Sunday, 18 July 2010

Headlands 50 miler

This year's course went through Tennessee Valley again and again and again.

Just back from another ultra and the first post-Western States. The Headlands 50 miler covers most of the same trails around the Marin Headlands as Miwok did and a whole load more races do too. There was also a marathon option with a 1.2 mile section added on to the start of the 25-mile lap.

This one was pure hills and a new course thanks to some road/trail work blocking off a section of the course. So instead of the accurately measured two-lap course with one out and back section, it was mainly the same but had an extra out and back bit so it looked more like the spokes of a wheel, centred on the Tennessee Valley Aid Station. And I'm sure it added a bit of distance too since each lap was almost 26 miles on the Garmin, which is usually accurate when there's no tree cover, as was the case.

So I turned up after the pre-dawn drive from San Jose through downtown San Francisco and over the Golden Gate Bridge wanting a good training run. And a win. Oh, and a course record would be nice too, but the 7h03m time set last year was by one of the top US ultrarunners.

It starts on Rodeo Beach, just like Miwok, but goes the opposite direction, with the hardest section of Miwok as the start. Which means doing that steep up and down four times, being each way on each lap. But that's not the only hard section and basically the whole course is like that.

The weather was perfect for running with mist and clouds but no rain or heat. This made the first climb more comfortable and I sat back just behind a couple of guys to the top. By the time we started going down the trails I overtook them as they were being fairly cautious. Although I'd hoped to have people to run with, I then spent the rest of the day on my own, only seeing other racers on the way back from each out and back. At one point I ran along with Devon Crosby-Helms who happened to be out on her local trails after being pulled out of Western States just over half-way, meaning she didn't get any points and so didn't win the Montrail Ultra Cup.

At halfway I'd manged to not get lost even once and at least had the whole course in my memory so it would be unlikely I'd miss a turning. I had about a 10-minute lead and went through in 3h26m, comfortably under course record pace for the shorter, flatter course. However, I had tired legs and had probably pushed a bit too much. But with Western States still not completely out my system, I think I was always bound to slow down.

The second half involved more walking on the hills with walking breaks being minutes long, not seconds. But at each out and back I could tell I was gaining a bit more time on the rest of the field. The last out and back gave me around a 30-minute lead on second and around an hour on third, which surprised me. I'd slowed but clearly the unrelenting hills were taking a toll on everyone. I finished in 7h25m, just under four hours for lap two. Not ideal pacing, but I don't think there was much I could have done about it on fatigued legs.

The course was well marked and the aid stations were generally well stocked, although some weren't ready the first time I came round and it was lucky I'd brought my own gels and water backpack. I couldn't enjoy the scenery as much as at Miwok as I put more effort in and it wasn't full of sunny vistas. In fact, every hill-top was in mist the whole time I was out there, which was cooling but meant the views were blocked.

Weirdly enough it turned out to be good speed work, even with the big positive split. I flew down some of the steep, technical sections at sub 5-minute mile pace on lap one, and cruised down the easier downhills around 5:30 pace. That's probably why I'm so sore a day later, but it felt more comfortable than it used to. Just wish I could do that on the flat.

It was a race I'd recommend with most of the benefits of Miwok except the lack of fanfare and without the stacked field. Plus no issues about needing to be lucky in the lottery to get in. It was perfect training for mountain races although no climb was bigger than 1,000ft (300m), so that doesn't compare to the non-stop climbs of some races which can be five or more times the size (that 7,000ft or 2,000m climb at Transalps last year springs to mind). If I keep doing this stuff it should get easier and I'll have calves like Popeye's.

I didn't quite get into the zone and have fun, but once I'm recovered I'll be able to do that again. San Francisco marathon is next up in a week and it'll be fun to get an elite start there and some VIP treatment. I just hope I can run with some vague pace to justify it.


  1. solid race was at the same time invigorating as much as it was disheartening to see you looking so fresh each time I saw you heading back from an out and back section with no less than 90 minute lead on my current position.

    ...what were you running on the whole time? Gels and water?

  2. Great running out there last weekend, Ian! I tried to stick as close as possible to through the first half, but you were just killing it out there. My first half pace was obviously a bit aggressive for my first 50, as I struggled mightily through the second half. You made it look so effortless each time we crossed paths. The course was definitely a bit harder than I expected after speaking with someone who had ran it a couple years ago. I was hoping to get to talk to you afterward, but you obviously didn't stick around long.

    If you are ever interested in getting together for a long trail run please let me know. I live right over the hill from you in Santa Cruz.

  3. Jay, I must have just missed you as I left around 30 mins after I finished and wasn't sure how long you'd be but did want to shake your hand and chat. Unfortunately I had a hire car I needed to get back to San Jose with or I'd end up paying for an extra day so couldn't relax as much as I wanted to at the finish.

    Great result for your first 50, especially picking such a tough one. My first ultra was the classic (and now defunct) London2Brighton 54 miler and it had slightly hilly roads which felt huge, but in comparison it was dead flat.

    I'll be doing a lot of the 50ks in the PCT series around the Bay Area so will hopefully see you at one of those. And I need some people to run with as I've only recently moved here and don't know anyone. Drop me an email at - it'd be great to go out on some trails for training.