Thursday, November 21, 2013

Skyline to the Sea Marathon Review 2013

Saratoga Gap Parking Lot
What a perfect morning for a race. The sun was out bright and early burning off the fog as I made my way down Hwy 35 heading towards the Saratoga Gap. My wife and son were in the car with me and we talked about where they could possibly park to see me along the course. The course does have a few road crossings and passes through Big Basin Redwoods State Park so those would probably be her best option for catching a glimpse of me as I ran by. The parking lot at the corner of Hwy 9 & 35 was the start area of this race. Most people parked at the finish line area and took the shuttle bus up to the start. This was not an option for me. The finish line where the buses were lined up would add at least an hour to my morning and I was waking up at 6am as it was. Those buses were late to arrive at the starting area so by the time everyone unloaded and got their race bib, it was apparent that the race would not start on time. I hung out chatting with my wife and few 50k runners to pass the time and before we knew it we were gathering up for our pre-race announcements. A little more time was given to the racers who were desperately trying to get through the long restroom lines but within 10 minutes or so we were heading over to the start line which is a short walk away from the Saratoga Gap parking lot.

This was an amazing run. The trail winds through some of the most beautiful Redwood forests the Bay Area has to offer. Vista views, waterfalls, old growth forests and giant granite rocks to run across are what you can look forward to when you run this race. I started out in the front of the mid pack or the back of the lead pack and basically maintained that for half of the race. It was crowded at first as we headed downhill on the Skyline to the Sea trail along the south side of Hwy 9. A short uphill and then you cross to the north side of Hwy 9. This is where the crowd thinned a bit and everyone seemed to settle into their respective pace. I was intentionally trying to hold back because I knew this point to point course was almost entirely downhill and it would beat me to death if I wasn't careful. Barely a mile down the trail on the north side of the highway we again crossed to the south side and stayed on that side of the road for over an hour. At this crossing you come into a spectacular vista view that makes you want to stop and snap a photo. That's exactly what my wife and newborn son were doing as I came running through.

Not much happened over the next several miles other than my wife popping up here and there to my amazement. She was driving down Hwy 9 headed for the ocean to meet me at the finish and saw some runners just off the side of the road. This is one of the many places where the trail weaves back towards the roadway so she decided to stop. She said it was a gamble because she was not sure if I took a more direct route than her super windy road which would mean that I had already been by this particular spot. She waited about 5 minutes and I came running by. I was shocked to see her standing there cheering for everyone as we went by. So cool!!! Around the 6 mile mark you hit your first aid station. The volunteers were super friendly and the fuel options were plentiful. I stayed for about 15 seconds or so it seemed. Just long enough to top off my water and then keep on truckin'. About 8 miles into the run you cross back over the highway and stay there for the rest of the race. This is the beginning of your journey through Big Basin Redwood State Park.

I was still running strong at this point but almost everything up until mile 6 was downhill. Miles 6 through 12 contain a good portion of the hill climbing on this course and ironically the uphill came as  a welcome relief from all of the fast foot turn over and quad pounding you get from the downhill. This course only has 2000' of elevation gain but a whooping 5000' of elevation loss. Keep that in mind if you plan to run this race. The downhill can sneak up on you and kick your ass, as I later found out.

I knew that at about mile 10 or so we would hit another aid station and then move on to some long steady hill climbing. Once you start the downhill again around mile 12 you immediately notice you are in the Ewok Village from Star Wars. It is awesome. Huge Redwood trees and the sound of the Waddel Creek make for a super cool, very peaceful run. The course weaves back and forth across the creek and it is in this section that you get to see 2 waterfalls. Berry Creek Falls is the first and Silver Creek Falls is the second. I had to stop and take a quick look at Berry Creek Falls. I had never seen it before and from the trail there is a bench seat that faces it. I saw a couple sitting there and I looked at what they were looking at and there it was in the distance (binoculars would have been sweet, stopping time and hiking over to it would have been even better).

The trail from start to finish has many huge redwoods that have fallen across the trail over the years and consequently a clean channel was cut through the dead-fall to allow people to continue to use the trail. One tree in particular was so big that cutting it clean through must have been to hard so instead they tunneled through it. This section of trail has the most foot traffic of all. I must have seen and passed at least 50 hikers over the course of about 4 miles. Every single one of them was polite in moving to the side to let me pass without me having to announce "On your left." Some of the hikers even cheered me on which was super cool because hearing people cheer for you on a trail run is a rarity. Let's face it, this is not a spectator sport.

The last of the hill climbing comes at about mile 16 or so. Those last 10 miles were absolutely brutal. My quads are fairly well conditioned to take a ton of downhill running but this was pushing me way beyond my max.  I maintained a sub 9 minute pace up until this point by a fair margin. That was the pace I need to hit my sub 4 hour goal. 5 miles in to this 10 mile stretch I just couldn't take it any more and my pace began to drop off dramatically. The only two women that beat me on this course did it in these last few miles. The aching in my quads got so bad that I ended up doing a fair amount of walking in the last 4 miles and as a result missed my goal finishing time by a huge margin. I thought it would be reasonable for me to finish in about 4 hours. This was confirmed mile after mile as I cruised this course with relative ease. As I got closer and closer to the end and all that downhill added up on my legs my average place started slipping over the 9 minute mark and quickly heading towards the 10 minute mark. I ended up crossing the finish line in 4:43:02. That's an average pace of 10:48. This is the very definition of "the wheels just fell off!!!". I also thought I could take a top ten finish and get a top three in my age group if I was lucky. That was crazy thinking. I finished 23rd overall and 11th in my age group. The results for the marathon are here. Big props to Evan Gawlick, Tim Stahler and Andy Belk. They finished in that order and were separated by seconds not minutes!

In closing I want to say that PCTrail Runs has had a bit of bad luck in the recent past and many trail runners refuse to run their events anymore. My experience with this race tells me they are back on track and doing well. If you have never run this course, do it. If you have a bad taste left in your mouth from previous dealings with PCTrail runs, let it go. Its the past and the future is now.

I'll see you out there!