Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Whirlwind Tour of the Marin County Trails - Coyote Ridge Race Report

Last weekend I had the pleasure of spending 50 wonderful hours in Marin County north of San Francisco. My primary excuse for making this trip was that I had a canceled reward flight booking that I needed to use before the end of the year, and the Coyote Ridge trail race in the Marin Headlands just so happened to coincide with this particular weekend. I had actually planned before to make the trip the weekend prior for the North Face Endurance Challenge Championship, but due to real-life logistics happening to me, I was delayed by a week. This turned out to be a great thing in the end since The North Face event was largely an exercise in misery and disappointment (by no fault of the organizers), and the race distance that I would have been running ultimately ended up being canceled.

My weekend in Marin Co was, however, faced with its own challenges; namely a sickness that I had started to feel coming on the day before leaving Denver for the race. I spent the majority of Thursday and Friday before leaving focused on convincing my body to not become sick. It only marginally worked, and as I flew to San Francisco I was accompanied by some nasty body aches and lack of any real energy. Despite feeling lousy, I was still able to appreciate the beauty of watching the sun set on the Sierra Nevada mountains as we flew over them.

After arriving in San Francisco, I got into my rental car and drove directly north across the Golden Gate Bridge, and felt immediately relieved to be outside of the crazy cluster of a city that is San Francisco proper. I stopped at a grocery store in Mill Valley and picked up some of the essentials I would need for the weekend including two pounds of chicken wings and a six pack of delicious IPA from 21st Amendment Brewing that just so happened to contain some the best beer label artwork I've ever seen.

Since it was very dark and I was interested in doing little other than preserving every bit of energy that I could for the next day's race, I made my way along the dark and winding Hwy 1 to the Muir Woods road and settled on a nice roadside pullout where I could set up lodging for the night inside the Hotel Camry. When morning came, I realized that some of the aches in my body had subsided to some extent. I got out of the car and walked up and down the road a bit, and although I was still far from feeling energetic and lively, I was in a place physically where I knew I could at least start the race and just see how I felt from there.

After making my way to the start area at the Muir Beach parking lot, I began warming up on the initial section of the course, which would serve both as the beginning and end of the race course. I always like to warm up on the initial and final sections of a race course if possible in order to gain familiarity and comfort with the terrain and to visualize and plan how the crucial beginning and finishing sections of the race will play out. On this course, the beginning of the course was a steep climb out of Muir Beach on a fire road that still contained plenty of mud from the previous week's Pineapple Express storm system. As I climbed up this hill and looked down to see the ocean waves crashing into the cliffs below me, I finally started to feel myself become more lively and excited to start racing. I still didn't know how my body would hold up, but I was ready to give it a good solid effort for as long as I could.

I was doing the 20 mile distance, which was the middle of five distances offered in the race event. The reason I chose the 20 mile is because it was the longest distance that consisted of a single loop without repeating sections or re-visiting the starting line before actually finishing. The more trail races I do, the less tolerant I'm becoming of uninspired multi-loop courses on uninteresting terrain. I applaud the efforts of every race director and course setter for using the trails available to them for putting on an event, but not every event is going to present itself as interesting enough for me to make the effort to participate in, and for me the quality of the course is the overall most important deciding factor. This particular 20 mile loop in the Marin Headlands did not at all disappoint my standard for a beautiful, interesting, and exciting race course.

As the race started, two guys doing the 10 mile race bolted up the first climb, and I found myself hanging back at an easy effort level with two other guys climbing steadily. As we crested the first steep hill and dropped toward Pirates Cove, I began to really feel the thrill of running returning to me. With the sun rising, the clouds lifting off the surrounding mountains, and the waves crashing below me, the setting was just as I had imagined and hoped that it would be. During this section I passed one of the guys I had been running close to since the start, and found out he was doing the 50k race. He must have decided he had started too quickly because he slowed down considerably on the descent and subsequent climb out of Pirates Cove, and soon I was not aware of anyone close behind me, with only the two 10 mile racers still in front of me. After descending to Tennessee Valley and running up the road to the trailhead, the 10 mile runners split off to ascend the Old Springs trail, while I would be ascending the Marincello fire road.

Once turning onto Marincello I again became aware that there was no one close behind me. I began to think that this may be a very different sort of race and that it was a real possibility I would not see any other competitors until after I finished. I decided to enjoy not being pushed to race hard at this stage and settled into a nice easy effort in the climb up the road. I felt great on this climb and probably enjoyed this section of the course more than any other, with the occasional views through the clouds of the bay below and Mt. Tamalpais to the north. After the climb up Marincello, the route began a traverse filled with shorter ascents and descents along the mountains, staying generally on the west side of the crest with views of Rodeo Cove far below. As the route began descending toward the southern portion of the Coastal Trail which would lead to Bonita Point, I glanced behind me and for the first time in several miles saw another runner. I decided I had no reason to push myself to try to stay in the lead at this point, especially since I didn't even know whether this guy was in my race distance or if he was a marathon or 50k runner.

After stopping briefly at the Bonita Cove aid station to refill water, the route led in a short loop on the road around Bonita Point, and after exiting the loop I was able to see several other runners coming down the road about to enter the aid station. This reassured me that there were others still running this race. After rounding Rodeo Lagoon and just before beginning the climb out of the valley, the runner who I had previously seen behind me came quickly up to me and passed me. We exchanged a few words and confirmed we were both in the 20 mile race. As we started the climb, the runner ahead of me was moving very well and seemed to be comfortable keeping a good pace on the climb. I stayed a little more conservative on this climb since at this point I was aware that I was starting to become more fatigued and I knew that the current climb and last climb on the course would be the two most difficult sections.

As the guy ahead of me slowly pulled away, I focused on continuing to enjoy my race and not feel pressured to chase him down. At this point I was just thankful to be running the race at all and was more than happy to be in the position I was in, so there was no need to over-work myself. The race continued over Wolf Ridge, down a short section of the Miwok trail, then down the Old Springs trail back down to Tennessee Valley. Back on the Tennessee Valley road, the guy in front of me was only about a minute ahead, but I could tell that he was still running comfortably. I stayed at an easy effort down the road in order to save my remaining energy for the last climb up the Fox trail fire road. I figured that if I had enough energy left in me maybe I could catch the guy in front, and if not, he had been running admirably well and deserved to win. The final climb up the Fox trail was made tough by exposure to the sun which was now warming everything considerably, but I still felt solid through the climb. Despite putting in an honest effort on this climb, I wasn't able to make up any time on the lead, and by the time I crested the hill and began the final descent down the Coastal fire road, I had resolved to cruise into the finish and happily take second place. Even though I was thoroughly tired at this point, I was able to enjoy and savor that last descent and crossed the finish worn out but happy - just as it should be.

I had put in a solid, consistent effort through the whole race and it had paid off in my final time of 2:53:00, which I was pleased with. I had figured before starting the race that I would be doing well with a time under 2:55, and considering that my body was physically not at its peak due to being sick, I was more than happy with my time. Having never run in the Marin Headlands before this, I now understand what all of the hype is about, and I can see why so many races choose these trails to conduct their events on.

Later that afternoon, I decided to explore one of the coastal sections of trail at the southern end of the Point Reyes National Seashore. My goal was to take the run nice and easy and be able to watch the sun set over the ocean as I ran along the cliffs above.

I don't often get the chance to run in coastal mountain areas, and to be able to run up and down the hills while remaining directly next to the ocean shore is a real treat for me.

The views both to the south and the north along the coast were fantastic as the sun dropped lower in the sky, and as I made my way up the trail I was constantly drinking in the beauty of the surroundings.

I came to my turnaround point a few miles up the trail at a small, peaceful lake which was perfectly calm and reflective.

On my way back down the trail, I stopped several times to watch the sun drop over the ocean and to take pictures of the scene this was creating.

I had taken the run very slowly and could tell that my body was tired from the race that morning, but that I was recovering well and that the following day I should be able to put in some decent miles on the trails that I still wanted to explore. The next morning I was awake as soon as it was light and on my way to Muir Woods National Monument. I had to park alongside the road since the park had not yet been opened, and as I made my way along the boardwalk through Muir Woods, I was thankful to be the only person around. I'm sure that the experience would have been diminished if I had been forced to share it with thousands of tourists clogging the boardwalk.

Attempting to capture the beauty and scale of the old growth redwood stands inside Muir Woods without some decent camera gear was difficult to say the least. I had never seen old growth redwoods and the sight that they provided was truly remarkable. Even though having the designation of National Monument causes this place to become a tourist trap, I am glad that these unique stands of trees have been preserved in the manner that they have so that they can continue to inspire and be enjoyed by many people.

After leaving Muir Woods I climbed up the valley on the constantly branching and converging trail system to the Pantoll ranger station, along the way continually enjoying the cool lush foliage around me, and the continuing stands of impressive trees.

From Pantoll, I began traversing then descending the Matt Davis trail toward Stinson Beach far below. The views along the trail opened up as I dropped down the mountainside, and I enjoyed the sight of the green mountainside in front of me slowly falling away to meet the shore of the ocean below.

Some of the lush growth within the narrow drainages that the trail dropped through made the descent very enjoyable, and gave a lot of variation to the scenery.

Once in the town of Stinson Beach, I made my way onto the beach and spent a little time just watching the peaceful morning unfold up and down the long crescent shaped beach.

I made a visit to the small grocery store in Stinson Beach and got a breakfast burrito, which I munched on while sitting in the quiet town park. Once I finished eating, I made my way back up the hill out of town and caught the lower end of the Dipsea trail, which I would follow back over the mountain to Muir Woods. The vegetation and views along the Dipsea trail didn't disappoint, and neither did the famous flights of stairs that I had read so much about.

As I ran the Dipsea trail from Stinson Beach to Muir Woods, I considered and attempted to envision running the historic race that takes place along this trail every year in the opposite direction, from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach, and took note of some tricky sections of the trail. It certainly seems as though running down all of the flights of stairs toward Stinson Beach would make the run very tricky, and good skills at descending stairs would be needed in order to do well in the race. Before reaching Cardiac, I stopped briefly to admire the views to the south across the Marin Headlands and down to the San Francisco peninsula, with Sutro Tower visible beyond the city.

This iconic view embodies so much of what I've come to enjoy about running trails in this area of the world. As I descended the last of the trail to Muir Woods and crossed Redwood Creek, I was disappointed that my short visit was coming to an end, but at some point I'll take an extended visit to the area to explore many more of the beautiful and distinct trails that this region offers.

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