Race Report: Muir Woods Marathon

April 2011

Result: 8th place. 3:10:48.

After the Summit Rock Half Marathon in December, I found my weekend long runs remaining solidly in the 10+ mile range, so after a particularly good 13-miler, I decided that this would be a good time to push things up to a full marathon. After looking at a few race calendars, the Muir Woods Marathon was the most suitable choice in terms of both its timing and its challenges - plenty of elevation change and technical trails to be conquered.

Training progressed nicely until about five weeks out from the race, when I got back from about 20 miles and slowly realized that it was now extremely painful to bear any weight on my left foot. I was meeting some friends later that day and I vividly remember getting there early in order to 1) conceal my pronounced limp and 2) secure a table where I could elevate my foot.

My amateur diagnosis was a metatarsal stress fracture, and my amateur treatment plan was two days completely off. The upcoming two weeks, however, were pivotal ones in terms of building strength before tapering. The solution I came up with was to reduce mileage but make every mile count - namely, by running uphill. I am now very familiar with the Rhus Ridge trail at Rancho San Antonio Park.

Race week arrived, and suddenly the fact that the part of the race was located in a national park became extremely relevant because of the impending shutdown of the federal government. We heard from the organizers on Friday that we would have to go with “Plan B” - an altered course that stayed entirely within Mt. Tamalpais State Park.

The new course would start - and finish - at about 2,000 feet, turning the last 5 miles of the race into an 1,800 foot climb up from the valley floor. Thanks, federal government!

Undeterred, I went ahead with my pre-race preparations, namely, a Super Burrito from the taqueria in Mountain View. In semi-scientific testing while training, I determined that a this was the ideal meal the night before a long run. The movie selection was “North by Northwest,” starring Marissa Mayer lookalike Eva Marie Saint.

Cary Grant also looked a little bit like John Boehner, but I think that may have just been the availability heuristic kicking in.

Saturday dawned clear and very crisp: 37 F when I left the house. It had warmed up by the time I crossed the Golden Gate into Marin, and I arrived a little earlier than I had planned.

Dave, the race director, shepherded us into an amphitheater and delivered a booming pre-race briefing. He went over the course - technically courses, as the marathon, 25k and 7 mile all shared portions of the same trails - and emphasized the steep uphill climb in the final miles and told us that we should blame him for it. We were led in the singing of “America the Beautiful” and we were off - or were we?

Dave had said “Go!” - but we were all standing on the seating rungs of a huge amphitheater. The herd began ascending, not really sure if we should be running yet. At some point, a consensus was reached, and I started weaving my way up through the pack. Luckily the first part of the course provided good visibility and I was soon able to spot the leaders and count how many heads were in front of me. By the time things had shaken out, it was in the low teens.

We made the first turn onto the Coastal Trail and some of the more incredible scenery on the course - a vast panorama of the Pacific all the way down to San Francisco and Baker Beach. I continued to keep an eye on the leaders cutting across the open hillside and at one point spotted several deer bounding alongside some runners.

The Coastal Trail was fairly flat but very narrow - literally not more than two feet wide in most places. As we worked our way back to Pan Toll we started to see some stream crossings and we had to pay more and more attention to our footing. This trend accelerated as we started the plunge into Muir Woods.

I had done a training run along this trail the previous week and done a Picard Face Plant after catching a root at full speed (thanks Laura for that neologism). No similar incidents this time, as the extra prep work paid off and I found myself gaining ground through the most technical sections. I was in a loose group of four as we hit the valley floor, though I believe the other three were all doing the 25k and not the full marathon.

As we began the first climb, some very amused hikers were headed the other direction and were nice enough to be keeping count of the runners going up the hill. They informed me I was in 10th, though I assume they were including everyone they saw in that total, including any 25k runners.

The uphills really strung the racers out, and by the time I entered the aid station I couldn’t even see or hear anyone else. I slowed down to eat a clif bar and water with minimal success, but I wanted to make sure that I got something down. As I was ramping back up, I was passed rather emphatically by someone who either hadn’t stopped for aid or ramped up a lot faster. By this point the 25k course had already broken off toward the finish, so he was definitely a marathoner. I put it out of my mind and settled back in with the aid of a long downhill stretch.

I got into a good groove that took me all the way to the start of the final five mile climb. With about two miles left I was really starting to hurt and I gave up another spot to a guy wearing Salomons (always a bad sign for your cause if they’re wearing Salomons), but I was able to stick with him for a while. As I started to lose contact, I spotted my friend from earlier at the aid station, a few switchbacks ahead.

I was gaining on him, but slowly. With about a mile left we hit some brutally steep hills and I realized that by walking the steepest parts, I was actually gaining ground, and I moved ahead on the next flat. I think he realized this and started doing it too. So here we were, like two boxers, staggering up the final hills too exhausted to deliver a knockout punch to the other.

At some point I made a bet that I was close enough to the finish to run the rest without my legs giving out. It turned out to be a well placed one and I finished a “full” six seconds ahead of him.

I only had a rough idea of the results at the time, but found out later that I was 8th overall and finished in 3:10:48. It’s not an official time, but it does just barely sneak under the current qualifying time for the Boston Marathon. That was a nice little +1 to take home, though I doubt I would ever enter that race for a number of reasons - for one, it’s way too flat [Edit - it actually drops in elevation! What kind of a race is that?].

After recovering a bit, the Sand Dollar restaurant was offering a free beer for all runners. I’m noticing this as a trend - great races have beer at the finish.

I continued to recover for a while in town and then took my time heading back down the coast to take advantage of the beautiful day.

It’s somewhat tempting to find a nice, flat course later this year and really go after a fast time. I really get a lot of satisfaction out of the technical trail running, however - it’s just flat out fun (pun intended).

I have a recovery week planned this week before getting ramped back up again for Bay to Breakers and (hopefully) the Dipsea in June. The good news is that the hills on those courses are looking downright flat by comparison.