When she realised I was the first lady in the full marathon she headed off towards  the tannoy operator to  insist that  he made an announcement. A few minutes later he did so but unfortunately ended with ‘congratulations first lady MELANIE SOANDSO.’  So here was the silliest finish in my running career. A couple of people high fived me and said ‘well done Melanie’… you can’t really not respond to a high five but in doing so you are kind of agreeing that your name is Melanie. Simultaneously  I heard John’s voice saying..’.I thought you said you were called Penny?’ And ahead of me I could see the  smiling lady returning with a ‘ THAT’s better’ expression on her face ………….and I’m think oh dear, how am I going to break it to her … It suddenly also seemed hilarious that we all had our names written on our chests in block capitals. It was hysterical. Bless her, off she went striding  purposely back towards the tannoy.

In the end it emerged that this company  has  a policy of only using the gun start time for the first three male and female runners home  for each event (its probably a common thing and it does make sense). So  I needn’t have bothered struggling to put the chip thing on.  It did turn out there was a problem with the  chip technology- just covering a series of numbers including mine – how typical of me ….see  luck of Irish rule at top of this blog. This problem also scrambled names – hence the Melanie. To be honest I thought John was called Brian for some reason, I started calling him John because that is what is written on his bib in the photos….and now see  he  is listed in the results as David. I wonder.

Overall I was delighted that I did this event, I was genuinely surprised at the beauty of the course …and the people were wonderful, runners and organizers. I think I’ve won a pair of shoes. The next humiliation will be when they have to tell me they don’t have any wide enough to cope with my  huge bunions.

Thank you Brazen Racing!

with Russell and Doug (first man home) at finish

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

Oakland Marathon 25th March 2012

Oakland Marathon

Sunday March 29th 2012

So talented - finishing Oakland Marathon while playing imaginary piano

It was Richard Ervais’ fault (Hamish’s work colleague at Bite who suffers so badly from marathon addiction he is close to completing 100 ). He mentioned Oakland was having a marathon and I thought, good for Oakland .. I should support that. I live in Marin, 26.07  miles (almost precisely a marathon) away but a world apart from Oakland.  Marin features in charts of places most Americans want to live (the most aggressive things here are real estate agents) while Oakland has been number 5 on the FBI’s list of America’s most dangerous cities for  years

most-dangerous-cities-according-to-fbi/. I grew up  near Belfast so I know what it is to love a community with a bad rep.

Oakland’s organizers requested no headphones and if you wear them you are ineligible for awards/prizes….and there were cash prizes five deep in the ladies positions and for the masters (first lady over 40). So …mmm..ok no ipod. Darn. I normally run trail, kinda grim prospect ..roady stuff without ear escapism.

The weather was 100% chance of rain but I arrived to clear skies and worries about where to park also also evapourated as  street parking was free on Sunday.  I dented Oaklands economy but secured good karma by sharing this joy with line of drivers who were  queuing for pay parking  right beside a row of   free-on-Sunday meters.  Shortly after that a rat ran over my foot. Well let’s have that as a good omen –   he kept up a strong pace as he rounded the corner.

The race was interesting. I eyed the guy with a 3.10 pace sign on a stick ( if you stay with him you should complete the race in 3hrs 10mins) at the start and wondered if I should try to join his group. I’m a bit funny about numbers when it comes to running. I never time myself on mile splits,  I rarely want to know how many miles I have done.  I just run a squeeze beyond what is comfortable  and keep going until someone offers me wine or I see a finish line.

Start of Oakland Marathon - Mr 3.10 is behind me

After the first few miles they do send you up some surprisingly challenging hills. I could see there were some uppy bits building to mile 11 but nothing over 8oo ft ish. I wondered (mistakenly) if perhaps I might not notice them as my trail marathons often exceed 5/6000 ft. I passed Mr 3.10 and his cronies early on but they nibbled away at the ground between us as the hills continued and swooped by me, as did a perfect specimen of feminine beauty and athleticism which turned out to be Ms Monica Zhuang. This was my first and final chance to meet her before she glided over the finish line as second lady. I resisted the temptation to chase them, believing in my natural feel and remembering the races where I have pushed too hard at the start only to fizzle later on.  Really any marathon is about surviving first, times later.  I don’t know why I found those hills so tough, you can’t dig your toes in and lean forward as you can on a steep trail and I wasn’t sure if I should be doing shorter or longer strides. All in all I began to feel rather small about my ‘ oh I’ll just cruise this little flat thing in 3 hoursish ’  thoughts. They did not return.

Eventually we crowned the top of the last big hill around mile 12.  A cheerful group of people with balloons shrieked ‘It’s all downhill from here’. This always  amuses me in races for two reasons. 1) in any other context this expression would be bad news and 2) people who shout this are invariably unwittingly lying unless they are about an inch from the finish. I was chatting to two runners at this point, one of which  knew the course well. He assured me there was a dramatic big long down from this point for 5 miles. One was a hills man, the other like me tends to do well on downs. Mr hills bade us goodbye as if he was dying and assured us we wouldn’t see him again as we crested the hill. And aha I could see Mr 3.10 ahead. My new friend and I both started thundering down to annihilate him. Just then I felt my back jolting and sparks of pain sprinkled down my right leg so I had to pull back. That was a bit sad. I seem to need to let my back sort of settle when I change from steep up to steep down on road. (I had 5 months off running with two torn discs in my back last year and am now on an active recovery where I treat them badly by running marathons  then cajole them with heavyweight anti-inflammatories and by slathering on the Icy Heat. I do have to respect pain though and the repeated hitting on hard road is worse that trail stuff for it) My new pal also found his big downhill moment less fun than expected as he suddenly announced ‘oh dear’ and dropped out.  I was however delighted to spot  Mr hills positively cooking later on around mile 20.

I did enjoy the local people and sights and sounds of downtown Oakland – loved the bit where  you run through a flaming bridge. There were A LOT of policemen, and there were also more dogs  – police and otherwise  – than I have ever seen at a marathon before (which is hard for me as I want to stop and cuddle them all..I did pat a few). I wondered which streets were the ones that I would be ill-advised to walk down come nightfall. We had been lead to expect  live music on virtually every street corner and that was certainly not the case and made the no headphones thing tougher for me – but I enjoyed what was there was and as always there were one or two little comments/exchanges with people that made the day memorable.  A husky voice from an upper apartment said ‘Moma got tail’ …it may mean I have an impressively large behind but I didn’t ask for clarification. Sometimes it is hard to show you appreciate all the shouts of encouragement, but every single one helps a little when you are going through a tough time motivating yourself and I must say I did find this  hard.  I liked the sign  ‘Pain is temporary, pride is forever’.I’m sure my back surgeon would like a little chat with the lady holding it.

Alas purple water carrier. It was to be our last adventure together.

By accident I overheard some people talking about Mr 3.10 as we hit mile 21 sign. It appears he had had to drop out due to suspected rest room needs. The news  cheered me as I had been feeling a little glum he was not even in view in places where I could see well ahead. It turned out these people were running the 3.10ish pace so I was doing better than I had thought. To celebrate I decided to ditch my water carrier as it was empty and was hurting my hand. What an old fool I had bought a jaunty purple one at the expo …(I know, never race with something new, but it was  pretty and had nice big zippy pockety bits). I lobbed it towards a group of children. Wonder what they made of my emergency contact lens and tampon.

warning  – I’m off on a history lesson here!

Ohlone Indians in the good ole days -um sorry guys, no boats.

It’s  a good sign when you can see the lake Merritt in this marathon. Funny to picture the  Ohlone Indians who used to  fish and hunt in wetlands here. As an archaeologist I do like knowing the early history of places like this.  (with no ipod I was trying to get my mind on something). The Indians were chucked out when the land was deeded to one very happy Sergeant Peralta in 1810. He got his comeuppance in 1848 when squatters moved in during the gold rush and battled for nearly ten years to get a judge to get them off. After that his children started bickering over the land and the drama continued ..just recently of course the land was encamped by Occupy. It was called Lake Peralta until Mayor Merritt funded an operation to turn it into a center of civic pride in the 1870s. Now wait for it..he pushed for it to be made a hunting free, wildlife refuge (the first in North America) as the place was teaming with wildlife and he wanted to avoid ‘the danger of gunfire so close to the city’. Oh the irony.


Last bit ...gritting teeth and thinking about Indians

Suddenly the course was lined with people shouting things like ‘you can smell it’ and people doing the shorter events became increasingly evident, adding  a lovely burst of speed and energy.  The race asked marathoners to put a ‘full’ sign on their backs. I’ve not been in a race that does this before but it was good, it helps to know who is doing what.  It popped into my head while I was running how poignant it would be if you suddenly saw one saying ‘empty’.The last half mile was tough. I tried to appreciate the beauty of the lake-side path and bridge over the water, but was starting to dig for the will to go on by singing ‘The Eye of the Tiger’ in my head when I was suddenly refreshed by a moment of comic relief. With .2 of a mile to go Mr 3.10 hurtled by me with his little sign, he was making death throe type noises but he was really going for it and I cheered him on. I spoke to him later and he had been stopped for a full 5 mins so he had really done well to make it so close to his time. He had not particularly enjoyed his morning.

And then it was over. My time was 3 hrs 12m – not bad for an old carcass like me on a course with a bit of hill  – and to my delight I was third lady. The first lady had been home for nearly a quarter of an hour, playing with the baby she gave birth to six weeks before. Good grief! I don’t know what is more impressive, her run or her luck in acquiring a husband that will look after three children including a new born for three hours!I was delighted to spot Richard later on. He wasn’t feeling too good and hadn’t had a great race but he had done it in a little over four hours and had taken another step towards doing 100 marathons…awesome! It was lovely to see a friendly face as I was by myself and even lovelier to see his friendly hand offering me $10 with which I was able to buy some startlingly good espresso coffee from a little food wagon.  At the little prize ceremony I recognized the much lauded name Sarah Lavender Smith from various trail events – she  and the lady who was 4thcame in

Very sexy - both Sarah and trophy

a just a few minutes behind me. I got an excitingly shiny trophy for being third lady and as this race sensibly doesn’t give masters to position winners, Sarah won the masters trophy which – I enjoyed teasing her afterwards –  was a great deal sexier than mine. I think she should have it made into a hat for the next royal wedding. Reading her blog I was delighted to recognize a blind addiction to running defying medical advice and tendancy to  regard physical pain  – especially during this event – as an irritant rather than a reason to stop that makes me look tame and sensible. She is training for a 100 k run, I suspect she will nail it. 

It looks like I will receive $300 prize money though it’s not in my paw yet. If I do I look forward to putting some of this back to support Oakland through the Ella Baker Center. This is a very fine organization, one I had not heard of before attending the marathon expo. It is really impossible not to be humbled by the importance of their work with young people on the streets and in the prison system in Oakland and California.

Montara Marathon, March 2012

Saturday, March 3rd 2012. San Pedro Valley Park, Pacifica.

Traditionally I start Costal Trail events with some mishap. At Crystal Springs I squirted Icy Heat gel into my eye while investigating how to open the tube moments before the race began. At Montara I lost my hanky.

A minor thing for most people, this is a disaster for me as (bizarrely) I only have half a functional nose and it streams as soon as I start running. No hanky means no breathing.  I was auditioning various items in the car to be replacements …tissues are useless as they become saturated with sweat…a diaper was a serious contender…then I  found  the hanky lying under my car..I mean how on earth did it get there?? with two minutes to go.

So starting the race with hanky was quite a relief.  The pre-race tension melted away as the half marathon, marathon and 50k runners kicked off at 8am and soon plunged into beautiful dark comforting forest. It is worth pushing yourself towards the front of the herd at the start so you don’t get trapped behind slower runners on the single track uphill. For many of us it is always a fine balance between fighting to get breathing under control and staying in a good position – good to know you can afford to go for it on this one as while it is a long hill the first mile or so is relatively comfortable.  (I missed the start at Steep Ravine a month ago (I was chatting duh) and sprinted to get to the head of the pack to be free on single track near that start. Not a good idea, I was still sucking in air like a hyperactive vaccum cleaner 5 miles later.)

The course ( is a series of hills forming a half marathon course.  A big hill, a teeny one and then a medium one. Marathoners repeat them all, 50K runners do the same and then hit the medium one again. This really is the kind of run where you can help yourself by being strategic when you deploy your energy gels. At least with a repeating course you can learn from your mistakes. (Here I learned to fuel up for that third hill as I  fizzled out on it during the first loop).

The first and big hill one is like a friendly giant. It is a long hill but divides into clear sections which give you a wonderful sense of achievement and anticipation as you gradually rise to North Peak. The top section is glorious. An open expanse of fire road slashed in rock, much of it is gleaming white in the sun  – almost like a glacier. The views are stunning and you get to soak them in while you are running, even if you are not the kind of runner who likes to stop. I found it rather sweet that we got to pick up an orange rubber band on the first visit to the top and a purple on the second. (Note on this, like most people I put them on my wrist initially which for me was a mistake. My wrists are not particularly big but my hands do tend to swell towards the end of a marathon and I was startled to realise I had given myself a huge throbbing hand an hour later. So I moved them to a finger which was fine and then ..a  fun option for ladies …to the end of my braids). 

Flying back down from North Peak (above) is tremendous fun.  For serious competitors it’s a chance to see how hard you have to work to catch the leaders and to eyeball how fresh the meat is creeping up behind you. But that really isn’t the style of these events overall.  There is always good banter when runners get to pass each other and it is important to stress just what a lovely mix of people join in at these events. Everyone benefits from being encouraged by each other. The sense of competition is just right, enough of a race for the lead people to be pushed but the type of event where first timers or people who intend to hike parts feel in good company. Everyone has their own challenge and everyone is respected for being there and achieving their own goals.

The lower section of the descent from North Peak is a blast – you hurtle around gloriously pungent Eucalyptus trees in a fast series of switchbacks. At the bottom you have an odd little portion on flat ground (it is hard to adjust after being downhill for so long), there is time for a tantalizing glimpse of your getaway car in the parking area and the finishing line before you pass the refreshments table and head up the smallest of the three hills. As runners pass this station on every loop and are visible for a decent length of time it makes the event more interesting than some for supporters. Small children will find it fun to sneak the candy, energy bites and gels!

Jason Wolf and I finished as first man and lady a little over 4 hours  – and are the current course record holders ( have to stress  we were rather lucky with the conditions, it was a perfect day  – I can imagine the course would take a great deal longer with extremes of wind, rain or heat)

On a repeating course I like to name things and pick features to revisit as little mental goals along the way. I named the first hill the Gentle Giant, the second The Pimple and the third The Zit. The second is not a big deal, up up up, down down down, you can cope with that. The third, charmingly named Hazelnut is hideous. Absolutely hideous. I suppose by that stage your legs are tired so it is unfair to blame the hill entirely but I will anyway. The gradient is more difficult to get comfy on, there is an endless series of similar looking evil switchbacks which lure you into thinking you have reached the top over and over again. I started naming the switchbacks ‘Git’ , ‘Frog leg’, ‘Rat Face’ etc  towards the end and searching for distinguishing signs to entertain myself. Then, oh joy, it is all suddenly over and you can relax into bouncing along a delightful downhill, interrupted only by a stunning excursion through a grove of Eucalyptus trees. On your final loop this downhill makes for a joyous finish.

If you are thinking about doing this race do it. I would push you to consider the half marathon rather than the 10K which doesn’t have the nicest bits of course. Forgive the Zit and form a memory to cherish zooming down North Peak. I gave Wendell a big kick on the shin for making me run up The Zit twice, it made me feel much better. You might like to try this too.

No hazelnuts were hurt in the making of this blog, though a few may be slightly offended.