Surfing. Rollerblading. Sunbathing. None of these things were happening in California when I arrived on Stinson Beach, 20 miles north of San Francisco, ready to run my first ever race since moving to the US. In fact, it was a cool 8 degrees (or 46 as the locals would have it), foggy and there were about 120 people standing around shivering while we awaited the off. It felt a lot more like a parkrun than anything else. Not that this was a bad thing, far from it, but not perhaps the all-American, razzle dazzle I was expecting.
But as is tradition, I’m getting ahead of myself. So let’s rewind a couple of months to early August…
*picture goes wobbly for a few seconds to indicate going back in time*
My wife gets offered a job that’s too good to refuse (nothing to do with the mafia, honest) and so we move to California because, well, why not? Sadly, I can’t take my job with me so I come on a spousal visa and apply for a work permit. This could take 3-6 months so I am on household admin and dogsitting duties. With any luck, I’m thinking, this will leave plenty of time to train for my next big race, The North Face Endurance Challenge.
This 50-mile race goes some way to making up for the fact that, due to the change in continents, I didn’t manage to finish my goal for the year, namely the Centurion 50-mile Grand Slam. The story of that tale is for another time but the partial refunds I got from not doing two of those races paid for my entry to TNF50. It’s a hilly trail race (10,000ft of elevation gain) so I need to get some hill training in. Fortunately, living in San Francisco – where there are more than 50 hills in the city limits – this was not going to be a problem. Every single run I did involved ups and downs, some more extreme than others.
Within a month we’d moved out of the financial district and next to a park called Presidio, which has trails galore. This was better for me (specificity) and better for Hooper, our border collie (being off the lead is far more fun). As I was permanently dogsitting, all of my runs were with Hooper. At first, it was frustrating. He would lag behind me on the uphills, which on the lead was more resistance training than anything else, while on the downhills I wouldn’t be able to keep up for fear of falling over. But after a while I began to accept the slow ascents as a way to catch my breath before hurtling down as my four-footed friend led the way.
There was also the problem of doing long runs. While time wasn’t an issue, breaking the dog could be. One day, a solution occurred to me. In the 50-miler I’d likely be walking a fair amount anyway so I started doing my longer runs alternately running and walking a mile. The dog survived and I got time on feet. Most of my runs were ‘easy’ or ‘doggy fartlek’ at their most challenging but I was clocking up the miles without too much damage, and most importantly, getting some hills in.
Where in London a 40-mile week would mean around 1,000 feet of elevation gain, the same distance here was more like 5,000 feet. And while I wasn’t doing anything in the way of structured speedwork, the hills were apparently taking up the slack. A rare foray to (the admittedly pancake-flat) Crissy Field parkrun resulted in a second best ever 5k time of 20:35.
But being a flat-track bully was of no use to me in my quest to conquer my hilliest race yet. I needed something lumpy to practise on and where better than the area where some of TNF itself would be held. The Stinson Beach Half Marathon was to take place four weeks before and while considerably shorter, would be a fun test. In an attempt to recreate some latter-part-of-the-race-day fatigue, I spent four and a half hours on a run-walk earlier in the week, while also getting about 3,000ft of elevation.
And so I found myself on the beach, looking forward to a couple of hours in Muir Woods and the Dipsea Trail on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais, Marin County’s totemic peak. I looked around to see if I could find any other potential TNF runners. There were a couple of guys in Ironman (the triathlon series, not the comic book character) t-shirts, and another with a race vest and blue cap (on backwards, presumably for aerodynamics) who looked a possible candidate but other than that it was hard to tell. The issue was further muddied by the fact that a 7-mile race was taking place simultaneously. Suddenly we were off, up the beach, away from the cloud-shrouded Pacific and towards the trails.
I took it gently to begin with, partly as I had no idea of the elevation or course profile, and partly because although it was marked, I didn’t want to storm off in the wrong direction and get lost. Not that I’d be anywhere near the front but still. After a couple of road crossings very early on, we were on packed dirt trails of varying width but almost exclusively uphill as we made our way through shrubland and trees, up steps and slopes. I overtook a few people before finding myself alone in the woods and hoping the trail was marked well enough.
I needn’t have worried as there was really only one route, as the single-track weaved its way up the side of the mountain, beside a stream, between trees, over rocks and bridges and under fallen trees. I knew it was coming but I was still excited to reach a ladder to climb up next to a waterfall. This was all a far cry from the roads of Fulham.
I passed a few people and a few passed me but it was all immaterial as a) I wasn’t really racing anyone but myself and b) I didn’t know which race they were running. I just wanted to maintain a reasonably hard effort and not get injured. Before I knew it, I was at the 5k mark and although it had taken me a distinctly unimpressive 38 minutes, it had been enormous fun winding my way up the hill.
At around 3.5 miles the 7-mile runners took a right turn to head back to the beach, while the half marathoners went straight on. This was also the first water station. We’d been advised to carry water so to at least in part replicate TNF race day I wore my race vest with two 500ml bottles and a few gels, so I didn’t need to stop and overtook someone in a blue top as he stopped for a drink. As several runners had peeled off back down to finish their race, this was the first time I got the chance to see who I was up against in the half. At the very least, there was Man in Blue, who quickly went ahead of me again, and my first glimpse of Pink Vest Guy, who was also descending at a rate I couldn’t keep up with.
The next two miles were almost entirely downhill and the most fun section of the race for me. Balancing speed and foot placement among the rocks and tree roots was as much a mental challenge as it was a physical one and there were times my eyes were barely able to keep up with the forest floor flashing beneath me. Although that’s probably more to do with my old eyes than my blistering pace.
For most of this downhill I saw only the occasional glimpse of Man in Blue and would do the same as the course went back up the mountain. I hiked now and then but mainly kept up at least a steady trot, not so much to race but just to keep myself honest, to keep my effort levels up.
Then came a sharp switchback and directly above me I saw Pink Vest Guy. My immediate thought was that I’d taken a wrong turn, cut a corner somehow and got ahead of Man in Blue in error. I began to tell myself it was okay if I had to officially declare myself as a DNF as it was just a training race/run but I’d be annoyed if I had lost concentration and missed a marker.
I decided instead to focus on making ground on Pink Vest Guy and by the second water station at mile 7.5, I had overtaken him as he stopped to get a drink. Not looking back, I pressed on and enjoyed the winding trails among the trees, challenging myself to go as fast as possible without slipping into a ravine or twisting an ankle on a rocky stream crossing. My concentration was broken briefly when something hit my forearm and pierced the skin like a needle before I brushed it off. I’m still not sure what it was – a fly? a wasp? a spider? – but several days on it’s still itchy and swollen. At least it wasn’t a bear.
I spotted Man in Blue again and tried to up my speed but I could feel myself going into the red far too quickly and chose to maintain rather than overreach. There was still yet more climbing and several miles to go. As I reached the final peak of the day though at mile 10, I was surprised to see Backwards Cap at the water station. Again, I breezed through but soon noticed he was just behind me.
At this point I should probably point out that, at heart, I am a competitive person. That’s one of the many reasons I love sport. But I’ve never been good enough at running to be competitive in the sense of challenging for a podium place. There are always faster people than me in any given race and so very quickly it becomes natural to care only about your own time or performance or however you decide to measure success. For me, it’s often about beating a previous time. But whether I finish 63rd or 10,709th is largely irrelevant. As long as I’ve tried my hardest, that’s good enough.
Onwards down the undulating trail towards the finish we went. I didn’t look back but occasionally I could hear his footfalls. It seemed I was gaining on the ups but he was catching me on the downs. The trail descended steeply and I was back in the woods, overtaking someone who may or may not have been racing. I was determined to get down as fast as I could. And then… steps. Uneven, rocky, steep steps. Part of the Dipsea Trail and notoriously tricky. One misplaced foot would mean disaster and I slowed to ensure my safety but more crucially, enough for Backwards Cap to catch up and get past. Okay, I stepped aside but again, safety first.
Further steps played into his hands (or rather, feet) and he was soon out of sight. But not for long as I made ground on the short ascents. We were into the last mile now and back on the path we’d started the race so it was once again familiar. I reached the penultimate road crossing and turned left down the road before realising my mistake and retracing my steps to find the footpath now obscured by a parked car. It was less than 10 seconds lost but time I could ill afford if I wanted to catch my rival.
Generous hikers stood aside as I careened down the path to the final road crossing. It was clear and I ran across knowing I was less than a minute from the finish. Ahead was a road with a fence at the bottom and Backwards Cap was running down it. To the right of this road and the marker ribbon was the way to the finish. He’d gone the wrong way and was shouting his annoyance at the world. I took the correct path and he popped out of the adjacent road next to me. I can’t remember exactly how the next part unfolded but the following exchange about sums it up.
“You go ahead,” I said. ‘You deserve it.”
“Thanks man!” he said as he sprinted off.
“I might take this back if you’ve won this!” I shouted after him jokingly.
Twenty seconds later I crossed the finish line, less than five seconds after him. I’d finished in 2.12:23 and in fourth place. Man in Blue had come second while Pink Vest Guy was a few minutes behind me in fifth.
While a part of me would have liked to have got on the podium – to be clear, there was no actual podium, or even any finisher medals, just personalised ribbons for the top three and a squeaky rubber chicken for the winner – not letting him go ahead of me, no matter the position in the race, wouldn’t have felt right. He was the faster runner when it mattered. You could argue that navigating is a part of racing and in that he failed. You could also argue that I didn’t deserve to beat him as I lacked the killer instinct at the crucial moment. But I did what I did as it felt right in the moment, and it still feels right now.
A half marathon, even one as hilly (for me) as this one, is no indicator of my performance in the forthcoming 50-miler, but it has given me confidence in the hills and that I’m in reasonable shape to take on that challenge. More importantly, it was an honour and a pleasure to run on such gorgeous trails. If you’re ever in the area, you must check them out – they are simply stunning.
There’s another race on a very similar route with a different name next May. Don’t bet on me not being there…