By Peter Holleran
"Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go."
- T.S. Elliot
When I told my friend Ron I had successfully completed a 62 mile race, he replied, “what - two marathons plus ten miles?!! That’s beyond my comprehension.” I told him I shared his sentiments exactly, having felt much the same way just a few years before. Indeed, reading accounts of ultra “gods” like Carl Anderson and Ann Trason running from Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands to Olema and back seemed like something only supermen could achieve. But such is the nature of the human spirit that one finds himself reaching for one challenge after another. Even local champion Russ Kiernan, when first hearing about the seven mile Dipsea race from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach, said “that’s impossible!” Well, after overcoming similar doubts and training from "scratch" for a year I managed to do that one, and even tempted fate and entered the Double Dipsea - fully expecting to drag myself across the finish line. I survived, and two years later “stretched” myself once again and entered the Quadruple Dipsea, an act that had my wife ready to sign commitment papers. I made it, however, and grew to love the race, considering it a personal favorite. The 28 miles and eight major hills give one plenty of time to warm up and calm the soul, in contrast to hectic shorter races where it is pedal to the metal all the way.
The same year I also ran the Headlands 50k, a hilly 31-miler, but had a difficut time imagining going much further. This alone might have been the summit of running fulfillment for ordinary folks, but I live in an area populated with fanatics who live another reality altogether. I’m not talking only about young pups, but leathered old geezers who think nothing about training twice as hard and twice as long as I did back when I was eighteen! The names “Miwok” and “Western States” kept popping up, legendary and (to my mind) almost ‘mythical’ races of 100k and 100 miles. They were beyond my reality at the time, and therefore immediately banished from consciousness. Two years ago, however, in my fourth year of running, realizing that ordinary people I knew (and even beat) were doing it, I took the plunge and sent in an application fee for Miwok. I trained seriously, building up to runs of twice around Mt. Tam, or 35 miles, but chickened out at the last minute two years in a row before finally stepping up to the plate. I finally did so in 2004, my sixth year of running after thirty years of couch potatohood. This was probably appropriate, and any sooner would have been tempting fate. Even the great champion Bill Rodgers waited eight years before running marathons, and who was I to question such wisdom?
Miwok had been one of the goals listed in my “To Do List”. This was written to plan new physical challenges and adventures for the second half of my life! Among these are:
New York Marathon
Mt. Washington Hill Climb (New Hampshire)
Haleakala - Run to the Sun (Maui - 36 miles all uphill))
Western States 100 mile
Adirondack High Peaks
Long Trail - Vermont
John Muir Trail
Chamonix (longest run/ greatest vertical drop in the world)
Whistler (largest resort in North America)
Haute Route - the Alps
Ride across the United States
The Death Ride (Markleeville, California (135 miles, 7 mountain passes))
Already accomplished and deleted from the list were: Pikes Peak Marathon, Presidential Traverse of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Cactus to Clouds route on Mt. San Jacinto (Palm Springs), Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim, and Mt. Whitney. According to senior athlete Paul Reese, author of Ten Million Steps, who did a marathon-a-day run across the United States at the age of 72, the secret of successful aging is "always have an agenda.” Figuring he might be on to something, I sought to expand my world once more, and diligently began preparation for the Miwok 100k. Essentially, this consisted in increasing my weekly mileage, especially the longest run, which I progressively lengthened from 25 to 30 to 34 to 44 miles, or 8 1/2 hours, in the final months before the race. I felt I had to go well beyond what I had ever done before (31 miles) just to be within reach, physically and mentally, of the race distance of 62 miles. One writer says that you are race-ready when you can run 2/3 of your goal race distance in training and still feel comfortable. Going from 31 (50k) to 62 (100k) in one leap would have been much too daunting, I feel, although with judicious walking not necessarily impossible, and many have done so. But I desired to do more than just finish. I wanted to run a decent competitive time, which I estimated to be about 12 hours, not blazing but pretty good for a first attempt and for my age group and taking into consideration the 10,000 feet of climbing on the course. It was fast enough to require careful planning, training, follow through, and race day execution, including proper pacing and eating and drinking along the way. 100k is too long to get by with just Gatorade and Power Bars. Besides stopping at the aid stations every 5 miles to hydrate and snack, I would plant protein shakes and turkey sandwiches in drop bags along the course to provide adequate calories for the all-day event. It is also equally necessary to practise eating and drinking beforehand to see what will go down easily on a long run. Many a race of this length has been ruined by digestive problems. Also stashed along the course would be extra shoes, clothes, bandaids, blister protection, etc. Finally, after all of ones best efforts the mysterious factor of grace remains all-important in pulling something like this off successfully. It also helps to have the moral support of loved ones who have to endure the long hours one spends away from home training for such an event.
Three weeks out from the race I began my taper, reducing mileage significantly. The week before I did mostly walking and resting. On race day morning, except for inadequate sleep due to pre-race jitters, I felt as ready as I was going to get. The day began at 5:40 a.m. with a tricky scramble across Rodeo Beach, where the challenge is to avoid getting sand in your shoes requiring an unwelcome early stop. Then began a long climb up Conzelman Rd. to the summit of the Marin Headlands, where we saw the first rays of the sun hit the Golden Gate Bridge before turning back down the Coastal Fire Road for a two mile descent to the wilds of Rodeo Valley. It was at this point that one mentally starts his adjustment to the reality of what the day will be like. For what he just finished was already equivalent to an average training run but was less than 7% of the way home on the Miwok! Another long ascent is followed by a mile or two skirting the top of Gerbode Valley before plunging two miles to the stables and parking area of Tennessee Valley (11 miles). I reached here on target in two hours, grabbed a quick drink, a sports gel, and a pretzel or two, and headed down the road, joining the early morning hikers out for a casual stroll. The path to the beach, which would represent nearly half of their total day's hike, would amount to only 2% of the Miwok race course! In just one mile we veered right on the Coastal trail which rises steeply to Coyote Ridge before dropping precipitously to Pirates Cove and a spectacular one mile section along the ocean. The trail gradually ascends to a bluff overlooking Muir Beach where it then descends sharply to reach the third aid station (15 miles). Up to this point we had been blessed with fog making for cool temperatures. From Muir Beach runners go left past the Pelican Inn, a stop for tourists and overnight hikers, and continue briefly along Highway 1 to its junction with Franks Valley Road. From there one takes the Redwood Creek trail for two miles to Muir Woods and the Deer Park Fire Road. Then follows one of the longest ascents of the day, approximately three miles up the famous Hogback and Cardiac sections of the Dipsea trail and on to the Pantoll Ranger Station and campground at 1500' and 21 miles. My elapsed time was 4:05, about 20 minutes off the pace for a sub-12 hour finish. The sun was now heating up and I felt myself flagging a bit and also was a little nauseous. Pantoll is a major aid station, doubling as the 21 and 49-mile stop. It was here that I had stashed a power shake, turkey sandwich, and other supplies. I drank the shake but passed on the sandwich, stuffing it in one of my pockets - it was just too hard to get it down.
Pantoll signifies the end of the major hill climbing for a while. From here the course essentially goes out and back for 14 miles each way along the western slopes of Mt. Tam and Bolinas Ridge, with expansive ocean views far below. I looked forward to this section, considering it a mental and physical break from the difficult first 21 miles. After 7 miles we arrived at the Ridgecrest/Bolinas Rd. aid station, where I availed myself of the first of a series of large, wet sponges to the head and back, which helped immensely in cooling down. Eddie O’Rourke welcomed me with a hearty, ”I am SO glad you are doing this, Peter!”, while refilling my water bottles. Volunteers like this make races so enjoyable while giving a boost for drooping spirits. The year before I did the same for Eddie while I worked the turnaround aid station. After gathering up my nerve I shuffled off to Bolinas Ridge, happy to now be almost halfway to the finish!
A short way down the ridge I was greeted by Scott Jurek, the early leader, moving fast and already on the return trip, a full ten miles ahead! This did not bother me in the least, since he was a national class runner and only 29 years old, but the second and third place runners who soon followed really got under my skin, as both close were close to 50 and eventually finished more than three hours ahead of me! That is just too darn good. Oh well, the correct attitude to take is that the race is a competition against oneself, and just to finish 100k is a worthy achievement in itself, especially on a first attempt. Still, I couldn't help wonder how much better I would do in coming years, versus how much these guys would slow down, hoping for some sort of eventual convergence of efforts, such that I could emerge closer to the front of the pack!
The original course was supposed to reach a turnaround 7.75 miles down Bolinas Ridge, past the woodlands and several miles through the cow pastures (where confrontation with the herd and an occasional bull is always a possibility), four miles from any paved road, but at the eleventh hour the park rangers forbade service vehicles from using any fire road access, and the race directors was scrambling for a solution. Via email I suggested that they re-route the course 5.5 miles down Bolinas Ridge left onto the seldom-used Randall Fire Road which exited the ridge 1.7 miles below at Highway 1, thus solving the problem of how to set up an aid station in a rather forlorn and isolated location. The change was approved and the only drawback was the steep 1100', 1.7 mile climb back up to the ridge immediately after the 35-mile turnaround. The previous route had only about 400 feet of climbing over 2.25 miles, a much more gradual transition. I anticipated taking a fair amount of heat from the runners once word got around who was responsible for this rather brutal change! A positive factor, however, was that the Randall FR was in the shade, and as it turned out many felt it to be a welcome change that broke up some of the monotony of the previously long slog down the ridge. Most walked up this section, conserving energy for the still remaining marathon distance to the finish. I, too, power-walked it, and felt the climb refreshing and a break for the legs. Still, I could not let up too much, for my old nemesis, Tim Hicks, greeted me on my way up as he passed by going down, about ten minutes behind, “I’m coming to get you, Peter!”
After five and a half miles under delightful tree coverage we returned to the Ridgecrest aid station at 41 miles. Remarkably I felt better than the last time I passed through there some three hours before. Not less TIRED, mind you, but alot better. The nausea was gone, and I knew I was going to make it, barring any unforseen disasters - which have been known to happen. My stepson Matt had been instructed as part of my pre-race strategy to meet me at this stop with a energy shake and an O’Doul’s, as I was not sure what would go down the easiest. It was good to see a familiar face as from here on I was entering unknown territory, going beyond the limit of my longest training run.
The race was lengthening now, with the seven mile stretch from Ridgecrest to Pantoll taking 90 minutes as opposed to just 70 on the way out. Halfway along I came across a runner who decided to rest on his back directly under the midday sun at a prominent trail junction. Having succumbed to serious heat exhaustion once before on the East Bay's Mt. Diablo, I advised this tired soul to get off his back and seek the shade while he was still able, lest he, too, risk becoming sun-baked road-kill.
At the final approach into the Pantoll aid station I picked up the pace - er, resumed running - in order to look impressive for two of my patients who said they would show up there "just to see what the doc looked like after 50 miles." I don't think they were too disappointed. On the other hand, I felt reasonably well, and assured them that I would definitely finish this thing, no problem. I knew, at least, that I would make it to the 53 mile mark, as the next couple of miles were all downhill. It was at the transition to the next uphill that the legs just didn't want to lift anymore. I could make it up the long climb to the top of Diaz Ridge with an aggressive power walk, but running was a little too hard and not worth the extra effort it required. So it was to be for most of the way to the end, walking hard with intermittent jogging on the uphills and briskly running the downhills, across Hwy 1, up and over Coyote Ridge, down to Tennessee Valley, a final brutal climb up Wolf Ridge, and the two-mile plummet to Rodeo Beach. I finished relatively strong in 90th place with an elapsed time of 12 hours, 52 minutes. Not lightning fast by any means, but a decent and satisfying first time performance. I felt grateful to have the health and opportunity to be able to run such an event. The downhill ending was especially kind as it allowed me to look really good as I soared past my wife and her friend who had positioned themselves part way up the hill.
This is a gorgeous, gorgeous course. I have run its trails many times, piece by piece, but this was the first time I did it all at once. With the slower pace and some walking, it really isn't that much harder than a 50k, once you come to terms with the fact that you are simply going to be running all day.
The official race website has a detailed course description, which as of this writing (Nov. 2004) is accurate except for the previously mentioned course changes. Also click here for mile by mile photos of the course.
This year I volunteered for the job of trail sweep from Pantoll to the finish. My job was to pick up course-marking ribbons and glow-sticks, and make sure the last runner arrived home safely. In the process I learned something about the cut-off times. There is a five minute "window" after a given cut-off time wherein the course official will ask the sweep if he thinks a runner has what it takes to make it to the next aid station. I didn't know this and, thinking my runner was five minutes too slow to make the 8:55 PM Tennessee Valley cut-off, inadvertently failed to push him a little harder on the downhill and make him continue walking while eating and he arrived at 9:01, technically only one minute late, since I knew he was capable of going on. I felt bad about this since he had tried so hard and even ran with a recently broken toe. This five-minute window is something useful to keep in mind.