Week 49, 2012: Coyote Ridge 50K

«The mountains are calling and I must go»
— John Muir

First the 160+K week in Yosemite, then a recovery week and this week I had the Coyote Ridge 50K coming up. Therefore I decided to take it easy. In fact I planned to do a bit more running before the weekend race, but ended up with only two short, fast runs (Tuesday & Thursday).

Friday evening I drive to a motel in Mill Valley, where I am staying for the night. The race is at Muir Beach, which is a 1.5 hours away from where I live and I don't want to risk such a drive in the morning (the race starts at 8am).

Iam planning to go to bed once I get there, but I am hungry and instead go out to explore. The motel is just next to a cutely named Strawberry Village, where I find a pizzeria and have my private pasta party.

After dinner I go to bed but I don't sleep much. The motel is just next to a busy highway, so for me it's too noisy to sleep. But I'm used to sleeping little before races. Problem is, I didn't sleep a lot over the week either. Oh well.

In the morning it's freezingly cold, which presents some problem concerning the gear: I usually race in shorts and a t-shirt. I'm not that brave today and instead put on sweatpants and long sleeved t-shirt. I also take a hot shower to wake up and warm up a bit. And then I hop in the car and drive to Muir Beach.

I pick up my number and queue for the toilet. It's a long queue. And the start time is getting closer and closer. I make it with 5 minutes to spare, but some people behind me are not so lucky and the organizers seem determined not to delay the start too much.

As I'm soon about to learn I am still to pay for this toilet delay. I end up at the very back of the pack, which would be a minor inconvenience in any road race. Here it's much more of a problem as we start on a single track trail and passing anyone is next to impossible.

It takes more than half an hour until that changes. But eventually the trail gets wider and, soon afterwards, the track splits with people doing shorter distances taking a different route. All of a sudden we go from an indian file to solitude. There is on average 50-100 meter distance between runners and we soon hit the fog so that is enough not to be able to see them.

I seem to be making progress and I zero-in on subsequent runners and slowly overtake one after another. At some point I see a guy whose physique, from afar, slightly reminds me of Kristof. We soon hit the second checkpoint. I barely broke stride at the first one, only grabbing two cups with drinks. This time I stop for a bit longer, drinking, eating a banana and some small snacks. But looking at my watch I'm glad to learn that I only stopped for one minute. Way to go.

From there on I concentrate on chasing the ghost of Kristof. He usually gains some distance over me on the climbs (and boy, are they tough!), but then most of the time I manage to almost catch up with him on the descends. And so it goes. Apart from playing this game I'm also enjoying the views. And they're truly spectacular. Mountains, ocean... this is one of the most beautiful locations I ever run in, no doubt about that!

Before the race I had a tentative goal of 5:30. It was hardly anything more than a guesstimation really, but now I see that at this pace I can make it. In fact, at this pace I should be able to finish at 5:15. Sweet.

Somewhere around 20K I start feeling first signs of being tired; too early for that. I also realize my stupid mistake of not bringing a backpack with some fluids. Granted, it's a bit easier running without it, but the distance between some aid stations goes up to 8 miles and that's a long way to go without drinking.

Just before reaching the 3rd checkpoint I overtake "Kristof". At the checkpoint I learn that he's doing 20 miles so I loose interest in racing him, especially that he leaves the checkpoint right away and I need some time there. Coke tastes divine. 3.5 minutes and I'm on my way.

Couple of hills later I am back to the start. So I just completed a 20.5 mile loop. Now a smaller one, 10.5 miles long, and I'll be done. Easier said than done. I am starting to feel tired.

At the start of the second loop there's a part that was very muddy and that reminds me of the DiemerCross race I did earlier this year. Now on the second passing it's even worse. Also this whole adventure started with a very serious climb and somehow on the second passing it's so much worse. At some point I pass a guy who says thank god we won't have to do it again. All I can do is to wholeheartedly agree.

At some point I see a fork in the road and am not sure which way should I go. Not taking a backpack was a mistake. Not taking a map was just plain stupid. The course is well marked but this is the 3-way intersection of 3 forks of the orange tracks so I'm confused. I take an instinctive decision. Just after the turn a huge climb starts...I'm thirsty... so I soon forget about this dilemma. I go up... I'm very thirsty... and up... where's the checkpoint??... and up. I should have seen the checkpoint by now. Soon afterwards I recognize the way back to the start and I realize that I went the wrong way. Damn it.

I reach the start, report to the race director and explain the situation to him. We figure out that I did the distance of the marathon and he's willing to recognize my effort in that category. And then I ask the question that will be haunting me for the coming hours. I ask him what if I did again the shorter loop that I just finished? He tells me that this would altogether add up to more than 50k with some more total elevation gain, but that if I did that he'd recognize my result in the 50k category. It's up to me, he says.

So now I have a huge dilemma. I'm really tired. And dispirited by this mistake. Plus I have such an easy way out, I can just say, well, ok, it was meant to be that way, a marathon will do. It's so tempting. Which is precisely why I decide against it. I tell him I'm going for it. And I am on my way.

But I cannot race anymore. I'm tired and don't have it in me anymore to race. All I want to do is to finish. All I want to do it to survive it. So I move slowly. One foot in front of the other. Repeat...

I reach the same muddy part, for the third time and, yes, you guessed it, it's even worse than before. And then I have to face the same climb for the third time. I think about the irony of my conversation with the guy before, when we were so happy that we won't have to do it again. And here I am. Climbing. One foot in front of the other. Repeat...

I think that I'm hardly moving up, so I'm very surprised when I approach and overtake another runner. I guess slow is relative. I realize ultra-running is also a fabulous illustration of relativity theory at work: the longer you race the slower the time goes by. At first the kilometers swoosh by. Now they're dragging forever. So I guess it's more of an anti-relativity theory; you slow down and so does the time.

I'm thirsty again. I realize that my decision meant that I'll have to do the last 10K without aid stations, just as I did on the previous loop. I also do the maths and realize that I'll do 3K extra. Not too bad. If I can make it. I'm thirsty.

Only 5K to go. Hardly any people around. Finally, I see the top of the peak. Good news is: I know it's the last peak for me in this race. But there's plenty of bad news too. I'm tired. I'm thirsty. And the peak is far away. And the way there is bloody steep. One step at a time. One foot in front of the other. And repeat...

Finally I make it to the top. Now it's the last descend. The last 2.5km. I know I can make it. I know I can. I look at my watch. It's closing in on 6 hours. If I hurry up I should be able to make it under 6:00. So I go for it. I make the last effort. I reach the finish line in 5:57:42 (gun time: 5:59:20).

I do the math and realize that scaling down my time to the prescribed 50k, it would mean something like 5:33, so almost meeting my goal of 5:30. Sweet. Just as I finish figuring this out I hear my name being called. I'm told I won the age division. That surely must be a mistake... or was there no one in my age group? Or do they have age groups spanning 1 year? It turns out, it's neither and I was really the fastest among 30-40 year olds. Wow. Not only that. I also learn that the overall winner finished in 5:10:28, which means that I did a fairly good time too.

I wish I could say it all doesn't matter and this is not why I'm racing. It isn't. But it does matter. It feels great. And it's a great change from road racing where I would repeatedly set the same goal of improving my PR and I would be disappointed time and again. It's so refreshing to meet one's goals and be happy with one's accomplishments. By the way I also did 2,408m of total elevation gain; not bad.

It was a great race. Possibly the best ever, with only Lakeland 50 being a serious contestant. And yet again I just cannot wrap my head around how different this is than road racing. There hitting the hard asphalt, at a constant pace with the crowds cheering around. Here, it's caressing the dirt tracks, one moment going up, the next going down, with only birds and streams as spectators. And views. Magnificent views. I feel like I'm rediscovering running. I am rediscovering running. And it feels totally awesome.

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