Toshi asked me why I would want to run such a short race. This is sort of a funny question when you think about it. A few years ago I would never think about running a half marathon, let alone one that climbed 2900 ft over fairly technical trails at some points. This course was my first "trail race". At that time it was put on by Pacific Coast Trail Runs and called the Pacifica 21k. I could write a pretty detailed report about that race and all of the lessons I learned, but that is not what this post is about...
Why race something that is not an "ultra-marathon"? I believe you get real training benefits from racing shorter distances. Not to mention it is serious fun. You get to go fast! I bring this up because most of my ultra-marathon running is decidedly not fast, but that is just what you have to do. I could go out for a really hard training run for a "shorter" distance and hope to get the same benefits. But I know I can not simulate race conditions. There is something about pinning that race bib to your shorts, and being surrounded by a bunch of other testosterone filled barbarians, and hashing it out to see who is top dog.
It is almost sacrosanct to think of one of these trail races as such a competitive event with people that actually want to win. Trail ultra-marathons, and trail races in general seem to pride themselves on the relaxed nature of these particular types of races. You will hear things about how we help each-other out, and offer up encouragement, etc. This is partially true. People say things out loud, but everyone knows the truth. When I say to another racer as he is passing me: "Good job man, keep it up, you're looking strong", what I really mean is: Just wait until the downhill, then you're going down! It is all a front. When you line up at a race, you paid your entry fee, you did your training (hopefully), and you mean to cash it all in. I just don't buy it when another racer says something about not wanting to do as well as they possibly could, what's the point? A race is a race.
So, how did this race go for me? The guy said go and I basically sprinted off of the line. Not recommended. With this particular course, all of the runners start on a pretty wide fire-road and are allowed to settle themselves into appropriate paces before you hit the single-track climb up the mountain. I have ran this race before where I got stuck behind some slower runners and regretted it, so I made sure that didn't happen. Unfortunately I may have been a little over-exuberant with my move. Once I hit the single-track I felt obligated to keep the level of effort up so that no-one behind me would get pissed that I was messing with their paces. The second-place guy at that time, Sean Handel, was breathing down my neck about a quarter way up the mountain. He seemed to be moving pretty good and I let him pass. About 2/3 of the way up a group of guys including Marc, Leigh Schmitt, and some other guys who were actually racing the 50k and marathon came up on me, and I let them pass. It was pretty frustrating that I was having such a tough time climbing. I was expecting to push it up the mountain better than that.
At the top of the mountain you grab a rubber band to prove that you were there and then head back down the way you came. This was where I was finally able to open it up and do my thing. I started catching guys on the down-hill, basically scaring the slower runners to death as I approached them at break-neck speeds down the rocky technical single-track. I passed a group containing Leigh, but did not see Marc. I ended up catching up to him at the bottom of Montara. We went through the aid station together and then hit the next climb, and naturally he took off. I did my best to climb it well, but again, some of those other races caught me. Then on the next downhill to the valley I was able to catch them again. This is a pretty common pattern for my racing. Sometimes I wonder how much it aggravates other racers when I'm constantly making these moves because of my obviously skewed trail running strengths...
The final climb up the Hazelnut switchbacks was like it has always been for me, a slow grind. A couple of years ago I remember running the whole thing, albeit slowly. This time I was taking hiking breaks. I noticed that I did not remember how to handle the pain of these type of races. It is different than the pain of an ultra, or the pain of a 5k. I was ill-prepared, and let it get to me. After I finally crested the hill I got to let it all out once again, and ended up having a strong finish in 1:42:something. It was a new PR for that course. My A goal was to beat 1:40, but I will take a PR any day. I got second place in the half (Sean ended up getting 1:35 and setting a new course record!). Four other runners besides Sean beat me to the 21 km point, but were running longer races. Insane. Those guys were cranking. From what I hear, three of them Leigh, Marc, and Kevin Weil all ran under the old 50 k course record- Leigh and Marc fighting it out till the end, and significantly lowering the record. Just impressive.
The day was awesome, weather perfect, views out to the pacific forever. It was a good time.