Tamalpa Headlands 50K: USATF 50K Trail Championships

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Before the Start of the Tamalpa Headlands 50K
Photo: Chris Blagg

The Tamalpa Headlands 50K was my first time racing a true “mountain” course. Throughout the 31.5 Mile race you encounter 7,300 feet of elevation gain, tricky technical terrain, open blazing fast downhills, a massive amount of stairs (both uphill and downhill) and even a fun ladder section thrown in for a little excitement. I made the trip out to the race, having had it on my schedule for the past 2 1/2 months. I was really looking forward to seeing where I stacked up against some of the best runners in the country and how I would fare having trained in Dallas where the hills are few and far between. My training was going very well and I felt like I was in the best shape I have been in for trail running until I took a nasty spill in early July and busted open my right knee. After making a bloody mess and dragging myself to the doctor, I received 9 stitches was told, “no running for 10 days.” Those were the longest 10 days of my life. After two weeks of 16 and 27 miles I re-started my training, hoping that the fall wouldn’t set me back too much. I kept it easy for a long time and didn’t run anything long or hard until the beginning of August. I was able to get some decent training in, but still lacked confidence heading into the event.

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The first steps of the race

The start of the race was incredible to watch from behind. I lined up behind the first wave of runners that included Nike sponsored runners Pat Smythe, David Roche and Mario Mendoza as well as ultra running elite Andy Wacker. I knew I wouldn’t be anywhere near the front pack and forced myself into taking a reserved and conservative approach to the race to save my legs for the larger climbs along the course. Sure enough, the race started out in drizzling rain and heavy fog, but fast out of the meadow where the start line was and onto the road past the Pelican Inn for half a mile or so before jumping onto the trail. At this point I was around 6:30 Mile pace and sitting back in 30th position. I continued my pace until we hit the first climb of about 400 feet in half a mile. Next up was a 300 foot climb and then an 800 foot climb over 1.7 Miles. After every climb, I put an effort in on the downhills to reclaim lost time, pushing low 7 to high 6 Minute pace. These were the climbs we hit before descending into the first aid station at Rodeo Beach, Mile 8.3. I stopped at the aid station to refill my Nathan handheld with water which I mixed with 250 calories of CarboPro before leaving.

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View along course before descending to the first aid station
Photo: Facchino Photography

Running still felt very easy and I was in good spirits. Soon after Rodeo Beach aid station we began a sustained climb of 1.5 Miles and 650 Feet and descended rapidly into the Tennessee Valley Aid Station at Mile 11.5. I passed a few runners on the climb up, taking only one quick segment to walk in order to break up the effort. After the climb, the downhill was quick and two runners came up quickly behind me and we ran into Tennessee Valley together where I didn’t stop as my bottle had enough to get me to the next aid station. The other two runners stopped briefly and quickly caught up to me half a mile later where I let one pass me as he charged the next climb, 700 Feet up to the Half Marathon point on course. The downhill came immediately afterwards and I clicked off several faster miles. Suddenly at Mile 12 I had a shooting pain in my left calf followed by a severe cramp. I honestly thought for a second that it was going to force me to drop out of the race, but I slowed down to a stop and massaged the cramp out and began again, only stopping at the Water only aid station at Mile 14.8 to refill liquid and also 250 more calories of CarboPro. I pushed to the bottom of the first major climb of the day as I knew it was going to take its toll on my legs as well as my splits. One of the runners who I had passed a few miles back who had been running behind me for a while jumped in front of me at the bottom of the climb and I followed him all the way up, alternating between power hiking and a choppy jog. 1500 feet later, after passing the Cardiac Hill aid station (Mile 19.5) for the first time on the day, where I briefly stopped for another refill of water and CarboPro and ate a slice of banana, the first climb was behind me and only one remained.

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I had been looking forward to the downhill for the entire climb up, but soon found out that the downhill wouldn’t be such a quick section as I had initially thought. The trail down was rocky with some steps worked in and had more switchbacks then I could count in my current condition. This was at Mile 21 and I was starting to go through a low point, but told myself that once I got down to the next aid station and started up the final climb it would pass. My low point continued until I stopped to go to the bathroom briefly and surprisingly when I started to move again I felt much better. I was passed by 1 runner going down and after I refilled my bottle with my last bag of CarboPro, took 2 MetaSalt caps, and drank some coke I chased him. I kept him in my sights during the majority of the last big climb which gave me confidence that if he passed me and I was keeping him in sight that others behind me would hopefully not catch up. This climb was 1500 feet in 3 Miles, but felt like an eternity. This was the section where I dropped my slowest mile of the day, a 13:48 as I tried to work around the many hikers on the trail and climbed the ladder while a large group of 20+ children came down the other side. Seeing other people lifted my spirits as they cheered when I passed by. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime I reached the top of the climb and hit the Cardiac Hill aid station again (Mile 27.7). 

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I knew I didn’t need much as I only had 3.8 more miles to the finish and I should be able to clear those at a relatively fast clip. I had my bottle filled with half coke and half water and departed. This was when Emily Harrison left the aid station at the same time, she had run with me a little earlier in the race, passed me, then I re-passed her a mile later. We ran together for half a mile until a biker pulled up next to us and attempted to pass on the single track. I pulled around her and decided that with 3 Miles left that I was going to give it all I had. I ran my last 3 miles at an average of high 6 Minute per mile range, until I hit the final descent to the finish. There must have been a dozen switchbacks that serve to slow runners down when you could be sprinting. I worked my way through these and let loose on the final stretch as I crossed the finish line in an official time of 4:33:07, good for 23rd place overall.
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I am not going to lie, I really think I could have run closer to 4:15-4:20 on this course if I hadn’t had to take almost two weeks off and get stitches in my knee. With that being said, I am happy with how my race went and couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful course to run (what I could see of it with the fog). As always, I have to thank those who help in my running endeavors: Trail Racing Over Texas, CarboPro, Nathan Performance Gear, Feetures Socks, Amrita Bars, Altra Running, Victory SportDesign and ReadRunRave.

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Gear/Nutrition:

  • Team Trail Racing Over Texas Singlet
  • The North Face Better Than Naked Shorts
  • Altra Superior Shoes
  • Feetures High Performance Quarter Socks
  • Nathan SpeedDraw Plus Insulated Handheld
  • CarboPro GMO Free IP and MetaSalt

Race File: Strava Data

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