Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Communing in the Redwoods at The 2017 Avenue of the Giants Marathon

In the far reaches of the Northern California coastline lies a magical ancient forest, stunning in its revelatory power. Giant coastal redwoods, in one of their last native habitats on the planet, have stood here for millennia. Their magnitude, both in size and age, are such an otherworldly phenomena, one can do little more than add to their serenity with jaw-dropped silence when in their presence. It is a level of grandeur beyond imagination, beyond comprehension, that simply must be experienced.

(Doing laps around Giant Tree, a 700-year-old redwood)
(Amazing trails!)
Such is the backdrop for the aptly named Avenue of the Giants Marathon, where 2,000+ runners gathered for its 46th running and the RRCA State Championship race. The roads along this historic 30-mile drive through Humboldt Redwoods State Park would be closed for a day so 5k, 10k, Half Marathon, and Marathon runners could enjoy some quiet time in this special sanctuary. Like many of them, I came a few days early to explore the towns and trails in the area.

(Avenue of the Giants)
(It's hard to capture the scale of these giants...I'm the little black dot on the left)
As a resident of the California coastal range, I am no stranger to redwoods. But the sheer majesty of this park, full of 300+ foot tall, million pound giants, unexpectedly brought me to my knees. Its scale hits with delirious force at every turn, yet within this cradle of seeming immortality lies a preciously fragile world. It took a full day exploring its lush trails to understand the self-contained ecosystem that takes almost 900 years to play out a single turn. I found it oddly comforting that many of these trees predate the English language that had now left me wordless.

(Catching the morning rays in Fern Canyon)
(When this million pound tree fell in 1991, it measured on the seismograph in a town 10 miles away)
(Coastal redwoods grow in excess of 300 feet, and live to be 400-700 years)
(Just in case redwoods like the banjo, I had a few tunes for them)
There is also much to do in the area beyond the redwood forests. I was a solo tourist on this trip, which provided plenty of opportunities to seek out local wildlife and attractions. I saw live elk walking on sand dunes, eagles yanking fish from the stream, and flying squirrels crossing the canopy in chase of one another. When it came time for food, there was fine dining at Ivanhoe in Ferndale, mashed potato cones in Trinidad, "adult" root beer in Redcrest, and delicious seafood at every stop. But every couple of hours, I found myself back in the redwoods, wandering quietly, meditating among the giants. I met a bunch of other runners doing the same - the Kirkpatrick family from Montana, a couple from Alberta, Canada, a pack of students from Davis, CA, two friends from Texas - all joking that our constant upward glance would certainly help our running posture. It was apropos that no mobile or Internet connection could (or would) dare enter these sacred grounds. This was an experience to be shared in person, later spoken of in gasps and ah's that would do it justice.

(Who's up for a mashed potato cone?)
(Sorrel at sunset)
(A fallen redwood is a two lane bridge)
Race day was a perfect way to share it with my running brethren, and Sunday morning couldn't come soon enough. At 7:45am, the 400 marathoners were sent down one out-and-back section on Mattole Road, with all the other runners heading down the Avenue of the Giants soon after (we would see them in the second half). We got our countdown and were off!

(And we're off! Photo courtesy of Yoon Kim, Six Rivers Running Club)
(Here we come!)
(It didn't take long before we were all spread out)
I paced along with local Tami Beall (here for her 5th "Ave"), Washington track star Megan Alfi (fresh off a 5,000m competition the day before), and Adam Goering from Eugene, OR. The road was uneven and full of potholes, so it felt more like a trail run for the first few miles. But the wind that kept our collars up the previous two days was gone, and the temperature was a crisp 50 degrees, so it was quite pleasant for running.

(The lead women stick close in the early miles)
By the time we hit the turnaround (mile 6.5), Benjamin Arbaugh from Westminster, MD, was a minute ahead of Arcata's Aaron Campbell, both running a sub-2:40 marathon pace. A few more runners were about 2 minutes back. The lead women were grouped closely, with less than 30 seconds between Katarina Mueller (Vancouver, WA), Alfi, Beall, and Dani Reese (Portland, OR). I found myself running with Darren Rees (a recent transplant to Santa Cruz, well ahead of pace to lock in a 3:20 BQ), and we were roughly in 12th/13th place.

(Early leader Benjamin Arbaugh is too fast for my camera)
The return path was glorious as the sun peeked through the giant redwoods and warmed up the valley. By mile 10, I was running by myself, with nothing but the bubbling creek racing me back to the Eel River. I pondered what sage advice these redwoods would have after all they have seen, and if they had any special secrets for a life long-lived. Or perhaps they have already been telling us in their own swaying sign language, but it takes 200 days to communicate the first sentence, far too long for us busy humans.

(The scenery never gets old!)
When we hit the halfway point (mile 13.1, ~1:26) and turned onto the Avenue of the Giants, we joined the half marathon and 5k/10k runners where the party kicked into full gear. Costumed walkers, dogs and kids, signs and cowbells, and serenading friends lined both sides of the road. The fast marathoners had to stick to the double yellow line in the middle, but that meant plenty of high fives from both sides. For a flat course, there weren't a lot of flat sections - it seemed we were always slightly up or slightly down. 

At the last turnaround (mile 20), I was grateful for every section of downhill as my hiking-weary legs slowed their turnover. I managed to catch a few marathoners along the way, pulled by a group of sprinting half marathoners looking to go sub-2 hours (#breaking2!). I soon found myself across the finish line in 2:56 for 7th place and the Masters win.

(There's that finish line!)
(Avenue of the Giants champions!)
Aaron Campbell (2:35) had closed strong for the Marathon win, with Asheville, NC's Arek Robinson (2:39) and Boston's Kyle Coffee (2:49) finishing out the podium. The Women's race was settled in the last four miles, with Megan Alfi (2:59), Katarina Mueller (3:03), and Tami Beall (3:09, Masters winner by 30 minutes) taking the top spots. (all results) 62-year-old Jeff Wells from Woodland, TX, clocked an amazing 3:18, with 59-year-old Brian Nelson from Bakersfield, CA, just seconds behind him. Those are some fast old guys! Race Director Cindy Timek and her crew handed out some beautiful awards, which included Eel River IPA's that were promptly consumed.

(A good haul on swag, complete with beer)
(One last nap in the forest)
I stole away for one last trail run before heading home, eager to share a few more moments in this glorious playground. I took a short nap in the thick sorrel, nestled in the bosom of a giant that fell a short century ago. The redwoods whispered gently from their swaying canopy....

Our time here is brief, so
reach for the stars every moment you can
Fear not for the day you fall
for the world will blossom from your riches

So glad I stopped to listen!

My thanks to the Race Director, her amazing crew and volunteers, and all the runners who helped make this an once in a lifetime trip. If you haven't been to this part of the world, you simply must come, and the Avenue of the Giants is an ideal host. Hopefully I will see you there!

- Scott


  1. Wow, great write up! So wonderful to meet you on the trail and then after the race. You were so nice to me and my dog. I think my mom has a mad crush on you and has now read like 30 of your blog posts. She wants to try trail running now.

    Thank you for the tips for visiting San Fran. We are having a great time! Valerie

  2. Great post. I am definitely going to check that out. Is there a trail race in that same forest?


    1. Grasshopper Peak Redwoods Run is on those trails, June 3rd this year. http://grasshopperpeakredwoodsrun.com/
      Check out redwoodsmarathon.org as well, it is on nearly the same course.
      Matthew K

  3. It's funny that this is the 3rd account of this race I have read over the years, so maybe it is something special!

    If I do ever find myself in the USA again I would love to visit those giants!

    1. Worth the trip! Hopefully those other accounts figured out how to capture these giants in a photo...I don't think I quite cracked it.

  4. Nice banjo! Can you actually play that thing?

    1. I just got it for my birthday a few weeks ago. I'm working on it!

  5. What a stunning place for a race! Those trees are magical!
    I'd love to get over to California some time and visiting here has definitely just made the list.
    Sounds like a great run :)

    Coffee & Avocados

  6. What a small world, I know the Kirkpatrick family. Sounds like a great race and one I'd love to do. John from Montana.


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