I stumbled out of my motel on Lombard Street in San Francisco at 6:35 in the morning. My muscles tensed up as the comfortable warmth of the motel room escaped almost immediately from my body, and the cold air crept into my clothing. It was the second weekend in December, the temperature read 39 degrees and I was on my way to my seventh and last race of 2013, the North Face Endurance Challenge Half Marathon in the Marin Headlands (The North Face Endurance Challenge Race Series was cancelled in 2020)
Usually, Lombard Street is teeming with cars at any given time during the day. Not so much right now as I was crossing it to head one block north to reach the parking lot of the Marina Middle School, where shuttle buses would pick up participants for today’s events and carry them to the start and finish area in Marin, across the Golden Gate Bridge just north of San Francisco. Despite wearing a wool hat, liner gloves, a soft shell over my long sleeve running shirt, and loose sweatpants covering my legs, I got colder by the minute.
The Christmas tree sale in the school’s parking lot was a stark reminder that it was, indeed, winter, and it does not exempt California from colder temperatures. The sun was announcing itself through an orange and purple shimmer on the horizon, yet it would take another 30 minutes for it to rise and breathe life into what seemed like a landscape devoid of color in these early morning hours.
I jumped on the first available shuttle, which was, like all the others, a yellow school bus, and grabbed the last seat in the back. At 6:46, we were rumbling along Lombard Street, passing the Palace of Fine Arts and Crissy Fields on our way to the bridge. Smoothly crossing the Golden Gate, Alcatraz and Angel Island were mere black silhouettes sticking out from the grey waters of San Francisco Bay. A short 20-minute ride later, the bus dropped us off at the parking lot of the Marin Headlands Visitor Center, just east of Rodeo Lagoon.
The roughly 800 participants in the half marathon arrived in waves from different shuttle pickup points in the area. Then they had to take a short walk to the start area, an open green space resembling a natural amphitheater. Besides the big inflatable start/finish arch, there were multiple tents for gear check (slightly busy), food and hot drinks (insanely busy), and a few tents set up by various outdoor and/or running apparel producers.
But the most coveted spots were around the mobile heater and campfire table units, where runners huddled together to stay warm as much as possible. “Last year, the weather forecast had predicted about seven inches of snow,” one of the participants around the fire remembered. In fact, after last year’s Saturday events (marathon, 50k, and 50 milers) were impacted by heavy rains, which turned them into mud races, the half marathon had to be canceled. Albeit the close-to-freezing temperatures in the morning, it would be almost perfect running weather this time.
Wave #1 headed out at 8am sharp, whereas I had to wait a few more minutes before it was my wave’s turn to head onto the course. The gun went off at 8:03, and after a short sting along Simmons Road, we ran across a bridge over a marshy area and reached the first climb of the race, an ascent up Miwok Trail, gaining about 600 feet over 1.2 miles. The sun had now risen above the horizon. However, the pathway atop the ridge was still slippery, especially when traversing the numerous short wooden bridges built to safely cross-seasonal water runoffs and muddy areas.
The trail hugged the west side of the ridge, and from up here, we could catch a glimpse of the Pacific to our left and into Tennessee Valley in front of us. We descended into the valley on Old Springs Trail, letting gravity do the work and passing the Miwok Stables before turning left onto the extension of Tennessee Valley Road, a stretch on asphalt for a change. It did not take long for the asphalt to peter out, and we were again on a dirt surface, heading west along the valley towards the ocean.
Instead of following the Tennessee Trail towards Tennessee Cove and the beach, we kept right at the trail fork at mile 5 and took the Coastal Trail up a long 1.4-mile incline, rising 730 feet, which made it less steep than the first climb, but the length brought it to about an equal level of “suck.” From the top of the ridge, we followed the Fox Trail, which was wide enough to qualify as a fire road, eastward back down to the Tennessee Valley Trail Head and the Miwok Stables to complete the loop. A few dozen spectators braved the temperatures and cheered on their running friends and family members from the sidelines beside the trailhead gate.
At this point, I overtook a young blonde runner in a pink top shell and black skin-tight running pants who had been in my vicinity since the 2nd climb. I had only noticed her because she would belt out a high-pitched “Woooohoooo!” whenever we crested a ridge. She was wearing headphones and, therefore, utterly oblivious to how loud her voice was. Part of my motivation to pass her and get some distance between her and me on the upcoming Marincello and Bobcat Trail was to not have to listen to this any longer.
I felt good making it up this 2.7-mile climb, paying close attention to my heart rate (which stayed slightly in the anaerobic zone) instead of my pace, making sure I wasn’t pushing too hard and had nothing left for the last three miles. It was now about 9.40am, and the rising sun was in our faces. However, vast vistas of the San Francisco Bay opened to the north the further up we got, with Sausalito and Richardson Bay in the foreground. We reached the race’s highest point at 955 feet at the junction of Alta and Morning Sun Trail at mile 10.6. Now it was (mostly) downhill from there.
I’m going down, down, down
I sped down Rodeo Valley Trail as fast as I deemed to be safe. The trail hugged the area of Fort Barry, a piece of hilltop once occupied by gun batteries of a former US Army post, to our right. At the same time, we lost elevation and quickly found ourselves back at the initial marsh crossing and on Simmonds Road. Turning the last bend, the announcer’s voice was audible through the speakers and the spectators cheering on the finishers. One last effort, and I was through just under two hours. I quickly picked up my gear bag, put on some layers, and then found a place to stretch.
“This was actually my first race this year, ” Mandy, who participated in the 10k event, told me while we used one of the tables around the area as a stretching prop. In her 20s, below-shoulder blonde hair, wearing a light green North Face fleece sweater, she had finished in just over one hour. After doing the Seattle to Portland bike ride last year, she felt a bit worn out and not in a state to do any running races. “I would not have even heard about this event, but my friend works for North Face, and she told me about it.”
Mark, another half marathon finisher, was winding down from the race exertions, sitting in a fold-up chair on the lawn with his eyes closed, bundled up in a down jacket and wool hat, savoring his spot in the sun. Living in the East Bay, he often comes to this area to train. Regardless, even for him, climb #3 was challenging. “That little kick up after the third hill, just coming up that aid station before we dropped down [was hard]. I had done it a lot last year, so I knew hard it’s gonna be,” he said. “I was not that fit, so I was just trying to get it done.”
Really North Face?
With the race in the bag, it was time to realize that a big sponsor does not equal excellent event management. The first annoyance was the printing of the tech t-shirts. You see, even the most minor running event put together by a local club has pre-printed t-shirts with a logo as a commemorative item for the runners to keep. North Face, however had decided that for whatever reason, it would be a good idea to hand out plain blue t-shirts beforehand at the bib pickup, just to have 800 people line up at a single printing tent, shirt in hand, to get their respective event logo (half marathon, 10k or 5k) printed right then and there. It was chaos or a “cluster ****,” as the person in front of me, waiting for his turn to hand in his t-shirt, aptly remarked. “Luckily, I don’t have to be anywhere,” he added.
While Ultramarathon Man Dean Karnazes was handing out medals in the one mile kids race, my next goal was getting some food in me. Considering there were 800 participants in the half marathon alone, a single tent with a tray of cut-up bananas, bagels, and oranges each and an additional one with salty snacks sounded a bit meager at best in my book.
The final straw for me was when the woman behind the serving table with the hot beverages announced that they were out of coffee and would take some time for a new brewer to be finished. Out of coffee!? After this, I returned to the shuttle stops when I passed by a tent with a lunch buffet. A quick investigation yielded that this wasn’t free but required shelling out $8. Where did the $85 registration fee go, North Face? The lesson learned is that just because their equipment is of great quality does not imply that North Face is qualified to organize a trail race living up to the same standards. While the course was great, the organization around certain aspects of the event, as mentioned above, certainly has some room for improvement.
That’s it for 2013
Back at the shuttle stop, multiple shuttles were again going out to their respective drop-off points in the area. However, the destinations were marked on traffic cones of about four feet in height, which naturally couldn’t be seen with long lines of people standing before them. By asking around, I was able to catch the right shuttle, which brought me back across the fog-free Golden Gate Bridge, leaving the cliffs of the Headlands behind and bringing my running event schedule of 2013 to a close.