Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thankful for a Headlands Sunrise

Today: 20
Present: 754
Count: 105

I almost didn't get up this morning. It was dark, cold and I was starting to feel sick. But I knew the early morning wake up would be rewarded if I could just get there. So I braved the dark, hit the road and slipped north out of the city, the Golden Gate awash with dawn's early light.

I pulled into the Rodeo Beach parking lot around 6:45am, just 30 minutes from my front door. Precious few others joined me at that early hour, a couple park personnel and a few surfers looking for some morning waves.

The vegetation is sparse at the Headlands, and when I hopped out of the car, an invisible wind whipped in from the east, blowing offshore. It wasn't terribly cold,  but the wind bit and I opted for long sleeves, something I rarely do on a long run. I was glad I did and as I set off to the gun turret, the wind blew me straight back, making the normally arduous climb that much more of a wake-up call.

The 30k course at Rodeo Beach is nothing short of epic. Steep climbs, gradual downs with some technical sections and views pretty much the whole time of coast and the hills, ocean and bay. But what makes the biggest mark on me every time I run this figure eight is the expansiveness of the distance covered.

From the top of the first climb, I took a moment to scan the horizon, take in the expanses I was about to cover. Several ridges north, past valleys to the east then south almost to the bridge. In this early morning light, the light skewed the distance and it looked further than I had remembered.

The sun, a brilliant red orb, rose quietly over the San Francisco skyline.

I dove down into Tennessee Valley, taking it easy on the gradual descent. It would be a long day and I wasn't here to set any records. I wanted a long, comfortable run with no pain to remember the trails I know so well yet visit so infrequently.

From the trailhead, I charted a new course up the Miwok trail, mirroring the route my race here will take in a few weeks. Miwok wraps around the back of the ridge and meets up with Coyote Ridge Trail, my regular path up this second big climb of four.

I was taking it easy on purpose, but felt strong. I remembered back to my race at Mt Tam, how strong I ran at the end after going easy at the beginning. I think this is the right way to run trail races, but I'm not sure yet and have a sample size of exactly one.

Cruising down to Muir Beach, I glanced at my watch and saw that I wasn't even halfway done. Which wasn't a problem since the morning sun had heated up, the wind had died down and I had barely seen anyone all morning. I had the trails to myself.

I took a breather at Muir Beach and stood staring for a few moments out at the breakers. An empty beach, a quiet morning in Marin-style paradise.

The short climb out of Muir Beach is followed but one of the best stretches of coastal running in Northern California. A narrow, winding trail along the bluffs, on race day you can run this as fast as you want. Wooden bridges, smooth trails and fast fast fast downhills racing towards Pirate's Cove.

The rise out of Pirate's Cove isn't as long as the other three on this course, but I always count it as one of the big ones. Its steep, relentless, longer than you think and starts with a stretch of eternal stairs. And it happens to come right before Bonk Hill, the long grind up the back of the Headlands that's named for a reason.

Sailing down the fire road, I got myself mentally prepared for Bonk Hill. I refilled my water and grinded up the gradual incline up Tennessee Valley. At the parking lot, I mimicked the aid station, stuffed a couple shot blocks in my cheeks and started the climb.

Running Bonk Hill is simple: Run. It's not so steep you need to walk, and if you do, its going to be a long, long hike. Easier said than done though, as its almost a mile and a half up the winding, twisting fire road that never seems to end. It finally does, and the rolling respite leads into the almost final climb into the eucalyptus grove before you pop out to the best vistas of the run.

I've run here enough to have made the mistake of forgetting to eat during this break in the hill. Bonk Hill isn't named as such because you bonk there, per se, its named because it sucks what little energy you have left and sets you up to bonk later on.

And you want to be taking it in, not bonking, dancing along the narrow trail on a ridge plunging down to the Pacific on one side, the Golden Gate peaking over the Headland hills on the other. Another spot to run fast, albeit carefully, this is the time to gather yourself for the final descent down Slacker Ridge to the grueling flat section home, that in the summer will be dead into the wind.

I checked my legs coming down Slacker Ridge and they felt tight, but stable. Another great spot to run fast if your legs can handle it, but not so fast you forget about the flats.

I hit the flats and almost missed the turn, per usual, but made it across the bridge and into the Rodeo Valley wetlands, a wide trail that no matter how flat it actually is, always feels uphill. I even had the wind at my back today, but still struggled. And when I hit the road, with a little more than a half mile to go, I really started to struggle.

Three and a half hours, 20 miles and 4,200 feet of elevation is a real run, and I probably didn't eat as much as I should have. And as anyone who has run this course will tell you, that last stretch along the road is a killer. The tiny uphill barely registers, but it seems like forever.

I finally skidded in and couldn't have been happier about it. I was gassed. But I think what really sapped my strength on the final half mile wasn't the exhaustion, wasn't the soreness or the hills, but the knowledge that the run was almost over. That I'd have to leave the trails behind.

Until next time.

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