The Greatest Hits of the Headlands
A Miwok 100K report
Normally I write race reports within a day or two of the event, but this time I’m sharing the Miwok 100K story late because I’m playing catchup from a challenging week. My sweet mother died last Thursday at the age of 87, so my focus was on spending time with her and then helping my brother handle end-of-life logistics. I’m emotionally drained from the loss but mostly at peace, because she was at peace. Here is the post that shares a tribute to her, if you’d like to read. Thank you to everyone who sent me kind words after she passed way.
Now, finally, I’ll share the race experience that kicked me in the butt in a good way.
I often break ultras, logistically and mentally, into thirds, because like any good story, an ultra has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The goal is to have a good ending, to be “a closer,” by running and managing the stress of the first two-thirds well. Like a plot, the miles in the second half might drag as fatigue and ambivalence set in, but the narrative gains momentum as it approaches the conclusion.
That’s generally how the Miwok 100K unfolded on May 7, a day before my 53rd birthday. Stinson Beach, about a half hour north of San Francisco in the Marin Headlands, was the setting.
Several years have passed since I visited, but I have run so many races there in the past 20 years—including the North Face Endurance Championship 50, the Quad Dipsea, Marin Ultra Challenge 50, numerous versions of Coastal Trail Runs’ races in the Headlands, and Miwok in 2012 and 2014—that I remember almost every bend in each trail. Driving the curvy road from Mill Valley, I soaked in the views of ferny redwood forests, inhaled the misty coastal fog, and marveled at the green grass on hillsides and emerald moss on tree trunks—all such a contrast from now-dry Colorado. The oxygen-rich damp air soothed my lungs and frizzed my hair.
I had zero anxiety about this race, only gratitude to return in this area and to see old ultrarunning friends. “I’m nervous about so many things, but running 62 miles isn’t one of them,” I told Morgan on the way to the airport. I have enough experience and fitness to run a 100K without much special preparation, and I’m still fast enough to avoid chasing cutoffs. But, as I would relearn, just because I can, doesn’t make it easy.
This was the 25th running of the Miwok 100K, so by ultrarunning standards it’s considered a classic. So many people love this event, you can feel the love from the who’s-who of Bay Area old-time ultrarunners who volunteer for it. The race director, Tia Boddington, used to edit UltraRunning magazine; volunteer coordinator Magda Boulet is the 2015 Western States Endurance Run champ; and course director Ken “All Day” Michal has been an active and lively character in Bay Area ultrarunning for over a decade. It was great to see the three of them and to know that in this era of more and more mountain/ultra/trail races being taken over by corporate UTMB, some “old-school” races like Miwok 100K still are put on for love more than profit and continue to thrive.
As luck would have it, the first person I saw at the start line was my old Team In Training coach from the late ‘90s who gave me a big hug, Lisa Felder aka “Mama Lisa,” who was coaching and supporting a group of awesome Black women.
Some 350 starters took off at 5 a.m. and crowded the famed Dipsea Trail, making for a slow conga line up the Dipsea’s steps and singletrack with people saying out loud the inevitable pun, “me walk at Miwok.”
After 2.5 miles up the trail, we crested Cardiac Hill and could run with less crowding. The coastal scene and the sound of a bagpipe player at daybreak tugged at my heart, until the music paused and a runner shouted, “Play Freebird!” which made me laugh. I would end up laughing and chatting with others throughout the day, reveling in this Greatest Hits Tour of the Marin Headlands, for the first 35 or so of the 63+ miles.
I shared my joy of reconnecting with many familiar faces in this Instagram post; you can click through to see the pics:
For me, this event was a supported training run rather than a race. By that I mean, I used it to stretch myself to go farther than I’m in shape. I would find it extremely challenging to log some 60 miles over 14 or more hours on my own, but I needed a run of that duration to get in shape for my goal of the High Lonesome 100 in July. As a coach, I support using a race as a training run in this way, if you temper expectations about your performance and are clear about your goals.
I’m in 50K not 100K shape, so I expected the going would get tough after 30ish miles. I was right. I had to remind myself during the miles in the 40s and 50s—as I ran the long out-and-back along the hill-hugging, knee-high-grassy Coastal Trail and then through redwoods on Bolinas Ridge—that it’s OK to feel my legs rebel with fatigue and my knees wince from impact on the downhills. That was what I signed up for: an extra-long run that would push past my endurance limits, into the realm of very uncomfortable. I had to let go of self-imposed performance pressure to catch up or pass others and instead treat it as a steady, grinding long training run.
A few of the lessons relearned along the way:
Life stress and travel fatigue take a toll: Having a busy week prior to the event, and traveling to California, left me tired. I did not arrive at the starting line feeling fresh, but that’s OK, because this wasn’t a goal race, it was an endurance-builder. But, I was reminded that for races I care about, it’s imperative in the week prior to mainly rest, get extra sleep, and recover from long travel days before toeing the line.
The struggle could always be worse: The fun of the first 30 miles gave way to frustration as my pace slowed and legs ached. A decade ago, I could finish this race in close to 12 hours, so I set a conservative goal this time of finishing in 14, and then mid-run I had to adjust that to 14.5 when I did the math and realized I’m even slower than anticipated.
I started to feel stressed with the desire to speed up, but then at an aid station at mile 35, I caught up to my friend and former client Will Barkan, who was standing around. He’s a better, faster runner than I, but he is severely visually impaired from Stargardt’s Disease (a form of juvenile macular degeneration) and only has a bit of peripheral vision. I asked him what’s up, and he calmly explained that his guide was five minutes late meeting him, but he was OK, just chilling.
I was so impressed with Will’s patience and equanimity that I vowed to run more like him. His guide showed up, and we ran together for a bit until they pulled ahead.
On the out-and-back section to the mile 49 turnaround, I again started to flirt with self-pity and frustration as so many faster runners passed me on their way back while stiffness and fatigue reduced my stride to shuffling at best. Then I saw, on my way back on this segment, how many grim-faced runners remained behind me, fatigue and pain etched on their faces, and they would struggle to meet the 15.5-hour cutoff. “It can always be worse, I’m doing just fine,” I told myself.
The race’s final 2.5 miles descend on the technical Matt Davis Trail with rocks and tree roots making any steady running nearly impossible. Even though it’s steeply downhill, my timid pace was as slow as hiking because we had to navigate giant steps down rocks, and I grew scared of catching a toe and falling since I couldn’t pick up my tired feet very well. Then I caught up to Will and his guide again. Will’s knee ached, and visually he needed his guide to narrate the location of every natural obstacle. My self-pity evaporated as I observed the calm, stoic way he made it down this gnarly trail with the help of a guide. I also shifted to self-compassion for my achy legs, which were doing the best they could.
Pacers are a gift: I did not need a pacer for the final 13 miles—it’s kind of silly, really, to allow pacers in a 100K at mile 49. Pacers are more justified for 100 milers when safety and sleepiness are an issue overnight through the next morning. But, Miwok allows pacers for the final segment, so I lined up my former client and friend Heather Sutherland to meet me.
Heather’s personality is like sunshine breaking through clouds. She is so positive and goofy, it was a treat to spend the final three hours with her. I told her, “I’m too tired to talk, so just tell me stories of what you’ve been doing,” so she chatted away, enabling me to pay less attention to my internal dialogue of fatigue. She even sang me a modified version of the Smokey and the Bandit theme song “East Bound and Down” with lyrics modified for my run:
West bound and down, loaded up and truckin'
A-we gonna do what they say can't be done
We've got a long way to go, and a short time to get there
I'm west bound, just watch ol’ Sarah run!
So, line up a pacer like Heather if you can!
I took her hand and told her to run through the finish line with me so we could celebrate together. As always happens at the end of an ultra, my legs regained their ability to run. We finished in 14:32. You can see the joy of finishing in these photos.
I’ll end with inspiration I gained at the finish—a reminder that depletion and discomfort reward with pleasure at the ultra accomplishment. I ran into an old friend, the legendary ultrarunner Errol “The Rocket” Jones, who I used to meet for a weekly run in Oakland (I wrote about our camaraderie in this column for Trail Runner magazine four years ago). Errol, now 72, was busy doing what he called his “fetch and carry” thing volunteering, and as we talked, he described his plan to finish another 100—a dream that still burns, in spite of DNF’ing multiple 100-mile attempts over the past five years.
“It’s the struggle, I gotta feel it,” he told me, echoing the theme of a mini documentary I helped make about him. Watch the five-minute film here, you won’t regret it. (There’s footage halfway through of him and me running one of my favorite trails in the Berkeley hills.)
He says at the end of the film: “With all of the pain that you suffer through, the pleasure—the real joy—comes when even if you’re the last person, you cross the line, and you’ve met your demons out there on the trail, and you’ve overcome them.”
I know I worked extra hard—and was under trained—for this 100K, because I was more sore in the days that followed than after any ultra in the past couple of years. I could barely walk up or down stairs. I spent last week recovering, running only twice, and coping with the goodbye to my mom.
Now, 12 days later, my body feels stronger and fitter after adapting. I’m motivated to train as much as I can over the next eight weeks for High Lonesome. This 100K of a training run did the job.
Colorado Mountain Running & Living is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.