Date: 23 August, 2014
Location:Santos Meadows [Marin Headlands, Northern California]
Start Time: 0730
Weather Conditions: Low Level Clouds, Some Fog, Cool.
Trail Conditions: Almost 100% trail, mixed fire road & single track. Dry for most of the day, except in the vicinity of Redwood Forests. Some Technical climbing & descending later along the course.
Finishing Time: 5h10m38s
Placement: 28th Overall, 7th (20-29)
I had set several alarms to make sure I woke up, but really I didn’t need any of them; I woke promptly at 4 AM.
I laid some oatmeal and almond butter out the night before. The coffee maker was already brewing and the smell of Major Dickason permeated the thick air of the morning. Pre-race ritual dictates that I was already in race day clothing when I woke up, so I made my way straight to the kitchen.
The San Francisco fog had crept up the bay further than usual and the clouds hung low overhead. I could feel the moisture in the air, making the dark living room cool, and the robust, earthy flavor of heavy whipping cream in rich, dark coffee suited the mood well.
As I sat in the dark, sipping on my morning brew and chewing slowly on the strawberry banana oatmeal, I couldn’t stop myself projecting the race start, powering up hills (and cruising down the other side [gapping roots and stones]), crossing the finish line effortlessly, and the digits on my watch displaying my ambitious and entirely arbitrary goal of 4 hours and 30 minutes. My gut fluttered with adrenaline and anticipation.
By 5:15 I was out the door and loaded into my jeep; my Nike Zoom Terra Kiger’s in the seat next to me, 8 GU packets, a package of Skratch Labs Hyper Hydration Mix, 2 packets of Skratch’s regular mix, an almond butter, and a VESPA stuffed into a Ziploc bag, and a gallon of water rolling around on the floor.
Traffic was light and the wind was calm on the trip to the coast. The road was wet and the air stayed cool even with the windows zipped up.
I turned into the grass lot around 6:45 and found the nearest restroom [a bush on the other side of the parking area]. Clouds still hung low overhead, no more than a few hundred feet above, casting a grey light on the entire valley. I unloaded my gear, and despite the cool air stripped down to my shorts and singlet promptly. I cracked open the VESPA and downed it quickly, then started sipping on the Hyper Hydration Mix while I picked up my race bib and some safety pins from the table behind the starting line. Hydration had been a source of serious problems in my previous races and I wasn’t about to give up my goal just because of something as simple as a sodium imbalance.
It had just turned 7:15 and the first announcement for the pre-race brief was just being made. At 7:20 the race director led everyone to the starting line and laid out some ground rules; the basics, like “you’re visitors on the trail, you do not have the right of way, don’t cut switchbacks, thank the aid station volunteers, and leave no trace.”
“If your first mile is your fastest, God bless you”
The race began in iconic ultra-trail racing fashion; at 7:29 there was a verbal countdown from 10, feet shuffled closer to the starting line, and we were out of the gate, cruising towards a finish line 31 miles away [and yet in the exact same place].
I had taken an unassuming, albeit well seated position along the front line of runners to the far right. I knew I wasn’t the fastest on the course, but I was aiming to be a top 25 contender. The rush of the race start carried me away on waves of endorphins. I flew through the first mile in just over 7 minutes, feeling good – relaxed, but attentive.
The course turns immediately out of Santos Meadows and follows a single-track trail to Muir Beach. We followed the road towards the inlet and immediately started climbing a few hundred feet to the top of the first of seven hills we would be faced with today. I was falling slightly behind the front-runners, but knew I would catch a few after the climb from the beach. This was the least of the climbs, and I knew that the last two would be demoralizing, so I saved as much energy as I could up these rises.
We passed Pirates Cove on a direct reciprocal of what we had just climbed, turning sharply towards the ocean as we went, only to be met by another climb and descent into Tennessee Valley. At the bottom of the descent, a quick [and rather poorly marked] turn led several runners astray. I was lucky enough to see the runner in front of me make that mistake and avoided doing so myself.
Mile five and we were climbing again out of Tennessee Valley and towards the old NIKE missile sites. Old crumbling remains of former military installations endure and the musty seaside air is the perfect compliment to the eerie cement ruins and oxidized wrought iron doors.
A steep [and un-runnable due to current trail infrastructures in some places] descent to Rodeo Cove and the Marin Headlands Visitor Center followed. Surfers and beachgoers alike crowded the sandy shore, regardless of the less than ideal weather conditions. The trail turned east here, out of necessity – any farther south and we’d be competing in a triathlon, not an ultra.
A brief respite of flat was allowed before the first aid station. I accepted water from the crew there and hammered my next gel. I was still feeling good, but was starting to get nervous about nutrition. I wasn’t hungry yet, but I could feel the urge to take in some real food coming on as I moved up the next climb.
The Miwok Trail twists and turns northbound along the coast, a few miles in from the ocean, but still commands exceptional vistas of the coastline. The course followed this trail over a ridge and back down into Tennessee Valley once more, [here I ran into the San Francisco Running Company group run headed the opposite direction, Jorge gave some encouragement and I quickened my pace into the aid station] then began a slow, seemingly endless climb past another aid station and two road crossings to the infamous “Cardiac” aid station.
I was beginning to drag on the climbs, slowing to a pace that was nothing more than a glorified hike. The first climb to Cardiac found me in a relatively dark place. I questioned my motives for running in a race so soon after returning from a failed attempt in the Sierra Nevada, my motives for running at all, my training program, my nutritional strategies, etc, etc. The list goes on, but basically, I was stuck inside my head for way too long and continued to slow down.
Almost to the aid station, I saw Alex Varner [the current record holder] bounding down the trail, effortless and smiling. He gave a few words of encouragement, and I pushed on. It’s peculiar how familiar, friendly faces and a couple of words can motivate you through the deepest pains of endurance running.
At Cardiac, the crew refilled my water bottle and I grabbed a handful of jellybeans, a few ounces of cola, and was off. I wasn’t moving quickly, but I was pushing forward. The Pantoll Ranger station came suddenly, and I was soon crashing down the Matt Davis Trail. I am quite familiar with this trail as it is along one of my favorite long run routes. That said, I usually do it as a climb, not a descent. It is far more technical than I had given thought to previously. I slid over some of the now muddy terrain, dodged hikers, and gave my quads a good old-fashioned thrashing.
I hurt like I had been running all morning, but nothing was out of the ordinary. I even felt contented nutritionally; I had gotten hungry on the way up to Cardiac, but had devoured half of my almond butter package, and it was soon quelled. I pushed as hard as I felt comfortable over the slick roots and rocks along the switchbacks of the Matt Davis, passing beneath ancient redwoods and traversing across grand open hillside fields, coming all too soon to the Stinson Beach Aid Station.
I stopped [probably for a few moments too long] at the aid station. I had another cup of cola, an orange gel block [I think it was clif bar brand] and two salt tablets. I refilled my water, and forced myself to leave. I only had six miles or so left, and only one climb left to go…back to Cardiac.
Just as before with the Matt Davis Trail, I knew the Steep Ravine Trail, but only as a descent. Climbing proved to be difficult and taxing. I passed through the Moors and felt a peculiar twitch and sharp contractions in my inner quad muscles [vastus medialus]. I slowed to accommodate, letting a few people pass me. The field had thinned dramatically on the climb to the ranger station, and now I could only see one runner ahead [I do my best not to look behind during a race]. I was confident that other runners were as trashed as I am and that I might be able to muscle past a few of them on this climb.
Admittedly, climbs are my weakest skill set, but I don’t think one has ever challenged my attention in such a way before. I found my thoughts drifting listlessly, not focused on the trail ahead, only to reel myself back in before a misstep or a turned ankle proved injurious. I started doing math in my head to keep a handle on my concentration and mental fortitude (if I have x miles and I move at y pace for the next z minutes, I’ll finish at 5 hours, so on and so forth).
The earlier vision of a 4:30 finish was right out as I had just hit Cardiac for the second time at 4:34 or so. I took a few more jellybeans and double checked my water level and left the aid station.
Two runners ahead of me ran through without stopping [looking back, I should have too]. I thanked the crew as I left and powered down the last stretch, hammering hard down the first stretch of fire road out of the aid station. My quads were on fire, my calves were unresponsive, and my feet battered from 30 miles of constant and unrelenting abuse. All was well though, until Heather Cuttoff Trail. The switchbacks rob you of any wind in your sails – all perpetuated motion lost to the forces of braking and turning. It was in these final moments that the sun finally shone through the cloud layer and the earth warmed dramatically in what seemed like nothing more than a few seconds. I could sense another runner approaching and gave room on the side of the trail for him to pass. He made his move as we came into a longer straightaway, and I let him go. I could see the finish – several switchbacks ahead and way too far ahead to attempt any sustained high speeds.
I continued my descent, and the voice through the megaphone read out my name as I came around the last corner. “Bib No. 107: Charles Klinger!” I pushed, kicked as hard as I could, and crossed the finish line at 5h10m38s. A member of the race crew presented me with my finishers medal and pointed me in the direction of the swag bags, the pizza, and the restrooms. I thanked her and sought only for a place to sit. The rest could wait.
-I raced hard, but I know I can race with greater intensity and improved outcomes in the future. The capability exists; tapping into the potential will take time.
-I’m satisfied in the fact that I could come back from a relatively crushing personal defeat in the high country [to be followed closely by several individual attempts and one success at the same record] and have wheels enough to race at a relatively aggressive level, in a rather competitive field.
-Nutrition & Gear: No flaws, except timing – I forgot for almost an hour to take in any calories between Tennessee Valley [crossing no. 2] and Cardiac. I don’t think this broke my performance, but the possibility of a better performance is dependent on the details.
-Hills/Climbing: I am on a quest to conquer. I aim to be a mountain crusher.
I’d like to extend some heartfelt thanks to the race directors, the volunteers, The Tamalpa Runners, The San Francisco Running Company, Osmo Nutrition, Firetrail Pizza, and all the other cogs that worked together to put this race together so seamlessly. The course was beautiful and challenging, the terrain remains arrogant and wild, and the support couldn’t have been more outstanding!
Also, if you haven’t had the opportunity to check it out, here’s a link to the video For The Love from Luis Pena – an endearing love letter to the trails that I’m lucky enough to have in my back yard and the privilege of racing on: The Marin Headlands and Mt. Tamalpais.