This Sunday, I participated in my first USA Track & Field Championship. I ran 3 Marathon Nationals in France, but this was a much different experience. Actually the difference is less about the country or the culture. It has more to see with the difference between road and trail running. Although not that publicized and covered by the medias, road racing is still more visible and popular, with hundreds of thousands of people running marathons each year. After all, trail running isn't an Olympic sport. What most of us like in trail running, and ultra running especially, is that it's more about your personal challenge than actual competition. No way to have distance records in this discipline as courses and profiles vary so much from one place to another. We enjoy the low key aspect of this sport, saying we just need a pair of shoes to hit the trail (oh, no, this is not an invitation to run nude like one guy got caught in the Cupertino hills several years ago!).
So, here we are, 140 runners lining up for a US Championship. No qualifying requirement, you just needed to have paid your membership dues to the USA Track & Field association before the race. Which 99 of us had. But very few runners from out of State, or even out of North California. As much as we have great local runners, that's not really representing of some great runners from many other states in the US. Too many events in the summer (Leadville 100M and the 100K championships the week before, Bulldog 50K, Cascade Crest and UTMB 100-milers this weekend, just to name a few) and not enough prize money to cover travel expenses are probably the main reasons. Well, at least, us local runners, we got most of the numerous medals! ;-)
Two weeks ago, I went to Rodeo Beach to run the full course of the Golden Gate Headlands 50K and get familiarized with the course. I ran Ohlone without knowing anything about the course, which happened to work great (1st overall!), but Headlands 50K was serving as the USA Track & Field Championship, so I wanted to get better prepared.
For this training run, the weekend of PCTR's Headlands 100-mile, I got the usual fog at the start, but the rest was sunny, from the Dipsea trail hill. I took my time to read the map and course instructions from time to time, take some pictures, then wandering in some places to get some water, yet thought I had pushed reasonnably in the uphills, despite a 23-mile training run the previous day. I ended up doing the full loop in 5:44. When I checked past year's performance, I saw times starting at 3hr59, with guys I know running in the 4:30-5hr range. I was not sure which trick I'll find on race day to save 1hr or more out of this training run...
A self portrait overlooking Muir Beach, during my sunny training run.
Note: the pictures of the course below are from this sunny morning, and may misrepresent the overcasted sky which sticked all day, this Sunday.
Started with meeting Hannes in Cupertino for a nice carpool. With 140 registered runners (half Miwok's field), traffic, parking and check-in at Rodeo Beach was straightforward. There was even barely a line for the toilets! The fog was there (of course), but it was not too cold. I picked my favorite Brooks orange sleeveless top and put my Brooks Trance shoes on. Thinking of my hero, Scott Jurek, who unfortuntaly dropped half way at UTMB this Saturday (he is the lead representative of Brooks in ultra running), too tired between his great win at Hardrock and the coming grueling Spartathlon (see Scott's blog).
Like Miwok, we start on the beach, actually closer to the parking lot, so for a longer and painful stretch in soft sand. Chikara started like a bomb. And was followed by a few guys.
Following Rob's tip to reduce the time I usually spend in aid stations, I didn't stop at the Tenessee Valley aid station (horse stables) and went on the next uphill, feeling Erik on my heels. Refueled at the Hwy 1 aidstation, then got on the third and tough hill of the Dipsea trail. Erik caught me half way up to Pantoll. Given he placed second overall again this year at Western States, and he looked so strong, I thought I won't see him again before the finish line.
A view from Matt Davis trail, before the streneous trail plunging to Stinson Beach (training run):
Through all the way up to Pantoll and down to Frank Valley (~6 miles), I didn't see any runner, neither in front or back, which is not very motivating. If it wasn't for all the pink ribbons--a perfectly marked course-- some flour on the ground, and volunteers posted at the required turned, it didn't feel like being in a race.
Getting to Muir Beach (above picture), I saw Erik up in the Coastal Trail hill above the aid station. I walked most of it, so I didn't think I'd catch him, which I eventually did at Coyote Ridge before flying down to Tennessee Valley for the second time today. He was having a bad day, the only way for me to keep up with such an elite ultra runner, and winner of the 2006-2007 Montrail Ultra Cup.
The rest is a tough hill, the seventh and last. Which seems endless as we still go up after reaching the bike path at Wolf Ridge. Here is a view of Rodeo Beach (start), from Wolf Ridge (training run):Then the last downhill, a sort of fast tour of the WWII bunkers, an abandonned "Pacific Wall" like the marks of the German Atlantic Wall in France, a part of which I visited this summer (see my own commemorative ultra run on the beaches of D Day).
And the finish line, at last! 11th overall, 4h23, 3rd Masters, enough for a "bronze" medal. For what it is worth in an Championship which was almost exclusively amongt local North Californian runners.
The aid stations were perfectly stocked and the volunteers very helpful and knowledgeable. Probably many volunteers who are themselves running these hills and trails around Mount Tamalpais. This is priceless. The BBQ at the finish line was perfect and welcomed after such a tough run and with this tenacious fog.
Below, from left to right: Chikara Omine (8th overall) and the top three Masters, Cliff Lentz (6th), myslef (11th) and Steve Stowers (10th):
Then started a long 3-hour wait for the award ceremony, until each 5-year/3-deep age groups were filling in. Yes, I know, Greg, ultra running requires patience... Especially for family members and teenagers who made the effort of coming to the finish line, giving up their last day of the summer break (a big deal for Alex and Max!).
And, before you go farther and faster, as a bonus, a view of Golden Gate and San Francisco, from Marine Headlands, without the fog (training run)!
Ok, another extra bonus, the course on Google Earth and Google Maps. I particularly like who the switch backs going down Franck Valley, on the Heather cut-oof trail, see for yourself! But you need more to trick the Garmin 205...And the course profile, both views captured in Sports Track: