My last two trail races have been anything but stellar, so I wanted to go into the Mt. Tam Half with Inside Trails with a totally different mindset.
Sure I had placed OK and run reasonably fast, but one triggered a months-long injury and the other almost put me out of the marathon. In each case, I went into the run with the decidedly wrong attitude. Its not that I was trying to win per se -- there's nothing wrong with that -- but I had completely forgotten why I got into trail running in the first place: its damn fun. In both races, I set off with nothing but my place, my time and my performance in mind.
In short, I was too focused on the destination and was neglecting the journey.
So this crisp morning as we took off from Stinson, up the Dipsea and into Muir Woods, I really, truly wanted nothing more than to have fun.
As a bonus, I also figured out the best trail running race-day strategy to finish strong and run a great race: Expect a 1,000ft climb straight up three miles before the finish that never comes.
Having failed to run the whole course last weekend, I relied on the course elevations posted on the race website to plan my strategy. Over miles 4-8, the trail plunged down into the woods then rocketed straight up for two miles back to the final aid station before you picked up the Dipsea again for the final descent back to Stinson.
It seemed simple enough: save gas for that final push and hope the people in front of me struggled up while I breezed past them to glory.
KJ and I stuck together on the first climb up Steep Ravine, content to even be chicked in the pursuit of running smart. We hit the top and flew down. Literally flew.
The descent down Ben Johnson Trail into Muir Woods was one of my top three trail running segments of all time. Lush woods, damp fresh air as the salty sea mist mixed with the towering redwood forest. Steep but runnable, soft trails that were highly technical with roots and rocks leaping out at your feet. Keeping pace required intense concentration. I followed another runner down, weaving through hikers who were surprisingly understanding and there were no near-crashes.
This was the first time I had let loose downhill in my new trail shoes and they performed admirably. I was nimble, dancing down at speed.
I had extended a lead over KJ on the flats before the aid station, but expected him to pass me at any moment on the down. He is a better technical downhill runner than me, but he didn't catch me until the bottom. When he did, he yelled out "damn AJ, you're not supposed to run downhill so fast!"
But the descent could only last for so long, and I settled into what I expected to be a series of short ups and downs, a meander back to near sea level. The plunge never happened.
The crowds of tourists thinned out as we crossed over to a narrow single track that wound back uphill. Strange, I thought, I didn't remember this long a climb on the map. But I kept the throttle light, taking it easy, preserving energy. What was more likely, the elevation chart was wrong or I didn't remember the course perfectly?
But as the miles wore on and we kept climbing, I began to doubt myself. Was I on the wrong trail? Nope, I saw other runners and never left the orange ribbons. But I stuck to my race plan and took it easy.
At one point, one the lead runners charged past me, asking what race I was running. He had gotten lost and was now trying to make up time. He blew by me, effortless. Some people can really run.
Miles ticking by, I really started to wonder where that descent was. When we crossed 1,000 feet at mile 8, I gave up trying to figure out where I was and just ran. I settled into a comfortable pace, finally passing the runner in front of me who had kept a 100 yard or so lead on me for the last half an hour.
And almost out of nowhere, we popped off the single track. I momentarily thought I recognized the trail as what I had flown down earlier, and there was the final aid station.
What the what? At that point I convinced myself I had somehow run the wrong trail and had missed that final climb. I popped a salt pill, refilled my water and raced down the Dipsea, guiltily chasing runners I was sure had run longer, and suffered more than me.
The legendary Dipsea Trail is pretty much as advertised. Steep climbs, breathtaking views, tons of stairs and really easy to crash on. But that first mile or so along the ridge is unforgettable as you look up the coast at Stinson and beyond, sun shining on the golden hills. The trail is oddly tricky to run hard, with subtly uneven ground making for tough going. Really easy to turn and ankle and I was glad KJ and I had run this section in our recon.
I passed the guy I had flown downhill with, later finding out her had been saddled with cramps. I pushed on, down the long series of steps before the junction with Steep Ravine, up the final couple insulting climbs before emerging at the top of the Dipsea's first gradual climb away from the beach. Down below, perhaps a quarter mile ahead, I spotted my next target.
He was a ways out there and moving well, but I felt strong and fresh. I knew I had plenty of time to catch him, and that the only way I wouldn't is if I crashed. So I remained reserved and gradually reeled him in.
When I got close enough for him to hear me, I knew he knew it and he picked up the pace. But I held back, not wanting to risk either of our safety passing on the spaced out wooden steps that dot this section of trail. We hit a gap in the stairs, I advised him of the pass and flew by. I never looked back.
I don't look back, ever. Or at least I try not to. Looking back shows weakness, and if I see someone ahead of me doing it, I know they're mine.
I didn't want to get repassed, so opened it up and sprinted the last section of trail, down onto the pavement, across the little bridge and to the finish line.
I ducked in just under two hours and felt like I had two more hours left in me. I chatted with some friends and others who had just run the race, discussing the course and the phantom climb. KJ came in a couple minutes later and confirmed that the elevation map had been wrong. We later figured out that it had been for last year's course, which evidently was a lot harder.
What followed was precisely why trail running is infinitely better than road running. KJ got a call from one of the race volunteers telling him that his wife Abra had accidentally run the pink not the orange course and would be completing the 30k rather than the half marathon. She had toyed with the idea of running the 10k all along, only opting for the half at the last minute so now would be running 3x her plan.
But she was in good spirits and was in plenty good shape to finish.
It turns out Maura's brother Luchi, who had joined us for the half, also got lost and ended up running 16 miles. His first trail race and the longest he had ever run. He had an amazing time. We all did.
KJ ran out to grab a case of beers and we lounged on the grass, chatting with other runners, cheering on finishers and waiting for Abra. She cruised in, a mere 4.5 hours after she started and about 3 hours longer than she had planned on running. But she was all smiles.
We crushed our last beers, wandered over to get brunch and enjoyed some well-earned greasy burgers and fries.
Quite a day. Reminders of why I run trails throughout, good times with good people in a beautiful setting. It makes getting up at 5am on a Saturday and not getting home until 4pm all worth it.