Saturday, September 21, 2013

Headlands 100 - September 14, 2013

Headlands 100 is located in Marin County, California, which is just north of San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge. This was my first attempt at the 100 mile distance, and I finished in 23:17:23 to earn a silver buckle. Overall, the weather was perfect with temps in the 50s to 70s and clear conditions throughout the day and overnight. The course is four 25-mile loops, each with about 5,000 feet of climbing, which is 20,000 feet over the entire 100 miles. Going into the race, I anticipated tired legs, blisters and pain, which I experienced no doubt, but I did not anticipate the sleepiness of staying up for 24 hours and back fatigue. I was motivated to continue the entire race and never once thought about dropping. Towards the end of the race, I said multiple times I am never doing this again, but the feeling at the finish is far worth all the pain and discomfort. I met some amazing people out there and can't wait to share the trails with them in the future. Huge thanks and congrats to Ben, who I met on the trail and we ran the last 65 miles together. He helped me stay awake and motived to keep moving forward. I hope I did the same for him. Below are some post-race reflections and lessons learned followed by a detailed race report.

At its core, running is very simple, get from point A to point B, and if it is a race, do it as fast as possible. Sure managing pace, hydration, calories and electrolytes can be complicated, but running is far less complicated compared to other sports, which is one thing I love about it. In ultra/endurance running, you must mentally focus on such a simple task for a very long time. At the finish, I was very excited and overwhelmed, but most of all, I was relieved. I could not believe it was over, and it was like a giant weight was lifted of my shoulders. I think running 100 miles is like going to battle against the course and most of all, you. After halfway, I was constantly fighting fatigue, sore feet, tiredness and those mental demons telling me to quit. Since I was battling for such a long time, that eventually became the new norm, and this mental state made it hard to image the finish line. At mile 70, I realized I was running about 4 miles an hour, which makes the finish line another 8 hours. At this point, 8 hours might as well be next week. Then at mile 90, I realized I still had another 3 hours to the finish. These realizations were the most difficult for me to accept, especially because all I wanted to do was sleep, even if just for a few minutes on the side of the trail. With some help from Ben, I never gave into the fatigue, discomfort or mental demons, and I was always motivated to keep moving forward, one step at a time even though I felt terrible. To me, it is impossible to adequately describe these feelings. You have been pushing yourself to the edge for so long, the physical pain of every step is telling you to stop, mentally, you start to question your own sanity and why anyone would pay money for such a thing and emotionally, you sometimes just want to stop and cry. But, like I said, I was still motivated to continue and win this battle with such adversity. I believe we all possess a primal instinct that I don't know exactly what it is or what it is called, but it keeps us moving forward to the end and won't let us quit, even in the most difficult situations. I think it is very difficult to find this state of being, and impossible in everyday activities, but when you do find it, I can assure you it is one of the most amazing and powerful experiences you'll ever have. I will end with my favorite quote: "The miracle isn't that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start," by John Bingham. I think this is the perfect quote for a 100 miles since the finish line is so far away, but everyone who starts believes they can do it, which is all that matters.

Lessons Learned
1. Caffeine - Once you start with caffeine in a race, you need to continue to avoid the crash, which can be debilitating 20-plus hours into a race. A caffeine pill saved me and was crucial to keep me moving. Although I was in the middle of a caffeine crash, the caffeine definitely pulled me out of it. It was difficult to stomach my caffeinated gels or coke, but the pill is easily taken with a little water. Next time, I will consider bringing my own caffeine pills or something like 5 Hour Energy. Also, be sure to know the dosage of any caffeine pills before you take them. The volunteers gave me two pills, and I asked the dosage, which they said was 200mg. Taking both at once would have been way too much!!

2. Back Fatigue - My back became very sore late in the race from wearing a pack all day. I packed a lot of calories in my pack, along with a lightweight jacket and headlamp. I was worried if I stored these essentials in a drop bag, I may forget to pick them up. I also thought it would be difficult to decide which drop bag to store them in since I was not sure of my exact schedule. I think a back-brace might help in the future. I tightly wrapped a spare shirt around my back for support, which helped. I will also focus on more core exercises to strengthen my back.

3. Hydration/Fuel - I frequently do training runs that are less than 10 miles without water or calories. Since the longest distance between aid stations was about 8 miles, I thought one handheld bottle would be fine. This strategy worked, but there were times when I was running low on water because I was hiking more. When you start to hike, your pace drastically slows down, which increases the time between aid stations. Hence, you will need more water and calories than if you were running the whole time. In the future, I need to strongly consider two bottles. I should also try to set a timer on my watch to remind me to eat and take salt. It gets very hard to remember the last time you ate or took salt deep into the race, which could easily lead to under-fueling.

Race Report
Like anyone who would attempt a 100-mile run, I love running, but to most people, even avid runners, running a marathon might be excessive. My first race ever was a half marathon, and I still have never raced a 5k or 10k. I have always enjoyed running longer distances rather than trying to run a given distance faster. Like a lot of ultra runners, I run for self-exploration and to get deep into my thoughts. I feel like it is very difficult to achieve this meditative or zen state in shorter distances, and the longer you run, the deeper your thoughts. After finishing my first half marathon, I was looking for marathons to run before thinking about running a faster half. After the marathon, I naturally wanted to run a 50k, 50 miler and 100k. Eventually, this progression leads up to a 100 miles.

My love for running and being outside usually makes it hard for me to taper, even for a goal race. At the end of the day, I run for fun and the thrill of being in nature, enjoying the beautiful scenery and pushing myself, nothing more. My mind is always thinking about new routes, challenging hills and long days out on the trail. Two weeks before Headlands, I ran 15 miles in Marin with the San Francisco Running Company on Saturday, followed by one 25 mile loop of the Headlands course on Sunday, about 9,000 feet of gain over 40 miles in two days. Not particularly unusual for me, but not exactly tapering. I added a few more hills the following week since I just thought it would be fun. The weekend before, I ran 10 miles both Saturday and Sunday at a reasonably hard effort. On Wednesday, I noticed my right knee was bothering me, which I think was because my calf was really tight. Two days before Headlands, and now I don't know if I can run. I was really disappointed because I have been in this position before. I run too hard, too often without focusing on recovery and get hurt. In these moments, I usually say something like "If I don't have time to foam roll, I don't have time to run." However, I never keep these commitments to myself. I run for pleasure, nothing more, and that's why I do it. I don't run to lose weight, be healthy, have a nice physique or even be competitive and I don't mind if my race times could be faster if I would taper or train more intelligently. When it comes to running, I live purely in the moment, which is what I love about it.

I took the following Thursday and Friday off from running hoping my calf would loosen up, and I could run Headlands. I frantically tried to roll and massage my calf as well. On race morning, my calf/knee felt much better, but this is my first hundred and 100 miles is pretty far. Headlands 100 consists of four 25 mile loops (washing machine style) each with about 5,000 feet of climbing, which is 20,000 feet over the entire 100 miles. The race starts at sea level, and there are no long climbs like you might find in other mountain races. However, there are very few flat miles. Roughly, you climb 700-800 feet and immediately descend back to sea level, followed by another 700-800 foot climb/descent and so on for about six climbs per loop. I run in Marin almost every weekend and run the East Bay hills on a daily basis so I was not worried about all the climbing. However, I was worried about my calf/knee, which even distracted me from the thought of running 100 miles.

I got to the start at Rodeo Beach about 1.5 hours before the 7am start. I checked in, got my bib and relaxed in the back of my Explorer for an hour while I organized my drop bags and pack. I had one drop back at the start/finish and one at Tennessee Valley, which was at mile 4.1 and 12.0 for the first and third loops and 13.0 and 20.9 for the second and fourth loop. My strategy was to hydrate with water, take salt tabs for electrolytes and fuel with gels for first half and eventually switch to Tailwind for the second half. I thought it would be difficult to manage hydration, fuel and electrolytes from three separate sources late in the race, whereas Tailwind would offer all three from one source. I also intended to eat whatever real food at the aid stations that looked appetizing, which for me is typically Oreos and PB&J. I used the AK Race Vest from Ultimate Direction and a handheld bottle. My pack was filled with gels, Tailwind, salt, Tums, headlamp, spare batteries and a lightweight jacket. I planned on power hiking all the ups and running the downs. Going into the race I had no pacers or crew, I wanted to do this on my own.

When I arrived at the start it was dark, but the sun rose about 6am and we went on our way at 7am. Initially, it was pretty crowded climbing the Coastal Trail out of Rodeo Beach. This climb isn't too bad, but there are some nasty steps as you get close to the top. Although I could feel some stiffness, my calf/knee initially felt OK. Eventually I ran down Old Springs to Tennessee Valley, and miraculously it loosen up a bit, so I was really excited about that. From here, we climbed up to Pirates Cove and down to Muir Beach. Although I run it all the time, I never get sick of Pirates Cove on a clear day. It is so inspiring to see the rocky California coast as far as the eye can see. This is definitely my favorite view in Marin. After Muir Beach, we made our way back to up the Coyote Ridge trail, which would be the highest point of the course and more beautiful views of the entire Bay Area, and down Miwok back to Tennessee Valley. By mile 12, I felt good; my calf/knee was not an issue as long as I was careful to avoid any awkward landings. Next we went up Marincello, which is a long, gradual climb, to Alta/SCA, which would eventually take us down to the Golden Gate Bridge. On the way, I saw the SFRC group out for their typical Saturday morning run and they all cheered for me, which was awesome! Then I came back up SCA and took Bobcat back down to the start/finish at Rodeo Beach. I did the first loop in about 4.5 hours, which was a little ahead of schedule, but I felt great and was not too worried.

At this point, the morning fog was starting to clear and it was shaping up to be a perfect day. Now it was time for the second loop in the opposite direction. This time we went up Bobcat, which is a long, steady climb, but I felt good and ran it. A mile or two after leaving the Golden Gate Bridge aid station, I started to run with Ben, who I met briefly as we climbed Coastal out of Tennessee Valley on the first loop. We were running virtually the same pace and naturally just ran together talking about running, diet and other topics. We had the same time goal, to finish under 24 hours. Upon completing the second loop, we established we would try to run together for rest of the race. It took us about 5 hours for the second loop, so we were halfway in about 9.5 hours. We had planned to take the third loop very easy to save energy for the last one and preserve a potential sub 24-hour finish. Originally my goal was 24 hours, but at the start, my goal was just to finish the race with my current calf/knee issues. So I was very excited everything was going so well at this point.

We continued to talk about past races, upcoming races and longer term plans. About halfway through the third loop the sun began to set and we took out our headlamps and jackets as the temperatures also dropped. At this point everything was going far better than expected, especially with my calf/knee issue. I felt I was on top of my hydration and calories. My body felt pretty good for running 50-plus miles and I was excited to keep moving. We religiously hiked the ups and ran the downs. By the time we reached the Golden Gate Bridge aid station (mile 17.9 of loop 3), I started getting really sleepy. Although I was fatigued from running all day, my legs felt pretty good, but I just wanted to sleep. Throughout the day, I did not take any caffeine except for the occasional sip of coke and one or two citrus Clif gels (25mg each). I took a mocha gel (50mg) and that seemed to help and got me back to the start/finish at mile 75. We were about 15.5 hours into the run giving us about 8.5 hours for the last loop. On the third loop, I felt I kept up with hydration, but probably should have had more calories. I started taking Tailwind, but my mix only had 100 calories per 20oz. So I probably should have added another gel every hour or another scoop of Tailwind.

At this point, mile 75, I was feeling just OK. My stomach and legs were feeling the all-day effort, but mentally, I was still motivated to get out one more time and finish this thing. By now, it was completely dark and as we climbed Bobcat one last time, we turned off our headlamps using the moonlight on such a clear, starry night, which took our minds off the fatigue for a moment. Unknowingly, I let my nutrition slip. Since my stomach wasn't feeling great, I think I subconsciously forgot to keep up with the calories. I also had a nasty caffeine crash as well. I was still running with Ben, keeping each other motivated and moving forward although much slower. Coming out of the Golden Gate Bridge aid station, I noticed David, who posted a Headlands 100 video from last year on YouTube. I introduced myself and we talked for a bit as we left the aid station. At this point, I was getting really sleepy and my back started bothering me from carrying my pack all day. This was definitely the low point of the day around mile 85. My fueling and now hydration was suffering, and my stomach continued to bother me. When we got back to Tennessee Valley (mile 88), they offered me a caffeine pill (200mg). I took it immediately, and I started feeling better. The sleepiness vanished, which really boosted my motivation. I still had trouble eating and drinking, but there was only 12 miles to go. At this point, we were hiking the ups, the steep downs and even some of the flats. My stomach didn't like bouncing around while running and my legs were definitely feeling all the pounding. Since we had plenty of time, I was fine with hiking.

Eventually, we made it through Muir Beach and back to Tennessee Valley at mile 96. One more nasty climb up Old Springs and Miwok, and then it was all downhill to the finish. At this point, I was really tired as the caffeine pill had worn off and my stomach wasn't any better. As we reached the top of the climb, the sun began to rise and the finish line was in sight! I couldn't believe it was about to be over, and I got a bit emotional. I had not been able to eat or drink much in the last few hours, my stomach was miserable, all I wanted to do was sleep and my legs felt like lead weights. However, the end was in sight, and I couldn't believe I had less than a mile to go. Although we walked most of the last loop, I gathered all of my remaining strength to run the last 100 yards with Ben. We finished together in 23:17:23 (7.5 hour final loop) and immediately received our silver buckles. It was an epic day for my running career, and definitely something I will never forget.

I stayed for a couple hours watching some of the others finish and eating everything in sight. It was such a privilege to see others finish and accomplish something truly incredible. The amount of courage and determination displayed by the all the runners is truly inspirational.


  1. John, are there any studies on the ideal pacing for a race this long ? Curious about the huge pace difference between the first two laps and the last one.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I think in general it is best to run at an even effort the whole time. However, in 100 miles, you are almost guaranteed to start feeling bad at some point and your pace will suffer. I battled stomach problems, sleepiness and fatigue, which certainly caused me to slow down. In the beginning, it is very easy to go out to fast, even though it feels really easy. I think I will try to incorporate forced walking in the beginning next time to try to preserve my legs and run more of an even effort from start to finish.