Saturday, May 20, 2017

Miwok: Mental toughness & and the long dark half-marathon of the soul

"You guys are crazy!"
"...yeah I guess so."
"How much further?"
"Barely even a marathon..."

That was the moment when inevitably it all came crashing down around me and for around 2 hours I convinced myself that this objectively exceptional, triumphant and devastatingly beautiful experience was breaking me.

"Trying to learn to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be
And after all this time, to find we're just like all the rest
Stranded in the park and forced to confess

To hiding on the backstreets"

- Bruce Springsteen, 1975

Tia Boddington and the Miwok crew put on an unequivocally magnificent event in the Marin headlands each May. It is so excellent that qualified participants must get lucky in a lottery from where some 450 or so are selected to compete. It just so happened we had a contingent of 4 Team 7hills combatants travelling this year and spending some time with local studs Jon Lumb, John Maytum and Michael Miller made for a jovial pre/post and during race experience. Thanks guys, it was a lot of fun to take a little piece of home down to the bay.

My pre-Miwok preparation was pretty good to be honest. recent job changes and a harsher than normal winter led to more road miles and less mountain excursions, but a packed early slate of 50ks, trail marathons and buoying timed community runs made for one of the more consistent early training years I've had to date. I pulled into Bolinas feeling bullish about my health, my conditioning and my state of mind. I was going to have a great day.

Team7hills pre-race
3:28AM and I'm bolt upright awake. My alarm is to go off in 2 minutes time but I don't need it. The coffee pot has brewed and all my preparation from the night before has me locked in and ready to go pretty quickly. Breakfast is had and drop bags are in the car. Team7hills is ready to rock. Arriving 10-20 minutes before go time we just about have time to arrange drop bags. There's a bathroom at mile 2.8 so no big deal. Goofing off with the guys in the starting chute, Tia makes a speech and we're away.

Michael had been nervous in the lead up to the race. He'd had a draining 100k experience the year before and some complications leading up to the race (see sealife chronicles for his tale) and I'm a fairly social runner so we had planned to start out nice and easy and stick more or less together. The Dipsea uphill was pretty nice, and I must say somewhat more logistically simple than ushering all up the narrow Matt Davis trail as the race did when last I ran it. We meandered, Michael pulled ahead, I pulled ahead. We just about crested the hill. I used the restroom to the sound of bagpipes. I assumed that was the last I'd see of Michael for the day. The sun was breaching the horizon.

"Ian Burton, are you still here?" he yelled. I was still 'taking care of business' so I responded somewhat timidly, "Yes...?" It was Michael. He was waiting for me and/or soaking in the atmosphere. That was super cool and gave me a pretty good lift. We forged off down the new reroute to the Pelican Inn/Muir Beach.

Coyote Ridge

The first half of the race was an unrelenting joy. I had the benefit of having run this section as the back-half last time around so each time I hit and aid station I was struck by how much better I felt this time around and how much more I was able to run with purpose. Through Tennessee Valley the second time I was well-fed, well watered and feeling good on the run. A little worked but on the whole in excellent shape. 

Pirates cove was a joy, the thrilling downhills, the gentle uphills and always the incessant littoral splendor threatening to break my heart or steal my breath (or both) at any moment! Michael started to show his strength in this section and we parted for a time. I met a fellow Brit ex-pat and we chatted on and off; he was down from Vancouver and our running community Venn diagrams overlapped slightly in some ways which was a fun thing to focus on whilst assimilating the fact that I was still somewhat able to run uphill. 

Photo courtesy Glenn Tachiyama
A mile or less outside of Muir Beach Return and up pops Glenn Tachiyama, always a pleasure to see him and especially so far from home. The brief interaction gave me a boost and I powered through the next section and the downhill to Muir and arrived about in step with Michael. We were having a bloody good day and there was nothing anyone could do to convince me otherwise! Well except maybe that climb back up to Cardiac.

It was a mile or two of road followed by fairly short quick switchbacks and it sapped the life out of me somewhat. I hiked a little less purposefully than I perhaps ought to have and I ran a little less frequently that I ought to have. A couple dips into small wooded clefts and up we popped though to Cardiac. Michael was long gone now, and I wouldn't see him again until the long out-and-back to Randall Trail at the far Northern reaches of the course. I re-fueled at Cardiac, thanked the volunteers and was on my way, up on to the Coastal Trail proper. This is where I saw the most day-hikers and had the above exchange with a very friendly man who I'm sure didn't realize the extent to which he was trapping me into my own personal malaise. It wasn't his fault, he was just a tool of my mind's attempt to get me to leave myself alone instead of embarking on these adventures.

The coastal trail's narrowness and run-ability is surpassed only by its outright sensory glory. It's a delight for the eye, ear and nose and it did its best to break me. It meanders in and out of the width of unending hillocks the apex of which grant uncaring views of just how many remain before you eventually make it to the cool woods of Bolinas ridge (hint: infinity) and how small your fellow competitors appear in the distance.

Ugh, this goes on forever.
Will I ever make it to the next aid station. 
Do I even have enough time? 
How have I put myself in this position to fail so readily once more? 
Why do I do this? 
Do I even care? 
Haven't I suffered enough? 
What's the point? 
I guess I'm going to DNF. 
I'll never make the Western States qualifying time. 
Do I even want to? 
Will I even run another qualifier when I don't make this one? 
Maybe I've done enough in my running "career". *   

These were the thoughts running through my head coming down from Coastal into Bolinas ridge aid station. I took the chair for the first time in the day (except for a sock change at Tennessee). After a pep talk from the amazing volunteers I got back on the trail. 
The downhill to Randall Trail is less downhill than it seems on the chart. I saw lots of excellent faces on my way down, including Jon, John and Michael (my Team7hills friends) and Lee, 2 time finisher of the new-kid-on-the-block Orcas Island 100 with whom I've shared many a good time up on top on Mount Constiution (around 8 times to be exact!).

A quick break, some snacks and a top up and its time to turn back around. Some legends are on site and that is spiriting. The 'uphill' back from Randall Trail to Bolinas Ridge is much more runnable somehow. I didn't negative split it as I so casually bragged afterward but I ran with more purpose and maybe took only 15-20 minutes longer to get back up than I'd taken to get down.  Someone at Bolinas is having a bad time, and its not gonna be me. A quick re-stock and I'm back at it. Flying out of the woods like a bat out of hell. This Coastal Trail has nothing on me now! Cruising along I picked up about 23 spots in the race in the final 10k. Suddenly everything felt right again. I joked that I wasn't doing better, I was just so over it that I wanted to be done. But that was a veneer. I was loving it, I was crushing it and I was unstoppable.

Turning onto the Matt Davis trail and its tight, stair-laden switchbacks I was in heaven. I was feeling the wind whip past my head. Some kid tells me its 300ft to the finish. I thank him but question his ability to judge distances. 5 minutes later a volunteer tells me its 100 yards to go and I'm less skeptical. Suddenly I'm out of the woods and into the community center parking lot, yelling. A 10 yard dash and I'm home. In 15:11:55. Somewhere around a 20 minute improvement on my previous Miwok performance. I see Michael, I see Glenn, Tia gives me my medal. Lee gives me a Glenlivet and I do her the courtesy of not barfing - it may have been too soon for me to fully enjoy it.

Aaaaand relax.

This thing we do is pretty hard. I see that now. Not hard in a hardship way, I wouldn't trade my life for the trials some go through. But it is hard in that it is not easy. I've had such an easy and fun time with it over my first three years of running that I didn't really appreciate the difficulty. Miwok and the depths I managed to sink to amidst such splendor really brought this home for me. I'm often ready to quit in races and end up toughing it out, but never quite so viscerally as that. The way I was able to rally around and not wallow in it like I sometimes do was new for me. The margin for error didn't really allow for that response for one. And it turns out there's more to me than that after all.

A 20 minute improvement over that course averages out to about 21 seconds per-mile faster. That's a bloody lifetime.


*So what!
Yes you will!
You are gonna make damn sure you do!
You didn't, everything's fine!
You love it!
Not even close!
Personal growth and fulfillment of goals (and so much more!)
No you won't!
Yes you will!
DEFINITELY! (Probably even if you do!)