Marin Headlands Marathon Race Report

I ran the Headlands Marathon today.

It was my favorite marathon to date – beautiful scenery, wildlife, the sound of crashing waves, cool ocean breezes and friendly runners and staff. On the way out, there was an owl sitting on a branch close enough to the trail to touch. It sat there calmly on the branch looking at us pass as if to say, “What are you doing running around out here at 7am?” Since the race started at 7am, I got up at 4:45am to eat some rolled oats, bananas and walnuts.

I knew going into it that I didn’t prepare nearly enough. I’ve only done three 12 mile runs up Mt. Diablo with 3,300 feet elevation gain and one 17-mile run on the Iron Horse which is basically flat (only 366ft) in addition to my usual weekly 7-8 mile runs.

Here’s why I was so worried about the race – this is the elevation profile of the Headlands Marathon. A total of 5,017 feet elevation gain over the 25 mile course.

Headlands Hundred 50/100 Mile Trail Runs Elevation

I’ve been reading “Eat and Run” by Scott Jurek hoping to glean some advice for a novice runner like myself. Here’s are some things I learned:

  • Doing a short training run (e.g. 2 miles) the day before a race will help you sleep better (more alpha wave activity). Interesting aside, the effect appears linked to a rise in body temperature. If researchers sprayed runners with a cool mist to keep body temperature down, they did not see the alpha wave effect.
  • You want to keep your cadence ~180 steps per minute. This will shorten your stride and make you run lighter to help prevent injury and gives you more control running trails downhill. On my short run yesterday, I listened to a metronome on my phone at 180bpm to get an idea of how fast that cadence would be. There’s also music you can play for longer runs.
  • It’s good to focus on your breathing. If you want an oxygen boost, breathe deeply through your nose and quickly exhale out your mouth a few times. This trick worked well for me during the race today.

My plan was to fast stride up the mountains with my long legs and then let gravity pull me down the backside while I took short, fast steps (as lightly as I could). I noticed I did a lot of daydreaming about snowboarding on my way down the mountains. I was going nowhere nearly as fast as I do on a board but it did remind me of scoping for a route in the snow. In this case, I was scoping a route through boulders, rocks and dirt.

Overall, my plan sorta worked. I did cruise down some of the mountains early on. One time in particular, I looked at my watch and saw I was running a 7:35 mile which I knew wasn’t sustainable so I slowed up. I felt really good until about mile 20 when my legs started feeling the burn. Miles 20-25 seemed to drag on forever.

My time of 5 hours 26 minutes was fast enough for 1st in my age group. When the staff at the finish line told me, I laughed and said, “I must be the only one in the group!” They responded with a laugh and something about birthdays. There were around 20 people total running the marathon.

I felt good about my finish (I estimated I would finish around a 6:30) but strangely I felt a bit guilty too (if that’s the right word). Early in the race, I met an ultra marathoner, Dan, who was doing the 100 mile race. We ran about the same pace on the first 25 mile loop, so every aid station we would cross paths and cheer each other on. We also ran together the last 4 miles of the first 25 mile loop. There were others who cheered me on and I did the same for them. It felt strange to stop running and go home when so many runners were just getting started. I’m seriously considering the 50 mile race next year – although I’ll definitely spend more time training that I did this year.

I was also really inspired by a 71 year old woman who was doing the 100 mile race. Every time we crossed paths, she had a huge smile on her face and seemed so zen. It’s amazing to think that while I’m sleeping tonight the 100 milers will still be out there running with their headlamps in the dark. The best runners can finish 100 miles in under 24 hours. I wish them all the best of luck. Maybe next year, I’ll join them.

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