Marin Ultra Challenge, also known as MUC, offers 50 miles of some of the most scenic trails in the Marin Headlands and Mt. Tam. It is almost 11,000 ft of gain making it one of the toughest races in the Bay Area. Of course any 50 mile race on these trails is going to be tough, but MUC has something that the others don’t – the infamous Willow Camp trail, a beast of a trail that gains 1,800 ft of elevation gain in just 1.8 miles, after you’ve just gloriously plummeted down to sea level. March can be a dicey time of year for Spring races. You can usually count on cool temperatures, but as far as weather goes, anything’s possible. That’s all part of the challenge and charm of MUC. If it were easy, would any of us be doing any of this?
I ran MUC for the first time last year. I had run two 50 mile races to date, but neither had been anything to brag about. My first – AR50, I loved, but I in no way raced it. My second was Mt. Hood. I did well enough, but definitely died (see The Ultrarunner’s Dictionary for the definition of “die”) the second half. MUC would be my first really successful 50 miler. I felt I had the upperhand. I live in Marin and run on these trails frequently, but most importantly I am confident on these trails. Confidence is huge for me going into races, both physically but especially mentally. Being able to train on a course beforehand gives me confidence on race day that is critical to my performance. Little did I know that having some fierce competition would also be critical to my performance. For a large majority of the race, I was being chased by the second female, Katie Asmuth. Had Katie not been right behind me, I would not have run as well as I did that day. Last year, I ran MUC in 8:36:40 and was able to snag first place woman.
I guess I forgot to mention that MUC is one of the few races in the area (or just, period) that offers prize money. First place gets $500, second gets $250, and third gets $150. Each podium finisher also receives a pair of La Sportiva trail running shoes. It’s a pretty sweet deal for a local trail race. And running for some extra bucks definitely adds an additional incentive to run faster, especially if you are a poor college student.
This year Yuch and I decided to run MUC again. I’m still a college student (sort of), but I didn’t necessarily care about the money this year. I wanted the course record. The current course record was 8:23, and having run an 8:36 last year, I thought running an 8:20 was doable. It’s true I had a great race last year, but I knew I was stronger and had some miles under my belt. I printed out a pace chart and decided I’d go for 8:20. Having the fastest time on that course would mean a lot to me with the Marin Headlands being one of my favorite places to run.
As race day approached, RD Tim Stahler commented that the weather could be anywhere from “absolutely perfect to downright miserable”. This would turn out to be a fairly good assessment of the weather that day.
At 6:30 am, without a drop in the sky, we took off from Rodeo Beach. My goal? Run a little faster than last year. Without a watch, it would be impossible to know how fast I was going, but I had my little pace chart folded up in my hydration pack and would know if I was “on pace” each time I arrived at an aid station. Actually – I was wearing a watch, I just didn’t turn it on. There are two reasons I wear my Garmin, but do not use it for these longer races. Firstly, my Garmin won’t last long enough for anything longer than a 50k, so there’s no point. Secondly, I find it annoying and disruptive to have my watch monitoring my race. In a road marathon, it is critical for me to know my pace, but on the trails, seeing my pace fluctuate on the ups and downs will only stress me out and likely suck precious energy from me. So, I find it more useful to go by feel, and to keep myself in check with a pace chart with times.
I was slightly ahead of my pace chart. I guess going by feel is not always perfect, but then again, I knew Willow Camp would offset my “perfect” pace chart, too. I was slightly ahead of my pace chart, and slightly behind on my eating. I always try and eat 100 calories every 30 minutes, but eating just didn’t seem desirable or compatible with the whole running thing. I ran with a couple of guys who were running their first 50 miler. I was impressed with their pace and ambition. I couldn’t keep up, and was bummed when they took off. Heading up Coastal to Pirate’s Cove, I met Katie Arnold, the winner of last year’s Leadville 100. I knew beforehand that she would be my biggest competition and I was looking forward to her pushing me towards a PR, even if it meant her leaving me in the dust. Unfortunately, she had dropped down to the 50k distance. Part of me was relieved (because she passed me), but the other part of me was bummed because I was truly looking forward to the competition, seeing how I compared to such a successful and strong runner, and potentially getting a big wake up call. I wasn’t sure I would be able to get the course record or a PR without the competition there.
The rain started. I ran through Muir Beach. I had a drop bag at Cardiac and enough fuel on me to feed two. Heading up to Cardiac through Heather Cutoff and then Coastal, only wearing shorts and a t-shirt, I was soaked from the rain, but not yet cold. I hadn’t wanted to wear my rain jacket until it was absolutely necessary. I felt weak already going up Coastal. Not yet even 20 miles into a 50 miler, this was not a good sign. Maybe I didn’t taper enough, or maybe I’m just not as strong as I thought. At the top of Cardiac, I made my way over to my drop bag. In the minutes it took me to remove my gloves and refill my pack, I got cold very quickly. The rain was really coming down now and up there on Cardiac is no place to be during a storm. I put my jacket on. Another runner at the aid station commented that his current self was cursing his former self for not bringing a rain jacket. In attempt to console him, I offered “ah, you’ll be ok as long as you keep moving”. I couldn’t get my gloves back on and now my hands were freezing and wet. The second place female arrived at Cardiac, and I was out of there – gloveless. Ready or not.
Last year I remember having such a great time running down the Dipsea. This year I felt like I was in “emergency” mode. I was freezing cold and the second place woman was on my tail! I tucked my hands into my rain jacket and shivered. “I am so glad I am not that guy without a rain jacket”, I thought. Eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while in emergency mode flying down the Dipsea is challenging. The trail was slippery, the ground was soaked, and my feet were soaked. Numerous downed trees slowed my pace past the already slow pace of the later technical stages of the Dipsea. I questioned if I could make it the full 50 miles. And then, I emerged from the rain and saw my first view of Stinson Beach and clear skies.
Leaving the Willow Camp aid station, I briefly caught view of the yellow rain jacket of the second place woman. Just. Keep. Moving. I had trained on Willow Camp and felt like we were friends. Maybe not the best of friends, but we had become acquainted enough so that it wasn’t a surprise or scare when we met again. I knew I would be power hiking most of the way, and running when I could, so that is what I did. The key to power hiking is to hike with intention. I never just throw in the towel and “walk”. Power hiking is not walking. My intention (and motivation) was to get to the top of Willow Camp and be done with it, and to reap the benefits with the pleasantly rolling single track back over to Cardiac. How can you not be motivated by that?!
I caught up to one of the guys, Casey, who had passed me early on. Then I caught up to the other guy, Taylor. I was so happy to see them again. I was taking in fuel regularly – a totally random combination of bars, Gu Roctane Summit Tea, cookies, PB & Js – and feeling strong. Taylor and I ran together to Cardiac, where I picked up the-always-positive Moriah, precisely at 11:22 am. Somewhere in Muir Woods we picked up another MUC-er, Ryan. We passed a runner with trekking poles. The rain and wind were now behind us, and it was safe to remove the rain jackets. Running with Moriah, Taylor, and Ryan for this brief period would end up being the most memorable part of my race. I have often heard about the special bond made with other runners during times of suffering, but never quite experienced it myself. Usually I run alone, and so I thought maybe these bonds only happen on podcasts or in the back of the pack. During my time running with these guys, I had so much fun and not once did I think about how I was feeling or if I would be able to make it. I loved that. And so I was sad when I left them at the Deer Park aid station. I didn’t need anything, so Moriah and I just kept moving.
Oh, right. I guess I forgot to mention that at some point during the race I learned that the course had been cut short. Had I paid attention to the Facebook post the day before or Tim’s announcements at the race start, I would have known this. Instead, I learned from one of the other runners during the race that the course had indeed been cut short due to “storm damage”. We would not be ascending up Miwok and descending down Dias to Muir Beach, cutting approximately 2-3 miles from the 50 mile course. The culprit: that darn Redwood creek bridge that was still out. In short, I would not be able to attain either a course record or a personal record. I would be arriving to Muir Beach earlier than planned, and I just hoped Dan was ready for me when I got there.
Dan was early and ready to go, and off we went. All I had to do was get up two(ish) more hills, Middle Green Gulch and Old Springs/Wolf. Middle Green Gulch 40 miles into a race is quite different than Middle Green Gulch on fresh legs. I went for the run/hike with intention. I didn’t feel as motivated knowing that my goals were no longer possibilities, but I still didn’t want Yellow Rain Jacket catching up to me at this point in the race. Old Springs is the most gradual climb of all the Headland’s climbs, and I still couldn’t run the whole way. That is the most pathetic thing about these longer races. On Wolf, I again returned to the run/hike and before I knew it, the welcome sight of glorious Hill 88. It was all downhill from here. The final goal was to make it to the finish without a face plant. That final run down to Rodeo Beach is beautiful and fast. With the rain behind us, the day had shaped up to be a good one. I crossed the finish line with a time of 7:52:22. As Tim had so shrewdly predicted, the day was absolutely perfect with just a dash of downright miserable.
I ended up getting the course record, but I am here to say that I do not feel good about it. I knew I could have gotten 8:20 on that course based on my pace throughout the race. I also know that there are dozens of women who could do that race faster, probably even faster than my not-even-50-miles time! I hope that as MUC continues to get more competitive and the trail running scene continues to grow, some strong woman will be inspired to blow my time out of the water, just as I was inspired to do.