Archive for August, 2009

Headlands Hundred

August 20, 2009

[This is really long. Sorry about that, but so was the run.]

The original and most prestigious event in the ultrarunning world is Western States, which is 100 miles. Other 100 mile runs inherit some of that aura. And, at least for me, 100 miles has seemed to be the ultimate goal. The easy choice was the Headlands Hundred in the Marin Headlands, since it’s put on by Pacific Coast Trail Runs, which does most of my trail runs, and it is relatively nearby.

The Headlands Hundred also offers a 50 mile distance, and last year the same event was my first 50 mile trail run. But the route was different this year because state budget issues meant that the course could no longer go into Mt. Tamalpais State Park. Now the course is four 25 mile loops, reversing direction each time like a washing machine. Each loop has about 5000′ of climbing—this is a hilly area.

After extensive months of training and what seemed like endless planning, Connie and I drove up Friday so I could get as much sleep as possible before the 7:00am start on Saturday, August 8th. I got up at 4:15am to put on sunscreen, etc., and then caught a cab to the start, leaving Connie with the car to catch up with me later.

In the starting area I met Ken Michal, who does the Running Stupid podcast. He was also there to attempt his first 100 miler, only two weeks after running the White River 50 miler. I also saw Franz Dill and Eric Vaughan from the Coastside Running Club, both of whom were doing the 50 miler (Franz in preparation for his first 100 miler later in August). And my local coaches, Marissa Walker (crewing for someone else) and Brian Wyatt (running the 100 miler).

The weather forecast was warmer than I had hoped for: 80°F Saturday and 82°F Sunday. But it seemed substantially cooler than I expected, and the Moeben sleeves that they gave to those doing the 100 miler were welcome for the first segment or two. In fact, the actual high for the day turned out to be only 74°F, and seemed even cooler than that. So I got very lucky there (heat has been the primary factor in the only two races I have failed to complete).

Next I’ll be talking about the route. There’s a map here. It isn’t required, but it can help you understand the sequence. There’s also a cool animated flyover on this page.

We milled around the start at Rodeo Beach. The start finally arrived, and we all launched immediately into a steep climb. Based on advice from my coaches I pushed a bit, taking advantage of the cool weather and feeling fresh. I was still walking up hills, but I allowed my heart rate to climb up to 145 or 150bpm. I got to the first aid station at Tennessee Valley about 9 minutes ahead of my plan (which had me finishing in 29:58). I skipped getting water since I had plenty, grabbing a couple of pieces of potato and moving on.

Next we went to Muir Beach, going down the infamous Pirates Cove stairs. And then back, via a more inland route, to Tennessee Valley, where I met up with Connie for the first time. By now I was 24 minutes ahead of my plan, about 12 miles into the event. I should mention that I tend to make my plans slightly on the pessimistic side of realistic, because I would rather be ahead of plan than behind.

The next section started up a dirt road called Marincello, which some people really dislike but which has never really bothered me. It’s long and uphill, but it’s also a shallow enough grade to walk up quickly. In any case, the Rodeo Valley aid station (not to be confused with Rodeo Beach) came along quickly, as did the Conzelman aid station, by which time I was about 35 minutes ahead of my plan. I felt good and everything was going smoothly, though I was still expecting the weather to heat up.

The last section back to the start/finish at Rodeo Beach is the longest segment of the course, at 5.2 miles. It includes a convoluted paved section where at times I wondered if I was going the right way, and also a section across the beach, which is both slow and unpleasant. The first loop was done at around 12:38pm, about 41 minutes ahead of my plan. 25 miles down, and only 75 miles to go! A couple of years ago, that would have been crazy talk.

The second loop wasn’t quite as good. Since each loop reverses course, it started out across the sand again. By the time I was past the Rodeo Valley aid station (33.7 miles total), it felt like I was struggling a bit, and I found myself being passed more often than I was passing others. At the Tennessee Valley aid station (38.3 miles total) I was 52 minutes ahead of my plan, though, so I wasn’t complaining too much. At least not as much as Paul from Cool, CA, who was doing the 50 miler and kept saying that no course should have this much uphill. But he only picked up running again in March, after being away from it for 15 years.

During the next two segments I started to wonder if I was going to lose all of my 52 minutes and more. I had a mild cramp in my side, which made running downhill painful, so I took more walking breaks downhill. I thought about taking some pain reliever, but didn’t. At Muir Beach (42.2 miles total) I commented to Connie that I seemed more out of breath than my under 120bpm heart rate should warrant. Plus I had lost time on my plan for the first time in the race, so now I was only 46 minutes ahead. This was definitely a low point.

Next up was the hardest segment of the course, going back to Tennessee Valley via the Pirates Cove steps (plus another 1/4 mile of steep uphill right after the steps). But I pretty much kept moving forward, and only lost a couple more minutes on my plan. And then the last segment back to the start/finish seemed easier. It was getting cooler again (not that it was ever hot on Saturday), but more importantly I knew my pacer would join me there.

I have never run with a pacer before, and I knew it would be good to have one this time. I considered a few people, but I was really lucky to get Tom Harry. I actually met him for the first time on the last segment of the 50 miler at the same event last year, and he helped motivate me to finish strong. Plus he has a couple of 100 milers under his belt (both at the very difficult Angeles Crest race), so his experience would be a big advantage.

Also waiting for me at Rodeo Beach was my night crew, Mike Ehlers and Butch Dority. They are both on the same men’s team I’m on (part of the South Bay Nation of Men), and they agreed to crew during the night so that Connie could get some sleep.

I reached Rodeo Beach at 7:40pm, 44 minutes ahead of my plan, the same as the previous aid station. That’s over 30 minutes faster than I did the 50 mile event last year, but I felt pretty good. I had planned to change clothes at this point, but instead I decided to take advantage of the fact that it was still light, so Tom and I hit the trail.

Over the previous few segments I had a trouble pushing hard enough to reach a heart rate of even 120bpm, but somehow on the first climb with Tom I found myself at over 130bpm and only slightly out of breath. And when the downhill came I was able to run fairly well.

Of the things I learned at the Dreamchasers running camp in June, perhaps the one that helped me the most during this event was a relaxed downhill running form. I have a tendency to tense my shoulders, so I have to consciously relax them, keep my arms moving so my thumbs go next to my hips, straighten up, and lean slightly forward from the heels (similar to Chi Running). Since I pretty much only ran on downhill sections, making the most of that time without beating myself up really made a big difference. Moving relatively fast when walking also did, but I pretty much do that naturally.

By the time we reached the Tennessee Valley aid station it had gotten dark and we had our flashlights out. Headlamps are nice, but they don’t help you see obstacles very well since the shadows are directly behind the objects casting them (so the shadows are effectively invisible), because the light source is near your eyes. So the most common approach is to use a headlamp and a handheld light, which is what we were both doing. This also gives you a backup in case one light breaks.

So we continued to move through the night, walking the uphills and flats, and running (perhaps more accurately jogging) the downhills. Our second section saw us lose some time on the plan, bringing us to only 40 minutes ahead. But by the fourth section we started to gain again, and continued to gain more as the night went on.

Running at night is very cool, though from a couple training runs in the dark on trails, I can say that doing it by yourself is a little spooky. With someone else, though, it really is the best. We saw San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge in the fog, and that’s practically worth the price of admission right there. I had caffeine pills available in case I got tired, but I never did, though I did drink a couple small cups of Coke.

The other cool thing about running at night is that the aid stations break out some more real (compared with things like boiled potatoes, M&Ms, and gummy bears, anyway) food, like soup, pizza, and more. That made the aid station stops get a little longer (maybe 4 minutes vs. 2 minutes during the first 50 miles), but it really helped keep me going. All of those aid station minutes add up since the clock never stops running, but having enough energy to keep moving matters too.

Speaking of aid station stops, under Tom’s direction I stopped refilling my own hydration pack, letting him or my crew do that. And speaking of crew, they were great, proactively offering me electrolyte capsules, clothes, etc. They also recalculated where I would likely take Vespa, since I was getting further ahead of my plan (I take Vespa every 4 hours in long events).

Eventually we got back to Rodeo Beach. It was about 3:08am, and we were almost an hour ahead of my plan. I took a little extra time to apply some more Body Glide, and we headed out on the last loop, going back across the sand we had just crossed. Thankfully this was the last time through the sand!

We made good time, gaining 20 minutes on the plan in the next two segments back to Rodeo Valley (79 minutes ahead). By then it was 5:41am, and it seemed like there was starting to be a tiny bit of morning light. In the next segment back to Tennessee Valley the sun definitely came up, and we saw many rabbits (small ones and jackrabbits), and I saw a bobcat (who was probably more interested in the rabbits than I was). And we gained another 20 minutes on the plan just in that segment, arriving at 7:00am (99 minutes ahead, and exactly 24 hours after the start). I took my longest aid station stop of the race (8 minutes), changing my shorts, reapplying Body Glide, and changing to my third GPS (which I had forgotten I needed to do, but my crew was on top of it). I elected not to change my shirt since that would have required moving my race number as well, and I didn’t want to take the time. I also didn’t change my shoes or socks because I didn’t want to mess with something that was working well.

All that was left was about 12 miles, which includes the two hardest segments and then the final segment. It was starting to get a bit warm, and the previous day’s fog was limited to the area very close to the coast. Sunday ended up with a high of 84°F, which was 2°F warmer than the last forecast before the race, and 10°F warmer than Saturday.

At Muir Beach, I reapplied sunscreen to my arms, face, and neck. My legs were too dirty, so I left them alone. I was 109 minutes ahead of my plan, but the hardest segment was next.

The counterclockwise loop route from Muir Beach to Tennessee Valley has a long, fairly steep initial climb, a rolling descent into Pirate’s Cove, and then the infamous steps plus the additional 1/4 mile of steep climb that I mentioned before. The one piece of good news was that what little fog there was helped out. It also created some gorgeous spider webs, highlighted with water drops.

At the last of eight aid station stops at Tennessee Valley, we were 116 minutes ahead of schedule. It was 9:41am, and we had until 4:00pm to cover 4 miles. Nothing could stop me now! Plus I realized that I had a real shot at being under 28 hours.

It continued to get warmer, and the final climb, while easier than the previous two segments, is no cake walk. I was pushing, although after 96 miles that meant a heart rate of maybe 125bpm (which was my average for the whole event, by the way). I didn’t talk much (nothing personal, Tom), and I was focused. The climb continued around one more corner than I thought it would, but we made it to the final descent. And then it was time to run. Well, except for going down some steps that I almost fell coming down at Miwok. And one brief walking rest to make sure I had something left for the actual finish.

Ah, the actual finish. When I reached the dirt parking lot, with maybe 50 yards to go, I picked it way up. Maybe not quite a sprint, but definitely the fastest that I ran on the flat for the whole race (update: under 8:00/mile for the last 0.05 miles). It felt great to go for it, and then it felt great to stop. Wow! I did it!

There were 76 people signed up for the 100 miler. 75 of those started, 48 finished at least 75 miles, and 45 finished the whole thing. My official 25 mile splits looked like this:

  • 5:37:54 (48th place)
  • 12:40:53 (7:02:59 for the loop, 42nd place)
  • 20:08:22 (7:27:29 for the loop, 25th place)
  • 27:52:23 (7:44:01 for the loop, 26th place)

Loops 2 through 4 are substantially closer in duration than I expected. Wow. Since loop 3 was almost entirely in the dark and loop 4 included some heat, I’m really proud of that. Maybe Connie is right that 100 miles could be my distance. Scary thought.

In my instructions to my crew I spelled out my four goals, in decreasing priority order:

  1. Sustain no long-term injuries
  2. Finish
  3. Have all of us enjoy the experience
  4. Finish in as little time as I can without sacrificing the above goals

I managed to succeed at all four. And I realized along the way how much of a team effort it was. That started with my coaches, Lisa Smith-Batchen (and her husband Jay, co-owners of Dreamchasers), Marissa, and Brian. And continued with my crew, Connie, Butch, and Mike. And last but definitely not least my pacer, Tom. I might have been able to finish without them, but goals 3 and 4 would have been seriously impacted.

It was truly a magical 28 hours. I honestly don’t know if I will be able to equal it, but I do know that I’ll try. And I’m now qualified for Western States!


  • Butch took some pictures on his iPhone and posted them here (a few are tagged with a location inside Golden Gate Park, which is wrong)
  • Tom also took some pictures, which I posted to my flickr account here

Next up: A 24 hour fixed-time event in late October, then the Goofy Challenge (half marathon Saturday and full marathon Sunday) at Disney World in January, and various 50Ks.