A river runs through it

“it” being my first trail run

Loving it from start to finish (credit: Chasqui Runner)

If you’ve read any of my stuff, you know I’ve been on a triathlon kick for the past year. You probably also figured out that I’m a runner at heart who likes biking just fine, and merely tolerates swimming. So with triathlon season over and no more races until April, I figured I’d give pure running races a shot.

A marathon? Maybe. But my body is fragile and roads are sorta boring. I used to love hiking before popping out three kids (or, I guess, watching my wife pop them out — thanks babe!). Combine running and hiking, and you get trail running. You might also get busted knees, hypothermia, and a big serving of humble pie. But never mind any of that. Let’s do a trail race!

There are lots of options in the San Francisco area. Which makes sense. We have lots of hills, lots of big parks, and lots of crazy people like me who will pay to run up and down those hills. I settled on a 20k race at Rodeo Beach, just north of the Golden Gate bridge.

Paying $50 for the privilege of climbing 2,200 feet over 12 miles might not seem like a great deal, but remember that I paid $800 to almost drown in San Francisco bay. Compared to that, this is a no-brainer.

This is our route. “Slacker Hill” is not appropriately named

As usual, my training “plan” was to just run a lot. But not too much. I started running back-to-back days, and adding hills. Thankfully, the city of “Hillsborough” is right outside my door. Also as usual, there was a hitch in my training. Ten days before the race I did my biggest run — 8 miles with 1,000 feet of climbing. I felt great. Until later that night when I felt not so great. The culprit? Food poisoning.

I spent the whole next day in bed, and most of the next 4 days as well. It wasn’t until a week later — 3 days before the race — that I felt well enough to try another run. Just a few miles to test my system and loosen my legs. Am I really ready to run 12 miles through steep hills? Probably not. But there’s only one way to find out.

It had rained for 2 days straight, and race morning was no different. I got on the road about 6:30am, and almost turned around a couple times as the rain fell harder and harder. Was I seriously driving an hour to wait around in the rain for 45 minutes to run through mud and rain for 2 hours to maybe avoid hypothermia and “win” a wooden medal that would probably end up splitting from the rain anyway? In the continuing theme of my athletic exploits — what the hell was I thinking!?!

This is what we run for. Seriously.

I’m stubborn as shit. I no longer want to run, but I’m not backing out now. One more “I should bail” moment about 30 minutes before the race, but I never really seriously considered it. Nope. I‘ll suck it up, be miserable, but savor the accomplishment at the end. Hopefully still in one piece.

The wind and rain continued it’s assault on me and the other obdurate fools as we huddled under an awning. The organizer talked us through the course, noting that visibility was as short as 20 feet in some places. “Watch the markings to make sure you stay on the right trail. We marked it as best we could, although some ribbons may have been blown away by the wind.” So…now I’m officially worried about getting lost too.

He then looks at someone’s running shoes and wryly notes “Your whole foot is going to sink through the mud. Definitely up to your ankles. It’s pretty messy up top.” This is not going to be fun. Or is it?

I’m freezing, and itching to start running so I can get warm. At least temporarily. And the sooner we begin, the sooner we finish. We finally leave the covered area and walk quickly towards the trail. We do what’s called a “running start”, which is apparently just him yelling “GO!” as people are still making their way towards the start. Finally…it’s on!

The trail heads immediately uphill, zigzagging for 1.5 miles during which we climb almost 800 feet. This was quite a shock to my system. My normal hills are shorter and flatter, so I’m not fully prepared. My heart rate is spiking, which does have a side benefit. I’m no longer cold.

The next 2.5 miles is mostly downhill. For me, running downhill is a very deliberate action. I’m trying to minimize pounding on my back, knees and ankles. And since I’m the moron who wears road shoes on a seriously wet and muddy trail run, traction is a concern. Amazingly, my footing holds, and my joints don’t crumble.

Notice the 45 degree angle for the rain (credit: Chasqui Runner)

The only other big climb is another 1.5 miles up a wide fire road. At first, the wind is blowing straight uphill. For a glorious minute it felt like someone was literally pushing me from behind. Invigorating! The wind then swirled indiscriminately for several minutes before applying it’s full force into my face. Deflating isn’t a strong enough word. I came almost to a running stop. It was easier to walk, and really not much slower. I start running again a few minutes later after the wind took a breather (ha ha!).

Up top, the wind continued to gust. We’re running along a ridge line that’s completely exposed, and multiple times it felt like I might get blown right off the side of the mountain. I’m still amazed my hat survived. Some markers had indeed been blown clear, and I occasionally wondered if I’d missed a turn. But eventually I’d see a pink ribbon and know I was still on track. And while the fog completely blotted out the surrounding views, visibility of the trail was not a problem.

This would have been our view on a clear day…
…our actual view was more like this

Ground conditions were sloppy. Days of rain left mud and standing water across large portions of the trail. Sometimes you could find solid ground, sometimes you couldn’t. Each submersion sent a cold rush over my foot as water filled my shoe. My foot plants in the thick, squishy mud hiding underneath, and my body wobbles. Please o’ please knees, don’t fail me now.

running through puddles (credit: Chasqui Runner)

The final descent started around mile 8 and lasted 2.5 miles. At the start, it’s really steep. Crazy steep. A 25%+ downgrade in places. A braver person would barrel down to make up time. In fact, a braver (and younger) runner does exactly that as he flies past me. But I’m terrified of shredding my knees (which, ironically, can happen if you go too slow). So I waddle cautiously, jealously watching my competitor run out of sight.

The next two miles of descent are more moderate, and it’s energizing. Running downhill takes a lot less effort. So as I flatten out for the last mile, I feel great. Unfortunately, my legs don’t get the memo. My feet are heavy from all the water, and I think my clothes have gained a couple pounds as well. I catch sight of the guy who passed me earlier, and I make it my mission to overtake him. I chase him for a full mile, slowly closing the gap from about 200 feet to 20 feet. But that’s as close as I’ll get.

I really didn’t know what to expect. I’d never run a trail race, much less during a storm. And 12 miles is a stretch for me, even before you add 2,200 feet of climbing. I finished in 1 hour 42 minutes and 8 seconds, good enough for 3rd in my age group (40–49) and 8th overall (out of 98).

Too dumb to realize how miserable that should have been

At the finish I was exhausted. But even more so, I was soaked. In the not-so-clean-or-dry bathroom, it took me about 10 minutes to swap into merely damp clothes. Next time I’ll make sure I have a fully waterproof bag. And different clothes for before vs. after. One of many rookie mistakes.

The post-race fuel was the best I’ve had. Multiple (hot!) stew options, plus sausages, chicken, beans, rice, and tortillas. And of course chocolate milk and cookies. And beer for those that didn’t have an hour drive in pouring rain ahead of them.

I have to say, the event organizers at Pacific Coast Trail Runs did an AMAZING job. The volunteers got there early, marked the paths, stood along the trails (for 8+ hours…in pouring rain…and wind), rang cowbells, cheered, served food, handed out medals and shirts, and had giant smiles on their faces the whole time. Unbelievable. It takes a special kind of person to do that. And somehow, PC Trail Runs found a couple dozen of those people.

Even the massive downpour couldn’t keep these great volunteers down

After the first couple miles, I only saw a handful of other runners. Running alone, without music or podcasts, left a lot of time to think. My mind wandered a lot, but mostly I just basked in the moment. During triathlons, I’m always thinking about the next thing. How is transition going to go? Am I saving enough for the next phase? Too much? Here, I could just run. For someone who loves to run, it was almost pure heaven. Only if heaven found itself overwhelmed by a monsoon.

Strava thinks the run was “Epic”. I couldn’t agree more.

Epic indeed

My legs are still sore and I think I might be getting sick (maybe from running in freezing rain? Or more likely from my 3 kids.) But I can’t wait to try this again. Like literally can’t wait. Like, my next trail race is Saturday*, seven days after this first one. A half marathon with 2,400 feet of climbing. It’s probably stupid, and definitely crazy. But that’s what happens when you’re in love.

* I managed to throw out my back the day after I posted this. Bowling. Seriously. I guess that’s what happens when you’re 41. So that Saturday run didn’t happen. But I’ll be doing more trail runs whenever I get healthy again.

You can see a find a full list of race recaps here (if you’re into that sort of thing): Joe’s race recaps

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