Friday, August 8, 2014

Tahoe Rim Trail 50M, Part 1: Prologue

Golf, as the saying goes, is a good walk spoiled. I've only even tried to play golf once in my life, so as to the truth of that statement, I'm no expert. I do know something about spoiling good walks, though. I run ultra-marathons for fun.

Ultra-marathons don't always spoil walks, but when they do, they spoil spectacular walks spectacularly. My attraction to these races is born, in no small part, from a love of wilderness. Routes that would take a week to hike can be run before the sun goes down. Trail races aren't just about logging miles, they're about logging experiences: wildlife encounters, forest breezes, meadow scents, and breathtaking views. Oh the views. One month of trail running, done right, affords a lifetime of postcard-worthy trail porn. But that's just the trick: doing it right. Running at race speed down a twisting, rocky trail that clings to the side of a canyon can send more than your gaze down into the chasm below. More times than I can count, I have thought to myself: "I bet that would be an amazing view, if only I wasn't too terrified to look at it." Sure, I force myself to stop every now and then and enjoy the scenery. Sometimes I'll even take a quick picture, adding the task retrieving a sweaty, plastic camera from an impossibly small velcro and elastic-mesh pocket located approximately six inches above my left kidney to the list of death-defying distractions threatening to turn me into a human sacrifice to the canyon-gods. But as any photographer can tell you, the best pictures always present themselves the moment you put your camera away. And as any ultra-runner can tell you, finishing is ultimately about keeping moving. Eventually, inescapably, the siren call of the landscape loses out to the pressure of the race that brought you to it. Ultra running is a spectacular walk squandered.

And that's on a good day. That's if everything goes right. When it doesn't, that's when running's true spoiling power is on display. Anyone who has ever taken a shot at this sort of thing has experienced the kind of suffering I'm talking about. The human body is a complex machine, and complex machines are equally capable of wondrous elegance and staggering, abject unraveling. The more ways something works, the more ways it fails. But here's the thing: bodies also tend to have their own peculiar weaknesses, and so while anyone who has ever pushed their body too hard running (or elsewise) has certainly experienced such failure, most of us have only experienced it in one or two of its myriad varieties. One need know nothing about running to understand what I'm getting at. All you need to know is how many ways the human body has of breaking down. Running for six, twelve, or thirty hours at a time doesn't so much add new routes to bodily meltdown to the list, so much as it accelerates the process behind all of them and amplifies their effects. Ever had trouble with a sore knee? Prepare to be harassed by it. Maybe you've had issues with your stomach before? Now try being thoroughly betrayed by it. Dehydration? How does being stalked, maimed, and left to die sound?

Before I lose you, let me just say that I'm aware this all sounds excessively dramatic. It is, to be sure. But the guy who's sitting down typing this sentence is not the same as the guy who feels that pain, and for that guy, that's just how it feels. Knowing that in a couple of weeks some other guy will sit in a chair, dust off the keyboard, and put it all in perspective does nothing to dissuade of the truth of his experience. He suffers, and he doesn't know why, or how to make it stop. That's because the full-body, snot-soaked, muscle-aching, salt-crusted, been-running-so-long-I-can't-remember-when-I-wasn't-running exhaustion I'm talking about doesn't just amplify physical processes, but emotional ones as well. Ever cried because a leaf landed one the ground in pleasantly gentle way? Ever laughed out loud because you've never seen a squirrel with such a dark tail? Ever panicked because you could remember whether the last gel you ate was Espresso or Montana Huckleberry flavored. This guy has.

So by now you're probably guessing that this race didn't go so well for me.

That's true, and it's a bummer. I had high hopes for this race--low expectations, because I try not to be a fool, but really high hopes. Why? For one thing, I picked this race first and foremost because of the location. The course runs along and beside portions of the Tahoe Rim Trail (obviously) on the eastern (Nevada) side of Lake Tahoe. As the place where first came into contact with mountain wilderness, this part of the Sierra Nevada will always be charged with deep, emotional meaning for me. Kant wrote that "beautiful things show us that we belong in the world," and nowhere do I feel the truth of this claim more palpably than in the sweeping granite meadows that sweep down from all sides onto the dry, piney shores of Tahoe. If I have a home in high mountain country this is it, and will always be. If I belong, this is where. But the probability of that "if" may have just taken a serious hit.

I think my path into the race also played a big part in my over-inflated ambitions. Like many ultras these days, the TRT ultras have more applicants than spaces, an issue that they deal with through a simple lottery. I applied in the fall of last year, knowing that I wanted to try my first mountain 50 this summer, but also expecting not to get in. I know this isn't really how chance works, but I figured I wouldn't get in on my first try, so I ought to start applying now if I eventually wanted to get in. It's not that I didn't feel ready in terms of training--I definitely did--I just didn't feel like I'd earned it. A moment ago I said something about "ultras these days," as if I remember a time when things were different, and I definitely do not. I got into this in the middle of a wave of popularity for ultra-running, and that definitely makes me self-conscious of my impact on a culture that is filled with tremendous people who have given generously, and thanklessly, for years, so that newcomers can enjoy things--years of hard-earned wisdom, well-managed but low-key races, functional gear, and amazing friendships both on and off the trails--that should never be taken for granted. That's what I mean when I say I hadn't earned it. I knew that if I got in, it would be at the expense of someone who has been at this longer, someone who has missed out on the lottery before, someone who has helped more people to find their love of trail running. And that just wasn't supposed to happen.

So imagine my surprise when--moments after ringing in the new year dancing to some song from the '90s that I wish the DJ had just left there--I got an email informing me that I was registered for the 2014 Tahoe Rim Trail 50-miler. Seven months is about three months longer than I'd ever trained for anything before, and though I had other races on the calendar in the intervening months, Tahoe was always lurking in the back of my mind, making everything else into a training run in disguise.

The other races went well. Really well, by my standards. In January, I somehow managed to win the only race of any distance I've ever won in my life at the Swampstomper 50K in Memphis. And when I say "only race of any distance," I mean it. I've never won a 100-yard dash. Not even a game of steal the bacon. Three weeks later I ran my first road marathon in New Orleans, qualifying pretty comfortably for Boston, which was my main goal. And just three weeks after that was the Sylamore 50K in Arkansas. Despite falling and hitting my head on an icy fire road less than a mile into that race, I managed to hold it together and hang on for fourth overall. At that point I still had never raced anything longer than a 50K, so I signed up for the Ouachita 50M in April. My only goal there was to finish without ruining an otherwise beautiful day. I did that, and got second overall. That sounds a lot less impressive when I point out that the winner beat me by an hour, but I still felt pretty good about that one. June means Dipsea, and I was excited to test my fitness against last year on a short but challenging course. I ran the uphill sections smarter and faster than my first time, and was feeling pretty good reaching the halfway point over three minutes ahead of last year, but then fell victim to bottlenecking and inexperience in the downhill sections, where choosing the right turn can shave valuable seconds off your time. I ended up running slightly slower than my first try, but still feeling like I was in better shape. By mid-summer, I was feeling good. Maybe too good. My hopes were inflating fast, even while I kept reminding myself to keep them in check. Nothing I had run before would compare to 50 miles at elevation.

Sometimes it's just not your day. Sometimes you do everything right--the endless hours of training, the research about the course, the weather, the aid stations, the packing up of gear, the nutrition plan, the emergency plan, the pacing--and then you're reminded that so much more depends on the things you don't control than on the ones you do. And that's when you spoil an otherwise good walk. Or, in my case, spoil it spectacularly.

In fairness, though, that's probably a bit of an exaggeration. In my defense, though, trail running naturally lends itself to exaggeration; when the very essence of what motivates you is the lure of running that route just a few seconds faster, or going one mile further, one more loop, climbing another hundred feet higher, it's only to be expected that such a tendency will spill over from the activity into the conversation about that activity. Accomplishments get embellished. Times get rounded down. Trails get rockier, hills steeper, and creeks wider, swifter, in the stories that are told about them. I have yet to discover the ultra that isn't made to sound more intimidating in the pre-race chatter than it turns out to be in the flesh, and that's fine. It keeps you from getting over-confident, and it's part of the fun. So when I learned that the official slogan of the TRT Endurance Runs is "A taste of heaven--a glimpse of hell," I smiled at their gamesmanship, rather than cringing at the warning. Trail runners are good at exaggerating. As it turns out, I may have just found my first ultra with a penchant for understatement.

Stay tuned for part 2, in which I actually talk about, you know, the race.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Out the door

Whenever I'm trying to explain to another person why I like running, I tend to appeal to the freedom and the simplicity; I can run anytime, anywhere, and all I need is a pair of shoes. I don't need to depend on anyone else, or the appropriate facilities, or even the weather. I can just head out the door whenever I'm ready and go.

All of which just makes it that much more ridiculous that I'll be getting out of a perfectly good bed at 4:00 tomorrow morning, and hauling all this stuff to Carson City, Nevada for a run that I've been planning for the last seven months.

See you soon, with a race report!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Range of Light

Spent some time in the Sierra Nevada with Petya today (her first time!) above 8000 feet, trying to get acclimated before the Tahoe Rim Trail 50M this weekend.

We took the tram at Squaw Valley up into the mountains, as I'm trying to keep my legs fresh for the race on Saturday. After ascending 2000 feet in eight minutes, we were able to walk around on some pretty flat trails with spectacular views of Lake Tahoe and the surrounding mountains. In the picture below, you're looking at very early sections of the Western States 100 course.

Of course we decided to do a little bit of climbing anyway, to reach views like these:

We sat at the base of these rocks and soaked in the views until the weather started to turn really quickly. We scrambled back down to the tram, only to find out that the thunderstorms rolling in had shut it down...possibly for the night!

Eventually the tram got going again, long enough at least to get all the stranded passengers back down the hill, while we all tried our best not to look at the ground 500 feet below. The bad weather did make for some pretty amazing light.

But if you know anyone with any influence on the weather, please put a word in for some sunnier skies; I've got a race to run, and Petya needs to work on her Tahoe face.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Of Runners and Writers

This recent piece on the parallels between running and writing has been getting a lot of praise in my online circles recently, and deservedly so. In spite of the fact that I know a lot of academics/writers who have been drawn to running--and often at precisely those moments when their writing practice becomes most difficult or intense--I also have the sense that most of us cannot clearly articulate the link between the two activities, and often feel at pains to defend our running habits against the perception that they are distracting from our real work. My own experience of the disconnect between the two nearly led me to abandon running early on. I would justify the time I spent running by telling myself that getting away from the computer was just what my mind needed to work through that piece of the argument that wasn't quite clicking; what I found, though, was that running (usually) made my mind go completely still, sending me into a kind of objectless focus that's probably perfect for Zen meditation, but less so for carving out one's niche within a contentious field of scholarship. What's worse, I found that I even liked this effect, began to crave it, secretly ran in order to get back to it. It had to stop.

But what I noticed was that the effect of this "distraction" was precisely the opposite of what I would have expected. I wrote more clearly. I wrote with less hesitation. I wrote right through problems, picking them apart one step at a time, rather than skirting them, or dismissing them, or skipping of to check my email in the face of them. I even began to write with greater pleasure. Maybe that's why lines like these rang so true for me:

"Running has made me a more disciplined writer, and writing has reminded me to be brave when racing. I’ve learned—I’m trying to learn—to keep faith in the face of flagging mind, body, spirit, and confidence. I know that any valuable achievement will require that I make myself uncomfortable and may well hurt. I’ve learned to recognize the pain: 'Here we are again. This is the part that sucks. This is the place where I want to give up.'"

And that, contrary to what the headline suggests, strikes me as the crucial insight of this essay--not that running and writing merely have something in common, but that each practice promotes and solidifies the other. Will running make me a better writer? Only in the sense that "done is better than perfect," a lesson every runner must be reconciled with (nobody wins every race!). Will writing make me a better runner? Only in the sense that the road to improvement runs directly through miserable failure, something that every writer re-learns daily. But neither of those lessons is inconsiderable. Running is a much more mental activity than non-runners could ever hope to understand, and writing is a far more bodily enterprise than our cliches of the writer as disembodied recluse, fueled only by intellectual passion (and perhaps alcohol) will ever let on. Computers may be able to string words together into coherent sentences, but only a body can write.

All of that said, I can't get around the fact that my gut reaction to the essay's main contention consists of two seemingly incompatible responses: "Not really," and "Duh." Let me see if I can explain. (to be continued!)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Full Moon 50K

Right now in Perry, Arkansas, it is 90 degrees outside, at 8:00pm. That’s down a bit from the afternoon high of 95. Meanwhile, the forecast for New York tomorrow is 94 and nobody can shut up about the “sweltering heat wave.” In Arkansas in the summer, that’s just called “Tuesday.”

In any case, the reason for my sudden interest in Arkansas weather is the Full Moon 50K, which I’ll be running in Perry, Arkansas, this Saturday, at 8:00pm. The forecast high for Saturday is 95 again. Forecasts are seldom very accurate more than a couple of days out, but at this point I think I can count on it being hot. Seems obvious now, but I actually chose this race in the hope of “avoiding the heat.” The problem is, the only way to avoid the heat in Memphis in the summer is to stay inside. Given the state of the trails this time of year apart from the weather—nettles, poison ivy, mosquitoes, snakes—I definitely gave that option some thought. But given that I have long races coming up in October and December, it isn’t a very good option for me.

So apart from taking the summer off, the only way to avoid the heat is to run at night. It's called the Full Moon because it's run at night, in the light of the (mostly) full moon, on a pretty runnable course. From what I hear, it's the kind of race that people either PR or overheat and drop out. Sounds kind of fun, except that I pretty much wilt in the heat. Obviously staying hydrated is key in a race like this, especially for someone like me who sweats up to 4 or 5 pounds of water per hour in the heat. And the good news is that water stations are only about 4 miles apart on the course, so I won't need to carry more than I can drink in about 30-40 minutes. Still, I'm more than a little nervous about the heat. I'll be carrying water, electrolytes, and gels, but I'm looking for your advice for staying cool--or at least just keeping moving in the heat. Comment away!

Also, if you read about Four on the Fourth and wanted to see photographic evidence, it is now up (finally).

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Four on the Fourth

Back when I was whatever age you are when you start losing your teeth--baby teeth, I should say, as that other age is still ahead of me--I accomplished a pretty remarkable feat that has since been celebrated in Grady family history. Not continuously, mind you, as I did not reveal my accomplishment to the world until about a decade later, when at last I no longer feared the repercussions of sharing my secret triumph with well-meaning but over-protective parents who, let's be honest, lack the stomach for danger that is requisite to a genuine appreciation of heroism. OK, heroism on a fairly minor scale, in this case. Maybe "highly unusual deeds" would be more accurate, but definitely that. Probably even "deeds never before performed, at least in this school district by someone who has seen The Empire Strikes Back four times.

So it was the Fourth of July. My family was having a small backyard party, which right off the bat gives this story an air of fantasy, since my family was not exactly known for hosting parties, but it's true. Like any kid, all I could think about was fireworks. My parents are even less known as blowing-stuff-up types than as hosters of parties, so our personal stash of "explosives" was admittedly a fairly modest haul. Still, we had more sparklers than you could shake one of those incense-like firework lighting things my dad always called a "punk" at, and a whole bunch of those little black pellets that would glow into little shrivelled "snakes" of ash and gas the whole neighborhood with noxious fumes. Not to mention those flower things that spin on the ground and change colors, a smoking log cabin, one of those ones that you nail to the wall and it spins around and shoots out sparks, and the coup de grace: a Piccolo Pete. If you don't know what that is, congratulations, you probably still have the ability to hear an actual piccolo.

Like I said, a fairly modest haul, but still, those fireworks were all I could think about. That, and my loose tooth--cuspid, top row, tooth-loser's left. It had already been loose for a couple of days, so I figured it had to be ready to come out. The tooth fairy had been pretty good to me when I pawned my two front teeth for cash, and the prospect of making a deal with a tooth fairy who just might have some leftover fireworks--c'mon, c'mon, just some bottle rockets or a roman candle--had me feeling pretty giddy. I had to get that tooth out while it was still the Fourth of July, and that meant finishing the deed before the guests arrived. I got right to work.

A little hard work and determination saw that tooth out in no time, with hours to spare before it would be dark enough for fireworks. As I contemplated how to pass the idle time, a lesson learned from losing my two from teeth suddenly occured to me: there's another one just like it on the other side!

By now you can surely see where this is going, so I'll spare you the gory details of the twisting, the tugging, the string around the tooth tied to the doorknob (that doesn't work); sorry, I said I'd spare you the details. The crucial moment came when it dawned on me, somewhere after I managed to wedge my tongue in underneath number two, that in fact I had four canines, and if one was ready to go then the other three almost certainly would be as well. Dogs do everything in groups.

For those still disinclined to believe that I lost four on the Fourth, I assure that visual evidence exists. (edit: Yep, here it is!)

Somewhere among the family photo albums (Ellie, do you have a copy?) there is a picture of my from later that night, watermelon stains on my Izod polo, sparkler held proudly aloft, and me screaming in delight as I reveal four gaping holes in my toothy grin. Honestly, I don't know how they didn't notice. They must have been distracted by my awesome, side-parted bowl cut.

Anyway, I bring this up for a reason, and I swear it's actually running related. Never one to miss an opportunity to commemorate the occasion, Petya asked me this morning how we would celebrate this year. "What should we do four on the Fourth of?" she asked. When I suggested we could run four miles she laughed, then agreed. "Starting next year, we run four miles together every Fourth of July," she said, pausing for a moment before adding, "But if we're in Europe we run four kilometers." So just like that, another Grady family tradition is born.

Happy Fourth of July to you and your family, and may you only lose four of something you were looking to get rid of anyway.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Dipsea: Part 3 (Dipsea 2013 race report)

Shortly after passing the 1-mile marker, the course emerges onto Panoramic Highway--the road that roughly parallels the race course, connecting Mill Valley to Stinson Beach by going up and over the side of Mt. Tamalpais, as opposed to the more popular Route 1, which skirts the mountain by hugging the coastline north from Muir Beach. This is a welcome development for two reasons: first, it means that a much-needed downhill section is coming, and second, it means you get the first of the many spectacular views that, at this point, are well-earned.


Pretty nice, right? This is the view if you're facing more or less in the direction of the finish. Behind you are views back down the stairs and into Mill Valley, and beyond that countless Marin County homes clinging to the sides of golden, sunlit hills that plunge into the misty waters of San Francisco Bay. But there was no time to look at that now. Those dark, gently sloping woods ahead were too inviting, and I had too much ground to make up. My plan had been to survive the stairs and make up ground on the downhill; that meant there would be no time to enjoy the view. And besides, this wasn't really what I saw. See, this picture was taken two days before the race, on a hot (at least by Northern California standards) and sunny day, but race day was cool and drizzly, with low cloud cover, and fog blowing off the ocean and through the meadows of Mt. Tam. The view I saw was more like this:

Probably a good thing, since I had no business looking anywhere but the trail under my feet. Crossing Panoramic Highway, the course gets right back onto single-track. There's really only about a quarter-mile of downhill trail here, but it's decently steep--about half stairs--and fairly wide, which made for easy passing. Just as soon as I was getting settled into as decent a pace as I could maintain on some hard-packed, rolling downhill, it was right back onto the road, this time for almost half a mile. With a gentle downhill slope and two lanes of pavement, this was another great section for moving up in the pack. I felt pretty good about the progress I was making at this point, but knew I had a lot more people to catch, and was eager to get back on the trail. More than that, though, I was eager to through the next section of the course, and the harrowing decision that lay ahead.

Until recently, I had never seen the entirety of the Dipsea course, only the section between Stinson and Muir Woods. Granted this is about 5.5 of the roughly 7.4-miles, but it leaves out a couple of infamous portions of the trail: the stairs, and a marked shortcut forbiddingly named "Suicide." Knowing that I would arrive in California three days ahead of the (Sunday) race, I had originally meant to run the course on the Thursday before. That would give me a chance to see the full course, to check out some of the shortcuts, and to establish a rough sense of how I'd need to pace myself to meet my goal of 1:10. But when a delayed flight out of Memphis led to a missed connection in Minneapolis, I arrived a day late and had to cancel my Thursday run. Not wanting to race on only a day's rest (normally this wouldn't be a problem, but it's a pretty tough course), I decided just to go walk the sections I hadn't seen before on Friday. I even wore jeans and left my running shoes at home, knowing that once I was on the trail the urge to run would be close to irresistible.

One thing I've learned in my short time running trails is that people love to get each other (and themselves) worked up about certain notorious sections of trail. The first time I ran the "red" loop in Memphis's Shelby Forest, I half expected to find that it was so named for all of the blood it had claimed from unsuspecting runners; and when I was getting ready to run the Sylamore 25K in Arkansas's Ozark Mountains last February, I spent more time worrying about the much-discussed river crossing than the rest of the course. Things are usually not half as bad as they're made to sound, and you can pretty much be sure that's true when you're told that a section of trail is "suicide." Nonetheless, I wanted to see for myself, if only to compare the shortcut to the other portion of trail, and decide which I'd opt for on race day. Once I've seen it, I thought, I'll know which way to go.

Starting down the shortcut means pushing aside some brush, as this section of trail probably doesn't see a lot of use outside of race day. Not being able to see what's ahead certainly heightens the drama, but there doesn't seem to be much risk of bodily harm, apart from some possible minor scratches, after about 100 feet, though, the trail widens and becomes noticeably steeper. Hard-packed and covered in gravelly dust, it begins to feel less like a trail and more like a small section of hillside too steep for roots to take hold. Walking down this in my street clothes, I began to feel a bit of apprehension, but decided to scramble my way down anyway; it was only about 30 feet or so until the trail flattened out and...WHOOOOSH...POP! I couldn't tell what was causing the rush of sensation coursing through my veins, the pain in my knee or the embarrassment of having been stupid enough to injure myself two days before the race. Faster than I could see it happening, I slipped awkwardly on the loose dirt, and felt a sharp pain in my knee. I'm not really sure how it happened, as I was back up on my feet before I even felt anything, but my knee was sore in a way that I'd never experienced before. For a few minutes, I thought I was done.

Fortunately my knee was feeling fine on Sunday morning, but my anxiety about Suicide was at an all-time high. Sure, I could take the main trail and play it safe, but as I'd seen on my way back up the trail two days earlier, it was also less direct. As I turned off the road and headed to the fork on race day, I still hadn't made up my mind which way I'd go. Maybe it was the fact that the light drizzle had added a little bit of traction to the otherwise dusty trail, maybe it was the voice in my head that kept repeating something I'd read--"all the fastest runners take Suicide"--but either way I quickly found myself pushing aside the brush and falling in line with a train of runners who, like I had two days earlier, wondered aloud why this rather timid section of trail was given such a daunting name. "It gets worse farther down," I yelled, and watched as they slowed down, leaving me room to slide uneventfully by, joining back up with the main trail, and scrambling down the hill into Muir Woods.

Muir Woods is a magical place, home to massive redwoods and to equally over-sized banana slugs, and if you ever find yourself there you absolutely must drop whatever you're doing and go for a leisurely hike on its shaded trails. Unless, of course, what you're doing is running a race. dashing through the parking lot, we dropped down to the course's lone creek crossing--about 40 feet wide and spanned by a narrow wooden plank. I paused for a split second in disbelief as a crowd of people lined up to shuffle single-file across the bridge, then shot straight through the creek, whose water didn't even reach my ankles. Pro tip: running shoes dry out.

At this point I was feeling pretty good. I had passed people, as needed, at every reasonable opportunity, had put the most nerve-wracking obstacle (the stairs) behind me, and knew I had some beautiful trail ahead. Plus, I felt like I'd gone pretty far and still had plenty left in the tank. Then I did some quick math, and remembered I'd only gone two miles! Maybe it's because the terrain varies so quickly, that you get the impression of having traveled more distance than you have; whatever it was, that feeling was about to change. Ahead of me were just over two miles of steady uphill, with over 1000 vertical feet to climb. Now don't get me wrong, that's exactly what I was here for. On most weekends, that's my idea of a good time. If doing it once doesn't run me into the ground, I'll turn around and do it again, and again, until it stops being fun. At race pace, though, the thought was mildly nauseating. I decided to put the thought out of my head, focus on the lush, ferny switchbacks of the hill called Dynamite, and keep my head down.

One of the keys to running steep hills, I've found, is to simply keep moving, the more smoothly the better. Small, quick, even steps are preferable to longer, lurching strides. The idea is simply to keep whatever modest measure of momentum you have, and let your body glide up the hill. No such grace was granted to me this day. This was a slog. Every time I did manage to get some rhythm going, the trail got too steep, or turned too hard, or I simply succumbed to the log-jam of runners all suffering the same fate. Yes, I was keeping my head down, but that just meant the sweat pouring off my head was all ending up in my eyes. Still, I kept my head down. This too shall pass. I kept my head down, watching my feet, for what felt like hours, until I heard a gasp on the trail ahead of me. Then another. I looked up and saw sheet of bright red looming ahead of me: poison oak, my oxygen-depleted brain registered. Except it was full of pale, whitish patches, and it was moving, coming straight down the hill toward me. Blinking the sweat out of my eyes, I took another look and saw a runner, tall and slender, working has way against the stream of runners, with streaks of blood running from the top of his head right into his shoes, covering the majority of the front half of his body. "I'm fine!" You could tell he was getting as tired of having to convince horrified onlookers of that fact as he was bummed that his race was over. All that looking down mixed with low-hanging branches is a dangerous combination, and cuts on the head always bleed profusely. I heard he ended up being fine, but I also know he wasn't the only runner to leave more than a little blood on the course. That said, my at goes off to the excellent first aid workers who were actually out on the course helping injured runners, as well as the rest of the volunteer workers who kept an event that had every right to turn into total chaos working like a smooth, efficient machine.

After the woodsy switchbacks of Dynamite, you emerge into a clearing; the trail straightens out, but continues steadily uphill through a section called Hogsback. It is here, on the left side of the trail as you pass under the power lines, that you'll find Halfway Rock, so named not because it's actually halfway in distance, but because it marks the halfway point on the clock for many runners. At least that's the idea. I dared to look down at my watch and got my first real sense of how realistic my goal of 1:10 had been--31:30! Much as I fought them off, visions of a 1:05 finish danced into my head. That probably doesn't sound like much of a difference, but it felt like the difference between near certain qualification and having to bite my nails for a few days while they sorted out the final results. Still, I told myself, "halfway" is obviously an approximation. Nobody dragged this rock up here years ago so that it could one day mark the halfway point in your race that nobody but you cares about. Head down, keep climbing.

I wasn't so much sick of climbing at this point as I was eager to get to even some modest downhill. I know that sounds like the same thing, but I actually like climbing--just not for so long. One problem with training in Memphis is that we just don't have any sustained hills. Steep hills we have, if you know where to find them, and with enough reps you can pack plenty of climbing into a workout, but you're always going to get plenty of downhill "rest" mixed in. I longed for a little dip in the trail, just enough to build some momentum that I could carry into the next climb. I found myself walking a couple of times, to keep from getting on the wrong side of exhaustion--not a problem on a longer race, but definitely not in the game plan for a seven-miler. In any case, my fitness level was obviously not where I had thought it was, and I felt tremendous relief when I spotted the top of Cardiac Hill, the highest point in the course. From here, it would be (almost) all downhill.

The three-mile descent to the sea begins gently, sloping through wooded sections of trail that, for the first time on the course, are exposed to the soggy Pacific breezes. If you're familiar with the micro-climates of the Bay Area, you know what a profound difference a few crucial feet can make, and things were decidedly more muddy here. Watching people tiptoe through and dance around the sloppier portions, I realized that whatever Memphis (or my own want of training) had cost me on the long climb, it was helping me gain back in the mud! When your entire city lies within 100 vertical feet of the Mississippi River, you get used to running through mud or you don't run trails. You also get used to charging downhill with slippery footing, sliding if you have to, so long as you stay on your feet and keep moving. The confidence that that builds definitely cam in handy as the trail fell away to the coastline, dipping down the wet, mossy steps of Steep Ravine. Before you get there, though, you reach another optional shortcut, known as the Swoop. I didn't know where it was, but somehow I ended up on it, and found it to be aptly named. I hesitate to call what I did here running. It felt more like being a runaway mine car--not like being in one, but being one. The trail was so narrow, so overgrown, that you had no choice to make about where to direct each step. Invariably, the answer was "right there," straight down the trail, and hopefully not long enough to feel the ground, or your momentum will take you right over the handlebars and deposit you in the brush.

And that's about all I remember, until I popped out onto the highway yet again, shot down some more steps through the woods, and popped out over the turnstile that sits a few feet above Highway 1, just a stone's throw from the finish line. At least if you're, you know, someone who's really good at throwing stones. Heading into Stinson with the ocean on your left side, you make a sharp left turn near the fire station and head straight to the finish line. I knew because, despite never having done the race before, I'd studied the turn-by-turn description of the course, with photos, on the Dipsea website, and because I could see the crowd of people waiting there, about 300 yards in front of me. I kicked it into the closest thing I had left that resembled top speed, and even managed to catch a couple more runners in front of me, just in case. I would finish strong, feeling good, and having left it all on the course. And then I heard a voice in my head: "take the second left turn, immediately after the first, onto Arenal Avenue, to reach the beach...on the private road, you'll turn left right after the gate." NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! That was not the finish. one more left turn, and another 300 yards were still ahead of me, and I was done. Done. I am not a good sprinter, and I had already been sprinting for longer than I could maintain. I rounded the bend and saw the expectant crowd in front of me, kindly cheering just as loud as if we were the first runners coming in, and it was then that I knew I would need to walk. Across. The. Finish. Line.

One of the runners I had just passed, a third of my age, passed me right back. Ouch. But I didn't walk. I made ghastly sounds and hideous, contorted faces, to be sure, but I struggled my way across the line in a fashion that would have disqualified me from a speedwalking competition, a minor victory in itself. I tried to give myself a moment to bask in the feeling of accomplishment, the joy of the pure run, the spectacle of natural beauty all around me, but I couldn't resist the temptation to compromise all of that by turning it back into a race and looking at my watch. 1:04. Six minutes better than I had hoped for, one minute better than I had thought possible for me, and good enough to earn me my very own finisher's medal!

It was also good enough for 617th place, which means I qualify to run again next year. Post-race, it was back to Mill Valley to meet up with my dad, sister, and brother-in-law for lunch, the perfect end to a perfect race. Big thanks to everyone who makes this event possible, to all those who have contributed to its storied history, to my dad for helping me secure a spot, and to Ellie and Jon for putting up with my neurotic behavior in the final days before the race!

Run this race if you get a chance. If you don't, there's also a Double Dipsea and a Quad Dipsea. Or just go run the course. If you're doing to see the whole course without going to California, and have a high tolerance for unsteady-cam, you can check out this video made by one of this year's runners. Next up for me is the Full Moon 50K, a moonlight trail run in Arkansas in July. It promises to be hot, and dark. Duh. I'll keep you posted.