Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
Montara Mountain Trail Marathon
I hadn’t run well in the two weeks leading up to this race. Part of it may have been in my head, but it was clear that I also had trouble recovering from my previous marathon two weeks before. With that in mind, I was worried about this marathon. Especially considering it had an additional 1,000 feet of climbing compared to my last. 5,840 feet of climbing. More than a mile. 400 more feet than running from sea level to Denver, and back down.
After not sleeping well all night, I checked my phone in the wee hours just out of boredom. 5:45. My alarm was set for 6:00. Might as well get up now and give myself an extra 15 minutes for my breakfast/snack to settle before the race. After getting down some food and bundling up a little bit, I thought I’d at least wait until 6:30 to call my dad and ask if he wanted to tag along. He beat me to it. Headed over to his hotel and picked him up.
Had little trouble getting there, but just like last time, the hills had a formidable look as you approached them, even in a car. We got there just a little later than I would’ve liked, in part due to the parking lot of the county park filling up, forcing us to park at a nearby church and walk over. Had just enough time to pin on my bib, use the toilet, and finish stretching about two minutes before the gun. At the start line, we were informed that we had to grab a rubber band off a bush at the top of the big hill to prove you ran all the way to the top, and since it was a double loop, you weren’t supposed to grab two the first time. Ditched my warm-up clothes, and we’re off to the races.
Nearly the first four miles of the race were all one big uphill, then another nearly four miles downhill - the first section was an out-and-back. For the first half-mile or so, the trail was wide enough that two people could easily run side-by-side, and in some places, maybe three could fit. But that was quickly replaced by narrow singletrack. Might be an issue when people are trying to come back down while others are still on their way up. I got stuck behind a small group, but they were holding a solid pace up the hill, so I hardly minded at all. A few were talking about other trail runs they’d done, and while I couldn’t hang on to every word, I did catch “belt buckle”. I’m fully aware that belt buckles are most typically awarded at 100-mile races. If he’s done that, well, look out for this guy!
From the get-go, I tried paying attention to who was out in front. Early on, it was a tall guy in a white tank top, not a big guy, but a little thick and well-built for a runner, kind of more like a basketball player’s build. Halfway up the hill, he got passed by a thinner guy in a bright orange shirt. Only a little later, he slowed down significantly and moved to the side to let my little group pass. I guess he got tired pushing his larger frame up the hill.
My gait was different than normal, by necessity from pacing up a long hill. Weird parts of me felt sore already, namely the arches of my feet. I hoped that wouldn’t become an issue later. Now halfway up, the singletrack trail turned into a gravel fire road. By now, we had seen almost every natural surface imaginable: firmly packed dirt, barely-damp almost-mud, dusty singletrack full of golf-ball-to-orange-sized rocks, and now a gravel road with patches of exposed flat rock. Wider breadth should make it easier to pass people on the way down.
My group thinned out to only two other guys and myself, including Belt Buckle. Both were running the 50K. Only one guy, Orange Shirt, was in front of us, and he might be doing the 50K as well, or maybe just the half-marathon. It was entirely possible that I was in the lead among the marathon runners.
The final stages of the hill provided a challenge, only a little steeper, but mostly just because you’re STILL going uphill after 3.5 miles, with almost 2,000 feet of climbing already under your belt. Didn’t feel too bad, but I knew I might the next time. Half a mile away, you could tell where the top was due to the presence of the radio tower perched there. Just before we got there, the leader in the orange shirt passed us heading down. Probably only a minute behind him. Do-able. He might flame out the next time around, or maybe I can catch him on the downhill. Made it to the top, grabbed an orange rubber band, slipped it on my wrist, and headed back down.
It wasn’t until then that I noticed the swirling winds at the top. Most of the way up, there was essentially no wind at all, but at the top, it was in full force, coming from all directions. Only a couple minutes later, we were back out of it. By that time, I moved around my two companions and stormed down the hill on my own, passing uphill runners by the truckload. As I went, more and more of them had hydration packs and extra clothes. Most of the other front-runners were only wearing a short-sleeved running shirt, though one had arm warmers and another had a beanie. I was in a singlet and doing just fine. If you get too cold, run faster!
Not long after I left the two 50K guys, one of ‘em passed me handily, and not a lot after that, the tall guy who had trouble climbing the hill absolutely blew past me on the way down. I guess he trains for downhills. Somewhere along the way someone else passed me as well, and when I got to the bottom, another two were right behind me. I was now in 5th place, but still possibly leading the marathon.
Ran across the parking area to the aid station. Approaching it, I reached into my pocket. Ah, crap. I’d pre-ripped my little packet of peanut butter to make it easier to handle while running (it takes two hands and some effort to open, more than I want to deal with on the run), and it had smooshed inside my pocket, putting peanut butter in my pocket, not the packet (I could see a Dr. Seuss book like this). Gobbled a little food at the aid station, took in some water, and headed off for the loop.
The loop section only had two smaller hills, but they weren’t any less steep than the big one. Handled the first one OK, and was closing in on a few of the guys in front of me in the flat section between the two hills. There were three within my line of sight, and by glancing at my watch when one of them passed a landmark, then looking again when I passed it, I could tell that the first one was only about a minute ahead of me. One of ‘em was the guy having trouble with the uphills. The other two were both carrying a water bottle on them one way or another. I optimistically figured the extra weight would help them wear out on the second go-’round.
Didn’t have to wait that long. Less than halfway up the second hill, I’d passed all three, two of them easily. The last one stuck around for a while, running right behind me most of the way up. We got to talking, and it turned out he was a physicist. I looked to my right and saw, in the distance, on top of a considerably taller hill, a radio tower. The one at the top of the big hill.
“Look at that!” I pointed. “That’s where we were earlier! Can you believe that?!?”
“And where we’re going again!”
Don’t remind me.
By the time we got to the top of the second hill, the last one of the first loop, I was dog tired. This would be a hell of a test 13 miles later, with 23 miles behind me. As soon as the trail turned back downhill, I cruised down quickly and easily. Two miles later, I was back at the bottom, halfway through the race. Didn’t feel too bad at the moment, but that probably had a lot to do with the long downhill I’d just run. If the big hill and the last one were a challenge the first time, they’d be a whole lot more to deal with the next time around.
After some more snacks and water, and a quick bathroom break this time, I headed back up the big hill. While I was stopped, all three of the guys I’d just passed got in front of me again. Dammit. It didn’t take long before I passed the first, and I caught the second about 1.5 miles up. Ran behind him for just a minute before passing. We exchanged a few words, and he revealed that we were the two leaders for the marathon. Excellent. I was now in first place, and I know who my closest competition is, a slim 5’8” guy I now called Red Visor. Valuable information.
On one of the tougher slopes near the top, I finally passed the third guy who had passed me at the bottom. He was walking. Must’ve been only for a second though, because when I got to the top, he was right behind me. Two guys, both running the 50K, passed me a few minutes before the summit. The same two I ran up with the first time. I wouldn’t be catching them today. But notably absent was the guy in the orange shirt, who had been out front in the early going. He must’ve only done the half-marathon.
I made a note of my time at the top, and remembered to check again when I passed Red Visor on the way down. 1:30 had elapsed. So I was three minutes ahead. At this point in the race, that’s about 18 seconds per mile. Normally, that’s a ton, but this isn’t a normal race. Variations in the terrain can throw you a curveball, and some people might handle different parts of the race a lot better than others. Case in point: the big guy who was slow on uphills, but annihilated the downhills. And for the past few miles, I’d been distancing myself from Red Visor by about one minute per mile. Could he do the same to me?
The guy who’d stopped to walk strongly outpaced me on the way down, to the point that I wrote off catching him. Since he was doing the 50K, I didn’t mind. This time around, I could tell that I wasn’t able to charge down the hill at full speed; my knees just didn’t like it, and by the time I got to the bottom, my lower abs started to feel tight. I decided that it was OK if I didn’t go all out on the descent, as long as I held a decent pace, running effortlessly was just as good as running fast. Besides, I probably needed to save a little gas for the last two hills.
Stopped a final time for snacks and water and headed out for the final challenge. Six miles and two hills stood between myself and glory. Heading up the first hill, there was a view of the start/finish area and I chanced a look back. Red Visor was leaving the area. I was probably no more than two minutes ahead, if that. I deduced that he was probably faster on the downhills, and I was better at climbing. I also got the impression that he didn’t stop much at the aid station, if at all, considering he was carrying his own flask of water.
I pushed myself up the first hill, reaching the top without too much trouble. As I started down, I pushed myself into an upright stance, stretching out my back and trying to run with the straightest legs possible. Uphills and downhills both force you to bend your knees more than normal and hunch over a little for balance, so running in a different way can give some of your muscles a needed break. Felt great! I was back in business. Headed down the hill at a solid pace and kept it going at the flat bottom between the first hill and second.
Upon starting the second hill, the last of the course, I guessed that this could be the last chance to put some distance between myself and Red Visor, if it was in fact true that I was the better climber. I started up at a strong pace, trying to work my advantage to the fullest. This may or may not have been a good strategy. All I know is that halfway up, I was already pooped. As I passed hikers on the trail, the best I could approximate my normally chipper “Good morning!” was a gutteral “morn’g” as I passed, without bothering to lift my head. The trail just got steeper and steeper, and every time I looked at my watch, only 0.1 miles had gone by.
But the most demoralizing thing about the hill, which I’d forgotten last time, was the switchbacks. All the way up the hill, you keep thinking that you’re about to head back down. After every other turn, you’d be pointed in the direction of the start/finish area and figure you’re headed back, and the hill is almost over. And the shrubbery on the hill was thick enough that you couldn’t see that far in front of you, so it was easy to believe. But nope, every time you reach that corner, instead of turning down the hill, you just switch back again and keep going up. This went on for a very long time. I grew more and more frustrated with every left turn, more exhausted with every step.
After an eternity of switchbacks, the trail straightened out in a funny direction. This must be it! A little bit of a tease, as the trail continued uphill for about another quarter mile before finally heading back down. I won’t lie, I was sorely tempted to walk when I realized I wasn’t heading down yet. But I thought about Red Visor catching me. And I thought about my grandma. No matter how hard I try, it would be impossible for me to make myself as weak as she was in those last few days. If she could take it, so can I. I kept running.
After one last turn, the trail flattened out. I involuntarily let out a cry of joy. I looked down at my watch. Two miles left, all downhill. I had no way of knowing how far Red Visor was behind me, but I knew I wasn’t letting him catch me. I tried stretching out my back and legs again, then moving faster. It didn’t work this time. I had to run almost a quarter mile downhill before my legs started responding normally again. Finally, I was able to start moving.
Running downhill was even more difficult this time around. A perfect decline, the kind that lets you run effortlessly, but not so steep you have to tap on the brakes. And an easy surface to run on. And it still sucked. I would’ve liked to jog easy for those last two miles, but I didn’t want to risk getting passed at the end. I had to win this one for grandma.
Seeing the wooden fence at the bottom, knowing I only had to run a quarter mile through a flat area to finish, what a great feeling! That was the point at which I knew it was in the bag. Somehow I felt safe about not getting passed in the last two minutes. As I approached, the organizers all looked at me.
“Marathon? Second loop?”
I continued smiling and nodded. “Yeah!” I held out my wrists, both with a bright orange rubber band on them.
“We got a marathon finisher! First marathon finisher!” he called out to the volunteers in the finish area. People started cheering. I crossed the line with a big grin on my face and took my finisher’s medal from a volunteer. Then I walked.
“Ow.” I saw my dad. “Would you believe my legs hurt?”
I finished in 3:37, 28 minutes faster than the course record. And this time, no one broke it by more than I did, so I actually came in first! So for the first time ever, I won a marathon, and also for the first time, I hold a course record.
I spent the next few minutes groaning and eating snacks off the table near the finish line. Red Visor finished three minutes after me. I went over to congratulate him, and he introduced himself as Franz. His wife and kids were there.
“Where’d you learn to run hills like that?”
“Uh, Texas, I guess.”
The two guys in the lead were apparently about 10 minutes ahead of me at that point, and were running a 50K. Significantly faster and running about five miles farther. They were on pace to obliterate the 50K course record.
I stuck around to have a little more food and a beer. My legs were sore enough that I didn’t even want to bother pushing the clutch pedal, so my dad drove us home. Showered and went to a deli, where despite being “allowed” to eat meat for the first time in a week, I got a vegetarian omelette. Dropped my parents off at the airport and went home.
The funny thing is that I walked on four different occasions in the Golden Gate Trail Marathon two weeks ago, and still finished ten minutes faster than I did this time, despite not walking at all. I guess the hills weren’t any harder, and weren’t as steep, but there were more of them, and that slows you down. It’s notable that in these trail runs, you pace entirely by feel, not at all by your watch.