Wednesday, December 17, 2008

John Muir Would Be Proud (The Muir Beach 50k)

Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of joining 450 trail runners for the Muir Beach 12k/17k/30k/50k in the Bay Area headlands near San Francisco, CA. It was an epic adventure of staggering climbs, windy peaks, and a storm that chased us into the hills. All in all, a great way to end the season.

I think John Muir would be proud of us trail runners. Muir, the great 20th century adventurer and environmentalist for whom Muir Beach is named, was always one to engage with Nature in all of her extremes. Exploration was a necessity for feeding his relentless curiosity, and through adventure he found peace and connection to the world. “The clearest way to the Universe is through a forest wilderness”, he wrote. Hallelujah, brother. I bet if he were alive today, he would be at the starting line with his trail shoes, jacket, camera, and pencil and paper ready to live an epic day, then capture it in pictures and prose to entice the world to follow.

I took thoughts of John Muir to the starting area which was alive with runners jumping in place and filling the cold air with sharp exhales of steamy breath. Race Directors Wendell, Sarah, and Aaron Doman let us know what lie ahead – 7,100+ feet of mountainy goodness, a storm moving in, but plenty of friendly volunteers to help us out. I recognized many faces in the crowd as I shed my layers and got ready to race. Ryan Commons, the current leader of the Pacific Coast Trail Runs Ultra Series, was braving his recent Achilles injury to fend off a fast-gaining Will Gotthardt, just a few points behind thanks to his recent top finishes at the Woodside 50k and Stinson Beach 50k. Both Ryan and Will had run amazing races all year, taking their bodies to their limits. Whomever was to win, it would be well-earned. It was no gimmie though – Max Shchemelinin was here, and he got 2nd here last year in his first ultra ever before proving to everyone it was no fluke with his 4th place finish the Dick Collins 50-miler in October. Jason Reed was also here, running his 89th race of the year and showing no signs of slowing. Bev Anderson-Abbs had come down from Red Bluff, CA, joined by her training partner Joe Palubeski. Anyone who has run with Bev knows she will be in the running for an overall top place, and Joe would certainly be right there with her. At 8:30am, we were off!

(RD's Aaron, Sarah, and Wendell Doman)

(Bev and Joe head up into the sun)

(Winding down the coastal trail)

(Ocean views at every turn)

The course pitched up right away, and we were soon a giant snake of runners winding down the coastal trails. The pace was fast and furious up front, with Ryan, Will, and Max mixing it up with the 12k and 17k runners. Many of us ran a more comfortable pace, absorbing the sunlight and enjoying the views. The climb up Pirates Cove quickly separated the trained from the untrained, leaving many to walk the steep stairs and spreading out the field. The reward was some pleasant downhill and a paved road to the first aid station at Tennessee Valley (mile 6).

I refilled the water bottles and paced with Stephen Wheeler (17k) up the next climb. Stephen pulled me along at a great pace, with a short break to take a picture. I accidentally had it set to “movie” which produced a funny little snippet – gives you an idea of little time I spend taking a picture! We reached the peak together and gave each other our best as Stephen took the 17k loop and I headed out the 33k loop.

I took a quick bio break and caught up to the next runner. The back of his head looked very familiar – it was Jason Reed again! This makes the fourth time this year I ended up racing right behind this guy. He knew the course well, so I just hung on and made conversation while he steered the way. We were soon joined by Henrike Siemen who was leading the Women in the 33k race, and the three of us raced along the ridge of the Bobcat and SCA Trails towards Rodeo Beach.

(Jason Reed cuts down the Bobcat Trail)

Jason made good use of the downhill, and put some distance on us as we headed into the Bonita Cove aid station (mile 11). The volunteers let us know that there had been some course vandalism that lost some runners, but Will Gotthardt had remarked much of it from memory. Thanks, Will! We certainly managed to get through it without any issues. That sure was nice of him to add a few minutes to his time for our benefit.

(San Francisco in the distance)

(Henrike zooms down the ridge)

You couldn’t turn your head without catching a breathtaking view of oceans, hills, and gulls gliding along the breeze. Something about cold air makes everything a little more crisp. I could hear John Muir whispering in my ear – “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks”. I think that goes the same for a nature run!

(A slice of heaven)

I could spot Jason a minute ahead of me, charging into the headwind as we crossed Rodeo Beach and taking on the big climb. He was running everything like a man possessed, even the steep stuff. I took a walk break to get my tunes rolling, and was soon passed by Henrike who also was charging the hills. Within a few minutes I was left alone to work my way up the single track, short of a few sightings of trail runner elites like Lon Freeman and Victor Ballesteros out having a hike or joy run. Get a number, you guys! ;-)

(Climb, climb, climb!)

I meandered back to Tennessee Valley (mile 17), where volunteers Jim Winne, Rocky Shone, and Marcy Shone braved the wind to keep me fed and hydrated. It was inspiring to hear their laughs and smiles rise over the challenging weather. They are the real endurance athletes for sure.

(Jim, Marcy, and Rocky keep us fed and hydrated)

I tackled what is surely the toughest climb of the day just to remember I’ll get to see it one more time on the second loop! The wind at the top was enough to cut right to the bone –my hat, sleeves and gloves weren’t quite enough to match the coastal wind. I headed back to Muir Beach (mile 21), just in time to see Jason Reed, Bev Abbs, Joe Palubeski, and Rachel Baker heading back out. They were all within a minute of each other, about 15 minutes ahead of me. Jason was really pouring it on!

(The big climb of the day - takes your breath away at the bottom and top!)

I got the turnaround and changed into my Sugoi Speedster2 hoody to step up the warmth (nothing quite like a hoody to lock in the heat). Will Gotthardt was there and unfortunately had to drop due to back pain. But he cheered us on as we headed back into the mountains again for the second loop. He thought I was somewhere around 6th place and sent me on my way.
This loop felt like a solo run. Just me, the howling wind, and crashing ocean waves. This was a sacred place for sure, and John Muir would agree. “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” He said that when he founded the Sierra Club. Talk about cool.

(Gary Leavitt stays ahead of the rain)

As noon rolled around, I was looking forward to both the beauty AND the bread. I caught a limping Ryan Commons on the final stretch to Tennessee Valley, saying that his quads were shot. But he wasn’t going to give in that easily, and was doing the math to figure out if he could squeeze out a few more points in the Series by hanging on for another eight miles. Hanging on for eight miles? That’s one tough hombre!

(The storm moves in)

The dark clouds moved in on both of us as I made a quick stop at Tennessee Valley (mile 22) and charged up the hill. Within a half mile, the cold rain came showering down. A quarter mile after that and the wind pulled the rain sideways and sent the bushes dancing. The hawks and gulls landed and trotted into the brush for cover, just as the rain turned into snowflakes and a streak of sun lit up the sky with a rainbow. A crescendo of nature! Bravo! Bravo! The concert ended as fast as it started, leaving a glistening trail of fresh mud at the top of the hill. I proudly set the first tracks, my head still spinning from Nature’s show.

(Climb the mountains and get their good tidings)

Santa Claus (aka Fred Ecks) was coming into the aid station (mile 28) just as I was leaving, spreading his holiday joy. How he does the whole 50k run in a Santa outfit is beyond me, let alone in this crazy weather.

(Santa rocks the 50k!)

I slapped a few other high fives with 50k runners as I turned towards Muir Beach and tackled the big climb one more time. “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings”, John Muir was repeating. It was a tough stretch, but I ran into Theresa Hatch who was smiling her way to the top as she finished the 33k. We power-hiked to the top, and I glided down into the finish in 5:20:18, good enough for 6th place. Ryan Commons did hold on and finished just 8 minutes behind me, enough to put a few more points on the board and seal the Series win.

(Theresa Hatch masters the climb with ease)

As I changed into warmer clothes (ie, everything I could get my hands on), I learned that Jason Reed had powered past everyone to win the event in 4:41:20, just five minutes ahead of Max Shchemelinin. Bev and Joe finished in 4:49:01 (that gave Bev the 1st female), with Rachel Baker finishing 5th in 5:14:06. Santa Claus finished in just over 6 hours. ;-)

I stopped at the Pelican Inn to warm my toes and get a beer, and reveled in the closure of the last race of the year. Time to toss the shoes, let my toenails grow back, put a few comfort pounds on, and spend some quality time with the family. I raised my glass to the RD’s and volunteers who have been there all year long, especially on the challenging days like today. You are my heroes! Until next year…



  1. The apple don't fall far from the tree, do she?

  2. Great report Scott - and awesome, awesome pics! Sarah and Wendell sure know how to pick 'em!

    I definitely need to put this one on my 'to do' list. Thanks again for sharing and congrats on a strong finish.

  3. Last race of the year?!? Didn't I just see your name on the list for this weekend at Rodeo Beach?
    It was great to see you out there again, Scott. It's been a while.


  4. I envy you guys with Sarah and Wendell production all year round:)
    Last picture is totally taking the cake though!

  5. this is totally not related to your post, but I'm on the search for a marathon distance run in Half Moon Bay Area Dec 22nd-Jan1. Planned to run one this week, but it was canceled. I'm all ready to run and travelling I'm coming from Alaska and now have no run. I don't care if it's not a race. I jsut want the miles. any ideas!!

  6. Sounds like you had a great time out there as well! It may have been impossible not to...


  7. Excellent report Scott. Congrats on a great race and a fantastic year of running.

    Happy Holidays to you and your family.


  8. Happy Christmas, to all of your family- will we see you at Rodeo Sat?

  9. Thanks! Happy holidays to everyone as well. I hope you all find time to relax and enjoy time with your families.

    You did see my name for the Rodeo Beach 50k, but I won't be able to make it. Apparently I double-booked with Sophie's first visit to The Nutcracker, so I will have to take a credit for next year. It should be a great race though.

    To CMHueur - I will send you an e-mail, but I would suggest a trail run in the Purisima Redwood Park which is about a 15 minute drive from Half Moon Bay. You can run 10-12 miles that feel like a marathon, and be protected from the coastal wind. If you're looking for more, get to the top of the hill and check out Huddart Park and the Phleger Estate.


  10. *lolz at Scott and Sophie*

    Ya smilin' goofs!

    Have a happy holidays!

  11. Beautiful pictures and great report. Enjoy the Nutcracker. I went last weekend, and the music and the images have stuck in my head for all my runs so far this week.

  12. You should go to Rodeo - complete your training, Luke! - Uncle Ben

  13. Great report and race. And what a great place to warm up. My wife and I crashed at the Pelican Inn after the Big Sur Marathon a couple of years ago. I will need to get back there to try my hand at this race and to revisit the Pelican.

  14. Beautiful photos of the Marin headlands. Such a scenic place. Made me really want to be there.

  15. great pics and nice recap! Thanks.


  16. Scott it looks like you did well in the PCTR Ultra Series too. Results are up and you got 3rd overall and 1st in the 30-39 age group! That's 2 tee shirts! - Brian

  17. Hi Scott! I see I am now an accidental film star, and expect my agent's phone to start ringing. Thanks for the flattering comment about setting a pace up the Marincello - it was chatting with you that helped me get up to the top. I had a great run that day, and it was very good to meet you. Congratulations on your result - very impressive!

  18. That picture of you and Sophie is definitely a classic. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    Merry Christmas.

  19. Great information Scott, the pictures are awesome!!


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