Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
Big Basin Trail Marathon
The Big Basin Trail Marathon is unique in a few ways. For one, it's a well-established course, on the popular (and scenic) Skyline-to-Sea hiking trail. For another, it's a marathon and 50K only, no short options. Also, it's a point-to-point, as opposed to the usual double loop, and the occasional out-and-back. And finally, as the name "Skyline-to-Sea Trail" might imply, it's a net downhill.
Like always, I studied the course's elevation profile beforehand. It looked like there were only three hills, and none of them looked bad. The course information indicated 3,000 feet of climbing and 5,000 feet of descent. I looked at the elevation profile again. I figured they might be exaggerating. Only three hills, none of them bad, and the majority of the course is downhill? Sounded easy.
Since this was a point-to-point, we had to drive to the finish line, a solid hour away from my apartment even with zero traffic, and take a shuttle to the start, a full hour-and-a-half. That meant I had to get up early. I had the thought that I might sleep on the bus, but I wound up talking with the friendly guy behind me practically the whole way. The ride reminded me of Boston, the way you're shuttled from the finish to the start, and the length of the ride can be intimidating, knowing you have to run all the way back. But one comforting aspect was the fact that we were consistently going uphill.
This race had about the same number of participants as most Coastal Trail Runs, but since everyone was doing either a marathon or a 50K, that meant they were all distance runners. Both on the bus and as I stretched and went through my pre-race routine near the start line, I heard an unusually large amount of people repeating the mantra "I'm just trying to finish." One couple in particular snuck off and started the course 20 minutes before the gun because they were worried about making the eight-hour cutoff. They were doing the marathon, not the 50K. 26 miles in 8 hours means only 3.25 miles/hour. Walking speed. Which meant they were worried they couldn't essentially go for a hike, one that's mostly downhill. At the risk of sounding elitist, if you're not sure you'll even finish a race, and you don't think you can jog at least half of it (in a marathon, that'd have you finish in about six hours), you might think twice about signing up, for your own health.
The conditions could hardly be more perfect: temperatures in the mid-50s, overcast but not dark, and plenty of canopy cover on the course. I lined up near the front and took off strong at the gun. Right away, I was out in front. Might be another lonely marathon. The course started off largely downhill, and I was doing a good job taking advantage of it, running most of my first few miles in only about six minutes each.
Less than a mile into the marathon, I heard footsteps behind me. No heavy breathing, just footsteps, probably about five meters back. I kept wondering if I'd be passed, but that never happened. Only about a mile in, I saw the couple that started early. Not only were they already not running, but they weren't walking either. They were standing off to the side, taking a break. Wow. I'd never sign up for something I was so wholly unprepared for, but I guess I partially admired the fact that they were willing to put themselves through a loooong day.
I kept listening to the footsteps and noticed that they would get a little louder at the end of a good downhill and softer after an uphill. Sounds like the guy is good at downhills. No good, considering that's appeared to be my weakness, and there's an awful lot of them in this course. About four miles into the race, he finally moved past me on one of the longer downhills to that point. I managed to keep on his tail.
This course, I gotta say, might've turned out to be one of the hilliest courses I've ever seen. Not that there were any long hills. Nor even many steep ones. But the majority of the course was almost entirely made out of micro-hills, the ones that go up and down every 20 seconds. There were essentially no breaks, no chance to settle into a groove and start pacing well. This course forced you to make an effort with every step, physically and mentally. No auto-pilot today.
About a mile after I got passed, I managed to catch up with the guy and run side-by-side with him when the course widened to a fire road (at least 80% of the course was singletrack). He kinda glanced over, like he was gonna say something. I beat him to it.
He smiled. "Good morning!"
Turns out he was running the marathon too. Dammit! Was hoping he was doing the 50k. I moved ahead of him (barely), with him staying right on my tail. Again, I could manage to get away from him slightly on uphills, but I could tell he was holding back on downhills. I wondered if that was to my advantage: maybe he had to push harder than he was comfortable with on uphills, and on downhills, he was unable to use his best assets. At least, that's what I was hoping. The guy didn't seem to have many chinks in his armor.
Eight miles in, the steps behind me suddenly stopped. Not another sound. I kept running, but after a minute, paused. Did I miss a turn? After Cinderella, I'm still paranoid about that. Since he was right behind me, and seemed like a nice guy, I had my doubts that he'd let me go down the wrong way without saying something. Besides, there wasn't even an intersection. There was nothing for me to miss. I concluded that he probably just stopped to pee. I kept running again, hoping this was my chance to put some distance between him and myself. One minute later, I saw a pink ribbon. Yessss, not lost! Another minute later, he was behind me again. Dammit!
11 miles in, we crested the second of the three hills of the course, followed by a long downhill section that might as well have been a friggin' obstacle course. Rocks, roots, stairsteps, and scrambling over sheer rock. Never a dull moment. I started feeling bad that I told someone on the bus that California trails rarely have any rocks or roots, they're mostly well-groomed packed dirt.
The other guy slipped in front of me again around the halfway point, just as the downhill was bottoming out. I managed to keep him within sight, in striking range, and even started closing the gap after a while. At mile 14.2, we reached the third aid station. I looked at my hand again. It was supposed to come at mile 15.8. What the hell?
"What mile is this?"
"It's uh, I dunno. 8.5 to the next one. 10.4 to the finish."
Yeah, that'd be 15.8, but my watch says 14.2. Was the watch off by that much?
I took off hard from the aid station, determined to stay right on the guy's tail. He'd stopped for less time than me, opening up the gap again. I knew that my only chance to win was to stay with him until the last strong hill, blow him away on the climb, and manage to hang on from there. I caught up to him just as the trail started turning upwards. Nice! Now just stay where you are and wait till he slows a bit and make your move...
At mile 15.6, the trail headed back down. Wait. That...that can't be the big hill already...?
Miraculously, I managed to close the gap on a downhill. I still don't know how. But about as soon as I did, he hit the afterburners. I'm guessing he had the thought that once he got on the downhill, he'd drop me easy. When that didn't happen, gametime was over. He effortlessly opened up a huge lead as I struggled with a long, technical downhill.
While this was maybe the hilliest course I've ever done, at least in some ways, it was by far the most technical. I struggled with that, especially towards the end. Here and there, my left arch gave me a twinge. Nothing hugely concerning, but enough that I was thinking about being careful.
The course bottomed out around mile 19 and it was a mostly flat fire road for several miles. Somehow, it was still technical. Probably the rockiest, most uneven fire road I've ever run on. My pace still sagged. I was worn out. I probably overdid it in the early going to stay competitive, and was paying the price now.
I started noticing something odd about my watch: the mileage would freeze for half a mile at a time, then jump ahead. Since it was cloudy AND we were in tree cover, was it having trouble getting a signal? If so, it was probably connecting dots with straight lines, ignoring all the twists and turns in the trail, and there was no way it was accounting for the extra distance created by all the micro-hills. So that’s why everything was coming two miles too early. I've run farther than I think!
As predicted, the last aid station came two miles early. Hurting and resigned to coming in second, I stopped completely and helped myself to more than I normally would. Not that it would kick in before I reached the finish line, but I was already thinking about recovery. I trudged off with 1.7 miles to go, but feeling a little better. At least, for about 20 seconds.
I'd noticed the last hill on the profile map, but hadn't bothered to note it (I write the mile markers of all the peaks on my hand in permanent marker). It had seemed too small, too insignificant. As I ran up, I knew this wasn't even steep, nor did it even go on that long, but it was forcing me into a comically slow pace, like I was heading up the type of hill that I would normally debate walking. At one point, I crested the hill and heard a familiar sound. I looked up. The ocean! And no hills between me and there!
Or so I thought.
The trail continued to snake along the side of the hill rather than running straight down to the water, and it went ahead and went uphill just a bit just to mess with us. Soon enough, I charged down the last hill and through the finish line. The other guy was already sitting on a park bench, drinking a coke.
The other guy, whose name I finally learned was Jussi, finished five minutes ahead of me. I finished in 3:05. My fastest trail run so far, but also with the least climbing (even with all the micro-hills), and a net downhill. Somehow, I had the notion that I might even break 3:00, but that didn’t happen. Jussi and his wife Paulina, who won the women's marathon by over half an hour, were both on vacation from Finland, found out about the race a few days ago, and decided to run it. And not only did they run it, but they beat the pants off everyone else, and Jussi never even looked tired, not during, not after.
"Holy smokes, you're fast!"
He smiled. "It wasn't easy."
He sure made it look that way.
(note: I would later learn that Jussi is an Olympic marathon runner. He was probably just humoring me.)
Still, I'm happy with running my fastest trail run ever, and I did beat the old course record by eight minutes. In fact, when I got to the finish, the support still wasn't finished setting up, so I helped them put out the snacks. Stuck around for a little while, took in some food and beer, and headed home.
As much as I describe the course as technical, difficult, hilly, and obstacle-course like, it was also beautiful, unique, and fun! Even for a trail run, this felt like a different kind of challenge, and I can see how it's a popular hike. While the course was lacking in vistas, it was still absolutely gorgeous, running through the deep, silent, and occasionally foggy woods, surrounded by thick ferns on the forest floor and tall, ancient redwoods all around you. And at one point, if you looked up, you got a great view of Berry Creek Falls, good enough that I stopped entirely for about 10 seconds to take it in. If you ever get the chance, it's a great hike, and I'd say it's worth it even if the 26 miles takes you a full weekend. Lucky me, I got to see it all in three hours.