How do you run a marathon and feel lazy at the end? Run one that also has a 50 mile ultra-marathon option. And make it the toughest course you’ve ever run with 11,000 ft. of elevation change (22,000 ft. for 50 miles). As you finish, most of the folks you’ve been running with for hours turn around and go out for more. Yes, I’m crazy, but those people are really crazy! Ah the security of relativistic sanity. Here is my report of the Headlands Marathon.
The First 1.2
The main course was a 25 mile “loop” including a couple of out and back sections. Those running the 50 mile complete the loop twice. The marathoners run the loop once but add a 1.2 mile out and back section. Thankfully it was added at the beginning of the race; it would be anticlimactic to run by the finish line with over a mile to go. So, the race starts with an easy 1.2 mile section along a road. Nothing too interesting happened here. Although, after visiting the restroom twice in the 30 minutes prior to the start, I had to go again. I guess the coffee wasn’t done making its exit. I wasn’t in any hurry (not a PR race), and I knew exactly where the restroom was as we ran back through the start/finish area, so I took a quick break.
A positive, unexpected side effect of my early bathroom break was that it seated me back in the field with more conservative and/or slower runners. In retrospect, I see how this kept me from blowing the first climb too hard and set me up to negative split the field the rest of the day.
The first 10 miles followed the coast line, and the views were phenomenal. I always thought the Pacific Ocean was beautiful, but I’ve never seen it like this. Rocky cliffs nestled among green rolling hills and the occasional hidden sandy cove made for the best scenery I’ve ever experienced on a run. I took it easy on the first climb, power hiking most of it. There was even one short stretch of stairs.
Excited to reach the top, I blasted the first big downhill way too hard. I didn’t realize it definitively until later in the race when my left knee complained loudly. But with each successive descent I suspected something wasn’t quite right and slowed them down progressively.
At the bottom was the first aid station where I met Tim. He was my partner in crime on the fast descent. Together we had blown past several other runners on the way down. Towards the bottom where the trail widened, he passed me. Tim really blitzes the downhill. Later we played a bit of cat and mouse. He would pass me on the downhill; I would catch him on the uphill. Occasionally we ran together. Tim was running his first marathon, but I can’t imagine the Headlands being my first 26.2. If I picked the right Tim out of the results, I’m very pleased to see he finished not too far behind me. Congratulations, Tim!
The remainder of the course turned inland. I missed the ocean, slightly jealous the 50 milers got to run that section again. I arrived at the Tennessee Valley aid station (half way point) without any real issues and was thrilled to see my wife, Sarah. I ditched my ball cap since it was making my head sweat and quickly refilled my fuel belt flasks. I was off on what would be a long slow climb. The grade was fairly moderate, so I employed a jog/walk technique. I would pick a spot 50 meters or so ahead, jog to it, and then walk for a bit. I couldn’t sustain a jog without burning out and power hiking just seemed to take too long. Jog/walk worked well. It took a while, but eventually I was high on a ridge traversing the mountain. Along this section I saw the largest jack rabbit I’ve ever seen with extremely long/tall ears.
I noticed a strange heartburn sensation. It was unlike normal heartburn, so in my mind I started calling it “runner’s heartburn.” After the traverse, we began a long slow descent that ended at another aid station. I stopped longer than at previous aid stations. I knew the climb that lay ahead. I laid off my energy gel afraid it was causing my heartburn, so I tried something different; I drank some Coke and Clif sports drink.
Jog/walk again proved effective getting me up the mountain. I really enjoyed the top. I felt pretty good; the breeze was refreshing, the views were inspiring, and I realized I had 20 miles behind me! After the traverse, the descent is where things started to unravel. The quicker pace on the downhill aggravated my knee and stomach. But I finally I reached the bottom and rolled into the aid station where Sarah was waiting. While not completely dejected, I was definitely struggling. There were only 4 miles to go. Unsure I could make it, I told Sarah. She offered timely and heartfelt encouragement and pointed me in the right direction to begin the last section.
The Home Stretch
The last climb was definitely my weakest. Now my stomach was upset about jogging uphill too, which made for a long slow climb. Even on flatter ground at the top I wasn’t feeling very good or moving very fast. I noticed some people I passed earlier closing the gap behind me. Ultimately I wouldn’t be able to hold them off, but feeling the pressure got me moving a little better. That is, until the final steep descent began.
My left knee was done. I could only muster a pitiful waddle down one particular steep technical section. I was tripping on rocks, grunting, and wincing frequently. Someone asked me if I was ok. Struggling, I let a couple people pass.
Finally the steep off-road and stair-stepping ended. The last mile or so was on a smooth paved road followed by a dirt road. It was still downhill, but at a more manageable grade. I could see the finish and discovered I could run without knee pain! In fact I was running pretty fast. I caught the two people who just passed me and finished with a sub-6 push in 5:13 (5 hours, 13 minutes)!
The Headlands Marathon was my longest run in terms of time on my feet. It was also the most elevation change I’ve ever encountered in a race. That being said, I couldn’t be more pleased with how it turned out. I finished 20th overall and hit my time goal squarely, between 5:00 and 5:30.
My left knee hurt for a day and a half or so afterwards, but only when bearing weight and bent (going down stairs or steep grade). But it seems to be healing up nicely. This leads me to an important important lesson I will take to Pikes Peak: be cautious of running the steep downhills too fast. Pikes Peak is 1,500 additional feet of climb and descent each. Surviving the Headlands gives me confidence to deal with elevation change. Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do to prepare for the high altitude in Colorado.
I felt markedly different afterwards compared to my last marathon, a decidedly easier course. I wasn’t as emotional this time. And despite all the climbing and extra time on my feet, I wasn’t exhausted. Which makes sense if you consider my limitations were structural (knee) and digestive (stomach). I wasn’t able to run hard enough to completely empty the energy tank.
Even though I finished with energy reserves, the Headlands Marathon was undoubtedly my hardest race ever. But it was also the most satisfying and enjoyable. Now, I just have to find a way to survive and enjoy Pikes Peak.
August is going to be a very special month! Read more about Kelly’s fundraiser and her miles for meals campaign. Consider joining Martina, Kelly, and me as we run to feed starving children around the world.