Changing Gears at the Headlands 50K

August 25, 2001

Race Preparation

In July in the depths of despair as my time at the Tahoe Rim Trail 50K approached 7 hours, I seriously entertained the thought of giving up ultrarunning. But as July turned into August, one of my favorite races approached - the Headlands 50K, which starts at Rodeo Beach (just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, heads north up to Mt. Tamalpais (Cardiac/Pantoll), then down to Stinson Beach via the Matt Davis Trail, back up to Pantoll via the always beautiful Steep Ravine Trail, then across country to Muir Beach and finally up the coast, past Pirates Cove, and over three steep ridges back to Rodeo Beach. It all sounds lovely, but the last two years (the only ones the race has been held) have been so fogged in that views of the course have been limited at best. Both years, in fact, I had to run the first 12 miles or so without my glasses, the condensation was so bad. The R.D. had promised me sunshine for this year, and I couldn't pass that up, could I?

But if I was going to do the race, it was time to experiment. One easy experiment was Coke (the legal variety). I've recently learned how beneficial Coke could be in the late stages of a race when I was mentally flagging; this time I was going to drink Coke at every aid station to see if that would be even better. Another experiment was serious carbo loading. In the past I've always avoided really big meals the night before a race, not wanting to feel bloated. This year I tried packing it in, three portions of pasta for dinner the night before, one yogurt and two Chocolate-Rasberry Odwalla bars for breakfast as I drove to the race. I definitely had a full feeling as the start of the race approached.

But the really big experiment involved a total change in strategy and approach - for once in my life, I would NOT be the one trying to run up every hill. For one thing, as I said, I just wanted to try something different. And for another, I knew there was no way I was going to run every step of this race anyway, not with three large and STEEP hills in the last six miles. The third reason for trying this strategy grew out of the observation that while I was finishing 50K races with very sore legs, I was never finishing "totally spent." That is, I had cardiovascular endurance to spare which I wasn't making use of. Running harder was impossible on the uphills, and would just trash my legs more on the flats and downhills. So instead, I was going to racewalk the uphills.

Recent experiments in training runs seemed promising. At Rancho San Antonio one excellent training stretch is "1-mile hill" at the end of Rogue Valley, which rises 400 feet in one mile. I found I could racewalk the hill in 10:17, a very respectable time. Another training session at Fremont Older led me to similar conclusions - it seemed I could achieve times comparable to my normal times.

And so off I went to the race, ready to put theory and experiment to the test. My two previous attempts on this course had been 6:15:41 in 1999 (where I really struggled the last 6 miles), and 6:07:07 last year, where I actually had a fairly good race. My "dream" time was sub-6 hours but I really didn't think that was likely.

On a Clear Day...

The race went off at 7 a.m. with clear skies, promising a very different race than past years. Jog down the beach and immediately you hit the first (small) hill. In the past I'd be running and passing everyone who started to walk; this year I just switched into racewalk mode. Another flattish section for a while and then a major, long, unrelenting hill as you cross the first ridge into Tennessee Valley. And the entire way, I was walking like a demon, leaning forward slightly, pumping my arms for all they were worth, not being passed by anyone and even passing a few people here and there, some walking, some running. It seemed to be going well. On the downhills I opened it up, helped a little compared to previous years by wearing my glasses and actually being able to see where I was going (!). I could even see the poison oak this year. :-)

Then more uphills, more walking, more downhills, more running, and finally the long "Dipsea" uphill along the Deer Park Fireroad eventually merging with the familiar Dipsea Trail, ending at the highest point - Cardiac. Still I kept to my strategy. It was challenging to do so, since so much of this section of the route is "runnable" uphill (i.e., not terribly steep), but I had a plan and I was going to stick to it. I didn't know it at the time, but when I arrived at Cardiac, I was more than 5 minutes ahead of my last year's time, despite having walked probably 40% of the course since the race began. I DID know my time from previous years into Stinson Beach, the approximate halfway (in time) point, since I had done 3:00:24 one year and 2:58:08 last year and so I knew "3 hours" was my benchmark. When I hit that point in 2:50:43 this year, 7 1/2 minutes up on last year, I knew things were definitely going right. I even began to think that I had a serious chance at my sub-6 hour dream goal.

There was one thing going wrong - cramping of the calves but particularly of my left foot. Weird, I know. But already in the first two hours, I had had some minor cramps where I had to reach down with my hand and pull up on my left toes (weird again, I know) which always seems to uncramp things. I was taking "Succeed" salt capsules (balanced with various minerals), two an hour - by the end of the day I had taken ten. But even so, and with adequate hydration, the cramps were to persist all day.

Coming out of Stinson Beach you head up Steep Ravine, a section where in the past despite "running" most of it (except a few "stair" sections), I've been passed by quite a few people. This year, while running just the flatter bits (and there are those, surprisingly) and racewalking the rest, I was passed by (I think) just one person, and managed to pass another. Still on track!

Returning to Cardiac for the second time at 3:43:43 I was now 13 minutes ahead of last year, although again I didn't know it at the time. What I did know was that it was getting hot (bad), but that they had ice for my water bottle at the aid station. What a treat! Race directors and aspiring race directors, remember - ice! Of course it's hard or impossible to logistically arrange that all the time, but what a treat when it is.

From Cardiac it's mostly downhill to Muir Beach, but in the past I've struggled a bit in this section as my legs started to tighten up and my spirits started to flag. I wasn't exactly flying the downhills as I had been earlier in the race, but I was still keeping up a good solid pace, definitely feeling better than last year. I was a little worried about the heat, but looking ahead to the coast I could see a bit of fog creeping back, and I expected (rightly as it turned out) that when I got back to the coast it would cool down.

Muir Beach

Photos courtesy of Debi Jamison

At Muir Beach I had in my head 4:45 as a time (last two year's were 4:47 and 4:48), so when I hit there in 4:31:06 I received a major "up". 6 hours was not only possible, it was virtually in the bag, barring a major "el foldo". Even more importantly, the lady who makes delicious homemade chocolate chip cookies was back this year at Muir Beach! Last year those cookies literally saved my bacon, they completely revived me as I was really dying when I hit that aid station. This year I was in much better shape, but they still couldn't have been more timely. Coming out of Muir is a long, steep, unrunnable section. In past years, thinking I "should" be running it was just a discouraging climb. This year, planning on walking it, and doing so with two chocolate chip cookies to fuel the ascent, made it something to look forward to!

At the top its down into Pirates Cove, a lovely section of trail, and then back up yet another steep, unrunnable section. Just as I got to the upper section which is so steep that its not only unrunnable but bearly walkable (I certainly was not doing my arm swinging racewalking thing at this time), just as I look probably worse than I do during the entire race, I look up and there's my wife Debi, who's hiking the trail with two of her friends from Rodeo Beach to Muir Beach and back. She snaps a few photos, we exchange a few words and I push on.

Heading out of Pirates Cove

At the top there's a wide fireroad down into Tennessee Valley and I really turn it on here for what will turn out to be my last hurrah. Going up out of Tennessee Valley is the last ridge, which is less steep than the previous two and where last year I actually managed a fair amount of running. This year, however, the cramps have set in big time. When I try to run at all on the flatter sections, the twinges begin and I know I'm right on the edge of serious trouble.

Huzzahs and Kudos!

The finish line (lower right) from above

I walk and racewalk to the top and then start the last downhill. Last year I really flew this section but this year that's not going to happen. At one point, on a rocky section, my foot lands a little crooked and my left foot starts to cramp; when I reach down to uncramp it, first my calves, then my hip start to cramp as well. That's all I need! Less than a mile from the finish, well under 6 hours, and that's all I need is to cramp up and have to crawl or limp to the finish. Somehow I pull out of the temporary crisis, and start running downhill again, but very gingerly. Can't afford another close call! I pay the penalty, as two runners go by me just 1/4 mile from the finish, something that never would have happened before. But I'm helpless to prevent it, and delighted to cross the finish line in 5:51:15, nearly a 16-minute PR! Thanks to my slow final downhill, I actually lost a minute and a half compared to last year between Muir Beach and the finish, but I'll take it! In the words of Jon Stewart, huzzahs and kudos to me! My race strategy not only worked, it worked unbelievably well.

Last month in Lake Tahoe I managed a 2nd in my age group; I knew going into this race with a tough Bay Area crowd that wasn't even a remote possibility. And indeed, I finish 12th out of 37 in my age group, 65/179 overall. But where I finish in my age group is strictly a function of who shows up. How I do compared to myself, that's the real story. And it was a good story this year.

Other post-mortems: Coke strategy seems to have worked well; not only did I keep mental focus the whole race, but the extra calories from the Coke, along with a few extras from the aid stations like the cookies, let me get through 50K with just 4 GUs. In the past I've used more like 8 and been "GU OD'd" by the end of the race. The lack of need for calories during the race was also a product of my pre-race stuffing, which seems also to have been successful. Also my "strong taper" strategy (an easy run on Monday of race week and an easy bike ride on Thursday, nothing else all week) worked well as it did at Tahoe. I'm definitely sticking with that one. As far as the cramping, who knows? Was it caused by the otherwise-successful racewalking strategy? Certainly my amount of practice with that technique, two training sessions, was rather limited. Too little salt? Too much? Impossible to say.

After the race I immediately turn my attention to scoring the race. The race is being timed with my software (and my Palms), so I have to enter race day entrants in the Palm, make corrections for the early starters, and then combine the names and times and print out the results, all with my Palm and my portable printer. There's even coverage for my Palm VII, so I manage to get preliminary results posted on the web directly from the finish line! After getting the first batch of scoring done I finally get a chance to scarf down some of the marvelous food - barbecued (on the spot) chicken, baked beans, garlic bread - offered up by the Tamalpa race crew. Great stuff. And what a race they put on. Not only are there a myriad of full well-stocked aid stations, those are supplemented by several smaller aid stations and a host, I mean a host, of people at virtually every intersection on the course, smiling, encouraging, and pointing you in the right direction. Who needs ribbons to mark the course when you have a hundred volunteers? Ok they had the ribbons too, they never hurt!

The race was won by Carl Anderson in the first ever sub-4-hour time, a Herculean effort. Carl's also the only person ever to run the Quad Dipsea under 4 hours. I didn't see him during the race, needless to say, but Debi did, as she started her hike and Carl neared the finish. He was so early, and so far ahead of the person in second, that Debi figured he must have just bagged the race and turned around early or something! She also got to see Carl's better-known spouse, ultrarunning legend Ann Trason, as she ran up the final ridge on her way to her first place finish (but unlike Carl, she missed the course record, still held by Karen Brown). Debi says, "Oh is she the one who looks like a young Mick Jagger?" and I can't say as that thought ever crossed my mind but I guess there is some very vague resemblance.

The last runner straggled in nearly 10 hours (!) after the start. Normally I wouldn't have waited to help with the timing until the better end, but it turned out that Debi returned from her hike just a few minutes before, so it all worked out well.

And thus the saga endeth.

Steve "That's me with the arms pumping" Patt
in Cupertino, CA, where there are plenty of hills, but none with ocean views


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