The Headlands Endurance Run is a race hosted by Pacific Coast Trail Runs (PCTR), and is comprised of several distances: Marathon, 50 Mile, 75 Mile and 100 Mile. All distances do the same 25 mile loop around the Marin Headlands (with the Marathon doing a 1.2 out and back before doing the said loop). Each 25 mile loop has about 5,000 feet of elevation gain so it is not for the faint of heart (below are the elevation charts for the clockwise and counter clock wise direction, which I had to both of having signed up for the 50).
Not content with the party atmosphere of those distances, PCTR also hosts a night version of the race at 8:00 PM on that same day, called the Night Sweats Marathon. It also has a 15K for those newer to night trail running that would be interested in running in the dark with aid station support and the camaraderie of other runners.
I wasn't planning on running the Headlands 50 Miler. It wasn't even on my radar until a few weeks ago. With Rio del Lago 100 Miler just around the corner, my Coach Mama Lisa Felder had suggested I do the Headlands 50 Miler since I haven't done a 50 Miler yet for 2015. I have done two 50 Milers to date, but they were almost a year ago (American River 50 in April 2014 and Dick Collins Firetrails 50 in October 2014).
I was nervous going into the race. I haven't even done a 50K yet for the year (I had done a 12 hour race where I stopped at the 50K mark, but it was a very flat trail loop for the Jackpot Ultra Running Festival). The most I have done in a training run was 20 miles, whereas I would be more comfortable doing a 50K in one day and 10 miles the next day as my peak training run. Also, Headlands had 10,000 feet of elevation gain compared to 3,100 and 7,800 roughly for American River and Dick Collins, respectively.
My fueling plan for the race was solely relying on Tailwind, a powder that you mix with water to give you the calories and electrolytes that you need. What lured me to Tailwind was its promise of not causing any gastrointestinal issues during running, which was a problem that happens to me once in a while, especially for longer distances like 50 milers. They even had a Tailwind Challenge where if you bought four bags of Tailwind, and use it for a race and for some reason don't like it, you can get a refund.
It turns out I might just file for a refund.
I was running with a Salomon hydration pack, but with 2 Ultimate Direction (UD) 20 oz water bottles. The Salomon water flasks are great in that they collapse when unused but you can't set them in a table while putting Tailwind powder and water, where a regular bottle works better. It also made my decision easier to use UD bottles in that I lost both my Salomon flasks when I set them down on a picnic table during one of my training runs (and they're quite expensive, like everything Salomon).
I put 2 scoops in each bottle, which is 200 calories. My plan was to drink one bottle for every hour on my feet. I would then replenish my bottles in aid stations (with measured powder scoops in ziplock bags that I would put in my drop bag, and a few on my hydration pack for aid stations without drop bags). Since I decided to run based on feel (I put my garmin watch inside my hydration pack, even though it was on, so I have no idea of my what my time is, or how fast I'm going, so I just listen to my body the whole time).
Everything worked flawlessly on my first loop. It was chilly and not warm/hot as previously forecasted at the start. I got to see Eldrith, a 75 year old woman ultra runner who is quite known in the trail community (she even has a race named after her soon). I even followed her as we fell at the back of the pack immediately (a common theme for me). Somehow I ended up overtaking her early on after we passed by Tennessee Valley (TV) aid station for the first time at Mile 4. I would see her at the out and back and she would flash a warm smile and say "great job" as if you were the only one she has said it to in a long time and with unabashed sincerity. I was actually shocked I was ahead of her given her ultra running experience. I knew she would eventually overtake me (I wasn't competing with her, mind you), and she did as expected when the wheels of my wagon started falling off on the second loop.
The first loop came by and went without any issues at all. I was well hydrated. I thought that my pace was not too slow and not too fast. I felt comfortable and I think my completion time of the first loop was going to be a respectable 6-6:30. When I arrived at Rodeo Beach for the end of my first loop, I was glad to see that I finished in 6 hours and 30 minutes. I figured then that I technically had the race in the bag. I had 9 hours and 30 minutes to do the second loop. I can probably walk it if I wanted to. I can see whether I can break my personal record for a 50 miler (13 hours and 10 minutes), or at least my next best personal record (13 hours and 30 minutes). The second one seemed more doable, but I was just focusing on keeping my rhythm.
I took an Ensure drink to add calories into my system and some protein. I had planned to take one every 12 miles, as advised by my friend Pen. I felt it get into my system and I started heading towards the reverse direction of the loop, back to the Golden Gate Bridge aid station. As I started climbing Bobcat trail, I started slowing down. Bobcat was uphill, but it was a very long trail with a slow and gradual incline. I power hiked it, but I found myself starting to stop at times to catch my breath. The same happened as I went up Alta and walked through SCA trail.
I'm not sure if it's my brain telling me to slow down because I have already ran 25 miles, so it's time to start slowing down. I still ran in spurts and when my heart rate seemed to go back to normal and I can breathe with my nose and not my mouth. I continued to fuel with Tailwind as I went towards the aid station, but then I started to feel my stomach full of Tailwind. It is almost as if it seemed I kept on fueling but it wasn't being used or expended be it through sweat or urination.
When I reached Golden Gate aid station, I decided to pee to check my hydration. If it was clear, I'm clear. If it was yellowish, I'm slightly dehydrated. Any other color would set off alarm bells. It was yellowish, but I felt a very very slight burning sensation. I was worried.
When I arrived at the aid station, I decided to abandon using Tailwind right away. I filled my water bottle with water, dumped the other one that still had Tailwind on it, and filled that with water. The aid station volunteer asked me if I was okay and I gave a muted okay. I initially asked for a whole can of coke, but I was convinced (rightly so) to just take a half a can (else I start shaking, said the volunteer). I also took an empty paper cup and filled it with peanut butter pretzels, for its salt. I was hoping it would counteract the sloshing I felt in my stomach.
As I headed back to TV, I still felt weird. I looked at my fingers and I felt they were puffed up. I don't know if I was mind playing tricks on me, but I swear they were puffy. I also put my hands on my stomach and sides and I felt just water all over. I remembered my Coach Mama Lisa's comments on a fellow runner gaining weight after a run that it's a bad sign, as fluid retention means your body isn't functioning correctly on processing your hydration. As if my situation wasn't bad enough, that also put a pit in my stomach.
Being in between aid stations, I decided to just keep going and get to TV. I can always decide what to do at that point. If I still feel worse, and the medic confirms it, then I will drop. No race is worth my health. After all, I run so that I become healthy, not to become unhealthy. Moderation is always key. I started shuffling down Marincello, but still stopped at points. I had a short chat with a runner who mentioned that the 16 hour cutoff was a soft cutoff and technically we had to just finish before the 100 mile runners do, which is 33 hours (if that was true, then maybe I can just drive home, sleep and come back for my 13 other miles, I thought kiddingly). Eldrith also overtook me at this point, with a quip on how long the downhill stretch was (she always says things with bright energy and a smile, which I love).
When I got to the aid station, I decided to survey the food available. I ate the watermelon. I had some coke. I asked if there was a medic I could ask my question on possible hyponatremia. He then recommended I get more solid food in, like crackers and some salt caps. It's just possible since I've been consuming all liquid that my body has been overwhelmed by it and needs some solids to absorb it. I did as told and forged on. Well, I did a short pit stop to take care of some business (much needed business) and then I forged on.
The hike up Miwok trail was relentless. It just went up and up and up. I even had a smart aleck casual hiker telling me to pump my arms as I went up the hill (I bet he has never even run a 10K, or even a 5K). I smiled weakly and kept on moving ahead. I put my arms on my hamstrings and tried to put my body parallel to the ground's incline. It's a technique that seems to make it easier to power hike, in my opinion.
When I finally reached the top, I started to run downhill. It was more of a weak shuffling of feet as I can barely have the strength to pick it up. I also can't go down faster for some reason as my lower back felt stiff and I didn't want to aggravate it. It wasn't my fastest pace going downhill but it was faster than walking downhill (and in some instances better). My strides were small and measured, so in case I step mistakenly I can easily recover. I was glad I brought my wind breaker jacket as it was windy, and my headlamp because it was about to get dark soon.
As I arrived at Muir Beach, darkness came. I still stuck to water not wanting to risk problems with Tailwind again. I again had coke to get calories and caffeine in. They also had lentil soup which was good for the weather was getting chilly, and it also had some sodium that I still needed. I thanked them as it was my last time visiting that aid station and I started hiking up Muir Beach.
During my training runs, I usually can power hike Muir Beach with relative ease, but this was about mile 42 in the race and I was unsurprisingly spent. I stopped a few times and broke the big climb into one hill at a time. I would stop, catch my breath, get a swig of water and move on. I eventually reached the trail going toward Pirates Cove.
I turned on my headlamp and I was in disbelief. I had used this headlamp before but all I got was a light that looked more like a gray shadow, and a circle that seemed like the size of a dime. I walked with it for a while before deciding to see if I could use my iPhone's flashlight feature. Much better and enough to light the way. I had to hold it though and my battery on my iPhone was roughly at 10-20% at that point. Probably enough to get me to TV, but then what? Again, I had to just break my goals into aid stations and just work on getting back to TV, which would be mile 46 at that point.
I was also starting to get worried that I would see an avalanche of runners going down Pirates Cove. It was hard enough walking in the dark in Pirates Cove, but to step aside whenever I see a headlamp in the opposite direction would be irritating and would slow me down a lot. Luckily, I was able to get up Pirates Cove with no sign of the Night Sweats Marathoners at that point.
I reached TV by the time the majority of Night Sweats 15K and Marathon runners were arriving. Great timing, I thought! At least I avoided running against them, and it looks like they were taking Marincello back to Rodeo Beach, so I don't have a big contra flow going back up Old Springs Trail. I saw my Coach Mama Lisa and Lauri at this point. I told them about my headlamp problem, and Lauri was kind enough to lend me Patty's headlamp. It was a Petzl and boy did it have a bright light! I felt that it can light up a small room with the amount of lumens on it. I made a mental note to explore buying a headlamp like it for my future races.
I got some more soup, chicken noodle this time. I got some coke, packed a few candied gummy bears for the last 4 miles and had my 2 waters filled with water. I was still feeling down as I knew those last 4 miles still involved lots of climbing and anything can go wrong. It was great seeing a lot of friends come by though, like Leigh Ann and Brian and that helped my spirits somewhat.
Old Springs felt long in the tooth but there were no issues. I did honestly start getting tired of saying thanks to every trail runner saying "good job" to me at this point. Is it discourteous to be silent, I thought? I was tired after all and wanted to save every bit of energy. I said thanks here or there when I can't. If I don't, I figured they never saw my face anyways (kidding, or semi-kidding). As I got out of Old Springs I saw my friends Matt and Kristin heading in the opposite direction on their 3rd loop for the 100 miler (they finished, I found out later on). I thought to myself that I find it superhuman how they did it, as past friends who have done all four loops. It must have been just an extreme mental and physical challenge to do so.
Fog greeted me on Fox Ridge as well as what seemed like more endless climbs. More stops, more swigs of water, some snacks along the way, and I ended up out of Fox Ridge. I then proceeded to the road to Coastal Trail, which was concrete but thankfully downhill. I shuffled again in the fog. The road looked like it was iced but I never felt any slipperiness (thank goodness), so maybe it was just white marks on it (or maybe my shoes had their grip working as intended).
There were a few set of steps going down Coastal Trail which I took very very slowly. Two steps per step and sideways. My IT band also felt tight and at this point, I didn't want to risk anything. It would be disastrous and quite sad if I somehow didn't finish with a mile or two to go. I shuffled and ran when I can, but walked when it made sense.
I heard cowbells in the distance and I saw the lights of the finish line. The 15Kers of the Night Run were also on their way back. Some were even nice enough to slow down and let me cross the finish line first. I crossed the line with a smile on my face and a sense of relief.
I did it! I finished my third 50 miler, and my first 50 miler for 2015. I have learned a lot from this race and I hope to apply all the lessons learned in my upcoming first attempt at a 100 miler.
Below are some photos and some post race thoughts, if you got this far on my report. Thanks for reading if you got this far! Happy Trails!
(Left to Right: Me, my friend Pen who did the Headlands 100 last year and did the Night Sweats 15K this year. Christina and Dolores who did the Night Sweats 15K, their very first night trail run!)
I swear I was running with pebbles (which seemed like rocks) under my left foot for the last 10 miles. That's what I get for not wearing gaiters or not having that fancy sole in my previous shoe, the Brooks Cascadias which would trap those pesky pebbles. I decided to ignore the nuisance until I crossed the finish line and I got rewarded by a huge blister at the bottom of my feet. It's a nuisance to walk as I curl up my foot to not press on it, so I look like I'm walking with a limp, but technically I'm not. I want to pop the darned thing, but I read it's better to just let it go and heal itself. I hope I'm patient enough to let it heal, and I might cover it again with a blister kit I bought at Walgreens.