It was a dark but clear and cold morning that greeted us in the Marin Headlands on Saturday. Given last year’s weather conditions and the fluctuating forecast in the days leading up to this year’s edition, we all agreed that it was pretty much a perfect day for the annual bloodbath that is The North Face 50 Mile Championship. Though hype was at an all time high, the pace felt downright civilized for the first several miles. Predictably, Cam Clayton went off the front with a long string of us chasing from a safe distance in the pre-dawn darkness. I ran with Mike Wolfe and Jorge Maravilla up the serpentining Heather Cutoff Trail until we caught the chase group halfway up the longest climb of the day.
Soon after the Cardiac Aid Station (mile 18) Cam came back to the group and a good cast of characters now made up the front of the race, including Adam Campbell, Max King, Rob Krar, Mike Wolfe, Chris Vargo, Michel Lanne, Cam and myself. Though we clearly saw tremendous talent was close on the ensuing out and back, it was clear to me that the winner was probably going to come out of our pack. We all stayed together down the classic Matt Davis descent to Stinson Beach. Though unspoken, it was understood that the race would be get much more interesting on the ensuing long, grueling climb back to Cardiac on the legendary Dipsea Trail. This course is truly a gem.
I immediately became twingey on the climb and quickly lost contact with Chris, Mike and Rob who now made up the front of the race. I kicked myself for again making the rookie mistake of not bringing salt for the second race in a row – an inexcusable oversight on my part. Still, I felt fine at Cardiac and Cam soon caught up and passed me on the subsequent gentle descent into Muir Woods, which didn’t concern me at all. Earlier in the race, I had the thought of how awesome it was to be racing on my home trails and enjoyed the luxury of not having to look for flags or turns. Ironically as I hit the valley floor in Muir Woods, I took a hard right on what I believe to be the race course like I had practiced in training. In doing so, I completely missed a very well marked left hand turn that we were supposed to follow. According to my Strava data, the mistake cost me just over 3 minutes, so it wasn’t the end of the world, but certainly not ideal in such a strong field and in such a close race. Another rookie mistake.
When I got back on course, I soon caught Max King and tried to persuade him to work with me to make our way back up to the group. Clearly he wasn’t having his day and couldn’t join me. I noticed Daniel Kraft close behind on the climb back up to the beautiful Redwood Trial that contours the Panoramic Highway. Though I felt fine, I could tell he felt better and my instincts indicated he’d eventually catch me. I maintained a small gap for several more miles until Daniel finally caught me on steepest portion of the second to last climb – a portion of the course I expected to be critical and later learned to be the spot where Rob made his lethal move on the guys up front. We had a brief chat as he passed and I noted how remarkably strong he looked.
The twinges in my quads and calfs worsened but my attitude and energy were still very good. I made up ground on Daniel on the descent and we came into the next aid station separated by only a few seconds. Feeling like I’d saved a bit of mojo for the final climb up Marincello – a dirt road I do repeats on regularly – I was confident I could potentially give Daniel a run for his money in the final miles. Grabbing a new bottle from Harmony, I quickly stopped by the aid station and put a healthy pinch of table salt in my bottle and chugged it in the first few meters of the climb. I could feel immediate relief with the ingestion of electrolytes and climbed well. Still though, Daniel was super strong and I could tell I wouldn’t catch him. Surprisingly, I did see a struggling Mike Wolfe and caught him right before the final descent to the finish.
On the descent down Rodeo Valley I was amazed to be able to see Cam, Vargo, and Daniel out in the distance. With Mike literally right behind me, I smiled at how crazy it was that we were all so close after so many hours. It was truly a classic and I’m happy to have been a part of it. I made a couple silly mistakes, but that’s the nature of racing and that’s what makes running so fun. There’s always something to improve and there’s so much to learn. With 2013 now in the books, most guys are looking forward to a rest. Not me. Big things ahead in 2014 and there’s a lot of work to do. Fire it up.