The North Face 50 Mile Championships kicked off last weekend in beautiful San Francisco.  This would be my 3rd 50 miler and what I consider to be the biggest race of my year.  If you’re interested in running this race, the 50 mile distance, an ultra or just want to hear some trail stories, you’re in the right place.

Late Thursday night we arrived in San Francisco.  Woke up Friday morning to a bright sunny view of the bay, Golden Gate Bridge and those beautiful hills over the Marin Headlands.  It would be less than 24 hours before I would be running over that awe-inspiring, yet relentless vertical and I couldn’t wait for it to begin.  I headed out to the start/finish line on Friday to check out the scene and run a quick shakeout before picking up my race packet downtown.  The 60 degree sunshine  warmed me up as I ran down the Tennessee Valley trail and out onto the beach.  

The trails were soft with a little dirt and a little mud, but smooth and easy.  As I made my way up and topped out on one of the sections of the trail, you could see all the way back to the Golden Gate Bridge and to the right, endless Pacific Ocean.  I knew I was in the right place for a little soul-fulfilling adventure, but didn’t want to get carried away before race day.  Headed back to the car after a couple of pictures and made my way downtown to pick up my race packet.  Had a delicious pre-race dinner at Fog Harbor Fish House with Mike, my sister and my mom.  After dinner we were all pretty tired so we headed back for some shut eye.  Alarm set for 3:00am and I was easily asleep in no time.

3:00am

My alarm went off and I was ready to go; actually Mike was up before me and he was ready to go! Had a quick peanut butter sandwich on gluten free toast, a cup of coffee, got dressed and was out the door before 3:30am.  We were already ahead of schedule!

4:00am

We arrived at the parking lot and the shuttle was there to take us to the start line.  It was still so dark and cold.  I wanted as many minutes in the cozy car as possible.  When we finally decided to make our way on the bus, it was surprisingly warm and filled with runners.  I felt a rush of excitement!  All the runners had their headlamps and gear on.  We were ready to go!

5:00am

Start! Last kiss to Mike and we were off.  It would be around 2 hours before the sun would rise and I would take my headlamp off.  It was time to settle in and enjoy the darkness on the trail, the stars up ahead, and the slight glimpse of light over the hills. If you’re thinking running in the woods or through Marin Headlands in the dark can be dangerous or hard, it’s actually really freeing and not too bad when you have a bright light leading your way.  Of course, pay close attention to your footing, but other than that, it really isn’t that difficult to see.  When I turned to look behind me or gazed into the distance, I could see the stream of headlamps making their way up and down the headlands.  It was a really peaceful time! I loved it.

1-32 miles

The sun began to rise and it was time to ditch the headlamp. Nutrition was going well, legs were feeling good and the work was paying off.  As the darkness faded away and the sun rose, it turned into a whole new race.  With the continuous breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, Sausalito and the everlasting Pacific Ocean, time seemed to be flying by.  Each part of the course brings on a new and invigorating sense of excitement and I was smiling from ear to ear.

32.1 - 38.1+

You know what also brings on a sense of invigorating excitement… getting off course! Oh and getting stung by either a bee or a wasp.  Whatever it was, that stung hurt and left a big ol’ bruise on my backside to prove it’s existence.  Anyhow, back to getting off course.  After heading out of Cardiac Aid Station at Mile 32.1, life still felt like a wonderful dream… and slowly my feelings started to shift.   I began to see a lot of friendly hikers, then more… soon, I found myself among a very public trail with orange ribbons in less than ideal places. This didn’t seem right, but wait there is another orange flag in the bush and then one above this tree.  Where did that other runner go in front of me?  I still see runners behind me in the distance. As I ran, a bit of paranoia started to creep in as I had that sinking feeling I wasn’t in the right place.  Casual day hikers told me that, yes, they did in fact see runners.  And, that they were right down the trail by the parking lot.  Ok, keep running.  Now, I asked a new set of people, have you seen any runners?! Yes, but they were further down.  Hmm, this can’t be right.  I turned around and ran back to the runners I saw behind me.  They too were concerned that we were off course.  We all made our way to the parking lot and up the road, where we hit Old Inn, the aid station at 38.1.  Only problem was, all of our watches were short on that mileage (ie; did not say 38.1).  BUT because of GPS glitches in the hills, they had been short ALL day! So, did we run more or less? No one really knew. After a chat with race officials on how to solve the issue, we decided to run back up to Old Inn over to Cardiac to assure we ran the full mileage required.  Wait, what? Really? But, that looks like uphills and those look like stairs and for five seconds I thought, I don’t really care if my watch is short on mileage (it has been all day) and I just want to eat chips and guacamole at Don Pisto’s and order a spicy margarita. Woah. Deep breath.  

No way was I going to try and take the easy way out. If they were going, I was going.  So, up we went!  Made the turnaround so our watches matched the mileage.  At this point, we knew we were running more mileage because of the shortage on our watches so naturally this was frustrating to runners.  I shouted out, “More kilometers, more fun!” an old Sean Meissner quote, who I believe heard it from a European who he was racing with and got lost.  Anyhow, the idea was let’s make it fun and enjoy it!  Soon enough, I made my way back into Old Inn at a true 38.1+.

38.1-40.8

It would be only a short distance until I would pick-up Mike at mile 43.8 as my pacer.  My energy filled back up after rolling through Old Inn.  I was so excited to see Mike! It wouldn’t be that long until I saw him and once we were running together, it would be the most fun adventure two young kids could have! He would see how great it was and we could daydream about chips and guac together!  The next aid station came up sooner than expected! This is wonderful! Wait, nope, this is not wonderful… this is not where Mike is… this is only Muir Beach.  How did I miss this?  Did I not study the aid stations enough? Ugh.  I thought, fine fine fine, it’s ok, a little break in between.  Now only 3.0 miles. Easy!

40.8 - 43.8

And, then mile 41 hits.  Who in the good God decided to put that much vertical at mile 41?  I’ve made it through Cardiac.. twice, I ran McKennan Gulch, I did Stinson Beach, I even ran back up Old Inn.  You know when you wake-up and think it’s Friday, but it’s Tuesday? Or when you can’t find your car, so you call 311 and see if it’s been towed and the lady ends up telling you it’s been stolen; the vertical I was going up at 41 was a combination of those feelings times a million.  So, there I was still going up this damn thing and the time is passing, really slowly passing. The 3 miles that were suppose to be so easy from Muir Beach to Tennessee Valley were 14 decades in runner's years.  Ok, now I’m not making sense, but either did this section of the trail.  That warm California sun started to feel hot now and my energy, as well as, my patience was wearing thin.

43.8 Tennessee Valley

The three miles finally concluded and believe it or not I was running into Tennessee Valley, while also making a lot of other weird noises.  I finally saw Mike in his bright orange long sleeve with a GU Stroopwafel in his hand.  He had a huge smile on his face and I could tell, he was ready to go. He started pumping his fist and cheering me on.  All I could muster up was, “You know you’re suppose to eat those waffles 15 minutes before you run.”  He said, “I know I brought it for you, but you don’t look like you want it.”  He tore that waffle open and ate it, while I stopped at the aid station.

43.8 - 46.7

After a refill of the water bottle, potato dipped in salt (new favorite) and some sips of Mountain Dew, Mike and I were headed out.  At mile 43.8, it would be 2.9 miles until the next aid station.  There would be one more climb and then we would be headed downhill to the finish.  Mike was so encouraging.  He said great things like, “You look amazing! You’re strong! You’re going to do this. I am so proud of you!”  He was so energizing and inspiring.  At the time, I wasn’t saying much of anything.  Especially when he talked about how wonderful the scenery was… “Yeah, great, saw it.  Just trying not to die now.”  More weird noises.  But, thinking about it now and even shortly after race, his love and support were so powerful and meant so very much to me.

46.7 - 50

We hit Alta at mile 46.7 and it would be 2.8 miles to the finish.  Mike was persistent on pushing a pace and thank God he was because I sure wasn’t.  Once we hit the downhill, he really had me going and we began to pass people.  Slowly but surely, there was Fort Barry and then the parking lots that we were at just 11 hours earlier. Mike pointed out each of these as we made our way in,  as a measurement for how close we were getting.  Another last view of the Golden Gate Bridge and Pacific Ocean.  We made our way down the trail and then it was up the road to the finish.  We were so close, but it still felt so far.  All the seconds, hours, minutes, my body had been moving and working so hard were fading away as I heard my sister yell, “ASHLEY!” in the middle of the still calm and quiet rustic street. She was amped up and I wanted all of her energy or just an ounce of it, anything.

Finish!

We made the turn and there was the shoot.  Ran it in with every last bit and received the finisher medal.  Yahtzee!

My mom and sister came to greet us.  I was a glass case of emotion, not knowing if I wanted a chair, a water, food, a drink or just to shower and sleep for 15 years.  After a couple of pics, we headed back to the car and opened up the Kettle Chips.  We made our way back to San Francisco and recapped all the race stories of the day.  My mom even told me how she got a picture of Dean Kardashian, I knew she meant Dean Karnazes, but was too tired to correct her.  My sister told me how she went hiking on her own and found some really neat spots.  Mike told me about his insane breakfast that we all had to return to the next day.  The race was incredible, but it was these moments I cherished the most.  It speaks to the quote, “Happiness is only real when shared.”  When you can share these moments with others and even help to inspire or motivate others to try something new or discover something in themselves, that’s it.  That’s the magic.

After a shower, we hopped into an uber and settled in at Don Pisto’s. All the chips, all the guac and a few spicy margaritas.